Friday, June 28, 2019

Orlando in San Francisco

Conductor: Christopher Moulds*
Director: Harry Fehr*
Production Designer: Yannis Thavoris*

Zoroastro, doctor: Christian Van Horn (bass)
Orlando, hero: Sasha Cooke (originally alto castrato, here mezzo)
Dorinda, nurse: Christina Gansch* (soprano)
Angelica, rich American: Heidi Stober  (soprano)
Medoro, patient: Aryeh Nussbaum Cohen* (originally contralto, here countertenor)

Our production of Orlando, an opera in three acts by George Frideric Handel seen at the San Francisco Opera, has leapt into the latest craze in opera regietheater:  opera as psychotherapy.  We have seen this recently in:
  • Bizet's Carmen from Aix-en-Provence 7/9/17.  Don Jose is being treated for marital difficulties.
  • Weber's Oberon, or The Elf King's Oath live streamed from the Bayerische Staatsoper 7/30/17.  Psychiatrists experiment on random members of the audience.  Gods and fairies are delusions.
  • Berlioz' Les Troyens 2/28/19.  After the Trojan War, the survivors are institutionalized in a mental hospital with PTSD.
So our hero is showing signs of mental illness after fighting for Britain at the beginning of WWII .  In an early scene photographs of Edward VIII before and after his abdication are shown, including one where he and Wallace are friendly with Hitler.  This sets the context.  Hitler is probably still easy to identify, but I might wonder about Edward VIII.

Orlando is having hallucinations which are projected on the set as seen above.  We see handwriting, a large engagement ring, lights, a woman's eyes, etc. 

Act I

Orlando is in a hospital bed.  He is shown rescuing a woman in a wheelchair.  Both Dorinda and Angelica fall in love with Medoro, who has injured his leg.  Orlando has given Angelica an engagement ring.  Characters are introduced in rooms of the hospital.

Act II

Dorinda lets Angelica have Medoro, and Angelica gives Dorinda Orlando's ring.  Orlando is furious over this turn events and threatens everyone.  At the end of the act we hear bombs exploding


Orlando is completely bonkers by this time and is locked up.  Spoiler alert:  he is treated with not too shocking shock treatments, and is cured.  Angelica and Medoro are allowed to go in peace.  Orlando puts his uniform back on and retreats.

I felt that this modernization was very successful.  It fit the story surprisingly well.  However, sometimes plot points went by in a way that allowed you to completely miss them.

In Handel's time Orlando was a male castrato and Medoro was a woman.  We have the long ago example of Marilyn Horne to reverse this.  Our countertenor Aryeh Nussbaum Cohen is nice looking and has a beautiful voice.  My favorite singing was by Christian Van Horn, a bass who sings coloratura.  Who ever heard of such a thing.

Among the women Christina Gansch received the most applause for her act III aria.  She is someone to look out for.  Our stalwarts Sasha Cooke and Heidi Stober were both excellent actresses and good in their roles.  Their voices didn't always precisely fit the music they were singing.  Orlando in particular is quite low.

One becomes impatient with endless da capo arias, but all in all it was very enjoyable.  The orchestra included recorders, a small organ but no harpsichord, and a theorbo.

The screens in the balcony are coming down.  This is sad.  I can't read the titles from where I sit without using binoculars, while the ones on the screens are very clear.  This has to do with money.  I'm not happy about it.

Sunday, June 23, 2019

Essay about Faust

I decided that I needed to know more about Faust. We are hitting only the highlights. To get an idea of how big the influence of the Faust legend is see this list.  There are many, many works with this theme, more than I could possibly address.


I called the original Faust a German myth. Apparently others call it a legend. One reliable source (EB) says that the original Johann Georg Faust (c. 1480–1540) lived in the time of Martin Luther and practiced the dark arts of wizardry, magic and astrology. This is rather a different idea than Goethe’s Faust. The Faust legend became the subject of extensive theological discussion.  Martin Luther was concerned that Protestantism would become associated with the practices of Faust and fought hard against him.


Between 1589 and 1592 Christopher Marlowe wrote a play usually referred to as Doctor Faustus. Calling Faust Doctor Faustus means pretty much the same thing it does now.  He has advanced to the top of academia.  This is an interesting work where Faust gives up his soul in order to gain magical powers for a specified time period. He accomplishes nothing useful but uses his gifts to perform tricks for the nobility. He goes to hell when his time runs out. 

