Saturday, June 27, 2015

Imagery and motion adds to and distracts from “Missa Solemnis” performance by San Francisco Symphony

Photo credit: Stefan Cohen
With mixed results, the San Francisco Symphony performed Beethoven’s “Missa Solemnis,” using projected imagery and movement on Thursday (June 11th) at Davies Symphony Hall. It would be easy to say that this masterpiece by Beethoven doesn’t need visuals in the background and motion in the foreground by the soloists and other singers. The music of this monumental oratorio has stood on its own musical merits. Yet the experimental nature of the performance by the SFS under Michael Tilson Thomas was well worth the effort, and, who knows, perhaps concert goers of the future will expect this kind of enhanced, operatic production.

Beethoven wrote the “Missa Solemnis” over four years from 1819 to 1823. By that point, he had already been composing works for 35 years, and he was also at work on his Ninth Symphony. With the “Missa Solemnis,” he created a deeply religious piece, based on the traditional Roman Catholic Mass, which would celebrate the investiture of Archduke Rudolph, his patron and sometime pupil. The performance by the SFS featured four stellar soloists, and the San Francisco Symphony Chorus augmented by the Pacific Boychoir. The score does not call for a chorus of boys, but the SFS and MTT felt that it would add an extra dimension to the concert. But the performance also included the soloist moving in and out of the stage area and evocative video projections. The motion and imagery gave the production an operatic feel, but I was not convinced that it enhanced the music all that much. More on that later.

The San Francisco Symphony Chorus, wonderfully prepared by Ragnar Bohlin, showed terrific resiliency with the many sforzandos and fortissimos. But the soprano section, which constantly soared up to stratospheric heights, was the star of the evening. Even when the music was at its loudest (which was quite often), the sopranos’ sound was right in the center of the note and never shrill.
Shenyang, Joélle Harvey, Sasha Cooke, and Brandon Jovanovich, | Photo credit: Stefan Cohen
The soloists, who had impressively memorized all of their passages, were superb in every respect. Joélle Harvey’s sumptuous soprano resonated beautifully. Sasha Cooke put lots of power behind her lovely mezzo tone. Tenor Brandon Jovanovich sang marvelously and with conviction. Shenyang added gravitas with his resonant bass-baritone. Perhaps, in the end, Cooke gave the most remarkable performance because she held nothing back and sang wonderfully again the next night in San Francisco Opera’s production of “Les Troyens.”

The orchestra, guided by MTT, played with great agility and sensitivity. Sudden decrescendos were as powerfully dramatic as the surging crescendos. Concertmaster Alexander Barantschik played his lyric solo during the “Benedictus” eloquently and with glowing, but he seemed especially stoic, standing with the soloists in front of the choir while playing the solo. At one point, Jovanovich quietly turned the page of his score for him. Another impressive element of this concert was watching MTT as he mouthed the words along with the singers. He was totally immersed in the music.

The projections, created by video designer Finn Ross, were arresting. Except for a golden flash of light at the beginning, almost all of the imagery was in black and white and variants of silvery grey. Letters exploded across the screen. Sometimes they dissolved and then reformulated. Sometimes words from the text drifted by and then formed an outline of a cathedral and the columns of its nave. During the credo, images of Christ and his story, appeared. Yet when the resurrection began to unfold, Ross missed an opportunity to transition the imagery into color. Instead everything remained in black and white until the end.

The stage directions of James Darrah mostly amounted to a distraction. The soloists walked slowly in and out of the stage area. After they exited one direction, sometimes they entered from another. It became sort of a guessing game rather than a way to understand the music. A couple of times the boy choir rushed in from the side wings, and that added some visual spunk and energy, but that wasn’t really needed since the music has so much of already. The strangest thing for them was the final tableau in which small groups of boys sat in campfire circle formation in front of the adult choir. It seemed that they could have at least sung the final bars of the “dona nobis pacem” with everyone else. On the plus side, everything was wonderfully accented by lighting designer David Finn.

