Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Poliuto, Religious Martyr of Rossmoor

Mark Streshinsky, the charismatic General Director of the East Bay's confusingly named West Edge Opera, introduced Donizetti's rarely performed 1838 opera Poliuto to a large and appreciative crowd at Rossmoor's new Event Center on Saturday afternoon in Walnut Creek.

This was the second installment in the company's Medium Rare season which features concert performances of obscure operas by famous composers. They are performed with a quartet of instruments (conductor on piano, violin, cello and clarinet), a small chorus, and supertitles by Music Director Jonathan Khuner explaining what kind of dungeon one of the principals might be entering, and why.

The singers were all based in the Bay Area, with soprano Elizabeth Zharoff above of Sunnyvale as the single female principal, Paolina. Zharoff just had a starry debut as Violetta in La Traviata at the English National Opera, and is about to take off on a top-tier international career. Her music sounded almost impossibly difficult, but she performed it with beauty and courage.

The story is basically a love triangle, with Christian religious martyrdom in 3rd Century Armenia thrown in for good measure. Paolina is married to Poliuto who starts off the opera as a newly baptized underground Christian when that religion was still considered a dangerous cult. Unfortunately, he's also an old-fashioned Italian opera husband who jealously suspects that Paolina is having an affair. Tenor Michael Desnoyers did a splendid job in the title role, with his voice cracking once at the end of the first half but otherwise sounding sweet and unforced.

The other member of the love triangle is Roman General Severo, who was Paolina's beloved before being left for dead on a battlefield. He somehow recovers and returns to Armenia with instructions from Rome to stamp out the pesky Christians. The role was sung by baritone Anders Froehlich with such soulful charm that you hoped Paolina would leave her jealous husband and run off with Severo instead.

In the end, Paolina takes the noble path of converting and joining her husband in the arena for martyrdom, as the lovestruck Severo commits suicide. The 1838 premiere of Poliuto at the San Carlo in Naples was banned by Ferdinand II of the Two Sicilies, supposedly because he thought the religious story an unfit subject for the stage. His objections might also have been linked to the libretto's fierce anti-clericalism, with the High Priest of Jupiter-worshiping Armenians cynically detailing how to use a bloodthirsty mob's religious bigotry for personal power, a ruse clergy have continued to hone over the centuries.

The evil High Priest was played by John Bischoff in a male-dominated, very well sung cast that also included Michael Jankosky, Sigmund Siegel, Jake Scheps and John Minagro. Jonathan Khuner (above left) conducted from the piano, and though the coordination between principals, chamber orchestra, and chorus occasionally didn't quite mesh in the large ensembles, it was close enough to give you an appreciation for the opera, which contains some of Donizetti's best music. There's another chance to catch Poliuto tomorrow evening (Wednesday, April 1st) at Berkeley's Freight and Salvage coffeehouse. The $20 ticket price is one of the best musical bargains in the Bay Area.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Jewels of Paris

The Thrillpeddlers theatrical company has been reviving Cockettes musicals since 2009 in its tiny jewel box theater that hides under a freeway across the street from Costco. Starting with their breakout hit, Pearls Over Shanghai, they have been presenting these revivals in collaboration with the composer and lyricist Scrumbly Koldewyn above, who was part of the original late 60s/early 70s glittery, genderfuck hippie group. With Jewels of Paris, which opened last week, Scrumbly has written a new musical revue which is a cause for rejoicing. It very loosely focuses on Paris in the 1920s when Everyone's a Genius in Paree Today, as one of the songs proclaims.

The musical ensembles are all a rousing kick, such as The Jewels of Paris above with Michael Soldier surrounded by lovelies in the fabulous, outre costumes of Birdie-Bob Watt and Tina Sogliuzzo.

Birdie-Bob is one of the many jacks of all trades in the Thrillpeddlers troupe, alternating between onstage stints and being Scrumbly's musical assistant. He may have found his most perfect role ever, as Pierrot, the sad clown of French popular culture. With a shrug and a sigh, he takes us as a shy emcee from musical number to comic skit to torch song.

The three skits written by Rob Keefe, a frequent Thrillpeddlers contributor, were not clever or funny enough, but Bearded Assets was elevated by Bruna Palmeiro above. Playing a circus bearded lady caught en flagrante with her mute, indeterminate-gender lover played by Noah Haydon, she used her voluptuous naked body as a character in and of itself. Later in the show, she sang as Lezmerelda with J. Iness as Quasihomo in a duet that was funny and surprisingly poignant.

The skit by Alex Kinney, Cupid's First Flight was something of a mess, but a fabulous one. It harkened back to part of what was interesting about the Cockettes, the tossed salad of low and lewd mixed with sophisticated and erudite. In this skit, Jupiter (Kim Larsen) and Venus (Lisa McHenry) have just conceived Cupid, winningly embodied by Andrew Darling as the essence of an innocent one-day-old, about to take his first flight with love arrows.

Somehow Cupid ends up at the Comedie Francaise in the household of Moliere whose daughter is pierced by an errant arrow and falls in love with Reynard the Fox, perfectly embodied by Steven Satyricon who is flirting above with Dee Nathaniel as Tercelin the Crow. Having a classical education would probably help in understanding some of the jokes.

The penultimate number involves the entire cast in L'hotel Dungereux, where it is explained that people are no longer coerced into dungeons but pay to experience them.

The players are all in a state of kinky dress and undress, singing liberté, égalité, fraternité while Scrumbly plays a sinister anthem on the synthesizer. It's a strange, sexy and transgressive sequence.

Director and Thrillpeddlers founder Russell Blackwood above announced there would definitely be no extensions to the run which ends on May 2nd so you might want to get some tickets now (click here). It's already a legendary show for Scrumbly's music alone.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Death With Interruptions

The recently deceased Poruguese writer, José Saramago, published a short novel in 2005 called As Intermitências da Morte, or Death With Interruptions in English. The first half of the book is a social satire which concerns the political and economic implications for a country where the entire population suddenly stops dying (you can still expire if you are smuggled over the border). The second half describes death in the form of a woman returning in a gentler manner, now sending snail mail letters of warning to those about to die. One such letter, from a cellist in a local orchestra, is repeatedly returned to sender, so she investigates and unexpectedly falls in love with the musician. (Pictured above are soprano Nikki Einfeld as death and Daniel Cilli as the cellist.)

The UC Berkeley History professor, Thomas Laqueur, who wrote the definitive Solitary Sex: A Cultural History of Masturbation in 2003, has now moved on to the subject of death. The Mellon Foundation awarded him a grant to study cultural conceptions around dying, and one of Laqueur's uses of the grant was commissioning an opera taken from Saramago's novel, with a libretto by Laqueur himself and music by San Francisco composer Kurt Rohde. (Rohde is above right, playing prepared piano strings, with tenor Joe Dan Harper singing as the grim reaper, among other roles).

I went to the dress rehearsal last Wednesday at the small ODC Theater in the Mission District, and though the one-act opera took about 20 minutes to get going musically and dramatically, by the gentle, romantic end of the piece, I was completely absorbed and moved.

The score called for piano, percussion, string quartet, and a solo cello played by Leighton Fong in his boxer shorts above, tangling with death. The music sounded spiky and disjointed during that first third, perhaps mirroring the libretto, but it was hard to tell because the staging by Majel Connery seemed more interested in obscuring the story with abstract gestures than clarity.

Once the opera started concentrating on its Orpheus story in reverse, as composer Rohde put it, with death becoming human through love, the music became more lyrical and the ritualistic staging focused. Cilli and Einfeld and Baker were all superb, with excellent diction, unforced beautiful voices, and a rueful sexiness to their performances.

There was also a great chamber chorus, sung by members of Volti, and Rohde's music for them and his three soloists demonstrated that he knows how to write for human voices, a rare gift not given to every composer (I am not naming names). The instrumentalists from the Left Coast Chamber Ensemble, where Rohde is "composer/violist/artistic advisor" were integral members of the piece and played the complex music under the young conductor Matilda Hofman splendidly.

The two performances over the weekend sold out at the small ODC and I look forward to hearing the piece again in a larger space with reconceived staging. The music and performers deserve it.

Friday, March 20, 2015

Last Waltz for BluePrint Concerts at the Conservatory

For 15 years, the conductor Nicole Paiement above has been presenting concerts of contemporary music with the finest student musicians in a series called BluePrint at the San Francisco Conservatory. Last Saturday, in a completely unexpected announcement, she announced that this was to be the last one.

At least she went out with a good concert. It started with a reworked Gavotte for Elly by Kyle Hovatter, whose original version had been premiered at an earlier BluePrint concert dedicated to longtime composition teacher Elinor Armer (click here for an account).

Next up was the world premiere of Robin Estrada's Hoefer Prize winning Pagihip at Pagtaktak, a mingling of northern Filipino bamboo instruments and Western wind instruments that was surprisingly subtle given the instrumentation, evoking the plant and animal life of a jungle from an almost insect level. The piece wasn't my cup of tea, but all my smart companions loved it so the fault was obviously mine.

The Hoefer Prize goes each year to a Conservatory alumni who is a young composer, and one of the annual highlights of the BluePrint concert series has been the premiere performances of those works. In 2012, it was Neil Romick's Anosmia about a man losing his sense of smell. In 2013 they performed Ian Dicke's multimedia Grand Central, and 2014 brought Ryan Brown's theatrical oratorio, The Exact Location of the Soul. That's a remarkable track record, and it's a question if that success will endure without Paiement's genius for getting the most out of both modern scores and student ensembles.

After intermission, bassoonist Justin Cummings above, who has played with the New Music Ensemble for the last four years, was the soloist for Stephen Paulson's Concerto for Bassoon and Orchestra. Paulson, a Conservatory professor, is the principal bassoonist at the San Francisco Symphony and this 1968 concerto was the only music other than a few songs that he ever composed. It wasn't very interesting except for the bassoon part, which Justin sailed through with brilliant aplomb.

The final piece on the program brought two of my favorite musicians in the entire world together for the first time. Sarah Cahill was the piano soloist while Nicole Paiement conducted the New Music Ensemble in Olivier Messiaen's 1956 Oiseaux exotiques, and it was a crisp, smashingly good peformance by all. A piano concerto mashed into an examination of the soundscape of "exotic" birds from Asia and the Americas, it's probably a good starter piece for Messiaen appreciation because it's both short and literally brilliant.

After the concert, I asked Nicole if the demise of BluePrint was because she was finally becoming a famous conductor (she's just been appointed Principal Guest Conductor of the Dallas Opera among other worldwide invitations) and she professed that it wasn't the case. She was still very much a part of the SF Conservatory.

From what I could make out, this was more a case of academic politics than anything else, which is egregiously dumb on the Conservatory's part. Half the genius new music instrumentalists who populate the Bay Area right now, such as Weston Olencki above, have gone through Paiement's exacting, exhausting, exciting tutelage in the New Music Ensemble. And for audiences, it was probably one of the best contemporary music series in the world, although too few people knew about it. Bring back BluePrint!