Friday, September 13, 2019

Billy Budd at SF Opera

"I am an old man who has experienced much" is the opening line of Billy Budd, Benjamin Britten's 1951 opera. The line had a special resonance for me since I saw Billy Budd at its 1978 West Coast premiere at the San Francisco Opera when I was about the age of Billy Budd, and last Saturday attended the company's fourth production while closer to the age of old Captain Vere.

Britten's music is not everyone's cup of tea, but it has entranced me since discovering his War Requiem in my teens. I rate him with Monteverdi, Mozart, and Verdi as a supernaturally gifted opera composer, and Billy Budd is one of his genuine masterpieces. Based on Herman Melville's tragic, homoerotic novella about a beloved sailor on a British battleship during the 1790s Napoleonic Wars, the opera has a huge, all-male cast with an excellent libretto by the novelist E.M. Forster and Eric Crozier that alternates between brutal realism and ethereal abstraction.

The first SF Opera production from 1978, revived in 1985, was based on the original designs from the 1950s by John Piper, which were minimalist while evocative of the wide, surrounding sea. That 1985 revival may have been my favorite. It starred Dale Duesing (above) as a believable, sweet-souled Billy, the late-career tenor James King as Captain Vere singing the hell out of the role as if he was channeling Jon Vickers as Peter Grimes, and the young bass-baritone James Morris as the frighteningly sadistic master of arms John Claggart. The 2004 Willy Decker production with baritone Nathan Gunn flexing his gym-toned pecs never quite worked for me, partly because it was too abstract and never gave one a sense of the sea, which is a character in itself.

Michael Grandage, the British director of the current SF Opera production which originated in Glyndebourne, has stated: "Britten has this brilliant capacity to conjure up the huge, surging sound of the sea through the orchestra. Therefore, I wanted to leave the sea to the orchestra and focus on creating the claustrophobic, violent, capricious shipboard world that these characters inhabit." It's a valid approach, and the set by Christopher Oran is boldly impressive (it even moves!) but I still miss the sea because the opera is not just about these characters but their place in the wider world. (All production photos by Cory Weaver.)

By all means, you should try to see this production in one of its four remaining performances (click here for the SFO website). The huge, all-male chorus, both onstage and offstage, were magnificent and so was the orchestra under conductor Lawrence Renes who was last here leading Nixon in China. I heard musical details from the orchestra and the chorus that were brand new.

Bass-baritone Christian Van Horn sounded great, particularly his Iago-like aria where he vows to destroy beauty, handsomeness, and goodness. His characterization was a bit too suave for my tastes, which meant he veered into silent-movie villain rather than a recognizable, poisonous, closet case sadist. William Burden as Captain Vere gave the best performance in that difficult role I have ever heard, and his English diction was so masterful you could understand almost every word without the provided surtitles.

Baritone John Chest certainly looked like the young pretty boy sailor Terence Stamp portrayed in the early 1960s Peter Ustinov movie, but he seemed to get lost in the shuffle of all the activity onstage during Act One, vocally and dramatically. One reason for that was the extraordinary cast of singers in smaller roles surrounding him. Matthew O'Neill as Squeak was funny and awful (somebody should cast him as Mime), while Philip Skinner as Dansker was so powerfully voiced that he wasn't quite believable as the oldest tar on the battleship. Edward Nelson, Hadleigh Adams, Wayne Tigges, Philip Horst, Christian Pursell, and Robert Brubaker also shone in their various roles as officers and seamen. Tenor Brenton Ryan (above) was so poignant and sang so beautifully as the Novice who is given 20 lashes that he threatened to walk off with the opera.

John Chest came into his own during the second act, and particularly in his long aria while awaiting his execution, where he didn't try to do too much and was all the more affecting for it. His voice blossomed beautifully and it was hard not to cry. Now I can't wait to go see and hear it again.

Monday, September 09, 2019

SF Symphony Gala 2019

The San Francisco Symphony Opening Gala last Wednesday evening celebrating Michael Tilson Thomas's 25th and final season as the orchestra's music director was especially enjoyable.

