Saturday, November 22, 2014

San Francisco Opera's La Boheme

Michael Fabiano as Rodolfo. Photos by Cory Weaver.
November 19, 2014

Once in a while you have to begin an opera review by simply saying, “Wow!”

As in, who is this Michael Fabiano guy playing Rodolfo and where did he get that voice? It wasn’t evident right away. During the fratboy hijinks that begin Puccini’s opera, he struck the listener simply as a young man gifted with a strong tenor and ideally suited to the role. About halfway through his introduction to Mimi, “Che gelida manina,” that voice began to grow – and he was making a demanding aria look way too easy. Fabiano’s tone is supremely broad, just as forceful as the best spinto but without a spinto edge. (Not that that edge is undesirable – many aficionados treasure it – but it’s rare to hear this kind of power without it.)

Fabiano is the first person to receive the Richard Tucker Award and the Beverly Sills Artist Award in the same year (2014), and appeared in SFO’s 2011 production of Lucrezia Borgia with Renee Fleming. I also heard from an old college classmate who reported, “He’s always sounded like that.” The kid is going places.

Christian Van Horn (Colline), Michael Fabiano (Rodolfo), Dale Travis (Benoit), Alexey Markov (Marcello) and Hadleigh Adams (Schaunard).
In the face of all this ease and suavity, soprano Alexia Voulgaridou’s “Mi chiamano Mimi” seemed a bit labored, but by the café scene she was warmed up, and her opening to the “death duet,” “Son partiti?”, sung over a bed of plaintive minor strings, was vastly memorable. Playing Marcello, baritone Alexy Markov was wise not to compete with Rodolfo’s power, and also played the painter with a more serious aura than usual. In Act III, after the deliciously Italian squabble with Musetta, his intense reaction underscored the ironic flip-flop of the scene, the M’s breaking up yet again just as Rodolfo and Mimi are getting back together.

Nadine Sierra as Musetta.
And what a Musetta! Soprano Nadine Sierra plays the famed Waltz in a luscious vamp, her voice equal parts oil and vinegar, assisted by generous space from conductor Giuseppe Finzi, and finishes with a long, dazzling diminuendo. She makes mincemeat of her poor benefactor, Alcindoro (played by the invaluable bass-baritone Dale Travis, who also plays the landlord Benoit) and absolutely conquers the scene. Assisted by a superb children’s chorus, a bird-seller done up like The Magic Flute’s Papageno, a perfectly San Franciscan family of black parents, a white kid and an Asian kid (Ethan Chen, who delivers his lines with bravado), and a genuine walk-through band of brass and drums, this is probably the best Café Momus scene I’ve ever witnessed. (Kudos to stage director John Caird.)

Among the bohemians, baritone Hadleigh Adams lends great fun and energy as the musician Schaunard, and Christian Van Horn gives an extra measure of profundity to philoospher Colline’s Coat Aria. (Oddly, Van Horn is also playing a philosopher in SFO’s production of Rossini’s La Cenerentola). Opera San Jose fans, meanwhile, will find one of their alums, baritone Torlef Borsting, playing the customs house officer.

The Cafe Momus set.
David Farley’s set design is a star performer unto its own. The backdrops are composed of canvas paintings, arrayed in an almost cubist patchwork. Between acts 1 and 2, and 3 and 4, half of these ascend to the flies, while the rest spin around to form the following scene. It’s a trick worthy of David Copperfield.

Part of Boheme’s remarkable legacy is that it reveals new wrinkles even after dozens of viewings, and the following are a few examples:

--The theme underscoring the garret opening is very similar to “Mia gelosa,” the title character’s leitmotif in Tosca.

--The Mimi-Rodolfo meeting is the most gloriously composed coffee date ever (even in the painfully male tendency to lay out one’s own awesome qualities before asking the girl a single thing).

--A great line from Benoit: “Skinny women are malicious.”

Alexia Voulgaridou as Mimi, Michael Fabiano as Rodolfo.
--The fake duel of Act IV is accomplished with a fireplace poker and shovel, which allows for much percussion, but still I miss the traditional baguette epee.

--The most powerful quality of the opera is a Woody Allen ability to juggle comedy and tragedy at the same time (e.g., the interruption of said swordfight by the entrance of a dying Mimi). Life is exactly like that.

--A thought on Rodolfo from an actual bohemian (me): the thing that really scares him about Mimi is that her illness will ruin his chance to become a great writer.

This last point was also made by William Berger in an excellent article in the SFO program, “Everything You Know About La Boheme is Wrong,” in which he also made this lovely cross-genre reference:

“When Mimi dies, it is sad – we hear a “shiver” and the orchestra wanders harmonically unanchored into any one key (as if to say something’s vaguely wrong, but neither we nor the characters on stage are sure what exactly yet). It is only when Rodolfo finally figures out what has happened that the orchestra thunders out the unforgettable chords in the inherently sad key of c-sharp minor. (This is the key of the evocative adagio first movement of Beethoven’s “Moonlight” Sonata; other readers might also recognize this key from Led Zeppelin’s equally moody song “No Quarter,” with the lyric ‘walking side by side with death…’”)

SFO’s program notes are routinely divine (especially the regular articles by Thomas May), but this one will especially please my Zephead friends. I add my own contribution below: my poem “Marcello’s Lament,” first published in the 1992 issue of Eclectic Literary Forum (Tonawanda, New York).

Through Dec. 7, War Memorial Opera House, 301 Van Ness Avenue, San Francisco. Alternating casts. $25-$370, 415/864-3330,

Michael J. Vaughn is a 30-year opera critic and a widely published author and poet. His series of poems inspired by operas appears in the collection Great Showtunes of the American Stage, available on Amazon Kindle.

 Marcello's Lament

(For Robert Pesich)

"To the ancient Egyptians, these stars (of Orion's Belt) were the resting place of the soul of Osiris, god of the underworld and a symbol of creativity and the continuity of life…"
            --National Audubon Society Field Guide to the Night Sky

Starving tenor finds the stone on a
black sand beach covered in driftwood

(If I said the wood was white as bones
I would be giving it away)

He kneels on the sand
where the ocean comes through the rocks
and reaches into the ribs of a burnt-out cello
plowing a pyramid of blackened chars
until he fingers the edges of its mineral heart
and pulls it into the sun

(If I said it was as red as Betelgeuse
I would be lying)

The stone is a jealous stone
it takes away his lovers
takes away his sleep
leaves his pockets thin and sallow

She is
Musetta, the woman you cannot
but if you hold her to your ear
she will sing you bright waltzes
and turn her lollipop eyes at you across the café

But the song and the glance are not enough
so Marcello takes the stone and grinds it up
spreads it across his Sunday salad

(If I said the dressing was Roquefort
I would be saying too much)

The fragments trunkle their way through his veins
and gather at the aorta
pressing northward to make his heart skip
on nights when Artemis neglects her duty
and mountainside lanterns
burst like meteors through the Paris streets

Years after Mimi's last breath
he comes back to the sea to
bare his skin to the inkwell sky
and wait for Orion's Belt to burn him down
leaving a coal as red as Betelgeuse
for the timpani waves to steam away

Photo by Michael J. Vaughn

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

San Francisco Opera: Rossini's La Cenerentola

Efrain Solis as Dandini, Zanda Svede and Maria Valdes as Tisbe and Clorinda.  
November 16, 2014

With a rather straightforward rendition of Rossini’s second-favorite comedy, SFO managed to bring out the serious underlying themes in the work as well as the usual chaos, producing a vastly entertaining three hours. This was due largely to an experienced cast supremely in tune with the Rossini style.

Jean-Pierre Ponnelle’s 1969 set is a work of art unto itself, composed of multi-story flats that don’t pretend to be houses and castles at all but more the covers of storybooks, festooned with illustrative drawings of mermaids, gargoyles, knights and nymphs. Whenever the performance slowed down (which wasn’t often), I found my eyes drifting over these imaginative figures.

Karine Deshayes as Angelina, Rene Barbera as Don Ramiro.
Under the stage direction of Gregory Fortner, Rossini and librettist Jacopo Ferretti’s characters are surprisingly human. The sisters, Clorinda and Tisbe, are not as caricaturized as usual;  their ugliness comes through more in their tackiness and greed.  The curtain rises on Tisbe (mezzo Zanda Svede) obsessing over her dancing and Clorinda (soprano Maria Valdes) obsessing over her beauty. (In a modernized production, I picture them taking selfies.) Svede plays her part with the energy of a human spring, while the taller Valdes plays the oaf. The “dance” moves they use to approach the Prince are indescribably hilarious.

Playing their father, Don Magnifico, baritone Carlos Chausson is a Rossini master, investing his portrayal with every gag available. In the beginning, as he goes on about his troublesome daughters (“They’re certainly a pair of gargoyles”), he’s even likeable. What he is most magnifico at are the patter numbers. Perhaps it’s the supersonic tempi employed by conductor Jesus Lopez-Cobos, but I had never noticed how unceasingly rapid is Cenerentola’s score.

Efrain Solis as Dandini, Rene Barbera as Don Ramiro.
Relative newcomer (and SFO Adler fellow) Efrain Solis does a lovely job with the baritone role of Dandini, the Prince’s valet, who tests the daughters’ character by pretending to be the Prince. He makes the most of Dandini’s enjoyment of this flip-flop, and with his wig, moustache and purple suit resembles a young Eric Idle. Bass-baritone Christian Van Horn lends a quiet nobility to Alidoro, the mysterious philosopher who takes the place of the standard fairy godmother.

The vocal fireworks come largely from our charming Prince, Don Ramiro, tenor Rene Barbera, who showed some telling sparks in the first act, then opened the second by tearing down the house with the electric cadenzas of “Si, ritrovarla io guiro.” (A handy bonus is Barbera’s relative resemblance to his “double,” Solis.) An alumnus of SFO’s Merola Opera Program, Barbera is making his company debut with this role. I say, bring him back as often as possible.

Karine Deshayes as Angelina.
Mezzo Karine Deshayes is just as able, and agile, in her vocal turns as Angelina (Cenerentola, Cinderella), displaying robust top notes and navigating the finale of finales, “Non piu mesta” (originally drafted for Almaviva in Barber) with aplomb. She played the part with an understated charm, with one flaw. Surrounded by such young performers, and constant references to her character’s “bright-eyed innocence,” Deshayes might be too old to be playing a teenager. Opera gives a broad leeway on this matter (note the roles that Domingo has played over the years), but in this context, at least, I found it distracting.

Jean-Piere Ponnelle's second-act set. Photos by Cory Weaver.
Sometimes you can judge a performance by what comes through in the story, and what this production reveals is an Enlightenment idea that originated in Athens, was furthered by Jesus of Nazareth, inspired the founding of the United States, and found brilliant expression in Il Barbieri: the notion that one’s worth derives from one’s qualities and actions, and not from one’s birth. What’s even more satisfying is that Rossini and Ferretti deliver this serious, radical concept beneath a pile of laughter.

Angelina’s ball gown was a stunning black number with constellations of diamonds. The many courtiers of the men’s chorus dressed in 19th-century tuxedos and fox-hunting suits, while the principals stuck to the leggings and waistcoats of the 18th. The chorus was pivotal to the comedy, adding an epic size to the chases, food fights and freeze-frames. I always feel like composer and librettist could have mined more laughter from the bracelet-search (a substitute for the usual glass slipper) but that’s probably due to my fondness for Sondheim’s gruesome, crazily funny treatment in “Into the Woods.”

Through November 26, War Memorial Opera House, 301 Van Ness Avenue, San Francisco. $25-$370, 415/864-3330,

Michael J. Vaughn is a 30-year opera critic and author of the best-selling ebook The Popcorn Girl, which is free today (November 19) on Amazon Kindle.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Opera San Jose: Rossini's The Italian Girl in Algiers

Nathan Stark as Mustafa, Lisa Chavez as Isabella. Photos by Pat Kirk.
November 15, 2014

With its reputation for tragedy and pathos, opera, at times, is sorely underrated as a comic form. Which is too bad, because there’s nothing like laughing one’s butt off while being bathed in elegant music. This was most definitely the experience of Opera San Jose’s brilliantly Marxist (as in Marx Brothers) presentation of Rossini’s early-career smash.

The setup of Angelo Anelli’s libretto is tremendously clever. The Turkish Bey, Mustafà, is tired of his submissive harem and wants one of those irresistible Italian girls (a nice play to Rossini’s home audience). Giving his right-hand man, Haly (Silas Elash), the assignment to find him one of these girls, he adds, “If you have not found one in six days, I shall have you impaled on a stake.” Conveniently enough, an Italian ship wrecks nearby, supplying the local pirates with all kinds of treasure (including the Mona Lisa!) and an actual Italian girl, Isabella, who just happens to be searching for her lost lover, Lindoro, who just happens to be a slave belonging to Mustafà. Got all that?

