Saturday, October 08, 2016

The Salesman

A couple of weeks ago I got to see a preview screening of The Salesman, Asghar Farhadi's taut new film about personal revenge. It plays at the Mill Valley Film Festival next week & then in Bay Area theaters in January. The story presents us with a cultured, well-educated husband & wife living in Tehran. They are about to star opposite each other in a production of Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman. In the gripping opening scene, which is in one long take & appears to be an over-stated MacGuffin, they are forced to evacuate their apartment building. They move to another apartment, previously inhabited by an elusive woman who may be a prostitute. When the wife is alone in the apartment one evening, she is assaulted by an intruder. The specific details of attack are never made explicit, but the wife is too traumatized to talk to the police, & the husband, out of a chivalrous instinct, sets out to track down the assailant himself.

Though the plot is calculated & takes many contrived side trips, the movie has an immediacy & sense of urgency. I was never sure where scenes were headed, & I liked the way that things left unsaid or unseen loomed large. In the subplot involving Death of a Salesman, it's nice seeing realistic glimpses of the production, which appears quite faithful.

Farhadi often trails the characters with a hand-held camera, & always felt like I was right in the middle of the action. Shahab Hosseini as the husband Emad is a likable & charismatic actor. It is easy to keep identifying with Emad even as his behavior becomes increasingly disappointing. There's a stage-like quality to the tension underlying every scene, & the film is unsettling. Right through its last moments, I kept re-evaluating what I thought about its moral dilemmas.

§ Forushande (The Salesman) (2016)
Asghar Farhadi, dir.
Iran, France, 125 mins.

§ Mill Valley Film Festival 39
Rafael 1, Fri, Oct 7, 7:30 PM
Rafael 2, Wed, Oct 12, 12:00 PM

Friday, October 07, 2016

Dream of the Red Chamber at SF Opera

Back in the first week of the San Francisco Opera season, I attended the 2nd performance of Dream of the Red Chamber, the opera by Bright Sheng & David Henry Hwang receiving its world premiere here. I enjoyed the visual spectacle of the production. The opening chorus of beggars, emerging from a burning village, looks like a painting come to life. Dai Yu's boat trip at the beginning of the story & her climactic disappearance at the end are depicted simply but effectively using rippling blue fabrics. I liked the visual poetry of an interlude that illustrates the passing of the seasons with falling leaves of different colors.

Scene transitions had beautiful choreography. The grand hall of the Jia family is appropriately ostentatious, & as its multi-plane backdrop rose into place, I felt like I was floating above the landscape. The transformation of Granny Jia's deathbed into a funeral bier was efficient & clever. The costumes were opulent.

The cast was uniformly strong & ardent. Tenor Yijie Shi as Bao Yu sounded open & clarion & acted befittingly like a feckless teenager in act 1. Soprano Pureum Jo as his love interest Dai Yu sang with a consistent, solid sound & had nice soft notes. I liked mezzo Hyona Kim as the imperious Lady Wang. Her singing was expressive & emphatic. Soprano Irene Roberts was a pragmatic Bao Chai. Her sound was full, & she was impressively resolute in her act 2 monologue. Soprano Karen Chia-ling Ho was a rueful Princess Jia & sang confidently. The soloists are almost all high voices, so it was nice hearing the male voices of the chorus.

Mr. Sheng's music is atmospheric, with strong, irregular rhythms, chromatic harmonies, & shimmering orchestral colors. Chinese accents are provided by gongs at moments of urgency, & there is a prominent solo for the qin. The vocal lines often feel stretched, with long-held notes at the ends of phrases. The orchestra played alertly for conductor George Manahan, & the clarinet solos were especially lovely.

The choppy storyline includes elements of romance, domestic drama, politics & Buddhist philosophy. Mr. Hwang's English language libretto is prosaic & even bald, particularly in the erotic dream scene. Supertitles & program notes were accommodatingly provided in both English & Chinese, & there were definitely more Asian faces in the audience than I am used to seeing at the opera.

There was an open curtain during intermission, with director Stan Lai talking about the production & taking questions via Twitter. The audience seemed attentive. Mr. Sheng was present to take a curtain call at the end of the performance.

§ Dream of the Red Chamber
Music by Bright Sheng
Libretto by David Henry Hwang and Bright Sheng

San Francisco Opera
Conductor, George Manahan 
Director, Stan Lai
Production Designer, Tim Yip
Lighting Designer, Gary Marder
Choreographer, Fang-Yi Sheu
Chorus Director, Ian Robertson
Fight Director, Dave Maier

Flower/Dai Yu, Pureum Jo
Stone/Bao Yu, Yijie Shi
Lady Wang, Hyona Kim
Bao Chai, Irene Roberts
Granny Jia, Qiulin Zhang
Princess Jia, Karen Chia-ling Ho
Aunt Xue, Yanyu Guo
The Monk/Dreamer, Randall Nakano
Lady-in-Waiting/Flower, Toni Marie Palmertree, Amina Edris, Zanda Švēde
Eunuch/Stone, Pene Pati, Alex Boyer, Edward Nelson

Tuesday 09/13/16 7:30PM
War Memorial Opera House

SFMOMA Modern Cinema Schedule


6:00 pm - Rashomon (Akira Kurosawa, Japan, 1950, 88 min.) with an introduction by Philip Kaufman
8:30 pm - The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant (Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Germany, 1972, 125 min.)

