Browsed by
Category: Opera

ETERNAL LIFE IS NOT UTOPIA

ETERNAL LIFE IS NOT UTOPIA

Can you shape a viable opera scenario out of law suits and legal offices?

Janacek’s answer was yes, if you thrust into the middle of the muddle a whirlwind femme fatale powering the drama and driving all the men mad as well.

Janacek’s improbable 1926 opera “The Makropulos Case” ties in an intriguing fable: Because of a longevity potion, the seemingly youthful lady is now 337 years old, remembering intimate details about relationships and documents established by people long since dead. Since very few of us could recall all this complex plot afterward, it matters little in the wake of the amoral lady, who lives life to the hilt but convinces us that eternal life isn’t worth a tinker’s dam, as the essential zest for life is petering out at last.

Her combination of outer allure and inner ennui is a fascination, brilliantly played by the nubile German dramatic soprano Nadja Michael. She sings the Czech texts while sprawled on the floor, springing like a cat, extending a leg like a slithering snake, even clambering up desks in high heels. The voice is of Wagnerian dimensions, one that has cast her into numerous roles of dramatic intensity, mostly intermediate between soprano and mezzo. Her ovations, implicitly for Stage Director Olivier Tambosi as well, were altogether deserved when heard Oct. 26 at the S.F. Opera. Her Emilia Marty is an incendiary figure as fascinating as other operatic noncomformists like Lulu and Elektra. Sung conversations dominate the opera until her swan-song aria at the final curtain.

Otherwise the story taken from a Capek play is an unlikely intellectual exercise about recovery of musty documents for a endless trial, all played out while various men with or without briefcases strive to marry her, take her to bed, or simply commit suicide out of frustration. To make the tale yet more convoluted, the lady has taken on multiple personae and nationalities over the years, with varied names, all of them having the initials E.M.

To this operaficionado, the highlight of “Makropulos” is the emphatic, unsettling and at times jarring music of Leos Janacek, the long-neglected nationalistic composer who never got a production outside his native Moravia until he was in his 60s. The late-blooming figure serves as a model for every senior citizen. Ultimately he created five operas still making the rounds around the world, 88 years after his death. The works sound like storms at sea, embodying great dramatic punch and bristling with conflicts within the ensemble, the brass first and foremost. Conductor Mikhail Tatarnikov spared nothing in conveying the tremors of the sonic messages, some of them recurrent themes in the two-hour opera.

Apart from Michael herself, the cast was routine, capped by tenor Charles Workman (Albert Gregor), abetted by the SFO veteran Dale Travis (as the attorney Kolenaty), Brenton Ryan (Janek) and Stephen Powell (Prus)—all of them so many puppets on the heroine’s chess board.

The sets by Frank Philipp Schloessmann were German-expressionistic, mostly stark bare walls, capped by an immense working clock reminding the heroine of the inexorable passage of time.

OPERA NOTES—-Amazingly, none of the 10 principals were native speakers of Czech, which is a challenging consonant-dominated Slavic tongue….This opera has a special place in the SFO’s heart, as the troupe had boldly given its American premiere 50 years ago…The fall season ends with “Aida” Dec. 6.

Janacek’s “The Makropulos Case” (1926), in Czech, at the S.F. Opera through Oct. 29. Opera House, S.F. For info: (415) 864-3330, or go online.

©Paul Hertelendy 2016
#
Paul Hertelendy has been covering the dance and modern-music scene in the San Francisco Bay Area with relish — and a certain amount of salsa — for years.
These critiques appearing weekly (or sometimes semi-weekly, but never weakly) will focus on dance and new musical creativity in performance, with forays into books (by authors of the region), theater and recordings by local artists as well.
#
Week of Oct. 28-Nov. 4, 2016
Vol. 19, No. 8

AN ARRESTING NEW AMERICAN-AND-CHINESE OPERA

AN ARRESTING NEW AMERICAN-AND-CHINESE OPERA

With the SFO’s “Red Chamber” World Premiere

By Paul Hertelendy 
artssf.com, the independent observer of San Francisco Bay Area music and dance 
Week of Sept. 14-21 , 2016
Vol. 19, No. 2

The new Chinese opera-tragedy “Dream of the Red Chamber” offers high drama after a lengthy, opulent prologue, turning a classic novel into an opera that is closer to a musical feast than to consistent theater.

The emigre Chinese composer Bright Sheng has created a rich, listenable score astutely combining both western and eastern instruments, aided by David Henry Hwang’s  every-day English-language libretto. After the intermission, the slow-starting opera with a Romeo-and-Juliet-like love story turns into a whirlwind of betrayal, suicide, action and reaction, ending in a “Goetterdaemmerung” conflagration scattering the principals into isolated fragments, incapable of putting all the pieces back together.

For the San Francisco Opera, which presented the world premiere Sept. 10, this piece spans the Pacific in viable fashion, headed toward its Hong Kong premiere six months hence. The story is a very thin slice out of a long epic 18th-century Chinese novel linking old-style courtly machinations with fairy-tale elements. In bridging the oceans, it introduces our audiences to a work as familiar in China as “Moby Dick” and “La Boheme” are in the US.

The lasting impression of this luxurious production is the musical eloquence, rising to the dramatic occasion, and flowing effectively for the reflective arias. The septet just before intermission is a classic achievement rarely essayed by living composers. The opera’s big flaw is visual and static, as the hohum opening act that fails to pose a dramatic turningpoint for its  finale and ensuing intermission.

The fantasy-to-reality plot is compelling, as the Stone and the Flower transform into human beings and later lovers. The Stone becomes the animated tenor role of Bao Yu, the biggest part  in the opera (Yijie Shi, a tenor with a tireless trumpety voice). The Flower turns into  the sensitive Dai Yu, one of three notable sopranos in the female-dominated cast. A manipulative relative’s ruse separates the two and leads to the downfall of the dynastic family palace and all its inhabitants. With the pair treading the world forcibly separated and alone, the conclusion is poignant.

The work is also a critique of the old ways in China, when wealth, stature and position in the empire’s pecking order were far more important than enterprise or good character. The family member who is the Imperial Concubine—the most powerful woman of all—drops from the top to the bottom with a whim of the Emperor. Knocking the idealistic hero, the monk/narrator/author remarks wryly on “the foolish mortals lost in the world of illusions.” Reading between the lines reveals   an implicit plea for another system without a central authority, such as democracy. So while this is a tale about bygone dynasties, it is also a work relevant to the 21st century.

The complex production of 11 scenes put together by designer Tim Yip and Director Stan Lai is magnificent, both in the fast-changing array of sets as well as lavish costumes. Fascinating mimes portray the transformation of Stone-and-Flower to humans in jaw-dropping fashion, while an array of women dancers porrtray the temptations of the flesh in the hero’s vivid red dream, like a Chinese counterpart to the lurid opening ballet of “Tannhaeuser.”

The opera featured a trio of excellent lyric sopranos: (Pureum Jo) in the Flower role of the beloved, Irene Roberts  as the other woman Bao Chai who is pushed to marry the hero; and Karen Chia-Ling Ho as the Imperial Concubine. These are ably supplemented  by the lower voices of the older generation: the Granny Jiu role (Qiulin Zhang), and Lady Wang role (Hyona Kim)  which is the one villain of the piece. George Monahan conducted, responsive to both singers and musicians.

The crux of the matter is not whether this opus will be the next “Turandot” hit. It’s whether it can link two highly contrasting cultures and eras successfully. And, in that regard, “Red Chamber” succeeded in its mission.

Bright Sheng’s opera-tragedy “Dream of the Red Chamber,” world premiere production at the S.F. Opera opening Sept. 10 (through 29th). For SFO info: (415) 864-3330, or go online.

©Paul Hertelendy 2016
#
Paul Hertelendy has been covering the dance and modern-music scene in the San Francisco Bay Area with relish — and a certain amount of salsa — for years.

These critiques appearing weekly (or sometimes semi-weekly, but never weakly) will focus on dance and new musical creativity in performance, with forays into books (by authors of the region), theater and recordings by local artists as well.
#

SEX RULES THE OPERA STAGE

SEX RULES THE OPERA STAGE

The Raw English Hit ‘Powder Her Face’ in Oakland

By Paul Hertelendy 
artssf.com, the independent observer of San Francisco Bay Area music and dance 
Week of Jan. 6-13, 2016
Vol. 18, No. 11

OAKLAND—Thomas Adès’ opera “Powder Her Face” is a devastating social critique condemning women’s inequality as well as the excesses of the Idle Rich, based on fact. Or, it’s a two-hour exercise in audience titillation showing various freelance sexual practices, some of them more natural than others. Take your pick.

At the very least, it is a jagged comic opera revisiting the great mid-20th-century London divorce scandal of the Duchess of Argyll, a woman who after a near-fatal fall at age 21 developed prodigious sexual appetites. She was quoted as saying, “Go to bed early and often.” Photos showing her giving in to those appetites with men led to her trial and divorce from the (less than saintly) Duke, who, as if playing Mozart’s Leperello, provided a list of 88 alleged close male contacts of hers. The sensationalist press termed her the “female Don Juan.” She was castigated, while, reflecting the prevalent sexism,  her husband the Duke came off smelling like a rose.

It’s a chamber opera, in every sense: Much of it takes place in the Duchess’ chamber of activities.

On paper, the jumpy, highly dissonant musical score looks like  the profile of a high-hurdles racecourse, putting the two coloratura sopranos, Laura Bohn  (in the Duchess role) and Emma McNairy  to the test with the endless leaps and jumps and yips and cries, which they managed with high virtuosity in their less-than-virtuous parts. Multiple roles in the array of male opportunists and roues were carried out by tenor Jonathan Blalock and baritone Hadleigh Adams. Keeping the various lovers apart, from time to time, was part of the challenge of Stage Director Elkhanah Pulitzer.

Mary Chun conducted the occasionally raucous score, quite possibly very well. But who really knows? As one musician conceded privately, if wrong notes were sounded, quite possibly no one in the sold-out house could tell.This was Adès’ delectable futuristic chaos.

If the West Edge Opera production was a sizzling package stopping just short of porn-tinged controversy and total nudity, the animated audience response after the 130-minute  show emboodied neither outrage nor boos. There is a suspicion that WEO spices up its shows far beyond the original intent, much as in last year’s totally nude “Lulu.”

Were this Adès’ only work, he’d be termed the bad boy of music, as once was George Antheil. But the brilliant Adès has written many serious solo and symphonic pieces played by top ensembles on both sides of the Atlantic. You’re tempted to say that West Edge Opera (formerly called Berkeley Opera) has once again sensationalized a work to the max visually, much as in last summer’s “Lulu.” In its headline-catching summer seasons, West Edge is determined to be cutting edge, to the very edge  of undermining its aspiration to high artistic achievement.

But give West Edge credit, filling the Bay Area’s fallow July-August months with opera, drawing audiences old and (fairly) young to the long-abandoned Oakland 16th Street R.R. Station, seemingly at the edge of the western wilderness. They are breathing life into a long-dead historic edifice as well as animating Oakland, which has had a long history of opera companies going belly-up.

WEO has had such impact with Adès, an extra performance has been added. In all, there are three operas through Aug. 14, separated by approximately one century each.

My advice: Best not to take your grandma to this Adès opera, nor any of the kiddies. Rate it R, as in R.R.

Thomas Adès’ chamber opera “Powder Her Face,” with orchestra. 130 minutes, one intermission. West Edge Opera at the former Oakland Railway Station, 1405 Wood St. For info on WEO: (510) 841-1092, or go online.

©Paul Hertelendy 2016
#
Paul Hertelendy has been covering the dance and modern-music scene in the San Francisco Bay Area with relish — and a certain amount of salsa — for years.
These critiques appearing weekly (or sometimes semi-weekly, but never weakly) will focus on dance and new musical creativity in performance, with forays into books (by authors of the region), theater and recordings by local artists as well.
#

‘JENUFA:’ COMPELLING NATIONALIST OPERA

‘JENUFA:’ COMPELLING NATIONALIST OPERA

 

Janacek’s Wrenching Drama at the S.F.O.

By Paul Hertelendy
artssf.com, the independent observer of San Francisco Bay Area music and dance
Week of June 17-24, 2016
Vol. 18, No. 72

The powerful human drama of old-time village morality “Jenufa” returned to bolster the San Francisco Opera summer season after a 15-year hiatus. The work is sincere and compelling, built around the bigger-than-life role of the morally ambiguous Stepmother, as played by the magnetic star, dramatic soprano Karita Mattila.

The Stepmother is faced with a life-changing choice: Should she stick by her stern moral principles, or entirely sacrifice them to save the stepdaughter Jenufa’s reputation and future compassionately?

This was a bold success all around, built around astute gambles, an apt finale month for General Director David Gockley, who in his decade presiding here has never shied away from artistic gambles in order to create memorable stage works. Three of the four principals were making their role debuts on stage at the June 14 opening. And instead of the expected Bohemian-village-realism, we got a stark, monumental and expressionistic set from Director Olivier Tambosi, full of symbolism touching on the drama.

The score is one of the most lyrical from that late-blooming tiger of a Czech-Moravian modernist Leos Janacek, a prolific rank outsider from Brno, who never got any performance on a major stage till he was past 60. Today he ranks as one of the imposing 20th-century innovators of nationalist opera.

This is a woman’s tale, drawn from a woman’s play, wherein both rough-hewn males are dismissed. Young Jenufa is pregnant from the dashing Steva, a drunkard who abandons her in favor of other delights, leaving her facing disgrace and exclusion. The Stepmother Kostelnicka puts Jenufa into seclusion and ultimately disposes of the baby, seemingly with no one the wiser till her subterfuges are discovered in the most painful possible way. The Stepmother is brought to justice, whereupon the leading man Laca emerges from the shadows of the farm and pledges his undying love to Jenufa in a sunny coda to the tragedy, sparing both women death by an enraged village crowd’s stoning.

Janacek’s great gift lies in making both Jenufa and the ambiguous Stepmother compelling, three-dimensional characters sounding their frustrations and aspirations over a broad vocal range. Jenufa was an attractive, often understated soprano from Sweden, Malin Byström, buffeted by the winds of village traditionalism. The mammoth-voiced Finnish soprano Mattila pours out her sentiments in three different scena episodes, all but stamping her as the focal figure in the opera.

The veteran Czech conductor Jiri Belohlavek, already heard here in the 2010 production of Janacek’s “The Makropulos Case,” led the rich orchestral palette while heeding the singers and, presumably, assuring proper Czech pronunciation on stage. The lackluster suitors were played by tenors Scott Quinn (Steva) and William Burden (Laca). When the chorus turns up, it voices the one Czech expression that tourists around Prague will recognize, “Dobry den!” (good day, greetings).

The durable opera “Jenufa,” now 112 years of age, plays the Opera House through July 1.
Tambosi’s symbolic set, originally created for the Hamburg State Opera, features a growing boulder at center stage, representing a pregnancy resisting attempts at being hidden. Its lesser stones are also used as a weapon of crude village justice, akin to lynching.

JENUFA NOTES—Along with “Gianni Schicchi,” that Wagnerian Nibelung and some others, “Jenufa” has a title role which is arguably not the focal role. It is also a renamed work, to the relief of those of us who cannot pronounce the original “Jeji pastorkyna” (Her Stepdaughter). In productions ranging from here to Germany, it goes by “Jenufa.”

Whew!

Janacek’s opera “Jenufa,” in Czech, with supertitle translations. At the S.F. Opera. For info: (415) 864-3330, or go online.
©Paul Hertelendy 2016
#
Paul Hertelendy has been covering the dance and modern-music scene in the San Francisco Bay Area with relish — and a certain amount of salsa — for years.
These critiques appearing weekly (or sometimes semi-weekly, but never weakly) will focus on dance and new musical creativity in performance, with forays into books (by authors of the region), theater and recordings by local artists as well.
#

MEDIEVAL NUREMBERG BARGING INTO THE 19TH CENTURY

MEDIEVAL NUREMBERG BARGING INTO THE 19TH CENTURY

Wagner’s Opulent ‘Meistersinger’ in Vivid Dimensions

The San Francisco Opera got its act together in more ways than one for Wagner’s “Meistersinger” opera, serving up music theater instead of the old-fashioned static sequence of singers. Furthermore, if any one could tone down the overachieving brass section in the pit, we’d be close to perfection for this massive 5½ hours show.

This marks the eighth time since 1960 that the SFO has presented the quasi-historical work. Having seen/heard each reprise, I can attest that this is the best trio of leading males ever, with James Rutherford (Sachs), Brandon Jovanovich (Walther) and Martin Gantner (Beckmesser). This is not just rich in music, theater, and plain old stimulus for the brain. It is a sumptuous piece featuring dollops of love, competition, satire, philosophizing, comedy, old-country traditions, benevolence and above all, sharp characterization.

Forget the old days of a paunchy tenor standing and singing nonstop and motionless at center stage. This production is full of movement, wit, and motivation, resounding in vivid theater. Unfortunately, with its huge cast, chorus, dancers and crowds, “Meistersinger” is so costly to mount that this is only the SFO’s third go at the masterpiece in the past 25 years. But now it is truly an experience and spectacle to hear and remember.

Sachs, the main character, is a shoemaker from medieval Nuremberg who doubles as poet and composer, within the Master Guild of citizenry vying for the annual grand prize. Middle-aged, he is smitten with the young Eva. But in a grand altruistic gesture, he furthers the prospects of the rank outsider and youthful stellar singer Walther and, in effect, yields her to him at the end.

In the funniest slice of this long opera, the witless pretender Beckmesser makes a ludicrous pitch for both her and the prize with his dreadful new work at the competition. This is the most adroit putdown of fussy, pedantic and biased music critics by any composer, old or new.

Though Wagner was aiming at his lead critic of the time, Eduard Hanslick, I like to think he was attacking all of us——–thereby keeping all of us scribes alert, honest and on our toes.

This co-production first seen at Glyndebourne, England, understandably has a strong British component, led by various “sirs:” David McVicar as producer, and Mark Elder as conductor. In addition, Rutherford (Sachs) is also English. I can’t throw any bouquets toward McVicar, who moved the setting up to Wagner’s lifetime of in the 19th century, where all the medieval guilds and their symbol signs over their shops—boots, pretzels, hats—designed to serve illiterate customers seem anachronistic.

Sachs’ paean to German nationalism at the finale has been toned down in this supertitle translation of the German; “the German empire” has been watered down to “German lands.” Still, Wagner’s libretto encourages enough of a lock-step march for all the divided fiefdoms that it evoked the adulation of the Nazis almost a century later.

But the essence of the work emerges very well here. A simplistic focus on the young-boy-girl-love would overlook the profundity of Sachs’ eloquent outpourings about the generation gap, and his elaborate manipulation to steer the girl toward the right guy.

The singers prudently paced themselves through the long show, able to emerge in full, robust voice in the final hour. Rutherford’s baritone developed a gorgeous honeyed warmth in time for his two display pieces, the Elder Aria and the Madness Soliloquy. Jovanovich too delivered his Prize Song to win the festival competition in stellar fashion, thus sidetracking the pedantic critic as well as winning Eva.

And Gartner’s Beckmesser fussed and messed and bounced about in his laughable prize-song version, accompanied on a tinsely Celtic harp (played delectably in the pit by Olga Ortenberg-Rakitchenkov).

Spinto soprano Rachel Willis-Sørensen started in pallid fashion but came through in limpid fashion for the later love scenes.

MUSIC NOTES—The scenario was inspired by the olden Nuremberg “Masters’” singing competition, featuring historical names and figures….The amazing overture was Wagner’s answer to critiques that he knew no counterpoint: He took five of the themes, presented them, and then overlaid them all in counterpoint. Case closed!…This spectacle presented 138 people on stage (18 solo singers!), plus 90 musicians, on stage or on call till 11:45 PM when heard Nov. 21.

“Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg” (1868) by Wagner, through Dec. 6 at the San Francisco Opera. For info: (415) 864-3330, or go online.

©Paul Hertelendy 2015
#
Paul Hertelendy has been covering the dance and modern-music scene in the San Francisco Bay Area with relish — and a certain amount of salsa — for years.

These critiques appearing weekly (or sometimes semi-weekly, but never weakly) will focus on dance and new musical creativity in performance, with forays into books (by authors of the region), theater and recordings by local artists as well.

ASTONISHING OPERATIC DOINGS AT MILLS COLLEGE

ASTONISHING OPERATIC DOINGS AT MILLS COLLEGE

Prewar One-Act Milhaud Opera the Highlight

OAKLAND—The Bay Area’s most significant September musical event arguably transpired with a small opera in a small hall, well off the beaten track.

It was also a night of supreme nostalgia, unfolding with the revival of a Milhaud opera about Medea at Mills College’s arts-encrusted Concert Hall.

With many alumnae of early Mills classes reuniting on the occasion, the college paid homage to one of its music stars who had held forth at concerts in this very hall for more than 30 years.

This had been the prolific French composer Darius Milhaud (1892-1974), who has been called the 20th-century Telemann for his giant output—442 compositions, including 18 operas and 12 symphonies. But he was even more significant as a trail-blazing innovator, among the first to delve into spatial music, chance music, European jazz, and polytonality (i.e., two or more keys being played simultaneously), among others. He once even showed me copy of a chiding letter he had sent a musical colleague who had not been heard from, featuring 64 measures of total silence—written years before John Cage’s famous silent opus “4’33”.”

The Parisian Milhaud had lodged, taught and conducted at Mills in alternate academic years from World War Two till the early 1970s. His courage was exemplary as he maintained a full schedule despite a debilitating and painful bone disease afflicting him through most of his life.

Milhaud’s terse one-acter “Médée” (1938) got a heartening semi-staged reprise here Sept. 25. Milhaud wrote in a bolder, more audacious style than most of today’s composers, sometimes as though half the orchestra was playing in the wrong key. It’s jarring, but not uncomfortable. At least, it’s not nearly as uncomfortable as the ancient Greek tale of Medea, a spurned, jealousy-driven queen who is driven to multiple vengeance murders, killing even her own children to frustrate her unfaithful husband and his late-model wife, the glamorous young Creusa (named Glauce in the Greek drama).

Your sympathies are with Medea, a woman much possessed, somewhat mad, and passionately violent. As wedding present, she sends off a poisoned robe to Creusa, which kills both her and her father Creon. All this drama of the foursome is squeezed into just 75 compressed minutes, with commentary by the Greek chorus (and projected supertitle English translations of Milhaud’s French).

The fetching young Creusa was played to perfection by the young coloratura soprano Maya Kherani, balanced by the well-grounded baritone of Creon (Eugene Brancoveanu). Tenor Jonathan Smucker gave us a taut, uptight Jason, one of history’s great cads. Dramatic soprano Marnie Breckenridge performed the title role vehemently, driving her voice with more passion than beauty. Various arias give each a chance to show their character, personality and flaws, delivered in a variable command of the French language.

Stage Director Brian Staufenbiel had created mobile light projections by way of scenic design. Also of note was a stormy electronic-music interlude after act one created and added by Maggi Payne, underlining the chaos and tragedy to come.

Nicole Paiement conducted the 24-member orchestra very effectively, though nothing she did could obscure the opera’s one glaring flaw: Lack of a musically stirring grand finale, when Medea delivers her last angry riposte on splitting off for good from Jason.

