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