Tuesday, August 14, 2018

Pelleas and Melisande on The Waterfront

The second of three performances of Debussy's 1902 opera, Pelleas and Melisande, was presented by West Edge Opera last Sunday afternoon in a makeshift theater in the Craneway Conference Center on the Richmond waterfront. The opera is one of those sophisticated works that you either get or not, and I confess to being one of the unenlightened, but have always envied friends who genuinely adored it for reasons they usually find hard to explain. (All production photos are by Cory Weaver.)

Armen (above left) is a Pelleas worshiper from a young age, and it was fun posing him with his old buddy from UC Berkeley Chorus days, James Parr, who is currently VP of the West Edge Opera Board. The musical eco-fabric of the Bay Area in terms of composers, performers, and receptive audiences is an ongoing wonder, and both of them are exemplars.

I've seen the opera twice in my life at the San Francisco Opera, the last time in 1997 in a wondrous production with Fredrica von Stade, but going into the performance on Sunday I had absolutely no memory for the details of the gauzy, Symbolist narrative involving a family love triangle that ends in death in a gloomy castle surrounded by gloomy forests and caverns. For the first time at this production, I actually followed the story and on that level it was fascinating. (Pictured above are David Blalock as Pelleas and Philip Skinner as King Arkel.)

The cast was strong throughout, and Kendra Broom as Melisande and Efrain Solis as her abusively jealous husband stood out vocally and dramatically.

Her costumes and wig made her look a bit too much like a strong, healthy Californian girl version of the Brave heroine to inhabit the wispy, neurasthenic Melisande, but vocally she and Solis nailed it.

"What's your favorite part of the opera?" I asked Armen, and he rooted about before settling on Act Five, "the beginning and then the whole thing, where King Arkel sings...You need a great King Arkel or the whole piece doesn't work." Philip Skinner was a magnificent King Arkel, and his ode to the sadness of the eternal cycle of life left us both teary-eyed at the end.

The original scheduled opera for this West Edge Opera's season was a production of Britten's Death in Venice, but it proved to be expensive to produce, so Pelleas and Melisande became the late substitute. It was not only an inspired choice, but the planets aligned for a really lovely production. Major props to conductor Jonathan Khuner whose orchestra sounded exquisite in his reduction of the score, and director Keturah Stickann for her emphasis on narrative clarity rather than an interpretive gloss. And good job, supernumeraries, you provided visual interest and moved props well. There is one more performance this Friday evening and you can buy tickets by clicking here.

Thursday, August 09, 2018

Mata Hari at West Edge Opera

The wandering East Bay opera company, West Edge Opera, has created another pop-up theater at the Craneway Conference Center on the Richmond waterfront for their annual summer festival.

The huge building does not have the ruined glamor of the abandoned Oakland train station which was headquarters for a couple of years, but it does have bathrooms rather than port-a-potties, and beautiful light-filled views from the hangar that serves as a lobby.

The theater itself has been created within a wide, black-curtained rectangle surrounding an elevated stage with an orchestra at audience level.

Last Sunday was the West Coast premiere of the 2017 Mata Hari, written and directed by Paul Peers with a score by Matt Marks. I was looking forward to it immensely, curious about Marks' music which was described in reviews of its New York Prototype Festival premiere last year as wildly eclectic. The other reason was because I recently saw Mare Nostrum at the SF Silent Film Festival whose heroine was loosely based on the World War One femme fatale spy, and did some research on her afterwards. What a rich, ripe subject she would be for a feminist examination. Margaretha Geertruida Zelle was an abused young Dutch wife who fled her husband in the Dutch Indies at the beginning of the 20th century. Performing under the stage name of Mata Hari, she posed as an exotic danseur from the Far East throughout the capitals of Europe. She was also mistress to legions of male admirers, and during World War One was pressured into spying on the French for the Germans so she could reunite with her young Russian aviator lover who had been shot down and was blind in a hospital. Eventually, she was set up by the Germans for exposure and then executed by a French firing squad. (All production photos by Cory Weaver, the rest are mine and yours).

It is sad to report what a dull play Paul Peers has made of all that lively material, framing the story as Mata Hari stripped down to a slip in a jail cell and reliving episodes from her past while being tended to by her jailer, Sister Leonide. The role of Mata Hari was written for a non-singing actress who could nonetheless work with musical cues, and the Australian actress Tina Mitchell for whom it was written does fine in that regard, but she seemed wrong for the role, more whiny victim than sensual conquerer. Her Dance of the Seven Veils for Sister Leonide which should have been a high point of the opera went by without a ripple. It also didn't help that the supertitles were used for all the singers' lines but not for Ms. Mitchell's, so a question would be comprehensible when sung, but an answer when spoken would not. Molly Mahoney did her best with the only female singing role as the Sister, whose character arc transforms unconvincingly from Nurse Ratched to Sister Helen Prejean in the course of 80 minutes.

It was too bad because there was a lot of talent involved in the show, starting with Marks' music, which was indeed eclectic, veering from Kurt Weillish tunes to modern operatic recitatives to pop, falsetto crooning, all accompanied by a crack little band of violin (Dan Flanagan), piano (Kate Campbell), accordion (Douglas Morton), and electric guitar (John Imholz). The singers were all wonderful too, but they were sabotaged by atrocious sound amplification last Sunday afternoon that involved feedback, ghost effects, and volume that was way too bright for the small space. Nevertheless, it was good hearing baritones Daniel Cilli and Nikolas Nackley again, who were joined by Michael Grammer and Daniel Yoder as a succession of confusing, undercharacterized military men who make our heroine suffer.

