Thursday, June 27, 2024

On Wings of Song with "Partenope"

The San Francisco Opera is finishing up its summer season with Handel's 1730 Partenope, a three-and-a-half-hour comic romp about the title character being besieged by marriage suitors and the ensuing complications. The six-member cast all sings well and seems to have a real sense of cameraderie onstage, with two star turns by Europeans making their American debuts. Julie Fuchs as Partenope is not only a spectacular singer who makes difficult, ornamented music sound effortless but she is also gorgeously believable as the hostess of a 1920s artistic salon in Paris, where the story has been updated and relocated from ancient Naples by director Christopher Alden. (All production photos are by Cory Weaver.)
Her musical performance is matched note for note by Carlo Vistoli, the Italian countertenor (male soprano) singing Arsace, Prince of Corinth.
The renaissance of Handel operas and other lyric works from the 16th and 17th centuries is a modern phenomenon. Partenope, for instance, had its American premiere in Omaha in 1988, a development which was strangely foreshadowed by the 1979 sci-fi novel On Wings of Song by Thomas Disch. In that book, set in the mid-21st century, the United States has bifurcated into an authoritarian Christian fundamentalist regime in the Midwest and decadent liberal zones along the coast where the rage for castrati singers have made a comeback.
Baritone Hadleigh Adams (top left, with Julie Fuchs in the center)) sings Ormonte and it was lovely to have his lower register balancing out the many soprano voices in the opera. It was never quite clear in this staging who his character was supposed to be, but in compensation he did get to wear the most amusing costumes of the evening. Mezzo-soprano Daniela Mack (top right) was Rosmira, Princess of Cyprus, who spends 95% of the opera disguised as a man. She has tracked down Arsace after he jilted her at the altar and makes life hell for him over the course of the opera.
There is another suitor, Emilio, Prince of Cumae, who in the original libretto arrives with an army to reinforce his betrothal bid. In this version, he is based on the artist Man Ray, running around taking lots of photographs. Director Christopher Alden has a great visual sense but his concept productions don't usually make much sense, and Partenope is no exception. Instead of a battle scene between the forces of Partenope and Emilio that are clearly depicted in the Act Two musical score, there is instead just a lot of confusion. Tenor Alek Shrader, seen here with Daniela Mack in drag, nonetheless did a fine job playing the surrealist artist.
There is yet another countertenor suitor, Nicholas Tamagna, singing Armindo, Prince of Rhodes, and he was delightfully piquant as the shy, recessive guy who eventually wins the girl.
The final scene sets up a duel between Arsace and Rosmina in male drag, but the altercation is stopped when Arsace takes off his shirt to fight and demands that Rosmina do the same. Her disguise is revealed and instead of trying to kill each other, they kiss and get married instead.
Between the swift, fabulous conducting of Christopher Moulds and the superlative cast, this production is a diva worshiper's treasure, and I have a few friends who have seen it repeatedly. Chenier Ng, above left, was seeing this production for the third time, and posted this selfie with Carlo Vistoli at the stage door after this Tuesday's performance. There is one more chance to attend this Friday the 28th, and since you probably won't have many more chances to see Partenope in this lifetime , it's highly recommended.

Thursday, June 20, 2024

San Francisco Mayoral Candidate Debate

A debate between five candidates for San Francisco Mayor was held Monday evening at the new UC San Francisco Law Center building at the corner of McAllister and Hyde.
Supporters of all five candidates marched about on the sidewalk with signage, with Daniel Lurie having the largest turnout.
The gleaming new building is just a stone's throw away from one of the seedier blocks in the Tenderloin but the doorman for the free, fully booked event was genially competent.
San Francisco is a one-party town for Democrats, who were hosting the debate...
...and various schismatic organizations were represented...
...including the San Francisco Young Democrats who were represented by the amiable, not-young volunteers above.
The basement auditorium held about 500 people, and I was reminded once again what a small village San Francisco can sometimes be. I ran into a lovely ex-colleague I had not seen in 30 years who was there to support Mark Farrell. "I went to the same school as him," she explained, and I replied, "Oh, right, you were part of what I used to call the Convent of the Sacred Heart Girls School coven."
The moderator was KRON-TV reporter Terisa Estacio, who did a fine job keeping the answers to their time limits and firmly shutting down a few of Mayor Breed's more boorish supporters. For one of the better descriptions of the political implications of the debate, check out this article at Mission Local by Junyao Yang.
The first candidate to open with a 90-second opening statement was Mark Farrell, former Supervisor from the Marina District and interim mayor for 6 months when Ed Lee dropped dead while in office. In her rebuttal to an accusation by Farrell, London Breed sarcastically called him "temporary mayor" more than once. Farrell's major theme seemed to be "I'm a native-born San Franciscan and have lived here all my life," and "we need police officers who are native-born," which didn't make much sense.
Ahsha Safaí, the District 11 Supervisor from the Southeast, spoke well and presented his boilerplate speeches with skill. San Francisco has a ranked choice voting system so it's possible he could win with enough third place votes.
Daniel Lurie is an heir to the Levi-Strauss fortune and has been involved with left-leaning nonprofits through his adult life. He's being accused of trying to buy the election, but I think his motives are less about power and more about trying to fix the incompetence and corruption of San Francisco government under Mayor London Breed. Lurie, however, projects zero political charisma even though he seems like a smart and thoughtful person.
That incompetence and corruption certainly didn't start with London Breed. It's structural and she's merely been its caretaker. To give her credit, surrounded by white guys in dull suits and ties, she behaved and looked like a charismatic star and she projects pugilistic power which none of her competitors do.
District 3 Supervisor Aaron Peskin has seemingly been around forever, but he only turned 60 on this debate night. I'll be voting for him strictly on the basis of competence. He knows how this government works and he's honest. Will he be able to change the old-fashioned pay-for-play corruption? Probably not, but at least he might make a difference.

