July 25, 2009
July 24, 2009
A couple of side notes before we begin: Gentlemen of all ages- I would encourage those of you trolling around bars and gyms looking for hot women to give that up and just show up at Davies the next time they have a Rachmaninoff piano concerto on the program. Note to SFS marketing dept: please schedule an After Hours program for the all-Rachmaninoff concerts in November.
Also, this was one astute sold-out crowd, especially for a "summer concert." Quiet, and absolutely no clapping heard between movements, unlike at the Beethoven mess a couple of weeks back, the audience for which would have made Emmanuel Ax very happy (not that I'm a snob about that sort of thing). These folks knew what they wanted and what is was about.
The program started off with Rimsky-Korsakov's arrangement of Mussorgsky's A Night on Bald Mountain. While this isn't a favorite of mine, the witches were very much alive and it was a decent enough amuse bouche. Personally, Prokofiev's "The Knight's Dance" from Romeo and Juliet would have been a way cooler way to open the concert.
Next up was the main attraction for most of the audience, the Rach 2nd, featuring soloist Orion Weiss. This almost-ridiculously romantic concerto, one of the most well-known classical works in popular culture through its prominence in films like Brief Encounter and The Seven Year Itch, as well having it's melody lifted for use in pop tunes and commercials, is fiendishly difficult to do right by because of its familiarity. Thankfully Weiss, Gaffigan and the orchestra gave the audience a measured, careful account which took the piece in a direction that was more cerebral than romantic. It worked surprisingly well.
Playing with an almost surgical precision through the first movement (a metaphor conjured up in no small part by his white dinner jacket that reminded me of a lab coat), Weiss played within the work, not on top of it, to the point listeners had to pay attention to hear him.
The second movement was taken at a slower pace than one would have expected, again lending a controlled restraint to what is often treated as kitsch. Weiss leaned heavily on the pedals for this movement, giving the slower passages a nice touch of angst. He brought a light touch of showiness to the movement while remaining on the right side of the line that falls off the cliff into overt sentimentality.
The third movement gives the pianist the opportunity to really bust out with the flashy fingerwork. Weiss seized this moment to take over, but admirably refused over the top. When it was all over, the audience, which had remained unusually mute through the entire performance, gave him him a hearty standing ovation.
After intermission came Rimsky-Korsakov's Scheherazade, featuring Nadya Tichman as the soloist. The piece was performed earlier during the regular season with Charles Dutoit at the podium in a way I found completely disagreeable so I was eager to hear a better account. Even though the summer concerts get much less rehearsal time, this subdued Scheherzade still worked better under Gaffigan than it had during the spring. Tichman always seems a bit reluctant to be the center of attention, which is unfortunate because she's a marvelous musician. Her solos had a tenderness to them but never fully flowered into the score's passion. If there's a piece of classical music that has more sexual tension built into it than Scheherazade, I'm unaware of it. This performance never got beyond PG-13, but at least there wasn't a violence done to it like I witnessed the last time.
Best wishes to James Gaffigan- don't be a stranger, okay?
July 21, 2009
The citizens who showed up to rally behind Antonovich's motion were extremists of the worst kind- people who had no problem twisting facts and distorting the truth to their own ends- they reminded me, frankly, of the very kind of people they were claiming the festival would tacitly attract, support or endorse. Extremism, no matter its religion or ideology, is the driving force behind the most violent acts currently taking place around the world. It breeds intolerance and that is precisely what was on display in the meeting. Listening to the comments offered today in support of Antonovich's motion was like watching a perverted inversion of Phillip Roth's "The Plot Against America" coming to life on my computer screen.
One man claimed that the festival would indeed encourage tourists- like David Duke, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Louis Farrakhan, who would then successfully petition the City for a permit to hold a march down Fairfax to the tune of "The Ride of the Valkyries" while waving Nazi flags. Another claimed Wagner's anti-Semitic beliefs were explicit in his works. More than one claimed "the man and his music are the same and cannot be separated."
Another said the front rows for Gotterdammerung would be filled with White Supremacists wearing Nazi armbands (at $2200 a seat I doubt that very much). It went on for about fifteen minutes, and even the now-infamous Carie Delmar showed up to spew misinformation and lies, including the idea that Wagner was the "defacto soundtrack" to the Holocaust and a Nazi supporter. How could that be, when the Nazis didn't even exist when Wagner was composing the Ring?
Finally, some supporters, including I believe LA Opera's Stephen Roundtree, stepped forward to counter some of the blatant misrepresentations about LA Opera's efforts and intentions for this festival- noting the many ways the company is taking pains to acknowledge the one thing everyone already knows.
Supervisor Zev Yaroslovsky, a strong Festival supporter, introduced an amended motion supporting the Festival and its legitimate activities. Thankfully it passed with only one nay- Antonovich's. I'd like to thank the LA County Supervisors for acting in a reasonable and rational manner and voting to support the Festival and the LA Opera people who offered such a reasoned explanation of the truth.
