Saturday, December 31, 2011

2011: The Year in Books

This year, I managed to hit my general reading goal of 60+ books. Once again, the book salon warred with the book challenge, and the salon won. I really didn’t do very well on The Great Unread challenge, although I made a valiant attempt in the final hours when a transcontinental Christmas flight with a two-hour fog delay tacked on the end allowed me to read big chunks of Giant and The Grapes of Wrath. Still many of the books were fairly short and I don’t feel the sense of accomplishment I did last year. I also haven’t been as good about immediately writing up reviews on Goodreads and that’s something I definitely want to be better about in 2012.

Top Ten of 2011
The Book of Illusions (Paul Auster)
Brat Farrar (Josephine Tey)
The Daughter of Time (Josephine Tey)
The Invisible Bridge (Julie Orringer)
Possession (A.S. Byatt)
Richard III (William Shakespeare)
Suite Française (Irène Némirovsky)
Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (John Le Carré)
Unbroken (Laura Hillenbrand)
Water for Elephants (Sara Gruen)

And now the awards!

Best Discovery: Josephine Tey (1896-1952), a Scottish mystery novelist. My love of royals and history would put her Daughter of Time at the top of my personal list, but I’d recommend starting with Brat Farrar. I love her language and the atmosphere she creates as well as how all of her mysteries are distinct from one another. If you like Agatha Christie or are an Anglophile in any way, you will like Tey.

The Book I Feel Everybody Should Read: Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand. This true story is extraordinary in its depiction of both the barbarism and heroism of war. A gripping tale of one man’s journey from the heights of Olympic glory to the depths of a Japanese prisoner of war camp. Even if you think you don’t want to read more about World War II, you do, you really do. Hillenbrand is an amazing storyteller, deftly melding one man’s story with epic historical events. If you liked how she handled Seabiscuit, try this one out.

Longest: The Invisible Bridge by Julie Orringer (602 pages). I really enjoyed this book, despite taking forever to finish it. In fact, the story was so vivid that I could pick it up months later and continue reading where I left off without feeling like I had to go back and reread (which is extremely unusual for me). Obviously, I could totally relate to the main character's student life in Paris, but, more importantly, I also learned a tremendous amount about life in Hungary before and during the war, something I previously knew nothing about. It is a bit long, but totally worth it.

Biggest Accomplishment: Possession by A.S. Byatt. The start of this novel moves very slowly (mostly because the poetry bogs it down) and therefore it took multiple attempts over the years to get through it. However, when the mystery picks up, it becomes really thrilling and I couldn’t wait to see how it was going to be resolved. And, for once, I really liked the ending. I will definitely be keeping this one on the shelf so that I can go back and reread at some point knowing how the mystery unfolds.

Biggest Surprise: One Day by David Nicholls. When I first heard about this book while visiting friends in London, I misunderstood the premise, thinking it was about a couple who meet up on the same day every year (sort of an extended Before Sunrise, a movie that I hated). Instead, the structure of the book, glimpses into an ongoing relationship over time, really worked well. It gets a bit maudlin at the end, and the characters aren’t necessarily very sympathetic; however, that does add to the realism of it. Of course, for me, that also may have been helped by the fact that these characters graduate university about the same time I did.

The Book I Most Regret Reading: Paris, France by Gertrude Stein. Sorry, “there’s no there there.” I absolutely hated the style and attitude of this book. Completely pointless. Glad I got it off my shelves.

Favorite Young Adult Series: Matched by Ally Condie. The first volume, Matched, was a fun read with pretty good world-building, prompting an immediate re-read. As good as The Hunger Games? Not quite, but it has believably written characters and some promising loose ends to tie up as the series continues. I didn’t love the dual narrative of the second volume, Crossed, but agree that it made sense for the story told in that book. Similar to The Giver, but a more complete, realistic set-up with more relatable characters. This is tailor-made for Hollywood, so watch for it to be “coming soon” to a theater near you.

Most Useful Non-Fiction: The Creative Habit: Learn It and Use It for Life by Twyla Tharp. This book is fabulous. It is much more than a study about creativity because it focuses on the perspiration part of the process rather than the inspiration part. As Tharp says, “before you can think out of the box, you have to start with a box.” While it focuses on the arts (especially dance, musical composition, and writing), much of her discussion of discipline, organization, and habits could apply to the business world as well. There are lots of inspiring anecdotes and self-improvement exercises scattered throughout. Runner-up: Keep the Change: A Clueless Tipper’s Quest to Become the Guru of the Gratuity by Steve Dublanica.

Most Common Theme: World War II. I don’t know whether it was in the air or just on my radar, but a good chunk of my reading involved the war. In rough order of preference: the aforementioned Unbroken and The Invisible Bridge, Suite Française by Irène Némirovsky, Sarah’s Key by Tatiana de Rosnay, The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Annie Barrows and Mary Ann Shaffer, Skeletons at the Feast by Chris Bohjalian, Winter Garden by Kristin Hannah, Pictures at an Exhibition by Sara Houghteling, The Reader by Bernhard Schlink.

Most Disappointing: Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury. I was looking forward to reading this classic for our “Disturbing Dystopias” book salon, but was barely able to finish it—and it’s short! Given the concept, I should have liked this, but I absolutely hated the writing style and just couldn't get past the fact that half the time I wasn't sure what was going on or what Bradbury’s real message is. It didn’t help that he seems to be a bit of an ass in the epilogue. Runner-up: Revolution by Jennifer Donnelly.

Hardest to Finish: Any Human Heart (William Boyd). So hard that I still haven’t. (Actually I like what I read but it’s just one of those things. I’ll get back to it eventually—right after Wolf Hall.)

Favorite Audiobook: Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson, read by B.J. Harrison of The Classic Tales podcast. Harrison reads a lot of adventure stories in his free short story podcast, so I bought a few full-length books for our “Classic Boys Adventures” book salon to support his work. He does a really good job with this one. 

