Thursday, May 19, 2016

SF Opera Summer Preview

The San Francisco Opera is presenting three of my all-time favorite works this summer and they are offering a 30% discount offer if you buy tickets for all of them. Call the box office at (415) 864-3330 to check out the details. I heartily recommend that you do so and following are a few reasons why.

The mini-season begins on Friday, May 27th with Carmen, Bizet's perennial warhorse about the Spanish gypsy who is eventually murdered by her spurned soldier lover Don Jose. There are probably more catchy earworm tunes in this opera than any other musical theater piece in history. You probably know at least a half dozen of them whether you realize it or not. The opera can be problematic to stage, because it's a mixture of sweet and harsh, sexy and violent, that can easily devolve into castanet-clicking cliches. The late director Jean-Pierre Ponnelle created a wonderful production for the SF Opera in 1981 starring the great Spanish mezzo-soprano Teresa Berganza (above), but it kept being endlessly restaged by less inspired assistant directors over the years until it started looking like an amateur community pageant.

This summer the production will be from Calixto Bieito, the Spanish opera director who has been scandalizing Europe with his bizarre, scatalogical, violent, and sexual reimaginings of established classics, and this Carmen is supposedly one of his better efforts. It's also the first time one of his productions has been staged in the United States, which is a big deal. Recently seen at the English National Opera in 2015, this updated, stark, violently macho version was almost universally well-received by critics. The double casting of major roles at the SF Opera isn't particularly impressive on paper, but maybe we'll be happily surprised.

The second opera is the massive, four-and-a-half hour Verdi masterpiece Don Carlo, easily my favorite opera by one of my favorite composers. Set in Inquisition era Spain during the reign of Philip II, the libretto is from a serious Schiller play that stands up well, with dramatically complex characters, an endlessly fascinating look at how power corrupts, and a damning denunciation of the Catholic Church in all its cruelties. It also contains some of the most beautiful music Verdi ever wrote, including the great bromance duet between the title character and his best friend Rodrigo. I saw the opera for the first time in 1979 with German baritone Wolfgang Brendel above as Rodrigo and Spanish tenor Giacomo Aragall as Don Carlo, and was so overwhelmed by their characters and the greatness of the musical score that I attended every performance.

Though I never need to see Verdi's La Traviata or Aida again, the chance to experience Don Carlo live will always be welcome. The casting for this summer's production is outstanding and star-filled, with tenor Michael Fabiano as the neurotic prince Don Carlo and the great baritone Mariusz Kwiecien as Rodrigo. Though it will be hard to sound better than soprano Carol Vaness (above) as Queen Elisabetta in 1992, Ana María Martínez is luxury casting in the role this summer as is the magnificent bass Rene Pape as Phillip II. The conductor will be Music Director Nicola Luisotti, who has just announced his retirement after the 2017-18 season, and this music should play to all of his strengths.

Finally, there is Leoš Janáček's breakout masterpiece, Jenufa, an opera that converted me into a genuine Opera Fanatic back in 1980. The San Francisco Opera has a good track record with Janáček, starting with that 1980 production featuring Sena Jurinac (above right), the legendary Vienna State Opera star who late in her career sang the part of the murderous, morally upright Kostelnička. Her stepdaughter Jenufa was sung by the great Swedish soprano Elisabeth Söderström (above left), who was then in her 50's but who was a completely convincing teenager onstage. Even though this was before the advent of supertitles and the opera was being presented in the original Czech (which is all-important for Janáček because his musical rhythms so closely mirror the language he uses), audiences were overwhelmed by the powerful beauty of the music drama.

In 1986, Gabriela Beňačková and Leonie Rysanek above took the two lead roles and brought a similar level of dramatic perfection to the opera. This year we have the young Swedish soprano Malin Byström as Jenufa, one of the most admirable characters in all of opera, and Karita Mattila as her driven to desperate insanity stepmother. Mattila knocked out everyone in the recent SF Opera production of the same composer's The Makropoulos Case, so expectations are high. The definitive Czech conductor of our times, Jiří Bělohlávek, who did such a stunning job with The Makropoulos Case, will be returning to lead the orchestra. I cannot recommend this opera highly enough, and if you don't cry at some point during the production, I probably don't want to know you.

Photo credits for the archival productions: Ron Scherl for Teresa Berganza in Carmen, Brendel/Aragall in Don Carlo, and Surinac/Söderström in Jenufa; Marty Sohl for Carol Vaness in Don Carlo; Robert Cahen for Beňačková/Rysanek in Jenufa. And many thanks to Teresa Concepcion at the SF Opera PR Department for rounding up all this archival imagery.

Monday, May 16, 2016

Delight in Dancing

The New Century Chamber Orchestra closed out their season with music written for dance, including a world premiere commission from composer Jennifer Higdon above. Like much of Higdon's music, the five-movement Dance Card was easily accessible and enjoyable while being simultaneously complex and offbeat. The performers seemed to love it.

The concert in Herbst Theater started off with Khatchaturian's Sabre Dance, complete with a percussionist to punch up the sound, and after intermission was followed by a dry, dull reading of Stravinsky's score for the Balanchine ballet Apollon musagète. The concert ended with a transcription by Clarice Assad of Dance of the Seven Veils from Strauss's opera Salome. Even with the return of the percussionist and Peter Grunberg on piano, the chamber version sounded anemic compared to the huge Strauss orchestra for which the music was written. My mind daydreamed back to being onstage at the SF Opera as a supernumerary guard at the cistern of John the Baptist watching Marie Ewing acting crazy as Salome while Leonie Rysanek, sitting on a throne playing Salome's mother Herodias, displayed 300 different ways to upstage another performer (vigorous fanning, playing with jewelry, jumping up and making faces at John the Baptist) while I tried desperately not to break into helpless giggles.

Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg is in her final year as Music Director of the New Century Chamber Orchestra, and she's brought energy, excitement, and lots of new music commissions to the group over the last decade. Let's hope the ensemble finds an interesting leader to take her place, because the group is playing at a very high level.

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Davies' The Lighthouse from Opera Parallèle

The brilliant British composer Peter Maxwell Davies died two months ago at the age of 81, and in a bit of accidental synchronicity Opera Parallèle presented his best-known operatic work, The Lighthouse, earlier this month at the Z Space theater. Davies' prolific compositions were all over the map, from the easy listening of Farewell to Stromness and An Orkney Wedding, with Sunrise to astringent, thorny works like the 1968 Eight Songs for a Mad King and the 1979 one-act opera The Lighthouse.

Nicole Paiement conducted the 13-person chamber orchestra in a magnificent performance where every instrumentalist was thoroughly exposed.

The three-man cast of (left to right) bass David Cushing, tenor Thomas Glenn, and baritone Robert Orth could not have been better, as they played both lighthouse keepers stuck on a Scottish island at the turn of the 19th/20th century in a storm while slowly going insane, along with the rescue team that faces a court of enquiry after they fail to rescue anyone.

The highlight of the opera were the three arias where each of the lighthouse keepers sing a song for the others in popular styles (folk song, love song, hymn) with disturbing lyrics. Robert Orth as Blazes starts it off with a comic, horrific tale of murdering a woman and kicking in her face while Thomas Glenn looks back at lost love with a dead friend of indeterminate gender.

David Cushing as a religious fanatic who sees "the beast" coming for them has an astonishingly beautiful, resonant bass voice that makes you want to swim in its richness of sound. Casting directors at San Francisco Opera, please take note. Cushing is incredible.

The staging by director Brian Staufenbiel was imaginative and pretty, but I think the piece might have been better served by stressing the total claustrophobia of both the court of enquiry and the stranded lighthouse. The musicians were a wonder and deserve recognition: Nicole Paiement conducting Stacey Pelinka on flute, Peter Josheff on clarinet, Susan Vollmer on French horn, Scott Macomber on trumpet, Thomas Hornig on trombone, William Winant and Ben Paysen on percussion, David Tannenbaum on guitar and banjo, Keisuke Nakagoshi on piano and keyboards, Dan Flanagan on violin, Ellen Ruth Rose on viola, Thalia Moore on cello, and Richard Worn on contrabass. It was quite a starry gathering of local musical talent.

Monday, May 09, 2016

Burger King Classic Aggression

Walking home from the Civic Center Farmers' Market a couple of Sundays ago, I heard a Mozart string quintet being blasted from what sounded like a boombox, a surrealistic musical choice for the location. This was at the corner of 8th & Market and Grove & Larkin where a Burger King presides over a BART/Muni escalator and set of stairs that is usually surrounded by an open-air drug market, mentally ill street people acting out, and vendors selling stolen goods from the sidewalk.

The sound turned out to be coming from small speakers mounted on the Burger King building in a deliberate effort to drive away the usual crowd by playing loud classical chamber music.

As you can see, the tactic worked. The corner was completely empty on Sunday morning of its usual denizens and continues to be so two weeks later.

Using classical music as a tool for gentrification leaves me ambivalent. On the one hand, I love hearing the music itself while coming up the escalator from the BART/Muni station, and it's pleasant being able to walk up Grove Street without gingerly avoiding crazy people. On the other hand, using classical music as a weapon feels all wrong. It will be interesting to watch and listen how this plays out.