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