Monday, January 22, 2007

2007-08 opera by the Bay

Philip Glass, by Annie Leibovitz

I attended the San Francisco Opera's press conference this morning, mostly because I wanted to hear Philip Glass talk. He didn't disappoint, as he made a convincing case for his new opera Appomattox, which the company will premiere in October.

Glass spoke inspiringly about Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee, mentioning how no leaders currently in the world stage rise up to the level of these civil war generals. Lee and Grant met face to face, and ended the most devastating of all American wars with remarkably little residual bitterness, giving it a finality that allowed the nation to move on with dignity. Set on a libretto by Christopher Hampton, the Appomattox premiere continues in a way Glass' epic depictions of larger than life historical entities: Einstein, Akhnaten, Ghandi, etc. Andrew Shore and Dwayne Croft will create the roles of the two generals, respectively, conducted by Dennis Russell Davies.

The SF Opera 2007-08 season looks pretty promising on paper, except that it will open with the company's old production of Saint-Saëns' SAMSON AND DELILAH. During the conference, David Gockley said it is one of the "most beautiful" productions that SF Opera owns, but let's be real: they are restaging this turkey as an excuse to present Olga Borodina in something that won't take too much rehearsal time to put together.


It will be fun to see a new TANNHÄUSER at SFO, solidly cast with Peter Seiffert in the title role, Petra Maria Schitzer as Elisabeth and the return of Eric Halfvarson, the terrific Hagen of the SF Opera's 1999 Ring Cycle. I saw Graham Vick's Meistersinger in London a few years ago and it wasn't at all bad; we'll see how he does with this.

And it is about time we got a new MAGIC FLUTE in San Francisco; the existing production was among the weakest of David Hockney's creations. Don't know how original this (new to San Francisco) Maurice Sendak production will be, but at least it will be something different to look at. I would have been happy even with the Gerald Scarfe production from the LA Opera, but what will help for sure is a fresh and promising new cast, with Christopher Maltman's company debut as Papageno; Rebecca Evans (whom Runnicles called "delicious" at the conference) as Pamina; Piotr Beczala as Tamino; Georg Zeppenfeld as Sarastro; and Erika Miklósa as the Queen.

Rebecca Evans: delicious!

A new production of Puccini's LA RONDINE showcases the company debut of Angela Gheorghiu, assuming of course, that Madame Gheorgiu will actually show up. Anna Christy, the unspectacular Cunegonde of Robert Carsen's recent Candide at the Theatre du Chatelet, is the cast as Lisette in this Nicolas Joël production.

According to Gockley, the production of Verdi's MACBETH is a remnant of Pamela Rosenberg's planning that he was happy to keep. I'm sure the fact that Thomas Hampson was in the cast had something to do with it; but Runnicles promised that Doina Dimitriu (as Lady Macbeth) will be a voice to remember.

A new production of THE RAKE’S PROGRESS by Igor Stravinsky will bring back Laura Aikin (the one-winged blue angel from St. François d'Assise) and James Morris; but the Gockley's casting splurge on this production is Denyce Graves' Baba the Turk. William Burden sings Tom Rakewell.

For sheer entertainment value, the summer 2008 season takes the cake. Wagner's DAS RHEINGOLD launches what will eventually be Francesca Zambello's new Ring Cycle (slated in SF for the summer of 2011). A co-production with the Washington Opera, Zambello's Ring will be inspired by American iconography. Mark Delavan's Wotan is an interesting casting choice, one that many will be eager to hear, along with the unlikely casting of Jennifer Larmore as Fricka. Runnicles conducts.

Zambello's Rhine: Ain't we got fun

The second summer selection comes in the form of the Dallas Opera production of Handel's ARIODANTE, with Patrick Summers leading a truly stellar cast, headed by Susan Graham, Ruth Ann Swenson, Ewa Podles, Eric Owens and Richard Croft. The John Copley production will no doubt be dressed in period splendor, but it will be more interesting to assess Patrick Summers' credentials on Handelian rep.

Vocally, it is hard to erase the memory of Ruth Ann Swenson's fabulous LUCIA DI LAMMERMOOR of a few years back. But if anyone can do it, it would be the amazing French coloratura Natalie Dessay, making her company debut as the uxoricidal heroine.

In any case, if you want more details you can find a copy of the SF Opera's official press release here.

© 2007 C. Chang

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Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Cadavers on stage: Bieito's Wozzeck in Madrid

I managed to crash the opening night of Calixto Bieito`s production of Berg´s Wozzeck at the Teatro Real in Madrid last Friday. This was the premiere of this production in the Spanish capital, first seen in Barcelona´s Gran Teatre del Liceu last season. The Spanish Royals were not in attendance, but the Teatro could have used the extra security that evening. I have never in my life witnessed such vociferous booing, feet stomping and whistle calls during curtains, not even when soccer player David Beckham got canned at the Real Madrid. But, I think even the booers at Teatro Real realized what we had just seen something quite extraordinary.

Yes, there were some gruesome, very disturbing scenes as expected, particularly having to do with the doctors experiments: he rubs a naked male cadaver, as if preparing to perform a liposuction. Later, he does the same to a female cadaver, and proceeds to lick her body parts, all the while having his casual exchanges with Franz. There are also bloody fights, vomiting, and religious sacrilege (Marie, as she prays to the bible, rips it to shreds and throws the pieces around the stage). At one time, there were so many naked people on stage, you´d think you were participating in a Stephen Tunick installation.

Calixto denies that he tries to become the protagonist of every opera he directs -- of course, I don´t believe it. But I also think in that, in this case at least, it is a very theatrically effective, coherent production. This is not Madama Butterfly, or Ballo in Maschera, operas bathed in tradition and belcanto splendor. Berg´s score lends itself to this sort of edge, with its disjointed scenes stiched together by a score of claustrophobic rumbles, cacophonous alienation, culminating in visceral, psychotic expostulations. This also worked because the performances were simply UNBELIEVABLE, an entire cast of stupendous singing actors! As Marie, Angela Denoke was fabulosa, singing with the hair-raising intensity of a Hildegard Berehns but also with a gorgeous voice. Wozzeck was amazing as well, a guy I never heard of before called Jochen Schmeckenbecher. The necrophiliac doctor was Johann Till and the Drum Major was Jon Villars. Except for Bieito, everyone was warmly applauded.

I was of course prepared for controversy, violence and nudity. What I was not prepared for was what a visually stunning production this was. Predominantly black, gray and red, this Wozzeck is set in a petroleum refinery, with a maze of tubes (think roof of Centre Pompidou) leading nowhere in particular. Wozzeck and the other soldiers become refinery workers, the Drum Major an Elvis impersonator.

The booing was very loud and demonstrative, even for warm blooded Madrileños. I can´t say that I entirely understand the psychology of the audience, but I suspect some of the were boing is because they know that booing is what Calixto wants, and they are just obediently showing the chosen form of praise in Calixto´s universe.

© 2007 C. Chang

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Saturday, January 13, 2007

Concert Chasing in Prague

Statue of Il Commendatore outside the Stavovske Divadlo in Prague, the theater where Don Giovanni was premiered

Chalk it to my lack of exposure to the town, but if you ask me, the Prague concert scene is kinda weird. Apparently, anyone can get a booking on the calendar in Prague.

When you are a tourist, there are these people following you around town, handing out flyers for crappy concerts (a string sextet of locals playing Vivaldi's Four Seasons and Gounod's Ave-Maria, for instance), and some of these concerts actually take place at respectable historical venues. One of these characters with flyers approached me, trying to sell a ticket for a Mozart Requiem ("with big orchestra," he said) for 1000 Czech corunas. I walked away, and they came back and lowered the price to 800 corunas. After offering a third reduction to 500 corunas, the seller's desperation was palpable, making me increasingly uncomfortable. I didn't know what else to do, so I just excused myself by saying that I didn't like Mozart.

Then, more billable talent is actually promoted in a way that is wholly disproportionate, in a way that in the U.S. would befit pop stars. Announcing a recital by Rolando Villazon at the end February, the Prague promoters had his giant posters placed at virtually every train and metro stop in town. And the ticket prices weren't much more above the asking price of the forementioned big-orchestra-Requiem.

Rolando Villazon poster at a bus stop in the burbs of Prague

So the choice I made was to attend a new production of La Clemenza di Tito at the Stavovske Divadlo, the very theater where this opera was premiered, in 1791. Composed for Prague's coronation of Leopold II, this was the opera that just about killed Mozart, rather ironic considering how the Czechs have adopted Mozart as if he was one of their own. We bought tickets from someone outside the theater near curtain time for 800 crowns apiece, and ended up with a box all to ourselves. Standing room tickets, I found out, cost only 30 crowns (about US$1.50).

The production was an ultra-modern affair, in chic modern dress, with an all-white "tunnel" set. The staging often had characters rolling on the floor convulsing, as in tortured Kafkaesque character studies. Vocally, a few bright moments, but rather disappointing overall. Most of the cast was made of local names with lots of haceks, and Titus in particular could really go back to the studio and sing some more Caro mio ben and Vaccai exercises. The one bright exception was the American mezzo Kate Aldrich, who delivered Sesto's great arias brilliantly. I am told she was one of the Carmens recently in San Francisco.

© 2007 C. Chang

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Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Candidly in Paris

I spent New Year's réveillon in Paris, and le talk of town was the Robert Carsen production of Bernstein's Candide at the Theatre du Chatelet. Praised by the French press and sold-out to packed houses, even my friend Rene's mother had heard about it and wanted to see it, so I had no choice but go check it out. We went to the last performance of the Chatelet run, on Dec. 31, and tickets were expensive and hard to find. Apparently, many Parisians had the same idea we did: see the show, then afterwards walk down the Seine to watch le feux d'artifice displays.

A few flashes of genuine insight at times, Carsen's production is very creative in a Mark Morris sort of way -- even the use of video at the beginning reminds one of the Hard Nut. But unlike Morris, the production feels gimmicky because it takes itself too seriously. Frankly, La Scala did this turkey a favor by creating the cancellation controversy, for their action elevated this Candide non-event to the level of an international headline.

The entire stage is framed by a giant vintage TV set, and the show opens with Voltaire giving the audience the finger. The production's key shtick is the stylized American iconography. Poking fun at the U.S. always goes well with European audiences. The White House, Bush, Jackie O, even an archetypal Lewinsky-type intern show up on stage, while Cunegonde's "Glitter and Be Gay" is staged as a pantomime of Marilyn Monroe in "Diamonds Are A Girl's Best Friend." The much publicized "politicians in underwear" scene is just a bit plain too silly, as opposed to offensive. Carsen's greatest moment of brilliance was at the end, when the great "Make our garden grow" ensemble was sung against a video projection of smoke stacks, polution, desertification, melting glaciers and a shrinking planet earth.

The evening would have been much more satisfying had the musical performances been stronger. With a provincial sounding pick-up band led by American expat John Axelrod, William Burden's Candide was overmiked, while Anna Christy's Cunegonde was downright grating.

© 2007 C. Chang

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