1:00 pm - Agnès Varda in California: Documenteur / Black Panthers / Uncle Yanco (Agnès Varda, France, 112 min.)
3:45 pm - Mysterious Object at Noon (Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Thailand, 2000, 89 min.)
5:45 pm - The Seventh Seal (Ingmar Bergman, Sweden, 1957, 96 min.)
8:00 pm - L'Avventura (Michelangelo Antonioni, Italy, 1960, 143 min.)

2:00 pm - Sans Soleil with La Jetée (Chris Marker, France, 1983/1962, 132 min.)
5:00 pm - Black Girl with Borom Sarret (Ousmane Sembène, Senegal, 1966/1963, 85 min.)
7:15 pm - Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (Chantal Akerman, Belgium/France, 1975, 201 min.) with an introduction by Wayne Wang


7:00 pm - An Evening with Apichatpong Weerasthakul

6:00 pm - Mekong Hotel (Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Thailand, 2012, 61 min.)
8:00 pm - Viridiana (Luis Buñuel, Spain, 1961, 90 min.)

1:00 pm - The River (Jean Renoir, France, 1951, 99 min.)
3:30 pm - Shorts by Apichatpong Weerasthakul
6:00 pm - Syndromes and a Century (Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Thailand/France, 2006, 105 min.)
8:30 pm - Knife in the Water (Roman Polanski, Poland, 1962, 94 min.)

2:00 pm - Tropical Malady (Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Thailand/France, 2004, 118 min.)
4:30 pm - The Spirit of the Beehive (Victor Erice, Spain, 1973, 99 min.)
7:00 pm - Cemetery of Splendor (Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Thailand, 2015, 122 min.)


6:00 pm - Pitfall (Hiroshi Teshigahara, Japan, 1962 97 min.)
8:30 pm - Carnival of Souls (Herk Harvey, USA, 1962, 78 min.)

3:00 pm - Picnic at Hanging Rock (Peter Weir, Australia, 1975, 107 min.)
6:00 pm - Grey Gardens (Albert Maysles and David Maysles, USA, 1976, 94 min.)
8:00 pm - Ugetsu (Kenji Mizoguchi, Japan, 1953, 97 min.)

3:00 pm - Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (Apichatpong Weerasethakul, UK/Thailand/Germany/France/Spain, 2010, 113 min.)
6:00 pm - A Touch of Zen (King Hu, Taiwan, 1971, 180 min.)

Phyllis Wattis Theater at SFMOMA
Please use entrance at Minna Street, near Third Street.

Thursday, September 29, 2016

Don Pasquale at San Francisco Opera

Maurizio Muraro (Don Pasquale) and
Lucas Meachem (Dr. Malatesta).
Photo from SF Opera web site.
Wednesday night I was in standing room at San Francisco Opera for Don Pasquale, Donizetti's sprightly farce about elder abuse. Director Laurent Pelly's modern dress staging is great fun. Comic momentum was propelled by slapstick, stylish costumes, silent movie-style pantomime, dancing & a lot of opening & closing of doors. Even from up in the balcony, I did not feel I was missing any of the action. The stylized set represents a street with houses on either side & a huge rotating room in the middle, representing Don Pasquale's home. This room also turned out to function as a megaphone. Singers' voices sometimes boomed when they were standing inside.

Ernesto 1st appearance made me laugh right away. He entered wearing his pajamas & stirring a cup of coffee. It immediately established his unambitious character & gave a reason for Don Pasquale to disinherit him. Similarly, Norina's shabby apartment, with its piles of clothes & magazines but no furniture, immediately communicated her scrappy personality.

Bass-baritone Maurizio Muraro in the title role had a resonant, stentorian voice & was a terrific comic actor. His shadow boxing during his act 3 scene with Malatesta so pleased the audience that they spontaneously applauded mid-duet. He was also a very human & sympathetic Pasquale. Tenor Lawrence Brownlee has a unique voice. It's light & agile & goes high up with astonishing comfort, yet it's tensile & cutting. Mr. Brownlee had to be a game performer as Ernesto. He sang into the floor while on all fours, sang while climbing a tall ladder & dangled upside down from a window.

Soprano Heidi Stober was a gutsy Norina, & the staging did nothing to ameliorate the meanness of her treatment of Pasquale. Ms. Stober sounded sturdy & a bit sultry, & she showed off startlingly big high notes. Baritone Lucas Meachem was an elegant yet shady Malatesta. His voice was firm, suave & soothing, & he was hilarious in his duets with Norina & Pasquale. The chorus was solid & lively & came across as a character in itself. 3 supers playing Pasquale's servants were amusing presences.

Conductor Giuseppe Finzi led with quick tempos & a flexible beat. The musical climaxes were pointed. All the orchestral solos sounded smooth, & the trumpet solo for Ernesto's "Cercherò lontana terra" had a nice long line & was polished. The violins' ensemble was occasionally loose.

My opera companion & I had a conversation with a friendly usher who admitted to being curious about opera but not yet a fan when she 1st started ushering. This would be a good production to attend when there is an Open Curtain. I'd like to see how they turn Don Pasquale's house upside down during intermission.

