Geneva Anderson digs into art

Bellini’s glorious “Norma” opens San Francisco Opera’s 92nd season

Radiant soprano Sondra Radvanosky as Druid high-priestess Norma in San Francisco Opera’s new production of Bellini’s “Norma,” through September 30, 2014.  Last fall, Radvanovsky triumphed as Norma at the Metropolitan Opera and, after her SFO performance, will go on to sing the role at Barcelona’s Gran Teatre del Liceu and Munich’s Bavarian State Opera.  Image: @Cory Weaver, San Francisco Opera

Radiant soprano Sondra Radvanosky as Druid high-priestess Norma in San Francisco Opera’s new production of Bellini’s “Norma,” through September 30, 2014. Last fall, Radvanovsky triumphed as Norma at the Metropolitan Opera and, after her SFO performance, will go on to sing the role at Barcelona’s Gran Teatre del Liceu and Munich’s Bavarian State Opera. “Norma” marks Radvanovsky’s second SFO appearance. She debuted as Leonora in Verdi’s “Il Trovatore” in 2009, which was also Conductor Nicola Luisotti’s debut as SFO Music Director. Image: @Cory Weaver, San Francisco Opera

Friday evening’s “Norma,” San Francisco Opera’s season opener, with soprano Sandra Radvanovsky  as Norma, was an evening of firsts—my first time attending on SFO’s big gala night and my first live performance of  Bellini’s “Norma.”   And, I was lucky enough to score tickets in the 5th row, close enough to see without even my glasses, also a first.   I had prepped most of the week with YouTube recordings of the great Normas—Maria Callas, Montserrat Caballé, Joan Sutherland—and was excited to see how Radvanovsky, rumored to stand in their lauded company, would measure up. Norma is a Druid high princess in Roman-occupied Gaul who has secretly been sleeping with the enemy— a Roman procounsel, Pollione, and has two illegitimate children as a result.  Pollione has grown tired of Norma and now has his eyes set on Adalgisa, a young Druid priestess whom Norma regards as a friend. The opera is considered to be the gold-standard of early 19th century bel canto Italian opera.

SFO’s new production is conceived and staged by Kevin Newbury, with sets by David Korins and costumes by Jessica Jahn.  Newbury debuted at SFO in 2103 directing the world premiere flop, The Gospel of Mary Magdalene. (ARThound wrote about the gorgeous Michael Schwab poster that accompanied the opera.)  Billed as being “rooted in the stone age with a contemporary slant,” the production is inspired by contemporary research on the archaeology and mythology of the Druid cultures of Roman-occupied ancient Gaul.  With the SFO’s always effervescent Music Director, Nicola Luisotti, in the pit, the orchestra delivered a luminous performance with outstanding woodwind solos.

The British music critic, Andrew Porter, who wrote so insightfully for the New Yorker for some thirty years, said the role of Norma: “calls for power; grace in slow cantilena; pure, fluent coloratura; stamina; tones both tender and violent; force and intensity of verbal declamation; and a commanding stage presence.”  Joan Sutherland said of the role “[Hearing Callas in Norma in 1952] was a shock, a wonderful shock. You just got shivers up and down the spine.”

By all measures, Radvanovsky was an astounding Norma.  She has a radiant stage presence and a powerful voice, full of sparkling color.  The minute she began singing, I immediately liked her velvety tone and her innate musicality, especially her ability to convey tenderness and vulnerability.  On Saturday, though, there were some issues with her top range and extended notes.  On a handful of occasions during the three hour marathon, her voice broke or became scratchy.  And, importantly, that forceful gale wind dynamism and power that we associate with the hypnotic Normas, was not there.  From all I’ve read, she’s capable of it and I am sure it will emerge in subsequent performances.  Her “Casta Diva,” the famous first act cavatina, a prayer to the moon goddess, asking for peace, was gorgeous but I had the impression that this finely-tuned Ferrari had one more gear that was not present in this rendition.  She’s so passionate and immersed in the role though and so secure and nimble in her upper middle range that it was pure pleasure to both listen to her and watch her.  I particularly enjoyed her conflicted “Oh non tremare” which completes the first act, where she slams Pollione for his betrayal and exhibited her exceptional range.  The audience went wild over her “Casta Diva” and carried its ebullience to the funeral pyre (which came some three hours later and was a quick unsatisfying flash.)

