Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Korngold's Die Tote Stadt

San Francisco Opera
Sept. 26, 2008

There's no need for hallucinogenic drugs in San Francisco these days - just go to the opera. Following its world premiere of the Amy Tan-inspired The Bonesetter's Daughter, with its flying waitresses and eye-candy projections, the Opera presents a wild, surrealist production of Erich Wolfgang Korngold's 1920 Die Tote Stadt, taken from an original production at the 2004 Salzburg Festival.

"The Dead City" is Bruges, where our hero, Paul, has isolated himself in an apartment, the better to mourn his late and beloved wife, Marie. He sits before her oversized portrait, holding a glass case containing a lock of her hair (well, actually, an entire wig, but there are utilitarian needs at play here). Paul's worship is interrupted by his friend Frank, who tells him that enough is enough, and he needs to go back to living his life. As if to verify Frank's concerns, Paul announces that he has met a reborn Marie: a dancer conveniently named Marietta, who does, indeed, turn out to resemble his late wife. But Marietta is pure hedonist, miles away from Sainte Marie; her first comment upon entering the apartment is "You must be well-heeled!" She does, however, know how to sing a song - the ecstatically lovely "Gluck, das mir verblieb," often referred to as Marietta's Song, and one of the few kernels of real hope in the opera. In any case, Marietta doesn't last long with Paul, whose attentions keep drifting back to the portrait. Tiring of playing second fiddle to a ghost, she departs.

This is when Paul fades off to sleep, and where all the Dali-esque fun begins. The walls and plaster ceiling tilt away at odd angles, and an identical apartment with an identical Paul appear behind a screen, where Marie has come to offer her husband some consolation. Paul's dream then flies off into all sorts of Freudian directions, complete with over-the-top tableaux. It's not good enough to simply show Marietta off having fun without him; she must be carried off by a dozen white-faced Busby Berkeley tapsters in tuxedos. When Paul's housemaid Brigitta runs off to the convent, she must be carried away on a giant white crucifix by a crowd of white-faced nuns. And then a white-faced, white-dressed commedia dell'arte troupe arrives, looking like a ghost cast of "Cabaret," to mock Paul and his silly attachments to the dead. All of these sequences are delivered in brilliant, vivdly imagined fashion. (Split the credit between original director Willy Decker, original designer Wolfgang Gussmann, and current director Meisje Hummel).

The cast is stocked with voices you could listen to for hours. German tenor Torsten Kerl lends Paul a warm, forceful tone, and a presence edged with a touching vulnerability to offset the dalliances with obsession. Soprano Emily Magee as Marietta (and Marie) is pure spitfire, particularly in the final act, where she taunts and raves her way through a battle with the memory of Marie. (And what brand of chutzpah does it take to perform nearly two acts completely bald?) Mezzo Katherine Tier, one of SFO's Adler Fellows, gives an excellent accounting of Brigitta, particularly in her first-act lament for her master's condition, and baritone Lucas Meacham shines as Frank, delivering an outstanding performance of "Mein Sehnen, mein Wahnen" as the dream-troupe's Pierrot figure, Fritz.

The score is a revelation, fully exploited by Donald Runnicles, who also conducted the production's 2004 Salzburg debut. It's fascinating to hear the (then-23-year-old) Korngold play with the timbres of madness, tickling the edges with the celesta and harmonium, signalling the onset of lunacy with dissonant chords from the piano. Korngold was criticized by contemporaries for his conservatism, but he obviously knew when to employ modern techniques in the service of torment and disorientation. The opera is brilliant, and one can only hope it continues to be performed on a regular basis.

Through Oct. 12, War Memorial Opera House, San Francisco, 301 Van Ness Avenue, $15-$290, 415/864-3330, http://www.sfopera.com/.
Photo: Emily Magee as Marietta, Torsten Kerl as Paul, Lucas Meacham as Fritz (Priest). Photo by Terrence McCarthy.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Confessions of an Opera Addict, Part III

Voices at the Villa

In the early '90s, I got that long-delayed "job-job," doing PR for the performing arts seasons at Villa Montalvo, a mansion in Saratoga, California. Part of the season was a week-long residency by the San Francisco Opera's Merola program, which conducted its final performances at the outdoor Garden Theater. I vivdly recall hiking the trails behind the estate, hearing the best young voices in the country filter through the redwoods.

