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 Schl√∂ssmann’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,

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,

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