I don’t have to go into all the details. Clearly in this early period the subject matter of Faust’s knowledge and studies is significant. Marlowe’s play represents the Calvinist position where salvation is preordained. He is condemned for his magical practices and cannot be saved.

Mephistopheles was a folklore figure in the Faust legend. He becomes a stock character.  It's best seen as a play for special effects.  Marlowe establishes the idea that Faust gets his magic powers from the Devil.


Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s play Faust part 1 and part 2 (1806-1832) was the next landmark in the life of this legend. Only part 1 is regularly staged.  It is regarded as a great monument of German literature.  For our purposes we will concern ourselves only with part 1.

It is Goethe who transforms the legend into something else.  Originally it is Faust himself who leads himself into darkness, perhaps with the devil's help, but not entirely.  In Goethe it is rather like the tale of Job where God challenges the Devil to lead his exemplary man to hell.  The Devil gives it his best shot.  Faust is a learned man but his studies are here regarded as good.  Mephistopheles enters into Faust's life as a dog who follows him home.

It is also Goethe who introduces Marguerite into the story.  We are to presume that Faust, the saintly scholar, is sexually inexperienced.  Here it becomes a transaction.  Faust may have anything he wants on earth, while the Devil alone has power in hell.  It is a witch who turns Faust into a young man.  Valentine, Marguerite's brother, first appears here.

Goethe's Marguerite donates Mephistopheles' jewels to the church, but is led to ruin anyway.  The Devil thinks Faust would be tempted by a Walpurgis Nacht.  Perhaps this links us back to the original legend where Faust is attracted to the dark arts.  Here he isn't.

The Marguerite story is extended through several scenes where she kills her mother, gives birth to Faust's child, kills her child and is sent to prison.  At the very end she prays for salvation and is saved.  This does not sound like a Calvinist perspective. The story of Faust continues into part 2.


It's after this that musicians become interested.  The first piece that has remained in the repertoire is Hector Berlioz' La damnation de Faust (1846).  This is intended to be a concert piece, but is often fully staged.  The prologue in heaven where God makes a bargain with the Devil does not appear.  Instead Faust is an old man who has become tired of life and wants to kill himself.  Méphistophélès appears and offers him something to live for.  They travel together to several locations, but Faust doesn't become interested until Marguerite enters the picture.

Berlioz focuses on Marguerite much like Goethe, but shows Faust's continuing interest in science in this aria. The presence of a love story makes it more suitable as an opera plot.  At the end Marguerite is saved but Faust goes to hell.  The musical style is fully romantic. 


The most famous of all the Faust operas is Charles Gounod's Faust (1859).  For about 50 years it was the most popular opera just about everywhere, but then it faded considerably.  Gounod's Faust summons the Devil to his study when after a long life in science, he finds that he has accomplished nothing and wants to kill himself.  Mephistopheles makes a bargain with Faust that he will show him something he cannot resist.  God's complicity in this bargain is not shown.  After changing him into a young man, the Devil takes Faust out to get drunk in a bar.  Faust is uninterested.  Marguerite is next.  The above aria is Faust's reaction to her.

This is my favorite aria from Gounod's Faust, sung here by my favorite baritone, Dmitri Hvorostovsky, in the role of Marguerite's brother Valentin.  This is just before he leaves her to go off to war.  He gives responsibility for her to Siebel who appears only in this opera.


Here above we have the original version of "Diamonds are a girl's best friend."

The Walpurgis Nacht comes in the form of a ballet which is usually omitted.  Faust returns to Marguerite in her prison cell.  She is saved by an angel, but Faust continues on with Mephistopheles.  In the recent production from London he turns back into an old man.

We have wandered far from the original legend which concerned itself with Faust's interests as a scholar to the mere boredom of an old man who has accomplished nothing with his life.  The Met's attempt to drag it back by casting Faust as a nuclear scientist who regrets what he has spent his time doing.  We have the fully romantic music of one Faust and the story of another.

It is good to stop for a moment and point out the difference between Gounod and Goethe.  Goethe is clear that Faust the academic is a good man favored by God.  Gounod's Faust is just a bored old man.  The worst thing about this opera is the fact that both Faust and Valentin praise Marguerite for her chastity and purity.  Then Faust leads her into darkness with hardly a backward look.  Valentin abandons her.  She is saved in the end through God's grace.  This is seen as a Christian message because God can forgive anything.  Someone has pointed out to me that Gounod was a Catholic, and that we have here more of a Catholic perspective.


Not too long after Gounod's opera came Arrigo Boito's Mefistofele (1868).  I know this opera from glorious performances in San Francisco starring Samuel Ramey.  Boito restores Goethe's prologue in heaven where Mefistofele challenges God for the soul of his servant Faust.  It was a failure at its initial performance at La Scala, Milan.

Faust agrees to give up his soul in return for bliss on earth. The Marguerite part of the story is similar to Gounod, except in addition to killing her child, she poisons her mother.  She repents of her sins, and the angels save her.

At the end Mefistofele and Faust return to heaven for the final judgment.  Faust is saved.

I think it is the music which speaks against this opera, Boito's only composed opera.  Boito is almost modern in his style.  The contrast to Gounod's music is enormous.  The version with Samuel Ramey is highly recommended.  Without Ramey does it work at all?


Ferruccio Busoni in his Doktor Faust (1916–25) writes his own libretto in German.  This opera was presented at the San Francisco Opera in June, 2004.  I attended one of these performances and was completely confused.  Now that I see the plot description, I can understand why.   It was done as a regie production in modern dress in what appears to be a modern factory of some kind.  To add to the confusion Faust is a baritone and Mephistopheles is a tenor.

God is not involved.  Faust the academic is visited by mysterious figures who give him a book.  He follows the instructions in the book, draws a circle on the floor and summons the Devil.  Marguerite's brother is a character whom Faust kills, but she herself does not appear.  Clearly we have wandered far from Goethe but closer to Marlowe.

Faust appears as a magician at the court of the Duke of Parma where he seduces and elopes with the Duchess of Parma.  I can't imagine how this fits in with a factory.  At the end he performs some kind of magic trick where he falls dead and gives his life to another.  I think it would be necessary to study this extensively to have any hope of understanding what was going on.


It might be possible to regard Igor Stravinsky's The Rake's Progress (1951) as a Faust opera.  It's a bit of a stretch.  The Devil makes an appearance.

It has also been pointed out to me that Damn Yankees is also a Faust story.

Saturday, June 22, 2019

Robert Shaw on PBS

In my lifetime the great choral conductor Robert Shaw was a giant among men.  I just finished watching a PBS film about his life.  There was a lot of biographical material that I knew nothing about, might possibly have preferred not to know anything about.  Too late.  It was still moving and satisfying to hear it all.

I liked it that he insisted on integration no matter what the consequences.  Bravo.

My own life interfaced with his on occasion.  As a student at Indiana University, I sang with him in a performance of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony.

Later as a member of the San Francisco Symphony Chorus we performed the Brahms Requiem, a work which he recorded twice.  Ours was better than either one of these.  We had Kathleen Battle for the soprano soloist.

Details would require research.  The Indiana University performance was coached from beginning to end by Shaw who seemed to have secrets.  One secret was that a chorus should follow the same concepts as a symphony.  Every alto must sing precisely the same pitches in precisely the same rhythm.  This seems obvious.  He never talked about vibrato but did all kinds of pitch exercises.  It makes a huge difference. 

He was my idol before I actually worked with him.

Wednesday, June 19, 2019

Faust from London

Conductor: Dan Ettinger
Director: David McVicar

Faust Michael Fabiano
Méphistophélès Erwin Schrott
Marguerite Irina Lungu
Valentin Stéphane Degout
Siébel Marta Fontanals-Simmons

Gounod's Faust came to a theater near me from the Royal Opera in London where it was live on April 30.  Faust is a kind of morality myth of no specific era, so it cannot be considered regie that it is staged for the period of it's original appearance in 1859.  The settings bring the story to life.  I always remember that the Germans call this opera Marguerite.  For at least its first 50 years this opera was wildly popular, but musical tastes have moved on, and it's heard now as a bit corny, I think.

