Thursday, December 05, 2019

Ars Minerva's "Ermelinda" Revives the Italian Renaissance

Ars Minerva presented its fifth annual opera production, rediscovered from the Venetian library vaults, and the troupe under founder Céline Ricci just keeps getting more accomplished each year. The 1680 Ermelinda, composed by Domenico Freschi with a libretto by Francesco Maria Piccioli, was originally presented as a lavish musical entertainment for a Polish prince at a country palazzo. 440 years later it was receiving its second set of performances at the tiny ODC Dance Theater in the Mission District of San Francisco in what felt like a feat of time travel. The piece is anchored by a love trio involving contralto Sara Couden as the nobleman Ormondo who spends much of the opera posing as the lower-born Clorindo, mezzo Kindra Scharich as an insanely determined suitor for Clorindo's love, and mezzo Nikola Printz as the title bored teenager who has been dragged to the provinces by her father to keep her safe from the sins of the city.

The entire cast was superb (from left to right): countertenor Justin Montigne as the overprotective father with a nasty streak; soprano Deborah Rosengaus as the noble Armidoro who is in love with Ermelinda and who has a vengeful streak himself; alto Sara Couden as Ermelinda's beloved who has followed her to the provinces in disguise; mezzo Nikola Printz as Ermelinda who convincingly transforms from a comic to a tragic character; the harpsichord continuo/conductor Jory Vinikour as himself; mezzo Kindra Scharich as Rosaura, who falls madly in love with Clorindo, who is in love with Ermelinda. This all sounds complicated but the clean staging by Ricci made it all clear. Elizabeth Flaherty in the robe was a charmingly bumbling supernumerary playing various roles with a switch of a costume moustache.

There were a few standouts in the cast for me. Sara Couden as Ormondo/Clorindo has a tall stature that makes her perfect for a trouser role. I have heard her in a few operas over the years with local companies, but this was the first time I fell in love with her gorgeous, bottomless alto voice. When things started looking dark, she sang a despairing aria translated as "What now?" which she sang so softly and emotively that it was genuinely heartbreaking. Mezzo Kindra Scharich as the rich, spoiled Rosaura was very funny in in her obsessive love scheming, and she also wore the most outrageous costume of the evening which she worked like a pro. She was also in great voice on the Saturday evening I attended.

Renaissance Italy is where opera was born in the late 17th century, and the style is very different from the long, langorous Baroque opera which followed. The arias are short, exquisite tunes that are not repeated and the recitatives sung over a combination of harpsichord and theorbo are snappy and expressive. The small orchestra, which was onstage in this production, felt very much part of the drama and they were as fun to watch as the vocal performers. Conductor/harpsichordist Jory Vinikour is a pretty big deal on the global Early Music scene, so his recent appointment as Ars Minerva's musical director is good news. He led a lively ensemble consisting of Cynthia Black, first violin; Laura Rubinstein-Salzedo, second violin; Aaron Westman, viola; Gretchen Claassen, cello; and the welcome return after a year's sabbatical of Adam Cockerham, theorbo.

The production was spare with elements of ornateness that worked well, highlighted by Matthew Nash's costumes and evocative, hand-drawn wall projections that effectively set each scene by Entropy, a young German artist. Céline Ricci directed the contrasting comic and tragic scenes well, and I only wish she would stage one of these operas in a real Venetian palace before they are all underwater. I'd buy an airplane ticket in a second.

Tuesday, November 26, 2019

Noguchi and Hasegawa at the Asian Art Museum

There is a wonderful exhibit at the Asian Art Museum featuring the work of Isamu Noguchi (mostly sculpture) and Saboru Hasegawa (mostly woodblock prints).

Born in the first decade of the 20th century, they both had complicated, interesting artistic lives that fused traditional Asian forms with modern Western art. Both studied with artists in Paris during the early 1930s and both were locked up in internment camps during World War Two, Hasegawa in Japan for his pacifism and Noguchi in the United States for his ethnicity. According to an informative article by Tony Bravo about the exhibit in the SF Chronicle, "During Noguchi’s 1950 tour of Japan, Noguchi traveled to the country in an attempt to reconnect with his father’s Japanese family roots. Hasegawa, then working as a teacher, was fluent in English and became Noguchi’s tour guide...As the artists toured Buddhist sites and traditional gardens, and met traditional art makers in Japan, an exchange developed between them."

The friendship was deep and productive, and this exhibit focuses on work created by both of them during the seven years before Hasegawa's early death at age 50 of cancer in San Francisco, where he was teaching at the College of Arts and Crafts, a job he secured through the intervention of Noguchi and Alan Watts, author of The Way of Zen.

The exhibit feels a bit off-balance at first because Noguchi's sculptures dominate the two rooms...

...making Hasegawa's monochromatic prints feel somewhat like literal wallflowers.

On return visits to the show, it was the Hawegawa prints that stood out for me. Some of them looked like a Japanese woodblock version of Joan Miró, with spareness and complexity residing in the same frame.

Though it's a small exhibit, I am still discovering new details and what feels like completely new works with each visit.

It closes on Sunday, December 8th, so if you have a chance, do check it out in the next couple of weeks.

