Tuesday, November 15, 2016

A Truly Bugsy Barber

Opera San Jose’s Barber of Seville
November 12, 2016

Kirk Dougherty as Almaviva, Colin Ramsey as Basilio, Brian James Myer as
Figaro and Renee Rapier as Rosina. All photos by Pat Kirk.
It would appear that the baby boomers who learned their opera from Bugs Bunny have finally taken over the opera house. When the silhouette of a carrot appeared on the curtain during the overture, the audience erupted in laughter, so much that an elderly patron complained it had “spoiled a perfectly beautiful piece of music.” The overture (if you weren’t aware) provided the soundtrack for Warner Brothers’ iconic 1950 Rossini tribute, “Rabbit of Seville.”

Brian James Myer as Figaro.
Carrots appeared in the production, as well, but that’s about as far as it went. Under the direction of Layna Chianakas, the performance offered that delicious Marx Brothers sense of barely controlled chaos, but somehow lacked a unifying vision. (Come to think of it, why not a Marx Brothers “Barber”? The Figaro-Groucho-Bugs lineage is not so far-fetched.)

Brian James Myer is a ridiculously talented Figaro, exhibiting notes both falsetto and basso profundo in his deft attack on the role. In his “Largo al factotum” (featured in the 1949 Bugs cartoon “Long-Haired Hare”), Myer extended the end of one line to the beginning of the next, serving to smooth out a piece that can easily fall into the herky-jerky. The general impression is of a guy on a corner, simply talking about his job, even when the patter is coming fast and furious. (And check out the wild wigs sculpted by Christina Martin.)

It could be that the odd sense of cast disunity came from the fact that no one was going to be anywhere near as smooth as Myer, although Kirk Dougherty gave it a solid run as Count Almaviva. Dougherty’s tenor was as lyric and smooth as ever, and he threw in a bonus by accompanying himself on guitar in the serenade “Se il mio nome.” He and Myer matched up well in the plot-making duet, “All’idea di quel metallo.” The two disguises he undertook to sneak into Rosina’s house were an even split: the nasal voice-teacher was hilarious, but the drunken-soldier routine fell a little flat.

Kirk Dougherty as Almaviva, Renee Rapier as Rosina.
Vocally, our Rosina, mezzo Renée Rapier, was a fascinating trip. The opening lines of the cavatina, “Una voce poco fa,” seemed a little dark and covered, but rising into the upper reaches her tone opened up gloriously, and in the ensemble numbers of the second act she exhibited moments of great power. In the area of acting, Rapier had that unsettling look of thinking about her next move. She didn’t necessarily harm the comic interplay, but a good Rosina will break the ingenue mold and actually add to the pot.

Bass-baritone Valerian Ruminski seemed willing to make any face and suffer any humiliation to make his Dr. Bartolo more pathetic. His jealous aria, “A un dottor della mia sorte,” was masterful, and his bad singing in the music lesson scene was hilarious. As Basilio, Colin Ramsey resembled a kind of Rocky Horror English professor, constantly entering from the bathroom after a toilet flush (nitpick: an anachronistic toilet flush). But even this level of silliness could not hide his lush tone, notably in the song of slander, “La calunnia è un venticello.” I also enjoyed the efforts of baritone Babatunde Akinboboye as Almaviva’s lieutenant, Fiorello, and mezzo Teressa Foss the cat-accumulating maid Berta, lamenting the foolishness of May-December romances in “Il vecchiotto cerca moglie.”

Valerian Ruminski as Bartolo.
Chorus master Andrew Whitfield took the podium to lead the orchestra in a suitably breezy reading (driving right through all that carrot-laughter). Kent Dorsey provided some effective Satanic underlighting for Basilio’s “La calunnia.” Matthew Antaky’s set design was fairly period-standard but meticulous, particularly the Tuscan look of the stairway walls. The lower room featured a portrait of late OSJ founder Irene Dalis, a touching addition. And it’s always fun to listen to the recitative interplay between Veronika Agronov-Dafoe’s harpsichord and the singers, which themselves seem like miniature conversations. I’m also happy that Figaro, after hours of pretend-eating, finally got to have a real bite of that carrot at the final curtain.

Through Nov. 27 at California Theatre, 345 S. First Street, San Jose. 408/437-4450, operasj.org. (Note: Matthew Hanscom will play Figaro on 11/27.)

