Elektra

Elektra

Saturday, December 31, 2005

The Standard Repertory

A couple of months ago, owing to illness, I missed a friend's party at which my name came up: there was a discussion of the standard operatic repertory and the question arose of what the most recently composed opera to enter the standard rep might be.

When I heard about the discussion, my first reaction was "It depends on how you define 'standard repertory,'" which was acknowledged as a fair question. The question has now arisen on Bill Burnett's blog Opera War Horses (which you can't access right now) and on Wellsung, where I'm linking to Jonathan's posting and the ensuing discussion in comments.

So just what is the "standard operatic repertory"? Operas the Met's core audience will sit still for? Anything with a melody? Opera War Horses is defining the standard repertory as "a body of operatic works, all of which were first produced in a 140-year period that begins with Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro in 1786 and ends with the posthumous production of Puccini’s Turandot in 1926," according to Jonathan. I haven't seen the specific operas named by Mr. Burnett, so no comments there. Anything put on with some regularity at major U.S. and European houses?

For myself, I think 1786 to 1926 is much too limiting. The people at my friend's party came up with Wozzeck as the most recently-composed opera to enter the repertory. Unfortunately, it was completed by 1922, and so Turandot beats it by a few years. I have to wonder, also, whether the party-goers realized that Berg was still to compose, and not quite complete, Lulu, which I suspect is performed about as often as Wozzeck. (I am happy to be proven wrong on that suspicion, though I like Lulu better.)

Moreover, I came up with the following works off the top of my head that were written after Wozzeck and that I consider to have entered the standard repertory:
  • Lady MacBeth of Mtsensk, Shostakovich, 1936

  • Arabella, Strauss, 1933

  • Capriccio, Strauss, 1942

  • The Rake's Progress, Stravinsky, 1950? 52?

  • All of the operas of Britten, of which I'd consider Peter Grimes (1945), Billy Budd (1951/60), A Midsummer Night's Dream (1960), and Death in Venice (1973) to be "standard repertory"


In my opinion, then, Death in Venice is very likely the most recently composed opera to become part of the standard repertory. (I would love to hear alternative opinions on this point.)

In addition to those works, though, I came up with a bunch of outliers that may or may not be standard repertory. They are mostly American: The Ballad of Baby Doe, Vanessa, and Susannah. I've seen only Baby Doe of that group, having missed Vanessa at Los Angeles and Susannah at Festival Opera in the recent past. Then there are works like Le Grand Macabre, Nixon in China, and even Doctor Atomic that may be standard repertory in another 20 years. I believe that Saint Francois is too esoteric (and too expensive to stage) to make it into the standard rep. There's no way to know now what the performance history will be of works by composers such as Ades and Sariaaho.

But another significant point in this discussion is that the standard repertory changes over time. Opera didn't start with Mozart, but in 1960 how many performances of Handel operas were given? You can hear Rodelinda at three American houses this year, and a couple more in Europe; his operas are seemingly being revived as fast as good performing editions can be produced.

For that matter, Cosi fan tutte didn't really become a standard until the last 40 years. Idomeneo, a great work, was probably not heard at all between the 1780s and the Glyndebourne productions of the 1950s. The only Mozart opera to be performed much from his death until the 20th century was, I believe, Don Giovanni.

I'd go as far as to push the standard repertory back to the operas of Monteverdi, particularly L'incoronazione di Poppea. Operabase reports that it's getting 62 performances in 16 separate productions in the 19 months from January 1, 2005 to July 31, 2006. That's quite a few more than Lulu is getting in the same period.

Of the 19th century operas now commonly performed, Don Carlo seems to have entered the standard repertory with the famous Convent Garden production of about 1958; La forza del destino was performed more from the 1920s through the 1960s than it is today, perhaps because of Don Carlo's increasing popularity. I think Simon Boccanegra is the last great undiscovered Verdi opera; I hope some day it will be performed as often as Don Carlo. La boheme and Madama Butterfly seem never to have left the standard repertory, but La fanciulla del West has yet to enter it.

I haven't said much about operas that were in the standard repertory in, say, 1900 or 1950 that are hardly performed now, but there are plenty, of course. A look through the Met annals or Rosenthal's Covent Garden book will give you an idea of what was then current in the English-speaking world, for example.

Moving forward - it took until the 1960s for Die Frau ohne Schatten to get much attention in the U.S. And Turandot, surely the 800-pound gorilla of all the operas I've listed, was hardly performed in the U.S. between the premieres in 1926-27 and the advent of Nilsson at the Met in 1961. It lived on through the 30s in Chicago, where creator Rosa Raisa lived, and where Eva Turner gave some of her few U.S. performances. Oh, and of course it got some performances in the 50s by San Francisco Opera, with Carla Martinis, Inge Borkh, and Leonie! Rysanek! in the title role. But I don't think any Americans would have considered it standard repertory in 1955; today you can hardly take a step without tripping over the Chinese Princess.

Friday, December 23, 2005

Barriers

My partner is a doctoral student in public health, and we talk a lot about public health issues of various kinds. I have been saying off and on for a few years that the most revolutionary action the nations of the world could take would be to provide clean water, sanitation, vaccinations, and an education to everyone. Yes, it would be a huge undertaking, but the benefits would be staggering. And it's not money keeping this from happening: it's lack of political will.

Today's N.Y. Times has a story that left me enraged, because it shows how clearly clear water and decent sanitation are linked to poverty and the situation of women and girls in the third world. It's about how lack of sanitation keeps African girls from obtaining an education. That is in addition to the other enormous social barriers women and girls face in Africa.

Read it, and you, too, will be enraged.

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Four Times Eight

Drew tossed me this one - which I was going to answer anyway. Note that I'm treating "four" rather loosely in a couple of places, for which no apologies whatsoever. I mean, naming only four favorite foods: insane.

Four jobs you've had in your life: office worker, flute teacher, insurance underwriter, technical writer

Four movies you could watch over and over: Casablanca, Moonstruck, Holiday, The Adventures of Robin Hood

Four places you've lived: Teaneck, NJ, Waltham, MA, Lake Grove, NY, Oakland, CA

Four TV shows you love to watch (not limited to shows in production): Star Trek: TNG & DSN; Mystery!, Six Feet Under, The West Wing

Four places you've been on vacation: Maritime Provinces of Canada, Orkney, Seattle, Paris

Four websites you visit daily: See my blogroll for the classical blogs, Dog of the Day, Astronomy Picture of the Day, Salon

Four of your favorite foods: Soon tofu soup at Pyong Chang in Oakland, steak frites, broccoli rabe, gingerbread (the best bribery material in the known universe), anything at Shalimar, roast chicken, salad

Four places you'd rather be: Hanalei Bay; just about any place with my partner; up to my elbows in grapes; London; attending an opera performance

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Balances, Again and Again

It turns out the sound and balances in the orchestra of War Memorial Opera House really are, uh, interesting. It seems a difference of all of eight feet has a noticable impact on the sound quality.

For complicated reasons I'm not going to go into, I saw the entire Norma performance last month from orchestra rear Z-104, while my companion saw the first act from ZZ-101 (the very back row, where the seats can be moved around to make space for patrons who use wheelchairs or scooters and their friends) and the second act from Z-102. He later reported that he'd thought the sound slightly better from Z-102 - a little muffled in row ZZ, and less so in Z. He's not a musician, but he is a good listener and musical, with a good enough ear that he easily picked out the best of the singers (Mishura) and knew there wasn't significant competition for that title. I definitely trust what he said about the sound quality.

I had my own minor revelation when I reviewed Fidelio. I was in around row M, but just off the right-hand aisle - not the one by the wall. It was not difficult to hear the singers' voices expanding into the house, an effect you miss in orchestra rear, where I feel more as thought the voices are aimed directly at me. But there is a disconcerting sensation of being out of the line of fire when you're hard left or right, plus there can be a distracting sensation that the voices are echoing off the wall.

Monday, December 19, 2005

Breaking Up, Part 2

I posted last week about the breakup of the Audubon Quartet in a welter of court actions and bankruptcies.

That posting generated some comments, including the following from Michael Renardy, whose Web site includes documents relevant to the situation. Mr. Renardy wrote the following, to which I'm responding here because I have enough to say that I don't want to bury my remarks in the comments:

I see a lot of comments like these: Since Ehrlich now has the reputation that he is willing to sue his colleagues, has he really salvaged anything? Baloney, I say. At least outside the "genteel world of chamber music" there are worse things than willingness to sue a colleague. Embezzlement, for instance. Sexual harassment. And the manner in which Ehrlich was "dismissed" would have left people guessing about all of those.

Unless he fought back, that is.


First, the most important point in my original posting was the first one: the Audubon quartet did not have an appropriate business contract, one that would properly define acceptable behavior for all quartet members and that would provide a mechanism for member evaluation and other personnel matters, including when to mediate or arbitrate a dispute and, if necessary, an acceptable process for dismissing a member.

Second, to again repeat myself: I have seen nothing indicating that anyone in the quartet asked for mediation or arbitration, which, in my opinion, should always be used early enough in a problem to avoid resorting to the courts.

Both of these represent signifcant failings on the part of the Audubon to conduct themselves in a businesslike manner, where there's a degree of predictability about internal process and where there are clear bylaws for all to follow.

Regarding people guessing about sexual harrassment, embezzlement, and other possible problems: really? In the case of embezzlement, I'd definitely expect criminal proceedings against the perpetrator. I might expect civil proceedings in the case of sexual harrassment.

Needless to say, given the personality issues here, had proper procedures been in place, everybody could have come out of the situation looking better than they currently look. And even without, there are plenty of mechanisms whereby appropriate public statements from the Audubon would have clarified to situation sufficiently that no one would be wondering what had happened. "Fighting back" ought to have been unnecessary, and I fail to see how a lawsuit putting the other quartet members into bankruptcy was necessary or desirable. From where I sit, it looks like revenge.

Finally, I cannot for the life of me find on line a letter that ran in the NY Times Arts & Leisure section yesterday, but the writer, who is evidentally familiar with the economics of chamber music, opined that the judge who valued the Audubon at $1.6 million was setting an arbitrary value with no support in the real world. If he's correct, that would make the monetary award to Ehrlich insupportable.

Thursday, December 15, 2005

Norma, San Francisco Opera

I started listening to opera seriously in 1994, and I think I picked up a recording or two of Norma early on. A friend dubbed me a copy of an Nth generation tape of the 1994 Seattle Opera broadcast with Jane Eaglen, and of course I had the requisite live Callas performance and eventually both her studio recordings. At the time, the opera seemed like an impossible rarity, one I'd never see live.

Somewhat to my surprise, here it is eleven years later and I've seen four Normas at three houses. Not one of them has been fully satisfactory, owing largely to the enormous demands of the title role and to various weaknesses in casting the piece (Richard Margison trying to stand up to the ear-splitting Eaglen and Dolora Zajick in the Act I trio: hopeless). Also to my surprise - and giving away a punchline in advance - of the three sopranos I've seen attempting the title role, Eaglen, in 1996, came closest to fulfilling its rquirements. By 2001, her voice had stiffened up from all that Wagner and she couldn't trill too well or sing the fioriture with the same facility as five years earlier. For example, on the tape from 1994, she nails the series of trills in "Adalgisa fia punita!" in Act II; I don't remember any such success in 2001.

In between the two Eaglen performances, there was a miserable Norma in San Francisco, with Carol Vaness disastrously overparted in the title role, Michael Sylvester's Pollione outsung by the Flavio of Gary Rideout (why, oh, WHY didn't they just swap roles?!), Anna Caterina Antonacci vivid but with a very short top as Adalgisa, and the forgettable Andrea Silvestrelli as Oroveso. The only saving grace was Patrick Summers's fabulous conducting. What a shame that Norma stands or falls on the strength of its singers; if I were judging only by the conducting, well, Summers was great, but that's just not enough.

The casting of the new SFO Norma gave me some hope, based on previous hearings of the singers: the wonderful Catherine Nagelstad gave every indication that she had the spirit and technique for the title role and Nancy Maultsby was a rich-voiced Erda in the 2001 Seattle Ring. I wondered about Zoran Todorovich's ability to sing Pollione adequately, but you must bear in mind that Giovanni Martinelli is the only Pollione, in my book. (Del Monaco? Bah!) I was aghast that Atilla Jun had been invited back to sing Oroveso after his godawful Grand Inquisitor in Don Carlo; he's only in his 30s and I guess he really can't sing, since he sounds about 70.

The reviews of the production weren't encouraging; this was of particular concern to me because I had an opera-novice friend in tow. The logistics of the day had not been easy to arrange, from picking a date to getting workable seats, and, really, you always want friends you drag to the opera to have a good time. In the end, he did (and I think he'll even go back to the opera with me), but I spent an awful lot of the performance with my head in my hands.

That started as soon as the curtain went up. What on earth were the Druids doing inside a stockade, and what about the body a bunch of the Druids were running through with spears? Um, where does the libretto say that there is a body on stage in the first scene?? Isn't there supposed to be a sacred grove - of trees, not fences - there someplace? Attila Jun's first phrases were grainy in tone and undistinguished in phrasing, and he didn't get any better during the course of the opera. At a time when the Symphony is hiring excellent basses like Tigran Martirossian, why does the Opera keep this guy around?

Zoran Todorovich's entrance left a good deal to be desired as well. He was loud enough, and he's almost handsome enough to persuade the audience that not one, but two virgin priestesses would break their vows for him. Alas - he sang with little or no dynamic inflection and no understanding of the style.

There was no improvement with Catherine Nagelstad's appearance, either. As in Rodelinda, it took her half an act or so to warm up enough to move her voice well enough in the fioriture. And it was clear from her first words that she was not going to do a good job with the enraged Norma, because her voice didn't sound good at forte. Matters didn't improve much during the course of the opera, either; she sounded raw at the top of her range and tremulous under pressure. The fioriture flowed better after "Ah! bello a me ritorna," but there was little ornamentation in the duets with Adalgisa. (In 1996, Eaglen and Suzanne Mentzer added a lot of ornaments!)

Really, the best singer, by a long shot, was Irina Mishura, a late - very late - substitute for the originally-announced Nancy Maultsby. She sang with the best tone and liveliest rhythmic sense, with a good sense of dynamics and a real feel for the line of the music. Her Adalgisa also sounded younger and more innocent than Norma, a point that goes right by productions that cast a heavy mezzo or contralto as Adalgisa. Her superiority was obvious enough that my opera-novice friend easily identified her as the best.

But, not a good sign: "Sì, fino all'ore," which routinely leaves me in tears, didn't in this case. Maybe it was the limp conducting (I've already blogged about my unhappiness with Sara Jobin), maybe it was the ugly production, maybe it was lack of chemistry between Nagelstad and Mishura, but it was certainly a sign of something amiss. I was somewhat moved by the very end of the opera, but not nearly to the extent I would have been in a better performance or with a more appropriate production.

Oh, well: it's one of those operas where I may or may not ever see an ideal performance, one with the right conductor and singers and a decent production. It is a difficult opera: it needs a Norma who can rage and float with equal facility, and who can sing all of those little notes that scared Birgit Nilsson away from the role (thank goodness!); an Adalgisa who can project sweet innocence and keep up vocally with Norma; a Pollione who sings like a god and looks good enough that you can believe in his remarkable romantic success; an Oroveso who projects leaderly fury and fatherly tenderness.

It's easy enough to create a historical dream cast: Callas or Ponselle as Norma; Stignani as Adalgisa; Martinelli or Tamagno or Lauri-Volpi as Pollione; Pinza or de Angelis as Oroveso. Conducting: Toscannini? de Sabata? Panizza?

But today? Oh, sigh. I had the odd thought after the 2001 Met performance that maybe Zajick should take a shot as Norma, with Deborah Voigt swapping in for Adalgisa. I'm not sure there is a tenor I want to hear as Pollione. I'll take Stephen Milling or Rene Pape as Oroveso, and put Patrick Summers on the podium.

Breaking Up

No, not me; this blog will continue and my partner and I are fine. No, I'm thinking about the sad breakup of the Audubon Quartet. Daniel J. Wakin has had a couple of excellent articles in the NY Times this week:Personnel changes happen pretty often in chamber music groups; I'm sure they don't all happen amicably, but it's possible to avoid the kinds of issues that have plagued the Audubon. To start with, chamber groups need workable, written agreements - by-laws or contracts - agreed to by all, that govern personnel issues, from what's acceptable behavior to how to handle disagreements. Neither of Wakin's articles mentions whether or when mediators were brought in to help the Audubon with its problems; I myself have witnessed the kind of good that can be done by a skilled mediator. It seems there was no arbitration requirement in the event of an unresolvable conflict. It is clear that the Audubon did not properly keep up the legal end of their nonprofit corporation, however, which couldn't have helped.

This paragraph especially caught my eye, though; David Ehrlich is the former violinist who has sued the other three members of the quartet:
Mr. Ehrlich, who did not immediately respond to a phone message, has said that while he finds the loss of the instruments tragic, he needs the money for lawyers' fees. He said he was unfairly and summarily fired by three people who conspired against him, and that he had to sue to salvage his reputation.
I guess that had he not sued, Mr. Ehrlich would very likely have the reputation of being someone who is difficult to work with and who left the Audubon under a cloud. Having sued, he will have the reputation of being not only difficult to work with, but willing to sue former colleagues so that they lose their homes and instruments. Is that really an improvement? Has his reputation been salvaged by his actions?

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

At Berkeley Rep

This past weekend I had the rare opportunity to see four operas, all new to me, on two consecutive evenings: the Stravinsky double bill at San Francisco Symphony, which I reviewed for SFCV, and the Czech double bill at Berkeley Rep, consisting of Martinu's Comedy on the Bridge and Krása's Brundibar. Both of the latter were performed with new English librettos by playwright Tony Kushner; production designs (charming!) are by Maurice Sendak with Kris Stone.

They are both excellent pieces, well performed; if you're interested in Czech opera or music related to the Holocaust - Brundibar was famously performed many times at the Terezín concentration camp - I would encourage you to go see them.

However, there is a big warning that must be attached to the production:

AMPLIFICATION IN USE. Really bad amplification.

It was so distracting that I might well have walked out, but I had taken a friend as thanks for a great favor, and of course I did want to see the pieces.

I find the use of amplification almost completely incomprehensible:
  • The Roda Theater seats all of 600.

  • The theater is new, well-designed, and has good acoustics.

  • The orchestra was amplified even though it's under the stage and consists of maybe a dozen instruments.

  • All of the singers were amplified.

To me, this means that the production team doesn't trust the music to work (that is, has no faith in the composers' skill), doesn't trust the conductor to balance the singers and orchestra, doesn't believe they hired singers who can be heard in a tiny theater over a chamber orchestra, doesn't trust the audience to listen carefully. In my experience, every time there's been music in any Berkeley Rep production, it is amplified, even if it's a guy with a guitar. This is crazy: the amplification is distracting, unnatural, and flattens the dynamic range of the singers. I find amplified music much harder to listen to than unamplified music.

I understand amplifying children, if it's done carefully. It's hard to argue, for example, with the decision of the San Francisco Opera to put a microphone on the 8-year-old who sang Amore in L'incoronazione di Poppea in 1998 - but that was in the 3200 seat War Memorial Opera House, not the 600-seat Roda. But I don't want to go to the theater and hear the orchestra coming from speakers to my left and the soprano coming from a speaker over my head. I want to hear the orchestra coming from the pit and the singers' voices coming from the stage. I spoke to some friends the next day and they all felt the same. So, I'm sending a letter about this to Tony Taccone, in hopes that maybe Berkeley Rep will listen.

Monday, December 12, 2005

Where I've Been

Soli Deo Gloria's concerts in November went just fine, but I had a burn-my-candle-at-both-ends week leading up to and including that weekend. From Monday to Sunday, it went rehearsal, day at home, rehearsal, La Forza del Destino, performance, performance, performance.

On Saturday, November 19, I was sniffly; by Monday, I was home in bed and even spiked a fever for a couple of hours. We had Thanksgiving at home and on Friday of Thanksgiving week, I went to New Jersey to see my mother and attend a high school reunion. (You may guess what number.) That was a lot of fun. I'm not in regular touch with many of my classmates, but on the whole we've turned out really well, or at least the people who turned up for the reunion did. I've known some of these folks since I was 8 years old, and I suspect I would socialize with plenty of them if I still lived in New Jersey.

The highlight of the trip was certainly seeing Terry and the magnificent Teachout Museum. I'm in love with the Olitsky, as I told him at the time. And he seems to have gently lit a fire under me about getting back to work on my book, for which I am grateful. (If you read About Last Night - and you should - you know Terry's been ill. Yeah, I've been fretting myself and sending him best wishes for a swift recovery.)

I'm still not quite over this cold and for various reasons have been socializing more than usual in the last couple of weeks. I will resume blogging about music in the next day or so; I have a Norma review in the works, a couple of comments on the Stravinsky double bill at SFS, and comments - and a complaint - about the double bill at Berkeley Rep.

Friday, November 18, 2005

La Forza del Destino, San Francisco Opera

To Forza last night, where I was pleasantly surprised. I had thought the old warhorse not too stageworthy, based mostly on recordings, a video, that Kirov broadcast of the 1862 St. Petersburg version, the libretto, and the opera's reputation. Wrong, wrong, wrong. There's never been any doubt about the greatness of much of the music. and this production, at least, works quite well.

A major reason is the fantastic conducting of Nicola Luisotti, debuting at SFO, who led a taut, impassioned, nuanced, and completely idiomatic performance. The only Verdi conducting I've heard live that I thought approached this quality was Patrick Summers's Traviata last season. Luisotti was also a ton of fun to watch because sometimes he was conducting the phrase and didn't bother to beat time; his technique is extremely beautiful and interesting, while always being perfectly clear. (I had one of the aisle seats in orchestra rear row ZZ and could look straight down the center aisle at his back.) He got brilliant playing out of the orchestra and great singing out of the chorus. Special kudos to concertmaster Kay Stern and especially principal clarinetist Carey Bell for gorgeously-played solos.

I was talking with a friend the other week about this opera and he said it was strange that war was the main focus of the production - this before he saw it, I think, based on reviews. Well, I think war is not the main focus, not any more than the libretto calls for. The sets and costumes are effective and striking, except for the fact that Preziosilla looks as if she took a wrong turn on her way to a rehearsal of Le Grand Macabre. Poor Jill Grove!

I liked the scene at the inn a lot; some of the pilgrims were costumed in replicas of traditional pilgrim outfits, the ones that look shockingly like KKK outfits. Brrrr; very creepy to have them wandering across the stage, though I was puzzled by the light sabres they carried. What?? The monastery scene worked extremely well too, with the first half, outside the monastery, played on a bare stage with just a backdrop for the monastery wall; that wall went up to reveal the interior of the church, with a vaguely cosmological rear wall and a very simple circle of candles within which Leonora's hair was cut and she was robed as a monk.

The singing is somewhat variable, unsurprisingly, but it's all large-scale and sometimes very, very loud. Despite the intermittent vocal messiness, it's a pleasure to hear a performance that sounds uninhibited and has such a committed cast; I've heard more than one Verdi opera (Ernani at ENO last year, for example) sung decently without being especially memorable because the singers were just too polite and too controlled (too English?). Some of these operas need hell-for-leather singing to make the intended impact on the audience.

The vocal star of the show is probably Lucas Meacham, an Adler Fellow, as Melitone (one of the most annoying characters in all opera!). He just sings the best, and has quite a beautiful voice. Of the other principles, Vladimir Kuzmenko (Don Alvaro) was unsubtle and at his best when singing at the dynamic extremes. He sobbed a lot, probably more than he needed to, and did a good job of putting over the character's instability. Zeljko Lucic (Don Carlo) had the range, style, and musicianship and lacked mostly some ping at the top of his range, which sounded, not exactly constricted, but muffled. The audience laughed at him during Act II at one point, which shocked me; he wasn't singing anything funny at all. Maybe the notion of honor and revenge is too foreign to a 21st century audience; maybe if he'd been less dignified, more outraged, there wouldn't have been laughter.

Jill Grove sang accurately and with enormous spirit as Preziosilla but I wish she'd used fewer glottal attacks. I did not much like Orlin Anastossov's Guardiano; too Slavic a voice and too uninteresting in all ways next to Meacham.

And finally the Leonora, Andrea Gruber. She got a lot of publicity earlier this year when she went public about her past drug problems and resorting to gastric bypass surgery to deal with her weight. I'd heard her on a Met broadcast and in Nabucco here a few years back, thought her voice ugly and her singing undisciplined.

At the moment, her voice is under good control. She'll never match Leontyne Price for vocal beauty, but mostly she sounded decent. There are a couple of bad patches in her voice that are on the raw/ugly side. But she has the big upward and downward range required by the role, she has the loud and the soft and the in-between (unlike her tenor!), she has a decent legato, and she has the Verdi style down just fine. She is also a passionate and deeply involved actor. "Pace, pace" could have been better, and the stupid direction for that number may have been responsible for the problems she had, because she had to run up and down the set vertically a couple of times during the aria, but whatever. She was excellent in much of the rest of the opera.

Three performances remain (November 20, November 23, November 26), and if I could, I'd go to another.

Note: I've polished and republished this about five or six times today. Sorry!

Thursday, November 17, 2005

Applauding the Scenery

My review of Fidelio at SFO is up at SFCV. It's a pan and largely in agreement with the reviews I've read by Joshua Kosman and Janos Gereben.

The second act of this opera starts out in a dungeon, and then moves to the courtyard of the prison of which the dungeon is the basement. If you know anything about this opera, you probably know that the first version was called Leonore and that Beethoven wrote four overtures at four different times for Fidelio. Conductors get to choose which one to play at the beginning of the opera.

There's a tradition that one of the other overtures gets played during act II. That's to cover the scene change from dungeon to courtyard.

SFO's set is very cleverly constructed. At the beginning of the act, you see the walls and towers of the prison audience left and right, with a walkway between the two towers. In the middle of the stage is the dungeon, with its ceiling vertiginously slanted up from the back to the front of the stage. Under the ceiling, there's a pit, and Florestan is lying in it audience left.

After "O namenlose Freude!", Christine Brewer (Leonore) and Thomas Moser (Florestan) glued themselves to each other and the middle of the pit, and the ceiling slowly lowered toward them. I thought "Uh-oh," remembering the injuries to Hildegard Behrens when a stagehand collapsed the Met's Gibichung Hall just a bit too soon during a performance of Goetterdaemmerung during the early '90s. But as the ceiling dropped, a trap opened in it, and by the time the slanted ceiling leveled out, revealing the prison courtyard, there was an opening big enough - just big enough - for the two singers, who got to stand there up to their knees in the set for a bit. As ceiling turned into the floor, the back of the set parted and a view of the countryside appeared. (I thought the mountain backdrop looked just a little too much like the Sangre de Christo backdrop in Doctor Atomic!)

And that's when the audience applauded the set.

What I didn't like:

  • Scenery that leaves you worrying about the singers' safety

  • Scenery that so calls attention to itself that the audience claps


I remember the SFO audience applauding the set when the curtain went up on the ballroom scene in the last act of Eugene Onegin - in the old production, the one that had an actual ballroom with actual moving humans in it. I couldn't figure out why. Sure, it was brightly lit and very very deep, but otherwise? There was nothing special about it. Still! (And now that I think about it, the audience applauded the new ballroom set for Eugene Onegin because of the damned exploding chandelier!!! What on earth were the designers thinking???) It's bad when the audience applauds the set. It means the set is distracting the audience from the story, the singers, and the music. Really, we don't go to the opera for the architecture.

I think the most beautiful thing I've ever seen on the operatic stage was the second act of the Seattle Opera's Tristan und Isolde. Through a combination of scenery and lighting effects, Ben Heppner and Jane Eaglen were set afloat in a deep blue night sky. It could not have been more perfect for the mood of the music; it was pure magic.

The love duet is overwhelming enough that the stage could be bare and you'd be moved. But this was the perfect accompaniment to the richness and passion of the opera, adding depth without ever distracting you from the music. And nobody applauded it.

Updated November 17, 2005. Bit of cleanup, plus added the comment about the new Eugene Onegin set. See Applauding the Scenery 2 for more on this topic.

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Applauding the Scenery 2

Anthony Tomamsini reviewed the Met's new Roméo et Juliette in today's Times; he called out some issues with the set and staging that aren't far off what I said about the SFO Fidelio set:

Above the stage hangs an armillary sphere, a complex of orbs and globes used to teach astronomy in Renaissance Italy. Indeed, the production makes explicit the celestial metaphors that gush from the mouths of the impulsive young lovers in both Shakespeare and Gounod. As they sing of their ecstasy, the walls of the set part to reveal milky firmaments and galaxies. Call this production "Roméo and Juliette in the Cosmos." The celestial imagery culminates in the scene in which the secretly married young couple share their one night of wedded bliss. Against a starry expanse, Juliette's bed hovers in the air. As breezes waft through the silken white sheets that hang from its sides, the lovers rustle in each other's arms. The image produced applause and ah's from the audience.

In its Busby Berkeley-esque way, it was quite a sight, though you worried as the singers performed a long, difficult duet confined to a small bed suspended from wires.


The setting sounds a bit like the Seattle Tristan except that I never worried about Heppner and Eaglen taking a tumble during their even longer and more difficult duet (and the audience didn't applaud the scenery). Read the whole review here before it goes into the paid archive (if reviews go into the paid archive!).

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

Dear Sara:

(A full review of the Sunday, November 13, 2005 performance of Norma will follow, but in the meantime, a few words to conductor Sara Jobin.)

I saw your main-stage debut conducting Tosca last year, and thought, hmm, "soggy little shocker." I saw this week's Norma, and all I can say is:

BUTCH UP, girl!!

You are being much too deferential to the singers. You are following them when they should be following YOU. It is YOUR JOB to shape the performance as a whole, not theirs.

Yes, I understand that singers need to be supported. It is to your credit that you are so sensitive to them and listen so carefully to what's happening on stage. I also understand that some of the ridiculous tempos were just because the singers would not have been able to keep up if you'd been going much faster.

BUT STILL.

You are Tori when you're on the podium. You were letting Uke lead. I know what that means, and I know that you do too.

Take control! It's your job!

Yours,


Lisa
Nidan, AJJF (Dan Zan Ryu Jujitsu)

Anne Midgette on American Voices and Vocal Training

Anne Midgette has a provocative article in the Sunday NY Times Arts & Leisure section called "The End of the Great Big American Voice." There is an accompanying audio presentation on the Web, with Sylvia McNair contrasted with Dolora Zajick in interesting ways.

My only significant objection: why hold up Andrea Bocelli as an example of what's wrong with vocal training, and especially American vocal training??

He's an Italian pop singer whose original technique is oriented explicitly to the microphone. Now, maybe that is the point, since part of Midgette's thesis is that smaller, tamer voices record better than bigger, more unruly voices. (I agree with her that it's a problem in the business and an issue in how singers are trained.)

Still - Bocelli is attempting to sing opera today largely as a marketing and sales ploy, not because it's his natural arena or because he is the slightest bit suitable for opera. He was not quite laughed off the stage when he tried live opera on for size. He's not the best example for Midgette's article or the audio piece, I feel. Pick one of the half-voiced operatic tenors floating around out there instead, even if he's less famous than Bocelli.

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

Daniel J. Wakin on LHL

Ace N. Y. Times reporter Daniel J. Wakin tackles the unfortunate string of cancellations this year by the great Lorraine Hunt Lieberson. Catch this article between November 9 and November 16, before it goes into the paid Times archive.

Tuesday, November 08, 2005

The Reviewer's Art

I wrote the lead article for this week's edition of San Francisco Classical Voice; I'd originally considered a blog posting on the advantages and disadvantages of preparing for a concert, after being sandbagged in August by a great performance of the Schubert String Quintet. But then I was asked if I'd like to write a feature for SFCV, and voila! This was the subject closest at hand and most on my mind.

Many thanks to Michelle Dulak Thomson, Alex Ross, and Joshua Kosman for talking with me about how they prepare!

Tuesday, November 01, 2005

Happy Birthdays All Around

vilaine fille was a year old on Halloween and (ahem) so was Iron Tongue of Midnight. Happy birthday to us both!

I had a different sort of birthday a couple of weeks ago; many thanks, and many hugs, to those of you who helped make it such an excellent one. You know who you are.

Fallout

The Standing Room reports on the last night

And so does Robert Gable.

Reviewers on Doctor Atomic:And in the blogosphere:In the blogosphere, but from writers who haven't yet seen Doctor Atomic:

  • Greg Sandow on relevance I'm not having any difficult imagining the relevance of an opera about science, politics, and conscience to today's world. Le Nozze di Figaro, an operatic comedy about droit du seigneur, manages to sell out theaters world over, too.

  • Steve Hicken at Listen, with interesting comments about the effects of the attention surrounding any new work by John Adams.

  • Tim Johnson on hype and relevance, plus there are comments worth reading by both Tim and a reader, Jim, who saw the premiere and was disappointed.


Final Update: Your best bet for tracking fallout in the blogosphere will be a new Google feature; it's in beta, but it works just fine as far as I can tell: Google blog search.

The Real Final Update, well, not quite: Additional opinions may be found at the Archives of Opera-l.

First posted on October 2; updated October 4, 6, 7, 10, 12, 14, 17, 18, 23, and 24, 2005; November 1, 2005. You didn't really think I was done, did you?

Monday, October 31, 2005

Doors Opening

My dojo decided to stay on its summer schedule through at least the end of the year, and so I've joined a chorus for the first time in more than ten years: Soli Deo Gloria.

I think SDG will stick! I like the repertory, the rehearsals are convenient, the singers are good. Our first concert of the season is in just under three weeks. We're performing two cantatas by J. S. Bach ("Wie schön leuchtet der Morgenstern" and "Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland") and motets by Praetorius and Scheidt on the same hymn tunes and texts. The motets are regal and austere; side by side with them, the cantatas are so deliciously rich they might as well be Brahms. A finely-chosen program, led by guest conductor Dr. Paul Flight.

Tuesday, October 25, 2005

Fashion Notes, ASvO

My review of Anne Sofie von Otter and Bengt Forsberg is up at SFCV. For this review, I had to give some though to whether to break one of my personal rules for reviewing and talk about what von Otter was wearing. I decided against it, so here's what I was thinking.

Orange is almost never a good fashion choice. It can work if you're dark-skinned; it's not hard to imagine Jessye Norman stunningly beautiful in an earth-tones-and-orange outfit, for example. But ASvO is about as far from dark-skinned as a human can get without being albino.

Orange is an even worse fashion choice when it's the ground color of a paisley whose highlight colors are blue and white.

And when you're a six-foot-tall blonde Swedish goddess, well....let's just say I spent more of the recital looking at the song texts than I ordinarily would have, given von Otter's special blend of beauty and charm. She would have been drop-dead gorgeous in ruby, in deep blue, in black, in white, in forest green, in any number of other colors, but no, instead she performed in a dress that looked like someone's nightmare memory of the 60s. I'm hoping she'll leave the orange paisley in Stockholm next time she goes on tour.

Sunday, October 23, 2005

Never Had a Chance

I planned to be at the last Doctor Atomic performance, I really did. I went into S. F. with what normally would have been plenty of time for a standing room ticket. Got to the opera house at 5:20 p.m. and found about 30 people in line ahead of me for the last 25 spots, and quickly heard that the first 125 standing room tickets had sold out within half an hour of going on sale in the morning. I almost got in; a couple of people ahead of me were sold balcony rear seats by someone who'd gotten a standing room ticket, and a couple of people gave up and wandered off. I had a shot at a balcony rear seat that someone bought at the other ticket window while people ahead of me dithered over, and did not purchase, a pair of $90 balcony circle seats. (I had already paid for orchestra rear seats for opening night and this past Tuesday, plus a seat for my girlfriend, so I was not shelling out that kind of money again.)

Friday, October 21, 2005

Doctor Atomic, and Balances, Revisted

I returned to Doctor Atomic on Tuesday, October 18. This time, I sat in ZZ-101. It's in the very last row of the orchestra section, and right on the center aisle. Once again, the voice/orchestra balances were fine - and this time, I have a possible explanation for why I found the balances good on opening night, from X-105, but Alex Ross and Anthony Tommasini, sitting quite a bit farther forward, did not.

You may have noticed that the opera is selling fewer standing room tickets this season than last season, "for technical reasons." A honking big sound board is taking up a good chunk of the orchestra-level standing room, and it's there for Doctor Atomic. I took a careful look at it Tuesday night and found that the sliders on it are labeled by instrument: "Harp", "Celesta", and so on.

Mark Grey, the sound designer for the production, is the guy on the sound board. If he's got control over balances and amplification to that extent, and he's waaaaaay back in center field, no wonder the balances sound better from the back of the orchestra than the middle. Anyone reading this - how does Doctor Atomic sound, balance-wise, from elsewhere in the theater? Comments especially appreciated from anyone who has been to more than one performance.

About the opera - why, yes, I liked it the second time, too. I found the first half of Act I talkier and drier than the first time through, and Adams's trademark ostinati more in evidence when I spent more time listening to the orchestra than the words. But I thought "Am I in your light?" and everything through to the end just as strong as on opening night.

More interestingly, I thought the first half of Act II just fantastic. My notes from the premiere referring to "Bartokian night-music" and "Wagner" are all about the sequence from Kitty to Pasqualita to Robert Wilson dreaming about the tower (...falling...falling). That sequence contains some of the most beautiful and evocative music in all opera, I think. My previous comments on Act II focussed primarily on the structural issues with the close, and I expect I didn't sufficiently communicate the beauties of the earlier half of the act.

Don't ask me about the ending, which M. C- says has changed. I had a busy weekend, including an early-morning trip to the new de Young Museum, and dozed off during the countdown, awakening to a huge drumroll at the moment of detonation. My partner agreed with me that there's a structure problem at the end. She loved the Vishnu chorus, but also though it was the detonation.

M. C- will have more to say about the changes, I believe. Keep an eye on The Standing Room.

Wednesday, October 12, 2005

Lost and Found

Daniel J. Wakin reports in the NY Times that a lost Beethoven autograph - the working score of a piano version of the Grosse Fugue - has been found, in a cabinet at an evangelical college in Pennsylvania.

"It was just sitting on that shelf," reported Heather Carbo, the librarian who found the score. Click that link to see what Lewis Lockwood of Harvard said!

Monday, October 10, 2005

Rodelinda Second Cast

For the last two performances of Rodelinda at San Francisco Opera, tenor Paul Nilon was replaced by Kobie van Rensburg and bass Umberto Chiummo was replaced by Joshua Bloom.

Van Rensburg was in the Met Rodelinda cast last year and got excellent reviews. I can see why; he has excellent agility and a good trill, both required for singing Handel. But that voice! It's not especially interesting; his tone is shallow; it's starting to show some spread on top at forte - not good in a singer who is only in his mid-30s. He got a good hand after each of his arias, and pretty much earned it - I'd rather have heard Nilon again, though. He's not quite as agile as van Rensburg. He does have a much more attractive voice.

I liked Chiummo just fine and would have been happy to hear him again. Joshua Bloom, though, has got an outstanding voice, very firm and dark, and more vocal and stage presence, overall. The last young bass who made this kind of impression on me was John Relyea, another Adler Fellow. I expect Bloom will also go on to great things and a fine career, and I'm definitely looking forward to hearing him in the future.

Balances

There's a discussion in the comments to Fallout, below, about the balances in the orchestra section of War Memorial Opera House.

I saw Rodelinda again Saturday night. I started in standing room; at the second intermission, a couple of people who were leaving handed me a pair of tickets for M-109 and M-111. These are Orchestra Prime seats on the left and just off the center aisle. They are not far off where Alex Ross and Anthony Tomassini sat for the Doctor Atomic premiere. For that performance, I was in X-105, which is close to the rear, a few seats to the left of the left-hand aisle.

For the first performance I saw of Rodelinda, I was in Z-106 or 108. That is the last row except for the accessible seating row, ZZ, which has four feet of leg room and is immediately in front of the standees. 106 and 108 are a few seats to the right of the center aisle.

For Rodelina, at least, the orchestra/voice balances were much, much better in standing room and row Z than in row M. The orchestra came more to the fore in row M and the voices were more difficult to hear - I theorize that I could hear the voices bouncing off the back and side walls (and maybe the box seat overhang) when I was close to the back of the theater.

Disclaimers: Rodelinda has a much smaller orchestra than Doctor Atomic, of course. And the pit was raised somewhat, as it was for Alcina in 2002. I have no idea how to account for the effects of the raised pit on the balances.

Sunday, October 02, 2005

Going Nuclear: Doctor Atomic Arrives

I was lucky enough that even subscribing very late to SF Opera, I was able to get a ticket to the opening night of John Adams and Peter Sellars's Doctor Atomic. It was quite an evening, with much excitement and the sense of occasion you'd expect at the premiere of an important and long-awaited new work. Herewith I try to turn my notes into a review; the notes aren't quite as extensive as I'd like, and (alas) the libretto is not in print yet. Thank goodness for the extensive synopsis in the program.

The short version: if you're within striking distance of San Francisco and you care at all about opera, singing, physics, World War II, or the music of John Adams, go see it. As of a day or two ago, there were plenty of tickets still available for the balance of the run, but that may change when the reviews come out.

The long version:

Doctor Atomic opens with an unnerving welter of mechanistic noise, flowing from speakers set in various places around the opera house. Sound came from behind me and in front of me and seemingly from the sides of the house as well. It fades out to almost nothing and you hear a clip obviously taken from 1940s radio. The curtain goes up to reveal a raked stage lit by eerie blue light and divided into sections by a number of wooden frames running across the stage, among which the chorus is scattered. They intone:

Matter can be neither created nor destroyed but only altered in form.
Energy can be neither created nor destroyed but only altered in form.


As the lighting changes to something more natural, you can see that the chorus members are dressed as nurses, uniformed personnel, ordinary people from the 1940s. Dancers flit across the stage and back. Mountains in silhouette undulate at the rear of the stage; during the course of the opera, they are raised or lowered to indicate apparent elevation, depending on the scene's distance from the mountains, and they're lit in various brilliant colors, from egg yolk to red to purple to blue, to illustrate the mood of a particular scene.

A blackboard covered with equations appears in the far left forward corner of the stage; three tables of lab equipment are rolled out, lab lights drop from the flies. You're in Los Alamos. Edward Teller (Richard Paul Fink) and Robert Oppenheimer (Gerald Finley) sing a duet (I smiled at the mention of Leo Szilard: "he's a bright fellow but something of a busybody") and Robert Wilson (Thomas Glenn) joins them for a trio.

I heard that trio for the first time, and "Am I in your light?", the solo that follows for Kitty Oppenheimer (Kristine Jepson), at an Opera Guild preview in February. I'd been wondering for quite a long time how exactly Sellars and Adams intended to construct the libretto for an opera about physicists. The answer - from official documents, from letters, from memoirs, from poetry - still left open questions about how this would work dramatically. The answer turns out to be: brilliantly. The first act is perfectly constructed and perfectly paced from beginning to end, dramatically and musically.

That Kitty Oppenheimer solo sets a Muriel Rukeyser poem; she sings it in bed to Robert, trying to get his attention while he studies papers of some kind. Frustrated, she seizes the papers and throws them to floor. He finally notices her; he sings a passionate poem by Baudelaire, they tangle for a while on the bed but ultimately they separate physically, and the duet ends with them alone and apart. That scene is a marvel, the most intimate and genuinely human love scene I've witnessed on the operatic stage, far more real and far hotter than anything appearing in ostensibly more radical or sexual productions, such as Alcina, Rodelinda, or The Fiery Angel.

The third and last scene of Act I moves to the Trinity site, where the first atomic bomb (the "Gadget") was tested on July 16, 1945. It's the night before the test, but the weather is uncertain, with rain and electrical storms threatening. General Leslie Groves (Eric Owens) is under immense pressure from Washington to ensure a successful test. He takes out his fears on chief meterologist Jack Hubbard (James Maddalena), threatening jail or hanging. Captain James Nolan (Jay Hunter Morris) attempts to persuade Groves that fallout from the test shot could endanger the whole region. Groves looks like a monster until Oppenheimer teases him about his weight; in the ensuing discussion of Groves's many diet attempts, you realize he's just another human trying to do his job. The act closes with a setting for Oppenheimer of Donne's Holy Sonnet, "Batter my heart, three-person'd God:"

Batter my heart, three person'd God; for, you
As yet but knocke, breathe, shine, and seeke to mend;
That I may rise, and stand, o'erthrow mee,'and bend
Your force, to breake, blowe, burn and make me new.
I, like an usurpt towne, to'another due,
Labour to'admit you, but Oh, to no end,
Reason your viceroy in mee, mee should defend,
But is captiv'd, and proves weake or untrue.
Yet dearely'I love you,'and would be loved faine,
But am betroth'd unto your enemie:
Divorce mee, 'untie, or breake that knot againe;
Take mee to you, imprison mee, for I
Except you'enthrall mee, never shall be free,
Nor ever chast, except you ravish mee.


I read that poem about a dozen times in the days before the premiere, having been tipped off that it would feature prominently in the opera. I couldn't imagine what Adams would do with it. He must have worked some kind of magic, because as it's set - and as Gerald Finley performed it - it's much easier to understand than reading it on the page.

That perfect first act would be a tough act to follow, so to speak, and indeed the second act has its problems. For one thing, it's likely that anyone attending the opera knows how the test turns out: the bomb goes off. So there's the problem of how to create tension. There is plenty of terrific music in the act - my notes call out the Wagnerian grandeur of the brass sonorities early on, recalling the Valhalla and curse music from the Ring, and somewhat later, mid-act, night music worthy of Bartok. But the act's overall effectiveness is significantly undermined by a couple of major misfires in the pacing.

At the end of scene ii, Oppenheimer decides that the test shot will be fired at 5:30 a.m., which is still some five hours away. Scenes iii and iv are the countdown from 5:10 a.m. to the explosion, but I didn't get sufficient sense of time passing between midnight and 5 a.m.. The various characters ruminate and chorus very shortly sings a wild chorus to Vishnu. The stage seemed set afire, with yellow mountains, green, orange and red light: I was sure the bomb had gone off, even though there was no sound of an explosion. Imagine my surprise when the countdown proceeded - and I was even more surprised by the comparative fizzle we got at end the opera, which left me wondering exactly what had happened. There was some noise - but not quite as impressive a noise as at the beginning - and in the silence that followed, a woman's voice speaking Japanese, apparently from a radio air check. There was no translation provided, nor is there anything in the program indicating what she's talking about.

I understand that it's difficult to represent in sound or music the sound of an atomic bomb going off. It's hard to represent the end of the world, too; that's why Wagner gave us the 20-minute-long Immolation scene to balance off the immensity that goes before. (I confess that the coda of the Immolation always seems to me not quite long enough too - but I digress.) In any event, the sound world at the end of Doctor Atomic isn't remotely sufficient; it doesn't awe, terrify, or even startle the audience very much. Maybe the opera needs an immense flash of light, or perhaps Adams and Sellars need to explicitly state that it will end not with a bang but a whimper.

I here note that the program synopsis is explicit about what's going on at any given moment. If I'd read it, maybe I wouldn't have been fooled. And yet, the opera on the stage should be clear enough to be accurately understood without reading the notes.

That's not the only significant problem in the second act. There's a character who seems entirely superfluous to the main action. This is Pasqualita (mezzo Beth Clayton), a Tewa Indian who is the Oppenheimers' maid. She appears at various times calming their daughter by singing a lullaby, or simply by holding the child. Her music is lovely, and Clayton's dark, contralto-y tone contrasted beautifully with Jepson's brighter high mezzo. But still - it was not possible to discern her dramatic function from her stage appearances and music.

It's also a shame that Kitty doesn't have more music in the second act. I think you never see her with Robert again after the devestating love scene in the first act; you learn enough about her, and about them, to want more. Perhaps the countdown could have been shorter - or Pasqualita eliminated entirely if her role isn't made clearer - and more music and stage time given to the Oppenheimers and their marriage.

Despite the flaws in act II, Doctor Atomic is one hell of an accomplishment. The music is Adams at his riveting best: full of rhythmic and melodic interest, densely and beautifully orchestrated in overlapping layers of sound, all executed brilliantly by Donald Runnicles and the opera orchestra. Each character is sharply drawn in music; the scientists sing to each other in a style that's talky, conversational, almost a bit square, with spikey melodic lines. Robert Wilson, the youngest of the scientist-characters, is impetuous and idealistic. The women are more lyrical - Kitty soars in her music - and Oppenheimer himself is at his most lyrical with his wife, at his most dramatic singing "Batter my heart." (I do feel that "Batter my heart" would have been just as effective staged more subtly.)

And the singers themselves are flawless. They sang this difficult music as if it were the most natural thing in the world, even the three latecomers to the cast (Fink, Glenn, and Jepson); the men's diction was so good that I consulted the supertitles perhaps five percent of the time when they were singing. The women were a bit more difficult to understand. (I note that Adams said in September that he "requires very subtle miking of soloists and chorus." Could that be one reason for the excellent diction? I could not find a discussion of this issue in the program.)

I was happy with each and every singer; I want to especially applaud Gerald Finley, for his beautiful singing, lovely voice, and dramatic embodiment of the complex being who was J. Robert Oppenheimer. I hope he'll be back.

And I hope you'll all turn out for Doctor Atomic.

(Very minor revisions - typos fixed and a couple of awkward sentences smoothed - on October 12, 2005.)

Monday, September 26, 2005

Rodelinda, San Francisco Opera

Handel's great opera seria Rodelinda has reached San Francisco, following an acclaimed production in 2004 at the Met. We got David Daniels from that cast, and later in the season Kobie van Rensburg takes the role of Grimoaldo for a few performances. Otherwise, cast and production are unique to San Francisco.

It is a tremendous opera, full of brilliantly written and deeply expressive arias for all of the characters. The Met gave it a period setting; SFO, with David Alden directing and Paul Steinberg designing the sets, placed the work in the 1940s, giving it a striking, gorgeously lit film noir look. What this had to do with the King and Queen of Lombardy, I don't know, but it certainly was handsome, and the singers looked great in their 1940s suits and dresses.

Like 2002's Alcina, there were some pointless directorial conceits, such as turning the deposed King Bertarido's loyal supporter (servant?) Unulfo into a figure of laughter and Bertarido's sister Eduige into a drunk. For that matter, I didn't much like Bertarido represented as a street person, bottle in hand. All three characters have unfailing noble arias and as far as the text goes, none of them behave like boors or drunks or klutzes. Other odd directorial problems included Rodelinda and Bertarido standing 20 feet apart while singing "I embrace you" and an awful lot of unnecessary stage business during arias. At least the on-stage action was mostly understandable, unlike the incomprehensible antics of Alcina.

Also: no gratuitous sex, although there was a moment when I thought perhaps Garibaldo was going to have at Eduige on the bonnet of the Mercedes that was part of the scenery during Acts II and III. (If you want nongratuitous sex in Handel, I refer you to Semele and especially the title character's aria "Endless pleasure," which is about exactly what you think it is, or even her "With fond desiring.")

In any event, the September 25th performance of Rodelinda was spectacularly sung and conducted. Catherine Nagelstad, singing Rodelinda, got off to a weak start; throughout Act I she had difficulty maintaining a good line except while singing slowly. Her trills weren't clean and her passage work was disconnected from the underlying meter of the arias; consequently, she seemed to be meandering and without rhythmic focus. Everything changed in the second and third acts, and once again the brilliant singer of Alcina was before us in all her glory, dramatically riveting and gorgeous in line and tone. David Daniels, as Bertarido, matched her in every way; they were ravishing in the act II reunion duet, "Io t’abbraccio." The young Adler Fellow Gerald Thompson, countertenor, sang beautifully and brought considerable dignity to the role of Unulfo, despite the director's efforts to the contrary. He seems a complete artist already, and it's not hard to see a great career in front of him. Phyllis Pancella was a fine Eduige, making the most of both her drunken and dignified moments. Umberto Chiummo was a suitably evil Garibaldo. Paul Nilon, as the usurper Grimoaldo, sang lyrically but in a style that sometimes seemed from another century. Nonetheless, his passage-work, trills, and breath control were excellent. Roy Goodman conducted with spring and vigor; the orchestra did a splendid job of embracing Baroque style.

Three performances remain (Thursday, September 29; Sunday, October 2; Saturday, October 8); if you like opera seria, or, for that matter, if you like great singing, go see Rodelinda.

Sunday, September 04, 2005

Another Doctor Atomic Cast Change

I haven't seen an announcement of this and there's nothing in the Press section of the SF Opera Web site yet, but on the cast page it now appears that Friedemann Röhlig is out, Richard Paul Fink is in, as Edward Teller.

I saw Fink first as Escamillo in Carmen some years back; the role didn't suit him at all and I dismissed him out of hand. In 1999, he was a decent Kurwenal in the Met's Tristan, and I thought, "Oh, okay, good."

I got one of the happiest surprises of my opera-going life in 2001, when he was a brilliant Alberich in the Seattle Ring. Two years later, he was excellent as Klingsor in Seattle's Parsifal. I am looking forward to his Teller; I expect he will be excellent or better.

Update: There is a discussion of the cast change in Georgia Rowe's Classical Notes column on the Contra Costa Times Web site.

Tuesday, August 23, 2005

Sigh...

If you're expecting or hoping to see me in Seattle for the Ring, alas, work pressures caught up and I am in Oakland working working working.

Sunday, August 07, 2005

Dress Codes: Free the Men of Music@Menlo!

There's been plenty of discussion in the blogosphere about the sometimes-stulifying atmosphere of classical concerts. I myself am on the fence about this; I get a special thrill from formality and love the infrequent occasions for which I put on a gown. But there's a lot to be said for comfort and a lot to be said for informality.

The audience for Music@Menlo is varied in age and personal style; I saw blue jeans and suits and everything in between at the concerts I've been to.

The women performers get to wear whatever more-or-less formal wear they'd like. Last night, violinist Jorja Fleezanis wore blue pants and a very beautiful flowing top in shades of blue, purple, red, turqoise, and other colors. (I should have asked her where I could get one like it!) Violist Cynthia Phelps was in a floor-length lavender gown with spaghetti straps. Pianist Wu Han wore black pants and some kind of black top with a spectacular red and black number on top of it, and red high heels of the kind that are nice if you can handle them. They'd break my ankles in a second, but whatever! They looked great on her, and, yes, she could pedal JUST FINE in them.

Given this, I feel sorry for the male performers, who are mostly stuck in white tuxes, white shirts, white bow ties, and black dress pants. (Jeffrey Kahane wore black pants and a black button-down shirt for last week's variations marathon.)

Soooo.....

Free the men of Music@Menlo! Let them wear whatever they'd like!

Music@Menlo's Steinway

To the Beethoven, Schumann, Brahms program at Music@Menlo last night (see my SFCV review on Tuesday), and I must comment on the piano -

I wish I'd asked the piano technician about it last night while he tuned it during intermission. This piano is a beauty, producing a gorgeous sound. The sound throughout the piano's range is even and clear and warm, never harsh or clangorous. The bass is present and strong but never thuddy or muddy or obscuring the rest. The upper register is sweet and projects well, never glassy or thin or unpleasant.

It sounded pretty different when played by Kalish, Han, and Kahane, so it's very responsive to different styles. Kahane especially got some incredibly beautiful sound qua sound out of it; one of the variations last week just melted, it was so, so beautiful. And in the Brahms last night, Han got an enormous sound of it without its ever sounding bangy.

Obviously some of this is the pianists' own skill, but wow.

Thursday, August 04, 2005

Semi-Hiatus

Some blog postings are in the works, but delayed by the fact that for the rest of the month I'm in system release heck, if not hell. I keep looking at my to-do list and alternately thinking "It's all under control" and "How on earth will I get this all done?" A complicating factor is my ticket to cycle 3 of the Seattle Ring. The cast is mostly not new to me and I saw the production - well, most of it - in 2001, but I am eager to hear conductor Robert Spano's take on the work. I may be taking a laptop to Seattle with me.

What I hope to blog about: the insane concert given by Jeffrey Kahane this past weekend at the Music@Menlo chamber music festival, consisting of a lecture, the Goldberg Variations, the Diabelli Variations, and a Q&A session. Oh, yeah, there was a 75-minute lunch break between variation sets, but the whole thing took from 10:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. anyway. And also the three operas SFO performed this summer under the rubric "The Gamble of Love."

(Why did I only see "most" of the 2001 Seattle Ring? Because my mother, who attended with me, fell and broke her wrist about three hours before the Goetterdaemmerung curtain, and so I spent most of that evening in the emergency room with her. Damn opera is so long I made it to the opera house for Act III anyway. :-)

Friday, July 29, 2005

Minor Fame

Yesterday when I got home, I found that a copy of a book called Reviewing the Arts, by Campbell Tichener, had arrived in the mail. It's described on the back cover this way:
Developed for those media writers assigned to review an artistic event or performance, Reviewing the Arts provides the tools a journalist needs to write informed and enlightened reviews of the arts. This useful text guides writers through the steps for producing an acceptable review of the fine and performing arts, covering the range of arts from film and television to drama and dance; from sculpture and architecture to music.

The book's intended as a journalism textbook, and this is its third edition.

I've got a copy because my review of the Berkeley Opera's Legend of the Ring, which ran last year in San Francisco Classical Voice, is discussed in the book, and in fact it's on page 4 - the first review quoted. It's in the context of a discussion of SFCV and its goals.

I'm tickled pink by this, especially since that was only my second professional review.

Tuesday, July 19, 2005

Doctor Atomic Cast Change

Playbill reports that San Francisco Opera has announced Lorraine Hunt Lieberson's withdrawal from Doctor Atomic on doctors' orders, because of a back injury. She's being replaced by Kristine Jepson.

Not much to say about this other than "Waaaaaah."

Monday, July 18, 2005

Berkeley Opera

My review of the Berkeley Opera potted Meistersinger will be up at SFCV tomorrow; suffice it to say that the performance is a mixed bag, but I heartily approve of the edition, which sends 90 minutes of overblown twaddle about the creation of "heil'ge Deutsche Kunst" straight into oblivion, leaving behind a less-ponderous opera that almost approaches wit.

My idea of an operatic comedy? Le Nozze di Figaro, say, or Falstaff. For that matter, the Ping/Pang/Pong music in Turandot is wittier than anything in Meistersinger.

And speaking of Falstaff, Berkeley Opera is performing Verdi's great masterpiece next season. I hope they have enough players and rehearsal time to put across the quicksilver orchestral writing, but what a pleasure it will be to see and hear it in the tiny Julia Morgan Theater, where the performers don't have to be larger than life to make an impression. The other offerings are equally interesting: a new work by Clark Suprynowicz and John O'Keefe, and an adaptation by the brilliant David Scott Marley of La Fanciulla del West. Considering his superb work on The Riot Grrrl on Mars, Bat Out of Hell, and other operas, I can't wait.

Wednesday, June 29, 2005

Abridging the Classics

Today's Times brings a report that the Metropolitan Opera plans to present a 90-minute version of The Magic Flute. ACD is predictably up in arms over the matter.

My friend Bill Kasimer is annoyed, too, and presents better reasons than ACD. Here's what he had to say about it on rec.music.opera:

Why is it necessary to abridge Magic Flute? It's short enough already. I took my son to a performance of it at the Met, and he didn't have any trouble sitting through the whole thing. He was seven at the time. A few months later, I took him to a "family performance" of the opera, and he bitched about the cuts.

If the Met really wants to be "family friendly", they should schedule Sunday matinee performances, and start some of the evening performances earlier, so that they end at a reasonable hour. Or how about a "family series", a small number of weekday performances that begin around 4:00, with a longer intermission for dinner, and then finishing up early enough to get kids to bed a reasonable hour?

It'll never happen.


I have to agree with Bill on all of those points, although I also understand the reasons the Met might not be able go with his ideas - union contracts, scheduling issues, etc. They're still great ideas.

I don't especially mind the abridgement, myself. There's a long history of cutting operas in performance, for better or for worse, depending on circumstances, conductorial fancy, the demands of running an opera house, current fashion, and current scholarship. San Francisco Opera has had a portable one-hour, piano-only production of Hansel und Gretel for decades; it's played at schools and mostly during the holiday season. Last year, Berkeley Opera put on a bang-up one-evening production of the Ring that I, for one, loved. My partner, not much of a Wagner fan herself, thought it a ton of fun and even flirted with the idea of going to the Seattle Ring with me this year. So, sure, there's a place in the world for abridgement. It does not mean the sky is falling, unless, of course, you think any change means the sky is falling.

Tuesday, June 28, 2005

Head. Wall. Bang.

Earlier this week, Anne Midgette had an excellent article in the NY Times about the disappearing classical music audience, how orchestras sell tickets, and related issues. (It ran on June 25 and will be free for one week from that date.)

Today's Times prints several letters to the editor responding to Midgette's article. I'm happy to see a music professor lamenting the fossilized classical concert format and calling for greater flexibility in programming, and a historian discussing the marginalization of classical music in the United States.

It's dismaying, though, to read the claims by a professional violinist - a member of the Houston Symphony - that critics "castigate" performers who play masterpieces and that the art form tries to "relegate its masterpieces to the trash heap."

It's too bad the Times doesn't ask letter-writers to provide evidence to back up their claims. Just who are the critics the letter writer is thinking of? Where are the performing organizations that are banning Beethoven? (And why would she mind if, say, a new music ensemble eschews 18th century music?) How can an art form do anything to its masterpieces, anyway? Isn't she talking about musical institutions and performing organizations?

Now, I have to confess that I myself, a sometime critic, have castigated the San Francisco Symphony a couple of times for its programming. I thought it was a mistake to match the "Emperor" concerto with Webern and Hartmann, and the Beethoven violin concerto with Adams's Naive and Sentimental Music. My problem wasn't with programming Beethoven, however; it was with programming, in general, where the works don't illuminate each other in some interesting or telling way. (Yes, I realize this kind of programming sometimes has to do with which soloists are available when, what they want to play, who is conducting, and so on. There's no way to please everybody!)

But it's truly unfortunate that a professional violinist apparently doesn't have an interest in creating a living classical musical culture in this country. That means programming new and 20th centurey music, supporting living composers, and communicating with the audience about new music and why it's important - not just playing familiar music by the safely dead.

Monday, June 27, 2005

Readings for a New Opera 3

From The Making of the Atomic Bomb, p. 274-275:

The following Saturday Oppenheimer discussed the discovery [of fission] in a letter to a friend at Caltech, outlining all the experiments [Luis] Alvarez and others had accomplished during the week and speculating on applications:

"The U business is unbelievable. We first saw it in the papers, wired for more dope, and have had a lot of reports since... In how many ways does the U come apart? At random, as one might guess, or only in certain ways? And most of all, are there many neutrons that come off during the splitting, or from the excited pieces? If there are, then a 10 cm cube of U deuteride (one would need the D [deuterium, heavy hydrogen] to slow them without capture) should be quite something. What do you think? It is I think exciting, not in the rare way of positrons and mesotrons, but in a good honest practical way."


The next day, in a letter to George Uhlenbeck at Columbia, "quite something" became "might very well blow itself to hell." One of Oppenheimer's students, the American theoretical physicist Philip Morrison, recalls that "when fission was discovered, within perhaps a week there was on the blackboard in Robert Oppeneimer's office a drawing -- a very bad, an execrable drawing--of a bomb."

Readings for a New Opera 2

Occasional quotations from whatever I'm reading as background material for Doctor Atomic; this, again, from The Making of the Atomic Bomb, p. 259-260:
When she was thirty-one, in 1909, [Lise] Meitner had met Albert Einstein for the first time at a scientific conference in Salzburg. He "gave a lecture on he development of our views regarding the nature of radiation. At that time, I certainly did not yet realize the full implications of his theory of relativity." She listened eagerly. In the course of the lecture Einstein used the theory of relativity to derive his equation E=mc2, with which Meitner was then unfamiliar. Eistein showed thereby how to calculate the conversion of mass into energy. "These two facts," she reminisced in 1964, "were so overwhelmingly new and surprising that, to this day, I remember the lecture very well."

Sunday, June 26, 2005

Sing-In Season

The Oakland Symphony Chorus's summer sing-in series starts in just a couple of weeks. It will run from July 12 to August 23 on Tuesday nights at 7 p.m., at First Coventant Church, 4000 Redwood Road, Oakland. Each sing-in is $10, or $60 for the 7-event series.

Works include the Brahms Requiem (July 12, led by Vance George); the Bach Magnificat and excerpts from the Dvořák Requiem (July 26, led by Michael Morgan), The Creation, by Haydn (August 16, led by Bruce Lamott), and Stravinsky's Symphony of Psalms, (August 23, led by Lynne Morrow).

Saturday, June 25, 2005

Events for a New Opera

The San Francisco Opera Web site now has an extensive listing of events related to the premiere of Doctor Atomic. (It is also mirrored at the Doctor Atomic Web site.)

The calendar starts in July, when the Simnuke Project attempts to simulate a nuclear explosion in the Nevada desert. This will be followed by a gallery show in San Francisco about the simulated explosion. In August, there is a San Francisco Opera Guide celebration on the Peninsula, and the Commonwealth Club looks at world security issues on August 3 in a round-table discussion that includes Richard Rhodes, author of The Making of the Atomic Bomb.

September and October bring a host of mouth-watering events:

  • The Exploratorium has a talk featuring Richard Rhodes in conversation with John Adams and Peter Sellars, on Tuesday, September 13 at 7 p.m.

  • The cast and production team talk about the opera at Herbst Theater, S.F., on Thursday, September 22, at 6 p.m.

  • The Consortium for the Arts & Arts Research Center at the University of California, Berkeley, will sponsor a free evening symposium, at Wheeler Hall on the UCB Campus, called "Science and the Soul: Robert Oppenheimer and Doctor Atomic." John Adams and Peter Sellars will talk; there will be a musical preview; Dean of Physical Sciences Mark Richards, Physics Professor Marvin Cohen, and Artistic Director of the San Francisco Opera Pamela Rosenberg will also partcipate. (Monday, September 26, 8 pm)

  • The UCB Art Department will sponsor a lecture on "the U.S. government competition for a monument at the site of the first atomic bomb test" on September 22.

  • A composer's colloquium with John Adams is planned, but the date hasn't been announced yet.

  • On all Wednesdays and Sundays in October, the Pacific Film Archive will show films related to the bomb, the effects of nuclear war, and "the Faustian aspects of science and technology."

  • On October 15, there will be a reading at UCB by 22 poets of new work created for the occasion.

  • Amazing Light: Visions for Discovery is a three-day symposium, October 6 - 8, in honor of the 90th birthday of Charles Townes, inventor of the laser, and in celebration of the 100th anniversary of Einstein's accomplishments in 2005 and the 2005 World Year of Physics.

  • The Jung Institute has a one-day event on October 8 with John Adams called "The Faust Myth and the Archetype of the Apocalypse."

  • In conjunction with the Word Year of Physics, the American Physical Society will sponsor a number of events related to Doctor Atomic, but none of these are enumerated at the SFO Web site and a very curosry look at the APS Web site didn't yield anything yet either.

There's more detail to come, I'm sure. And I will be at many of these events.

Friday, June 24, 2005

Usability and the Orchestra Web Site

Last September, Drew McManus reviewed the Web sites of some 70 American orchestras. San Francisco Symphony's ranked number 8 at the time.

If they're that good, I hate to think of what the other Web sites are like. I've run into several issues at the SFS Web site recently:

  • The Search box simply doesn't work. Try, for example, searching for the term Thomas, which, for obvious reasons, should be returned dozens of times. Searching for it returns no results at all. Neither does Tilson. Neither does Gershwin, whose musicals Of Thee I Sing and Let Them Eat Cake make up this week's SFS program.

  • Purchasing tickets on line now requires a login name and password, a change from a year or so back. I set up these credentials at some point, but have forgotten them. I tried to reset the password, but the promised email with information on how to do that never arrived. Email to ticketservices@sfsymphony.org was not answered.

    That's right: the Symphony has made it harder to purchase tickets over the Web. (I wound up phoning the last time I needed to buy tickets.)

  • Apropos of yesterday's posting about Keeping Score, I tried to find a press release on the Web site about the choice of Fresno. Unfortunately, the last press release is dated May 27, and it's about casting updates for this week's program.


SFS could be doing better than this. Maybe next year!

Wednesday, June 22, 2005

Keeping Score in Fresno?!

Buried in David Wiegand's S. F. Chronicle arts column today is this item:

Score one more for Keeping Score, the San Francisco Symphony's multimedia program designed to build new audiences. Last week, the Symphony received a $1. 65 million grant from the James Irvine Foundation that is part of the $10 million challenge grant from the Evelyn & Walter Haas Jr. Fund. The first part of the Irvine Foundation money will support the program's educational component

The pilot program for Keeping Score's educational component will start in Fresno this next school year. Twenty teachers from grades kindergarten through 12 have been chosen to participate and will use the Keeping Score multimedia programs to add classical music to the core curriculum.

The teachers will be in San Francisco next week for training sessions.


It would be so interesting to know why Fresno was chosen as the pilot program's location, but darned if I can find anything on the Symphony's Web site. Was it lack of interest on the part of the San Francisco public schools? Lack of music programs in the S. F. public schools? Lack of interest on the part of the Symphony?

Readings for a New Opera 1

Richard Rhodes, The Making of the Atomic Bomb:

In London, where Southampton Row passes Russell Square, across from the British Museum in Bloomsbury, Leo Szilard waited irritably one gray Depression morning for the stoplight to change. A trace of rain had fallen during the night; Tuesday, September 12, 1933, dawned cool, humid and dull. Drizzling rain would begin again in early afternoon. When Szilard told the story later he never mentioned his destination that morning. He may have had none; he often walked to think. In any case another destination intervened. The stoplight changed to green. Szilard stepped off the curb. As he crossed the street time cracked open before him and he saw a way to the future, death into the world and all our woe, the shape of things to come.

Tuesday, June 21, 2005

New Wagnerian Voices

I've been lucky enough, in the last year or so, to hear three new major Wagnerian voices.

"Or so" is because I first heard Linda Watson in 2003, singing Kundry in the Seattle Opera's Parsifal production. She was a vivid stage presence and sang movingly; I was uncertain about her upper register at the time, which seemed overly pushed. Not any more, if her performance last week at Berkeley Symphony Orchestra is any indication. Read my review of that concert here. No, I wasn't so happy with her interpretation of the Strauss, but I was plenty happy with her voice qua voice.

San Francisco Opera's 2004-05 season brought two other significant debuts. I'd heard Christine Brewer in Mahler's Eighth Symphony at San Francisco Symphony a few years ago, but she worked miracles in the Runnicles 50th Birthday Gala, singing with a ruby-red depth of tone and enormous alertness to the words.

Nina Stemme, who appeared in that concert as well as a passionate Sieglinde, debuted on stage as Senta earlier in the fall, and gave a spectacular account of that role. The production was too static and didn't give the graceful and physically intense Stemme nearly enough to do, but oh, my! At the end of the opera, she put on one of the most impressive vocal displays I've ever heard in the house.

Brewer will be back this fall for Fidelio at SF Opera, and her Web page at Askonas Holt says she'll be singing Isolde here in the future. Be still, my heart!

And I want to hear Stemme and Watson again soon, too.