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.