During the Prosecco Promenade before the actual concert, we shared a lobby table with the lady above, and after I had taken her photo she burst into laughter. "I was just texting my therapist about how photographers keep backing up into me while they are taking pictures of somebody else, so thank you for the boost to my self-esteem. By the way, my spouse died five months ago, and it's been hard but if he was alive, I would never be here doing something like this."

I replied, "Well, my spouse of 24 years died last November, so why don't you join us and let's go watch the rich ladies make their way from the dinner tent up the stairs to the concert?"

And so we did, where the recent widow ran into two old friends and there was a joyous reunion.

The concert, led by a genial, funny, and nostalgic Michael Tilson Thomas, was a particularly fine blend of lighter pops music and "serious" classical music. In the former category, there was Glinka's Ruslan and Lyudmila Overture, a trio of American songs orchestrated by Aaron Copland and Gordon Getty featuring baritone Ryan McKinny and the SF Symphony Men's Chorus, and a brilliant performance of Benjamin Britten's A Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra. If you have seen the Wes Anderson movie Moonrise Kingdom, the opening credits feature this series of deconstructed variations on a beautiful theme from Purcell, and the very entertaining lighting scheme pinpointed each section of the orchestra as it was being highlighted.

The concert concluded with the final movement of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, with soloists Susanna Phillips, Jennifer Johnson Cano, Jonathan Tetelman, and Ryan McKinny joining the extraordinary SF Symphony Chorus in the Ode to Joy. Even though I've never been much of a fan of MTT's Beethoven, it felt like a fitting finale for the celebratory occasion.

The parties in a tent over the "Lake Louise" parking lot and a closed-down Grove Street were lavish and delightful...

...filled with great people watching...

...and running into old friends like chorister Chung-Wai Soong.

Just about every adult male looks great in a tuxedo...

...including my Palm Springs friend Jim Horn...

...who was flirting and complimenting every woman who sat down at our Grove Street cocktail table, including Ms. Heidi above...

...and the fabulous Marin County firecracker above who couldn't resist the live Latin dance stage nearby.

Her fellow Marin County buddy joined us, and she said, "Do you know how we met? Decades ago, we were both Playboy Bunnies."

Friday, September 06, 2019

Merola Opera Grand Finale 2019

A highlight of summer in San Francisco every year is the Merola Opera program, which trains more than a couple of dozen young professionals in an intense three-month session, culminating in a Grand Finale in the San Francisco Opera House, where they sing a string of arias and scenas over a full orchestra. This year everyone sounded good, without the highlights (with one exception) and lowlights that are a usual feature of this grab-bag of performances. The singers all wore formal wear which was an incongruous sight on the Billy Budd set where director Greg Eldridge strung together one disparate scene after another in amusing fashion. The mists of time have obscured a lot of my memories of the Saturday, August 17th evening, so I'm going to be linking to three other journalists while featuring some of their favorites. (All photos by Kristen Loken.)

Charlise Tiee at The Opera Tattler was particularly taken with soprano Esther Tonea and tenor Michael Day as Fioriligi and Ferrando in Mozart's Cosi fan tutte. Clean, clear young voices in Mozart are always a treat, and they were a wonderful pair.

She was also impressed with the trio from Donizetti's Maria Stuarda, with soprano Chelsea Lehnea as Elisabetta flanked by bass-baritone Rafael Poto as Lord Cecil and tenor Salvatore Atti as the Conte di Leicester.

Joshua Kosman at the SF Chronicle singled out baritone Laureano Quant as Sir Riccardo Forth singing an aria from Bellini's I Puritani and tenor Brandon Scott Russell (pictured above) as the Prince singing an aria from Dvorak's Rusalka.

Janos Gereben at San Francisco Classical Voice loved the scene from Poulenc's Dialogues of the Carmelites, headed by soprano Amber R. Monroe as Madame Lidoine. One of the funnier moments was the repeated refrain about how humble and poor all the Carmelite sisters are and should be while everyone was singing in ballgowns, topped by baritone Edward Laurenson hiding with them in drag before seguing into the Cosi fan tutte scene as Don Alfonso.

Also appearing in the scene was mezzo-soprano Alice Chung, who everyone raved about, including me. She even made a scene from Thomas' French operatic version of Hamlet sound interesting, which I had previously thought impossible. Her huge voice is still a little unwieldly but it's rich, large, and gloriously musical. Can't wait to hear her again.