Stars in the Making…San Francisco Opera’s Adler Fellows perform “Dramatic Voices, Charming Soubrettes,” at SRJC’s Newman Auditorium this Sunday, March 9
Lively, eloquent, and intensely determined, this year’s twelve Adler Fellows are literally the most talented young opera singers in the country and many will go on to become opera legends. This Sunday, at 4PM, five Adlers will perform an intimate program of beloved opera arias, classical and cabaret songs at Santa Rosa Junior College’s Newman Auditorium as part of the college’s Chamber Series. Performers are sopranos Maria Valdes and Erin Johnson; mezzo soprano Zanda Švēde, baritone Eugene Brancoveanu (former Adler 2005-6) and pianist Noah Lindquist. (Full program listed at end of article.) Normally, seeing the Adlers perform entails a lot more work—crossing the bridge and parking—but SRJC has brought these young singers right to our doorstep.
In February, I had the pleasure of seeing two Adlers who will perform Sunday— Maria Valdes and Eugene Brancoveanu. They were involved in a rare performance of Gaetano Donizetti’s one act comedic opera, “Rita,” with dynamo Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg and her New Century Chamber Orchestra (NCCO). The venue was San Rafael’s intimate Oscher Marin Jewish Community Center where the audience sits at candlelit tables drinking wine and snacking while the performance unfolds just a few feet from them. Soprano Maria Valdes was fabulous in the title role of Rita, a tyrannical and abusive wife who is tormented by two husbands. She sang like an angel, juggling conversation, song, drama and comedy. We had ample opportunity to experience her tremendous vocal reserve along with her ability to calibrate it to the setting, sustaining high notes without ever coming off as shrill or too forceful…a true star in the making. The production was impressively staged and directed by former Adler, Eugene Brancoveanu, who also tweaked the script, adding spoken dialogue in English. His modern set was minimal and included an ironing board and some clever space saving props. Brancoveanu, born in Romania, has an unforgettable baritone and has sung at the Met, La Scala, San Francisco and Berkeley Operas as well for Opera Parallèle. I heard him sing Sam last April in Opera Parallèle’s wonderful production of Leonard Bernstein’s “Trouble in Tahiti, a role which tested his range and acting ability. He was on top of every note, emotionally searing and impossible to take your eyes off…what stage presence Oh, he’s also been mentioned several times in the blog Barihunks, enough said. You’re in for a treat on Sunday.
It’s rewarding to see young artists perform early in their careers and to track them as they move on to the world’s leadings opera houses and concert halls. Renowned sopranos and former Adlers, Deborah Voight (1986) Leah Crocetto (2009), are shining examples. Both are coming soon to Green Music Center’s Weill Hall—Crocetto is in recital on March 9 and Voight on April 10 (Click here for details).
More About the Adler Fellow Program: The Adler Fellows all go through a grueling national competition to enter the ranks of the Merola Opera Program, a prestigious summer resident artist training program in San Francisco sponsored by San Francisco Opera and San Francisco Opera Center. A select few perform so well that they are invited to continue their training in the elite two-year Adler Fellow residency program. Named for the late great San Francisco Opera General Director Kurt Herbert Adler, the Adler Fellowship Program is the Princeton of performance-oriented residencies, offering exceptional young artists intensive individual training, coaching, professional seminars and a wide range of performance opportunities throughout their fellowship. Adler fellows frequently appear in SFO productions.
2014 Adler Fellows are sopranos Erin Johnson, (Washington, New Jersey), Jacqueline Piccolino (Chicago, Illinois), and Maria Valdes (Atlanta, Georgia); mezzo-soprano Zanda Švēde (Valmiera, Latvia); tenors A.J. Glueckert (Portland, Oregon), Pene Pati (Mangere, Auckland, New Zealand), and Chuanyue Wang (Hei Long Jiang, China); baritones Hadleigh Adams (Palmerston, New Zealand), and Efraín Solís (Santa Ana, California); bass-baritone Philippe Sly (Ottawa, Ontario). Johnson, Piccolino, Glueckert, Wang, Adams, and Sly are returning as Adler Fellows. The two pianists selected for Apprentice coach Fellowships are Noah Lindquist (Brooklyn, New York) and returning Adler, Sun Ha Yoon (Seoul, South Korea).
Other Upcoming Adler Fellow Performances: Select Adler Fellows will perform Schwabacher Debut Recitals on March 30 at 2:30 PM and April 27 at 5:30 PM. Individual tickets are $25. Youth tickets are $15 for students with a valid ID or youth, 16 years old or younger, who is accompanied by an adult. Order tickets online or call the SF Opera Box Office at (415) 864-3330. The season culminates with a special year-end concert featuring the singers in an evening of opera scenes and arias with the San Francisco Opera Orchestra. This year’s concert, The Future Is Now: Adler Fellows Gala Concert, showcasing the acclaimed 2014 Adler Fellows, takes place in November, 2104, at Herbst Theatre in San Francisco.
SRJC Chamber Concert Series Details: An acclaimed annual series of six concerts featuring a musicians performing in an intimate environment, exactly how chamber music is intended to be heard. After this Sunday’s Adler Fellows performance, there is one remaining concert in the 2013-14 series, Afiara String Quartet on Friday, April 25, at 7:30 PM at Newman Auditorium, Emeritus Hall, Santa Rosa Junior College. Tickets are $25 adult/$15 youth. Parking is included for all performances. Individual tickets are $25. Youth tickets are $15 for students with a valid ID or youth, 16 years old or younger, who is accompanied by an adult. Order tickets by Phone: (415) 392-4400. City Box Office Hours—M-F: 9:30 AM to 5:00 PM or Sat: 12 noon to 4:00 PM. Order on the Web at www.cityboxoffice.com . Parking is included in the price of the performance.
Details: “Dramatic Voices, Charming Soubrettes” is Sunday, March 9, 4 PM, at Newman Auditorium, Emeritus Hall, Santa Rosa Junior College, 1501 Mendocino Ave, Santa Rosa. Individual tickets are $25. Youth tickets are $15 for students with a valid ID or youth, 16 years old or younger, who is accompanied by an adult. Order tickets by Phone: (415) 392-4400. City Box Office Hours—M-F: 9:30 AM to 5:00 PM or Sat: 12 noon to 4:00 PM. Order on the Web at www.cityboxoffice.com . Parking is included in the price of the performance.
PROGRAM: “Dramatic Voices, Charming Soubrettes” SRJC Chamber Series
Songs of Travel – Vaughan Williams
The Vagabond Mr. Brancoveanu
The Roadside Fire Youth and Love
The Infinite Shining Heavens
Cinq mélodies “de Venise” – Fauré
Mandoline Miss Švēde
En sourdine Green
À Clymène C’est l’extase
from Floresta do Amazonas – Villa-Lobos
Canção de amor Miss Valdes
Cair da tarde Melodia sentimental
from Cabaret Songs – Bolcom
Toothbrush time Miss Johnson
At the last lousy moments of love Love in the 30′s
The Marriage of Figaro – Mozart
Crudel, perchè finora Miss Valdes, Mr. Brancoveanu
Rodelinda – Handel
Io t’abbraccio Miss Johnson, Miss Švēde
Manon – Massenet
Je suis encore tout étourdie Miss Valdes
Falstaff – Verdi
È sogno, o realtà? Mr. Brancoveanu
Le vespri siciliani – Verdi
Mercé dilette amiche Miss Johnson
Sapho – Gounod
O ma lyre immortelle Miss Švēde
The Merry Widow – Lehár
Vilja Miss Valdes, tutti
interview: ARThound talks with SFS Concertmaster, Alexander Barantschik, who plays a rare Mendelssohn Violin Concerto this Thursday at Weill Hall
On stage at Davies Hall, San Francisco Symphony (SFS) Concertmaster Alexander Barantschik seems to epitomize the intense and mysterious Russian. The virtuoso always looks quite serious as he juggles his orchestra leadership role with that of first violinist who plays “The David,” the illustrious 1742 Guarnerius del Gesú violin, famed for its rich dark sound. I’ve always wondered what makes Barantschik tick and about the particulars of his Russian musical upbringing. When I had the chance to interview him in conjunction with “Barantschik and Friends“—his upcoming performance at Green Music Center’s Weill Hall this Thursday (and on Wed, Fri, Sat and Sun at Davies as “Barantschik leads Mozart and Mendelssohn“)—I jumped. We chatted on the phone last Friday and he couldn’t have been warmer as he shared his amazing story.
Google Barantschik. You’ll learn that he’s nicknamed “Sasha” and that this former concertmaster of the Netherlands Radio Philharmonic and London Symphony orchestras has served under Music Director MTT (Michael Tilson Thomas) for 14 years through acclaimed cycles of Mahler, Stravinsky, and Debussy, and that he has premiered important works by André Previn and Viktor Kissine. He’s played exquisite instruments throughout his career too. The fact that Barantschik’s first auditions in the West—for a seat and then for the concertmaster position at Germany’s Bamburg Symphony—were performed with a violin he bought in a department store as he was leaving Russia, is a little known detail I nudged out of him that makes his story all the more fascinating. As we were talking, I got the impression that he’s a bit private but that didn’t stop me from asking for “a bit more detail.”
On Thursday, Barantschik returns to Green Music Center to lead the Orchestra in an irresistible program he’s put together showcasing strings. Following a lovely early Mozart “Divertimento in F major for Strings,” Barantschik takes center stage to play Mendelssohn’s “D minor Violin Concerto,” one of the Romantic master’s finest creations and a delightful surprise for concertgoers who only know its more famous sibling, the E Minor. He’ll be playing “The David,” the 1742 Heifetz Guarnerius del Gesù violin owned for many years by his idol, Jascha Heifetz. The violin, valued at over $6 million, was bequeathed to the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco (FAMSF) in 1989 by Heifetz and offered as an extended loan to SFS in 2002, where it has been cared for and played by Barantschik. Barantschik insists that the dollar value on the instrument is “completely irrelevant” as it’s priceless and could “never be replaced.” Of course there are a few restrictions. This will be “The David’s” second appearance at Weill Hall—1 of 2 locations outside of San Francisco where he is allowed to take it, the other being the Mondavi Centerfor the Performing Arts at UC Davis. Aside from these two exceptions, the instrument never travels outside of Davies. Also on the program is Britten’s winsome “Simple Symphony,” a salute to the composer’s centenary and “Melodia-Libertango,” the sultry music of Argentine composer Astor Piazzolla, the king of nuevo tango, with guest performer Seth Asarnow on the bandoneon.
Where did you grow up in Russia and what was your first experience with the violin?
Alexander Barantschik: I was born in 1953 in St. Petersburg, Russia (then ‘Leningrad’), which was and still is the cultural capital of the country. My family wasn’t musical, no musicians except for a very distant relative, Yefrem Zimbalist, who lived in the States but I never met him because he’d emigrated at the beginning of the 20th century. It was pure coincidence that my mother tried to get me some lessons at the music school which was just across the road from our home. I could walk there by myself every day and my parents thought this would keep me busy and off the streets, which was just what happened. I was almost six when I was admitted. My first instrument was an accordion because there was no space for another violin student in the school. I don’t remember anything about that accordion but a violin spot opened up and the teacher thought I had a pretty good sense of rhythm and pitch and so I started playing the violin. After a few years, I made some progress. I can’t say I was completely dedicated to practicing or spent many hours at it but I loved music. It took quite a few years before I truly understood the importance of practice and of the violin itself. I was probably 12 or 13 when I started thinking this might be forever, this might be my life, and then I started practicing and then I started making real progress.
Historically, was there a “Russian style” of music playing and was that around when you were studying and is it still around today? Who were there big mentors that you looked up to, or, perhaps, wanted to topple?
