Saturday, September 30, 2017


At the Guggenheim Museum this week, a tag-team of pianists did a complete performance of Erik Satie's mad piano piece "Vexations." A tag-team is necessary because if you take the score literally - it's not clear whether you should -- the piece is supposed to be played 840 times. NY Times arts reporter Joshua Barone was there, and reports hilariously on it.

This isn't the first time this has been done in NYC. A memorable team that included John Cage, John Cale, composer Christian Wolff, and musicologist/conductor/pianist Joshua Rifkin had performed the thing in 1963. Three decades later, Alex Ross reviewed a different team.

Here are the relevant links:

  • Joshua Barone, NY Times (2017). The pianists included some of the survivors of the 1963 marathon, including Rifkin, with whom I took a couple of fabulous classes at Brandeis in the late 1970s.
  • Alex Ross, NY Times (1993, reprinted on his blog)
  • Alex Ross reports about the 1963 performance on his blog; follow the links!

Friday, September 29, 2017

Friday Photo

Cat demanding that I play some Verdi from the Toscanini box for her.
Oakland, September, 2017

This is Sunny, the Japanese Bobtail cat. She came to live with us in August. She is teeny, at less than 7.5 lbs, has beautiful markings. You can't see her bobtail in this photo, but you can see that she has good taste in music.

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Ruminations on Selling Opera Tickets in the Twenty-First Century

I think it's fairly common knowledge that opera companies and classical music orgs are having more and more problems selling tickets. There are lots of reasons for this, including competition with sports, popular musics, theater, museums, film (in movie theaters or at home), and with other classical arts orgs.

Think about it: fifty years ago, how many musical organizations and presenters did the NY Philharmonic, Met, SFS, and SFO compete with? Around 2005, Alex Ross wrote on his blog that in the early 1970s, there were two new music groups in NYC, but now there were nearly 50. That's a lot of competition.

I wonder whether we're seeing the effects of this in San Francisco, where San Francisco Opera is no longer the only game in town: Opera San Jose, West Bay Opera, West Edge Opera, and Opera Parallele are all doing interesting work at lower prices, and taking on increasingly challenging works, including Salome, Lulu, Cunning Little Vixen, etc.

I attended the opening performance of La Traviata at SFO this past Saturday, and I was shocked at the number of empty seats in the Dress Circle. Today, I read on Facebook that the Tuesday performance was half-full. The most widely-read critic in the area gave the opening a rave, and we know that Traviata remains a popular work.

Now, even if half-full is something of an exaggeration, if the house was only 2/3 or 3/4 full, that's still terrible news. There are ten Traviata performances scheduled, and my impression has been that long runs of the most popular operas in the repertory are generally there to help support runs of more esoteric or "difficult" operas. This season, that would be Elektra and the upcoming premiere of Girls of the Golden West. I really want SFO and other companies to be able to stage new and more difficult works. SFO, the 800-pound gorilla of local opera companies, is the only organization with the budget to bring us internationally-famous singers and directors, and to commission composers as prominent as John Adams.

After seeing and hearing that the first two Traviata performances were apparently undersold, I have to wonder whether the old strategy of Rigoletto/Tosca/Boheme /Butterfly/Traviata/Turandot/etc just isn't going to work that way any longer, and I have to speculate about why.

My guesses are that 1) current opera-goers have caught on and do not actually want to see the same operas every three years 2) the older productions at SF are just tired out and those operas need a fresh look and feel (the Traviata production is 30 years old; Nozze is similar; Turandot has been around more than 20 years; Tosca is 20, etc.) 3) younger potential opera-goers want novelty, not the same old same old. 

There've been a surprising number of empty seats for Elektra, which got well-deserved raves from every critic who reviewed opening night, and a lot more raves from those of us who've been going multiple times and urging our friends to go. This just makes me so sad: Elektra has a great, great cast, a terrific conductor, and a riveting production. And yet I hear people saying things like, oh, they saw it once, and it was "very modern," meaning "maybe a little too difficult for me." It's a beautiful score however close Strauss gets to bi-tonality; I have been known to characterize it as "Rosenkavalier with more murders." (Don't laugh! Give it a listen!)

I also wonder whether Elektra sales have been hurt by the fact that you could see Christine Goerke in the same opera, different productions, in both Houston and NY this season, whereas if those were in different years or a couple of years apart, there would be more people traveling.  I hope not! On the other hand, fans of the singer and opera will go see her in more than one location anyway.

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

The Greeks Had a Word for This

Christine Goerke (Elektra) and Adrianne Pieczonka (Chrysothemis)
Cory Weaver Photo / San Francisco Opera

Catharsis. And who couldn't use a little emotional release in these times?

If you haven't seen San Francisco Opera's Elektra -- or if you'd like to see it again -- do yourself a favor and pick up a ticket for the last performance of the run. It's tomorrow, Wednesday, September 27, 2017. I'm nudging everyone I know about this, because:

  • San Francisco Opera managed to go 20 years between productions of this great work, but...
  • ...assembled a cast the likes of which you will not see very often.  Joshua Kosman's Chron review is dead on about the glories of the singers in this production.
  • A good-looking production that will engage your heart and your head.
Opera doesn't get any better than this, so if you possibly can, find your way to 301 Van Ness Ave. tomorrow night.

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

(A friend on Twitter sensibly mentions Don Giovanni.)

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.

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
 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

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