Saturday, October 31, 2009

San Francisco Opera's "Salome"

October 24, 2009

As a devotee of plot and character, I cannot entirely forgive Strauss's "Salome" for its cartoon figures. From its mythological origins through Oscar Wilde's play, the story's figures seem to be mere idea-messengers, human shells manipulated toward a greusome ending for purposes that verge on propaganda.

Fortunately, there are other reasons to see it, the primary one being to see if the soprano can actually pull of the multiple demands of the title role: dramatic vocalization, a lengthy dancing/stripping scene, and performing the world's only necrophiliac love aria. In all categories, I'd have to give Nadja Michael an A. Michael gives the massively troubled teen a self-involved intensity, delivers the kinds of searing top-notes that befit the actions and the score, and dances better than any opera singer in the world (and perhaps better than 20 percent of professional dancers). As far as her physical attributes, let's just say that she makes a convincing argument against the fat-Viking-lady stereotype (on the other hand, let's just say "Yowza!").

Sean Curran does a fine job of choreographing the Dance of the Seven Veils, managing to trigger plenty of Salome's sensuality (including an enticing flash of nudity) without inspiring the men in the front row to begin tossing dollar bills. The gore is also handled well: the life-cast of Greer Grimsley's head leaks enough blood to stock a Red Cross bank for a week, and is genuine enough to convey the horror of the scene.

When he actually has his head, Grimsely is fantastic, taking what could be dull biblical condemnations and investing them with power through his thunderous baritone. (His backstage pronouncements were delivered with the help of a megaphone fashioned from the bell of a sousaphone.) Russian mezzo Irina Mishura does well with the double-scorned mother Herodias, but British tenor Kim Begley fails to deliver the real power behind Herod's lechery.

With its use of modern tonalities, and absolutely vicious brass and percussion, its amazing to think that Strauss created this score in 1905. Consider just one of its innovations: Strauss wrote Jokanaan's (John the Baptist's) music around the tonal center of C, and Salome's around C#, thus guaranteeing that every time they met, they would produce nothing but dissonance. This happens most notably at the climax of Salome's final line, a musical event known as the "Salome chord."

Bruno Schwengl's production design follows the current trend toward minimalism, creating a shadowbox of golds and blacks that culminates in Jokanaan's cell, which resembles the aperture of a lens, creating the feeling that we are standing inside of an old-fashioned camera. His costumes are an odd hybrid of post-apocalyptic sci-fi and biblical, although Salome's white dress more resembles the one worn by Marilyn Monroe in "The Seven-Year Itch."

Nicola Luisotti's orchestra was astounding and powerful, although his stage notes promise a preponderance of piano and pianissimo that never comes. Against this artful cacophony - which propels the action forward in a way that almost drives the listener to distraction - the silences before the moment of execution create a rich Hitchcockian suspense.

Through Nov. 1, War Memorial Opera House, 301 Van Ness, San Francisco. $15-$310, 415/864-3330,

Image: Nadja Michael. Photo by Terrence McCarthy.

Read Michael's new counterculture comedy, "The Monkey Tribe," at

Friday, October 23, 2009

San Francisco Opera, "La fille du regiment"

Oct. 19, 2009

The co-production idea is reaching extreme proportions these days, as a production that has already seen New York, London and Vienna touches down in San Francisco. The show is comically brilliant, highlighted by the physical humor of soprano Diana Damrau and the inventive direction of Laurent Pelly.

Although the stated influences are Laurel and Hardy, Damrau's performance is distinctly Carol Burnett, a combination of ragged red hair, the willingness to be homely and unladylike (apropos for a girl raised by soldiers) and absolute fearlessness. In Act I, she laments her agreement to marry a member of the regiment then runs to a pile of laundry and dumps herself on top of it, leaving her butt straight up in the air. During the infamous music lesson in Act II, Damrau sees her prim white dress as no obstacle to falling directly on the self-same body part, creating a priceless image of frustration.

The bonus is Damrau's voice, which shimmers in the high pianissimos like a diamond, particularly in her touching farewell to the regiment, "Il faut partir" (the aria reminds me of "Una furtiva lagrima" from "L'Elisir d'amore," both of them surprising passages of pathos in the midst of absurd farces). Her many cadenzas are as agile as gymnasts, and she has an uncanny sense for using the standard facial movements of vocal production to accentuate the current physical gag.

