Wednesday, October 16, 2019

Figaro Goes American

The Marriage of Figaro
San Francisco Opera
October 13, 2019

Serena Malfi as Cherubino, Michael Sumuel as Figaro and Jeanine de Bique
as Susanna. (All photos by Cory Weaver.)
SFO has embarked upon an intriguing three-opera project, setting the three Mozart-Da Ponte operas in the same American manor house in 1786 (Marriage of Figaro), the 1930s (Cosi fan tutti), and 2090 (Don Giovanni).

Le nozze is a natural for an American setting. The opera made its appearance in 1786, just as the world-changing Constitution was percolating overseas, aimed at taking down the noble classes in the same way that Beaumarchais' play took aim at the aristocracy's overentitled tuckus. (Beaumarchais was greatly fond of the new country, and in fact financed a gun-running scheme during the Revolution.)

Nicole Heaston as the Countess, Serena Malfi as Cherubino.
The elephant in the room (literally, Figaro's room) is the dominance of black faces: Texan bass-baritone Michael Sumuel as Figaro, and our Susanna, Jeanine de Bique from Barbados. (Another appears in Act II, Chicagoan Nicole Heaston as la Contessa.) Although acknowledging the "optics" of such casting, trilogy director Michael Cavanagh denies any intention - which is really too bad, because the move brings up some provocative parallels. Figaro's pivotal conflict is the droit du seigneur, the medieval European custom allowing feudal lords to have sex with subordinate women on their wedding nights. The painfully apt American equivalent was the trysts between plantation owners and their slaves, most infamously exemplified by Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings.

Jeanine de Bique as Susanna, Catherine Cook as Marcellina.
The other intriguing presence is Erhard Rom's set, a classic Philadelphia manor represented by facades that are half-house, half-blueprint, as if the home, like the country, were still in the process of becoming itself. The set is foreshadowed by a lively dance of architectural projections during the overture.

From square one, Sumuel is the quintessential Figaro, a hard-working blue-collar figure with sensitivities and wit far above his station. He fits right in to a particular American ideal of manliness, and perhaps his pledge to take on his master, "Se vuol ballare," is his Declaration of Independence. De Bique partners him with all of Susanna's saucy cleverness and appealing moments of girlishness, whether bouncing excitedly at the latest scheme or unleashing bursts of infectious laughter.

Musically, I keep flashing on the quiet moments. Conductor Henrik Nanasi displays a great sensitivity in matching these passages to his orchestra. The first is that fetching slowdown in Cherubino's "Non so piu," mezzo Serena Malfi gearing down from her page's hormonal panic to soak in the sudden open spaces and sing in captivating sighs, "And if no one is near to hear me, I speak of love to myself."

Michael Sumuel as Figaro.
The second quietness comes with Heaston's elegant reading of Dove sono, the restatement of the theme conveyed with a sublime delicacy. The third is De Bique's thoughtful interpretation of "Deh vieni," a beautifully sincere rendering of an aria that is completely fake, a trick for her new husband.

The more outrageous side of the equation is fueled by the Evil Trio, intent on undoing the youngsters' nuptials. Mezzo Catherine Cook is divine as Marcellina, like some kind of wacky Disney villainess, and tenor Greg Fedderly and his pink wig play Basilio gloriously out. Bass James Cresswell offers a calm, likeable center as Bartolo, particularly in the great "sua madre" reveal. Lawrence Pech gave the threesome some deliciously dastardly movements to complete the picture.

Malfi's Cherubino is nicely centered on the female-male scale of a teenage dandy. Designer Constance Hoffman gave her a dazzling regimental uniform, all white underpinnings with a blue and red waistcoat. Levente Molnar's Count is all lothario, making his scenes with Susanna delightfully cringe-worthy. In the days of Harvey Weinstein and a certain President, you really can't carry the caddishness too far, and actually the Count's boyish moments of glee at his sexual anticipations are rather charming.

There was a surprising disappointment in the back-and-forth duet of "Sullaria... che soave zeffiretto" (famously played over the prison PA in the film The Shawshank Redemption). Though they blended beautifully in their scheming chatters against the Count, Heaston and De Bique seemed to be battling here. It's hard to pinpoint the blame - a little too much ego, clashing timbres - but it does demonstrate the challenge in Mozart of having to deploy both solo and choral abilities.