Friday, June 14, 2024

"Innocence" at SF Opera

The Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho's final opera, Innocence, had its American premiere at the San Francisco Opera this month and it's a stunner. There are three more performances next week on Sunday the 16th, Tuesday the 18th, and Friday the 21st. If you have not seen it yet, buy a ticket now (click here) because this production is destined to become legendary. (All production photos are by Cory Weaver.)
I didn't know much about the opera beforehand other than it involved a wedding party and a school shooting, and that's all you need to know too. The multilingual libretto is a brilliant work by the Finnish-Estonian novelist Sofi Oksanen in collaboration with Aleksi Barrière, Saariaho's son who has been creating librettos for choral mini-operas for his composer mother since he was a teenager (click here for a WiseMusic article). The opera's complex, multilingual ensemble of characters bleed into each other seamlessly through time and trauma, and though it's confusing at first trying to keep track of them, by the shattering last act of the opera you know something about everyone.
The production by Australian director Simon Stone is a brilliant, shape-shifting wonder, helped immeasurably by the gorgeous, two-story creation of UK set designer Chloe Lamford. The huge structure rotates in both directions throughout the intermissionless, hour-and-three-quarter opera, which is completely destabilizing in a way that physically underlines the many themes of the opera.
A small, invisible stage crew army were given their own bow at the curtain calls and deserved it. They were responsible for the exact, noiseless rotations while slowly stripping the rooms of furniture and props as the story advanced.
Two of the more striking performances are by singers whose music was written specifically for them by Saariaho, and which they have repeated at the four previous European productions over the last three years. The legendary 80-year-old contemporary music soprano Lucy Shelton spoke, sang, whispered and howled as The Teacher whose vocation is destroyed by the school shooting. The Finnish ethno pop singer Vilma Jää sings the role of Student #1 (Markeeta) and she commands the stage every time she appears (check out her music videos here). She is also given the prettiest music in the opera.
Saariaho's original interest was in a multilingual story with many kinds of voices, and she composed a score that contains multitudes with every kind of singing and speaking and language combined. This could easily have been an incomprehensible mess but instead it's a masterpiece that's not like any opera that has come before it.
The operatic soloist characters from the wedding party were all excellent. My favorites were the women: mezzo-soprano Ruxandra Donose as the outraged Waitress (not pictured), Claire de Sévigné as the impossibly chic Mother-in-Law, and Lilian Farahani as The Bride who is one of the few truly innocent characters in the opera.
The orchestra was conducted by Clément Mao-Takacs who has been with this opera since its conception, and the San Francisco Opera orchestra sounded exquisite. My favorite music in the opera was for a large offstage chorus that alternates between commenting, underlining and creating background soundscapes. The SF Opera Chorus, above, was superb.

Wednesday, June 12, 2024

Nick Dong at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts

Yerba Buena Center for the Arts hosted an opening party last week for their new summer art installation, Nick Dong: 11 to 88.
The Taiwanese/Oakland sculptor Nick Dong (above right) has envisioned a huge project of 88 transcendent art works, and this exhibit is the initial batch of 11.
It is requested that attendees take off their shoes or put on slip-coverings and to otherwise stay quiet.
Most of the sculptures are also engineering marvels involving slow illumination and motion.
Mirrors are also a big part of the equation.
There is a curtained room containing the above piece which has a tiny rotating object in the center of the suspended circle and an evolving light show on the walls and ceiling.
There are four unobrusive chairs where you can sit down and let your mind float into the cosmos.
The piece de resistance is a mirrored room monitored by an attendant outside. You sit on a circular seat in the middle for a three-minute light and mirror show that's strange, psychedelic, and awe-inducing.
The room was too busy last week at the opening so we returned for Free Admission Wednesday today and revisited the near-empty gallery. Check it out.

Sunday, June 09, 2024

Mother Goose and Erwartung at SF Symphony

The San Francisco Symphony presented an adventurous program this weekend with Ravel's 1911 Mother Goose ballet and Schoenberg's 1909 opera Ewartung. Before Friday's performance, the choreographer Alonzo King (above right) and director Peter Sellars (above left) talked about bringing different artistic disciplines together and having them "gel." Although the concert was never less than fascinating, the contributions by King and Sellars turned out to be the weakest links of the evening.
Ravel's Ma mère l'Oye started as a piano piece for children, illustrating a quintet of French fairy tales, and was later orchestrated for a suite and then further extended into a 30-minute ballet, here danced by the San Francisco based Alonzo King LINES Ballet.
The music is colorful, enchanting, and delicate while King's choreography was athletic, expressionist, and noisily clomping all over the makeshift stage. I was hoping for story ballet versions of the five tales but instead we were offered King's attempts at "unearthing the deeper allegorical meanings beneath the fairytales--these deep metaphysical truths that are so large they've had to be shrunk into stories--and illustrate those with dance."
I'm afraid the allegorical truths went over my head, but there was relief at one point when the lovely dancers Adji Cissoko and Shuaib Elhassan engaged in a delicate pas de deux midway during either the Sleeping Beauty or the Beauty and the Beast section. (Production photo by Kristen Loken.)
Meanwhile, Music Director Esa-Pekka Salonen led the orchestra in an exquisitely beautiful account of the music. As much as I enjoy watching dancers moving with music, in this case I wanted them to stop stomping on the stage and let us listen to the music unimpeded.
After intermission, there was a terrific musical account of Schoenberg's dissonant 1909 monodrama Erwartung about a hysterical woman wandering in a nighttime forest who stumbles across her dead lover who she either killed or didn't. It's heightened pre-WWI Vienna expressionism at its most emblematic, with a monstrously huge orchestra and a single soprano navigating her way around it. The soprano soloist was Mary Elizabeth Williams and she was stupendous, with a voice that never sounded strained and that could carry over the large orchestral forces whether singing softly or loudly. It would be great to hear her across the street in a major role at the San Francisco Opera. (Production photo by Kristen Loken.)
Director Peter Sellar's contribution seemed to be confined to a contemporary concept, Accidental Death in Custody, with an ugly body bag plopped in front of the singer. West Edge Opera produced this opera with a reduced orchestra in Oakland last summer, and their staging of the heroine in a sanitarium worked much better dramatically. (Production photo by Kristen Loken.)
This was the first time the SF Symphony had performed Erwartung, and more power to them for scheduling an important, difficult work, with an orchestra and conductor at their peak. Maybe the next time it will all gel.

Thursday, June 06, 2024

The Magic Flute, Animated, at SF Opera

An inventive, animated production of Mozart's The Magic Flute has opened San Francisco Opera's summer season. It was created in 2012 for the Berlin Komische Oper Berlin by Australian director Barry Kosky and British animation/theater company 1927. The production was a huge success and has since toured throughout the world in dozens of theaters. (All production photos are by Cory Weaver.)
The results were mixed for me. Set in a surreal silent film world, the clunky spoken dialogue was replaced with interstitials accompanied by Mozart pianoforte music. This often worked brilliantly but chunks of the story were lost, bewildering any first-time viewer.
The production consists of a blank white wall with constantly animated projections. This makes for beautifully imaginative settings, but unfortunately the animation doesn't know when to stop. Wheels turn and wings flap and flowers bloom incessantly. The oldest upstaging trick in the books is to create movement behind a fellow actor, and here the entire stage is upstaging the poor singers. To add to the artists' problems, most of their appearances are high on the wall on narrow ledges, strapped into harnesses around their waist under their costumes, which only allows for the most restricted of movement.
I also have mixed feelings about The Magic Flute itself. Written soon before his death, the opera contains some of Mozart's most glorious music and more earworms than just about any other opera. The problem is the plot. The fairy tale story starts well, with young Prince Tamino in a forest being given a quest by the Queen of the Night to rescue her daughter Pamina from the wicked wizard Sarastro who has kidnapped her. Tamino hooks up with the comic relief peasant Papageno and with the help of three Ladies and three boy soprano Spirits along with the titular magic flute, they make their way to Sarastro's headquarters. So far so good.
It turns out, however, that the Queen of the Night is feminine evil incarnate (and in this production, a scary spiderwoman besides) and Sarastro is the embodiment of masculine wisdom in an all-male Masonic temple. He's also a big bore who insists that Tamino not speak to women because Sarastro proclaims they are gossips and troublemakers. The sweetness and thrills of the first act turn lugubrious in the second as Prince Tamino goes through an initiation process to prove his purity.
The best news about Tuesday's performance was that San Francisco Opera Music Director Eun Sun Kim turns to be a very good Mozart conductor. Some friends thought she took the tempos too briskly but I thought the orchestra sounded lively and beautiful. She even made the solemn Masonic hymns exciting and the chorus sounded great.
The most impressive singing came from some of the minor roles. Zhengyi Bai as the comically evil Monostatos, decked out here in Nosferatu makeup, was a highlight, and so were the two Armored Men (Adler Fellows Thomas Kinch and James McCarthy) taking Prince Tamino to hell for his Trial by Fire.
The animated projections worked best throughout the trial sequence. It also allowed Amitai Pati as Tamino and Christina Gansch as Pamina to shine together. The singers cast as Sarastro and the Queen of the Night were subpar but the Three Ladies (Olivia Smith, Ashley Dixon, and Maire Therese Carmack) were very fine.
As is often the case, the birdcatcher Papageno steals the show, and baritone Lauri Vasar gave a delightful performance, even being strapped to a wall for most of the night.