The crowd supporting Antonovich reminded me of certain people to which my people have vowed, "never again." Thankfully, this is America in the 21st Century- not Germany in the 20th. Sure, this whole brouhaha is in some ways a small issue, given everything else that's going wrong all around us right now, but it was re-assuring to see some politicians stand up and do the right thing. Mazel-tov.
July 20, 2009
From what I've been reading online, the consensus of most bloggers and critics thinks this idea is foolish or just plain wrong on many levels. Although I'm well aware of the slippery slope which lurks treacherously in the background when one chooses to juxtapose Hitler, anti-Semitism, Wagner and the legacy of the Holocaust with the view of the online "majority," in this case I have to call out the squeamish and say to them, with all due respect, "get over it."
In the last year "The Producers" made it's debut in Berlin. Talk about a conflicted audience response. Yet how interesting it would have been to be in that audience and feel the reaction- to feel the tension of, Is this going to be funny? Can we actually give ourselves permission to laugh at this? Is our culture ready for this?
In LA, in the entire U.S., we don't have these qualms. We have Henry Ford, we have Lindbergh, we have FDR's internment camps. Yet no one lodges campaigns against the Ford Motor Company, Lindbergh is largely thought of in a heroic sense (justified or not) and the camps are not the first thing most people think of when FDR is brought up. Our own culture and history has many more such examples we could debate forever, but to what end?
So let the festival go on as originally planned. It will provide plenty of opportunity for people to discuss Wagner's anti-Semitism, and also give them the chance to delve into what is one of the Western world's most significant and impressive artistic achievements. It will draw people from all over and it will be a boon to the LA arts and academic communities. I'm all for it- and the conversations it will start. Hopefully the Board will get this one right and vote against this.
Below is the motion to be voted on today:
MOTION BY SUPERVISOR MICHAEL D. ANTONOVICH JULY 21, 2009
Los Angeles Opera’s upcoming Ring Festival LA, which celebrates the work of composer Richard Wagner, a racist whose anti-Semitic writings were the inspiration for Hitler and the holocaust, is an affront to those who have suffered or have been impacted by the horrors of Adolf Hitler’s National Socialistic Worker Party.
To provide balance, historical perspective and a true sampling of operatic and musical talent, the LA Opera should reevaluate and rearrange the festival’s programming to delete the focus on Wagner and incorporate other composers as headliners including Mozart, Puccini, Verdi, Schubert, Schumann, Meyerbeer, Mendelssohn and others.
I, THEREFORE, MOVE, that the Board of Supervisors direct the County’s Chief Executive Officer to send a five-signature letter to the Marc I. Stern, Chief Executive Officer of the LA Opera and members of the Board of Directors requesting that the Festival shift the focus from honoring Wagner to featuring other composers as headliners.
July 17, 2009
July 16, 2009
July 15, 2009
Rather than go forward with the city-wide Ring Festival, already in the works for years, he wants LA Opera to “Delete the focus on Wagner and incorporate other composers as headliners including Mozart, Puccini, Verdi, Schubert, Schumann, Meyerbeer, Mendelssohn and others.”
That's not a festival, Ring or otherwise- it's LA Opera's regular season programming.
Schubert, Schumann and Mendelssohn? I'm just curious which operas by these composers Antonovich would like to see staged. I'd have to check my Kobbe's for reference to name even one by Schubert and I'm not aware of any written by the other two.
The brilliant mind behind this carefully thought out idea belongs to a Republican married to a woman 26 years his junior (more weird family values from the Party that wants to tell everyone else how to behave?), who has been in office since 1980. It's time to retire him. Or maybe not- with leaders like this, the Republican party won't be making a comeback anytime soon.
Our city is downright mean. So says the National Law Center on Homelessness
and Poverty in a new report called "Homes Not Handcuffs" that tracks the
criminalization of homeless people in 273 cities nationwide.
San Francisco is ranked seventh, up (down?) from 10th last year. Berkeley
ranks 10th. The very meanest cities are Los Angeles; St. Petersburg, Fla.;
The rankings were based on the number of anti-homeless laws, how strongly
those laws are enforced and the general political climate toward homeless
The report slams San Francisco for citing people who sleep on sidewalks
and drink in public and for cracking down on homeless people camping in
Golden Gate Park.
If you live in San Francisco, have you ever seen the police citing people for this sort of behavior?
To the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty- who are you what planet are you from?
Looking at their website, I really doubt their board and employees have any real first-hand experience with living in an urban environment and dealing with homeless people on a daily basis. While I don't think the being "homeless" should be a criminal offense, certain behaviors should be when they effect the lives and well-being of others, including: aggressive panhandling, urinating and defecating in public, using and selling drugs on the street, sleeping on sidewalks and camping in parks. In the Tenderloin, home to many formerly "homeless" lodged in single-room occupany hotels managed by and for the City, this sort of behavior is on display all day, every day and the police do nothing about it.