I liked the idea of creating this new type of performance experience. Perhaps with less movement, it would have worked better. Musically speaking, Beethoven’s plea for mercy, peace, and understanding came through loud and clear. Amen.
Photo credit: Stefan Cohen

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

San Francisco Opera conquers “Les Troyens” with massive brilliance

Opening scene from Berlioz's "Les Troyens" ("The Trojans"),  ©Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera
San Francisco Opera pushed grand opera to the hilt with an inspiring, massive production of Berlioz’s “Les Troyens” (“The Trojans”) at the War Memorial Opera House on Friday (June 12). An all-star cast that featured Susan Graham, Bryan Hymel, Michaela Martens, and Sasha Cooke sang up a storm around the production created by David McVicar with huge, evocative sets designed by Els Devlin. The production also benefited from the incisive conducting of Donald Runnicles and deft playing by the San Francisco Opera Orchestra, making this “Les Troyens” a superbly grand spectacle.

With five acts and two intermissions, “Les Troyens” is a colossal undertaking that lasts five hours. It’s really two operas in one: the first two acts deal with the destruction of Troy as foreseen by Cassandra. The remaining three acts take place in Carthage, where the escaped Trojan prince Aeneas has fled. The Carthaginian queen, Dido, falls in love with Aeneas, but he is fated by the gods to sail away to Italy where he is to found a new home. The story is based on Virgil's "Aeneid," which fascinated Berlioz so much that he not only wrote all of the music but also the libretto.

Set in the time of the Crimean War (1853-1856), the first two acts (fall of Troy) of this production were stark and dark as they depicted a people and city under siege. When the story moved to Carthage in the second half, the scenery and mood lighten up considerably. The denizens of Carthage wore colorful robes and threw confetti from the city’s walls, which were painted ochre and burnt umber. That seemed to convey a more ancient and legendary time, and it worked well with Aeneas’s departure to found Rome.
Love Scene from Act IV of Berlioz's "Les Troyens." ©Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera
Michaela Martens made a solid company debut in the role of Cassandra, the Trojan princess who prophesied the city’s doom although no one believed her. Martens’s Cassandra was forceful, yet she didn’t play the character as one madly possessed. Still, she convinced the Trojan women to commit suicide rather than become slaves of the Greeks.

The imposing and rich voice of Brian Mulligan made Coroebus (Cassandra’s fiancé) an equally forceful presence. The urgent and heroic singing of Bryan Hymel (in his company debut) in the role of Aeneas provided enough thrills to fill a highlight reel on the evening news. Yet while his high notes were absolutely stellar, he also showed off a lovely, smooth tone for the passages that required less volume.

Susan Graham gave Queen Dido regal luster with beautiful, golden tones. Her voice impressively became full of anguish and venom when Dido tried everything to prevent Aenas from leaving for Italy. Sasha Cooke was mesmerizing in the role of Anna (Dido’s sister), imploring Dido to give love one last chance with Aeneas.
Susan Graham and Bryan Hymel - ©Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera
Also making her debut with the SFO was Nian Wang who sang movingly as Ascanius (son of Aeneas). Tenor Rene Barbera as Iopas was also outstanding. The chorus, prepared masterfully by Ian Robertson, sounded magnificent throughout the evening.

In the hands of Runnicles and the musicians of the orchestra, Berlioz’s music sparkled. The brass and woodwinds, in particular, played with an ear for the singers so that even the loudest passages didn’t run amok over the voices. This resulted in a roller coaster of emotional bursts, especially in the first half with the fierce warnings of Cassandra clashing against the expectations of the Trojan citizens who had become giddy while celebrating the going-away present from the Greeks. Among the many orchestral high points in the second half of the opera was the “Royal Hunt and Storm,” which featured exception playing by the horns.

The dancing during the Carthage scenes was very appealing. In one dance section, the young men of Carthage vied for the honor of carrying Dido about. In a later passage, they cavorted with a bevy of young female dancers, intoxicated perhaps by the atmosphere of love between Dido and Aeneas.