§  Don Pasquale
Music by Gaetano Donizetti
Libretto by Giovanni Ruffini and Gaetano Donizetti

San Francisco Opera
Conductor, Giuseppe Finzi
Director, Laurent Pelly

Don Pasquale, Maurizio Muraro 
Norina, Heidi Stober 
Ernesto, Lawrence Brownlee
Dr. Malatesta, Lucas Meachem
A Notary, Bojan Knežević

Wednesday 09/28/16 7:30PM
War Memorial Opera House

Friday, September 23, 2016

Modern Cinema Series at SFMOMA

Last week the SFMOMA held a press briefing in their newly renovated Phyllis Wattis Theater to announce their up-coming Modern Cinema series, taking place on 3 packed weekends in October. Dominic Willsdon, SFMOMA's Curator of Education and Public Practice, & Frank Smigiel, Associate Curator, Performance and Film, discussed the program's themes, along with Noah Cowan, Executive Director of the San Francisco Film Society, who was actually at the Toronto International Film Festival but appeared via a choppy Skype call.

With Halloween deliberately in mind, the curators chose many films on the subject of haunting. Their selections reminded me of what would play at an art house cinema in the days before video rentals. The schedule includes art film classics Rashomon & The Seventh Seal, the cult classics Carnival of Souls & Grey Gardens, & notorious experimental works like Sans Soleil & Jean Deilman. The 2nd weekend focuses on Thai director Apichatpong Weerasethakul, who will attend all weekend to introduce the screenings. Philip Kaufman & Wayne Wang are also expected as guest presenters. Tickets are available online for individual shows, but as far as I know there are no series passes.

The renovated theater seats 270 & is equipped with film & digital projectors & a Meyer Sound system. The staff made sure we noted the new cupholders. The theater has its own entrance & box office on Minna Street, so that screenings can take place outside of museum hours. The stage has been deepened so that the space is also suitable for live performances.

A couple of the attendees had very specific questions about the versions of the films being shown. When Mr. Cowan was asked what was the best thing he'd seen at TIFF so far, he was eager to name Barry Jenkins's Moonlight & the biopic Jackie.

§ Modern Cinema Press Briefing
Tuesday, September 13, 10:00 am
Phyllis Wattis Theater, SFMOMA

Week 1: Haunted by Cinema | Friday, October 7 - Sunday, October 9
Week 2: Apichatpong Weerasethakul | Thursday, October 13 - Saturday, October 16
Week 3: Haunted Cinema | Friday, October 21, - Sunday October 32
Phyllis Wattis Theater, SFMOMA

The Eagle Huntress

Last week I got to see a preview screening of The Eagle Huntress, a beautifully photographed documentary set in Mongolia which will play at the up-coming Mill Valley Festival. The film introduces us to Aisholpan, a joyful 13-year old Kazakh girl who is learning to hunt with eagles, a traditional tribal skill customarily practiced only by men.

In the film's 3 parts, we see her training her eagle, competing as the only female in the region's annual Golden Eagle Festival, & finally testing her ability out in the wild, fox hunting in a tough winter landscape. Aisholpan is wonderfully confident, & the relationship between her & her father tremendously trusting. In a sequence that will frighten any parent, she rappels down a cliff to an eagle's nest & steals the eaglet she will train for the competition.

The imagery is gorgeous, with soaring crane shots & spectacular aerial views shot with a drone. No doubt the stark beauty of the mountains & snowy landscapes belies the difficulty of filming, as well as the arduousness of actually living there. The inhabitants' clothing & homes are depicted in sumptuous detail. I enjoyed seeing glimpses of Aisholpan at school, where the atmosphere seems surprisingly cozy.

The storytelling is basic. I liked the film's prologue, which shows the father freeing an eagle after its 7-year service. A recurring montage of skeptical tribal elders provides a touch of humor. The filmmaker does not get too personal with his subjects, & I did not feel that anything was at stake, but I was grateful to see a family film not in the Pixar/Disney mode. The movie is in Kazakh, apart from the minimal narration delivered by Daisy Ridley.

§ The Eagle Huntress (2016)
Otto Bell, dir. UK, Mongolia, USA. 87 mins. 

§ Mill Valley Film Festival 39
Sun, Oct 9 11:15 AM, Sequoia 1 
Mon, Oct 10 12:45 PM, Rafael 1

Thursday, September 22, 2016

Used Book Sale at Fort Mason

This week the Friends of the SF Public Library are holding one of their twice yearly used book sales at Fort Mason. It's not really the place to go if you are looking for a particular book, but browsing can be fun, &, with prices topping out at $3, there's not much risk.

My strategy is to walk along the tables until something speaks to me, like this technical manual about regular expressions, in Polish.

The exception to the $3 maximum is the section for rare & collectible books, which has some amazing items. Above is a page from Street Types of Great American Cities (1896), which claims to be edifying & whose manner is exquisitely condescending, cynical, sexist & racist.

Even after examining the contents, I had no idea what was going on here.

I also have no idea what the "I" & "A" stand for here. It probably covers anyone above the age of puberty.

The Big Book Sale continues through Sunday, when everything goes for a dollar. On Wednesday afternoon the majority of customers were buying in bulk & required shopping carts, so be prepared for long checkout lines.

§ The Big Book Sale
September 21 - 25, 2016 / 10 AM - 6 PM
Fort Mason Center's Festival Pavilion 

Hardcovers: $3 / Paperbacks: $2 / Children's Books: $1 / All Media: $1
All items will be $1 on Sunday, September 25th. 

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Mill Valley Film Festival 39 Press Announcement

Last week I attended the press announcement for the 39th Mill Valley Film Festival, which takes place October 6-16 at venues in Mill Valley, Larkspur, Corte Madera & San Rafael. Founder & Executive Director Mark Fishkin, Director of Programming Zoe Elton & Senior Programmer Janis Plotkin gave an informal rundown of the program & showed trailers for some of the films.

