Wednesday, September 22, 2004

Villanzon survives Sutherland

I finally caught up with the SF Opera's current staging of
Verdi's "La Traviata", starring Ruth Ann Swenson and
Rolando Villanzon.

It has been reported that Villanzon was a Merola
Opera Program participant here in SF back in 1998,
yet before hearing him tonight, I simply had no
recollection whatsoever of previous local exposure
to his name, or even the face in the pictured in the
program bio.

But last night, once Alfredo started singing, I
immediately recalled that voice in an almost eerie
way. Yes, I have heard Villanzon before, it was at
a masterclass given by none other than Dame Joan
Sutherland, sponsored by the Merola Opera Program
back in 1998. Even then, the young Villanzon had
good poise, a very memorable and distinctive dark
timbre, as well as a ringing quality that is
remarkably similar to that of Placido Domingo.

At that particular open masterclass, I remember
feeling a great urge to tell the Dame to shut up,
not because she made any xenophobic remarks
about immigrants, but because over the course of
a three hour session Sutherland had absolutely
nothing of value to impart upon the youthful singers.

She stopped Villanzon's beautiful "Pourquoi me
reveiller" every other bar, sometimes to share little
tales that had precious little to do with what was
being attempted at hand.

It was simply appalling; it was as if the Dame wasn't
interested in any of these singers, and didn't even
want to extend them the courtesy of pretending that
she was. Constantly talking about herself, she even
found a way of dissing criticism of her diction,
written some 20 years before.

Villanzon has obviously overcome that sorry session,
and his pairing with Ruth Ann Swenson in this Traviata
was very satisfying. He is shows quite a bit of stage
magnetism for a guy that's got a relatively small
physique. He sings in well shaped phrases and polished
vocalism, and like Swenson, the delivery is impressive.

Vocally, the only fault of these two is that yet every vocal
trick sounds a bit on the safe side; everything is so
securely rendered that the performance lacks a little
in "danger," and the adrenaline that comes with it.

Billy Budd: the Indomitable docks in SF

I'm glad to see The Indomitable docking at so many
places around the world at once. Benjamin Britten's
opera "Billy Budd" is a very special work. It was a great
privilege to see my first live performance of this work
in such a splendid production as the one unveiled
last night in San Francisco.

Nathan Gunn is quite good as Billy, the character comes
naturally to him, and of course, he's got the ultimate
physique du rĂ´le for the part. Nate's pecs still look
awesome, and it seems like he's been spending time in
a tanning booth, too.

But for my money, I find John Claggart by far a more
interesting character. Claggart's "O beauty, o
handsomeness goodness" is one of the most fascinating
operatic soliloquies ever written, a creepy self-analysis of
such harsh, terrifying honesty, that instead of bringing
a deliverance to Claggart, it ultimately causes his own
demise, and he takes Billy along with him. It is also
central to the opera and sends Claggart into a path of
destruction akin to that of Salieri in Peter Shaffer's
"Amadeus," when he decides to destroy Mozart, one of
God's supreme creations.

The SF Opera's Claggart was bass Phillip Ens. He delivered
a serious character study and a committed reading, but
one which didn't sound vocally ideal to me. Britten is a great
composer for the voice, and my personal preference would
have been for a little more warmth in the lyrical passages
of Claggart's great soliloquy, juxtaposed against a more
roaring, enraged verismo resonance for the character
defining declamation, "I will destroy you!"

I'd love to hear John McVeigh's current Novice at the Washington
Opera in in D.C. (I love his Emilio in the Partenope recording
from the Gottingen Festival), but tenor Harold Gray Meers did
an excellent job in this emotionally wrenching, difficult and
traumatized character's part.

The chorus also did a superb job. The choral writing in Billy
Budd is brilliant, firmly webbed to the dramatic fabric, rather
than simply in the manner of specious manifestations to
provide variety.

Otherwise, people who are skipping this opera because it
doesn't have any female dramatis personae to hit the high
notes don't know what they're missing. Besides, this being
Britten, there's always going to be cherubic voiced little boys
running around.

Tuesday, September 21, 2004

Ruth Ann skips E-flat, too

In a perfect world, you'd have a car in every garage,
a chicken in every pot, and a high e-flat at the end
of every cabaletta. When I heard that lazy Ruth Ann
Swenson was skipping Violetta's optional e-flat (even
though she's got one), I almost stayed home to watch
the final episode of The Amazing Race instead.

To see an opulent, traditional hoopskirts and
chandeliers Traviata wihtout the e-flat is like going
to a three ring circus without the elephants.

Sunday, September 12, 2004

Cosi fan tutte at SF Opera:
Thus do they all in a time of war

Truly stunning musical moments last night at the
SF Opera's Cosi fan tutte, the formal opening of the opera's
2004/05 season. I constantly found myself very happy
while sitting at the Opera House, and that's always a
good sign. And conductor Michael Gielen is such a
genius! This was a performance of phenomenal polish;
it felt like hearing this opera for the first time. Just goes
to show what can be accomplished with a few extra

Mean-spirited NYC Met groupies nearly ran soprano
Alexandra Deshorties out of town after her disastrous
MET Constanze last year, so I was quite worried that
her Fiordiligi would be a compromised one. Nonsense.
While the great Rondo "Per pieta, ben mio" was quite
involved and exciting, Deshorties' "Come scoglio" was
simply one of the most perfect readings I've ever heard
of this aria, or even any aria, in a live performance.
Claudia Mahnke's Dorabella, Paul Groves' Ferrando, and
all others, were all in superb from. And to have Flicka
von Stade as Despina was just icing on the cake.

Of course, this was not the new production of Cosi
Pamela Rosenberg wanted to present, that one was
scrapped as a cost-cutting measure, and this was the
stop gap one. This production is set during WWI, at a
luxury hotel at a coastal Mediterranean resort town.

Director John Cox alleges that Da Ponte tells us very
little about the background of the characters in Cosi,
and insinuates that Da Ponte only sets the tale in
Naples because he wants to gain favor with his then
lady friend, Adriana Ferrarese del Bene.

Cox feels that, by setting it at an identifiable time of war,
the tale becomes more "real" because the sister's fear of
losing their boyfriends in battle is made into a point of
contact with the audience.

In fact, at the opera's final moments, Cox goes as far as
adding proceedings extraneous to the original libretto:
after all is revealed, Ferrando and Guiglielmo are actually
recalled into battle -- for real this time -- and the two
bid adieu to the sisters once again. This device also
serves the purpose that it vindicates as valid the
confusing, hurtful and ambiguous feelings that the
sisters experience, while they are caught up in the
imbroglio conceived by Don Alfonso.

Frankly, this feels like warmed over Jonathan Miller [the
obtuse English director] to me. What bothers me is not
that fear and devastation of war are not subtexts present
in Mozart's music for this opera, it is just that, as a
concept and adaptation, it is too facile, simplistic, and
blatant. So if opera is an interpretive art form, you'd hope
its interpretive manifestations could be a bit more
challenging than this.

Surely one agrees that there is absolutely nothing fun
about war, but listening carefully to the score of this
opera, one hears that Mozart's only reference to war in
Cosi is jocular music in jocular spirit, the "Bella vita militar"
chorus. A more wild and wacky konzept European regisseur
would at least have made things ambiguous and
non-sensical enough to keep you guessing, and that way
at least you could choose to ignore the unfunny war
business it if you didn't want to deal with it.

So the plot of Cosi fan tutte is pretty ludicrous. But I
believe that there has got to be more original and poignant
ways of looking at the illusion of love's permanence, or the
frailty of human nature, if one listens to what Mozart has
put into the score.