Greg Fedderly as Basilio.
Kudos in general to the orchestra for its care in matching its conductor's dynamic desires, as well as to Bryndon Hassman for excellent continuo work on the fortepiano. My favorite supertitle: "She's his mother? Well then they can't get married!"

Through November 1, War Memorial Opera House, 301 Van Ness Ave., San Francisco. sfopera.com, 415/864-3330.

Michael J. Vaughn is the author of 22 novels, including the opera novels Gabriella's Voice and Operaville, both of which include scenes at the San Francisco Opera.

Tuesday, October 8, 2019

Rocky and the Callbacks

The Rocky Horror Show
San Jose Stage Company
October 5, 2019

Allison F. Rich as Magenta, Parker Harris as Brad,
Ashley Garlick as Janet, and Sean Okuniewicz.
"The callbacks," the practice of inserting one's own lines into the dialogue, has long been a part of the Rocky Horror Picture Show, but not necessarily of the stage version that started it all. The Stage Company makes no bones about where it stands; they invited audience members to speak up, sold "participation packets" with the familiar RH props (playing cards, spray bottles), and one of the wittier hecklers turned out to be their artistic director, Randall King.

At times the back-and-forth is a little chaotic (this is not a rehearsed element), but it produced a number of superb moments. When Brad surmised that the castle must be one of those places where sicko millionaires hide out, an instigator at audience left shouted "Mar-a-Lago!" But the most fun came with the Narrator, Edward Hightower, who had a brief Harvey Korman moment when one of the comments struck his funny bone, and made comic battle with his hecklers the rest of the night, aiming his lines and gestures for effect.

Allison F. Rich as Magenta,
Matthew Kropschot as Rocky and
Jill E. Miller as Columbia
Beneath all this unfettered democracy, Stage has itself a freakishly awesome production. There's a certain quality - call it "presence" or the "it" factor - that an aficionado might find once or twice a season. You know it when you can't keep your eyes off a particular performer. This single show has three. One is (no surprise) Allison F. Rich, whose commitment to Magenta is absolute, and intense. Another is Sean Okuniewicz, whose Riff Raff is a 100 percent freakball liable to go off at any moment (he also has a true rock star voice suitable to the Time Warp). The third is Keith Pinto, who moves with a fascinating, precise elegance, giving an undercover fussiness to Frank 'N' Furter.

Keith Pinto as Frank 'N' Furter
Over all, I keep coming back to that word "commitment." The cast offers no half gestures, they are all there, all the time. Matthew Kropschot could easily cruise on his ridonkulous physique, but he's also quite loose and funny, and a good singer. The phantom ushers offer a tight, athletic dance team. Performing Eddie's "Hot Patootie," Will Springhorn, Jr. whipped out a sax and played the solo himself. It's also nice to hear a Janet Weiss with real pipes (Ashley Garlick), and Parker Harris gives Brad a likeable Niles Crane nerdiness that turns to fetish on a dime. The only flaw I even noticed was a little tightness from Jill E. Miller on Columbia's Time Warp solo, but her later drug trip is an excellent little monodrama. It's obvious that director Allison Rich and choreographer Tracy Freeman-Shaw got the absolute most out of their players.

Allison F. Rich as The Usherette
The production creates a nice balance between providing all the touchstones of the 1975 film without being a slave to them. Ashley Garlick's costume design, for one, made some amusing innovations. When Riff-Raff entered the final scene in his white platform boots, our friend at audience left remarked "Didn't you wear those in Mamma Mia?" Which was my exact thought.

Through Nov. 3, The Stage, 490 S. First Street, San Jose. 408/283-7142, thestage.org

Michael J. Vaughn is the author of 22 novels and two plays, Darcy Lamont and Cafe Phryque, which are available for free downloads at amazon.com.

Wednesday, September 25, 2019

Amateur Opera Critic Meets Diva


Reprinted from Manybooks.net, story by Naomi Bolton. Free download of Operaville the novel at Amazon.com.

Michael J. Vaughn is the author of 22 novels, including Mascot and The Popcorn Girl. He is a thirty-year opera critic, a jazz singer, and plays drums for the San Francisco rock band Exit Wonderland. For Gabriella's Voice, the predecessor to Operaville, Vaughn was awarded a $3,000 fellowship from Arts Council Silicon Valley. As our Author of the Day, he tells us about his latest opera novel, Operaville.

