Monday, November 13, 2017

Old Guys Writing Edgy Operas


Prunier (Mason Gates), Lisette (Elena Galvan) Magda (Amanda Kingston) and
Ruggero (Jason Slaydon). All photos by Pat Kirk.
Opera San Jose
Puccini’s La Rondine
November 11, 2017

The latter years of Puccini would serve as an excellent blueprint for maintaining an active mental life in one’s senior citizenry. Much like Verdi before him, the great composer seemed determined to try everything under the sun and continually expand his musical skills. In the long run, his ambitions may actually have damaged his legacy. His California opera, La fanciulla del West, is so difficult to stage that it’s not often produced. The great Chinese spectacle of Turandot appears more frequently, but suffers from an ending that Puccini was unable to complete and no one else was able to resolve.

Lisette (Elena Galvan) and Prunier (Mason Gates).
Directly after Fanciulla, Puccini embarked on La Rondine, which was seen by the composer and his Viennese sponsors as a way to imbue the highly commercial form of operetta with a sense of gravitas. The resulting libretto is so blatantly derivative that it’s sort of amusing to pick out the inspirations. We’ve got a tenor poet, a rousing café scene and an artist who argues endlessly with his girlfriend (La Boheme); a housemaid who dresses as a lady while her mistress dresses as a commoner (Die Fledermaus), and, most prominently, a courtesan who falls in love with a younger man, leaves her sugar daddy, moves with her new lover to the country but breaks it of when she realizes his family will never accept her (Traviata, Traviata, Pretty Woman, Traviata).

The fact that La Rondine is still worth performing is a testament to its creator’s nimble mind and fantastical skills. The score is an elegant gem filled with Puccini’s continuing explorations. It’s through-composed, , an evolving 20th Century trend that sought greater dramatic reality through the elimination of set pieces. He uses dance rhythms as a tribute to the Viennese tradition (a few waltzes and even a tango), simultaneously using them as leitmotifs for the characters. One can also detect the Oriental tonalities that play a part in all of Puccini’s post-Butterfly works, notably in the palm-reading scene (Eastern mysticism?). There’s even a bit of Donizettian contrapuntalism in the café scene.

Amanda Kingston as Magda.
Opera San Jose polishes these gems to a glittering finish, beginning with Doretta’s Song, the lush, legendary aria that foretells the coming story (the poet Prunier tells of a young lady who literally forsakes a king’s ransom for the love of a young commoner). The aria appears almost immediately, and is known for its climactic top notes, long sustenatos that give a wise soprano the opportunity to shine. As Magda, Amanda Kingston performs the piece with incredible control, working the dynamic line with shimmering, glassine tones. Kingston also has the capacity for some great power, especially when paired with tenor Jason Slayden, playing her lover Ruggero. Puccini invested many of the love scenes with glorious, robust sound, and the two singers take full advantage.

Playing Prunier, tenor Mason Gates exhibits vivid lyricism and (for lack of a more technical term) a distinct sense of swagger. His portrayal is comically perfect, Johnny Depp’s Mad Hatter minus 70 percent madness. Playing the housemaid Lisette, soprano Elena Galvan displays an agile tone and excellent comic skills (notably a pantomime of being pelted by tomatoes at her singing debut). Together, these two have a bickering repartee much like the lighter moments of Boheme’s Marcello and Musetta.

Magda (Amanda Kingston) and Rambaldo (Trevor Neal).
The side dishes are lovely. We get a trio of lesser courtesans, a bit like the female trio in Massenet’s Manon (Katherine Gunnink, Maya Kherani and Teressa Foss), some fine ballet and can-can (choreographed by Michelle Klaers D’Alo), and excellent work in the kinetic café scene from Andrew Whitfield’s chorus. Larry Hancock’s café set gives an open, festive air, thanks to a back screen of wrought-iron frameworks. The French Riviera projection (Kent Dorsey, lighting designer) provides Act III with a slowly oranging sunset to go with the end of the affair. That final farewell featured lush passages in the strings from conductor Christoper Larkin and his orchestra. The ladies' dresses in Act I are amazing, especially Magda's all-white ensemble, which glitters like a snowbank (Elizabeth Poindexter, costume designer).

Through November 26, California Theater, 345 S. First Street, 408/437-4450, operasj.org.

Michael J. Vaughn is the author of twenty novels, including Gabriella’s Voice and Operaville. He regrets that he was unable to mention Veronika Agronov-Dafoe’s onstage accompaniment of Doretta’s Song, but apparently she was disguised as a cigar-smoking man.

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

Verdi's Power-Play Valentine


Aurelia Florian as Violetta. All photos by Cory Weaver.
San Francisco Opera
La Traviata
October 1, 2017
 
A lavishly appointed, vocally rich production brought out the finer points in Verdi’s romantic classic, elucidating perhaps the biggest misconception about the story. It’s not about love; it’s about power.
 
Traviata is considered one of Verdi’s “lighter” works, an understandable conclusion when viewed against the political intensity of works like Il Trovatore, Rigoletto and Macbeth. Traviata’s first act seems especially frothy, a Parisian soiree at which Alfredo Germont woos the beautiful courtesan Violetta Valery.
 
