Saturday, September 30, 2023

SF Opera's Il Trovatore

The San Francisco Opera opened its 101st season with Verdi's Il Trovatore, an enormously popular opera since its 1853 debut. It's a tricky piece to pull off in the 21st century for a number of reasons. Verdi wrote extremely demanding music for the four greatest singers of his time, and since then just about every legendary soprano, tenor, baritone and mezzo-soprano have embodied the roles, which sets a seriously high bar. (The program has a lovely article by Jeff McMillan of a few of the greats who have triumphed at the San Francisco Opera in the roles over the last century.) Then there is the matter of the bloodthirsty, coincidence-ridden, passionately Romantic narrative based on a hit Spanish play from the 1830s, which can easily tip into utter absurdity. (All production photos by Corey Weaver.)
I saw the penultimate performance of the run on Friday night, and was reminded again how great this musical score can be. Music Director Eun Sun Park is still figuring out her way with the composer and the result was a bit tighter and less flowing than the best Verdi conducting, but there were glimmers of brilliance throughout. The chorus, under new Chorus Director John Keene, sounded as good as I have ever heard them, which is a wonderful sign of things to come.
Though none of the four principal singers from this production are going to be in any future recap of Legendary Performances in SF Opera programs, they were all very good. Baritone George Petean as the Count di Luna had a voice that was easy and confident in the role, although his characterization was a one-note, moustache-twirling, dastardly villain who wants to kill the hero and ravish the heroine. It's hard to say whether this was the decision of the singer or the director.
Mezzo-soprano Ekaterina Semenchuk as Azucena gave one of prettiest, most accurate renditions of her role musically I have ever heard. However, she did little histrionically with one of the juiciest roles in all of opera, a gypsy (Roma) woman who starts half insane in her opening scene and only becomes more poignantly detached between past and present over the course of the opera.
As her (adopted) son Manrico, Arturo Chacon-Cruz has a really lovely tenor but this role felt a bit too big and demanding for his voice. Thankfully, instead of pushing, he would occasionally pull back and become part of the larger ensemble.
Il Trovatore was written around the same time as Rigoletto and La Traviata and I think my favorite heroine of the triology is Leonora, who pushes back and fights for her love throughout, unlike the pathetic Gilda and self-sacrificing Violetta. Soprano Angel Blue is gorgeous in the role, dramatically and vocally, except for her high notes which were loud when they should have been soft and dreamy.
The David McVicar production, with its Goya-inspired design on a well-conceived turntable set by Charles Edwards, works really well. When it appeared in San Francisco in 2009, it was the first time Il Trovatore made any kind of geographical and dramatic sense to me. This second outing 14 years later has been restaged by a house director, and feels somewhat inert and less tightly dramatic than previously, but it doesn't matter. The music here is the thing.

Tuesday, September 26, 2023

SF Symphony Opening 2023

The San Francisco Symphony scaled down their lavish gala opening concert this year, eliminating the block-long, post-concert party on Grove Street.
The society folks who paid big bucks for a symphony fundraiser were still treated to a pre-concert party and post-concert dinner in the tent over the Lake Louise parking lot, but there was no mixing of the classes this year. This was a shame because half the fun was watching society ladies showing off outrageous designer dresses for their peers and a larger crowd.
It didn't matter, though, because there were still plenty of interesting people celebrating the orchestra's Opening Day...
...including symphony employees dressed to the nines.
The press were treated to an hors d'oeuvres and wine fest on the Van Ness balcony where my spouse Austin and I talked with blogger Lisa Hirsch (Iron Tongue of Midnight, click here)...
...and the bilingual arts blogger Lupita Peimbert (lupitanews, click here)
Even Broke-Ass Stuart (click here) showed up, looking dapper in a red suit.
The 7PM concert was weird though enjoyable. 59 Productions, a London-based design firm, provided lighting and video accompaniment for the musical works on the program that was visually pleasant but essentially banal. Gala symphony openings usually start with a fanfare or overture but Friday's concert started with a 20-minute Richard Strauss tone poem, Don Juan, an 1889 paean to the legendary male seducer. (All production photos are by Drew Altizer Photography.)
This was followed by the English baritone Simon Keenlyside singing Mahler's 1883 Songs of a Wayfarer. The 64-year-old singer was magnificent, and the early Mahler songs quite beautiful, but they are also dark and brooding and German, not exactly what one would expect at a festive gala.
The third work was Rap Notes, a 2000 work by Swedish composer Anders Hillborg. When commissioned to write a "crossover rap piece" by the Swedish Radio Orchestra for a youth festival, the composer quoted them an outrageous fee, thinking that would kill the project, but instead they paid up. The fifteen-minute piece was pleasant enough in the orchestral accompaniment, and Kev Choice and Anthony Veneziale are skilled freestyle rappers, but the whole thing sounded like a gala novelty act.
The final work was Ravel's 1928 Bolero, which I never need to hear live again in this lifetime. Music Director Esa-Pekka Salonen led a good performance, though, and was convincing in all the different pieces of music on the program. We left jubilant about the resumption of orchestral life in San Francisco, but it was strange leaving a Gala at 8:45PM.