Alexander Barantschik: When we think of a Russian school of violin, we should think about Leopold Auer, basically the first teacher who could claim that he was important for the whole process of teaching great players. His students, apart from Heifetz, were phenomenal violinists. He wasn’t Russian but a Hungarian Jew who came to Russia (in 1868) and his Russian wasn’t perfect but he was teaching his students in a unique way—they all had something special in common. That tradition of playing was very deeply appreciated after he left and went to live in New York for the last part of his life. I cannot say there is a Russian tradition of violin playing that exists right now. The world is smaller, faster, and within one week, you can be in three different continents, so things are not as personalized. There are great players of the past who are impossible to imitate…Jascha Heifetz, Yehudi Menuhin—great players who were absolutely unique.
How do you feel about David Oistrakh’s playing and did you ever happen to meet him?
Alexander Barantschik: I loved his playing and heard him play much more than any other violinist as he was in Russia and played regularly with the St. Petersburg Philharmonic. I was dreaming of becoming his student at the Moscow Conservatory and was able to audition with him when he was performing in St. Petersburg. I met with him in his hotel room and I played for him for about 20 minutes and he was extremely nice and accommodating and sympathetic. He listened and made some corrections and tried to see how I reacted to his comments. His last question after I had played was simple—’Do you think you really love violin?’—and he looked straight into my eyes as he asked me that. I think I said, ‘I dearly love violin.’ After a second, he said, ‘Ok… I will accept you into my class.’ I couldn’t have been happier than I was at that moment. As I was preparing to take other exams at the conservatory, I heard the tragic news that he been on tour to the Netherlands and had died in Amsterdam after his concert. I never became his student and that was the end of my training but I’m so glad I have this wonderful memory of playing for him.
What were the circumstances that brought you to the West?
Alexander Barantschik: By the time I was in my mid-twenties, I was a member of the St. Petersburg Philharmonic Orchestra and toured regularly. I had visited Western Europe and Japan but I felt that, for my musical development, I needed to absorb different cultures and traditions and that the only way to achieve this was to emigrate from Russia, which I did at 26. My first country was Germany, where I was concertmaster with the Bamberg Symphony Orchestra. This was my first job and I spent three years there learning all about German traditions—Beethoven, Bückner, Haydn—and I broadened my view and I’m still learning from different traditions today.
How difficult was it to get out of Russia to Germany?
Alexander Barantschik: It was not easy and, let’s say, it was made difficult. I left Russia with one suitcase—no money, no job, no references and almost no violin. My violin was not a Guarneri but it was a nice little violin from Tirol, Austria, and at the last minute, I was not allowed to take it with me. I ended up going to a department store, to the music section and buying a simple violin that had been made in a furniture factory. It looked horrible and sounded accordingly. I played my first audition, for the section, on that. Afterwards, the committee came to me and said they were happy to offer me a job with the orchestra but that in one week they would have another audition for concertmaster and they asked me if I’d like to participate. I didn’t think about it and just said yes. They then asked me about my violin which was very bright red and said they’d never seen anything like it before. One week later, I returned for the concertmaster audition and played all the solos and concerti and I got that position. That was when they presented me with a very beautiful Guadagnini violin made in Cremona and the legend was that it has belonged to a famous German violinist Joseph Joachim who was a close friend of Brahms and who wrote cadenzas to almost every important classical violin concerto.
Do you still have that red violin?
Alexander Barantschik: No. I lent it to someone and this person never returned it and for that I am very sorry. I would love to frame it and hang it on the wall for my students at the conservatory to see what my beginnings were.
What did it feel like the first time you had Jascha Heifetz’s fiddle in your hands? How long has it taken you to become truly comfortable with the fact that this is now your violin?
Alexander Barantschik: Of course, the very first time I held it, I was speechless because the sound of Heifetz had been with me in my ear since I was a child…I’ve listened to his recordings all of my life. The violin is legendary, with a very special history of ownership and craftsmanship but it is not easy to play. Players need to find the way to produce the sound it’s capable of and that requires a special technique. It took me many months, perhaps a year, to meet its demands and to make it my friend so it started to like me as well.
Do you think that Guarneri has a unique voice? One of your SFS colleagues mentioned that he thought he heard a familiar voice from the Heifetz recordings when he heard you play it.
Alexander Barantschik: I never tried to imitate Heifetz’s sound. First of all that’s impossible as there was only one Heifetz and there will never be another. So it’s not my intention but it does have a unique dark-colored sound and maybe some low notes sound a little familiar for those who are familiar with his recordings.
You were MTT’s concertmaster in London Symphony Orchestra right? You obviously have a special rapport. What clicks? Do you and MTT ever share a vodka before or after a performance?
Alexander Barantschik: We met in London. I joined the London Symphony Orchestra in 1989, the same year he started as principal conductor. We met in the recording studio when the orchestra was recording Richard Strauss’ “Ein Heldenleben,” which has a huge important violin solo. We had just one rehearsal and we didn’t have time to discuss things or work out the details—it was spontaneous—we both just trusted each other as musicians. After this very important and stressful recording session, we immediately became friends. I still have the cd and it’s one of the best I ever made. Our collaboration has continued for a little over 30 years now.
As for the vodka, usually, we are both pretty exhausted after a performance and we don’t have any vodka with us. Maybe, on a couple of occasions, when it was the end of the season, we shared a drink.
What’s the most stressful aspect of being the concertmaster?
Alexander Barantschik: It is a stressful job but maybe a better word is complex. The most stressful period was when I first started my career as a concertmaster and I had to basically learn the entire orchestral repertoire, an endless body of work. I’m still learning new pieces and relearning old pieces and forced to make important decisions. It’s not only about playing—it’s about preparing sheet music, working with guest conductors, auditioning musicians and all of that is very complex in this huge organization.
Historically, the SFS concertmaster has been the only musician not to have tenure. In the last SFS contract, you were given tenured status and all concertmasters, hereafter, were given the chance to be tenured. Was that important to you?
Alexander Barantschik: I think the most important aspect was the recognition of me being an integral part of the orchestra, not as being slightly different from the others.
Why did you select the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto in D Minor and what sets it apart from his Concerto in E Minor, one of the five great violin concertos?
Alexander Barantschik: The D Minor that I will be playing is written for violin and strings whereas the E Minor is written for the whole orchestra with wind and brass. This program is dedicated to SFO strings and that was my main reason. It is also rarely played and, in fact, was completely ignored until Yehudi Menuhin found it in the 1970’s and edited the score and performed it for the first time in a couple of hundred years. So, this is not so popular but it was a master work when Mendelssohn wrote it as a 13 year old and it has all the qualities of the works he composed in his advanced age. You can hear from hear very first few bars that it is Mendelssohn—it is youthful, beautiful, dramatic and it speaks to my heart.
Any contemporary music for violin that you find intriguing?
Alexander Barantschik: Of course, it depends what we’re talking about…in terms of the 20th century, which is already the last century, I love Stravinsky, Prokofiev, and Shostakovich the most. If we are talking later, and more avant-garde, then there are very interesting pieces that have a new language. The only way to encourage young composers to write is to perform their works. Without performing, we’ll never know where music is going. On two occasions (2003 and 2012), I played the “Concerto No. 4 for Violin and Orchestra” (written in 1984 as a commission for the Berlin Festival) by the Russian composer Alfred Schnittke (1934-1998). I was a little nervous about how the audience would react as it’s a very complicated piece, not easy listening, but he’s one of my favorite composers and this is one of my favorite concertos. The audience and the orchestra loved it in 2003 and when I played it nine or ten years later, it was the same story…successful. Now, I am learning and I hope to play a concerto by John Adams.
Where else aside from Russia, London and CA have you lived and which place do you consider “home”?
Alexander Barantschik: Without any doubt, home is where my family is— my wife Alena and son Benjamin—and we’ve been here since 2001, 13 years already. I am very happy to call CA, the Bay Area, specifically San Mateo, where I live, my home. After I left Russia, I lived in Germany for three years and then in Amsterdam for 22 years where, for 16 years, I combined my job as concertmaster with the Netherlands Radio Philharmonic with my concertmaster position at LSO. I then moved to California and started my job here at SFS.
Does your son have any interest in pursuing music?
Alexander Barantschik: He’s a high school junior now. He loves math, science, and computer science and he plays piano for his pleasure and loves classical music but he has no desire to pursue music professionally.
Russians have a marvelous and highly creative form of cursing. What’s your favorite Russian curse?
Alexander Barantschik: Honestly, I don’t curse so much. We do have a saying, ‘Ni puha ni pera,’ which is something like ‘break a leg,’ which is what you say to every musician or performer about to go on stage. The reply to that is always ‘K chortu,’ which is ‘Go to hell,’ a good omen for Russians.
How do you feel about performing at Weill Hall?
Alexander Barantschik: We are used to our hall, Davies, where we perform and rehearse every day and it’s challenging to leave that. Weill Hall is much smaller than Davies, has a completely different shape, and is very different acoustically from Davies. Since we don’t have any rehearsals at Weill Hall, or at the Mondavi Center, it’s always challenging to get the sound just right. We don’t have any experience just sitting in the hall and listening either. On stage, we are hearing things that are so different from what you’re hearing and we have to adjust immediately without even hardly having a chance to play. This time, we’ve got a small ensemble. I will come a bit early and check out the acoustics to make sure I remember what it’s like there.
Details: Alexander Barantschik and SFS perform “Barantschik and Friends” at Green Music Center’s Weill Hall, Thursday, January 23, 2014 at 8 p.m. AND “Barantschik leads Mozart and Mendelssohn” at Davies Symphony Hall on Wed (Jan 22, 8 p.m.), Fri (Jan 24, 6:30 p.m.), Sat (Jan 25, 8 p.m.) and Sun (Jan 26, 2 p.m.). Tickets at Green Music Center are $20 to $156 (click here to purchase) and are $15 to $109 at Davies (click here to purchase.) For more information, call (415) 864-6000. For more information about San Francisco Symphony’s four concerts this season at Weill Hall, click here.
Lovely for the ears and the eyes—Mozart’s “Così Fan Tutte” is charming in all regards, at San Francisco Opera through July 1, 2013
It’s often said that Così fan tutte is Mozart’s opera score that comes closest to perfection and is Da Ponte’s most challenging libretto. In José Maria Condemi’s production, directed by John Cox and beautifully-designed by Robert Perdziola, San Francisco Opera has found a delightful winner in its summer line-up. The music and singing at last Tuesday’s performance were glorious and the entire cast is youthful and composed of singers just forging their careers….how exciting to experience this opera acted out by young people, as they and their fickle follies were the focus of Mozart’s story. Set in Belle Époque Monte Carlo in a luxury seaside hotel, with gorgeous sets, this co-production with Opéra Monte-Carlo premiered at SF Opera in 2005 and runs at War Memorial Opera House through July 1, 2013. This is the final opera in the Mozart/Da Ponte trilogy led by Nicola Luisotti following Le Nozzze di Figaro in 2010 and Don Giovanni in 2011.
This 1790 comedy of innocence and deception is a classic. Don Alfonso (bass Marco Vinco), the cynical and worldly friend of two strapping young military officers, Ferrando (tenor Francesco Demuro) and Guglielmo (bass-baritone Philippe Sly), talks them into betting on the virtue of their sweethearts. He contends that no woman is capable of fidelity and that if the two young men will do all he asks of them in 24 hours, he will prove it. The men agree and a fantastic chain of deceit, disguise and desire is set in motion. Their girlfriends, Fiordiligi (soprano Ellie Dehn ) and Dorabella (mezzo soprano, Christel Lötzsch), two sisters, are loyal beyond reproach…until their men leave. With Despina, the meddling chambermaid, stirring the pot, the women succumb to seduction..but… in the end, it all works itself out.
At last Tuesday’s performance, the clear stand-outs were Merola and Adler alumna, soprano Susannah Biller, as the maid Despina; Italian bass Marco Vinco as Don Alfonso and Canadian bass-baritone Philippe Sly as the idealistic Guglielmo. Not only was their singing exceptional, they had the necessary verve and charisma to carry off their satirical roles.
