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Geneva Anderson digs into art

Review: San Francisco Opera’s “Hansel and Gretel”—happily ever after, with adult moments

San Francisco Opera’s new co-production with London’s Royal Opera of Humperdinck’s “Hansel and Gretel” features Heidi Stober (L) as Gretel and Sasha Cooke (R) as Hansel. Photo: Cory Weaver/ SFO

San Francisco Opera (SFO) has officially kicked off the holiday season with it’s wonderfully staged new co-production of German composer Engelbert Humperdinck’s Hansel and Gretel.”  This family-friendly English-language adaptation of the Grimm Brothers’ classic tale follows an impoverished brother and sister who get lost in dense woods and come upon an enticing edible house owned by a witch who lures children in and then roasts and eats them.

Beautiful singing from beloved mezzo Heidi Stober (Gretel), soprano Sasha Cooke (Hansel) and talented supporting singers, along with plush romantic-era music from the San Francisco Opera Orchestra under conductor Christopher Franklin are all pure delight.  With Ian Robertson directing the members of the SF Opera Chorus and a special children’s chorus comprised of members of the San Francisco Girls Chorus and San Francisco Boys Chorus, the experience is both sophisticated and magical.  Running just two hours and 12 minutes, the shortish opera is perfect for families.

Act I of Humperdinck’s “Hansel and Gretel” features mezzo soprano Michaela Martens as Gertrude, the mother (L), and bass-baritone Alfred Walker as Peter, the father (R). Photo: Cory Weaver/ SFO

What’s unique about this co-production with London’s Royal Opera House by British director and production designer Antony McDonald, is that the original Brothers Grimm story, published in 1812 in Children’s and Household Tales, has been changed significantly.  Librettist Adelheid Wette, Humperidinck’s sister, wrote her version of Hansel and Gretel in 1983 to appeal to German opera audiences while addressing pressing issues of the day—child labor, callus treatment of children, education and gender roles in the household.  In Act I, Hansel and Gretel work right beside their parents, with little time for childhood frivolity.  In the original Grimms’ tale, the father and stepmother are painted as awful characters who deliberately abandon their children.  Wette turned the stepmother into the actual mother, and she doesn’t die in the end.  Instead of being a woodcutter, the father is a broom-maker, a critique of patriarchal authority.

Antony McDonald has further softened many of harsh aspects of the original tale and added new characters.  The father is not portrayed as a drunk; when the mother sends the children into the forest to forage for strawberries and they do not return home; both parents go to look for them.  Even when they are lost and frightened, the children distract themselves with play.

Act II’s “Dream-Pantomime” scene in SFO’s new co-production of “Hansel and Gretel” includes characters from other Brothers Grimm fairy tales. Photo: Cory Weaver

The addition of new characters may come as a  surprise.  In Act II, a delightful Sandman (mezzo Ashley Dixon, Adler Fellow) appears to lull the lost children to sleep.  As the children say their evening prayers and begin to fall asleep, instead of being attended to by angels, several characters from the other Grimm Brothers’ fairy tales make cameo appearances, including Little Red Riding Hood (Sarah Nadreau), the Wolf (Sarah Yune), Prince Charming (Michael Bragg), Snow White (Stacey Chien), Rapunzel (Nina Rocco), Rumpelstiltskin (Kay Thornton), Will-o’-the-wisp (Chiharu Shibata).  As the opera’s final act begins, Hansel and Gretel are awoken at dawn by a Dew Fairy (soprano, Natalie Image, Adler Fellow) who sprinkles them with glistening drops from her water can.

Depending on your preference for adhering to the authentic story, these additions will either delight or annoy you.  Compared to the computer-generated creatures that dominate the screens and kids’ attention nowadays, these furry animals and real human characters add quaint charm.  Antony McDonald is a Royal Designer for Industry, a title he was awarded in the UK honoring his decades of experience designing and directing imaginative productions for opera, theater, and ballet.  Recognizing that “Hansel and Gretel” may be a young child’s first experience of opera, he stated he wanted it to be “visually arresting and engaging, creating a balance of fear and delight.”  He has succeeded.

Robert Brubaker as the witch and Heidi Stober as Gretel in Humperdinck’s “Hansel and Gretel” at SFO. Photo: Cory Weaver/SFO

Still, the opera goes to some very dark places.  With all we know about child molesters who pretend to be something they are not to prey upon innocent children, the gender-changing witch (tenor Robert Brubaker) takes on terrifying connotations.  On the other hand, the addition is relevant and timely.

Sasha Cooke as Hansel in Humperdinck’s “Hansel and Gretel.” Photo: Cory Weaver/ SFO

This performance reunites powerhouses Cooke and Stober who wowed SFO audiences in June when they co-stared in Handel’s baroque masterpiece, Orlando. (https://genevaanderson.wordpress.com/2019/06/21/meet-richard-savino-whose-baroque-instruments-add-period-splendor-to-handels-orlando-at-sf-opera-through-june-27/ )

Mezzo Sasha Cooke was fabulous and abuzz with youthful energy in the pants role of Hansel.  She had a huge stage presence and sang a number of duets where her warm voice sparkled.  She harmonized wonderfully with soprano Heidi Stober who delivered an energetic and delightful Gretel and dazzled in her demanding soli and duets.

Heidi Stober as Gretel in Humperdinck’s “Hansel and Gretel.” Photo: Cory Weaver/SFO

Just before last Sunday’s opera began, SFO General director Matthew Shivlock took the stage to announce that mezzo Michaela Martens, cast as Gertrude, the mother, was ill and that first year Adler Fellow, mezzo Mary Evelyn Hangley, would replace her.  Hangley took the ball and ran with it, singing the role with confidence in her surprise SFO debut.  These unexpected moments make live opera so exciting.

Bass baritone Alfred Walker as Peter, the father, delivered powerful singing and brought requisite intensity to the role, especially when celebrating the boom in broom sales that put food on his impoverished family’s table.  Tenor Robert Brubaker was wonderful as the frightening witch who ultimately is pushed into the oven and roasted.  More sensitive young viewers may react to seeing the witch corpse in Act III.

The opera’s sets masterfully recreate beloved landscapes from storybooks, from the initial show scrim—a blown-up photo of a romantic valley scene, to the quaint cabin kitchen scene, to the ominous wood forest—to the witch’s creepy chocolate house with a huge knife across the roof and a cherry on top.

In Act I and throughout the opera, a large cuckoo clock atop the proscenium has motorized hands which spin round to mark the passage of time.  The actual sound of the cuckoo comes from behind the orchestra pit and is preformed by percussionist Victor Avdienko, playing his custom-made flute-like instrument,“L”Cuckoo,” made out two PVC pipes.  In Act II, a large automated moth and beetle move slowly around the proscenium seemingly encircling the exquisitely shadowed forest, lit by Lucy Carter.

Act III of Humperdinck’s “Hansel and Gretel” with Heidi Stober as Gretel and Sasha Cooke as Hansel features a witch’s house inspired by Alfred Hitchcock’s thriller Psycho.  Photo: Cory Weaver/ SFO

In Act III, the banister of the witch’s house that Gretel breaks off is made on the morning of each performance from dark chocolate that is cast in a mold and baked.  The finished piece is dry brushed with white chocolate to resemble wood.  The house itself was inspired by Hitchcock’s Psycho.

In all, “Hansel and Gretel” is very satisfying due to its high entertainment factor and family friendly vibe.  If you do attend, come early to watch the mayhem.  There is something wonderfully energizing about seeing the opera house full of happy children scurrying around in a scavenger hunt.

Family Activities:

Gingerbread Hunts: Children with performance tickets are invited to participate in a gingerbread scavenger hunt that starts in the Opera House lobby before every performance.

Character Meet and Greets: Following the performances on Saturday, Nov. 30 and Sunday, Dec. 1, audience members can meet fairy tale characters in the Opera House lobby.

Exploration workshops for families: “All About Hansel and Gretel” workshops, perfect for children ages 6 and above, explore the opera’s story, music, production design and characters. Saturday, Nov. 30 at 11 am and 12:30 pm at the Wilsey Center for Opera, Veterans Building, 4th floor, 401 Van Ness Avenue, San Francisco. Tickets: $10 per person. Purchase online here.

Details:

There are five remaining performances of Hansel and Gretel—Sat, Nov. 23, 7:30 pm; Sat, Nov 30, 2 pm; Sunday, Dec 1, 2 pm; Tues, Dec 3, 7:30 pm; and Sat, Dec 7, 7:30 pm. War Memorial Opera House is located at 301 Van Ness Ave, San Francisco. Tickets: $26 to $398. Admission for children under 18 is available at 50% off with the purchase of one or more adult tickets in certain sections. Info: (415) 864-3330 or www.sfopera.com

November 22, 2019 Posted by | Opera | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

review: Romeo and Juliet, the rush of new love with a short shelf life, at SF Opera

Charismatic tenor Pene Pati/Romeo is believably engulfed in the passion of true love in San Francisco Opera’s new production of Gounod’s “Romeo and Juliet,”  last performed at SFO 32 years ago.  Photo: Cory Weaver/SFO

No matter how familiar the plot, most of us are suckers for a passionate love story; there’s none more enthralling than Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet.”  As a live performance, though, it only clicks when the onstage chemistry is so electric that you find yourself seduced and falling in love with love.   San Francisco Opera’s 97th season opener, “Romeo and Juliet,Charles Gounod’s musical adaptation of Shakespeare’s classic sucks you in hook, line, and sinker.  The intense longing, desire, and attraction of new love come alive again briefly for Romeo and Juliet, until it all tragically unravels.