It’s almost as if stage director Michael Shell sized up all this silliness and said, “I will milk this thing until someone dies laughing.” He began by outfitting his men’s chorus in roly-poly fat suits that jiggle with every move. The suits provided a background of snickers and chuckles all night. Much of the remaining laughter was generated by bass Nathan Stark, who plays the Mustafà with a stout voice and an impressive package of comic skills: pratfalls, dance moves, striptease, hisses, gasps, barks, and a series of rubberized facial expressions that make one susect that he is, in fact, a cartoon character. Matthew Hanscom gives a similar performance as Isabella’s feckless chaperone Taddeo, employing a blinding grin that seems to take over half his face.

Michael Dailey as Lindoro.
The vocal highlight comes from tenor Michael Dailey, a former OSJ resident artist whose lyric voice has become even more lyric, particularly in Lindoro’s introductory cavatina, “Languir per una bella” and the patter duet with Stark, “Se inclinassi a prender moglie.” With his striking looks and calm demeanor, Dailey also gives the opera, in Lindoro, an eye in the storm of wackiness. (A second “eye” is Mustafà’s main girl, Elvira, played with elan by soprano Isabella Ivy.)

The strong spine of the story is Isabella, a particularly strong female character (and a precursor to Rosina from Barber). OSJ has just the right performer in mezzo Lisa Chavez, who possesses a powerful, agile instrument (exhibiting beautiful clarity in her bel canto ornamentations), and that ineffable ability to command the stage. She also projects that irresistible quality of the girl-next-door who nonetheless knows how to engineer a seduction.

The great reward of this cast is how they work together, and the hilarious tableaux constructed by director Shell. Taking one of Rossini’s standard sanity-questioning choruses, he turns Mustafà into the centerpiece of one of those complicated German clocks, the other characters taking turns striking him like a bell. In another, he sets them all adrift on a rolling couch, pushed across violent seas by a trio of roly-polys. And the ceremony for awarding Mustafà the title of Papataci – flying pasta everywhere! – is so crazy I’m going to make you see it yourself.

Matthew Hanscom as Taddeo.
Steven Kemp’s set design is based mostly on painted flats with interwoven Turkish patterns, but equipped with enough secret openings for an episode of Laugh-In. Ming Luke led the orchestra in a particularly breezy performance (breezy being a particularly Rossinian quality), accentuated by the fetching flute motif of the overture. It was also fun to follow the recitatives. Veronika Agranov-Dafoe is so in tune with her singers that the harpsichord seems like an extra character, commenting on the action. The costumes, designed by John Lehmeyer, run along the lines of a Perils of Pauline episode, which is vastly fitting to the story.

Through November 30, California Theater, 345 S. First Street, San Jose. $51-$111, 408/437-4450

Michael J. Vaughn is a 30-year critic and author of the novel Operaville, available at

Monday, November 3, 2014

The Popcorn Girl: FREE on Amazon Kindle, Nov. 3

FREE on Amazon Kindle.

The best of the reviews for The Popcorn Girl:

4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Unapologetic August 24, 2014
By CSLowe
Format:Kindle Edition
Michael J. Vaughn’s THE POPCORN GIRL is a tremendously complex and bittersweet novel masterfully researched and honed. Vaughn
is to be congratulated on untangling the “knots” deeply rooted in religious hypocrisy and its oftentimes ancillary manifestation in the abuse of children, who may, in turn, self-mutilate, act out in sexually deviant ways, or fall prey to dissociative disorders to better cope with the aftermath of their traumas. This book is tempered by tremendous compassion and fraught with tension and revelatory psychological wisdom. Moreover, it is set against a backdrop of welcomed razzle-dazzle rock band hijinx, (go ahead and ask me what a dachshund slipper is), descriptions of breathtakingly gorgeous California vistas, and impassioned debates over organized religion, destructive cults, and the legalization of marijuana. As if these elements are insufficient enough to mesmerize a reader, they are all further enhanced by depictions of enough mouth-watering culinary repasts to rival any mealtime scenes lovingly tucked inside the pages of a Dickensian novel.

In an era when one in four women will be molested before they reach 18 and one in six men, Vaughn has navigated some difficult and frightening territory in creating this novel. That said, everyone who reads it no doubt has suffered personally from such incidents or knows a friend or family member who has been victimized by sexual predators and/or religious sociopaths. This is but one reason why THE POPCORN GIRL needs to reach a wider audience. More significantly still, Vaughn tackles this unabashedly dark terrain while simultaneously sustaining the suspense of gradually unraveling the gripping twists and turns of a damaged young woman’s mysterious past and breathing life into characters you care about because they have overcome so many disillusioning experiences with grace, wackadelic humor and indomitable courage. The dialogue is scrumptious, the secondary characters as fully drawn and engaging as the primary ones, and the romance interwoven between the two main protagonists, Paul and Jasmina, yields a compelling exploration of taut sexual and intellectual chemistry. The adjectives frisky, provocative, riveting and risqué come to mind with all the attendant emotions they evoke. Vaughn takes the reader on a balls-on and paradoxically redemptive ride into what it means to overcome and transform adversity into imaginative incursions into what life can look like freed of banal, white-knuckled adherence to religious orthodoxies that more often than not suffocate our deepest longings for autonomy and authentic connection with the Divine.

5.0 out of 5 stars Fantastic read...I definitely recommend this one! July 4, 2012
Format:Kindle Edition|Verified Purchase
Beautifully written novel with so many compelling elements...where to start? Yes, the mystery kept me on my toes. There were so many surprises, it felt like Christmas, albeit a twisted Christmas (it is a psychological thriller after all!) The characters have a depth and charm that really drew me in. There is even a very sweet romance. Interwoven throughout is a thought-provoking exploration of religion and atheism. I've read other books by Michael J. Vaughn; The Popcorn Girl is without doubt my favorite.
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8 of 10 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Religion and Identity September 4, 2012
Format:Kindle Edition|Verified Purchase
As a Catholic school veteran turned Agnostic, I found "Popcorn Girl" fascinating on a number of levels. The story says a lot about the impact of religious upbringing on identity. Can we ever really escape the iconography and the theology embossed in our young minds? Even rebelling against it somehow ties you to your religious background. People, like the characters in Vaughn's book, can wrestle with it their whole lives, sometimes without being aware of it. And the people in "Popcorn Girl" are dealing with religious baggage that made mine feel very light indeed. I loved the main character, Paul, a recovering Jehovah's Witness and vigorous Atheist whose knowledge of religious history would put a holy roller to shame. His efforts to help the tormented Jasmina sort out her murky past while carrying on a fairly torrid romance makes for a great story, with many a shock along the way. As always with Michael Vaughn, the characters are well developed, the story is rewarding, and the dialogue is fluid and clever. I need to reread it, because I think I read the book it in two hours. 
5.0 out of 5 stars Loved the references to my atheist heroes September 8, 2012
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I tend to read more non-fiction than fiction--focusing on books about atheism and science--but the idea of reading a story in which the main players were atheist was irresistible. I'm glad I didn't resist. The book was engaging, well written, and quite a satisfying treat. Thank you, Michael J. Vaughn. 
on August 8, 2014
Format: Kindle EditionVerified Purchase
This was a wonderful read! I was a bit put off at first by what seemed to be obsessing about something that to me is trivial i.e. the evils of religion but I was quickly so entranced by the deeply portrayed characters that I kept on. Soon enough, the plot revealed that religion was a central issue to the story that followed. Difficult content in parts, incredible abuse, but really not surprising in the context. And despite that things seldom work out so well in real life, the ending was totally believable and very redeeming. Loved it!
on January 14, 2014
Format: Kindle EditionVerified Purchase
I have downloaded several hundred books from Amazon.
I have read probably 80-100 of them.
This is the one I liked the best!
on March 18, 2013
Format: Kindle EditionVerified Purchase
Great story about two damaged people and the love that keeps them fighting to help and keep the other. Good read!

on March 9, 2013
Format: Kindle EditionVerified Purchase
When I first started reading this book I almost stopped. Not because it was bad, it just wasn't my type of story. However, years ago I made myself a promise that rather I liked a story or not I would finish it. I am so glad that I made myself that promise. What a truly wonderful contemporary love story. READ IT!!!