Thursday, September 29, 2011

San Francisco Opera: Donizetti's Lucrezia Borgia

Sept. 26, 2011

Renée Fleming’s cadenzas are so gorgeously crafted that the true aficionado may forget there’s some kind of opera going on. She manages to deliver these small treasures without sounding the least bit canary-like, and sings so effortlessly that they seem more like conversations that have taken flight.

This was especially evident in the first-act “Com’ è bello!” an aria sung to her sleeping son Gennaro (who does not know that he is her son). But the artfulness went on all night – for instance, an incredibly gradual crescendo that rises into a riotous chorus later in the act. Twenty years after her SFO debut, Fleming is at the top of her game, and it is an utter joy to watch her cast her spells.

Not that she’s alone. SFO has assembled a cast of one divine bel canto voice after another, beginning with tenor Michael Fabiano as Gennaro. Elizabeth DeShong brings a forceful, vibrant mezzo to the pants role of Gennaro’s warrior-lover Orsini; their third-act duet, with its extended passages of unaccompanied harmonizing, are breath-taking. Another treat is bass Vitalij Kowaljow, a powerful, sinister Duke Alfonso who cuts through the orchestra with his assertive, forward-placed tone.

Musically, this less-performed opera provides some fascinating moments, including a trio for Gennaro, Alfonso and Lucrezia that prefigures devices used by Verdi. Torn between her son and her husband (who assumes Gennaro to be his wife’s lover), Lucrezia’s vocal line flies back and forth between the two like a tennis ball. It’s also a great pleasure to hear the composer’s use of Gennaro’s warriors, akin to having a small men’s chorus.

Dramatically, the opera provides a challenge similar to another recent SFO opera, Puccini’s Turandot: a heroine who also happens to be a mass murderer. The trick is to understand the mythologizing process of the era, which often fell prey to misogyny: in this case, in blaming Lucrezia for the sins of her family. Donizetti clearly allows for this possibility, using Victor Hugo’s empathetic play as his source material, and creating the kind of music that could only serve to soften the historical view of Lucrezia. It’s also intriguing to note the parallels (mistaking a child for a lover, killing a child in a bungled attempt at revenge), in a previous Hugo play, Le Roi S’Amuse, the source for Verdi’s Rigoletto.

The vision of a woman dressed as a man kissing a man (dressed as a man) is a bit of pseudo-homerotica rare even for San Francisco. Another unsettling vision is created by the device used for Lucrezia’s throat-slicing suicide, a knife blade that spouts blood. John Pascoe’s production design is both authentic – the series of Italian limestone walls and facades that shuffle into the opera’s different settings – and fantastical – costumery that takes medieval Italian styles and push them in the direction of fantasy-fiction comic books. Alfonso projects his wicked aura with a black leather robe and crown. Lucrezia turns up in Act III as something akin to Brunnhilde meets Wonder Woman (a testament to Fleming’s well-known workout regimen). The only misfire was with Orsini, whose leggings do nothing to hide Ms. DeShong’s womanly hips (while her gruff red beard butches her up quite a bit).

Conductor Riccardo Frizza guided his orchestra like a man opening a musical treasure chest on Christmas morning. He showed great care in giving his lead singers room to operate.

Through Oct. 11, War Memorial Opera House, 301 Van Ness Avenue, San Francisco. $30-$389, 415/864-3330,

Image: Renée Fleming (Lucrezia Borgia). Photo by Cory Weaver.

Michael J. Vaughn is a twenty-five year opera critic. You can find excerpts from his latest novel under the Facebook fan page Operaville.

Monday, September 19, 2011

San Francisco Opera: Theofanidis’s "Heart of a Soldier"

Sept. 18, 2011

In the highly compressed world of opera, the idea of a 9/11 opera is truly scary. There’s too much “there” there. In commemorating the tenth anniversary of the Twin Tower attacks, San Francisco Opera landed on the perfect focus: one man’s life, a life that ended on that momentous day. Rick Rescorla, the security chief for the Morgan Stanley investment firm, evacuated all 2,700 of his workers from the South Tower, then, heading back in to seek out stragglers, perished in the ensuing collapse.

The first act of the work, created by composer Christopher Theofanidis and librettist Donna Di Novelli, threatens to fall into a similar trap: trying to sum up a life that is simply too big. This seems especially true of a running Socratic dialogue on the nature of war, conducted by Rescorla and his best friend Dan Hill during tours of duty in Rhodesia and Vietnam. Following a battle in the Ia Drang River Valley, Dan declares “I don’t want to know their names,” while Rick obsesses over every lost soldier. The act feels overburdened with philosophizing, but this is a false sensation. Especially with the glut of attention brought by coverage of the anniversary, one feels impatient to get to the horrors of the main event. In fact, there’s plenty going on in Act 1, it’s all necessary to the conclusive action in Act 2, and the opera’s total running time is a modest two hours, ten minutes.

A crucial line of the narrative centers on the Vietnam platoon’s medic, Tom, played with great heart by baritone Michael Sumuel. A running correspondence with his sweetheart, Juliet (soprano Nadine Sierra), gives the opera a grunt’s-eye view of the real cost, the fear and loneliness of those who wait at home. Tom’s death in battle (one of the more visceral killings you’ll see in an opera) launches Juliet’s aria of worry, “I read and re-read the old letters,” and also helps to illuminate the depth of Rick’s compassion for his men.

The jungle battle scene is terrifying, due to a combination of qualities: singers that actually look and move like soldiers, the use of recorded battle sounds (Tod Nixon, sound designer), a dizzying background of Vietnam-era footage (S. Katy Tucker, projection designer), and Theofanidis’s pulsating, explosive score.

Theofanidis occupies the new school of opera composing, where personal style takes a backseat to the needs of the story. He opens with a troop of Normandy-bound Yanks singing to the tune of the familiar military marching chant (“Left! Left!” etc.) then borrows a Cornish fighting song for young Rick (the fine boy soprano Henry Phipps) to teach to the troops. The wedding song, “Overflow your glasses,” evokes Copland. The drug-addled soldier Dex plays his rifle to the sound of rock guitar, and Dan receives his call to Islam from Mohannad Mchallah, a Syrian singer trained in the secular Mideast form of Muwashshah.

What’s especially welcome – compared to the grinding, moaning tempi of many modern operas – is Theofanidis’s use of rapid rhythms. He applies martial modes throughout, notably in the staccato shouting accents of the training-camp scene at Ft. Benning and the adrenalized, chaotic scenes in Vietnam and at Ground Zero. He even makes use of counterpoint, in a fugue of Morgan Stanley workers gossiping about their strangely intense security chief (“Always watching”).

The second act opens with some much-needed relief: the light-hearted, late-in-life romance between Rescorla and Susan Greer, his New Jersey neighbor. Falling rapidly for each other over coffee, the two fiftysomethings act like teenagers, the accompanying awkwardness delivered by Di Novelli’s artful wit and wordplay in the duet “Do you ever wish?” When Susan assumes that Rick’s Cornwall homeland must be somehow associated with bagpipes, she asks, “Isn’t all the UK kind of bagpipey?” Rick later defends his excessive evacuation drills to his workers by saying, “I’m here to save your asses!” “From what?” they ask. “Exactly!” he replies.

Playing Susan, Melody Moore lights up the stage, delivering extra servings of warmth and humor with her vibrant soprano. William Burden plays Dan Hill with a strong, clear tenor and an underlying toughness. Baritone Thomas Hampson, whose involvement was a primary reason for the opera’s development, performs the forbidding task of taking a half-intellectual, half-warrior, almost mythic figure and making him fully human. “Marathon,” a genuine hit aria foreshadowing the events to come, gives Hampson a chance to shine, backed by sweeping strings and brass.

This central trio provides the perfect setup for the fateful morning: Susan in her bedroom, Dan mowing his lawn as Rick works behind them in the towers: two four-level platforms whose long vertical lines evoke the architecture of the World Trade Center. As the planes strike the North Tower across from them, then their own tower, Rick ignores the Port Authority’s call for the workers to stay put and orders them into their drill, singing all the way down the tower as a way to drive off panic. Hampson’s part could be the first operatic piece delivered entirely through a megaphone (“Exit singing”). Susan and Dan receive their final phone calls from Rick, and react with the same horror and anguish felt by the rest of the country. Moore delivers a fearsome top note as she begs Rick not to go back in (“I want you to stay!”). Burden watches the towers collapse and cries out the names of his friend’s favorite battles: “Marathon! Agincourt! Antietam!”

The set design by Peter J. Davison, and the manipulation of its elements, is masterful. The battle-heavy first act is a dreamlike world of flyaway flats, sets, screens and chin-up bars, augmented by Mark McCollough’s lighting. The eight-ton towers – built by Adirondack Studios in New York – achieve just the right balance of evocation without using actual imagery from the attacks, a smart decision by the production team. The most remarkable image is a rainfall of office papers, providing a moving visual elegy to the lives lost that day. The performance was led by stage director Francesca Zambello, who initiated the project when she read her friend James Stewart’s book of the same title. Conductor Patrick Summers worked with Theofanidis in developing the opera, and led his orchestra in an energetic, nuanced performance.

Through Sept. 30, War Memorial Opera House, 301 Van Ness Avenue, San Francisco. $21-$389. 415/864-3330,

Photo by Cory Weaver.

Michael J. Vaughn is a 25-year opera critic and author of the novel Operaville, available at

Friday, September 16, 2011

San Francisco Opera, Puccini's Turandot

Sept. 14, 2011

As evolutionary creatures, we respond to sudden changes in sound in a primal fashion – as if that sound might be attached to a creature that might eat us. This is why we are energized, sometimes alarmed, by sudden changes in music, and – once we reassure ourselves that we’re not about to end up in someone’s belly – why we often even enjoy the experience.

In Turandot, Puccini created a sonic rollercoaster of haunting elegies and musical grenades to create a provocative mix of fear and love. This aspect of the composer’s last (and unfinished) work was driven home by San Francisco’s resident dynamo, conductor Nicola Luisotti, and a supercharged orchestra, equipped with enough percussion to open a drum store (for the record: four timpani, triangle, snare drum, funeral drum, cymbals, tam-tam, eleven tuned gongs, glockenspiel, xylophone, marimba and chimes).

Not that the rollercoaster was strictly an audio affair. David Hockney’s 1992 set makes a welcome return, its collison of shocking reds, greens and off-kilter architecture creating an otherworldly Peking. The alien feeling is intensified by the haunting Moon Chorus, sung by the villagers before the arrival of a very busy executioner. (Ian Robertson’s chorus sang assertively and beautifully all evening.) After the execution, with its rousing bursts of brass and the Prince of Persia’s snappy yellow and blue robe (because you only die once), Puccini shifts to absurdist humor in the form of Ping, Pang and Pong, clownish administrators of the Imperial household. Attempting to ridicule our hero, Calaf, out of wooing their deadly princess (“Our graveyards are all full, and we have enough lunatics”), Hyung Yun, Greg Fedderly and Daniel Montenegro perform with such vocal and comic tightness, it’s hard not think of them as s single entity. In Act 2, they follow passages of Rossinian patter with a surprisingly touching andantino, “Ho Una casa nell’Honan”) about the homes they never see.

For sheer emotionality, of course, the opera’s peak moment is Liù’s “Signore, ascolta,” and former SFO Adler Fellow Leah Crocetto does not miss her opportunity. Making her role debut, Crocetto sings with a clarity and directness absolutely reminiscent of Montserrat Caballe. Her final note was a soul-shaking, crystalline dream.

Fear and Love make their appearance in the form of Swedish soprano Iréne Theorin and tenor Marco Berti, who battle it out in the Act 2 riddle scene like a hurricane battling a tornado. In the tradition of tenors with awesome voices, Berti is a little too static in his movements. Theorin begins in the same fashion – especially in Turandot’s fearsome “In questa reggia” – but then, at the answering of the third riddle, reveals a beguiling frailty. This helps later, as Puccini and his “finisher,” the much-debated Franco Alfano, attempt to marry off a serial murderer and a schmuck over the dead body of a devoted servant. (Considering his long history of squeezing effective drama out of his harried librettists, I’m betting that a healthier Puccini would have given the whole thing a massive overhaul.)

Puccini’s fascinating late-life experimentation – the ventures into exotic cultures and 20th century musical trends – tend to distract one from these dramatic flaws. SFO’s lavish production – a cast of 199 performers, a second-act palace that seems to go on forever, rhythmic gymnasts whipping ribboned banners all over the place, and one hell of a headdress – is a pretty amazing show all by itself.

Through Oct. 4, War Memorial Opera House, 301 Van Ness Avenue, San Francisco. $21-$389., 415/864-3330. Free simulcast 2 p.m. Sept. 25 at AT&T Ballpark.

Photo by Cory Weaver

Michael J. Vaughn is a 25-year opera critic and author of the novel Operaville, available at

Monday, September 12, 2011

Opera San Jose's "Idomeneo"

Sept. 11, 2011

Thanks to a gift from Hewlett-Packard heir David W. Packard, Opera San Jose made its very first Idomeneo a truly lavish affair. The great thing is, the money went not into showy elegance but to elegant authenticity, a production that seemed like a four-hour exhibit of Bronze-Age Minoan art, architecture and dress.

To modern sensibilities, Mozart’s 1781 creation suffers a bit from its story. Cretan King Idomeneo buys his survival in a shipwreck by promising Neptune he will sacrifice the first mortal he sees upon reaching land. That mortal turns out to be his own son, Idamante. Librettist Varesco then tried to crowbar in some Enlightenment values with a deus ex machina that provided several final-act titters.

The opera is worthwhile, regardless, for a view of Mozart’s most ambitious production, including a decided emphasis on choruses and dance. The company takes full advantage of these elements. Andrew Whitfield’s chorus performs as robustly as I’ve ever heard them, particularly in the opening chorus, “Godiam la pace.” A 15-member dance troupe, meanwhile, performs rustic, athletic interludes – notably in the final coronation scene - choreographed by Ballet San Jose director Dennis Nahat.

It was interesting to see how some of OSJ’s now-familiar voices matched up with the opera’s roles. A perfect example is Sandra Bengochea, who should probably travel the world, seeking out chances to sing Ilia, surviving daughter of the fallen Troy. Ilia’s lilting, lyric lines are a perfect match for Bengochea, and I have never heard her sound more vibrant, particularly in Ilia’s third-act farewell to Idamante, “Zeffiretti lusinghieri.” She makes the most of her phrasing, notably in several beautifully shaped sustenatos, and sings with a relaxed optimism that matches Ilia’s resilient demeanor.

Soprano Jasmina Halimic has the kind of Queen of the Night/Lady Macbeth/Tosca intensity that makes a perfect match for Elettra, particularly in her black-and-gold Evil Queen dress (designed by Johann Stegmeir). Halimic suffered some breathing problems in the second-act “Idol mio, se ritroso,” but stole the show with Elettra’s final-act freakout, “D’Oreste, d’Ajace.”

The only real flaw in tenor Alexander Boyer’s OSJ performances has been a bit of awkwardness in his stage movements, but with the tragedy-stricken monarch, he seems to have settled into his skin. (It also helps, in playing royalty, to be very tall.) He was a little tentative with the runs of the second-act aria “Fuor del mar,” but otherwise received many chances to show off the natural warmth of his tone, especially in the more anguished fortes of the final act, when he is faced with actually carrying out his promise to Neptune.

Speaking of Neptune, the company provided a side of beefcake with Paul Gemignani, who also (kidding aside) endowed the non-singing role with a stern god-like presence. Another side-treat was the quartet of “civilian singers,” Trojan men Jo Vincent Parks and Raymond Chavez; Cretan women Tori Grayum and Jillian Boye, all with lead-level voices.

The great emotional heft of the opera belongs to the role of Idamante, shunned by his father for no apparent reason, and infatuated with a woman, Ilia, who considers him an enemy. These conflicts fall to just the right performer, mezzo Betany Coffland, and the results are wonderful. In Act I, Coffland delivers the heartrending lament, “Il padre adorato,” then curls up on the beach as the curtain falls on Idamante’s befuddlement. This emotionality continues into the affair with Ilia, notably the third-act duet with Ilia, “S’io non moro.” The duet leads into the brilliant quartet, “Andro, ramingo e solo,” in which Elettra, Ilia, Idamante and Idomeneo simultaneously explore their varying conflicts. (In the alternate cast, Idamante is played by a tenor, Aaron Blake, in an alternative score written by Mozart in reaction to the growing movement against castrati.)

The orchestra played under the sure hands of George Cleve, one of the finest Mozarteans in the world, and, given his 21 years as director of the San Jose Symphony, a local favorite. Cleve led orchestra and audience in a longstanding tradition – the opening-weekend singing of The Star-Spangled Banner – that, given the date of the performance, carried much more significance than usual.

Through Sept. 25, California Theatre, 345 South First Street, San Jose. $51-$101. 408/437-4450,

Image: Sandra Bengochea as Ilia. Photo by P. Kirk.

Michael J. Vaughn is a 25-year opera critic and author of the novel Operaville, available at