One of those voices belonged to mezzo Reveka Mavrovitis, who was appearing as Carmen. I met her while coordinating some interviews with the local press. In 1995, I was in New York, getting ready to read from my choral novel Frozen Music at the Lincoln Center Barnes & Noble, when I spotted Reveka's name on a cast list for the Met, a production of Fedora. I immediately bought two tickets, and asked Adelina, the beautiful half-black, half-Jewish PR lady at the B&N, to accompany me. While Adelina was off at the ladies' room, I discovered the marvelously clever advance-purchase beverage trick, and felt like James Freakin' Bond when I went to the table at intermission and handed her a champagne.

Reveka was playing a minor role, but there was quite a hubbub about the lead soprano: confetti, dozens of bouquets, numerous ovations. Somebody told us it was one of her last performances before she retired from the stage. For me, the highlight was visiting Reveka backstage, and having her actually remember me (or putting on quite a good act). The bonus came years later, after I had obtained a better knowledge of opera history, when I dug up that old program and rediscovered the name of that lead soprano: Mirella Freni.
Photo: Mirella Freni

Monday, September 22, 2008

SF Opera, The Bonesetter's Daughter, 9/16/08

If you believe in opera as the ultimate fusion of the arts, then San Francisco Opera’s production of Amy Tan’s The Bonesetter’s Daughter would be the ultimate example of that idea. The production is simply spectacular, using wild visuals, acrobatics and traditional Chinese musical forms to translate the epic two-continent sweep of Tan’s novel.

The Prologue, occurring in “a timeless void,” features acrobats flying through wild projections of flame and chaos – an introduction so spectacular, in fact, that it tends to muddle the opening storyline. Ruth Young Kamen (mezzo Zheng Cao), a San Francisco ghost writer working on a book about O.J. Simpson, is attempting to negotiate a dinner with her meshuggah Jewish in-laws when her mother, LuLing, has a strange tirade, acting out the O.J. killings in weird, grisly details and then dropping from a stroke.

The setting proceeds to the village of Immortal Heart, just outside Beijing, where we find Zheng Cao playing LuLing, sixty years younger, being raised by her Precious Auntie (Qian Yi). As LuLing approaches her wedding day to the coffinmaker Chang (Hao Jiang Tian), Auntie seems particularly focused on the sacrifices she made in child-rearing, describing the day she protected LuLing from a spill of boiling water by catching it in her cupped hands, suffering from the blisters for months after.

Stewart Wallace, creator of Harvey Milk, has concocted his own fascinating fusion, backing his operatic singers with percussive Asian strokes that bridge easily to the nasal swoops of Qian Yi’s Chinese opera, or kunju, style, and the traditional singing and suona – a shrill Chinese horn – of Wu Tong as the Priest. Wallace has also created a series of memorable set pieces: Ruth’s opening aria lamenting her confused childhood, the aforementioned child-rearing memory-piece of Precious Auntie and, most memorably, the chilling aria of Chang as he stalks LuLing in Hong Kong (featuring Hao Jiang Tian’s supremely rich bass).

Zheng Cao provides the production with a strong central figure (actually, two), Ning Liang with its tragic edge as the older LuLing, but clearly the star is Qian Yi, whose ghostly presence, elegant motions and bewitching kunju singing leave a permanent tattoo on the senses. The same indelible mark is left by Leigh Haas’s projections, notably a black-and-white montage of the crowded Hong Kong harbor and the enormous, horrified faces of Auntie’s wedding-day intrusion.

Much of the credit for the “fusion” aspect of the opera belongs to director Chen Shi-Zheng, who has pretty much guided the creation of an entirely new theatrical sub-genre, and to Tan’s highly compressed libretto, which resolves that early murkiness with a second-act revelation breathtaking in its economy. Perhaps the only drawback to Tan’s work can be seen in its entirety; a mother-daughter obsession oddly similar to the father-daughter obsession of Verdi in SFO’s recent Simon Boccanegra.

