ARThound

Geneva Anderson digs into art

SF Opera’s “Orpheus and Eurydice”— Jakub Józef Orlinski, fabulous staging, and the rarely-performed Viennese version…all in 80 minutes


Breakdancing Polish countertenor sensation, Jakub Józef Orliński, is Orpheus in San Francisco Opera’s new production of Gluck’s “Orpheus and Eurydice.” Photo: Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera

“Orpheus and Eurydice” is a story plucked from antiquity, recounting the Greek myth of Orpheus, a musician so grief-stricken at his wife’s passing that he braves the underworld to rescue her from death itself.  At SF Opera (San Francisco Opera), Christoph Willibald’s Gluck’s beloved opera, in a new dazzling production directed by Matthew Ozawa, is a not-to-be-missed experience of music, singing, dance, and inventive staging.  

Gluck’s three act opera, last performed at SF Opera 63 years ago, takes place in both the world of the living (Earth) and the world of the dead (Hades), as well as in the space between (Elysium).  It is not set in any specific time period. SF Opera’s new production is Gluck’s rarely-performed original Viennese score, first unveiled in 1762 at Vienna’s Burgtheatre, with libretto by the poet Ranieri de’ Calzabigi, sung in Italian. With Calizabigi’s collaboration, the plot had been reduced to its essentials, with the chorus taking on a larger role, and the solo and choral parts were connected closely with dance. Beforehand, I’d heard a lot about the breakdancing Polish countertenor Jakub Józef Orliński, the brain scans in Alexander V. Nichols’ rotating set, and the fluid dancing, but nothing prepared me for how seamlessly these elements all came together to create an experience of pure art.  My review pertains to the performance Friday, November 18, where I sat in the dress circle, looking down on the action.

The opera’s lively overture and curtain opened dramatically on a lone red-robed figure doing spellbinding handstands and leaps— it was Jakub Józef Orliński, the renowned Polish breakdancer and countertenor, as Orpheus, grieving his beloved wife Eurydice and experiencing flashbacks of their life together.  His mesmerizing dancing and pure athleticism immediately set him apart from all other countertenors who have sung this role. As Act I began, he cried out to the Gods to bring Eurydice back. His unexpectedly high, commanding voice took some adjusting to but I soon found his sound intoxicating. His “Che farò senza Euridice?” (“What will I do without Eurydice”) worked its heart-wrenching magic on the entire audience.  As the drama continued to unfold, Orliński became even more captivating, a star whose role seemed much larger than this singular character, someone uniquely charged to invigorate opera.  

Set & Projection designer Alexander V. Nichols’ creative staging added immensely to the production. Colorful floor projections on a rotating circular stage were reminiscent of a pinwheel but these were images of actual neurons and neural pathways from brain scans of trauma patients at USCF Medical Center, an amazing collaborative feat for SF Opera. Ozawa’s thinking was that Orpheus is traversing various phases of grief toward acceptance and his journey through his pain entails navigating memory and his own psyche. This is a rich visual tapestry of that neuro-biologic process. Since no two brains scans are alike, a myriad of beautiful patterns and colors moved before our eyes, at times resembling oceans, fauna, atmospheric turbulence adding greatly to the drama and our enjoyment, especially when viewed from the grand terrace where they could be appreciated in their entirety. One of the most effective visuals was simple and elegant—the thick black jagged line that appeared on the floor and grew like a fissure, at the moment of Eurydice’s death separating the two lovers with Orpheus singing “What will I do without my beloved.”

Jakub Józef Orliński as Orpheus and, in the background, enshrouded in her casket is his dead wife Eurydice.  The casket is evocative of Damien Hirst’s famous 1991 glass-panel display case for his tiger shark preserved in formaldehyde. Photo: Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera

Meigui Zhang and Jakub Józef Orliński in the title roles of Gluck’s “Orpheus and Eurydice.” Zhang and Orlinski’s flowing classically-inspired costumes were designed by Jessica Jahn, a former dancer who is interested in how garments facilitate movement. Photo: Matthew Washburn/San Francisco Opera

Meigui Zhang and Jakub Józef Orliński with dancers in Gluck’s “Orpheus and Eurydice.” Choreographer Rena Butler employed six dancers―three doubles each of Orpheus and Eurydice, who were distinguished by costumes in lighter hues of red for
Orpheus and blue for Eurydice. Photo: Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera

Soprano Meigui Zhang, as Eurydice, who sang with such power and touching vulnerability in her SFO debut in last season’s “The Dream of the Red Chamber,” again sang her principal role with remarkable passion, at times sounding utterly ethereal and at times on the verge of unraveling. This former Merola program graduate held her own in the dancing scenes with Orliński too, moving fluidly and expressively. In Act III, as Orpheus leads Eurydice through the underworld, she became more and more unhinged with his refusal to look at her and was convincing in her second death. But the most beautiful choreography was in the melding of their voices, creating a memorable layered beauty.

As Amore (Cupid, God of Love), radiant soprano Nicole Heaston, also a Merola program graduate, delighted the audience each time she descended from her ceiling perch in her sunny yellow gown and yards of golden fabric flowing.  Her natural comedic bend was evident when she sang Despina, the maid in SFO’s “Cosi fan tutte” last fall and had everyone in stitches.  Her Act I “Gli sguardi trattieni” was a joy both for her singing and her effervescent sparkle. This is where she tells Orfeo that his suffering will be short-lived because Jove (Jupiter) will allow him to descend into the land of the dead to retrieve Eurydice. Making this a real test, Orfeo must neither look at her, nor explain why looking is forbidden, otherwise he will lose her forever.

Nicole Heaston as Amore (Cupid) in Gluck’s “Orpheus and Eurydice”
Photo: Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera

Music symbolizes represents Orpheus’ emotional journey. Olivier award winning conductor Peter Whelan, music director of Scottish Chamber Orchestra, also a bassoonist, singer, and champion of Baroque historic performance, led the 46 piece reduced SF Opera orchestra in a remarkably vibrant performance of Gluck’s original 1762 Vienna version of the opera.

The SF Opera Chorus sang beautifully, taking on the roles of mourners in Act I, Furies and shrouded lost souls in Act II and joyful onlookers in Act III.  Act II’s harrowing “Chi mai dell’Erebo,” sung by the furies and ghosts who are trying to deny Orpheus’ passage to the underworld, was particularly moving.  The song was ushered in by César Cañón’s harpsichord playing and punctuated by energetic dramatic orchestral runs emulating the dark sounds of the Elysian fields.

Dance also plays a vital role, depicting the memory landscape Orpheus is navigating. Orlinksi and Zhang do all of their own dancing and six dancers dressed in slightly different shades of red or blue are on stage with them acting as doubles, symbolizing Orpheus and Eurydice at different phases of their relationship. Choreographed by Rena Butler, the overall impact seemed to be to highlight Orlinski’s immense talent and the rest followed a course of natural simplicity.  


Meigui Zhang and Jakub Józef Orliński in the Elysian Fields scene in Gluck’s “Orpheus and Eurydice.” The sheer shroud fabric worn by the lost souls in the background (members of the SF Opera chorus) features portraits and writing samples from deceased family members of the opera’s creative team. Photo: Matthew Washburn/San Francisco Opera

Jakub Józef Orliński as Orpheus confronts the Furies (members of SFO’s Chorus) in Act II of “Orpheus and Eurydice.” Colorful floor projections on a rotating circular stage by Alexander V. Nichols are of actual neurons and neural pathways from brain scans of patients at USCF Medical Center. Photo: Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera

I left the opera house enriched by this burst of creativity and then spent the drive home trying to dredge up what I remembered of the myth of Orpheus and how it was that, in the end of this opera, Orpheus survives and seemingly is reunited with Eurydice. I recalled that Orpheus couldn’t resist Eurydice’s pleas and gave in to the temptation to see his beloved wife again. He looked at her and, in fulfillment of prophecy, Euridyce disappeared forever and Orpheus killed himself.  After researching Gluck, I learned that he adapted the legend, rejecting the harsh ending in his classical sources and instead conformed with the happy ending expected of the modern stage in his day. As Orpheus is about to kill himself, Amore intervenes, disarms him and rewards him for his love and devotion and Eurydice comes to life again, like she’s just woken up from a deep sleep.

Details: 

There are two remaining performances: Saturday, Nov 25, 7:30 pm and Thurs, Dec 1, 7:30 pm.  Run-time = 81 min, with no intermission.  Tickets: Purchase online: https://www.sfopera.com/operas/orpheus-and-eurydice/

Traffic alert: If you are driving in from the North Bay, allow at least 45 min travel/parking time from the Golden Gate Bridge to War Memorial Opera House. For a list of parking garages closest to the opera house, visit https://sfopera.com/plan-your-visit/directions-and-parking/

November 23, 2022 Posted by | Art, Dance, Opera | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

review: A Thrilling New Production of “La Traviata” at SF Opera

Soprano Pretty Yende in her Company debut as Violetta in Verdi’s “La Traviata.” Photo: Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera

It’s a story as old as time: man falls for beautiful woman with an unsuitable background; his family disapproves and intervenes; and the aftermath is tragic, especially when the woman dies before wrongs can be righted and a beautiful love is thwarted.  Meddling, lies and bad timing; where would opera be without them?  SFO’s (San Francisco Opera’s) new production of Verdi’s beloved “La Traviata,” has all of that and looks at the woman as a model of feminine strength.  The beloved opera, the most performed in the world, opened Friday night to a full house, delighting the audience with its fresh new staging by director Shawna Lucey, production design by Robert Innes Hopkins and lighting by Michael Clark. It introduced a stellar international cast headed by three stars in their Company debuts in the principal roles of Violetta, Alfredo and Germont. The music under new Music Director Eun Sun Kim was enthralling as was the singing from SFO’s opera chorus. This is a brand new production, the first in 35 years, and it was built by the Company entirely in the Bay Area. It was high time that this beloved classic be given a fresh face, especially in SFO’s centennial year.

Based on Alexandre Dumas’ 1853 play La Dame aux Camélias (Lady of the Camelias), a fictionalized account of Dumas’ affair with famed Parisian courtesan Marie Duplessis who died of tuberculosis at age 23, Verdi’s “La Traviata” (“The Fallen Woman,”) has long been viewed as a cautionary morality tale about the dangers of living outside society’s norms. This Traviata, set in the late 19th century, as envisioned by Shawna Lucey, is a story of self-invention that looks at the courtesan Violetta Valéry, as an empowered feminist, ahead of her time. With steely resolve, Violetta has achieved wealth, fame, social standing.  She leads an independent and sophisticated life on the borders of a high society that denounces and embraces prostitution.  She accepts the price: the long leash that connects her to her rich much older patron, Baron Douphol. As for the emotional toll, she’s long abandoned any hope of true love and has a transactional approach to intimacy.  When young Alfredo Germont professes his total devotion, she is thrown. She allows herself to love and moves to a plush country house with Alfredo for a fresh start, never telling him that she is dying of tuberculosis.  Enter Giorgio Germont, Alfredo’s father, very much the opposite of Violetta, who represents the old-fashioned constricting social norms of the time.  He implores Violetta to break it off with Alfredo, telling her that she will ruin the family’s social standing and deny Alfredo’s sister any chance of a respectable marriage.  Violetta makes the ultimate sacrifice and ends it, becoming a victim of the societal rules she thought she had conquered.  Alfredo is crushed and enraged; he insults Violetta at a party in Paris and then goes away.  When he learns later that it was his own father who masterminded their breakup, he rushes back to find Violetta on her death bed where she dies in his arms.  

Jonathan Tetelman as Alfredo and Pretty Yende as Violetta offer a festive champagne toast as they sing their brindisi in Verdi’s “La Traviata.”
Photo: Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera
Simone Piazzola as Giorgio Germont and Pretty Yende as Violetta in Act II of Verdi’s “La Traviata.” The pergola of roses surrounding the garden suggests an idyllic Eden, where Violetta and Alfredo lived freely and happily for several months until Germont showed up to demand she break it off with his son. Photo: Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera

From the moment the curtain opened on Act I, a lively party in Violetta’s Parisian apartment, soprano Pretty Yende, the renowned South African bel canto interpreter, was dazzling. Dressed to the nines in her blue satin party dress, she sashayed across the floor, commanding attention and a sound that demanded to be heard.  Her famous duet with Alfredo, the drinking song “Brindisi, Libiamo ne’ lieti caliche che la bellezza infiora,” was full of fun and energy and had the audience swaying and humming.  Their beautiful duet, “Un di, felice, eterea, mi balenaste innante…” “One happy day you flashed before me…” was full of vocal gymnastics, which Yende seemed to blossom into as the performance went on. Their voices complimented each other’s exquisitely but they failed to demonstrate there was any real sizzle between them. Yende mesmerized the audience with her rapid-fire emotive “Sempre Libera,” (“Forever free”) a long, grueling test of a soprano’s mettle that she finished off with the customary, albeit briefly-held, E flat. 

Yende’s Act II encounter with Germont, Alfredo’s father, a key moment in the opera, was a high point.  Here, she is pressured into breaking up with Alfredo to save the family’s reputation and to allow Germont’s daughter to marry an appropriate suitor. Yende went from projecting strength, confidence and defiance and then dissolved into a shattered and dis-empowered wreck after agreeing to leave Alfredo.  Her brief aria “Amani Alfredo,” “Love me Alfredo, as much as I love you…” where she emotively poured out her soul was astounding.  Her big Act III goodbye to life aria, “Addio, del passato…” “Farewell to the past, beautiful, happy dreams…” was her most convincing singing of the evening. Coming after she receives a letter from Germont telling her that Alfredo knows about her sacrifice and is returning, she sings this tormented aria as a resigned farewell to a future with Alfredo and as an expression of her belief in the eternal power of love.

Jonathan Tetelman as Alfredo in Act II of Verdi’s “La Traviata,” set in courtesan Flora’s Parisian salon. Violetta has just lied to him, telling him that she loves Baron Duphol. He snaps and sings out his agony surrounded by the crowd. Photo: Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera

When tenor Jonathan Tetelman took the stage as Alfredo, “total package” was my hit—both him and his beautiful voice. I had a similar reaction years ago to Jonas Kaufmann after hearing him sing at the Met. Tetelman, a tall, dashing Chilean-American, conveyed Alfredo’s tender passion, intense rages and crippling remorse with such authenticity that he threatened to steal some of Pretty Yende’s thunder. He sang beautifully in his Act I duet with Violetta, “Un di, felice, eterea, mi balenaste innante,” (“One happy, ethereal day, you flashed before me,”) and was particularly compelling at the beginning of Act II in his “Lunge da lei” and “De’ miei bollenti spiriti’ (‘My passionate spirit’) singing with emotional directness and evoking a warm audience response.  In Act II, when he learns that Violetta has been selling off things to pay for their luxurious lifestyle at the country villa, his “O Mio Remorso! Oh infamia” was painful, heartfelt.  In Act III, when he returns to find Violetta dying, their duets were heart-wrenching.

Simone Piazzola as Giorgio Germont and Jonathan Tetelman as Alfredo in Act II of Verdi’s “La Traviata.” Photo: Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera

Italian baritone Simone Piazzola brought lyricism, intensity and tenderness to his SFO debut as Giorgio Germont.  In the ten years since he was on SFO’s stage as a Merola Fellow, he has become known for his moving portrayals in many of Verdi’s works.  He has a strong stage presence, having sung Germont with high praise over 200 times in some 30 productions around the world.  The role comes with its own set of dramatic challenges which are entwined with the music and convey his evolving perspective on Violetta and Alfredo’s relationship.  He struck a quite believable balance between wanting to preserve his family’s honor at all costs and finding that he really cares for Violetta and has misjudged her. His Act II aria “Pura siccome un angelo”(“Pure as an angel…”) sung to Violetta was heartfelt and passionate, reflecting his love of family and his “Di Provenza il mar il suol” (“The sea and soil of Provence”), sung to remind Alfredo of their home in Provence, was aching.  

In the smaller roles, bass Adam Lau was impressive as Dr. Grenvil and mezzo-soprano Taylor Raven sang beautifully as Flora.

Music Director Eun Sun Kim guided the SF Opera Orchestra masterfully.  The prelude opened on a somber theme foreshadowing Violetta’s illness and tragic death with very delicate, high strings in a sad melody.  The mood changed as the orchestra bounced energetically through Act I’s pleasure-filled Parisian party atmosphere. The rousing drinking song had the people around me humming and swaying in their seats and the intense outpouring of melody supporting Violetta’s “È strano / Ah, fors’è lui / Sempre libera” paralleled the new intense stirrings of love within her heart.  The violins played exquisitely again in the Prelude to Act III expressing tender hope which is overshadowed by despair.  Kim kept the orchestra moving along at a good clip, slowing things later in the opera as the mood shifts and Violetta’s illness and parental interference cast a dark spell. It will be a pleasure to hear her conduct Verdi in coming seasons.

One of the exciting things about a new production is seeing the creative transformation of a familiar scene—Act II’s party scene at Flora’s apartment was hit and miss.  The set was gorgeous, painted in shades of red and intricately designed with stained glass windows and faux tiles evoking Alhambra and a wall of erotic paintings on display in the background. The evening’s entertainment arrives and a raucous party ensues. The female chorus sings “We are Gypsies” and the male chorus “We are the Matadors from Madrid.”  Double-sided costumes—male on one side and female on the other were a hit with the audience. Less convincing was the a nod to the Marquis’ wild sexual proclivities—a male clad in a pink lace tutu who crawled on the floor imitating a dog.  

Pretty Yende as Violetta in Act II of Verdi’s “La Traviata.” Flora’s apartment, executed in shades of red with a gallery of erotic art would have been all the rage in certain circles in late 19th century Paris. Throughout the performance, Yende appears in stunning gowns. Photo: Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera
Pretty Yende as Violetta and Taylor Raven as Flora with members of the San Francisco Opera Chorus gathering around Violetta in a touching protective gesture to shield, end of Act II of Verdi’s “La Traviata.” Photo: Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera

In the end, it was Violetta’s descent into the throws of death, matched by the pathos of her singing that captivated us to her last breath. A complete surprise came when Violetta read Germont’s letter to her aloud in her spoken voice; hearing Yende’s South African accent felt quite intimate.

Details:

Six remaining performances of “La Traviata” are scheduled: Wednesday/16 (7:30 p.m.), Tuesday/22 (7:30 p.m.), Friday/25 (7:30 p.m.), Sunday/27 (2 p.m.), Wednesday/30 (7:30 p.m.); Saturday/December 3 (7:30 p.m.), 2022.  Sung in Italian with English supertitles.  Run-time: 2 hours, 58 minutes with 2 intermissions.  Tickets and information: https://www.sfopera.com/operas/la-traviata/

Saturday, November 7- 10pm: La Traviata Encounter:   Experience the romance, drama and passion of “La Traviata” in a new and unforgettable way. See Act I of Verdi’s La Traviata (approx. 30 minutes) with South African Soprano Pretty Yende as Violetta and Chilean-American tenor Jonathan Tetelman as Alfredo Germont.  Afterwards, enjoy an immersive evening of food, drinks and dancing in the transformed Opera House whose different lobbies will be inspired by scenes in the opera. Food and specially themed specialty cocktails will be available for purchase.  Read ARThound’s coverage here

November 16, 2022 Posted by | Opera | , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Welcome to Violetta’s world: SF Opera’s La Traviata Encounter—an evening of opera, drinks & sinful soirees, Saturday, November 19

South African Soprano Pretty Yende as Violetta in SFO’s dazzling new production of Verdi’s “La Traviata.”
Photo: Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera

For one night only, experience the romance, drama and passion of Verdi’s beloved opera, “La Traviata,” in a new and unforgettable way. First, listen to the music as the curtain at War memorial Opera House rises on the lavish salon of Parisian courtesan Violetta Valéry andAct I of Shawna Lucey’s new SFO production is performed in its entirety (approx. 30 minutes) with full orchestra, chorus and principal cast. South African Soprano Pretty Yende is Violetta and dashing Chilean-American tenor, Jonathan Tetelman, is Alfredo Germont singing the famous drinking song, “Libiamo ne’ lieti calici,” as well as their beautiful duet: “Un dì, felice, eterea, mi balenaste innante” (One happy, ethereal day you flashed before me). The SFO chorus will sing “Si ridesta in ciel l’aurora” (The dawn is awakening…). The Act closes with an impassioned display of Violetta’s vocal agility in her impassioned aria, “Sempre libera degg’io trasvolar di gioia in gioia” (It’s strange I shall always be free to fly from adventure to adventure).

