Review: San Francisco Opera’s “Lucia di Lammermoor”─ Soprano Albina Shagimuratova subs as Lucia and is spectacular!
The footnotes for Russian soprano Albina Shagimuratova’s fall 2015 season at San Francisco Opera (SFO) might read “The Queen rises,” affirming that the last minute drama that occurs behind the scenes in opera can be as exhilarating as what we see on stage. Before the curtain rose on Wednesday night’s final performance of Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor, SFO’s General Director, David Gockley, unexpectedly appeared on stage to deliver “goods news and bad news.” Soprano Nadine Sierra , who had been getting rave reviews for her Lucia, was suddenly ill. (Sierra herself was a late replacement for German soprano Diana Damrau who withdrew unexpectedly in September citing personal reasons.) The good news was that Russian coloratura soprano, Albina Shagimuratova, knew the role of Lucia by heart and had agreed to sub, just hours ago, for Sierra.
Shagimuratova had wowed audiences with her dynamic Queen of the Night in the 2012 world premiere of SFO’s The Magic Flute. She, however, had very recently been ill herself and had been too sick to sing Queen of the Night in last Sunday’s matinee performance of the company’s Magic Flute, which was just two and a half days earlier. Many of us who are devoted Sierra fans were sad that we would miss her but elated that Shagimuratova, the beloved Queen, had risen from her bed to take on one of opera’s most demanding roles.
Shagimuratova, who most recently sang Lucia at the Metropolitan Opera in 2014-15, did more than seize the moment─she was on fire. She took us all along with her on Lucia’s tumultuous descent from fragility into madness and executed the famous third act Mad Scene with mesmerizing finesse. Her co-stars, too, delivered the goods, particularly the dazzling Polish tenor Piotr Beczala as Edgardo, Lucia’s secret lover and baritone Brian Mulligan as Lucia’s brother, Enrico. And after Sunday’s performance, we’ll all be watching out for the gorgeous Latvian mezzo soprano Zanda Švēde, a second year Adler fellow, whose lovely voice and stunning red hair made the most of her small role as Alisa, Lucia’s handmaid.
Presiding at the podium, Nicola Luisotti brought a stirring and lush performance from the SFO orchestra and chorus that incisively captured Lucia’s emotional fragility and supported the characters’ most passionate moments. Of the dozen or so Donizetti operas that are considered masterpieces, Lucia is the pinnacle─it contains opera’s most gorgeous and powerful music and abounds with opportunities for vocal embellishment, lush harmonizing and drama. It’s no wonder that this bel-canto (literally “beautiful singing”) masterpiece has been performed in 23 seasons at SFO. This new SFO production, directed by Michael Cavanagh and designed by Erhard Rom, the team behind SFO’s wonderful Susannah in 2014 and Nixon in China in summer 2012, is sure to become a more frequent staple in SFO’s repertoire.
Act 3’s Mad Scene─ The main reason for Lucia’s enduring popularity is the Act 3’s Mad Scene. Great Lucias become one with the music to embody a young woman ripped apart by inner demons. Lucia, mourning her mother’s recent death, has been coerced by her brother Enrico, her closest remaining relative, into an arranged marriage and has been crushed by the loss of her true love, Edgardo. On their wedding night, she stabs her new husband to death and wanders delirious amongst the wedding guests in a bloody nightdress with her hair a tangled mess. Shagimuratova’s singing had been so captivating for the first two acts, particularly Act 1’s “Quando rapito in estasi,” which brought me to my feet, we knew we were in for a treat. Indeed, she left nothing in the tank. Her interpretation of “Il dolce suono…Spargi d’amaro pianto” was chilling, embellished with amazing trills and cascades that showcased the power and sheer beauty of her voice in its highest register. The cadeneza passages, played evocatively by Principal Flute Julie McKenzie from the pit, were very well-coordinated, as if it had been practiced several times. It rightfully earned an ovation with prolonged whistles and whoops and left me with the impression that, for this Lucia, her final exit was a form of victory over the men who had controlled her in one way or another.
Polish tenor Piotr Beczala as Edgardo, Lucia’s lover, oozed with such virility and tonal mastery that now I feel compelled to follow his career. His initial physical encounters with Shagimuratova/Lucia, a new partner, seemed somewhat stiff though, particularly the scene in Act 1where he is comforted by Lucia and lays his lead in her lap but their passion grew more believable as the opera progressed. His grappling with what he perceives as Lucia’s betrayal was enthralling and in the richly textured “Chi me frena in tal momento” sextet that ends Act II, when he bursts in insisting that he still loves Lucia, he was blazing. In the finale, the punishing, demanding Wolf-Crag” scene, Beczala gifted us with rapid, jarring shifts in emotion, bel canto at its best.
And pitted against him, as Enrico, was powerhouse American baritone Brian Mulligan, fresh from his masterful lead in SFO’s Sweeney Todd. And much like that deranged barber, his Enrico also acted from sheer desperation─he was aware of his sister Lucia’s desires and her fragility but torn by his need to save the Lammermore line as well as to ensure his own future. In Act 3’s tour de force showdown between Enrico and Edgardo, both Mulligan and Beczala seemed to be feeding off of each other, singing gloriously and ratcheting up the drama.
Turning heads─ It was impossible to miss the sleekly coiffed redhead mezzo Zanda Švēde, Lucia’s handmaid Alisa. The tall slim beauty was a vision in Mattie Ullrich’s Max-Mara like costuming From the moment she sang her Act 1warning to Lucia to break up with Edgardo, her impassioned voice had me. She was particularly impressive in Act 2’s sextet against much more seasoned singers. Also making the most of his small role and SFO debut was French bass-baritone Nicolas Testè as Raimundo, the Chaplan.
For this new production, rather than the 17th century hills of Scotland, Michael Cavanaugh’s staging sets Sir Walter Scott’s story in “modern-mythic Scotland, a dystopian near future where the lines are blurred between family, country and corporation.” The sets relied on clean-cut marble slabs which opened and closed in various configurations and a huge stone obelisk center stage to impart a stark cool ambiance that was accentuated by dramatic lighting and projections of rolling ocean waves, thunderous skies and hilly Scottish landscapes.
Mattie Ullrich’s costumes ranged from sleek unadorned dresses in charcoal hues to the wedding party’s traditional long full-skirted ball-gowns in jewel tones with intriguing flower headdresses. The flowers were so large they enforced the association of women as walking flowers, mere stylized objects. Poor Shagimuratova presumably had to make do with what was available at the last minute─unattractive Victorian-style dresses with lots of gathers around the waist and bodice, the very worse costuming for a slightly round figure. Her sumptuous voice was all the adornment this beauty needed to make her mark.
Details: There are no remaining performances of Lucia di Lammermoor. You can catch Albina Shagimuratova as Queen of the Night in The Magic Flute which has 7 remaining performances and runs through November 20, 2015. For information about SFO’s 2015-16 season, click here. War Memorial Opera House is located at 301 Van Ness Avenue, San Francisco.
At San Francisco Opera, “The Magic Flute” gets a second run after its big 2012 debut and it’s still magical─through November 20, 2015
Wildly colorful costumes, constantly shifting digital projections, huge puppets, adorable bird-like creatures and kids in contraptions in the sky are a huge part of the fairy tale magic in San Francisco Opera’s sparkling revival of its 2012 co-production, The Magic Flute. And, of course, there’s the music and singing─at San Francisco Opera (SFO), Mozart’s whimsical masterpiece about the power of love and the forces of good and evil is presented in full splendor with sparkling arias, glorious ensembles, and breathtaking orchestral passages. Designed by Jun Kaneko, directed by Harry Silverstein, with David Gockley’s English translations of Schikaneder’s libretto, the beloved favorite opened on October 20 for a ten performance run.
A lot happens in three years though─the novelty of those groundbreaking digital projections, based upon 3,000 of Jun Kaneko’s tempura and chalk drawings, which so mesmerized me upon my first two viewings of the opera, has begun to fade. These projections, thankfully, are now commonplace in opera and have done more to revitalize staging than anything I can think of. (Read my review for the groundbreaking 2012 production here.) Having witnessed that magical innovation firsthand, I can now better appreciate the opera’s total package─singing, music, staging. This review pertains to Sunday, October 25, matinee performance.
Under Lawrence Foster’s baton, Mozart’s opera with its lively arias, thrilling coloratura moments and intricate passages so well-suited to vocal harmonizing was in good hands. He makes his SFO debut with this production and will go on to conduct The Fall of the House of Usher in December. Foster, an LA native of Romanian descent, guest-conducts frequently stateside but has mainly worked in Europe. His tie to War Memorial Opera House is special: when he was just 19, he made his debut conducting the San Francisco Ballet Orchestra. Since 2013, he has been music director of l’Opéra de Marseille and l’Orchestre Philharmonique de Marseille.