Through Oct. 3 at War Memorial Opera House, 301 Van Ness Avenue, San Francisco. $15-$290, 415/864-3330, http://www.sfopera.com/.

Photos: Zheng Cao as Ruth. Photo by Terrence McCarthy

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Confessions of an Opera Addict, Part II

The Divine Miss Dalis

At the same time that I became arts editor at the Spartan Daily, I began to hear about Irene Dalis, a San Jose native who starred at the Met for 20 years, then returned home to begin an opera workshop at San Jose State. I set up an interview, and spent almost two hours in her office, talking about her life. She wasn't at all what I expected from an opera star. She was certainly refined, with a thick head of silver hair and sharp Greek features, but she had a definite blue-collar edge, and smoked cigarettes, which probably contributed to the gravelly edge of her speaking voice. She heaped upon me an overhelming amount of information about opera. In that way characteristic of opera singers, she kept referring to title roles, and expecting me to naturally know the corresponding opera. Being a young journalist, and not wanting to appear as uninformed as I was, I said nothing and figured I would look them up later. Before I left, she handed me a half-dozen gorgeous, mythic-looking black-and-white head shots from various roles during her days at the Met.

I was a little tired from all this listening and questioning, so I retired to McDonald's to take in a couple burgers. I returned to my table to find my book bag missing - and with it the cassette tape containing 90 minutes of Irene Dalis interview. I spotted a homeless-looking dude walking outside with what looked to be my book bag, and, motivated by the thought of reconstructing that whole damn interview from scratch, I pursued. I thought I had lost him, but took a lucky turn at the corner and found him in a vacant lot, just standing there with my bag.

"Hey! I said. "That's my bag."

"Oh," he said, looking at the bag that had magically appeared in his hand. "Sorry." And handed it back to me.

This was not the way I had expected it to go. I wondered if I should call the cops. But the guy left, and I was just so grateful to have that interview back that I let him go.

A couple weeks later, my article appeared in the entertainment supplement of the Daily, with all six of those head shots on the cover. It was quite cool. And little did I know that I would spend the next 25 years covering Irene Dalis's opera company.

After graduation, I just wanted to find some gigs. I was going the freelance route, and hoping the flexible schedule would allow me to work on my first novel. I got an internship at Good Times magazine in Santa Cruz in the summer of '84, and they decided to send me out to review some theater. I was apparently not entirely bad at it, and after my internship became the regular theater critic. Feeling my oats, I pursued the same job at a new alternative weekly Metro, in San Jose, and got that job, too. One of the groups I would cover was Opera San Jose, created out of that workshop that Irene Dalis had started at San Jose State.

A little side story: a couple years before, the San Jose Symphony decided to put on Rigoletto, with lead singers borrowed from the San Diego Opera and the chorus culled from our choir. It was quite fun: I got to wear a cape, participate in an abduction and gang rape (don't you love Verdi?) and learn some snappy Italian choruses that still come back when I see the show. I also came terribly close to losing my virginity at a post-show party. I was admiring a cleavage-wrapped tattoo on a signorina, and she invited me to come to a dark room and take a closer look. We were about to attempt the coup de grace when one of her idiot friends told her she was leaving and needed a ride home. Alas! I had to hang on to the virginity another year (cursed wench!) But don't say opera ain't an inspiring artform.

I was a little intimidated about actually reviewing opera, but I did have enough musical education to discuss the qualities of different voices, and enough sense to talk about the show when I didn't know enough to actually critique it. I also made regular intermission visits with the Opera's marketing manager, Larry Hancock, who is such a font of opera knowledge he should have Grove's tattooed somewhere on his person. I was delighted to find old choir-mates across the footlights. Julia Wade, a paralyzingly good-looking redhead who somehow ended up on my lap at a choir party once (I had no idea what to do with her). Elaina Lappaleinen, the untouchable soprano blonde goddess who I would interview years later when she played Lulu at San Francisco Opera. Ravil Atlas, my tenor-pal; I met him in the hallway outside Dr. A's office at my freshman audition. He would eventually go on to an international career, and is now in London, composing his first musical. Another tenor was Stephen Guggenheim, who hosted the post-opera party at which I almost lost my virginity, and who would soon make the jump to San Francisco Opera's prestigious Merola Program.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Confessions of an Opera Addict, Part 1

Clue number one: don't look to my family. Dad played cornet in high school, Mom sang Rodgers & Hammerstein over the sink. Not much to go on. I do remember that Dad could listen to a song on the radio and weave whistling variations over the melody. It wasn't till twenty years later that I realized this was a pretty special talent.