Another star of the show was the Trojan horse, which stood 23 feet tall and looked like a freestyle steam punk metal war machine. It impressively burst into flames during the scene in which Troy was sacked by the Greeks.
Trojan Horse ©Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera
Weighing in at 32 tons, this production is the largest and heaviest production ever to be staged at the War Memorial Opera House. It requires 134 artists on stage, including several to manipulate the gigantic Trojan horse, and 95 musicians in the orchestra pit and backstage. It is a co-production between several opera houses and the SFO, opening in 2012 at Covent Garden and moving to La Scala before arriving in San Francisco. After the final performance on July 1st, it will travel to Vienna State Opera. Hopefully, some day it will be seen in Paris.

Monday, June 22, 2015

Gunther Schuller passes - age 89

Composer, teacher, conductor, and author Gunther Schuller died yesterday in Boston at the age of 89. He had leukemia. For more information, refer to the well-written obituary in the New York Times by Allan Kozinn.

Friday, June 19, 2015

“The Rake’s Progress” – a tale that still resonates

Photo credit: Karen Almond
Igor Stravinsky’s “The Rake’s Progress” was served with verve and wit by Portland Opera on Sunday afternoon (June 14th) at the Keller Auditorium. Led by the superb singing of Jonathan Boyd, the agile playing of the orchestra under conductor Ari Pelto, spot-on direction from Roy Rallo, and the imaginative backdrops of David Hockney, “The Rake’s Progress” was an engaging affair from start to finish.

Composed by Stravinsky after he became inspired by a series of paintings created by the 18th Century artist William Hogarth, “The Rake’s Progress” traces the story of Tom Rakewell, a likeable but foolish young man who rejects the woman (Anne Truelove) who loves him and, follows his alter ego (Nick Shadow) to squander his fortune on wild living. After losing every penny and his mind, Tom ends up in Bedlam (the hospital for the mentally ill), only to be consoled by Anne.

One is tempted to think that 21st Century opera goers would be far too jaded for such a cautionary tale as “The Rake’s Progress,” but the audience in the Keller seemed to enjoy the opera immensely. Part of the credit was due to Hockney’s designs, created for the Glyndebourne Opera Festival in 1975. They looked as fresh as ever. Hockney’s cross-hatch line art deftly harkened back to the engravings that were made from Hogarth’s original painting.

Another big plus was Boyd, who drew listeners into Rakewell’s world with effortless and brilliant singing. He showed plenty of volume when needed or he could taper things down to a whisper. This performance, among the many others that he has given for Portland Opera, has helped to solidify his status as one of the best, most consistent and engaging tenors to have sung for the company.

Maureen McKay’s Anne was pure sweetness from the start, and as she resolved not to give up on Tom, her voice acquired flint and urgency. With a wink and a nod, David Pittsinger gave Shadow some likeable qualities, which made him a little less evil.
Photo credit: Karen Almond
Angela Niederloh pouted and fumed with vigor as Baba the Turk, but it was difficult to hear her voice whenever the orchestra got above mezzo-forte. Arthur Woodley gave a solid performance as the stern yet fair father of Anne. Padded to the hilt, Beth Madsen Bradford had a field day as the lascivious Mother Goose. As the auctioneer Sellem, Ian José Ramirez created a very animated presence, running circles around the crowd and drumming up sales as quickly as possible. André Flynn distinguished himself as the Keeper of the Madhouse, and the opera chorus, prepared by Nicholas Fox, created a balanced, blended sound.

Rallo’s stage directions wonderfully mixed natural action with tableaux-like pauses so that the audience could reflect on a scene for a moment or two, such as when Anne reached out for Tom while Shadow drew him away from her. The comic interplay between Tom and Baba generated lots of laughter. 
Photo credit: Karen Almond
The libretto, written by W. H. Auden and Chester Kallman, darted past pure poetry with a double-edged sword, such as “Leave all love and hope behind, out of sight is out of mind,” which introduced the Bedlam scene. Another poetic aphorism that was written one section of scenery stated “Shut Your Ears to Prude and Preacher. Follow Nature as Thy Teacher.”

