Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Opera San Jose's "La Cenerentola"

November 14, 2009

In addition to fielding the best-looking cast ever, Opera San Jose supplied its opening night of Rossini's "La Cenerentola" with some remarkably deft coloratura singing. It was an evening that the composer himself would have enjoyed immensely.

For a Rossiniphile, there's no moment more suspenseful than the prima donna's opening aria, in which we discover if we're getting some authentic bel canto or a Verdi mezzo trying to stuff a whale through the neck of a bottle. Betany Coffland answered that question in about three seconds, embarking from Cenerentola's touching, folk-like theme song, "Una volta c'era un re" into a cadenza of lightness, agility and birdsong. Ah, relief. The rest of the evening was sheer enjoyment, all the way through the final and brilliant aria, "Non piu mesta."

Another great enjoyment is Daniel Cilli as Dandini, the squire who pretends to be the Prince so the real Prince might read the true natures of his bridal candidates. Although Dandini is a largely comic figure, his bel canto requirements are demanding, and Cilli makes the most of it, demonstrating that, yes, there is such a thing as baritone coloratura. I also enjoyed his "speed recitatives" as he mightily compressed the Prince's life story.

Vocally, our Prince, tenor Michael Dailey, remains a puzzlement. He retains a covered tone in his lower range that bugs the heck out of me, but this same technique produces absolutely gorgeous top notes. His best moment came with the initial "flirting" duet with Coffland, "Un soave non so che." The two characters cross the stage toward each other even as their voices mingle in mid-air.

Comically, the evening is a veritable buffet of goofiness. At the center is bass-baritone Isaiah Musik-Ayala, who plays the oafish father, Don Magnifico, with a wry cynicism, and possesses that rare ability to sing as if he is actually just conversing. This makes for a good contrast with the kinetic hysterics of his daughters, Clorinda and Tisbe (soprano Rebecca Schuessler and mezzo Tori Grayum), two good-looking women who show no fear in playing ugly, helped greatly by the corkscrew wigs and grotesque makeup jobs by Sara Beukers.

Sandra Bengochea continues to make her mark as a stage director, pulling a tremendous amount of energy from her players. She also finds an ingenious soluton to the second of Rossini's outmoded freeze-frame scenes, having the royal advisor Alidoro (bass Paul Murray) wander around engaging the robotic singers in gags, including a limbo contest and an Old West shootout. Brilliant.

Larry Hancock adds a nice layer of irony, both through his supertitles (my favorite: "Princikins!") and a final-act set design stolen from a Barbie Dream House, complete with thrones fashioned from butterfly wings (that's right - monarch butterflies). Anthony Quartuccio braved certain limb damage leading his orchestra through what must be the most quickly paced score ever created.

Through Nov. 29, California Theater, 345 S. First Street, San Jose. $51-$91, 408/437-4450,

Image: Bettany Coffland and Tori Grayum as Cenerentola and Tisbe. Photo by Pat Kirk.

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

San Francisco Opera's "Otello"

November 13, 2009

In constructing Shakespeare's beautiful three-legged table, San Francisco Opera has provided two legs of world-champion talent. In the title role, South African tenor Johan Botha opens with the Moorish captain's ringing cry of "Esultate!" and continues in just that vein, using his mighty instrument to hurl Zeus-like bolts from the stage. Then, in the first-act love duet, he demonstrates that the lightning bolts can be tamed, producing impressively sweet passages of lyric singing. His second-act lament, "Ora e per sempre addio," is masterful.

For the second leg, Iago, Italian baritone Marco Vratogna uses subtler, craftier means. In fact, he doesn't stand out much at all in the opening act, but this makes the second-act soliloquy, "Credo in un Dio crudel, a showstopper of villainous singing. An inspiration of librettist Arrigo Boito, the Credo succeeds in spelling out Iago's motives much more directly than Shakespeare could do, and ends with a rumbling sotto voce that sends chills through the audience.

And now, for that third leg. It's not that soprano Zvetelina Vassileva doesn't possess a beautiful instrument, it's that she fails to craft her lines in a way that lines up with her character's emotions. This was most painfully apparent in the Willow Song, which fails to deliver its most necessary subtext: this is a woman who expects that her husband is going to come very soon and kill her. Dealing with a character who is, from the outset, threatening to disappear into victimhood (much like Hamlet's Ophelia), this is an opportunity that cannot be passed up. Not helping matters are the physical interactions between Vassileva and Botha. Botha is a large man whose onstage movements are problematic to begin with, but the awkward public assault of Act 3 and the comically pathetic suffocation (five seconds with a soft pillow) are inexcusable.

Nicola Luisotti was well at home with Verdi's awe-inspiring score, especially in drawing a fulsome, downright scary sound from his strings in the slashing passages of the opening thunderstorm. Peter Hall's set (from the Chicago Lyric production), makes an intriguing play on the Globe Theater. It's a pleasure to watch the machinations of the elder Verdi, who took 16 years off before composing this work, especially in his divine handling of Shakespearean dramatics. This is especialoly evident in the Act 3 Concertato, in which the entire cast expresses its amazement at Otello's behavior as Iago races around advancing several subplots in the background. The sheer efficiency is amazing.

Through Dec. 2 at War Memorial Opera House, 301 Van Ness, San Francisco. $15-$310, 415/864-3330,

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

Photo by Terrence McCarthy