Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Opera San Jose's "Tosca"

November 14, 2010

It's always a pleasure to see the young singers that Opera San Jose is developing - but perhaps even a larger pleasure to see the end results. Such was the case Sunday, when alumni Christopher Bengochea and Rebecca Davis returned to play Cavaradossi and Tosca.

It's a special time for Davis, who went directly from her OSJ residency to this summer's Merola Program in San Francisco. After a series of light lyric roles in San Jose - the Countess in Figaro, Adina in Elixir of Love - I had some doubts about her taking on Tosca, but it turns out that the darker, more dramatic side is where her voice more naturally "wants to go," as she puts it, and it certainly comes across onstage. Her Floria is downright ferocious, particularly in the dark, foreboding passages as Scarpia lures her into the trap of jealousy. She begins "Vissi d'arte" in a prone position and taps into her lyric side to produce a beautifully tiered three-step dynamic drop from the final top-note.

Bengochea's transformation continues to be a highly entertaining ride. He began his OSJ career as the ultimate lirico but has matured into a forceful spinto. Sunday, his instrument was a bit of a wild beast - he strained at the upper reaches of "Recondita armonia" - but once he warmed up the results were fantastic. His "E lucevan" was heart-wrenching, and he followed with a tender reading of the oft-overlooked "Dolci mani," Cavaradossi's tribute to the sweet hands that were forced to kill on his behalf. (A Pucciniphile can't help flashing on "Che gelida manina.)

Current resident Torlef Borsting did superbly with Scarpia, favoring "nasty" and "creepy" on the Scarpia buffet. He did especially well with the divinely hypocritical Te Deum, over the excellent singing of the OSJ chorus.

Stage director Sandra Bengochea led her players through a passionate, physical production (and freely abused her husband, who at one point was dragged into Scarpia's apartment on a sheet). The hand of veteran fight director Kit Wilder shows, as well. The tussle between Cavaradossi and Scarpia's henchmen was Eastwood-grade, and the pivotal stabbing was superb: Tosca lying in wait till the Baron leaned over her, then two solid thrusts to the midsection with a shiny, nasty-looking knife. The torture scene was agonizing and visceral, punctuated by a scream from (Christopher) Bengochea that was downright primal. The clincher was Davis's leap from the parapets, which was purposeful and fearless, with a defiant look back at her pursuers.

The orchestra under David Rohrbaugh played well, with the exception of some sour strings in the third-act reprise of the "Mia gelosa" theme. The creaking doors to the Attavanti chapel and the torture room were nice, authentic touches. And Tosca's second-act gown - a black-and-gold ensemble designed by Elizabeth Poindexter - was divine. Supertitle of the evening: "He's dead - now I forgive him."

Through November 28, California Theater, 345 S. First Street, San Jose. $51-$101, 408/437-4450,

Image: Christopher Bengochea as Cavaradossi. Photo by Pat Kirk.

Michael J. Vaughn is a 25-year opera critic and novelist. His latest book, Operaville, is set for release in early 2011, with a companion CD by soprano Barbara Divis. Available at

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

San Francisco Opera, Janacek's "The Makropulos Case"

On those infrequent occasions when I see an opera for the first time, I do my best to not read a word about it beforehand. I prefer to ingest it purely in its stage form. This paid off greatly in this case, serving to increase my enjoyment of soprano Karita Mattila's mesmerizing. Playing opera singer Emilia Marty, Mattila pops into the Prague law offices of Dr. Kolenaty, seemingly as an interested layperson. She proceeds to singlehandedly untangle a century-old inheritance case, employing bits of information she should have no way of possessing.

What's even more intriguing is her physical presence. With bird-like features, cutting eyes, a sharp sweep of blonde hair and a lithe, athletic figure, Mattila spends the first act striking one unnatural, uncomfortable pose after another, making the act of getting herself into an armchair into a symphony of effort. She has no concern for social constructs - especially personal space - and succeeds in casting a spell over every male onstage (the lone female, apprentice singer Kristina, is already a disciple). The most apparent victim is Albert Gregor, the man who has just inherited a fortune thanks to her intercession. The intrigue doubles in the second act, when Marty, still dressed as the clown Pierrot, appears backstage to encounter Count Hauk-Sendorf (Matthew O'Neill), an old eccentric who claims to be her former lover. Mattila reacts to the reunion by performing a bit of flamenco, doing the splits and rolling around with the Count in one gymnastic position after another. (Mattila is reported to be a fan of yoga.)

Being a mystery, the story depends largely on exposition, and Janacek creates a brilliant frame for delivering it. He extends the hurly-burly orchestral action of the overture (meant to symbolize the hyperactivity of 20th-century life) while his bureaucrats deliver the case history in rapid single-note parlandos, handing it off from the clerk Vitek (tenor Thomas Glenn) to Dr. Kolenaty (bass-baritone Dale Travis) to Gregor, played by tenor Miro Dvorsky. Dvorsky does a superb job of leaping from these straight lines into the high-lying flights of Gregor's newfound passion. German bass-baritone Gerd Grochowski as Prus, the loser of the case, provides the only calm presence, and the only man with half a chance at Emilia's weird affections.

Mattila possesses a strong lyric instrument, and bends it in some astonishing ways to make the most of Janacek's quirky score. Her more traditional lyric side comes into play in Act III, as Emilia resigns herself to her fate, singing a slow waltz theme as the orchestra modulates through several keys beneath her. The performance of the orchestra under Czech conductor Jiri Belohlavek is impressively robust, especially in the overture.

The production design by Frank Philipp Schlossman is a model of mid-century modernism, the law office a monochrome curve of packed bookshelves, the backdrops shaded with the crosshatch style often used in comic books. The set employs large illuminated clocks bearing the actual performance time - time being a primary theme of the story. The costumes are also '50s-through-'60s, including Emilia's striking strapless ball gown in Act III, inspired by a Givenchy design.

It's understandable that Makropulos is not performed more often; its requirement for virtuosic singing actors is simply too demanding. Working with director Olivier Tambosi, however, Mattila has developed the character in this, her role debut, to an astounding level. One could see her singlehandedly inspiring a new wave of productions.