Juan Diego Florez lives up to every bit of his reputation as the hapless lover Tonio. Florez emanates an everyman charm, and delivers all nine high C's of the call to arms "Pour mon ame/Qual destino" with incredible ease. Meredith Arwady, a rookie alumna of SFO's Merola Program, gives a masterfully comic performance of the mezzo role, the Marquise of Berkenfeld, lending immediate pizzazz to the opening barricade scene and throwing a few Victor Borge tricks into her piano playing in the priceless music-lesson scene. Bass-baritone Bruno Pratico gives the captain, Sulpice, an amiable presence, and mezzo Sheila Nadler is just a rip and a half as the Duchess of Krakenthorp.

Chantal Thomas's set design is absolutely fascinating, a regimental encampment built on a smattering of gigantic maps, followed by a tilt-a-whirl music parlor balanced precariously on those same maps, rolled up. Pelly and choreographer Karine Girard augment the action with three priceless dance scenes: a waltz of clothesline long-johns (or perhaps a can-can), a ballet of suspiciously hairy housemaids, and an entrance minuet of fantastically crotchety senior citizens. And kudos to the SFO chorus, which excels in these scenes and with the rapscallious gents of the regiment.

Through Oct. 31, War Memorial Opera House, 301 Van Ness. $15-$310, 415/864-3330,

Image: Diana Damrau as Marie. Photo by Cory Weaver

"Yeah, Donizett does all light stuff, right? Just like Gilbert & Sullivan."
--overheard in the parking garage, a lady who has apparently not seen "Lucia di Lammermoor"

Read Michael's new counterculture comedy, "The Monkey Tribe," at

Monday, October 5, 2009

San Francisco's Abduction from the Seraglio

September 29, 2009

The third performance of this production created one of those backstage dramas that fans sometimes enjoy more than the opera itself - though for a sad reason. Bass Peter Rose, set to play the Turkish villain Osmin, had to return home upon the death of his father. Andrea Silvestrelli, in town to perform in Puccini's "Il Trittico," performed the role earlier in Chicago (in fact, upon the same sets), and so was able to step in on a moment's notice.

Silvestrelli performed Osmin with robust enthusiasm, and his usual resounding vocal presence, although he fumbled a bit over the English dialogue. He gave notice of his presence early on in the fuming "Solche hergelauf'ne Laffen," a curse upon all wandering European fops, and spent the rest of the evening amusingly storming about.

Another early delight came in our wandering rescuer, Belmonte. Matthew Polenzani played the role with a divinely Mozartean lyric tenor, caressing his phrases and bits of coloratura with a sensitivity often missing in tenors of the Verdi/Puccini stripe. This comes in his opening aria, "Hier soll ich dich denn sehen," in which Belmonte laments the shipwreck and subsequent imprisonment of his beloved Constanze.

Playing that very heroine, soprano Mary Dunleavy excels in a similar lament, the second-act Adagio "Traurigkeit ward mir zum Lose," but otherwise suffers from a difficult-to-define lack of focus. A handy contrast appears in the form of her servant, Blonde, soprano Anna Christy, who is spot-on in all categories: her singing is brilliantly centered, her physical comedy hilarious (especially the nipple-twisting torments she inflicts upon her pursuer, Osmin), and her Bernadette Peters cuteness should be insured by Lloyd's of London. One particularly effective bit of phrasing is an overlong sustenato she uses to toy with Osmin's guards in "Durch Zartlichkeit und Schmeicheln." The guards hang upon the note even as they are hanging upon the blonde.

Blonde's beau, Pedrillo, is played by tenor Andrew Bidlack with an earnest enthusiasm, seeming almost like one of those heros from 1920s movie serials. Osmin's guards lend a creepy presence with their male-geisha appearances, and the identical mustaches and outfits of the Janissaries give a cult-like quality to the scene. Charles Shaw endows the speaking role of the Pasha with an air of wisdom that succeeds in not being overbearing. (An interesting historical note: the Pasha's role was limited to speaking primarily because Mozart and his librettist, Johann Gottlieb Stephanie, were afraid another singing role would make the Singspiel too long.)

Production designer David Zinn sets the opera in a theater-within-a-theater; having the characters romp about in the balconies and front-row seats gives a nice Brechtian alienation and forgives some of the silliness of the plot (part of the Enlightenment trend of doing just about anything to take an audience to exotic locales). There are some nicely goofy bits, too, such as Pedrillo borrowing a mandolin for his serenade from the prompter's box. Director Chas Rader-Shieber has instilled a fine sense of comic energy in his troupe, and Cornelius Meister does the same for his orchestra, illustrating all the radiant nooks and crannies of a thoroughly elegant score.

Through Oct. 17, War Memorial Opera House, 301 Van Ness Boulevard, San Francisco. $15-$310, 415/864-3330,

Image: Anna Christy as Blonde. Photo by Terrance McCarthy.

See Michael's opera novel, "Gabriella's Voice," at