13 July 2008

enemies of the people

Festival Opera in Walnut Creek offered me tickets to last night's opening of Il Trovatore, an opera I love. For years I happily sailed along with one recording – the celebrated Price/Domingo/Milnes/Cossotto/Mehta version – and then one day out of the blue I was hit by Trovatore fever, and when I came to I had fifteen or twenty versions; my favorite, by the way, is still the justly celebrated Price/Domingo/Milnes/Cossotto/Mehta version. Any performance of an opera you love produces an odd mixture of gratitude for any live experience of it competing with impossibly high and probably unreachable standards. I’d love to prove my integrity and independence by trashing Festival Opera despite the lovely seats, but, alas for my reputation, I’m instead going to urge you strongly to head on over for one of the remaining performances (July 15, 18, or 20) at the Dean Lesher Center.

Even the Walnut Creek audience was not as egregiously bad as usual (I still wake up screaming at the thought of Rigoletto a few years ago, and the steady, incessant, three-hours-long fortissimo gum-chewing of a woman four rows behind me). Last night we did have the usual number of loud coughers, and an unusual number of ringing cell phones, as if the audience had never conceived of the possibility of turning them off during certain activities. (We even had a dramatic leap out from a seat and into the lobby with much door opening-and-shutting while Leonora is contemplating death.) There was also an annoyance fresh to me (it's so hard to keep up with the irritations of new technology) – little flashlights with which audience members can check I don’t know quite what, but something so important it couldn't wait until the house lights went up.

Maybe the folks with the little lights were checking plot summaries. Quite a few people seem to be oddly unfamiliar with Trovatore, because the absolutely brilliant libretto by Salvatore Cammarano and Leone Emanuele Bardare is frequently described as the ultimate in operatic absurdity. These people might be thinking of the tedious finale to the Marx Brothers’ A Night at the Opera, which is really more about social snobbery associated with opera than about the actual opera, and is almost spectacularly unfunny in either case (I say this as a Marx Brothers fan – but stick to their Paramount films; Harpo in particular suffers from being turned from an anarchist Nature god into a twee and benevolent little Cupid; their decline is usually dated after A Day at the Races, but I respectfully disagree and date it from the beginning of their alliance with MGM – Eric von Stroheim and I will both tell you that Irving Thalberg was in league with Satan).

What Cammarano and Bardare (no doubt under Verdi’s direction) came up with is a concise telling of a complicated story, whose every moment resonates thematically. Is it absurd? Perhaps, but I think that’s intentional. All plots, being more-or-less arbitrary impositions of meaning on life, are absurd. I don’t think this is even a case of one era’s conventions striking another era as ridiculous; even in the nineteenth century the baby-swapping mix-ups came in for their share of ribbing (Gilbert and Sullivan, or at least Gilbert, basically wouldn’t exist without Trovatore to play off of). Is Trovatore absurd and meaningless? Is life? Gloucester leaping off a non-existent cliff, Hamlet jumping into Ophelia’s grave, Oedipus marrying his mother, Vladimir and Estragon waiting day after day for a man who never shows up – these are also absurd, and their absurdity is part of their meaning. Every action in Trovatore is interrupted, every narrative is fragmented and obsessively repeated; personal tragedy becomes a haunting camp fire ballad becomes a story of supernatural frights; parents do not know their own children, lovers mistake each other, the usual duels and battles and kidnappings are all cut off abruptly and the action turns elsewhere with the arbitrary and terrifyingly inevitable logic of dreams. Trovatore is an example of high Romantic storytelling, kin to Hugo and Donizetti, but this is where the Romantic movement interest in the fragmentary, bizarre, and unreal aligns with the Modernist theater of Beckett , Ionesco, and Brecht.

San Francisco Opera’s last outing with Trovatore played up the link with a modern staging, which on the whole I liked (black, boxlike setting, bursts of fire, large fragmentary objects floating in space); Festival Opera goes for a more traditional approach (pretty much what you would get at San Francisco Opera these days; there was a lot of stand-and-deliver in the style of SFO’s recent Lucia, though often more subtly handled). Giulio Cesare Perrone’s direction was solid and efficient, with the occasional misstep (though I did particularly like the point when the Count di Luna makes Leonora swear she will be his: he stretches out his hand, and Leonora first raises her hand papal-blessing-style to Heaven as she swears, and then lowers it onto his hand so that only the tips of her fingers condescend to touch his flesh). The same was true for the sets, lighting, and costumes. Perrone had also designed the set, an efficient arrangement of columns raised on a few steps that was varied with the additions of branches, prison bars, or cathedral arches, an arrangement which not only made for suitably rapid scene changes but emphasized the underlying similarities among soldiers’ camp, gypsy camp, church, court, and prison. The costumes are basically handsome and traditional, but someone needs to get the Grace Jones headdress off of Manrico, and those shiny dangly things under the headdress need to go too. Other than that the differences between Manrico’s followers and di Luna’s were nicely emphasized by the use of vests and turbans for the former and traditional court or military gear for the latter. Matthew Antaky and Patrick Hajduk are both listed as the lighting designers, and again their design was efficient with some nice flickering touches, and a couple of strange moments (the lighting in the dungeon varied over the course of the scene from way too bright to bright to gloomy).

Michael Morgan conducted a nice performance and seemed very attuned to the singers. And the singers are where the Festival Opera production has it all over SFO’s last Trovatore (Dolora Zajick’s Azucena is the only singer I can recollect from that production, because she so overshadowed the rest). I knew the evening was promising when Kirk Eichelberger opened with a vivid, detailed and powerful account of Ferrando’s campfire story (but confidential to Kirk: get a different headshot; the one in the program does not do you justice). In a smaller role, I also really liked Jessica Mariko Deardorff as Leonora’s oddly unsettling attendant, Ines. I was not as happy with Scott Bearden’s Count Di Luna; “Il Balen” in particular seemed choppy and lacking in style and beauty. Perhaps he was having an off night. Patrice Houston’s Azucena didn’t push Zajick’s sound from my memory, but she was solid; perhaps a bit too much so to be necessarily sympathetic. Azucena is one of the great examples of Verdi’s compassionate understanding of the disenfranchised; she could so easily have been a stock character (evil Gypsy child-killer!) instead of one who sometimes steals the show. But she should seem more distracted and perhaps more fragile. Houston seemed too sensible. She also seemed to lose a bit of power at the end; her final cry was not as piercing as it should have been, and the supertitles didn’t help by stopping with “He was your brother!” and omitting “Mother, you are avenged!” and di Luna’s cry “And I still live!”

But on the whole I found the ensemble effective, and the two leads outstanding. Noah Stewart as Manrico was strong and ardent throughout, with (to my hearing) only a few occasional moments of strain or exhaustion. Hope Briggs as Leonora just seemed to go from strength to strength. She was committed, radiant and beautiful throughout, and her rich and lovely voice was possibly more powerful at the end than at the beginning. My guest for the evening was a singer who basically agreed with my reactions. But he, with his concern for long-term vocal health, was also worried that the singers were perhaps too young to be taking on such heavy roles, and that given the small size of the house they were singing louder than need be. Perhaps, but I found the sound viscerally, physically thrilling. Despite my reservations about Bearden and to a lesser extent Houston, here is an evenly matched, beautiful ensemble of youthful voices. Let’s see if San Francisco can do as well on its next outing.

11 July 2008

the sleep of reason produces Italian opera

The San Francisco Opera’s season-ending Ariodante did not disappoint, once we all got over the withdrawal of Eva Podles several weeks before the run began. I was glad that my years of subscribing to SF Opera ended on a good note both on stage and in the audience. The whole thing felt rather elegiac, since I entered the crazy little world called opera through the baroque repertoire (I saw stuff like Rameau’s Zoroastre long before my first mainstream opera, which was Rigoletto, in an inadequate Met touring production). Baroque opera is why I don’t believe people who complain about the lack of melody in new operas; baroque opera is nothing but gorgeous melody after gorgeous melody, yet there is often an aura of palpable discomfort in the audience when the usual Verdi-Puccini-Donizetti-and-sometimes-Wagner fare is replaced with Handel, or occasionally even one of his lesser comrades. I don’t know if it’s the A-B-A aria structure that frightens people (though they should be used to a certain amount of this from Mozart), all the girls dressed like guys and guys sounding like girls, or the unfamiliar plots, or some combo of all those things. But perhaps repetition and exposure are wearing away that resistance too; the audience for Ariodante was remarkably attentive and receptive, at least the night I was there. Perhaps word had just gotten around that SF Opera had a season highlight here.