Through Nov. 28, War Memorial Opera House, 301 Van Ness Avenue, San Francisco. Sung in Czech with English supertitles. $20-$360. 415/864-3330,

Image: Karita Mattila (Emilia Marty). Photo by Cory Weaver.
Michael J. Vaughn is a 25-year opera critic and novelist. His latest book, Operaville, will be relased in early 2011 with a companion CD by soprano Barbara Divis. Available at

Friday, November 5, 2010

Domingo at San Francisco Opera

Alfano’s Cyrano de Bergerac

October 30, 2010

It seems silly to even express an opinion about Placido Domingo. The Spanish tenor long ago earned his place as one of history’s great performers, performing more than 130 roles, becoming a respected conductor and demonstrating a ceaseless thirst for artistic challenges.

Domingo’s latest pursuit is the rehabilitation of Franco Alfano, the poor sap who had to try and write the final scene of Puccini’s Turandot after the composer’s death. Domingo performed the American debut of Alfano’s Cyrano in 2005 at the Met, and recently brought the opera to San Francisco for its debut there.

Alfano’s score certainly reflects some of the directions that Puccini was headed at the end of his life – particularly in through-composing– but the more prominent influence may be Massenet. Alfano’s Cyrano shies away from melody in pursuit of a recitative-like style (referred to as parlando) that reflects the patterns of natural speech.

This drama-friendly approach and the enormity of Rostand’s character make fine dining for Domingo, whose acting skills have rarely been matched. But don’t think the vocals are a cake-walk – Alfano loves the higher reaches, and Domingo, nearing his 70th birthday, shows not the slightest hesitation in delivering those robust spinto top-notes time and again.

With its Roxane, SFO has found a glorious match for Domingo’s power: Spanish soprano Ainhoa Arteta, who brings a strong, creamy tone, as well as generous helpings of wit. The latter showed itself especially in the second act, as Roxane dupes De Guiche (baritone Stephen Powell) into delaying the deployment of her beloved Christian. Arteta also shines in Roxane’s final-scene aria about Christian’s (Cyrano’s) letters, some of the most soaring passages in Alfano’s score.

Brazilian tenor Thiago Arancam gives a sympathetic reading of Christian (whose saving grace is his understanding that he is witless). I also enjoyed baritone Timothy Mix as Cyrano’s aide, Le Bret, and baritone Lester Lynch, who lent a commanding presence to Carbon, the captain of the Guards. Musical theater veteran Martin Rojas-Dietrich was delightfully over-the-top as theater star Montfleury.

The production is even more action-packed than spring’s La Fanciulla del West, a quality insisted upon by Domingo and stage director Petrika Ionesco. (At times, it felt like I went to a swordfight and an opera broke out.) The participants were actual swordfighters, drawn through auditions in Los Angeles and San Francisco, who created wonderfully chaotic battle scenes under fight director Jonathan Rider. For good measure, the company threw in a trio of stagehands rappelling from the flies in Act I.

The sets – designed by Ionesco -  were astounding, particularly Ragueneau’s bakery, which looked like a scene from Willie Wonka’s chocolate factory. A particular techno-geek thrill came from the leaves in the final-act tree, which contained electrodes allowing them to fall on command from a backstage switchboard.

The undercover trio of the balcony scene was as ravishing as one might expect, Domingo delivering Cyrano’s poetry over the ebbs and swells of Alfano’s orchestration. Still, nothing could compare with the heartstopping intensity of the final scene, as Cyrano, dying of a headwound, finally reveals his love for Roxane. The sight of Domingo crawling toward his plumed hat, gasping Cyrano’s last wishes, is just another indelible moment in a career containing thousands.

Through Nov. 12, War Memorial Opera House, 301 Van Ness Ave., San Francisco. $20-$360, 415/864-3330, Ticket availability extremely limited.

Image: Ainhoa Arteta (Roxane) and Plácido Domingo (Cyrano de Bergerac). Photo by Cory Weaver

Michael J. Vaughn is a 25-year opera critic and the author of Operaville, an opera sex novel which will be released in early 2011 with a companion CD by soprano Barbara Divis. Available at

Thursday, October 14, 2010

San Francisco Opera, Puccini's "Madama Butterfly," 10/12/2010

San Francisco Opera's "Butterfly" has a little bit of everything: a stylized 1982 production from famed Broadway director Harold Prince, an intriguing use of Japanese theatrical devices, a solid dramatic ensemble and a knockout Pinkerton. Sadly, they also have a Butterfly who can't get off the ground.

Soprano Svetla Vassileva handles Cio-Cio-San's quieter passages with elan and delicate phrasing. She's an excellent actress who performs the traditional Japanese movements well, and delivers a frightfully good death scene. She also looks like Cio-Cio-San, with a petite bearing and dark, delicate features. But every time she presses past double-forte or above the staff she produces an overdone vibrato that can only be described as ugly. Three out of four might be all right for other roles, but in this case, Cio-Cio-San is the whole opera.

Italian tenor Stefano Secco is yet another Pinkerton who makes me wish the plot didn't depend on him disappearing for most of Act 2. His power and clarity are evident immediately, in Pinkerton's early line about the maid Suzuki, "From her chatter, she seems quite worldly." The line carries unusual drama for such a pedestrian thought, almost as though Puccini wanted to give his tenor a chance to clear his throat. Secco proceeds through a robust reading of Pinkerton's credo, "Dovunque al mondo," employing a forceful instrument that is not quite a spinto, more like a lirico with extra breadth.

Homegrown tenor Thomas Glenn delivers a sprightly Goro (dressed like Harold Hill from The Music Man), and baritone Quinn Kelsey was heavy on the simpatico as Sharpless, his Hawaiian features accenting the consul's empathy for the Japanese culture.

The Japanese-inspired presentation, based on Prince's original concept for Lyric Opera of Chicago, was well-executed by stage director Jose Maria Condemi and crew, notably the black-clad Koken - stage assistants who delivered props, created visual effects and turned the rotating set (and sometimes lay prostrate for 20 minutes at a time!). The mobile set gave the performance a cinematic feel, particularly in Cio-Cio-San's intentionally overlong night-wait for her American husband. By moving slowly from room to room, the audience could see several tableaux of the restless residents, wife, maid and child. I also enjoyed the American touches in Butterfly's Act 2 household, including her very American dress and two deck chairs from the USS Lincoln.

Under Nicola Luisotti, the orchestra revealed the many small gems of Puccini's musico-dramatic genius, such as the deceptively sweet pizzicatos and lush string melody beneath Sharpless's ill-fated reading of Pinkerton's letter, and the remarkable use of silence around the appearance of his American wife. More than ever, I am convinced that Puccini used the tam-tam preceding Cio-Cio-San's suicide specifically to scare the bejeesus out of his audience.