Afterwards, the action moves into War Memorial Opera House’s gorgeous lobbies which have hosted opera audiences for decades, that have been transformed for one night only into exclusive party zones offering an immersive evening of food, drinks and dancing. The upper lobbies, recalling Act II, transport you to Violetta’s country Garden of Eden, capturing the feeling of passionate lovers secluded in nature. Interactive activities will round out the essence of heavenly love. The lower levels will tempt you to indulge in the sinful decadence of fellow courtesan Flora’s gambling party, with liquor and treats. It all culminates in a collective tribute to Violetta’s remarkable life with more drinking, dancing, love and lust in a Parisian Day of the Dead celebration for the ages.

Food and Traviata-themed specialty cocktails will be available for purchase, and all lobby experiences run concurrently after Act I until 10 p.m.  Some lobby areas will feature adult content; suggested for guests 21 and older, discretion is advised. Costumes are welcome, but ensure your fabulous look will not impact other guests’ enjoyment of the Act I performance in the theater! 

Details:

Tickets: $39 to $100 except VIP Box-level tickets ($189) which includes an exclusive, complimentary champagne pre-show reception beginning at 6pm, with lobbies opening to all ticket holders at 6:30 pm. Themed drinks and bites will be available for purchase throughout lobbies. The 30 minute performance begins at 7:30 p.m., and lobby experiences will continue until 10 p.m. Tickets and more information can be found at sfopera.com/encounter.

November 15, 2022 Posted by | Dance, Food, Opera | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

SFO’s “Dialogues of the Carmelites”―an opera of faith, with inspiring conversations sung to beautiful music―through Sunday, October 30

Acclaimed soprano Heidi Stober in her role debut at SFO as Blanche de la Force, a young noblewoman whose world is growing darker. Outside her Parisian manor walls, revolutionaries want her dead, so she takes refuge in a convent of nuns. Instead of sanctuary, she finds her calling and takes the ultimate stand for faith. SFO’s “Dialogues of the Carmelites” is sung entirely in beautiful French. Photo: Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera

Near the end of Act I in Francis Poulenc’s, “Dialogues of the Carmelites” at SFO (San Francisco Opera), the words of the dying prioress, Madame de Croissy (soprano Michaela Schuster), pierced me.  Delirious with pain and fear, and experiencing a crisis of faith, she cries out “Who am I at this moment, wretched as I am, to concern myself with Him! Let Him first concern himself with me!”  It’s heavy. Once death is knocking at her door, the old nun who has spent her life contemplating death, finds no comfort and instead lashes out at God. When a younger nun, Sister Constance (Soprano Deanna Breiwick) in conversation with the heroine, Blanche, later questions why a God-fearing nun like Madame de Croissy had to die such an agonizing death, she hints that perhaps the prioress didn’t die for herself but for someone else who would be surprised to find unexpected serenity when facing her own death. Conversations like this about our deep beliefs, examining God’s absence. and the very path of our souls make Poulec’s 1957 opera thought-provoking and timeless. Add his hauntingly poetic music, performed by SF Opera’s Orchestra under Music Director Eun Sun Kim, and singing by top talent and it all combines for an unforgettable experience. Running at two hours and fifty minutes, the new higher and immensely comfortable seating at War Memorial Opera House makes this an even more pleasurable experience. “Dialogues…” is at SF Opera through October 30 and can be live-streamed. This review pertains to Friday, October 21 performance.

Heidi Stober as Blanche de la Force and Michaela Schuster as Madame de Croissy in Poulenc’s “Dialogues of the Carmelites.” Stunning lighting by Bertrand Kelly, shines through angular openings in the walls, casting characters in dramatic light and defining space, complimenting Olivier Py and Daniel Izzo’s minimalist monochrome staging. Photo: Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera

As SFO celebrates its centennial year and musical landmarks in its rich history, it honors the company’s US premiere of “Dialogues of the Carmelites” in 1957 with a new co-production by Théâtre des Champs-Elysées and Théâtre Royal de la Monnaie, Bruxelles, conceived by Olivier Py with production design by Pierre-André Weitz and revival staging by Daniel Izzo. SFO’s 1957 premiere was especially noted for Soprano Leontyne Price’s stunning Lidoine–her first role with a major American opera company.  Poulenc wrote his opera in French and his libretto was after the text from a play by Georges Bernanos. The opera’s 1957 SFO premiere and subsequent SFO presentations in 1963 and 1982 used an English translation of the French libretto. SFO’s 2022 performances are the first to be sung in beautiful French using Poulenc’s original text.  

Set in 1789-1794 France, Poulenc’s “Dialogues” is based on the true story of the Martyrs of Compiègne, a community of sixteen Carmelite nuns who were guillotined during the French Revolution’s Reign of Terror for refusing to denounce their faith. The opera balances this terrible episode in French history with the inner spiritual journey of the fictional Blanche de la Force, a neurotic young woman from an aristocratic Parisian family whose fear of the oncoming Revolution drives her to seek refuge in the Carmelite order. Once in the convent in Compiègne, she encounters women who are deeply committed to their vocation and who have the strength of character she lacks.

Michaela Schuster as Madame de Croissy and Heidi Stober as Blanche de la Force in Poulenc’s “Dialogues of the Carmelites.”

Four women influence Blanche in very different ways and, along with Stober, are the opera’s key singers: the old prioress Mme. de Croissy, the sweet and lovable Sister Constance, the fervent assistant prioress Mother Marie, and the endearing Mme. Lidoine who becomes prioress after Croissy’s death. Despite that these characters are all sopranos, all dressed similarly, it was easy to distinguish their voices.

The opera begins and ends with Blanche de la Force and, once again, Heidi Stober wowed the audience with her stunning voice and mastery of the myriad of shifting emotions in this complex character. Stober made her first SFO appearances in fall 2010 as Sophie in “Werther” and as Susanna in “Le Nozze di Figaro.” She went on to mesmerize audiences with her spectacular glittering range as Pamina in Jun Kaneko’s “The Magic Flute,” and on to Kitty Hawks in “Show Boat” and Norina in “Don Pasquale” and many other roles. Singing flighty Blanche, in her role debut, required Stober to summon her darker tormented side, which she did in spades on Friday from her appearance in Act I as neurotic and fear-ridden to her Act II heartbreaking duet with her brother, the Chevalier de la Force (Ben Bliss) when she asserts her wish to stay and to die, if need be. Her remarkable transformation to a place of deep trusting faith, acceptance of death and sacrifice in Act III was masterful.

In her SFO debut, German soprano Michaela Schuster with her powerful turbulent sound was glorious in her death scene as the fear-ridden, almost blasphemous Mme. de Croissy. Deanna Breiwck as Constance, the youngest of the nuns and Blanche’s contemporary and comrade, sung her role with bright energy. She unnerved Blanche by expressing her hope to die young and in her eerie prediction that she and Blanche would die on the same day. Former Merola and Adler Fellow Melody Moore as assistant prioress, Mother Marie, has such a recognizable voice and masterful emotional affect that even in this small role she was memorable as she longed so deeply for martyrdom with her spiritual wards but was denied it. As the Reign of Terror approaches and the nuns are arrested, Michelle Bradley as new prioress, Mme. Lidoine was particularly compassionate in reminding the sisters that one does not choose to be a martyr; God chooses. She was enthralling in guiding the sisters in their vow of martyrdom. At the last moment, in the opera’s brilliantly staged final act, as the nuns are guillotined one by one, Blanche has come out of hiding. She summons her courage and steps out from the crowd to follow Sister Constance to the guillotine.

Deanna Breiwick as Sister Constance and Heidi Stober as Blanche de la Force in Poulenc’s “Dialogues of the Carmelites.” Closest to Blanche in age, fun-loving Constance quickly befriends Blanche but Blanche is unnerved when Constance expresses that she hopes to die young and then predicts that she and Blanche will die on the same day. Photo: Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera
Full of Christian references, from crosses to breathtaking mystical scenes enacted by the nuns, such as the birth of Christ using simple flat wooden cut outs against a backdrop of glowing light and the stark woods of Northern France, Py’s staging references the sacred. Photo: Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera
Efraín Solís as the Jailor (left) with the imprisoned Carmelite nuns about to be executed. Lighting designer Bertrand Killy paints brilliantly with light and shadow, defining space and giving form to the emotional experiences of the characters. Olivier Py’sand Daniel Izzo’s quiet monochrome set design, features sliding walls in strong geometrics. Photo: Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera

“Dialogues” doesn’t have traditional arias; rather it’s a series of beautifully sung, mostly brief conversations in arioso style singing which adapts speech-like patterns. In Act III’s dramatic conclusion, condemned to death, the Carmelites proceed barefoot hand in hand to an unseen guillotine, chanting the Marian prayer hymn “Salve Regina” (“Hail holy Queen”) against the backdrop of a clear starry night. Their voices grow quieter as the fourteen sisters, one by one, are silenced by the guillotine, until at the end, only Sister Constance can be heard. Just as she is about to be silenced, she sees Blanche stepping forward, and dies knowing that her friend has decided to rejoin her fellow sisters in martyrdom. Instead of continuing on with the “Salve Regina,” Blanche sings the four last lines of another beautiful prayer, the “Veni Creator Spiritus” (“Come Holy Spirit”), a text usually sung during the ordination of priests and at holy confirmation. Poulenc chose this prayer because it is associated with the absolute dedication of one’s life to God. Stober’s singing and acting was piercingly beautiful in these final moments, projecting inner calm and acceptance as she rejoins the Carmelites for eternity. They have all sacrificed their lives in peaceful resignation.

The finale of Poulenc’s “Dialogues of the Carmelites.” Olivier Py and Daniel Izzo arranged the sisters, all in white garb, in a semi-circle, holding hands singing “Salve Regina”, against the backdrop of a clear starry night. One by one, as the sound of the guillotine sound interrupted the hymn, one of the sisters put her head down and walked to the back and disappeared into the sky. Photo: Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera

The momentous simplicity of Olivier Py‘s and Daniel Izzo’s staging and designer Pierre-André Weitz’s sets strikes a balance between visual innuendo and the profound spiritual message of the dialogues.  Executed in dark shades of gray and relying on shifting of simple geometric forms—squares and crosses—and their interplay with streams of light; the sparse sets reinforce the sense of fear, of darkness closing in and snuffing out life as the French Revolution approaches.  In Act I, the library in the Marquis de la Force’s chateau is suggested by black wood paneling with a single elegant chandelier. Blanche’s passage into her religious life is reinforced by the four walls of the de la Force chateau cleverly retracting so that she actually walks through an opening in the shape of a cross bathed in light. Also notable is the staging of Prioress Mme. de Croissy’s death marking the end of Act I.  Her bed is affixed to the infirmary’s wall, so she’s vertical and the audience can fully take in her tormented tumultuous passing, with her arms flailing and outstretched, sometimes forming a cross.

Music Director Eun Sun Kim, conducting the opera for the first time led the orchestra in a beautiful and vibrant reading of Poulenc’s score, stressing the tonality of the score as well as its passages of plush lyricism.

Since this opera has such an intense psychological dimension, if you do go, your best experience will be had sitting close to the stage where you can see the singers’ expressions.

Details:

There are two remaining performances of “Dialogues of the Carmelites”: Wed, 10/26 at 7:30 pm; Sun, 10/30 at 2 pm. Run Time: 2 hours and 50 min, with one intermission following Act I. Tickets: Purchase online: https://www.sfopera.com/operas/dialogues-of-the-carmelites/ .

Traffic alert: If you are driving in from the North Bay, allow at least 45 min travel/parking time from the Golden Gate Bridge to War Memorial Opera House. For a list of parking garages closest to the opera house, visit https://sfopera.com/plan-your-visit/directions-and-parking/

October 25, 2022 Posted by | Opera | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

The 45th Mill Valley Film Festival starts Thursday—what to watch

Still of M.F.K. Fisher from Gregory Bezat’s documentary, “The Art of Eating: The Life of M.F.K. Fisher,” which has its world premiere Tuesday, October 11, at MVFF. Fisher,”Mary Frances,” to her family and friends, wrote thirteen books during twenty-one years of residence in her “Last House,” in Glen Ellen which was built for her by Bouverie Preserve landowner and architect David Pleydell-Bouverie. It was there, between 1971 and 1992. that she welcomed friends such as Julia Child, James Beard, and Maya Angelou for conversations at the table. Photo: courtesy Gregory Bezat.

The forty-fifth Mill Valley Film Festival (MVFF45) kicks off Thursday evening (Oct 6) with Rian Johnson’s all-new whodunnit, “Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery,” with plenty of talent on stage in conversation, followed by the always wonderful Opening Night Gala at Marin Country Mart Larkspur. Screenings start full force Friday and run for 10 days with a line-up of 145 films representing 34 countries, including 49 premieres (four of them world premieres), 74 features, and 71 shorts.  Big Nights (Spotlights/Tributes/Centerpiece/Special awards) were covered in my previous article (read it here).  Here are films from the standard line-up that stand out for their exceptional storytelling and relevance. Many of these have guests in attendance and brief engaging discussions will follow most screenings. 

ARThound’s top flicks:

“The Art of Eating: The Life of MFK Fisher,” world premiere Tuesday, Oct 11, 7pm, Smith Rafael Film Center & Thursday, October 13, 2pm, CinéArts Sequoia

M.F.K Fisher in Whittier, CA, January 4, 1938. Image: courtesy Gregory Bezat.

Steeped in beauty, Gregory Bezat’s sumptuous documentary is a must-see, exploring the life and legacy of M.F.K. Fisher (1908-1992), one of America’s most influential writers who spent the last decades of her life in the Wine Country. The film pieces together Fisher’s life over three-quarters of a century: from her upper middle-class childhood in Whittier, CA, through her marriage and move to Dijon, France, her divorce and return to the US, her remarriage and young widowhood, and her emergent role in shaping our ever-evolving relationship with what we eat and how we live. She was best known for her incisive gastronomic writings in hundreds of magazine articles and thirty-three books including “Consider the Oyster,” “How to Cook a Wolf,” “An Alphabet for Gourmets,” “Map of Another Town,” “With Bold Knife and Fork,” and “The Story of Wine in California.” When Fisher settled in Napa Valley, it was 1952, and a local food revolution was underway, with chefs and activists intent on supplanting industrialized food with a cuisine based on simple, fresh, local ingredients. Over time, she took her place as the patron saint of this new movement. With thoughtful comments by Alice Waters, Anne Lamont, Ruth Reichl, Clark Wolf, Jacques Pépin, and Michele Anna Jordan, all of whom considered her a friend, this is a finely-crafted homage to a woman whose humor and appetite for life inspired millions. The visuals are stunning: instead of a simple pastiche of old photos, the camera gazes directly at certain photos for extended periods, frequently returning to shots of her at her typewriter or to glamorous Hollywood-style shots that capture her beauty and verve—especially her miraculous eyebrows whose unruly arches were as individualistic as she was. Like the nourishing dishes that Fisher wrote about, thrown together from the bounty on hand and to suit one’s mood, I can imagine watching this film once a month forever and never growing tired of it.

¡Viva el cine!

MVFF’s ¡Viva el Cine! series has captured my heart and I’ve been a devotee for its nine years of programming. This year, it offers 11 award-winning Latin American and Spanish language feature films from Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Cuba, Ecuador, Mexico, Spain, the US and Uruguay. Curated by MVFF programmer João Federici, the series’ spellbinding storytelling and special guests make it an increasingly influential forum for the exploration of Latin American and indigenous history/justice, culture and identity and an increasingly important anchor for the festival.

“Argentina, 1985” Monday, Oct 10, 6:45 pm & Tuesday, Oct 11, 11 am, both Smith Rafael Film Center.  (Santiago Mitre, 2022, Argentina/US, 140 min, Spanish with English subtitles)   

Ricardo Darín as prosecutor Julio Strassera in a still from Santiago Mitre’s “Argentina: 1985,” Argentina’s 2023 Oscar submission for Best Foreign Film.

One of the most significant legal trials in Argentina’s history is the basis for Argentinian director Santiago Mitre’s (“Paulina,” “The Summit”) riveting new feature, arriving at MVFF fresh from rave reviews at its Venice Film Festival world premiere. This compelling courtroom drama begins in 1983 when, after finally re-establishing democracy following decades of military coups, Argentine President Raúl Alfonsín authorizes prosecutors Julio Strassera (Ricardo Darín), Luis Moreno Ocampo (Peter Lanzani), and their young legal team to try nine military leaders for crimes against humanity.  It’s an enthralling high-stakes David vs. Goliath battle. The team works under constant threat and roadblocks to gain justice for those estimated 9 to 30,000 citizens who were tortured, murdered or disappeared under the terror of Argentina’s right-wing dictatorship and its ruthless silencing of political opposition. The trial was the world’s first major war crimes trial since Nuremberg in 1945-46. Through courtroom testimony — adapted from original records — Mitre lays out the harrowing wake of the last junta whose impact still resonates in the country today.  Veteran actor Ricardo Darín’s psychologically charged portrayal of the uncompromising bulldog Strassera is a sight to behold.  As a foil to the heavy intensity of the courtroom, Mitre intersperses scenes from Strassera’s family life with his kids.

“Chile 1976,” US premiere, Oct 8, 7pm & Oct 13, 2pm, both Smith Rafael Film Center (Manuela Martelli, Chile, Argentina, Qatar, 2022, 95 min, Spanish w/ English subtitles)

Aline Kuppenhiem as Carmen in a still from Manurla Martelli’s debut film, “Chile: 1976.”

Chilean director Manuela Martelli’s debut feature is set during the country’s dreaded Pinochet era (1973-1990) when the country was ruled by a military junta headed by General Augusto Pinochet,who seized power after the democratically-elected socialist government of Salvador Allende was overthrown in a U.S. backed coup d’état.  Pinochet’s systematic suppression of political parties and persecution of dissidents lead to thousands of deaths and thirty years later, the country is still reeling.  “Chile 1976” tells a powerful fictional story that delivers a sharply-focused snapshot of Chile’s sociological cosmos in this period.and that, by any stretch of the imagination, could be true. The elements are familiar to those devotees of Latin American cinema—a wealthy upper-middle class housewife, Carmen (Aline Kuppenheim) so ensconced in her cozy bourgeois lifestyle—renovating her elegant beach house—that she is unaware of what evil is transpiring in the country; an intermediary—local priest Father Sanchez (Hugo Medina); a victim—Elías (Nicolás Sepúlveda), a young fugitive from the law who has been shot and urgently needs help and a hiding place.  Hardly cliches, these components/characters are masterfully deployed by Martelli. The idrama hinges on Kuppenheim’s acting and transformation into someone suddenly shaken into political awareness, who commits to helping and, in so doing, joins the fight to end the reign of terror. 

“Holy Spider” Bay Area premiere, Tuesday, Oct 11, 4pm, Smith Rafael Film Center (Ali Abbasi, Denmark 2022, 106 min, Iranian languages with English subtitles)

Zar Amir-Ebrahimi, winner Best Actress at Cannes 2022, in a still from Ali Abbasi’s thriller, “The Spider.” Image”

An Iranian film is a rare treat at MVFF.  Here’s a Cannes winner with a storyline about a female Iranian journalist hot on the trail of a serial killer who is murdering prostitutes in one of Iran’s holiest cities.  This thriller is Iran-born, Denmark-based director Ali Abbasi’s third feature, (“Border” MVFF41, Cannes’ Un Certain Regard Award winner and Oscar nominee) and he delivers a mesmerizing cat and mouse nail-biter based on the embellished true story of Iranian serial killer Saeed Hanaei (Mehdi Bajestani). Nicknamed “Spider Killer,” he slew 16 prostitutes in 2000 and 2001 in the northeastern city of Mashad, Iran’s third largest city and a major Islamic pilgrimage site, dumping their bodies in plain sight.  After his conviction, Bajestani became a folk hero to the religious right for claiming to be on a holy mission to cleanse the city of prostitution.  Abbasi shot the film in Ahman Jordan and employs a violent murder mystery to deliver a critique of Iran’s punishing theocratic system, where women seem to always be guilty of something, even when they’re the victims of cold-blooded murder. The film takes artistic license in introducing a fictional investigative journalist from Tehran, Rahimi (Zar Amir-Ebrahimi), who won Best Actress at Cannes 2022, where the film screened in competition), who shows up in Mashad eager to solve this long-running case.  When she teams up with a local reporter (Arash Ashtiani) who is in contact with the killer, they concoct a plan to use her as an undercover sex worker to lure the killer out.  What unfolds is a mesmerizing push-pull game between journalist and killer.

“Living” CA premiere, Monday Oct 9, 7pm & Tues 10/11, 2:30pm, both CinéArts Sequoia (Director: Oliver Hermanus, UK, 2022, 102 min)

Bill Nighy in a still from Oliver Harmanus’ period drama, “Living.”

Sometimes life offers you a second chance…it’s called tomorrow.  

In Oliver Harmanus’ beautiful period drama, “Living,” English actor Bill Nighy, gives a brilliant performance as a severely repressed career bureaucrat in a public works department in 1952 England.  His robotic, joyless paper-shuffling routine has earned him the nickname “Mr. Zombie” and, indeed, he seems hardly alive. When he learns he has six months left to live, he vows to make his final days meaningful.  But how? The rift between him and his only son and daughter-in-law is so wide that even his attempts to communicate about his diagnosis fail.  It is through a fortuitous conversation with a young kind co-worker (the sparkling Aimee Lou Wood), that he finds connection and hope.  He shifts his focus to bringing happiness to others through shepherding a small public works project and, in this generous act, is able to face death with peaceful acceptance.  Adapted by Nobel prize winning novelist Kazuo Ishiguro, this poignant remake of Kurosawa’s 1952 masterpiece “Ikiru,” which translates as “to live” in Japanese, finds its meaning in its name and message. Nighy’s mastery of every expression as a buttoned-up person who blooms briefly but so meaningfully is thoroughly inspiring.  The production design and period costumes are Oscar worthy. 

“Tukdam: Between Worlds” North American premiere, Wednesday Oct 12, 6:30 pm and Friday, Oct 14, 5pm, both Smith Rafael Film Center (Director: Donagh Coleman, Finland, Ireland, Estonia, 2022, 91 min)

A still from “Tukdam: Between Worlds” of a commemoration ceremony, prior to cremation, at the Benchen Monastery in Kathmandu, Nepal. Image: Donagh Coleman.

In what Tibetans call “tukdam,” some advanced Buddhist practitioners who meditate at the deepest level of consciousness right before death, die but their bodies do not show the usual signs of death—rigor mortis, smelling/decomposition—for days or even weeks.  They remain slightly warm around their heart area with radiant skin and complexion and in the meditation position without their trunks collapsing.  According to Tibetan Buddhist tradition, consciousness is still present and they are between two worlds.  Director Donagh Coleman, who is currently working on his medical anthropology PhD at UC Berkeley, where his dissertation is on tukdam, tracks a team of forensic anthropologists at University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Center for Healthy Minds. He captures interviews with Western scientists, Tibetan medical professionals, the Dalai Lama, and respected bhikkhus in the U.S. and Tibetan refugee communities in Dharamshala and Chauntra, India, and in Kathmandu Nepal. This spellbinding documentary explores current research into tukdam, in which the cessation of brain function, breathing, and heart activity, all Western indications of death, are not necessarily life’s clear-cut end but instead a pliant threshold. Applying Western science to ancient traditions and belief systems proves there is more data to be mined.  Beware:  you will see lots of corpses, some in severe decomp.

Details:

MVFF45 is October 6-16, 2021.  Tickets: purchase online and in advance as most films will sell out. Most films are $16.50 general admission, $14 CFI members.  Special events, parties, and receptions are more.  Streaming pass (for CA residents only) allows access to all online films, programs, conversations. $145 general, $105 for CFI members.  Single streaming of film or event $8 general; $6 CFI members. Complete schedule and ticket purchase: https://www.mvff.com/.

Don’t despair if the film you want to see is “at rush.”  Check the film/program’s specific page on the MVFF website at noon on the day of the program you want to see.  Tickets may be released and available for immediate purchase online.  Rush tickets are also available 15 minutes before show time at the screening venue.  It’s first come, first serve, so join the line to wait about an hour before the screening.

Venues: Smith Rafael Film Center, San Rafael; CinéArts Sequoia, Mill Valley; Lark Theater, Larkspur; BAMPFA. Berkeley; The Roxie, San Francisco; Sweetwater Music Hall, Mill Valley; Mission Cultural Center for Latino Arts, San Francisco

October 4, 2022 Posted by | Film, Food | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The 45th Mill Valley Film Festival is October 6-16: Big Nights Galore!

Following the West Coast premiere of Darren Aronofsky’s drama, “The Whale,” star Brendan Fraser, will appear in conversation and receive a MVFF acting award on Thursday, October 13 at Mill Valley’s Sequoia Theater. Frasier, the subject of Oscar buzz,  recently received a six-minute standing ovation at the Venice Film Festival for his acting as a 600 pound gay literature teacher who is confined to a wheelchair, trying to reconnect with his 17 year-old daughter and binge-eating himself to death.  Photo: courtesy A24

The 45th Mill Valley Film Festival, October 6-16, has its pre-pandemic groove back, offering 145 films from 34 countries—49 premieres, hot tickets from Cannes, Berlin, Venice, an eclectic mix of features, documentaries, shorts, world cinema and films with a special Bay Area stamp. The festival is live, with theaters at full seating capacity, and several films and programs can be streamed from home. Tickets for non-CFI (California Film Institute ) members are on sale now and going fast.  Most in-theater screenings, save a few big nights, are available now. This won’t last for long, so browse the program and don’t dally in pre-purchasing tickets.  Several of these films will figure in the looming Oscar race and it’s very gratifying to say “I already saw that,” and even more meaningful if you’ve experienced an on-stage conversation.  Below, ARThound covers this year’s eight big nights and a follow-up article will cover recommendations from the standard program.

BIG NIGHTS:

Thursday, October 6, 6 pm: Opening Night—Glass Onion: A Knives out Mystery, CinéArts Sequoia and Smith Rafael Film Center:

A scene from “Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery.” Image: Netflix

Humor, a whodunit mystery and wonderful acting from a star-studded cast—opening night is Academy Award® and Golden Globe®-nominated filmmaker Rian Johnson’sGlass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery” with talent in attendance. A follow-up to “Knives Out” (MVFF42) starring Daniel Craig as amazing sleuth Benoit Blanc, this smart Netflix mystery begins when a group of old friends all receive an unexpected invitation in the form of an intricate puzzle box.  What begins as a game however soon turns into something more nefarious as the guests arrive at their mega-rich host, Mile’s (Edward Norton) private island.  Wherever Benoit goes, murder is likely to follow.   With quick wits and aplomb, the guests are soon entangled in solving a puzzle that will reveal Benoit’s murderer.  

Enjoy an on-stage chat with the celebs in attendance—writer-director Rian Johnson, actors Kathryn Hahn, Leslie Odom Jr., and Kate Hudson, producer Ram Bergman. Don’t forget the optional MVFF Opening Night Gala at Marin Country Mart Larkspur celebrating the glamor of cinema with delicious local cuisine, great music and flowing spirits shared with attending special guests, filmmakers, film fans.

Saturday, October 8, 6:30 pm: Armageddon Time—Tribute to James Gray, Smith Rafael Film Center

Banks Repeta and Anthony Hopkins in a scene from “Armageddon Time.” Image: Focus Features

In “Armageddon Time,” his eighth feature film, acclaimed American director James Gray returns again to New York, this time to his childhood stomping grounds, the area between Brooklyn and Queens. He has orchestrated another brilliant character study, as well as a powerful exploration of racism, white privilege, and parenting.  The film rests on two exceptional young actors: Banks Repeta, 14, and Jaylin Webb 16.  Banks Repeta stars as Paul, a white kid living in Queens in the early 1980s, hoping to escape his parents’ working-class suburban life and become an artist.  When he befriends Johnny (Jaylin Webb), his Black public school classmate, his education in life begins; it then ratchets into high gear when he transfers to an elite private school where racism is du jour. Anne Hathaway and Jeremy Strong play Paul’s weary parents, with Anthony Hopkins as his astute grandfather, the one person who gets him and talks openly with him about racism, civil rights, mistreating Blacks and his own experience as a Jew.  Paul wises up, awakening to the difference between what his parents and other adults preach and what they actually do.  It’s all set against the backdrop of the soon to be Reagan-era with the appearance of some Trumps as well.

Sunday, October 9, 5 pm—Women Talking: Spotlight & Mind the Gap Ensemble Award, Smith Rafael Film Center

A still from Sarah Polley’s “Women Talking.”  L to R: Michelle McLeod stars as Mejal, Sheila McCarthy as Greta, Liv McNeil as Neitje, Jessie Buckley as Mariche, Claire Foy as Salome, Kate Hallett as Autje, Rooney Mara as Ona and Judith Ivey as Agata. Michael Gibson © 2022 Orion Releasing LLC.

With a cast that includes Rooney Mara, Jessie Buckley, Claire Foy, Ben Whishaw, and Frances McDormand (in a tiny but crucial role), Canadian director Sarah Polley has found her own version of a horrific true story from 2011, which inspired Miriam Toews’ 2018 novel of the same name. The events took place in an ultra-conservative Mennonite colony in Bolivia and involve a group of men who were convicted of drugging and serially raping over 100 women from their community. In “Women Talking,” the women hold a secret meeting to decide how to respond to being drugged and raped by the men in their sect. Their poignant daylong deliberations in the barn’s hayloft reveal the various ways that women respond to violence and the choices they can make.

Representing the ensemble, inimitable Frances McDormand will appear on stage in conversation. She has received four Academy Awards, two Primetime Emmy Awards and one Tony Award, making her one of the few to achieve acting’s Triple Crown.  Thoughtful and feisty, with over four decades of acting experience, McDormand is sure to wow us.

Tuesday, October 11, 7pm—Till: Mind the Gap Centerpiece Award: Creativity and Truth, CinéArts Sequoia

 
(L to R) Jayln Hall as Emmett Till and Danielle Deadwyler as Mamie Till-Mobley in a scene from “Till,” directed by Chinonye Chukwu. Photo: Lynsey Weatherspoon/Orion Pictures.

“Till” is the true story of Mamie Till-Mobley (Danielle Deadwyler) and her dogged pursuit of justice for her 14-year-old son, Emmette Louis Till (Jalyn Hall) who, in 1955, was lynched while visiting his cousins in Mississippi. Writer-director Chinonye Chukwu (Clemency MVFF42) focuses the horrific story on the grief-stricken mother, a teacher, who boldly decides to seek justice for her son and whose action changes the course of history.  The cast includes Whoopi Goldberg.  Writer/director Chinonye Chukwu will appear in conversation.

Thursday, October 13, 7pm—The Whale: Tribute to Bredan Fraser, CinéArts Sequoia

To play the lead character in Darren Aronofsky’s “The Whale,” Brendan Fraser wore a prosthetic suit that added anywhere from 50 to 300 pounds depending on the scene. He spent up to six hours in the makeup chair each day to fully transform into his character, a 600 pound morbidly obese man.  Image: Getty

Friday, October 14, 6 pm—Bardo, False Chronicle of a Handful of Truths: Spotlight on DANIEL GIMÉNEZ CACHO + Presentation of the MVFF award for Acting, Smith Rafael Film Center

Daniel Giménez Cacho in a still from Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s “Bardo, False Chronicle of a Handful of Truths.”  Image: MVFF

Five time-Oscar®-winning director Alejandro G. Iñárritu (“Biutiful,” MVFF33; “The Revenant”) delivers what has been called an “immersive and visually-intoxicating modern day epic” centered on Silverio (Daniel Giménez Cacho), a renowned Mexican journalist and documentary filmmaker living in Los Angeles who returns to Mexico after being named the recipient of an prestigious award.  Silverio is unaware of the impact this trip will have on his psyche and each of his days in his homeland brings profound hallucinogenic revelations about his identity and what it means to be human.  My first experience of Spanish born Mexican actor Daniel Giménez Cacho was in Argentine director Lucretia Martel’s period drama, “Zama” (2017), where he gave a captivating performance as a magistrate in a remote outpost in 18th century Argentina.  This multiple Ariel award winner is best known in the US for portraying Tito the coroner in “Cronos” (1993).

Saturday, October 15, 6pm—Nanny: Spotlight on Nikyatu Jusu, CinéArts Sequoia

Ana Diop is Senaglaise nanny Aisha in Nikyatu’s drama “The Nanny,” an intense immigrant story inflicted with supernatural horror elements. Image: MVFF

Sierra Leonean-American filmmaker Nikyatu Jusu’s debut feature drama, “The Nanny,” premiered at Sundance and is the first horror film to win the grand jury prize. Ana Diop plays Senaglaise immigrant nanny, Aisha, who is living in New York and lands a job as a nanny caring for Rose (Rose Decker) the young daughter of affluent Amy (Michelle Monaghan) and Adam (Morgan Spector). Aisha is working to provide a better life for her six-year-old son, Lamine, who she left in Senegal and hopes to bring to the US. Just as she gains confidence that things will work out, she experiences a haunting presence in the couple’s home as figures from West African folklorewater deity Mami Wata and Anansi the Spidercome to life. Increasingly freaked out, she struggles to distinguish dreams from reality and to find balance between her two worlds. DP Rina Yang’s dynamic cinematography brings these eerie visions to life. Both Director Nikyatu Jusu and actor Ana Diop will appear on stage in conversation.

Saturday, October 15, 7 pm—Spotlight on Noah Baumbach: White Noise + Presentation of the MVFF Award for Screenwriting

Adam Driver in a scene from Noah Baumbach’s “White Noise.” Image: MVFF

Writer director producer Noah Baumbach’s “White Noise,” the film version of Don DeLillo’s 1985 National Book Award-winning novel of the same name, was the opening night film at Venice Film Festival. MVFF is honoring Baumbach with a special screenwriting award. This is his first film since his acclaimed “Marriage Story” (MVFF42 Ensemble Award) and he’s been a MVFF regular over the years—“The Squid and the Whale” (MVFF28) and “Margot at the Wedding” (MVFF30).  The film follows DeLillo’s plot closely with brilliantly punctuated scenes from its star cast. Jack (Adam Driver) is a star professor at a Midwestern college, who pioneered the field of Hitler studies. He and his fourth wife Babette (Greta Gerwig) share four ultra-modern children from their various marriages in a happy household. Don Cheadle adds a striking supporting twist as Murray, a professor starting a new field of Elvis studies with whom Jack shares kinship and friendly rivalry. Things begin to unravel as a toxic cloud drifts into their environs, prompting mass evacuation and giving voice to existential fears.

Details:

MVFF45 is October 6-16, 2021.  Tickets: purchase online and in advance as most films will sell out. Most films are $16.50 general admission, $14 CFI members.  Special events, parties, and receptions are more.  Streaming pass (for CA residents only) allows access to all online films, programs, conversations. $145 general, $105 for CFI members.  Single streaming of film or event $8 general; $6 CFI members. Complete schedule and ticket purchase: https://www.mvff.com/.

Sold out? Don’t Despair: Check the film/program’s specific page on the MVFF website at noon on the day of the program you want to see. Tickets may be released and available for immediate purchase online. Also, there are always rush tickets available 15 minutes before showtime at the screening venue. It’s first come, first serve, so join the line to wait about an hour before the screening.

Venues: Smith Rafael Film Center, San Rafael; CinéArts Sequoia, Mill Valley; Lark Theater, Larkspur; BAMPFA. Berkeley; The Roxie, San Francisco; Sweetwater Music Hall, Mill Valley; Mission Cultural Center for Latino Arts, San Francisco

September 25, 2022 Posted by | Film, Food | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Zahi Hawass, the famed face of Egyptian archaeology, will speak at the de Young this Saturday, revealing new discoveries

Dr. Zahi Hawass, archaeologist, celebrity, and Egypt’s former minister of Antiquities. Photo: Egypt Today

Widely known as Egypt’s Indiana Jones, the renowned archaeologist, Dr. Zahi Hawass, is speaking this Saturday, 2-3:30 pm, at the de Young’s Koret Auditorium, coinciding with the opening of the traveling Egyptian blockbuster, “Ramses the Great and the Gold of the Pharaohs” (August 20, 2022 – February 12, 2023). Sponsored by FAMSF’s Ancient Art Council, this is the first of four guest lectures associated with the Ramses exhibition.  Anyone who has ever encountered the charismatic Hawass on the National Geographic or Discovery channels or caught his reality show, “Chasing Mummies: The Amazing Adventures of Zahi Hawass,” on the History Channel knows they’re in for a treat.  His thrilling in-the-trenches stories have revitalized interest in Egyptian archaeology around the world.  

Dr. Hawass will regale the audience with the discoveries at Saqqara, which has proven to be treasure trove that keeps on giving. Saqqara is where the oldest complete stone building complex in history was erected and where as many as 16 different Ancient Egyptian Pharaohs are thought to have planned and built their pyramids. Hawass will tell of a new pyramid in Saqqara; the name of a previously unknown queen; and the discovery of 57 shafts of coffins and mummies.  He will also discuss the ongoing excavation at Gisr el Mudir, in Saqqara, and the uncovering of major statues dating back 4,300 years ago found while searching for the missing pyramid of the Third-Dynasty King Huni.  He will touch upon recent excavations in the Valley of the Kings and the search for Nefertiti and Ankhesenamun (King Tut’s wife) and the use of  DNA analysis to complete the family tree of Tutankhamun.  The presentation will conclude with the amazing find of the Lost Golden City, near Luxor—considered the most important discovery of 2021

The ruins of a “lost golden city” in the southern province of Luxor, discovered in 2021. The city dates to the 1300s B.C.E., when it was founded by 18th dynasty king Amenhotep III, who ruled ancient Egypt from 1391 to 1353 B.C.  One of the most important finds since the unearthing of King Tutankhamun’s tomb 100 years ago in 1922, the city is believed to have been used by Tutankhamun and his successor Ay during a period widely believed to be the golden era of ancient Egypt. Image: AP

After earning a degree in Egyptology in Cairo, at age 33, Hawass earned a Fulbright fellowship, came to America, and completed his Ph.D. in Egyptology at the University of Pennsylvania in 1987. In 2002, during Mubarak’s rule, he was appointed as Egypt’s Secretary General of the Supreme Council of Antiquities, which in 2011 became the Ministry of State for Antiquities. During his tenure, Hawass revolutionized archaeological site management in Egypt and revitalized its museum system, opening 15 museums to the public and initiating the construction of 20 more, including The Grand Egyptian Museum, slated to open in fall 2022 as the largest archaeological museum in the world with an extensive archaeological collection of some 50,000 artifacts and the full tomb collection of King Tutankhamun.

Hawass is a bold advocate for Egyptians reclaiming Egyptology and has successfully repatriated more than 5,000 artifacts. In 2020, he formed a committee that has been focusing efforts on the return of five priceless Egyptian artifacts: the Rosetta Stone at the British Museum; an exquisite bust of Nefertiti (1345 BCE) at Berlin’s Neues Museum; the Dendera zodiac sculpture (ca. 50 BCE) in the Louvre Museum; a statue of Hemiunu (Old Kingdom) at the Roemer and Pelizaeus Museum in Hildesheim, Germany; and a bust of Prince Ankhhaf (ca. 2520-2494 BCE) located in the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. So far, those institutions have refused.

ARThound’s Ramses coverage: “Ramses the Great and the Gold of the Pharaohs” opens August 20 at the de Young—rare lion cub mummy and stunning virtual reality experience add to the buzz

Details: Lecture is 2-3:30 pm at the de Young’s Koret auditorium. Free but requires a ticket which will be distributed on a first-come first-served basis at 1 pm, just outside the Koret auditorium.  Seating is limited and unassigned.

Admission to  “Ramses the Great and the Gold of the Pharaohs,” is separate. Different prices for weekdays vs. weekends. FAMSF members free for one visit only; additional visits require $23 member tickets.  Non-member Adult prices: weekdays: $35; weekend $40.

Saturday, August 20, is free Saturday, which includes general museum entrance and all exhibits that do not have a surcharge, including  Faith Ringgold: American People, covering 50 years of the trailblazing Harlem-born African American artist’s work, the first retrospective celebrating her in almost 40 years (through November 27).

August 17, 2022 Posted by | Art, de Young Museum | , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Ramses the Great and the Gold of the Pharaohs” opens August 20 at the de Young—rare lion cub mummy and stunning virtual reality experience add to the buzz

Installation view of “Ramses the Great and the Gold of the Pharaohs,” at the de Young Museum August 20, 2022 -February 12, 2023. Image: World Heritage Exhibitions.

