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.

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