Monday, September 15, 2014

Personal Reasons for Loving Norma

The bel canto opera by Vincenzo Bellini, Norma, about a Druid priestess who falls in love with a Roman imperialist general, and is then dumped for a younger Druid vestal virgin, opened the San Francisco Opera season a couple of Fridays ago. Opening Night of the Season audiences are famously terrible, giving no energy back to anybody onstage, because their interests tend to lie more with money than music. I went to the show at its second performance on a Wednesday evening, standing room in the balcony, with OperaVision screens left and right.

Norma is the greatest musical work of Bellini and the entire bel canto period of early 19th century Italian opera, with one extraordinary tune after another. Like Bizet and his Carmen, Bellini died young though his music has survived through every fashion of the last two centuries. However, unlike Carmen, which is fairly easy to cast well, Norma is virtually impossible to cast, as it requires the supreme singers and actors in the world and barely gives any of them a break, particularly the title character.

Carmen has a very sturdy modern story, while Norma is from another era in dramaturgy altogether, though I love its libretto. For all the many absurdities, such as Norma's secret two children by her Roman lover hiding in the forest, the proto-feminist duets where the two sopranos are supportive rather than rivals are still politically revolutionary and musically unparalleled. And even though the tenor is an utter cad, he ends up realizing what a sublime woman Norma is by the end, and eventually does the right thing in a blazing finale.

San Francisco Opera Director David Gockley announced a week before the opening that the originally cast Daveda Karanas as Adalgisa had left the cast for "personal reasons," and she was replaced by the young sensation Jamie Barton before opening night. At the Wednesday performance, I left before the finale because I couldn't stand the off-pitch Italian tenor of Marco Berti. However, Gockley must be psychic, and two days later Berti also left the cast for "personal reasons" and was replaced by the young American tenor Russell Thomas. The latter singer made his debut at the third performance on a Sunday matinee, and finally all the pieces for a perfect cast were in place.

This is probably the best sounding Norma you could hear in an opera house in the world right now, so make sure you go to one of the final four performances which are selling fast because I'm not the only one putting the word out. Sondra Radvanovsky as Norma falls more on the harshly dramatic Maria Callas spectrum than perfectly sung Joan Sutherland, but it's a very, very good performance. On Sunday, her voice cracked and disappeared altogether two or three times in the last 20 minutes of the show, but it actually made her sound more vulnerable within a very controlled performance. I've heard legendary singers as Adalgisa over the decades, from Fiorenza Cossotto to Marilyn Horne, and Jamie Barton is even better than those formidable ladies. "Sing anything," you wanted to cry, because she has a voice that sounds like a young Jessye Norman, rich and creamy and full of power. Thomas as the Roman cad was so wonderful that it was the first time I have ever sympathized with the character. The three singers were having a sensational time on Sunday weaving their voices in and out of each other's, and the audience offered a perfect mixture of awed silence and wild ovations in response.

The production directed by Kevin Newbury is mostly ridiculous, but serviceable, and compared to SF Opera's last ugly Norma set with a burnt out forest, it was a theatrical marvel. The production is set in some imaginary Druid warehouse, with stagehands carrying and wheeling on weird pieces of furniture all evening long. When this show moves on to Chicago, Toronto and Barcelona, somebody should jettison the singing of Norma's great opening aria, Casta Diva, on top of what looks to be a Druid cherrypicker, because the sound is not good and it looks totally ridiculous. Otherwise, keep the cast as is, which is soon to be legendary on its own.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

The Marriage of Toby & An at the SF Opera House

Walking by the San Francisco Opera House at 6PM on Saturday...

...I noticed people on the mezzanine balcony, and thought it early for an opera crowd.

It turned out the Opera House was being rented out for a wedding party for Toby Brown and An Tran...

...whose names and faces were on the outdoor marquees usually advertising San Francisco's opera or ballet seasons.

I Googled the pair this morning with San Francisco as a modifier, but found nothing.

Toby Brown on his own led to an amusing British blog called the London Egotist (click here) where the above photo of Toby Brown, Prince of Estate Agents, was featured under the headline "Is this estate agent the biggest tool in London?" There are also photos of creative acts of defacement that various people have inflicted on Toby's London bus shelter image.

Now the Toby Brown whose wedding party took place at the San Francisco Opera House may not be the same wanker who is the Prince of Real Estate Agents in London. However, what are the chances of two wealthy young narcissists with the same name and similar dimples who both have a passion for putting their mugs on public display being two different people? It could be a doppelganger, but I'm guessing not.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

SFMOMA Topping Out

The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art is in the midst of a huge expansion, mostly to house the collection of Donald Fisher, who bequeathed it to the museum on his deathbed in 2009.

On Wednesday afternoon, there was a public celebration of the "Topping Out" of the construction...

...with the highest beam put into place on the new building which is scheduled to open in Spring of 2016.

I was hoping the event would be taking place at the construction site itself, but instead it was half a block away in Jessie Square in front of the Contemporary Jewish Museum.

There were free, SFMOMA On-The-Go branded binoculars for the crowd...

...and dull speeches from Neal Benezra, SFMOMA's director...

...along with Charles Schwab above, a major donor for the project...

...and fawning remarks by Mayor Ed Lee to the billionaire Republicans who were sitting in the front row.

Waiting for the formalities to be over so they could start playing music was the Balboa High School Band...

...and a samba reggae troupe called Batalá San Francisco.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Wild Rumpus at Old First Church

Last Friday at Old First Church, the contemporary music ensemble Wild Rumpus, along with a few "guest artists," offered one of the most satisfying and stimulating new music concerts I have experienced.

Much of this was due to the young soprano Vanessa Langer above, who sang five of Gyorgy Kurtag's 1986 Kafka Fragments accompanied by the reliably exceptional Joseph Maile on violin. The concert started with the two of them standing at the front of a side aisle in the church performing The good march in step..., wildly expressive music that also manages to slip in and out of folk tune tonalities. Though all the performers on the evening's program were accomplished virtuosos on their various instruments, it was Langer's voice that stunned many of us in the audience. It was simply gorgeous. No matter how extreme the musical pitches became and how deftly she negotiated them, she also sounded like a soprano you'd want to hear singing bel canto opera or early music any day of the week.

The short fragment was followed by an enjoyable world premiere called you & me by Ruby Felton, a Baltimore based composer that was an absorbing minimalist piece that intentionally kept sliding into chaos. (Weston Olencki is pictured on trombone above.) This was followed by another Kafka Fragment, except this time Mailes and Langer performed it from the balcony in the back of the church.

This was followed by Philip Glass's 1969 minimalist Music in Similar Motion, a 20-minute blast of sheer energy played by an ensemble that kept rotating instruments. Pictured above are the excellent McKenzie Camp on percussion whose Mod appearance channeled the 1960s as perfectly as the music, and the contrabass player Eugene Theriault.

Vanessa Langer returned to the stage for the 2012 Berceuse et Jeux by Caroline Miller, a composer currently in San Diego. She described the piece in the program as follows: "Berceuse et Jeux (Lullaby and Games) loosely refers to the idea of a ritualistic mantra chanted before sleeping, and the subsequent, chaotic demolition, reassembly, and transformation of such input through the dreaming mind." Langer, accompanied by Joanne de Mars (above) on cello and Theriault on bass, started by putting her finger to her mouth and singing, "Shhhhhhh....." and off we went into a remarkable lullaby that kept deconstructing into something much stranger. Throughout it all, one could not take one's ears or eyes off of Langer who gave an exquisite performance of the short, fascinating work.

Sophie Huet on bass clarinet and David Wegehaupt on saxophone honked and wailed away on the recently deceased New England Conservatory professor Lee Hyla's We Speak Etruscan, and after another Kafka Fragment from another section of the church, a large ensemble took the stage for the world premiere of the Solis Overture by Per Bloland (below).

As the composer noted, the piece was "very noisy" but though amplified, "all the instruments are acoustic except for the laptop." The projected opera is about a Norwegian modernist novelist of the 1960s who suddenly disappeared from public view, and the music was interesting and challenging. The sound design on this and all the evening's pieces by Sean Dougall was excellent, making me wish he could try his hand at Davies Hall. The performance of Solis ended theatrically with all the lights going out in the church as the final measures hummed away for a couple of minutes from the laptop.

In the darkness, Langer and violinist Mailes performed the final Kafka Fragment by the light of a solitary music stand, adding to the perfect dreaminess of the entire evening.