On Sunday, as he guided the SFO orchestra in the lush overture, I found myself growing impatient with Kaneko’s hypnotic visuals which seemed to enforce the music’s slow pace making it seem almost static. The overture itself begins quite slowly and winds through various harmonies before it builds to its rousing conclusion. We were watching a series of straight and wavy colored lines, appearing one by one, slowly build an interwoven grid and then shift through blocks of color and various patterns. It didn’t seem as fresh as it once had. At other times, when singers were on stage, these projections were an enthralling accompaniment and enforced the mood of the music wonderfully, if only they could be better synced to the music, on a micro-level.
Nimble soprano Sarah Shafer as Pamina, sang her famous Act 2 aria of lament “Oh, I feel it” (“Ach ich fuehl’s”) lyrically and hauntingly. She sang Rosetta in this summer’s world premiere of SFO’s La Ciociara (Two Women), and is capable of great empathy in her singing and acting. Her wonderful chemistry with Papageno/Efraín Solís made their Act 1 duet “In men, who feel love,” (“Bei Männern, welche Liebe fühlen”) pure joy, aside from its very vernacular language. Shafer was applauded enthusiastically after each of her solos and given a standing ovation at the end of the opera. Soprano Nadine Sierra will sing the role in November.
Second year Adler Fellow, tenor Efraín Solís, as Papageno, has such a warm and engaging speaking voice and a natural flair for comedy that he immediately won the hearts of the audience. He imbued his wonderful singing with so much personality that he made his zany character the opera’s focal point. And his endearing Papagena, second year Adler Fellow, soprano Maria Valdes, made the most of her brief time on stage as well.
Queen of the Night, Soprano Kathryn Bowden, subbing for Russian soprano, Albina Shagimuratova, grabbed my attention in Act 1 with her first recitative and demanding aria, “Oh, Tremble not, my dear son” (“O zittre nicht, mein lieber Sohn”). The former SFO Merola participant and winner of the 2014 Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions (Florida District sparkled in her high range as she aimed to persuade Prince Tamino to rescue her daughter Pamina from the grips of Sarastro. In Act 2, when she is enraged that Tamino and Pamina are collaborating with Sarastro, she let loose full force with the Queen’s more famous aria, “Hell’s vengenace boils in my heart” (“Der Hölle Rache”), singing powerfully, scornfully to Pamina while thrusting a knife into her hands and ordering her to kill Satastro. While she didn’t quite achieve the raging high drama that completely undoes an audience, she hit all the high notes and pulled off the exhausting passagework with great precision.
Lyric tenor Paul Appleby made his San Francisco Opera as the young Prince Tamino. His expressive voice was wonderful in his Act 1 aria “Oh heavenly and rare image” (“Dies Bildnis ist bezaubernd schön”) but his acting not as expressive.
German bass-baritone Alfred Reiter, as wise High Priest Sarastro, had a very imperial manner and put his rich deep voice to great use in the lower ranges called for by his role. On the other hand, Greg Fedderly’s Monostatos looked and acted like a character straight out of The Cat in the Hat.
While all the singers were special in their own way, I was drawn to two sets of triplets: the delightful Three Ladies─Jacqueline Piccolino (First Lady), Wang (Second Lady) and Zanda Švēde (Third Lady) who sang so harmoniously together, each with a wonderful voice and the adorable three young boys/guiding spirits (Michael Sacco, Pietro Juvaram Rafael Larpa-Wilson) who are sent to guide Papageno and Tamino on their adventure. The boys sang angelically with their delicate high voices while hovering above the stage in brightly colored triangular containers.
The English translations by David Gockley, SFO’s General Director, with additional material by Ruth and Thomas Martin, were contemporary and very well-rhymed (when called for) but went way too far into vernacular and slangy language for my tastes. Papageno’s “ Oy vey,” in particular, got to me.
Details: There are 6 remaining performances of The Magic Flute─Wed, Nov 4, 7:30 PM; Sunday, Nov 8, 2 PM; Thurs, Nov 12, 7:30 PM; Sat, Nov 14, 7:30 PM; Tues, Nov 17, 7:30 PM; Fri, Nov 20, 7:30 PM. Tickets: $26 to $381. For information about SFO’s 2015-16 season, click here. War Memorial Opera House is located at 301 Van Ness Avenue, San Francisco.
At San Francisco Opera’s (SFO) Sunday matinee performance of Verdi’s Luisa Miller, all eyes and ears were on tenor Michael Fabiano and rightly so─his Rodolfo was inspired, powerful. The tall, dashing 30 year-old embodied the aristocrat loved by two women, the son who defies his father and the unwitting pawn in a political intrigue that leads to murder. How trilling to behold a young singer nail a performance and to find yourself rising to your feet, whopping and whistling for him out of pure joy, knowing in your bones that you have just witnessed one of the great tenors in opera. Fabiano, 30, is the recipient of the 2014 Richard Tucker Award and the 2014 Beverly Sills Award, the first person in history to win both awards in one year.
Sharing the glory was young soprano Leah Crocetto, in the title role, alum of the Adler and Merola programs, who sang beautifully as well. Actually it’s a match that’s been in the works for some time─ Crocetto and Fabiano sang Mimi and Rodolfo in SFO’s La Bohème in 2014 but never sang together as they were in separate casts. Each garnered great reviews. Fabiano went on to sing Rodolfo at the Metropolitan Opera House in December, garnering global attention there as well as at La Scala and the Glyndebourne Festival. It was thus no surprise to see a few people in the audience on Sunday who had attended the gala season-opening performance and were back for a final dose of this rare, luscious singing.
The 1849 opera, Verdi’s 15th, is based on Schiller’s play “Kabale and Liebe.” The plot is insanely unrealistic─Luisa Miller, a commoner, is in love with Carlo, who is really Rodolfo, the son of the local Count, Walter. Luisa’s protective father distrusts Carlo and schemes behind her back to have her marry Wurm, who works for the Count. When Wurm (whose name translates appropriately as “Worm”) tells the count that his son is in love with a commoner, the Count orders Rodolfo to marry the recently widowed duchess, Federica who is in the good graces of the Imperial Court. The rest of the opera revolves around political intrigue, deception and heartbreak and culminates in multiple deaths─Wurm by gunshot and Rodolfo and Luisa by poisoning, just after the truth of their abiding love is revealed, but too late as the poison has been drunk.
Soprano Leah Crocetto sang beautifully, consistently hitting the notes this demanding role calls for while evoking the emotional roller coaster that innocent young Luisa is subject to. She soared in her Act II, aria “Te puniscimi, O Signore” which was pulsing with feeling as she expressed being torn between her love for Rodolfo and her father. And right after Fabiano brought down the house with his exquisite Act II aria, “Quando le Sere al Placido,” it was as if she too got a boost from the fumes and came out singing with renewed fire.
Russian mezzo soprano Ekaterina Semenchuk has an intrinsically lush, full voice and her SF Opera debut as the widowed duchess, Federica, was enchanting. It was particularly amusing when she made her entrance drawn in on an enormous horse statue replete with its clunky pedestal, as if it had been dragged there from a European park. To dismount she had to be lifted down by another cast member. Her singing was nimble and spot-on, from her Act I aria, “Duchessa Duchessa tu m’appelli,” and duet, “Dall aule raggianti di vano,” with Rodolfo to her Act II recitatives.
Baritone Vitaliy Bilyy as Miller, who has also sung the role at Milan’s La Scala, made his SFO debut and was impressive. Bass baritone Daniel Sumegi sang Count Walter and imbued him with an appropriately dark character. The great irony of the opera is that the Count, who conspires to entrap Luisa and her father, ultimately ensnares his own beloved son.
Bass Andrea Silvestrelli sang wonderfully but could have imbued his bland Wurm with even more despicability. Second year Adler Fellow, soprano Jacqueline Piccolino was impressive as the village girl Laura, whose Act I “Tidesta, Luisa” (sung with the chorus) immediately caught our attention. Her Act III “O Dolce Amica, E Ristorar Non Vuoi,” sung with Lusia and the chorus, again made an impression.
When SFO Music Director, Nicola Luisotti, comes to the podium, and it’s Verdi, one always has the sense that great things are in the pipeline. It’s amazing how time flies too. He made his SFO debut in 2005, conducting “La Forza del Destino,” and has been director since 2009.
He started the overture at a healthy clip, as he is prone to do, but, throughout the afternoon, brought the delicacy out in the scoring as well the drama, passion, and color that Verdi infused this score with. The clarinet solo in the overture and horns calls further enlivened the music. The SFO chorus sang masterfully throughout, starting out as a chorus of simple country folk singing repeating melodies that were expressive and catchy.