Closing summer with a bang, we’re off to ancient Egypt.  “Ramses the Great and the Gold of the Pharaohs,” opens Saturday, August 20, at the de Young Museum.  The first exhibition about Ramses the Great in over 30 years and the first ever in San Francisco, this multimedia extravaganza has the de Young as the second stop on its global tour. Fresh from its world premiere at HMNS (Houston Museum of Natural Sciences) where it received rave reviews, it includes 180 objects, the most important trove of treasures related to Ramses the Great ever to leave Egypt.

Many of these items are newly discovered and have never toured before. Among the rarest finds are recently excavated mummies of lion cubs from the Saqqara necropolis—a vast ancient burial ground, some 30 miles south of Cairo, that once served the Ancient Egyptian capital of Memphis—as well as treasures discovered in the royal tombs of Dahshur and Tanis.  

The de Young promises gallery after gallery of royal statues, sarcophagi, spectacular masks, magnificent jewelry, and ornate golden tomb treasures all revealing the fabulous wealth of the pharaohs, the astonishing skill of ancient Egyptian tomb builders, and the superb workmanship of Egyptian artists. Drone photography, immersive video and multimedia productions, and life-size photo-murals will re-create pivotal moments from Ramses’ life, including his monumental building projects and his triumph in May 1274 BC over the Hittites at the Battle of Kadesh (near the modern Lebanon–Syria border), considered the largest chariot battle ever fought. This exciting blending of art, history, and technology that will expand our understanding of Ramses’ as the most celebrated pharaoh of the New Kingdom, Egypt’s golden age.

Mummified lion cub, Egyptian late period, Ptolemaic Period, Linen, 5 1/8 x 13 ¾ x 7 1/16 inches, Sharm al-Sheik Museum.  In late 2019, five lion cub mummies were discovered in a catacomb of cat mummies underneath the ruins of the Bubasteion temple in Saqqara, some 20 miles south of Cairo, on the Nile’s West Bank.  Pior to that, only one other lion mummy had been discovered in Egypt.  The lion played a tremendous role in the iconography of ancient Egypt symbolizing royal authority and lions have been found on Egyptian royal beds and chairs.  Image: courtesy Egyptian Ministry of Antiquities

“This is a once in a lifetime experience,” said curator Dr. Renée Dryfus, recently named FAMSF’s George and Judy Marcus Distinguished Curator in Charge, Ancient Art, who organized the exhibit’s presentation for the de Young. “These objects are coming from Egypt’s major museums and when they go back to Egypt, I doubt you will be seeing them again for many generations.”

Jewelry held a significant place in the lives of the ancient Egyptians, anchoring social status and helping them transcend into the afterlife. You’ll want to take your time with the exhibit’s stunning jewelry, noting its generous use of gold and semi-precious stones, intricate craftsmanship, and a built-in language of protection to ward off evil. If you’re like me, you’ll probably also be asking yourself why there is no tech gimmick that lets viewers try these on these exquisite pieces and imagine themselves as Egyptian royalty.

Ramses and his many wives and children wore elaborate gold earrings, bracelets, rings and necklaces, examples of which are on display. They considered gold to be “the skin of the gods.” An ornate single gold earring bears the name of Ramses the Eleventh. Ramses II was so revered that, after his death, nine more Pharaohs bore his name. The three rows of decorations are tiny cobras snakes wearing sun disks and Atef crowns rearing up to strike anyone who dares to harm the King.

Eternally fashionable: Falcon-headed collar and counterweight of Princess Neferuptah. Egyptian, Middle Kingdom, Dynasty 12 Gold, carnelian, and feldspar, 14 1/2 in. (36.8 cm) Egyptian Museum, Cairo.  Photo: Sandro Vannini, FAMSF

A gorgeous collar, made of six rows of carnelian, feldspar, and glass paste beads with the bottom row droplets representing flower buds is one of the treasures discovered in the Hawara tomb of 12th dynasty Princess Neferuptah, daughter of Amenemhat III (who ruled around 1860-1814BC). Neferuptah lived roughly 500 years before Ramses II. The solid gold ends are shaped as large falcon heads—symbolizing protection in the afterlife by the falcon god, Horus.  At 36 cm wide, roughly 14 inches, it has considerable weight and employs an opulent counterweight at the back to help prevent the collar slipping down the chest while being worn.  This necklace bears a striking resemblance to a collar found within the innermost coffin of Tutankhamun, who lived roughly 200 years before Neferuptah and was buried with six collars, each with exquisite gold falcon head ends.  One of these collars, which was discovered draped over Tut’s thighs, employs a very similar design scheme to Neferuptah’s collar and has the same droplet beads, representing flower buds, as its final row. The exhibit also includes the breathtaking 22nd dynasty cuff bracelet of Sheshonq II, a masterpiece in gold inlaid with lapis lazuli, carnelian and faience and a huge inlaid eye of Horus.

VR component: “Ramses & Nefertari: Journey to Osiris.”  Visitors sit in Positron Voyager Chairs, state-of-the-art VR pod chairs, and travel to ancient Egypt in an experience overwhelmingly described as “exciting” by visitors to its reveal at Houston Museum of Natural Sciences.  Image: World Heritage Exhibitions

Visitors can also enjoy the optional Ramses & Nefertari: Journey to Osiris, a thrilling 10 minute and 30 second VR (virtual reality) experience featuring the Positron Voyager Chair, a VR platform that moves and vibrates so that you can actually sense what ancient Egypt was like as you tour of two of Ramses’ most impressive monuments—Abu Simbel and Nefertari’s tomb—led by the spirit of Nefertari, the pharaoh’s beloved queen.  While we’ve all had our share of dubious new media experiences in museums, this seems the perfect blending of immersive entertainment and teaching experience, bound to bring out the kid in all of us and mesmerize the kids we bring along with us.

Upper part of a colossal of Ramses II. Egyptian, Ashmunein, New Kingdom, Dynasty 19 Limestone, 76 3/4 x 27 1/2 x 33 1/2 in. (195 x 70 x 85 cm)
Egyptian Museum, Cairo. Photo: Sandro Vannini, courtesy FAMSF

Ramses II, believed to be a god on Earth, ruled for 67 years as part of the 19th Dynasty, in the 13th century before Christ.  He fought the Hittites, signed the world’s first official peace treaty and fathered over 50 sons and 50 daughters, the most children of any pharaoh.  His reign corresponded with a great flourishing of the arts and he undertook an unparalleled building program, creating the great temples at Karnak and Luxor, erecting enormous temples, obelisks, and statues and expanding Egypt’s empire. 

His tomb is located in the Valley of the Kings, the final resting place of New Kingdom pharaohs for over 500 years. Because his tomb was plundered in ancient times, “Ramses the Great and the Gold of the Pharaohs” doesn’t actually include any objects from Ramses’ tomb but, instead, includes objects from royal tombs found elsewhere in Egypt, providing an idea of the extraordinary objects that Ramses’s tomb must have included.

“Kings before and after Ramses erected colossal statues of themselves, but none are larger or greater in number than those commissioned by Ramses the Great,” said Renée Dreyfus. “The temples he erected, statues he commissioned, monuments he inscribed throughout Egypt and Nubia, and funerary temple and royal tomb he built were reminders of his earthly power and closeness to the gods. The proliferation of his name led to it becoming almost a synonym for kingship.”

After closing in February, 2023, the exhibit heads to Europe, where its first stop is the Parc de la Villette cultural complex in Paris (April – September 2023).

Details: Ramses the Great and the Gold of the Pharaohs” is August 20, 2022 through November 12, 2023.  Advanced ticket purchase is essential; a great number of timed tickets have already been sold.  Different prices for weekdays vs. weekends. FAMSF members free for one visit only; additional member tickets $23.  Non-member Adult prices: weekdays: $35; weekend $40.

Additional VR experience: Ramses & Nefertari: Journey to Osiris,  FAMSF members free. Non-member Adult price: $18 both weekdays and weekends.  

August 13, 2022 Posted by | Art, de Young Museum | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Obama Portraits at the de Young—so much better in person, fascinating symbolism—through August 14

Installation view of “The Obama Portraits Tour,” de Young Museum, San Francisco, 2022. Photo: Gary Sexton, courtesy FAMSF.  Left, “Barack Obama” by Kehinde Wiley, oil on canvas, 2018. Right, “Michelle LaVaughn Robinson Obama” by Amy Sherald, oil on linen, 2018.  Both: National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution.

There’s just no substitute for seeing art in person and letting the experience hit you full force.  The official portraits of President Barak Obama and Mrs. Michelle Obama by artists Kehinde Wiley and Amy Sherald at the de Young Museum are stopping people in their tracks—it’s not the usual quick selfie and move on type of viewing.  Commissioned by the National Portrait Gallery in Washington D.C. and unveiled in February 2018, these presidential likenesses are strong and stunning, each in their own way.  They speak to what each of us holds in our hearts and memories of the Obama’s and their era and challenge us to dig deeper.  As presidential portraits go, they are highly unorthodox and have broadened discussion on portraiture, challenging staid conventions of representing political leaders, and influencing how Black American identity is shaped in the public realm. Wiley and Sherald were chosen by the Obamas and are the first African-American artists to paint portraits of the president and first lady, our first African American first family, for the National Portrait Gallery.  The Obama Portraits Tour  has been traveling since June 2021 and the two paintings leave the de Young on August 14 for their seventh and final stop, Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts, and then return to their permanent home at the National Portrait Gallery. It’s estimated that 4 million people have already seen them on this tour.

“I am struck by their magnificence,” said an impassioned Timothy Anglin Burgard, Distinguished Senior Curator and Curator-in-Charge of American Art at FAMSF.  “They really have been become secular pilgrimage objects.   I’m inclined to remove the word secular;  they’ve got a spiritual aspect…The Obamas represent the realization of the American dream and that’s entangled in our perception of these artworks.”

Three years after their unveiling, nearly every stylistic detail in these portraits has been researched and and there’s a hook for almost everyone.  They are displayed side by side and several feet apart within the gallery. Your first take is how dramatically different the two portraits are from each other stylistically, speaking completely different languages, and then you notice the differences in their size and scale.  At 7 feet tall, Barack Obama’s portrait is a foot taller than Michelle Obama’s and he is painted roughly 10 percent larger than life-size; whereas she is slightly smaller than life-size.  This is highly unconventional for husband and wife portraits, but attests that each portrait was created independently.   

Kehinde Wiley’s Barack Obama

“Barack Obama” by Kehinde Wiley, oil on canvas, 84.1 in x 58 in x 1.3 in, 2018. National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution. On the back of the canvas, Wiley signed his name and handwrote “The greatest president in history.”

The vibrant flower power struck a strong chord with me: the entire painting is teaming with vegetation.  Obama sits surrounded by a mass of verdant foliage which threatens to engulf his chair and him, wrapping around his feet, creeping over his shoulder.  A respectable power-affirming setting has long been the norm for presidential portraits, setting a tone of honor and remembrance.  A garden portrait like this is beyond rebellious but well within Kehinde Wiley’s oeuvre.  Wiley, 42, attended San Francisco Art Institute. He grabbed the attention of the art world and media almost immediately after earning his MFA from Yale in 2001. He employs the power of images to address the historic invisibility of blacks in art and has created series of works that inject black people, usually men, into old-master European royal portraits. He tends to foreground his subjects in colorful and highly intricate all-encompassing patterning.  His iconic 2005 portrait of rapper LL Cool J, also at the National Portrait Gallery, employs an almost florescent intricately repeating ornamental backdrop.  As Wiley remarked at the unveiling, “There is a fight going on between he (Obama) in the foreground, and the plants that are trying to announce themselves at his feet. Who gets to be the star of the show?”

The flowers each symbolize an aspect of Obama’s personal history. The purple African lily symbolizes Obama’s Kenyan heritage (Wiley’s father is Nigerian); the white jasmine represents his Hawaiian birthplace and time spent in Indonesia; the multicolored chrysanthemum signifies Chicago, the city where Obama grew up and eventually became a state senator.  The three red rosebuds, the official flower of Washington D.C., represent new beginnings.  The overall message is the flowering or dawning of a new era in a nation that finally has its first Black President.  But these exquisite flowers are also all struggling to emerge, a metaphor for Obama’s own struggle to emerge from obstacle after obstacle.  

There’s also the idea of camouflage. Obama had to be very careful about both concealing and revealing himself. Often, he was often seen as black man before he was seen as president.  Certain moments in his presidency— in 2012, when he spoke at the interfaith prayer vigil for the victims of the Sandy Hook massacre; in 2013, when Trayvon Martin was shot, when he said that could have been his own son; in 2015, when he sang “Amazing Grace” during the eulogy for Reverend Clementa Pinckney, who was killed in a shooting at a Charleston church—the walls came down and he spoke as a  father, as a man mourning and we had an inkling of the great difficulty he had navigating race relations which were so central to his presidency.

Obama himself is depicted in a serious pose, seated with arms crossed, looking straight ahead, wearing a dark suit with an open-collar shirt and no tie.  He wears his gold wedding band and a Rolex Cellini reference 50509, with a white gold case.

 “Abraham Lincoln,” by George P.A. Healy, 1869. (National Portrait Gallery/Smithsonian Institution)

In part, the portrait seems inspired by George P.A. Healy’s 1869 portrait of Abraham Lincoln—the carved wooden antique chair, the alert forward pose, and thoughtful expression.  But instead of the austere darkness that threatens to engulf Lincoln, Wiley substituted plants infused with light and energy.  Lincoln is one of Obama’s heroes, a role model, so much so that Obama launched his first presidential campaign in Lincoln’s hometown, Springfield, Illinois, and cited the 16th president numerous times during his two terms in office. Obama even requested that Wiley’s portrait of him be unveiled on February 12, Lincoln’s birthday.  Paul Stati, the Washington Post art critic, wrote in his February 13, 2018 review, “(Wiley) is not just channeling Healy, he’s linking the Obama presidency to Lincoln’s — painting Obama as the rich fulfillment of the promise of Lincoln’s abolition of slavery.” 

When you look at the armchair Wiley painted, the assumption is made that it is resting on an unseen bed of soil but the bottoms of Obama’s shoes are not touching solid ground, his left foot which tilts slightly upwards.  “He seems to be weightless and defying gravity, possibly levitating,” suggested Timothy Burgard.  “It’s fascinating that both artists arrived independently at visual solutions that suggest or create an aurora of spirituality or even religiosity.”  

Amy Sherald’s Michelle Obama

Michelle LaVaughn Robinson Obama” by Amy Sherald, oil on linen, 72.1 in x 60.1 in x 2.8 in, 2018. National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution.

The former First Lady’s striking portrait also defies convention.  Executed in flat neutral grayed-out tones, a bare-armed Mrs Obama is set against a solid light blue background and gazes directly at, or right through the viewer, giving the impression her thoughts directed inwards. Her hair falls in loose curls just beyond her shoulders, framing her angular face with its strong jawline.  It’s abstracted, more impression than detail. Her seated posture is relaxed, with legs crossed. She’s resting her chin on her hand, elegantly depicted with long slender fingers.  She’s wearing a black and white maxi dress with a billowing skirt that spreads to the bottom of the portrait.

New Jersey-based Amy Sherald, 49, stayed true to her distinctive style of portraiture: paintings of self-assured, black people in stylish clothes against colored backdrops that contrast with their faces, which are uniformly grisaille.  When Sherald got the Obama commission, she was just beginning to move into the national spotlight after putting her career on hold for four years as she navigated family health issues and her own heart transplant. She’d had a few solo shows and was known within the contemporary art world but needed national exposure to boost her name recognition.  The Obama portrait did just that. She got her first first full-fledged New York solo show, “The Heart of the Matter” at Hauser & Wirth, in September 2019 which New York Times art critic Roberta Smith called “magnificent, stirring” (9.16.2019 review). She has since gone to several museum shows and made the news in December 2020 when her portrait, “The Bathers” (2015), sold for $4.2 million at Phillips, over 20 times its estimated sale price.  The portrait offered a counter-representation to the genre of European paintings whose white subjects, relaxing near bodies of water and wearing bathing suits or in the nude, are described as bathers.

Sherald has said many times that she uses gray-toned skin to take race out of her portraits and force viewers to look deeper. Those neutral gray tones also give her subjects, especially Mrs, Obama, a timelessness. The de-emphasis of precise facial features invites the viewer to question who the subject really is, an issue Mrs. Obama must have grappled with continually as she navigated all of her roles, playing a slightly different version of herself to suit the occasion. There’s a strong physicality to the portrait which is unusual in a first lady’s portrait. While many people have commented on Obama’s strong arms in this portrait, I didn’t see the prominent muscular definition in her biceps and forearms which I and so many admire: she works out and it shows but not so much here. 

The dress is the most discussed aspect of the portrait: a bold arm-bearing white halter-style maxi dress with a geometric pattern in pink, red, and chartreuse, designed by Michelle Smith of the label Milly and was based on a look from her Spring 2017 collection.  At the portrait’s unveiling in 2018, artist Amy Sherald said it reminded her of a Gee’s Bend quilt and the colors reminded her of Mondrian.  This dress, so distinctive from the conservatively-styled, solid-colored choices selected for most National Gallery’s presidential portraits, has garnered so much attention and commentary that in 2021 it was displayed along with the portrait at the National Gallery in 2021. It was immortalized further in the Showtime series The First Lady, with Viola Davis as Obama.  It is emblematic of Obama’s fashion-forward style which became bolder the longer she occupied the East Wing.  She championed upstart American designers, was fond of bold colors, and metallics, and wasn’t afraid to show some skin.  At 5’11”, with her body and confidence, she could pull off almost any look.

Michelle Smith remarked in Vogue (February 12, 2018) that, more than being a high-fashion statement, the simple cut cotton dress is “a people’s fabric.  The dress has pockets.  It is easy and comfortable…The halter neck exemplifies Michelle Obama’s confidence to show her arms and shoulders. It is forward thinking and she is comfortable. The dress speaks to her in that she is modern, clean, and forward thinking.”

I’m missing Obama’s infectious empowering smile, wishing that more of her were revealed in this portrait but evoking my individual memories of her is not what this portrait is about. These are the first presidential portraits by African American artists ever to be commissioned for the National Gallery. They are intended to solidify the legacy of our first African President and First Lady who defied all expectations. The portraits are perfect in their unwavering unconventional beauty, a strong public statement of who we are as Americans.

Details:

The Obama Portraits Tour closes August 14, 2022. Requires additional timed ticket and a General Admission de Young ticket. The de Young also has a fitting companion experience— Faith Ringgold: American People, covering 50 years of the trailblazing Harlem-born African American artist’s work, the first retrospective celebrating her in almost 40 years (free with General Admission museum ticket through November 27). Pre-purchase tickets online in advance. ars (free with General Admission museum ticket through November 27). Pre-purchase tickets online in advance.

August 2, 2022 Posted by | Art, de Young Museum | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Stream the 42nd San Francisco Jewish Film Festival August 1-7

Israeli director Chanoch Ze’evi’s documentary “Bad Nazi, Good Nazi,” in its North American premiere, explores a fascinating dilemma unfolding in Thalau, Germany where the community is split over building a public monument to honor one of its own citizens, German army officer Wilm Hosenfeld (1895-1952), a “good” Nazi.  Hosenfeld, the subject of Roman Polanski’s “The Pianist,” intervened to save Polish pianist Władysław Szpilman during the Holocaust, as well as some 60 other Poles and Jews during the latter part of WWII.  Originally a school teacher in Thalau, Hosenfeld joined the German army by choice and witnessed the Hitler regime’s increasingly heinous acts first hand. Sickened by what he was a part of, he risked his and his family’s lives to do the right thing and help save Jews and to chronicle the genocide he observed in diaries which he smuggled out in laundry.  Some citizens feel his acts should be memorialized while others question the message a public monument commemorating a Nazi sends. At the heart of the film is the burning discomfort Germany still has with reconciling its history and how that discomfort can be harnessed for educating and healing.

SFJFF42, presented live in Bay Area theaters July 21-31, has come to a close but 17 films and programs are available to stream at home through August 7.  In addition to new and returning feature films, there is a new documentary shorts program, Jews in Shorts, and a free panel discussion with filmmakers, Intimate Partners , on the ethics, challenges, and joys of centering family in non-fiction storytelling.  Films and programs are $11 each, $10 for seniors and students; all access streaming pass is $95.  There is a 72 hour watch window from the time the film is first accessed and all content is geo-blocked to the San Francisco Bay Area.

Another wonderful and free streaming option for this week only is the Goethe-Institut’s online series, “New Directions: 20 Years of Young German Cinema” which features 20 German gems. All that is required for streaming is creating a Goethe-Institut account.

 

August 1, 2022 Posted by | Film | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment