Monday, October 16, 2017

Sac Phil does Prokofiev and Brahms

Saturday evening the Sacramento Philharmonic and Opera performed at the Sacramento Community Center Theater.

Andrew Grams, conductor
Rachel Barton Pine, violin

Prokofiev Violin Concerto No. 1 (1923)

  1. Andantino
  2. Scherzo: Vivacissimo
  3. Moderato – Allegro moderato
This might possibly be considered part of Prokofiev's neo-classical period.  Ask someone else.  Rachel Barton Pine plays a Guarneri with a lovely fat tone.  This piece is unusual but not particularly atonal.  She was impressive in this difficult piece.

She played her own theme and variations arrangement of the New Zealand national anthem as an encore.  One was reminded of Paganini.

Brahms Symphony No. 1 (1876)

  1. Un poco sostenuto — Allegro – Meno allegro (C minor, ending in C major)
  2. Andante sostenuto (E major)
  3. Un poco allegretto e grazioso (A major)
  4. Adagio — Più andante — Allegro non troppo, ma con brio – Più allegro (C minor – C major)
It took him 20 years to write this.  Was it worth it?  The last movement works well.

The hall is being acoustically redesigned with panels that angle down over the orchestra.  I felt the orchestra sounded much more like an ensemble than in the past, so perhaps the redesign is working.

Sunday, October 15, 2017

Die Zauberflöte in HD

Conductor:  James Levine
Production/Costume and Puppet Designer:  Julie Taymor

Pamina:  Golda Schultz
Queen of the Night:  Kathryn Lewek
Tamino:  Charles Castronovo
Sarastro:  René Pape
Papageno: Markus Werba
Speaker:  Christian Van Horn

Nadine Sierra was our announcer today for Mozart's Die Zauberflöte from the Met, and she did a fine job.  She has charisma to burn.  Julie Taymor's production of The Magic Flute first played in HD with cuts and in English in 2006 and has replayed since then. This performance was for those of us who love this opera in German.  It was lovely to hear the original words in an uncut version.

It is interesting to me that in his final year of life Mozart wrote two operas about forgiveness.  Die Zauberflöte and La Clemenza di Tito.  Perhaps it was for us.  This is Kurt Moll.  In this holy hall we don't speak of revenge.

Out of the cast listed above, only Markus Werba was completely new to me.  His Papageno was a joy.

Kathryn Lewek was in Cecilia Bartoli's Ariodante which I very much wish I had seen.  She was outstanding here.

Golda Schultz appeared in the La Clemenza di Tito from Salzburg this past summer. Pamina suits her better.

Charles Castronovo has appeared a few times in San Francisco.  My favorite outing from him was Il Postino with Placido.  His voice is robust for Tamino, but I agree with his comments--he enjoys a heroic sounding Tamino.

Everyone knows the one and only René Pape who flew over just for this performance.  He's the best now.

I love the Julie Taymor production and enjoyed seeing it again.

Golda / Magda

Sunday, October 08, 2017

Norma in HD

Conductor...............Carlo Rizzi
Production..............David McVicar

Norma...................Sondra Radvanovsky
Pollione................Joseph Calleja
Adalgisa................Joyce DiDonato
Oroveso.................Matthew Rose
Clotilde................Michelle Bradley

Above is the staging for "Casta diva" from Bellini's Norma live in HD from the Metropolitan opera. The goddess to whom she prays is the moon, so the scene must appear to be moonlit.  This is the greatest complaint about this production, that the sets are too dark.  Our screen was quite large and generally easy to see, except for the very beginning, before the moon-rise, which was almost black.

My Normas have been Joan Sutherland, Montserrat Caballe, Cecilia Bartoli and Sondra Radvanovsky, whom I heard first in San Francisco.  For me this version was best of all for the acting. I loved Cecilia's Norma for this quality, but here it balances across the cast.

We know we are at war by the presence of bodies.  What is to be their position toward the Romans?  Norma recommends reaching a peace with them, but we know that her motives are suspicious.  She probably recommends peace because of her relationship to Pollione, the Roman proconsul.  In the first act religious ceremony Adalgisa assists Norma in the rite.

In Norma's house Adalgisa reveals that she is in love with Pollione and has promised to go with him to Rome.  Norma does not reveal to Adalgisa until later that she has two children by Pollione. The increase in the significance of Adalgisa and the increased strength of her tie to Norma changes the emotional dynamic of the opera. 

So when Norma calls her followers together again, she recommends war.   We see Norma's range of emotions, especially her rage against Pollione.  She knows someone must die, but is not sure who should be killed.  She finally arrives at herself as the person at fault.  Adalgisa appears at the end to watch her lover and her friend walk off together to their deaths.

Sondra was magnificent, a giant, intense performance still wonderfully sung.  Joyce was also magnificent in both singing and acting.  I even liked Calleja.  When watching the old timers long ago, one hardly knew there was a plot.  Here we get the best of both worlds--a traditional staging with a lot of emotional interaction and magnificent singing.

Just saying

In case you didn't know, the average opera singer has a vibrato that causes the pitch to waver for about a half step, or the distance between c and c# if you don't know what a half step is.  It waves half of this pitch above and the other half below the intended pitch.  Listeners generally imagine the pitch to be somewhere in the middle of the wavering sound.  It is only your imagination that makes this a precise pitch.  So making comments about the singer being sharp for the whole aria may only indicate that your ear is interpreting the vibrato sharp.  Is she sharp?  Yes.  Is the exact same note also flat?  Yes.  Some singers push energy to the upper part of the vibrato or the lower part.  Pitch wavering is the same but energy is unbalanced.  Maybe your ear hears this as sharp or flat.  They aren't giving up their vibratos.

A vibrato becomes a wobble when the speed of wavering slows down.

Saturday, October 07, 2017


Perhaps you thought being addicted to coffee was something new.  You would be mistaken.  Apparently in Bach's day it was limited to females.  Or perhaps it's the usual men get to do whatever they want while women have to be controlled.  Sacramento Baroque Soloists presented a semi-staged version of Johann Sebastian Bach's Coffee Cantata with three soloists:  Derek Keller as the narrator, Omari Tau as papa Schlendarian and Bernadette Mondok as his daughter Lischen.  This was charming and amusing.  Coffee was provided.

Sacramento Baroque Soloists are a new group for me, though I think they have been around Sacramento for a while.

The program was filled out with a concerto by Georg Philipp Telemann and Cantata BWV 54 by Bach.  Derek Keller was the soloist in the Bach Cantata where he billed himself as a countertenor, and later in the Coffee Cantata he was a tenor.  I didn't hear falsetto from him.  For me he sounded more like a haute contra, a French style of high tenor.  He sounded fine, just not like a countertenor.

Friday, September 29, 2017

Non-Europeans in Opera

This is intended as a catalog with minimal commentary.  We are intending to survey the topic of cultural exploitation.  I have listed only those operas I have seen.

* means race is a factor in the story.

There are a small number of operas by Asian composers which include Asian characters.  They are not to be considered to be exploiting anyone.
  • Tea: A Mirror of Soul by Tan Dun
  • The First Emperor by Tan Dun 
  • Dream of the Red Chamber by Bright Sheng

Asian characters appear in the following operas by non-Asian composers.  It is to be determined if this constitutes exploitation.
  • The Bonesetter’s Daughter by Stewart Wallace is based on a novel by Amy Tan.*
  • A Night at the Chinese Opera by Judith Weir is partly based on real Chinese opera.
  • Turandot by Puccini is based on a Persian story and transferred to China perhaps for the musical effects.
  • Madama Butterfly by Puccini is based on an American short story and a play by David Belasco.*
  • Nixon in China by John Adams is based on historical events that many of us watched on TV. *
  • The Pearl Fishers by Georges Bizet moves us to Sri Lanca.
  • Attila by Verdi is about the Mongolian ruler from the 5th century who invaded Europe.
  • Satyagraha by Philip Glass is about Gandhi in Africa.  The text is original Sanscrit.*

Native populations from around the world also appear in operas.  This should include the European racial minority called gypsies or Romani.  Even today Gypsies are easily identified by their facial features. 
  • Les Indes Galantes by Jean-Philippe Rameau includes Turks, Incas, Persians, and North Americans.*
  • Carmen by Georges Bizet features Carmen, a gypsy.*
  • Il Trovatore by Verdi features Azucena who is a gypsy. *
  • Die Zauberflöte by Mozart includes a gratuitous black character for comedy. *
  • Aida by Verdi includes Egyptians and Ethiopians, but no Europeans. *
  • L'Africaine by Meyerbeer is a clash of Europeans and people from Madagascar. *
  • La forza del destino by Verdi has an Aztec as the male lead.*
  • Moby-Dick by Jake Heggie is based on the great American novel and includes a south sea islander, Queequeg. *
  • Il Postino by Daniel Catán is a Mexican writing about Chilean interacting with an Italian.  I guess that qualifies.
  • La fanciulla del West by Puccini includes native Americans and a Mexican bandit.*

In American musicals and operas white Americans interact with minorities.
  • Show Boat by Jerome Kern features a female black character who is passing for white. *
  • Porgy and Bess by George Gershwin is almost all black.  The copyright owners require all black casting.
  • West Side Story by Leonard Bernstein is about rival white and Puerto Rican gangs.*
  • Champion by Terence Blanchard is about a real person, the boxer Emile Griffith.  No one is exploiting anyone.

Operas about historical figures from before Christianity.
  • Nabucco by Verdi is about Jews and pre-islamic Babylonians. *
  • Semiramide by Rossini
  • Xerxes by Handel

Which brings us to my favorite and perhaps the only blatantly exploitative portrayal of non-Europeans--the interaction between Christian Europeans, usually Italians, and Moslems.
  • Otello by either Rossini or Verdi is the moor of Venice, which makes him Moslem, not sub-Saharan African.*
  • Die Entführung aus dem Serail by Mozart features a Spaniard rescuing his fiance from a harem.*
  • Cosi fan Tutte by Mozart where the young men pretend to be middle eastern.
  • Il Turco in Italia  by Rossini features a Muslim man visiting Italy.*
  • L’Italiana in Algeri by Rossini features an Italian woman who escapes from her Muslim husband.*
  • Maometto II by Rossini is a serious opera where the female character commits suicide.*
  • I Lombardi by Verdi includes a Muslim character who converts.*
  • Death of Klinghoffer by Adams is about a clash between western and middle-eastern cultures. 
  • Flight by Jonathan Dove includes a refugee trapped inside an airport.  For me he could have been from anywhere, but others say he was Iranian.

Friday, September 22, 2017

Turandot in San Francisco

Conductor Nicola Luisotti
Production and Design David Hockney

TurandotL Martina Serafin
Calaf: Brian Jagde
Liù: Toni Marie Palmertree
Timur: Raymond Aceto
Ping: Joo Won Kang
Pang: Julius Ahn
Pong: Joel Sorensen
A Mandarin: Brad Walker
Emperor: Altoum Robert Brubaker *

Puccini's Turandot played at the San Francisco Opera last night in the wonderful David Hockney production.  One of the reasons it's so wonderful is because it doesn't look at all Chinese.  Because the story isn't actually Chinese.  It should reasonably be regarded as a fairy tale.  I'm a sucker for the story, although I enjoyed it more before I could remember the answers to the riddles.

The chorus was particularly spectacular.  Brian Jagde seemed very intense.  With Turandot it is as much the spectacle one comes for rather than the fine details.  Let's just say it's one of the hardest operas to cast in the repertoire.

Talk at the Opera

Last night we were enjoying the 1993 production of Turandot by the great artist David Hockney when I remembered that once upon a time we were treated to the wonderful production of Die Zauberflöte by Marc Chagell, in 1980 actually, originally from the Metropolitan Opera.  No one else seemed to remember this.

Hockney also designed sets for Die Zauberflöte, The Rake's Progress and Tristan und Isolde apparently.  I'm not sure I've seen these.

Sunday, September 17, 2017

Top Singers 2017


Anna Netrebko GHoF

Anja Harteros 

Nina Stemme

Diana Damrau


Cecilia Bartoli GHoF

Elina Garanča

Joyce DiDonato GHoF


Jonas Kaufmann

Javier Camarena

Juan Diego Florez

Vittorio Grigolo


Željko Lučić, baritone

René Pape, bass

Ildar Abdrazakov, bass

Ludovic Tézier, baritone

Stefan Kocán, bass

General Comments.

It's been a couple of years since Limelight named their top 12 singers, and I feel it's time for a new list.  There have been a few changes.  I modified the original concept to allow for a group to grow into 4 singers (2 baritones, 3 basses), but that's it.  To qualify for this list the artist must be performing now and be rated according to their current performing standard.

Some singers used to be on this list and are no longer.  Dmitri Hvorostovsky has long been a personal favorite but is ill.  Renée Fleming is moving her career away from opera.  The same thing should be said for Natalie Dessay, someone I learned to love during the life of this blog.  She is focusing on song repertoire and theater.  I love Angela Gheorghiu but seem to have lost all contact with what she is singing these days.

We can't rank Placido Domingo among the tenors any more, and he doesn't really rank that high as a baritone.  For me Bryn Terfel isn't singing up to his former standard, though I caught part of his Dutchman and found it rather good.

People who should also be considered are:
Christine Goerke
Sondra Radvanovsky
Kristine Opolais
Jamie Barton
Michael Fabiano
Lawrence Brownlee
Matthew Polenzani
Bryan Hymel
Mariusz Kwiecien
Simon Keenlyside
Quinn Kelsey
Ildebrando D'Arcangelo 
I should do one for American singers.  Argue amongst yourselves.  Edited 9/18, 9/19  Apologies for continuing to change this.

Thursday, September 14, 2017

Elektra Night at the Museum

Christine Goerke

Conductor:  Henrik Nánási
Production:  Keith Warner

Elektra: Christine Goerke
Klytemnestra: Michaela Martens
Chrysothemis: Adrianne Pieczonka
Orest: Alfred Walker *
Aegisth: Robert Brubaker
Tutor of Orest: Anthony Reed

Last night I attended a San Francisco Opera performance of Richard Strauss's Elektra.  I have been going here for all of my adult life and can think of only one comparable performance--Die Frau ohne Schatten, also by Strauss, in 1980 with James King as The Emperor, Leonie Rysanek as The Empress and Birgit Nilsson as Barak's wife.  My soul is larger.  Everything that needs to be said has already been said about this, but I will have a go anyway.

In the recent past was another night at the museum production, of Il Trovatore with Anna Netrebko from Salzburg, but the exhibition seemed without a theme and incoherent.  Here we have what seems to be an exhibition of artifacts from Mycenae, the Greek culture which launched the Trojan War.  The house of Atreus with Agamemnon, Klytemnestra, Iphigenia, Orestes and Elektra are the central figures from this culture and appear through history in many art forms.  It is entirely plausible that an  exhibit devoted to physical objects from this time would take place.  Many of these objects appear in this production.  So we have a far more plausible intermingling of the ancient and the modern.  When they speak of Agamemnon, a man wearing the death mask said to belong to him appears.  We believe this.

Christine's character is always clearly a modern person who is projecting her life and family onto these historical figures.  We see this most clearly when this kitchen appears:

Klytemnestra and Elektra

We exclaimed to one another, "My mother had a kitchen like that."  The time travel was handled very smoothly.  This is clearly a very successful concept regie production.  All the other characters have dual identities and appear in modern and ancient clothing.  Other productions for this opera I have seen recently have all the main action take place off stage.  Here the deaths occur before our eyes.  It is intense.

Musically I found this to be a triumph.  The three women, Christine Goerke, Michaela Martens and : Adrianne Pieczonka, were performed by three big voices in glorious fashion.  The biggest surprise was in the music.  It wasn't that long ago I was bemoaning the death of great Strauss conducting.  Henrik Nánási has shown us the way back.  It was the best Strauss I've heard in years, and it was by our San Francisco Opera orchestra.  Bravi.  Because the screens were turned on, I noticed that the orchestra stood immediately when the maestro came out for his final bow, turned toward him and applauded.

It was a colossal, towering performance on every level.

Saturday, September 09, 2017

Patience in Sacramento

Friday night began the run of Gilbert & Sullivan's Patience from the Light Opera Theatre in Sacramento.

Director:  Debbie Baad
Conductor:  Anne-Marie Endres


Reginald Bunthorne (A Fleshly Poet) — Charlie Baad 
Archibald Grosvenor (An Idyllic Poet) — Timothy Power

Rapturous Maidens 

The Lady Angela — Paige Kelly
The Lady Saphir — Rhonda Thomas
The Lady Saphir — Jadi Galloway
The Lady Ella — Franchesca Sonoyama
The Lady Jane — Tiffany Patterson
Patience (A Dairy Maid) — Kate Murphy

Officers of Dragoon Guards 

Colonel Calverley — Michael Baad
Major Murgatroyd — Kevin Branson
Major Murgatroyd — Roy Domoe Lieut.
The Duke of Dunstable — Anthony Tavianini

This show is all about outfits.  Dress like people from ancient England, and you will be perceived as a poet and adored.  Dress like a modern person, and you will disappear into the crowd.  Suitable young women pay no attention to the suitable young men in the Dragoon Guards and instead go off pining after silly poets in old fashioned outfits.  The young women wear old fashioned outfits too and sigh and moan.  There are patter songs.  Irrelevant names are tossed about.  Francesca da Rimini.

Before this appeared in my inbox, I had no idea it existed.  It is fun.  Try to see it.

Thursday, September 07, 2017

European Summer of 2017

I have not traveled this summer for reasons relating to health and money.  I don't count driving to San Francisco as traveling.  In spite of this my opera cup runneth over.  There has been some pretty spectacular stuff here.  New for me this summer are The Chastity Tree, Artaserse, Oberon, and Theodora.  It is important to notice that all four of these are older operas.  In fact Wozzeck is as close to a modern opera I have gotten this summer.

I have decided to limit this essay to performances originating this summer in Europe.  That eliminates live performances seen in the Bay Area:
It also eliminates reruns from the Metropolitan Opera in HD: 
All the rest are from Europe. There were some older performances I watched on film to broaden my education and catch a glimpse of some favorite singers:
  • Artaserse by Vinci on a libretto by Metastasio from Nancy, France, in 2012.  I have learned in the last few years that there exists in France a school for countertenors.  I don't know if all the five countertenors in this production were from this school, including the star Philippe Jeroussky, but all were extraordinarily powerful for singers in this Fach.  This film is an historical recreation of a true Roman Baroque opera with all the characters played by men.  I watched it for its historical significance and recommend that you do, too.  It's much better than I thought.
  • Theodora by Handel from Glyndebourne in 1996 in a production by Peter Sellars, our own American contribution to Regie Theater.  This is a true example of what is by now the almost standard European production style.  In spite of that it was very beautiful.  Theodora began its life as an oratorio in English.  This viewing was to broaden my experience of Peter Sellars' work to include things I might actually like.  It is also a major film of Lorraine Hunt.
I generally watch European opera to see what is happening now, but these historical performances were worth the time.

That leaves ten performances from Europe that took place this summer, including two traditional productions viewed for the singers rather than the productions:
  • Otello by Verdi from the ROH in London.  This was Jonas Kaufmann's debut in the role of Otello, and was a traditional production for this special occasion.  My feeling was the intimacy of a movie theater presentation enhanced the beauty of the performances.  Jonas dealt with this role by playing to his dramatic side and avoiding over-singing.  His Iago, Marco Vratogna, and his Desdemona, Maria Agresta, supported Jonas's interpretation.  I'd like the opportunity to see this again.
  • Rigoletto by Verdi from Orange, France.  Performances in Orange take place in an ancient Roman theater.  The star of this show was our Nadine Sierra in a perfect role for her.  There was nothing unusual here, though they all appeared in modern clothing.  Leo Nucci arranged for a very nice bis with her.  Leo is a startling contrast to Quinn Kelsey, the Rigoletto in our San Francisco production.
In a wide range of shocking to ordinary the following list of the eight remaining operas includes some very famous directors.
  • Wozzeck by Berg from Salzburg was staged by William Kentridge who staged The Nose and Lulu for the Metropolitan Opera.  All three of these works are considered modern so a modern production is only appropriate.  I don't really like Wozzeck but thought his vision of it was excellent, the best of the trio.  His art is so active on the surface that it tends to overwhelm the characters on stage.  Is its purpose to distract from the opera?  Matthias Goerne sang Wozzeck, an excellent role for him.
  • Tannhäuser by Wagner from the Bayerische Staatsoper in Munich was staged by Romeo Castellucci.  He is a radical Italian director in both opera and theater.  My reactions were primarily visceral.  When I was presented with half-naked women shooting bows and arrows, I enjoyed it.  When Venus was a giant mound of hideous flesh with three or four men lost in the flab, it didn't really remind me of ecstatic love making.  And don't forget the feet.  This is representative of the extreme ends of theater in Germany today.
  • Don Giovanni by Mozart Aix-en-Provence, France, was directed by Jean-François Sivadier.  This is a French director most famous for a film of him directing Natalie Dessay in her first La Traviata called Becoming Traviata.  His production for Don Giovanni is first in period costumes, then at intermission switches suddenly to modern ones.  It is quite merry and needs Philippe Sly to do all that jumping about.
  • Aida by Verdi from Salzburg was directed by a newcomer to theatrical productions, Shirin Neshat.  I read in Wikipedia, "Her artwork centers on the contrasts between Islam and the West, femininity and masculinity, public life and private life, antiquity and modernity, and bridging the spaces between these subjects."  The production reflected this.  People were sharply divided into specific groups and dressed like others in their group.  It was rather static in its impression but clear in identifying the forces at work in the downfall of Radames and his Aida.  The audience was there primarily for Anna Netrebko in her first outing as Aida.
One pair of productions identified for us a new cultural villain:  the clinical psychiatrist.  I rather agree with this.  In modern democratic societies there remains only one absolute monarch:  the psychiatrist.  His power is greater than anyone else's.  He can have you put away or imprisoned on his word alone.  People go along with what they say primarily because they have no idea what they're talking about.  So two different directors have taken two different operas, removed the original spoken dialog they came with, invented new dialog and created entirely new stories.
  • Carmen by Bizet from Aix-en-Provence, France, was staged by Dmitri Tcherniakov, a Russian.  Tcherniakov is a Russian born in Lithuania.  His early career was in the major Russian theaters the Mariinsky and the Bolshoi and quickly spread to major opera centers around Europe: Berlin, Munich, Zurich and Milan.  So far he hasn't made it across the pond, I don't think.  Instead of a story about a boy from the country who falls for a gypsy who is probably just having him on, we have excitement for bored married couples.  So your life is boring.  We will arrange for a charming young woman to pretend to be attracted to you.  Contracts are signed and progress reviewed.  I'm not sure what is supposed to happen, but it probably isn't that the patient will fall for the therapist and then try to kill her.  He may have to go into hospital.  The therapy of another patient plays in the background to show us how it is supposed to go.  It does clarify something that the usual staging does not:  Escamillo is Carmen's true love while Don Jose is a patsy.
  • Oberon, or The Elf King's Oath by Carl Maria von Weber from the Bayerische Staatsoper in Munich was directed by Nikolaus Habjan, who works primarily as a puppeteer.  This is another opera that originally came with spoken dialog.  Though it first appeared in English, it is now generally thought of as a German opera.  Some of the characters are from A Midsummer Night's Dream.  The opera has a convoluted and confusing plot about romance with the fairy king acting as a kind of deus ex machina who rescues people at exactly the right moment.  The production changes all that.  Again psychiatrists are at work.  Perhaps psychiatry is seen as the last vestige of absolute power.  Ordinary mortals such as kings and emperors no longer hold this kind of power.  The psychiatrists are quarreling and resolve their argument using their patients.  The whole thing is profoundly unethical and is probably intended to be.  The actual opera is changed beyond recognition.  The dialog reflects the psychiatrists giving orders and expressing opinions, primarily about one another. 
These two changes are shockingly similar, even though they come from different countries and different directors.  I think this is the kind of modernization people object to most.  Can Oberon be saved?  Perhaps not.  But if this is the only chance you get to see it, maybe sticking closer to the plot would be better.

The final operas to consider are two magnificent productions of Mozart's great opera seria La Clemenza di Tito
  • La Clemenza di Tito by Mozart from Glyndebourne was directed by Claus Guth, the king of Regie.  I was annoyed by the stalks of grass everywhere, but actually thrilled by the acting and singing of Alice Coote and Anna Stéphany as Vitelia and Sesto.  This laid out the plot in a way that was always true to Mozart's opera, including the opera seria required happy ending, all things that I did not expect from Claus Guth.  
  • La Clemenza di Tito by Mozart from Salzburg was directed by Peter Sellars.  Music was added to this opera from Mozart's C-Minor Mass.  Riccardo Muti was in town to conduct Aida and was heard objecting to this alteration in the score.  Many don't understand the always happy endings style of opera seria and want to change it to something else.  This is not authentic.  My complaining is now out of the way. The emotional effect of the production overall was profound.  It feels to me that this opera is moving into a position of greatness that it very much deserves.  Interesting productions will help this.
It was an amazing summer.