This year's guests include actors Nicole Kidman, Ewan McGregor, Gael García Bernal & Aaron Eckhart, as well as filmmaker Julie Dash, the 1st African American woman to direct a theatrically released feature film. Each appears in a special event featuring a screening & an onstage conversation. The closing night film is Loving, based on the story of Richard & Mildred Loving, the interracial couple who fought Virginia's anti-miscegenation law all the way to the Supreme Court. Director Jeff Nichols & stars Joel Edgerton & Ruth Negga are scheduled to attend. James Franco is expected at the premiere of his film In Dubious Battle. In commemoration of the closing of the Century Cinema in Corte Madera, the festival will show the original Star Wars trilogy there on October 8th.

There will be a film focus on Culinary Cinema, as well as clusters of films from Germany & Latin America. The mention of a 1-day schedule of films & events about cannabis caused the press conference audience to laugh. As part of the Mind the Gap series, a panel discussion will feature women technologists from the Disney animation studio. Other films highlighted at the press announcement include the German comedy Toni Erdmann, which apparently caused a sensation at Cannes, Aquarius, starring Sônia Braga, & the animated feature The Red Turtle. The trailer for Do Not Resist, a documentary about the militarization of the police, was frightening all on its own. California Typewriter, a documentary about devotees of the typewriter, sounds sweet. The slapstick Lost in Paris was intriguingly compared to a Jacques Tati film.

Times for Fire at Sea in the printed program have been changed, & a screening of Moulin Rouge! has been added on October 7th at the Century Cinema, Corte Madera.

§ Mill Valley Film Festival Press Conference 
Monday, September 12, 2016 at 6:00PM
Dolby Laboratories, San Francisco, CA

§ Mill Valley Film Festival 39
October 6 - 16, 2016
Century Cinema, Corte Madera
Century Larkspur, Larkspur
Cinearts Sequoia, Mill Valley
Lark Theater, Larkspur
San Rafael Film Center, San Rafael

Sunday, September 18, 2016

Lucia di Lammermoor at Opera San José

Last week Opera San José opened their 33rd season, & on Sunday I attended their production of Lucia di Lammermoor. Soprano Sylvia Lee sang & acted the title role so proficiently that it seemed almost light for her. Her voice was clean, pretty & smooth throughout, & it cut through to the ear without being loud. Her Lucia was frightening in the mad scene & looked both scared & dangerous. I liked that the staging had her interacting with other characters, who were not able to keep sharp objects out of her hands.

Tenor Kirk Dougherty's wide-eyed Edgardo looked constantly startled. He made an effortful sound that evinced muscle & stamina, & he was unfailingly strong all the way through his death scene. As Enrico, baritone Matthew Hanscom was big-voiced & appropriately blunt & bullying. Bass Colin Ramsey was a benign Raimondo, his voice clear, soft-edged & slightly slender. Tenor Michael Mendelsohn was a scene-stealing Arturo, comically preening & leering. The relatively small chorus sang cohesively.

The orchestra sounded balanced under conductor Ming Luke, & it was nice that his beat could be flexible. I was fortunate to be seated just 3 rows from the stage, & it was interesting to observe the flutist stand up in the pit & turn to face the stage when she accompanied Lucia's mad scene.

The production was conventional, with period costumes & flat scenery. All the indoor scenes were set in the same wood-paneled interior, meaning the Wolf's Crag scene was transported to Lammermoor, making Edgardo crash the wedding party twice. The audience was generally attentive, though I heard people comment about the set each time the curtain went up. Someone's hearing aid squalled throughout the performance, & I felt really bad for Edgardo when a cellphone started ringing in the closing moments of his big scene at the end of the opera.

Opera San José has a new ticket design which helpfully displays the seat number in a large font. It was fun to break the fourth wall during intermission by chatting with Oboeinsight, who tried to convince me that the oboe is actually not that hard to play.

§ Lucia di Lammermoor
Music by Gaetano Donizetti | Libretto by Salvadore Cammarano

Opera San José
Conductor, Ming Luke
Stage Director, Benjamin Spierman

Lucia, Sylvia Lee
Edgardo, Kirk Dougherty
Enrico, Matthew Hanscom
Alisa, Anna Yelizarova
Normanno, Yungbae Yang
Arturo, Michael Mendelsohn
Raimondo, Colin Ramsey
Opera San José Orchestra, Chorus, Dancers and Supers

Sunday, September 11, 2016, 3p
California Theatre, San Jose

Thursday, September 15, 2016

Lo and Behold

I'd been waiting for Werner Herzog's new documentary about cyberspace, & I finally caught it on the last day it was playing at a neighborhood theater. Lo and Behold was originally conceived as a series of promotional videos for the network management company NetScout, but in Herzog's hands it turned into a feature-length documentary. The film is in 10 pithy chapters, on topics ranging from the creation of the Internet, to colonizing Mars, to reading the brain's thoughts directly. Herzog interviews engineers, scientists, businessmen & hackers, as well as people who have in some way been victims of technology.

In the opening segment, Leonard Kleinrock, a chipper UCLA professor, enthusiastically shows off the 1st computer on the Internet, as the overture to Das Rheingold plays on the soundtrack, & the rest of the movie is similarly layered with ideas. I was delighted to see an interview with Ted Nelson, computer visionary & weirdo who invented an alternative version of hypertext decades before the World Wide Web. He is Herzog's kind of guy.

