Thursday, June 28, 2018

The Incredibles 2

On Tuesday night I saw The Incredibles 2 at my local movie theater, with an audience mostly of adults. The show included the animated short Bao, touted as the first Pixar short directed by a woman. In this wordless film, clearly set in a North American city, a Chinese mother makes a dumpling that magically comes to life as a baby, which she then raises into an adult. The story builds to a discomfiting climax, while being cute & affectionate all the way. The realistically depicted food is instantly recognizable to anyone who has eaten home-cooked Chinese meals, & the whole thing is perhaps a gentle commentary on the ties of dependency in traditional families.

I was happy that The Incredibles 2 is pretty much the same as the first Incredibles, with its humorous take on family life with kids, mixed with cartoonish action scenes & catastrophes avoided by a hair's breadth. There are a couple of dialogue-heavy scenes making up the exposition that make a complex issue out of whether or not super heroes should be allowed to use their powers in a law-based society. I was frequently distracted by details of the visual design, which depicts a hyped-up version of the 1960s. We even get glimpses of Johnny Quest & The Twilight Zone appearing on TV sets.

Satirical scenes featuring Edna Mode with baby Jack-Jack are a highlight. The theater sound system made it seem at one point that Jack-Jack had leapt out of the screen & into the auditorium. The movie's stylish, symphonic score also sounded great. I was impressed by the visualization of falling through the wormholes in space created by one of the movie's supporting cast superheroes.

§ Bao (2018)
USA | 8min | Dir. Domee Shi

§ Incredibles 2 (2018)
USA | 1h 58min | Dir. Brad Bird

Friday, June 22, 2018

SF Opera Ring Cycle 2

After the rigamarole of claiming prime standing room spots for the 1st cycle of San Francisco Opera's Ring Festival, it was a relief to attend the 1st two performances of cycle 2 sitting on the floor at the back of the balcony, with just the libretto to look at. The upstairs railing was full up, & during Rheingold I was next to people reading the score & a woman who curled up on the floor & napped for 2 and half hours.

I feel like the orchestra's playing improved steadily throughout the 1st cycle, & the sound was tremendous from up there. My ears were frequently drawn to the strings, clarinets & trumpets. Conductor Donald Runnicles made the music swell without pushing the tempos.

The cast practically flaunts its vocal strength & stamina. Tenor Štefan Margita, with the supple clarity of his voice, articulate expression & physical charisma, is an ideal Loge. Tenor Brandon Jovanovich sang Siegmund with heft, lyricism & energy to spare. It felt like he could have held the fermata on "Wälse!" for twice as long without a problem. Soprano Karita Mattila did not always sing Sieglinde with accuracy, but her broad, syrupy voice is so novel that I enjoyed hearing her nonetheless. The ardent expressiveness of mezzo Jamie Barton's singing as Fricka was impressive.

The audience applauded soprano Iréne Theorin's Brünnhilde after her 1st short scene in the 2nd act of Die Walküre, & there was laughter during the Wotan/Fricka scene. There was also delighted applause for the parachuting Valkyries in act 3. In Rheingold, the Nibelungs' screaming is terrific. It was great running into many opera friends at these performances, & I had fun taking in the lively atmosphere of Brünnhilde's Biergarten, which indeed offered beers, pretzels & wursts.

Conductor, Donald Runnicles
Director, Francesca Zambello

Alberich, Falk Struckmann
Fricka, Jamie Barton
Fafner, Raymond Aceto
Donner, Brian Mulligan
Freia, Julie Adams
Woglinde, Stacey Tappan
Wellgunde, Lauren McNeese
Flosshilde, Renée Tatum

Tuesday, 06/19/18, 7:30PM
War Memorial Opera House

§ Die Walküre
San Francisco Opera Ring Cycle 1

Conductor, Donald Runnicles
Director, Francesca Zambello

Brünnhilde, Iréne Theorin
Wotan, Greer Grimsley
Sieglinde, Karita Mattila
Siegmund, Brandon Jovanovich
Fricka, Jamie Barton
Hunding, Raymond Aceto
Siegrune, Laura Krumm
Grimgerde, Renée Rapier
Ortlinde, Sarah Cambidge
Gerhilde, Julie Adams
Rossweisse, Lauren McNeese
Schwertleite, Nicole Birkland
Helmwige, Melissa Citro
Waltraute, Renée Tatum

Wednesday, 06/20/18, 7:00pm
War Memorial Opera House

Tuesday, June 19, 2018

SF Opera Götterdämmerung 1

Each time conductor Donald Runnicles appeared in the pit for the Sunday matinee of San Francisco Opera's Götterdämmerung, the audience gave more cheers & applause for the maestro & the orchestra. I feel like the orchestra's playing has steadily improved over the course of this 1st cycle. There was striking playing from all sections & an over-all sheen to the orchestra's sound. I never thought I would pay so much attention to the bass trumpet or bass clarinet. The brass playing was clean yet brash. The horn solos, both from offstage & the pit, sounded courageous & glinting. The strings were vibrant. Maestro Runnicles led the music in an unbroken flow, continually swelling & exhaling, & the opera's big orchestral passages were enthralling.

The opening Norns scene was gripping, all 3 singers sounding dusky & focused, accompanied by a murky & restless orchestra. It was nice to hear mezzo Jamie Barton twice, as a Norn & as Waltraute. Her voice is hearty, with strong low notes, & there are lots of colors to her singing.

Director Francesca Zambello managed to find humor in the Gibichungs Hall scene. Soprano Melissa Citro was a strong-voiced Gutrune, & she comically minced about the stage, conscientiously tidying the furniture, plumping couch pillows & posing herself in preparation for Siegfried's arrival. Baritone Brian Mulligan has an even, taut & pleasing voice, & his Gunther is a decent man who realizes too late that he's a pawn in Hagen's game. Andrea Silvestrelli's hollow, resonant voice is distinctive, & he was a chilling Hagen. I enjoyed every moment of his performance. Bass-baritone Falk Struckmann was a dark, insinuating Alberich. He often enunciated the text spitefully.

Tenor Daniel Brenna has a bounding, easy-going stage manner & was an endearing Siegfried. His voice is somewhat light, but unforced & with clear, bright high notes. His act 3 narrative was lively & engaging, & he sang his death scene affectingly in short, expressive phrases. Soprano Iréne Theorin sings with sustained strength, & her Brünnhilde was consistently stalwart. She varied her performance with a controlled pianissimo during her immolation scene.

Visual impact comes primarily from large digital projections on the scrim & the back of the stage, & the production relies on constantly shifting images of industrial landscapes & natural phenomenon to make its points. I was impressed at how quiet the many scene changes behind the scrim were.

Throughout the opera we see all the female personages physically attacked by men in some way, & the final scene pointedly puts only women on stage. Gutrune witnesses "Starke Scheite" while women dump rifles, tires, debris & Siegfried's body off the back of the stage. Projections depict an apocalyptic snow of portraits of the cast. In the closing moments a girl comes on stage to plant a sapling.

The audience was dedicated & attentively quiet throughout. The only time I noticed people exiting early was during the 1st act. There was a standing ovation from the orchestra level & extended applause & cheering, especially when the scrim went up to reveal the orchestra members on stage, holding up their instruments & waving to us. It was great to see the French horn player singled out. Ring attendees could collect "I Survived!" buttons as they left the theater. Even though this was a matinee performance, my head was so filled with music that I couldn't get to sleep until 2am.

§ Götterdämmerung
San Francisco Opera 2018 Ring Cycle 1

Conductor, Donald Runnicles
Director, Francesca Zambello

Brünnhilde, Iréne Theorin
Siegfried, Daniel Brenna
Gunther, Brian Mulligan
Hagen, Andrea Silvestrelli
Waltraute, Jamie Barton
Gutrune, Melissa Citro
Alberich, Falk Struckmann
First Norn, Ronnita Miller
Second Norn, Jamie Barton
Third Norn, Sarah Cambidge
Woglinde, Stacey Tappan
Wellgunde, Lauren McNeese
Flosshilde, Renée Tatum

