Thursday, June 19, 2008

Lucia di Lammermoor

San Francisco Opera
Tue Jun 17 2008 8 pm

Lucia: Natalie Dessay
Edgardo: Giuseppe Filianoti
Enrico: Gabriele Viviani
Raimondo: Oren Gradus
Alisa: Cybele-Teresa Gouverneur
Normanno: Matthew O’Neill
Arturo: Andrew Bidlack

Conductor: Jean-Yves Ossonce
Director: Graham Vick
Production Designer: Paul Brown

Lucia is not a favorite opera of mine, but I was looking forward to seeing & hearing Natalie Dessay, who was such a sensation at the Met in this role. She's a small woman, very fit & 100% comfortable on stage. She made her entrance running across the stage, & in this scene she was an innocent, playful & sensual Lucia. She's a great physical actor. In the scene where she is confronted by her brother Enrico, she starts off defiant & proud, then is gradually broken down, & she communicated all of this through her body as much as her singing.

Dessay doesn't have a huge voice, but it sounds very easy & natural. She never made it sound like she had to strain to hit those high notes & or do those vocal acrobatics in the mad scene. In fact, she gave the impression that she could go on like that indefinitely. She was very effective in the cadenza, when she let her voice gently float fragments of melodies that would suddenly trail off. In that moment I truly felt like I had no idea what she was going to do next. It was a convincing sensation of being unmoored from reality.

In the mad scene we got the novelty of a glass harmonica in the pit instead of the usual flute. That ethereal, disembodied sound moved the scene in the direction of the eerie. Dessay added her own disturbing element by interpolating a scream & later by laughing to herself as she ended her aria.

I also enjoyed the performance of the tenor Giuseppe Filianoti, a very different kind of singer from Dessay. His sound is a bit raw, & he often sounds like his voice is on the edge of breaking. I found this very exciting, especially in the Act II finale when he denounces Lucia. The anguish was palpable. I thought he was consistently vocally dramatic.

The opera orchestra sounded great, & there were a lot of details & clarity of texture. My biggest reservation about the performance was the lack of big climaxes in general. This is a pot-boiler of an opera, with one show-stopping aria or chorus after another, but I never felt like these big numbers really caught fire. Not enough build-up or something.

The staging just barely told the story & seemed disjointed to me. The costumes all looked very Scottish, what with all the tartans, so the national setting does come through. Most of the action takes place within a frame, on a stage floor dressed like a heath. It was not always clear whether scenes were supposed to be inside or outside. During the confrontation between Lucia & Enrico, a gap in the wall moved slowly from right to left. But why? It was just distracting. At the start of the mad scene, walls split apart to reveal Lucia standing in a bed of red flowers. It looks like an interesting start, but then the imagery never goes anywhere from there. I often expected the staging to go Euro-trash on us, but instead nothing much happens. Perhaps it's better this way.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Contemporary Jewish Museum

Contemporary Jewish MuseumYesterday I paid my 1st visit to the newly opened Contemporary Jewish Museum. I've been watching the construction for months, so I was curious to finally get a chance to check out the building, designed by celebrity architect Daniel Libeskind. There is a nice spacious open plaza in front, with running water & a few manicured grassy areas. The most striking feature of the building is of course the giant black cube sticking out at an angle from the side. A sign inside explains that the shape is based on a Hebrew letter, but it's not possible to see this unless you are looking down on the building from above. Perhaps it can be read from one of the office buildings or hotels nearby, but otherwise it just looks like a great big cube at a scary angle.

Building security didn't like the water bottle in my shoulder bag & made a point of walking me to the coat check a few yards away. The interior of the building feels very modern. There seem to be very few right angles. Sometimes even the walls have a slope. The ceilings are mostly exposed, so you can see ducts & pipes & such. There's a long gallery space on the 2nd floor that looks well-suited for contemporary art & installations. It's kind of dark up there at the moment for the current exhibition organized around the theme of Genesis. The exhibit includes a beautiful etching by Chagall & a fantastic drawing by Tiepolo.

There's also a fun exhibit of the work of illustrator William Steig. I recognize his drawing from the New Yorker magazine, but I had no idea that he wrote a children's book that was the basis for the Shrek movies. I think it's impressive that even his finished drawings maintain the freshness of his doodles & sketches. I liked that they used some early pages from the New Yorker to establish a context for his work. His Small Fry cartoons made me think of Peanuts, though the earliest of them easily predate Peanuts & L'il Folks by a decade. I wonder if this was a source for Peanuts. There's no mention of Steig in the index of the recent, controversial David Michaelis biography of Charles Schulz.

There were a lot of visitors yesterday, so I'd say that they are having a successful opening. Plus they have some worth-while exhibits going on. I came for the building & then stayed for the shows.

Sunday, June 08, 2008

Striggio Mass in 40 parts & 60 parts

Davitt Moroney, conductor
Magnificat (Warren Stewart, artistic director)
Philharmonia Chorale (Bruce Lamott, director)
American Bach Soloists (Jeffrey Thomas, artistic director)
Schola Cantorum San Francisco (Paul Flight, director)
Perfect Fifth (Mark Sumner, artistic director)
Instrumental group including His Majestys Sagbutts and Cornetts,
with Wim Becu, contrabass sackbut

I was in Berkeley for the Saturday evening performance of Alessandro Striggio's Missa sopra Ecco sì beato giorno for 40 and 60 voices, led by Davitt Moroney, who re-discovered the piece after 4 centuries. Apparently this is the most extravagant choral piece every written, & it's such a novelty that I had to check it out.

For the full experience, I started by attending Moroney's afternoon lecture about the re-discovery & the historical & political context of the original performances of the Mass in 1567. Moroney thinks the piece was commissioned by the Medici family as part of an elaborate scheme to get the Habsburg Emperor to recognize the Medicis as first above all other Italian ducal families. If this was the case, the effort was a failure, but it makes for a good story of international intrigue surrounding the Mass. At the end of the lecture, someone jokingly asked Moroney when he would be writing "The de Medici Code", & he actually is thinking about writing a historical novel about Striggio!

The Mass is only 30 minutes long, & the program itself an intermissionless 80 minutes. It started out with a series of shorter pieces, mostly showing off the players of the ensemble His Majestys Sagbutts and Cornetts. The ensemble included a contrabass sackbutt, which looked like a 10 foot long trombone. It produced extremely low tones that were mellow, almost fluffy, in timbre & not at all brassy or raw sounding. The player manipulated it with impressive ease. It was impossible not to look & listen every time it was played.

The Mass itself was performed with 1 singer per part. The 5 double choruses stood on separate risers arrayed in a semi-circle. Choruses alternated wearing black or white shirts, so that they were easy to distinguish visually. Sometimes only 1 chorus is utilized, or 2 or 3. Sometimes the choruses answer one another. This adds a spatial element to the sound. When all 5 sing together, it is for special effects.

The climax is the Agnus Dei, when an additional 20 singers climbed onto the risers & joined the 40 already onstage. The voices have staggered entrances, so that the sound washes from the left to the right. One feels continuous pulses or waves of sound. It actually reminded me of the prelude to Das Rheingold.

The performance got an enthusiastic standing ovation from the sold out house. The audience even managed to get some rhythmic clapping going for a while. I think it's the first time I've ever witnessed that in this country, & it thrilled me almost as much as the concert itself. From the podium, Moroney told us, "Since there's only one piece with 60 vocal parts, we'll do it again." He encored the 60 part Agnus Dei so we could get another chance to savor this unique wash of sound.

The venue itself was a bit of a pain this evening. First of all for some reason there was a slow-moving line just to get into the church. Then there were rather desperate long lines for the very few restrooms. The audience was very attentive, but an older gentleman a few rows in front of me had a hearing aid that squealed several times during the performance. Each time, he corrected the problem by banging his hand against his ear.

Saturday, June 07, 2008

Das Rheingold at SF Opera

Tue June 3, 2008 8 pm

Conductor: Donald Runnicles
Director: Francesca Zambello

Wotan: Mark Delavan
Loge: Stefan Margita
Alberich: Richard Paul Fink
Fricka: Jennifer Larmore
Erda: Jill Grove
Mime: David Cangelosi
Fasolt: Andrea Silvestrelli
Fafner: Günther Groissböck
Donner: Charles Taylor
Wellgunde: Lauren McNeese
Flosshilde: Buffy Baggott
Woglinde: Catherine Cangiano
Froh: Jason Collins
Freia: Tamara Wapinsky

We have to wait until 2011 for the full cycle, but Tuesday night we got a 1st look at what is being billed as an American Ring. The evening began Bayreuth-style. All the house lights went down, then the 1st low rumblings of the prelude began. No unseemly applause for the conductor!

During the prelude they projected a sort of cosmic fly-by on the scrim. Stars & planets flew by. The sets are pretty spare, other than Nibelheim, which is set in a deep mine. Instead of a backdrop, there are digital projections. Cascading water for the 1st scene, clouds for the Valhalla scenes. I have a feeling we're going to see a lot of these projections as the cycle progresses. My first impression is of a production designed under financial constraints.

As for the American theme, Alberich is a grimy prospctor, the gods look like they have been invited to play croquet on the Great Gatsby's lawn, the giants are construction workers, & Erda may be an Indian princess. But America is a place, & the settings & projected images are pretty generic, lacking any sense of a specifically American locale. I feel like they could have pushed the American imagery much further. A native American scenario would be pretty provocative.

As one expects in a Ring staging, there are plenty of directorial touches. Loge appears as a silent witness at the very end of scene one. Donner & Froh are on-stage for most of scene two & given a lot of stage business. Jason Collins was a great actor as Froh. His Froh was smug, juvenile & spoiled. If they ever do an opera about George Bush, he's the one to cast. Fricka came across as a somewhat silly, shallow woman. Even while she's scolding Wotan, he grabs her playfully & makes her laugh. This seems wrong for her character. The giants make an amusing entrance lowered by crane.

The Nibelheim is appropriately set in a dark but glowing mine shaft. The oppressed Nibelungen miners are terrorized children. When Alberich appears, they surround him, reaching out to him beseechingly, so it's clear that they are dependent upon him as well as in fear of him. I found it chilling. However, Alberich's transformation into a "Wurm" was lame. It's a huge projection of a slithering snake.

In the final scene, Alberich is led onstage with hands tied behind his back & a sack over his head, looking like a terrorist suspect. Wotan is brutal in wresting the ring from him, shoving him to the floor from behind, then crushing his hand with the spear. When the giants return with Freia, the implication is that a romantic relationship has developed between Friea & Fasolt. They did a similar thing in the Chicago Lyric Ring, & it adds an interesting layer of emotion to the action.

The rainbow bridge was a gangway lowered from the wings, so the gods looked like they were boarding a cruise ship. Having seen 5 different productions of this opera by now, I've given up the hope of ever seeing anything resembling a rainbow or a bridge here (well, actually there is a rear-screen projection of a rainbow). The Rheinmaidens appear on stage in the last moments to plead their case in person, but are left in a pose of despair. Loge does not join the gods in Valhalla, instead remaining onstage to set Wotan's building contract on fire.

I like Runnicles generally, but he occasionally turns in very sloppy performances like this one. The orchestra sounded under-rehearsed. Instead of moving from climax to climax, the music just kept flowing along, nothing standing out particularly from anything else. There were some intonation problems with the woodwinds as the evening progressed, as well as a few minor horn bloopers. Still, on balance I think the opera orchestra sounds as good as it ever has. The trumpet solos were spot on. I thoroughly enjoyed concert master Key Stern's gorgeous solos.

As for the singers, I liked Andrea Silvestrelli's deep, resonant voice & his portrayal of Fasolt, who is the only sympathetic character in the whole opera. Richard Paul Fink gave a great snarling, singing/acting performance as Alberich, especially in the final scene. He gives an over-all impression of great strength. I think Alberich is really the main character in this opera. Stefan Margita as Loge was a rock of vocal stability. He consistently produced a beautiful, focused, clear sound, always sounded in control, & was convincingly sardonic. Mark Delavan sounded lighter than one would expect for Wotan & paced himself well. His voice never flagged from start to finish.

I also have to note that the scene changes were very noisy. The audience was treated to shouting as well as clunks & thuds & scrapes. It gave the negative impression that the set design must be really clumsy. The anvil choirs seem to have been pre-recorded, which was very disappointing.