Special Mention: Two friends came out with young adult books this year and they deserve special mention for 1) being generally awesome, 2) writing beautifully, and 3) getting me out of my comfort zone. I probably wouldn’t have picked up a book about the supernatural on my own, or one in verse, but I highly recommend both Cold Kiss by Amy Garvey and Audition by Stasia Ward Kehoe for being incredibly relatable stories about the sacrifices and choices we have to make and live with in our teen years (and beyond).

What was your favorite book of the year? And, if you haven’t already voted, what should I read next year?

Monday, December 26, 2011

2012 Book Challenge: Reader’s Choice

Happy Boxing Day!

After my relative lack of success in focusing on this past year’s self-imposed book challenge (The Great Unread), I’ve decided to let you, the reader, select the books for this year’s attempt.

The following are books I've started and put down, feel I should read, or just want to read full stop:

Any Human Heart (William Boyd)
Crime and Punishment (Fyodor Dostoyevsky)
Fingersmith (Sarah Waters)
Gaudy Night (Dorothy L. Sayers)
Gilead (Marilynne Robinson)
Lolita (Vladimir Nabokov)
Midnight’s Children (Salman Rushdie)
The Master and Margarita (Mikhail Bulgakov)
Middlemarch (George Eliot)
Les Misérables (Victor Hugo)
Never Let Me Go (Kazuo Ishiguro)
Oliver Twist (Charles Dickens)
Oryx and Crake (Margaret Atwood)
A Prayer for Owen Meany (John Irving)
Regeneration (Pat Barker)
Sea of Poppies (Amitav Ghosh)
The Sense of an Ending (Julian Barnes)
The Shadow of the Wind (Carlos Ruiz Zafon)
The Thirteenth Tale (Diane Setterfield)
To The Lighthouse (Virginia Woolf)
Les Trois Mousquetaires (Alexandre Dumas)
War and Peace (Leo Tolstoy)
The White Tiger (Aravind Adiga)
Wolf Hall (Hilary Mantel)
The Woman in White (Wilkie Collins)

If you would recommend any of these, please choose your favorite and vote in the poll in the sidebar. Then, tell me why I should read your selection in the comments below.

I will read at least the three top vote-getters as well as the three books with the most compelling comments. Results to follow in the New Year.

This is my most desperate hour. Help me, readers, you're my only hope.

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Ballet 101—Nutcracker

“Little girls dream of the party scene,
Older ones a chance to dance with the corps
Behind the Dew Drop Fairy,
Or perhaps be featured as an exotic candy
In the Land of Sweets.”
Audition by Stasia Ward Kehoe

I wish I had made The Nutcracker my first Ballet 101 post. After all, I did see it last year and it is the ballet to end all ballets: the one most aspiring ballerinas have been in and the one most people have seen. But for some reason, I didn’t have time to blog about it immediately afterwards and so, after a couple of days had passed, I decided not to. Now, after such a crazy fall, when I seemed barely able to post about anything but opera, a few days seem like nothing. Plus, in San Francisco, The Nutcracker marks the transition from opera season to ballet season at the War Memorial Opera House so it seems only right to mark that passage here.

I don’t necessarily see The Nutcracker every Christmas, but I do usually try to see at least one Christmas-related performance during the month of December and it often shows up in the rotation if I’m not into Messiah that year. La Belle Chantal loves it, so it’s always a great excuse for us to hit the town.

Plus, I have a thing for nutcrackers since a tree-trimming party years ago when my boyfriend at the time gave me two beautiful wooden nutcracker ornaments. Which eventually led to this madness:

Yes, there are 40+ nutcrackers on that tree.

Drosselmeyer nutcracker
The one that started it all

And, yes, I bought two more ornaments at the performance itself. I ask you, how could I not get the pink “Kingdom of the Sweets” one?

And that’s what I love about this ballet. Dolls, toys, and candy come alive? Being taken away to a magical snowy wonderland full of tasty treats where people perform just for you? Sign me up.

The San Francisco Ballet sets this particular production in San Francisco during the 1915 World’s Fair so there is a bit of local color as well. I don’t love everything about the production (notably that Clara is played by a young child and is transformed into another dancer for the pas de deux), but they set up the story well and there are a number of standout pieces, especially the “Waltz of the Snowflakes” (it is truly a spectacular feat that they are able to dance in the near-blizzard conditions on stage) and the coffee, tea, and trepak divertissement dances.

In this year’s production, two dancers stood out for me, Koto Ishihara, who played the mechanical doll in the party scene, and Frances Chung, who danced the “Grand Pas de Deux.” Of course, the casting changes from night to night, so going on a different night may mean a very different cast. However, I can’t imagine not enjoying this on any night, if only for all the little girls you will see in the audience, playing dress up and watching their dreams unfold before their very eyes.

Merry Christmas everyone and may all your dreams come true!

Monday, November 21, 2011

Opera 101—Figaro qua, Figaro là

“Sans la liberté de blâmer, il n’est point d’éloge flatteur.”
(Without the freedom to criticize, there is no true praise.)
Le Mariage de Figaro by Pierre Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais

Once again, another San Francisco Opera season has concluded and a final assessment is in order. This year, I’ve expanded my short list of awards into a full-fledged post and, as befitting such a monumental event, I’ve decided these awards need a name. After all, all the good awards have one: Oscars, Emmys, Tonys,…

So, I present herewith the Figaros, named in honor of one of the most beloved characters in all opera, who is also responsible for the quotation above, spoken to Count Almaviva in one of the longest monologues in the history of French theater. Remember, I kid because I (tough) love.

2011 Figaro Awards

Production I would most readily see again: Serse

Heidi Stober as Atalanta, David Daniels as Arsamenes, and Lisette Oropesa as Romilda in Serse. Photo by Cory Weaver.