The production, a 2000 revival by Francesca Zambello, which I had not seen before, intrigued me, particularly Michael Yeargan’s gorgeous sets. They included a painted surround backdrop of a dense forest which changed colors, and several very large paintings─ a rustic farmhouse for Miller’s house, an elegant tapestry featuring a hunting scene with leaping hounds for Walter’s castle and, for Act II, a gray honeycomb pattern evoking metal mesh─all suspended from a distracting metal arm that hung over the stage for the duration of the opera.
Dunya Ramicova’s costumes were predictable─the villagers wore peasant costumes; the nobles were elegant in fitted red velvet coats and dresses for the hunt; Rodolfo and Wurm were fitted in green and the count wore an elegant black coat with a white ruffled shirt. The fitted waists and abundance of fabric in the skirts of Crocetto’s and Semenchuk’s period gowns did nothing to flatter their rounder figures.
Details: There are no remaining performances of Luisa Miller. For information about the SFO’s 2015-16 season, for which you can still catch all but Luisa Miller, click here. War Memorial Opera House is located at 301 Van Ness Avenue, San Francisco.
San Francisco Opera’s new production of Sondheim’s “Sweeney Todd”—not so scary, but bloody grand it is!
There’s nothing more satisfying than an occasional slice of pie! And San Francisco Opera’s (SFO) production of Stephen Sondheim’s musical Sweeney Todd, offers just that─delectable meat pies with a killer secret ingredient served up in an exhilarating musical. A co-production with Houston Grand Opera and the Paris Thèâtre du Châtelet, this Lee Blakeley production premiered in Paris in 2011, and garnered raves at the Houston Grand Opera in April 2015. It features Sondheim’s original score for the lyric stage and boasts unforgettable tunes. At the War Memorial Opera House, with a stand-out cast of singers who can also act, it has definitely found its groove. The SFO orchestra and chorus are magical under guest conductor Patrick Summers. Simon Berry’s powerful organ solos, which fill the opera house, punctuate the drama. Wonderfully harmonic singing accompanies the throat slitting and a spare-no-expense big staging, designed by Tania McCallin transports the audience back to bleak 1860’s backstreet London.
In all, it’s a fitting coup for SFO’s Music Director David Gockley, who is retiring and is now in his final season. Gockley has championed musical theater in the opera house to help build a wider audience base. During his tenure at Houston Grand Opera in the 1980’s, it was he who mounted a groundbreaking production of Sweeney Todd, establishing HGO as the first opera company to stage the 1979 musical, originally directed for Broadway by Harold Prince and starring Angela Lansberry and Len Cariou. By the looks and gleeful ovations of the audience at last Sunday’s performance, which included more in their teens and twenties than I have ever seen before, Gockley’s making headway at building that wider base.
The story: In London there once lived a barber named Benjamin Barker (baritone Brian Mulligan) and his sweet young wife and child and he loved them with all he had. But the licentious Judge Turpin (Wayne Tiggs) had Barker exiled to Australia on trumped up charges, meanwhile holding his wife and daughter, Johanna, captive. Turpin ravishes the wife, ruining her life, and the traumatized young Johanna grows up as his ward and house prisoner. The wronged barber, going by the name of Sweeney Todd returns to London to exact revenge and teams up with an ambitious pie maker, with a few secrets of her own, who has high hopes that the barber will become her next husband.
At last Sunday’s matinee, there were three clear standouts —baritone Brian Mulligan in the title role; mezzo soprano Stephanie Blythe as his pie baking accomplice, Mrs. Lovett, and baritone Elliot Madore as the young sailor, Anthony Hope.
From the moment he takes the stage, American baritone Brian Mulligan, commands full attention. Mulligan who sang the title role in SFO’s Nixon in China (2012) and, most recently, Chorèbe in Les Troyens (summer 2105), really channeled his dramatic flare, pulling off a dynamic performance with his rich vocals and acting. Mulligan looks and a lot like School of Rock’s sensational Jack Black, so much so, that, at times, I half expected to see him amplifying his heartbreak with an electric guitar. As the performance begins, Sweeney has just sailed into London with young Anthony Hope, Canadian baritone Elliot Madore, the winner of the Metropolitan Opera National Council auditions in his SFO debut. The duo’s energetic opener, “No Place Like London,” showcased the strength and lyricism of their blended voices, while Mulligan’s “The Barber and his Wife” conveyed sensitivity and heartbreak. Later in the Act I, Mulligan’s chilling duo with Stephanie Blythe, “My Friends” referring to his razors, was powerfully macabre.
Madore, in his SFO debut, sung so tenderly throughout the afternoon that I too swooned, from he began wooing young Johanna away from her troubles with his exquisite “Johanna” to his ACTII reprise of that enchanting song and wonderful duos along the way.
Mezzo Stephanie Blythe is always an amazing stage presence but she outdid herself as shopkeeper Mrs. Lovett, a role that showcased her natural comedic genius and irrepressible bombast. She won hearts in “The Worse Pies in London” and continued to deliver full force delight in her Act I duo with Mulligan, “A Little Priest,” an outlandishly hilarious culinary appraisal of humans as pie ingredients. Act II’s duos “By the Sea” with Mulligan and “Not While I’m Around” with Tobias (Mathew Griggs) were exquisite. It was hard to believe that this is Blythe’s debut in this role; she’s set the bar high at SFO for future singers in this role.
There are also star turns by Heidi Stober as Johanna; Elizabeth Futral as Beggar Woman; AJ Glueckert as Beadle Bamford, Wayne Tigges as Judge Turpin; Matthew Grills as Tobias Ragg and David Curry as Adolfo Pirelli.
Stephanie Blythe at the Fairmont Hotel’s Venetian Room October 4: Blythe will perform her heart-warming cabaret show “We’ll Meet Again: The Songs of Kate Smith,” about the great First Lady of Radio, Kate Smith, on October 4th, 2015. For information and tickets ($70 or $100), click here.
Sweeney Todd Details: There are 2 remaining performances of Sweeney Todd─Saturday, Sept. 26, 7:30 PM and Tuesday, Sept. 29, at 7:30 PM. Both will be conducted by James Lowe. Click here for tickets ($31 to $395) or phone the Box Office at (415) 864-3330. War Memorial Opera House is located at 301 Van Ness Avenue, San Francisco. While it’s sung in English, every performance of Sweeney Todd features English supertitles projected above the stage, visible from every seat. For information about the SFO’s 2015-16 season, for which you can still catch all performances, click here.
Horse Sense—ARThound talks with San Francisco Opera’s Daniel Knapp about “Patches,” the equine star of “The Trojans,” at War Memorial Opera House through July 1, 2015
Horses are mythic. There’s none more colossal or more steeped in legend than the Trojan horse, a prize so glorious that it could not be left standing outside Troy’s gates but once brought inside, would destroy all those in power. As San Francisco Opera opens its summer season with six performances of Berlioz’s glorious musical epic, The Trojans, I spoke with David Knapp, the company’s new production manager, about “Patches,” its equine star. The 23-foot-tall Trojan horse, which is on stage for most of the 5+ hour opera, has been nicknamed “Patches” by SFO because it’s literally pieced together from scraps and functions much like a mechanized puppet, with carpenters and acrobats inside it manipulating it. Back after a 47 year hiatus, it took over a decade of planning to bring the $6 million production to San Francisco Opera (SFO). It’s staged by Sir David McVicar, the acclaimed Scottish director, and is a coproduction of SFO, Royal Opera House, Teatro alla Scala, and Vienna State Opera. Since the opera opened to a sold-out house on June 6, it has drawn universal praise from critics and audience alike. Long before the opera opened though, Patches was a big draw with SFO staff and special visitors who came back stage in droves to pose for photos with the humongous but intricately constructed artwork. Here is my conversation with Knapp about this horse—
What’s so special about this giant horse that has travelled here from Europe.
Daniel Knapp: It’s magnificent—7 meters (approximately 23 feet) tall and is not only a sculpture that is scenic art but it’s also a puppet to a certain extent. It’s constructed of steel and fiberglass and doesn’t weigh too much because it’s mainly fiberglass. It has a gaf piston in it which allows for the rocking of the head and basic movements and that’s very exciting. When it’s first introduced, you get the impression that it’s very tall, frightening. You only see the upper part of the head and wonder where’s it coming from and what does the whole thing look like and is it really a horse? There are 2 carpenters and 3 acrobats inside, moving and manipulating the horse and they’ve been here practicing since the rehearsal period began.
Who gets credit for artistic design of the horse?
Daniel Knapp: It’s Es Devlin, a British designer who’s involved with all the top rock and roll shows—U2 tour, Take That tours, Miley Cyrus—and with opera and theatre. She designed the closing ceremony for the 2012 London Olympic Games. She runs an office with a multitude of assistants and she has just opened an office in Brazil. The conception for the horse came from the workshops of the Royal Opera House and she worked with them to refine it, from the model to the life-scale sculpture we call “Patches” because it’s patched together.
Has Devlin created any other animals that we might recognize?
Daniel Knapp: She’s done all the set and scenic design on this opera but I’m not aware that’s she done another horse. For one of the last Take That tours, she did a big man, that was more than 40 feet tall, that stood up over the course of the concert, going from crouching to standing in the middle of the audience. (Take That is a leading British pop group that formed in 1990 and currently consists of musicians Gary Barlow, Howard Donald and Mark Owen)
(Es Devlin designed the giant walking elephant for Take That’s Circus Live Tour 2009. The 26 foot tall elephant had translucent skin made light-weight chain mail and was constructed by Mark Mason of Asylum Models. It was operated by 13 puppeteers inside the skins and another four at ground level who controlled the head, trunk and legs. It had rods that moved the ears and its tail was an inverted acrobat wearing a helmet with hair extensions. (To read about and see the elephant, click here.)
This version of Troyens is set, more or less, at the time of its composition, in the 1850s, Second Empire France. How did that influence the actual conception for the horse that looks like a machine horse?
Daniel Knapp: Everything that you will see that is part of the horse could have been made at that time or could predate that time. The horse is pieced together from what appear to be rifles, screwdrivers, all sorts of tools and scrap materials like keys…it’s actually mostly fiberglass, a piecemeal puzzle that once put together appears as this great horse.
Carbon footprint aside, what’s entailed in getting something of this magnitude to San Francisco? And then assembling it?
Daniel Knapp: We always use steam ship companies because air is too expensive. It was shipped in 16 containers (40 foot high cube containers). Your entire household could fit in 1 of these containers, or, if you’ve got an extensive household you might need 1.5 containers. It all arrived in pieces in a very organized matchbox system. A team form the Royal Opera House came over to help with the assembly because they are the originators. Actually, our staff went to La Scala last year and watched this process and got a feel for what it takes to put on this production. With this run, we did all of that assembly in 3.5 days; in Milan, they weren’t as quick as we were. We didn’t have the time or money to allow for more time to do it.
How many scenes does Patches appear in?
Daniel Knapp: He appears in a multitude of scenes but I’m not going to give away any of the excitement. He’s on stage for a fair while and, when he’s not hiding in the back, sometimes he’s looming in the background and sometimes he’s hidden by a blackout curtain.
How mobile is the horse and how does it move around the stage? I heard this entails acrobats and carpenters.
Daniel Knapp: Yes, that’s exactly what it takes. We have few carpenters and acrobats around and in it, moving it. It’s on wheels, on a huge A stand. If you think of a child’s swing on the playground and think of it for giants, that’s what the internal structure of the horse is. It moves around on wheels that are on tracks just like a train. The tracks are a part of the original design and actually travel with the production. We had to cover our stage floor with another floor and that entailed adding about 1 inch to our stage to ensure that the weight is distributed evenly so that we don’t damage our rather old stage floor. We also had to re-enforce some of the stage structure underneath to make sure that we don’t suddenly fall in the basement. The horse might be relatively light but the trappings—the drum trucks, the big scenery elements for Troy and Carthage—all together, those weigh 32 tons.
Anything tricky about coordinating the movement of the horse to the music and the singers? Do any of the lead singers have any direct interaction with the horse?
Daniel Knapp: As we know from the Trojan story, the horse is sort of a separate entity. The lead singers certainly react to it but they don’t interact with it directly. The horse’s movement on stage is cued like everything else—people execute what they have rehearsed and there’s nothing complicated about that. These are professionals who are used to working to cues from the stage manager, such as “horse go upstage.” We do this in rehearsal and there’s always a review afterwards to make sure that we have hit our marks. Sometimes, the director might want to change the speed but it’s not complicated. There’s one boss and that’s the director but on stage, it’s the stage manager who calls out when and where.
This is a fiery horse—how is the fire created and will there be accompanying liquid nitrogen and steam, like in the Ring?
Daniel Knapp: The horse itself doesn’t breathe fire but its mane burns, which is a very impressive sight. In the original version, in London, they had the horse smoke but due to restrictions over here, the director distanced himself from that when he did the revival in Milan. That’s what I said about cooking the meal for the third or fourth time, you’ve left out the ginger but added something else. Over here, steam and liquid nitrogen are our only possibilities to create atmosphere due to the CVA restrictions we work under as collaborating artists.
Do you have much freedom in interpretation of this opera and how the horse is used here in San Francisco?
Daniel Knapp: It’s like your last cooking experience when you invite people over for dinner and you remember that, three years ago, you did this fantastic meal and you want to do the same meal again. Will do it exactly the same way? No—that’s exactly the same situation with a revival or co-production. We are not the conceivers, David McVicar or Ses Devlin, we are realizing their artistic vision. We had Leah Hausman, the co-director from London, here, who is a dance and movement director and coach, and other of McVicar’s associates here. We could never do this just ourselves because then it’s not in the original spirit. People in the house who were part of the original creation production do feel differently than people who have just joined a few years later and we needed them.
How appropriate is the War Memorial Opera House stage for a horse of this weight and magnitude? Isn’t SF much smaller than the Royal Opera House or La Scala?
Daniel Knapp: It’s not only the horse but it’s also the enormous drum trucks which support Carthage and Troy. Carthage is an entire terracotta kingdom and you’ll be blown away by it, as much as by the horse. You’ve also got the chorus, the singers, dancers, acrobats—over 130 on stage.
Stage wise, we are a little smaller but, auditorium wise, we are bigger than all the European houses. We compare ourselves to the size of Warsaw’s Teatr Wielki, which has the biggest modern stage (together with the Opéra Bastille in Paris) in Europe. Here in the US, you have this curiosum or wonderful paradox because sometimes there are stages like ours that originally did not have a backstage or a real up stage storage area but only a stage area. Actually, up until 45 years ago, all our sets were built right on stage. Our auditorium is huge compared to all the European houses. With 3,146 seats, we are bigger than all other houses but now our stage is smaller, so over the next 20 years there will probably be some developments.
Any funny stories related to Patches so far?
Daniel Knapp: Just people excited to have their picture taken with Patches. It’s like we are a part of Disney World here; even the staff is coming down to the stage to have their picture taken.
What’s your favorite scene in Trojans?
Daniel Knapp: It’s the whole opera, the whole thing, because once it’s done because it’s such a complex and huge show that I can’t focus on one thing but rather all the contributing moments.
How are adjusting to your new position here? What are your responsibilities?
Daniel Knapp: I’m adjusting great; it’s full of surprises in a good and interesting way. The whole scope of coming to a new country and a new working environment offers a multitude of perspectives. It’s been very welcoming so far and very intense, so it feels a lot more like I’ve been here a year and half rather than just a few months.
I’m responsible for overseeing all the productions at SFO— all the scenic elements, costume shops, sound and technical departments and all the labor that’s involved, which is all the talent on the stage plus the electricians and all the support staff…so, it’s quite a scope. I’ve met a lot of people who have a certain sense of responsibility for this company, who identify with it and who have been here much longer than me. They’ve introduced me to the company culture and what necessary changes could be made and how we can achieve those as a team over the next 3, 5, 15, or however many, years to stay up with the world class opera companies.
With “Troyens” up first, followed by the world premiere of “Two Women,” it’s kind of a trial by fire for you. What’s the most demanding part of your job right now?
Daniel Knapp: I’m a little in both fire and water trials right now. I’m from a country that has plenty of drinking water and lakes on our doorstep and coming to Northern CA, and being in the middle of a drought, is also a big trial. To be able to make use of all the technology and intellectual capital that surrounds us here and to engage the techies is another exciting challenge for our opera company. With respect to the work load, at the Bregenzer Festival in Austria, I was always overseeing two productions; last summer it was three productions, one of which was The Magic Flute on the floating stage. I was also very involved with the pre-production of Turandot that will premiere on July 22. So that’s heavy experience with large-scale productions on the lake, in the open air, and it’s a bit of a different scale. We had many international co-productions as well with companies in Europe and the US, so I am quite used to doing multiple wedding dances at the same time. That was exciting but the requirements of a concentrated festival versus a company that is doing performances year-round are different. What I love here is that we have an interwoven schedule so that the three monumental productions— The Trojans, the world premiere of Two Woman and the revival of the classic, Figaro, in an adapted version, Figaro, will all be able to fit on stage. That was a lot to step into.
How did you prepare for this opera? Did you do extensive reading or do you mainly execute and manage?
Daniel Knapp: My learning process is the interaction with the artists, finding out what their real concerns are and looking behind the scenes. I’m not the guy who tries to be more prepared than the director and I don’t do the full research of the director or designers. However, when I have questions about why something is set-up a certain way and why something can’t be done, I get very involved. I always question creative teams about why they would want to emphasize something or not. I need to understand where they are coming from so that we can get the most from their art on stage. The great thing about my job is that, if I do it correctly, you don’t notice that I am there.
What are you most looking forward to in the coming fall season?
Daniel Knapp: Meistersinger of course! That’s because it’s another one of those monster shows with great music, a great designer, great artists…so that’s very nice. I’m also excited about Usher (Fall of the House of Usher) which is so theatrical. The great thing is that my former boss, David Pountney, is the director of that show, so I get to meet him under different circumstances, to collaborate and to actually tell him “no.”
Details: There are three remaining performance of The Trojans—Saturday, June 20, 2105, 6PM; Thursday, June 25, 6PM and Wednesday, July 1, 6PM. Seats are selling fast—purchase tickets here or phone the Box Office at (415) 864-3330. War Memorial Opera House is located at 301 Van Ness Avenue, San Francisco. Every performance features supertitles (English translations) projected above the stage, visible from every seat. The June 25th and July 1st performance feature OperavVision, HD video projection screens in the Balcony level. For information about the SFO’s Summer 2015 Season, click here.
San Francisco Opera honors Soprano Patricia Racette with the San Francisco Opera Medal, commemorating 25 years and 32 roles, SFO’s highest award
Those of us who attended the final performance of San Francisco Opera’s new production of Carlise Floyd’s “Susannah” this afternoon were in for a treat. Right after extended rounds of applause for soprano Patricia Racette, who delivered a profound Susannah, and cheers for her wonderful supporting cast, a special ceremony took place awarding Racette with the San Francisco Opera Medal. The award was established in 1970 by former General Director Kurt Herbert Adler and is the highest honor the Company bestows in recognition of outstanding achievement by an artistic professional.
How fitting it is that Racette, who celebrates 25 years and 32 roles with SFO this year, was given this award now. Her repertoire and success over the past year with the company has been so vast it is dizzying. She just sang the title role of “Susannah” to rave reviews. This summer, she sang Cio Cio San in the splendid “Madame Butterfly” and gave a stand-out performance as the cabaret singer, Julie La Verne, in Francesca Zambello’s opulent “Show Boat,” SFO’s other stand-out summer of 2014 hit. There, her delightful renditions of Jerome Kern’s ballads “Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man” and “Bill,”along with her wonderful acting, were central to the production. Last season, at the very last minute, she stepped up to assume the title role in Tobias Picker’s “Dolores Claiborne” while simultaneously singing the dual roles of Marguerite and Elena in Arrigo Boito’s “Mephistopheles.” That’s just the past year! Her career with the company is nothing short of remarkable.
The New Hampshire-born soprano first joined SFO’s Merola Program where she debuted her now acclaimed portrayal of Puccini’s Cio-Cio-San. Later, as an Alder Fellow with the company, she covered Pilar Lorengar in “Falstaff.” Over the years, she has sung roles with the company as varied musically and dramatically as Luisa Miller and Jenůfa, Marguerite, and Dolores Claiborne. The artistry and fervor Racette brings to the stage is limitless, whether in vocal mastery, stylistic range, or emotional interpretation. After “Susannah,” Racette is singing the title role in “Salome” at San Antonio Opera (Jan 2015); Marie Antionette in The Ghosts of Versailles at Los Angeles Opera (Feb-March 2015) and Nedda in “Pagliacci” (April-May 2015) at the Met. Racette, who is married to mezzo Beth Clayton, is also proud to call San Francisco home, and when she isn’t on tour, she loves walking with her poodle, Sappho, on the beach.
Racette was given the award by SFO’s General Director David Gockley who said Racette was “family” and went on to list her numerous accomplishments over the years. Present on stage were members of the cast of “Susannah.” In accepting the award Racette graciously thanked all those support persons associated with SFO who have contributed to the quality of her performances over the years and the special San Francisco audience members, many of whom have “been there since the very beginning.”
The first SFO Medal laureate was soprano Dorothy Kirsten. While many vocalists (such as Leontyne Price in 1977, Joan Sutherland in 1984, Plácido Domingo in 1994, and Samuel Ramey (2003) have been so honored, other laureates have included stage director John Copley (2010), conductor Donald Runnicles (2009), chorus director Ian Robertson 2012 and scenic artist Jay Kotcher in 2013.
San Francisco Opera Medal Recipients
1970 – Dorothy Kirsten
1972 – Jess Thomas
1973 – Paul Hager (house stage director)
1974 – Colin Harvey (chorister and chorus librarian)
1975 – Otto Guth
Alexander Fried (San Francisco Examiner music critic)
1976 – Leonie Rysanek
1977 – Leontyne Price
1978 – Kurt Herbert Adler
1980 – Geraint Evans
1981 – Matthew Farruggio (production supervisor and house stage director)
1982 – Regina Resnik
1984 – Joan Sutherland
1985 – Thomas Stewart
1987 – Régine Crespin
1988 – Philip Eisenberg (music staff)
1989 – Pilar Lorengar
1990 – Janis Martin
1991 – Licia Albanese
1993 – Walter Mahoney (costume shop manager)
1994 – Zaven Melikian (concertmaster)
Michael Kane (master carpenter)
1995 – Charles Mackerras
1997 – Frederica von Stade
1998 – Irene Dalis
2001 – Lotfi Mansouri
2003 – Samuel Ramey
2004 – Joe Harris (dresser)
2005 – Pamela Rosenberg
2008 – Clifford (Kip) Cranna (director of music administration)
Ruth Ann Swenson
2009 – Donald Runnicles
2010 – John Copley (stage director)
2012 – Ian Robertson (chorus director)
2013–Jay Kotcher (scenic artist)
Details: Verdi’s “A Masked Ball” opens Saturday, October 4, 2014 and there are 7 performances in the run. Seats are selling fast—purchase tickets here or phone the Box Office at (415) 864-3330. Handel’s “Partenope” opens Wednesday, October 15, 2014 with acclaimed Danielle de Niese in the title role and runs for 6 performances. Purchase tickets here. War Memorial Opera House is located at 301 Van Ness Avenue, San Francisco. Every performance features supertitles (English translations) projected above the stage, visible from every seat.
For more information on San Francisco Opera and all upcoming performances, visit http://sfopera.com/Home.aspx
Friday evening’s “Norma,” San Francisco Opera’s season opener, with soprano Sandra Radvanovsky as Norma, was an evening of firsts—my first time attending on SFO’s big gala night and my first live performance of Bellini’s “Norma.” And, I was lucky enough to score tickets in the 5th row, close enough to see without even my glasses, also a first. I had prepped most of the week with YouTube recordings of the great Normas—Maria Callas, Montserrat Caballé, Joan Sutherland—and was excited to see how Radvanovsky, rumored to stand in their lauded company, would measure up. Norma is a Druid high princess in Roman-occupied Gaul who has secretly been sleeping with the enemy— a Roman procounsel, Pollione, and has two illegitimate children as a result. Pollione has grown tired of Norma and now has his eyes set on Adalgisa, a young Druid priestess whom Norma regards as a friend. The opera is considered to be the gold-standard of early 19th century bel canto Italian opera.
SFO’s new production is conceived and staged by Kevin Newbury, with sets by David Korins and costumes by Jessica Jahn. Newbury debuted at SFO in 2103 directing the world premiere flop, The Gospel of Mary Magdalene. (ARThound wrote about the gorgeous Michael Schwab poster that accompanied the opera.) Billed as being “rooted in the stone age with a contemporary slant,” the production is inspired by contemporary research on the archaeology and mythology of the Druid cultures of Roman-occupied ancient Gaul. With the SFO’s always effervescent Music Director, Nicola Luisotti, in the pit, the orchestra delivered a luminous performance with outstanding woodwind solos.
The British music critic, Andrew Porter, who wrote so insightfully for the New Yorker for some thirty years, said the role of Norma: “calls for power; grace in slow cantilena; pure, fluent coloratura; stamina; tones both tender and violent; force and intensity of verbal declamation; and a commanding stage presence.” Joan Sutherland said of the role “[Hearing Callas in Norma in 1952] was a shock, a wonderful shock. You just got shivers up and down the spine.”
By all measures, Radvanovsky was an astounding Norma. She has a radiant stage presence and a powerful voice, full of sparkling color. The minute she began singing, I immediately liked her velvety tone and her innate musicality, especially her ability to convey tenderness and vulnerability. On Saturday, though, there were some issues with her top range and extended notes. On a handful of occasions during the three hour marathon, her voice broke or became scratchy. And, importantly, that forceful gale wind dynamism and power that we associate with the hypnotic Normas, was not there. From all I’ve read, she’s capable of it and I am sure it will emerge in subsequent performances. Her “Casta Diva,” the famous first act cavatina, a prayer to the moon goddess, asking for peace, was gorgeous but I had the impression that this finely-tuned Ferrari had one more gear that was not present in this rendition. She’s so passionate and immersed in the role though and so secure and nimble in her upper middle range that it was pure pleasure to both listen to her and watch her. I particularly enjoyed her conflicted “Oh non tremare” which completes the first act, where she slams Pollione for his betrayal and exhibited her exceptional range. The audience went wild over her “Casta Diva” and carried its ebullience to the funeral pyre (which came some three hours later and was a quick unsatisfying flash.)
They were equally enthusiastic over mezzo soprano Jamie Barton’s inspired Adalgisa. Barton, in her SFO debut, seemed completely at ease in the difficult role and her nimble voice was warm and alluring. Barton won the 2007 Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions and has gone on to impress audiences ever since. She so believably conveyed the dramatic emotional twists that come with loving a man who is also her friend and superior’s lover that my eyes gravitated constantly to her, troubled pure soul that she was. We’ve all felt the tug of dangerous love and had to make difficult choices between loyalty and following your heart and they played out with compelling drama on Friday. The shivers in this “Norma” were evoked by the girl power moments—by the lush lyricism of Radvanovsky and Barton’s voices blending in the duos—rather than by Norma’s solos of torment and passion.
Italian tenor Marco Berti delivered a wonderful Pollione and bass-baritone Christian Van Horn sang Oroveso with a power that matched his height. We’ll be seeing a lot of Van Horn this season as he appears as Count Ribbing (“Un Ballo in Maschera”), Alidoro (“La Cenerentola”), Colline (“La Bohème”), and Narbal (“Les Troyens”).
David Korins’ set design, which many found confounding, had a single silvery snow-covered tree trunk elegantly hovering from chains in front of an enormous gray wall as a representation of the Druid forest. Blustery snowfall was visible through the doors evoking a Druid winter wonderland. Towards the end of the opera, a giant Trojan horse-like creature slowly overtook the stage and its crescent-shaped horn descended from the sky until it landed in place on its head. The funeral pyre was a mere flash in the pan. Jessica Jahn’s costumes were unfathomable to me—they appeared to come from several different eras and, with the exception of Radvanovsky’s, were unflattering, uninteresting and unattractive.
After the performance, drowsy couples exited the opera house raving about losing themselves in the music and comparing the great divas who have defined Norma. There was a warm buzz about Jamie Barton. SFO’s 92nd season was off to a brilliant start.
Run-time: 2 hours, 50 minutes with one intermission
Details: There are six remaining performances of “Norma”—Wednesday, Sept 10 at 7:30 PM, Sun, Sept 14 at 2 PM, Friday, Sept 19 at 7:30 PM, Tuesday, Sept 23 at 7:30 PM, Saturday, Sept 27 at 7:30 PM and Tuesday, Sept 30 at 7:30 PM Seats are selling fast—purchase tickets for performance here or phone the Box Office at (415) 864-3330. War Memorial Opera House is located at 301 Van Ness Avenue, San Francisco. Every performance features supertitles (English translations) projected above the stage, visible from every seat.
For more information on San Francisco Opera and their upcoming performances, visit http://sfopera.com/Home.aspx
Suddenly, so gorgeous, so relevant—San Francisco Opera’s new “Madame Butterfly”—not to be missed, through July 9
For many opera lovers, the soaring music of Puccini is reason enough to go to a live performance. San Francisco’s Opera’s (SFO’s ) new “Madame Butterfly,” with its abstract video projections by artist Jun Kaneko, outstanding Cio Cio San/Butterfly by soprano Patricia Racette, and passionate directing by Nicola Luisotti, kept me glued to my seat on Thursday evening. I’d count it among the top live opera experiences I’ve had. This was the sixth of eight performances, with the run concluding Wednesday, July 9. This is Florida-based Leslie Swackhamer’s co-production with SFO and Opera Omaha, which required three years of collaboration with Kaneko and Opera Omaha to pull off. Freed of its traditional staging, this is a Butterfly unlike anything you’ve seen before—it’s fresh and timeless and while it has Japanese sensibilities, it feels more global than Japanese. Kaneko dresses the cast in spectacularly colorful kimonos and suits a la Mondrian. His simple set is an angled walkway that extends from the stage right-rear to left-front with a raised central platform with a sliding screen. A vivid array of constantly shifting projections accompanies the action and punctuates the exquisite music. The stage is so expressive, so hypnotic, with these color and pattern changes that it too becomes an important character in the performance, interacting with the singers and audience in a way that really makes you pay attention to what’s going on.
The story is still set in Nagasaki, Japan where a naïve fifteen year-old local geisha, Cio-Cio-San (Racette), falls in love with a handsome and charismatic American naval officer, Lieutenant Pinkerton (tenor Brian Jagde). Their marriage is arranged by the broker, Goro (Julius Ahn), and the contract is clear—the “Japanese marriage” is revocable with one month’s notice. Butterfly understands it differently though—she unconditionally accepts her suitor’s love as real and eternal and goes so far as to forsake her family and her ancestral Buddhist faith to become a devoted wife and Christian. He leaves to go back to the States with a promise to return to her. She trusts him implicitly. She grows impoverished as she waits with her faithful maid Suzuki (mezzo Elizabeth DeShong). When he does come back, three years later, it’s with his American wife.
I was once told that co-dependency is a vicious addiction to the potential of things. Patricia Racette, who has performed Cio-Cio-San three times at SFO, has an electrifying command of Butterfly’s psyche. Her instinct for baring this deluded young’s woman’s soul while singing rapturously all evening long, is a feat that won’t be repeated. She delivers a Butterfly who is so sumptuous in her optimism and so stubborn in her head-in-the sand denial and passivity that we want to slap her back into reality and save her from the intense pain in the pipeline.
By now, Racette should be a household name amongst Bay Area opera lovers—the Merola/Adler alum started her career with SFO 24 years ago and has sung nearly 30 roles with the company. This past season, she took on the herculean task of singing four roles in various SFO productions and drew praise across the board. Just last week, she concluded a stand-out performance as the cabaret singer, Julie La Verne, in Francesca Zambello’s opulent “Show Boat,” SFO’s other stand-out summer of 2014 hit. There, her delightful renditions of Jerome Kern’s ballads “Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man” and “Bill,”along with her wonderful acting, were central to the production. This Racette’s second SFO pairing with hunky Merola/Adler tenor Brian Jagde as Pinkerton and their natural ease with each other and on stage chemistry made their Act 1duet, “Bimba, Bimba, non piangere” (“Sweetheart, sweetheart, do not weep”) intensely passionate. Racette’s Act II, “Un bel dì” (“One beautiful day”), the opera’s most famous aria was interrupted by clapping and, once she finished, earned her a loving ovation. The tension ran unbearably high when she sent her son out of the room so she could kill herself and that final gesture of sacrifice and insane fidelity was something to savor—a shame that it was interrupted by a *$#@ cell phone which rang 5 or 6 times before an usher had the good sense to take the offender by the arm and pull him out of the opera house.
Butterfly’s inspiring score is imbued with a mix of east and West and the music flowed almost seamlessly from the SFO Orchestra and chorus under Luisotti’s impassioned conducting. In an interview in the program, Luisotti estimates that he has conducted the opera over seventy times, including two productions in Japan. The energetic prelude that leads right into the opening scene had his silver locks flying and the volume energetically revved to the point that Jagde’s first aria, “E soffitto e pareti” (“And ceiling and walls”), was momentarily overpowered. He pulled in it and the rest went magically.
In critical supporting roles, mezzo Elizabeth DeShong as Suzuki and baritone Brian Mulligan as the compassionate American consul offier, Sharpless, were excellent. DeShung, in her third SFO appearance, exhibited a tremendous vocal range and deep compassion in her role as Butterfly’s faithful servant and confidant. Her flower duet “Scuoti quella fronda di ciliegio…” was bittersweet in its foreshadowing the death about to occur. First year Adler, baritone Efraín Solís, who made his SFO debut as Prince Yamadori, a prospective proper husband for Butterfly, demonstrated he is headed for glory
The projections are game-changers—modernizing everything and encouraging very contemporary and personal associations. Once Butterfly is abstracted from its own history and the Orientalist tableau from which we traditionally evaluate it, we’re much freer to look at its broad political issue—the plight of women today who are disowned in many cultures because they don’t play by the games established by the patriarchy.
“Gorgeous” at the Asian Art Museum:
Before the opera, I took in Gorgeous, the provocative and inventive collaboration between SFMOMA and the Asian Art Museum (AAM)—72 artworks in conversation (39 from SFMOMA and 43 from the Asian), spanning 2,000 years, that asks the viewer to decide for themselves what ‘gorgeous” means. It primed me for the visual feast that awaiting me at SFO. Gorgeous explores attraction, repulsion and desire and certainly engages us in thinking about the Orientalist tableau which is strong part of Butterfly. One of the ideas behind Gorgeous is to use what we’ve learned from 20th century art about awareness of color and form and apply it to the historical objects from the Asian’s collection. In the Asian’s Oscher Galley, quietly hanging across from Sally Mann’s provocatively posed portrait of her topless five-year-old daughter, are three silk scrolls by renowned Japanese artist Chobunsai Eishi, “Three Types of Beauties in Edo,” approximately dated 1798-1829. These scrolls represent three types of women: a geisha, an elite courtesan and a maiden of a wealthy family. The courtesan wears a magnificent costume that includes a brightly colored and patterned outer-kimono tied with a heavy ornate sash and has an elaborate hairdo. In another, a demure geisha (erotically?) twists her hair pin with her delicate white hands, her forearm revealed when her sleeve is raised. In Eishi’s time, too, there was a fascination with ranking types of beauties but the coding is fuzzy to our modern eye. Over at SFO, Kaneko’s bold, colorful projections and costuming indicates once again that he’s digested and revisioned and moved on to his own gorgeous. For me, gorgeous is an unexpected surprise that draws you in and keeps you rapt. This is “Butterfly” to a T. (The AAM is open Sunday, July 6, and admission is free. Gorgeous closes September 14, 2014)
Details: There are two remaining performances of “Madame Butterfly”—Sunday, July 6 at 2 PM and Wednesday, July 9 at 7:30 PM. Seats are selling fast—purchase tickets for either performance here or phone the Box Office at (415) 864-3330. War Memorial Opera House is located at 301 Van Ness Avenue, San Francisco. Every performance features supertitles (English translations) projected above the stage, visible from every seat.
For more information on San Francisco Opera and their upcoming performances, visit http://sfopera.com/Home.aspx
Driving to San Francisco and Parking: Be sure to allow ample time when driving into San Francisco and crossing the Golden Gate Bridge—there are frequent delay on Highway 101 South due to ongoing road expansion work and wine country tourism. Arrive early at your parking garage of choice because those also fill up, especially when the San Francisco Symphony is performing on the same day. Recommended Garages: Two garages are very close to War Memorial Opera House— the Performing Arts Garage (1/2 block) (Grove Street between Franklin and Gough Streets) and Civic Center Garage (roughly 2 blocks) (McAllister Street between Polk and Larkin Streets) (Both have a flat $15 pay cash as you enter policy on performance nights.)
Dark, Thrilling Opera—San Francisco Symphony’s “Peter Grimes” runs Thursday, Friday, Sunday at Davies Symphony Hall
Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony (SFS) conclude the 2013-24 season and their celebration of the centenary of British composer Benjamin Britten with three semi-staged performances of his thrilling opera “Peter Grimes” (Thursday, Friday, Sunday) and a special concert, Four Sea Interludes (Saturday), accompanied by a video installation by Tal Rosner which is paired with excerpts from Britten’s exotic The Prince of The Pagoda Suite.
I’ve never heard Britten’s music performed live and I am very visually oriented, so I am looking forward to the enlivening projections which will add meaning of their own. I first heard the name Benjamin Britten in a Keynesian macroeconomic theory course at Cal. John Maynard Keynes, the influential British economist, thinker, and member of the Bloomsbury Group, was very keen on culture. In the early 1940’s, he proposed (and chaired) an “Arts Council” that established the initial foundation for a system of permanent State patronage of the arts. As you may recall, the premise behind Keynesian theory was that increased government spending (and lower taxes) would stimulate demand and pull an economy out of a Depression. The Arts Council initially gave over half its money (grants of public funds) to music, especially classical music and opera. Benjamin Brittan’s now famous opera, “Peter Grimes,” was first funded through a generous grant given to the Sadler’s Wells theatre to support its emergence as a national opera house charged with embodying the British national character and producing operas that were more accessible than prewar grand opera had been.
“Peter Grimes” had its premiere in June 1945, between VE Day and VJ Day, and the audience’s enthusiastic approval was taken for a political demonstration, so the curtain was brought down early. The opera, which is based on a poem by George Crabbe, captured something new musically while depicting the epic psychic struggle of a man against his own destructive potential and the bitter sting of alienation, themes that became very familiar in Britain in the years to come. How appropriate that Britten, who wrote for the people, and was somewhat under the radar before WWII, shot into the limelight with this story of a fisherman at odds with society. The opera went on to immense success and Britten, as a result, became quite wealthy. The issues (from a macro theory perspective) were that Britten was part of the creation of a new state-funded system of arts patronage and he went on to invest his considerable personal earnings outside the country. In researching Britten, this vivid memory surfaced. Of course, SFS promises a revolutionary production of “Grimes,” dazzlingly staged—a grim but rapturous experience.
Sneak Peek of Peter Grimes with the SF Symphony
New Ground for SFS—Video projections, now commonplace in fully staged opera, are also trending in symphony halls across the country. The term “semi-staged” is not synonymous for “projection-based,” however, and “Peter Grimes” marks SFS’ first foray into an opera performance that combines video projections with minimal set staging. Los Angeles-based director, artist and costume designer, James Darrah and New York-based artist, projection designer and filmmaker, Adam Larsen promise dramatic staging like a “big curved sail with scenes that capture the setting of an old-world fishing village and volatility of the sea.” The video will be projected onto a panoramic floor-to-ceiling scrim that encompasses the stage which has been extended and floated over a few rows of center seats to allow for extra performance space and proximity to viewers.
Darrah and Larsen collaborated in SFS’ January 2013 production of Henrik Ibsen’s “Peer Gynt,” creating vivid projections that evoked the vast Norwegian landscape and served to counterbalance the smaller stage which accommodated the orchestra and singing cast, one of whom was a dancer. The relative placement of the orchestra, singers and set props vis-à-vis the projection screens are just one issue involved in the production. New York Times music critic Zachary Woolfe gives a very readable accounting of the state of semi-staged opera in “Giving a Semi-Hearty Cheer for Semi-Staged Opera,” NYT, June 13, 2014. Attending a flurry of recent performances across the country led him to ponder where the drama is located in an operatic performance and what kind of production brings it out most effectively. He asks, “Does paring a work down to the bare score make it more potent, or do theatrical trappings enrich the experience?” On numerous occasions, MTT has enthusiastically affirmed his commitment to using new technology to enliven performances. It all makes sense provided he can maintain his sensitivity to the music-making as people begin to factor in the look as well as the sound of a performance.
Timelapse video of the installation of immersive sets and panoramic video screens for Peter Grimes at Davies Symphony Hall
Performance Details: Peter Grimes: A Multimedia Semi-staged Event is Thursday, June 26, 2014 at 8 PM; Friday, June 27 at 8 PM; and Sunday, June 29 at 2 PM with a pre-performance talk by Peter Grunberg one hour before each performance. Purchase tickets online here or phone SFS Box Office at 415.864-6000.
Britten: Four Sea Interludes with Video by Tal Rosner is Sat, June 28, 2014 at 8 PM with pre-performance talk by Laura Stanfield Prichard at 7 PM. Purchase tickets online here or phone SFS Box Office at 415.864-6000.
Getting to Davies: Davies Symphony Hall is located at 201 Van Ness Avenue at Grove Street, in San Francisco’s Civic Center, just across the street from City Hall. The main entrance is on the south side of Grove Street between Van Ness Avenue and Franklin Street. Driving to San Francisco and Parking: Be sure to allow ample time when driving into San Francisco on the weekend and crossing the Golden Gate Bridge—there is frequently congestion from Sausalito through the toll-plaza. Arrive early at your parking garage of choice because those also fill up on weekends. Recommended Garages: Two garages are very close to Davies— the Performing Arts Garage (1/2 block)(Grove Street between Franklin and Gough Streets) and Civic Center Garage (roughly 2 blocks) (McAllister Street between Polk and Larkin Streets) (both have flat $15 pay cash as you enter policy on performance nights)
Interview: British Composer Adam Gorb on his sex trafficking opera, “Anya17,” which has its American premiere with Opera Parallèle Friday
Amidst a summer opera season offering Francesca Zambello’s production of “Show Boat” at San Francisco Opera and San Francisco Symphony’s semi-staged production of Brittan’s “Peter Grimes;” Opera Parallèle hopes to put British composer Adam Gorb firmly on the Bay Area map, presenting the North American premiere of his first opera, “Anya17,” at Marines Memorial Theatre this Friday through Sunday. “Anya 17” is a dark chamber opera that is Gorb’s third collaboration with Dorset-based librettist Ben Kaye. The opera unfolds through the eyes of Anya, a naïve young girl (sung by soprano Anna Noggle) who falls in love with the wrong guy who persuades her to follow him to the West. Instead of a better life, she is betrayed and coerced into sexual slavery. In order to survive, Anya must find an ultimate inner strength as she struggles to adapt to the humiliation and brutality of her brothel existence.
Adam Gorb was born in Cardiff in 1958 and started composing at the age of ten. His first work to be broadcast on the BBC was written when he was fifteen. He studied at Cambridge University (1977-1980) and at the Royal Academy of Music (1991-1993), where he graduated with the highest honors. He has been on the staff at the London College of Music and Media, the junior Academy of the Royal Academy of Music and, since 2000 he has been the Head of School of Composition at Manchester’s Royal Northern College of Music. He is acclaimed for his wind ensemble works. His 2007 “protest cantata,” “Thoughts Scribbled on a Blank Wall,” a collaboration with Dorset-based librettist Ben Kaye, was based on the experiences of the British journalist and broadcaster, John McCarthy, Britain’s longest held hostage in the Lebanon hostage crisis. Then working for UPI, McCarthy was abducted in Beirut in 1986 and held for five years before his release. Gorb and Kaye’s mutual interest in current affairs led them to collaborate again in 2010 when they created “Eternal Voices,” a commission from the Royal Marines Service Band about contemporary war. The 30 minute long choral work told the story of a Royal Marine who loses his life in Afghanistan and the effect it has on his family. BBC newscaster Trevor McDonald acted as a narrator and interjected by reading current news headlines relevant to the story.
Last Friday, I had the pleasure of speaking with Adam Gorb at his home in the UK, as he was preparing to travel to the Bay Area for this week’s series of “Anya17” events and performances. He was excited about the opera’s relevancy as well as the fun he had in composing its music, which contains passages inspired by his family’s ancestral roots in the Ukraine. (To read ARThound’s previous coverage, an overview of “Anya17,” click here.)
Here is our conversation—
When did you first become aware of and interested in the trafficking topic and whose idea was it to use that as a basis of an opera?
Adam Gorb: It was the librettist, Ben Kaye’s idea. We had worked together on two previous pieces—one of them (“Thoughts Scribbled on a Blank Wall,” 2007) about a political hostage from the UK and the other (“Eternal Voices” 2010) about war in the 21st century—and we both realized that we get on quite well and that we like working with up-to-date subjects. We both really wanted to do an opera. I was very interested in displaced peoples and wanted to do something that addressed the concept of people moving from one country to another because that has so many musical possibilities. We batted about the idea of the sex trade and Ben did a lot of research and he came up with the story.
What is the significance of the number 17 in the title “Anya17?
Adam Gorb: She could be 17, of course. But the reality is that there are these actual places that offer girls’ photos on a menu and clients look that menu over and order— ‘I want number 17.’ The actual title “Anya17” was taken from an episode of an award-winning British-Canadian TV miniseries, “Sex Traffic” (2004). There was a character, Anya, in it who was 17. We went with the name, Anya, because it’s a generic name associated with any Eastern European girl.
There’s good and bad in everyone…Have you gone the route of completely demonizing the pimps, or, do we also see the desperation in their situation as well, even some humanity? Likewise, do we see any unappealing traits in the girls?
Adam Gorb: The opera is very much through Anya’s eyes and she’s a sweet, innocent, young girl but she’s also naïve. She likes money and she loves people buying things for her and goes into raptures about meeting this guy who is taking her shopping. You sometimes want to shake her and say ‘Come on, you’re crazy, don’t you realize you’re going to have to pay a high price for this later on.’ And Victor, her pimp, is certainly an awful character but he sees himself as a businessman who is providing a valuable service. This comes out in his aria, “I only give you what you want,” and there’s a certain truth in that. He’s charming in the beginning—to get what he wants—but he’s completely amoral at his core. One of the crucial characters is Natalia, who is very friendly at the beginning but she’s actually someone who has come full circle from being trafficked herself to working for Victor, her lover. So she’s this cabaret jazz singer who gradually loses all of her warmth to becoming cold and calculating. Her tragic history comes out in this Sondheim-like song about how she was raped by her father. I felt the only way to handle those horrific words she was singing was with a cheerful upbeat song that dehumanized the entire experience and showed her dissociation from her history.
How are brutalization, violence and sex handled?
Adam Gorb: Parts of the music are quite brutal and there is a harsh dissonance to the music that builds. At the climax, where one of the characters is beaten to death, there’s a long remorseful melody with the whole orchestra playing that’s extremely moving. Of course, those very harsh parts are foreshadowed by the music of seduction that goes along with building sexual tension.
Some things were difficult to be too graphic about. There’s more than one rape scene and quite a lot of grotesquery. The music that accompanies this becomes almost like noise with certain instruments out of their registers. In the German production, when the rape occurred, the curtain came down and there were no projections and it was carried out in the dark.
Beyond raising awareness about the topic, do you want the audience to do something with their experience?
Adam Gorb: My awareness is less political and more artistic. Yes, I do want to raise awareness but the thing that I do well is write music. Without ducking responsibility, if someone came to see “Anya17” and afterwards said ‘That’s a really interesting story’ and could tell me something about it, I’d be pleased. There are so many causes completing for people’s attention these days. I hope people are drawn along by the story and can relate to the characters and, frankly, aren’t bored. I try and keep up with new opera and have a problem with a lot of the operas that I attend holding my attention. I’m asking myself a lot of whys—Why is this taking so long? Why are they singing that? I wanted to do something that I wouldn’t get annoyed by and that would tell a story that makes an important and lasting impression. At its core, this is a story statement about a young girl who comes to a new country and falls in love for the first time and it all falls apart and she is tricked and humiliated and her spirit is almost broken but still there is hope for the future.
Were changes made after the last (German) production that will be in play for the first time in San Francisco?
Adam Gorb: I fiddle with little things but tend to do one big brain surgery and then leave it. The opera was semi-staged in Liverpool and Manchester in March 2012 and the first performance outside the UK was in Romania in October 2013 at the National Opera of Timişoara, with a mixed UK and Romanian cast. I made the big changes for the fully staged German production, at the Meininger Theater in October 2013. By then, I had a recording and was able to go through the opera and make more sense of the feel and continuity of it overall as well as determine whether the singers themselves were clear enough. I made some cuts to some of Anya’s arias that had to do with her interaction with one of characters because it didn’t feel dramatically right the way it was. I haven’t made any changes since then and don’t intend to do any more tinkering, otherwise I’d never move on to something new.
I read that you had been particularly moved by Britten’s “Peter Grimes,” which will be performed by San Francisco Symphony later this month. What in particular about that opera moved you?
Adam Gorb: I saw “Peter Grimes” when I was a kid, when Britten was still alive—he was quite ill by then— and he was in the audience. It was a very moving experience that caught me at a very impressionable age. The subject matter—the lone fisherman fighting alone against everyone—gripped me. What I admire in opera and what I admire in composers like Britten and Puccini is that sense is that they are really writing for the theatre. They’re not writing comfort pieces—they’re getting to the core of these deeply human tendencies that fascinate us all and I respect that. I’ve wanted to write an opera for years, because, before I was working in the conservatory, I was worked in musical theatre and I’m very interested in what you can do with music on the stage.
Adam Gorb: Well, I’d love to do another opera and am very keen to write the music. “Anya’s” probably the biggest thing I’ve done and I was completely swept up and in love with the characters I was writing for. I also really enjoyed the collaborative aspects of it—it can get quite lonely sitting at home and writing music alone. I’m most interested in recent history—something that people are close enough to that they can really identify with. I’m glad that it’s come together the way it has but, next time, I’d want it to be commissioned. I’ll also write a lot for wind ensemble. I travel to the US a lot for that because it’s so big there.
Cast: The role of Anya will be sung by soprano Anna Noggle, whose portrayals have been described as “sensitively drawn and heart-achingly sung” (Opera News). Viktor is baritone Victor Benedetti, lauded by the Chicago Tribune for his “confident and commanding stage presence and strong, dark baritone.” Local favorites are mezzo-sopranos Catherine Cook (who sang Julia Child in OP’s La Bonne Cuisine) and Laura Krumm, soprano Shawnette Sulker, and tenor Andres Ramirez (whom OP audiences enjoyed in Trouble in Tahiti and Ainadamar).
Creative Team: Directed by Brian Staufenbiel; Conducted by Nicole Paiment; Composed by Adam Gorb; Libretto by Ben Kaye; Media Design by David Murakami
Free Stage Rehearsal, Friday, June 20: An open stage rehearsal, after which Opera Parallèle Artistic Director and Conductor, Nicole Paiement, and stage director Brian Staufenbiel (Paiement’s husband) will lead the cast and audience in a Q & A question-and-answer session, takes place at 4:30 p.m. Friday at the Marines’ Memorial Theatre, 609 Sutter Street (at Mason) second floor, San Francisco. The event is free and the public is encouraged to attend.
Dates, Tickets: “Anya17” is at 8 p.m. in Friday, June 20, 2014 and Saturday, June 21, 2014 and at 4 p.m. on Sunday, June 22, 2014 at Marines’ Memorial Theatre, 609 Sutter Street (at Mason) second floor, San Francisco. Tickets: $80 to $30, are available online here or phone City Box Office at 415-392-4400. For more information, visit www.operaparallele.org.