Michael J. Vaughn is a thirty-year opera critic and author of the novels Gabriella’s Voice and Operaville. His best-selling novel The Popcorn Girl may be read for free at writerville.blogspot.com

Monday, October 17, 2016

San Francisco Opera's Don Pasquale

San Francisco Opera
Donizetti’s Don Pasquale
October 15, 2016

Maurizio Muraro as Don Pasquale. All photos by Cory Weaver.
SFO’s effervescent production featured rising superstar Lawrence Brownlee in the role of Ernesto, and it’s no wonder he inspires such a hubbub everywhere he goes. In a world of spinto after spinto, Brownlee’s lyric tenor is a wondrous, angelic creature, which rose to its greatest beauty in the Act 3 serenade, “Come’e gentil” and the following duet with Norina, “Tornami a dir che m’ami.” Brownlee also transmitted a radiant personality and some impressively athletic slapstick, performing an upside-down window-dangle that had “concussion” written all over it.

The only room for improvement, really, is in the area of dynamics; Brownlee could spend more energy shaping his phrases, and he had a couple of excellent role models right there on the War Memorial stage. Playing Norina, soprano Heidi Stober exhibited the deft bel canto tone San Franciscans have come to expect, but really struck lightning when Norina signed her marriage certificate and went into full bitch mode. Most notable among Stober’s weapons was a supremely powerful crescendo, used a handful of times to strike fear in her new victim/husband.

Heidi Stober as Norina.
But the evening truly belonged to our Pasquale, Maurizio Muraro. Scientifically speaking, the higher voices have a distinct advantage in cutting through the orchestra, but Muraro’s bass-baritone seems to be nuclear-powered. He played the dirty old man with dozens of nimble little gags (likely handed down from singer to singer over centuries), and captured all of Pasquale’s amusing dimensions: the delusional toupeed horndog, the flabbergasted, walking-wallet husband – even, after being slapped by his his new bride, a picture of poignancy (“All is over for Don Pasquale”). At one point, in a line that mentioned horses, he actually neighed the note! Brilliant.

Baritone Lucas Meacham did an excellent job as the instigator, Dr. Malatesta, duly savoring his machinations and achieving a rare mid-piece ovation after an electric run of patter with Muraro in “Cheti, cheti, immantinente.”

Lawrence Brownlee as Ernesto.
Stage director Laurent Pelly polished the gags to a shine, and even choreographed a series of small, quirky moves for the chorus’s Act 3 commentary, “Che interminabile andirivieni!” Chantal Tomas’s set is a wonder, a rotating interior set among 1950s tenements. The players routinely ignored the fourth wall (and the third wall) for comic effect, and created all kinds of havoc with the skewed doors. Post-nuptials, Pasquale’s life was literally turned upside-down, his beloved armchair hovering in the heavens as Norina cluttered his former ceiling with mod furniture. (Oddly, the time-shift didn’t really change much, except in matters of costume and setting.)

Duane Schuler’s precision lighting augmented the comedy admirably. Giuseppe Finzi led an energetic reading of the score; in the overture, the woodwinds were a particular pleasure.

Maurizio Muraro, Lucas Meacham (Dr. Malatesta) and Chantal Tomas's set.
This was the last performance of the run. SFO’s season continues with The Makropulos Case (Oct. 14-29), Aida (Nov. 5-Dec. 6) and Madame Butterfly (Nov. 6-Dec. 4). www.sfopera.com, 415/864-3330.

Monday, September 12, 2016

Opera San Jose's Lucia di Lammermoor

Opera San Jose
Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor
Sept. 10, 2016

Sylvia Lee as Lucia. Photos by Pat Kirk.
In the presence of a hundred musicians and three hours of gorgeous, sweeping music, the most gripping moments in this opera come from a single soprano and a single flute, performing passages not actually written by the composer. That is merely one of the wonders of Donizetti’s masterwork.

Lucia’s Mad Scene is such a powerful creation that a theater full of modern, highly distractable citizens will inch toward the edges of their seats for long minutes of tense, mesmerized silence as a Scottish girl disintegrates before them. The scene is punctuated by sudden flights and nerve-wracking pauses, until finally she collapses to the stage, reduced to an infant conversing with a crazy bird in her head.

The extended cadenza, created by soprano Fanny Tacchinardi-Persiani for the opera’s 1835 premiere, was accompanied on this night by OSJ’s sterling flautist Isabelle Chapuis. It also probably cemented Sylvia Lee’s performance as best introduction of a new resident soprano ever. With OSJ’s artist-resident approach, the patron-singer connection is deeper than most, and you could sense some first-date anxiety, particularly when you’re asking the new girl to tackle one of the toughest roles in the canon. When Lee reached the end of the fountain scene cabaletta, “Quando rapito in estasi,” the rousing applause was also a sigh of relief, that this was a voice they could listen to for years to come.