But I seem to have developed a pretty good voice, regardless, and one day in high school my friend Maurice said that I wasn't "cool enough" to be in the Men's Glee. Seriously. At Peterson High in Sunnyvale, CA - alma mater to Brian Boitano and new opera librettist Amy Tan - the men's glee had 120 voices, and about half of the members were on sports teams. We were often invited to other high schools to encourage boys to sing. Once we were invited to Reno High to sing - and I swear, I had nothing to do with Sam Stegemiller winning all that money on the slot machines.

The reason for this freakish situation was Mike Patterakis, a Central Valley denizen who for some reason always reminded me of Jerry Lee Lewis. Mr. P transmitted to us the idea that singing could be a very cool thing, could even get us some wimmens, and filled our concerts with manly showtunes like "Hey, Look Me Over" and "My Way." We took it upon ourselves to do unspeakable things to "Winter Wonderland" ("Later on we'll get higher, as we drink by the fire, to face unafraid, the chicks that we laid, Tokin' in a Winter Wonderland"). At Christmastime, the glee joined up with two women's glees, the choir and the orchestra to present a concert that featured more than 500 performers at a school of 2,000 students. We also had a production of "Damn Yankees" nearly postponed because most of the men's chorus (including me) were actually on the baseball team. Thankfully, the league rescheduled our first playoff game, and the show went on.

I advanced to nearby San Jose State University - mostly because it was nearby - and klutzed into a gold mine: an honors humanities program that finally gave my writing skills a suitable challenge, an excellent journalism program, and Dr. Charlene Archibeque's Concert Choir, perhaps the best in the nation. I knew I was into something unusual when our first assignment was singing Berlioz's oratorio Lelio, in four different languages, at San Francisco's brand-new Davies Hall. At the end of the year we did Beethoven's Ninth with the fully professional San Jose Symphony.

Dr. A was a six-two blonde former fashion model. We sometimes referred to her as Big Bird. Years later, when I wrote my choral novel, Frozen Music, I declined to use her as a character, because I feared she wouldn't be believable. She rarely raised her voice, but she was always intimidating, and brought more music out of me than I would have thought possible. In concert, she was a stunning figure, still the most precise, technically perfect and graceful conductor I've ever seen. In my four years at State, I received an "academic concentration" in music - basically, twelve units in any music class - but I always refer to it as a minor, because I think I learned enough in choir to justify the term.

Paradoxically, the more I learned about singing, the more I realized that I did not have what it took to be a pro. I lacked the vocal talent, the discipline and the passion to pursue a carer that probably even tougher than writing. But something else popped up to take its place. Perhaps it began with my job as choir historian. I assembled a scrapbook of photos with an often-humorous running narrative that became a popular read among my classmates. My junior year, as a reporter for the Spartan Daily, my beat was the arts and humanities department, which led to a lot of features about concerts and musicians.

One week, I was sent off to the Concord Pavilion in the East Bay to cover an opera, something called Rigoletto, performed in English by the Western Opera Theater, the touring arm of the San Francisco Opera. The performance contained some wonderful news angles: a black baritone played the lead role, in a time when cross-race casting was still a new idea; an actual rainstorm bedeviled the partly-exposed Pavilion, lending a comic reality to the third-act storm scene. My resultant review, accompanied by an interview with the baritone, was roundly praised by our advisor for its vivid descriptions and sense of humor. I blushed for three days. At the end of the semester, I won an award for Best Entertainment Story, and was selected as arts editor for the coming semester.

In short, I had found within myself a rare ability. Blessed with some musical knowledge - but not too much - I was able to write about music in a way that was comprehensible to the lay reader. I've been doing exactly that ever since.

