Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

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Take Courage

October 23, 2006

Mr. Thibaudet - fighting the good fight
Late October, and once again it’s off to San Francisco for a weekend of adventure and opera. Before the main course, however, there have been plenty of chances for some appetizers. On Friday, I decided to stop into Davies Hall to hear what was up these days with the San Francisco Symphony. Unfortunately, the answer was Semyon Bychkov and an evening of wildly overwrought performances. After listening to him and the Symphony barrel unceremoniously through Shostakovich’s 10th Symphony as well as Saint-Saens Piano Concerto No. 2 and Golijov’s Last Round, I was ready for a drink. I've never understood why some people don't like Shostakovich or think his music is bobmbastic until Mr. Bychkov began to give me an inkling just how that might come about. The soloist for the Saint-Saens, Jean-Yves Thibaudet, did put up a good fight by trying to inject some finesse and thoughtfulness into the proceedings. However, dynamics outside of loud and shrill were not to be the order to the day. Oh well, better luck next time.
Katie Barrett as Yvette and Ivonne Coll as Mother Courage
Photo: SF Chronicle/Kurt Rogers 2006

On Saturday, my luck improved as I traveled across the bay to see the Berkeley Repertory Theater’s recent staging of Brecht’s Mother Courage. Ivonne Coll starred in this production directed by Lisa Peterson which featured new music composed by Gina Leishman. The show was a huge winner with a clear vision and a fair amount of appropriate humor. This was a conventional production in the way that Brecht (and Weill's) work often is these days - stark, dark, and just a little menacing - but despite being unoriginal, it worked well. The stage was essentially empty except for a few props and costumes and strategically drawn curtains at times. During the course of the show, the back wall became a surface for the cast to write dates, names of songs, lyrics, and other material on. These tactics have been used elsewhere to much less effect including the abysmal Broadway revival of The Threepenny Opera last year. Much of the success was likely attributable to the strong performances of the cast including three great women: Coll, Katie Huard as Kattrin, and Katie Barrett as Yvette. The play was topical and currently relevant without having to spell everything out in painful and unescessary detail. Leishman's music couldn't avoid the Weill overtones that the piece invites, but again these worked well in virtually all spots.

There's a lot to be learned here. Too many current directors worry too much about Brecht seeming out-of-date, but he can do just fine if you let him speak for himself. Next, off to the opera.

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