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.