Thursday, August 31, 2017

Singers for next season in San Francisco

Here are some samples of the singers for the coming season at the San Francisco Opera.

First is Martina Serafin as Turandot.

Or your performance might have Nina Stemme.

Toni Marie Palmertree is one of our Lius.  If you have never heard her, here is a sample of her voice.

And here is our Elektra.  Christine Goerke is the woman in the foreground.

Aurelia Florian * will be our Violetta.

And here is her Alfredo, Atalla Ayan *

Manon will be sung by Ellie Dehn. Here she is on Prairie Home Companion.

Chevalier des Grieux will be sung by Michael Fabiano, here in a recent performance of Carmen.

Dame Shirley in Girls of the Golden West is Julia Bullock * I couldn't find any standard repertoire for her.

Josefa Segovia in Girls of the Golden West is sung by J'Nai Bridges.

Joe Cannon in Girls of the Golden West is Paul Appleby.

This is enough for now.

Sunday, August 27, 2017

La Traviata on PBS

Conductor.............Nicola Luisotti
Production............Willy Decker
Violetta.................Sonya Yoncheva
Alfredo..................Michael Fabiano
Germont................Thomas Hampson
Flora.......................Rebecca Jo Loeb
Gastone..................Scott Scully
Baron Douphol.......Dwayne Croft
Dr. Grenvil.............James Courtney
Annina....................Jane Bunnell

Verdi's La Traviata in the Willy Decker production from the Metropolitan Opera appeared on my television. This is undoubtedly the greatest of all the operas.  I think it is the most passionate about the two great themes of love and death.  It falls at the end of bel canto and includes one of the greatest of all bel canto arias, "Sempre libera."

This is the final appearance at the Met of this production originally from the Salzburg Festival. I begin to think I will miss it.  There were a few cuts.  This time around it bothered me that Flora was a man.  Why would all those men go to parties where there was only one woman?   But rooms full of Victorian dresses hold little charm for me.

This is a perfect role for Michael Fabiano.  I like Sonya Yoncheva but do not love her as overwhelmingly as I did Netrebko.  The sound of her voice is less to my taste.  She carried the final scene to its heart-wrenching conclusion.

I reviewed this same production here with Dessay, here, and here for Netrebko.

Wozzeck from Salzburg

Vladimir Jurowski | Conductor 
William Kentridge | Stage director

Matthias Goerne | Wozzeck
John Daszak | Drum Major
Mauro Peter | Andres
Gerhard Siegel | Captain
Jens Larsen | Doctor
Tobias Schabel | First Apprentice
Huw Montague Rendall | Second Apprentice
Heinz Göhrig | Madman
Asmik Grigorian | Marie
Frances Pappas | Margret

This is the live stream of Berg's Wozzeck from the Salzburg Festival.  There are puppets. There is Matthias Goerne.  This is a great role for him.  Dark and weird is probably just the right production for this opera.  I still don't like Wozzeck.  The production overwhelms the action.

Friday, August 25, 2017

Theodora from Glyndebourne

Conductor:  William Christie
Director:  Peter Sellars

Theodora, a Christian of noble birth, soprano: Dawn Upshaw
Didymus, a Roman Officer, converted by and in love with Theodora, originally alto castrato, here countertenor:  David Daniels
Septimius, Roman soldier and friend to Didymus, tenor:  Richard Croft
Valens, President of Antioch, bass:  Frode Olsen
Irene, a Christian and friend of Theodora, mezzo-soprano:  Lorraine Hunt
Messenger, tenor:  Michael Hart-Davis

Someone said that Peter Sellars' production of Handel's Theodora was even better than his La Clemenza di Tito, so I thought I would give it a try.  He seems best in things that have religious themes.  This is one of Handel's oratorios and is in English.  This film is from 1996.

Hmmm.  There are soldiers and they wear American flags on their sleeves.  It's politics and religion rolled into one.  Christians are ordered to bow to idols to show loyalty to Caesar.  This is a  joy.  And then there is Lorraine Hunt.  It would be hard to ask for more.  He stages the first Christian scene like a prayer meeting, except women speak.  Lorraine sings of prosperity and people put money on the floor.  Many are in white and kneel on the floor to pray.  The chorus always present in any Handel oratorio represents the congregation.

Soldiers enter and warn the Christians that they are tempting fate.  "Dread the fruits of Christian folly."  This is not the usual oratorio libretto.   I understand it was not popular at its premier.  Oratorios usually draw their plots from either scripture or mythology.  Theodora is an historical Christian martyr.

I begin to grasp Peter Sellars' world view.  He sometimes strays too far from it.  He is THE outstanding American leader in the world of Regietheater, and this is one of his greatest works.  Among his productions, this one makes no alterations to the original text.

Apparently, honoring the Emperor consists of getting falling down drunk. So far I don't find this staging to be at all a distortion of the original.  People just look like people today instead of ancient Romans.  If this bothers you, you should get over it.

Christians are serious people while pagans are drunks seems to be the general idea.  One remembers this primarily for the work of Lorraine Hunt, but I am enjoying also Dawn Upshaw and David Daniels.  Theodora is in prison and Didymus visits her.  She asks him to kill her, but instead they exchange clothing and she escapes.

This is an extraordinary piece, deeply emotional.  One needs exposure to a wider range of Handel's works.  Here we still hear the Italian coloratura along side the more English lyricism and Handel's great choral music.

The picture above depicts the application of the death penalty.  The ending is sad and strange.  Christians wave their arms rather more than is strictly tolerable.   My experience of the Baroque does not include anything like this.  I came for Peter Sellars and Lorraine Hunt but ended with the joy of some of the most beautiful music of Handel I have ever heard. 

Tuesday, August 22, 2017


Why were singers better in my youth?

Modern singers treat their careers as though they were a recreational activity.  They think to themselves that in the brief time they have in the spotlight they must work their way through the entire repertoire for their Fach.