Photo credit: Karen Almond
The orchestra performed Stravinsky’s treacherous score with finesse under conductor Ari Pelto. Fleeting passages that sounded like Handel and Donizetti zipped by, but the final scene in which the principals came to the front and expounded over the moral of the story in light-hearted fashion drew directly on Mozart. Ah!

Thursday, June 18, 2015

Review of San Francisco Opera's production of "Two Women"

Anna Caterina Antonacci in "Two Women" - © Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera
I was in San Francisco last weekend for the annual meeting of the Music Critics of North America, and we heard two operas "Two Women" (world premiere - Marco Tutino, composer) and "The Trojans" (Berlioz) at the War Memorial Opera House and Beethoven's "Missa Solemnis" in Davies Hall with the San Francisco Symphony under Michael Tilson Thomas. My review of "Two Women" was published in OperaPulse, which you can find by clicking on this link.

Reviews of "The Trojans" and "Missa Solemnis" will appear in Northwest Reverb later this week.

- James

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

A conversation with Ari Pelto, who will conduct "The Rake's Progress" for Portland Opera

Ari Pelto returns to Portland Opera to conduct “The Rake’s Progress,” which opens at the Keller Auditorium on Thursday (June 11). Pelto conducted “The Marriage of Figaro” for Portland Opera in 2011 and “Hansel and Gretel” in 2010. Just a few months ago, he was back in town to conduct “The Marriage of Figaro” in a Portland State Opera production. In the meantime, Opera Colorado announced Pelto as its conductor designate, and his schedule is filling up with engagements in Italy, Memphis (where he is Principal Guest Conductor of Opera Memphis), Denver, and Omaha.

Tell us a little bit about your background, where you are from.

Pelto: I am from Hartford, Connecticut, and I have an interesting background. My father is from a Finnish family and my mother from a Lithuanian Jewish family. So I fall into a small subcategory of Finnish Jews or Jewish Finns.

Do you speak Finnish?

Pelto: Yes. It is a very difficult language. It has 16 cases.

Yikes! But Pelto sounds too short to be a Finnish name

Pelto: Pelto means field and Peltonen means of the field. So part of the family were field workers.

How did you get into conducting opera – through singing?

Pelto: No, I was a violinist, and my music lessons were in Boston. Lots of music on the weekends. Later, I developed some hand problems halfway through my time at Oberlin where I was studying violin. So when I was 20, I had to stop playing for about a year, and I never went back. I finished my degree as a violinist and I stayed playing violin. But after that I never considered myself a violinist. So while at Oberlin I started studying conducting. From there I went to Finland to study conducting with the famous Finnish teacher Jorma Panula who was the teacher of Esa-Pekka Salonen, Jukka-Pekka Saraste, and Osmo Vänskä. I also studied for a little bit in Israel. I touched all of my heritage.

I came back to the US and went to Indiana University where I found my mentor, Imre Palló. I studied there for three years.

You conduct both opera orchestras and symphonic orchestras, but it looks like you do more work in opera. Does opera hold a special attraction for you?

Pelto: My love for opera came originally from playing in the pit, being part of the dramatic expression, and then a love of languages. The combination of loving the drama, being in the theater, storytelling, and language steered me in the direction of opera, especially in the States. I love conducting symphonic orchestras as well, and in Europe there is not such a distinction between the opera and symphonic orchestras. And that’s not including ballet, which I love to conduct also. But my biggest love is for opera. That is for sure.

I have been reading about how opera orchestras listen and react to the singers on stage as well as the conductor. Is that true?