Erwin Schrott played Méphistophélès for laughs, something he's very good at.  I loved Michael's voice in his aria "Salut, demeure chaste et pure."   I enjoy his style as a romantic hero very much. Irina Lungu was a replacement for Diana Damrau who I understand has a slipped disc.  I liked her.

This is as close to a traditional production as you are likely to see these days.

This is the second opera where I've seen Erwin in a dress.  The other one was Verdi, I think.  This role better suits the voice of Rene Pape, but Erwin is much funnier and cuter.  The Walpurgis Nacht is done as a ballet with a dancer appearing as pregnant Marguerite.  Valentin comes back from the dead, followed by an orgy.  Marguerite appears with her baby.  Then a small casket.  Then a jail.

The ending is perfection.  Marguerite rejects both Faust and the Devil, prays to God, and an angel appears to declare her saved.  Faust is again an old man.  The Devil laughs.

It worked for me much better than the Met version.

Saturday, June 15, 2019

Franco Zeffirelli (1923-2019)

The great opera director, Franco Zeffirelli, has died at 96.

He created productions in many opera houses, many of which are still running.  The Metropolitan Opera still uses:  Turandot Turandot Turandot, La Boheme La Boheme.  Barber's Antony and Cleopatra doesn't repeat and Tosca has been replaced.

At the Arena di Verona an entire season was designed by Zeffirelli.  I saw only Madama Butterfly.

He filmed movies of operas as well, mostly with Placido Domingo.

Here is a proper remembrance.


Monday, June 10, 2019

Whitsun 2020 - Cancelled

Pauline Viardot-Garcia

Cecilia Bartoli's Whitsun Festival at Salzburg in 2020 will be an homage to Pauline Viardot-Garcia (1821 – 1910), the sister of Maria Malibran.  Viardot's voice did not precisely mesh with Cecilia's, which explains why she has not featured her before.

The Pfingstfest as curated by La Bartoli usually features a fully staged opera starring herself that is presented twice.  Next year it will be Donizetti's Don Pasquale sung in a version ornamented for Viardot and directed by Moshe Leiser and Patrice Caurier.  This should be fun.

Berlioz created an arrangement of Gluck's Orphée et Eurydice for Pauline which she sang over 150 times.  This will be the second opera and will not feature Cecilia.  I once reviewed this arrangement from a DVD here.

The remainder of the festival generally involves concerts.  One will feature the great choral works the Fauré Requiem and the Brahms Alto Rhapsody, both works which I love very much.  There will be a staged song matinee with songs by Viardot and starring mezzo-soprano Vivica Genaux.

The festival will end with a gala concert designed as an homage to the entire Garcia family:  Cecilia Bartoli as Maria Malibran, Varduhi Abrahamyan as Pauline Viardot, and Javier Camarena as Manuel García.  There is much to love.  I haven't been traveling for health reasons, but perhaps I should at least consider this.  The dates are May 29 - June 1.

P.S. Cecilia Bartoli has extended her Whitsun Festival contract to 2026.

Thursday, June 06, 2019

Carmen in San Francisco

Conductor: James Gaffigan *
Production: Francesca Zambello

Carmen J'Nai Bridges
Don José Matthew Polenzani
Micaëla Anita Hartig *
Escamillo Kyle Ketelsen
Zuniga David Leigh *

After a production of Bizet's Carmen where people raced cars, Francesca Zambello's production was a welcome change.  At least there were no psychiatrists (see other Carmen).   This production is new to us, but I think it started out in London.  It was visually plain but clarified the plot in an excellent manner.  I especially liked the orange tree in Act I.  We heard the opera comique version which comes with spoken dialog.  It goes by pretty fast.

We all liked best our Micaëla, Anita Hartig, who has appeared on the Met HD series as Liu in Turandot with Nina Stemme and Micaëla in Carmen with Anita Rachvelishvili. She is seasoned in her role and has a beautiful voice.

Our two main characters Carmen and Don José were both making their role debuts.  This is a situation where one should attend at the end of the run when everyone has settled into their character.  Carmen is especially difficult here.  She dominates every scene with arias (sung lying down sometimes, a modern fad.  We blame Anna Netrebko), dancing, flirting, castanets, anger, love, just about anything you can imagine.  It is necessary to be careful not to get hurt.  By the end of the run she would be able to focus more on her singing.

