Friday, June 19, 2009

La Traviata, San Francisco Opera, June 16, 2009

There are few young-singer programs as successful as those at San Francisco Opera, and the faithful gathered this week to welcome back one of their hotter alumni, soprano Anna Netrebko, who has been busily conquering the opera world. The occasion was a "Traviata" that excelled in spots but seemed rather lackluster in comparison to SFO's recent productions of "Tosca" and "Porgy and Bess."

Director Marta Domingo took an interesting and apt tack in updating the time setting from 1850s France to 1920s America, sending Violetta from courtesan to flapper without much consternation, and bringing her onstage in a stylish 1929 Buick. Domingo also had a lot of fun designing the lavish art-deco party set for Act II, providing a dazzling backdrop for the silent-movie costumery and dance divertissements, including some quirky era choreography by Kitty McNamee and a wonderfully athletic dance solo from Jekyns Pelaez as the matador.

The third-act set, an astral background of hanging lamps filtered through falling snow, received a few snickers from the purists, but to hell with the purists, I liked it. It also matched well with Netrebko's marvelously understated approach to Violetta's swansong, "Addio del passato," over a sensitively played layering of strings from Donald Runnicles and his orchestra. Netrebko played with the dynamics and phrasing with great facility, a contrast with the drier approach she applied to "Sempre libera" in the first act. I enjoyed the overlong pause that she and Runnicles applied before the opening cadenza of that piece (building anticipation among the aficionados) but was disappointed that she opted out of the final high E-flat.

As Alfredo, tenor Charles Castronovo was good but not spectacular, and did have his moments, notably when Alfredo denounces Violetta before the partygoers and throws a wad of cash at her to pay for their time together. He also sang beautifully in the final duet with Violetta, "Parigi, o cara."

Baritone Dwayne Croft delivered an able Germont, though I have yet to see a singer who can make up for this character's gross schmuckiness. It doesn't help matters that Croft failed to deliver the usual passion of "Di Provenza, il mar, il suol," Germont's salute to his family's homeland. And might I add a postscript compliment to lighting designer Mark McCollough, for the flickering effect in the autumn trees of Alfredo's country home. Well done!

Through July 5, War Memorial Opera House, 301 Van Ness Avenue, San Francisco, $15-$290,, 415/864-3330.
Image: Anna Netrebko as Violetta Valery. Photo by Terrence McCarthy

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

San Francisco Opera, Porgy and Bess, June 12, 2009

Every great once in a while, a critic faces that most daunting of tasks, writing about a production that has no flaws. Such a one is San Francisco's production of George Gershwin's "Porgy and Bess," a work of vastly misunderstood genius that has finally, in the past few decades, received its due. This derives largely from the efforts of SFO general director David Gockley, who oversaw the first-ever production of Gershwin's complete score in 1976 at the Houston Grand Opera, 41 years after the premiere of the opera's Broadway-ized version in Boston. That said, I'm now going to hand out compliments like party favors.

Our Porgy, baritone Eric Owens, is a force of nature, rumbling away at this powerful lead role and harvesting every bit of its pathos. His showpiece is "Bess, You is My Woman," but he also stars in "Little Stars," a deceptively calm and poignant prelude to the violent actions that immediately follow: the killing of Robbins by Crown, the resident bad guy of Catfish Row. (After Crown flees from the law, Porgy takes in his beleaguered girlfriend, Bess, and the tale begins.)

Bess, fixed firmly between the sweetness she has found with Porgy and the animal lust she feels for Crown, demands a fine balance. Laquita Mitchell, equipped with a full lyric spinto soprano, fills the bill well; she is all woman, and burns brightest in "I Loves You, Porgy," after her dalliance with the fugitive Crown on Kittiwah Island. Lester Lynch endows Crown with a delicious brand of animal depravity, earning a melodrama-style booing from the audience at curtain call. His physical presence was thrilling, especially in the fight with Robbins (eviscerating him with a cotton hook) and his abusive encounter with Bess in the Act II Kittiwah scene.

Playing Sportin' Life, the dope dealer once performed by the likes of Cab Calloway and Sammy Davis, Jr., is tenor Chauncey Parker. It's a hell of a lot to ask a single performer to produce operatic notes, jazz rhythms and an evening full of slick dance maneuvers, but Parker does so with aplomb, providing particular delight with the bible-thumper taunt "It Ain't Necessarily So" (featuring such classic Ira Gershwin rhymes as "He made his home in / that fish's abdomen").

The hope of the next generation is evoked by the newlyweds Jake and Clara, a fisherman and his wife bringing up a newborn babe. Eric Greene and Angel Blue play these parts with a great sense of joy, Greene with the rascally commentary "A Woman is a Sometime Thing," and Blue with the all-important framework song "Summertime." The song's oddly fetching match of happy lyrics and sad harmonic underpinnings gets its full explanation here, serving as both a hopeful prelude and, during a horrific hurricance, Clara's fearful reprise. Blue's performance of it, in both cases, is sumptuous. The most gripping song of all is "My Man's Gone Now," a funeral lament sung by Karen Slack as Robbins's widow Serena. Slack's rendition is heartbreaking and vocally spectacular.

The supporting ensemble is amazingly good, fueling Catfish Row with a constant flow of energy, as well as handling the difficult chorus parts, inspired by negro spirituals. Most thrilling of all was the uproar created at the finale of the hurricane scene, which was enthralling in its sheer power. Give credit to stage director Francesca Zambello and Ian Robertson for marshalling these forces, as well as Jonathan Rider for choregraphing the excellent fight scenes. The set design by Peter J. Davison - from a Washington National Opera production - sets the scene among towering metal walls and rusted railings, creating a warehouse-like atmosphere that is both rugged and beautiful. Giant fallen letters from a decrepit amusement park sign give the Kittiwah Island set a fantastical aura, like the ruins of an ancient civilization. John DeMain and his orchestra played with great vigor, attacking what must be a challenging score for orchestral musicians.

And about that score. As I implied before, Gershwin's original work was pretty much eviscerated, since no opera house would allow black performers and since the composer's Broadway backers wouldn't tolerate such a long and musically adventurous piece. Which is a profound shame, because the complete work presented here is truly a revelation. Steeped in folk, jazz and classical forms as very few composers could be (and having taken trips to South Carolina to study the Gullah culture that informs the story), Gershwin tapped into a spiritual singing style that fits the traditional forms of opera surprisingly well, backing these scenes with lush orchestral accompaniment, but also stepped out to pepper the score with the jazzier songs that had made his reputation. Stringing everything together with traditional recitative, he succeeded in blending all these elements into a purely American artform that, thanks to a nationwide myopia about issue both artistic and racial, died off as soon as it was created. It was perhaps too far-seeing for its own good, and it will now be up to a new century of Americans to see "Porgy and Bess" for the work of genius that it is.

Through June 27, War Memorial Opera House, 301 Van Ness Ave., San Francisco, $15-$290,, 415/864-3330.
Image: Eric Owens and Laquita Mitchell as Porgy and Bess. Photo by Terrence McCarthy.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

San Francisco Opera, "Tosca," June 5, 2009

Tosca can be a physically brutal little opera, and SFO's latest production takes this notion to the hilt, stressing pure power in both its singing and acting. The energy of it all makes for an outstanding evening of theater.

With a magnificent series of tromp-l'oeil sets by Thierry Bosquet, inspired by a 1932 SFO production, and a straightforward approach to the music and action, the differences come largely in the small touches and decisions, notably those made by talented stage director Jose Maria Condemi. One must begin with Scarpia, played by Georgian baritone Lado Ataneli as a sort of creepy ringleader, choreographing events around him for his own maximum entertainment. At one point, he rushes to the front of the stage to reveal the torture being inflicted upon Tosca's beloved Cavaradossi, and the effect is almost like a magician announcing "presto chango" before a masterful illusion. Another particularly sleazy moment comes when he offers to take Tosca's wrap, then gives it a thorough sniffing before setting it down. He spends a large portion of the rest of his stage time pushing his lackeys to the ground - particularly the equally creepy Spoletta, Joel Sorenson, who does a lovely job of smacking the stage with maximum impact. Vocally, Ataneli doesn't quite have the lower-end gusto for the Te Deum, but his high baritone of serves him well for the rest of the performance.

Our Tosca, Canadian soprano Adrianne Pieczonka, brings a strong lyric voice to the role, and isn't afraid to go a little ragged for Floria's frightened screeches (particularly after Scarpia reveals the price she must pay for Cavaradossi's freedom). She also plays the opening lines of her "Vissi d'arte" a little breathy, accentuating her character's emotional torment, and finishes the aria with some beautifully wrought diminuendos. As an actress, Pieczonka makes an excellent showing of contemplating the carving knife that has made its way into her hand (almost channeling the approach Sarah Bernhardt used in Sardou's original play), then delivers a deliciously rough stabbing. And her final leap from the parapet is quite convincing (which is more than I can say for most of the Toscas I've seen).

Cavaradossi is played by Carlo Ventre, who sings the part with a rugged lyric spinto, and delivers his top notes with a lushly broad, bronze tone. He excelled in his "E lucevan le stelle," but perhaps was even better in the arioso that follow, "O dolci mani."

In the supporting roles, Dale Travis invests his sacristan with a delightful array of tics and nervous gestures. My favorite among the costumes (costume supervisor: Jai Altizer) is Scarpia's Act II coat, purple with intricate white embroidery. Marco Armiliato's orchestra was strong throughout, especially the horns and percussion, who took great pleasure in Scarpia's thunderous motif (is there better entrance music in opera?).

Puccini's use of motif in the opera is an endless well of discoveries, and this time around I found phrases from the first-act duet "Mia gelosa" ("My jealous one") floating around as Scarpia pursued his Iago-like endeavors to use Tosca's jealousy against her. It's also a constant pleasure to study the way Puccini uses different musical forms against each other: Scarpia's vows of conquest played against the congregation singing the Te Deum, the confrontation of Scarpia and Cavaradossi against the cantata sung by Tosca in the neighboring church, and the shepherd's song (performed by Zachary Weisberg) used as a prelude to the painter's morning execution, a scene whose quietude and comings-and-goings harken back to the tollgate act of "La Boheme." It's fashionable these days to downplay Puccini's talents (and seemingly to punish him for his popularity) but it's stupid to deny this level of musical mastery.

Through June 26 at War Memorial Opera House, 301 Van Ness, San Francisco. $15-$290, 415/864-3330,

Side notes: The opera was simulcast to AT&T Park, the stadium of the baseball Giants, and the principals took their bows wearing Giants paraphernalia (the sacristan, for instance, with a "#1" foam finger). They did, however, miss a prime opportunity: Scarpia should have appeared wearing the jersey of the hated rival Dodgers. Walking to the performance, it was impossible not to think of the movie "Milk," which told of the assassination of gay rights leader Harvey Milk, a crime which took place directly across the street from the Opera House at City Hall. The movie made brilliant use of scenes from "Tosca" to foreshadow Milk's murder. One of the singers in those excerpts was tenor Joe Meyers, a friend and choirmate from my college days, which made it, for me, even more personal.

Image: Adrianne Pieczonka (Tosca) and Lado Ataneli (Scarpia).
Photo by Cory Weaver.