Susannah Biller’s bright-eyed Despina, the chambermaid who sees life and love for what they really are, was particularly comical as she consoled her mistresses and then coaxed them into betraying their fiancées. Her Act I aria, “In uomini, in soldati,” was pointed and humorous and followed by a dazzling “Una donna a quindici anni,” in Act II. Biller literally glows on stage and managed to grab the limelight through the entire performance. In fall 2013, Biller will create the role of Selena St. George in the Company’s world-premiere presentation of Tobias Picker’s Delores Clairborne.
Marco Vinco, as Don Alfonso, the driving character in the opera, was most delightful when singing with Biller (Despina), especially when he initially enlisted her in his scheme and slipped her a bribe and explained that his two rich friends needed consoling. The two were in perfect sync, and while he doesn’t have any major arias, Vinco’s natural charisma and gestures made his every move noteworthy. Vinco made his SF Opera and U.S. debut as the wild;y entertaining Leoporello in 2011’s Don Giovanni.
First year Adler Fellow, the French-Canadian lyric baritone, Philippe Sly, proved on Tuesday that he has it all—he’s a tall hunk with curly blond hair who happens to be a natural at acting. His voice is as sweet and distinct as it is powerful. I was sitting in Orchestra Row H and even at this close distance, I noticed that as soon as he sang, the ladies round me raised their opera glasses to inspect the goods.
Soprano Ellie Dehn, as Fiordiligi, and German mezzo soprano, Christel Lötzsch, in her U.S. operatic debut as Dorabella, were a bit stiff in their acting but warmed as the evening progressed. Since a lot of the joy in this opera involves watching the transformations the various characters undergo, the ability to act is as essential as the singing. Ellie Dehn’s lyrical Act II “Per Pietá” (“Have Pity”) had a wonderful resonance in the low notes. Lötzsch’s Act II aria, “È amore un ladroncello” (“Love is a little thief”) was her best of the evening. Tenor Francesco Demuro was delightful as Ferrando but couldn’t hold a candle next to the more polished Philippe Sly.
As the two men left, and the ladies and Don Alfonso bid them farewell (Act I); their trio, “Soave sia il vento,” one of most moving songs in all of music, did not disappoint. Suffused with the beauty of the orchestra, their voices melded in rapture. “On your voyage, may the winds be gentle; may the waves be calm; may all the elements respond to your desires…” If he’d done little else in his career than write this three-minute song, Mozart would have been famous…but, for him, it represented just one song in his 600+ works that are accounted for.
The special recitative accompaniment— Luisotti on fortepiano, Giuseppe Finzi on harpsichord, Thalia Moore on cello, and baroque specialist Michael Leopold on theorbo—with a custom sound for each set of characters, courtesy of Luisotti, was quite creative and energetic. From Row H, I was actually able to see a lot of the finger work entailed in playing these instruments which made it all the more exciting.
Perdziola’s costumes for Fiordiligi and Dorabella were inspired by the costumes of the Ballets Russes as well as by designer Paul Poiret and other WWI-era illustrators. Executed in pastel shades, some with loads of non-flattering pleats and bold vertical stripes, we can be thankful that era is over.
The gorgeous sets, superbly lit by Christopher Maravich, were more effective. From the opening scene in the casino of the luxury hotel, to the panoramic seaside with its candy-cane colored striped umbrellas and coastal town in the background, to the sister’s lavish hotel suite with its lovely Klimt-like paintings adorning the walls, the colors and details (a vase of giant red oriental poppies in the girl’s suite) were magical. In one scene, when the two men, disguised as Albanians, rowed up the center of the stage on a boat and right into the hotel, the crowd gasped with delight.
Details: Così Fan Tutte runs through July 1, 2013 at War Memorial Opera House. War Memorial Opera House is located at 301 Van Ness Avenue, San Francisco. One of the last Beaux-Arts structures built in the United States, the Opera House seats 3,146, with 200 standing room places. Every performance features supertitles (English translations) projected above the stage, visible from every seat.
Remaining Performances: The 4 remaining performances of Così Fan Tutte are June 21 (8 p.m.); June 26 (7:30 p.m.); July 1 (7:30 p.m.) Nicola Luisotti conducts all performances. Tickets: $22 to $340 at the Box Office, 301 Van Ness Ave., San Francisco, by phone at (415) 864-3330 or purchase online. Standing Room tickets go on sale at 10 a.m. on the day of each performance; $10 each, cash only.
Driving to San Francisco and Parking: Be sure to allow ample time when driving into San Francisco on the weekend and crossing the Golden Gate Bridge—there is frequently a 15 to 30 minute back-up on Highway 101 South from Sausalito onwards due to congestion around the toll-plaza. Arrive early at your parking garage of choice because those also fill up on weekends. Recommended Garages: Two garages are very close to War Memorial Opera House— the Performing Arts Garage (1/2 block)(Grove Street between Franklin and Gough Streets) and Civic Center Garage (roughly 2 blocks) (McAllister Street between Polk and Larken Streets) (both have flat $15 pay cash as you enter policy on performance nights)
Jun Kaneko’s Delightful “Magic Flute”–a digital turning point–at San Francisco Opera through July 8, 2012
San Francisco Opera’s Summer Season closes its opera performances with its magical and revolutionary new production of Mozart’s The Magic Flute featuring 3,000 tempura and chalk paintings by legendary ceramic artist and painter, Jun Kaneko. Good bye traditional sets! We’re entering a brand new era–the entire stage contains projection panels and is in constant motion and the effect is utterly impressive. Kaneko’s fabulous costumes add to the experience. This time, the music takes a back seat to the visual.
The Magic Flute is at War Memorial Opera House, 301 Van Ness Ave., San Francisco. Performances are at 8 p.m. on June 16, June 19, June 29 and July 6; 7:30 p.m. June 21 and 27; 2 p.m. June 24 and July 8, 2012. Tickets are $21 to $288 Information: (415) 864-3330, www.sfopera.com
Opera review: Cinnabar Theatre’s “Don Giovanni,” a new production that is sure to ignite your passions, through April 15, 2012
When Cinnabar Theatre cast baritone Anders Froehlich for the title role in their new production of Mozart’s Don Giovanni, the classic retelling of the Don Juan legend, they were half way home. Not only can Froelich sing, but he has the physique of a lean and muscled Romeo. And, he so convincingly plays the part of Mozart’s suave, seductive, and morally reprehensible aristocrat, that it’s pure pleasure to sit back and experience being seduced by him. Add to that baritone Eugene Walden’s remarkable performance as Leporello, Giovanni’s faithful but grumbling sidekick, and this production soars. Truth be told, the entire cast is superb, the music is glorious and the production is so creative that it represents the opera’s tremendous dramatic possibilities as well a small theatre company at it best.
One of the most amazing aspects of this 225 year-old opera is that it is so filled with fabulous ambiguities, that almost every production emphasizes something different. Cinnabar’s production, staged by Elly Lichtenstein, gives us a Don Giovanni whose beguiling and complex personality is matched by the equally complex women he encounters. After the opening night performance, I found myself ruminating on these women—what they represented in their time and what they bring to the table in the here and now. There’s the unhinged young Donna Anna (soprano Kelly Britt), who has, in the very least, been ravished by Don Giovanni and is mourning the death of her father, who was murdered trying to defend her honor. Normally, she’s depicted as icy cold and hell-bent on retaliation. Here, we also see her warmth and humanity. There’s matronly Donna Elvira (mezzo soprano Eileen Morris) who has been jilted by Giovanni and she too seeks revenge and but, beneath the hurt, she still loves him and can’t free herself of her co-dependent obsession. When she tries to protect young Zerlina from Giovanni’s reckless ways, we see a preservation instinct that we wish she’d exercise on herself. There’s the young peasant girl Zerlina (soprano Emma McNairy), who loves Masetto but is also taken in by the suave Giovanni’s proclamations and the high life he represents. She wants both men and, for a moment, deludes herself into thinking that this can work. And then there is the chorus of women, voluptuous nymphs in all shapes and sizes, writhing in full sensual abandon with each other and with Don Giovanni. The opera’s rich comic and tragic elements are driven by all these interactions and Lichtenstein has really made Giovanni’s journey—to eternal damnation—one riveting ride.
23 year-old soprano Emma McNairy was delightful as Zerlina. Winner of the San Francisco Conservatory’s 2011 Voice Concerto Competition, McNairy’s expressive voice shows incredible range and she has a commanding stage presence. And did she snap into character! She played Zerlina as sweet and crafty, bringing a refreshing and realistic complexity to the role. Her pairing with William O’Neill as Masetto, her hunky intended, produced some of the opera’s most fiery moments, another example of the sizzling chemistry that makes this production pop.
Soprano Kelly Britt as Donna Anna was striking—her distinctive voice was smooth, powerful, and evocative. From the moment she appeared, she displayed a whirlwind of emotional extremes that made the impact of Donna Anna’s rape, or ravishing, by Don Giovanni and the sudden death of her father seem very real. The twenty-three year-old has that extra something coursing through her that produces a riveting sound, not yet honed to perfection but on its way, and that’s very exciting to experience.
First to appear and last to utter a solo, baritone Eugene Walden was a thoroughly engaging Leporello. One of the opera’s most humorous moments occurred during his lighthearted “Catalog Aria,” (Madamina, il catalogo è questo) (Act I, Scene v). As the beleaguered Leporello sings the amazing tally of his boss’s conquests to Donna Elvira, he pulls out a seemingly endless accordion book, chock full of women’s faces and descriptive notes, and flings it towards Donna Elvira. This gesture so captivates and infuriates her that she engages in a tug of war with him over the book. This is just one of Elly Lichtenstein’s clever and amusing touches whose effect is priceless. Another of these magical moments occurs with the famous balcony serenade at the beginning of Act II. Just behind the singer and through a widow, we see a very seductive striptease occurring between two voluptuous women in silhouette—the scene is gorgeously back lit and has all the resonant flair of a fan dance. As the women almost get it on, you can feel the heat rising in the audience. The sensuality is carried through to the famous banquet scene, done wine country style, with Giovanni dining on plump grapes and scantily-clad women. In the opera’s final chilling scene, the powerfully built John Minágro, who makes a very commanding Commendatore, now turned singing statue, comes to swoop Don Giovanni to his just desserts—hell. Froelich’s Don Giovanni’s is so intoxicating that, even on his way to hell, he still gets to us.
One of the pleasures of the hearing Mozart’s dramatic music played in the intimate 99 seat setting that Cinnabar offers is that every musician stands out. Conductor Mary Chun and the orchestra of 10 did a valiant job, offering an elegant and cohesive blending with the voices on stages, but at times the sound seemed understated. I had never heard the opera sung in English before, which is the only opera experience that Cinnabar Theatre provides, keeping with founder Martin Klebe’s wish to make opera accessible to all audiences. The main advantage is an immediate understanding of the story, which means it’s very easy to take it all in and you’re not scrambling with translation. If you know the opera in Italian, its beloved arias such as There, we will entwine our hands (Là ci darem la mano), (Act I, between Zerlina and Giovanni) are made all the more enjoyable by singing them in Italian in your mind and checking your Italian against the English as you go.
Music by W.A. Mozart, Libretto by Lorenzo da Ponte, Sung in English (da Ponte’s full translation/libretto translation of Don Giovanni is available free online here.)
Mary Chun artistic director/conductor; Elly Lichtenstein, Stage Director
The Cast, in order of appearance:
Leporello— servant to Don Giovanni, Eugene Walden
Don Giovanni—Anders Froehlich
Donna Anna—Kelly Britt
The Commendatore, Anna’s father—John Minágro
Don Ottavio, Anna’s fiancé—Mark Kratz
Donna Elvira—Eileen Morris
Zerlina— Emma McNairy
Masetto, Zerlina’s fiancé— William O’Neill
Sandrina, Leporello’s love—Arden Kwan
Paul Gilger, set design; Wayne Hovey lighting design, Tracy Hinman Sigrist, costume design, Barton Smith, choreography
Underwritten by Frank and Mary Lou Schomer and The A to Z Concert series.
Details: Cinnabar Theatre is located at 3333 Petaluma Blvd. North (at Skillman Lane), Petaluma, CA, 94952. Tickets online: $35 General, $32 Seniors 65 & Over, $25 Age 22 & Under. Tickets also be purchased before the performance but pre-purchase of tickets is highly recommended as the theatre is small. Early arrival is also recommended as there is no assigned seating. For more information, call 707-763-8920 or visit http://www.cinnabartheater.org
Run time is 2 hours and 20 minutes, with one intermission.
There are 5 remaining performances: Wednesday April 4, 2012, at 7:30 p.m., Saturday, April 7, 2012, at 8 p.m. Friday, April 13, 2012, at 8 p.m., Saturday, April 14, 2012, at 8 p.m. and Sunday, April 15, 2012, at 2 p.m.
For the past year, the beloved opera superstar Frederica von Stade, a long-time Bay Area resident affectionately known as “Flicka,” has been making farewell appearances and the great opera houses and concert halls worldwide, whose stages she has graced for the past 40 years have been paying tribute, one by one. Now, it’s the Bay Area’s turn. On Saturday, December 3, 2011, San Francisco Opera, San Francisco Performances, Cal Performances, Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra and the San Francisco Conservatory of Music will join in an unprecedented team effort to celebrate the illustrious life and career of our treasured mezzo, arts advocate, and musical celebrity.
Eight extraordinary artists and friends of von Stade─and some as of yet unannounced surprise guests─ will lead the special one night only musical tribute, joined by von Stade and accompanied by Jake Heggie, John Churchwell and Bryndon Hassman: Sir Thomas Allen, baritone; Susannah Biller, soprano; Zheng Cao, mezzo-soprano; Joyce DiDonato, mezzo-soprano; Susan Graham, mezzo-soprano; Dame Kiri Te Kanawa, soprano; Samuel Ramey, bass; and Richard Stilwell, baritone.
The concert will feature highlights from von Stade’s expansive performance and recording career, including arias from Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro, Strauss’s Der Rosenkavalier, Rossini’s La Cenerentola and Monteverdi’s Il Ritorno d’Ulisse in Patria; songs by Ravel, Mahler, Poulenc and Berlioz; selections from American musical theater; and contemporary songs by Jake Heggie. The evening will also feature personal tributes and recollections of working with Ms. von Stade.
An intimate gala reception with the artists in the lobby of the War Memorial Opera House will follow the performance, with proceeds supporting University of California Berkeley’s Young Musicians Program and the St. Martin de Porres Catholic School in Oakland.
What’s it like to work with Flicka? Rauli Garcia, who is the CFO of HGO (Houston Grand Opera) made his stage debut as a supernumerary in Dead Man Walking earlier this year and his account “What a rush!”was posted on the HGO (Houston Grand Opera) blog on January 31, 2011.
Recognized as one of the most beloved musical figures of our time, mezzo-soprano Frederica von Stade began at the very top, receiving a contract from Sir Rudolf Bing during the Metropolitan Opera auditions and since her debut has enriched classical music for over four decades with appearances in opera, concert and recital. The first aria in her career was Thomas’s “Connais-tu le pays”. Von Stade has sung nearly all the great roles with the Met and in 2000, the company celebrated the 30th anniversary of her debut with a new production of The Merry Widow. She made her 1971 San Francisco Opera debut as Sextus (La Clemenza di Tito) with Spring Opera Theater and her main stage debut in 1972 as Cherubino (Le Nozze di Figaro), and has appeared with San Francisco Opera in more than a dozen roles, including Mélisande (Pelléas et Mélisande), Octavian (Der Rosenkavalier), Rosina (Il Barbiere di Siviglia), Countess Geschwitz (Lulu) and the title roles of La Sonnambula, La Cenerentola, and The Merry Widow. She created two roles in world premiere productions by San Francisco Opera: Marquise de Merteuil in Conrad Susa’s The Dangerous Liaisons and Mrs. Patrick de Rocher in Jake Heggie’s Dead Man Walking; she also created the role of Madeline Mitchell in Jake Heggie’s chamber opera Three Decembers, presented in its West Coast premiere by San Francisco Opera and Cal Performances in 2008.
Known as a bel canto specialist, von Stade is also beloved in the French repertoire, including the title role of Offenbach’s La Périchole. She is also a favorite interpreter of the great “trouser” roles, from Strauss’s Composer (Ariadne auf Naxos) and Octavian to Mozart’s Sextus, Idamante (Idomeneo), and Cherubino. Von Stade’s artistry has inspired the revival of neglected works such as Massenet’s Chérubin, Ambroise Thomas’s Mignon, Rameau’s Dardanus, and Monteverdi’s Il Ritorno d’Ulisse in Patria, and she has garnered critical and popular acclaim in her vast French orchestral repertoire, including Ravel’s Shéhérazade, Berlioz’s Les Nuits d’Été and Canteloube’s Les Chants d’Auvergne. She is well known to audiences around the world through her numerous featured appearances on television including several PBS specials and “Live from Lincoln Center” telecasts.
Miss von Stade has made over seventy recordings with every major label, including complete operas, aria albums, symphonic works, solo recital programs, and popular crossover albums. Her recordings have garnered six Grammy nominations, two Grand Prix du Disc awards, the Deutsche Schallplattenpreis, Italy’s Premio della Critica Discografica, and “Best of the Year” citations by Stereo Review and Opera News. She has enjoyed the distinction of holding simultaneously the first and second places on national sales charts for Angel/EMI’s Show Boat and Telarc’s The Sound of Music.
Von Stade was appointed as an officer of France’s L’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres in 1998, France’s highest honor in the Arts, and in 1983 she was honored with an award given at the White House by President Reagan. She holds five honorary doctorates from Yale University, Boston University, the San Francisco Conservatory of Music (which holds a Frederica von Stade Distinguished Chair in Voice), the Georgetown University School of Medicine, and her alma mater, the Mannes School of Music.
Details: Celebrating Frederica von Stade, Saturday, December 3, 2011, at 7:30 p.m., Herbst Theatre, 401 Van Ness Avenue, San Francisco, CA 94102. Tickets for the concert are $50, $75 and $100. Tickets for the gala reception, which includes premium seating for the concert, are $500. Tickets for the concert and gala reception are available at http://www.sfopera.com or the San Francisco Opera Box Office at 301 Van Ness Avenue, or by phone at (415) 864-3330.
Review: San Francisco Opera’s new “Don Giovanni” lacks that vital spark, runs through November 10, 2011
Of all Mozart’s operas, Don Giovanni, holds a special place. A fusion of tragic and comic impulses based on the legendary scoundrel Don Juan and set to breathtakingly gorgeous music, it never fails to entertain. A new production of this masterpiece opened at San Francisco Opera last Saturday (October 15, 2011) and while enjoyable enough, it failed to ignite the passions. Inconsistent singing and unconvincing acting were the main culprits. The production is hinged on the all important title role filled by baritone Lucas Meachem, a former Adler Fellow, with a rich and glorious voice who has delivered several stunning performances at SF Opera. He was vocally adequate but lacked the commanding presence─charisma, swagger and roguishness ─ to be utterly beguiling and magnetizing, which is essential to the rake’s part. His chemistry with the ladies─Ellie Dehn as Donna Anna, Serena Farnocchia as Donna Elvira and Kate Lindsey as Zerlina─was plain flat, both when he was required to be sexy or violent. He played Don straight, as a cold-hearted jerk, and wore aviator-style sunglasses throughout the performance and a stylish dark leather coat which gave the impression that, while he had wealth and power, he was basically a rich coward in hiding.
Music director Nicola Luisotti, by contrast, was the life of the party, bursting with energy and passion and thoroughly engaged with his orchestra at all times. As magnetizing as he was to watch though, he was not able to elicit the nuanced performance he pulled from his orchestra in Turandot, which opened SF Opera’s fall season. At times on Saturday, the orchestra outpaced the singers. For those who have been watching Maestro Nicola Luisottiwork his magic since he joined SF Opera as its music director in 2009, the choice of three Italians, who all have their U.S. debuts─director Gabriele Lavia, set designer Alessandro Camera, and costume designer Andrea Viotti─ seems evidence of his broadening influence at San Francisco Opera. Despite his reputation in Italy as an acclaimed film
director, Mr. Lavia’s production was not a particularly imaginative or fluid take on this musical masterpiece. He placed the story in traditional period setting and there it decidedly sat with Don Giovanni as a brute. Andrea Viotti’s lush period costumes were executed in restrained hues with the exception of Don Giovanni, who wore a long leather coat and sunglasses.
Most striking was Alessandro Cameo’s minimalistic set design. As the opera opened, 22 large (6’ wide x 16’ tall) dark mirrors in ornate gilded frames descended dramatically onto a stage that was virtually empty stage, save for a few scattered Louis XV style chairs. Coming fresh from Richard Serra’s drawing retrospectiveat SFMOMA, I was struck by how powerfully and elegantly geometric forms can define space. As these mirrors descended, shifted, and settled in at different heights, they impacted the viewer’s sense of
mass and gravity, ushering in a dark and ominous presence, and making for an experience that was as visceral as it was visual. (Click here to read about how these special polycarbonate mirrors were constructed backstage at SF Opera). The program notes indicate that Lavia’s symbolic take on the mirrors–reflecting on the essence of man and witnessing his many sides. That said, the initial brilliance of this grand entrance of the mirrors wore thin when it was repeated in the same fashion a few more times in subsequent acts. Aside from the mirrors, the stage remained quite empty, save for tombstones and mist in the cemetery scene and an elegantly set dinner table in the final scene where Don Giovanni’s feast is interrupted by the Commendatore who ushers his descent to Hell.
Stand-outs: Italian bass Marco Vinco, making his United States debut as Leporello, Don Gioivanni’s discontented servant, who is actually on stage more than any other singer, delivered a thoroughly convincing, endearing and humorous performance. Bass Morris Robinson, also making his SF Opera debut was exceptional in the role of the Commendatore. Mezzo-soprano Kate Lindsay, also debuting at SF Opera, as Zerlina, the young girl who catches Don Giovanni’s eye at her wedding party to Masetto, sang lyrically in her duet “Là ci darem la mano” “There we will be hand in hand “) but will be remembered for the way she suggestively spread her legs on stage.
The epilogue was cut in this Luisotti-selected mix of Vienna and Prague versions of the opera. All told, it is Mozart’s music that shines most in this production.
Performance Dates: Sung in Italian with English supertitles, there are seven remaining performances scheduled for October 21 (8 p.m.), October 23 (2 p.m.), October 26 (7:30 p.m.), October 29 (8 p.m.), November 2 (7:30 p.m.), November 5 (2 p.m.) and November 10 (7:30 p.m.), 2011.
Bruce Lamont Lectures: All performances will feature an informative Opera Talk by educator and chorus director, Bruce Lamott. Talks begin 55 minutes before each performance in the orchestra section of the War Memorial Opera House and are free of charge to patrons with tickets for the corresponding performance.
Details: Tickets are priced from $21 to $330 and may be purchased at www.sfopera.com or through the San Francisco Opera Box Office [301 Van Ness Avenue (at Grove Street), or by phone at (415) 864-3330]. Standing Room tickets go on sale at 10 a.m. on the day of each performance; tickets are $10 each, cash only.
The War Memorial Opera House is located at 301 Van Ness Avenue at Grove Street, San Francisco. Casting, programs, schedules, and ticket prices are subject to change. For further information: www.sfopera.com.