Category Archives: opera

The Met Livecast of Bellini’s La Sonnambula

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Mary Zimmerman’s controversial production of Bellini’s La Sonnambula caused her to be booed onstage as she took her final bow. I caught the live broadcast of this performance at my local movie theater. She restages the production as a modern day dress rehearsal of, er, itself, complete with chorus members

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holding scores of the actual opera. The leads of this production mirror the lovers in the opera. The plot strays into the existential a tad too much for my taste. When the actors were singing, were they singing as actors in their production, or were they singing the arias as coming from their own true heart? And how is it possible that not even one member of the chorus realized that the leads were following the exact plotline of the scores that they were holding in their hands?

Truth be told, I went to see it for its stars, Juan Diego Florez and Natalie Dessay, especially since their appearance in last year’s La Fille du Regiment. Granted, Florez’s voice sounds multitudes better in person – a friend of mine couldn’t get over the grating quality of his voice that I swear is limited to the broadcast, not his voice. But even over the broadcast, his voice is a rockstar voice that’s impossible to say that it’s anything but. Natalie Dessay’s voice was mustily sweet, and softly dreamy in the second act aria that she sings as she’s sleepwalking.Â

Can I say, I love these live broadcasts from the Met. Not only can I acquaint myself with operas I’ve never seen before, with the best opera stars, but I can sneak in candy, wear my glasses, and chill. I also really enjoy the chatty narration of Deborah Voigt, who at one point admitted she didn’t know what to say next because there were no cue cards (she was quickly handed a cue card). I know that it’s never the same thing as watching it in person, but at $22, it’s not a bad way to spend an evening with Juan Diego and Natalie Dessay.

Boris Godunov Dress Rehearsal: San Francisco Opera

An official looking ticket to the dress rehearsal of Boris Godunov- my first full length opera at the SF Opera.

Updated: Many thanks for Mike for the ticket! I saw you in the first scene (holding the picture of the Virgin Mary) and you’re the best Bible holder ever. With the funkiest hat. (I can’t wait to see backstage photos.) How different is the dress rehearsal from the first performance usually?? I just got the feeling that Samuel Ramey didn’t pull out all the stops for this performance – his character goes through such a psychological journey and has to have the power to pull the audience with him… but maybe it was because it was a rehearsal and not full performance. The funniest part was after he dies in the final moments of the opera and the music ended, Ramey came back to life and got up before the curtain came down.

On My Radar

It’s going to be a late night at work today – I’m just going to jot down some things down while I’m waiting for my protein gel to run.

  • I just saw the documentary Suzanne Farrell – Elusive Muse – my two word review: absolutely riveting. It’s hard to obtain (I believe it’s technically out of production) but rent it from Blockbuster. I always thought that sometimes ballerinas of days gone by looked a bit dated, no matter how amazing they were, most likely due to my “modern” eyes that are used to seeing things in a certain style. Suzanne Farrell proves me wrong, as she is just as uniquely ravishing as any ballerina dancing today.
  • Lots of things starting up in the Bay Area – Berkeley Rep is back with Yellowjackets (check out their free “tastings” and other events that precede their shows), ACT presenting Tom Stoppard’s Rock ‘n’ Roll with a stellar cast, and Spring Awakening‘s national tour makes its stop in SF.
  • Movie theaters are hoppin’ these days. Rent, the musical that defined a generation, closed on Broadway this weekend, with its final performance being aired in movie theaters on Sept 24-28. Also, The Met: Live in HD returns this year with even more live performances – I’m especially looking forward to Richard Strauss’ Salome, airing in October, after reading about it in Alex Ross’s book, The Rest is Noise. It sounds hauntingly entrancing.
  • SF Symphony storms in with Beethoven’s 9th symphony, and a Leonard Bernstein program next week in preparation for their performance at Carnegie Hall’s season opener which will be aired on PBS.
  • Due to demand (I know, I can’t believe it myself) on a blog related note – I added an option where you can subscribe for email updates, on the right column of my blog (scroll down). Check it out.

Festival Opera’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream

I had heard such wildly contradicting opinions on Benjamin Britten’s operas that naturally, I was intrigued. Yet cautious. Last night, I found myself back at the Lesher Arts Center in Walnut Creek to watch Festival Opera’s Midsummer Night’s Dream by Benjamin Britten. This was my second time there, having watched Festival Opera’s Il Trovatore a few months back.

It’s a big testament to opera (and a big improvement to the operas I used to watch in high school at the LA Opera) how all the elements of performance all point to a purpose. Like multiple arguments that support a thesis, everything from the singing styles of each performer to the sets to the lighting to the score pointed to the dreamlike atmosphere of this opera, which made for a complete experience. The score was deliciously complex and wistful in its gentle yet dizzying dissonance. It wasn’t the dissonance that I’m usually sensitive to, but like eerie sounds coming from an enchanted woods or the sounds that fairies make, there was a nonintrusive quality to the dissonance that I found unexpectedly pleasing. If there are two camps that either love Britten operas or don’t, I am definitely in the positive camp and am interested in hearing more. If the score didn’t have the catchy melodies of Verdi’s Il Trovatore, it made up for it in its complexity of contrasts (a held note being sung on stage, accompanied by an ascending staccato in the symphonic bass line) that enveloped the audience in an almost narcotic atmosphere that was transporting.

Some elements were more successful than the others. In theory, it was a fitting addition to incorporate choreography into this opera, especially as the opera opens, the sleepy rise of the dancers’ limbs (as wood sprites or Puck’s sidekicks perhaps?) immediately set the tone for the rest of the performance. However it becomes painfully obvious that the dancers mostly serve no other purpose than fillers for the glorious music that had enough legs to stand on its own.

Like Il Trovatore, the cast for Midsummer excelled expectations. It was uncanny how the singing styles contributed to character and plot development, from the clean light style of Helena (sung by Stacey Cornell) was a testament to Helena’s flighty, desperate character, to the earthier full singing voice of Jessica Mariko Deardorff as Hermia which described her more realistic yet fully emotional nature. The casting in this opera was spot on. Countertenor William Sutherland as Oberon, costumed unfortunately as Rod Stewart in drag, had a voice dripping with sensuality with a touch of smokiness in his falsetto, albeit lacking a consistently strong projection. Ani Maldijian as Tytania had a coloratura voice and a sex appeal that sparkled. The men in the quartet of lovers with Jorge Garza as Lysander and Nikolas Nackley as Demetrius were excellent as the ardent lovers who seemed to get more passionate when they were loving the ones they weren’t supposed to after the influence of Puck’s doings, but lacked that special spark to truly believe that they were in love. The opera really came to life with the appearance of the rustics – the working class men who perform the play within this opera. Each and every single one of them were scene stealers in their own rite, all with impeccable comic timing. Kirk Eichelberger, who made an impressive showing in Il Trovatore, took over the stage with his commanding stage presence, big voice, and acting skills as Bottom. The rest of the rustics achieved the delicate balance between exaggeration and earnestness, each with their own flair – John Minagro as Quince with a dry Eeyore-like humor, Jonathan Smucker as Flute with a touch of gentility, Trey Costerisan as Snout as the very funny “Wall”. As an ensemble they were a golden combination; all of them were equally deluded yet earnestly so, and it was performed with that perfectly balanced comedic touch. Last but not least, Kurt Wolfgang Krikorian as Puck impressed not only his voice but also the dance skills to make Puck come to life.


William Sauerland as Oberon, Kurt Krikorian as Puck. Photo by Robert Shomler

Kirk Eichelberger (Bottom), Joshua Elder (Starveling), John Minagro (Quince), Jonathan Smucker (Flute), Trey Costerisan (Snout), John Bischoff (Snug). Photo by Robert Shomler

An additional special shoutout to the lighting, by Patrick Hajduk and sets by Frederic O. Boulay. Lighting and the setting are extremely underrated in performance, but I’ve been appreciating it more and more, especially following who wins the Tony’s for best lighting and set design, and why. I’ve seen lighting (and sets) ruin a show, and I’ve seen both be a vital part of a show, as it was for this opera. The scenery seemed to be bathed in a dreamy aura, thanks to the the sets and the lighting, that brought the audience to its magical place immediately.

If you’re curious about Benjamin Britten’s operas, or are a fan of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, I highly recommend this opera. It’s also a great opera to bring a newcomer – admittedly, there are a few slow spots (especially with the lovers – despite their excellent singing, a lack of chemistry really bogs down these moments) but the comedic acting and the thoughtful detailed performance and wonderfully precise singing is well worth it.

Festival Opera. A Midsummer Night’s Dream ends on August 17.

Other takes: (being updated fast and furiously as they are posted)

Festival Opera’s Il Trovatore

Noah Stewart (as Manrico), Hope Briggs (as Leonora) and Scott Bearden (as
Count di Luna). Photo by Robert Shomler

As a person fairly new to opera, I found that I gravitated towards the lighter operas. I liked comedic ones (such as Barber of Seville which I saw at the Met, or Donizetti’s La Fille du Regiment), or my favorite, Mozart operas. The Marriage of Figaro with the LA Opera was the first one that captivated me; I found its themes surprisingly modern. The ones that I had a harder time with were the heavier Romantic ones. In high school, I saw Aida at the LA Opera, where the ‘young sexy slave girl’ was an obese post-middle aged woman with paint on her face. Her ‘hot sexy ardent young lover’ was an obsese post-middle aged man who had difficulty moving around too far or too fast. There were some aspects of the production that kept me from appreciating the music, I think. And everything was so heavy and so long. I don’t remember much else aside from that. With this experience, I can’t even imagine what Wagner must be like. It just sounds like punishment.

So to be genuinely honest, I probably never would have went out of my way to go out and seek another Verdi opera (a tragedy, on top of that) on my own. But when I was kindly invited to attend Festival Opera’s Il Trovatore, I grabbed a friend and went.

The biggest impression of the evening was that I surprisingly fell in love with Verdi. Verdi capitalizes on opera’s strengths and avoids its pitfalls. There are certain emotions that translate so much better in song than through spoken word, such as passionate love, or a cry of anguish. Verdi capitalized on the strengths of this genre to personify love in song. Verdi manages to avoid the pitfalls that I feared. Although this opera is a tragedy, the music isn’t all about heavy and long drawn out phrases or sustained notes. There was an unexpected lightness written into the music, in the form of quick staccato notes in Leonora’s aria (sorry, I don’t know the names of any of the arias), or quick running triplets as a motif. And who can resist love being sung in soaring song? It was a great balance.

The plot of the story is, as my friend put it, a cross between Romeo and Juliet and a soap opera. The last 30 seconds of the show literally include the words, “He was your brother”, referring to a man who was killed by another. Throw in mistaken identity, thwarted love, jealousies, love deferred, and slow acting poison, and you have the plot. But who watches opera for the plot? The music more than made up for it.

The talent onstage was equally impressive. Standouts included Kirk Eichelberger as Ferrando, with nice projection and precision in fast slurred notes and the right amount of darkness. Hope Briggs sang the role of Leonora with a deep honeyed sweetness. There was no real subtlety in details, but her unabashed passion in her love songs gave me chills. Noah Stewart as Manrico personified his character well, with an alluring hint of danger and sexiness. The character of Manrico wears many hats during this opera, from threatening menace to dutiful son to ardent lover, and Stewart rose to the occasion admirably. Patrice Houston fully embodied every note she sang, indulging in the richness of the music. Scott Bearden sang the role of Count Di Luna. Despite his impressive accomplishments listed in his biography, he sounded bright even when he was threatening Manrico. Even at his most passionate Bearden sounded softly romantic, and it was unconvincing that his love for Leonora was a love that moves mountains. I also cringed when Bearden cracked a note and had pitch problems at the end of one of his arias. Overall, it was a great cast, and they served the material well.

The orchestra, under the enthusiastic direction of Michael Morgan, also sparkled. Conductor Michael Morgan was especially fun to watch, as he seemed to thoroughly enjoy the music. Not to the point of distraction, I found myself watching him sometimes to feel more aligned to the music.

On a side note – lots have been written about the audience at the Lesher Center for the Arts. I too noticed the unnerving loud unwrapping of candy throughout the opera, and unluckily, I happened to be sitting next to a woman who needed to leave her seat and walk over me, TWICE, during the first act. (She sat somewhere else for the second act.) She also ripped a part of her program, slowly and loudly, during a quiet spot in an aria to spit out her gum. I didn’t notice any cell phones going off though. I was surprised there was no announcement at the beginning, reminding people to turn off their cell phones or to unwrap any hard candies or lozenges, as they do in Jersey Boys and other shows I’ve been to. The audience may benefit greatly with this reminder.

Being the third largest opera company in the Bay Area, Festival Opera impressively accomplished its lofty goals of bringing great material to the people of Walnut Creek who might not want to make the trek out to San Francisco, nor pay the prices for it. The cast served up an excellent rendition of this opera, convincing me what a musical gem this opera is. What a treat that an opera company not in the middle of a big city can still serve its community with a moving performance.

Other reviews:

Festival Opera. Remaining performances of Il Trovatore on Fri July 18 (evening) and Sun July 20 (matinee)

Jolene’s Best of 2007 list

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Best performance of the year: Two shows come to mind -

I spent as much space in a scary moment in Joshua Bell’s show than the more positive aspects of the show, but thinking back in 2007, Bell’s fresh and innovative take on a beautiful yet overfamiliar piece really brought it to life, and it shines in my memory as one of the best performances of the year. Two runner ups, in two pieces that really stand out just because they were so fun: Miami City Ballet’s “In the Upper Room” and SF Ballet’s Nutcracker.

Best male performer of the year: Raul Esparza in Company, Herman Cornejo spicing up a random collection of pieces at ABT’s first program at Cal Performances in the Le Corsaire pas de deux.

Best female performer of the year: Felicia Fields in the Color Purple, Lea Salonga as Fantine in Les Mis.

Best new discovery of the year: Miami City Ballet

Best regional production of the year: My discovery of the Berkeley Repertory Theatre was a great one, in which I still feel the effects of the quietly moving ripple that was after the quake. Another fun one was Expedition 6, at a much smaller local theater. Just wondering how many more local gems remain to be discovered?

Best performance event in a non-traditional theater venue: Project Bandaloop at Orange County’s Fall for Dance on the outdoor walls of the OCPAC.

Favorite televised theater event: Mark Morris’ Mozart Dances on PBS

Biggest theater obsession: Jersey Boys

Most anticipated performance for 2008: Company on PBS, watching Alvin Ailey for the first time, SF Ballet’s 75th anniversary season, esp the New Works Festival and Giselle!

Theater Favorites 2007

Best performance of the year (ex. best ballet performance, best play, best musical, best classical music concert, best opera, any/all of the above)

Mark Morris, Mozart Dances at Dorothy Chandler Pavilion

Best male performer of the year

Raul Esparza, Company. Honorable mention: John Gallagher in Spring Awakening.

Best female performer of the year

Alessandra Ferri, Manon

Best new discovery of the year

Journey’s End

Best performance event in a non-traditional theater venue (ex. performance in the street, art gallery, library, trash dump)

Stars in the Alley

Favorite televised theater event

Mark Morris’ Mozart Dances (see a theme?), Wynton Marsalis Red Hot Holiday Stomp, Met’s I Puritani

Most likely to be the next big thing (ex. performer, choreographer, playwright, etc. based on something you saw this year)

Lin Manuel Miranda, writer, creator and performer in “In the Heights”, Jamie Garcia Castilla from SF Ballet

Most anticipated performance for 2008

PBS broadcast of Company, Alvin Ailey at Cal Performances, Nina Anashiavelli’s Giselle, “In the Heights” performance on the Tony broadcast!

Best of 2007, alphabetically

Inspired by mmonk’s yearly tradition, I am presenting the theatrical memories version for this year:

Avenue Q cast party

Blythe, Gil

Company

Des Grieux (Bolle & Corella)

Ehle naked

F*cked, Totally

Gaffigan

Hell No

Idiot Tony voters

JLY & John Gallagher

Kiss

Lovely ladies (esp. Lea)

Mozart Dances

Neuenmeier at BAM

Othello twice

Private Mason

Quoted in the NYTimes

Rush opera tix (totally worth it)

Stars in the Alley

Turandot

Usnavi

Valentine’s Day with Mark Morris

Wynton Marsalis’ Red Hot Holiday Stomp

Xanthe’s breathtaking performance

Young soldiers topless

Zany Nut

Romeo et Juliette, Met at the Movies, 12/16/07

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You can probably tell from this photo why Anna Netrebko is very hot (in more than one way) in the opera world right now. She sparkled in the first Met broadcast this season in movie theaters all over America, London and who knows where else. I’m not going to pretend to know anything about opera and singing voices, but I do know what I do like, and with three years of Met opera performances under my belt while utilizing their student rush ticket program as often as I could, I have a lot of favorite opera memories. Operas give a classical music lover like much to love, especially when the musicians that are performing is the Met Opera Orchestra (just as long as the violinist doesn’t hit on you during intermission), and singers such as Hei Kyung Hong, Juan Diego Florez, and Joyce DiNato convert a newbie to opera instantly.

 

ANyways enough about my lack of opera background. I trekked out to the Bay St. Mall AMC to watch the movie broadcast of Romeo et Juliette, a surely sold out run at the Met due to the superstar status of Anna Netrebko. I really wish Rolando Villazon hadn’t pulled out of his engagements at the Met, I know he’s an amazing singer and I wished I could have seen him perform with Netrebko on the big screen, but Roberto Algana gave a solid performance. Before I say anything about the technical aspects of the performance (which, I will be the first to say, I am not that well-versed in opera to make a substantial statement, but can only contribute my thoughts), lots of sound and satellite difficulties during the movie broadcast today made it very difficult for me to enjoy the performance fully.

 

  • FIrst of all, the satellite signal was faulty and we missed the first 5 minutes of the opening. We missed Anna’s entrance, but we could hear everything. The movie continued with the signal going in and out throughout the whole broadcast, cutting off the signal about 5 times throughout the show. Aarrrgh. It was frustrating.
  • The volume of the sound in the theater was miniscule. I wanted to be enveloped by the sound, like I do as an audience member at the Met, but even the chorus ensemble sounded wimpy. Anna’s voice soared, of course, but still it was frustrating because I don’t think I was able to experience the vocal pyrotechnics fully.

I do have some thoughts that aren’t related to the sound technique or voices of the singers. I must say, the sets really remind me of a lot of Broadway musical sets I’ve seen. The sets were (as always with Met productions) amazing, with a tilting center turntable which cleverly had Roberto Alagna standing on the higher tilt than Anna Netrebs, making him taller…reminded me of Les Miserables, a unique feature and well incorporated into the production. Ah, only if French prostitutes rotated on the turntable like they do in Les Mis, now that would be an interesting twist, no?

 

Furthermore, there is a risque bed scene between Anna and Roberto, with a lot of writhing, stroking, straddling, and flashing of Anna’s legs that isn’t seen much in opera. And while Anna looks great in a skimpy nightgown, I don’t know if any male opera singer should be allowed to sing love sings while wearing skimpy boxer shorts (OK, it may be acceptable if you’re Nathan Gunn). Similarly, this bed scene all occurs on a bed suspended from the ceiling, a la Spring Awakening. But I do digress.

 

Another set feature I did not like was during the wedding scene between Romeo and Juliette, the background was a large photo of the moon’s surface. A lot of the background sets allude to a celestial theme, I guess to emphasize the celestial destiny of their love. But the moon was soooo large, it literally looked like Anna and Roberto were saying their vows on the moon. Did they spacewalk home? This is an example of a theme going a bit too far, and this opera made me think…was their love destiny and written in the stars? Romeo was a bit of a player, dropping Rosaline like a hot potato as soon as he saw Juliet. Who says that he won’t do that to the next pretty girl after Juliet? I guess it’s better for the plot story that they both die passionately in love. Real complicated relationships doesn’t translate well into operatic masterpieces.

 

A word about the costumes, Roberto Alagna had the unfortunate responsibility to sport sky blue velveteen leggings, with rouching at the bottom, and he sported cowboy boots. He seriously looked like he walked off stage from Mark Morris’ Hard Nut, he had a bit of a disco flair. Apparently, this is an improvement to the purple velvet leggings the previous Romeo wore; but could the velvet leggings be dropped in the future? There has got to be more flattering pants to select from that era.

 

Domingo conducted this superstar performance; unfortunately, he made an obvious mistake when he lost the accompaniment to Lord Capulet’s solo, the orchestra lagged behind. The orchestra sounded lush as always. I think I’ll head back to the movies soon once more for the Met…hopefully the technicalities will have all been ironed out next time!