Tuesday, August 31, 2010

The Norman Conquests

Shotgun Players

The Norman Conquests
By Alan Ayckbourn

Table Manners
Directed By Joy Carlin

Living Together
Directed By Molly Aaronson-Gelb

Round & Round The Garden
Directed By Mina Morita

Zehra Berkman / Annie
Sarah Mitchell / Ruth
Mick Mize / Reg
Kendra Lee Oberhauser / Sarah
Josiah Polhemus / Tom
Richard Reinholdt / Norman

The Ashby Stage
August 29, 2010

On Sunday I attended Shotgun Players' first marathon performance of all 3 parts of The Norman Conquests. This started out as a one-time staged reading early in the year, & it was so successful that they decided to mount a full production. Going in, I was worried about getting tired of the characters, who all behave pretty badly over the weekend depicted in the plays, but fortunately all 3 performances skated along with great comic momentum, & I never lost interest. Even a stage hand gets some laughs while clearing the set between scenes.

The cast is uniformly fine, & certainly no one ever tired. I liked Mick Mize as a goofy, wide-eyed Reg. He looks funny even when he's not doing anything. Sarah Mitchell is brilliant with her strong characterization of the over-confident Ruth. She is hilarious from her 1st appearance, making her way near-sightedly through breakfast, looking like a mole. She nails the comic climax in Act II of Round & Round the Garden just by the way she enters & spots Annie & Norman rolling on the ground.

After the 1st play, my theater companion & I sat on some steps at the side of the building to eat our sandwiches, but this turned out to be the stage door, & I found myself getting up several times to make way for cast members going out for a walk. The sold-out house on Sunday was enthusiastic & laughed loudly & evidently held a lot of Ayckbourn fans. A man next to us had seen the New York production last year. After each intermission there was a raffle, though the prizes were mockingly meager, being things like a single-serving box of Cheerios, a piece of a rug, & a small toy cat. During one of the breaks, my theater companion had his fortune told by a man in a fez sitting in a booth outside the theater. The trilogy has been extended through September 12th, though the only other marathon peformance next weekend is already sold out.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Birth of Impressionism

through September 6, 2010

I'm coming late to the party, but last night I finally went to the de Young & saw the blockbuster Birth of Impressionism exhibit during extended hours. My gallery companions thought it was not crowded, but I found it competitive to get close to some of the paintings & was jostled quite a bit. There is not a lot of space between paintings, so it felt cramped in general. The exhibit is organized as an evolutionary progression, starting with Academic & Realist paintings to set context. Bouguereau' s hairless fantasies make me itch, but I get the point. I really enjoyed seeing Caillebotte's photo-like Floor Scrapers again. I found Courbet's dying La Truite to be somehow violent & pathetic. I am not familiar with Jean-Francois Raffaelli, but I liked his strange group portrait of peasants from Plougasnou, which prefigures Van Gogh's potato eaters & photojournalism in general. Another unfamiliar artist to me was Alexandre Falguière, whose masculine painting of Wrestlers is one of the biggest canvases in the show.

The exhibit has plenty of star power, though, with characteristic works by Manet, Monet, Renoir, Degas & Cezanne. Whistler's Mother is here, & fortunately she turns out to be unexpectedly fun, funny & rewarding to see in person, despite being over-exposed through reproductions. The final rooms contain pictures of the sort that one commonly associates with the Impressionists: pleasant outdoor views filled with vibrating colors. Monet's large canvas of strutting turkeys is unexpected & humorous. Impressionism is the first modern art, &, judging by the approving crowds, the most popular. I guess public taste is only about 150 years behind the times.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Merola Grand Finale

Merola Opera Program
Conductor – Dean Williamson
Stage Director – Ted Huffman
San Francisco Opera Orchestra

“The woods are green...Here I stand”
The Rake’s Progress by Igor Stravinsky
Ann Trulove – Janai Brugger-Orman
Tom Rakewell – Alexander Lewis
Father Trulove – Kevin Thompson
[Harpsichord – David Hanlon]

“Or dove fuggo io mai?...Ah! per sempre io ti perdei”
I Puritani by Vincenzo Bellini
Riccardo – Ao Li

“Quoi! Vous m’aimez?”
La Fille du Régiment by Gaetano Donizetti
Marie – Abigail Santos Villalobos
Tonio – Eleazar Rodríguez

“O loss of sight...Total Eclipse”
Samson by George Handel
Samson – Kevin Ray
[Harpsichord – Michael Spassov]

“Connais-tu le pays?”
Mignon by Ambroise Thomas
Mignon – Robin Flynn

“I see their knavery...”
A Midsummer Night’s Dream by Benjamin Britten
Tytania – Hye Jung Lee
Bottom – Thomas Florio
Peaseblossom – Valentina Fleer
Cobweb – Nadine Sierra
Moth – Robin Flynn
Mustardseed – Abigail Santos Villalobos
[Harpsichord – Natalia Katyukova]

“Ah, je suis seule...Dis-moi que je suis belle”
Thaïs by Jules Massenet
Thaïs – Rebecca Davis

“Appressati, Lucia...Il pallor, funesto, orrendo”
Lucia di Lammermoor by Donizetti
Lucia – Valentina Fleer
Enrico – Sidney Outlaw

“Wie schön ist die Musik”
Die schweigsame Frau by Richard Strauss
Sir Morosus – Kevin Thompson
[Organ – Michael Spassov]

“Monseigneur! Ophélie!...Doute de la lumière”
Hamlet by Thomas
Ophélie – Abigail Santos Villalobos
Hamlet – Dan Kempson

“Sgombra è la sacra selva...Deh! Proteggimi, o Dio”
Norma by Bellini
Adalgisa – Renée Rapier

“Sie hält ihn für den Todesgott”
Ariadne auf Naxos by Strauss
Zerbinetta – Hye Jung Lee
Composer – Colleen Brooks
[Piano – Jenna Douglas; Harmonium – Natalia Katyukova]

“E il dottor non si vede! Pronta io son”
Don Pasquale by Donizetti
Norina – Janai Brugger-Orman
Malatesta – Benjamin Covey

“Wie Todesahnung...O du mein holder Abendstern”
Tannhäuser by Richard Wagner
Wolfram – Ryan Kuster

“Va! Je t’ai pardonée...Nuit d’Hymenée”
Roméo et Juliette by Charles Gounod
Juliette – Nadine Sierra
Roméo – Daniel Montenegro

“Pian, pianin le andrò più presso”
Le nozze di Figaro by Mozart
La Contessa di Almaviva – Rebecca Davis
Susanna – Valentina Fleer
Cherubino – Robin Flynn
Barbarina – Hye Jung Lee
Marcellina – Renée Rapier
Basilio – Eleazar Rodríguez
Don Curzio – Kevin Ray
Il Conte di Almaviva – Sidney Outlaw
Figaro – Ryan Kuster
Bartolo – Thomas Florio
Antonio – Kevin Thompson
Servitori – tutti Merolini

Saturday, August 21, 7:30pm
War Memorial Opera House

This concert at the Opera House is a sort of graduation recital for the Merolini, & since everyone needs to have a turn in the spotlight, the event ran to a longish 3 hours. The stage was bare but for 4 skinny cypress trees. The singers wore formal evening dress & acted out their scenes with minimal props & lighting changes, though the stage was often dimly lit. Everyone was obviously well-prepared, & the succession of excerpts flowed flawlessly.

I liked Ao Li's beautiful, resonant baritone & the warmth of his stage presence. There was a great flute solo at the beginning of the Mignon excerpt, & I continued to listen for this flute sound for the rest of the evening. Rebecca Davis, with her big sound & slightly metallic edge, sounded magnificent as Thaïs. In the scene from Lucia, baritone Sidney Outlaw was such a convincing actor that I was almost on Enrico's side. The excerpt from Britten's A Midsummer Night's Dream came the closest to feeling like a complete dramatic scene, & Britten's twinkling orchestration stood out. I liked baritone Thomas Florio's big, relaxed sound & his ease when moving on stage. His braying & yawning were wonderfully musical. I am totally unfamiliar with Strauss's Die schweigsame Frau, but I was delighted by the pleasingly languorous music & by the huge bass of Kevin Thompson, who held an impossibly low note for an impossibly long time at the close.

There were a lot of French numbers whose music I found unmemorable, but the scene from Roméo et Juliette with soprano Nadine Sierra & tenor Daniel Montenegro was a clear audience favorite. The music was even held up at one point because of applause. Besides sounding lovely together, both singers make an uncommonly good-looking romantic couple. The evening ended with the finale of Le nozze di Figaro. The audience was startled by the loud & realistic sound when the Countess slapped Cherubino. During the final bars, all the Merolini came forward to form an impressive chorus line stretching across the edge of the stage. The Opera Tattler, surely the Merolini's biggest fan, was spotted going downstairs into the paid reception afterward. She arrived laden with flowers & cards for the performers.

photo: Daniel Montenegro & Nadine Sierra
credit: Kristen Loken

Sunday, August 15, 2010

442 – Live with honor, Die with dignity

This afternoon I ignored the Nihonmachi Street Fair in Japantown & instead sat with a packed audience in the Viz Cinema. We saw 442 – Live with honor, Die with dignity, a documentary by Junichi Suzuki about the famous 442nd infantry regiment. The film consists mainly of interviews with surviving soldiers, now all well into their 80's. There is also archival footage of the War & modern-day visits to battle sites in Italy & France. There is no new information here, but I like the documentary's point of view, which understands the distinctively Japanese cultural forces that motivated the soldiers. Concepts of duty, honor & shame made them recklessly self-sacrificing yet usually reluctant to talk about their experience. Daniel Inouye is a consummate interviewee. His description of first seeing the ground shot up by machine gun fire is straight out of The Charterhouse of Parma.

The Viz Cinema is not large, & the 2:50pm screening was completely full. The staff had to bring out folding chairs to accommodate everyone. The audience was probably largely the same age as the children of the veterans in the film. The film plays through Thursday, along with a companion documentary about the Japanese American internment called Toyo's Camera, which I also want to see.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Boot Camp for Belters

Today's Wall Street Journal has a nice article by David Littlejohn about the Merola Opera Program. The article describes the intense schedule & includes many soundbites from past & present Merolini. Dolora Zajick says, "Merola was one long audition." Mr. Littlejohn also briefly reviews the recent production of L'Elisir d'Amore, though he prefers "to avoid reviewing individual nonprofessional performers unless they're surprisingly good."

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Mystery Reader

The Nob Hill Gazette's Mystery Reader for the month of August actually looks familiar to me, though I probably blew my chances of winning by publicizing him here.

Monday, August 09, 2010

Legend of the Ring

Berkeley Opera
Legend of the Ring
Adapted by David Seaman

Conductor: Jonathan Khuner
Stage Director & Production Designer: Mark Streshinsky

Wotan, Wanderer, Gunther: Richard Paul Fink
Froh, Siegmund, Siegfried:Jay Hunter Morris
Woglinde, Freia, Sieglinde, Forest Bird, Gutrune: Marie Plette
Fafner, Hunding, Hagen: Dean Peterson
Wellgunde, Brünnhilde: Christine Springer
Alberich, Fasolt:Bojan Knezovic
Loge, Mime: Stephen Rumph
Flosshilde, Fricka: Valentina Osinski

Sunday, August 8, 2:00 p.m.
Performing Arts Theater, El Cerrito High School

Legend of the RingGoing in, I was already skeptical about this 3½-hour adaptation of Wagner's Ring. Like Melville's Moby Dick & Michaelangelo's David, the size of The Ring is part of its content, so the whole endeavor seemed suspect to me. But I eventually attended the final performance by Berkeley Opera on Sunday so that I could be censorious from firsthand experience. This version presents The Ring as a continuously unfurling, dynastic story. Anything that does not advance the plot is dropped. This means skipping every musical highlight of the cycle, so no Wintersturm, Ride of the Valkyries or Funeral March, for a start. As a result there are no big pay-offs, & by the middle of the 2nd half I was finding it tedious. The orchestra is reduced to a band of 17 that does not even include violins, oboes or bassoons. The resulting sound was anemic. I was also bothered by the use of sampled harp sounds instead of the real thing. On Sunday there were many tentative entrances & intonation problems, especially in the 2nd half.

The huge-voiced cast of 8 was great. Richard Paul Fink's singing was strong & weighty. Besides being a commanding Wotan, he seemed to enjoy playing a very mousy Gunter. Jay Hunter Morris sounded very Wagnerian as well. His tenor sound is heavy, but with a bright & slightly gritty edge. I liked the fullness & depth of Marie Plette's soprano, & her characterization of a chatty Forest Bird talking on a cell phone was a welcome comic highlight.

The production made good use of stage-filling projections in lieu of sets. The Rhinemaindens cavorted with swimming fish & collected floating balls of gold. Siegfried's bear was implied by projections of paw prints. Some of the action took place in silhouette behind the screens, which was also visually effective. The costumes were contemporary rather than mythological. Wotan wore the obligatory suit. Alberich, in torn jeans & flannel shirt, looked like a homeless man. Fasolt & Fafner were maintenance men in overalls, though Fasolt would probably have looked more threatening if he were not wielding a paint roller.

The performance was well attended, & I was able to get a ticket only because balcony seats were made available after the main floor had sold out. There were random conversations throughout the hall all during the show, though I do not think that anyone was bored by the performance.

Sunday, August 08, 2010

White Light/Black Rain

I was amazed to read that this is the 1st year the U.S. government has sent an official envoy to Hiroshima for the anniversary of the 1945 bombing. It was therefore quite appropriate for Viz Cinema to show White Light/Black Rain, Steven Okazaki's 2007 documentary about hibakusha. I went to the midday show yesterday, & it predictably left me low-key & phlegmatic for the rest of the day. It's comprised primarily of interviews with 14 survivors of the Hiroshima & Nagasaki blasts & has a just-the-facts tone, avoiding overt political statements. I like that it focuses on the aftermath of the bomb as well. I was made very uncomfortable by excerpts from a 1955 episode of This Is Your Life which brought together a Hiroshima survivor & a pilot on the Enola Gay.

Viz Cinema is a small, modern & comfortable theater, & there was a moderately sized audience for the screening. This month's schedule features WW II documentaries & feature films as well as Kurosawa classics.

Merola: L’Elisir d’Amore

Merola Opera Program
L’Elisir d’Amore

Conductor - Martin Katz
Director - Nicola Bowie

Nemorino - Alexander Lewis/Daniel Montenegro
Adina - Valentina Fleer
Giannetta - Abigail Santos Villalobos
Belcore - Ao Li
Dulcamara - Sidney Outlaw

Friday, August 7, 8:00 PM
Cowell Theater at Fort Mason Center

On Friday night I attended the 2nd performance of Merola Opera's unashamedly cute production of L’Elisir d’Amore. Even a major cast replacement halfway through act II could not dampen the bright spirit; it simply made the evening more exciting. During the 1st act, Alexander Lewis as Nemorino had to stop momentarily to cough, but, despite signs of trouble, I was completely taken in by his terrific character acting. In the 2nd act he nearly lost his voice, & an announcement was made from the stage that Mr. Lewis was indisposed & that Daniel Montenegro would be stepping in. Mr. Montenegro came on as if he had been singing for us all night. I feel bad that Mr. Lewis had to forgo his big aria, & I hope he will be back in good voice for Sunday's show.

Valentina Fleer's Adina is a steady & confident woman with a voice to match. In the 2nd act she hit a ridiculously high note with seeming ease. Her final duet with Mr. Montenegro's Nemorino was a highlight & got long applause. Apparently, it was the 1st time they had sung it together onstage! Even though Belcore is supposed to be a bullying jerk, Ao Li's cheerful & loose performance made him big-hearted & adorable. I liked his round, comfy sound. Sidney Outlaw, whose Dulcamara sports a great Don King hairdo, really reaches out to an audience & seems to be a theatrical personality by nature.

The production is set in the 1940s, with nice period costumes & hairstyles for the women. Like last year's Così, it starts as a play-within-a-play, but the concept did not make sense to me. The 2nd act takes place against a backdrop of the Bay & the Golden Gate Bridge, which made the occasional sea gull cries from outside seem like ambient sound effects. Cowell Theater continues to be a problematic space for opera. The orchestra basically sits in the auditorium with the audience, making it difficult to play together & to not overpower the singers.

Still, it is pretty much impossible to spoil the fun of this production, with everyone on stage looking like they are having a ball. At the end of the opera, streamers are shot from the wings & confetti flutters down on the audience. When conductor Martin Katz strikes up the orchestra to accompany the curtain calls, it feels like the party is just getting started. & as if the opera itself were not sweet enough, I had mini-cupcakes foisted upon me during intermission by Ms. Ames, in the most pleasant company of The Opera Tattler, ced & Dig Dug. I also had a brief chat with Oboeinsight, who had to endure an errant hearing aid for much of the performance.

Tuesday, August 03, 2010

Mi Alma Mexicana

Sony Classical
Alondra de la Parra
Philharmonic Orchestra of the Americas
Mi Alma Mexicana | My Mexican Soul

Copies of this CD at Alondra de la Parra's recent Dolores Park concert sold out before intermission, but I have since had a chance to enjoy hearing it. It's a 2 CD sampler of orchestral works from 13 Mexican composers, from the late 19th century to the 1st decade of the 21st century. 3 young instrumental soloists are also featured. The CD has a sense of discovery about it. The pieces may be largely unfamiliar, but they are all accessible, encompassing romantic, jazz, Latin & modern idioms. I was amused to find that a tune I associate with cartoon characters swinging on trapezes is actually a waltz called Sobre las Olas by Juventino Rosas.

Maestra de la Parra communicates a consistently bright & optimistic mood. She also nicely avoids overplaying things. Even the discordant & atavistic Sensemayá by Silvestre Revueltas sounds a bit ebullient. The piece I found myself cueing up most often was the Danzón No. 2 by Arturo Márquez, with its irresistible, slinky dance theme, obsessively repeated. I especially like the gliding way the strings play the theme when they finally get hold of it halfway though the piece.

The orchestral playing is proficient, clean & even. Violinist Daniel Andai, in the romantic Melodía para Violín y Orquesta by Gustavo E. Campa, has a reedy & level sound that is pleasingly old-fashioned. Guitarist Pablo Sáinz plays very precisely in the languid concerto by Manuel M. Ponce, the most substantial work on the CD. Jazz pianist Alex Brown sounds very laid-back in the slow movement of Concierto para Piano Improvisado y Orquesta by Eugenio Toussaint

In the CD booklet, the compilator's notes on the repertoire are rambling but necessary. Without them I would not have known what to make of the referee whistle which figures prominently in the last piece. The packaging & CD labels are colorful & attractive & place Maestra del al Parra front & center, where I suppose she belongs. On the basis of half a concert & this CD, I hope we have her back in San Francisco soon.