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?