Friday, June 08, 2007

I'm on the paper

So The Berkeley Daily Planet has picked up my previous blog entry, and I'm mentioned in yesterday's editorial. Cool, I'm famous now!

© 2007 C. Chang

Monday, June 04, 2007

She is African, too

A friend wonders: "Why did they have to cancel the African American opera patrons dinner? After all, isn't Elza van den Heever African too?"

In any case, there is mounting evidence from different sources suggesting that Hope Briggs dismissal from SFO's Don Giovanni was not about race, but rather a carefully orchestrated deal to promote van den Heever, a new client of Matthew Epstein at CAMI.

A selected portion of an e-mail received from a credible anonymous source:

"... So, this supposedly "sudden" event has been planned for a long time, as I'm sure you suspected as well. Rhoslyn Jones was the official cover, and [her colleagues] had been hearing from her "why am I even here, sitting in rehearsals, spending all this time," because she knew that Elza was in the wings and was being rehearsed, and kept informed of the production -- very quietly. The only person who didn't know was Hope.

[...] Matthew Epstein works very sneakily. While Gockley is not known to be a fan of Elza's around the Opera Center, he was supposedly convinced long ago by Epstein to make a big press splash like this, not only for SFO and the summer season, but for his new client Elza, as well as dumping a singer chosen by Pamela. Of course it would've looked even worse if they cancelled Hope earlier, to only replace her with an Adler (either Roz or Elza)."

Elza Van den Heever is an Adler Fellow, which is essentially a glorified intern undergoing advanced training. So, if SFO had replaced Hope Briggs earlier, they would have felt obliged to find an artist of stature to replace her, thus derailing a calculated plan to offer Matt's client Elza her big break. This version of events seems at least more plausible than asking us to passively believe that Rosenberg's choice of Briggs could be so unfit as to merit an unceremonious dump at the last minute.

© 2007 C. Chang

Sunday, June 03, 2007

"Hopeless" Giovanni at SFO

There was a palpable tension and a fair amount of nail-bitting last night, at the opening night of W.A. Mozart's
Don Giovanni at the SF Opera.

Questo è il fin di chi fa mal ...

On one side, there were the boisterous supporters of Elza van den Heever, the young diva who earned her exciting assignment under controversial circumstances; and on the other, the embittered Briggs fans and predisposed skeptics awaiting to see the failings of this Don Giovanni as a confirmation of David Gockley heavy-handed managing style.

Soprano Hope Briggs, originally contracted by Pamela Rosenberg to sing Donna Anna, has performed throughout the Bay Area for nearly a decade now, and built up a modest yet solid following. Indeed, it is hard to find anyone who has seen Briggs give a poor performance, leading many observers to conclude that Gockley's last-minute dismissal of the singer from the production was driven by intramural politics.

Elza: stole the role, stole the show

The good news from the War Memorial last night is that the SF Opera has a thrilling Don Giovanni on stage this summer, and that Elza van den Heever had a great personal triumph in her company mainstage debut in the difficult role of Donna Anna. Even under the unusual circumstances, this stunning production (originally created at Brussels'
Theatre de la Monnaie) is a testament to the kind of opera Pamela Rosenberg wanted to show us in San Francisco. And politically motivated or not, the audience learned that we can trust Gockley to have enough survival instincts to never attempt a stunt like this without a strong back-up plan.

Brilliantly directed by David McVicar, the production has an unmistakably modern European sensibility: austere, architectural sets in shades of charcoal gray; the dark costuming with lots of knee-lenght coats; and a welcome dose of a little nonsense now and then. No trap doors for Giovanni in this production; his after-dinner hell is presented above ground, to great theatrical effect.

And I particularly liked how McVicar solved the theatrically problematic and usually ambiguous staging of Anna's
Non mi dir. In most productions, Ottavio usually just stands there like an idiot, and listens to Anna launch into her freakish coloratura outbursts. For once, Anna delivers the aria (with its widely contrasting sections) as a reaction to Ottavio's pain, who (portrayed by Charles Castronovo) at times collapses on the floor with anguish during the aria. McVicar's one possible staging misstep is at the final tableau, when he has Elvira paradoxically kneel next to the fallen Giovanni, and hold his hand as if in mourning.

The vocal show was uniformily strong. Donald Runnicles at the pit offered the reliable package of crisp Mozartian tempos, keeping things fresh and exciting. And who needs marquee stars, really. All of the men were strong and very satisfying singing actors. Mariusz Kwiecien found a perfect balance between evil and mellifluous seduction for his depiction of Giovanni, delivered with superb skill. Oren Gradus' characterization of Leoporello was a bit predictable, but still fun to watch. Kristinn Sigmundsson was an imposing Comendatore, though his ghost-self was a bit too amplified for my taste. And bass-baritone Luca Pisaroni: what a handsome Masetto.

Che bel Masetto! (Luca Pisaroni)

Elza's Donna Anna sounded very impressive, much better than I expected. She was obviously trying very hard, and brought a good measure of verismo energy into the role, just enough to make it exciting. I was a bit less impressed by Twyla Robinson's Elvira, but it was perfectly adequate performance. The superb Claudia Mahnke was almost too good for Zerlina, with a lustrous, polished aristocratic tone -- reminded one of some of the best qualities in Anna Caterina Antonacci and Lorraine Hunt Lieberson.

© 2007 C. Chang

Friday, June 01, 2007

Something to talk about

So the announcement of Hope Briggs dismissal from the SF Opera's Don Giovanni (opening night tomorrow) was picked up even by the NY Times.

Hopeless in San Francisco

Frankly, there is something fishy about this whole affair. What I don't understand is how they can possibly have decided to replace Hope Briggs with a younger (albeit quite talented) and less proven singer to fill the shoes of the prima donna on opening night. Ms. Briggs is an exciting singer, a memorable voice with beautiful Leontyne-like colors. Her replacement, Adler Fellow Elsa van den Heever is a pretty songbird-type singer. While Ms. Briggs has sung the role of Donna Anna many times before (internationally even), Ms. Van der Heever has sung it at, um... Napa Valley.

So yes, maybe Anna is not the best role for Briggs, but it is implausile that she would be entirely incompetent in its delivery. Unless Gockley just wanted to give us something to talk about, the outcome of this decision seems a lot riskier than allowing Briggs to fulfill her contract.

Otherwise, Donna Anna is ill-suited to 99% of the sopranos who choose to sing it. Save for Mozart's spectacular bravura writing, it is a difficult and ungrateful role. Once her purpose is served as the victim which triggers the plot, she really doesn't do much else for the rest of the opera. Anna is a doormat just like Ottavio -- prone to exaggerated outbursts of coloratura, entirely disproportionate with the situation at hand. Do you really need to sing several octaves worth of scales and high tessitura ostinatos, because your boyfriend has called you "cruel"?

© 2007 C. Chang