Favorite scene: “Batti, batti, o bel Masetto” from Don Giovanni

Outstanding performance (male): David Daniels as Arsamenes in Serse (runner-up: Michael Fabiano as Gennaro in Lucrezia Borgia)

Outstanding performance (female): Leah Crocetto as Liù in Turandot (runners-up: Kate Lindsey as Zerlina in Don Giovanni and Heidi Stober as Atalanta in Serse)

Outstanding performance (trouser): Susan Graham as Xerxes in Serse

Outstanding performance (cross-dressing): Michael Sumuel as Elviro as a flower seller in Serse

Michael Sumuel as Elviro with Heidi Stober as Atalanta in Serse.
Photo by Cory Weaver.

Outstanding performance (orchestra): the recitative accompaniment in Don Giovanni with Nicola Luisotti on fortepiano, Bryndon Hassman on harpsichord, and Thalia Moore on cello

Adler Fellow of the season: Ryan Kuster

Best set design: Jean-Pierre Ponnelle for Carmen

Jean-Pierre Ponnelle’s set for Lillas Pastia’s tavern in Carmen.
Photo by Cory Weaver.

Best costumes: Andrea Viotti for Don Giovanni

Morris Robinson as the Commendatore with costume by Andrea Viotti.
Photo by Cory Weaver.

Most shocking (and yet welcome) death scene: Renée Fleming in Lucrezia Borgia

Most disruptive audience moment: the whispers as people recognized the tune of “Nessun dorma” in Turandot

Most awkward attempt at homoeroticism: Orsini and Gennaro in Lucrezia Borgia

Least successful attempt at rhythmic gymnastics: the acrobats in Turandot

Most in need of a clown car: Ping, Pang, Pong in Turandot

Ping, Pang, Pong in their ridiculous costumes in Turandot.
Photo by Cory Weaver.

Best imitation of Gandalf the Grey: Raymond Aceto as Timor in Turandot

Best imitation of Violet Beauregard (post-blueberrification): the chorus in Turandot

Best imitation of a Nazi: Wayne Tigges as Lieutenant Zuniga in Carmen

Best imitation of a 1980s love-child of Billy Idol and Christophe Lambert: Michael Fabiano as Gennaro in Lucrezia Borgia

Renée Fleming and Michael Fabiano in Lucrezia Borgia.
Photo by Cory Weaver.

Monty Python award for most outrageous French accent: Anita Rachvelishvili in Carmen

Joyce Kilmer award for best aria sung to a tree: “Ombra mai fu” in Serse

Foreigner “Cold as Ice” award (tie): Lucrezia Borgia in Lucrezia Borgia and Turandot in Turandot

Foreigner “Hot-Blooded” award (tie): Don Giovanni in Don Giovanni and Carmen in Carmen

For my individual write-ups of these operas, see That Girl Is Poison, No Sleep Till…, Inglourious Basterd, Love Stinks, and Gypsies, Tramps, and Thieves. I look forward to next season when, according to OperaTattler, I’ll have to sit through Wagner!

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Opera 101—Gypsies, Tramps, and Thieves

Carmen, by Georges Bizet, is one of the most-performed operas out there, and its tunes pop up in myriad cultural forums, from The Bad News Bears to Sesame Street to The Muppet Show. Many people can probably hum either “L’amour est un oiseau rebelle” (aka the Habanera) or “Votre toast, je peux vous le rendre” (aka the Toreador Song) without even realizing the source. My personal favorite of these iterations is Gilligan’s Island, where Gilligan performs “To Be or Not To Be” to the Habanera and Skipper as Polonius sings “Neither a Borrower Nor a Lender Be” to the “Toreador Song.” My childhood, let me show it to you.

As for the opera itself, my live viewing had been limited to what I not-so-lovingly refer to as “The Disco Carmen” at the Opéra Comique in Paris. Not that the performance itself was so bad, but the set was god-awful—basically a huge tilted ramp taking up half the stage with a disco ball above it. That's it. I had taken my elderly aunt out for a night on the town so I had been hoping for something really spectacular. How do you do that to Carmen, which provides such great opportunities for sets and costumes?

In any case, I was really hoping that this performance would drive that one out of my mind. Which it mostly did. Visually, at least. I thought the sets were very well done, perhaps my favorites of the season. Keeping the main outer building shell, the transitions to the smaller set pieces of the cigarette factory, tavern, smugglers’ cave, and the bullfighting arena were smooth and believable. The costumes were also impressive, as they were varied, but relatively restrained. I imagine it is easy to go overboard with something like Carmen and this production didn’t (Turandot, I’m looking at you).

Lillas Pastia's tavern. Photo by Cory Weaver.

Outside the bullfighting arena. Photo by Cory Weaver.

Unfortunately, aurally, this production left much to be desired. While Anita Rachvelishvili as Carmen had a lovely, rich tone to her voice, I really couldn’t get over her atrocious French pronunciation and appreciate her singing. I was sort of surprised at this since, although she was filling in relatively last-minute for Kate Aldrich, she seems to have played this role plenty of times. Not that the rest of the main cast was much better, both Sara Gartland, who played Micaëla, and Wayne Tiggis, who played Lieutenant Zuniga, could have used more coaching in this area.

Perhaps I’m being overly critical, but, while I accept that I’m not going to catch all the words in Italian productions, somehow I feel I should be able to follow an opera in French without resorting to subtitles or the libretto. It wasn’t until the smugglers came in that I realized “it’s not me, it’s you,” and so I want to make particular mention of Timothy Mix and Daniel Montenegro for taking such care in their roles as Le Dancaïre and Le Remendado. Also, the children’s chorus was spot on in their French pronunciation and did a great job overall. Finally, thank you to San Francisco Opera for engaging Gabriel Laude as the young guide. It was a relief to have such a long speech spoken with native accuracy.

