Friday, November 18, 2005

La Forza del Destino, San Francisco Opera

To Forza last night, where I was pleasantly surprised. I had thought the old warhorse not too stageworthy, based mostly on recordings, a video, that Kirov broadcast of the 1862 St. Petersburg version, the libretto, and the opera's reputation. Wrong, wrong, wrong. There's never been any doubt about the greatness of much of the music. and this production, at least, works quite well.

A major reason is the fantastic conducting of Nicola Luisotti, debuting at SFO, who led a taut, impassioned, nuanced, and completely idiomatic performance. The only Verdi conducting I've heard live that I thought approached this quality was Patrick Summers's Traviata last season. Luisotti was also a ton of fun to watch because sometimes he was conducting the phrase and didn't bother to beat time; his technique is extremely beautiful and interesting, while always being perfectly clear. (I had one of the aisle seats in orchestra rear row ZZ and could look straight down the center aisle at his back.) He got brilliant playing out of the orchestra and great singing out of the chorus. Special kudos to concertmaster Kay Stern and especially principal clarinetist Carey Bell for gorgeously-played solos.

I was talking with a friend the other week about this opera and he said it was strange that war was the main focus of the production - this before he saw it, I think, based on reviews. Well, I think war is not the main focus, not any more than the libretto calls for. The sets and costumes are effective and striking, except for the fact that Preziosilla looks as if she took a wrong turn on her way to a rehearsal of Le Grand Macabre. Poor Jill Grove!

I liked the scene at the inn a lot; some of the pilgrims were costumed in replicas of traditional pilgrim outfits, the ones that look shockingly like KKK outfits. Brrrr; very creepy to have them wandering across the stage, though I was puzzled by the light sabres they carried. What?? The monastery scene worked extremely well too, with the first half, outside the monastery, played on a bare stage with just a backdrop for the monastery wall; that wall went up to reveal the interior of the church, with a vaguely cosmological rear wall and a very simple circle of candles within which Leonora's hair was cut and she was robed as a monk.

The singing is somewhat variable, unsurprisingly, but it's all large-scale and sometimes very, very loud. Despite the intermittent vocal messiness, it's a pleasure to hear a performance that sounds uninhibited and has such a committed cast; I've heard more than one Verdi opera (Ernani at ENO last year, for example) sung decently without being especially memorable because the singers were just too polite and too controlled (too English?). Some of these operas need hell-for-leather singing to make the intended impact on the audience.

The vocal star of the show is probably Lucas Meacham, an Adler Fellow, as Melitone (one of the most annoying characters in all opera!). He just sings the best, and has quite a beautiful voice. Of the other principles, Vladimir Kuzmenko (Don Alvaro) was unsubtle and at his best when singing at the dynamic extremes. He sobbed a lot, probably more than he needed to, and did a good job of putting over the character's instability. Zeljko Lucic (Don Carlo) had the range, style, and musicianship and lacked mostly some ping at the top of his range, which sounded, not exactly constricted, but muffled. The audience laughed at him during Act II at one point, which shocked me; he wasn't singing anything funny at all. Maybe the notion of honor and revenge is too foreign to a 21st century audience; maybe if he'd been less dignified, more outraged, there wouldn't have been laughter.

Jill Grove sang accurately and with enormous spirit as Preziosilla but I wish she'd used fewer glottal attacks. I did not much like Orlin Anastossov's Guardiano; too Slavic a voice and too uninteresting in all ways next to Meacham.

And finally the Leonora, Andrea Gruber. She got a lot of publicity earlier this year when she went public about her past drug problems and resorting to gastric bypass surgery to deal with her weight. I'd heard her on a Met broadcast and in Nabucco here a few years back, thought her voice ugly and her singing undisciplined.

At the moment, her voice is under good control. She'll never match Leontyne Price for vocal beauty, but mostly she sounded decent. There are a couple of bad patches in her voice that are on the raw/ugly side. But she has the big upward and downward range required by the role, she has the loud and the soft and the in-between (unlike her tenor!), she has a decent legato, and she has the Verdi style down just fine. She is also a passionate and deeply involved actor. "Pace, pace" could have been better, and the stupid direction for that number may have been responsible for the problems she had, because she had to run up and down the set vertically a couple of times during the aria, but whatever. She was excellent in much of the rest of the opera.

Three performances remain (November 20, November 23, November 26), and if I could, I'd go to another.

Note: I've polished and republished this about five or six times today. Sorry!

Thursday, November 17, 2005

Applauding the Scenery

My review of Fidelio at SFO is up at SFCV. It's a pan and largely in agreement with the reviews I've read by Joshua Kosman and Janos Gereben.

The second act of this opera starts out in a dungeon, and then moves to the courtyard of the prison of which the dungeon is the basement. If you know anything about this opera, you probably know that the first version was called Leonore and that Beethoven wrote four overtures at four different times for Fidelio. Conductors get to choose which one to play at the beginning of the opera.

There's a tradition that one of the other overtures gets played during act II. That's to cover the scene change from dungeon to courtyard.

SFO's set is very cleverly constructed. At the beginning of the act, you see the walls and towers of the prison audience left and right, with a walkway between the two towers. In the middle of the stage is the dungeon, with its ceiling vertiginously slanted up from the back to the front of the stage. Under the ceiling, there's a pit, and Florestan is lying in it audience left.

After "O namenlose Freude!", Christine Brewer (Leonore) and Thomas Moser (Florestan) glued themselves to each other and the middle of the pit, and the ceiling slowly lowered toward them. I thought "Uh-oh," remembering the injuries to Hildegard Behrens when a stagehand collapsed the Met's Gibichung Hall just a bit too soon during a performance of Goetterdaemmerung during the early '90s. But as the ceiling dropped, a trap opened in it, and by the time the slanted ceiling leveled out, revealing the prison courtyard, there was an opening big enough - just big enough - for the two singers, who got to stand there up to their knees in the set for a bit. As ceiling turned into the floor, the back of the set parted and a view of the countryside appeared. (I thought the mountain backdrop looked just a little too much like the Sangre de Christo backdrop in Doctor Atomic!)

And that's when the audience applauded the set.

What I didn't like:

  • Scenery that leaves you worrying about the singers' safety

  • Scenery that so calls attention to itself that the audience claps

I remember the SFO audience applauding the set when the curtain went up on the ballroom scene in the last act of Eugene Onegin - in the old production, the one that had an actual ballroom with actual moving humans in it. I couldn't figure out why. Sure, it was brightly lit and very very deep, but otherwise? There was nothing special about it. Still! (And now that I think about it, the audience applauded the new ballroom set for Eugene Onegin because of the damned exploding chandelier!!! What on earth were the designers thinking???) It's bad when the audience applauds the set. It means the set is distracting the audience from the story, the singers, and the music. Really, we don't go to the opera for the architecture.

I think the most beautiful thing I've ever seen on the operatic stage was the second act of the Seattle Opera's Tristan und Isolde. Through a combination of scenery and lighting effects, Ben Heppner and Jane Eaglen were set afloat in a deep blue night sky. It could not have been more perfect for the mood of the music; it was pure magic.

The love duet is overwhelming enough that the stage could be bare and you'd be moved. But this was the perfect accompaniment to the richness and passion of the opera, adding depth without ever distracting you from the music. And nobody applauded it.

Updated November 17, 2005. Bit of cleanup, plus added the comment about the new Eugene Onegin set. See Applauding the Scenery 2 for more on this topic.

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Applauding the Scenery 2

Anthony Tomamsini reviewed the Met's new Roméo et Juliette in today's Times; he called out some issues with the set and staging that aren't far off what I said about the SFO Fidelio set:

Above the stage hangs an armillary sphere, a complex of orbs and globes used to teach astronomy in Renaissance Italy. Indeed, the production makes explicit the celestial metaphors that gush from the mouths of the impulsive young lovers in both Shakespeare and Gounod. As they sing of their ecstasy, the walls of the set part to reveal milky firmaments and galaxies. Call this production "Roméo and Juliette in the Cosmos." The celestial imagery culminates in the scene in which the secretly married young couple share their one night of wedded bliss. Against a starry expanse, Juliette's bed hovers in the air. As breezes waft through the silken white sheets that hang from its sides, the lovers rustle in each other's arms. The image produced applause and ah's from the audience.

In its Busby Berkeley-esque way, it was quite a sight, though you worried as the singers performed a long, difficult duet confined to a small bed suspended from wires.

The setting sounds a bit like the Seattle Tristan except that I never worried about Heppner and Eaglen taking a tumble during their even longer and more difficult duet (and the audience didn't applaud the scenery). Read the whole review here before it goes into the paid archive (if reviews go into the paid archive!).

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

Dear Sara:

(A full review of the Sunday, November 13, 2005 performance of Norma will follow, but in the meantime, a few words to conductor Sara Jobin.)

I saw your main-stage debut conducting Tosca last year, and thought, hmm, "soggy little shocker." I saw this week's Norma, and all I can say is:

BUTCH UP, girl!!

You are being much too deferential to the singers. You are following them when they should be following YOU. It is YOUR JOB to shape the performance as a whole, not theirs.

Yes, I understand that singers need to be supported. It is to your credit that you are so sensitive to them and listen so carefully to what's happening on stage. I also understand that some of the ridiculous tempos were just because the singers would not have been able to keep up if you'd been going much faster.


You are Tori when you're on the podium. You were letting Uke lead. I know what that means, and I know that you do too.

Take control! It's your job!


Nidan, AJJF (Dan Zan Ryu Jujitsu)

Anne Midgette on American Voices and Vocal Training

Anne Midgette has a provocative article in the Sunday NY Times Arts & Leisure section called "The End of the Great Big American Voice." There is an accompanying audio presentation on the Web, with Sylvia McNair contrasted with Dolora Zajick in interesting ways.

My only significant objection: why hold up Andrea Bocelli as an example of what's wrong with vocal training, and especially American vocal training??

He's an Italian pop singer whose original technique is oriented explicitly to the microphone. Now, maybe that is the point, since part of Midgette's thesis is that smaller, tamer voices record better than bigger, more unruly voices. (I agree with her that it's a problem in the business and an issue in how singers are trained.)

Still - Bocelli is attempting to sing opera today largely as a marketing and sales ploy, not because it's his natural arena or because he is the slightest bit suitable for opera. He was not quite laughed off the stage when he tried live opera on for size. He's not the best example for Midgette's article or the audio piece, I feel. Pick one of the half-voiced operatic tenors floating around out there instead, even if he's less famous than Bocelli.

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

Daniel J. Wakin on LHL

Ace N. Y. Times reporter Daniel J. Wakin tackles the unfortunate string of cancellations this year by the great Lorraine Hunt Lieberson. Catch this article between November 9 and November 16, before it goes into the paid Times archive.

Tuesday, November 08, 2005

The Reviewer's Art

I wrote the lead article for this week's edition of San Francisco Classical Voice; I'd originally considered a blog posting on the advantages and disadvantages of preparing for a concert, after being sandbagged in August by a great performance of the Schubert String Quintet. But then I was asked if I'd like to write a feature for SFCV, and voila! This was the subject closest at hand and most on my mind.

Many thanks to Michelle Dulak Thomson, Alex Ross, and Joshua Kosman for talking with me about how they prepare!

Tuesday, November 01, 2005

Happy Birthdays All Around

vilaine fille was a year old on Halloween and (ahem) so was Iron Tongue of Midnight. Happy birthday to us both!

I had a different sort of birthday a couple of weeks ago; many thanks, and many hugs, to those of you who helped make it such an excellent one. You know who you are.


The Standing Room reports on the last night

And so does Robert Gable.

Reviewers on Doctor Atomic:And in the blogosphere:In the blogosphere, but from writers who haven't yet seen Doctor Atomic:

  • Greg Sandow on relevance I'm not having any difficult imagining the relevance of an opera about science, politics, and conscience to today's world. Le Nozze di Figaro, an operatic comedy about droit du seigneur, manages to sell out theaters world over, too.

  • Steve Hicken at Listen, with interesting comments about the effects of the attention surrounding any new work by John Adams.

  • Tim Johnson on hype and relevance, plus there are comments worth reading by both Tim and a reader, Jim, who saw the premiere and was disappointed.

Final Update: Your best bet for tracking fallout in the blogosphere will be a new Google feature; it's in beta, but it works just fine as far as I can tell: Google blog search.

The Real Final Update, well, not quite: Additional opinions may be found at the Archives of Opera-l.

First posted on October 2; updated October 4, 6, 7, 10, 12, 14, 17, 18, 23, and 24, 2005; November 1, 2005. You didn't really think I was done, did you?