While the City actively tries to get homeless people off the street and into these hotels and shelters, there is no law forcing them to go and many choose to stay on the street. Their vast numbers allow others who aren't homeless to "mix-in" with this population and behave in ways that negatively impact the quality of life of those around them- all tolerated by the police and actively supported by "homeless activists" and other "supporters" whose jobs depend on maintaining the status quo, while the cost of servicing this popluations breaks the City's back. (see my post "I'll have a vodka while I'm waiting for my lunch to be delivered")
I sent the NLCHP an email deriding their findings and I encourage you to do the same.
July 12, 2009
When the show is outdoors and amplified, casting a critical eye toward things is really pointless. This is really just about enjoying the perks of living in an interesting city and taking advantage of it. Having said that, the stand-out of the afternoon for me was Susannah Biller, whose voice always grabbed my attention and held it whenever she sang. Keep an eye out for her in the future.
I wondered a bit about the programming itself. I always think the idea behind these free shows is to expose potential new fans to the art as well as throwing a freebie for the fans. So I really didn't get the logic behind the first half of the show which featured three scenes from from The Flying Dutchman, the baroque Orfeo and Euridice and Menotti's(!) The Medium. Regardless of what I think about the selections, performing full scenes is definitely a much better idea than a show of arias without any context. I'd like to see that format permanently retired or saved for individual recitals.
The second half featured scenes from L'Italiana in Algeri and La Boheme- selections that made a lot more sense to me, of course. Nicely done everyone, though my companion and I agreed that a bright red backdrop would have made the singers more visible on the stage and we really didn't get the point of having all those random chairs onstage as props. It kind of looked like a Tenderloin sidewalk sale from where we were sitting.
The Merola particpants (Merolinis) will be performing Cosi Fan Tutte and L'Amico Fritz later this month down at Fort Mason. These performances are always worth attending so get yourself a ticket. The opportunity to see the rarely performed Fritz is something I'm really looking forward to seeing.
July 8, 2009
Can we scrap Zembello's Ring immediately and just go with this production instead? Please!
Don't watch this at work- seriously.
And can someone tell me what exactly the sponsor is selling here? Besides Wagner, I mean.
July 3, 2009
The season began with Runnicles conducting Simon Boccanegra- one of Verdi's finest and most under-appreciated operas and a personal favorite of mine. In my opinion Boccanegra ranks with Otello, Don Carlo, Ballo and Rigoletto as being among the composer's finest works. The cast was excellent across the board, featuring Dmitri Hvorostovsky in the title role, Barbara Frittoli alternated with Ana Maria Martinez as Amelia and Vitalij Kowaljow and Marcus Haddock gave solid performances. In hindsight, Kowaljow had an impressive year on the West Coast, going on to triumph as Wotan in L.A. Opera's magnificent productions of Das Rheingold and Die Walkure.
The production was the same one seen last time around, with some silliness removed, but it was the singing and the orchestra under Runnicles' superb conducting which made this one very special. For me it was one of Runnicles' finest moments, delivered with a superlative cast. Hvorostovsky is incredible in this role. A+.
The Bonesetter's Daughter- besides blatant pandering to San Francisco's large Asian population, was there another reason to commission and stage this? Methinks not. Pass.
Die Tote Stadt:
Without a doubt, this was the highlight of the season. Runnicles once again taking the orchestra to a new level in this rarely performed Korngold masterpiece. Another strong cast, and while some had issues with the strength of Torstern Kerl's Paul, Emily Magee shone bright as Marie/Marietta and Lucas Meacham and Ji Young Yang left great impressions in their supporting roles. Add to this a provocative production and you had a mesmerizing, unforgettable experience. Too bad we aren't destined to see more productions like this in the future. This is the kind of opera I live for. Absolutely fantastic across the board. A+, and then some.
Idomeneo: A Mozart opera whose popularity I really don't comprehend at all. The only reason I attended this was because of the amazing quality Runnicles and the orchestra brought to Boccanegra and Die Tote Stadt. Alas, it was still the same boring, ridiculous story and production I saw ten years earlier. If this was my first opera I would never, ever have gone back. Alice Coote's long-awaited return was for naught, Kurt Streit bored me to tears and the whole thing was a three and a half hour bore. How the Opera Tattler, whom I respect and admire, had the stamina to endure every performance of this is beyond my comprehension. Then again, that's opera, folks. Fail.
