Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Elektra at SF Opera

The San Francisco Opera is presenting a very good production of Richard Strauss's shocking 1909 opera, Elektra, propelled by one of the best casts imaginable in the world, headed by Christine Goerke in the title role. The soprano is onstage from the pre-show open curtain to the final notes two hours later, singing the insanely difficult role with lyrical beauty, power, and intelligence. It is one of the greatest operatic performances I have heard at the San Francisco Opera over the last 40-plus years. (All production photos by Cory Weaver.)

The new production by the British director Keith Warner opened last year in Prague, where it received pretty dismal reviews, partly because it didn't have this astounding cast. The concept seems to be that the entire story is taking place in an unstable woman's mind after she remains behind after closing hours at a sleek, contemporary museum in a room dedicated to artifacts from Agamemnon and the cursed House of Atreus. Some ideas worked better than others, but the production didn't get in the way of the essential story, and the set design by Boris Kudlička and lighting by John Bishop was striking and visually engaging, with dioramas representing different rooms in the palace appearing and disappearing smoothly.

The murdering mom, Klytemnestra, a role that is usually assigned to legendary sopranos on their last vocal legs, was sung beautifully by the comparatively young mezzo-soprano Michaela Martens. Styled like an alcoholic, imperious housewife/queen, she was genuinely pitiful. I only wished there had been a more interesting staging of her terrifying entrance music, usually accompanied by bloody sacrifices to the angry gods who plague her dreams.

The sweet sister, Chrysothemis, who is given the most lyrical music, was sung almost perfectly by soprano Adrianne Pieczonka, and though she refused to help Elektra hack her mother to death with an axe, her delight at the murderous deeds during the finale was one of the high musical moments of the production.

Orest, the exiled brother in disguise, was well sung by baritone Alfred Walker and his horror movie rampage near the end of the opera was very satisfying.

The 100-piece orchestra, the largest ever assembled in the pit at the War Memorial Opera House, was conducted by the young Hungarian conductor Henrik Nánási, and he led the ensemble in an amazingly transparent rendition of the extraordinarily complex score which can easily turn into a muddy mess. The individual musicians should be proud of themselves because they sounded like one of the best operatic orchestras on the globe. There are only three more performances, tonight (September 19th), this Friday (September 22nd), and Wednesday, September 27th. Make sure you get to one of those performances if you can, and if you're feeling poor, standing room at the SF Opera is still an unbelievably inexpensive $10.

Sunday, September 17, 2017

SF Symphony Gala 2017

An old friend, Joshua Contreras, had left a pair of Stacy Adams wingtips in our closet for the last 10 years, lost and forgotten. Last month he sent an SOS from El Paso, asking if they happened to still be in the closet, and they were. Before sending them off to the Lone Star State, though, I took them out for a last spin at the San Francisco Symphony Gala Opening last Thursday.

I was joined by my friend Steve Susoyev above who was wearing the other pair of fancy footwear as he guided Frances Hsieh around the Prosecco Promenade in the Davies Hall lobby.

Frances managed to upstage us both.

The annual fundraising gala opens with a quintet of dinners and cocktails at City Hall, a party tent next door, and the tiny Wattis Room for the truly elite.

After dinner, the crowds join each other in the lobby to see and be seen.

This year's edition was younger and mellower than usual, and the people watching was perfectly delightful.

There was also an opening musical concert wedged in with music director Michael Tilson Thomas leading the audience in a sing-along Star Spangled Banner, a Happy 90th Birthday arrangement which he sang to Bernard Osher who was perched in a stageside box, and a quartet of classical music bon-bons with the orchestra.

The concert started with a rambunctious performance of Bernstein's overture to Candide, which the orchestra will be presenting complete in January. This was followed by the star of the evening, cellist Yo-Yo Ma, playing the Saint-Saëns Cello Conerto #1 and Tchaikovsky's Rococo Variations. This was the first time I had heard Yo-Yo Ma play live, which felt a bit like checking off a box on a bucket list. Decades ago, I heard an older Isaac Stern make a mess of a Mozart violin concerto so I was a bit apprehensive about encountering another legend late in their career (Ma has been performing in public since child prodigy days in the early 1960s), but there was no reason to worry. It was easy to hear why he is a legend.

