Monday, September 25, 2017

San Francisco Opera La Traviata Media Round-Up

Amitai Pati (Gastone), Atalla Ayan (Alfredo Germont), Aurelia Florian (Violetta Valery)
Act I party scene
Cory Weaver photo / San Francisco Opera

Here we are:

Hot and Cold Running Polish Baritones

Are we sure they're not related? Is there some opera requiring two baritones, so we can see them on stage together? Can SFO put on King Roger, since obviously there is a choice of singers for the title role?

Artur Rucinski

Mariusz Kwiecien

La Traviata, San Francisco Opera

Atalla Ayan (Alfredo) and Aurelia Florian (Violetta)
Photo: Cory Weaver / San Francisco Opera

San Francisco Opera has two warhorses in the fall season, balancing out Elektra, which way too many people consider tough going, and the upcoming John Adams premiere, Girls of the Golden West. Verdi's evergreen La Traviata opened this past Saturday night, and maybe that warhorse strategy is no longer working so well, because there were an awful lot of empty seats in the Dress Circle.

Put me down as "modified rapture" on this cast. All three of the stars were making their SFO debuts, with varying results. Tenor Atalla Ayan, who hails from Brazil, struck me as a generic lyric tenor. He has a nicely burnished, big-enough voice, but sounded slightly strangled at the top and sang the entire first act in a monotone, with little dynamic variation. He also didn't manage much in the way of youthful impetuosity, which is what defines Alfredo Germont in that act. He improved some over the course of the opera, but remained on the blunt side. Nothing in his performance stands out except for the fact that he threw the money at Violetta twice, and the first time was wrong. Okay, nerves, it won't happen again, but it's a big moment in a dramatic scene.

Artur Ruciński (Giorgio Germont)
Photo: Cory Weaver / San Francisco Opera

I'm totally down with Polish baritone Artur Ruciński, singing Giorgio Germont, who has a beautiful baritone voice, very solid and large, with good high notes, not too far off what Mariusz Kwicien (whom I adore, don't get me wrong) would sound like if he were a real Verdi baritone rather than a lyric baritone who can nonetheless sing Verdi roles convincingly. Ruciński was a little on the stiff side dramatically, which I suspect is how he was directed, and those grace notes in "Di provenza" were hammered a bit, which again, maybe it's him, maybe it's how he sings the character.

And now the moment you've been waiting for: Aurelia Florian had a gruesome first act, tripping over herself here and there in "Sempre libera," getting out of sync with the orchestra once or twice in the same aria, having obvious difficulty with some of her high notes, and occasionally going out of tune. She and Ayan also didn't have much obvious chemistry. On her side, she did show a beautiful voice with an interesting dark timbre, but overall I didn't have a lot of hope for the rest of the opera.

The fact is that the stars of the first act were the orchestra, chorus, and Music Director Nicola Luisotti. The orchestra sounded great, the chorus sang with vigor and pinpoint accuracy, and Luisotti conducted a propulsive, yet flexible, account of the score. In fact, I'd say that Luisotti's only misstep during the opera was in Act II, scene XII, which happens to start with Alfredo's entrance right after the bullfighter dance. He is an uninvited guest -- he found the invitation back at his and Violetta's country house -- and he's enraged. Violetta and Baron Douphol enter shortly after that, and that 6/8 section was just too damn fast. Violetta has a couple of long, arching phrases in this section that need some time to expand, and Luisotti hurried right over them.

BUT back to the beginning of Act II. My hopes should have stayed high, because Aurelia Florian sang a lovely and touching Violetta from there to the very end of the opera. Whether it was nerves or fioriture that sank Act I I do not know, but she can't be the first soprano to have issues there. She certainly redeemed herself! "Ditte alla giovine" tore me apart; "Amami, Alfredo" had a beautiful arching line; she was vulnerable with a core of emotional steel throughout the scene with Giorgio Germont. And she maintained that tenderness through the end of the opera. Act III is mostly hers, and she died most beautifully, with good contributions from Ayan and Ruciński, and also from Anthony Reed as Dr. Grenvil and Amina Edris as Annina.

Speaking of the smaller roles, they were all very beautiful sung: Renée Rapier as Flora, Amitai Pati as Gastone, and Philip Skinner as Baron Douphol.