Boris Godunov: After thinking it couldn't get worse then Idomeneo, I was really looking forward to seeing Samuel Ramey in this role. Besides, I like Russian opera. So what the hell was this piece of crap? I left halfway through the dress rehearsal, traded in my regular tickets for Elixir, which originally I had no intention of seeing, and am happy to say I have never made a better decision on exchanging a ticket in my life. This was junk. Sad. Failure on a massive scale. Worst of the season- worst I've ever seen and heard, bar none.
The Elixir of Love: This was really the surprise delight of the bunch. After having seen Ramon Vargas' debut here in '99 I became a huge fan and eagerly awaited his eventual return. That enthusiasm waned once I saw hin as the Duke in Rigoletto at the Met a few years later- he came off as pompous and seemed to be sashaying through the part in a way that wasn't pleasant to watch nor hear, nor had anything to do with the role. He was coasting on his laurels since he was now a regular lead at the Met. But here was the Vargas I saw in '99- and he was fantastic.
Inva Mula, in her SF debut, was terrific, as was Ji Young Yang in a production that brought out all the sparkle of Donizetti's score. It looks like we are in for a lot more of this sort of thing in the Gockley/Luisotti era and if they can keep it at this level of quality I may have to eat some crow. It was terrific light opera and I loved every moment of it. Kudos to conductor Bruno Campanella- bring this guy back anytime. Solid A.
La Boheme: Count me among the opinionated who think if you don't like Boheme you really don't like opera and may as well give up and go back to whatever it was you were listening to before. La Boheme is one of the five best operas ever written- period. Too bad it's used as a cash-cow at most houses and once one has seen it a few times it becomes tedious to endure productions that lack imagination and the passion the work deserves. Often, as was the case here, a star or two in the cast is deemed an acceptable reason to stage this beyond the obvious box-office allure.
Angela Gheorghui was this year's Mimi and it was supposed to be a big deal. Having been unimpressed with her turn in La Rondine in the previous season, I was eager to see if she could deliver this time around. Count me unimpressed with one of the most regarded sopranos of the moment. She simply didn't impress at all, and Piotr Beczala, who has impressed in the past, was not impressive either. In other words, the whole thing was... unimpressive. Add to this the sad fact that SFO has been using the same old production for the last fifteen or so years, and this was a Boheme that didn't thrill and didn't bring a single tear to the house. How can this be, when it has three of the best arias ever written showing up back-to-back in the score? Apathy, my friends, and this is what I fear we are in for much more of under Gockley's reign of the safe, sure and proven. Luisotti, our own house Italian Stallion, was completely unimpressive in this outing that supposedly should have showcased his strengths. Oh dear, it looks like we are really going to miss Runnicles if this was an example of what the future holds in store for SFO. Grade it a D, with only Puccini's incredible score keeping it from failing completely, and that just sucks for opera lovers.
Tosca: give me a reason to have seen this stale Monsouri-era production which has been presented here at least five times in the past twelve years and I may have gone. I love Tosca, but I hate being milked. The SFO debut of Adrianne Pieczonka wasn't enough of a draw for me. PASS.
Porgy and Bess: This was the triumph of Gockley's tenure thus far. Too bad he didn't have the smarts to add extra shows to the sold-out run, which was one of the hottest tickets in town. People were genuinely excited about this and it generated a buzz about SFO I haven't seen in a long time. It was excellent on every level and complete success for all involved. Eric Owens had a star-making turn as Porgy, Laquita Mitchell was a terrific Bess and it featured one the finest choruses I've ever seen and heard. See my post here for details. A solid A. Why not a plus? Because the Gershwins opera ain't perfect- but it was perfectly done.
La Traviata: For the shows with Netrebko in them, these were the hottest tickets in town. So much so that when someone offered me more than triple what I paid for my orchestra seats, I took the offer- and skipped the standing room alternative. My compatriot bloggers seemed of unanimous opinion that Netrebko was fantastic, the supporting cast somewhat lacking, the B-cast worth seeing, and the Marta Domingo jazz-era production kind of lame. Not the sort of thing to erase the memories of the perfect production on view the last time around with Ruth Ann Swenson, Dmitri Hvorostovsky and Rolando Villazon, but good enough for Gockely's vision. I passed with no regrets and a significant profit.
So what about next year? The programming is the safest and most conservative I've ever seen in this house. It has little to be enthusiastic about for the seasoned fan, but will probably be a delight for newcomers to the house. Of course there will be great surprises and sad disappointments- but that's inherent to the art, wouldn't you agree?
My prediction is this:
The season's highlights will be Salome and Die Walkure. Abduction and Otello will be the disappointments for the devoted, and Il Trittico will be what everyone talks about. The sleeper will be Fanciulla and no one will remember Faust three days later- kind of like a Michael Bay movie- which is what SFO is looking increasingly like in its current state. Oh snap!
Trovatore is the dark horse- it has a great cast in an opera that never seems to work well on stage. Advance word on the production is that this one figures it out. We'll see- my fingers will be crossed.