Please give us a short introduction to what Operaville is about.

Mickey Siskel is a survivor of a traumatic divorce who sort of klutzes into opera as a form of therapy. He discovers a great ruse for getting free tickets - just start a blog and figure out how to write reviews. He gets unexpectedly good and attracts the attention of a world-class diva, Maddalena Hart, who meets with him and finds herself smitten. It's a bit like "Notting Hill" (which I saw AFTER I wrote Operaville, please note).

What inspired you to write about an amateur opera critic who finds himself in an affair with an opera diva?

I am a long-time opera critic, but after I quit my newspaper jobs to focus on fiction I still wanted the free tickets so I could continue seeing opera. So I started a blog called Operaville. But somewhere along the line, I thought, Hmmm, interesting device for a novel. As for the diva, I've had the good fortune of befriending quite a few opera singers and I find them to be delightful, fascinating creatures.

Your first opera novel, Gabriella's Voice earned you a fellowship from the Arts Council in Silicon Valley. Tell us more about this.

That award was very important; it gave me a sense of legitimacy early in my career. Authors really need those! Gabriella actually makes an appearance in Operaville.

You are an opera critic yourself. How much of your own experiences have you incorporated in the book?

Lots! I have learned so much through my reviews. When it comes to opera, it's easy to fall into stupid cliches (the fat lady with the horns). The real world of opera is so much more interesting. And also I'm able to write about the music in a deep, thoughtful way, and hopefully translate these concepts and descriptions to the lay reader.

Tell us more about Maddalena. What makes her so exceptional?

She's at the very top of her game and yet she never stops learning. Some of this is based on Renee Fleming. She wrote a book on singing in which she said she never stops re-evaluating a role, even if she's performed it a hundred times. I think this endless seeking is indicative of the most successful people in all fields. Also, Maddie is very sexual, which is the thing that perhaps people don't know about opera singers. I always want to say, But look at all these shenanigans they get to onstage? Don't you think that has an effect?

Besides writing, what other secret skills do you have?

I came from a musical Disneyland called Peterson High School in Sunnyvale. We had 120 guys in the men's glee and used to tour other schools, encouraging boys to sing. From there I went to San Jose State, where the choir performed with the local professional orchestra. My own singing continues with jazz (Sinatra a specialty) and rock; I'm a drummer/vocalist with a classic rock cover band, ECRB. Not surprisingly, music plays an active part in most of my novels.
mvaughn

Was there a single defining moment or event where you suddenly thought, 'Now I'm an Author,' as in—this is now my career?"

I've always been self-powered, but there was one moment. I graduated with a journalism degree and immediately realized, Who am I kidding? And got a day job so I could start writing novels.

How do you force yourself to finish what you're doing before starting the next project when the new idea is nagging at you?

I have actually begun a new project while finishing an old one. It didn't seem to bother me. Though I usually do enjoy a month or two of "brewing" between books.

Among the wealth of characters in Operaville, who was the most difficult to create?

The ex-wife kept shifting on me! I really wanted to indulge in an old-fashioned nasty villain, but she insisted on being human and showing all these redeeming insecurities. In the end, she might be the most intriguing character in the book. I always preach a certain lack of control to beginning writers, because you never know when a character will raise her hand and say, I think you're wrong about me.

If you could choose one character from your book to spend a day with, who would it be? And where would you take them?

Oh, Maddalena, naturally. I'd like to take that 4th of July cruise into Seattle for the fireworks show. What fun!

Do you ever suffer from writer’s block? If so, what do you do to combat it?

I really don't because I don't push myself to write when I'm not feeling inspired, but I do keep a sketchbook around for doodling. I actually wrote a story about this for Writer's Digest; visual play has a way of re-energizing those parts of the brain used for writing. And sometimes I get a page or two when I wasn't expecting it.

What are you working on right now?

I did a rather unusual thing to start my new novel. Without any preliminary theme, I simply put a character in a certain place and wrote my way out. I ended up with a speculative novel about post-flood California (a climate-change Handmaid's Tale), which is unlike anything I've ever done. So perhaps this is a good way to push one's boundaries and find out what your subconscious is up to.

Where can our readers discover more of your work or interact with you?

I have an author page on Amazon (22 titles), and a page on Facebook. Also, my blog is at operaville.blogspot.com, and I continue to write opera reviews.

Extra notes:

The sex scenes In Operaville are pretty candid. Prudes, please note. Inspired by authors like Kundera and Tom Robbins, I tend to write about sex as if it were a normal part of life. Although you won't find godawful erotica tropes like "throbbing" and "perky."
The opera descriptions get pretty technical sometimes but never fear. They're not essential to the plot.
The cover photo is a selfie! Taken by a soprano friend, Isabella Ivy, before going onstage in a Mozart opera. I'm so grateful that she let me use this extraordinary shot.

Monday, September 16, 2019

A Glittering Bat

Brian James Myer as Dr. Falke. Photos by Pat Kirk.
Opera San Jose
Strauss's Die Fledermaus
September 14, 2019

Opera San Jose opened its 36th season with a rousing, enjoyably chaotic rendition of Strauss's goofy classic, making the most of its infectious music without missing any comic chances.

Elena Galvan as Adele.
The cast was vocally tasty, beginning with moment one, Elena Galvan releasing a cascade of glistening notes as housemaid Adele receives a Cinderellish invitation to the ball. Galvan's coloratura is a fine dessert throughout, particularly in the Laughing Song.

OSJ has the laudable habit of drawing on its alumni, and Alexander Boyer is a perfect fit as Alfredo, the amorous Italian tenor whose singing drops Rosalinde to her knees like a marionette whose strings have been cut. Boyer's pipes have always been golden, so I'd count this as typecasting. I also enjoyed the way his "La donna mobile" was choked off by the jailer Frosch.

Maria Natale as Rosalinde, Eugene Brancoveanu as Eisenstein.
Maria Natale gives Rosalinde just the right level of corruptible elegance, with the help of some stunning gowns: the green concoction of Act I, the copper shimmer of Act 3 (Cathleen Edwards, costume designer).

Eugene Brancoveanu lends his robust baritone to von Eisenstein, along with a delightful level of party-boy energy. He joins with Galvan and Natale to derive the utmost hilarity from their Act I trio, "O Gott, wie rührt mich dies!", all three pretending sadness at their parting while secretly relishing their impending nights out. The little Bob Fosse dance moves are a nice touch.

As serious professional/secret mischiefmaker Dr. Falke, baritone Brian Jones Myer brought out the beauty of the Champagne Song's introduction. It's a warm moment, underlined by brotherhood. Another warm presence is bass-baritone Nathan Stark as the warden Frank. In the fun Act 3 hangover scene, he falls asleep at work, his cigar burning a hole through his newspaper.
Stephanie Sanchez as Prince Orlofsky.

Stephanie Sanchez's mezzo is superb, but her speech as Prince Orlofsky needs to be bigger, even cartoonish. It's a challenge, because the truly cliche Russian accent almost demands a baritone.

Tenor Mason Gates continues his run through the great comic roles as Dr. Blind, a beautiful mess of a lawyer (Eisenstein's conviction for insider trading is sadly topical). The role of Frosch, often given to a non-singing actor, went to OSJ alum Jesse Merlin. Merlin's hyper-droll delivery is excellent (a bit reminiscent of a character named Fenton from That '70s Show) and his tightly ordered marches in and out of the jail are a nice undercover joke.

Stage director Marc Jacobs trod a fine line between fun and chaos, his Orlofsky ball reminding me of something from the Marx Bros. The dance scenes (choreographer Robyn Tribuzi) made good use of some athletic professionals, but retained the ad hoc feel of a genuine party. Charlie Smith's set uses a backdrop of finely detailed window-work for the Eisenstein villa, the Orlofsky estate and the jail, and draws a nice echo from Orlofsky's rusted archway to the jail's rusted entrance. The orchestra made the most of Strauss's breezy score under Michael Morgan's graceful conducting.

Through Sept. 29 at California Theatre, 345 S. First Street, San Jose. operasj.org, 408/437-4450.

Michael J. Vaughn is the author of the novels Gabriella's Voice and Operaville. His most recent title, A Painting Called Sylvia, is available for free download at Amazon.

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. sfopera.com, 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.

Disenchanted!
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, 3belowtheaters.com

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, www.sfopera.com.

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.