Thursday, September 21, 2023

Dawdling at the de Young

Since retiring from my job last month, there has been time to dawdle and to pop into local museums on near-empty weekdays.
Tuesday afternoon involved a walk through Golden Gate Park, and a close study of an 1878 bronze sculpture, Le Poème de la Vigne (The Vintage Vase) by the prolific French illustrator Gustave Doré. He created it for French winemakers at the Paris World's Fair, and in 1894 the foundry shipped a version to San Francisco for the California Midwinter Exposition.
The outdoor signage notes that the vase is decorated with cupids, satyrs, and bacchantes associated with Bacchus, the Roman god of wine.
This doesn't explain why so many of the cupids seem to be lewdly entangled with flies and beetles and snakes.
Inside the museum I climbed the treacherous staircase to the top floor to see the Kehinde Wiley: An Archaeology of Silence exhibit for the second time.
The show of huge paintings and sculptures premiered at the Venice Biennale last summer, and begins its tour of four American museums at the de Young. (Pictured above is Femme Piquée par un Serpent (Mamadou Gueye), 2022.)
The exhibit has been installed since March and is leaving October 15th so if you are interested, now is the time to check it out.
The museum website tries to explain the concept: "Kehinde Wiley’s new body of paintings and sculptures confronts the silence surrounding systemic violence against Black people through the visual language of the fallen figure. Wiley investigates the iconography of death and sacrifice in Western art, tracing it across religious, mythological, and historical subjects. In An Archaeology of Silence, the senseless deaths of men and women around the world are transformed into a powerful elegy of resistance. The resulting paintings of figures struck down, wounded, or dead, referencing iconic paintings of mythical heroes, martyrs, and saints, offer a haunting meditation on the legacies of colonialism and systemic racism."
That may all be so, but the visual effect of the installation is very pop, almost akin to Jeff Koons...
...especially the oversized riff on the famous Roman sculpture The Dying Gaul.
I intended to continue walking towards the ocean, but thought better of it after looking out from the de Young tower. It was obvious that the smoke-filled air from Northern California wildfires had only gotten worse as the day wore on.

Tuesday, September 12, 2023

Kinship at SFMOMA

There is an interesting group photography exhibit at SFMOMA called Kinship, which is described on the the museum website as: "...six contemporary photographers who share a special affinity with their subjects. Relationships are fundamental to each artist’s practice, whether they are familial, platonic, romantic, cultural, or geographic in nature."
That curatorial concept is tenuous but the show features three smashing photographers, starting with Alessandra Sanguinetti, who was born in New York, raised in Buenos Aires, Argentina, and now lives in the SF Bay Area. Her series of photos of two Argentinian cousins, Guillermina and Belinda, is mysteriously beautiful. (Pictured above is The Necklace, 1999.)
The cousins posed for Sanguinetti (The Black Cloud, 2000)...
...sometimes re-enacting their own dreams (Ophelias, 2002).
Shot over the course of 20 years, the series ends with both of them becoming mothers (Nine Months, 2007).
Another room contains the work of Paul Mpagi Sepuya, a 40-year-old photographer from San Bernardino.
His work is also stunningly beautiful on the surface, while playing with loaded subjects like yearning eroticism, homosexuality, and race (Model Study, 2021).
The name Black and White Men Together, a San Francisco gay organization begun in 1980, suddenly came to mind out of the depths of memory (Drop Scene, 2021).
Another remarkable photographer in the exhibit is Jarod Lew, born in Detroit and currently studying for his Masters Degree at Yale (We Come in Peace -- Stone, Matthew and Kevin, 2022).
The photos are from a project called Please Take Off Your Shoes, where Lew contacted young Chinese American strangers who exist in that liminal, jumbled space between pop American culture and the traditional Chinese cultures of their parents.
The combination of rosewood furniture and modern American young people is fascinating, (The Most American Thing (Tina), 2021). Kinship is at SFMOMA on the third floor until November 13th and is worth checking out.