If you are in San Francisco for the holiday weekend, this Sunday, December 1st is a free admission day at the Asian Art Museum. Check it out and you can see my friend James Parr's favorite Noguchi sculpture above, the 1950 My Mu.

Thursday, November 21, 2019

Hansel and Gretel at the SF Opera

Cannibalism. Serial Murder. Child abuse. Starvation. Sugar. Even by the the dark standards of Grimm's Children's and Household Tales, Hansel and Gretel has always struck me as especially brutal. Thomas Pynchon wrote a scatalological riff on the fairy tale in his novel, Gravity's Rainbow, and the Yugoslavian film director Dušan Makavejev used it as a subtext in his outrageous 1974 Sweet Movie. I've always been curious what the late 19th century German composer Englebert Humperdinck did with the tale in his popular opera, and finally got to see it for the first time at the San Francisco Opera last Sunday afternoon. (Sasha Cooke and Heidi Stober above as Hansel and Gretel, all photos by Cory Weaver.)

SF Opera produced Hansel and Gretel for three straight seasons, 1929-1932, and then waited 70 years to produce it again in 2002. I missed that production which was widely praised for its dark, surrealist spin, but 17 years later another British take has arrived at the War Memorial Opera House. First off, the opera itself turns out to be musically great, an intriguing mixture of German folk music and Wagnerian orchestral density.

Hansel and Gretel are written for two sopranos, and both Sasha Cooke and Heidi Strober were at the top of their performing game, sounding marvelous and looking convincing as outsized children trying to survive food deprivation, a hateful mother, and a scary haunted forest where a witch wanted to eat them after a good roasting in her oven.

The British production designer and director of this show, Antony McDonald, creates stunning visual moments but I questioned some of his staging decisions. When the two babes in the wood are being threatened in Act II, they are protected by 14 guardian angels during the most beautiful extended orchestral music of the opera. In this version, the guardians are Disneyfied fairy tale characters which was a little too cutesy and meta for its own good. I immediately thought of Rob Lowe and Snow White at the 1989 Academy Awards which took me out of the opera completely. One of the few positive mythologies I took from a quasi-Christian upbringing was the idea of Guardian Angels, and I felt very cheated not seeing them.

In the final act, Hansel and Gretel discover the witch's house which in this production is modeled after Hitchcock's Psycho house.

That would be fine, except that there is an extended dramatic sequence where the children are eating sugary treats that make up the house, but here it just looked like they were eating wood. It's not good to be this literal around fantasy, but a certain surreal consistency counts. That also goes for the death of the witch, which includes the satisfying physical detail of making her inspect something in the oven, then PUSHING HER IN. That doesn't happen in this production either.

None of this particularly matters, because the orchestra under Christopher Franklin sounds so exquisite, and the performers are all wonderful, including Robert Brubaker above as a non-binary witch, along with Alfred Walker as Father and Mary Evelyn Hangley stepping in at the last minute for an indisposed MIchaela Martens as the evil Mother. "Work or starve" is her Act ! injunction towards her children and it feels utterly resonant right now.

Sunday, November 17, 2019


SOFT POWER, an ambitious show of new artwork from 20 international artists, just opened on two floors at SFMOMA and I'm afraid it was underwhelming.

According to the exhibition's website, the show is supposed to be political: "Appropriated from the Reagan-era term used to describe how a country’s “soft” assets such as culture, political values, and foreign policies can be more influential than coercive or violent expressions of power, the title contemplates the potential of art and offers a provocation to the public to exert their own influence on the world."

It continues: "Taken together, the works in SOFT POWER demonstrate what cultural theorist and filmmaker Manthia Diawara has called a solidarity between intuitions — a concept that acknowledges the complexity, darkness, and opacity from which our reality emerges — that expresses the poetry and imagination of our differences."

It doesn't get much more amorphously artspeak than that.

There are probably some very good artists in the exhibition, but the context doesn't do them any favors. As my friend Austin said, "This is no time to be timid with political art, either go big or go home."

A couple of artists felt the same way, including Minerva Cuevas from Mexico City with The Discovery of invisible nature, her wonderful mural wall at the entrance to the 7th floor galleries.

So did Xaviera Simmons from New York City who created a wall-size riff on Jacob Lawrence's Migration series from the 1940s.

It's entitled, They're All Afraid, All of Them, That's It! They're All Southern! The Whole United States Is Southern!

However, most of the conceptual art was indeed timid, like Brazilian Cinthia Marcelle's There Is No More Place in This Place with its messing up of ceiling tiles. According to the wall text, "For the artist, the grid structure that supports these tiles represents the patriarchal system that has governed for as long as we can recall. As expressed through architecture, this felt patriarchy has shaped our experiences, memories, and movements." The irony, of course, is that this exhibition and the latest expansion of the museum was primarily bankrolled by Charles Schwab, proud San Francisco Republican and patriarchy personified.

There is one truly great, striking work on the 4th floor: Jewel, a seven-minute film by the London artist Hassan Khan. I'm not going to ruin it by trying to describe the piece, so let's just say it involves Mideastern music, light, and two men dancing.