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.