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Geneva Anderson digs into art

San Francisco Opera’s new production of Sondheim’s “Sweeney Todd”—not so scary, but bloody grand it is!

Baritone Brian Mulligan is Benjamin Barker/Sweeney Todd in Sondheim’s “Sweeney Todd” at San Francisco Opera through September 29, 2015. He has escaped from wrongful imprisonment and returns to London, full of anguish and rage, to exact revenge on the vile Judge Turpin who sent him away on trumped up charges and destroyed his beloved family. The musical is big and bold and artfully combines the macabre with tender romance and laugh-out-loud humor. Photo: Cory Weaver, SFO

Baritone Brian Mulligan is Benjamin Barker/Sweeney Todd in Sondheim’s “Sweeney Todd” at San Francisco Opera through September 29, 2015. He has escaped from wrongful imprisonment and returns to London, full of anguish and rage, to exact revenge on the vile Judge Turpin who sent him away on trumped up charges and destroyed his beloved family. The musical is big and bold and artfully combines the macabre with tender romance and laugh-out-loud humor. Photo: Cory Weaver, SFO

There’s nothing more satisfying than an occasional slice of pie!  And San Francisco Opera’s (SFO) production of Stephen Sondheim’s musical Sweeney Todd, offers just that─delectable meat pies with a killer secret ingredient served up in an exhilarating musical.  A co-production with Houston Grand Opera and the Paris Thèâtre du Châtelet, this Lee Blakeley production premiered in Paris in 2011, and garnered raves at the Houston Grand Opera in April 2015.  It features Sondheim’s original score for the lyric stage and boasts unforgettable tunes.  At the War Memorial Opera House, with a stand-out cast of singers who can also act, it has definitely found its groove.  The SFO orchestra and chorus are magical under guest conductor Patrick Summers.  Simon Berry’s powerful organ solos, which fill the opera house, punctuate the drama.  Wonderfully harmonic singing accompanies the throat slitting and a spare-no-expense big staging, designed by Tania McCallin transports the audience back to bleak 1860’s backstreet London.

In all, it’s a fitting coup for SFO’s Music Director David Gockley, who is retiring and is now in his final season.  Gockley has championed musical theater in the opera house to help build a wider audience base.  During his tenure at Houston Grand Opera in the 1980’s, it was he who mounted a groundbreaking production of Sweeney Todd, establishing HGO as the first opera company to stage the 1979 musical, originally directed for Broadway by Harold Prince and starring Angela Lansberry and Len Cariou.  By the looks and gleeful ovations of the audience at last Sunday’s performance, which included more in their teens and twenties than I have ever seen before, Gockley’s making headway at building that wider base.

The story: In London there once lived a barber named Benjamin Barker (baritone Brian Mulligan) and his sweet young wife and child and he loved them with all he had.  But the licentious Judge Turpin (Wayne Tiggs) had Barker exiled to Australia on trumped up charges, meanwhile holding his wife and daughter, Johanna, captive.  Turpin ravishes the wife, ruining her life, and the traumatized young Johanna grows up as his ward and house prisoner.  The wronged barber, going by the name of Sweeney Todd returns to London to exact revenge and teams up with an ambitious pie maker, with a few secrets of her own, who has high hopes that the barber will become her next husband.

At last Sunday’s matinee, there were three clear standouts —baritone Brian Mulligan in the title role; mezzo soprano Stephanie Blythe as his pie baking accomplice, Mrs. Lovett, and baritone Elliot Madore as the young sailor, Anthony Hope.

From the moment he takes the stage, American baritone Brian Mulligan, commands full attention. Mulligan who sang the title role in SFO’s Nixon in China (2012) and, most recently, Chorèbe in Les Troyens (summer 2105), really channeled his dramatic flare, pulling off a dynamic performance with his rich vocals and acting.  Mulligan looks and a lot like School of Rock’s sensational Jack Black, so much so, that, at times, I half expected to see him amplifying his heartbreak with an electric guitar.  As the performance begins, Sweeney has just sailed into London with young Anthony Hope, Canadian baritone Elliot Madore, the winner of the Metropolitan Opera National Council auditions in his SFO debut.  The duo’s energetic opener, “No Place Like London,” showcased the strength and lyricism of their blended voices, while Mulligan’s “The Barber and his Wife” conveyed sensitivity and heartbreak.  Later in the Act I, Mulligan’s chilling duo with Stephanie Blythe, “My Friends” referring to his razors, was powerfully macabre.

Madore, in his SFO debut, sung so tenderly throughout the afternoon that I too swooned, from he began wooing young Johanna away from her troubles with his exquisite “Johanna” to his ACTII reprise of that enchanting song and wonderful duos along the way.

Mezzo Soprano Stephanie Blythe is Mrs. Lovett in Sondheim’s “Sweeney Todd.” When barber Benjamin Barker returns to London as Sweeney Todd, he returns to his former barbershop where the landlady is still Mrs. Lovett. She runs a pie shop that sells the worse meat pies in London. Together, the two embark on a mutually beneficial venture─he sets up business as a barber and begins slashing the throats of his clients and she uses the bodies in her pies. Soon, she’s known for baking the most succulent pies in all of London. At San Francisco Opera through September 29, 2015. Photo: Cory Weaver, SFO

Mezzo Soprano Stephanie Blythe is Mrs. Lovett in Sondheim’s “Sweeney Todd.” When barber Benjamin Barker returns to London as Sweeney Todd, he returns to his former barbershop where the landlady is still Mrs. Lovett. She runs a pie shop that sells the worse meat pies in London. Together, the two embark on a mutually beneficial venture─he sets up business as a barber and begins slashing the throats of his clients and she uses the bodies in her pies. Soon, she’s known for baking the most succulent pies in all of London. At San Francisco Opera through September 29, 2015. Photo: Cory Weaver, SFO

Mezzo Stephanie Blythe is always an amazing stage presence but she outdid herself as shopkeeper Mrs. Lovett, a role that showcased her natural comedic genius and irrepressible bombast. She won hearts in “The Worse Pies in London” and continued to deliver full force delight in her Act I duo with Mulligan,  “A Little Priest,” an outlandishly hilarious culinary appraisal of humans as pie ingredients. Act II’s duos  “By the Sea” with Mulligan and “Not While I’m Around” with Tobias (Mathew Griggs) were exquisite. It was hard to believe that this is Blythe’s debut in this role; she’s set the bar high at SFO for future singers in this role.

There are also star turns by Heidi Stober as Johanna; Elizabeth Futral as Beggar Woman; AJ Glueckert as Beadle Bamford, Wayne Tigges as Judge Turpin; Matthew Grills as Tobias Ragg and David Curry as Adolfo Pirelli.

Canadian Baritone Elliot Madore, winner of the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions, and makes his SFO debut as Anthony Hope, who sails into London with Benjamin Barker and falls in love with his daughter Johanna (Heidi Stober) who has became a ward of the evil Judge Turpin (Wayne Tiggs). Madore’s lyrical “Johanna” earned him an ovation at the September 20 matinee. Photo: Cory Weaver, SFO

Canadian Baritone Elliot Madore, winner of the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions, makes his SFO debut as Anthony Hope, who sails into London with Benjamin Barker/Sweeney Todd and falls in love with his daughter Johanna (Heidi Stober), now a ward of the evil Judge Turpin (Wayne Tiggs). Madore’s lyrical “Johanna” earned him an ovation at the September 20 matinee. Photo: Cory Weaver, SFO

As ACT II opens, the San Francisco Opera Chorus goes wild for Mrs. Lovett’s (Stephanie Blythe’s) meat pies which have become the talk of Fleet Street. “God, That’s Good” they belch. Tobias (Matthew Griggs, with broom) helps wait on customers while Sweeney (Brian Mulligan, above) anticipates a custom-made barber chair that will allow him to slash a throat and send the body directly down a chute into the pie shop’s bakehouse. Photo: Cory Weaver, SFO

As ACT II opens, the San Francisco Opera Chorus goes wild for Mrs. Lovett’s (Stephanie Blythe’s) meat pies which have become the talk of Fleet Street. “God, That’s Good” they belch. Tobias (Matthew Griggs, with broom) helps wait on customers while Sweeney (Brian Mulligan, above) anticipates a custom-made barber chair that will allow him to slash a throat and send the body directly down a chute into the pie shop’s oven. Photo: Cory Weaver, SFO

Stephanie Blythe at the Fairmont Hotel’s Venetian Room October 4:  Blythe will perform her heart-warming cabaret show “We’ll Meet Again: The Songs of Kate Smith,” about the great First Lady of Radio, Kate Smith, on October 4th, 2015.  For information and tickets ($70 or $100), click here.