Pelto: Yes. I always say that the best opera orchestras have the greatest ears. I learned that firsthand at New York City Opera where on any given night you might have a different tenor, soprano, mezzo, or bass in a lead role. I did a “Carmen” with a woman who stepped in to sing Carmen with no rehearsal. I did a “Madame Butterfly” where a tenor did Pinkerton with no rehearsal. Of course, I am conducting; so it’s not a free-for-all, but the orchestra, on a night like that, is especially attentive and can move on a dime. If they hear a little something or see me do a something different, they can turn a corner like that. I couldn’t believe it the first time it happened.

The synthesis between the orchestra and the stage is sometimes misunderstood. In the opera world, between there’s a perceived separation of orchestra and what the singers are doing. The orchestra players play their thing and the singers sing their thing and it all sort of happens. I like to think of the orchestra has having exactly every part of the expression that the singers have. The second oboe might have a delicate line that perfectly goes with what the mezzo is singing.

I feel that as a conductor, part of my job is to create that connection between the orchestra and the singers so that they feel each other. They feel that they are not just in sync, but are part of one expression. We are striving for a transcendent performance, in which everyone is expressing as one.

Have you conducted “The Rake’s Progress” before?”

Pelto: Yes, I’ve conducted it before, about five years ago at Curtis Institute. It’s an immensely tricky and complex work. But even though it is complex, it is brilliant because it sounds simple when it is right. It sounds as if it just flows along. In fact, Stravinsky said something absurd regard his opera. It was something like “the music is quite simple, the drama is difficult.” But of course, anyone who has been involved in “The Rake’s Progress” knows that the music is horribly complex, and would laugh at what Stravinsky said. But I think that what he meant was that the overall effect of the opera is on of simplicity. The expression of the music needs to be simple to be heard clearly.

Stravinsky loves to change meters and switch things up all the time.

Pelto: He resists any sense of pattern. As soon as you think that something is logically going to come on a downbeat, he is sure to put it right off the beat, or just before the beat, or some other place. Then you get through it and you think it will be that way again, but he’ll switch it to the downbeat. There’s no pattern to it.

So how do you study for this kind of thing? It must be maddening!

Pelto: I do the same thing as I do for any other opera. At first, I read the words to get the story and how it works. Then I sing it – again just as a story. “The Rake’s Progress” doesn’t require a huge orchestra. It’s a Mozart-sized ensemble, but the counterpoint is intensely complex. So you have to study it a little more like an orchestral score and understand how the instruments are being voiced and put together. But it all has to serve the dramatic phrase. So in the end, you sing, sing, sing, and listen in your head to how everything is being put together.

I read that Stravinsky refers to other composers like Monteverdi all over the place in this opera.

Pelto: There are some very specific things. There’s a moment that is exactly like “Così fan tutte.” It’s one bar and it has all the wrong notes, but it is very clearly a quote from “Così fan tutte,” which he was really into at the time. There are “Don Giovanni” moments and lots of Mozart in general. The fanfare at the beginning reminds me of Purcell or Handel.

One of the most interesting things occurs during Tom Rakewell’s first aria. It’s very much like Donna Elvira’s aria from “Don Giovanni” with strings only and the rhythm. In “Don Giovanni,” Mozart is referring to Handel and an older Baroque style. So in “The Rake’s Progress,” we have Stravinsky looking at Mozart looking at Handel. Later on, near the end of the opera after Tom has lost his mind, then the music feels like it has gone further back in time to Monteverdi. The music sort of loses all of the complicated texture and becomes much more like the first operas of Monteverdi.

What are the challenges of doing this opera in the Keller Auditorium?

Pelto: Since the Keller is a large space, you need to sing and play in a way that will fill the hall but at the same time keep the character of the piece, which is lighter, crisper, and more intimate at times. That’s a balance that we have to work out in rehearsal.

The music and text are whimsical and humorous and the sets by David Hockney are witty. The opera is dry, dark, witty, humorous stuff.

Sounds perfect for a Portland audience.

Pelto: It makes for a very entertaining evening.