In the old days a singer searched for those few roles where their gifts shone brightest and repeated them in opera houses around the world.  They seemed greater than modern singers because in their selected repertoire they were.  Think about it. 

Of modern day singers the one who follows closest the old path is Renée Fleming.

Sunday, August 20, 2017

The Bechdel test

I am going to attempt to apply The Bechdel test to opera.  The Bechdel test asks whether a work of fiction features at least two named women who talk to each other about something other than a man.

  • Carmen and her named girlfriends try to predict their futures in a card game.  Men are discussed in the abstract, but the conversation inadvertently turns to death when Carmen draws the death card.
  • In La Boheme Mimi tells Musetta that her hands are cold so Musetta goes out and buys a muff.
  • In Marriage of Figaro the countess and Susanna plot their revenge on the count.  This probably doesn't count.  However, Marcellina and Susanna have an extended exchange of insults that definitely qualifies.
  • Despina in Cosi fan tutte advises the sisters to take new lovers while their current boy friends are away.  Generic advice so it should count.
  • In Die Fledermaus Adele pretends to her boss Rosalinde that her aunt is sick so she can accept an invitation to a party.
  • In Fidelio Leonore, a woman  pretending to be a man, successfully becomes engaged to a young woman, Marzelline.  I'm not sure if this counts or not.  For me it has layers of hidden meaning.
  • In La Traviata Violetta and Flora are friends and invite each other to parties, but we see them only briefly talking. 
  • In Magic Flute Queen and Pamina plot to kill Saroastro.  This probably doesn't count.
  • The witch in Hansel and Gretel orders Gretel around while Hansel is frozen.
  • In Elektra Elektra and Chrysothemis plot to murder Klytämnestra.
  • In the opera Jenůfa Kostelnička tells her step-daughter Jenůfa that her baby has died, when in reality Kostelnička has killed him.
  • In Otello Desdemona asks Emilia to put out her bridal gown and then asks to be buried in it.  They discuss the Willow Song.
  • In La Cenerentola the step-sisters get into some competitive bragging while constantly putting down Angiolina.
  • Most of Dialogues of the Carmelites.
  • In The Medium Madame Flora and her daughter Monica arrange seances.  They talk mostly about the business.

This seems an entertaining game for opera plots.I will continue to add new items.

Friday, August 18, 2017

Emerging Stars Winner: Arturo Chacón-Cruz

Arturo Chacón-Cruz is this year's winner of the Emerging Stars competition at the San Francisco Opera.  I first saw him in San Francisco as the Duke in Rigoletto in 2012.  He starred this past season as Rodolfo in Puccini's La Boheme.  He is another Mexican tenor.  We seem to have a lot of them these days.  Perhaps Placido finds them.  Yes, I see he won Operalia.

Who doesn't love a good Rodolfo?  To quote myself I said, " favorite was Arturo Chacón-Cruz as Rodolfo who has a gorgeous, bright sound."  Here he is as Rodolfo.


Philip Glass

Philip Glass had his 80th birthday earlier this year.  I had no idea he had written so many operas.  Here is a list.

  • 1975–1976--Einstein on the Beach for the Philip Glass Ensemble (with Robert Wilson).  I saw this at Zellerbach in Berkeley when it toured in 2012.
  • 1978–1979--Satyagraha (premiered in 1980, libretto by Constance DeJong).  I first saw this in 1989 at the San Francisco Opera.  This was my first experience of a Glass opera.  I saw it again live at the Metropolitan Opera in 2008 and again in HD in 2011.

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

La Clemenza di Tito from Salzburg

Vitellia and Tito

Teodor Currentzis | Conductor 
Peter Sellars | Stage director

Russell Thomas | Tito Vespasiano (b) USA
Golda Schultz | Vitellia (b) South Africa
Christina Gansch | Servilia (w) Austria
Marianne Crebassa | Sesto (w) France
Jeanine De Bique | Annio (b) Trinidad
Willard White | Publio (b) Jamaica

This is Mozart's La Clemenza di Tito from the Salzburg Festival in a staging by the American Peter Sellars.  I put letters next to the cast to show that most of the cast is black.  They are from everywhere.  I know what this would mean to Americans but am not sure how a European audience would react.  It would be difficult to persuade me that the timing of this was a coincidence.  All appear to be fine singers.  This is on until November, and I see no titles.

When the opera opens the crowd of mostly white people are herded into a corner by army.  Some of the women wear head scarves.  Tito picks Sesto and Servilia out of the crowd.  This is such wonderful music.  How have I not known this?

There are Roman arches across the stage as the only reminder of the Roman Empire, but the costumes are all modern.  I read elsewhere that Tito is compared to Nelson Mandella.  This is rather more profound than I normally expect from Peter Sellars.  This is clearly a concept production, much more so than the Claus Guth from Glyndebourne.  Mandella, the great reconciler is evoked.  Clearly Sellars has changed it into a story of racial conflict and broadened the impact by placing it in modern South Africa and using black singers.

Sesto and Annio

Sesto shoots Tito who does not die.  This is intensely serious.  A miracle could happen -- I could become a fan.  This is so brilliant I am truly amazed.  The timing couldn't be more right.  It goes to the top of my list of great Regietheater.

Annio sings a Kyrie for those who have died in the raid on the Campidoglio.  Jeanine De Bique's Annio was for me the best singing.  I liked Golda Schultz but thought she struggled with the low parts of her arias.  The use of chorus is spectacular and may truly be his area of expertise.  Russell Thomas raises Tito to new heights and then dies in the hospital.  Tutto perdono.  Are we ourselves so large?

This version has a sad ending which is achieved in part through the presence in this performance of music not originally in the score for this opera, music undoubtedly added by Peter Sellars.  One may feel free to complain.  The first clue came with the Kyrie sung by Annio.  He liked the singer and wanted her to have more to sing.  In part the tragic ending is created through the addition of serious music from Mozart's Great Mass in C minor.

I felt the brilliance of this interpretation long before the ending and therefore did not require this musical interpolation.

Monday, August 14, 2017

Aida from Salzburg

Conductor: Riccardo Muti
Director:  Shirin Neshat

Aida: Anna Netrebko
Radamès: Francesco Meli
Amneris: Ekaterina Semenchuk
Amonasro: Luca Salsi
Ramfis: Dmitry Belosselskiy
The King: Roberto Tagliavini
A Messenger: Bror Magnus Tødenes
The High Priestess: Benedetta Torre

Verdi's Aida is this year's hit at the Salzburg Festival  I am behind schedule but have managed to find a view of this great occasion:  Aida, Netrebko and Muti collide.

The production by Iranian Sharin Neshat seems to ask the question "What if Ancient Egypt were a modern middle-eastern country?"  I am loving the simple look after too many years of over-detailed productions.  Aida's look for the first half, seen above, doesn't remind me of anything.

I am finding simplicity in the story, too.  Radames is in love with Aida.  Then he goes to the King to offer to lead an army against the Ethopians who are invading.  Aida says wait, that's my father.  This group dress in uniforms with head gear that looks like a fez, more popular in the past.  The king in a gold fez approves, and then Radames goes to the priests for their blessings. King Farouk of Egypt wore something similar:
The priests all look the way priests look in Iran.  They're called Imams, I know.   Amneris tells Radames to return victorious.  Aida sings yes, "return victorious over my father."

Then we go to the chamber of Amneris.  Time has passed, and Radames has gone off to war. At this point guys come out in what look like bull skulls and do the dance normally done by Amneris' attendants.  What is that about?  They are on stage for only a couple of minutes.  Amneris and her women return and they split.  Curious.

There follows a scene between Amneris and Aida when Amneris tricks Aida into revealing she loves Radames.  Amneris reminds Aida that she is only a slave.  Aida prays for the gods to take pity.

So far I like very much the simple clarity of the scenes.  The main characters are clearly delineated and never disappear into the crowd.  I like the way Netrebko is dressed. Radames has returned and is enjoying a triumphal entrance such as he might have expected in Rome.  I am enjoying the division of everyone into the priestly and military/ civilian classes.  One does enjoy clarity. 

Now if one only knew what the guys in bull skulls were for.  They're back.  The stage rotates and we see the African prisoners made up with white lines down their faces.  Radames returns and is given the wreath of triumph, still very much like a Roman triumph, but then why not?  Aida doesn't crack a smile until she sees her father and runs to him.  He is the Ethiopian king but pretends that the king has died.

In the second half Aida has changed her appearance to look more like the other Ethiopians, even including the white line.  On the banks of the Nile she sings of the loss of her country.  Wonderful aria, wonderful rendition.  Father comes in, then Radames.  Aida and Radames plan how they will escape the powerful Amneris.  Radames tells a military secret, Aida's father hears and declares that he is king Amonasro.  Radames realizes he is now a traitor, they start to escape until Amneris enters with her priests.  The plot is all here in these few minutes.  This is a single set production that functions well for the various scenes.  In this opera everyone messes up.

I like very much that the costumes clearly identify the status of each character.  Priests look like priests.  Soldiers look like soldiers.  I have a vague idea of ancient Egyptian clothing, but would not know which people are which.  Ethiopians all have white lines on their foreheads.

Radames says he will not be with Amneris if he can't have Aida.  They are doomed.  I am enjoying this opera a lot more than I usually do.  Ekaterina Semenchuk is excellent.  I sometimes think Amneris is the main character.  She messes up everyone's lives, including her own. Meli does the best I've heard him.

But the fuss is for Netrebko.  The best music is at the end.  O terra addio.    Love to all.

Friday, August 11, 2017

West Edge Summer Festival 2018

West Edge Opera has announced three operas for next summer:
  • Benjamin Britten's Death in Venice (1973).  Aschenbach will be sung by William Burden.  This is to be directed by Paul Curran.
  • Matt Marks' Mata Hari (2017) which premiered at Prototype Festival this year.  Tina Mitchell will play the title role.  This is to be directed by Paul Peers.
  • Luca Francesconi's "sexual psycho-drama" Quartet (2011)  This will be directed by Elkhanah Pulitzer.  "Brutal fury."
When the rarely performed Death in Venice is the closest to standard repertoire, we are predicting an adventuresome festival.

Monday, August 07, 2017

The Chastity Tree at West Edge

Diana, Cupid as female

Conductor:  Robert Mollicone
Director:  Mark Streshinsky

Diana, goddess of chastity (soprano):  Nikki Einfeld
Clizia, nymph (mezzo-soprano):  Molly Mahoney
Britomarte, nymph (soprano):  Maya Kherani
Chloe, nymph (contralto):  Kathleen Moss
Doristo, keeper of the tree (bass):   Malte Roesner
Cupid (soprano):  Christine Brandes
Endimione, shepherd (tenor):  Kyle Stegall
Silvio, shepherd (tenor):  Jacob Thompson

The Chastity Tree, originally called L'Arbore di Diana (1787) by Vicente Martín y Soler, is contemporary with Mozart's Don Giovanni and has the same librettist, Lorenzo da Ponte.  It was performed with the original Italian da Ponte libretto.  It is important to notice that L'Arbore premiered in Vienna, while Don Giovanni was first presented in Prague.  Martin was Mozart's competition.  This opera faded from awareness during the 19th century, until it was suddenly revived in the 21st century.  I will never again think of Mozart as a slut.

My seat for this performance was an improvement over Saturday night.  I could see fine. The metal object shown above is intended to represent the tree.  Diana, goddess of the hunt, and her three nymphs make up a community sworn to chastity.  Diana has used her magic to create a tree that sings when the chaste nymphs walk beneath it.  However, if one of them is found not to be chaste, the tree pummels them with apples until they die.  At the start of the opera a group of women dressed in green with a large red circle climb up into the tree where they remained for most of the rest of the opera.  I decided that these were the apples.  They occasionally sing, do simple gymnastics and perform choreography.  In the overture the tree lights up and the pom poms wave when pleasant music plays, representing the tree when it is happy.

In her status as goddess of the hunt, Diana in mythology carries a bow and arrows.  Her arch rival and perhaps enemy Cupid is similarly equipped but uses his arrows to strike love into the hearts of humans.  This places them at complete cross-purposes.  As you might expect from a libretto by da Ponte, love or at least promiscuity wins in the end.  Cupid brings shepherds into the community of nymphs, making this a traditional nymphs and shepherds plot.  Only the unfortunate Silvio seems to miss out on the love making.

Hanky panky is everywhere, but Diana herself falls seriously for the shepherd Endimione, a beautiful young man.  The best music is for Diana.  Cupid is a boy, sung by a woman, but disguised as a woman throughout the opera, except he/she keeps the goatee and mustache.  Various characters suggest that Cupid might be a man, but he/she  remains in her pink dress until the end.  At the end a storm destroys the tree before it can throw down any apples.  Boy Cupid declares victory.

This is an entertaining opera which will henceforth inform my sense of the da Ponte comedies by Mozart.  The music is good but not great.  It's fun.  Enjoy. 

Hamlet at West Edge

Conductor:  Jonathan Khuner
Director:  Aria Umezawa

Hamlet:  Edward Nelson
Gertrude, Hamlet's mother:  Susanne Mentzer
Ghost of Hamlet's father:  Kenneth Kellogg
King Claudius, Hamlet's Uncle:  Phil Skinner
Ophélie, Hamlet's fiance:  Emma McNairy
Polonius, Ophélie's father:  Paul Cheak

Hamlet (1868) by Ambroise Thomas was presented by West Edge to open their festival at the Pacific Pipe warehouse in Oakland.  The abandoned train station which was the venue for last season was recently condemned by the city of Oakland due to a recent fire that resulted in casualties.  This resulted in a scramble to find a new space.  I for one was not particularly happy with this.

In a nearby building were people preparing for Burning Man.  Somehow you knew that this was a Bay Area phenomenon.  They played very loudly amplified low pitched thumpy music throughout this performance.  It was like your stereo was malfunctioning and all you could get were the lowest notes.  I thought it was very annoying.  There were three large doors in our space which were kept open.  One faced the other space where the noise originated.  It seemed to me that closing this door would have gone a long way toward reducing the thump thump roar not composed by Thomas.

I could go into a rant here.  Not the right repertoire, etc.  I liked the singing but couldn't see very well.  What if the stage were in the center of the space?  I don't know if this would work. I very much regret having to give this a pan.

Friday, August 04, 2017

Jonas and Anja together

This is Andrea Chenier from the Bayerische Staatsoper.  For love, for poetry, for art. 

And this is Don Carlo.

The love duet from Otello.

Lohengrin from the Bayerische Staatsoper. 

La Forza del Destino.  They sing together quite a lot, but not enough for me.  How about Tristan und Isolde?

Thursday, August 03, 2017

La Clemenza di Tito Glyndebourne

Conductor:  Robin Ticciati
Director:  Claus Guth

Tito:  Richard Croft
Vitellia:  Alice Coote
Sesto:  Anna Stéphany
Servilia:  Joélle Harvey

Claus Guth is one of the masters of Regietheater.  Looking at the above picture from his production of Mozart's La Clemenza di Tito we are reminded of a production of Lohengrin from La Scala a few years ago where the action takes place on a river bank with similar looking grass.  Yes.  That too was Claus Guth.  More recent experiences are the PTSD Fidelio and Salome in a men's wear store. So an opera about an emperor of Rome takes place in a grassy field.  I may see some water behind.  It seems to be a cabin in the woods.  The original tenor quit over "artistic differences."

I like all these singers.  Alice Coote is outstanding, in spite of the fact that she lights cigarettes all the time.  They're talking about places in Rome, burning down the Campidoglio, but we see only grass.  They explain in the interval that this is to remove all hints of cultural context.  A swamp could be anywhere any time.

This particular swamp is where these same people played together as children.  Films play in the background showing children playing.  This production focuses entirely on the emotional relationships between the characters.

I hadn't until recently realized that this is such a wonderful opera.  Beautiful arias, beautiful sentiments.  And best of all it's Mozart.  In such an opera it is possible to sing with complete sincerity.  The soul is open.  My own experience of this opera is informed by Cecilia Bartoli's performances on her early Mozart recording of the arias:  "Non più di fiori," "Deh per questo istante solo" and "Parto, ma tu ben mio."

No flowers for me.  Non piu di fiori.  She repents and thinks she will not marry.  It is opera seria so they all live happily ever after.  Glorious.  Sesto is the star.  Anna Stéphany was a replacement for a pregnant Kate Lindsey.  She looked and sang beautifully and received the most applause.

Monday, July 31, 2017


Nadine Sierra is negotiating for her first album.  More later.

Sunday, July 30, 2017


Conductor:  Ivor Bolton
Production:   Nikolaus Habjan

Julian Prégardien:  Oberon,
Annette Dasch:  Rezia
Brenden Gunnell:  Hüon von Bordeau
Alyona Abramowa:  Titania (Puck)
Rachael Wilson:  Fatime, Rezia's servant 
Johannes Kammler:  Scherasmin, Hüon's squire

Oberon, or The Elf King's Oath (1826) by Carl Maria von Weber is originally in English with spoken dialog. Characters appear from A Midsummer Night's Dream.  Today it live streamed from the Bayerische Staatsoper where it presents in German with English subtitles.

The original dialog is rewritten to suit the regietheater production.  We saw this rewriting of the dialog recently in the Carmen from Aix-en-Provence, and it is strangely curious that it appears to be for the same reason--to make the opera about psychiatry. 

I'm getting the impression a lot of people are angry about psychiatrists.  They pick two seemingly random people from the audience and conduct experiments on them to see if they will experience passionate, long-lasting love.  As things go along we pick up on the idea that this is personal between the head psychiatrists and that one or both of them are betting on no. Here no papers are signed and the fantasy is assisted with drugs and electric treatments.

The producer Nikolaus Habjan is a puppeteer.  His puppets are larger than ventriloquist dummies but are handled similarly except the ventriloquist tries to be invisible.  I've seen this sort of thing before but I don't think in an opera.  The characters that exist entirely in the fantasy of Oberon assisting an imagined mortal in finding his love and recovering his good name.  The real people are the two men from the audience and Rezia.  We aren't sure if Fatime is real or imaginary.  The psychiatrists and lab technicians are all real, of course.  I don't know if it's necessary to explain this any further.  The action results from sick cruelties inflicted on the test subjects. 

Weber was a great composer, but this opera is supposed to have killed him.  It was a pleasure to hear this music, though technical difficulties interfered with some of the arias.  The greatest aria from this opera is "Ozean du Ungeheuer."  If you've never heard it, here is a sample.

Our soprano Annette Dasch was excellent, and at least one audience member shouted bis at the end of the aria.  We also liked the tenor Brenden Gunnell.

The drama comes out on the side of love.