Sunday, 06/17/18, 1:00pm
War Memorial Opera House

Sunday, June 17, 2018

SF Opera Siegfried 1

The 1st act of San Francisco Opera's Siegfried on Friday seemed to go by much faster than its 80 minute running time. The orchestra under conductor Donald Runnicles sounded bouncy, & the musicians' playing was agile & detailed. Tenor David Cangelosi was a lively Mime. His exuberant physical performance included dances & cartwheels, & his singing was expressive & fluent. Tenor Daniel Brenna was a rambunctious Siegfried, & his relaxed, almost casual, stage presence put me at ease. His voice is on the lighter side, a bit gritty & somewhat bright. Mr. Brenna had fun with the role & was playful & jolly in the forging scene, which demonstrated the sword-making steps clearly. As The Wanderer, Greer Grimsley sounded predominantly angry. His voice is big, centered & penetrating. Siegfried's bear was mischievous, & his antics included stealing a bag of potato chips from Mime's trailer.

I found the setting for act 2 to be confusing. We seem to be in an abandoned warehouse, with Fafner lying in wait just outside. Bass-baritone Falk Struckmann gave a dark portrayal of Alberich, sometimes snarling & declaiming the text rather than singing it, & his voice was focussed & firm. It wasn't clear to me why he had a shopping cart filled with Molotov cocktails. Bass Raymond Aceto sang Fafner with smooth phrasing, & his death scene was pitiable. In this staging the Forest Bird is a perky girl in a trench coat, & soprano Stacey Tappan sounded fit & bright, with chirpy high notes. The extended off-stage horn solo had good pacing & a modulated tone & was nearly flawless.

The playing of the orchestral passages in act 3 was brilliant. The prelude was vigorous & weighty. The violins' high, meandering music in the transition to scene 3 sounded eerie & translucent, & the orchestra's depiction of the Brünnhilde's awakening was gleaming. The brasses had far fewer bloopers than previous nights. Mezzo Ronnita Miller sang a rooted, imperturbable Erda & displayed baritonal low notes. Soprano Iréne Theorin's voice is brawny, & her Brünnhilde sounded consistently strong, even when she sang quietly. Siegfried seemed bemused by her behavior, at times even laughing at her.

There was a small baby at the back of the auditorium during the beginning of act 1 for some reason. So far I haven't seen as many Ring costumes worn by attendees as I was expecting, though I did spot a pair of gentlemen wearing lederhosen & horned helmets, & Opera Tattler was evidently paying tribute to Siegfried's bear.

§ Siegfried
San Francisco Opera Ring Cycle 1

Conductor, Donald Runnicles
Director, Francesca Zambello

Siegfried, Daniel Brenna
Brünnhilde, Iréne Theorin
Mime, David Cangelosi
The Wanderer, Greer Grimsley
Alberich, Falk Struckmann
Fafner, Raymond Aceto
Erda, Ronnita Miller
Forest Bird, Stacey Tappan

Friday, 06/15/18, 6:30pm
War Memorial Opera House 

Friday, June 15, 2018

SF Opera Walküre 1

From the 1st moments of San Francisco Opera's Die Walküre on Wednesday evening, the orchestra played with vigor & a purposeful forward momentum. The strings were unified & incisive, & there were beautifully sweet solos from the entire woodwind section, especially the clarinets & oboes. The brasses popped out boldly.

Tenor Brandon Jovanovich was a virile Siegmund, his singing connected, resonant & urgent. Soprano Karita Mattila as Sieglinde did not sound as youthful, but I enjoyed her wide, viscous voice & compelling acting. In this staging, Sieglinde is clearly a captive, & in act 2 she portrayed that trauma movingly. As Hunding, bass Raymond Aceto was appropriately predatory. He makes a nice sound, & his singing was firm. The 2 dogs that ran across the stage before the fight between Hunding & Siegmund in act 2 really seemed to be chasing something.

Soprano Iréne Theorin was a startlingly hyperactive Brünnhilde when she entered in act 2. Her voice was sturdy & aggressive, & her stamina was immediately apparent. She varied her performance by singing loudly or softly. Mezzo Jamie Barton was a furious & confident Fricka, her singing shining & clear with lots of vocal color. The staging of her dispute with Wotan included humorous moments that got the audience laughing, & her fiery performance was like a punch in the face. Bass-baritone Greer Grimsley has a big, powerful voice, & his delivery as Wotan was consistently stentorian. His sound carried even when he was far upstage during his final lines of the opera.

During the opening of act 3, the audience applauded for the valkyries descending by parachute & for the portraits of fallen soldiers. The valkyries each sang out assertively, & it was sometimes possible to distinguish individual singers. The production requires a lot of acting from the cast, & it was nice that everyone moved well on stage. The real fire that courses round the set at the end of the opera is a fine spectacle.

§ Die Walküre
San Francisco Opera Ring Cycle 1

Conductor, Donald Runnicles
Director, Francesca Zambello

Brünnhilde, Iréne Theorin
Wotan, Greer Grimsley
Sieglinde, Karita Mattila
Siegmund, Brandon Jovanovich
Fricka, Jamie Barton
Hunding, Raymond Aceto
Siegrune, Laura Krumm
Grimgerde, Renée Rapier
Ortlinde, Sarah Cambidge
Gerhilde, Julie Adams
Rossweisse, Lauren McNeese
Schwertleite, Nicole Birkland
Helmwige, Melissa Citro
Waltraute, Renée Tatum

Wednesday, 06/13/18, 7:00pm
War Memorial Opera House

Wednesday, June 13, 2018

SFO Rheingold 1

At last night's opening of San Francisco Opera's Ring Cycle, there was confusion as to which door was for standing room ticket holders. It turned out that the system of lining up on numbered spaces on the pavement has been scrapped, & we had to organize ourselves at the door closest to Van Ness instead. There was a bit of agitation in line, but I was fortunate that friends slightly ahead of me were able to secure spots at the downstairs rail.

The orchestra & singers all performed vigorously. Even the Rheinmaidens were somewhat manful. Bass-baritone Falk Struckmann as Alberich had a secure & inviting tone, his singing articulated & clear. He was both villainous & giddy in the Nibelheim scene, especially when he picked up & threw a tiny Nibelungen. Tenor Štefan Margita's effortlessly supple & reedy voice is a marvel & a constant pleasure to listen to, & he portrayed Loge convincingly as an absolute snake.

As Wotan, bass-baritone Greer Grimsley sounded confident & direct. His sturdy voice made me think of a tree trunk. Mezzo Ronnita Miller's Erda was commanding, her voice firm, wide & majestic. It was great hearing the distinctively cavernous bass voice of Andrea Silvestrelli as a lovesick Fasolt. I also really enjoyed mezzo Jamie Barton's beautifully even & shimmering singing as Fricka. She communicated imperiousness as well as tenderness. Tenor Brandon Jovanovich sang lyrically and was a funny actor as an effete Froh.

The orchestra played out for conductor Donald Runnicles, especially the brasses, who were bold even when there were bloopers. I'd forgotten how funny the staging by director Francesca Zambello is. When Erda descends back into the Earth, there's a slapstick moment when Wotan practically falls in head-first after her.

The mythological characters are all completely human here, wearing costumes that evoke the California Gold Rush & The Gilded Age. The production relies heavily on large, constantly moving, video projections of fog, clouds, water, fire & rocky landscapes, that seem to have been upgraded from the 2011 version. I was glad that Donner's sparkler-shooting croquet mallet has been retained. The young Nibelungen supers were excellent screamers, truly shrill & terrifying.

Conductor, Donald Runnicles

Alberich, Falk Struckmann
Fricka, Jamie Barton
Fafner, Raymond Aceto
Freia, Julie Adams
Woglinde, Stacey Tappan
Wellgunde, Lauren McNeese
Flosshilde, Renée Tatum

Tuesday, 06/12/18, 7:30PM
War Memorial Opera Houes

Tuesday, June 12, 2018

San Francisco Opera 2018 Ring

San Francisco Opera's 2018 Ring Cycle, a revival of their 2011 production, conducted by Donald Runnicles & directed by Francesca Zambello, opens tonight. When I joined the line for standing room tickets this morning around 9:15am, there were a dozen or so people ahead of me. Those first in line had arrived before 7am. When the box office opened at 10am, the line had grown to about 40, & getting our tickets was a fast & orderly affair. This is a busy week for local opera buffs, & there were people in line attending both this & the San Francisco Symphony's presentation of Boris Godunov.

§ San Francisco Opera Ring Cycle 2018
June 12 – July 1, 2018

Sunday, June 10, 2018

Vox Luminis Performs Bach Motets

Ten singers from the Belgian early music ensemble Vox Luminis are appearing in the Berkeley Festival & Exhibition, & on Friday evening I heard their program of Bach motets. The group has a soft-edged, transparent sound, & the performance was flowing & numinous. The sopranos had lustrous high notes that seemed to sail through the air. Even though there was just one or two singers per part, the performers managed to make a distinction between chorus sections, with the voices blending, & solo passages, with individual voices standing out. I liked the easeful, sustainable tempos, which never pushed the music.

Artistic director Lionel Meunier sang as well as led, swaying & gesturing with one hand. He is hard to miss, being a good head taller than any of his colleagues. Haru Kitamika accompanied on a small organ, usually playing a brief prelude for each motet.

One of the sopranos clearly had recently broken her foot & had to be brought out in a wheelchair. She perched herself carefully on a stool during the performance, & though she must have been in discomfort the whole time, it was not apparent in her singing. The audience singled her out for applause whenever she came on & off stage.

After the printed portion of the program, Mr. Meunier addressed the audience. He obviously already has a relationship with the festival audience, & his manner was charming & funny. He joked that when he first heard the phrase "break a leg" in America, he had no idea what it meant but that he knows now. He announced that the group's latest CD, of Buxtehude cantatas, was being released at the festival & humorously cajoled us to attend their Sunday performance, which closes the festival.

As an encore, the group presented Johann Schelle's version of Komm, Jesu, komm, which Mr. Meunier explained was the precursor to Bach's setting of the same text. The music was sweet & serene.

§ Berkeley Festival & Exhibition

J.S. Bach Motets
Vox Luminis, Lionel Meunier, Artistic Director
Zsuzsi Tóth, Maria Valdmaa, Caroline Weynants, sopranos
Victoria Cassano, mezzo-soprano
Alexander Chance, Jan Kullmann, counter-tenors
Robert Buckland, Philippe Froeliger, tenors
Sebastian Myrus, Lionel Meunier, basses
Haru Kitamika, organ

Singet dem Herrn ein neues Lied, BWV 225
Der Geist hilft unser Schwachheit auf, BWV 226
Komm, Jesu, komm, BWV 229
Ich lasse dich nicht, BWV Anh. 159
Jesu, meine Freude, BWV 227

Encore: Komm, Jesu, komm, Johann Schelle

June 8, 2018 – 7:30pm
First Congregational Church, Berkeley

Friday, June 08, 2018

Voices of Music with the San Francisco Girls Chorus

Thursday night I attended a concert of the Berkeley Festival & Exhibition featuring the San Francisco Girls Chorus & Purcell's Dido & Aeneas. The program opened with 2 Vivaldi concertos, performed by the Voices of Music, an early music ensemble using Baroque instruments. The 13 musicians, plus conductor Hanneke van Proosdij at the harpsichord, had good rapport & listened to each other well. Their playing was cute & spirited. Violinist Alana Youssefian was soloist for the Concerto in D Major. I assumed that she improvised her cadenzas, which were appropriately fast, pointed & showy. The audience was so impressed that they applauded immediately after the 1st movement.

Valérie Sainte-Agathe led about 35 members of the The San Francisco Girls Chorus in 2 short contrasting works by Porpora & Vivaldi. The chorus sang from memory & sounded well-rehearsed & grounded. After intermission the chorus was featured in an arrangement of Dido & Aeneas for all female voices, apart from the role of Aeneas. The performance flowed smoothly. Solo roles were taken by members of the chorus, who sang & acted capably & projected the text clearly. It was nice to hear how distinct each of the young voices sounded, especially in contrast to the 2 adult soloists. The chorus ambled around the orchestra while singing one number, then during the final chorus they promenaded into the auditorium & handed out long-stemmed roses to the audience, eventually singing to us from the back of the hall.

Mezzo Mindy Ella Chu has a strong, sturdy voice & was a stern Dido. Baritone Jesse Blumberg has a lovely warm voice, slightly dark but burnished. His singing was tasteful & expressive, & he conveyed a variety of emotions throughout his brief appearances.

The audience was eager & appreciative, & it seemed like there were many parents in attendance. The performers received an enthusiastic standing ovation, & there was a very pleasant mood all around at the end of the show. Though the audience was quiet & attentive, someone's metal water bottle fell over with a clang at the end of one of the instrumental numbers in Dido, as if on cue. As were leaving, my concert companion pointed out that the next concert was about to start at 10pm, so these Berkeley Festival audiences must be dedicated lot.

§ Berkeley Festival & Exhibition

Voices of Music with the San Francisco Girls Chorus
Hanneke van Proosdij & David Tayler, directors

Concerto for strings in G Major "alla Rustica" RV 151
Antonio Vivaldi (1678-1741)

Concerto in D Major RV 212 "fatto per la Solennità della S. Lingua di S. Antonio in Padova"
Antonio Vivaldi (1678-1741)
Alana Youssefian, baroque violin solo

Nunc dimittis
Nicola Porpora (1686-1768)
Valérie Sainte-Agathe, conductor

Laetatus sum RV 607
Antonio Vivaldi (1678-1741)
Valérie Sainte-Agathe, conductor

Dido & Aeneas
Henry Purcell (1659-1695)
Soloists: Jesse Blumberg and Mindy Ella Chu

Thursday, June 7, 2018, 7:30p
First Congregational Church, Berkeley

Tuesday, June 05, 2018

SF Silent Film Festival Opening Night

When I entered the bustling lobby of the Castro Theatre for opening night of the SF Silent Film Festival, I was almost face to face with Kevin Brownlow, the great champion of silent film from way before it was cool. Sporting a festival baseball cap, he amiably chatted with audience members as if he were just another attendee. There were many women in period costume, & the crowd filled both the auditorium & the balcony.

A gleeful Rob Byrne, president of the festival’s board of directors, introduced the event & remembered Frank Buxton, a long-time festival sponsor & board member, who passed away earlier this year. Mr. Byrne read out a spirited proclamation honoring Mr. Buxton & presented it to Mr. Buxton’s widow & daughter. Mike Daruty, a senior executive at NBCUniversal, announced his company’s plans to restore 10 silent films, in addition to 15 that were announced at a previous festival.

The opening night film was NBCUniversal’s very clean 4K restoration of the 1928 The Man Who Laughs. The movie is a big-budget entertainment & a mature product of the silent era. We get a hero to pity, a villain to boo, a sentimental love story, ghoulish horror, comedy & a climactic chase, complete with rioting mob, sword fighting & rooftop stunts. Conrad Veidt plays the title character with elegance & taste, even in distinctly weird scenes involving his reactions to other characters' reactions to his grotesque disfigurement.

The Berklee Silent Film Orchestra, a tight ensemble of twelve musicians, performed a score by seven students of the Berklee College of Music. The music was in the style of traditional symphonic film music & set a strong emotional tone for each scene. It used a lot of repeated melodic motifs, & at various times I was reminded of Wagner, Philip Glass, Leonard Bernstein & Danny Elfman. The composers took turns conducting, quickly & invisibly replacing one another at the podium. The orchestra played with precision, & live sound effects were perfectly timed to the movie.

The specialist audience is one of the best things about this festival, & it was a thrill when the theater spontaneously erupted into joyful cheers & applause for Homo the Wolf at the movie's racing climax. The excitement extended into a thunderous standing ovation for the student composers & orchestra.

§ The Man Who Laughs
111 minutes | USA | 1928 | d. Paul Leni
Live musical accompaniment by the Berklee Silent Film Orchestra

§ San Francisco Silent Film Festival 2018
May 30, 2018, 7:00 pm
Castro Theatre