The production clicks on so many levelsthe gorgeous singing of leads Nadine Sierra and Pene Pati, their supporting cast, and the SFO Chorus; guest conductor Yves Abel’s and SFO Orchestra’s fluid interpretation of Gounod’s lyrical score.  And a last minute twist that provided the thrilling suspense that makes opera, well, operatic.

Pene Pati and Nadine Sierra disappear into their characters and feed off of each other in four impassioned and lyrical duets that anchor Gounod’s “Romeo and Juliet.”  Photo: Cory Weaver/SFO

Just three days before the season’s opening gala performance on Sept 6, Romeo, tenor Bryan Hymel, withdrew from the entire production citing personal reasons.  New Zealand tenor Pene Pati, stepped up to sing the entire run.  Pati, a former Adler, who sang the Duke of Mantua in Verdi’s “Rigloetto” in 2017, was already booked to sing Romeo in the last of the opera’s seven scheduled performances.  His debut under pressure was splendid.  In his second performance as Romeo, on Sept 13, Patis charisma was palpable, magical.  He sang with such lyricism, passion and seemingly effortless precision that, even in the most challenging arias, he came off like a Ferrari that had just given everyone in attendance the ride of their life.  The love-at-first-sight scene with Julia at the Capulet ball, was something to behold as soprano Nadine Sierra, in her role debut, first encountered her Romeo.  For anyone living the daily grind of a romantic relationship, the interaction between these two was food for the soul.

Pati may be new to the role at SFO but he’s had years to reflect on it.  In 2014, he beat out a remarkable 304 singers to win the Montserrat Caballé International Singing Competition in Zaragosa with his interpretation of the Romeo’s Act II taxing ariaAh, lève-toi, soleil.”  Last Friday, the tenor imbued the seven minute aria with such emotion, and then ended on what seemed like an impossibly-long extended note, that the audience was enraptured.

Soprano Nadine Sierra as Juliet. Photo: Cory Weaver/SFO

As Juliet, Nadine Sierra gave a sublime performance that was at times joyfully playful and, by turns, tender, passionate and heart-wrenching, always convincing and never over the top.  Her Act I “Je veux vivre dans le rêve” (Juliet’s Waltz), where she expresses the desire to live inside her cozy dreamworld, where it is eternally spring, was radiant, light, and showcased her exceptional range.

Following in the steps of Ruth Ann Swenson, 32 years ago, Sierra is now the second artist in SFO history to sing Act IV’s notoriously daunting potion aria, “Amour ranime courage,” which contains two high C’s and and relentless vocal gymnastics.  Those of us lucky enough to have followed Sierra’s rise through the ranks of the Merola and Adler programs will never forget how she beamed after slaying this wicked aria in 2012 for the Adler “The Future is Now” concert.  Last Friday, she was in complete control of the aria from start to finish, delivering an astonishing array of glittering sound while enacting a roller-coaster of emotion that ends with her drinking the potion that will feign her death.

Mezzo soprano Stephanie Lauricella as in her SFO debut as Stéphano, Romeo’s male page. Photo: Cory Weaver

Among secondary roles, mezzo Stephanie Lauricella distinguished herself in her SFO debut as Stéphano, Romeo’s male page.  Following her magical Act III aria, “Que fais-tu, blanche tourterelle?,” several in the audience rose to their feet.  Baritone Lucas Meachem, another former Adler, impressed as Mercutio, Romeo’s friend from his first solo aria in Act I, “Mab, la reine des mensonges”.

Canadian conductor Yves Abel’s sensitive command over the SFO orchestra grew more impressive as the evening progressed.  While hailed as Gounod’s most impressive opera, the score’s prelude and first act did not impress and the first 30 or so minutes were carried by the singing.

Dull staging is the thing that most often drags SFO operas down, contributing a stolid feel to productions that soar in other regards. Jean-Louis Grinda’s staging and Eric Chevalier’s Renaissance-era Verona set designs, a collaboration between Opéra de Monte-Carlo and Teatro Carlo Felice, were uninspired.  Much of the action took place on an unattractive round starburst patterned concave platform that was surrounded by architectural details varying over the course of the opera.  The audience was made to wait out several long scene changes which broke up the continuity of the drama and, when the curtain rose, nothing of high visual interest awaited.

Carola Volles’ costumes were hit and miss. Those of plush jewel-toned velvet added sumptuousness and vibrancy to the dull set, particularly in the masked ball, but gowns with more color and pizazz would have better showcased Juliet.

In the end, Pati and Sierra claimed the night…unstoppable in love and death.

Details: There are four remaining performances of Romeo and Juliet: Sat, 9/21 at 7:30 pm; Tues, 9/24 at 7:30 pm; Sun, 9/29 at 2 pm and Tues 10/1 at 7:30 pm. Run Time: 2 hours and 56 min, with one intermission. Tickets: Remaining performances are selling out; purchase online  https://sfopera.com/2019-20-season/romeo-juliet/

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/

 

September 21, 2019 Posted by | Opera | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Meet Drogen, the unflappable equine star of SF Opera’s “Carmen”—he’s from Penngrove and is a rare Gyspy Vanner

Drogen, a 13 year-old Gypsy Vanner gelding owned by Eugene Power, of Novato, and boarded at Caryn and Howard Hoeflein’s Sky High Ranch in Penngrove.  Drogen steals the show in Carmen, which opened SF Opera’s summer season on June 5 and runs through June 29.  Photo: Hannah Beebe

There’s nothing like an extra-large, adorable animal on stage to get an audience oohing and ahhing and that’s exactly how Drogen, a 13-year-old horse from Penngrove, has become the most talked about star of SF Opera’s Carmen.  Of course, the singers are wonderful and Bizet’s familiar music is as enthralling as ever but the chatter has been all about the bullfighter Escamillo’s horse, which bass baritone Kyle Ketelsen rides on stage for his rousing Act II Toreador aria, “Votre toast, je peux vous le rendre.”  Drogen makes another brief appearance in Act IV, the final moments of the opera, when he dramatically carries in the heroine Carmen, soprano J’Nai Bridges, and she dismounts into Escamillo’s arms.

I was delighted to learn that Drogen is stabled in Penngrove, at Sky High Ranch, just a few miles from my country home.  His handler, Caryn Hoeflein of Sky High Ranch, appears on stage as an extra in the opera and works with Drogen to ensure all goes as planned for his two stage appearances.

Drogen is a 13-year old Gypsy Vanner—a rare and gorgeous breed of draft horse first bred in Europe to pull Romani (gypsy) caravans in the UK, and introduced into the US by an enamored Florida couple, Dennis and Cindy Thompson, in 1996.  Gypsy Vanners are captivating in motion because of their flowing feathers, the thick, long silky hair that starts at roughly the cannon bone of the leg and grows down and completely around the hoof.  Gypsy Vanners have always been bred for temperament too, as they needed to be able to pull heavy wagons and work with a family.  At nearly 16 hands high, Drogen is a very big boy in terms of the breed standard.

Drogen’s current owner, Eugene Power, of Novato, bought him as a private trail horse in the wake of the deadly fires last November in Paradise, CA.  Drogen had spent ten years as the loving trail horse of a family that lost everything in the fires except their three horses.  Exhausted and devastated by their loss, the owner and her daughter sold Drogen so that he could have the home and stability they could no longer provide.  Caryn Hoeflein remembers the happy day last November when Drogen arrived at Sky High Ranch, “He became a part of our family too.”  Hoeflein, who has ridden since she was a young girl, has encountered many rare horse breeds but Drogen is the first Gypsy Vanner she’s worked with.

Handsome and then some…Drogen. Photo: Hannah Beebe

When Hoeflein was first approached by Gary Sello of Indian Valley Carriage Company in Novato about providing a horse for SFO’s summer production of Carmen, her initial reaction was no. “I kind of laughed and thought no way. Generally, you don’t bring a horse into a building like that, through an elevator and up on stage with people singing, an orchestra, and a crowd…what goes through your head is everything that could go wrong.”  Hoeflein mulled it over with Drogen’s owner, factoring in Drogen’s recent experience at Petaluma’s Butter & Egg Days Parade—a big, long, noisy parade with loudspeakers, kids, balloons and general chaos.  “He really handled that very well, so I thought we’d give this a try.  I’m really glad we did.  It has been an absolute blast and everyone at the opera house has been bent over backwards to address my concerns and to make sure that Drogen is comfortable and happy.”

Before Drogen’s first visit to the opera house, Hoeflein had him fit with equine sneakers—think Sketchers…wide thick comfortable rubber shoes—so he wouldn’t slip on the painted plywood stage.  Also, all the areas he walks on within the opera house were carpeted, which helps muffle the noise of him walking around backstage and helps with his sense of secure footing.  His route was also outlined in white tape to ensure that, in low light, Hoeflein could find her way through the house.

 

Drogen’s handler Caryn Hoeflein, Sky High Ranch, Penngrove, makes two appearances with Drogen in Carmen.  She’s a second-degree black belt in Taekwondo but uses a gentle approach with all the horses she works with.  Prior to Carmen, Hoeflein had never attended an opera.  Her husband and two boys, ages 10 and 13, attended both the final dress rehearsal and last Thursday’s performance and came away proud and loving opera.  Photo: Caryn Hoeflein

 

Just like any other SF Opera artist, Drogen has an SFO ID badge and, when he enters the opera house; he stops for a security check.  Photo: Caryn Hoeflein

 

Drogen wears equine sneakers. Photo: Caryn Hoeflein

 

Drogen’s view of the house, sans audience, from the SFO stage. Photo: Caryn Hoeflein

Drogen’s introduction to the stage was a gradual build-up over several visits.  At first, he went in and out of the opera house entrance.   Then, he ventured further into the house, which entails going through another set of doors after the security desk and walking through a freight elevator to get backstage.  Then, he was led onto the stage to get a good look around.  He got used to the large crowd on stage and then they sang.  Then, Escamillo mounted Drogen in the backstage area and Hoeflein led them both on stage for his aria, which is what really melts hearts in the audience.  They were three or four practice runs in before they added the full orchestra, which turned out to be a non-issue for sweet Drogen.  He seemed to find Bizet’s music soothing.  Nonetheless, Drogen wears foam earplugs for every performance, which helps muffle the music and cheering.  For the scene with Carmen, they did the same gradual build up with J’Nai Bridges.

Neither Kyle Ketelsen nor J’Nai Bridges had ridden much before and came up to Sky High Ranch to meet Drogen before the first performance.  It was one of those unexpectedly stormy days we had this spring, so all the rehearsing, including Kyle singing, was done inside the barn.  You can see that here.

Since most of Drogen’s performances are in the evenings, Caryn gives him a bath around 1 pm, shampooing his whole body, washing and conditioning his mane and tail and paying special attention to his feathers, which are “dirt magnets.”  He is served a hearty lunch (a pelleted complete stable mix, which helps him keep his weight up) and eats al fresco, air drying in the sun.  Hoeflein braids his mane and tail so that they are lush and wavy for his performance.  For the ride down to SF, he wears a lightweight equine cotton sheet.  They pack up and leave about 2.5 hours before the performance and their first entrance is about an hour into the show.

“I save his dinner (hay) for after we arrive so he has something to do while waiting,” says Hoeflein, who parks on the sidewalk of the opera house near the lawn area.  She takes him out of the trailer upon arrival, gets him ready, and then loads him back in the trailer until about 10 min before he makes his stage appearance.  “I leave him in the trailer while I go inside and get my chaps on.  He’s very comfortable in his trailer and this keeps the crowd away.  Everyone wants a photo and that can cause some anxiety.”

Caryn Hoeflein leads Drogen and Escamillo (bass baritone Kyle Ketelsen) on stage for Carmen’s Act II Toreador aria.  Surrounded by a singing crowd, Drogen is every bit the pro.  Photo: Cory Weaver

 

Drogen returns in Act IV.  Hoeflein mounts in the parking lot, rides through several sets of doors and backstage and then moves Drogen over to a large set of stairs.  J’Nai Bridges (Carmen) mounts bareback, sidesaddle style (with both legs on one side), and sits right behind Hoeflein.  They have about 2 min before the signal to get on stage.  Hoeflein rides Bridges out to front of the stage.  While the chorus is singing, Bridges extends her arms and Escamillo helps her off Drogen.  Hoeflein rides to an area in the back of the stage and waits for about 30 seconds while they do their scene and then rides Drogen backstage and they exit the opera house. Photo: Caryn Hoeflein

 

Drogen’s original owner attended last Friday’s performance, their first reunion since his sale.  She loved the performance and Drogen received a special surprise—jolly rancher candies.  “Putting him up for sale was so hard for her,” said Hoeflein, “but she is very happy that he has a wonderful home now and she feels she made the right choice.”

Prior to his appearances at SF Opera, Drogen led a quiet life.  In fact, as a trail horse, all he had ever been asked to do was walk and trot; he rarely cantered.  If there were ever an inspirational story about life as a senior, it’s his—Drogen has embraced life in the fast lane and the attention lavished on him on the SFO stage.

Details: There are 3 remaining performances of Carmen at SF Opera:  Sun, 6/23 (2 pm); Wed, 6/26 (7:30 pm) and Sat, 6/29 (7:30 pm).  Run time is 2 hours and 47 min.  Tickets:  www.sfopera.com, by phone at (415) 864-3330, or in person at the San Francisco Opera Box Office, 301 Van Ness Ave.  Tickets are extremely limited and most performances are sold out.

Sky High Ranch’s Facebook page: click here.

 

June 22, 2019 Posted by | Opera | , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Meet Richard Savino, whose baroque instruments add period splendor to Handel’s “Orlando,” at SF Opera through June 27

Grammy-nominated guitarist/lutenist Richard Savino who makes a special appearance with the SFO Orchestra for Handel’s Orlando at SFO.  Photo: Geneva Anderson

When Handel’s baroque opera Orlando, opened June 9 at San Francisco Opera, guitarist and lutenist Richard Savino was the most sought after musician in the pit.  The grammy-nominated musician, making a special appearance with SF Opera, is one of the world’s foremost early music instrumentalists. His playing was magnetic and stood out, even among the rich arias in this must-see production. Savino spent much of the intermissions fielding questions from fascinated attendees about his theorbo and baroque guitar.  The theorbo is a guitar-like instrument with a very long neck—as long as six feet—with two sets of strings— a longer set tuned with pegs at the top of the fret board (for the deeper range) and a shorter set tuned by pegs on the sides of the fret board (for the higher range).  Savino also doubles in certain parts of the opera on baroque guitar.  His buoyant playing stands out in most parts of Orlando but is heard most clearly in the recitatives—the dialogue that moves the story forward.  Once you recognize his sound, it’s easy to find.  There is a lot of improvisation for Savino as Handel didn’t orchestrate Orlando but provided just the chord changes.  The musicians of the continuo ensemble—Christopher Moulds (conductor/ harpsichord), Ronny Michael Greenberg (harpsichord), David Kadarach (cello)—work together and improvise much like a jazz rhythm section, deciding together how the music will be voiced.  In person, Savino’s personality is just as energetic and engaging as his playing and his passions run wide.  He has given important works that haven’t been performed in centuries their premiere recordings and has developed a fascinating sideline, providing musical accompaniment to art works held in the world’s most elite collections and putting together programs on early artists and period music.  Savino was eager to talk about his music, Orlando and his numerous projects:

 

How did you come to early music and why? Your bio indicates you dabbled in rock and roll and then jazz fusion first which strikes me as unusual path.

Richard Savino:  For me, it was all very logical.  I love the Beatles and listened to them all the time.  At their core, they were rock and roll as well as pop musicians, but they were also very influenced by all epochs of classical music, including baroque music.  One reason for this is because George Martin, their producer, was a classically trained composer.  They used the harpsichord on a number of their songs and many others fall within the classical/romantic cannon.  In particular, they had a real fascination with music from the baroque era and contemporary music of the ’60s.  Listen to Penny Lane, a Tin Pan Alley kind of pop song that has a piccolo trumpet solo.  This is because Paul McCartney heard a piccolo trumpet player play Bach’s second Brandenburg concerto.  Then, listen to A Day in the Life, with its incredible orchestration.  Both songs are magnificent.

I also played rock when I was in high school and I always sang too.  I won a high school vocal competition in a school of 4,000 students.  A couple of years before me, the person who won that same competition was Pat Benatar.  I was always in choirs, so I knew the Bach cantatas, Handel, so forth.  When I went to the State University at Stony Brook, I began to have a strong interest in classical guitar, and I was lucky enough to have a wonderful teachers, in particular Jerry Willard, Oscar Ghiglia, my dear friend/colleague Eliot Fisk, and harpsichordist Albert Fuller who would have a huge impact on my life.  Interestingly, every classical guitarist studies early music because the canon for our repertoire is so rich.  I was also one of the last group of students to study with Andres Segovia.  Unlike most other instruments, guitarists are required to study early music from the 16th and 17th centuries.  The weirdest part is that I went from being a rock and roll guy to studying classical guitar to playing the theorbo and baroque guitar.  I love the Spanish canon that Segovia brought to our consciousness.

 

Most early music specialists tend to focus on the baroque and early renaissance periods but you are also very engaged with the classical music of the 19th century and play instruments from that period as well.  What accounts for your unusually broad scope?  

Richard Savino:  One could say it’s a lot of ADD.  I love playing music from all epochs and the guitar flourished during the 19th century.  It has quite an extensive solo and chamber repertoire.  The 19th century guitar is very different from the classical guitar.  It’s much smaller, more intimate and is the perfect bridge between the guitars of the 18th century and the modern classical guitars; it’s a transitional instrument.  I just love playing it.  Early in my career, I went out of my way to specialize in late 18th and early 19th century chamber music.  And while I love playing solo pieces, I also realized that the world can only sustain a certain number of solo classical guitarists and I am too much a social an animal.  I really enjoyed playing with other musicians, so I went down that path which led me directly into playing basso continuo and other plucked stringed instruments like the theorbo and baroque guitar, which I play in Orlando at SF Opera.  But I still love playing the 6 string guitar and my first recordings were for the Harmonia Mundi label and featured the complete Boccherini Guitar Quintets, which no one had ever recorded before on instruments from the epoch.  A couple of my other recordings that I’m really proud of are the romantic miniatures titled Bardenklänge by Johann Kaspar Mertz, and my recording of Mauro Giuliani’s Op. 30 Concerto, which, I believe, is the only one of its kind that is performed on period instruments with NO cuts.

 

Can you give an example of a moment in SF Opera’s production of Orlando that you have come to love through experiencing it performed?

Richard Savino:  I can’t actually watch because I’m playing but, during rehearsals, I was constantly standing up to try and see what was going on because I knew it was a contemporary adaptation set in WWII.  In a musical context, I have been very moved by the Act 1 duo between Anjelica and Medoro, “Ritornava al suo bel viso” and Orlando’s “Fammi combattere” at the beginning of the opera, and Orlando’s Act 3 aria, “Gia l’ebro mio ciglio,” which is so beautiful with the two violas that have this gorgeous full cadenza at the end of it.

Handel is a remarkable genius and I’ve played many of his operas with Glimmerglass Opera, Opera Colorado, San Diego Opera, San Francisco Opera, and Santa Fe.  He is the great chameleon of all composers.  When he lived in Italy, he wrote like an Italian; when he lived in England, he composed like a Brit; and when he lived in Germany, he composed like a high German composer.  What is amazing is his ability to set music to different languages.  For example, when he was in Rome, he went to Naples and was asked to write a piece for one of the Spanish viceroys and it’s his only piece that I know of that is in Spanish.  I happened to record it a few years ago with my period ensemble group, El Mundo, on the album The Kingdoms of Castille (2012) which was nominated for a Grammy.  Handel just how to absorb the style, the native musical, as well as spoken language.

 

What is the continuo and what is its function in a baroque opera such as Orlando.  How do you work?? 

Richard Savino:  It came about at the turn of the 17th century and was meant to be a quasi-improvised manner of performing that would respond to the way the singers would sing a particular piece.  It was the consequence of the meetings of the Florentine Camarata, a group of humanists that included Giulio Caccini, Vincenzo Galilei and Jacobo Peri, who got together to emulate Greek oratory and music.  They hypothesized about how it must have entailed spontaneity and improvisation between poets, singers and how it would be accompanied by a lyre.  That was the birth of monody, the initial basis of opera.  Much of these early operas by Monteverdi, Caccini, Peri and Cesti consist of collections of these little monodies which consist of a bassline and harmony that supports a singer, much like the way the rhythm section functions in a jazz combo.  Today, when I’m playing with the continuo, I’m looking at a bassline, and am enhancing that.  The idea is to reflect the affection of the text and to create some sort of dialogue with the singer and reflect their interpretation of what’s going on and that’s a gas.

Richard Savino with his theorbo in the orchestra pit at War Memorial Opera House. The theorbo was an important instrument through the Renaissance and baroque eras. The last historical compositions written with the theorbo in mind appeared about 1750.  Savino plays a modern copy.  His theorbo has a very long neck and two sets of strings which are plucked—a longer set tuned with pegs at the top of the fret board (for the deeper range), and a shorter set tuned by pegs on the sides of the fret board (for the higher range).  Photo: Geneva Anderson

What is so special about the theorbo and the sound it produces?

Richard Savino:  First there’s understanding why the theorbo is different–it’s shaped like a lute, with a larger bowl size, no flat back, and it’s single strung, so you can pluck it harder because when you have double strings you can’t pluck very hard because they will rattle against each other.  Usually, it has 14 strings and quite long strings. The longer the string length, the lower the pitch.  The instrument has a very odd tuning in which the highest pitch string is the third string from the top and has a very strong middle and bass register with quite a few extended base strings which I pluck with my right hand thumb.  Those pop out like a cannon.  Just the other day, someone told me the other day that I was quite audible (a big compliment to a lute player) but I have always focused on projection.  I play loudly and you have to project to fill a really big hall.  The theorbo provides the bass fundamental and, sometimes, I’ll play the bassline or  just part of the bassline with some chords.

 

What is tricky about playing both the theorbo and baroque guitar in Orlando?

Richard Savino:  In this production, I’m playing just about everything—almost every recit and aria; there are just a couple that I don’t play.  In the second half, my hand just begs for a break.  Handel’s orchestra would have had two of me, so someone could take over.  Here, it is constant because the recitative moves so fast.  Some are conducive to the instrument; some would be conducive to the archlute, which looks like a theorbo but is tuned differently and is more conductive to flat keys.  The theorbo is more conducive to keys that are in the sharp side of our harmonic language.  I’m covering both players in one.  Playing continuo really keeps your brain sharp and focused.  You have to keep track of the tunings of the different instruments when you switch instruments and change your fingerings accordingly.  On one instrument, one fingering will produce the A chord and on another it’s the G chord and so on.

 

What is the difference between an original and a copy of a baroque instrument like the theorbo or guitar and what do you play?

Richard Savino:  I play very accurate copies in Orlando and, as far as we can ascertain, it’s the same sound. These are very delicate instruments and most that have survived from the 17th century suffered from some degree of neglect and damage.  I have a couple of very early guitars in my collection but nothing earlier than 1800.  I play copies of instruments that would have been built in the late 17th century and would have been part of a player’s arsenal.  I know private collectors who own some of these originals and I can say that very good copies do sound very close to the originals in their present state.  But every instrument in and of itself sounds a bit different.

 

In Orlando, Richard Savino plays a modern copy of a baroque guitar.  Photo: Geneva Anderson

 

The main difference between the guitar and lute and the way they were played is that the guitar, in its baroque incarnation, was strummed and provided expressive rhythm, dance melodies and dramatic battle scenes.  In SFO’s Orlando, Savino strums as well as plucks his guitar. Photo: Geneva Anderson

 

Orlando marks Christopher Moulds’ (SF Opera conductor/ harpsichord) debut with SF Opera.  What does he bring to the production?

Richard Savino:  What I love about him is that he is an expert on period instruments, very well-educated and an intense worker who is demanding but never insulting.  I’d never worked with him before, but I got to know him a little before the production by exchanging emails.  He was very open and conversant, whereas a good number of conductors can be very removed.  He knows how to talk with and work with the orchestra.  A lot of period instrument conductors will talk down to the orchestra which isn’t fair really because, nowadays, orchestras tend to specialize predominantly in romantic and more contemporary repertoire.  That means a lot of the musicians haven’t touched this music in a very long time.  Chris was really good at communicating his ideas.

 

Vermeer’s “Young Woman Seated at a Virginal,” (1670-72), owned by the Leiden Collection, has so far been lent to the Pushkin, the Hermitage and Louvre Abu Dhabi.  For the descriptive video on the Leiden Collection’s website, Savino selected a sonata by Giovanni Legrenzi performed by his ensemble group, El Mundo on strings, harpsichord and lute.  The music’s mood echoes the sobriety of the painting.  Image: courtesy, The Leiden Collection

I’m interested in all your art and music projects—there’s something magical in bringing together different art forms. Tell me about your collaboration with Thomas S. Kaplan, the billionaire metals investor and founder of the Leiden Collection.  I understand that these artworks are being lent all over the world and the music from this same period, that matches them so well, is getting exposure.  What a beautiful project!

 

Richard Savino:  The Leiden Collection is fabulous; it’s the largest collection of privately owned 17th century Dutch paintings in the world—Rembrandt, Vermeer, Jan Steen, Gerrit Dou.  It was founded in 2003 by Thomas S. Kaplan, an art collector from New York, and his wife Daphne Recanti Kaplan.  He was putting together an online catalogue to accompany the part of his collection that tours and asked me to do the soundtracks which accompany his video discussions of each of the paintings.  I did 25 of these, some of which I recorded in the middle of the night in my bedroom and some were taken from tracks that I had recorded previously.  These can be seen and heard on the Leiden Collection in their video section.

 

Collector Thomas S. Kaplan acquired Rembrandt’s “Bust of a Bearded Old Man” (1633) in 2008 and calls it “the jewel in the crown” of The Leiden Collection.  Rembrandt’s smallest known painting, about the size of a baseball card, and the only privately-owned grisaille by the artist in private hands.  Savino plays an early 18th century prelude by Giovanni Zamboni on the archlute which accompanies a video of the artwork as it is unpacked from its crate and held in Kaplan’s hands for the first time. Photo: courtesy The Leiden Collection

 

How did you go about creating the music for each of these paintings?  Did you have free rein?

Richard Savino:  First of all, when I was called and they described it, I thought it was an eight to nine month long project.  But surprise!  They wanted it in a month, so I had to do it very very fast.  I had just had some minor surgery and didn’t even know if I could hold an instrument, much less meet the deadline.  It was a difficult project too.  They wanted music that was epoch appropriate, no later than the early 18th century, preferably late 17th century, luckily repertoire that I had recorded.  I also needed to record some new material so I set up a studio in my practice room at home and, right after the surgery, I started.  They sent me the script, basic mock-ups and I’d get an idea of the kind of piece I wanted.  It was important that the music conformed to the subject matter and the painting itself and, then, I had to match it to the cadence of the speech and be appropriate for the camera and scene cuts/shifts that were part of the video.  It was very challenging.  I remember being up at 3 a.m. in my studio, recording, and then editing and matching it to the video.

 

You’ve also done projects on Francisco Goya and Artemisia Gentileschi.

Richard Savino:  I’ve done quite a few of these.  In fact, I’m doing a Goya program here in San Francisco next May as part of the Humanities West series, Artistic Responses to Napoleon: Beethoven, Goya and Goethe (May 1-2, 2020).  I’ve prepared a multi-media program, Music in the Time of Goya, with music from Soler, Courselle, Boccherini and Sor that will be performed by my chamber ensemble El Mundo.  Works by Goya will be projected throughout the concert. The program was created for the Aston Magna Festival and Milano Classica.

Humanities West actually came about from a project back East, the Aston Magna Academy of Music, whose founder was Albert Fuller, one of my mentors.  It turned me on to this whole idea of interdisciplinary perspectives and putting music into a sociopolitical context which addressed literature, art, architecture and sociopolitical trends.  I attended as a participant in the 1980’s and 1990’s and was later asked to be a guest artistic director and have done that on several occasions.  Right now, I am preparing a program on Rubens with music from Holland, Italy, England, and Spain by Caccini, Frescobaldi, Marin, Arañes, and others for Aston Magna’s summer music festival this July.  My project on the Art and Life of the painter Artemisia Gentileschi received its debut at Aston Magna which then developed into the 2015 cd, What Artemisia Heard; Music from the Time of Caravaggio & Gentileschi.

 

Savino wondered why the music of Artemisia Gentileschi’s time was not as widely appreciated as the visual arts of the era. He decided to integrate the painting of Artemisia and her contemporaries directly with the music these painters would have heard at the time from composers Uccellini, Kapsberger, Ferrari, Frescobaldi, Mazzocchi, Gagliano, Caccini, Piccinini, Castello, Monteverdi, Corbetta, Falconieri, Rossi, Giramo, and Lanier. This evolved into a 2015 cd performed by Savino’s period instrument ensemble, El Mundo, along with distinguished soloists. Photo: courtesy Sono Luminous.

 

How did you go about selecting the pieces for the cd and evoking Artemesia’s struggle to lead her life as an independent woman?

Richard Savino:  Artemisia Gentileschi, who was born in Rome in 1593, was one of the most impressive persons in the history of western civilization; she also was one of the most talented.  She suffered great pain surrounding her rape by Tassi and the trial that found him guilty, but there were moments of beauty and intimacy too. She was friends with a number of composers, and was very close to the very talented Francesca Caccini, who was at the Medici Court and composed the first published opera by a woman.   For the cd, I matched the music to the different cultural environments Artemisia found herself in after the trial.  She traveled widely and lived as a completely independent person, which is remarkable for a 17th century woman.

“DOMINICUS PEREGRINUS Bononiaensis,” engraving, signed “Fontana F,” (17.7 cm x 24.6 cm).  The cover to Domenico Pellegrini Bolognese’s 1650 book of guitar music.  Of note are the long fingernails.

 

Has art provided you with any interesting insights about music centuries ago?  Like the how musicians held their instruments or their nail length?

Richard Savino:  Absolutely, but you have to be careful with that as, sometimes, it’s an affected gesture and they are posing with their instruments rather than holding it the way they would play it.  With the nails, there’s this whole thing in the period instrument world about whether the “pluckers” played with nails.  I’ve seen numerous paintings by both anonymous and well known artists that do actually depict players with long nails.  An important work is the cover engraving to Domenico Pellegrini’s book of guitar music that was published in 1650.  It shows him with his right hand extended with long fingernails.  In addition to guitar, we know that he also played lute with the ensemble based at San Petronio, the major cathedral in Bologna.  We also know about these kinds of performance “practices” from the tutorials themselves.  I’ve learned that it was dependent on country and climate.  In Italy, they used fingernails because they played outdoors in cathedrals and they had to be louder, same with Spain.  In France and England, where it rained a lot, they played indoors and it was a much more intimate space and they played without for the most part.  With nails, you can project more, which some find less refined, more aggressive and in your face.

 

You mentioned that you studied with Segovia? What was that like? A memorable moment?

Richard Savino:  I played at the Metropolitan Museum for him and he actually yanked the guitar out of my hand and said ‘You should never play this piece again.’  Because this was filmed by PBS and shown on CBS Sunday morning, it gave me a degree of notoriety.  At  that stage of my life, all publicity, was good publicity.  To be fair, it was a piece he didn’t like and it was also my attitude—that I even thought of playing it for him—that he found so irritating.  But it was like meeting Buddha.  I was in front of this larger than life figure.  I also studied with him at the Conservatoire du Musique in Geneva, and was lucky enough to have a few private lessons with him in New York

 

Before we began our formal interview, you alluded to a new musical discovery you’d made…is this a historical find, something that will likely be recorded?

Richard Savino:  It consists of a collection of cantatas by some of the most important early 18th century Spanish composers.  I will edit the music and record it as an El Mundo project.  I’m a very good sleuth.  I uncovered these personally in a collection in Spain where they should not have been located.  I had heard a rumor about some wonderful other pieces and, while trying to track those down in an archive, these literally fell out of a book and are a gold mine.

 

Details: Orlando has two remaining performances at War Memorial Opera House: June 21 and 27, 2019, both at 7:30 p.m.  Run time is 3 hours and 20 min.  Tickets:  www.sfopera.com, by phone at (415) 864-3330, or in person at the San Francisco Opera Box Office, 301 Van Ness Ave.

Richard Savino’s ensemble group, El Mundo, will perform a program of 18th century music from Latin America with the San Francisco Girl’s Chorus in October 2019.

June 21, 2019 Posted by | Art, Opera | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

“The Opera Hour” radio show kicks off Sunday, May 6, 8PM on Classical KDFC with co-hosts SF Opera General Director Matthew Shilvock and KDFC President Bill Lueth

image: courtesy San Francisco Opera

This Sunday, May 6, at 8 p.m., Classical KDFC will launch “The Opera Hour,” a new opera showcase created by KDFC President Bill Lueth and co-hosted by Lueth and SFO (San Francisco Opera) General Director Matthew Shilvock.  The 60 minute program will air the first Sunday of each month.  It replaces broadcasts of complete SFO performances, celebrating the art form’s continuing vibrancy while reducing the station’s actual allocation of pure opera time.

With something for both longtime opera fans and hoping to draw in the opera curious, in each episode, Shilvock and Lueth will share new recordings of arias, duets and ensembles they are enjoying along with some of their favorites oldies, honoring singers of the past.  The hosts will also highlight opportunities to hear great singing around the Bay Area and dig into the treasure trove of archival SFO broadcasts.  Additionally, Shilvock will take listeners backstage at the War Memorial Opera House and, with special guests, share opera insights.

Details:  Classical KDFC’s The Opera Hour can be heard on the FM dial at 90.3 (San Francisco), 89.9 (Wine Country), 92.5 (Ukiah-Lakeport), 104.9 (Silicon Valley), 103.9 (Santa Cruz and Monterey); on Comcast Cable 981; or online at https://www.kdfc.com/

 

May 5, 2018 Posted by | Opera | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Italian Maestro, Nicola Luisotti, San Francisco Opera’s Music Director, will step down in 2018

Maestro Nicola Luisotti during a SFO performance. Photo: Terrence McCarthy, SFO

Maestro Nicola Luisotti during a SFO performance. Photo: Terrence McCarthy, SFO

Nicola Luisotti will end his term as music director of the San Francisco Opera (SFO) when his contract expires at the end of the 2017-18 season. He delivered the news Wednesday at War Memorial Opera House before the full company of staff, musicians, chorus, dancers and crew.

Announced by SFO General Director David Gockley as the Company’s third music director in 2007, Mr. Luisotti took the position in September 2009, replacing Donald Runnicles 17 year run. Since his Company debut in 2005 leading Verdi’s La Forza del Destino, the Tuscan-born maestro has led over 30 SFO productions and concerts to date.  He is beloved by audiences world wide.

“I believe that close to a decade is about the right time to be leading a company,” said Luisotti in a press statement. “I want the company’s general director designate, Matthew Shilvock, to be able to move freely into the future with his ideas, his artistic interests and to take San Francisco Opera into a new direction”

In an interview that appeared on the popular opera blog, Operachic, on January 14, 2010, Luisotti, who had just taken the SFO position, explained his feelings at the time

I’ve nurtured a great love for San Francisco, an almost visceral appreciation.  The first time I arrived here in San Francisco, I had come from Los Angeles where I had just conducted a production of Pagliacci.  After staying a month in Los Angeles, I needed to spend two months in San Francisco for (Verdi’s) la Forza del Destino.  I was tired, and really, I just wanted to go home to my house in Tuscany.  But I think it was totally love at first sight when I saw the city of San Francisco. I was living in an apartment in Pacific Heights, practically with a bay view and one also of the Golden Gate Bridge, and thankfully because of the perfect weather, I was able to enjoy a gorgeous view from one of my very first days there. San Francisco’s Opera House revealed itself as a pure environment for music. The enthusiasm, the unity of the professionals in the house, and the love of the art form can generate extraordinary things. Therefore, I fell in love with the city, with the opera house, with the people, and everything that this place – for me, quite magical – offered.  I asked myself if one day I’d ever be lucky enough to become the Musical Director of an opera house that was so special like this one.  So when David Gockley [SFO’s General Director] proposed the position to me, I didn’t hesitate for a single second. My response was immediate without a doubt whatsoever.  That was the place where with Rita, my wife, I was to spend the next part of my life.

Luisotti will lead this summer’s Don Carlo followed by opening SFO’s 94th season in September 2016 with a new Royal Opera, Covent Garden/Beijing National Centre for the Performing Arts co-production of Andrea Chénier. Photo: Terry McCarthy, SFO

Luisotti will lead this summer’s “Don Carlo” followed by opening SFO’s 94th season in September 2016 with “Andrea Chènier,” a new co-production of Royal Opera, Covent Garden/Beijing National Centre for the Performing Arts. Photo: Terry McCarthy, SFO

Shilvock, who succeeds David Gockley as general director on Aug. 1, says he was “deeply saddened” by Luisotti’s decision.

David Gockley said: “I can think of no other person who embodies the love and passion of opera as much as Nicola Luisotti. I’m particularly heartened to know that Nicola will be returning to guest conduct and will continue to maintain his association with the Company. I wish him great success in his future endeavors and know that he will continue to affirm his status as one of the great conductors of his generation.”

Acknowledging the unique artistry of the SFO Orchestra and Chorus, Maestro Luisotti thanked them for their role in the realizing memorable productions of Luisa Miller, the world premiere of Marco Tutino’s La Ciociara (Two Women), Mefistofele, Lohengrin, Salome, Norma, the trio of Mozart-DaPonte operas, and the Verdi Requiem in a historic combined performance with the Teatro San Carlo of Naples.

Luisotti will lead this summer’s Don Carlo followed by opening San Francisco Opera’s 94th season in September 2016 with a new Royal Opera, Covent Garden/Beijing National Centre for the Performing Arts co-production of Andrea Chénier and the annual Opera in the Park concert at Golden Gate Park.  Later in the season, Luisotti will lead a new production of Aida and a revival of Rigoletto.  Throughout his tenure at SFO, the maestro has always had a full plate of international appearances too.  This past season, he scored great acclaim for his conducting engagements at Madrid’s Teatro Real, Milan’s Teatro alla Scala, London’s Royal Opera House and most recently in Paris for a new production of Rigoletto.

May 18, 2016 Posted by | Opera | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The 19th Sonoma International Film Festival─a feel-great extravaganza of film, food, wine and sprits─starts Wednesday in wonderful Sonoma

The 19th Sonoma International Film Festival, March 30-April 3, 2016, includes three films shot in Cuba. Bob Yari’s “Papa Hemingway in Cuba” (2015) covers Hemingway’s chaotic life on the island and his friendship with young Miami Herald journalist Denne Bart Petitclerc, who befriended Hemingway and his wife, Mary Welsh Hemingway, in the 1950’s. The film premiered at this year’s Festival of New Latin American Cinema in Havana and was the first American production shot on the island since the trade embargo was imposed in 1960. The late Petitclerc was a reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle and lived in Sonoma. Adrian Sparks is brilliant as Hemingway, capturing the vulnerability under the rage and bluster of this great genius in his last years. Image: courtesy HIFF

The 19th Sonoma International Film Festival, March 30-April 3, 2016, includes three films shot in Cuba. Bob Yari’s “Papa Hemingway in Cuba” (2015) covers Hemingway’s chaotic life on the island and his friendship with young Miami Herald journalist Denne Bart Petitclerc, who befriended Hemingway and his wife, Mary Welsh Hemingway, in the 1950’s. The film premiered at this year’s Festival of New Latin American Cinema in Havana and was the first American production shot on the island since the trade embargo was imposed in 1960. The late Petitclerc was a reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle and lived in Sonoma. Adrian Sparks is brilliant as Hemingway, capturing the vulnerability under the rage and bluster of this great genius in his last years. Image: courtesy HIFF

The 19th Sonoma International Film Festival (SIFF) kicks off tonight at the historic Sebastiani Theatre with Norwegian director Joachim Tier’s family drama, Louder Than Bombs (2015) and a live “vertical dance performance” with members of the dynamic Bandaloop dance group performing choreographed moves from ropes on the Sebastiani’s roof.   Over the next 5 nights and 4 days, the festival will present over 100 films from two dozen countries and over 200 filmmakers from around the globe will attend.  Among this year’s treasures are three exciting films shot in Cuba whose stories are bound to inspire a trip to this delightful island before the big Western chain hotels devour the beach space and those beloved’57 Chevys are replaced with Toyotas.  One of these is the late journalist Denne Bart Petitclerc’s remarkable Papa Hemingway in Cuba, the first American production shot in Cuba since the 1960 trade embargo. This is the story of Hemingway and his experiences in Cuba, where he lived with his fourth wife, Mary, as told through the eyes Petitclerc when he was a young reporter at the Miami Herald.  And food!  Complementing its diverse and truly international program of independent cinema, SIFF offers a unique blend of world-class cuisine from local artisans and exceptional wine from Sonoma vintners, making for an epicurean experience few film festivals in the world can match. This year, SIFF is offering a complementary tasting and pairing along with its two screenings of Cooking Up a Tribute which takes us on globe-trotting road trip with the fabled Catalonian eatery El Celler de Can Roca. Browse the program and then pounce─a limited number of $15 tickets are available for pre-purchase online for all films.

ARThound’s top picks for films and events─

 Viva

Héctor Medina plays Jesus, a young gay man who discovers the only time he is free from life’s burden is when he is on stage and performing as “Viva,” his mesmerizing alter ego. Image: HIFF

Cuban actor Héctor Medina plays Jesus, a young gay man who discovers the only time he is free from life’s burdens is when he is on stage and performing as “Viva,” his mesmerizing alter ego. Image: HIFF

You’d never guess that Viva, a touching portrayal of a young gay Cuban man’s struggle to find himself, was the work of Irish director Paddy Breathnach.  Directed and shot in Havana, with some very heavy-lifting from Cuban actors Héctor Medina and Jorge Perugorría, this beautiful story captures the yearning of Jesus (Medina), a young gay hairdresser working at a Havana nightclub for drag queens, to step out on stage and perform as a female. Encouraged by his mentor, Mama (Luis Alberto García), Jesus finally gets his opportunity to perform and it awakens sometime vital within.  But when his estranged father Angel (Jorge Perugorría) abruptly reenters his life, his world is quickly turned upside down.  As father and son tussle over their opposing expectations of each other, Viva morphs into a love story with the two men struggling to understand each other and to reconcile as a family.  The drama, Ireland’s Oscar submission for Best foreign Language Film this year, also paints a rich portrait of street life in Havana and the divide between those Cubans who are embracing the coming changes and those who are battling to survive.  (Screens: Thursday, March 31, 9:15 PM and Saturday, April 2, 2:15 PM, both at Sebastiani Theatre)

Papa Hemingway in Havana

Giovanni Ribisi plays Miami Herald cub journalist Denne Bart Petitclerc, who finds a father figure in Ernest Hemingway in “Papa Hemingway in Cuba.” Petitclerc becomes incensed when he reads a review asserting that the only contribution that Hemingway made to the English language was one short sentence. He writes Hemingway in Havana to tell him that he had been inspired greatly by his writing and the letter leads to a great friendship between Petitclerc and the aging writer. Image: HIFF

Giovanni Ribisi plays Miami Herald cub journalist Denne Bart Petitclerc, who finds a father figure in Ernest Hemingway in “Papa Hemingway in Cuba.” Petitclerc becomes incensed when he reads a review asserting that the only contribution that Hemingway made to the English language was one short sentence. He writes Hemingway in Havana to tell him that he had been inspired greatly by his writing and the letter leads to a great friendship between Petitclerc and the aging writer. Image: HIFF

Bob Yari’s vital film tells the fabled story of Hemingway in Cuba through the eyes of the late journalist Denne Bart Petitclerc (Giovanni Ribisi), a former San Francisco Chronicle reporter and Sonoma resident. Papa’s backstory was long and difficult because the film was created during the embargo.  It took Yari two years to convince the US State Department and US Treasury to make an exception and he had to agree to a $100,000 spending limit for the cast and crew –unheard of for a Hollywood production.  On the Cuban side, Yari was required to submit the script to the government in Havana.  In addition to a fiery story that profiles two gifted writers who bond over fishing, the film features a stand-out performance by Joely Richardson who plays Hemingway’s fourth wife, Mary Welsh Hemingway.  The drama was shot in Hemingway’s home Finca Vigia and locations throughout Cuba including La Floridita and Ambos Mundos Hotel. (Screens: Thursday, 3/31 6:30 PM, Sebastiani Theatre and Saturday, April 2, 2:30 PM at Veterans Hall I)

Cooking Up a Tribute / A Taste of Film:

Joan, Josep and Jordi Roca, owners of Girona’s famed El Celler de Can Roca, are the subject of “Cooking Up A Tribute,” a documentary by Luis Gonzalez and Andrea Gomez that screens twice at SIFF 19. Every year the festival outdoes itself with food, wine and spirits. This year, filmgoers will receive a complementary glass of JCB by Jean-Charles Boisset’s French sparkling No. 69 Crémant de Bourgogne with a carefully curated food tasting, which will bring the aromas and flavors of this food documentary to life. Image: SIFF

Joan, Josep and Jordi Roca, owners of Girona’s famed El Celler de Can Roca and the subject of “Cooking Up A Tribute.” Every year, SIFF outdoes itself with food, wine and spirits. This year, filmgoers will receive a complementary glass of JCB by Jean-Charles Boisset’s French sparkling No. 69 Crémant de Bourgogne with a carefully curated food tasting, which will bring the aromas and flavors of this food documentary to life. Image: SIFF

The documentary Cooking Up a Tribute follows the famed Catalonian eatery El Celler de Can Roca (Girona, Spain) as it boldly closes up shop and embarks on a five week global road tour─from Texas to Mexico to Colombia and Peru. The idea is to improvise with local ingredients to create unique tasting menus for each locale. Opened in 1986 by the Roca brothers, Joan, Josep and Jordi, El Celler de Can Roca holds three Michelin stars.  In 2013 and 2015, it was named the best restaurant in the world by Restaurant magazine.  Perhaps the best footage in this ambitious doc is shot tagging along with renowned sommelier/maitre d’ Josep Roca on a fascinating pre-exploratory journey where he nails down the places his team will visit.  Here’s your chance to watch agave being smoked to produce mescal in Oaxaca and to explore the seemingly infinite number of gorgeous Peruvian potatoes with names like “Bull’s Blood” and “Yellow Egg Yolk.” Free Food, Wine:  The festival’s Premiere Sponsor, Celebrity Cruises, will activate their onboard “A Taste of Film” multisensory experience at both film screenings and  filmgoers will receive a glass of JCB by Jean-Charles Boisset’s French sparkling No. 69 Crémant de Bourgogne with a carefully curated food tasting, which will bring the aromas and flavors of the food documentary to life. (83 min, 2015) (Screens Fri, April 1, 2:30 PM at Vintage House and Sunday, April 3, 3 PM at Vintage House with complimentary drink and tastings at the film.)

Gordon Getty: There will be Music

Gorden Getty will attend the Friday screening of Peter Rosen’s documentary “Gordon Getty: There will be Music,” at the 19th Sonoma International Film Festival. Photo: courtesy Chicago Classical Review

Gorden Getty will attend the Friday screening of Peter Rosen’s documentary “Gordon Getty: There will be Music,” at the 19th Sonoma International Film Festival. Photo: courtesy Chicago Classical Review

At 82, billionaire American composer Gordon Getty, industrialist  J. Paul Getty’s son from his fifth marriage, remains a dedicated music creator, economic theorist, vintner, venture capitalist, philanthropist and longtime supporter of our beloved San Francisco Symphony.  When your name is Getty, is it a help or hindrance being accepted as a serious composer?  Seasoned director Peter Rosen, who has produced and directed over 100 full-length films and television programs on the luminaries of the art world, captures Getty, the musician, at work and in candid conversation with fellow composer and conductor Michael Tilson Thomas about his creative process and vision.  He even captures a few of Getty’s endearing expletives─“Jeepers creepers!” and “Holy flying mackerel.”  Schooled at San Francisco’s Conservatory for Music in the early 1960’s, Getty studied music theory with Sol Joseph.  His business career and responsibilities as head of the Getty Foundation impinged on his time for composition and it wasn’t until the 1980s when Getty published his first work, The White Election, a song cycle on Emily Dickinson poems.  He’s actually spent decades of his life carefully working and honing his music and his oeuvre includes “Joan and the Bells,” “Plump Jack,” “Usher House,” “Poor Peter,” “Four Dickinson Songs,” “The White Election” and more─pieces that have been performed all over the world. (2015, 68 min) Screens Friday, April 1, 5:30 PM, Vintage House (Getty will be present) and Saturday, April 2, Andrews Hall, 2:30 PM

The Messenger:

The Indigo Bunting, a small songbird in the Cardinal family, sings with gusto. The male is all blue and looks like a slice of sky with wings. The plight of songbirds is the subject of Su Rynard’s documentary, “The Messenger,” which screens twice at the SIFF 19. Image: Su Rynard

The Indigo Bunting, a small songbird in the Cardinal family, sings with gusto. The male is all blue and looks like a slice of sky with wings. The plight of songbirds is the subject of Su Rynard’s documentary, “The Messenger,” which screens twice at the SIFF 19. Image: Su Rynard

The Messenger:  Making a documentary is a labor of love that often takes years to realize. To understand what was happening with global populations of songbirds, Canadian director Su Rynard and her team followed songbirds on three different continents through several seasons. The message of her riveting documentary is urgent─songbirds are disappearing and many species are in serious decline.  Changes in our world have brought utter catastrophe to theirs and soon they will be gone.  Each year, twice a year, songbirds embark on a dangerous and difficult migratory journey.  Every species has its own story to tell but the resounding commonality is that songbirds are in danger.  Whose song will we hear when they are gone?   The film is full of gorgeous shots of birds and clips of bird songs. (2015, 90 min) (Screens: Friday, April 1, 2:30 PM at Andrews Hall and Sunday, April 3, 9:30 AM at Vintage House)

ARThound’s previous festival coverage:

The 19th Sonoma International Film Festival, March 30-April 3, 2016, will honor Meg Ryan who will screen her new film “Ithaca”

Details: The 19th Sonoma International Film Festival starts Wednesday, March 30 and runs through Sunday, April 2, 2016.  To enjoy guaranteed access to all films, themed nightly parties in SIFF Village’s Backlot Tent, after parties, receptions, and industry events and panels, buy all inclusive passes online at sonomafilmfest.org.   A limited number of $15 tickets are available for each film screening too and these will sell out rapidly, so purchase these in advance online at sonomafilmfest.org.

March 30, 2016 Posted by | Classical Music, Film, Food, Opera | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Review: San Francisco Opera’s “Lucia di Lammermoor”─ Soprano Albina Shagimuratova subs as Lucia and is spectacular!

Russian coloratura soprano, Albina Shagimuratova sang the role of Lucia as a last minute stand-in for San Francisco Opera’s final performance of “Lucia di Lammermoor” on Tuesday, October 28th like she was born to the role. Unruffled by foreign staging and charged with creating believable chemistry with singers she hadn’t practiced with, she wowed the audience with her ability to shine under pressure. . She most recently sang Lucia at the Metropolitan Opera in 2014-15, so she knew the part well and used the role’s insanely demanding vocal runs, gorgeous arias and ensemble parts to showcase her extraordinary voice and acting talent. Shagimuratova is Queen of the Night in SFO’s “Magic Flute” which runs through November 20, 2015. Photo: SFO

Russian coloratura soprano, Albina Shagimuratova sang the role of Lucia as a last minute stand-in for San Francisco Opera’s final performance of “Lucia di Lammermoor” on Wednesday, October 28th. Unruffled by foreign staging and charged with creating believable chemistry with singers she hadn’t practiced with, she wowed the audience with her ability to shine under pressure. . She most recently sang Lucia at the Metropolitan Opera in 2014-15, so she knew the part well and used the role’s insanely demanding vocal runs, gorgeous arias and ensemble parts to showcase her extraordinary voice and acting talent. Shagimuratova is Queen of the Night in SFO’s “Magic Flute” which runs through November 20, 2015. Photo: SFO

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.

Gaetano Donizetti’s “Lucia di Lammermoor” and “L’elisir d’amore” (“The Elixir of Love”) are among the 25 most frequently performed operas in the world every year. SFO has performed “Lucia” in 23 seasons. A sad irony is that Donizetti, who crafted Lucia’s and Anna Bolena’s brilliant scenes of psychosis, spent his own final years locked away in a Paris insane asylum. Thirteen years after “Lucia’s” premiere, he died psychotic and paralyzed from untreated syphilis. His French publisher left a memoir suggesting that Donizetti had been driven insane by an imperious soprano, who had forced him to make damaging changes to his last grand opera. Portrait of Gaetano Donizetti, Italian pictural school (17th century) from Bologna’s Civico Museo Bibliografico Musicale.

Gaetano Donizetti’s “Lucia di Lammermoor” and “L’elisir d’amore” (“The Elixir of Love”) are among the 25 most frequently performed operas in the world every year. SFO has performed “Lucia” in 23 seasons. A sad irony is that Donizetti, who crafted Lucia’s and Anna Bolena’s brilliant scenes of psychosis, spent his own final years locked away in a Paris insane asylum. Thirteen years after “Lucia’s” premiere, he died psychotic and paralyzed from untreated syphilis. His French publisher left a memoir suggesting that Donizetti had been driven insane by an imperious soprano, who had forced him to make damaging changes to his last grand opera. Portrait of Gaetano Donizetti, Italian pictural school (17th century) from Bologna’s Civico Museo Bibliografico Musicale.

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 lyric tenor, Piotr Beczala, is Edgardo. In Act 3, Edgardo learns that Lucia has died and he stabs himself with a dagger hoping to be reunited with her in heaven. He sings “Tu che a Dio spiegasti l’ali.” Photo: Cory Weaver, SFO.

Polish lyric tenor, Piotr Beczala, is Edgardo. In Act 3, Edgardo learns that Lucia has died and he stabs himself with a dagger hoping to be reunited with her in heaven. He sings “Tu che a Dio spiegasti l’ali.” Photo: Cory Weaver, SFO.

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.

In Act 3, Lucia’s lover, Edgardo (of Ravenswood), Polish tenor Piotr Beczala, is challenged to a duel by her brother, Enrico, American baritone Brian Mulligan at Wolfscrag, where Edgardo lives. The opera’s plot is driven by an intergenerational feud between the Ravenswoods and the Ashtons of Lamermoore, making Lucia’s love for the Edgardo forbidden and driving Lucia’s brother to go extremes to ensure that she ends her relationship with Edgardo. Director Michael Cavanaugh and designer Erhard Rom set this new SFO production in a dystopian near future; the staging has a clean stark feel that is accentuated by dramatic lighting and projections of natural landscapes. Photo: Cory Weaver, SFO

In Act 3, Lucia’s lover, Edgardo (of Ravenswood), Polish tenor Piotr Beczala, is challenged to a duel by her brother, Enrico, American baritone Brian Mulligan at Wolfscrag, where Edgardo lives. The opera’s plot is driven by an intergenerational feud between the Ravenswoods and the Ashtons of Lamermoore, making Lucia’s love for the Edgardo forbidden and driving Lucia’s brother to go extremes to ensure that she ends her relationship with Edgardo. Director Michael Cavanaugh and designer Erhard Rom set this new SFO production in a dystopian near future; the staging has a clean stark feel that is accentuated by dramatic lighting and projections of natural landscapes. Photo: Cory Weaver, SFO

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.

Act 2’s sextet “Chi mi frena in tal momento” (“What restrains me at this moment”), one of Italian opera’s greatest ensemble moments, set in Ravenswood Castle. Piotr Beczala (Edgardo) in foreground. Then, from left to right─Nicolas Testé (Raimondo) in brown; Brian Mulligan (Enrico) with blond hair and beard, Chong Wang (Arturo) in plaid; and Zanda Švēde (Alisa) in red dress. Photo: Cory Weaver, SFO

Act 2’s sextet “Chi mi frena in tal momento” (“What restrains me at this moment”), one of Italian opera’s greatest ensemble moments, set in Ravenswood Castle. Piotr Beczala (Edgardo) in foreground. Then, from left to right─Nicolas Testé (Raimondo) in brown; Brian Mulligan (Enrico) with blond hair and beard, Chong Wang (Arturo) in plaid; and Zanda Švēde (Alisa) in red dress. Photo: Cory Weaver, SFO

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.

November 1, 2015 Posted by | Opera | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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

Mexican-American baritone and second year Adler Fellow, Efraín Solís, is Papageno, the cowardly but good-natured birdcatcher. Soprano Sarah Shafer is Pamina, the Queen of the Night’s daughter. Mozart’s "The Magic Flute" is at San Francisco Opera through November 20, 2015. Photo: ©Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera

Mexican-American baritone and second year Adler Fellow, Efraín Solís, is Papageno, the cowardly but good-natured birdcatcher. Soprano Sarah Shafer is Pamina, the Queen of the Night’s daughter. Mozart’s “The Magic Flute” is designed by Jun Kaneko, directed by Harry Silverstein and features David Gockley’s English translations and is at San Francisco Opera through November 20, 2015. Photo: ©Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera

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.

Lyric tenor Paul Appleby (front center) makes his San Francsico Opera as Tamino and plays his magic flute for a host of colorful oversized animals of the forest which never fail to delight audiences. ©Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera

Lyric tenor Paul Appleby (front center) makes his San Francisco Opera as Tamino and plays his magic flute for a host of colorful oversized animals of the forest which never fail to delight audiences. ©Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera

 

Animals, working drawing for “The Magic Flute,” 2011, colored pencil on hand-drawn digital template, 8.5” h x 11” w, courtesy Jun Kaneko.

Animals, working drawing for “The Magic Flute,” 2011, colored pencil on hand-drawn digital template, 8.5” h x 11” w, courtesy Jun Kaneko.

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.

Soprano Sarah Shafer is Pamina (the Queen of the Night’s daughter), splitting the role with soprano Nadine Sierra. German bass-baritone Alfred Reiter is wise Sarastro (the thought-to-be evil sorcerer) in Mozart’s "The Magic Flute" at San Francisco Opera through November 20, 2015. Photo: ©Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera

Soprano Sarah Shafer is Pamina (the Queen of the Night’s daughter), splitting the role with soprano Nadine Sierra. German bass-baritone Alfred Reiter is wise Sarastro (the thought-to-be evil sorcerer) in Mozart’s “The Magic Flute” at San Francisco Opera through November 20, 2015. Photo: ©Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera

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.

Mexican-American baritone and second year Adler Fellow Efraín Solís is Papageno, the cowardly but good-natured birdcatcher in "The Magic Flute." Photo: ©Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera

Mexican-American baritone and second year Adler Fellow Efraín Solís is Papageno, the cowardly but good-natured birdcatcher in “The Magic Flute.” Photo: ©Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera

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.

The Three Ladies (from left) played by Zanda Švēde, Nian Wang and Jacqueline Piccolino, along with Tamino played by Paul Appleby in a scene from San Francisco Opera's production of Mozart's "The Magic Flute." Photo: ©Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera

The Three Ladies (from left) played by Zanda Švēde, Nian Wang and Jacqueline Piccolino, along with Tamino played by Paul Appleby in a scene from San Francisco Opera’s production of Mozart’s “The Magic Flute.” Photo: ©Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera

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.

(From left to right above stage) Michael Sacco, Pietro Juvaram, and Rafael Larpa-Wilson) are the three guiding sprits who are sent to guide Papageno and Tamino on their adventure. Photo: ©Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera

(From left to right above stage) Michael Sacco, Pietro Juvaram, and Rafael Larpa-Wilson) are the three guiding sprits who are sent to guide Papageno and Tamino on their adventure. Photo: ©Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera

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.

October 31, 2015 Posted by | Opera | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

San Francisco Opera’s “Luisa Miller” closes with a stand-out performance from tenor Michael Fabiano

American tenor Michael Fabiano, recipient of the 2014 Richard Tucker Award and the 2014 Beverly Sills Artist Award, is Rodolfo in San Francisco Opera’s “Luisa Miller.” Photo: Cory Weaver, SFO

American tenor Michael Fabiano, recipient of the 2014 Richard Tucker Award and the 2014 Beverly Sills Artist Award, is Rodolfo in San Francisco Opera’s “Luisa Miller.” Photo: Cory Weaver, SFO

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.

Verdi’s “Luisa Miller” opened San Francisco Opera’s 2015-16 season. The opera pairs soprano Leah Crocetto and tenor Michael Fabiano as doomed lovers Luisa, a miller’s daughter, and Rodolfo, the son of the local count. Photo: Cory Weaver, SFO

Verdi’s “Luisa Miller” opened San Francisco Opera’s 2015-16 season. The opera pairs soprano Leah Crocetto and tenor Michael Fabiano as doomed lovers Luisa, a miller’s daughter, and Rodolfo, the son of the local count. Photo: Cory Weaver, SFO

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.

Soprano Leah Crocetto is Luisa in Verdi’s “Luisa Miller” at San Francisco Opera through September 27, 2015. Crocetto is a former Adler fellow and Merola alum. As the opera opens, it is Luisa's birthday and the villagers (San Francisco Opera chorus) have gathered to serenade her. The Francesca Zambello production, from 2000, features sets by Michael Yeargan with gorgeous huge paintings. Photo: Cory Weaver, SFO

Soprano Leah Crocetto is Luisa in Verdi’s “Luisa Miller” at San Francisco Opera through September 27, 2015. Crocetto is a former Adler fellow and Merola alum. As the opera opens, it is Luisa’s birthday and the villagers (San Francisco Opera chorus) have gathered to serenade her. The Francesca Zambello production, from 2000, features sets by Michael Yeargan with gorgeous huge paintings. Photo: Cory Weaver, SFO

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.

Russian mezzo soprano Ekaterina Semenchuk makes her San Francisco Opera debut as Federica in Verdi's

Russian mezzo soprano Ekaterina Semenchuk makes her San Francisco Opera debut as Federica in Verdi’s “Luisa Miller.” Photo: Cory Weaver, SFO

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.

September 29, 2015 Posted by | Opera | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment