Monday, July 1, 2019

SFO's Vigorous, Violent Carmen

San Francisco Opera
Bizet's Carmen
June 29, 2019

J'Nai Bridges as Carmen. Photos by Cory Weaver.
The ascribing of credit for directorial work, especially when dealing with an influential force like Francesca Zambello, is a tricky business. At times, I have attributed some astute move to a stage director only to learn that a singer brought it to the company from a previous production. That said, I can guess two things about Zambello's Carmen. One is her absolute mastery at creating tableaux - that is, a stage scenario that would make an excellent painting. My inner eye goes immediately to the finish of the Toreador scene, the matador Escamillo rising on a table like a god on a cloud of his adoring followers. It's a pretty spectacular vision.

One could also guess that she made certain of the production's physical, rough edge. Rather than have the cigarette girls narrate the fight that had just happened, for instance, she brought Carmen and her rival out to throw each other around as the girls did a sort of play-by-play. The fight between Don Jose and Escamillo is also superb (fight coach Dave Maier). The final confrontation between Jose and Carmen escalates into a wrestling match before an excellent stabbing. I get the feeling that this cast often went home nursing real bruises, and I applaud their commitment.

Kyle Ketelson as Escamillo.
Theatrically, the cast is wonderful, with just a couple of vocal disappointments. J'Nai Bridges captures the Carmenesque blend of sexuality and attitude, but her vocal tone is unnecessarily covered - a seeming Carmen tradition that I don't buy into.

Matthew Polenzani delivers the full range of Don Jose's psychological journey, from disinterested boy scout to impassioned lover to obsessed ex-boyfriend. His final scene is a vivid study of desperation strategies: tender forgiveness, pleading, begging, threatening, and finally violence. Vocally, Polenzani's lyric tenor is a gift from the heavens, an absolute pleasure. His Flower Song may be the best I've ever heard, ending with heartbreaking high pianissimos.

Matthew Polenzani as Don Jose.
As Escamillo, Kyle Ketelson is sublime. He's got the alpha-male swag down, all smoothness and ego, and his baritone is rich and strong throughout. Here, one thinks, is the logical match for Carmen.

As Micaela, Anita Hartig delivered a touching presence, but she missed a chance to convey her character's undercover strength and passion. Both her acting and singing lack a certain charisma, particularly in the aria "Je dis que rien me n'epouvante." There's an easy notion that Micaela is the good girl next door, but her courage in climbing the mountains and facing down a band of smugglers in order to save her boyfriend say otherwise.

Kyle Ketelson as Escamillo, J'Nai Bridges as Carmen.
I also enjoyed tenor Christopher Oglesby, who lent the head smuggler, Dancairo, a sense of authority that altered my perception of him. Tanya McCallin's set, a series of artfully curving village walls, served well for the opening act, but I'm disappointed they used it for the smugglers' encampment. All the libretto's references to the freedom of the mountains seem hollow when it appears they're camping on an abandoned opera set.

Conductor Michelle Merrill led a spirited, punchy performance that brought out Bizet's radical percussion innovations. The Act 3 entr'acte gets more lovely each time I hear it, this time featuring Julie McKenzie on flute.

This was the final performance. SFO's fall season includes Romeo and Juliet, Billy Budd, a Placido Domingo gala, The Marriage of Figaro, Puccini's Manon Lescaut, and Hansel and Gretel., 415-864-3330.

Michael J. Vaughn is the author of 22 novels, including his most recent, A Painting Called Sylvia.

Tuesday, June 25, 2019

Princess Kebabs, Anyone?

Eimi Taormini, Natasha Drena, Marissa Rudd, Colette Froehlich,
Theresa Swain and Shannon Gugenheim.

Dennis T. Giacino
Guggenheim Entertainment
June 22, 2019

If anything ever needed a good healthy skewering, it’s the Disney princess complex. The good news is, the ladies of Guggenheim Entertainment are doing just that, with Dennis T. Giacino’s biting, bawdy sendup of everything princessy.

The evening is hosted by Snow White (Colette Froehlich) a sort of head cheerleader/Gloria Steinem hybrid who’s ready to lead a revolution against The Mouse. She develops a fun repartee with a ditzy Cinderella (Theresa Swain) and a socially awkward Sleeping Beauty (Natasha Drena). The company has a grand time with general commentaries; “Big Tits,” for instance, takes on nerdy animators who give their teenage heroines curiously healthy racks. The number ends with a hooter parade, featuring actual headlights, honkers, and… pumpkins?

Colette Froehlich as Snow White.
The real points, however, are scored with the individual testimonials. Two of the best fell to Eimi Taormini. In “Without the Guy,” Mulan wonders if perhaps she didn’t end up with a prince because maybe she prefers princesses? In “Honestly,” Pocahontas keeps looking at her pornstar bod and asking why the story of the real, normal-looking Pocahontas wasn’t enough. (“And also, why do these leaves keep following me around?”) Both pieces deliver unexpected moments of poignancy, and also show off Taormini’s impressive pipes.

On the daffier side, there’s nothing like the casual chaos wreaked by Shannon Guggenheim. “Insane!” features Belle, strapped to a chair and beset by facial tics after years of talking to furniture. Later, she appears as a John Waters dominatrix version of Marlene Dietrich for Rapunzel’s “Not V’One Red Cent,” a protest of overmerchandising. Later, as The Little Mermaid, she abandons the anorexic “All I Wanna Do is Eat” to head for the concession stand, complaining all the way up the aisle - and then, naturally, returning with snacks for everyone. (Apparently, the whole stunt was improvised during rehearsals.)

Marissa Rudd appears in “Finally” to actually approve of a Disney move, the introduction of a black princess in The Princess Who Kissed the Frog. The most laughter-inducing piece was “A Happy Tune?,” in which Snow, Cin and Sleepy tell off their happily-ever-after hubbies, using a duck call and a triangle to bleep out the obscenities. It’s a standard sort of shtick, but it goes to filthy, hilarious extremes.

Natasha Dena as Sleeping Beauty
The regular luxury at Guggenheim shows is vocal strength all the way through the cast, which makes it so much easier to relax and enjoy the evening. This one also has a rockin’ little trio of piano, bass and drums.

Through July 21, 3Below Theaters, 288 S. Second Street, San Jose. 408/404-7711,

Michael J. Vaughn is an award-winning novelist and author of the plays Darcy Lamont and Café Phryque.

The Aria Comes to Life

Dvorak’s Rusalka
San Francisco Opera
June 21, 2019

Rachel Willis-Sorenson as Rusalka. All photos by Cory Weaver.
One of the more unique experiences of the opera aficionado is to fall in love with a particular aria, and then, perhaps years later, to finally see it in its theatrical context. I have been a fan of Dvorak’s Song to the Moon for a dozen years, owing largely to recordings by Renee Fleming and Barbara Divis. Only now, thanks to SFO, did I get it to see it in its proper context.

Kristinn Sigmundsson as the Water Goblin.
This level of attachment is a perilous thing. Boito’s “L’altra notte” is on that list, as well, and Patricia Racette did it no favors in SFO’s Mefistofele, drowning it in emotion. I’m happy to report that Rachel Willis-Sorenson fared much better with Song to the Moon, helped by an intensely lush approach from Eun Sun Kim and her orchestra (Olga Oretenberg-Rakitchenkov, harp). Willis-Sorenson possesses just the right broadness of tone and low-to-high range to pull it off. As she sang, pleading for a chance to become a mortal and meet her human lover, set designer John Macfarlane’s lakeside trees shifted aside to  reveal a gorgeously oversized full moon. The completeness of the experience was everything that I could have hoped for.

Sarah Cambidge as the foreign princess.
Willis-Sorenson continued her inspired vocalizing throughout the evening (except for the second act, when she was rudely required to be mute), and also captured the audience with her acting. Playing a water nymph completely out of sorts with her new human body, she radiated a painful physical anxiety.

Based on folk stories and works like Undine and Anderson’s The Little Mermaid, Kvapil’s libretto weaves these threads into a deeply conflicted view of interspecies love. There is always, he seems to say, a price to be paid. The intensity and suprising human-ness plays well with Dvorak, who, late in his great career, was creating from a full and fascinating palette. The opera incorporates turn-of-the-century features like through-composing, the use of folk songs and Wagnerian liet-motifs. (Bits of Song to the Moon, in fact, reappear regularly as Rusalka’s motif.)

Brandon Jovanovich as the Prince.
The players here are exceptionally strong. Rusalka’s father, the Water Goblin, is performed by Kristinn Sigmundsson, who delivers a stout bass and a domineering stage presence. He is forever scaring audience and characters alike with his surprising ascents through the stage floor. Tenor Brandon Jovanovich is his usual excellent self, lending a necessary charisma to the Prince. The audience has to care enough to resent his fickleness but pity his gradual madness.

Jamie Barton as Jezibaba.
One of Jezibaba's crows.
Mezzo Jamie Barton brings to Jezibaba (who grants Rusalka’s wish) a sense of cantankerous fun mixed with bits of sadism. As the jealous foreign princess, Sarah Cambidge has just the right level of bright sharpness (both tonally and actorly) to be amiably vicious.

Dvorak is such a masterful, inventive musician, it’s almost no surprise that he sometimes bogs down the stage action, but director Leah Hausman does a genius job of creating memorable stage visions. She is helped greatly by her dancers, who perform playful wood-nymph antics and beautiful ballets, as well as water-nymph lamentations for their lost sister that possess the sublime eccentricity of a Martha Graham work (choreography by Andrew George). As for Jezibaba’s crows, they nearly steal the opera.

Macfarlane’s royal hall is stunning, seemingly a mile long, and masterfully shadowed by David Finn’s lighting design. Moritz Junge’s costumes are endlessly inventive.

Through June 28, War Memorial Opera House, 301 Van Ness, 415/864-3330,

Michael J. Vaughn is the award-winning author of The Popcorn Girl and his latest work, A Painting Called Sylvia.

John Macfarlane's royal hall.

Monday, June 17, 2019

Beautiful Handel, Disappointing Story

Sasha Cooke as Orlando. Photos by Cory Weaver
Handel's Orlando
San Francisco Opera
June 15, 2019

It's got to be infuriating for a stage director to take on Handel. The pace is all directed to the music and the standards of the time, leaving tons of dead stage time, and the plot (at least this one) make very little sense.

Lord knows, Harry Fehr tried, and he came up with some viable ideas. In the wounded, mentally fragile warrior Orlando, he saw a prototype for PTSD, and placed the action in WWII England to make things more relevant. Then he turned the wizard Zoroastro into a wonder-working doctor and the shepherdess Dorinda into a nurse, and placed them in a clinic for soldiers.

Christian Van Horn as Zaroastro.
I like the ideas, but it doesn't make the action any less static or the plot more believable. People fall in love, out of love, and blame everything on either love or heartbreak. It's like an 18th century General Hospital. Clearly, plausible drama had not yet gained a foothold in the operatic zeitgeist. It could just be that Handel has the same effect on stagecraft as Wagner, creating music so big and magical that it leaves no room for theatrical demands.

And certainly there is wondrous music to be had. Playing Zoroastro, Christian Van Horn exhibits a thunderous bass-baritone and a dominating stage presence. Despite a virus limiting her power, mezzo Sasha Cooke played Orlando with tremendous vocal dexterity. The accuracy of her runs are priceless, and she gives a convincing account of her warrior's bursts of madness.

Aryeh Nussbaum Cohen possesses a hauntingly smooth countertenor, particularly moving in Medoro's aria "Verdi allori." The only disappointment is the generally excellent soprano Heidi Stober, who throws far too much emotion into her Angelica.

Christina Gansch as Dorinda.
The clear delight is Austrian soprano Christina Gansch, who is making her U.S. debut. Playing Dorinda, Gansch delivers an ebullient tone and presence, performing the coloratura aria "Amore e qual vento" with dazzle and fun. Her Dorinda has a lovely sense of humor, and works well as the eye of the clinic's hurricane.

The orchestra under Christopher Moulds is a treasure, featuring period instruments like recorders, a theorbo and two harpsichords. The feel is beautifully authentic. Yannis Thavoris's set is an agile wonder, quickly spinning into new rooms and angles. Andrzej Goulding's projections add a provocative visual dimension.

Through June 27 at War Memorial Opera House, 301 Van Ness Avenue., 415/864-3330, $26-$398.

Michael J. Vaughn is the author of 22 novels, including Gabriella's Voice and Operaville.

Tuesday, June 4, 2019

What Makes Mamma Mia! Such a Hit?

Allison F. Rich, Adrienne Herro and Jill Miller
San Jose Stage
Mamma Mia!
June 1, 2019

Now that the musical with the ninth-longest run in Broadway history has hit the age of twenty, it might be fun to consider its place in musical theater.

The idea of using already-popular songs to piece together a musical story is hardly new. The most famous example is John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera, a 1728 concoction that added new lyrics to ballads, folk songs and hymns to create its narrative (the story would later be used for Brecht and Weill’s Threepenny Opera). The first four decades of the 20th century were filled with American musicals that followed the same patched-together format.

But then came the mid-century invention of “the band” – a musical unit that both composed and performed its songs. And although The Who ventured into opera with Tommy, and Hollywood tried to paste together a film version of The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, nothing clicked quite so well as when the Swedish hitmakers ABBA and book-writer Catherine Johnson created a musical with 23 ABBA songs. At the time, it probably seemed like a preposterous idea (and certainly, early critics were NOT impressed). But something obviously worked.

And what was that something? I’ve got some guesses. Number one, Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus resisted the temptation to use only their biggest hits, often deploying lesser-known songs that better fit the story. Number two, Johnson’s book is quite clever in providing a plausible path for the biggest of those hits. A trio of baby boomers reminiscing about their wild youths? What better than “Dancing Queen”? A single mom scraping by as a resort manager in the Greek Isles? Sounds like she could use “Money, Money, Money.” That same woman running into her three potential babydaddies? “Mamma Mia!”

Number three is the generalized nature of ABBA’s songs. Like classic operatic arias, they don’t further the action so much as comment upon situations and feelings. Thus, “S.O.S.” fits any number of breakup scenarios, while “Take a Chance on Me” is an all-purpose flirtation-song.

Stage’s production delivers abundant energy, intensified by its cozy space. Keith Pinto’s choreography is endlessly inventive and sexy, and the band led by Martín Rojas Dietrich delivers a genuine ABBA sound.

The vocals are solid throughout, with a few definite standouts. Playing the lead “father candidate,” Noel Anthony displays a real talent for connecting song to character, particularly with “Knowing Me, Knowing You,” a bit of fatherly advice for his potential daughter. Adrienne Herro plays mother-of-the-bride Donna with a girl-next-door appeal (much preferable to Meryl Streep’s annoying glamour-pus) and hits an emotional peak with “The Winner Takes It All.” Both songs remind us that the ultimate Euro party band could also deliver real heartbreakers.

The comic highlights come from Donna’s gal-pals. Allison F. Rich invests Tanya with equal parts AbFab and Christine Baranski, playing the cougar to the hilt. As Rosie, Jill Miller has both the appearance and comic flair of Lisa Kudrow, taking a couple of small physical bits (padding her hotel bed like a kitty-cat) to the level of hilarity.

As director, Rich has a tremendous eye for detail. Even the furniture changes have their own little ballets. During the barely controlled chaos of the Dancing Queen scene, one could look anywhere on stage and find some little mini-drama – exactly like a typical night at a disco. It was also fun to watch the supporting cast in their Greek chorus mode – for example, in bride Sophie’s (Allison J. Parker’s) truly disturbing nightmare scene. Bethany Deal’s costumes were brilliant, particularly the ABBAriffic jumpsuits of the finale.

Through July 7, San Jose Stage, 490 S. First Street. 408/283-7142,

Michael J. Vaughn is the author of 21 novels, including the rock band comedy Slow Children.

Tuesday, May 7, 2019

A Spoonful of Tuneful

For a song-ologist, you couldn't find a better evening than the treasure trove represented by A Spoonful of Sherman. And although the focus is on the Sherman Brothers of Disney fame (Mary Poppins, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang), it's fun to dip into the resume of their father, Al Sherman, and even Al's grandson Robbie.

Al was a prolific songwriter of the jazz age, penning songs for Sinatra, Ella, Bing, Billie and dozens of others. The two that delivered the "he wrote that?" vibe were You're Sixteen and You Gotta be a Football Hero. Robbie's contributions come later in the show, a couple of fun tunes from the 2015 musical Love Birds.

In between is a truckload of gems from the brothers, including The Aristocats, It's a Small World After All and Let's Get Together from The Parent Trap, as well as all the songs from Winnie the Pooh. The show is lightly outlined with family anecdotes. Faced with a lit grad and a music grad, both going nowhere, Al lured his sons into the family business by betting them they couldn't write a song that a teenager would spend a quarter on. They did just that, eventually opening up a VERY valuable Disney connection by penning Tall Paul for Mouseketeer Annette Funicello. That connection opened the way to the character-driven movie songs that made the Brothers' career.

The Guggenheim Entertainment cast has the kind of ensemble chemistry that comes from good performers who play together for years. And they have the luxury of a different voice for each type of song. Opera veteran Stephen Guggenheim gets the meaty stuff: Hushabye Mountain, Chim Chim Cheree. Shannon Guggenheim handles the sunshine: Comes A-Long A-Love, The Wonderful Thing about Tiggers, plus the heartbreaking Tell Him Anything, from the 1976 Cinderella musical The Slipper and The Rose (Shannon has a remarkable ability to be emotionally genuine on stage, and this song really brings it out). F. James Raasch handles the comic parts, including an oranguatanish I Wanna Be Like You (the Louis Prima number from The Jungle Book) and What a Comforting Thing to Know, Prince Charming's morbid take on his reservations in the family crypt. Theresa Swain's contribution is to sound precisely like Julie Andrews (and that's saying a lot!) Sadly, Susan Gundunas had to pull things back due to a virus, but even this was kind of entertaining, watching her deploy her usual panache and a Rex Harrison speak-sing to get through the evening.

The ensemble singing and harmonies are beautiful, and the choreography and direction (from Guggenheims Shannon and Scott Evan) are charming without ever getting in the way. Barry Koran did yeoman's work at the piano, deftly ignoring the way the cast kept spinning him around, and even contributing a fun vocal on Crunchy Crackers. If your ears are feeling neglected by today's overproduced schlock, you couldn't find a better form of therapy than this delicious banquet of song.

Through May 12, 3Below Theaters, San Carlos and Second, San Jose. 408/404-7711,

Michael J. Vaughn is the author of 21 novels. His most song-oriented works are the karaoke novel Outro and the rock-band comedy Slow Children.

Sunday, April 28, 2019

Opera San Jose Paints a Dark Butterfly

Maria Natale as Butterfly. All photos by Pat Kirk.
Opera San Jose
Puccini's Madama Butterfly
April 26, 2019

One of the more popular misconceptions about opera is that you can separate “acting” and “singing” into discrete categories. In truth, the two operate in a constant dance, and if you’re not singing your acting and acting your singing, you’re not doing the job. Opera San Jose’s dark, assertive Madama Butterfly demonstrates how even a musical matter like vocal timbre can determine how a stage director (Brad Dalton) delivers his vision.

The obvious place to start is the happy (Act I) couple, Pinkerton and Cio-Cio-San. Dane Suarez possesses a classic lyric tenor, but one vested with just a bit of an edge – not all the way to spinto, but one capable of a little force. This serves to bring out Pinkerton’s early knuckleheadedness about cultural differences, his young man’s focus on his own needs. He’s a bit of a firecracker.

Renee Rapier as Suzuki, Maria Natale as Butterfly.
Our Cio-Cio-San, Maria Natale, takes this further. She, too, is a classic lyric, but with a fantastic capacity for ferocity at the top end. This really brings out Butterfly’s sometimes-overlooked strength, her determination in Act 2 to fight off the doubters and wait for her American husband to return. Her “Un bel di” seems to rise out of nowhere, as it should, and her later high pianissimos are delicious.

This timbral match makes the wedding-night duets into soaring tonal tangos. The sense of power and assertiveness is reinforced by Trevor Neal, who uses his rich baritone and natural presence to play a fiery Sharpless, who makes no bones about how much Pinkerton is ticking him off. Brad Dalton does a masterful job of taking the players he’s given and directing to their strengths.

Renee Rapier uses the depth of her mezzo to plumb the many lines of foreboding about her mistress, and to underscore the luscious unison passages with Butterfly in the blossom-strewing celebration of Pinkerton’s return. Mason Gates delivers an impish Goro, and Philip Skinner is truly imposing as The Bonze.

Trevor Neal as Sharpless, Mason Gates as Goro.
Adding to the sense of darkness is Kent Dorsey’s set, a spare black stage deploying various flying screens and backdrops. The vigil scene is particularly lovely, Butterfly, Suzuki and Sorrow gazing into the pinhole lights of a night sky. Atom Young did a splendid job with Sorrow, handling his many small assignments with ease (and it confounds me how anyone can get a child to stand still for that long).

Joseph Marcheso and his orchestra demonstrated an excellent sense of dynamism, from the playful lilt of the letter-reading scene to the grand sweeps of the love duet and the heart-stopping timpani-driven death scene. The production shows a distinct attention to traditional Japanese movement, guided by choreographer Hanayagi Jumasuga. Butterfly’s descent to the stage at Pinkerton’s return contains a different emotional gesture for each step. The death scene is a little bloodless. I understand not messing up valuable kimonos, but perhaps even a little stage blood on Pinkerton’s hands would have helped.

Maria Natale as Butterfly, Dane Suarez as
Pinkerton, Ezra Kramer as Sorrow.
I offer a special note of gratitude to OSJ’s general director Larry Hancock on the eve of his retirement. Going back to 1985 (!), Larry added an enormous amount to my opera education through intermission chats and official interviews, and no one has worked more tirelessly in service to an arts company. I have especially enjoyed the way he has led OSJ into recent ambitious ventures like this season’s production of Jake Heggie’s Moby-Dick. Enjoy your rest, Larry – you’ve earned it.

Opera San Jose’s 2019-20 season includes Strauss’s Die Fledermaus (Sept. 14-29), Humperdinck’s Hansel and Gretel (Nov. 16-Dec. 1), Verdi’s Il trovatore (Feb. 15-March 1) and Mozart’s The Magic Flute (April 18-May 3). 408/437-4450,

Michael J. Vaughn is the author of 21 novels, including the opera novels Gabriella’s Voice and Operaville.