Nonetheless, the opera performance provided one of the unquestionable highlights of the young season here. Given Mills’ on-going fund for annual Milhaud performances, I await impatiently the next foray into the heart of the bottomless Milhaud repertoire.

CAST NOTES—A fast-rising singer-actress to watch for is the mercurial soprano Kherani, still continuing opera studies in Boston. This improbable opera singer had graduated summa cum laude in mechanical engineering at Princeton University.

Milhaud’s opera “Médée” (1938), in French, semi-staged, part of the Mills Music Now series at the Concert Hall, Oakland, Sept. 25. For info: go online.

©Paul Hertelendy 2015
#
Paul Hertelendy has been covering the dance and modern-music scene in the San Francisco Bay Area with relish — and a certain amount of salsa — for years.

These critiques appearing weekly (or sometimes semi-weekly, but never weakly) will focus on dance and new musical creativity in performance, with forays into books (by authors of the region), theater and recordings by local artists as well.
#

A ‘RIGOLETTO’ TO DIE FOR

A ‘RIGOLETTO’ TO DIE FOR

Superlative Interactions of Jester, Daughter

By Paul Hertelendy
artssf.com, the independent observer of San Francisco Bay Area music and dance
Week of Aug. 7-14, 2015
Vol. 18, No. 7

SANTA FE, NM—If “most unique” were a term usable by any one apart from hucksters, you’d have to apply it to the Santa Fe (summer) Opera, now in its 59th season.

On a desert hilltop 7,000 feet above sea level with sweeping views of mountains, it has an indoor-outdoor theater roofed over, but open to the sides where the breezes blow. Despite occasional thunderstorms and temperature variations, the 2,200-seat house attracts the faithful in large numbers over two months every year, some 40 performances of five operas.

The special cachet is the generous rehearsal time allotted to the performers, far above the norm for major companies. This allows stage directors time to focus on fine-tuned theater and acting, eliminating vocalists more accustomed to just mailing it in. There is ample star vocal power, too, with 2016 to feature Patricia Racette, Susan Graham and Leah Crocetto.

The fine-tuning was nowhere more evident than in Verdi’s “Rigoletto,” with the most moving pairing I’ve ever encountered with about 15 productions lifetime. Despite a flawed production, the interplay of the deeply loving, deeply troubled jester with his daughter Gilda was heart-rending to the core, and his profound affection was palpable. This from a superlative Rigoletto, the Hawaiian baritone Quinn Kelsey, essaying the jester role for the first time. The brutal staging spotlighted an old, flabby, obese body, further contrasting with the daughter (Georgia Jarman), a beauty who also sang an exquisite “Caro nome.” Kelsey’s fury at the corrupt overlords (“Cortigiani, vil razza danada”) and his desperate contrasts of vile revenge and boundless affection were unforgettable, accelerated by Stage Director Lee Blakeley and newcomer conductor Jader Bignamini, both talents to watch.

The producers and designers played their usual games. The setting was moved from the Renaisssance to the 19th century, and Rigoletto’s hunched back became instead a club foot (conflicting with the libretto). The sets were rickety and teardown-worthy; the meager stage lighting suggested that the SFO had neglected to pay its electric bills this summer.

Verdi’s opera “Rigoletto,” in Italian, with projected translations, at the Santa Fe (NM) Opera. Three hours, one intermission. For info: (505) 986-5900, or go online.

©Paul Hertelendy 2015
#
Paul Hertelendy has been covering the dance and modern-music scene in the San Francisco Bay Area with relish — and a certain amount of salsa — for years.
These critiques appearing weekly (or sometimes semi-weekly, but never weakly) will focus on dance and new musical creativity in performance, with forays into books (by authors of the region), theater and recordings by local artists as well.
#

DUSTED OFF, FROM THE TOP SHELF

DUSTED OFF, FROM THE TOP SHELF

And an Operatic 1st: a ‘Sex-and-a-half-Tet’

SAN JOSE, CA—Score one with staging Mark Lanz Weiser’s 1998 work “Where Angels Fear to Tread” at Opera San Jose. This was the last of many admirable judgments by OSJ founder (and former mezzo great) Irene Dalis, who pushed mounting the work despite the 31-year record of chancey audience response to new works at OSJ. 15 years had passed since the troupe had mounted any premiere. This may well be judged her crowning production legacy, but she never got to hear it, dying two months short of opening night.

Her judgment was vindicated with this stirring three-act evening shifting from marital bliss to a multiple tragedy, via this neglected opera sitting on the shelf throughout this millennium.

A culture clash of reserved British Victorians confronted by robust Italians is the essence of “Where Angels Fear to Tread,” given its professional mainstage premiere Feb. 7 by Opera San Jose in an elegant, absorbing production. Add it to your short list of recent viable American operas.

E.M. Forster’s 1905 novel has been boiled down to 11 scenes, now entirely in Italy, where the dashing young Gino conquers several English hearts and marries one, Lilia. The other U.K. arrivals take up a custody battle over the resultant baby, showering contempt on all the trans-Alpine citizenry—part of Forster’s familiar criticism harping on arrogance and bias in English society.

Stage Director Lillian Groag injected absorbing characterizations into the six main roles, managing to produce drama despite the enigmatic, waxy British figures springing up from Forster’s pages. She also choreographed the disastrous runaway horse-and-carriage scene without either horse or carriage, just passengers, all kept right before your eyes throughout.

The agreeable tonal music by composer Weiser, 46, is readily assimilated, affectionate to the voice, and amenable to a variety of ensembles, one of them an unprecedented “sex-and-a-half-tet:” Six singers in an uproarious finale, assisted by obbligato howls on cue from a lap dog on stage.

Weiser’s finest music embodies the complex personality of Caroline, whose several arias were to die for as poured out by lyric soprano Christie Conover. But the tenor (Kirk Dougherty) is a wimp who can’t make a move on Caroline, who thinks she loves the Italian Gino (baritone Matthew Hanscom, masterfully capturing
every nuance of gesticulation and expression) but never follows through. The vocal interactions needed a bit more fine-tuning; a true love scene with duet was sorely lacking.

Throughout, the comedy comes from the harridan Harriet (booming-voiced mezzo Lisa Chavez), fuming and fussing while barking orders to the meek. Support comes from the one romantic role, Gino’s wife Lilia (Isabella Ivy), and the “Lucia” coloratura (Jennie Litster) tossing in bits of Donizetti’s opera.

Holding the orchestra to the baton was Music Director Joseph Marcheso, who managed the entr’acte that opens the last scene of act two in that tricky five-four meter. Weiser’s other memorable touches were the heavy tragic outpourings and brass chorales, coloring and underlining the action.

Michael Ganio provided an atmospheric curtain design looking like an old manuscript map of the fictional Italian town of Monteriano, so realistic that you could almost smell the chianti wine spilled on the street corner.

The opera, three hours in length, ran at the 1,100-seat California Theater, small enough to avoid straining the younger voices on the OSJ resident-artists roster.

OSJ called this a world premiere, conveniently overlooking the 1999 performances given at the Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore, where Weiser and the effective librettist Roger Brunyate had served on the faculty.

All six OSJ performances were dedicated to the memory of Miss Dalis, who was the OSJ artistic director 1985-2004.

Weiser’s “Where Angels Fear to Tread” at Opera San Jose. California Theater, San Jose, through Feb. 22. For info: 408.437.4450, or go online.

©Paul Hertelendy 2015
#
Paul Hertelendy has been covering the dance and modern-music scene in the San Francisco Bay Area with relish — and a certain amount of salsa — for years.

These critiques appearing weekly (or sometimes semi-weekly, but never weakly) will focus on dance and new musical creativity in performance, with forays into books (by authors of the region), theater and recordings by local artists as well.
#

Week of Feb. 15-22, 2015
Vol. 17, No. 35