Dramatically, this revival isn't much to write home about. The new Backstage with Matthew email is all about how great John Copley is, but I am not buying it. Honestly, the sets are uninteresting and the direction ranges from adequate to embarrassing. This partygoer being spanked, that courtesan falling down and kicking her legs up to show her bloomers? Just no. Giorgio Germont 15 feet from Violetta while he sings that he's kneeling and asking her forgiveness? Um. These details show inattention and perhaps a bit of a failure of taste. Perhaps if you want to show the wild partying, it should really be wild. Worse, the direction doesn't really give a good dramatic shape to the drama; I was never quite convinced of the intensity of Violetta and Alfredo's devotion. The singing carries the day more than anything else.

There's new choreography for the Act 2 dances, but it's nothing to write home about. I was annoyed to a possibly unreasonable extent by the fact that the two female dancers were out of sync with each other, with one of them noticeably behind the other. I just don't understand this; can't she hear where the downbeats are? Perhaps this is the same dancer who was behind the other two in the ballet sequence in Nixon in China five years ago.

So, while it wasn't a great evening, it was pretty darned good, especially Aurelia Florian, Artur Ruciński, the chorus, orchestra, and Nicola Luisotti. If you have a hankering to see this opera, by all means, get a ticket.

Renée Rapier (Flora), Aurelia Florian (Violetta), Anthony Reed (Dr. Grenvil), 
Amitai Pati (Gastone), Andrew G. Manea (Marquis d'Obigny), 
Artur Ruciński (Giorgio Germont), Atalla Ayan (Alfredo Germont)
Act II party at Flora's
Photo: Cory Weaver / San Francisco Opera

Sunday, September 24, 2017

Oktoberfest at SFS: Have Fun While Doing Good

Next month, on Tuesday, October 3, San Francisco Symphony is presenting a fun program under the rubric of Oktoberfest. It's a benefit for the orchestra's educational programs.

Conductor Christian Reif and vocal soloists Julie Adams, Daniela Mack, David Blalock, and Edward Nelson (SATB respectively) perform this program:


Champagne Gallop
“Fin ch'han dal vino” from Don Giovanni
“Ah! quel dîner!” from La Périchole
J. Strauss, Jr.
Champagne Polka
Romberg - “Drink, Drink, Drink” from The Student Prince
J. Strauss, Jr.
"Csárdás" from Die Fledermaus
"Ô vin, dissipe la tristesse" from Hamlet
J. Strauss, Jr.
Tristch-Tratsch Polka
“Il segreto per esser felici” from Lucrezia Borgia
“Dein ist mein ganzes Herz” from Das Land des Lächelns
Four Tone Poems after Arnold Böcklin, Opus 128: IV Bacchanal
“Lallarallarà la la la” from L’elisir d’amore
"Libiamo ne' lieti calici" ("The Drinking Song") from La Traviata
J. Strauss, Sr.
Radetsky March
Tickets start at $29, there will be a pop-up Biergarten before and after, and I presume the beer will flow freely as you have to be 21 to attend.

Friday, September 22, 2017

Friday Photo

Bay Bridge, from roof of 345 Spear, SF
Eerie light the day of the eclipse. You could see the eclipse through eclipse glasses.
August, 2017

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Rubin Institute, but for General Journalism

Found on the Google blog The Keyword this morning: Supporting Local Journalism with Report for America. Here are the money grafs:
An initiative of The GroundTruth Project, Report for America is taking its inspiration from Teach for America and applying it to local journalism. Its goal is to attract service-minded candidates and place them in local newsrooms for a year as reporters.
The first pilot, which will start early next year, aims to fill 12 reporting positions in newsrooms across the country, in areas underserved by local media. There will also be a community element to the work—a reporter might also help a local high school start or improve their student-run news site or newspaper.
Okay, not exactly, but related, as Zoe Madonna starts her second year at the Boston Globe supported by outside foundations. And the same question applies: who will pay for these 12 reporters on an ongoing basis?

Monday, September 18, 2017

Roles We'd Like to See Christine Goerke Sing in SF

Within the realm of possibility:
  • Kundry, Parsifal, because Matthew Shilvock has commented that we're due for a new production of the opera.
  • Ariadne, Ariadne auf Naxos. Because it has been a while.
  • Isolde, Tristan und Isolde, because the last time we had a Tristan here Goerke was singing Rosalinde in Die Fledermaus
  • Ellen Orford, Peter Grimes, because it's been a long time since SFO did any Britten, and Matthew Shilvock has mentioned him as one of the "20th c. classic composers" whom the company should present.
What I'd really like to hear: Isolde.

Really unlikely:
  • Ortrud, Lohengrin, because it's not that long since the last one.
  • Dyer's Wife, Die Frau ohne Schatten. Last seen in 1989, something of a cult opera, very very expensive to stage, with an Elektra-sized orchestra, an enormous cast that includes five principals, a host of small roles, a chorus, and crazy scenic demands.
  • Cassandre, Les Troyens, because we just had this; see also, expensive, very expensive.
  • Brünnhilde. Not happening, because it'll be Herlitzius next year and the next Ring production will be in ten years or something. You can see her in NY (next season, I believe) or Chicago (ongoing rollout with cycles in 2020, I think),
What I'd really like to hear: Dyer's Wife (even though I've heard her in this already).

Role I don't think is in her repertory, but it is the province of sopranos with great low registers and mezzos with great high registers; also, there is an emotional journey: Judit in Bluebeard's Castle, an opera SFO hasn't presented in fifty years.


Sunday, September 17, 2017

Holy Mother of God! aka Elektra

Christine Goerke as Elektra
Corey Weaver photo, courtesy of San Francisco Opera

Elektra number two this afternoon, and hoo boy. An overwhelming performance; I'm still feeling the effects now, hours after it ended.

Getting a seat in the balcony made all the difference: I could hear Christine Goerke perfectly, with little loss of presence for the other singers. The acoustics of the War Memorial Opera House being what they are, Adrianne Pieczonka made a little less impact than last Saturday, presumably because she sings some of her role from maybe 12 feet above the floor of the stage. (It was not a significant difference and she still sounded great.) I'm always amazed at the difference a few feet can make; with this particular set, there was also a noticeable difference in presence over about an eight or ten foot upstage/downstage difference.

One other advantage of being upstairs today is that the OperaVision direction for this production is phenomenally great. It truly illuminates the performance and enhances the drama; the camerawork is really stunning.

I think it's also possible that the drama and acting have come together more since the prima; I mentioned previously that I thought Goerke was underdirected in some scenes and wandered around the stage too much. I had no such sense this time; everything on stage had motivation behind it, for all of the performers.

Goerke gave a stunning performance all around. Her vocalism is tremendous: her beautiful sound, dynamic control, projection of the text. And beyond that, her acting, her physical grace, her amazing sensitivity to the text and the other singers. I told my girlfriend, bring your binoculars, you'll want to see her face. The nuance and detail, all of it completely organic - you just don't see this very often.

I loved everyone in the cast, really. Adrianne Pieczonka, Michaela Martens, Alfred Walker, Robert Brubaker (a preening Aegisthus): you were all wonderful.

This time around, I could also see the logic of the production better; for one thing, I kept an eye on the video that played during the opening pantomime. It really is relevant, and I saw little of it first time around. From the balcony, I could see that the big table the maidservants wheel out early in the show is the same table seen in the video, where it has a very specific function.

I remain a little puzzled by Henrik Nánási's pacing of the first third or so of the opera, but whatever. It all comes together eventually and the orchestra again sounds fabulous throughout.

So, if you haven't seen this yet, and you're in the SF Bay Area, get yourself a ticket, or maybe two or three. If you've already seen it, go again. It could be another 20 years before we see this great opera again, and we will be very lucky indeed if the cast can match this one.

Christine Goerke (Elektra) and Michaela Martens (Klytemnestra)
One of the many creepy moments in the opera. 
Cory Weaver photo, courtesy of San Francisco Opera

Elektra Guest Post, by John Fenster

Christine Goerke (Elektra) and Adrianne Pieczonka (Chrysothemis)
Photo Corey Weaver, courtesy of San Francisco Opera

My comments focus on the production by Keith Warner, here directed by Anja Kühnhold. The concept is basically that of the musical Aida, based on the children's storybook by Leontyne Price. That story starts in the Egyptology wing of a modern museum. A woman and a man catch each other's eye and are swept up by Amneris and taken back to ancient Egypt where they take on the roles of Aida and Radames, and the story runs much like Verdi’s. Another point of reference is Loy’s Salzburg Die Frau ohne Schatten. The production is built from Karl Böhm's infamous 1955 recording of the opera, in the dead of winter. We see none of the fantasy elements of the opera, just distillation of the characters into the singers. But here we have the opposite; Loy’s production takes a fantasy and personalizes the drama, Warner’s production takes a very personal drama and spins a fantasy from and around it.

Though with their Aida Elton John and Tim Rice were able to make changes to the plot of Verdi’s Aida, writing songs that tell their new story, Keith Warner does not take such liberties with Strauss and Hofmannsthal's Elektra. Instead he treats it as the nightmare fantasy of the woman who takes on the role of Elektra. What we see is a sort of blend of the opera and what happened to this woman, including her father killing himself.

In the museum, she is fascinated by a video depicting six women preparing a ritual sacrifice. We hear the five maids and their overseer, and halfway through their section they burst out on stage; they have come to life.

So, the maids are not trying to clean in an attempt to wash away the spiritual stain on the place. Instead it’s almost the exact opposite: they're performing a new human sacrifice. It's twisting what was written, though it mostly fits since Klytämnestra wants to appease the gods. It is also necessary for this Elektra, who is drawn into the story because she is fascinated by them and furthermore soon becomes obsessed with having her own sacrifices performed. An Elektra disdainful of their futile efforts wouldn't work here, but I miss the resonance and the classical logic of the text. I also missed having the maids on stage for their entire scene. They also don't return later (though we do hear them).

The production continues more or less like this. One of the very curious things it that several times what we see on stage is generated from what Elektra says and thinks. That may explain the dream logic (or anti-logic) of the connection between the text and the staging. Little of it makes sense as naturalism, but that isn't what we have here. So, for example, die Vertraute and die Schleppträgerin do not actually whisper into Klytämnestra's ear until Elektra mentions it. Elektra is not responding to what has happened, rather she's actively creating her fantasy. Similarly, later on Elektra wields the ax as soon as she decides she needs it, rather than never. I found this bizarre logic infuriating, in part because I did not understand how the production worked.

That is, many of my initial complaints are oblique to the production concerns. It doesn’t make sense to complain that it isn’t die Vertraute but Orest himself that tells Klytämnestra a messenger (also him) is here to tell her that Orest is dead. Or that he still waits to see her leading to the recognition scene with Elektra. It makes zero sense, but the production is not trying to be coherent or logical. It made me mad that der Pfleger isn't immediately dismissive of Elektra to the extent that he even takes the ax which shouldn't be there in the first place from her. But this is her fantasy; she's going to have more of a sympathetic take on herself. The production has something interesting behind it. It was realized rather well, mostly.

Fundamentally I understand having an active imagination when sad and helpless. When you’re upset about something you can't control it's easy to let your mind run wild and concoct an imaginary drama to try and solve your problem. This woman is dealing with her father having killed himself (among other things) and that leaves her feeling helpless. But if he had been, say, murdered by Aegisth? Then there could be an avenging Orest to come and help make it better. And that could feel cathartic to see.

That being said I still dislike it, overall. Going in to the second performance, knowing what was going to happen I was more engaged for the first two-thirds or so, until right after Elektra recognizes Orest. There’s an emotional through-line, but it gets dropped for uninspired camp horror, complete with incest jokes.

Though some of the problem is that the entire score and libretto are pushing towards something and this production’s concerns are related but different; perhaps the ending was never going to land, exactly, so playing it all as a joke is the way to go. And that worked for some; there was laughter around me during the final scenes at both performances. But I think Elektra can be better than that.

And my comments focused on the production because it’s so abnormal that it really demands attention. But I had tickets to the first three performances because of the assembled cast, and they have not disappointed.

I am not sure whose idea this was...

....but I did laugh.

Screen shot from San Francisco Opera web site; click the screen shot to see what I laughed at.