I had no idea that fabled hacker Kevin Mitnick would be so cheerful & such a terrific story teller. His talent for social engineering might be more dangerous than his computer skills. I felt I needed to learn more about the story of cybersleuth Shawn Carpenter, who is far too casual describing how to get spyware onto someone's computer.

There are plenty of odd moments. I could not help staring at the pile of pastries in front of the pained Catsouras family, who describe the trauma caused by photos leaked onto the Internet. The sight of orange-robed monks checking their cellphones on the Chicago lakefront prompts Herzog to wonder, "Have the monks stopped meditating?" Elon Musk looks preoccupied & worried, even before Herzog volunteers to go to Mars in one of his spaceships.

Some of the ideas presented are highly speculative, but I love that Herzog gets provocative answers when he ask experts if the Internet dreams of itself. I am skeptical of the brain scientists' frightening claims to be able to read thoughts, but it seems quite valid for physicist Lawrence Krauss to ask, "Will our children's children's children need the companionship of humans, or will they have evolved in a world where that's not important?" It all adds up to a feeling that we are at a turning point in human consciousness.

§ Lo and Behold, Reveries of the Connected World (2016)
A film by Werner Herzog 
98 min., USA

Andrea Chenier at SF Opera

Last Friday I heard Andrea Chénier at opening night of San Francisco Opera's 2016 - 17 season. The evening began with remarks by the new General Director Matthew Shilvock, President Keith Geeslin & Chairman of the Board John Gunn. They thanked sponsors & donors, & Mr. Gunn brought the event to a halt when he forgot the name of Music Director Nicola Luisotti for several long seconds.

Tenor Yonghoon Lee in the title role sounded reliably strong & projected bravery. He had a slightly dark timbre & shaded his drawn-out notes nicely. I enjoyed hearing soprano Anna Pirozzi as Maddelena. Her voice was agile & penetrating & had a pleasing friction. Her top notes emerged with seeming ease, & she sang "La mamma morta" with control & nice dynamic contrast. Baritone George Gagnidze as Gerard had an unwavering, weighty & consistent sound.

Smaller roles were all cast from strength. Mezzo Catherine Cook was a characterful & sneering Contessa di Coigny, & baritone Edward Nelson had a smooth & pretty voice as the dandy Fleville. Bass Robert Pomakov as Mathieu was fittingly boisterous & hearty, & the clear-voiced tenor Joel Sorensen was a lively Incredibile. Baritone David Pershall as Roucher made a firm & appealing sound.

Though Giordano's score is scintillating & often loud, from orchestra level standing room the orchestra seemed subdued & cushioned. Maestro Luisotti's tempos did not feel too hurried. I liked the clarinet & violin solos, & the harp was assertive. Director David McVicar's production is attractive, & the scenes sometimes looked like neo-classical paintings. The period costumes had an authentic feel & looked easy to move in. The use of child supers in every act added liveliness to the staging, but it was an antiseptic picture of the French Revolution overall. The set changes with the curtain down after acts I & III were long.

Considering that this was opening night, there was surprisingly little audience attrition after intermission, though a pod of young people in tuxedos & gowns exited the orchestra level in the pause after act III. Competition for standing room was light, & 2 of our opera companions were offered seats before the end of the performance.

§ Andrea Chénier
Music by Umberto Giordano | Libretto by Luigi Illica

San Francisco Opera
Conductor, Nicola Luisotti
Director, David McVicar
Chorus Director, Ian Robertson

Carlo Gérard, George Gagnidze
Major-Domo, Anders Fröhlich
An Old Gardener, Charlie Lichtman
Maddalena di Coigny, Anna Pirozzi
Bersi, J’Nai Bridges
Contessa di Coigny, Catherine Cook
Pietro Fléville, Edward Nelson
Flando Fiorinelli, Matthew Erikson
Andrea Chénier, Yonghoon Lee
The Abbé, Alex Boyer
Shepherdess, Laura Alexich
Shepherd, Michael Levine
Mathieu, Robert Pomakov
L'Incredibile, Joel Sorensen
Roucher, David Pershall
Madelon, Jill Grove
Madelon's Grandson, Graham Isom
Fouquier-Tinville, Matthew Stump
Dumas, Brad Walker
Gravier de Vergennes, Charlie Lichtman
Laval-Montmorency, Susan Anderson-Norby
Idia Legray, Tatiana Bookbinder
Schmidt, Anthony Reed

Friday, 09/09/16, 8:00PM
War Memorial Opera House

Sunday, September 04, 2016

SF Zine Fest 2016

Sunday afternoon I was in Golden Gate Park for the San Francisco Zine Fest, a trade show of independent publishing, art & comics. The event was packed, perhaps because it is now only one day instead of two. I sometimes had to do a bit of jostling to get close to a table, but it was nice to see so much enthusiasm for paper.

That was a lot of fine illustration on display. I liked Roman Muradov's urbane & beguiling artwork & Skip Wrightson's cheery & playful graphics.

It was interesting to see the comics on newsprint by It's Art, Dad. Surprisingly, they found it efficient to have the issues printed in the UK.

I enjoyed finding a happy little zine about neuroscience research, complete with citations, at the table of Two Photon, & it was good to pick up new zines by the soulful Jason Martin & the keen Andy Warner, two Zine Fest stalwarts.

It was also fun to catch up with mail artist Jennie Hinchcliff, who helpfully reminded me of Roadworks Steamroller Printing Festival coming up in a couple of weeks.

§ San Francisco Zine Fest
September 4, 2016
11am - 5pm
County Fair Building, Golden Gate Park
Free Admission

Wednesday, August 31, 2016


Tuesday night I attended Oakland Opera's opening performance of Uksus, a theater piece with music by Erling Wold. The show starts while you're waiting to enter. Actors dressed as Soviet guards asked for my passport, gender & height, which only prompted me to give smart-ass answers. The cast put on a 10 minute ceremony in the lobby involving a young man in a gurney, after which we were admitted into the theater proper.

Music was provided by an on-stage 7-piece band, led by conductor Bryan Nies standing on a platform behind the 1st row of the audience. The cast used a central catwalk extending from the stage, plus performing areas along the sides of the room. The scenario is based on the life & work of Daniil Kharms, a persecuted Soviet Era avant-gardist, who eventually died in an asylum. The action is a pageant of absurdist skits incorporating speech, singing, grotesque behavior & convulsive movement. There was dialogue about pissing, bœuf & meatballs. I found it confusing & after a while stopped trying to follow along.

The cast all gave committed performances & made their nonsensical actions seem purposeful. The singing was attractive. Tenor Timur Bekbosunov had a clean, controlled & pretty sound. Soprano Laura Bohn & mezzo Nikola Printz often sang in parallel, & their voices were nicely in tune & made a beautiful combined sound. I especially liked Ms. Printz's velvety lower register. All the voices were amplified, even though the venue was relatively small. Mr. Wold's music was a vamping mix of jazz, Philip Glass & klezmer & was easy to listen to, though I felt I'd gotten its full range within the first few minutes. The band played comfortably, & clarinetist Beth Custer sang a deep-voiced solo as part of her duties.

The show ran 100 minutes, with no intermission. Lots of people took pictures, & the woman seated next to me made several careful video pans with her smart phone. In the final scene, dodge balls were bowled off the stage, & one landed at my feet. I automatically picked it up, &, because I was in the front row, I momentarily considered I could easily take out any cast member of my choice. It would have been in the spirit of the piece.

Music by Erling Wold
Libretto by Yulia Izmaylova and Felix Strasser

Oakland Opera Theater
Directed by Jim Cave
Conducted by Bryan Nies
Designed by Lynne Rutter

Timur Bekbosunov — Pushkin
Laura Bohn — Fefjulka
Nikola Printz — Our Mama / Stalin
Bob Ernst — Michelangelo
Roham Sheikani — M2
Jim Cave — A Samovar
Sabrina Wenske, Peter Overstreet, Nathanael Card — Border Guards

Beth Custer — clarinet
Rob Wilkins — trumpet
Joel Davel — drums, vibraphone
Diana Strong — accordion
John Schott — guitar
Elzbieta Polak — violin
Lisa Mezzacappa — contrabass

Tuesday 30 August 8pm
Oakland Metro Operahouse
522 2nd Street, Oakland

Monday, August 29, 2016

Merola Grand Finale 2016

I was remiss in not keeping up with the Merolini this summer, but last weekend I did attend the Merola Grand Finale & heard all of them in one go, in a program of 19 opera excerpts, a sort of graduation exercise for all 29 participants. The concert was semi-staged, with just a few props & pieces of furniture on a bare stage, plus occasional lighting changes.

The performances were uniformly forthright & extroverted. Mezzo Tara Curtis received a shout of "Brava!" for her solemn interpretation of Cassandra's monologue from Les Troyens. Her voice was weighty & often penetrating, & it felt like she had even more in reserve. I probably spent too much time, though, wondering why she popped a balloon full of confetti at the beginning of the scene.

Countertenor Aryeh Nussbaum Cohen sounded steadfast & neat in "Che farò senza Euridice?" & ornamented the repeats tastefully. His Orfeo was frustrated rather than sorrowful. Soprano Chelsey Geeting's voice was full & warbling as well as a bit dusky in Antonia's song from The Tales of Hoffman, & her rendition felt aptly remote.

In a duet from Berlioz's Béatrice et Bénédict, tenor Amitai Pati was a dapper Bénédict. He has a pleasing, smooth voice & an appealing stage presence. Soprano Alexandra Schenck as Béatrice sounded bright & youthful. Bass Matthew Anchel sang his prayer scene from Nabucco standing on a couch & sounded soft-edged & benign.

The audience applauded loudly for bass-baritones Josh Quinn & Nicholas Boragno in a duet from La Cenerentola, in which both characters acted clownishly. I liked Mr. Boragno's hearty singing & acting & Mr. Quinn's tight, clear patter. The audience also clearly enjoyed Mr. Pati & baritone Andrew G. Manea in "Au fond du temple saint" from The Pearl Fishers. Mr. Pati's voice was lyric & dreamy, & Mr. Manea's had a nice grittiness & masculinity.

A 3 tier wedding cake was brought on stage right before the scene from Anna Bolena featuring soprano Mary Evelyn Hangley & mezzo Taylor Raven. Ms. Hangley's voice was muscular & solid, & it was nice to hear her sing high notes both loudly & softly. Ms. Raven had a distinctive, somewhat metallic, sound that was open & consistent throughout her range. Their performance was loud & dramatic & received enthusiastic applause.

Soprano Yelena Dyachek sang "Letzte Rose, wie magst du" from Martha with a substantial & commanding sound. Soprano Sarah Cambidge was an aggressive Donna Anna, with an ear-filling voice & big high notes in "Don Ottavio, son morta!"

In Rienzi's prayer scene, tenor Kyle van Schoonhoven's clear & open high notes were immediately striking, & his voice had unusual timbres. He was accompanied by a silent chorus line of women who promenaded behind his back then posed themselves on either side of him. I'm sure bass-baritone Cody Quattlebaum sang his strutting aria from Trouble in Tahiti wonderfully, but all I can remember is that he flamboyantly unwound his man bun during it.

Soprano Teresa Castillo & tenor Josh Lovell had good ensemble in a bubbly duet from Le Comte Ory. Ms. Castillo's singing was pretty, sparkling & precise, & Mr. Lovell's high notes were controlled & secure. He agilely bounded around the stage, & the wedding cake finally came into play when Ms. Castillo lifted its top tier & smashed it in her partner's face.

During the final ensemble for the entire cast, it was very cute to see photos of them taken throughout the summer projected on stage. Conductor Rory Macdonald led with lively gestures, but the orchestra sounded slack & there were synchronization problems between stage & pit. The audience applauded each number supportively, & many gave the performers a standing ovation at the end. The 3-hour show had a start time of 7:30pm, but the lights didn't go down until past 7:40pm, & people were still being seated during the overture.

§ Merola Grand Finale 2016

Conductor - Rory Macdonald
Stage Director - Aria Umezawa

Musical Preparation - Jonathan Brandani, John Elam, Noah Palmer, Nicolò Sbuelz, Jennifer Szeto
French Diction - Patricia Kristof Moy
Italian Diction - Alessandra Cattani

Overture from Die Fledermaus by J. Strauss

"Quando avran fine omai ... Padre, germani, addio!" from Idomeneo by Mozart
Ilia - Shannon Jennings
Fortepiano - Jonathan Brandani

"Linda! Linda! ... Da qual di che t'incontrai" from Linda di Chamounix by Donizetti
Linda - Adelaide Boedecker
Carlo - Isaac Frishman

"Les Grecs ont disparu! ... Malheureux roi! Dans l'éternelle nuit" from Les Troyens by Berlioz
Cassandre - Tara Curtis

"Ecco novel tormento! ... Che farò senza Euridice?" from Orfeo ed Euridice by Gluck
Euridice - Teresa Castillo
Orfeo - Aryeh Nussbaum Cohen
Fortepiano - Nicolò Sbuelz

"Elle a fui, la tourterelle!" from Les Contes d'Hoffmann by Offenbach
Antonia - Chelsey Geeting

"Comment Ie Dédain pourrait-il mourir?" from Béatrice et Bénédict by Berlioz
Béatrice - Alexandra Schenck
Bénédict - Amitai Pati

"Vieni, o Levita! ... Tu sul labbro de' veggenti" from Nabucco by Verdi
Zaccaria - Matthew Anchel

"Se all' impero" from La Clemenza di Tito by Mozart
Tito - Boris Van Druff

"Ma dunque io sono un ex ... Un segreto d'importanza" from La Cenerentola by Rossini
Dandini - Josh Quinn
Don Magnifico - Nicholas Boragno
Fortepiano - John Elam

"C'est toi, toi qu'enfin je revois ... Au fond du temple saint" from Les Pêcheurs de Perles by Bizet
Nadir - Amitai Pati
Zurga -Andrew G. Manea

"Durch Zärtlichkeit und Schmeicheln ... Ich gehe doch rate ich dir" from Die Entführung aus dem Serail by Mozart
Blonde - Jana McIntyre
Osmin - Matthew Anchel

"Dio, che mi vedi in core ... Sul suo capo aggravi un Dio" from Anna Bolena by Donizetti
Anna Bolena - Mary Evelyn Hangley
Giovanna Seymour - Taylor Raven

"Or dove fuggo io mai? ... Ah, per sempre io ti perdei" from I Puritani by Bellini
Riccardo - Josh Quinn

"Nancy! Julia! Verweile! ... Letzte Rose, wie magst du" from Martha by Flotow
Lady Harriet - Yelena Dyachek
Lionel - Brian Michael Moore

"Don Ottavio, son morta! ... Or sai chi l'onore" from Don Giovanni by Mozart
Donna Anna - Sarah Cambidge
Don Ottavio - Isaac Frishman
Fortepiano - Noah Palmer

"Allmächt'ger Vater, blick' herab" from Rienzi by Wagner
Rienzi - Kyle van Schoonhoven

"There's a law" from Trouble in Tahiti by Bernstein
Sam - Cody Quattlebaum

''Ah, quel respect madame pour vos vertus m'enflamme" from Le Comte Ory by Rossini
La Comtesse Adèle - Teresa Castillo
Le Comte Ory - Josh Lovell

"Herr Chevalier, ich grüsse sie! ... Brüderlein, Brüderlein und Schwesterlein" from Die Fledermaus by J. Strauss
Eisenstein - Kyle van Schoonhoven
Frank - Cody Quattlebaum
Rosalinde - Mary Evelyn Hangley
Adele - Jana McIntyre
Ida - Teresa Castillo
Orlofsky - Taylor Raven
Falke - Andrew G. Manea
Chorus - tutti Merolini

Saturday, August 20th
War Memorial Opera House

Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Curious Flights: The Age of Flight

Over the weekend I attended the final program of Curious Flights' 2015-2016 season. Artistic Director Noah Luna briefly introduced the evening & proudly noted that we would be hearing the West Coast premiere of Marc Blitzstein's Airborne Symphony, first presented by Leonard Bernstein in 1946 in New York. The 1st half of the concert provided context with works from the 1930s & 40s.