The storyline, surely familiar to all of us from Ariosto’s delightful Orlando Furioso, seemed a bit perfunctory, but I don’t know if that’s the libretto or the staging. It didn’t really matter, since the plot did what it was supposed to do, which was maneuver the characters into varied emotional states. Baroque plots always seem more complicated than they are. Years ago V actually accompanied me to a Handel opera (I’m drawing a blank, embarrassingly enough, on the title, and I’m not where I can check it, since the SF Opera on-line archives do not include Merola performances). She made the mistake of trying to read the plot summary, which I realized as soon as I saw the increasingly baffled look on her face, the plot being one of those “the shepherd Florimel, disguised as the shepherdess Floribel, is in love with Flomarinda, who is disguised as some damn thing, because she is fleeing from her father. . . .” I told her not to read the plot summaries; they only confuse you. The action is always perfectly clear when you see it on stage. I’m here to help.

I’m not going to make (too much) fun of baroque plots, either. All plots are arbitrary arrangements, and whether or not they seem ridiculous or contrived is just a matter of which conventions you’re willing to accept. When SFO did Rodelinda a few years ago, I read one review (it might have been in the Wall Street Journal) that was puzzled by the film-noir staging, finding no link between the two styles: well, both are highly stylized forms that use elaborate plots to suggest deep levels of corruption and cruelty. It seems close enough to me. I knew a woman (as we go back again to my early days as an opera-goer) who dismissed all baroque opera plots out of hand as absurdly unrealistic, yet her favorite opera was Tosca. Obviously Tosca struck a deep mythic and sympathetic chord in her, but it’s not exactly a storyline that could have been torn straight from the pages of my non-existent diary. I mean, if it could have been, I’d probably actually keep a diary.

Susan Graham as Ariodante and Ruth Ann Swenson as the beloved Ginevra were the outstanding singers in the all-round excellent cast, with Richard Croft’s Lurcanio close behind. I have heard from others that Swenson was a little variable during the run, but I had her on a good night; she really does have a golden tone that has always sounded well in the War Memorial Opera House. I can’t disagree with SFMike that Graham’s performance only confirms her divinity. I was a little mixed about Podles’s replacement, Sonia Prina; her runs and other baroque vocal extravagances sounded quite precise, but the overall sound was fairly harsh; it worked very well for the villainous Polinesso, but I’m not sure I’d be really eager to hear it in a more sympathetic character. My only complaint about Patrick Summers’s conducting was that I thought the pacing for the two big arias (Ariodante’s Scherza Infida and then Ginevra’s lament shortly after that – sorry, I don’t have the libretto with me and can’t be more specific with the first line) was a mite slow, almost to the point of slacking in tension – yet Graham and Swenson both were intense and wonderful in their singing despite that, which is why I’m giving them my much-coveted title of Most Fabulous Among the Fabulous. I liked the Tiepolo-ish costumes, and I also liked the setting (mostly movable dark-green marbled walls with golden cornices), but there did seem an odd disjunction between the colors of the costumes and those of the walls, as if some baroque Merce Cunningham had designed the show.

This was just one of those evenings where the work and the performance and the audience all clicked, at least for me (see Brian at OutWest Arts for an alternate take, though; and check out Opera Tattler’s Ariodante log for a thorough review of the score and the audience over several performances). Thus endeth the subscription. I did briefly contemplate getting a “choose your own” series for next season, but decided I might as well take the opportunity to sit in different areas of the house. Besides, I wasn’t entirely sure I could come up with the minimum four operas next season that I really wanted to pay for. In at least some fairness to SF Opera, since I’ve mentioned several times that they’ve never bothered to contact me about my lapsed subscription, I should point out that I received a form letter from them last week – I’m not criticizing them for sending a form letter; actually, I think it’s great that they reach out to everyone; I certainly wasn’t expecting an individually tailored letter – expressing regret that I didn’t renew, giving me Gockley’s e-mail address in case I wanted to express my concerns, and suggesting one of the “choose your own” subscriptions. (At least I’m pretty sure that’s what it said – I was in kind of a rush when I read it.)

I don’t think I’ll e-mail any blog links to Mr Gockley, but I do have one bathetic request: someone over there at the War Memorial Opera House really needs to keep the men’s room stocked with paper goods. A couple of times this season we haven’t had any paper towels to dry our hands, and before Ariodante I actually had to pass a roll of toilet paper under the stall to the desperate man next to me. Little things add up to big impressions.

04 July 2008

my gashes cry for help

Lucia di Lammermoor was one of the first operas I bought. I had seen an Australian film called Man of Flowers, and though I normally sit all the way through the credits anyway this time I had a purpose besides extraneous thoroughness, which was to discover the source of the haunting duet featured on the soundtrack. I loved the film but I really loved the music, and I bought the cassettes (yes, it was that long ago) the next day. San Francisco Opera, which has in my experience an extremely adequate record with the Italian classics, has always done right by Lucia, and they pretty much continued the streak with their latest outing.

I was in the house for the performance that was simulcast to Major Phone Company Park (maybe I should explain the joke to out-of-towners or non-baseball fans: the Giants' new stadium was first called Pac Bell Park, which was fairly euphonious, but over the past few years, as the sponsoring phone company has merged or subdivided or metastasized or whatever it's doing, the name has changed to SBC Park and then AT&T Park, but since they aren't paying me for the naming rights I figure I can call it what I want). I understand from a friend who was there that it was a fun, relaxed atmosphere, with kids running around and people picnicking, with everyone enjoying both themselves and Lucia's murderous insanity, which is totally nice but I prefer my opera without all the distractions, though I have been wishing I were at the ballpark, but mostly so that I could watch a ballgame (it’s funny that while opera houses are starting to broadcast as widely as possibly, baseball games increasingly can only be seen on a few pay cable channels).

After the presentation of the San Francisco Opera Medal to Kip Crenna, the company’s musical administrator (I was a little startled to see Gockley casually pull the medal-case from his pants pocket; couldn’t they get a super to do some sort of Octavian-presents-the-silver-rose thing with it?), we then had to stand for the National Anthem. I love the Star-Spangled Banner, mostly because no one can sing it and the tune comes from an old drinking song, but my patriotism has dropped to just about zero over the last, oh, eight years or so, and besides I was exhausted and did not feel like standing; although the Opera House was fairly comfortable, we had had a few days of temperatures hovering around 95 degrees. But as soon as the quiet drumrolls that begin the overture rolled out, I realized why they needed to play the anthem: how else can you let those in the ballpark know that the show is officially about to start?

I wasn’t sure what to expect from Graham Vick’s production, given all the wacky whatthefuckery (which I liked) of last fall’s Tannhauser. His Lucia is fairly conventional; there were lots of sliding panels, which were no doubt acoustically useful, and scenes indicative of the outdoors; the costumes were mostly traditional-looking tartans (with Lucia’s bridegroom, nicely done by Andrew Bidlack, and company differentiated by their formal English court attire); the blocking was pretty basic. At several points I had the impression that the chorus was simply grouped by voice type and standing pretty much as they would at a choral concert. Nothing scary and radical, and nothing especially enlightening either.

I particularly liked the rippling pointillism provided by the harpist (I assume this was Michael Rado as listed in the orchestra personnel), and Alexander Marguerre on the glass harmonica was outstanding – I’m not sure if I’ve heard the mad scene done live with the glass harmonica before, but I’m now convinced it’s the only way to go; the extra echoing eeriness is worth any trouble involved in finding the instrument or someone to play it. But this was pretty much the Natalie Dessay show. The earlier Lucias I had seen in San Francisco starred Ruthanne Swenson, and though I would say Swenson had a lovelier voice, Dessay has a more powerful and committed stage presence, chiefly because she can act, as in, she could have a career on stage even if she couldn’t sing at all. She carefully moved from a coltish young girl to the blood-stained bride, vacant-eyed with grief. Edgardo, her true love, was played by Giuseppe Filianoti, and though I have heard glowing reports about him I can’t say he came across as a star, though in fairness to him I should note that by the time his big scene rolled around at the end it was quite late and everyone around me was however unwillingly nodding off in the heat, including the couple next to me who had driven up from Monterey and taken a hotel room for the night just so they could hear Dessay live for the first time (it was her San Francisco debut). They (actually, just the wife; the husband sat there in goggle-eyed silence except for an occasional loud interjection during the performance) asked me if I had gone to any of the Met simulcasts; I said no, since I thought they had the inconvenience of live performances (especially given our three-hour time difference with New York) without the compensatory benefits; she disagreed, and said that for people like them, living far enough from San Francisco to make a trip to the opera a major undertaking, they were wonderful, which I think is fair enough. They had seen Daughter of the Regiment with Dessay, and then Manon. There are very few operas I consider pretty much a complete waste of time, and one of the few that tops Daughter of the Regiment on that list is Manon (though I do like Puccini’s version), but I had seen Dessay in Le Rossignol and also as Ophelia in Ambrose Thomas’s Hamlet, so I recommended those to the Dessay fans. That Hamlet DVD (with Keenlyside as the Prince) is outstanding, particularly if you can forget that it’s based on Shakespeare’s Hamlet, which is easy enough to do considering how inadequate it is as an operatic version of the great tragedy, but can I just say that, amazing as Dessay is as Lucia, I had the slightest sense of déjà vu since I had also seen her run mad as Ophelia?

I retained enough energy to stand and applaud for Dessay as she deserved before stumbling out for the long trek home – I was so tired I couldn’t even walk in a straight line. During the curtain calls, in a delightful touch, the cast came out wearing or carrying various items of San Francisco Giants fannery as a salute to the audience in the ballpark, and once again I wished I had one of those crazy camera phones that all the kids blog with, so I could capture Dessay with her huge orange foam “Giants #1!” finger. You’ve gotta love that she did that, though I couldn’t blame her for switching during her second or third bow to a more stylish cap, which she perched on her head in a manner tres chic.

03 July 2008

blown away

I see that Opus Arte lists among its August releases a two-disc set of the Netherlands Opera production of Dr Atomic. It's not yet listed on Amazon in the USA, but usually we get the Opus Arte releases a couple of months after the UK does, so I would expect it in this country sometime in the fall. (It's listed as "all regions" in the description, but I don't know if I trust that, though it might be worth the risk if the exchange rate were more in our favor).

I assume this production is at least partially revised from the world premiere version that left me so disappointed, but Peter Sellars is still the stage director and the cast seems mostly if not entirely the same: Gerald Finley as Oppenheimer, Jessica Rivera has his wife, and Eric Owens, Richard Paul Fink, James Maddalena, Thomas Glenn, Jay Hunter Morris, and Ellen Rabiner. The conductor is Lawrence Renes. My disappointment aside (plenty of people did not share it), I felt at the time that it was a shame a major work by a major American composer was not being recorded and released in some form.

I guess it makes sense to record a new work after a few runs, when the creators have had time to tinker (or slash and burn), but I have the feeling that the more relevant fact here is that it was filmed in Europe and not the United States, because given the welcome DVD release of brand-new works such as Chin's Alice in Wonderland or Dusapin's Faustus, The Last Night, it just seems that recording new works is, for whatever economic or cultural reasons, just more achievable over there. American opera houses seem to be edging in that direction, but I suspect they will rely more on big names in very familiar works. It's too bad. I wish someone had recorded the USA premiere of Le Grand Macabre four years ago, which was the only thing that managed to lift and elate my spirits even momentarily after the last presidential election. There's a good chance I'll need to see it again in the fall, and then where will we be?