Monday, October 31, 2005

Doors Opening

My dojo decided to stay on its summer schedule through at least the end of the year, and so I've joined a chorus for the first time in more than ten years: Soli Deo Gloria.

I think SDG will stick! I like the repertory, the rehearsals are convenient, the singers are good. Our first concert of the season is in just under three weeks. We're performing two cantatas by J. S. Bach ("Wie schön leuchtet der Morgenstern" and "Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland") and motets by Praetorius and Scheidt on the same hymn tunes and texts. The motets are regal and austere; side by side with them, the cantatas are so deliciously rich they might as well be Brahms. A finely-chosen program, led by guest conductor Dr. Paul Flight.

Tuesday, October 25, 2005

Fashion Notes, ASvO

My review of Anne Sofie von Otter and Bengt Forsberg is up at SFCV. For this review, I had to give some though to whether to break one of my personal rules for reviewing and talk about what von Otter was wearing. I decided against it, so here's what I was thinking.

Orange is almost never a good fashion choice. It can work if you're dark-skinned; it's not hard to imagine Jessye Norman stunningly beautiful in an earth-tones-and-orange outfit, for example. But ASvO is about as far from dark-skinned as a human can get without being albino.

Orange is an even worse fashion choice when it's the ground color of a paisley whose highlight colors are blue and white.

And when you're a six-foot-tall blonde Swedish goddess, well....let's just say I spent more of the recital looking at the song texts than I ordinarily would have, given von Otter's special blend of beauty and charm. She would have been drop-dead gorgeous in ruby, in deep blue, in black, in white, in forest green, in any number of other colors, but no, instead she performed in a dress that looked like someone's nightmare memory of the 60s. I'm hoping she'll leave the orange paisley in Stockholm next time she goes on tour.

Sunday, October 23, 2005

Never Had a Chance

I planned to be at the last Doctor Atomic performance, I really did. I went into S. F. with what normally would have been plenty of time for a standing room ticket. Got to the opera house at 5:20 p.m. and found about 30 people in line ahead of me for the last 25 spots, and quickly heard that the first 125 standing room tickets had sold out within half an hour of going on sale in the morning. I almost got in; a couple of people ahead of me were sold balcony rear seats by someone who'd gotten a standing room ticket, and a couple of people gave up and wandered off. I had a shot at a balcony rear seat that someone bought at the other ticket window while people ahead of me dithered over, and did not purchase, a pair of $90 balcony circle seats. (I had already paid for orchestra rear seats for opening night and this past Tuesday, plus a seat for my girlfriend, so I was not shelling out that kind of money again.)

Friday, October 21, 2005

Doctor Atomic, and Balances, Revisted

I returned to Doctor Atomic on Tuesday, October 18. This time, I sat in ZZ-101. It's in the very last row of the orchestra section, and right on the center aisle. Once again, the voice/orchestra balances were fine - and this time, I have a possible explanation for why I found the balances good on opening night, from X-105, but Alex Ross and Anthony Tommasini, sitting quite a bit farther forward, did not.

You may have noticed that the opera is selling fewer standing room tickets this season than last season, "for technical reasons." A honking big sound board is taking up a good chunk of the orchestra-level standing room, and it's there for Doctor Atomic. I took a careful look at it Tuesday night and found that the sliders on it are labeled by instrument: "Harp", "Celesta", and so on.

Mark Grey, the sound designer for the production, is the guy on the sound board. If he's got control over balances and amplification to that extent, and he's waaaaaay back in center field, no wonder the balances sound better from the back of the orchestra than the middle. Anyone reading this - how does Doctor Atomic sound, balance-wise, from elsewhere in the theater? Comments especially appreciated from anyone who has been to more than one performance.

About the opera - why, yes, I liked it the second time, too. I found the first half of Act I talkier and drier than the first time through, and Adams's trademark ostinati more in evidence when I spent more time listening to the orchestra than the words. But I thought "Am I in your light?" and everything through to the end just as strong as on opening night.

More interestingly, I thought the first half of Act II just fantastic. My notes from the premiere referring to "Bartokian night-music" and "Wagner" are all about the sequence from Kitty to Pasqualita to Robert Wilson dreaming about the tower (...falling...falling). That sequence contains some of the most beautiful and evocative music in all opera, I think. My previous comments on Act II focussed primarily on the structural issues with the close, and I expect I didn't sufficiently communicate the beauties of the earlier half of the act.

Don't ask me about the ending, which M. C- says has changed. I had a busy weekend, including an early-morning trip to the new de Young Museum, and dozed off during the countdown, awakening to a huge drumroll at the moment of detonation. My partner agreed with me that there's a structure problem at the end. She loved the Vishnu chorus, but also though it was the detonation.

M. C- will have more to say about the changes, I believe. Keep an eye on The Standing Room.

Wednesday, October 12, 2005

Lost and Found

Daniel J. Wakin reports in the NY Times that a lost Beethoven autograph - the working score of a piano version of the Grosse Fugue - has been found, in a cabinet at an evangelical college in Pennsylvania.

"It was just sitting on that shelf," reported Heather Carbo, the librarian who found the score. Click that link to see what Lewis Lockwood of Harvard said!

Monday, October 10, 2005

Rodelinda Second Cast

For the last two performances of Rodelinda at San Francisco Opera, tenor Paul Nilon was replaced by Kobie van Rensburg and bass Umberto Chiummo was replaced by Joshua Bloom.

Van Rensburg was in the Met Rodelinda cast last year and got excellent reviews. I can see why; he has excellent agility and a good trill, both required for singing Handel. But that voice! It's not especially interesting; his tone is shallow; it's starting to show some spread on top at forte - not good in a singer who is only in his mid-30s. He got a good hand after each of his arias, and pretty much earned it - I'd rather have heard Nilon again, though. He's not quite as agile as van Rensburg. He does have a much more attractive voice.

I liked Chiummo just fine and would have been happy to hear him again. Joshua Bloom, though, has got an outstanding voice, very firm and dark, and more vocal and stage presence, overall. The last young bass who made this kind of impression on me was John Relyea, another Adler Fellow. I expect Bloom will also go on to great things and a fine career, and I'm definitely looking forward to hearing him in the future.


There's a discussion in the comments to Fallout, below, about the balances in the orchestra section of War Memorial Opera House.

I saw Rodelinda again Saturday night. I started in standing room; at the second intermission, a couple of people who were leaving handed me a pair of tickets for M-109 and M-111. These are Orchestra Prime seats on the left and just off the center aisle. They are not far off where Alex Ross and Anthony Tomassini sat for the Doctor Atomic premiere. For that performance, I was in X-105, which is close to the rear, a few seats to the left of the left-hand aisle.

For the first performance I saw of Rodelinda, I was in Z-106 or 108. That is the last row except for the accessible seating row, ZZ, which has four feet of leg room and is immediately in front of the standees. 106 and 108 are a few seats to the right of the center aisle.

For Rodelina, at least, the orchestra/voice balances were much, much better in standing room and row Z than in row M. The orchestra came more to the fore in row M and the voices were more difficult to hear - I theorize that I could hear the voices bouncing off the back and side walls (and maybe the box seat overhang) when I was close to the back of the theater.

Disclaimers: Rodelinda has a much smaller orchestra than Doctor Atomic, of course. And the pit was raised somewhat, as it was for Alcina in 2002. I have no idea how to account for the effects of the raised pit on the balances.

Sunday, October 02, 2005

Going Nuclear: Doctor Atomic Arrives

I was lucky enough that even subscribing very late to SF Opera, I was able to get a ticket to the opening night of John Adams and Peter Sellars's Doctor Atomic. It was quite an evening, with much excitement and the sense of occasion you'd expect at the premiere of an important and long-awaited new work. Herewith I try to turn my notes into a review; the notes aren't quite as extensive as I'd like, and (alas) the libretto is not in print yet. Thank goodness for the extensive synopsis in the program.

The short version: if you're within striking distance of San Francisco and you care at all about opera, singing, physics, World War II, or the music of John Adams, go see it. As of a day or two ago, there were plenty of tickets still available for the balance of the run, but that may change when the reviews come out.

The long version:

Doctor Atomic opens with an unnerving welter of mechanistic noise, flowing from speakers set in various places around the opera house. Sound came from behind me and in front of me and seemingly from the sides of the house as well. It fades out to almost nothing and you hear a clip obviously taken from 1940s radio. The curtain goes up to reveal a raked stage lit by eerie blue light and divided into sections by a number of wooden frames running across the stage, among which the chorus is scattered. They intone:

Matter can be neither created nor destroyed but only altered in form.
Energy can be neither created nor destroyed but only altered in form.

As the lighting changes to something more natural, you can see that the chorus members are dressed as nurses, uniformed personnel, ordinary people from the 1940s. Dancers flit across the stage and back. Mountains in silhouette undulate at the rear of the stage; during the course of the opera, they are raised or lowered to indicate apparent elevation, depending on the scene's distance from the mountains, and they're lit in various brilliant colors, from egg yolk to red to purple to blue, to illustrate the mood of a particular scene.

A blackboard covered with equations appears in the far left forward corner of the stage; three tables of lab equipment are rolled out, lab lights drop from the flies. You're in Los Alamos. Edward Teller (Richard Paul Fink) and Robert Oppenheimer (Gerald Finley) sing a duet (I smiled at the mention of Leo Szilard: "he's a bright fellow but something of a busybody") and Robert Wilson (Thomas Glenn) joins them for a trio.

I heard that trio for the first time, and "Am I in your light?", the solo that follows for Kitty Oppenheimer (Kristine Jepson), at an Opera Guild preview in February. I'd been wondering for quite a long time how exactly Sellars and Adams intended to construct the libretto for an opera about physicists. The answer - from official documents, from letters, from memoirs, from poetry - still left open questions about how this would work dramatically. The answer turns out to be: brilliantly. The first act is perfectly constructed and perfectly paced from beginning to end, dramatically and musically.

That Kitty Oppenheimer solo sets a Muriel Rukeyser poem; she sings it in bed to Robert, trying to get his attention while he studies papers of some kind. Frustrated, she seizes the papers and throws them to floor. He finally notices her; he sings a passionate poem by Baudelaire, they tangle for a while on the bed but ultimately they separate physically, and the duet ends with them alone and apart. That scene is a marvel, the most intimate and genuinely human love scene I've witnessed on the operatic stage, far more real and far hotter than anything appearing in ostensibly more radical or sexual productions, such as Alcina, Rodelinda, or The Fiery Angel.

The third and last scene of Act I moves to the Trinity site, where the first atomic bomb (the "Gadget") was tested on July 16, 1945. It's the night before the test, but the weather is uncertain, with rain and electrical storms threatening. General Leslie Groves (Eric Owens) is under immense pressure from Washington to ensure a successful test. He takes out his fears on chief meterologist Jack Hubbard (James Maddalena), threatening jail or hanging. Captain James Nolan (Jay Hunter Morris) attempts to persuade Groves that fallout from the test shot could endanger the whole region. Groves looks like a monster until Oppenheimer teases him about his weight; in the ensuing discussion of Groves's many diet attempts, you realize he's just another human trying to do his job. The act closes with a setting for Oppenheimer of Donne's Holy Sonnet, "Batter my heart, three-person'd God:"

Batter my heart, three person'd God; for, you
As yet but knocke, breathe, shine, and seeke to mend;
That I may rise, and stand, o'erthrow mee,'and bend
Your force, to breake, blowe, burn and make me new.
I, like an usurpt towne, to'another due,
Labour to'admit you, but Oh, to no end,
Reason your viceroy in mee, mee should defend,
But is captiv'd, and proves weake or untrue.
Yet dearely'I love you,'and would be loved faine,
But am betroth'd unto your enemie:
Divorce mee, 'untie, or breake that knot againe;
Take mee to you, imprison mee, for I
Except you'enthrall mee, never shall be free,
Nor ever chast, except you ravish mee.

I read that poem about a dozen times in the days before the premiere, having been tipped off that it would feature prominently in the opera. I couldn't imagine what Adams would do with it. He must have worked some kind of magic, because as it's set - and as Gerald Finley performed it - it's much easier to understand than reading it on the page.

That perfect first act would be a tough act to follow, so to speak, and indeed the second act has its problems. For one thing, it's likely that anyone attending the opera knows how the test turns out: the bomb goes off. So there's the problem of how to create tension. There is plenty of terrific music in the act - my notes call out the Wagnerian grandeur of the brass sonorities early on, recalling the Valhalla and curse music from the Ring, and somewhat later, mid-act, night music worthy of Bartok. But the act's overall effectiveness is significantly undermined by a couple of major misfires in the pacing.

At the end of scene ii, Oppenheimer decides that the test shot will be fired at 5:30 a.m., which is still some five hours away. Scenes iii and iv are the countdown from 5:10 a.m. to the explosion, but I didn't get sufficient sense of time passing between midnight and 5 a.m.. The various characters ruminate and chorus very shortly sings a wild chorus to Vishnu. The stage seemed set afire, with yellow mountains, green, orange and red light: I was sure the bomb had gone off, even though there was no sound of an explosion. Imagine my surprise when the countdown proceeded - and I was even more surprised by the comparative fizzle we got at end the opera, which left me wondering exactly what had happened. There was some noise - but not quite as impressive a noise as at the beginning - and in the silence that followed, a woman's voice speaking Japanese, apparently from a radio air check. There was no translation provided, nor is there anything in the program indicating what she's talking about.

I understand that it's difficult to represent in sound or music the sound of an atomic bomb going off. It's hard to represent the end of the world, too; that's why Wagner gave us the 20-minute-long Immolation scene to balance off the immensity that goes before. (I confess that the coda of the Immolation always seems to me not quite long enough too - but I digress.) In any event, the sound world at the end of Doctor Atomic isn't remotely sufficient; it doesn't awe, terrify, or even startle the audience very much. Maybe the opera needs an immense flash of light, or perhaps Adams and Sellars need to explicitly state that it will end not with a bang but a whimper.

I here note that the program synopsis is explicit about what's going on at any given moment. If I'd read it, maybe I wouldn't have been fooled. And yet, the opera on the stage should be clear enough to be accurately understood without reading the notes.

That's not the only significant problem in the second act. There's a character who seems entirely superfluous to the main action. This is Pasqualita (mezzo Beth Clayton), a Tewa Indian who is the Oppenheimers' maid. She appears at various times calming their daughter by singing a lullaby, or simply by holding the child. Her music is lovely, and Clayton's dark, contralto-y tone contrasted beautifully with Jepson's brighter high mezzo. But still - it was not possible to discern her dramatic function from her stage appearances and music.

It's also a shame that Kitty doesn't have more music in the second act. I think you never see her with Robert again after the devestating love scene in the first act; you learn enough about her, and about them, to want more. Perhaps the countdown could have been shorter - or Pasqualita eliminated entirely if her role isn't made clearer - and more music and stage time given to the Oppenheimers and their marriage.

Despite the flaws in act II, Doctor Atomic is one hell of an accomplishment. The music is Adams at his riveting best: full of rhythmic and melodic interest, densely and beautifully orchestrated in overlapping layers of sound, all executed brilliantly by Donald Runnicles and the opera orchestra. Each character is sharply drawn in music; the scientists sing to each other in a style that's talky, conversational, almost a bit square, with spikey melodic lines. Robert Wilson, the youngest of the scientist-characters, is impetuous and idealistic. The women are more lyrical - Kitty soars in her music - and Oppenheimer himself is at his most lyrical with his wife, at his most dramatic singing "Batter my heart." (I do feel that "Batter my heart" would have been just as effective staged more subtly.)

And the singers themselves are flawless. They sang this difficult music as if it were the most natural thing in the world, even the three latecomers to the cast (Fink, Glenn, and Jepson); the men's diction was so good that I consulted the supertitles perhaps five percent of the time when they were singing. The women were a bit more difficult to understand. (I note that Adams said in September that he "requires very subtle miking of soloists and chorus." Could that be one reason for the excellent diction? I could not find a discussion of this issue in the program.)

I was happy with each and every singer; I want to especially applaud Gerald Finley, for his beautiful singing, lovely voice, and dramatic embodiment of the complex being who was J. Robert Oppenheimer. I hope he'll be back.

And I hope you'll all turn out for Doctor Atomic.

(Very minor revisions - typos fixed and a couple of awkward sentences smoothed - on October 12, 2005.)