The only singer who knew how to work with the dodgy amplification was Jean-Paul Jones (in bed above) who sang the pop crooner arias, softly and beautifully, playing the Russian lover Vadime and the ghost of Mata Hari's son Norman.

The West Edge Opera Festival extends over the next two weekends, and the other works are Debussy's Pelleas and Melisande, which has been getting mostly great reviews and Francesconi's Quartett, where the backstage word-of-mouth before its Saturday opening has been "Wow," whatever that means.

Sunday, August 05, 2018

Floating to Galilee

Saturday morning, fleeing the San Francisco fog parked on the western horizon, we jumped on the Sausalito Ferry, which was more crowded than I have ever experienced.

A blooming global population all seemed to be on board, and they picked a beautiful day for a waterborne tourist jaunt.

The middle passage across the bay was choppy, windy and fun, but the minute we landed in Sausalito the temperature rose by 20 degrees.

We slipped away from the masses and walked north along the waterfront. Just past Dunphy Park, there is a small marina co-op on a slough consisting of 38 houseboats, and Saturday they were hosting Galilee Harbor Community Day.

This involved rummage sales on card tables, and a small stage for everything from a children's play to a Hawaiian music performance where the audience all brought their own instruments and ukeleled along.

Also on offer to the public were freshly cooked fish and chips, beer, and homemade pies. It was sweet and very Marin enlightened old hippie.

Best of all, they opened the gates to their marina.

A few of the boats were even offering open houses so you could take mini-tours...

...and gaze with admiration at Holiday Mansion above.

The afternoon became progressively warmer and we comfortably stood in the front of the return ferry, watching everyone ecstatic at summer weather in San Francisco after a month of fog.

On the San Francisco waterfront, we went to our secret outdoor dive and watched what looked like a soft-core porn commercial for Corona beer at the table next to us.

Thursday, August 02, 2018

A Tale of Two Festivals

Two Bay Area music festivals, one devoted to modern opera and another to early music performed on original instruments, are opening this weekend. West Edge Opera starts their three-week repertory season of three operas at the Craneway Conference Center, a former factory on the waterfront in Richmond. Debussy's only opera, the 1902 Pelléas et Mélisande, will initiate the festival this Saturday evening in a reduced orchestration by conductor Jonathan Khuner. Decades ago I saw Pelleas at the SF Opera and it felt like listening to paint dry, but then attended a 1995 production with Fredrica von Stade (pictured above in a production at the Met) and was thoroughly entranced by the strange, Symbolist piece which conductor Simon Rattle called "one of the saddest and most upsetting operas ever written. If you love the opera as I do, then you love it to pieces, obsessively."

Starring as Melisande is the 25-year-old mezzo-soprano Kendra Broom above, who has been a protege of Frederica von Stade in more ways than one, as a wonderful article by Brandon Yu in the SF Chronicle relates. For a beautifully written appreciation of West Edge Opera as an organization, click here for a preview by Georgia Rowe in the San Jose Mercury News.

The second opera, Mata Hari, premiered at the Prototype Festival in New York last year, and is an interesting conglomeration of musical/opera/spoken word about the infamous World War One spy who was executed by a French Army firing squad. The libretto is by Paul Peers who will be in town to restage the work, along with the Australian actress Tina Mitchell (above) for whom the title part was written. If you'd like to prepare ahead of time, there is a good online video of the entire opera (click here).

The music was composed by Matt Marks, who won't be attending because he died suddenly on May 11th this year at age 38 from a longstanding heart condition. The news was announced on Facebook by his fiance, the composer Mary Kouyoumdjian, and the shock waves among family, friends, colleagues and acquaintances was one of the most remarkable displays I have ever seen on social media. Everyone seemed to love him and his work, and the grief was a powerful connective tissue between strangers.

The final opera, opening on Saturday the 11th is Luca Francesconi's Quartett, which premiered at La Scala in 2011. Based on a theatrical distillation of Dangerous Liaisons by German playwright Heiner Müller, the piece is written for two singers, one live orchestra, one recorded orchestra, and a multiplicity of electronic effects. From all accounts, the staging by Elkhanah Pulitzer is wild and athletic as the fearless baritone Hadleigh Adams as Valmont spars with Heather Buck as Marquise de Merteuil while rappeling up and down a slanted wall. The composer has famously been quoted: “Don’t dare to come if you can't accept that you need to analyze what you do and who you are. This piece is violent, it’s sex, it’s blasphemy, it’s the absence of mercy.” You have been warned.

Starting on Friday the 3rd, the American Bach Soloists begin their two-week Academy for young professional singers and instrumentalists specializing in early music. Performances are at St. Mark's Lutheran Church and the SF Conservatory of Music in San Francisco, and they are usually an energized, delightful mix of seasoned pros teaching and performing with young people just starting their careers.

Music Director Jeffrey Thomas above will be conducting most of the concerts, which have all kinds of treats in store, including a concert performance of Handel's Semele. There are also quite a few free weekday performances at the SF Conservatory next week which are also worthwhile. Click here for an online schedule.