Last night's performance at the San Francisco Opera of Jerome Kern's Show Boat, book and lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II, was my first musical at the opera.
I want to write about the use of amplification in this performance. A friend told me that the first performance was criticized because the spoken dialog could not be heard. I'm sure no one, including certainly me, would object to amplifying the spoken dialog. Opera singers are trained to project their singing voices, but speaking is not that common in opera and when it is found it isn't nearly as large a part of the performance as it is here. So fine. The microphones and speakers used were fine for talking, but it was immediately apparent that this was going on.
The problem arises when the songs are heard. Microphones in a large theater distort the sound. Everyone starts to sound the same. My friend didn't believe that "Old Man River" (sung superbly by Morris Robinson) was amplified until the repeat in Act II where it had been shut off. Only without amplification do you hear the natural sound of the voice.
We had a couple of straight actors in Bill Irwin as Cap'n Andy Hawks and Harriet Harris (from Frasier) as Parthy Ann Hawks, his wife. Bill was fabulous and even sang a little bit.
Our opera singers were Patricia Racette (who can do anything) as Julie, Heidi Stober as Magnolia Hawks who danced a bit and was beautiful in the role, Morris Robinson as Joe, Angela Renee Simpson as Queenie, and Michael Todd Simpson as Gaylord Ravenal, the gambler who marries Magnolia. Can opera singers sing musicals? When the musical is Show Boat, absolutely.
Francesca Zambello's production of this great American musical was shared with Lyric Opera of Chicago, Washington National Opera and Houston Grand Opera. For me it worked. The costumes reminded one of candy canes. Each scene was clear and moved smoothly and quickly to the next scene.
The score is full of famous American songs, more than you expected. Racette sang "Can't help lovin that man of mine" and "Just my Bill" in a convincing American pop song style. Heidi and Michael sang "You are Love," one of the truly great songs.
The house was full. Francesca Zambello production.
Composer: Adam Gorb Librettist: Ben Kaye Conductor: Nicole Paiement
Anya: Anna Noggle, soprano
Mila: Shawnette Sulker, soprano
Carole/Natalia: Catherine Cook, Mezzo-soprano
Uri/ Gabriel: Andres Ramirez, tenor
Viktor: Victor Benedetti, baritone
Elena: Laura Krumm, mezzo-soprano
Anya17 by Adam Gorb is an opera about the sex trade that has won an award in England. Anya thinks she is getting married but instead is kidnapped into the sex trade. Carole and Mila are kidnapped with her. This is a relatively distinguished cast for mostly local singers, but I think nothing saves it.
We are spared all hints of actual sex. I hesitated to see this because I thought it might be sordid. The problem is that it isn't sordid enough. There is lots of violence, as much as would be possible without actually hurting anyone. Mila is murdered before our eyes and Viktor is killed in a fight with Gabriel.
Was it worth it? For me only the last scene really worked operatically. Anya awakes in a hospital, tells about her status as number 17 in a menu of women, and ends the opera by remembering her name. It's a true operatic mad scene. But why hadn't we heard of this menu before now?
Was it worth it? Shrug.
The opera was presented in the Marines Memorial Theater, an acceptable space with a lot of stairs. The orchestra was partially hidden behind a scrim. It worked pretty well.
I must mention the two dancers, Janet Das and Quilet Rarang, who acted as stage hands during the opera. Their looks seemed to suggest gender neutrality, so they could come and go without seeming to blend with the action.
Nowadays I follow along on Facebook and Twitter to find out the singers' perspectives on the performance, and was surprised to see that a tray of cupcakes provided backstage at Dialogues of the Carmelites came with severed Barbie heads, here demonstrated by Meredith Arwady. It took me rather too long to get this joke.
While I was away Peter Gelb cancelled the simulcast of The Death of Klinghoffer. I feel that any comments I might make about this would probably be in bad taste. The only acceptable excuse would be that donors threatened to withhold their donations, but I have not heard that this was the case. When I saw this opera at its premier in San Francisco, I found it not nearly shocking enough. It bothered me how matter-of-factly Mr. Klinghoffer was sent to his doom. I haven't felt any desire to see it again, but thought I would because Szot was in it. Here's what I said about this subject years ago:
"Next came Death of Klinghoffer which I saw in San Francisco.
Is there even a prayer of making this live? The Klinghoffers would have
to come alive for us, and they don’t. How can they? He was killed
because he was Jewish and existed only as a symbol to the people who
killed him. The symbol must become a person. Theater cannot be a
newsreel—it cannot acquire its significance from outside sources.
Because it meant something to us when we watched it on television
doesn’t mean it will mean something as an opera. All the meaning must
come from inside the work. Did I say that clearly enough? All the meaning must come from inside the work."
I try to remember to keep my mind open and receive each new performance as an entirely new experience.
The Marquis de la Force: Troy Cook Blanche, his daughter: Kelly Kaduce The Chevalier, his son: Michael Porter Madame de Croissy, Prioress of the Carmelites: Meredith Arwady Madame Lidoine, the new Prioress: Christine Brewer Mother Marie of the Incarnation, Assistant Prioress: Daveda Karanas Sister Constance of St.Denis, a very young nun: Ashley Emerson Mother Jeanne of the Child Jesus, Dean of the Community: Sofia Selowsky Sister Mathilde: Stephanie Sanchez Father Confessor of the Convent: Kyle Erdos-Knapp
While in Saint Louis I also saw Francis Poulenc's Dialogues of the Carmelites. At Poulenc's specific request this opera is always done in the language of the audience. In this performance they have used the translation by Joseph Machlis created for the original American performance of the opera in 1957 at the San Francisco Opera.
It isn't just a story. A real group of nuns were killed in the French Revolution just 10 days before the end of the terror. The story is that they went to their deaths singing parts of the liturgy while the usually noisy crowd stood silent. It is a message of grace. Basically each says I die in the place of others. Perhaps they were right. It is not unbelievable that their deaths caused the terror to end.
It is interesting to see Les mamelles de Tirésias and Dialogues so close in succession. One is entirely frivolous and the other deeply serious. Poulenc made studious choices in writing this very serious opera which consists of a lot of very wordy recitative that only occasionally rises to aria, plus choral singing in Latin of catholic liturgical texts. For the style of the recitative he thanks Monteverdi.
The set is shown in the picture above. It turns to different angles in the 3/4 round stage and adds tables and chairs when needed. It seemed strange but effective until the final death scene. This could have been staged for more impact. The 2 novices, Blanche and Constance, can be seen in white behind Christine Brewer, a sympathetic new Prioress.
Most memorable was the performance as the old Prioress of Meredith Arwady. She dies in a most intense manner. It was a pleasure to see this. It was my first time with supertitles which most enhance the operatic experience in works with lots of text. The message of death as grace was successfully communicated.
Composer: Ricky Ian Gordon Librettist: Royce Vavrek Conductor: Michael Christie Gertrude Stein: Stephanie Blythe Alice B. Toklas: Elizabeth Futral Everyone else: Theo Lebow, Tobias Greenhalgh, Daniel Brevik
27 is short for 27 Rue de Fleurus, the address of Gertrude Stein and Alice B Toklas in Paris. It is also the title of a new opera at Opera Theater of Saint Louis.
Waiting for the before-performance lecture to begin I struck up a conversation with the woman next to me. We compared notes about being Gertrude Stein fanatics, and about sneaking inside the gate at 27 Rue de Fleurus in Paris. She was caught and got thrown out, but I made it into the back where the famous atelier still stood and escaped with no one catching me.
I told her of our summer of Steins in San Francisco where many of the art works were on display and Four Saints in Three Acts was presented. I told her how I had read all the biographies and many of the works. Perhaps I am over trained for this performance. I'm trying to think of a biographical opera that isn't about a queen.
I came because I once portrayed Gertrude Stein in an opera. Her character was much more completely developed here.
Their favorite Stein phrase was "Before the flowers of friendship faded, friendship faded." This was all I recognized, I must say.
The opera was divided into 5 short acts with the first one the longest. I very much liked the portrayal of Leo Stein. Let's start with something good. I love that the librettist included Basket, Gertrude and Alice's standard white poodle.
Now we get into complaints.
My biggest complaint concerns the portrayal of Gertrude Stein in WWI. In the opera she whines about being safe and not having any coal. In real life she drove an ambulance, not really the choice of someone obsessed with safety.