But power and how it is wielded has always been Verdi’s focus, and it doesn’t take long to arrive. In Act II, after Alfredo and Violetta have settled into their countryside house, Alfredo’s father, Giorgio, arrives to do battle with the woman he claims is “leading my son to his ruin.” As it turns out, Violetta has taken the proto-feminist move of financing their country retreat herself, by selling off her possessions. Germont responds to this news by decrying the shame of having his son supported by Violetta’s illicit career. (Clearly the man is an a-hole.)
 

Artur Rucinski as Germont.
Duly motivated, Germont brings out the big guns. He attacks their love affair: “One day, your charms will fade. He will grow bored.” Then he brings in religion: “God has sent me to you with this message… Someday He will reward you.” Then he appeals to her sympathy, claiming that the dishonor she has brought to his family is endangering his daughter’s impending wedding. This is what convinces her, but one has to wonder if she simply knows the sad truth: even though she is wildly successful at her chosen occupation, and even though that occupation is widely accepted in Paris society, there is no winning a fight with a nobleman.

He instructs her to “Tell him you don’t love him.” When he sees her pain, he has the gall to say, “I feel your suffering.” (Seriously, what a douche.) Verdi does his best to redeem Germont later in the opera, but I still consider him one of the more evil villains in the canon.
 
Artur Rucinski plays Germont as a cold-blooded assassin, civil and calm as he very nicely destroys his target. Rucinski’s baritone is rich and assured, a particular pleasure in “Di Provenza il mar,” a tribute to Germont’s family home.
 



Aurelia Florian as Violetta, Atalla Ayan as Alfredo.
Performing Violetta, Aurelia Florian’s soprano is a gift that keeps giving. The iconic wordless flights of “Sempre libera” seem to burst from her mouth as organic blossoms of sound, speech gone wild, and she delivers Violetta’s more ominous pronouncements in haunting piano phrases (to Germont: “We may not meet again”). She also maintains that tightrope balance of the death scene, giving beautiful melodies their due (“Addio, del passato”) while still managing to appear desperately ill, sometimes using harsh inhales to project the seriousness of her affliction.
 
Atalla Ayan performs Alfredo with a delicious tenor tone, quite lyrical but endowed with force at the necessary moments. His “Di quell’amor” is just the heartwarming serenade it’s intended to be, and he brings out the engaging musicality in the perhaps underappreciated passages at the opening of Act II.
 

Spanish dancers Lorena Feijoo, Bryon Ketron and Blanche Hampton.
Nicola Luisotti and his orchestra played even beyond their usual high standards, bringing out a notable delicacy in the overture and endowing other moments (e.g., the tremendous crescendo leading to Violetta’s plea, “Love me, Alfredo!”) with grand power. John Copley’s lavish 1987 production makes a return here, including the gorgeous paneled paintings of Violetta’s house in Act I (John Conklin, set designer) and the rich reds, purples and blacks of the ladies’ dresses (David Walker, costume designer).

John Conklin's set, from the 1987 John Copley production.
Bryon Ketron cut a dashing figure as the dancing matador at the Act II gaming party. Spanking the Marquis (the name of my next band) offered a surprising bit of slapstick. Florian performed a convincing dead faint as Alfredo threw money at her, but I prefer it when Violetta’s already on the ground, shielding herself from the cash as if she were being assaulted by hailstones. Regardless, it’s a deliciously humiliating scenario.
 
Through Oct. 17, War Memorial Opera House, 301 Van Ness Avenue. $26-$398. www.sfopera.com, 415/864-3330.


Michael J. Vaughn is a thirty-year opera critic, and author of twenty novels, including the recently released Figment, available at Amazon.com. Operaville was recently rated the eighth-best opera blog in the world by Feedspot.com.


Wednesday, September 27, 2017

You Essay


You Essay

Freedom for the patriots,
soap for the clean
 
pokers and prodders,
wanters and yellers we
 
are not an orderly bunch.
It would be easier to
 
funnel your genomes through a
collander than to cal-
 
culate just what sort of
thing is a country
 
A fiction, a haystack of
gathered wishes, a false fish
 
The self-proclaimed spend their
days singing to a festive rag
 
worshipping a god that
no one can agree upon
 
collecting bumper stickers
proclaiming what they hate
 
I know you want to kill me;
the time will come soon enough





Michael J. Vaughn's twentieth novel, Figment, is now available in both digital and paperback forms at Amazon.com.

Thursday, September 21, 2017

Figment: Novel Excerpt


Michael J. Vaughn, the featured critic of Operaville, recently published his 20th novel, Figment, at Amazon.com. The story follows Channy Adams, an Olympia, Washington radio journalist, whose everyday life begins to unravel little surreal bits at a time.
 
 
 
She gives Shawn a long wraparound kiss and watches him amble to his car. He leaves a track in the dew of her driveway and disappears into the fog.

          She takes a long shower to clean out the déjà vu, sits down for a bowl of cereal and fills a Thermos with coffee. Across the lawn, the gardeners have cut a long hallway through the undergrowth. Tendrils of salmonberry reach out to catch at her sweatshirt. She emerges at a waterside trail, packed mud that slaloms a series of willows before opening to a rocky beach.

          Channy takes a swallow from the Thermos and almost drops it at a piercing noise behind her. She spins to find a bald eagle perched on an overturned rowboat. The bird is post-office perfect, golden eyes, a cowl of white. He gives her an offended stare, unravels an impossibly broad pair of wings and launches, straight over Channy’s head. He continues north along the water, pausing to make a talon-strike on the surface but coming up empty.

          Once she rediscovers her breath, Channy inspects the rowboat and finds upside-down lettering: HMS Bessie. She recalls this vessel from the summer, a long and lovely drift as she tried to work husband number two out of her system. As with all things Bessie, the setup is immaculate. The boat is tied to a metal post to prevent high-tide driftaways. Flipping it over, she finds the oars and a lifejacket velcro’d to the center bench.

          After a bit of tugging and dragging, she manages a launch and drifts into the Budd Inlet, sliding the oars into their locks and searching for the old rhythm. Looking south, she can see the masts at the Swantown Marina. Her limbs begin to loosen, and she marvels at the speed she’s attaining. She stops for a rest and realizes that the boat is going on without her.

          Channy leans forward to inspect, and almost has her face taken off by a wall of black rubber, exploding from the water and crashing back down. It resurfaces, revealing a patch of white shaped like Africa. It’s an Orca.

          “Shit!” Channy feels the grip of panic, but fights it back by giving herself assignments. The oars are dancing in their locks, their blades skipping on the water, so she slides them out and stows them on the bottom of the boat. She peeks over the bow and finds the problem: the lead rope is taut, and somehow attached to the Orca. She takes a couple stabs at untying the knot, but it’s drawn tight by the force of the pulling.

          They’re gaining speed. The boat feels like it’s hydroplaning, ridges and banks rushing by to the east. If she wasn’t completely terrified, it might even be a fun ride. She considers hurling herself overboard, but the Puget is a hypothermia trap, and also she might become Orca food. She grips the gunwales and tries her best to stay balanced. The mental pause allows Channy to entertain another horrifying thought: Orcas like to dive.

          She needs to cut the rope, but she has nothing sharp, not even her housekeys. Then she thinks of Bessie, paragon of preparedness, and considers the interior of the rowboat. The only unobservable space at this point is the underside of the bench. She reaches a hand and feels a plastic edge, then rolls to the floor, landing her shoulder in a puddle. One good yank brings the delicious rip of velcro.

          It’s a first aid kit. She opens the latch and finds bandages, antiseptic wipes, medical tape – and a Swiss Army knife. With visions of a tragic fumble, she carefully sorts the blades – screwdriver, knife, scissors, can opener – and finds a serrated knife. She saws at the rope, entertaining a vision of the Orca taking her under when she’s this close (and thereby making her death that much more pathetic). After a single seriously long minute, she’s two-thirds through when the Orca snaps the rope with a mighty tug.

          Channy collapses on the forward thwart. The boat slows to a stop. The Orca dives, then takes a victory breach, revealing the rope looped around her tail, and continues north. Channy spends a few minutes letting the adrenaline seep from her muscles, then grunts her way back to the center bench. She finds the Thermos and is thrilled to discover that the coffee is still hot. She’d like to figure out where she is, but the weather conspires against her. She is surrounded by fog, turning everything – the ceiling, the horizons, the surface – to a slate gray. But then she sees a spot of yellow and realizes it’s a man in a kayak.

          “Hey! Help me! Hey! Over here!”

          It takes a long, long time, but eventually he arrives, puts a gloved hand on her gunwale and takes off his sunglasses.

          “Kai?”

          “Channy! Hey, nice surprise. What the hell are you doing out here?”

          “I’m not sure I should tell you. You would think I was nuts.”

          “Lasso an Orca?”

          “Well yes! How did you know?”

          “I caught the tail end of it.”

          “So did I.”

          Her joke sneaks up on them. Their laughter shakes their boats, sending out ripples. Channy reaches for Kai’s hand, which sends an odd buzz through her body.

          “Kai? Why did you kill yourself?”

          Kai blinks, embarrassed, and gazes into the gray distance.

          “The bullets they gave us were armor-piercing bullets. Do you know what those can do to the human skull?”

          “I… can guess.”

          “I didn’t just kill your husband, Channy. I obliterated him.”

          Channy shivers. “But… you had to.”

          “Look. I’ve run the ethical formulas a gazillion times. I get it.”

          “He was slaughtering civilians.”

          Kai stares at her. “It doesn’t erase the image. The image never goes away.”

          “I’m sorry.” A low birdcall echoes in the distance. Channy takes away her hand. “So that’s why you took the sleeping pills?”

          “Well, they helped a little.”

          “No, I mean… the overdose.”

          “It would be pretty stupid if I left you with the same image.”

          “You’re a good man, Kai.”

          “Was.”

          She wipes her eyes, remembering him on the bed, looking so peaceful and still.

          “So how the hell do I get out of here?”

          Against his brown Sherpa skin, Kai’s smile is as dazzling as ever. “The tide.”

          The water rumbles beneath them. Channy drifts away.

          “Why aren’t you coming with me?” she calls.

          Kai shrugs. “Got no gravity!”

          The tide is not so bad as the Orca, but still she feels powerless, out of control. She passes an enormous tower, anchored in the water by a concrete base, and looks up to see two long strips in the sky. It’s the Tacoma Narrows bridges, old and new. She feels herself giving in to a drilling exhaustion. Fearing hypothermia, she tries to stay awake, but it’s no use. She gives in, and drifts away.

 

 

 

Channy feels a bump, and opens her eyes. She is draped across an aluminum bench, with a tremendous crick in her neck.

          “Hey lady! You okay?”

          The voice comes from a bright spot in the water. She sees white teeth and brown skin.

          “Kai?”

          The face produces a rapid stream of Spanish. She shakes her head.

          “I’m sorry?”

          He laughs. “I thought you said ‘Que.’ I should have known. You’re much too white for a muchacha. Although right now you’re looking a little red. Are you okay?”

          She marvels at how deftly he switches languages.

          “Where am I?”

          “Port Townsend.”

          She squints and can see the waterfront buildings behind him, lined up like dominoes.

          “Can I tie up somewhere?”

          “Sure. Follow me.”

          He turns his kayak and paddles away. Channy finds her oars and slides them into their locks. On her first few pulls, her arms feel like putty, but he’s nice enough to wait for her. They pull up to a new-looking pier with green composite planks and shiny metal fittings. He finds a stray length of rope and ties up her boat, then helps her onto the dock. She stumbles like a drunk, so he wraps a hand around her waist and deposits her on a bench.

          “Man! You’re in rough shape. Hey, stay here, I’ll be right back.”

          He returns with half a sandwich and a water bottle. She guzzles it down, till he puts a hand on hers.

          “Hey, take it slow. You’re pretty dehydrated.”

          She smiles. “Okay.”

          “I’m Federico.”

          “Hi. I’m Channy.”

          “Channy. Cool name. So where did you begin this little adventure?”

          She is not about to tell him the truth, so she gestures southward. “Down that way.”

          “The Boat Haven? Geez, good thing a ferry didn’t run you down.”

          She smiles stupidly. Federico taps her on the knee. “Well look, I gotta get to work. But let me give you my digits. You got your phone?”

          She shakes her head.

          “Damn, girlfriend! Okay, give me your hand.”

          He pulls out a pen and writes his number on her palm.

          “You give me a call if you have any more trouble. But if you feel light-headed or nauseous you call 911, okay?”

          She nods. Federico pulls his kayak from the water and carries it up the dock. Channy finishes the sandwich, drops her lifejacket in the rowboat and heads for the waterfront, trying her best not to look like a homeless person.

          The main drag is lined with sturdy buildings made from brick, rough-hewn stone and thick timbers. Their offerings are the usual touristy suspects: imports, artworks, boutique clothing, books, ice cream, seafood. The afternoon sun – the one that saved her from hypothermia – peekaboos the high ridge. Channy shivers, her jeans and sweatshirt a weak defense against a Northwest evening. She begins to realize the seriousness of her predicament. She is without money, without cards, I.D., a phone, anything that might vouch for her standing as a member of civilization. Or just get her home.

          She has managed to think herself into a depression. Her legs feel weak. She finds a bench in front of a brick wall, folds her legs up to her body and cries. It feels good to let herself hit bottom. Perhaps when she gets there she can think herself out. She studies the lights lining a building across the street, rubs her eyes and wipes her hands on her jeans. At the distance of memory she hears a song. It’s a female voice, perfect vibrato, five percent sob, the lines blossoming like time exposure roses.

          She knows better than to ignore a lifeline. Channy straightens her legs, shakes out the stiffness and wanders past a sign reading Cellar Door. Inside is a classic bar, brick walls painted white, high-varnished tables, a stout L-shaped bar with windowed pantries. Toward the back, a quartet of musicians surrounds a Persian rug: an athletic-looking man on standup bass, a red-haired rascal working brushes over a drum kit, and an extremely tall man hunching over a baby grand. A stool at center front holds a woman with straight black bangs, a short yellow dress with white spangles, and penetrating green eyes. She’s singing Little Girl Blue, and she’s Ruby.

          Channy covers her mouth, turning her sob into “mmph,” but still a couple of patrons look her way. After the song, Ruby gives Channy a hug, holds a finger to her lips and takes her outside, right back to the bench.

          “Channy! How the hell did you know I’d be here?”

          Channy doesn’t know where to start. Her realities are insanities. But perhaps a partial insanity is okay.

          “I didn’t. I was just… in town.”

          Ruby gives her a look of stage surprise. “You got some kinda crazy GPS, girlfriend. I had a gig with Billy last night in Seattle, and he invited me to this little thing. I didn’t even bother to send out a tweet. No offense, honey, but you look like shit.”

          Channy laughs. “I had a little kayaking incident.” A gear turns in her head. “I also managed to lose my billfold in the water. I have not a cent or a way home.”

          “Holy shit! It’s a good thing you found me.” She peers through a window into the bar. “Look, I have to do a few more songs, but here’s a couple drink chips, and I promise we’ll figure out a way to get you home.”

          “Thanks, Ruby.”

          Channy watches the rest of the show from a chair in the back, letting an Irish coffee siphon the stress from her limbs. A card on the table reports that the drummer is Billy Saddle, a near-mythic figure who once cost the Memphis Blues a pennant by interfering with a fair ball. He’s also a hell of a singer. He joins Ruby for a playful rendition of “Baby, It’s Cold Outside,” throwing in little jokes that threaten (but fail) to throw Ruby off her game. A half hour later, Billy sings a version of That’s All that threatens to send the whole bar into tears, and they wrap up the gig. Ruby brings him to Channy’s table.

          “Darling Channy. We have a plan for you. Tomorrow I am weighing anchor for Alaska, but it seems that a certain Mr. Saddle is driving home to Ocean Shores, which takes him right through Olympia.”

          “That’s fantastic,” says Channy. “Thank you so much.”

          “My pleasure,” says Billy. “It’ll be great to have someone to talk to – and keep me awake.”

          A gear turns in Channy’s head. “Billy, do you happen to have a digital recorder?”

          “What singer doesn’t?”

 

 

 

I am a preposterous woman, thinks Channy. Conducting an interview after a day like today. But then, perhaps the first step back from insanity is doing what one is used to doing. And certainly, the man has stories. The Blues shortstop, Pasco Fernandez, whose pennant-winning hit was turned into a ground-rule double by Billy’s grab, tracked him down fifteen years later and shot him during a softball game.

          “Is he still in prison?”

          “Yeah. Might be up for parole in five years. I did him a huge favor by not dying.”

          They descend to the Hood Canal Bridge, mere feet above the dark water.

          “So this epic baseball life of yours. Does that distract people from your musical talent?”

          “Sure. But it also brought me a huge audience. I get a lot of lookie-loos, but then it’s my job to turn them into jazz fans. It’s a bit of a Faustian bargain.”

          An hour later, they board the high passage of the new Tacoma Narrows Bridge. Channy stares into the darkness below, trying to imagine herself down there, dodging towers, just a few hours ago. She realizes, much to her consternation, that she has left Bessie’s rowboat tied to the dock in Port Townsend.

          “Have I given you enough?” asks Billy.

          “Oh, plenty.” She hits the stop button. She studies Billy’s face as he drives and sees something that she has been suspecting. He is barely concealing a heavy sadness.

          “Billy?”

          They achieve the end of the bridge and roll into Tacoma, the low hills like muffins frosted with housing.

          “Yes?”

          “That last song…”

          “That’s All?” He cocks an eye in her direction. “Off the record?”

          “Of course.”

          “That’s our song. My wife, Joyce. She’s dying. Pancreatic cancer.”

          “I’m sorry.”

          “Movies would have you believe that once you hit that happy ending, everything freezes. I’m finding it hard to have a positive thought these days.”

          “Been there,” says Channy.

          “Have you?”

          It’s a challenge. She can meet it, but it’s a game she’s tired of winning.

          “Not really.”

          “Sorry. I’m kind of a dick these days.”

          “That’s all right.”

          “No. It isn’t. Go ahead and mention the song if you like. She’ll enjoy that. But don’t say she’s dying. Say she’s ‘having health problems.’”

          “You got it. Thanks.”

          They stop at her cottage, sometime after midnight, to load the audio files onto her computer. She starts the coffee, but finds that Billy has fallen asleep on the couch. She covers him with a blanket, pulls out an air mattress for herself, and falls quickly to sleep. Her dreams have no chance of being as strange as her life.

Monday, September 11, 2017

Cosi by the Book


Malcolm MacKenzie (Don Alfonso), Colin Ramsey (Guglielmo), Cassandra Zoe
Velasco (Dorabella), Amanda Kingston (Fiordiligi) and David Blalock
(Ferrando). All photos by Bob Shomler.
Opera San Jose
Cosi fan tutte
September 9, 2017

Opera San Jose’s Cosi fan tutte is an exceedingly enjoyable production, not spectacular in matters vocal or conceptual, but delivered with a saucy comic energy and some solid acting from singers who seem to know something about developing their characters.

On the male side, the cast is exceptionally solid. Baritone Malcolm MacKenzie is funny and genial as Don Alfonso. This is so important to the audience experience, because Alfonso is our host, and we can relax knowing we’re in such capable hands.

Colin Ramsey (Guglielmo) and David Blalock (Ferrando).
Former OSJ resident Colin Ramsey brings his smoky bass-baritone and a bit of Giovanni dash to Guglielmo. This is patricularly true in “Donne mie la fate a tanti,” in which he scolds womankind for its perpetual infidelities, while simultaneously enjoying the fact that he’s so good at leading them into those exact infidelities. Yeah, he’s a schmuck, but a schmuck with style.

The vocal dessert comes from our Ferrando, David Blalock. His voice was puzzling at first, but I realized this was due to the polarized state of operatic tenors, who seemingly must declare themselves spinto or lyric, Domingo or Pavarotti. Blalock is firmly neither, offering a well-tempered tone with a beautifully even vibrato. The value of this sound came to the fore in the haunting “Un aura amarosa,” highlighted by a particularly divine decrescendo.

The distaff side brought an additional puzzlement. Amanda Kingston and Cassandra Zoe Velasco seemed to have the same voice. It turns out that Kingston’s soprano has a bit of weight to it, whereas Velasco’s mezzo is of the nimble, Rossinian variety, so they sort of meet in the middle. This created some lovely blending in the sisters’ many unison parts.

Amanda Kingston (Fiordiligi) and David Blalock (Ferrando).
Sadly, Kingston’s extra power, though ringing powerfully in the top notes, didn’t quite project the bottom notes of Fiordiligi’s infamous “Come scoglio.” I feel bad even remarking on it, since the piece ranges over two octaves, with ridiculous leaps, but there it is.

Both women do a wonderful job of occupying their characters. Kingston’s fairness and height lend themselves to Fiordiligi’s haughtiness, while Velasco’s darker features and cuteness serve well for Dorabella’s agreeable nature and weaker principles. Velasco’s eyes are madly expressive, able to convey many small shifts in emotion with the tiniest of movements.

Malcolm MacKenzie (Don Alfonso) and Maria Valdes (Despina).
Maria Valdes plays the soubrette Despina with a fine air of mischief and sauciness (her R-rated CPR on the fake-dying boys is priceless). She could, however, use a little more power for the back rows.

Brad Dalton’s stage direction is pretty traditional, but he does well in tweaking cast energies and crafting gags. One shtick features the chorus watching a back-and-forth argument like spectators at a tennis match. Ferrando and Guglielmo perform their Albanian alter egos with a variety of hilarious poses and hand gestures (at one point they even huddle like football players to decide which pose they should try next).

Steven C. Kemp’s set is elegant and firmly classical, featuring faux columns and high windows tinted cerulean. The set stays the same as furnishings and rolling topiary lemon trees change the atmospherics. (At one point, Don Alfonso uses one of the trees as a mobile camouflage unit.) Elizabeth Poindexter’s costumes are lovely, notably the Don’s gorgeous burgundy suit with gold embroidered fringes.

Peter Grunberg conducts with a sublime sense of touch, particularly the rolling waves of strings in the trio “Soave sia il vento,” as the soldier boys depart across the sea. Veronika Agranov-Dafoe’s fortepiano continuo always seems like an extra person in the conversation, another reason I remain such a devotee of recitative. (Its economies in delivering story information are such that I always wonder why no modern composer makes use of it.)

Cassandra Zoe Velasco (Dorabella) and Colin Ramsey (Guglielmo)
The older I get, the more I love Cosi fan tutte. It raises such disconcerting questions about our troubling human behaviors and contradictions, which is such a rare quality for a comedy (but not, thankfully, for a Mozart comedy). I would also like to propose two pop-song titles for a modern film adaptation of the story: “Love the One You’re With” and “My Best Friend’s Girl.”

Through 9/24, California Theater, 345 S. First Street, San Jose. operasj.org, 408/437-4450.

 

Michael J. Vaughn is a thirty-year opera critic, and author of twenty novels, including the recently released Figment, available at Amazon.com. Operaville was recently rated the eighth-best opera blog in the world by Feedspot.com.
 
 
 

Monday, April 17, 2017

A Noteworthy Boheme at Opera San Jose

Rodolfo, Marcello, Schaunard and Colline (Kirk Dougherty, Matthew Hanscom,
Brian James Myer and Colin Ramsey). All photos by Pat Kirk.
Opera San Jose
Puccini's La Boheme
April 15, 2017

Opera San Jose has produced a superb La Boheme. That being said, and this being my 123rd review of this opera (perhaps I exaggerate), I thought I would work directly from my notes.

Act I
paintings! – Gauguin (Rousseau?)
            This is a Marcello with ambition! His paintings are enormous: a Red Sea epic (referred to in the libretto) and a tropical-looking work resembling the work of the two painters above (Lori Scheper-Kesel, prop master).

“I am doggone cold!” – Marcello
            This supertitle has general director Larry Hancock’s wit all over it.

blind Colline
            An interesting choice, with a couple “sight gags” to it, but given the philosopher’s love of books, the questions arise: Are they Braille? Does someone read to him? Ramsey’s bass-baritone, as usual, is elegant, and the sunglasses add a nice hipsterish quality.

Schaunard – velvet (parrot story)
            Brian James Myer’s baritone is a joy to listen to, and he plays the musician Schaunard with a smooth joie de vivre, particularly when relating the demise of the pooped Polly. Is there some secret mother lode of male voices that OSJ is mining? Because… damn!

ADD pace of opening scene
            Puccini’s first act is lightning-paced, an asset certainly helped by stage director Michael Shell and the Garret Boys, who sometimes resemble the Marx Bros. The comedy, which provides such a lovely framework for the later tragedy, is an underrated element of the opera. The grilling of landlord Benoit (Carl King) is brilliant.

How does he finish an article for The Beaver in five minutes?
            Further proof that Rodolfo is a big fat poser. Predictably, he gets writer’s block. (If only some woman would knock at the door.)

bathtub desk
            Another score for the propmaster, this one triples as a rowboat.

key-hide good
            A tasty little piece of comedy, Rodolfo pocketing Mimi’s housekey in the hopes of keeping her around for a while. Well done.

mask production, Kirk, resume song
            The resume song is “Che gelida manina,” and most guys do this on a first meeting: here’s who I am, here’s what I do (“sonno poeto”), and I’d love it if you would hire me as your boyfriend. But what’s up with Kirk Dougherty’s voice? He’s been pretty spinto since he arrived in 2014, and pleasantly so, but here his voice trends lyric in spectacular fashion, his top notes filling the hall with ringing sound. The source seems to be a focus on the mask, using the sinal cavity as a resonating chamber (a la Sgr. Pavarotti), which you can see by noting how his mouth stays somewhat small (and often smiling), even on higher notes.

“The first kiss of April is mine” (rise)
            “Mi chiamano Mimi” turns a lovely modal shift at the appearance of spring, and climbs into this beautiful line, referring to Mimi’s position at the top of the building. A gorgeous image.

Mimi – high note at end
            As Mimi and Rodolfo sing the final line of “O soave fanciulla” from outside the garret, the soprano is supposed to take the higher note, with the tenor supplying a lower harmony. Tenors being tenors, this doesn’t often happen. So bravo, Dougherty, for letting the lady have her glory.