Next Chapter: Irene Dalis and the birth of Opera San Jose

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Verdi's Simon Boccanegra, 9/9/08, San Francisco Opera

Primed on two dozen Rigolettos, my first-time Boccanegra had me thinking, This guy really has a hangup about the father-daughter thing. For good cause, too - the composer lost a daughter, son and wife to disease, all at a shot. It's a wonder he didn't do King Lear, too (and yes, he was considering it).

The more direct connection to Boccanegra is Il Trovatore, both of them inspired by the work of Spanish playwright Antonio Garcia Gutierrez, both sporting massively convoluted plots. Behold the young pirate Boccanegra swinging about the piazza of his lover's house spouting exposition: "Yes, Maria is my lover, but I cannot see her because she is of high station and I but a lowly buccaneer, but I am running for doge so that someday I may see her, and she did bear me a daughter who I managed to lose somewhere but that's another story and... Maria is dead? Egad!" Even with supertitles, this thing is harder to track than a greased pig on steroids.

As with much of Verdi, the opera is really about power, and the master corrals his forces with aplomb, a city-feud between plebeians and patricians with the doge - the 25-years-older Boccanegra - at the center, trying to keep some peace.

25 years after its initial lukewarm reception in 1857, Verdi updated the opera, adding some stunning musical strokes to the final scene of Act I, in which the city'ss factions are all gathered in the council chambers, brawling like the Jets and Sharks of West Side Story. One chorus passage ends abruptly, leaving the rediscovered daughter, Amelia, alone with a brilliant trilling cadenza. The coda - in which Boccanegra tricks his suspect lieutenant Paolo into cursing himself - is preceded by powerful bursts of brass that crash to a halt on the edge of a quick-muted gong. (The scene also displays all the hurly-burly energy that may be extracted from chorus members who can actually act.)
The title role offers no arias, laying the focus on acting - a demand filled brilliantly by baritone Dmitri Hvorostovsky, who is utterly possessed by his character. His confrontation with Paolo (the curse yet another nod to Rigoletto), a drilling recitative spooked by woodwinds, is absolutely chilling.
Other chills are offered by Vitalij Kowaljow, who delivers awesome bass resonances as Maria's vengeful father Fiesco. The passion comes from tenor Marcus Haddock as Amelia's rebel lover Gabriele, especially in the second-act betrayal aria, "Sento avvampar nell'anima" (mistaking Boccanegra as Amelia's lover, hello again Rigoletto), and from baritone Patrick Carfizzi as Paolo, who did everything but telepathically set the furniture ablaze in his own vengeful recitative at the opening of Act II. (Genoa is a vengeful place!)
As our only female lead in this Genovese frathouse, soprano Ana Maria Martinez gives Amelia the fine touches: artful decrescendos and lovely high pianos. The reunion cabaletta between Boccanegra and Amelia, "Figlia! a tal nome io palpito," is a delicious creme brulee of vocalizing.
Boccanegra's palace is outfitted with massive columns, adapted by Michael Yeargen from a 1991 Covent Garden production. My personal favorite among Peter J. Hall's 14th-century costumes is Gabriele's first-act ensemble, a gray cloak over a tan leather vest with beige underpinnings. Donald Runnicles directed his orchestra and singers with propulsive energy, bringing a resounding muscularity from the brass. And give extra credit to stage director David Edwards, who instilled some plausibility in a sometimes-preposterous libretto.
Trivia: During his 1881 rewrite, Verdi made use of librettist Arrigo Boito, who would soon after collaborate with him on Otello. Amelia was previously sung at SFO by Tebaldi, Te Kanawa and Vaness ('56, '75, '01), Fiesco by Pinza, Tozzi and Ramey ('41, '60, '01) and the title role by Tito Gobbi in '60.
Unintentional Laugh Zone: The populace shifted loyalties like a ball at a tennis match. Late in Act II, as yet another acclamation of "Viva Boccanegra!" sounded from backstage, the audience just had to laugh. Early in Act II, Paolo placed a pitcher of poisoned water in the doge's chambers. It sat there and sat there for frickin' ever. When Boccanegra announced, "My throat is parched," the patrons let out with a knowing titter.
Info: Through Sept. 27, War Memorial Opera House, http://www.sfopera.com/, 415/864-3330.
Photos: Dmitri Hvorostovsky as Boccanegra, Marcus Haddock as Gabriele.