I couldn't decide about Matthew.  Does the part not sit right for his voice?  He is a tenor I like very much, but something sounded rough in his voice.  He played Don José more out of control than anyone I have ever seen.  She knows she will die, it was in the cards, and does not care.

I enjoyed it.  It's a beautiful opera.

Wednesday, June 05, 2019

Pavarotti Movie

Last night there was a Fathom Event that featured Ron Howard's new movie about Luciano Pavarotti.  This was irresistible, so I went.  I arrived early and got to read through interesting events in Pavarotti's life.

For me the most fun was trying to identify people in the photographs who were not identified with captions or remarks.  The only thing said about Mirella Freni was that she and Luciano had shared a wet nurse as babies.  However, her picture appeared several times.  I only remember Joan Sutherland mentioned for her contribution to his career.  She taught him how to breathe.  He mentioned that he felt her diaphragm working.  This is a normal part of vocal training. I was also amused by brief remarks by Vittorio Grigolo describing how a tenor sound is an artificial, deliberately created sound.  Any tenor needs to train with someone who understands this.

Early parts of the movie concerned themselves with the early parts of Luciano's operatic career.  The San Francisco Opera is never mentioned, though he sang there many times and learned many new roles with the professional coaches there.  After the Three Tenors concert in Rome in 1990, which I now recognize to have taken place in the Baths of Caracalla, he came to us no more.

There are quite a lot of interviews with his family, though the precise meaning of these only develops gradually.  It is handled carefully.  Luciano was very friendly and outgoing, made friends easily, including Princess Diana.

Then it moves into discussing his career as Pavarotti and Friends, something that does not particularly interest me.  He made lots of money.  My main complaint is there is a lot of talking and a lot less singing.

The movie ended with his spectacular performance in the Three Tenors Concert of Puccini's "Nessum dorma."  The best singing in the film.  Your curiosity will be fully satisfied, and there are lots of other sources for Luciano singing.


Tuesday, June 04, 2019

Happy Birthday Cecilia Bartoli

She's still my favorite.  I especially loved her recent L'Italiana in Algeri.  This is what she is up to now.

Saturday, June 01, 2019

Gluck's Alceste from Munich

Conductor: Antonello Manacorda
Director, Choreographer: Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui

King Admète: Charles Castronovo
Queen Alceste: Dorothea Röschmann
High priest of Apollo: Michael Nagy
Évandre: Manuel Günther
Ein Waffenherold: Sean Michael Plumb
Hercule: Michael Nagy
Coryphée(s): Noa Beinart, Anna El-Khashem, Frederic Jost, Caspar Singh
Apollon: Sean Michael Plumb
Das Orakel: Callum Thorpe
Ein Gott der Unterwelt: Callum Thorpe

This version of Gluck's Alceste comes live from the Bayerische Staatsoper.  I understand it to be a regie production, so we'll see.  This is the French version.

Act I

Well, this isn't regietheater to me.  It's more like a Rameau opera ballet.  I think the costumes are intended to look at least semi-Greek.  There is constant dancing in a style with a lot of arm waving, apparently so the singers can participate.  Alceste and the priest of Apollo are the main characters.  The king is ill, and Alceste volunteers to die instead of him.  This is an excellent role for Dorothea Röschmann.  At the end of the act she sings the hit tune for this opera:  "Divinites du Styx."  It might be a bit heavy for her.

Act II

Children are picking up what appear to be plates of food and handing them into the prompter's box.  This will give you a flavor of the dancing.


At last the King makes his first entrance not looking at all ill. Husband and wife are happy to see each other.  Neither one is dead.  Then he finds out Alceste will die and wishes it was him.



Admète follows Alceste to hell.  They sing together without benefit of ballet.  People on stilts appear.  A man dressed all in white appears, and I assume he is Apollo.  He blesses everyone, grants immortality to Hercules, etc.  The family is united, including the children.  This part is the most like regie, but I think the original is also confusing.  The dancers are back.  And that's the end.

This was mysterious.  They tried very hard to make it interesting, but it won't make my favorites list.