She makes ridiculously insulting remarks to Fitzgerald and Hemingway. If she spoke like that to them, why would they keep coming back? Why would Hemingway remember them so fondly in his memoir?
This is GS for the 21st century. She constantly calls Alice wife, something I don't really recall. This could always be just my memory. I do recall "lovey" and "pussy." The most favorably portrayed aspect of the real Gertrude Stein in this opera is of her relationship with Alice.
The librettist spent 3 weeks familiarizing himself with Gertrude, resulting in small incidents being blown up into huge parts of the plot. It is true that after France was liberated, Gertrude announced to the world that she was safe. This was blown up into a constant whining theme throughout the opera.
We are dealing with a mythical GS. They may be forgive for the fact that by the beginning of WWII they no longer lived at 27 Rue de Fleurus. Also no mention was made of the fact that during the war they lived at their summer home in the French countryside where they were protected by their French neighbors.
One of Gertrude's pre-war friends knew where she lived, and when he became a member of the Vichy government of France, in exchange for not telling the Nazis they were Jews and where they lived, he required her to do translations for him. Not wanting to be massacred isn't really one of the major crimes in the world. Admittedly her political views at this period of history were not what today is regarded as politically correct.
Stephanie Blythe is a force of nature and was very convincing in the role. She dressed as Gertrude between the wars. Elizabeth Futral successfully suggested Alice.
I enjoyed the music which was very good for singing. It was dramatically and theatrically coherent enough for the audience to occasionally burst into applause, always at exactly the right moment. The supertitles were too small.
This isn't my Gertrude Stein. This GS is an arrogant, self-aggrandizing, cowardly, disgusting Nazi bitch. I naturally have a different opinion. They were focused entirely on making this a fun entertainment, and in many ways they succeeded.
The website for the Royal Opera is one of the worst ones for leaving out the cast list when advertising its productions. The above two people were all I could find for the Nabucco I saw last night at Tower Theater. The performance took place in 2013, I think. The costumes suggest 1940's holocaust. The sets are abstractions and suggest nothing at all.
This showing came with quite a bit of explanation. It was only Verdi's third opera. His second opera, Un giorno di regno, was a flop, and he vowed not to compose again. The text of "Va pensiero" motivated him to compose again. It is this wonderful chorus that raises this opera from the ordinary.
This is a tough opera to stage. Every scene has chorus, sometimes representing Hebrews, sometimes representing Assyrians, sometimes both groups mixed together. In this production nothing was done to clearly separate the two groups. Despite this it was still possible to follow the plot. Quotes from Jeremiah illustrated the content of each scene.
Nabucco is not an opera that I have seen too often. I think in the screamer roles of Abigaille and Lady Macbeth I prefer Guleghina. Domingo was effective because his actual age reflects the lack of vigor of the character. I rather liked him in this part.
I was able to find this listed on Fandango. Perhaps that will work for you, too.
I have to say a short something about the live stream from Glyndebourne of Strauss's Der Rosenkavalier. What do you want for a great Rosenkavalier?
You want great singing, especially from the three women who form the final trio: The Marschallin Kate Royal Octavian Tara Erraught Sophie Teodora Gheorghiu
They were excellent and blended especially well. They tidied up Tara's hair a bit from the publicity photos.
You want an asshole to play Ochs: Baron Ochs auf Lerchenau Lars Woldt
We got one.
You want a sexy bedroom scene, and we got one even without a bed. In this production the only furniture is long sofas with annoying wallpaper behind. We also got nudity. It looked like real nudity to me.
You want the dance that goes with Strauss's wonderful score. You want a director who knows when the movements are supposed to happen. We got that, too. The cutest silly bit is when during the Marschallin's monologue Siegmund Freud is sitting behind her taking notes.
You want a fine orchestra and conductor who understand the romanticism of the score: Robin Ticciati.
You want to see the falling in love in the Presentation of the Rose at exactly the right spot. You want to see it in their eyes.
You want the love to leap out at you from the stage so strongly that you fall in love yourself.
Thank you. I could ask for nothing more.
P.S. Remember how I said there is no bad publicity? Tara received by far the most applause. This is still available on demand.