Through Nov. 27 at the War Memorial Opera House, 301 Van Ness Avenue, San Francisco. (Daniela Dessi will play Cio-Cio-San beginning Nov. 5). $20-$360, 415/864-3330,

Image: Daveda Karanas (Suzuki), Austin Kness (Prince Yamadori), Thomas Glenn (Goro), Svetla Vassileva (Cio-Cio-San) and Quinn Kelsey (Sharpless). Photo by Cory Weaver.
Tucked away in the opera shop I found the new collection of Verdi arias by soprano Sondra Radvonovsky, who took the city by storm in last season's Il Trovatore. Do yourself a favor and get it. It's available at

Michael J. Vaughn is a 25-year opera critic. His novel, Operaville, will be released this winter, with a companion CD of arias by soprano Barbara Divis.

Friday, September 24, 2010

San Francisco Opera's Le Nozze di Figaro

September 21, 2010

There was a bit of celebrating in San Francisco, as British stage director John Copley opened his 30th production with the company and received the San Francisco Opera Medal. The night's performance served up all the small, crafty touches that a veteran stage director brings, but the tremendous ensemble acting came at the price of some musicality.

The main cuplrit was soprano Danielle de Niese, whose voice is entirely too heavy for Susanna. de Niese is excellent at comedy, and has also captured the marinara tang of Susanna's recitatives, but she exacerbated the tonality problem by playing Susanna's brightest musical moment, the final-act "Deh vieni non tardar," for an overpassionate joke on her jealous husband. (Heidi Stober, who displayed a much more Susanna-ish voice in SFO's Werther, will play the role October 10, 16 and 22.)

Somewhere in-between is soprano Ellie Dehn, who performed the Countess with lovingly shaped lines (particularly in "Porgi Amor") but lacks the tonal energy of a Ruth Ann Swenson. Dehn acted the role with a poignant grace, particularly in the final pardon of her philandering husband.

And then there's mezzo Michele Losier, who as Cherubino delivers the dramatic/musical package that a true Nozzephile is looking for. Losier is the most convincingly male Cherubino I've seen (with her black hair and white trousers looking disarmingly like Giants baseball pitcher Tim Lincecum), and plays the physical comedy beautifully. Her tone is strong and focused, and she does a marvelous job of deploying it. Her "Voi che sapete" was strikingly understated, and her handling of the final ritard of "Non so piu" - one of the most touching moments in the opera - is divine.

As our Figaro, bass-baritone Luca Pisaroni is a raucous ball of energy. I love the way he ruthlessly batters Cherubino during "Non piu andrai," and his delivery of the gender-based battle cry "Aprite un po quegl'occhi" is hilarious. Baritone Lucas Meacham, meanwhile, applies the perfect balance of lechery and frustration to the Count.

The minor roles are just as tasty. Tenor Greg Fedderly adds some likeable gags (including some, ah, pimple maintenance) to Basilio, a character who seems to get more gay by the decade. Fedderly also has a lovely voice, a quality that doesn't always come through in comic roles. Bass-baritone John del Carlo has tremendous fun with Dr. Bartolo's patter-gags, while mezzo Catherine Cook as Marcellina seems to be channeling Mrs. Slocombe from British TV's "Are You Being Served?" The combination of the two makes for the most hilarious parental-revelation scene I've ever witnessed.

Nicola Luisotti led the orchestra in the old-school Mozartean style, playing the harpsichord continuo from the podium. His improvised additions provided a lively commentary on the recitative passages, an element already distinguished by the naturalistic, near-dialogue delivery of de Niese and Pisaroni. Watching Luisotti conduct sans baton was a revelation in itself. The 1982 set by Zack Brown is most notable for its gorgeous garden scene, which is just the place you'd like to be on a warm summer night at the end of a long, crazy day.

Through Oct. 22 at War Memorial Opera House, 301 Van Ness Avenue, San Francisco. $20-$360, 415/864-3330.

SFO trivia: In 1950, Renata Tebaldi sang the Countess, but only on the company tour, in Fresno. It was the only Mozart role Tebaldi ever performed in the United States.

Image: Danielle de Niese, Lucas Meacham and Michele Losier. Photo by Cory Weaver.

Michael J. Vaughn is a 25-year opera critic. His novel, "Operaville," will be released this winter, with a companion CD of arias by soprano Barbara Divis. Read Michael's new counterculture comedy, "The Monkey Tribe," available at

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

San Francisco Opera, Massenet's Werther

Sept. 19, 2010
The great challenge of Werther - based on the novel by Goethe - is that so much of the conflict takes place inside the minds of its characters: the fatally romantic poet of the title and Charlotte, the object of his obsessions, who becomes so haunted by Werther's sadness that she risks house and home to save him. In a co-production with the Lyric Opera of Chicago, stage director Francisco Negrin and production designer Louis Desire have taken all this interior Sturm und Drang and turned it inside-out, giving the opera a vivid visual language and creating a transcendent production.

Desire's set design delivers all the stimulating provocation of a good conceptual art exhibit. Center stage is dominated by a cluster of bare trees, given their seasonal wardrobes by a dangling square of foliage representing spring (Act I) and fall (Act II). A jarring metallic border offers bars of light that flash white for heaven and love, red for blood and death. Projections along the back screen offer haunting visions of an isolated neighborhood, a stripe of light when Werther talks of "raising the curtain and stepping to the other side," and foreshadowing smears of blood. A mountain of boxed possessions represents the chaos of Charlotte's household, and a video screen next to Werther's bed serves up his obsessions: visions of dancing with Charlotte, or a live capture creating an eternal line of Werthers as the poet rails against his dilemma.

Without singers, of course, this is all for naught, but the opera pivots around the enormous talents of Ramon Vargas. Vargas's divine lyric tenor is well-suited to Massenet's understated, delicate style, and he crafts his lines with a painter's touch. His impish presence and oddly graceful way of moving give Werther the sympathetic aura of the self-tortured soul, even when his behavior veers toward stalkerdom. Every moment of his singing is a delight, leading up to the signature aria "Pourquoi me reveiller," using the words of the poet Ossian.

Vargas's tenor is nicely matched by the creamy baritone of Brian Mulligan. The beauty of Mulligan's tone helps to keep Albert from sliding over to the villain side. Albert's only real sin, after all, is marrying a woman who doesn't entirely love him, and finding that his best friend has an obsession with his wife is not exactly an easy situation to deal with.