Vanessa Becerra (Musetta) and Matthew Hanscom (Marcello).
Act II
Set applause!
            Kim A. Tolman’s Café Momus, heavy on the trompe l’oeil, is immaculate and lovely, inspiring one of those only-in-opera ovations for inanimate objects.

costumes
            The shift to a WWI time-setting allowed designer Alina Bokovikova a whole new palette of colors, and she took due advantage, filling the stage with lively fabrics. The gent in the top hat and purple coat resembled Willie Wonka. Parpignol (Yungbae Yang) appeared as half-harlequin, half-Pierrot. But Musetta’s green coat took top honors. The stage direction in the scene was also superb, creating an ever-lively scene.

mocking Rodolfo’s poetry
            The fratboys make appropriately irreverent faces as Rodolfo waxes sappy about his (half-hour old) romance. Love it.

Sultry waltz, Mimi’s cross-melody
            Soprano Vanessa Becerra and conductor Joseph Marcheso took Musetta’s Waltz at a sultry pace, accentuating the sexiness and utterly pulling it off. It also seemed to being out the cross lines that Mimi sings from her table, which are beautiful additions.

Marcello, while Musetta is ridding herself of old man, rehearsing conversations
            Baritone Matthew Hanscom, who just has “it” when it comes to stage presence, spent much of the Waltz in the doorway of the Café, practicing conversations with Musetta. It was a beautiful bit of background acting (with an assist to director Shell), and revealed the passion that Marcello still held for his off-and-on lover, despite his bitter protestations.


Matthew Hanscom (Marcello) and Sylvia Lee (Mimi).
Act III
Spooky tree limbs
            An effective addition from set designer Tolman, a third of a treetop looming over the gates.

music in found songs – workers at the gate
            Using the calls of the workers is an intriguing Puccinian device, and foretells Tosca, in which overheard cantatas, church masses and shepherd’s songs are drafted into the score.

resonation – Mimi’s top notes
            Sylvia Lee’s soprano doesn’t shine as much as it did in last fall’s Lucia di Lammermoor (she’s singing Mimi a bit more darkly), but her top notes have this remarkable way of expanding and filling the hall like fairy dust. It’s an extraordinary effect.

wingman-girlfriend element
            There’s something very touching about the conversation between Mimi and Marcello. Being in love with someone’s best friend allows you to tell them things you could tell no one else.

Marcello – presence
            As mentioned earlier, but evident especially in this scene, given the size difference with the petite Lee.

talking about someone’s impending death in front of them
            A fascinating scenario, as set up by Puccini and his librettists, Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa.

“Because of me, this disease will kill her.” – Rodolfo
            This note has a personal aspect. As an author, I realize that I lead a tough life, and that not everyone can come along with me. With Rodolfo, his poverty, combined with his love for a woman with failing health, puts him in quite an emotional vise.


Kirk Dougherty (Rodolfo) and Sylvia Lee (Mimi).
Act IV
gesso!
            The scene opens with Marcello applying this white primer to his canvas, which is what an artist quite literally does when he wants a clean slate.

Schaunard’s got some moves!
            I suspect Brian James Myer has had some dance classes. Nice fandango!

frat party! flying papers
            The goofiness that precedes Mimi’s ominous appearance is well-done, including the answer to the question, How does one conduct a duel with a blind man? (The answer: wrassling.) The tossing of Rodolfo’s manuscript pages is a fun, confetti-ish effect, and also leaves Mimi to die over a sea of Rodolfo’s words.

K & S – chemistry
            This is always somewhat inexplicable, but Dougherty and Lee simply look good together, and interact well. Lee has the advantage of a small frame, which allows her to portray Mimi’s frailty. It would be interesting to see how this plays out with the alternate Mimi, Julie Adams, who is both taller and larger of voice.

Through April 30, California Theater, 345 South First St, San Jose. operasj.org, 408/437-4450.

Michael J. Vaughn is the author of 19 novels, including Operaville and Gabriella’s Voice. He has been reviewing opera since 1983. Operaville was recently named the 8th-ranked opera blog in the world.



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Monday, February 13, 2017

Opera San Jose's Silent Night

Ricardo Rivera as Audebert, Brian James Myer as Ponchel.
All photos by Pat Kirk.
Opera San Jose
Puts and Campbell’s Silent Night
February 11, 2017

One hears the story of the Christmas truce of 1914 so often that it’s tempting to suspect a little mythologizing, perhaps wishful thinking. But no, the smallest bit of research reveals that not only did mortal enemies meet in No Man’s Land to exchange tidings and small gifts that winter, it happened at dozens of points along the front. Working from the 2005 French film Joyeux Noel, librettist Mark Campbell and and composer Kevin Puts did a masterful job of distilling those stories into three squadrons – Scots, French and German – and creating a moving, personal account of that astounding night. For their effort, they won a 2012 Pulitzer Prize.

After arranging for the composer to create a custom score for its 47-person pit, Opera San Jose has put on perhaps its most ambitious project ever. The opening battle scenes are at once visceral and chaotic, a sort of combat ballet by fight director Kit Wilder, made all the more jarring by the archival projections from set designer Steven Kemp. Puts’ swarming strings are like a Stravinskian film score, echoed later (in a lighter tone) in the cocktail-party chatter of the Christmas party.