They share a disastrous taste for the same Roman lover— mezzo-soprano Jamie Barton as Druid priestess Adalgisa (L) and Soprano Sondra Radvanosky as Druid high-priestess Norma in San Francisco Opera’s “Norma,” through September 30, 2014.  Image: Cory Weaver

They share a disastrous taste for the same Roman lover— mezzo-soprano Jamie Barton as Druid priestess Adalgisa (L) and Soprano Sondra Radvanosky as Druid high-priestess Norma in San Francisco Opera’s “Norma,” through September 30, 2014. Image: Cory Weaver

They were equally enthusiastic over mezzo soprano Jamie Barton’s inspired Adalgisa.  Barton, in her SFO debut, seemed completely at ease in the difficult role and her nimble voice was warm and alluring.  Barton won the 2007 Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions and has gone on to impress audiences ever since.  She so believably conveyed the dramatic emotional twists that come with loving a man who is also her friend and superior’s lover that my eyes gravitated constantly to her, troubled pure soul that she was.  We’ve all felt the tug of dangerous love and had to make difficult choices between loyalty and following your heart and they played out with compelling drama on Friday.  The shivers in this “Norma” were evoked by the girl power moments—by the lush lyricism of Radvanovsky and Barton’s voices blending in the duos—rather than by Norma’s solos of torment and passion.

Italian tenor Marco Berti delivered a wonderful Pollione and bass-baritone Christian Van Horn sang Oroveso with a power that matched his height.  We’ll be seeing a lot of Van Horn this season as he appears as Count Ribbing (“Un Ballo in Maschera”), Alidoro (“La Cenerentola”), Colline (“La Bohème”), and Narbal (“Les Troyens”).

David Korins’ set design, which many found confounding, had a single silvery snow-covered tree trunk elegantly hovering from chains in front of an enormous gray wall as a representation of the Druid forest. Blustery snowfall was visible through the doors evoking a Druid winter wonderland. Towards the end of the opera, a giant Trojan horse-like creature slowly overtook the stage and its crescent-shaped horn descended from the sky until it landed in place on its head. The funeral pyre was a mere flash in the pan. Jessica Jahn’s costumes were unfathomable to me—they appeared to come from several different eras and, with the exception of Radvanovsky’s, were unflattering, uninteresting and unattractive.

After the performance, drowsy couples exited the opera house raving about losing themselves in the music and comparing the great divas who have defined Norma.  There was a warm buzz about Jamie Barton.  SFO’s 92nd season was off to a brilliant start.

Run-time: 2 hours, 50 minutes with one intermission

Details:  There are six remaining performances of “Norma”—Wednesday, Sept 10 at 7:30 PM, Sun, Sept 14 at 2 PM, Friday, Sept 19 at 7:30 PM, Tuesday, Sept 23 at 7:30 PM, Saturday, Sept 27 at 7:30 PM and Tuesday, Sept 30 at 7:30 PM  Seats are selling fast—purchase tickets for performance here or phone the Box Office at (415) 864-3330.  War Memorial Opera House is located at 301 Van Ness Avenue, San Francisco.   Every performance features supertitles (English translations) projected above the stage, visible from every seat.

For more information on San Francisco Opera and their upcoming performances, visit

September 10, 2014 Posted by | Opera | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Review: David Henry Hwang’s shrewd and funny comedy “Chinglish” probes cultural misperceptions—West Coast premiere at Berkeley Rep

Michelle Krusiec (left) and Alex Moggridge (right) star in Berkeley Rep’s production of “Chinglish,” a new comedy from David Henry Hwang which heads for Hong Kong after having its West Coast premiere here. Photo courtesy of

“You’re speaking my language” is something we say when we feel we’re on the same wavelength with someone.   Chinlgish is Tony award-winning playwright, David Henry Hwang’s, hilarious comedy, set in China, about what happens when someone’s not speaking your language and you’re not on the same wavelength and your interpreter is making the situation worse.  Chinese English, or Chinglish is the result—the ungrammatical, nonsensical pervasive hybrid language that has flourished right along with China’s rapid opening to the world.   On Wednesday, Hawng’s Chinlgish had its West Coast premiere at the Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s Obie Theatre, under the capable direction of two-time Obie winner Leigh Silverman.  Everything flowed in this sleek comedy, marking what looks to be a winning season opener for the acclaimed theatre.

The play tells the story of an American businessman from Cleveland who goes to China to secure a lucrative contract for his family’s flailing sign-making business and encounters a world of translation issues, both linguistic and cultural. The people he encounters may understand all or nothing of what is said because everything is mangled in translation. Chinglish is topical on all levels. It deftly flushes out the rapidly changing power structure between China and the West and challenges assumptions about strengths and vulnerabilities. It is also a love story that probes new and old world views of marriage and fidelity. As it turns out, a huge cultural divide can occur even in the universal language of love.  Chinglish runs at Berkeley rep through October 7, 2012.  In 2013, it continues to Costa Mesa’s South Coast Repertory Theatre, a co-producer of the play, and then goes on to open in Hong Kong.

Chinglish opens with American businessman Daniel Cavanaugh’s PowerPoint presentation on the challenges of doing business in China, most notably Chinglish.  Cavanaugh is played fluidly by innocent-looking Alex Moggridge, who was Andrei in Berkeley Rep’s Three Sister’s, 2011.  An example of some of the boggling signage commonly found in China is “Take notice of safe, the slippery are very crafty,” which means “slippery slopes ahead.”  And from there, the audience is taken on a flashback with Daniel to Guiyang, the small (at 4.3 million) commercial hub and capital city of the Guizhou province, as he navigates some of the slippery slopes he encountered on his first trip to China.

Daniel engages the services of British expat Peter Timms (Brian Nishi) as his business consultant and interpreter. Timms promptly schools him on the essentials of “guanxi” or personal relationships that, once cultivated, will be the key to his success, even more so than securing an actual contract.   His advice is both humorous— “criticize yourself, but be sure there’s someone else in the room to contradict you” and salient to the current state of US/China business relations.  Peter sets up a meeting with Minister Cai Guoliang (Larry Lei Zhang), who communicates through his language-bungling aid (Vivien Chiu), that he is receptive to the idea of granting a lucrative contract to Daniel’s company to manufacture signs for Guiyang’s new arts center.

Of course, nothing is as it seems—everyone has a hidden agenda or a secret.  Driving that fact home is Vice Minister, Xi Yan, played by Michelle Krusiac, who delivers the play’s most memorable and nuanced performance.  Xi Yan holds the key to Daniel’s success in the deal.  She talks in a serious tone but is dressed in body-hugging business suits, mile-high stilettos and has an alluring cool sensuality that bewitches the American.  Her seemingly innocent blunder to Daniel, “I sleeping with you,” which should have been “I am sleepy,” sets the stage for a later encounter.  But, once alone in a hotel room with the married American, her vulnerability and own conflicted desires are exposed as she is swept into an affair that promises to be more complex than anticipated.

As Daniel falls for Xi Yan and admits to her and that he is considering telling his wife about his feelings for her, Xi Yan makes it clear that, in China, fidelity, marriage and love are viewed differently, even by the new generation who “married for love.” Xi Yan doesn’t even consider leaving her husband, while Daniel holds the more traditionally Western view that romantic relationships are fluid.

David Henry Hwang’s dialogue is humorous and carefully crafted throughout.  As Daniel and Xi Yan become more physically intimate, some of their pillow-talk reveals differing but equally valid viewpoints about China’s current status in the world and who wields the power.

Xi Yan says “One day we (China) will be strong.”

Daniel replies “What do you mean. You’re strong now.”

Xi Yan “Now? No, someday.”

Daniel “No, now.”

About a quarter of the play is in Mandarin Chinese but the audience learns what is being said through the clever use of supertitles projected directly onto the set about the characters’ heads, making the experience akin to watching an opera.  So, while the characters themselves are not able to understand each other, the audience can and that evokes some empathy for all their situations.

Berkeley Rep is known for its wonderful sets. David Korins has outdone himself with creating the half dozen or so rooms in China where important conversations take place—ranging from an office meeting room, to a bar, a restaurant, a hotel lobby, and hotel room—all gliding seamlessly and interchangeably across the stage on an innovative set of sliders, re-enforcing the play’s energetic pace.

On Wednesday evening, all actors and production factors came together to create that magical sense of flow.  Afterwards, the lobby was abuz with discussion. A Cal student from China told me that David Henry Hwang was “you know, like Woody Allen style—pressing on the serious with silly.” Another person, who claimed to speak Mandarin fluently, reported that the supertitles were “90 percent correct” and “really good.”

Berkeley Rep’s Artistic Director, Tony Taccone, introduces Chinglish

Production Team:

Written by David Henry Hwang

Directed by Leigh Silverman

Designed by David Korins (sets), Anita Yavich (costumes), Brian MacDevitt

(lighting), Darron L West (sound), and Jeff Sugg and Shawn Duan (projections)

Cast: Vivian Chiu, Celeste Den, Michelle Krusiec, Austin Ku, Alex Moggridge,

Brian Nishii, and Larry Lei Zhang

Run-time is 2 hours and 15 minutes with one 15 minute intermission

Playwright David Henry Hwang’s latest prize, the Steinberg Award: On August 23, 2012, Hwang was awarded a $200,000 Steinberg Distinguished Playwright Award for 32 years of provocative satires and dramas that have brought Asian and Asian-American characters to Broadway and other stages. The Steinberg award was created by the Harold and Mimi Steinberg Charitable Trust in 2008 to honor and encourage artistic excellence.  The $200,000 award is given every other year; it went to Tony Kushner (Angels in America) in 2008 and Lynn Nottage (Ruined) in 2010.

Details:  Chinglish runs through October 7, 2012 at Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s Roda Theatre, 2025 Addison Street, Street (near the intersection of Addison and Shattuck Avenue), Berkeley, CA 94704. Performances: Tuesday-Sunday with several matinee performances on weekends and select Thursdays.  Tickets: $99 to $14.50. Box office: (510) 647-2949 or . Parking: paid parking is readily available at over 5 parking garages as close as one block from the theatre. The Allston Way Garage, 2061 Allston Way, between Milvia and Shattuck, offers $3 parking Tuesday–Friday after 6 PM or all day on Saturday or Sunday when your garage-issued parking ticket is validated in the theatre lobby.

September 1, 2012 Posted by | Theatre | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment