Tuesday, September 24, 2013

FREE on Amazon Kindle, Sept. 24-25. An amateur opera critic finds himself in an affair with the worlds greatest diva in this rollicking, erotic comedy from the author of Gabriellas Voice. "Hilarious!" (Henry Mollicone)

San Francisco Opera: Tobias Picker’s “Dolores Claiborne”

Sept. 22, 2013

At first blush, Stephen King’s novel may seem an unlikely foundation for an opera, perhaps because opera has drifted into the category of “fine art,” whereas King’s gory, supernatural novels have long occupied the world of popular culture. “Dolores Claiborne,” however, is a more psychological, mystery-based work, and as such makes a more-than-satisfying basis for Tobias Picker’s new opera.

The production begins in cinematic fashion: a brief film of an old woman falling down the stairs, followed by the continuation of an apparent murder, her housekeeper poised above her with a candlestick, acted out on a screened mini-stage. (The use of these quick-opening sub-stages continues throughout the production, enabling a fluid approach to the narrative.) The action moves to an interrogation room, where Detective Thibodeau (the remarkably high-voiced tenor Greg Fedderly) grills housekeeper Dolores Claiborne (Patricia Racette) on the demise of her boss, Vera Donovan (Elizabeth Futral). Instead, Dolores takes us a quarter-century back, when she was married to an abusive drunk, Joe (bass-baritone Wayne Tigges) who had a more than passing interest in in their daughter Selena (soprano Susannah Biller).

Tobias Picker’s approach shows a real dedication to story, even to the extent of employing elements that might be deemed (gasp!) old-fashioned. In laying out the extremity of Vera’s control-freak nature, for instance, he constructs a fugue of harried housemaids over a bed of frenetic low strings. In revealing Joe’s dark intentions toward his daughter, he concocts a playful song over marimbas (“Daddy go up, Daddy go down”) that is both creepy and (a little unfortunately) tremendously catchy. Picker offers a handful of provocative ensemble pieces, including a quartet in which Vera and Dolores hatch an “accident” for Joe while, on a separate stage, Joe seduces Selena.

Another retro feature is the presence of authentic solo set pieces. In “When I was young,” Dolores reflects on her childhood, when the sun would turn the ferry’s wake into gold, an image illustrated by a swell of piano and sweeping strings. The most remarkable piece is for Selena, who takes in the wonder of a solar eclipse even as her father is meeting with his ill fate. The song is lyric and spare, affording Biller the opportunity to indulge in meticulously shaped dynamic lines (a classic bel canto practice that has nearly disappeared in modern opera).

Picker may be at his best, however, in moments of suspense and conflict, which King’s story supplies in spades. Joe’s leitmotif is a swirl of woodwinds and strings that seems forever on the edge of chaos, a device that finds its end in a heart-stopping fight with Dolores, who sees the ax in his hand and says, “Go ahead, Joe – make the first one count.” (Dark humor is a regular feature of J.D. McClatchy’s libretto, especially Vera’s pronouncement that “Sometimes being a bitch is all a woman has to hold on to.”)

Patricia Racette’s strong lower range is a good match for Dolores, a role originally written for mezzo Dolora Zajick. Racette, who also originated roles in Picker’s Emmeline and An American Tragedy, carries the opera with her portrayal of Dolores’s stoic-yet-explosive nature. Soprano Elizabeth Futral makes fearless attacks on Vera’s stratospheric vocal flights, and gives the opera its primary enigma with her loveable/hateable character. Tigges plays Joe in a burly fashion, both vocally and dramatically, giving us a villain so despicable that his demise garners its own applause. Biller’s singing is crystalline and lovely, especially in her Eclipse Song, and she makes an extremely convincing transformation from teenager to 40-year-old lawyer.

The opera’s only flaw is a distinctive lag following Joe’s departure. The only mystery remaining at that point is Vera’s demise, and McClatchy’s libretto turns to reflection and philosophizing. This slowdown may, in fact, be more of an impression than a reality, owing to the pace set by the taut, Hitchockian first act.

James Robinson’s direction, along with set designer Allen Moyer’s array of sub-sets, lends the production a cinematic quality apropos to a King tale (there’s even a reference to Shawshank Prison that will please the movie buffs). The most fascinating visual is Dolores’s backyard, a rolling set that seems to go on forever as she leads Joe to her secret cash-stash. Greg Emetaz’s projections add to the flow, particularly a view of a Maine waterfront that seems to make the ferry set bob up and down. Conductor George Manahan led the orchestra in a sharp, propulsive reading, with occasional moments that were surprisingly lilting. It was amusing to hear occasional swear words sung, and then see the matching supertitle without them. Perhaps a legal strategy?

Through October 4, War Memorial Opera House, 301 Van Ness Ave., San Francisco. $23-$385. www.sfopera.com, 415/864-3330. 

Images: Patricia Racette as Dolores Claiborne. Susannah Biller as Selena, Racette as Dolores and Elizabeth Futral as Vera. Wayne Tigges as Joe. The ferry set. Photos by Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera.

Michael Vaughn is a 25-year opera critic and author of the novel Operaville, which is free on Amazon Kindle Sept. 24-25.

Monday, September 23, 2013

FREE on Amazon Kindle, Sept. 24-25. An amateur opera critic finds himself in an affair with the worlds greatest diva in this rollicking, erotic comedy from the author of Gabriellas Voice. "Hilarious!" (Henry Mollicone)

San Francisco Opera: Boito’s Mefistofele

Sept 20, 2013

In its effort to grasp nothing less than heaven, hell and earth, Boito’s opera is a scattered but intriguing road trip with Satan at the wheel, short on coherence but long on spectacle. The brilliance of Robert Carsen’s iconic 1989 production (revived here under the direction of Laurie Feldman) lies in its ability to milk that sense of spectacle for every drop.

This theatrical radiance reaches a peak almost immediately, with the thunderous crescendo of the heavenly chorus, performed by 120 singers, clothed in white and blue within the interior of a gorgeous 18th-century opera house. Accompanied by the orchestra at full power (and a composer who was not timid with his f’s), the moment was almost an out-of-body experience.

Boito’s devil is much more fun than Gounod’s (largely because Boito has more sympathy for the devil), and Russian bass Ildar Abdrazakov catches his michievous style perfectly, climbing a red ladder from the orchestra pit to deliver the famed wry prologue on the nature of devil, god and man. Abdrazakov combines the requisite quaking low notes, a Ramey-like ability to perform bare-chested and an onstage nimbleness to catch the satanic spirit, singing particularly well in the expressive first meeting with Faust, the Spirit of Denial aria (“Son lo spirito che nega sempre”). His conducting of the chorus in the witches’ sabbath is almost as energetic as Nicola Luisotti’s.

I confess to a serious lack of objectivity when it comes to Ramón Vargas’s gorgeous lyric tenor. Playing Faust, he overcomes his cherubic face to deliver the right sense of gravitas, but the most golden passages are still light-hearted: the romantic courtship of Margherita in Act 2. Patricia Racette’s voice has gained power and weight over the years, and although this lean toward the dramatic pairs well with her acting skills, she sometimes carries it too far. Yes, Margherita opens Act 3 in a prison cell, half-crazed after poisoning her mother and allegedly drowning her baby. But she’s also singing one of her loveliest, darkest arias in existence, “L’altra notte,” and her delivery is marred by gasping breaths and overbroad tones. Perhaps ten percent less actress, ten percent more diva? The aria is followed by a superbly tender duet, “Lontano, lontano,” that displays the compressed beauty of both Vargas’s and Racette’s voices.

The role of Elena (Helen of Troy), is normally taken by the soprano who performs Margherita (Boito’s tribute to the eternal feminine), but at Friday’s performance it was handled by SFO Adler Fellow Marina Harris, who did an excellent job of filling in. This was done, in turn, to enable Racette to replace Dolora Zajick in the world premiere production of Tobias Picker’s “Dolores Claiborne.”

I don’t think more was ever asked of – or delivered by – an opera chorus than in this production. Ian Robertson’s singers partook of the Easter Sunday parade (featuring stiltwalkers, half-clothed angels, a fornicating Adam and Eve, a rain of streamers), then proceeded to the Witches’ Sabbath, where they delivered the madly racing chorus while flinging about remarkably realistic schlongs and ta-tas.

This brand of fearlessness could also be located in the orchestra, which attacked an athletic score with aplomb. Signalling the opening salvo, in fact, Maestro Luisotti tucked the baton behind his ear exactly like a quarterback about to deliver a pass. Michael Levine’s costumes offered one piece of visual candy after another, particularly the devil’s spring suit, a peach affair straight out of “Hello, Dolly” with candy-red shoes and a pink vest. Levine’s Act 2 set is an artfully tilted turntable with four perfect trees, set into motion by a put-upon devil’s minion turning a large crank. The turntable shows up later as Margherita’s prison cell, the trees reduced to mangled corpses.

Through October 2, War Memorial Opera House, 301 Van Ness Avenue, San Francisco. $23-$385, www.sfopera.com, 415/864-3330.

Images: Erin Johnson (Marta) and Ildar Abdrazakov (Mefistofele). The heavenly chorus. Patricia Racette (Margherita) and Ramón Vargas (Faust). Ildar Abdrazakov (Mefistofele) and the witches' chorus. Photos by Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera.

Michael J. Vaughn is a 25-year opera critic and author of the novels Operaville and Gabriella’s Voice. Operaville is FREE for Amazon Kindle downloads, Sept. 24-25.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Opera San Jose: Verdi's Falstaff

September 7, 2013

Opera San Jose continues its flair for season-opening productions with "Falstaff," a festive, well-appointed affair providing baritone Scott Bearden with yet another chance to wow the locals.

Bearden, whose turns as Rigoletto have become the stuff of legend, deftly avoids the trap of playing the portly knight as mere cartoon. His bits of physical humor are more sly than broad (drowning in a basket of linens, wiggling his prodigious butt on the way to woo the ladies) and the rest of his performance gives Sir John a touching humanity. Buffoon, yes, but a buffoon who can deliver a lyric love song (the Act 2 lute song with Alice Ford), or a monologue on the dejecting nature of life (opening Act 3, following his public humiliation). As always, it's a treat watching Bearden operate.

Steven C. Kemp's all-purpose set is brilliantly clever - essentially, the inside of a wine cask, the stage braced by enormous rings emanating from a circular back wall. Also readily apparent is the presence of stage director Jose Maria Condemi (artistic director of Opera Santa Barbara) whose flair for physical comedy shows itself in the opening scene clowning of Falstaff's lieutenants, Pistola and Bardolfo (Silas Elash and Jonathan Smucker). Brutally hung over from the night before, the two take turns on the ground before a large cask, taking direct hits from the tap. Later, Bardolfo chases Dr. Caius (Robert Norman) across the room with a stinky anchovy.

The vocal dessert comes courtesy of our oppressed young lovers, Fenton and Nannetta. Cecilia Violetta Lopez's lovely soprano makes its greatest mark with her third-act spirit song, "Sul fil d'un soffio etesio," while James Callon displays his exquisitely lyric tenor in the third-act sonnet, "Dal labbro il canto."

Verdi's score doesn't allow for much in the way of showcase vocalizing. Approaching 80, the composer was far from stuck in his ways, and actively pursuing the ideas of through-composing and unified drama emanating from Wagner. That said, the best work from Falstaff's love targets, Alice Ford and Meg Page, comes in the form of brisk, tight ensembles, and in this soprano Jennifer Forni and mezzo Lisa Chavez excel, delivering bright tones and bright faces reminiscent of a good "Cosi fan tutte." Mezzo Nicole Birkland, meanwhile, offers sultrier tones as Dame Quickly, the crafter of the Merry Wives' artful revenge. Baritone Zachary Altman shines as Ford, delivering one of the score's few extended solo passages, the jealous arioso "E sogno?", with admirable force.

For sheer virtuosity, you can't beat the tennis match between Alice's female quartet and Ford's male quartet in Act 1 - sign of a septuagenarian genius playing with house money. The lack of extended songs almost leaves the impression of an opera without melodies, but in fact it's quite the opposite. As author Charles Osborne put it, "Verdi scatters tunes throughout Falstaff as though he were trying to give them away."

Andrew Whitfield leads the orchestra at a vigorous pace, keeping with a score that rarely slows down. A particular treat is the sonic stormfront that precedes Ford's jealous invasion in search of the pudgy interloper. The resultant ransacking of the residence is noteworthy for the sheer number of objects, especially small pieces of paper, available for scattering. The chaos is hilarious.

The costumes from Malabar Limited in Toronto are luscious, particularly the festive garden dresses of ladies Ford and Page (with their trademark broad-brimmed hats) and the enchanting blue-and-green sprite dresses of the final-act forest bewitching. Chloe Allen did an excellent job as Falstaff's child servant. A final nod to Arrigo Boito, who is unmatched when it comes to adapting Shakespeare to the operatic stage. His work on Falstaff and Otello is near-miraculous.

Through Sept. 22, California Theatre, 345 S. First Street, San Jose. $51-$111. 408/437-4450, www.operasj.org. Alternating casts.

Images: Mezzo-soprano Lisa Chavez as Meg Page, soprano Cecilia Violetta López as Nanetta, mezzo-soprano Nicole Birkland as Dame Quickly and soprano Jennifer Forni as Alice Ford. Soprano Jennifer Forni as Alice Ford and baritone Scott Bearden as Falstaff. Tenor James Callon as Fenton (left), and baritone Zachary Altman as Ford (center). Photos by Pat Kirk.

Michael J. Vaughn is a 25-year opera critic and author of the novels "Operaville" and "Gabriella's Voice," available at amazon.com.