Ricardo Rivera as Audebert, Matthew Hanscom as Lt. Gordon, Kyle
Albertson as Lt. Hortsmayer.
Post-battle, the opera’s ambition is to make things personal, and they start at a very primal place: sleep. Playing French lieutenant Audebert, baritone Ricardo Rivera displays a natural ability to project world-weariness, and a compassion for his men that is, at times, detrimental to his military assignments. He sings of a desire for a good night’s sleep, in a passage that teases at lyricism (modern-opera listeners are always a little thirsty for melody), then suddenly opens up to a lush chorus from every single man on the darkened battlefield. This attempt to sing themselves to sleep, along with their words (“Maybe when I wake, all will have changed”), provides a hint at the upcoming unity of enemies. (Chorus director Andrew Whitfield.)

The stories then turn personal. Baritone Brian James Myer brings a little light to the scene as an upbeat French barber, Ponchel, singing of his home, an hour’s walk from the battlefield, where he longs to go and have coffee with his mother. Tenor Mason Gates plays Jonathan, a Scots soldier whose brother’s death leads him into a downward spiral of denial and vengeance. His eventual insanity leaves him as the only “effective” soldier left. Bass-baritone Kyle Albertson plays German Lt. Horstmayer, driven to be fierce and flawless to make up for his unfortunate Jewishness.

Julie Adams as Anna Sorenson.
The moral driver is (conveniently enough), an opera singer. Kirk Dougherty plays divo-soldier Nikolaus Sprink, singing his spinto protests against a terrible, pointless war with the kind of artistic passion that drives military folks crazy (“Artists make bad soldiers,” says his lieutenant). Preparing for a command performance before the Kronprinz with his singing partner/lover Anna, he refers to “all these fat old men, swigging their champagne,” the true beneficiaries of the bloodshed. Anna manages to talk him into taking her to the front for Christmas eve, and thus are the seeds planted for a rebellious truce. The Germans have Christmas trees, the French have chocolate, the Scots have whiskey. And the tenor arrives with an actual angel.

Many of those dozens of Christmas truces were initiated through music, bits of carols and folks songs drifting across No Man’s Land. Puts begins with the bagpipes (played by Lettie Smith), duly matched by harmonica (Isaiah Musik-Ayala), German songs, and Latin hymns, as Ponchel provides a running commentary. Puts’ setting is fully natural, and allows the opening for Sprink to step bravely onto the battlefield and propose a Christmas peace.

The truce is everything you might imagine, a few tense, darkly humorous moments (Ponchel almost gunned down for drawing a chocolate bar from his pocket), and a great sense of relief at the removal of danger. Followed by a religious gathering (bass-baritone Colin Ramsey as the Scots’ Father Palmer) and a soprano benediction. Julie Adams, an Adler Fellow set to play Mimi in San Francisco Opera’s upcoming La Bohème, is quite the find, a dramatic soprano who can nonetheless play lyric, drawing heartbreaking pianissimos from the top of the range. Her Anna gives the production a female moral presence very much on everyone’s minds (given recent marches and such).

Mason Gates as Jonathan Dale.
This production also demonstrates OSJ’s ability to throw some impressive male firepower at a challenging project. One of the company’s most-acclaimed alums, tenor Christopher Bengochea, appears as the Kronprinz for fairly brief scenes, but lends the role a valuable authority. Baritone Matthew Hanscom as the garrulous Scot Lieutenant Gordon, bass Kirk Eichelberger as the German Officer, bass Nathan Stark as the fierce French General – all of them have played and will play leads in other productions.

To their credit, Puts and Campbell don’t leave it at that glorious Christmas. They proceed to the unsettling ramifications: the burying of the dead, the ludicrous thought of having to shoot at people they now know, angry superiors upbraiding underlings for treating enemy soldiers as if they were human beings. (Which brings up another recent topic: demonization.) A particularly moving scene leaves Father Palmer singing the hymn of Saint Francis as the impending return of violence plays beneath him in dissonant waves of strings. Nothing about this opera is easy, and that is wholly appropriate. It will leave you thinking a lot about the violence we do in the name of other-ness. And the pivotal role of The War to End All Wars in introducing the bloodiest century ever.

Kemp’s rollaway bunkers allow a filmic continuity, providing quick shifts from one faction to another. Joseph Marcheso forgot to bring his score to the podium (a good laugh for the audience), but proceeded to do a magnificent job of coordinating a small army of performers. (You could the same about stage director Michael Shell.) Some of the work’s success comes from modern opera’s supertitle culture, which provides an audience ready-made to take in a story sung in Italian, French, English, German and Latin. The presence of xylophone and piano in the first act give the sense of approaching magic (also the occasional snowfall). The horn passages on Christmas eve mornings are sumptuous. I also enjoyed the device of lining up several characters to deliver a fugue of information: soldiers’ concerns, leaders’ complaints, and especially soldiers reading descriptions of the magical truce from their letters.

Through February 26, California Theatre, 345 S. First Street, San Jose. operasj.org, 408/437-4450.

Operaville was recently named the eighth-best opera blog/website in the world by Feedspot.com. Michael J. Vaughn is a thirty-year opera critic and the author of 19 novels, including Operaville and Gabriella’s Voice. (Photo by Janine Watson.)



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