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.

Friday, September 15, 2017

Wo bleibt Elektra?

Christine Goerke as Elektra
Photo: Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera

Spoiler warning: I'm going into a fair amount of detail about the production. Don't read past this paragraph if you like surprises. I have three pieces of advice if you're seeing this production: 1) read the libretto 2) read the synopsis in the program 3) get to your seat early so you can catch at least some of the pantomime that sets the scene before the downbeat.

Some first thoughts after the Elektra prima, which I saw last week, in advance of reading Joshua Kosman's review. I'm pretty sure I saw him on his feet during the curtain calls, and this is a rarity; then there was a tweet from him about the "stunning" performance. A tweet this morning says his review is a rave.

Okay, so my reservations are largely nonmusical. But I made a mistake: I swapped my Dress Circle seat for Orchestra M, nearly dead center, which is the perfect location for hearing the orchestra, but voices tend to be more recessed there than when you're up above them. And, goddamn it, the voice most affected by this was Christine Goerke's, presumably because of its placement, dark color, and the tessitura of the title role, which lies more in the low and middle ranges.

The other singers came over well, and I am kicking myself for relocating to the orchestra rather than Grand Tier....or staying in my subscription seat. So I feel that I can't make a fully-informed comment on her performance, and, well, this is a frustration. I've heard her live multiple times and I know perfectly well that she's got a very large and well-projected voice, and I also know about the vagaries of the acoustics of the War Memorial Opera House.

Well, fortunately, I'll be seeing it again. In the meantime, as far as the vocal and musical aspects go, it was pretty damn good. My only significant musical reservation is about conductor Henrik Nánási's pacing of the first third to a half of the opera, up to Klytemnestra's entrance: I thought the tempos a little slow, and even given that, I thought his conductor lacked energy and tension. I later discovered that this was the first time he'd conducted the opera, so. I bet subsequent performances will be different.

Michaela Martest as Klytemnestra
Photo: Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera
I liked this costume so much more than the blue satin she wore for most of the opera.

Once Klytemnestra was on stage, the underlying energy went up considerably and stayed there to the end. Now, maybe he planned the pacing this way, but I think the opera would work better with the tension ratcheted up more at the start. This, I think, is why I was not completely carried away.

That aside, the orchestra sounded fabulous throughout, and I'll give Nánási due credit for the beautiful transparency of the monstrously huge ensemble. And maybe the subsequent performances will have more in the way of tension in the first chunk of the opera.

Now, about Keith Warner's production: the concept is that a modern woman is at a museum that has an exhibit about the House of Atreus. She hides and is trapped there after hours. And before her eyes, the story that is described in the exhibit starts to come alive, and somehow she becomes part of it.

Night at the museum. Christine Goerke (Elektra) and Adrianne Pieczonka (Chrysothemis)
Photo: Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera

This has potential, but oh have I got some beefs with the execution. If you've got an Elektra where the title character starts off not knowing what exactly is going on, there's just not much justification for the intensity of her rage and knowledge in her monologue, which starts approximately six minutes into the show. And, you know, there's a lot of talk in the opening about how she looks inhuman, she's filthy, she's living in the corners of the palace, she's being fed with the dogs. It's apparent that she is a physical wreck, but because this production dresses her in a black Berkeley therapist tunic, she's nicely groomed, and she's moving like a slightly suspicious museum-goer, the character's desperation doesn't come across and she doesn't shock you on her first appearance.

(Note that it's a Berkeley therapist black tunic with a beautiful cut, probably linen, and I want one just like it. Shallow, but there it is.)

There's other stage-setting missing as well: the five maidservants and the overseer are offstage, their voices piped in, for the very opening. (And what is a singer of Jill Grove's stature doing as the First Maidservant? Perhaps covering Klytemnestra?) They have distinctive characters, but we have a lot less time to meet them and get to know them.

A scene from Strauss' "Elektra" with Nicole Birkland (Third Maidservant), Sarah Cambidge (Fourth Maidservant), Alexandra Loutsion (The Overseer), Rhoslyn Jones (Fifth Maidservant), and Jill Grove (First Maidservant).
Photo: Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera

Later in the opera, there's some underdirection of Elektra: she spends too much unfocussed time wandering around the stage, and she doesn't dance herself to death. She seems to die more of shock; at least, she lies catatonic on the floor at the end of the opera.

Well, others thought this worked better than I did, including Joshua (yes, he did rave) and a friend who tweeted that the production "reconfigured her view of her teenage years." That is quite something. The set and costumes are attractive; there are some interesting bits involving a family tableau on the balcony at the back of the set, and I suspect there are clues to the action on the video monitors, which I didn't pay much attention to. There's some wit, in the kitchen where Elektra has a serious talk with Mom, and a few surprises.

Alfred Walker (Orest) and Christine Goerke (Elektra)
Photo: Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera
A pretty good view of the tunic.

So, what I saw of Goerke and what I could hear was excellent, and I'm looking forward to a second performance on Sunday. I expect more impact when I'm up in the balcony, where singers sound five feet away. Certainly her sarcasm in the scene with Klytemnestra came across brilliantly, as did her rage. The recognition scene with Orest was great, very much the emotional heart of the opera and with beautiful singing from both Walker and Goerke.

Christine Goerke (Elektra) and Adrianne Pieczonka (Chrysothemis)
Photo: Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera
Not sure if Pieczonka is of the right generation to have one of those in her jewelry box.

Everyone else was tremendous: Adrianne Pieczonka was a dream as Chrysothemis, which is right in her vocal sweet spot. I'd heard her twice previously, as Tosca here and as Amelia Boccanegra in NYC, and while she sang both of those very well, they didn't seem quite right for her. Well, here's why: she is a Strauss soprano, if you know what I mean, and I think you do. Easy to hear an Empress, an Arabella, a Salome, in that brilliant sound.

Alfred Walker as Orest
Photo: Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera

Michaela Martens, in her role debut, sounded great, dark-toned and with a nice edge to the sound, and acted very well, an inebriated Klytemnestra. Alfred Walker, making his SFO debut, brought a beautiful, firm bass-baritone and a simmering presence to Orest; I can hear a string of Strauss and Wagner roles in that sound, and oh, boy, would I like to see him again.

This is the moment for me to mention that right here we've got most of a damn good cast for Salome, with a choice of sopranos for the title character, and most of a damn good cast for Die Frau ohne Schatten, not seen in SF in 28 years. Or, for that matter, Die Walkuere.

Friday Photo

Oakland, CA
August, 2017

Thursday, September 14, 2017

Met Turandot Cast Change Announcement

This is worrying:
Aleksandrs Antonenko will sing Calàf in Puccini’s Turandot from October 12 to November 16 replacing Marcelo Álvarez, who is ill. Mr. Álvarez is still scheduled to sing Calàf during the spring performances of Turandot.
Mr. Antonenko, who will be making his Met role debut, has previously sung Calàf at La Scala and Royal Opera, Covent Garden. Most recently, he starred in the Met’s 2015-16 season premiere in the title role of Verdi’s Otello, Don José in Bizet’s Carmen, Pollione in Bellini’s Norma, Grigory in Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov, Luigi in Puccini’s Il Tabarro, and the Prince in Dvořák’s Rusalka. In November, he will sing in the Met’s concert performances of Verdi’s Requiem.
The fall performances of Turandot will be conducted by Carlo Rizzi and will also star Oksana Dyka as Turandot, Maria Agresta as Liù, and James Morris as Timur. On November 16, Hei-Kyung Hong will sing Liù and Giorgi Kirof will make his Met debut as Timur. For further information, including casting by date, please visit www.metopera.org.
 Marcelo Álvarez previously withdrew from Met Carmen performances in the spring owing to illness.

Sunday, September 10, 2017

Upcoming: New Esterhazy Quartet Concerts

Italy, 1766: The Tuscan Quartet

Quartet Op. 2, No. 1 in C minor, (1761, rev. 1767)     Luigi Boccherini (1743–1806)

Quartet Op. 2, No. 6 in F minor (1775)                      Giuseppe Cambini (1746–1825?)

Quartet No. 4 in F Major (1782)                                 Pietro Nardini (1722–1793)

Quartet Op. 8, No. 6 in A Major (1769)                      Boccherini

Friday, September 22, 2017, at 8pm, Hillside Club,
2286 Cedar Street (at Arch), Berkeley, 94709
tickets for this Friday concert are $25, and are sold only at the door

Saturday, September 23, 2017, at 4pm, St. Mark’s Lutheran Church,
1111 O’Farrell (at Franklin), San Francisco, 94109

SundaySeptember 24, 2017, at 4pm, All Saints’ Episcopal Church,
555 Waverley Street (at Hamilton), Palo Alto, 94301

Tickets for Saturday & Sunday are $30 (discounts for seniors and students)

San Francisco, August 31, 2017: The New Esterhazy Quartet (Lisa Weiss and Kati Kyme, violin; Anthony Martin, viola; and William Skeen, cello) open their 11th season with music by Italian composers Boccherini, Cambini, and Nardini. The program recreates an evening in Tuscany, 1766, when these three played together with violinist Manfredi, “the best violinist in all Italy for orchestral and quartet playing,” according to a report by Cambini. The four gifted composers/string players, “The Tuscan Quartet” were long recognized as the first professional string quartet ever.

Such an imaginative snapshot of string quartet performance history is the connecting theme for the entire 11th season of The New Esterhazy Quartet. In November, they present Vienna, 1784Quartet Party at Storace, featuring Haydn, Mozart, and their contemporaries Ditters and Vanhal. In January they find themselves in Paris in 1822 for The Baillot Quartet, with music by Haydn, Beethoven, Mozart, and Boccherini. Finally, they express their Gratitude to Haydn with an all-Haydn program in April, recreating an evening in London, 1845. For dates and times of these upcoming performances, please go to http://newesterhazy.org/calendar.htm.

Future programs:

Nov 17-19, 2017:  Vienna, 1784: Quartet Party at Storace

Jan 26-28, 2018:  Paris, 1822: The Baillot Quartet

April 13-15, 2018: London, 1845: Gratitude to Haydn

Friday, September 08, 2017

Hildegard's Ordo Virtutem

I should have run this last month when San Francisco Renaissance Voice started a series of performances of Hildegard of Bingen's masterpiece, Ordo Virtutem, but...anyway, the last concert is coming up, and here is full info about it.

WHO:  San Francisco Renaissance Voices (Katherine McKee, Music Director) with guest artists Deepak Ram (bansuri), Diana Rowan (Celtic harp) and Todd Jolly (percussion)
WHAT:  Hildegard's "Ordo Virtutum"
Sunday, September 17, 4:00 pm - Church of the Advent of Christ the King, 251 Fell Street, San Francisco
WEBSITE:  www.SFRVoices.org
TICKETS:  $30 general admission, $25 student/senior - at the door 1/2 hour before each concert or on-line at the above website.

San Francisco Renaissance Voices (Katherine McKee, Music Director) acclaimed East-Indian infused production ("Hildegard's music rang out anew," ... Los Angeles Times) of "Ordo Virtutum" (The Play of the Virtues) by the medieval mystic nun Hildegard von Bingen kicks off our 14th Season! If you missed our August performances of this magical piece here's your chance to experience it (or experience it again) performed on the actual feast day of St. Hildegard. One of the earliest extant liturgical musical dramas that provided the basis for the art form we now know as opera, "Ordo Virtutum" tells the story of the challenges of The Human Soul (Anime) as she is guided by The Virtues led by their queen Humility, to obtain wholeness of the spirit. Our stellar singers and dancers will be joined by our returning original-cast, internationally-renowned instrumentalists, Deepak Ram (bansuri) and Diana Rowan (Celtic harp), and local favorite, Todd Jolly (percussion).

We're especially excited to once again be joined by our original instrumental cast,  the internationally acclaimed, Deepak Ram, bansuri master and Diana Rowan, Celtic harper, and local favorite Todd Jolly, percussionist, for our revival of this production.

Deepak Ram is a versatile artist who is well known for his evocative performances in traditional North Indian (Hindustani) classical music, his collaborations with musicians of other genres, his innovative compositions and for his excellence as a teacher, and is considered one of the great bansuri masters performing throughout the world today.

An award-winning musical artist performing worldwide, Diana Rowan’s playing and compositions have unusual power and beauty. She integrates global musical traditions with fluency and reverence. Born in Ireland and raised the child of an Irish diplomat, Diana has traveled, lived and performed on six continents. As a natural outgrowth of this inspiration, her music interweaves global music, art, spirituality and mythology.

San Francisco Renaissance Voices Emeritus Music Director, Todd Jolly,  is a percussionist, a published composer and arranger, and an ordained Presbyterian minister, he also teaches music at Stuart Hall for Boys, third through eighth grade, and directs two boy choirs.  Once a member of the directing staff of the internationally renowned San Francisco Boys Chorus, he appears on occasion with them still.  During the fall of 2004 Mr. Jolly was Composer-in-Residence at Ruth Asawa San Francisco School of the Arts, composing two commissioned pieces, To Be Read at a Funeral and The Oath, which were subsequently performed at the school.
Completing their 13th Season, San Francisco Renaissance Voices under the direction of Katherine McKee is the San Francisco Bay Area's is consistently recognized for our imaginative programming as the Bay Area’s only professional, mixed-voice ensemble dedicated to performing and exploring the a cappella choral music of the Renaissance, particularly lesser-known and rarely-performed works, as well as works outside of the traditional European canon.  We have been featured in The San Francisco Chronicle, Newsday, USA Today and the national magazine Early Music America, and in July 2009 San Francisco Classical Voice proclaimed us “ … a standout within the crowded field of Bay Area early music ensembles.”  In 2010 SFWeekly selected us as “Best Classical Music” in San Francisco.  Most recently, The San Francisco Examiner exclaimed of our performances of the Medieval, The Play of Daniel“One could not have asked for a more entertaining spectacle ... a tour de force.”  

....And This is Why SFO (or some other company) Needs to Put On a Trojan Wars Season

Renée Falconetti as Joan of Arc
in Carl Dreyer's The Passion of Joan

Odyssey Opera in Boston has a doozy of a season coming up: it is called Joan of Arc and the Hundred Years War.

I guessed three of the five operas and have barely heard of the other two:

  • The Maid of Orleans, Tchaikovsky (really not a great piece, sorry)
  • Giovanna d'Arco, Verdi
  • Jeanne d'Arc au Bucher, Honegger
  • L'Assedio di Calais (The Siege of Calais), Donizetti
  • The Trial at Rouen, Dello Joio
A Trojan Wars season could be so great!

Friday Photo

Not my dog. Seen on College Ave., Berkeley

My dog. Seen in my kitchen, Oakland

I'm going to post these as Friday Photo to make the titling less complicated. To see photos from a particular trip or location, use the tags.

Thursday, September 07, 2017

San Francisco Symphony Personnel Changes

Received from SFS this morning:
1st Violin:     Mark Volkert will retire after the opening week concerts.

Bass:    Daniel Gregory Smith will begin his Audition Year as Associate Principal Bass.

Oboe:    James Button will begin his Audition Year as Associate Principal Oboe.

Horn:    Daniel Hawkins will begin his Audition Year as Utility Horn.

Trumpet:        Raymond Riccomini will fill the position of Acting Associate Principal Trumpet as a one-year sub.

Trombone:        Nick Platoff will begin his Probationary Year as Associate Principal Trombone.

Library:         We are concluding our Assistant Librarian audition in October of 2017, and will have more information about how the position of Assistant Librarian will be filled at the conclusion of that audition process.

So, that first item. It should have read as follows:
Assistant Concertmaster Mark Volkert, the longest-serving member of the orchestra, will retire after the opening week concerts.
This is a big deal! He has been in the orchestra for more than 40 years; I believe he joined right out of college or conservatory. And he holds an important position, as one of the four members of the orchestra authorized and qualified to sit in the concertmaster's seat. (The others are Concertmaster Alexander Barantschik, Associate Concertmaster Nadya Tichman, and Assistant Concertmaster Jeremy Constant, who shares a stand with Volkert.)

(And I will note that I spotted this some time back, because I read the auditions pages for SFS and SFO assiduously. It's a publicly-available source of interesting information that you don't always hear about for a while.)

The other really interesting bit is James Button's audition year as Associate Principal Oboe. The oboe section has not been fully staffed with permanent personnel since the 2011-12 season, the last with the late William Bennett as principal oboe and Jonathan Fischer as associate principal. Fischer was on a trial year as Houston's principal oboe in 2012-13, and it was in February, 2013 that Bennett tragically died.

Christopher Gaudi has spent a good bit of the last several seasons as acting associate principal or acting principal oboe, doing a fine job under sometimes-difficult circumstances. Hearty thanks from here and hoping he has work elsewhere.

Wednesday, September 06, 2017

Christine Goerke Profile

Christine Goerke in rehearsal for Elektra at SF Opera
Photo: Cory Weaver / San Francisco Opera

Whew, my profile of soprano Christine Goerke was published yesterday at San Francisco Classical Voice, five days after I filed it. It is around 2,000 words and could easily have been longer; between the interview transcript and a subsequent follow-up, I had around 8500 words to turn into a story, and an interview with Christine Goerke practically writes itself because she has a lot to say and it is all extremely interesting if you are into opera. Also, she is hilarious. I could have written a lot more, because, well, so much of interest.

I did not write the tag line ("The charming soprano sings the challenging title role of San Francisco Opera's Elektra"), which I would have put a little differently: "The extremely funny, smart, powerhouse soprano, etc."

What little she said about the SF Elektra production was pretty intriguing (and I should have this gotten into the profile):

Me: So what is different about this production? It's very psychological and a teeny tiny bit has been released by the opera saying something about a museum and a woman who is there after hours.
CG: Yes. (Pause) (laughter from both of us)
Me: OK.
CG: No, but it is. I really want to make sure I don't give away too much. As you would expect it has to do with some of the familial relationships and the toll they take on every life. It's not necessarily looking just at this title character. You can really see more about how the toll of the entire thing, the toll that it has taken on the entire family. I could tell you how but I think they might have to fire me and I still have to pay for Catholic school [for her daughters].
Me: I understand but I don't think that they can fire you. (laughter)

Sunday, September 03, 2017

Oakland Ice Cream Advisory

The San Francisco ice cream maker Humphrey Slocombe has now got an outlet in Oakland, behind some buildings between 24th St. and 23rd Street, and also between Broadway and Telegraph. We stopped by there today after a movie at the nearby New Parkway Theater (which is great, although the film was a dog), and...well...you can do better for less money.

This was my second time at Humphrey Slocombe, my first being a few weeks ago at their Ferry Building store. At that time, I tried the elote, described as Mexican street corn. As street food, this is roasted corn on the cob with lime and chili powder. The ice cream, unfortunately, doesn't taste enough of corn, OR lime, OR chili, and on top of that, it's too sweet. Today, in Oakland, my partner tried the peppermint chip, and by the time she was done with a single scoop, she was making faces. I had taken one bite and grimaced, myself. Too sweet and weirdly too vegetal.

Some of their flavors are also....on the weird side, like Secret Breakfast, which includes corn flakes and bourbon. There's another with stout in it. Not for me, although Secret Breakfast is evidently very popular.

I've also sampled the French vanilla, malted chocolate, and one or to other flavors, in small spoons. They were all too sweet, the texture isn't great.....I dunno, I'm up for trying the coffee and seeing if it's good, but I'm not really inclined to buy small, expensive scoops of too-sweet ice cream.

You can do better, in my view, at the following Oakland-area ice creameries:
  • Flavor Brigade on Fruitvale in the Laurel District. Excellent ice cream and custard and sorbets, all made in house using organic ingredients, with Strauss organic milk and cream, for example. Friendly people, unpretentious store.
  • Tara's, on College near Alcatraz and Telegraph somewhere in Temescal. Unusual flavors, well done, tasty.
  • Lush, just off Piedmont Ave. across from the movie theater. Gelato style, very good.
The ice cream from these three places is rarely too sweet.

Friday, September 01, 2017

San Francisco Opera 2018 Ring Ticket Sales Package

If you've still got the the envelope of paperwork that San Francisco Opera sent out last year to sell 2018 Ring tickets, could you leave a comment below or send a Tweet to @LisaIronTongue? I have a question for you. Thanks in advance!

Germany Friday Photo

Lunch at the Alte Pinakothek, Munich
August, 2015

Wednesday, August 30, 2017

They Had Me Scared for a Minute

The enveloped arrived today that contains membership materials, aka subscriber benefits, for SF . Opera's 2017-18 season. Under the list for Medallion Society members, I saw "Complimentary ticket exchange" and my eyes got wide. Ticket exchanges have been free for subscribers more or less forever, and SFO has had extremely reasonable ticket exchange policies for as long as I have tracked this issue.

However, the web site makes it clear that if this is a change, it's small. Full subscribers can exchange up to three performances for the fall, half-subscribers up to two. (I assume that some other policy applies for the upcoming Ring performances, and that might be: you're out of luck trying to do this through us; look for private individuals if you must swap.)

One benefit is completely gone that I wish had continued: the ability to swap to a better seat in a different section on the day of the performance. Oh, well.

Saturday, August 26, 2017

A Visit to Chicago 3: The Complaints Post

"Cuts? What do you mean, cuts? You cannot cut this opera!"
Actually Susan Graham (Didon) threatening the departing Brandon Jovanovich (Eneé) in Act V.
Todd Rosenberg photo, courtesy of Lyric Opera of Chicago

You knew there would be some, right? Even in the context of a superbly performed and well-directed Troyens? Here I go.

Yes, it's about cuts, and I found them objectionable on musical and dramatic grounds. There were four, maybe five, cuts total:
  1. To the ceremonial music in Act 1; the particular section cut is where Berlioz specifies something like Greek games, which would have been a religious observance. (That is not how it was done in SF; this was the section with children running around and playing Ring Around the Rosie.) H/T Rob Gordon for identifying the cut; I thought something had gone missing in Act I, but wasn't sure what.
  2. All of the Act III ballet music surrounded by the chorus "Gloire a Didon," which totally jammed together the different versions of the chorus and buried the dances for the baker, the farmer, the builder, etc. Musically, this is a very damaging cut, plus it removes much of the justification for "Gloire a Didon" and the awards she makes to the different professions. We have to see what she has done for the city, which has only existed for seven years.
  3. Two of the three ballet sequences in act IV before the quintet / septet / love duet, one of which provides the only upbeat music in the act other than the Royal Hunt & Storm at the very top of the act. Again H/T to Rob,  for the specific cut and for noting the musical reason for keeping the contrasting dance music.
  4. They may have cut one verse of Iopas's song "O blonde Ceres" in Act IV. I wasn't counting but Rob was and thinks there might have been a cut here.
  5. The two-minute scene in act V with the two Trojan sentries who really don't want to leave Carthage and their compliant mistresses. This one is defensible on no grounds whatsoever. It is short; it can be done by good local singers (Adler Fellows in SF, should have been done by the equivalents, Ryan Center singers, at LOC); it provides the only humor in a long and often-grim score; it was Berlioz's nod to Shakespeare, one of his great heroes, along with Gluck and Virgil.
The ballets they retained (the Royal Hunt and the single sequence later in Act IV) were much better danced than in SF.

My stance about cuts is mostly that composers knew what they wanted and why.* In the talk-backs after the performances, Anthony Freund, the general director of LOC, tried to defend these, but I wasn't buying what he said. 1) "Cuts in opera are always controversial" (yes - with good reason) 2) "We had to bring it in under 5 hours" (SF did this by omitting repeats in the ballet music and, I think, the second verse of "Inutile regrets".) 3) "The director and conductor agreed that these scenes didn't advance the story and could safely be cut." Well, okay, maybe they do know better than Berlioz, but I don't believe that for a minute. It is really obvious that most of the cuts were to avoid paying for dancers and a lot of ballet rehearsal time. Cutting "O blonde Ceres" and the sentry scene saved them no more than five minutes of performance time and two inexpensive singers.

I also want to mention a few bits here and there in the operatic repertory that don't exactly advance the plot, but there would be justified howls of outrage if they were cut.
  • The Norn scene in Götterdämmerung. This was a routine cut at the Met before World War I, I believe.
  • Also in Götterdämmerung, the short scene before the Immolation where Gutrune, wandering alone around Gibichung Hall, hear's Siegfried's horse whinny and has a premonition of what has happened. From something in John Culshaw's Ring Resounding, I think this was also a routine cut before the 1960s, except at Bayreuth.
  • The Ride of the Valkyries. I mean, does it advance the plot? No, but it sets up the rest of the act nicely.
  • "Vallon sonore," at the very top of Act V of Les Troyens. It doesn't advance the plot, but it does set up the sentry scene, providing a melancholy contrast to the sentries. You really can't cut this, though - can you imagine launching the act with the Trojans eagerly chatting about how Enée has finally decided it's time to leave? It's a moment of wistful repose before an emotionally fraught act.

A Visit to Chicago 2: Les Troyens

Lyric Opera Chorus, with Christine Goerke 
(Cassandre) way up at the top of the set, far right.
This is from the opening scene of the opera.
Todd Rosenberg photo, courtesy of Lyric Opera of Chicago

More than two nine months late, but what the hey. I'd like to get this report in print for posterity. It is less a review than what I would tell a friend who hadn't been there, so um it's a lot longer than any of my published reviews. I am one lucky opera-goer, to have seen this great opera two years in a row, in very different productions.

I saw the first two performances of Lyric Opera of Chicago's production of Les Troyens, and they might best be summed up as "Holy cow!" A terrific cast, great playing by the orchestra, tremendous work by the LOC Chorus, excellent conducting by Sir Andrew Davis, and mostly-on-point direction by Tim Albery made for a richly rewarding production of Berlioz's gigantic masterpiece. The production got a few things wrong, some of which I discuss here, but it also got a long stretch of the opera and some important details much more right than David McVicar's well-traveled production, which we saw last year in 2015 at SF Opera. (The other things it got wrong - the CUTS - I discuss in a separate post.)

I reviewed the SFO production for SFO, I saw it 3.5 times, and pace the late Bob Commanday, I am going to make comparisons between the two. The production differences illuminate some significant points about the opera. It is a huge piece with a large cast and, from all reports, a real bear to stage.

Albery and Lyric Opera went with a fairly austere physical production in the form of a pair of unit sets, one for Troy and one for Carthage, that were built along similar lines. The costumes were not handmade, but mostly off-the-shelf modern outfits, with credits given in the program. This makes a lot of sense, considering that LOC doesn't have a co-producing house and bore all of the costs on its own. For the more elaborate McVicar set and costumes, the costs were split up among the Royal Opera, San Francisco Opera, La Scala, and the Wiener Staatsopera. Yeah, I'm sure it's costly to ship those 20 containers of sets and scenery around the world, but in total it's gotta be a whole lot cheaper for each house than rolling its own Troyens.

In the photo at the top of this post, you can see one side of LOC's Troy set, consisting of a tall curved wall with an irregular semicircular opening at the base and with a pile of rubble to the right. The Carthage set was nearly identical, except there was no rubble, and in addition to the cut in the base, the set was equipped with some movable elements that opened and closed, providing entry points for the Trojans' first appearance, Didon's entrance toward the end of the opera, and others.

Lyric Opera's press photos don't include photos of both sets in their various configurations, or I'd put them right here. Both sets could be reversed, so that each location could have both concave and convex views of the set. Further, the production makes excellent use of the stage turntable, so that you often saw the set revolving during a scene. At the very opening of the opera, before the music starts, you see a worried-looking Cassandre looking through a cutout high in the set overlooking the giant wall; as it revolved, you saw the chorus come out for the opening and heard the music starting up. This was mirrored at the opening of the very last act, where the young sailor Hylas sang "Vallon Sonore" from a parallel cutout in the Carthage set.

The cutout at the base gets used in various ways as well. Here's the Act II scene where the ghost of Hector tells Enée to get out of dodge and head for Italy; you can see the flames of the burning city of Troy projected onto the set.

Brandon Jovanovich (Enée) and Bradley Smoak (Hector's ghost)
Todd Rosenberg photo, courtesy of LOC

And here's Iopas singing "O blonde Ceres" to Didon and Enée, well into Act IV, in the equivalent set cutout:

Mingjie Lei (Iopas), Susan Graham (Didon), Brandon Jovanovich (Enée)
Todd Rosenberg photo, courtesy of LOC

Both of the above shots are on the convex side of the sets. On the concave side, here's the waterfall in the Royal Hunt & Storm, complete with dancers:

Dancers; Susan Graham to the far right
Todd Rosenberg photo, courtesy of LOC

"Nuit d'Ivresse," the Act IV love duet, with the back wall used to project stars and the planets:

Susan Graham (Didon) and Brandon Jovanovich (Enée)
Todd Rosenberg photo, courtesy of LOC

So you might be wondering about the horse. If you saw the SFO production, you know that the McVicar has a 25-foot-tall horse - okay, a horse's head - that makes an utterly terrifying first appearance and then bursts into flames toward the end of the Troy scenes.

Copyright Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera

I like spectacle as much as the next person, and hey, maybe Berlioz would have liked this. He did write a rather elaborate and spectacular scenario for the Royal Hunt and Storm! But it seems pretty clear from the libretto that he did not expect to have a Trojan horse on stage: instead, the chorus and Cassandre narrate the horse's appearance and movements through the city. LOC handled this with a fabulous projection of the horse on the convex side of the set; the chorus was stationed on a narrow bit of the stage between the set and the orchestra pit, and oh man, they were fantastic in this scene, and very, very loud. No photo, alas!

One of the most beautiful and effective parts of McVicar's staging was the long ceremonial scene in Act I, where King Priam and Queen Hecuba appear, and Andromache, Hector's widow, pays respects to the fallen Trojans with her young son. SFO doesn't have a photo of this scene for press use, but I can tell you that the set opened up and a long procession came through and then the nobles arrayed themselves on stage. Andromache was played by a dancer - it's a non-singing role - and she was magnificently eloquent. 

This is one scene where Albery made a huge mistake. That the scene was less impressively staged overall isn't the big mistake, though the comparative informality of everyone's appearance made it less impressive than it could be. No, the mistake is that when everyone has entered, King Priam washes the feet of a Trojan soldier, which was described in the talk-back after the opera as an act of humility. Introducing an element so strongly associated with Christianity into this pre-Christian and Greek-religion-oriented opera is simply wrong, striking very much the wrong note.

David Govertsen (King Priam) and the bowl of water
Todd Rosenberg photo, courtesy of LOC

[This is where I picked up writing this review in August, 2017.]

On the other hand, there's a scene toward the very end of the opera that McVicar got wrong and Albery got right, and that's Didon's long scene when she knows that Enée has left and also that she is going to commit suicide. The McVicar production plays the previous scene, with Narbal and Anna, in front of a plain black drop curtain, at the front of the stage, exclusively to accommodate a scene change for the ceremony with the people of Carthage, Didon's final scene and suicide, and the very last chorus. It could have been done on the regular Carthage set, and that would have been much better than what we got.

Albery plays this scene out on the first Carthage set, which is austere but has a raised platform from which Didon sings both at the opening of the Carthage scenes and now at the end. His staging was amazingly well done; very simple and straightforward, but also so effective that at the second performance, even though I knew perfectly well what was coming, I was surprised when Didon committed suicide. That's a good staging. There were also fantastic horrified reactions from Christian Van Horn (Narbal) and Okka von der Damerau (Anna).

Christian Van Horn (Narbal) and Susan Graham (Didon)
"Gloire a Didon"
Noting here that Graham's outfits got less modern and more Greek as the opera progressed.
Todd Rosenberg photo, courtesy of LOC

And on to the cast, which I would say was on par with the SFO cast, with different strengths, because with two exceptions, we had very different casts. 

The exceptions, of course, were Susan Graham as Didon, a late substitution for Sophie Koch, who withdrew from the production, and Christian Van Horn as Narbal. Narbal's role as Didon's prime minister or chief of staff (or something like that) was far clearer in this production than in the McVicar, where I feel that Narbal just spent a lot of time standing around. The costuming helped; there was a real distinction between the government (Narbal, Didon, Anna) and the citizens (chorus, not dressed in formal officewear). In SF, everybody wore beautiful robes that didn't distinguish much among the social classes. Van Horn sounded even better than in SF.

Graham gave a performance the dramatic equal of her SF performance, nobly acted and well sung, and yet....I feel that she is a bit underpowered for this part. She has said herself in an interview that her training and the roles she has accepted are mostly for high mezzo - no Carmen for her - and that this was a deliberate choice on her part. So she cannot quite muster as much power as one might want when she is raging at Enée and awaiting her own death, because this is in her lower register. Still, this is about the only flaw I can find. In the more lyrical parts of the opera, she was marvelous, particularly in the long and beautiful ensembles of Act IV and the love duet.

Christian Van Horn (Narbal) and Okka von der Damerau (Anna)
Act IV; May I say that I love her dress and want to buy a copy?
Todd Rosenberg photo, courtesy of LOC

Speaking of distinctions, in SF Sasha Cooke, singing Anna, really did sound a great deal like Graham, so it was easy to hear them as sisters. Still, the score calls for a contralto for the part, and Okka von der Damerau, while not a contralto, does have a darker-toned voice than Graham or Cooke, so there was more vocal contrast. Probably as a result of Albery's direction, Anna's scheming to get Didon together with that handsome young Trojan was more to the fore than in SF, and she certainly came off as more Machiavellian. Von der Damerau is an excellent singer and I hope she'll get more work in the US.

Brandon Jovanovich (Enée), Annie Rosen (Ascanius), Philip Horst (Panthee)
Act I, as everything is falling apart.
Todd Rosenberg photo, courtesy of LOC

Brandon Jovanovich, making his role debut as Enée, sang the role very, very well, handling Enée's impossible entry in Act I with aplomb and sounding good even when suffering from a slight cold in the second of the performances I saw. (I understand that he missed one performance, and Corey Bix sang it.) He was especially good in the most lyrical moments and very tender in the scenes with Ascanius, Enée's son. (He has two young sons and commented on this during one of the post-performance talk-backs.) He doesn't have quite the amazing high notes of Bryan Hymel, who also is more dashing on stage, but that is okay! Jovanovich is handsome, moves well, and generally cuts a good figure. It is a long and difficult role, and I would be very happy to see him sing it again.

Also making a role debut was Christine Goerke as Cassandre, and this was quite a spectacular debut. Vocally, the role, which is set on the low side and is very dramatic, suites her extremely well. Goerke's special power seems to be bringing human vulnerability to characters who aren't usually played that way; that was certainly the case for her Dyer's Wife at the Met and was the case here. Cassandre is cursed with the ability to foresee the future....without being believed by those around her. The McVicar production portrays her as an eerie outsider, and Anna Caterina Antonacci, who was in that production from the start, really embodied that. Goerke was more human, and more humanly vulnerable, especially in her scene with Chorebe. I think that these are both completely valid and interesting ways to play the part. (Also: can't wait to see what she does with Elektra.)

And, of course, Goerke has about twice as much voice as Antonacci, and put it to good use. She also has perhaps the most beautiful dramatic soprano voice currently to be heard, and is a tremendous actor. So we saw a truly complete assumption of the role in every way. 

Lucas Meachem (Chorebe) and Christine Goerke
Act I
Todd Rosenberg photo, courtesy of LOC

I liked Lucas Meachem a whole lot as Chorebe. I had just seen him as Dr. Malatesta in Don Pasquale, a slight thing. He was a strongly masculine Chorebe, a bit more rough-hewn than Biran Mulligan in SF, and that was exactly right for this production and for his relationship with Goerke's Cassandre. Annie Rosen was a lovely Ascanius, younger and shyer than Nian Wang's leggy teen in SF. 

Mingjei Lie (Iopas), Susan Graham (Didon), Brandon Jovanovich (Enée)
Act IV, "O blonde Ceres"
Todd Rosenberg photo, courtesy of LOC

Albery's production had Iopas on stage as the royal chorus master; he conducted the chorus in "Gloire a Didon" as well as singing "O blonde Ceres" in Act IV. Mingjei Lie, a fellow at LOC's Ryan Center (the equivalent of SFO's Adler program) sang and acted perfectly well, but, well, it was luxury casting to have Rene Barbera in SF. Similarly, Jonathan Johnson was a good Hylas, without quite having the beautiful sound of SF's Chong Wang.

All other roles were ably handled; surprisingly, the best French in the cast came from Bradley Smoak, whose brief appearances as the Ghost of Hector were memorably haunting.

Bradley Smoak (Ghost of Hector)
Todd Rosenberg photo, courtesy of LOC

The LOC Chorus worked their share of miracles in this piece. What a terrific group! Their sound was huge and beautiful, and I believe they were more precise than the SFO chorus. That's saying a lot: the SFO chorus was pretty great in this work, which has an enormous amount of choral music.

Part of the LOC Chorus, heroes
Todd Rosenberg photo, courtesy of LOC

I thought Andrew Davis pretty great, although there was something not quite right in the Troy scenes of the first performance, when for some reason the orchestra seemed less present than it ought to have been. Whatever was going on, they were fine in the second performance. Davis handled the huge forces with plenty of authority and gave the piece the special grandeur that it needs. The orchestra was mostly excellent, perhaps the horns are not as good as SFO's; I thought there were some discontinuities in the Royal Hunt & Storm's big solos, and for some reason it sure sounded as though the principal horn was in the pit rather than offstage. 

Now, it's not as though this was a perfect production. There were cuts, some of them, imo, unnecessary. I've got another post coming up on them. All around, it was a satisfying production of a great piece, well performed and certainly very well worth traveling for.