As Charlotte, mezzo Alice Coote begins the opera in rather unremarkable fashion, but grows in strength and depth both vocally and dramatically, reaching a peak with Charlotte's Act III obsession over Werther's letters, "Air des lettres." Soprano Heidi Stober provides much-needed sunlight as little sister Sophie, introducing beautifully colored dynamic lines into her singing, notably with her first aria, "Du gai soleil." (The good news is, Stober is also singing Susanna in SFO's Le Nozze di Figaro.)

Director Negrin's influence shows in the innovation of the players' movements, small touches like Werther painting the name of his beloved on his bedroom wall, but mostly in a reworked and intensified finale. The Act III flirtation is turned into a dream, with Werther speaking his passions to Charlotte from behind her bedstead. The actual tryst - one of the more passionate tussles you will ever see on an opera stage - is moved into Massenet's intermezzo. Werther, previously fractured by the video screen, breaks into three persons (Vargas and two identically dressed supers) and shoots himself. Charlotte hovers over the body of one of the supers as Vargas sings Werther's dying thoughts, a spirit hovering over his own body. Strangely, this is a more realistic approach than the usual, in which a man with mortal chest wounds sings lovely passages of lyric tenor. Regardless, the reworking makes for disturbing, scintillating theater, and ups the psychological ante tenfold.

Conductor Emmanuel Villaume and orchestra gave a lush reading of Massenet's pastry-chef score. The passages of solo violin and cello in the overture were gorgeous. At times, in the first two acts, the playing got a little too rich, overpowering the singers.

Image: Ramon Vargas and Alice Coote. Photo by Cory Weaver.

Through October 1 at the War Memorial Opera House, 301 Van Ness Avenue, San Francisco. $20-$360, 415/864-3330,

SFO's historical cast of choice: how about Jose Carreras and Kathleen Battle in 1978?

Michael J. Vaughn is a 25-year opera critic. His novel, "Operaville," will be released this winter, with a companion CD of arias by soprano Barbara Divis. Read Michael's new counterculture comedy, "The Monkey Tribe," available at

Saturday, September 18, 2010

San Francisco Opera, Verdi's Aida

September 16, 2010

With help from co-producers Houston Grand Opera and English National Opera, SFO pulled out the bells, whistles and any number of kitchen sinks for this circus-level spectacle of Verdi's great power-play. They also brought in some hugely strong voices for their love triangle.

When my companion asked me about Marcello Giordano's acting, I realized that I had stopped caring about the time he set off into Radames' "Celeste Aida" in Act I. Giordano's tenor is a searing lirico spinto, delivered with tremendous power and an almost uncontainable energy. I found myself cursing Verdi for not giving Radames more set pieces.

The acting comes mostly from mezzo Dolora Zajick, whose voice is just as powerful as Giordano's. From the moment that Zajick delivers the wonderful line "God help him if he loves another," she takes Amneris's juicy conflicts and runs with them, turning her performance into a veritable personality parade: one moment the eager young girl chasing her adored warrior, the next the vindictive princess who will take any measure to punish those who have the bad taste not to return her affections.

Equipped with conflicts just as rich - in love with the general of the country that enslaves her - our Aida didn't fare quite so well. Soprano Micaela Carosi gives a vague acting performance, and her voice is equally inconsistent - capable of great expressiveness (particularly in her tenderly sustained end-notes) but often pushed too hard into an overwide vibrato. The intended showpiece of Aida's "Ritorna vincitor!" gives way in the memory to the lightning storm of Amneris and Radames' final-act duet, beginning with "Gia i sacerdoti adunasi."

Another fiery presence is baritone Marco Vratogna, who plays Aida's father Amonasro. Vratogna's voice has a wonderful edge to it, and he plays Aida's father with the bottled intensity of a caged tiger.

The victory celebration is truly spectacular, featuring six onstage herald trumpeters, a team of gymnasts, a thrilling acrobatic dance solo from Damon Mahoney, and solo dancer Chiharu Shibata leading a troupe of superb child dancers from the Pampa Dance Company. The production offers the illusion of Radames' victory elephant through a magnificent job of puppetry and choreography, and the dessert topping is a rain of golden confetti. Kudos to stage director Jo Davies for keeping this scene clicking.

Zandra Rhodes' production design takes the familiar iconography of Egypt and delivers it in the bright colors of a children's crayon book, depending largely on enormous panels to create the opera's many spaces. The costumes get pretty wild, as well, beginning with the golden hooped skirts of the temple attendants, their bald heads scribbled with lightning bolts of baby blue.

The great energy of Nicola Luisotti and his orchestra made the most of Verdi's barrage, turning the constant rain of sforzando and marcato strokes into a hail of musical hand grenades. The great vivacity of the performance instilled a bit of ADD in the audience, making the final-act trial of Radames seem glacial in comparison.

One of the lovelier perks of the SFO press packet is a list of singers who have performed the opera in previous productions. In this case, I'll take the 1959 cast of Leontyne Price, Irene Dalis, Mario del Monaco and George London (although the 1981 Price/Pavarotti pairing is certainly tempting).

Through October 6 at the War Memorial Opera House, 301 Van Ness Avenue, San Francisco. $25-$320, 415/864-3330, Free simulcast Sept. 24 at AT&T Park.

Michael J. Vaughn is a 25-year opera critic. His novel, "Operaville," will be released this winter, with a companion CD of arias by soprano Barbara Divis. Read Michael's new counterculture comedy, "The Monkey Tribe," available at

Image: Marco Vratogna as Amonasro. Photo by Cory Weaver.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Opera San Jose, David Carlson's Anna Karenina

Sept. 11, 2010

Opera San Jose launched its 27th season with one of the more lavish productions in its history, the third-ever production of David Carlson's Anna Karenina. The opening night performance featured stunning turns by soprano Jasmina Halimic as Anna and bass Kirk Eichelberger as her husband, Alexei Karenin. With the flying sets of Steven C. Kemp and an expert job of personnel movement by stage director Brad Dalton, the opera created the sweep and smoothness of an epic film.

The film feeling begins with Carlson himself, whose score feels very much like a soundtrack. The music is utterly at the service of the drama, and the vocal lines often feel like illustrated dialogue, as if you were just talking with a neighbor and your words took flight. The approach is completely tonal, and the long measures of dialogue are like arching waves, giving the production as a whole the sensation of a rolling ship. Carlson is also fond of going the illustrative route, conveying the drive of a tense horse-racing scene in galloping rhythms for both singers and instruments. Scenes of mania are often portrayed with musical fragments, flying across the pit like pieces of broken glass (particularly in the pizzicato storm of Anna's "To die would be so easy"). Stewart Robertson, long associated with Carlson's work, led the orchestra in a sterling account of a difficult score.

The libretto has some pretty regal roots. British librettist Colin Graham wrote the original draft for Benjamin Britten, but the project, aimed at a Bolshoi Opera premiere, was cancelled when the Soviets invaded Czechoslovakia in 1968. Graham's final version is a masterful compression, and a vast improvement on Tolstoy's novel, which is too often weighed down by philosophizing. In fact, the opera's first act is so quickly paced that it leaves its spectators sitting on the edges of their seats, as if they were watching a Hitchcock film.

Carlson's vocal writing is so naturalistic that it makes describing the voices rather challenging. The first thing that one notices about Jasmina Halimic is that she simply looks the part, owing to her dark features and Bosnian background. The second thing is her vibrato, which is absolutely perfect. She brings out the alluring quality of extended lines, notably the sustained vowels that meander back and forth like overwide trills, and handles several alarming top notes with aplomb. It's also fascinating to watch her navigate a lengthy unaccompanied passage in Act 2 while sitting with her back to the audience, looking into a mirrored screen. The best feature of Halimic's acting is the subtlety of the gestures she uses to potray Anna's growing depression. This is how a noblewoman loses her mind - with taste.

San Jose opera fans already know the power and sureness of Kirck Eichelberger's bass, but what really impresses here is his acting. One of the liveliest Leporellos I've ever seen, Eichelberger takes all that charisma and turns it inside-out, making of Alexei Karenin a black hole of a personality. His first monologue, "What is the shadow in her eye?," is a brooding, coldy calculating appraisal, serving notice of two things: that the composer will use set pieces, and that Karenin will be the most strangely intriguing character in the piece.

A welcome lighter side is delivered by tenor Christopher Bengochea as Stiva Oblonsky and mezzo Betany Coffland as his wife Dolly. Both bring a much-needed element of humor and humanity, and Bengochea (who has always played tragic tenors) shows a special talent as a wise guy. Baritone Krassen Karagiozov does a wonderful job as the other man, Vronsky, loving Anna so intensely that he succeeds in driving himself to collapse.

Providing another kind of light is our second couple, tenor Michael Dailey as Konstantin Levin and soprano Khori Dastoor as Kitty Scherbatsky. Their Act 2 reunion is the tear-jerker of the evening, and it's a pleasure to hear Dailey's voice continue to mature and widen out.

The plasticity of the blocking is made possible by Steven C. Kemp's sets - flats and screens that are constantly flying in and out. Many of them are simply evocations, like the Manet-like panels of color that signify the changes of the seasons. The Russian costumes were dazzling, particularly Anna's first-scene dress of silver, black and burgundy (costume designer Elizabeth Poindexter).

A couple of minor players give rather pivotal performances. Mezzo Megan Stetson adds a bit of drunken wit at her balls (which are simply packed with breakups and proposals!). Ballet San Jose's Peter Hershey gives a compelling performance as the train-suicide - especially in the jarring, athletic replay of Anna's dream (choreographer Lise la Cour).

Which brings up a final complaint. The final, inevitable image of Anna walking into the light of the train is so iconic and striking, so darkly beautiful, that it should be the final thing we see. The epiologue with Levin and Kitty is a clumsy, tacked-on stab at redemption. If this means I'm criticizing Leo himself, then so be it.

Through Sept. 26, California Theater, 345 South First Street, San Jose, California. $51-$101, 408/437-4450,

Image: Krassen  Karagiozov as Vronsky, Jasmina Halimic as Anna. Photo by Pat Kirk.

Michael J. Vaughn is a 25-year opera critic. His novel, "Operaville," will be released this winter, with a companion CD of arias by soprano Barbara Divis.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

San Francisco Opera, Wagner's "Die Walkure," June 19, 2010

One of the payoffs to a well-executed shift of setting and locale is a higher level of humanity from your characters, as if the big medieval costumes have been keeping you from seeing the person - or god - inside. This is certainly true of SFO's "American" Ring cycle, which lends tremendous insights to the game of familial power inside Die Walkure.

Escaping a tribal battlefield, Siegmund finds his long-lost twin sister Sieglinde trapped in a loveless marriage to one of them. Director Francesca Zambello turns her first trick of the evening by consulting her ancient Norse-to-modern American translator and making of the brutally possessive husband, Hunding, a groping, sword-loving militia man. Bass Raymond Aceto fills the role with a hateful flair.

Zambello's next stroke is to take Valhalla to a boardroom atop a New York skyscraper, and where better to find overpowerful figures who mess with the lives of mortals to settle petty squabbles? Later, the Valkyries drift onstage as WWII paratroopers, carrying oversize photos of the heroes they have recruited for the defense of Valhalla.

Set designer Michael Yeargan absolutely dazzles, especially in his Act II setting beneath an eroded freeway overpass; the structure's columns evoke Greek ruins, while the little touches (the standard torn-out car seat serving as a couch) bring a divine seediness. Jan Hartley, meanwhile, gives life to all of the settings with constantly shifting cloudscapes (and the lightning strikes are pretty impressive).

For pure vocal virtuosity, you can't beat the golden heldentenor of British singer Christopher Ventris as Siegmund, particularly in Act I's Sword soliloquy. Dutch soprano Eva-Maria Westbroek delivers in kind, at her best in Act III, as Brunnhilde works to talk her out of her depression over her twin's death and into the work of saving their chosen child, Siegfried.

The principal conflict, however, is father and daughter, and here the acting is superb. Baritone Mark Delevan plays Wotan as a god trapped by his own power. His burly voice plays well in the quiet, somber moments of Act III, as Wotan faces a common father's common dilemma: how to overcome tender paternal feelings in punishing a daughter. His farewell, "Leb wohl," is heartbreaking.

General Director David Gockley appeared onstage beforehand to ask the audience's "indulgence" for soprano Nina Stemme, who performed despite a viral infection, but it was hardly necessary. After some cautious singing in the early going, the handicap was not noticeable. Stemme brought to the oft-lampooned Brunnhilde a wild, tomboyish quality, entirely appropriate to a girl who spends her free time scouring battlefields for heroes. During the tension-filled father-daughter debate of Act III, Stemme and Delevan performed the great trick of extracting intimate, everyday familial interactions from epic mythology.