Tenor Brian Thorsett sang 3 yearning & lyrical love songs by Korngold, composed for Hollywood films. Mr. Thorsett's high, clear voice was controlled, even & caressing, & he elegantly shaped the songs & gave each a full range of dynamics & vocal color. The high notes of "I Meant to 'Say I Love You'" were beautifully clean & full, & he ended the song with a wonderfully gentle falsetto. Pianist Miles Graber's accompaniment was soft-edged & unobtrusive.

Copland's Sextet got a fun, perky performance. There was good communication between the musicians, & Brenden Guy's clarinet sound blended well with the strings. It felt like a lively conversation among friends. Closing the 1st half, a male chorus of 16 performed Barber's grim Stopwatch and an Ordance Map, based on a poem about the death of a solider in the Spanish Civil War. Bobby Chastain's conducting was orderly, & the chorus sounded ghostly & somewhat attenuated. Amusingly, the distracted timpanist did not notice when Mr. Chastain singled her out for a bow during the applause.

For the WWII-themed Airborne Symphony, Curious Flights fielded an oversized orchestra with plenty of brass & percussion, a male chorus of 24, a narrator & 2 vocal soloists. We also got a wind machine & a harp. Maestro Alasdair Neale's conducting was clear, precise & calisthenic. He often rose up on his toes. Ensemble was impressively tight, & the performance progressed confidently. The hammer blow chords were pointed, & cutoffs were exact. The piece is loud, & the orchestra sometimes drowned out the other performers. The music felt vaguely like a big Russian symphony. I was puzzled by the ending, which balked at its triumphal coda.

Mr. Thorsett's voice was overwhelmed by the heavy orchestration of the 1st section, but he got to provide comic moments when he interjected commands about electrical cords. Baritone Efraín Solís sounded robust in the choral numbers then created an intimate dramatic scene when he portrayed a bombardier writing a love letter home, his voice soft, tender & warm.

The chorus, positioned on the terrace, sounded distant but sang gamely. They often represented soldiers, both barking Nazis & griping American airmen. It was entertaining to hear "fubar" in the libretto. An amplified David Latulippe delivered the narration with great earnestness, though the demotic & self-assured tone of the text has dated rather badly. It was also just plain weird when he read lines with a German accent & gave a fascist salute.

The audience was supportive, & many gave the performers a standing ovation. The stage crew were fast in resetting the stage for every number. I was in an aisle seat, & during the Blitzstein a teenager in my row left the hall & came back twice, forcing me to stand up 4 times.

§ The Age of Flight
Curious Flights

"Sweet Melody of Night" from Give Us This Night (1936)
"I Meant to 'Say I Love You'" from Give Us This Night (1936)
"Tomorrow" from The Constant Nymph (1944)
    Brian Thorsett, tenor
    Miles Graber, piano

Sextet (1937)
    Curious Flights Chamber Ensemble
    Brenden Guy, clarinet
    Tess Varley, violin
    Cassandra Bequary, violin
    Ivo Bokulic, viola
    André Vera, cello
    Miles Graber, piano

Stopwatch and an Ordance Map, Op. 15 (1940)
    Curious Flights Chorus
    Bobby Chastain, conductor
    Lily Sevier, timpani

The Airborne Symphony (1943-44)
    Curious Flights Symphony Orchestra
    Curious Flights Chorus
    Alasdair Neale, conductor
    Brian Thorsett, tenor
    Efraín Solís, baritone
    David Latulippe, narrator

May 28, 2016 | 8:00 p.m.
San Francisco Conservatory of Music
Caroline H. Hume Concert Hall

Thursday, January 07, 2016

The Lady in the Van

Yesterday I saw a preview screening of The Lady in the Van, a charming film written by Alan Bennett, directed by Nicholas Hytner & starring Maggie Smith. The movie is based on the play based on the memoir by Bennett, about the elderly homeless woman, Miss Mary Shepherd, who lived in a van parked in the author's driveway in North London for 15 years. The nearly plotless script is drily humorous, the drama coming from the gradual revelation of Miss Shepherd's stranger-than-fiction backstory. Classical music plays an important part, particularly Chopin's Piano Concert No. 1, & the Catholic church is the film's bad guy. Although it's clear that Miss Shepherd is filthy, humorlessly self-aggrandizing & generally unpleasant, Maggie Smith portrays her captivatingly & makes the case that she is admirably strong-willed, obdurate & self-sufficient.

Alan Bennett also uses the story to explore how his writing intersects with his life. Alex Jennings portrays the author pleasingly & impersonates Bennett's drawn-out accent & meek manner without parody, coming across as wry, benign & oddly cute. At the start of the film he posits that "Writing is talking to oneself," & seamless special effects allow him to interact with his imaginary double as he commentates on his telling of the story.

The film was playfully shot in the actual street where the events occurred & is peopled with bright cameo performances. I especially enjoyed Roger Allam as a snooty, opera-going neighbor. Members of the original cast of The History Boys pop up in various guises, as does Alan Bennett himself.

The Lady in the Van opens in San Francisco on January 22nd & in other Bay Area location on January 29th.

§ The Lady in the Van (2015)
Directed by Nicholas Hytner
Written by Alan Bennett From His Memoir
UK, 103 mins

§ Opens January 22
Landmark Clay Theater in San Francisco
Century 9 in San Francisco
§ Opens January 29
Landmark Albany Twin in Berkeley
Camera 7 in San Jose
Century 16 in Pleasant Hill
CineArts @ Palo Alto Square in Palo Alto
CineArts @ Santana Row in San Jose
Regency Cinemas Six in San Rafael