Lee’s instrument is not the most powerful, but her ease in the upper register is divine, her dips into the lower surprisingly strong. Given her lyric tone and small stature, she plays the Mad Scene in a logical manner, a young girl driven by immense pressure into a childlike state. She adds sudden, threatening movements with weaponry that maintain the tension and draw surprised gasps from the audience. (And a nervous, comic thought from the spectators: “Would you please get that knife away from her?”)

Kirk Dougherty as Edgardo, Matthew Hanscom as Enrico.
The development of the opera’s characters is often driven by its casting, and here the case is made for a classic testosterone sandwich. Exhibit A is Lucia’s brother/destroyer Enrico, played by baritone Matthew Hanscom with pure rage and power. Hanscom created confidence with the audience immediately, with his assured performance of the cabaletta “La pietade in suo favore.” The discerning listener may hear the attentiveness and energy of his approach in a single word, “dolor,” that finishes the preceding Larghetto. Hanscom lends this single word a dynamic shape, driving through to the end, and then finishes with a rolled R. These are small touches, but they are also signs of craft, the things that make a complete singer complete.

Our second macho man is Edgardo, Lucia’s love and Enrico’s nemesis, played by tenor Kirk Dougherty with passion and a forceful lirico spinto. It’s easy to anticipate the meeting of two such powerful entities, but what is more interesting is what happens on the way there. Rather than drowning out the gentler tones of their Lucia, each, in turn, backs off for beautifully blended duets: Dougherty in the lilting fountain-scene love duet “Verranno a te sull’auré,” Hanscom in the heavily conflicted Act 2 duet scene, in which Enrico tries to save his own neck by tricking his sister into a politically expedient marriage.

Kirk Dougherty as Edgardo.
This sublime sense of balance reaches its apogee in the famed Sextet, in which Donizetti pulls the trick of exploring six sets of character motivations simultaneously. The piece is genius enough on the page, but with six singers working so beautifully together, under the careful guidance of conductor Ming Luke, it’s a musical/dramatic paradise. This attentive construction allows Lee to soar over the top at the end, launching Lucia into her terrible fate.

Playing the chaplain, Raimondo, bass Colin Ramsey exhibits a delicious richness of timbre. He is well-equipped to handle one of the opera’s pivotal moments, the delivery of the horrendous marriage-night news to the guests (“Dalle stanza ove Lucia”). The scene is punctuated by one of stage director Benjamin Spierman’s provocative touches, having Raimondo absent-mindedly rub his hands over his face, forgetting that his hands are covered in blood. Spierman also sets up Lucia’s victim, Arturo (tenor Michael Mendelsohn) as an A-one jerk, treating his new brother-in-law as a servant as he ogles all the ladies at the wedding. I can’t decide if Dougherty’s distracting, herky-jerky movements were a directorial decision or just a natural quirk. A subtle but beautifully choreographed device has the huntsman Normanno (tenor Yungbae Yang) stashing Lucia’s murder-knife in his belt, where it is later stolen by Edgardo for his suicide.

Steven Kemp’s exterior sets feature bare winter trees with dagger-like branches and a striking background flat of a tilting, destroyed castle window. The Ravenswood interiors are less effective, rather bland wooden panels, but the wall-length display of weaponry make for apt ornaments. B. Modern’s costumes are deft and artful, especially Lucia’s gorgeous green gown in the second act. The chorus is particularly strong, and especially the men’s chorus, which sang the opening pursuit of Edgardo with vigor. Karen Theilen opened the second scene with Donizetti’s sublime harp interlude.

Through Sept. 25 at the California Theater, 345 S. First Street, San Jose. Tickets are $56-$176. 408/437-4450, www.operasj.org

Michael J. Vaughn is a 30-year opera critic and the author of 19 novels, including Gabriella’s Voice and the new Kindle edition of Frosted Glass.

Friday, June 24, 2016

A Brilliant Jenufa from SF Opera

Malin Bystrom as Jenufa. All photos by Cory Brewer.
Janacek’s Jenufa
San Francisco Opera
June 22, 2016

After seeing a performance of this brilliant 1904 opera, the question would be, Why don’t we see Jenufa more often? I’d be more than willing to sacrifice a few Carmens, Butterflys and Traviatas if it meant seeing and hearing more Janacek.

Of course, the main culprit could be the composer. He was simply too far ahead of his time. Though the mood of this thriller retains the feel of Romanticism and verismo, Janacek’s use of speech-inspired vocal lines, folk modalities and through-composing was quite predictive of the century to come. His use of repetitive rhythmic patterns beneath the singers anticipate the sonic cycling of minimalists like Glass and Adams by seventy years!

The story, based on a play by Gabriela Preissova, is a bit like The Scarlet Letter with a killing edge. Village girl Jenufa is in love with pretty-boy Steva, while his more common stepbrother Laca is mad for Jenufa. But Jenufa is pregnant with Steva’s child, and the whirlwind of opinion is already under way. Her frantic mother, the Kostelnicka, suffered years of marriage to a drunken weakling and sees Steva as the same. Laca, meanwhile, is so crazy-jealous that he slices Jenufa’s cheek, if only to scar the face that his stepbrother loves. It’s a tribute to the complexity of Preissova’s story and Janacek’s libretto that this heinous act does not necessarily rule Laca out.

The performances, both vocal and dramatic, are dazzling. Finnish soprano Karita Mattila, last seen in SFO’s 2010 production of Janacek’s The Makropolus Case, delivers a compelling performance of the Kostelnicka’s second-act monologue, taking all of her character’s torment and lunacy and externalizing it – quite a trick of you can pull it off. Her pleas to Steva – meant to force him into “manning up” and taking responsibility for his bastard child – evoke the image of waves battering the shore, her vocal lines mirroring the propulsive, rolling feel of Janacek’s score.

As Steva, Scott Quinn displays a clear and resonant tenor, endowing his handsome narcissist with a man-about-town charisma. Playing Laca, William Burden offers something even more, a lirico spinto carrying such force and energy that it’s a little stunning. The vocal difference accentuates the character difference – Laca simply has more passion, especially in the second-act meeting with Jenufa (as the Kostelnicka tries desperately to salvage her daughter’s life) and the more lyrical, toned-down duet with Jenufa in the final scene.

William Burden as Laca
Swedish soprano Malin Bystrom gives Jenufa a musical sweetness to go with a tomboyish country-girl quality (especially as she pummels her useless babydaddy Steva). Bystrom does a fine job of conveying Jenufa’s suffering. When she’s holding her bloody cheek and writhing in pain you can feel it all the way down your spine.

Czech conductor Jiri Belohlavek and his orchestra did an excellent job of bringing out the inventiveness of Janacek’s score. The entire first act carries the ominous, ever-forward thrust of a Hitchcock movie score, a repeated note ticking away on the xylophone like a time bomb. The thunderous, brutal percussion at the end of Act 2 nails down the horror of the Kostelnicka’s deed, and a majestic passage of horns escort the townfolk off as they leave Laca and Jenufa to the ruins.

Frank Philipp Schlössmann’s set design is part puzzle, part magic show. The puzzle comes in the form of an enormous boulder, rising through the floor in Act 1, taking up much of the stage in Jenufa’s Act 2 hideout and broken into smaller rocks for the Act 3 wedding. My own guess was that it symbolized Jenufa’s struggle; stage director Olivier Tambosi, who first used the device in a 1998 production, explains it as representing the oppression of living in a small village. The magic comes in the backgrounds. In Act 1, the opening between the two grand wooden sidewalls offers a beautiful midday sky and a band of golden wheat. Halfway through Act 2, the walls split open to offer an enchanting stripe of falling snow. The opera closes as a salmon sunrise colors the horizon.

Karita Mattila as the Kostelnicka
Steva’s response to the Kostelnicka’s pleas in Act 2 was priceless: “(Jenufa) used to be so sweet and happy, but suddenly she became just like you.” Ouch!

Through July 1, War Memorial Opera House, 301 Van Ness Avenue. $26-$395. 415/864-3330, www.sfopera.com.

Michael J. Vaughn is a 30-year opera critic and author of 18 novels, including Operaville and Gabriella’s Voice

Monday, June 20, 2016

A Raunchy 'Wild Party' at San Jose Stage

Carmichael 'CJ' Blankenship as Black, Allison F. Rich as Queenie. All photos by Dave Lepori
San Jose Stage
Andrew Lippa's The Wild Party
June 16, 2016

As it often does, San Jose Stage has found a provocative, quirky musical, Andrew Lippa’s The Wild Party, and given it the royal treatment, turning in a sexy and electric performance.

The Wild Party is a long-form poem by Joseph Moncure March, published in 1928 and filled with that era’s libertine ideas and freedom-stretching urges. It gained newfound interest in 1994 with the publication of a new edition with illustrations by Art Spiegelman.

Lippa, known for his work on The Addams Family musical, debuted The Wild Party in 1999. The use of a poem for source material shows immediate advantages. The opening piece, “Queenie was a Blonde,” is a direct quote of the poem’s opening, and bits of March’s innovative rhyming make appearances throughout, like the rhyming couplets in a Shakespeare play.

Courtney Hatcher as Kate, Noel Anthony as Burrs
The cultural icon that is The Party goes beyond a specific era, and Lippa underscores the universality with his musical choices. (The first hint is the sound of Tony Frye’s electric guitar.) The styles range widely, delving into era-proximate bits of gospel, jazz, blues and vaudeville, but depending largely on modern American Musical Theater tropes to deliver the dramatic goods.

The reason for the party is pretty universal, as well. Queenie (Allison F. Rich) and her vaudeville clown lover Burrs (Noel Anthony) are having third-year couple doldrums and decide on a soiree to kick themselves back into gear. (And we all know what a bad idea that sounds like.) What results, of course, is the age-old tug between keeping the things we have and having the things we want, along with the deadly everpresence of jealousy. At one point, Burrs is chasing a saucy minor (Brittney Monroe), being chased himself by Queenie’s un-loyal friend Kate (Courtney Hatcher), yet dropping all these pleasures at the entrance of Queenie’s new interest, Black (Carmichael ‘CJ’ Blankenship). Such are the unreasonable priorities of love and lust.

Allison F. Rich does a masterful job of moderating Queenie’s temperature, starting the show at a slow smolder, warming up under the hand of her new beau and flaming out in the tragic finale, “How Did We Come to This?” Her voice has real power, but is often at its best in the low, witty quips opened up by Lippa’s artful pauses.

My favorite voice belongs to Noel Anthony as Burrs. His tenor carries a delicious forward quality, bringing a constant edginess to one very erratic clown. His character conducts a fascinating oscillation between pulling himself into the light and diving deeper into the pit.

Noel Anthony as Burrs
As Kate, Courtney Hatcher is pure lightning, especially in the second-act opener, “The Life of the Party,” which begins as Kate wakes up in a bathtub. Being a true party girl, she relishes even this, and her enthusiasm is infectious. (The red sequin dress from costume designer Abra Berman is amazing.) Therese Anne Swain made the most of the show’s most blatantly comic song, Madeline True’s paean to her lesbian predecessors, “An Old Fashioned Love Song.”

CJ Blankenship is both condemned and blessed to play ingenues, with a rich baritone that melts women’s… hearts and a floating head voice that recalls the Ink Spots. He and Brett Blankenship handle the choreography, a constant delight of small, intriguing moves from all eras, delivered by dancers who show nary the slightest hesitation. (A couple standouts were Brittney Monroe and Nathaniel Rothrock, who both have that quality of not just performing but “selling” their moves.) The cast also gives a lot of enthusiasm to the feigned sex acts that keep the party wild. Director David Davalos does a brilliant job of both creating and controlling the chaos.

A couple moments in Lippa’s score stood out: a stunning a capella section in “The Juggernaut” and a quartet, “Poor Child,” that was almost Verdian in its dexterity. The stage mics suffered occasional bouts of distortion, due somewhat to the big voices in the cast (sound design John Koss). Michael Palumbo’s scenic design is an artful combination of chessboard and boxing ring, with plenty of semi-hidden spaces for the bedroom retreats of the classic house party. Conductor/keyboardist Lauren Bevilacqua did a magical job of leading her jazz band, including guitar, bass, drums, reeds and trumpets. (And I’m still trying to figure out where that banjo came from.)

Through July 24th, San Jose Stage, 490 S. First Street, $30-$65, 408/283-7142, www.thestage.org.

The Stage’s 2016-17 season will include Jackie Sibblies Drury’s We Are Proud to Present, Conor McPherson’s The Night Alive, Ayad Akhtar’s Disgraced and Donal O’Kelly’s The Memory Stick.

Michael J. Vaughn is a thirty-year opera and theater critic and author of eighteen novels, including ThePopcorn Girl (available at Amazon.com).