Former SFO music director Donald Runnicles returned to warm ovations, and justified them by leading the orchestra in a strenuous attack on Wagner's score, especially in the lush low-string tones of the opening scene. Costume designer Catherine Zuber excelled in the subtleties of her modern outfits, giving her gods and heroes flowing overcoats to evoke the robes of an earlier day. The company continues to have fun playing with fire, in this case a ring of flames that sprouts directly from the set to protect the sleep-cursed Brunnhilde.

Image: Mark Delevan as Wotan, Nina Stemme as Brunnhilde. Photo by Cory Weaver.

Through June 30, War Memorial Opera House, 301 Van Ness Avenue, San Francisco. $15-$360, 415/864-3330,

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

San Francisco Opera, "La Fanciulla del West," June 12, 2010

I once asked Salvatore d'Aura - a former assistant to Puccini - why La Fanciulla del West isn't performed more often. He replied that it demands a soprano of near-superhuman abilities. Watching my first-ever Fanciulla - and a near-superhuman performance by Deborah Voigt - I was reminded of last summer's SFO production of Porgy and Bess. Both works represented unprecedented fusions of ethnic forms - and both were far too ahead of their time to be truly appreciated.

Fanciulla incorporates American folk forms like ragtime (even a quote from "Camptown Races") but is clearly composed from Puccini's ever-evolving Italian palette, including oriental touches influenced by Madama Butterfly. But perhaps the more fascinating experience is witnessing Puccini's steady advance into through-composing, and his ability to turn his music on a dime to reflect temporal conditions in the drama (e.g., the snowstorm in Act II). This "crop-shot" effect would greatly influence the development of the Hollywood soundtrack. Considering his life-long obsession with theatrical realism (and a long line of exhausted librettists to prove it), it's easy to see Puccini developing into the ideal 20th-century composer, were it not for the throat cancer that cut short his life.

This realism is also reflected in Fanciulla's characters - a love triangle reminiscent of Tosca, but each of its members much more nuanced. In a gold rush mining town deprived of female company, Minnie reigns over the Polka saloon much as Tosca reigned over the concert hall. Her primary admirer, Sheriff Jack Rance, is given to Scarpia-like abuses of power, but is often held back by a tender side. And Minnie's mysterious lover, Dick Johnson - far from the idealistic artist of Cavaradossi - turns out to be a Mexican bandit trying to kick the family business.

The secret of SFO's success is a beautifully cast central trio. As Rance, Italian baritone Roberto Frontali is solid from moment one, creating an alpha-male presence in the saloon without ever seeming tyrannical. His singing is resounding and lovely, beginning with his backstory aria, "Minnie, dalla mia casa." As Dick, tenor Salvatore Licitra takes a while to warm up, not really finding his energy till the second act, but taking flight from there. His performance of the opera's only self-contained piece, "Ch'ella mi creda libero e lontano," as Dick faces the hangman's noose, is passionate and powerful, marked by gorgeous top-notes.

As for our Ms. Voigt, I literally cannot say enough. In her first-ever Minnie, she demonstrates an amazing timbral range, singing arias like the Act I "Laggiu nel Soledad, ero piccina" with a bright Italian lyricism, but pulling out her customary Lady Macbeth flamethrower for moments like the climax of Act II. Winning Dick's freedom in a card game with Rance, she throws down her cards with a delicious vengefulness. Her performance in Act 3, as she trades on her years of devoted service to save Dick from the noose, is intensely moving.

Stage director Lorenzo Mariani marshals his troops with style, creating one of the most action-packed productions I've ever seen, complete with a good old-fashioned barrom brawl choreographed by Jonathan Rider. Chorus director Ian Robertson and his men create a group of rowdy-but-sensitive '49ers, while Nicola Luisotti and orchestra bring out the exceptional power of Puccini's score.

The hometown crowd was well aware of the opera's unique California setting, particularly when someone announced that Dick "must be from San Francisco - he wants his whiskey with water." A poignant supporting turn is delivered by tenor Steven Coles as bartender Nick. Gotta love the product-placement supertitle, "It's a great day for Wells Fargo," especially with a full-page Wells Fargo ad in the program. Puccini's particular approach to through-composing often means turning a single line into a mini-aria, illustrated by Minnie's line to Dick: "How often I hoped to see you again." This seemingly simple phrase takes a dramatic upward flight before settling back down to a sudden shyness.

And then there's the Andrew Lloyd-Webber thing. The Puccini estate sued the composer for purloining the climactic phrase of Dick's opening aria, "Quello che tacete" for Phantom of the Opera's "The Music of the Night." Hearing the phrase in its original context, there's no doubt it's an exact copy. What's worse, Puccini uses it as a recurring motif for the Dick-Minnie romance, and every time it comes back my brain drags it into that insipid song like a Pavlovian dog. (The suit was settled out of court, and I think I'd like a cut.)

Voigt made her Act 3 entrance on Whiz Kid, an 11-year-old carriage horse from Martinez, then repeated the trick for her curtain call. Amazingly calm animal, and accompanied by two of its owners just in case. Voigt and Luisotti will both appear in the Metropolitan's 100th anniversary of Fanciulla's premiere (first performed at the Met December 10, 1910, with Puccini overseeing the production).

Through July 2, War Memorial Opera House, 301 Van Ness Avenue, San Francisco. $15-$360, 415/864-3330,

Michael J. Vaughn is a 25-year opera critic and author of the award-winning opera novel Gabriella's Voice, available at

Image: Salvatore Licitra as Dick Johnson, Deborah Voigt as Minnie. Photo by Cory Weaver.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

San Francisco Opera, Faust, June 8, 2010

Having managed to avoid "Faust" for 25 years, I look forward to never seeing it again. A glacially paced setting of Goethe's story, Gounod's opera simply fails theatrically, and its church-endorsed propaganda has not weathered the past 150 years well.
This is no fault of the forces at SFO, who gave a flawed but ambitious performance. The production's primary delight is right where it should be: bass-baritone John Relyea's Mephistopheles. Relyea delivers a prototypical black-licorice thundervoice (particularly in the second-act golden calf song, "Le veau d'or"), and he and stage director Jose Maria Condemi leave no comic stone unturned: covering the eyes of a Madonna statue during the seduction scene, coughing and waving away the special-effects smoke, dragging a harlot by the ankles. The techie tricks are nice, too, including a shattering sword, a well with an elevator and a statue that bleeds wine.

Another large presence is Brian Mulligan as Margeurite's brother Valentin. Mulligan's baritone has tremendous size and power, and he plays the role with passionate intensity, particularly in his fatal duel with Faust.