Sweeney Todd Details:  There are 2 remaining performances of Sweeney Todd─Saturday, Sept. 26, 7:30 PM and Tuesday, Sept. 29, at 7:30 PM.  Both will be conducted by James Lowe.  Click here for tickets ($31 to $395) or phone the Box Office at (415) 864-3330.  War Memorial Opera House is located at 301 Van Ness Avenue, San Francisco.   While it’s sung in English, every performance of Sweeney Todd features English supertitles projected above the stage, visible from every seat.  For information about the SFO’s 2015-16 season, for which you can still catch all performances, click here.

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September 26, 2015 Posted by | Opera | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

San Francisco Symphony’s dazzling holiday line-up—there’s something for everyone—and there are still seats available for these special events

San Francisco Symphony’s New Year’s Eve Masquerade Ball at Davies Symphony Hall is San Francisco’s most elegant celebration.  The unforgettable evening is built around exquisite music in a stunning setting.

San Francisco Symphony’s New Year’s Eve Masquerade Ball at Davies Symphony Hall is San Francisco’s most elegant celebration. The unforgettable evening is built around exquisite music in a stunning setting.

If you happened to catch Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony’s (SFS) spectacular concert last Thursday at Weill Hall, which inaugurated their annual 4 concert series at Green Music Center, chances are you’re hungry for more.  Each year SFS, offers a stellar musical line-up for the holidays, ranging from events suitable for children and families to attend together children to Handel’s classic Messiah to its spectacular New Year’s Eve Masquerade Ball.  Half the fun of attending an event at Davies Symphony Hall is dressing up and entering its expansive curved lobby which affords gorgeous views of San Francisco.  During the holiday season, this elegant lobby is transformed into a Christmas wonderland, filled with towering trees decorated with handmade ornaments.  The internationally acclaimed San Francisco Symphony, nominated for yet another Grammy Award last week, is one of San Francisco’s treasured gems and the guest performers at Davies are world class.  There is nothing more precious than the gift of music shared between family, loved ones and friends.  Whether it be a matinee or evening performance, the concerts below all have ticket availability and if you act swiftly, there should be no problem attending one, or several, of these magical performances.  

HANDEL’S MESSIAH:   Thursday (12/13), Friday (12/14) Saturday (12/15) all at 7:30 p.m:  Few pieces can deliver a fresh perspective each time they are heard.  Handel’s Messiah is one of those works that yields a new secret on every hearing.  Composed in 1741, it reportedly was a favorite work of Beethoven for its “sublimity of language.”  For modern listeners, it holds a place of reverence in the canon for its universal appeal and moments of timeless expression.  Ragnar Bohlin leads soprano Joélle Harvey, mezzo-soprano Jennifer Johnson-Cano, tenor Andrew Stenson, bass-baritone Michael Sumuel, and the SFS Chorus and Orchestra. (Approximate length: 2 hours and 30 minutes) 

Pre-show event:  “Inside Music,” an informative talk with Alexandra Amati-Camperi, begins one hour prior to concerts.  Free to ticketholders.

Post-show: meet Anthony Cirone, author of The Great American Symphony Orchestra: A Behind-the-Scenes Look at Its Artistry, Passion, and Heartache (an engrossing backstage tour of symphony life) for a book signing in the Symphony Store following the December 15 concert.  

Davies Symphony Hall was built in 1980 and is the permanent home of the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra and Chorus.  The hall was designed by Pietro Belluschi and seats 2,743 people.  Image: SFS

Davies Symphony Hall was built in 1980 and is the permanent home of the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra and Chorus. The hall was designed by Pietro Belluschi and seats 2,743 people. Image: SFS

MUSIC FOR FAMILIES WITH SFS: Saturday (12/15) at 2 p.m:  Pass Symphony magic from one generation to the next by bringing your family to hear SFS in kid-sized classical concerts designed for families—great music, fascinating musical discoveries, and priceless memories.  Recommended for ages 7 and older.  Half price for ages 17 and under. Group discount not available. Concert length is approximately 1 hour 30 minutes.

Ticketholders will receive a free concert guide to enhance music appreciation at home.

Conductor/Performers:  Teddy Abrams conducts the San Francisco Symphony

Program: Bernstein-Overture to Candide; Handel—The Arrival of the Queen of Sheba from Solomon; Haydn—Excerpt from Second Movement of Symphony No. 94, Surprise; Beethoven—Fourth Movement from Symphony No. 2; Tchaikovsky—Excerpt from Second Movement from Symphony No. 4; Liszt—Excerpt from Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2; Copland—Saturday Night Waltz and Hoedown from Rodeo; Handy—Saint Louis Blues; Stravinsky—Ragtime from L’Histoire du Soldat; John Williams—Main Theme from Star Wars 

San Francisco Symphony performs a live score accompaniment to the animated family-friendly film "The Showman" on December 22, 2012. Photo: SFS

San Francisco Symphony performs a live score accompaniment to the animated family-friendly film “The Showman” on December 22, 2012. Photo: SFS

THE SNOWMAN  film and sing-along: Saturday (12/22) at 11:00 a.m:  This charming animated 26-minute film (Dianne Jackson, 1982) tells the story of an English boy who makes a snowman on Christmas Eve, only to have it come to life that night and take him on a magical adventure to the North Pole to meet Santa Claus.  SFS performs the score to this family-friendly movie, led by Resident Conductor Donato Cabrera with the Pacific Boychoir.  After the movie, hear the Orchestra will perform Christmas favorites and the audience is invited to sing along.

Pre-show event:Tier with a Twist”—Enjoy a beverage during this concert at “Tier with a Twist” in the Second Tier.  A fresh and festive way to take in a concert, the Tier with a Twist offers specialty food and drinks in the Second Tier bar and you can take your drink to your seat! 

’TWAS THE NIGHT: Carols and sing-alongs with members of the SF Symphony Chorus and Orchestra:  Saturday (12/22) at 7:30 p.m., Sunday (12/23) at 4:00 p.m and Monday (12/24) at 2:00 p.m.

Chorus Director Ragnar Bohlin leads soprano Lisa Vroman, members of the Symphony’s brass section and singers from SFS Chorus in three special concerts, featuring favorite carols, childhood Christmas songs, plus audience sing-alongs.  Robert Huw Morgan will play the gorgeous Ruffatti organ, one of the great organs of the world.  Half price for ages 17 and under.  Concert length is approximately 2 hours. 

Pre-show event:Tier with a Twist”—Enjoy a beverage during this concert at “Tier with a Twist” in the Second Tier.  A fresh and festive way to take in a concert, the Tier with a Twist offers specialty food and drinks in the Second Tier bar and you can take your drink to your seat!

NEW YEAR’S EVE MASQUERADE BALL WITH SAN FRANCISCO SMPHONY: Monday (12/31) at 9:00 p.m. Ring in the New Year at the city’s most elegant celebration, the New Year’s Eve Masquerade Ball with SFS. The event stars SFS conductor Michael Francis, soprano Heidi Stober, and members of Dance Through Time.  Everyone attending the event receives a complimentary mask as they enter the beautifully decorated lobby of Davies Hall.  Beginning at 8 p.m., The Martini Brothers entertain and perform their “swingin’ cocktail music” in the lobby.  Starting at 9 p.m., SFS performs polkas, waltzes, and dances on stage in Davies Symphony Hall.  Following the Symphony concert, guests are invited to celebrate and dance on the Davies Hall stage to The Peter Mintun Orchestra.  In the First Tier lobby, Super Diamond will perform the hits of the one and only Neil Diamond.  Immediately following the Symphony performance, guests enjoy complimentary sparkling wine, desserts, savories, and party favors.  As the clock strikes midnight, colorful balloons will cascade from the ceiling as the crowd welcomes in 2013.

Pre-event:  A special pre-concert dinner package includes a cocktail reception beginning at 6 p.m., followed by a sumptuous three-course dinner (wine included) in the lobby of the War Memorial Opera House.  The dinner package also includes La Marca Prosecco served in an exclusive gathering the Loge Level lobby at intermission.  Dinner packages begin at $160 and include parking.  For more details on the pre-concert dinners and to make reservations, call the Davies Symphony Hall box office at (415) 864-6000.

Tier with a Twist”—Enjoy a beverage during this concert at “Tier with a Twist” in the Second Tier.  A fresh and festive way to take in a concert, the Tier with a Twist offers specialty food and drinks in the Second Tier bar and you can take your drink to your seat!

Highlights from the 2012 Celebration:

Getting to Davies :  Davies Symphony Hall is located at 201 Van Ness Avenue at Grove Street, in San Francisco’s Civic Center, just across the street from City Hall.  The main entrance is on the south side of Grove Street between Van Ness Avenue and Franklin Street.  Driving to San Francisco and Parking: Be sure to allow ample time when driving into San Francisco on the weekend and crossing the Golden Gate Bridge—there is frequently a 15 to 30 minute back-up on Highway 101 South from Sausalito onwards due to congestion around the toll-plaza.  Arrive early at your parking garage of choice because those also fill up on weekends.  Recommended Garages:  Two garages are very close to Davies— the Performing Arts Garage (1/2 block)(Grove Street between Franklin and Gough Streets) and Civic Center Garage (roughly 2 blocks) (McAllister Street between Polk and Larken Streets) (both have flat $15 pay cash as you enter policy on performance nights)

Tickets and information:  www.sfsymphony.org , by phone at (415) 864-6000.  Half-price tickets for children 17 and under are available for certain performances.

Dessert Alert!  Miette Bakery, 449 Octavia Street (San Francisco, 94102), 415 837-0300, M-F 9-7; Sat 8-7 and Sun 10-5, is just 2.5 blocks from Davies Symphony Hall and offers some of the most gorgeous and artfully prepared treats you’ve ever seen— heavenly macarons, confections, cookies and several seasonal selections.  “Miette” is French for crumb… but there won’t be any… because these old world treats with a modern interpretation are just too delicious to leave even a trace behind.  Click this map to get your bearings.

December 12, 2012 Posted by | Classical Music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Handel’s “Xerxes” at San Francisco Opera—a hit!

Susan Graham, left, as Xerxes, and David Daniels, as Arsamenes, in San Francisco Opera's production of Handel's "Xerxes,” through November 19, 2011. Photo: Cory Weaver SF Opera.

San Francisco Opera’s premiere of George Frideric Handel’s baroque masterpiece Xerxes is the high point of the company’s fall season to date─one of those rare opera moments where music, singing, acting, and staging all come together to create magic.  Xerxes (Serse in the original Italian), dating to 1738, is an opera bursting with beautiful music and a positively twisted love plot.  The opera is very loosely based on King Xerxes I of Persia, though there is next to nothing in the libretto or music that recalls that setting.  If you haven’t seen a Baroque opera before, this production of Xerxes, which is the most light-hearted of all Handel’s operas, is delightful in all regards.  Nicholas Hytner’s production, directed by Michael Walling, originates from English National Opera 1985 production and was last seen in 2010 at the Houston Grand Opera.  

On opening day, Principal Guest Conductor/harpsichordist Patrick Summers, who last appeared at SF Opera in September conducting the world premiere of Heart of a Soldier, was exceptional as was the San Francisco Opera Orchestra.   Summers played his harpsichord for some of the recitatives along with David Kadarauch, principal cellist.  Xerxes is well-known for having been sung originally by a castrato and the role is now usually performed by a mezzo-soprano, contralto or countertenor.  Mezzo soprano Susan Graham who specializes in castrati roles was a perfect “Xerxes. ”  She was joined by countertenor David Daniels as “Arsamenes,” soprano Lisette Oropesa (Romilda), soprano Heidi Stober as “Atalanta,” contralto Sonia Prina as “Amastris,” Waynes Tigges as “Ariodates, and Michael Sumuel as “Elviro,” and they all put their own stamp on the arias and recitatives.  Susan Graham, David Daniels, Heidi Stober and Sonia Prina sang these roles in Houston and were exceptional together again in San Francisco.

The opera began with a clever and humorous touch:  at the starting overture, the characters ran out on stage, one by one, as a projected placard on the curtain behind them explained to the audience in a single sentence who they are and what their relationship in this love romp is.  King Xerxes is chasing Romidle (his servant Artiodate’s daughter) but she loves Xerxes’ brother, Arsamene, who also loves her.  Romilda’s sister, Atalanta, also wants Arasmene, in large part to have some of what her sister has.  Amastre, is engaged to Xerxes but he has betrayed her and she returns disguised as man to spy on him.  It’s romantic chaos, not to mention tests of sisterly and brotherly love and rank and loyalty as these characters plot, scheme, align with and betray each other, all hoping to end up with their true love.  In the end, Arsamene and Romilda are wed and Xerxes’ love is unrequited love.  

A scene from Act I of Nicholas Hytner's production of “Xerxes,” directed at SF Opera by Michael Walling. The sets and costumes for this production were designed by David Fielding and the opera is set in London’s elegant Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens, the center of fashionable London in the early 18th century. Photo: courtesy Cory Weaver, SF Opera.

The opera’s action has been transported from King Xerxes’ Persia, circa 475 B.C. to London’s Vauxhall Gardens, the center of fashionable London in the early 18th century, which was Handel’s time.  David Fielding’s set is brilliant.  Executed in tones of creme and green, it evokes both the historical period it is referencing and the sophisticated vibe of a Veranda magazine spread.  It includes many artifacts and references to the Middle East─a region considered exotic, fascinating and dangerous in 18th century London.   During this era, England was captivated by the Grand Tour and pleasure gardens like Vauxhall would have displayed all types of artifacts and botanical specimens too.  In this set, you’ll see an enormous winged lion topiary recalling the sculptures of Persepolis and a fascinating model of a famous bridge designed for King Xerxes to span the Hellespont (or Dardanelles) which allowed Xerxes and his Persian army to cross from Asia to Europe and invade Greece in 480 B.C.  What a surprise when the bridge collapses onstage, mirroring an obscure moment in ancient history that aficionados of historian Herodotus have all but memorized.  

Musically, Xerxes is known nowadays mostly for its intoxicating aria “Ombra mai fu,” which is an ode in the form of a song to a tree that Xerxes loved.  Whenever I hear this aria I envision the huge tree from Iranian artist Shirin Neshat’s 2002 video installation “Tooba” (the feminine Tree of Paradise cited in the Qur’an) instead of the puny ornamental potted stick tree in this staging.  Despite the tree, the four minute aria was sung vibrantly by Graham but her voice did not project well due to her position on stage.  Throughout the opera, Graham was in top form, particularly when paired in aria with counter-tenor David Daniels. 

Lisette Oropesa (left) and Heidi Stober (right) play sisters Romilda and Atalanta and they both love Arasamenes (Xerxes’ brother). Arasamenes loves Romilda and Xerxes is also infatuated with her but he is engaged to Amastris. Photo: courtesy Cory Weaver, SF Opera.

American sopranos Heidi Stober as “Atalanta” and Lisette Oropesa, who makes her San Francisco Opera debut as “Romilda” were fabulous in both their comedic presence and their hilarious dueling recitative arias expressing their love for Arsamenes were a joy to listen to even in multiple iterations because of the richness of their coloraturas.   Special mention goes to Michael Summel who charmed all in his debut as “Elviro,” Arsamentes’ lumbering servant who dons a dress and bonnet and poses as a flower seller.  

Xerxes runs three hours and forty minutes, with two intermissions, but the time seems to fly. 

Details: Xerxes is at the War Memorial Opera House, 301 Van Ness Ave., San Francisco.  Tickets are $29 to $330.  Information: www.sfopera.com.  Click to purchase tickets on-line:
Wednesday, November 16, 7:00 pm
Saturday, November 19th, 7:30 pm

November 13, 2011 Posted by | Opera | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment