Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Merola Grand Finale 2016

The Merola Program, San Francisco's summer opera boot camp for aspiring young professionals from around the globe, wrapped up its season with their annual Grand Finale concert at the San Francisco Opera House last Saturday. 23 vocalists sang arias and duets over a professional orchestra, and as usual the event felt like it went as long as Wagner's Götterdämmerung, but at least it was a fun Götterdämmerung. The talents onstage ranged from the good to the not-quite-up-to-snuff to the spectacularly talented, and half the fun was making up your mind which was which, a completely subjective endeavour. Following are a few of my favorite people. (All photos by Kristen Loken.)

Countertenor Aryeh Nussbaum Cohen gave a ravishingly beautiful account of Orfeo's scena with Eurydice (the lovely soprano Teresa Castillo) when he unfortunately looks back during Gluck's Orfeo ed Eurice. Cohen has a great future ahead of him in the odd repertory for male sopranos that includes early music and contemporary operas.

New Zealand tenor Amitai Pati, as he demonstrated during his wonderful performance as Ferrando in Cosi Fan Tutte earlier this summer, has a smallish, exquisitely on-pitch tenor that is unforced and beautiful. The selections for the various performers are always weird, a mixture of old chestnuts and total obscurities like the scene from Berlioz's Beatrice et Benedict above with Pati and mezzo soprano Alexandra Schenck as the quarreling Shakespearean lovers.

Pati returned for one of those old chestnuts with baritone Andrew G. Manea, singing the famous bromance duet, Au fond du temple saint from Bizet's Les Pecheurs de Perles. There is certain operatic music that benefits from young, unhardened voices while others profit from an older, more developed edge, and the Bizet duet turned out to be a perfect vehicle for the former. This was the most beautiful rendition of the duet I have ever heard live, and much of the reason was the sense of innocence and the sheer beauty of Pati's voice and phrasing.

Mezzo-soprano Taylor Raven and soprano Mary Evelyn Hangley sang a long scena from Donizetti's Anna Bolena, and this was a case of an opera that profits from older, more seasoned singers. I liked the voices of both sopranos very much, especially during an earlier Schwabacher concert, but this difficult piece didn't particularly bring out the best in either of them.

Soprano Yelena Dyachek with tenor Brian-Michael Moore sang a duet from Flotow's Martha, which was depressing because Dyachek has one of the most extraordinary young voices I have ever heard and Martha, at least from the evidence of this scene, is dreck. She was also in the earlier Merola production of Mozart's Cosi Fan Tutte, in the lead role of Fiordiligi, a performance that reminded me of Carol Vaness in her early 20s singing Vitellia in Mozart's La Clemenza de Tito. What both performances shared was an ability to sing fiendishly difficult music as simply and naturally as if one was warbling to oneself before breakfast. I envy everyone at the Houston Opera, where Dyachek is headed to join their young artist program, because she has what can be called a porno voice. There are plenty of singers with pretty voices and plenty of singers with huge voices, but they very rarely coincide in the same person. Dyachek is one of those special combos, and her musical instincts are good besides.

Tenor Kyle van Schoohoven sang a huge aria from Wagner's early opera Rienzi, and though he's not quite ready for heldentenor prime time, he's just about there. Plus, the student stage director Aria Umezawa gave him six supernumerary women with candles to do fun movement around him, and it worked well as did most of the rest of her staging with minimal props, schtick or sets.

Baritone Cody Quattlebaum sang Guglielmo in that already legendary Merola Cosi Fan Tutte this summer with Dyechka and Pati. In the Grand Finale, he sang There's a law, a weird, sexist aria from Bernstein's Trouble in Tahiti that he managed to fill with charm. He arrived onstage with a manbun and halfway through pulled out the restraints and let his long hair down. Quattlebaum has a lovely baritone and stage charisma to burn.

Sunday, August 21, 2016

San Francisco of Modern Art

Long ago in 2010 I wrote a post about a photography exhibit at SFMOMA devoted to Henri Cartier-Bresson, and received an email from the museum requesting that I take down a few photos which were under some serious copyright restrictions from the Carter-Bresson estate. They also informed me that SF MoMA was the wrong way to refer to the museum, and that the correct branding was SFMOMA, all caps, no spaces. Having worked in corporate graphics departments most of my life, I was sympathetic, and the lowly person in the P.R. department who sent that email was sweet and charming in the wording of their request.

The huge new building addition at SFMOMA necessitated by the donation of the late Donald Fisher's massive modern art collection just reopened this year in May, and it looks as if the reconstituted P.R. department is no longer engaging in due diligence. A new signage campaign has just been installed on MUNI buses encouraging people to take the 14 Rapid bus from the Mission downtown to the newly reopened SFMOMA. The only problem is that somebody not only got the SFMOMA branding wrong, but they forgot the word "Museum." Happy Mission District families of color are being encouraged to take the 14 Rapid to the "New San Francisco of Modern Art." That should be the name of a local art movement.

Friday, August 19, 2016

A Weekend of Handel

The two-week American Bach Soloists Festival and Academy wrapped up last weekend with a flurry of concerts that included the U.S. premiere of Handel’s 1734 Parnasso in festa, written as a nuptial celebration piece for England’s Princess Anne and Prince William of Orange. As usual, the original instrument orchestra and the American Bach Choir were sensationally good.

The Academy vocal soloists (Suzanne Karpov, Mindy Ella Chu, Katie Clark, Ashley Valentine, Robin Bier, Emily Skilling and Christopher Besch) were very fine too, but unfortunately I didn’t stay for the second half of the piece and missed a few of their contributions. As my friend Patrick Vaz has long been complaining, starting a 3-hour concert or opera at 8PM on a weekday evening can be painful for audience members who have been up since 6AM for work, and I found myself slipping into slumberland last Friday which was not the fault of the performers. For an attentive, appreciative review of the entire concert by Joshua Kosman at the SF Chronicle, click here.

Kosman was not as enthusiastic about an early Handel opera, Agrippina, presented by West Edge Opera, but I thoroughly enjoyed the production at its final Sunday matinee performance.

The opera started slowly, with the introduction of Agrippina, her husband the Roman Emperor Claudio, her various adulterous lovers, her son Nero who she is attempting to elevate to the throne, along with the sexy, virginal Poppea and her many suitors. (Above is soprano Sarah Gartshore as Agrippina whose foot is being worshiped by Johanna Bronk as Narciso.)

The cast took a while to warm up, but once they did, the singing was uniformly wonderful, with special props for vocal beauty to Gartshore as Agrippina, countertenor Ryan Belongie as Ottone (above), the one decent character who of course is scorned and tormented through most of the opera by all the other plotters, Celine Ricci (above left) as a hormonal Elvis-style Nero, and Hannah Stephens as Poppea, the object of everyone’s affections, looking a bit like Stella Stevens in Palm Springs Weekend.

The direction by Mark Streshinsky was intentionally comic throughout, and there were some great flourishes, such as singers wandering through the audience throwing dollar bills in order to sway the public to acclaim Nero as the new emperor, and having Carl King as the not-drowned-after-all emperor Claudio glad-handing the audience before mounting a podium and imitating the mannerisms of a contemporary presidential candidate who shall remain nameless like Voldemort. (Joining Carl King as Emperor Claudio above is Nick Volkert as the servant Lesbo, Nikolas Nackley as Pallante, and Johanna Bronk as Narciso.) .

Besides Ottone and Poppea, the other characters are as repellent as anybody in Powder Her Face, West Edge Opera’s other opera this season about nasty people behaving badly. In another inspired touch, during the traditional Baroque Opera happy ending with everyone singing an ode of praise, the supertitles informed us about what happened next to all these historical characters, with murder and suicide the predominant motifs.

After the show at the abandoned Oakland train station, audience members and the cast mixed and mingled outside over free beer and wine, and I asked Sarah Gartshore if Nicholas Nackley had really gone the full monty during their onstage sex scene together. “No, it was a costume prop,” she replied, but then added a few other details which made Board member James Parr above gasp in amusement.

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

The Voyage Home

After The Cunning Little Vixen matinee with West Edge Opera in Oakland, I returned to San Francisco on the public ferryboat from Jack London Square...

…which involved great people watching…

…close-up views of container ships and adorable tugboats.

Why hasn’t Pixar made an anthropomorphic Tugs movie yet? It seems like an obvious next subject.

The late afternoon, early evening light was breathtaking…

…as we sailed under the western section of the Bay Bridge, which was recently renamed for a corrupt ex-mayor who is seemingly still running San Francisco.