Italian tenor Stefano Secco played the milquetoast title character a little too wimpy. Vocally, he delivers tremendous top-notes, but fails to maintain his energy at the less-spectacular moments. This was true especially of the famed cavatine "Salut! demeure chaste et pure."

The most distressing disappointment came from soprano Patricia Racette as Margeurite. Racette displays a few elements of her estimable palette - her care for crafting the quiet passages, her abiity to imbue a doormat character with personality and pathos (the spinning air, "Il ne reveient pas") but her top notes were unstable, weighted down by an oversize vibrato and unclear pitch. Racette is a personal favorite, so I'm hoping she was just having a bad night.

Mezzo Daniela Mack was a complete delight as Margeurite's young admirer, Siebel (the flower song, "Faites-lui mes aveux"). Condemi and the chorus created a lively crowd for the fairgrounds scene. The nighttime garden is a marvel of blue lights (lighting designer Duane Schuler) and the final-scene stairway to heaven from the Chicago Lyric production (designer Robert Perdziola) is dazzling. Maurizio Benini and orchestra handled Gounod's elegant score with aplomb (with help from Ernest Knell's backstage organ work). Mephistopheles' gypsy-fiddler outfit is wild and fun (costume supervisor Kristi Johnson)

Through July 1 at War Memorial Opera House, 301 Van Ness, San Francisco. $15-$360. 415/864-3330.

Image: soprano Patricia Racette (Margeurite) and tenor Stefano Secco (Faust). Photo by Cory Weaver.

Michael J. Vaughn is the author of the opera novel "Gabriella's Voice," available at The sequel, "Operaville," will be released this fall, with a companion CD of arias by soprano Barbara Divis.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Opera San Jose

Irene Dalis Vocal Competition
May 22, 2010
California Theater, San Jose, California

Soprano Danielle Talamantes won over both audience and judges in the 4th Annual Irene Dalis Vocal Competition, winning both the $15,000 Grand Prize and the $5,000 Audience Favorite Award with her performance of Meyerbeer's "Ombre legere" and "Ach, ich fuhls" from Mozart's Die Zauberflote.

For this critic - a slave of the soprano voice - handicapping the contest was a tricky chore, since Talamantes was the only soprano. The ten finalists - drawn from 90 participants in the West Coast regional opera auditions - included four mezzos, three baritones, one bass and one tenor. The job got trickier due to the showpiece nature of Meyerbeer's aria, in which Talamantes displayed masterful control and easy top-notes. But the soprano clinched my vote with her handling of the Mozart, Pamina's reaction to Tamino's shunning of her affections. Her handling of the final line, especially, was a jewel of legato phrasing. So I took my poker chip (each attendee gets one) and dropped it in the appropriate box.

The judges were James Caraher, artistic director of Indianapolis Opera; Lotfi Mansouri, former artistic director of San Francisco Opera; and Christina Scheppelmann, artistic director of Washington National Opera. Second Prize went to baritone Jonathan Beyer, who took on the difficult repetitions of John Adams' "News has a kind of mystery" from Nixon in China. Third went to baritone Jerett Gieseler, who endowed Ford's aria, "E sogno e realta" from Falstaff, with an edgy intensity. A special Wagner award went to bass Silas Elash, an Opera San Jose regular, who performed "Leb wohl, du kuhnes, herrliches Kind" from Die Walkure.

I must confess, I completely misguessed the second and third choices. My second went to mezzo Lisa van der Ploeg, who was utterly possessed by Azucena's confessional "Condotta ell'era in ceppi" from Trovatore. My third was tenor Nova Safo, who clowned his way through Beppe's Aria from Pagliacci and, in Mozart's "Il mio tesoro" produced gorgeous and amazingly breath-free lines. Two other arias of note were mezzo Kathryn Leemhuis's entertaining "What a movie!" from Bernstein's resurgent Trouble in Tahiti, and mezzo Betany Coffland's comically exasperated rendition of Dorabella's "Smanie implacabili" from Cosi fan tutte.

The competition followed the standard format of five or six arias for each singer, from which the singer picks one to perform, and the judges pick the second. Daniel Lockert did a fantastic job of handling the difficult accompaniment duties. The entire $50,000 in prize money was provided by an anonymous donor.

See for more info and offerings for the '10-'11 season. 408/437-4450.

Image: Danielle Talamantes

Michael J. Vaughn's eleventh novel, Operaville, will be out this fall, with a companion CD of arias by soprano Barbara Divis. See for audio excerpts.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Opera San Jose

Puccini's "La Rondine"

April 24, 2010

It was a night of couples at Opera San Jose, as the company presented Puccini's elegant, understated gem. And things began with Doretta's Song, which is always an interesting phenomenon, being heard so much more often in recitals and recordings than in its dramatic context. The first surprise comes when it's presented by the tenor, playing the poet Prunier, as a fanciful story that foreshadows some of the "real" action in the opera. Prunier leaves those trademark sustenatos to the orchestra, then gives way as our prima donna, Magda, decides to finish his story in a romantic vein (Doretta rejecting the rich man for the poor student, yeah, sure).

It's not fair at all to foist these notes on a soprano five minutes into the evening, and a Magda could be forgiven for blaring her way into them, but Rebecca Davis went for the route that made her February Contessa Almaviva so touching, beginning with a tonal seed and growing it into a lovely, blossoming tree through the line. Davis's singing is an evening-length delight, at both extremes: the gem-like quiet of her Act 1 wishes for an evening out (working up her courage to escape her benefactor) or the unexpected power of her passages with her dream-lover, Ruggero.

It's a good thing she's got that power, too, because Ruggero comes in the form of Christopher Bengochea, an OSJ alum whose always sublime lyric tenor has suddenly taken on a spinto muscularity. The power of both singers comes through especially in the final quartet of the second act in Cafe Momus, er, Bullier's, "Bevo al tuo fresco sorriso," and the final anguished duet of the third-act breakup, "Ma come puoi lasciarmi." Bengochea's new sound fits well with Ruggero's scarily monogamist passions.

Our second couple is Marcello and Mus...,er, Prunier and Lisette, Magda's housemaid, who pretend to hate each other while carrying on a torrid affair - but, in fact, really do quite often hate each other. It's a great bit of fun that tenor Michael Dailey and soprano Khori Dastoor make the most of, particularly in a third-act moment of slapfight-as-foreplay (this current group of OSJ residents are the best slappers I've ever seen). With her physical gags and facial expressions, Dastoor continues to show a great facility with the underrated skills of opera comedy, and both singers offer vocal pleasures, as well: Dastoor with Lisette's sudden, powerful protestations, and Dailey with his remarkably beautiful tones above the staff (particularly in a touching flirtation in Act I).

