Wednesday, June 22, 2016

The Overwhelming Beauty of Jenůfa

There is a famous quote from the composer Richard Wagner to his lover Mathilde Wiesendock after he had finished composing the opera Tristan und Isolde. "I fear the opera will be banned unless the whole thing is parodied in a bad performance: only mediocre performances can save me! Perfectly good ones will be bound to drive people mad, I cannot imagine it otherwise." That quote came to mind last Sunday afternoon during the SF Opera production of Leoš Janáček's 1904 opera Jenůfa because the performance was so fine that the emotional power of the music was almost too much to bear.

The story itself is a simple Czechoslovakian village tale, taken from a naturalistic, unsentimental, late-19th century play by Gabriela Preissová, about a young woman who becomes pregnant before marriage by her handsome, wealthy boyfriend who turns out to be a drunken cad. Jenůfa's stepmother, the moral arbiter of the village, hides her away for a secret birth, and then tries to get someone to marry her. Tragedy ensues.

This was the stuff of countless women's melodramas on stage and film over the centuries, and there is no reason for the story to be so powerful except one. The music by Janáček, a provincial, barely successful Czech composer at the turn of the 20th century, is filled with such longing, sadness, beauty, and complexity that once you have absorbed it, the music of most other operas feels wan by comparison.

I first heard the opera in 1980 at the SF Opera with the incomparable Elisabeth Söderström as Jenůfa and Sena Jurinac as her stepmother Kostelnička in performances that I thought would never be equaled, but Malin Byström and Karita Mattila in this production have managed to do so, with glorious soprano voices and powerful acting abilities.

As good as the two principal singers are, what elevates this production to the stratosphere is the entire supporting cast, including Scott Quinn as the caddish Števa Buryja and William Burden (above) as his brother Laca Klemeň who is also in love with Jenůfa. Contributing to this holistic success were the SF Opera Chorus, who managed the very tricky rhythms of their folk-inflected music brilliantly, along with Adler fellows and choristers playing everything from the village Mayor to maids to extended relatives.

The opera premiered in Brno, Czechoslovakia in 1904 but Janáček's original, eccentric orchestration with its surprising percussion and hairpin turns, was extensively revised for its Prague National Theater premiere in 1916 by the music director there, Karel Kovařovic. It wasn't until 1980 that the late, great conductor Charles Mackerras helped prepare an edition that respected the composer's original intentions. Mackerras also led a production of this score at SF Opera in 1986 with the wonderful Gabriela Beňačková and Leonie Rysanek in the cast. As much as I loved the conducting of Mackerras, the current job by Czech Philharmonic music director Jiří Bělohlávek (above) with the San Francisco Opera orchestra is stunning.

Six years ago at the San Francisco Opera, Bělohlávek conducted Janáček's The Makropolous Case, also starring Karita Mattila (above), in a production directed by Olivier Tambosi and designed by Frank Philipp Schlossmann, that was so good that I fell in love with the opera for the first time. The same conductor and diva soon took that show to the Metropolitan Opera in New York and I waited to hear the same kind of raving accolades which greeted it in San Francisco, but that didn't happen. A friend of mine who saw the production in both cities mentioned that the difference was in the supporting cast, which simply didn't gel in New York the way they did in San Francisco.

This same production of Jenůfa with Mattila will also be performed at the Metropolitan next season and let's hope they do it as well as San Francisco. In any case, there are has four more performances here, including one tonight (Wednesday), and I cannot urge you strongly enough to attend one of them.

Though I am not crazy about the heavy-handed stone symbolism of the set design concept by director Tambosi and designer Schlossmann, every other element of the production is perfection. Click here for tickets, or just walk to the box office on the day of performance and grab a standing room ticket for $10. This is one of those legendary productions people will be talking about for years. (All production photos are by Cory Weaver.)

Friday, June 17, 2016

SOMA Construction

The building boom continues unabated in the South of Market district, with cranes popping up everywhere.

This particular hole in the ground is on Folsom Street next to Brainwash between 7th and 8th Streets.

Watching workers assembling the monster crane over the weekend was quite entertaining.

Let us hope that the subsequent building is not as desperately ugly as the Trinity Plaza apartment complex which continues to malignantly sprout at 8th Street between Market and Mission Streets.

Over at the 40 Going on 28 blog, TK has sarcastically proposed that every San Francisco neighborhood should have at least one if not more of these monstrosities constructed so we can solve the housing crisis, complete with Photoshopped illustrations.

Maybe they can all have replicas of the 92-foot stainless steel statue, Venus, by Australian sculptor Lawrence Argent which was commissioned by the late real estate developer Angelo Sangiacomo.

Sangiacomo, long known as "the father of rent control" because his price-gouging ways in the 1970s prompted San Francisco City Hall to pass legislation protecting tenants, died last year at the age of 91. He leaves a mixed legacy of ugly buildings, this shiny, gargantuan version of the Venus de Milo, and rent control itself.

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Don Carlo at SF Opera

Watching Verdi's epic opera Don Carlo on Sunday afternoon at the San Francisco Opera, a few hours after learning of the Orlando gay bar massacre, was an unusually rich experience. The opera is based on a long, complex 1787 Friedrich Schiller play which is an Age of Enlightenment examination of power, politics, unrequited love, religious intolerance, and state violence in 16th Century, Inquisition-era Spain. Parallels to our current crazy moment in time were unavoidable, and though the piece is a tragedy with most of the major characters dead or in exile by the end, the overall effect was oddly consoling and healing. (Pictured above are fellow music lovers Chung Wai Soong, Chenier Ng, and James Parr waiting at the stage door after the performance to congratulate the cast.)

Even by Verdi's lofty standards, Don Carlo is a special achievement. The piece has come into its own over the last 50 years as various scholarly editions have appeared, differentiating between the different versions of the opera which started off in 1867 as a five-hour-plus Paris Grand Opera complete with ballet. It was then translated into Italian and condensed into more digestible sizes for smaller houses in Italy and throughout the world. On Sunday, the San Francisco Opera went with the five-act 1884 Modena version which includes the original first act in the Fontainebleau forest where the young, betrothed Elizabeth de Valois and Don Carlo meet by accident, are overwhelmed with love and happiness, and soon find out that Carlo's father King Philip II has changed his mind and decided to marry the young woman himself. Much misery for everyone ensues.

The staging by Spanish director Emilio Sagi on Zack Brown's dark, serviceable sets was clunky and sometimes silly, but it didn't matter that much because the cast from top to bottom was so good, and they were all fine actors besides. Michael Fabiano (with the shaved head above) made his Don Carlo role debut as a neurotic, tormented character which worked fine, and his tenor voice was remarkably beautiful. Ana Maria Martinez as Queen Elizabetta did not have the vocal heft to soar over the large choral ensembles but when she sang softly over a muted orchestra, such as her great Act V aria Tu che le vanità conosce, the sound was magical.

Princess Eboli, the Bad Girl at Court who is in love with Don Carlo but also secretly sleeping with King Philip II, was sung by the Bulgarian mezzo-soprano Nadia Krasteva, and it was a sensational SF Opera debut. She even mimed playing castanets while dancing and singing The Veil Song aria without looking ridiculous, which is a feat in itself.

Rodrigo, Marquis of Posa is one of the most admirable characters in all of opera, pleading for an end to the bloody persecution of Protestants in Flanders by the King and the Spanish Catholic Church. The Polish baritone Mariusz Kwiecien above was magnificent in the role, standing up to King Philip at one moment, advocating for his best friend Don Carlo the next, and playing intermediary in the tormented mess of the Elizabeth and Carlo relationship. When he sacrifices himself for his friend Carlo and dies in his arms singing a reprise of their friendship duet, there was hardly a dry eye in the opera house, particularly after the news from Orlando.

That event also reverberated during the huge spectacle at the center of the opera, an auto-da-fe where heretics are burned alive for an appreciative public. Unfortunately, the staging of the scene by Sagi was dull and tasteful when it should have been dramatic and frenzied, but the music is so great that it overcame any dramatic deficiencies, particularly under the inspired conducting of Music Director Nicola Luisotti and the massive sound of the enlarged opera chorus.

Last but not least, the great German bass Rene Pape (above near the stage door) sang King Philip II in a marvelous performance. After behaving like an authoritarian villain for most of the opera, there is a wonderfully Shakespearean moment at the beginning of Act IV where he is humanized in the aria Ella giammai m'amo. "She doesn't love me," he sings to himself about Elizabetta, "she's never loved me," as he pours his soul out to the accompaniment of a cello. He is then confronted by the horrifying old Grand Inquisitor, sung by the bottomless bass Andrea Silvestrelli, who demands that Rodrigo along with Carlo be murdered for their liberal heresies.

There are five more performances of the opera, and I cannot recommend it highly enough. A cast this uniformly good in an opera this ambitious doesn't come around often. Standing room tickets at $10 for orchestra and balcony spots in the back of the opera house are still the best deal in the entire Bay Area, and seated tickets can be found by clicking here. (Pictured above are choristers Buffy Baggott and William Pickersgill flanking James Parr and bass-baritone Mark Doss who is covering the role of King Philip. All production photos are by Cory Weaver.)

Saturday, June 11, 2016

Apple in Civic Center Plaza

A small army of laborers are setting up wooden tables and chairs today in the center of the usually empty Civic Center Plaza...

...and metal fencing along with 24-hour security guards stationed around the perimeter.

There are even fancy portable toilets installed in an area where the large street population tends to use the sidewalks as lavatories.

The setup is in anticipation of Apple's 2016 Worldwide Developers Conference keynote address this Monday at Bill Graham Auditorium across the street. (Click here for MacRumors' best guesses of what new technological wonders will be announced.)

The remainder of the conference, through Friday the 17th, will take place at Moscone West, so I assume the lovely picnic tables and seating will vanish soon. It's too bad that public amenities only seem to appear in public places when they are taken over by private entities, but that state of affairs seems to define San Francisco right now.