The concert ended with yet another traversal through Ravel's Bolero, followed by parties and dancing in the tent and outdoors on Grove Street. Even with our magic shoes, we were wimps and only lasted about an hour, but the food and drink and people were fun.

Thursday, September 14, 2017

Alsarah and the Nubatones

The Yerba Buena Gardens outdoor concerts all summer are an undiscovered treat, with small audiences and interesting artists from all over the world.

Last Saturday featured the Sudanese-born, Brooklyn singer Alsarah performing a mixture of new and traditional Nubian songs with her sister Nahid on backing vocals, Togo-raised Mawuena Kodjovi on bass and trumpet, Rami El Aasser on Middle Eastern percussion and Brandon Terzic on oud.

Next Saturday at 1PM, another multiculti Brooklyn ensemble, the Brooklyn Raga Massive, joins San Francisco's Classical Revolution for an East meets West version of San Francisco composer Terry Riley's minimalist classic In C.

After lunching and listening to the Nubatones, we crossed the street to SFMOMA where another African-born, New York artist, Julie Mehretu, has just unveiled HOWL, eon (I, II), a huge, two-panel commission from the museum. Charles Desmerais, the new art critic for the SF Chronicle, complained about their placement on the stairways in the main lobby entrance where it's just about impossible to make out any of the complex details and he has a point. We continued on and hung out with Ragnar Kjartansson and The Visitors on the 7th floor again.

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Ars Minerva's La Circe

Céline Ricci and her Ars Minerva company presented their third annual production of an obscure 17th century Venetian opera at the ODC Theatre on 17th Street, and once again it was a musical and stylistic triumph. The piece this time was La Circe, a 1665 opera by Pietro Andrea Ziani about the sorceress famous from her appearances in Homer's Odyssey and Ovid's Metamorphosis. In this version of the tale, Ulysses has just dumped her and fled with his remaining sailors, which puts her into a very bad mood and leads to much manipulation, sorcery and malice towards those unfortunate enough to be sharing the island with her. These include (left to right, above) Kyle Stegall as Glauco who she wants as her boy toy; Jasmine Johnson as her gardener Egle; Aurélie Veruni as the virginal Scilla who Circe turns into a sea monster; Jonathan Smucker as Gligorio, a comic servant who has been shipwrecked with his mistress; Katherine Hutchinson as an aerial acrobat who fills in the dance sections of the opera; Céline Ricci as the sorceress Circe; Igor Vieira as a trio of characters; Ryan Belongie as Pirro, a shipwrecked aristocrat who Circe also lusts after; and Kindra Scharich as Andromecha, Pirro's wife who pretends to be his sister.

The entire cast sang superbly, including Kyle Stegall in his merman outfit above, and they were accompanied by a brilliant chamber orchestra consisting of Adam Cockerham (above right) on theorbo, Derek Tam conducting from the harpsichord, Gretchen Claassen on cello, Addi Liu on viola, and Laura Rubinstein-Salzedo and Nathalie Carducci on violins.

It is amazing that music as good as this has been left undiscovered for so many centuries. The duet which ended the first act between countertenor Ryan Belongie and mezzo-soprano Kindra Scharich was so beautiful that it seems impossible it should be lost. Plus, the role of Circe is wild, incorporating just about every emotion imaginable.

There are plenty of instances of confusing gender in Renaissance and Baroque opera, but I was still unprepared for Jasmine Johnson's portrayal of Egle. The character is a woman pretending to be a man for most of the evening, and it wasn't until the last fifteen minutes that I realized the exquisitely beautiful voice was actually female rather than a male countertenor.

Jonathan Smucker as Gligorio was very funny as the down-to-earth servant who wants very much to live, thank you, while his mistress keeps imploring death to take her away from miserable misfortune.

His fondness for wine leads to unfortunate results, though, when he and Igor Vieira (below right) are transformed into swine. (The well-done projections were designed by Patricia Nardi.)

Matthew Nash (center, with Céline Ricci and Igor Vieira) designed the witty male costumes, including an Elvis ensemble for Kyle Stegall below.

Stegall's tenor was pure and plaintive, and he made for a funny, convincingly romantic cad, but again, all the singers were wonderful. Between Ars Minerva, West Edge Opera and Opera Parallele, the Bay Area has three of the most adventurous small opera companies in the world, and a large part of their current artistic success is the incredible roster of local musical talent, both vocal and instrumental. I can't wait to see what they unearth next.

Thursday, September 07, 2017

Soundtracks at SFMOMA

A collection of arty soundscapes called Soundtracks has been installed throughout SFMOMA and has taken over the entire 7th floor of the museum. Not a fan of conceptual art installations, I visited with low expectations, and was happily surprised.

Many of the installations are light and playful, and a large contingent of children last Monday were loving them.

A tin can telephone house, Amalia Pica's 2014 Switchboard (Pavilion) would not have been out of place at the Exploratorium, though unfortunately it didn't really work sonically. According to the online catalogue, the difficulty of communication is part of the point of the piece, though not a very compelling one.

That didn't keep everyone from trying their best to make primitive wireless communication happen.

The French artist Céleste Boursier-Mougenot created the 2012 clinamen, a marvelous circular pool of water with a slowly moving current that buoys a collection of floating porcelain bowls that bump into each other, creating bell-like textures that are exquisitely hypnotic.

In wall signage, the artist requests that no cell phones or photography be allowed because the experience is meant to be meditative, but good luck with that injunction.

The greatest discovery was in a dark room with nine screens angled off of each other, showing an hour-long video called The Visitors. I saw the last thirty minutes, and about ten minutes into the experience, I burst into tears, possibly the first time in my life that has happened in a museum.

The 2012 work by Icelandic performance artist Ragnar Kjartansson, strumming his guitar in the bathtub below, is so lovely and surprising that I don't want to spoil the effect. Just go.

And afterwards read this wonderful review by Laura Cumming in The Guardian of Kjartansson's Barbican retrospective last year in London. She ends the post with: "The Visitors is a marvellous creation, rhapsodic, mesmerising and overwhelmingly affecting. It runs for more than an hour but you could stay there for ever. I could not pull myself away."

Saturday, September 02, 2017

Presidio Picnic

We walked from Civic Center to the Presidio last Sunday via the Marina waterfront in order to purchase a $10 Senior Lifetime Pass to national parks from the U.S. Park Service.

Because the weather was so sunny and gorgeous the previous day, we set off in shorts and T-shirts, but a low-lying fog was drifting in under the Golden Gate Bridge, slowly covering Alcatraz and Angel Island.

Sunday was the last day the passes were on sale for that outrageously low price, and the woman on the phone said it would be best if we went to the Visitors' Center at the Main Post.

I asked the elderly clerk who sold us the passes whether they had been open the previous day during the Patriot Prayer Rally brouhaha, and he replied with a curt, barking "NO!" which implied that he had many angry words to say on that subject but was not going to utter any of them.

The happy surprise was that we had stumbled into a free weekly gathering on the Main Post lawn surrounded by food trucks and tented enclosures offering all manner of treats.

The simple rules signage was very 21st century, with "NO DRONES," and "NO BALLOONS" being favorites.

Another rule is "NO TENT STAKES" but there were plenty of small tents dotting the lawn which are useful for staying out of the sun, particularly for young children.

Last Sunday the Main Post was surrounded by fog to the west and the north, but the lawn felt like a sunny, Shangri-La oasis.

There are also a couple of bars set up with expensive drinks, though they do offer $5 cans of Tecate. You can bring your own booze, but don't be like the bad women next to us who were drinking champagne out of bottles, even though "NO GLASS" is one of the sensible rules.

This was the fifth year for Presidio Picnic, which takes place from 11AM to 4PM every Sunday from March through October. It's worth checking out.