The surest sign that stage director Jose Maria Condemi is in town is the barely controlled chaos of Cafe Momus, er, Bullier's. The atmosphere is almost cartoonish, helped not a little by the linebacker-size men in the chorus (where do we get these guys?). The act offers some lively divertimentos - for example, the dance quartet of Taggart Frost, Mary Ines, Maurice Monge and Svenja Reinschmidt - but retains the feeling that all of this is being produced spontaneously, in the style of an actual cafe. The setting of the opera's final moments - Ruggero ruined, lying on the ground as Magda exits to the call of church bells, is as beautifully arranged as a Rembrandt. (Condemi's work has hardly gone unnoticed; he was just appointed artistic director at Opera Santa Barbara.)

Larry Hancock continues to be a divine materials-at-hand set designer, outfitting Bullier's with striking blue-screen windows, and concocting an Act 3 seaside terrace with a bracing feeling of expansiveness. (The sky-screen, however, needs a little ironing toward audience-left.) The supertitle prize, meanwhile, goes to the exclamation of one of Magda's working-girl colleagues: "Money is so expensive!"

David Rohrbaugh and orchestra brought the most from Puccini's lovely score, particularly the bittersweet strings accompanying Magda's final, critical decision. The musicians showed their collective cool when the audience gave Bengochea an unexpected applause in Act 3, maintaining a tremolo until the clapping ceased, then smoothly kicking back in to Magda's response.

I can't recount how many times I have included the name Sara Beukers in my reviews, but this will apparently be the last. The wig and makeup designer has worked on 67 OSJ productions. The times I didn't mention her name were probably nights like this one, when her creations blended smoothly and effectively with the feel and action of the opera (although at this point I should re-mention her high-larious creations for the ugly sisters in "La Cenerentola"). I offer my thanks to Sara for so many years of outstanding work.

Through May 9, California Theater, 345 S. First Street, San Jose. $51-$91, 408/437-4450,

Michael J. Vaughn is a 25-year opera critic whose novel, "Operaville," will be released this fall.

Photo by Chris Ayers.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Opera San Jose's "Marriage of Figaro"

February 6, 2010

Thanks to stage director Peter Kozma, the folks at Opera San Jose have themselves a raucous and merry "Marriage of Figaro." In Figaro's "Non piu andrai" - poking fun at teen lothario Cherubino's exile to the military - the pair employ two small trunks as barricades and suffer a fusillade of lingerie hand grenades from Susanna, who in turn dies a tiwrling, agonizing death from a camisole missile. Picture a whole opera of this stuff. Kozma leaves no comic stone unturned, and he also encourages a high level of physicality; you've never seen a cast so fond of fondling, and slapping each other silly.

The current group of OSJ residents is well-tailored to this opera, beginning with soprano Khori Dastoor, who occupies ever cell of Susanna, housemaid eye of playwright Beaumarchais' storm. The only small complaint is her tone, which seems too covered for Susanna's traditionally saucy lyric - except, oddly, in the recitatives and the final aria, "Deh vieni, non tardar," which takes on a pleasing sultriness.

A similar tradeoff comes with baritone Brian Leerhuber, who lacks the low end for his opening aria, "Se vuol ballare," but whose agility in the higher spaces enables a nimble "Non piu andrai" and a hilarious, fast-paced "Aprite un po queglocchi," Figaro's pointed rant on womanhood. His physical gags are excellent, from a dead fall during the "Sua madre" revelation to the cuckold torments of the garden scene.

I have already developed the belief that mezzo Betany Coffland can do no wrong on a stage, and this, her first trouser role, is further evidence. Coffland plays Cherubino as the traditional cad-in-training, but one who literally cannot keep his eyes off the Countess whenever she's in the room. This bluster/blush dichotomy is a perfect summary of male teenhood, and her rendition of a boy "running like a girl" is freakin' hilarious. "Non so piu" and "Voi che sapete" are just the hummable delights one would expect, especially the touching coda of the former.

The striking thing about our royals is that they look so royal. Perhaps baritone Krassen Karagiozov is cheating, importing his classical features from Bulgaria, but he also plays well as the everfrustrated Count Dawg, er, Almaviva, especially during the jealous furies of the closet scene.

Soprano Rebecca Davis projects her nobility with graceful features and eyes that seem to radiate from the stage. She takes one of the most pathos-equipped characters in opera (especially for those who know "The Barber of Seville") and delivers in spades, employing an impressive dynamic range - from fill-the-hall forte to lean-forward piano - to shape the tender phrases of "Porgi Amor" and "Dove sono." Then, just as you're feeling gorged with music, she pairs with Susanna for "Che soave zeffiretto," the most delicious female harmonies this side of "Lakme."

It was great to have founding conductor David Rohrbaugh behind the podium, although he seemed to be having a little tempo-debate with our fiances in the opening scene. I could listen to Bartolo, bass Silas Elash, sing the phone book and be happy for hours (or perhaps a few Darth Vader quotes). Baritone Bill Welch, meanwhile, adds to his growing list of screwballs (see Guillot in September's "Manon") with the raving, purple-wigged one-man party of Don Basilio. The woodsy screen behind Larry Hancock's garden set is sublime, as was another earth-colored concoction, the Count's rococo dressing gown in Act II (costume coordinator Alyssa Oania).

I do realize that Opera San Jose has a tradition of cutting their operas to size, but the garden scene of the Count seducing his own wife when he thinks he's seducing Susanna (cited by Salieri as an example of Mozart's genius in the play "Amadeus") was sorely missed. It's an irresistible moment of conflict, sadness and humor all in one.

Through Feb. 21, California Theater, 345 S. First Street, San Jose, CA. $51-$91, 408/437-4450, Alternating casts.

Opera San Jose will begin its '10-'11 season with the West Coast premiere of David Carlson's 2007 "Anna Karenina" (Sept. 11-26) followed by "Tosca" (Nov. 13-18), "The Barber of Seville" (Feb. 12-27) and "La Boheme" (April 23-May 8).
Photo by Chris Ayers.

Michael J. Vaughn is a 25-year opera critic and author of ten novels. His latest, "The Monkey Tribe," is available at