Thiago Arancam as Don José. Photo by Cory Weaver.

Again, this is not to say that the singing itself was bad. I thought that Thiago Arancam, who held his own last year against the terrific Ainhoa Arteta and Plácido Domingo in Cyrano de Bergerac, made an excellent Don José (who let’s face it, actually carries this opera, which is really all about Don José’s journey, not Carmen’s). Sara Gartland also made the significantly less vibrant Micaëla come alive, especially in her final aria. Susannah Biller as Frasquita and Cybele Gouverneur as Mercédès made the most of their small parts and I thoroughly enjoyed their “Mêlons! Coupons” fortune-telling number with Carmen. Vocally, Paulo Szot didn’t quite live up to the power of the Toreador Song, but he had great stage presence as the matador who steals Carmen’s heart.

Paulo Szot as Escamillo. Photo by Cory Weaver.

All in all, I enjoyed this production for what it was, but I partly wish I had had the foresight of Opera Tattler to switch out my Carmen subscription tickets for Xerxes.

Carmen has two more performances with Anita Rachvelishvili on November 20th and 23rd, and with Kendall Gladen on November 26th and 29th and December 2nd and 4th.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Opera 101—Love Stinks

You love her… But she loves him… And he loves somebody else… You just can’t win

Part of the complicated love pentagon of Serse: Heidi Stober as Atalanta, David
Daniels as Arsamenes, and Lisette Oropesa as Romilda. Photo by Cory Weaver.

Even though it wasn't part of my annual subscription, I had heard such good things about Serse (Xerxes) that I jumped at a last-minute sale to take a seat in the balcony. I’m very happy with my subscription seats, but I must say that the balcony with Operavision was more than acceptable, although I’m glad I still brought my opera glasses. The only thing missing was La Maratonista, who was on her way back from Costa Rica at the time I took the plunge.

Of course, I don’t know if I could have convinced her to see a semi-obscure Baroque opera, especially one that clocks in at 3 hours and 40 minutes. Sure, she’s a triathlete, but a girl has limits. Although, reading that, she is probably laughing heartily as I’m the one that categorically refuses to see movies that run over 2½ hours. While I’m willing to extend that time limit somewhat for opera, I still prefer not to go over the three-hour mark. Suffice it say, neither of us will be committing to the Ring Cycle any time soon.

In any case, Serse is well worth the commitment. An opera seria by George Frideric Handel, first performed in London in 1738, this production is a revival of the one originally directed by Nicholas Hytner for the English National Opera in 1985 for the 300th anniversary of Handel’s birth. Back in 1985, it was sung in English, but here it is in the original Italian. Although an opera seria, the work is actually one of Handel’s rare comedies and this production emphasized the comedic elements throughout.

The story starts off with an opening aria sung to a plane tree* and only gets more bizarre and confusing from there. A bridge to Europe is also involved at one point. And the twists and turns of the love subplots are harder to keep track of than the suitcases in What’s Up, Doc? In brief, Xerxes loves Romilda, but she is in love with his brother, Arsamenes. At the same time, Romilda’s sister, Atalanta, also loves Arsamenes, and both lovelorn siblings plot to keep the two lovers apart. Meanwhile, Xerxes’ foreign fiancée, Amastris, arrives on the scene disguised as a man. Does it help that over half the cast have names that begin with A? No, it does not.

David Daniels as Arsamenes and Susan Graham as Xerxes.
Photo by Cory Weaver.

The various vocal assignments don’t help matters either. Since the Baroque era was the age of the castrati, the lead role of Xerxes, King of Persia, was written for a male soprano castrato, but is here sung by a mezzo-soprano, Susan Graham. Oddly enough, in Handel’s time, the role of Xerxes’ brother, Arsamenes, was usually played by a mezzo-soprano, but is here played by a male countertenor, David Daniels. As you can see in the above photo, Daniels is quite the manly man in looks, so it was odd to hear such a high voice come out of his mouth. The gender bending continued with the arrival of contralto Amastris in male garb, and even the servant Elviro at one point dresses up as a flower seller.

Sonia Prina as Amastris. Photo by Cory Weaver.

Michael Sumuel as Elviro with Heidi Stober as Atalanta.
Photo by Cory Weaver.

Really, the whole opera was vaguely reminiscent of an Oscar Wilde comedy of manners, which was only enhanced by the change of setting from ancient Persia to Vauxhall Gardens. And the music was gorgeous. How could I not love this?

Best thing I’ve seen all season.

Serse has just two more performances at the War Memorial Opera House on Wednesday, November 16, and Saturday, November 19. Catch it if you can.

*In a strange coincidence, this opening aria, “Ombra mai fu,” is featured in the second series of BBC’s The Choir, which I’ve been rewatching via On Demand this week, and which I can’t recommend enough.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Opera 101—Inglourious Basterd

As a short respite from what was quickly turning out to be the season of the bitch, last night La Maratonista and I saw Mozart’s Don Giovanni. I wasn’t quite sure what to expect since the plot of this opera basically revolves around a serial rapist, but, when the villain gets his just due by being dragged down to Hell at the end of the story, I guess one can’t really say that the author is condoning his behavior. In the end, it was far less squirm-inducing than something like Madama Butterfly. And it may turn out to be my favorite opera so far, despite the subject matter and the setting.

Like so many operas, including next month’s Carmen as well as Rossini’s Il barbiere di Siviglia, Beethoven’s Fidelio, Verdi’s La forza del destino, and Mozart’s Le nozze di Figaro, Don Giovanni is set in Seville. I’m not quite sure why Seville held such fascination for the mostly French authors that these works are based on, but there you go. Yes, it’s beautiful, but, since Seville is the city that began my love-hate (okay, now mostly hate) relationship with Spain, a country I have visited many times, this constant intrusion into my opera-going is unfortunate.

Looking out over the city of Seville, Spain

For me, (cue dramatic music) Seville will always be a city of betrayal. It’s the city where I met him who some know as Ascot Man—on a weekend that began innocently enough with me flying down from Paris to attend a wedding in the cathedral, and somehow ended a week later with me on the red carpet at the Goya awards in Madrid. Oddly enough, the bastard in this particular passion play was neither Ascot Man, nor the future congressman I was initially traveling with, but rather the groom (and former housemate), who turned out to be one of the lyingest liars I have ever met.

So, perhaps it’s quite appropriate that Don Giovanni is set there after all.

Lucas Meachem as Don Giovanni, the bragger of Seville
Photo by Cory Weaver.

The action of the opera begins with the attempted rape of Donna Anna. She escapes, and her father, coming to her defense, is killed by Don Giovanni, who then flees before his identity can be discovered. Naturally, because it’s opera, Anna and her fiancé, Don Ottavio, swear revenge in a beautiful duet. Meanwhile, Donna Elvira, who Giovanni had jilted some time before, arrives in Seville seeking her former lover.

To give you an idea of Elvira’s tenacity, we learn she has come all the way from Burgos, in northern Spain. (Incidentally, my one and only visit to Burgos was on a weekend away with Ascot Man. On our way to the northern coast from Madrid, we stopped to visit a friend of his who was restoring his family’s castle—or monastery, or some other kind of once-glorious medieval ruin—outside of Burgos. I’m not really sure, because I’ve tried to block most of that trip from my mind. Although I’m very certain ascots were worn.)

But I digress. Suffice it to say that Burgos is a long way from Seville and Elvira is very determined to get her man back.

As usual, Giovanni talks his way out of the situation and leaves his servant Leporello to explain his master’s true character in the hilarious “Madamina, il catalogo è questo,” tallying up his master’s conquests.

Marco Vinco as Leporello, with Don Giovanni's not-so-little black book
Photo by Cory Weaver.

Ryan Kuster and Kate Lindsey as Masetto and Zerlina
Photo by Cory Weaver.

Later, Giovanni and Leporello come upon the wedding festivities of Masetto and Zerlina, whom he immediately tries to seduce, until Elvira interrupts. In the midst of this, Anna and Ottavio arrive to ask Giovanni for help in capturing her father’s murderer. Watching Giovanni in action, Anna realizes the truth, and again calls for vengeance on her father’s killer. Ottavio, for whom the sun rises and sets on Anna, will do anything for her. (As a point of contrast, Ascot Man once claimed that, although he would willingly sacrifice his life for me—in some hypothetical instance where this might be needed—he would never ever do dishes. Apparently, in this future life of leisure, I wouldn’t have to do them either, but somehow this wasn’t really the selling point he thought it was.)

Anyway, Ottavio (who I’m pretty sure would do the dishes if Anna asked him to nicely), along with a disguised Anna and Elvira, crashes the party that Don Giovanni is throwing to woo Zerlina away from the jealous Masetto. When Zerlina cries out from an adjoining room, the three guests unmask themselves and declare that Giovanni must pay for his crimes. However, Giovanni once again escapes his accusers and, after a long series of digressions involving Leporello disguised as his master, ends up in a cemetery, sitting below the grave and statue of Anna’s father.

Here the opera takes a turn to the supernatural, as the statue seems to come alive and solemnly intones to Giovanni “Di rider finirai pria dell’aurora” (Your laughter will end before dawn). While a terrified Leporello looks on in horror, Giovanni insists on inviting the statue to dinner.

Note: While I mostly wasn’t impressed with the sets of this production (I really didn’t get the mirrors at all; they weren’t used and therefore seemed rather pointless), the cemetery looked great. The woman next to me was notably excited when she finally realized that one of the “statues” was in fact a real person.

The graveyard set. Photo by Cory Weaver.

The opera concludes with Giovanni eating a lavish dinner while being serenaded by musicians playing opera tunes, including a sly nod to “Non più andrai” from Mozart’s Le nozze di Figaro. When the ghost of Anna’s father finally arrives, he offers Giovanni a last chance to repent, but Giovanni will have none of it and he’s dragged down to Hell. This final death scene was well acted on Lucas Meachem’s part, but the smoke was rather uneven and looked a bit awkward from our vantage point in Dress Circle.

Don Giovanni's last supper. Photo by Cory Weaver.

All in all, I really enjoyed this opera more than I thought I would, especially after the tepid critical reception it has gotten. Granted, if I had already seen Don Giovanni many times, I suppose I might be more critical. I wasn’t very impressed with the set, which I had really been looking forward to after seeing the initial press photos. However, I loved Andrea Viotti’s costumes. How could I not when they were mostly pinks and purples?

Ellie Dehn as Donna Anna in her beautiful lavender gown.
Photo by Cory Weaver

And the opera itself is truly a masterwork with gorgeous music throughout and some really beautiful arias. I loved the bit with what I now know was the conductor, Nicola Luisotti, playing fortepiano.

I thought the women outsang the men, especially early on. This was a bit unusual, as I normally think the sopranos are the ones that get drowned out by the orchestra in the War Memorial Opera House. Kate Lindsey (Zerlina), in her San Francisco debut, stood out for me, not only with her vocals, but also her acting and movement, particularly during her “Batti, batti, o bel Masetto” number. I also thought Ellie Dehn (Donna Anna) was very strong, which is odd given that I remember being underwhelmed with her Countess Almaviva last year. Serena Farnocchia (Donna Elvira), also in her San Francisco debut, was fine vocally, but had an odd way of leaning during many of her numbers which was rather disconcerting. I kept wanting to straighten her out.

Mostly, I was excited to see that in an opera about such a dastardly man, the women did such a great job. Not that Lucas Meachem as Don Giovanni and Marco Vinco as Leporello didn’t, but I was worried in the beginning when I could barely hear the lovely “Notte e giorno faticar.” Luckily, this seemed to be less of a problem as the opera went on, since I think that Vinco has a nice tone and is a great actor. It was also thrilling to see Adler Fellow Ryan Kuster, who I had noticed in his tiny Turandot role earlier this month, step up to the plate for the role of Masetto. And the voice of Morris Robinson was pitch perfect as the otherwordly Commendatore statue.

The biggest downside for me was that this opera is rather long, and the heat in the balconies, while not quite fires of Hell level, did not help my endurance. But it was fun to go out from seeing a ghost in the opera house to the streets of San Francisco filled with costumed Halloween revelers.

Don Giovanni has three more performances at the War Memorial Opera House: November 2, 5, and 10.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Landing the White Whale: Napa and the California Dream

The second day after I moved to San Francisco, La Belle Chantal* called up and asked if I wanted to drive up to Sonoma. Well, who wouldn’t? So, off we went and had a fun-filled day of trains for the kids and wine for the adults. At the time, I thought that that’s what my life here in California was going to be like—fabulous restaurants in the city, weekends off in wine country, swimming pools, movie stars—you know the drill. But then I woke up and realized I still had lots of debt from graduate school and worked in publishing, so maybe I’d have to settle for fabulous burritos and cable cars. Eh, there are worse things.

Fast forward more than four years, and, while I’ve been very privileged to have seen lots of my new home state, including multiple trips down the coast, four of its eight National Parks, and fourteen of the twenty-one missions on the Mission Trail, I had never been to Napa. Which, as many people have pointed out to me, is just a little crazy, especially given that I have been wine tasting in both Paso Robles and Santa Barbara—twice. Anyway, La Belle Chantal once again stepped up to the plate and suggested celebrating my birthday in Napa. Again, who am I to refuse?

What a lovely day. I definitely need to do this more often.

We started out by taking the tram up to Sterling Vineyards in Calistoga, which is as lovely a setting for wine tasting as you can imagine. And, I actually preferred the cab, so another first for today—miracles do happen!

Looking out over Napa Valley from the terrace of Sterling Vineyards

We also checked out many overpriced goods at the Oxbow Public Market and on the streets of St. Helena. I resisted the temptation of $9 soap and managed to get out alive having only spent $2.80 on crushed vadouvan at the spice store. Score!

Despite eating too late a lunch at the Pica Pica Maize Kitchen in Napa (try the deviled ham), I still managed to put away a good part of a wood oven duck dinner at Cindy’s Backstreet Kitchen. The salad was as delicious as it looks; the sumac in the dressing was subtle, but gave it a distinctive zip. If this is her “casual” place, I certainly see why Cindy Pawlcyn made the Top Chef Masters cut.

Thank you, Chantal!

*La Belle Chantal is my former roommate from Paris and one of the reasons I fell in love with San Francisco (since her moving here allowed me to visit far more than is reasonable). She is many things, including belle, but her name is not actually Chantal.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

The Bestest Birthday Present Ever

Audition pubs today!

From my favorite writer on the side, the person who got me through all-nighters at college with her crazy ballet stories, and who shamelessly got me into blogging:

Congratulations, Stasia!

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Opera 101—No Sleep Till…

Nessun dorma! Nessun dorma!
Tu pure, o, Principessa, nella tua fredda stanza,
guardi le stelle che tremano d’amore e di speranza.

Ma il mio mistero è chiuso in me,
il nome mio nessun saprà!
No, no, sulla tua bocca lo dirò quando la luce splenderà!

Ed il mio bacio scioglierà il silenzio che ti fa mia!
(Il nome suo nessun saprà!... e noi dovrem, ahime, morir!)
Dilegua, o notte! Tramontate, stelle! Tramontate, stelle!
All’alba vincerò! Vincerò! Vincerò!

SFO Program Cover (original Turandot artwork)

Turandot, by Giacomo Puccini (1858-1924), is best known for “Nessun Dorma” (“No One Shall Sleep”), one of the most famous tenor arias in the history of opera, achieving pop status after its performance by Luciano Pavarotti at the opening of the 1990 FIFA World Cup in Italy and then again in 2007 when future YouTube sensation Paul Potts sang it for his Britain’s Got Talent audition. Therefore, although the opera is less commonly performed than Puccini’s other masterworks (La Bohème, Tosca, and Madama Butterfly), this one part is extremely well known. So much so that, on Tuesday night, you could hear whispers throughout the hall as people recognized the opening notes. Unfortunately, confirming what I read when this production was first reviewed, Marco Berti, the tenor who played Calaf, cuts off that last glorious note—I don’t know why, because he otherwise sang quite beautifully and seemed to have the requisite power to really nail it.

Photo by Cory Weaver.

However, while that one bit was therefore somewhat disappointing, one of the things I really like about this opera is that it is fairly balanced and provides many moments for the cast to shine, with a key aria sung by a different character in each act. Even the chorus, which plays a larger role here than in most operas I’ve seen, has a number of standout moments, particularly when they egg on the executioner in Act I.

Because, unlike Puccini other successes, which are very much grounded in a modern reality, Turandot is pure, dark fairy tale. Princess Turandot, influenced by the sufferings of a royal ancestor, has turned against all men and is determined that no one shall ever possess her. Any prince seeking to marry her must first answer three riddles; if he fails, he is executed. Upon viewing the princess, Calaf instantly falls for her and strikes the fatal gong announcing his candidacy.

Bang a gong. Get it on. Calaf with Ping, Pang, Pong.
Photo by Cory Weaver.

Naturally, he answers all three riddles (“What is born each night and dies each dawn?” “Hope.” “What flickers red and warm like a flame, yet is not fire?” “Blood.” “What is like ice but burns?” “Turandot!”). But, despite this success, the princess begs her father not to honor the challenge. Calaf, hoping to win her love, offers Turandot a challenge of his own: if she can learn his name by dawn, he will forfeit his life. And that brings us back to “Nessun Dorma.”

Although Berti delivered a fine Calaf, and Iréne Theorin a Turandot who convincingly moves from ice queen to vulnerable lover, it’s safe to say that Adler Fellow Leah Crocetto stole the show as Liù, the servant girl who makes the ultimate sacrifice out of her love for Calaf. Her “Signore, ascolta!” in Act I earned one of the few moments of spontaneous applause of the night. Of course, this didn’t help the often-pointed-out flaw in this opera, which is that Turandot is not a particularly sympathetic heroine and that it’s hard not to root for Liù. However, Theorin’s strong performance in the third act, along with her excellent costumes, which helped convey her difficult transition, mostly allowed the opera to recover from this plot handicap.

Adler Fellow Leah Crocetto killing it as Liù.
Photo by Cory Weaver.

Sadly, I didn’t love most of the costumes as much as Turandot’s. Some of them looked quite dated and cheap (Ping, Pang, Pong, I’m looking at you), others just seemed ridiculous. Timur looked like Gandalf in a bad production of Lord of the Rings and the chorus at the end resembled Violet Beauregard (post-blueberrification) in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. That was a shame because the chorus looked great in the first act.

Gandalf? Dumbledore? Why no, it's Timur, the deposed Tartar king!
Photo by Cory Weaver.

I plan to keep my eye on Adler Fellow Ryan Kuster, here in his SFO debut.
Photo by Cory Weaver.

 But, really, these are minor quibbles, I thoroughly enjoyed this production.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Opera 101—That Girl Is Poison

Miss her… kiss her… love her… wrong move you’re dead

This week I saw my first opera of the season, Lucrezia Borgia, a lesser-known work by bel canto master Gaetano Donizetti (1797-1848). Donizetti was incredibly prolific, composing seventy operas, including Lucia di Lammermoor and L’Elisir d’amore, which both aired on KQED earlier this month.

A Glass of Wine with Caesar Borgia by John Collier

The plot of the opera is fairly simple, revolving around the historical personage of Lucrezia Borgia, she of the powerful Renaissance clan, written about most famously in Machiavelli’s Il Principe. Although historical evidence is scant, rumors surround this notorious woman, including allegations of incest, poisoning, and murder. In the opera, the climactic scene involves a mass poisoning of rivals accused of insulting her family name. Although very different stylistically, I found myself reminded of Cheek by Jowl’s excellent Duchess of Malfi at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in the mid-1990s.

Renée Fleming in Lucrezia Borgia. Photo by Karin Cooper.

Like Cyrano de Bergerac for Plácido Domingo last year, more than anything, Lucrezia Borgia is a vehicle piece for Renée Fleming. That said, I enjoyed the opera itself far more than I expected. There were a number of pleasant duets and trios and the main cast was quite strong. Although Fleming was suitably impressive, I was more struck by the tenor, Michael Fabiano, as Borgia’s long-lost illegitimate son Gennaro, and the bass, Vitalij Kowaljow, as Borgia’s husband, Don Alfonso, Duke of Ferrara. I was not entirely convinced by the trouser role* of Orsini, Gennaro’s close friend, especially the directorial choice of emphasizing the homoerotic nature of the Gennaro-Orsini relationship, which becomes muddled when the male role of Orsini is sung by a woman.

The set reflected the simplicity of the storyline and worked quite well. The costumes, especially for the early scenes, could have been more vibrant, although they worked fine with the somber nature of the story. However, Gennaro’s outfits were hideous and made him look like some sort of second-rate Christophe Lambert in an early 80s French space adventure. In the final scenes, his costume was particularly distracting and just didn’t seem to go with the rest of the production. There was also one odd moment when a nameless woman was thrown into a prison pit with no real explanation whatsoever.

Renée Fleming and Michael Fabiano. Photo by Cory Weaver.

But, overall, it was a great start to the season, if not the mega-watt star turn that I was anticipating going into the evening. I would definitely recommend checking it out if you can.

Lucrezia Borgia is playing through October 11 at the War Memorial Opera House.

[On a side note, we decided to splurge on dinner at Jardinière beforehand. It actually turned out to be less of a splurge than we thought as Monday nights offer an incredible three-course tasting menu, including wine pairings, all for $45. Every Monday menu has a different theme, with this week’s being the celebration of Chez Panisse’s fortieth anniversary. I particularly enjoyed the starter of grilled Mediterranean octopus, although I was also very pleased to see my favorite dessert, clafoutis, on the menu.]

*In 17th- and 18th-century Italian opera, boys and young men were often played by castrati. Today, these roles are usually played by mezzo-sopranos dressed as men.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Banned Books Week

This upcoming week, from September 24 to October 1, is Banned Books Week.

“Banned Books Week is an annual event celebrating the freedom to read and the importance of the First Amendment. Held during the last week of September, Banned Books Week highlights the benefits of free and open access to information while drawing attention to the harms of censorship by spotlighting actual or attempted bannings of books across the United States.”

The ALA has various lists and statistics for banned and challenged books. Here are the Top 100 from the past decade. And here are the frequently banned classics.

Here are some of my favorite banned and challenged books:
Go Ask Alice
The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret by Judy Blume
The Awakening by Kate Chopin
The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins
The Chocolate War by Robert Cormier
The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
The Lord of the Flies by William Golding
The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini
To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
A Wrinkle in Time by Madeline L’Engle
The Giver by Lois Lowry
Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell
Animal Farm by George Orwell
Harry Potter (series) by J.K. Rowling
Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress by Dai Sijie
The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan
The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain
Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh

What are some of your favorites?

Friday, September 9, 2011

Opera 101—The Opera Strikes Back*

In honor of the San Francisco Opera’s gala opening tonight, I thought I should present a quick preview of my own fall season. This is my second season exploring the world of opera after years of restricting myself to symphony and ballet subscriptions, so I’m still learning about this incredible art form (hence the “Opera 101” in the titles of these posts).

Last year, La Maratonista and I saw The Marriage of Figaro, Aida, Cyrano de Bergerac, and Madama Butterfly. This year, we are again mostly sticking with the popular classics (Turandot, Don Giovanni, Carmen), although our subscription also includes tickets for one star turn (Renée Fleming in Lucrezia Borgia) as well as Nixon in China in the summer season. I would have loved to include The Magic Flute instead, but, unfortunately, this season’s production is in English—I’m no fan of German, but that’s just wrong like a wrong thing.

 Renée Fleming in Lucrezia Borgia. Photo by Karin Cooper.

I’m really looking forward to all of our selections, although, trolling the opera website for photos, I especially loved the sets for Don Giovanni; however, since it’s a new production, I’m not sure that’s what we’ll be seeing.

The graveyard set for Don Giovanni

Carmen is the only one of these operas that I know well, but, as usual, I will be obsessively listening to all of them beforehand, except for Lucrezia Borgia, which was not available at either the library or Netflix. So, I guess that will be another experiment in going into an opera cold. At least with Cyrano de Bergerac, I really knew the story. And it was in French.

Kate Aldrich in the Met's production of Carmen

By the way, if you are local, but can’t get out to the War Memorial Opera House, you can also experience the San Francisco Opera in high definition on Thursdays on KQED (channel 9). Earlier this month was La Bohème and last night was Lucia di Lammermoor. Still to come are Tosca and L’Elisir d’amore. Of course, watching these only makes me wish I had started doing this when I first moved here!

*Despite Lucasfilm now being a client, I am not contractually obligated to periodically reference Star Wars movies in my blogs. I just do it anyway because they’re awesome. 

Thursday, September 8, 2011

So You Think You Can Dance Season 8 Mixtape

"Koop Island Blues" by Koop featuring Ane Brun

In reflecting on my recent posts about So You Think You Can Dance, it struck me how much my reactions to the dances on this show are influenced by the music. Mandy Moore and her love of 80s music aside, this show has actually introduced me to a number of songs and artists I wouldn’t know otherwise, whether through Wade Robson’s love of Róisín Murphy or Mia Michaels’ incredible choices, including introducing me to Adele back in Season 4 with “Hometown Glory” and her choreography set to “Koop Island Blues” in Season 5.

"Hometown Glory" by Adele

This season, it seemed that choices were a little more mainstream, or at least by artists more familiar to me. There were many older tunes, some refreshing (“Another One Bites the Dust,” “Precious Things”) and others quite tired (“Total Eclipse of the Heart”), but overall there wasn’t much to get me excited. While it confirmed my love of Florence + the Machine (“Heavy in Your Arms”) and The Civil Wars (“Poison & Wine”), I didn’t find myself downloading much new stuff, just “Pop Drop & Roll” by Chonique Sneed, “Skin & Bones” by David J. Roch, and “In This Shirt” by The Irrepressibles, which blew me away so much when I first heard it that I was sad it wasn’t immediately available for purchase. I would love to get Damien Rice’s “Prague,” but it is only part of a much longer bonus track on iTunes. If anyone knows where I could get a legal copy of something close to single length, let me know.

"Prague" by Damien Rice

How about you, are there any songs from this season that made you sit up and take notice?

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

So You Think You Can Dance Season 8 Awards

Thank you for standing by during last night’s technical difficulties.

And now the awards!

Best in Ballroom: Iveta & Pasha in “Ven A Bailar On The Floor” (Jason Gilkison)
Best in Contemporary: Sasha & Alexander in “Stupid” (Travis Wall)
Best in Hip Hop: Sasha & Twitch in “Misty Blue” (Christopher Scott)
Best in Jazz: Sasha & Melanie in “Game On” (Sonya Tayeh)

Sasha & Melanie in “Game On” by Sonya Tayeh

Best in Housewives: Melanie & Sasha, “Heart Asks Pleasure First” (Stacey Tookey)
Best in Statues: Melanie & Marko in “Turn to Stone” (Travis Wall)
Best Contemporary Concept: The Nightmare in “Precious Things” (Tyce Diorio)

Allison & Ricky in “Precious Things” by Tyce Diorio

Best Use of 80s Music: “Another One Bites the Dust” (Mandy Moore)
Best Use of 80s Music (runner-up): “Fashion” (Charles Klapow)
Best Performance (Comedy): Marko in “Whatever Lola Wants”
Best Performance (Drama): Melanie in “Skin & Bones”

Melanie & Marko in “Skin & Bones” by Dee Caspery

Best Performance (Mohawks): Sasha & Mark in “Raise Your Weapon”
Best Bird: Jordan as a vulture in “Brotsjor”
Best Bird (runner-up): Miranda as a woodpecker in “Break Ya Neck”
Best Flying Leap: Melanie in “Total Eclipse of the Heart”

Jordan & Tadd in “Brotsjor” by Travis Wall

Best Solo: Melanie, “Cracks”
Best All-Star: Allison
Most Welcome All-Star: Ivan
Most Improved All-Star: Lauren
Least Charismatic All-Star: Robert
Male Contestant Who Got the Shaft: Nick
Female Contestant Who Got the Shaft: Miranda
Most Annoying Judge Favorite: Ryan
Most Tiresome Judge Refrain: Sasha’s “hard life” and its effect on her dancing
Best in Choreography: Travis Wall for “Stupid,” “Turn to Stone,” and “Brotsjor”

Melanie & Marko in “Turn to Stone” by Travis Wall

Best Judge Comment: Jesse Tyler Ferguson: “Travis took the classic ‘vulture stalks boy, boy almost succumbs to vulture, boy kills vulture’ story that we all know so well… we’ve seen it over and over… and he took it and he made it this brilliant, beautiful thing…”