Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

Opera, music, theater, and art in Los Angeles and beyond

More Than Meets the Eye

June 30, 2011

Jonno Roberts and Georgia Hatzia Photo: Henry DiRocco/Old Globe 2011

San Diego’s Old Globe Theater has officially kicked off their Summer Shakespeare Festival this year, which includes new productions of The Tempest, Much Ado About Nothing, and Peter Shaffer’s Amadeus. And while outdoor Shakespeare abounds everywhere these days, The Old Globe has a history of remarkably strong productions from great directors that make an ideal quick weekend getaway for anyone whether or not they live in Southern California. On Wednesday I caught the last of the three productions to open this Summer, the Ron Daniels-directed Much Ado About Nothing and was taken with how refined and multi-layered it was. Los Angeles audiences will remember Daniels’ last Southern California offering, the Los Angeles Opera world premiere of Daniel Catán’s Il Postino, which opened the season here in 2010. Daniels does many smart things with Shakespeare’s comedy, but my favorite is that he doesn’t exactly treat Much Ado About Nothing like it is one.

That’s not to say this isn’t a funny show. It is, with plenty of laughs and some of the wittiest insults and language play that Shakespeare wrote. But Daniels knows that even Shakespeare’s most un-“problematic” of comedies harbor much darker sides than they are sometimes given credit for. Much Ado About Nothing is on one level a comic war between the sexes. It’s typically given a zingy, lighthearted twist as barbs fly between the shrewish Beatrice, played here by a lovely and very engaging Georgia Hatzis, and her flustered sparring partner Benedick, played by an equally pleasing and awfully attractive Jonno Roberts. The chemistry between these two characters drives this play, and these are performances to savor.

But not everyone walks away from this battle unscathed, and much of Much Ado About Nothing rotates around false accusations of infidelity, public humiliation, and a young woman faking her own death. Faith and friendship are tested and there are some beautiful reflections on these topics that get lost easily with too zany an approach. The Old Globe and Daniels have managed a near perfect balance: one that preserves the promised comedy while making the pretenses of these laughs problematic enough to give the show weight and motion.

The production moves the setting to the early 19th century, which gives the proceedings an attractive look with period costumes in a rather sparse outdoor set. The pacing is good, and things move along quickly without being rushed. There is a minimal amount of singing and dancing for the cast to perform and some of it comes off better than others. Not all of the supporting cast come through as strongly as Roberts and Hatzis, but these are secondary issues. The show is quite good, and since it runs through September 24, you should have plenty of time to get down to San Diego to see it.


For a Limited Time Only

June 28, 2011


The very good folks at Glyndebourne streamed their new production of Wagner’s Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg starring Gerald Finley live last Sunday. And lucky for us, they’ve continued to make it available on line through the Guardian until the end of this week, July 3rd. So take some time out this weekend before it’s gone and enjoy this new David McVicar production. Act I in its entirety is above and Act II and III follow bellow.

Act II


In completely unrelated news, OWA would like to welcome CK Dexter Haven to the blogging fold this month adding to the voices in Southern California about classical music and such. Check out his blog All is Yar complete with L.A. Philharmonic insider tidbits and all the High Society references you can handle.


Where Are They Now?

June 27, 2011

Ashley Emerson and the boys of the chorus Photo: Ken Howard/OTSL 2011

The festival season for Opera Theater of Saint Louis was rounded out by performances of Don Giovanni and Donizetti’s La Fille du Régiment, both operas I’m predisposed to like. OTSL is a company deeply involved in the development of young American vocal talent. It’s the kind of thing New York City Opera used to do before…well, you know. Both of these productions featured some of the most notable young American singers who demonstrated both the promise and pitfalls of performers at this point of their careers. Mozart’s Don Giovanni is filled with the kind of bread and butter roles most vocalists are encouraged to master not just for matters of technique, but to afford them plenty of opportunities for singing engagements. It’s also worth noting that it is precisely this kind of youthful performer Mozart had on hand for the premiere of the opera in Prague in 1787. What we know of the vocalists who created these roles indicates that most were in their early 20s at the time of the first performance, so the Saint Louis cast may have more in common with what Mozart heard when he conducted the work than what one might believe.

Of course, having a youthful Don Giovanni as capable and dashing as Elliot Madore certainly makes this story of a lothario and the women who just can’t refuse him certainly more plausible. Madore was a winner of the 2010 Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions, and Don Giovanni is an ideal role for him. He managed the vocal chores well and has ample stage presence and charm. He’s easy to fall for and not overly brooding as well. There were a number of other standouts in the cast, including Kathryn Leemhuis who sang a clear and sweet Zerlina along side Bradley Smoak’s not entirely hapless Masetto. Sadly the staging under the direction of Michael Shell and James Robinson was probably the weakest of the offerings this season in Saint Louis. Nearly half of the show was delivered in front of a dark blue curtain emblazoned with a reproduction of Mozart’s signature. The curtain was just a bit better than the flat painted backdrop behind it but no amount of pluck on the part of the cast was going to give this dramatic interest. There was a frequent over-reliance of the kind of groping and hip thrusts that provoke easy laughs and a pointless money toss was thrown in to the finale, which provided little more than a nice photo opportunity. The conductor, Jane Glover, kept the pace slow and plodding throughout, not doing anyone any favors. But I’d certainly pay to see Madore again, hopefully in something a little more developed overall.

Elliot Madore throws his money around Photo: Ken Howard/OTSL 2011

Donizetti’s La Fille du Régiment was much more cohesive in its presentation. A charming, simple storybook set complemented Seán Curran’s highly choreographed stage action. The show had a number of strategic cuts, which kept the focus on a rather sweet take on the story overall. The leads here included Ashley Emerson as Marie and another Met Opera National Council Auditions winner from 2008, René Barbera as Tonio. Both had strong turns in showy and vocally challenging roles. Emerson, who was recently seen in Los Angeles as Flora in Britten’s Turn of the Screw, was a physically comic Marie. She managed the vocal lines well with a clear line if she did turn a bit shrill on the highest notes. I found her a bit cold at first, but she seemed to warm over the course of the evening, which worked in the role overall. She made herself the heart and soul of this production and the audience was clearly taken with her. Barbera has a lovely tenor and he managed the high Cs in Ah mes amis well. He only sounded forced at the very end. His phrasing was a bit more problematic in the Act II aria "Pour me rapprocher de Marie," and I wish he’d paid a bit more attention to the conductor so that everything was in sync while he was performing. Luckily, Barbera was paired with John McDaniel in the pit who was overly deferential, altering the pace to suit the tenor’s wishes on the fly. McDaniel is a Saint Louis native and has worked extensively on Broadway as well as a stint as music director on The Rosie O’Donnell Show in the late 1990s. But he was a good choice here, given his ear for comic timing.

The highlight of the show, though, was a scene stealing Sylvia McNair whose Duchess of Crackenthorp was expanded a bit and tweaked to be an ex-opera singer. She sang a comic number, Flanders and Swann’s “A Word on My Ear,” which features the refrain “I’m tone deaf” and provided some hysterical moments of her intentionally off-key hijinks. The greatly appreciative crowd gave her the biggest laughs and the biggest ovation of the evening in what became the comic highpoint of a very cute show. Which just goes to show what talent can become when paired with experience. Here’s hoping all of these young vocalists can get to a point in their career where they can enjoy moments like McNair did this year.


A Death at Sea

June 26, 2011

l-r: Laura Wilde, Brian Mulligan, Nancy Maultsby, and Paul La Rosa Photo: Ken Howard/OTSL 2011

Unquestionably, the highlight of this year’s opera festival in Saint Louis has been the return of John Adams’ The Death of Klinghoffer to the American stage. Twenty years after its premiere in Belgium, followed by controversial runs in both New York and San Francisco, it received its first complete staging in the U.S. this month. It turned out that an opera in 1991 on the subject of the 1985 murder of Leon Klinghoffer by Palestinian terrorists aboard the hijacked Italian cruise ship the Achille Lauro was a topic too hot to handle at the time, generating denouncements from many quarters that it was biased in many different directions simultaneously. Which may be true, but, of course, it’s art and by its very nature and design, it’s meant to be unfair. The charges and protests provided an extra obstacle to the many that new operas already face in receiving second or third stagings, and so Adams’ second opera vanished from sight. It wasn’t even presented by some of the organizations that paid for its creation, including the Glyndebourne Festival and Los Angeles Opera. Why The Death of Klinghoffer has generated relatively little controversy during its resurfacing here is Saint Louis is the more interesting question. There have been no reports of protestors outside of the theater that I have seen, and outside of some pro forma media coverage on the history of the controversy, this production has come and gone with little more than its deserved laurels for artistic excellence.

The chorus in The Death of Klinghoffer Photo: Ken Howard/OTSL 2011

How this came to pass is likely manifold. Opera Theater of Saint Louis spent a great deal of time and effort preparing the community for the production, offering forums for members of the “Interfaith Community” to meet in public and share ideas and feelings on the issues at hand. The lack of controversy this time around may also have stemmed from a gradual reintroduction of the work to the public over the last few years through a number of concert presentations of the opera in part or whole around the U.S. and the rest of the world. Or it may be that we Americans have changed. The understanding and awareness of terrorism and its perpetrators is very different for the vast majority of Americans since 1991. That nagging question of how and why a group of people in the world hate so much, and specifically hate us so much, that they are willing to sacrifice everything to express that hate has far deeper resonance in the U.S. in 2011 than in 1991. The larger implications of a murder taking place half-way around the world now seems more personal than just another episode in an ongoing Arab-Israeli conflict. Terrorism may not have changed in 20 years, but our view of the world has and I would argue that The Death of Klinghoffer has as much to say about those questions and feelings now as it did then.

Christopher Magiera and Aubrey Allicock Photo: Ken Howard/OTSL 2011

But this is still an opera above all else despite its underlying meaning. Musically, it’s absolutely stunning. Although it was composed just a few years after Nixon in China the changes in Adams’ compositional style away from his more minimalist roots are already on full display. The Death of Klinghoffer is much more clearly related to later works, like Adams’ oratorio El Niño than his earlier compositions. It is often lyrical and outright pretty. The musical backbone of the opera is a series of large choruses that were wonderfully performed by the OTSL chorus with the orchestra under Michael Christie. The choruses do not move the narrative of the hijacking forward, but serve as a point of reflection on the history, emotions, and underlying conflicts that fuel the opera’s actions. These are themes and text that would be difficult to ascribe to particular characters and they provide an overwhelming counterpoint to the other activity on stage. The action of the opera mostly takes place off stage with characters instead describing their histories and internal emotional states in Alice Goodman’s wonderful libretto. The work’s crescendo arrives with a pair of arias sung by Leon Klinghoffer and his wife Marilyn after his death. Brian Mulligan, a vocalist whom I admire more and more with each listening, gave another piercing performance in what Adams calls the “Aria of the Falling Body” where Klinghoffer reflects on his life as his dead body falls to the sea in his wheelchair after it has been pushed off of the boat. Nancy Maultsby’s Marilyn gets the final word of the evening with a brilliant aria of pain and rage directed toward the ship’s captain that both parallels and references the arias given to the terrorists earlier in the opera.

By request: One more photo from the gun show. Paul La Rosa as "Rambo" Photo: Ken Howard/OTSL 2011

All of the cast members give credible and very engaging performances including Christopher Magiera as the captain, Aubrey Allicock as Mamoud, and Laura Wilde as the young Omar. The excellent Lucy Schaufer plays a trio of international passengers aboard the vessel who seem more or less oblivious to the seriousness of what is unfolding around them. The festival’s artistic director James Robinson, who also directed this production, creates a simple set dominated by a multi-panel wall resembling the hull of a ship. There is ample video augmentation on a movable banner-shaped projection screen that is raised and lowered. There is a minimal amount of fuss over the actions of the chorus which do include some activity directly referencing the Arab-Israeli conflict, but not so much that it becomes cloying or heavy handed. Robinson lets the characters speak for themselves.

It’s doubtful that The Death of Klinghoffer is going to change anyone’s mind about anything. It is not going to make people into terrorist sympathizers nor is it going to rally Americans for increased military action overseas. But it does reflect on a world we live in right now quite beautifully and encapsulates some of the emotions streaming from that time in ways that are both frightening and touching. Audiences in Saint Louis have been lucky enough to see this work again and hopefully it will live again elsewhere very soon.


Certain Magic

June 25, 2011

Corinne Winters, Liam Bonner, Gregoy Dahl Photo: Ken Howard/OTSL 2011

The 2011 Opera Theater of Saint Louis festival season concludes this weekend, and I’ve traveled back to my old stomping grounds to catch up with what has turned out to be a very high profile and successful spring and summer for the company. OTSL is blessed with a number of benefits including the very intimate theater at the Loretto-Hilton Center and one of the nation’s great orchestras, the Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra, as the house band. Both of these features paid off enormously with this season's production of Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande, the company's first, in a staging under the direction of David Alden. This is one of the most beautiful operas in the standard repertory and also one of the most fragile. Debussy’s bold response to the monolithic work of Wagner did as much to set the tone for 20th-century music as Schoenberg, Stravinsky, or the “Tristan chord.” Pelléas just did it more quietly. Any production of this opera requires a fine orchestra and the players of the Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra under the direction of Stephen Lord brought the subtle coloring of Debussy’s score to life beautifully. They were joined by a solid and involving young cast. Liam Bonner was Pelléas. He’s got a sizable baritone that’s warm and brighter on the top and he handled the “childlike” qualities of the young lover well. I greatly look forward to his appearances in Los Angeles next year as Sid in Britten’s Albert Herring. Bonner was cast opposite soprano Corinne Winters who made one of the more enigmatic opera characters, Mélisande, sympathetic and engaging. Gregory Dahl sang Golaud with a fair amount of menace. I was again very impressed with the young Michael Kepler Meo, an OTSL veteran who returned as Yniold. He managed Alden’s direction, including a mad scene, and the vocal work with remarkable assuredness and real musicality much as he had in his appearances in Britten’s Turn of the Screw in Los Angeles earlier this year.

Corinne Winters and Liam Bonner Photo: Ken Howard/OTSL 2011

If there was a downside for me to the evening it was some of David Alden’s direction. The set was one of Alden’s preferred highly patterned rooms with large movable curved walls that create spaces more imagined than naturalistic. The action is moved to the time of the work’s composition, although there are still several Medieval references to Maeterlinck’s original text. All of this was sharp and eye-catching. There were several striking ephemeral images as well such as when Yniold appears as the two lovers visit the cave in Act II. He is carrying a mirrored ball and the projected lighting from it fills the theater, producing a similar reaction from the audience as the moonlight entering the cave does for Mélisande.

But for all the impressionistic imagery, Alden also strives for a clarity of emotional interaction between the characters. Golaud is much more angry and hostile throughout the entire performance. Scenes that are often left somewhat ambiguous in the hands of others, like when Golaud takes Pelléas into the vaults of the castle, are played as straight-forward thriller more than abstract suggestions of psychological conflicts. The love triangle in the libretto is clarified and dramatized to the point that the proceedings lose some of their mysterious beauty in favor of action akin to Sleeping With the Enemy. But the need for definition in the dramatic action doesn’t manage to overwhelm the show as a whole, and Debussy’s beautiful impressionistic masterpiece received a loving and much appreciated welcome to Saint Louis.


How to Act

June 24, 2011

Thomas Graves, Shawn Sides, and E. Jason Liebrecht of Rude Mechs Photo: Craig Schwartz/CTG 2011

Los Angeles has been awash in avant-garde theater over the last couple of weeks. Much of it was sponsored as part of RADAR LA, the first outing of a locally-hosted international theater festival sponsored by a consortium of groups including REDCAT. Sadly, I missed most of these programs while out of town, but I did get to see Center Theater Group’s contribution to the festival on Thursday. Austin, TX’s own Rude Mechs are now presenting The Method Gun at Culver City's Kirk Douglas Theater in an extended run through June 26. The one-act show, written by Kirk Lynn and directed by Shawn Sides (who also performs with the cast), primarily concerns actors and their craft. It brings to mind Annie Baker‘s recent Circle Mirror Transformation. But unlike Baker's Waiting for Guffman-style community theater exercises, The Method Gun is a bit more serious about its jabs at the Art of Theater and is certainly much more bizarre.

The Method Gun is a play within a play within a play and at times it’s easy to get lost in the meta twists and turns of the unfolding action. The Rude Mechs actors play themselves and do speak directly to the audience at times. They are also playing the five members of a purportedly legendary theater troupe from the 1960s and 70s under the direction of an off-kilter guru, Stella Burden. Burden never appears on stage, and the action follows what happens to the troupe after she suddenly disappears, abandoning her devotees in the midst of their mandated 9-year rehearsal process for an unusual staging of Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire. Most notably, this performance will entirely eliminate the characters of Stella, Stanley, Blanche and Mitch from the play. Amid these brief Streetcar remnants are re-enacted theatrical exercises the troupe has learned under Burden’s tutelage including “Kissing Practice” and “Crying Practice” which are announced via transparencies on an overhead projector and consist of largely self-explanatory activity. All of these exercises and activities compose what Burden reportedly called “The Approach” and her abandoned actors spend some time debating the accuracy and relevance of their continued adherence to this system in its creator's absence.

Needless to say the references here come fast and furious from the obvious connection to Beckett’s Waiting for Godot to the entire history of method acting in the United States. The Stella who has disappeared from rehearsals is most certainly a burden of another sort on her company and her sharing a name with Williams’ heroine and the great trainer of American actors, Stella Adler, is no coincidence. Neither is the fact that Stanislavski’s original three-volume introduction to his system of acting methodology, which would beget American method acting, was set in the world of a fictional acting school. The Rude Mechs have cleverly created just such a school to riff on the the process of performance and Stainslavski's contribution to its history. There is a larger point here about inspiration and the source of creativity as well as the way in which all of us must abandon our teachers at some point to become creative in our own right.

The show is quite funny and often surprising with some stirring visual images and clever audience involvement. The highly physical and choreographed climax is as surprising as any number of other inventions in the show from random intrusions from a smart-mouthed tiger to some of the most joyful and oddly uninhibited male nudity you've caught on stage before. But perhaps I've given too much away already. The Method Gun for all its cleverness is also not afraid of a little sentiment, and it occasionally wallows in it perhaps in an effort to avoid becoming overly intellectualized. Still it's a unique theatrical experience and one that you too can catch, but only for this final weekend.

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It Comes Down to This

June 22, 2011

Nina Stemme and Ian Storey Photo: Cory Weaver/SFO 2011

Sunday brought the end of San Francisco Opera’s first complete performance of Wanger’s Ring cycle this summer and its first as a company in a dozen years. I don’t have much to add about my comments on director Francesca Zambello’s staging of Götterdämmerung beyond my comments from last week. The second performance of the cycle's concluding opera had changed little outside of Ian Storey’s performance as Siegfried, which crumpled vocally midway through Act II. General Director David Gockley came on stage before Act III to announce Storey was vocally indisposed, but had been treated and would sing the rest of the performance. He carried on with a bit more unsteadiness than before, but he did finish with good energy. Later, Storey was visibly moved to the point of tears as he embraced conductor Donald Runnicles at the curtain call. It was clearly a tough afternoon for him and everyone. There was a sense of exhilarated exhaustion on stage and in the audience when things concluded on Sunday.

The entire cycle appeared to be a huge success judging by the audiences’ reaction. Nina Stemme generated the biggest ovation of all and there were few people I spoke with who were not moved to using superlatives to describe her performance. Already a known Wagnerian soprano, Stemme changed the current landscape for Brünnhildes last week. She completed the tightly packed 6-day performance schedule with a sound a little more humanly worn than it was in the Götterdämmerung premiere two weeks ago. She was a shade harsh in just one or two spots and missed the big concluding note of the Act I duet with Siegfried. But no matter. She’s still unparalleled right now in this role.

The crowd was a perpetually excited one. I saw a number of notables including Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra's own Jeffrey Kahane and more than a few national journalists lured out with the promise of seeing Stemme while in town for the meeting of the Music Critics Association of North America. Looking at some of the commentary that has appeared under the bylines of the heaviest hitters in classical music writing, it's surprising how little it takes to impress many of them theatrically. There continues to be this strange preoccupation on the need for a sense of humanity in this tale without many actual humans in it. It's as if Narcissus has become the end all and be all of arts criticism with work only rising to the level of importance when we recognize ourselves in it. Ironically, the most "human" moments of Zambello's Ring were categorically the weakest such as the drawn out dull Act III of Siegfried which had mawkish interactions between both Wotan and Erda as well as between Siegfried and Brünnhilde. The calculus is always too obvious and easy: the characters are rolling around on top of one another, ergo they must be in love.

And while the dead tree media was still flexing what’s left of its once prestigious muscles for a company whose management can’t seem to find enough unions to point its fingers at these days, the house was filled with the loving souls of San Francisco’s diverse online opera and music blog community. And really that was one of the best parts for me. I got to see many of the folks whose thoughts and writing I most admire and respect while in town, including Lisa Hirsch, Axel Feldheim, sfmike, Patrick Vaz, John Marcher, and the ever-present Opera Tattler. You should follow them all if you don't already.


Crossing Over

June 20, 2011

Robin T Buck and chorus Photo: Keith Ian Polakoff/LBO 2011

As readers of Axel Feldheim’s excellent blog, Not for Fun Only, may know by now, my San Francisco Ring cycle viewing was broken up with two trips back to Los Angeles in between performances. And while good old-fashioned gainful employment had something to do with it, so did the desire to see the final production of Long Beach Opera’s 2011 season, David Lang’s The Difficulty of Crossing a Field in its first Southern California performance. After seeing it on Saturday, I’m incredibly glad I did. Undoubtedly one of the strongest productions I’ve seen this year, LBO and its Artistic Director Andreas Mitisek put on a hugely thought provoking, elliptical, and ultimately overwhelming work. Who would have guessed that little over an hour of contemporary music would have outpaced the emotional impact of a 15-hour grand opera in the same week?

Difficulty is based on a page-long story of the same name by 19th Century American author and critic Ambrose Bierce which originally appeared in a San Francisco newspaper in 1888. It obliquely describes events surrounding the disappearance of a slave owner in the antebellum south in broad daylight and in full view of his wife, daughter, neighbor, and slaves while crossing an empty field. The story is not a mystery, but a fleeting rumination on the various perspectives of those who viewed the disappearance and its aftermath. The work is ironically prescient considering that Bierce’s own end is shrouded in mystery, having traveled to Mexico only to vanish himself with no record of his life, death, or further existence after 1913.

Suzan Hanson Photo: Keith Ian Polakoff/LBO 2011

Lang’s take on this shortest of stories enriches it without losing an ounce of its mysterious functioning. While the text shaped by librettist Mac Wellman, is often quoted directly from Bierce, it is done with frequent repetition and shifting voices within the cast. The music is scored for a string quartet, the Kronos Quartet at the time of the premiere, and has three major vocal parts – Mrs. Williamson, her daughter, and Boy Sam, a slave of the Williamson’s neighbor Arthur Wren. Wren and Mr. Williamson have speaking parts in the piece and there is a small chorus of slaves. The narrative jumps, shifts, and again folds in on itself over its length, eliciting much deeper strains of meaning from the original story and drawing out a whole well of emotion out of America’s history with slavery in a rather precise and condensed package. Lang and Wellman add other strange touches as well, including an extensive part for the Williamson daughter, and textual elements such as a list of common household objects that are repeated by different characters at different times representing perhaps a memory of the past, or in other contexts, the names of slaves. It’s a profound and bewitching piece given a gold star treatment by the resourceful Long Beach company.

Mitisek turned the musical direction of the evening over to Benjamin Makino who led the Lyris Quartet and a wonderful chorus with stand-out solo turns from Amber Mercomes and Dabney Ross Jones. The soloists included Suzan Hanson as Mrs. Williamson, Eric B Anthony as Boy Sam and Valerie Vinzant as Williamson’s daughter. All of them availed themselves beautifully in Lang’s halting, haunting post-minimalist score. Best of all, these performance took place in a wonderfully designed and visually commanding production directed by Mitisek. I was a bit puzzled about how the company intended to pull off such a small chamber piece in the comparatively large Terrace Theater in Long Beach. Well the answer turned out to be by having the audience seated on stage while the company used the seating of the auditorium as its empty field. A long catwalk, lit from below, bisected the auditorium in the center running from the rear of the house to the foot of the stage. The chorus was stationed at points along the catwalk among the field of seats and would at times reach out or interact with the other cast members. The lighting, from below the catwalk became hazy and created a shimmering heaven above on the Terrace Theater’s geometrically patterned ceiling. The effect of the cavernous and mostly empty auditorium was unsettling and oppressive at times.

The three principal soloists were then placed on the orchestra riser and lifted up and down into view of the audience. Hanson’s Mrs. Williamson was placed atop a ladder, rising several feet above the stage with a huge flowing dress that occupied much of the available space to emphasize her alienation from the rest of the world. Vinzant was placed either atop a mattress or later on large sheets of drawing paper opposite Mrs. Williamson with Anthony’s Boy Sam in between. The characters floated in and out of view in a dream like state that not only complemented the music but the layered, shifting words of the text as well. It was a superb evening of opera and one that managed that achievement without a big twist or surprised ending, but one with little more than the power of suggestion and an ability to mimic the interior patterns of our own minds.


Morning Person

June 19, 2011

Nina Stemme and Jay Hunter Morris Photo: Cory Weaver/SFO 2011

It’s hard to know what to make of San Francisco Opera’s new Siegfried, which had its second performance as part of the company’s new Francesca Zambello-directed Ring cycle on Friday. This is a particularly thorny opera to begin with and arguably the one that has least withstood the ravages of time. Zambello’s meandering focus throughout the cycle as a whole and convoluted thematic interests continue to blunt the overall emotional effect of the proceedings. However, her vision of Siegfried as an opera in its own right is the most intriguing yet of the four operas. And with a cast including Nina Stemme and a really pleasing Jay Hunter Morris in the title role, it actually is one of the better Siegfrieds I’ve personally seen.

From the moment the ever-present video starts to roll on the opening curtain, one gets the sense that the “American” part of this Ring cycle has been long forgotten. The images are filled with an environment under stress including deforestation and polluted air. All of Michael Yeargan’s sets in the first two acts are dominated by post-industrial dystopias complete with smoke stacks, derelict buildings, and garbage everywhere. By the time our youngest and most naïve of heroes is born, the status quo of Wotan’s world is about destruction of the environment and urban blight. Act I takes place outside of a beaten up trailer home surrounded by smithy tools and garbage. Even more intriguing, however, is the reversal of standard expectations in Act II. Here, Fafner’s cave is now an abandoned factory warehouse. Wotan, as the Wanderer, arrives to fine Alberich cooking up Molotov cocktails among the abandon car parts. When our titular hero arrives he is welcomed by the Forest Bird who is now an actual woman on a catwalk above unable to speak Siegfried’s language until that fateful drop of blood is spilled. Initially she gestures toward him as if speaking sign language and when she does talk, their relationship takes on colors beyond man's relationship to bird. When Fafner finally presents himself, it’s inside of a giant futuristic war vehicle like some operatic transformer. It’s all very fascinating to watch and an interesting twist. In the midst of the scene most associated with the beauty of the natural world in all of Wagner’s operas, Zambello has plunked in its place the most dissociated, mechanistic and industrial of imagery. The point is well taken, though, and I felt that it worked exceedingly well despite some oddly added touches like Alberich lighting the fuse on one of his bombs only to extinguish it immediately for no apparent reason and the Forest Bird madly signaling Siegfried not to set the now gasoline-soaked bodies of Fafner and Mime aflame as was his original impulse. Again what this actions has to do with anything is cloudy, but the Act as a whole is more engaging that what you may be accustomed to. (For those of you counting at home, that now brings gasoline-soaking for immolation scenes to a total of two in this cycle.)

Jay Hunter Morris Photo: Cory Weaver/SFO 2011

By the time the evening rolls into Act III, however, things start to slide off the rails. The opening interaction between the Wanderer and Erda is played as an (ex-)lovers’ quarrel completing with some fairly aggressive posturing. And when Zambello finally gets the action to the mountaintop, there’s little left to say outside of the cliché gestures she prefers as signs of human interaction. The good news is that unlike Robert Lepage who is increasingly demonstrating to New York audiences that he has little guidance for his actors on stage, Zambello wants her characters to interact and directs them on how to do so. This is not stand and deliver performance, but it is something you've seen before.

For character development and interaction, the audience continues to have to turn to the uniformly strong cast to fill in Zambello's gaps. Jay Hunter Morris plays the title role. He was a last minute replacement for the originally announced Ian Storey who withdrew from the Siegfried performances while continuing in Götterdämmerung. Morris has covered the role elsewhere, and his time in the limelight in San Francisco was remarkably good. He is even in tone with plenty of stamina throughout. He is a bit light of voice for the part overall and can be drowned out at times by the orchestra but he makes up for it with confidence and clear, flowing vocal lines. He treats Siegfried less as a mindless adolescent, and more as a clueless everyday guy. He’s physically appealing as well, and his chemistry with the evening’s Brünnhilde, Nina Stemme, is strong.

Stemme is again excellent and she delivers a Brünnhilde who is the ultimate morning person, bright eyed and radiant even after years of sleep. David Cangelosi sings Mime peppered with comic touches including cartwheels and odd little dances. Mark Delavan’s Wanderer was hit and miss. His Act II confrontation with Alberich was rich and dark compared to his interactions with Mime and Erda. Stacey Tappan, who has made a name playing bird roles here and in L.A. (where she sang both Wagner's Forest Bird and the Raven in Die Vögel), was a lovely Forest Bird. L.A. audiences will also recognize the Erda, Ronnita Miller, who lends vocal nobility to her role, even when the stage directions she is given work against her doing so. The orchestra and conductor Donald Runnicles continue to be wildly popular with the audience. Which I think is true for the overall production. This Siegfried does take off at moments and while these successes often come at the expense of ignoring the context of the prior two operas in the cycle, there is also a free-wheeling quality to the show that lends excitement when mixed with such good principal vocalists.


Go Tell It On The Mountain

June 16, 2011

Nina Stemme and Mark Delavan Photo: Cory Weaver/SFO 2011

San Francisco Opera’s new production of Die Walküre directed by Francesca Zambello returned on Wednesday as part of the company’s first complete Ring cycle of the summer. It was a welcome return, but one that came with incredibly high expectations in that its try-out run in the summer of 2010 was one of the company’s best-regarded productions in the last several years. It really had something to please just about any opera-goer, from paratrooper Valkyries to the superlative talents of Nina Stemme and Eva-Maria Westbroek. The fact that this now integrated Die Walküre revival fails to generate quite that much heat is somewhat of a foregone conclusion. But it comes pretty close. At the center of it all is the jaw-dropping performance of Nina Stemme as Brünnhilde. I still have trouble wrapping my head around it completely. So much live classical music and opera performance suffers in the age of easy comparisons with readily available benchmarks of bygone years just a download away. To hear something like Nina Stemme’s effortless bright and ringing performance is one of those rarities that turns people into opera fanatics. Well it's happening right now in the Bay area, and I suspect soon elsewhere in many other cities to come if Stemme continues to be interested in singing the part. This is a great one.

Brandon Jovanovich and Anja Kampe Photo: Cory Weaver/SFO 2011

Of course, Mark Delavan is also returning, and he had a particularly good night on Wednesday. He’s a very emotionally expressive Wotan and on this evening he gave the best performance I’ve heard from him so far in the run with a much bigger sound and more color than at other times. He appears to be growing consistently in the part over time and is standing his own against what I would consider to be a landmark performance. The rest of the roles have been significantly recast from before. Anja Kampe, who sang Sieglinde in Los Angeles during the stand alone premiere of Achim Freyer’s Die Walküre now appears in San Francisco in the same role for the first two cycles. She’s strong and steely-voice and fits in well with the cast. Opposite her was Brandon Jovanovich taking over for Christopher Ventris from the prior outing. Jovanovich has become a hot property over the last two seasons as a late-bloomer. After years of singing in all kinds of venues, he’s suddenly on the most prestigious opera stages everywhere, singing just about everything from Don José and Pinkerton to roles in Il Tabarro and Die Vögel. Now he’s suddenly Siegmund and making his role debut. It still feels like a performance in progress. Jovanovich is tall and very good looking which doesn’t hurt and he easily has the strength to pull this off. But on Wednesday, he struggled with pitch in a couple spots in Act I and his German diction reinforced the notion that this was a decidedly “American” Ring. But during the close of Act II, things had settled and he was stronger, surer and more in the game. Elizabeth Bishop’s Fricka was assured without being cloying or melodramatic. Anyone who inserts themselves between this particular Wotan and Brünnhilde is asking for trouble, and she came out smelling like a rose.

Zambello’s early 20th-century robber baron capitalism staging is probably the most directly derivative of the Shaw/Chereau school of Wagner. It already seems a little worn in spots. The rural cottage with its abundance of rifles and animal heads on the wall is a pointed and modern view as is the abandoned freeway underpass in the second part of Act II. But the mountain top of Act III is mighty dull after awhile. Zambello still insists on the most cliché stage directions when she wants to communicate what’s “human.” I suppose such a low-brow goal deserves the kind of meaningful embraces its characters always have right on cue to the music. Zambello’s insistence on telling you how to feel when it’s already obvious in so many other ways can be stifling at times. The paratrooper Valkyires seemed less of a hit this time around, too, though it was not clear if that was simply due to many in the audience being familiar with them at this point.

Any review of the evening would be remiss to overlook the great players of the San Francisco Opera orchestra and conductor Donald Runnicles, who sounded to be breathing easier on night two. Runnicles has been long scheduled to conduct this Ring, and I for one hope it is not the end of his appearances with the company after this Ring has come and gone. But on Wednesday, his absence seemed a thing far in the distance with such an alive performance. The cycle continues on Friday with Siegfried.


The American Way

June 15, 2011

Gordon Hawkins, Stacey Tappan, Lauren McNeese, and Renée Tatum Photo: Cory Weaver/SFO 2011

I’m not one to get worked up about the whole booing thing. I don’t typically care whether or not people boo at the opera. I suppose if enough people do it at a particular performance, I find it rather exciting on some level in that everyone is worked up about something, or at least pretending to be worked up about something. But I have to admit on Tuesday when San Francisco Opera opened up its full performances of Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen with Das Rheingold, I was somewhat put off by a sole and quite loud booer during the curtain calls. The targets were specific vocal performers – Melissa Citro who sang the role of Freia and Gordon Hawkins who sang Alberich. What bothered me is how random and strange it was that they were singled out for scorn. Sure, I wasn’t blown away by either performance and would agree Hawkins left a lot to be desired both vocally and otherwise, but did it really rise to the level of such a public spectacle of distaste? I mean, neither was a crime against music, and, frankly, mediocrity hardly seems like an excuse to boo someone. And booing Freia is like chewing out the busboy at an expensive restaurant for not removing your finished plate quickly enough. It’s Freia, people. All she’s got to do (at least in Francesca Zambello’s world) is throw her hands around and lie on the ground while bags of gold are piled on top of her. For heaven’s sake, Zambello’s production is still the worst thing about this Rheingold and even that doesn’t come close to deserving booing.

Das Rheingold is the oldest of the four productions Zambello created for this Ring and the one most closely tied to the American history subtext originally floated for this co-production with the Washington National Opera where it received its premiere. The costumes reference late 19th- and early 20th-century American upper classes for the gods with Alberich and the Nibelungen approximating laborers of the period for a dash of class warfare. And while the video imagery for the production appears to be markedly upgraded, the live action of Das Rheingold looked more cheap and barren to me this time around compared to its prior Summer 2008 outing. The opening scene with Alberich and the Rheinmaidens was accompanied by dramatic video of raging waters and mist that was eye catching. But simultaneously, the live action was bathed in so much stage fog that the vocalists frequently disappeared below the haze unintentionally creating the effect that they were not waving, but drowning. The slaying of Fasolt by Fafner looks unintentionally comical—as it always does—and as usual this was abetted by the struggle to make the vocalists resemble giants in some way. There are still overly choreographed bits as well, as when all of the gods grab onto Donner's croquet mallet-cum-hammer in turn to the beats in the music. One wants to change the channel until one realizes that this, in fact, is not television. But all this being said, there are some moments that work well and the minimalism of the final scenes can be very striking.

What I've written thus far may make the show seem less exciting than it was. The opening night was the most excited and full I've seen an opera audience here in San Francisco for a while. And in many ways their excitement was justified considering the overall quality of the performance. Donald Runnicles and the orchestra started out with what sounded to me like a bit of nerves, but soon settled into a robust and well paced performance. The star of the show onstage was tenor Stefan Margita as Loge. Just as he was in 2008, Margita crafted an equally menacing and sympathetic Loge and cut through the huge orchestra like the greatest of Wagnerians. I found myself wishing he had more to sing as the evening went on he was so enjoyable to listen to. Mark Delavan sang Wotan with clarity and much more emotion than many of his contemporaries who prefer to go the stoic king of the gods route. Elizabeth Bishop was a bright and clear Fricka, without being overly cloying. David Cangelosi has returned with his completely satisfying and well sung Mime for the cycles here as well. Overall the evening works and works quite well. It's engaging, and most importantly it makes you excited to come back for the next installment of the story, which is really what Das Rheingold should do. Even in its weakest and most predictable moments the staging kept moving and the two-and-a-half hours flies by as if it were far shorter. And that is nothing to boo about.


The More Things Stay the Same

June 14, 2011

A view of the new Libbey Bowl Photo: mine 2011

For better or worse, the most interesting thing at this year’s Ojai Music Festival was the feeling that the festival was embarking on a new phase in its history. The most obvious reason for this was the completion of the brand spanking new Libbey Bowl, the outdoor amphitheater in Ojai’s Libbey Park that has been the long-time home of the festival. Designed by Ojai architect David Bury, the new stage and seating area replaced the prior badly deteriorating stage while adding several modern improvements. Sadly, Bury died just before this year’s festival began preventing him from seeing the first of the music festival’s programs to occupy his design. The stage’s shell itself is now higher and more deeply slanted with more support for lighting and other equipment. The first thing I noticed about the new bowl was how much improved the sound was. While the Libbey Bowl relies on amplification like many outdoor venues, the sound was more focused and concentrated than I remember. Of course amplification in a new space is always touch and go, and even here, the amplification seemed ragged to me at times compared to before.

Even more noticeable from the audience's perspective, however, was the new seating space. Gone are the willy-nilly seating sections in favor of a single large area that fans out on both sides of the stage. The tiered asphalt that surrounded the stage is gone in favor of a more evenly graded concrete. This admittedly has a colder feel, but is certainly more predictable for people with canes and mobility issues. My favorite thing about the new space, though, is the seats. Individual outdoor seats replace low to the ground wooden branches that were as ugly as they were profoundly uncomfortable. And while the new seats may kill the festival’s long-standing seat cushion market, I can never remember being so comfortable in Ojai during a show. Yes, the Libbey Bowl has lost some of its charm with this new development. Gone are the trees that rose out of the center of the seating space, obstructing views in all directions. I missed their unexpected shade during the shows, but on balance, I think it was time for the festival to move on space-wise and I was glad to see the new Libbey Bowl.

The bowl wasn’t the only feeling that something was changing, however. There also seemed to be a sense of corporate encroachment in the air. The City of Ojai had seriously debated whether or not to allow corporate sponsorship of the Libbey Bowl, finally rejecting the idea. And while the Festival has typically had some level of corporate sponsorship, it was unnerving to see the giant wooden mobile display case and showroom placed in the park to remind everyone of their need for a Lincoln automobile amid the purveyors of locally made olive oil. The warping covers on the paperbacks of the Penguin Books booth which has long been a feature of the festival seemed sad by comparison to the sleek black machines dotting the walkway to the amphitheater. It’s by no means the end of the world as we know it, but it underscores the economic realities that Ojai, like all arts organizations face these days.

And finally, many, many miles away there was the birth of a new project for the Festival with the first installment of “Ojai North!”. This week the same programs from last weekend's shows will be reprised as part of the CalPerformances series in Berkeley. Both the Australian Chamber Orchestra and Dawn Upshaw will be on hand if you'd like to revisit any of the shows I've mentioned here. I'd recommend seeing Upshaw perform George Crumb's The Winds of Destiny on the 16th and the 18th in particular. And even if the music itself wasn't the catalyst for this year's changes in Ojai, it's still what this great festival is all about, and giving more people a chance to see it is a good thing.


I Feel It All

June 12, 2011

Richard Tognetti (left), Dawn Upshaw (center) and members of the Australian Chamber Orchestra Photo: mine 2011

The other artistic axis of this year’s Ojai Music Festival was the Australian Chamber Orchestra conducted by artistic director and violinist Richard Tognetti. The eleven members of present in Ojai this weekend served as the primary ensemble for both of the festivals’ evening programs on Saturday and Sunday. Both shows covered an unusually large range of works with varying degrees of success. Saturday’s show was organized under the title “No Return” and included works dealing with moments of finality or irreversible change, according to the program notes. It seemed a bit of a stretch to me, but it did provide an excuse for an interesting collection of works. The first half was dominated by Giacinto Scelsi’s Anagamin a microtonal wash with strong Eastern influences. Scelsi’s music always seems surprising to me with a reckless abandon and it provided a clever launching pad for Schnittke’s Trio Sonata that the ensemble dove into immediately afterward without pause. Schnittke’s music had a greater sense of stability and it struck me as more somber than some of his other more playfully ironic works. As a footnote to this, Tognetti played a lead solo role in the final piece prior to the intermission, his own Deviance, a tongue-in-cheek reworking of Paganini’s Caprice No. 24. Tognetti’s replication of the familiar virtuosic lines of Paginini’s piece are set against a sort of decaying arrangement in the other strings that seemed to reference the Scelsi in particular.

The second half of the Saturday program included Bach’s Violin Concerto in A minor and Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht. Bach always seems to crop up in contemporary music performances where he is admired for his intellectual rigor, so it was no surprise here. The ACO’s performance seemed dry to me, however, with Tognetti placing a greater emphasis on polish. It lacked cohesion at times as well as a certain period spiritedness. Some of the same issues haunted Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht. This darkest of Romantic works benefited from the lovely outdoor Ojai night which was markedly warmer than the previous night. Tognetti and the ACO didn’t seem totally attuned to this surrounding, however, and the two lovers in Dehmel’s original poem seemed plagued by a stray ray of high gloss sunshine intruding on their nighttime confessions.

Sunday’s program with Tognetti and the ACO was a similar grab bag of odds and ends, this time bringing in the talents of this year’s festival artistic director Dawn Upshaw. She gave probably the best performance of the whole weekend in this concert with Five Hungarian Folk Songs from Bela Bartok. Her ease and shading of these mostly somber songs she had selected for the evening managed to bring out the folk elements of the pieces without sacrificing any of her own natural vocal warmth. Keeping with a nationalism theme, the ACO concluded the Sunday evening after the Bartok with a chamber orchestra orchestration of Grieg’s String Quartet in G minor. The ethnic origins here seemed hazy and the larger ensemble arrangement of the quartet seemed to add little to the work overall. Sunday’s show started on a more positive note with Webern’s Five Pieces for Strings, whose movements were alternated with those of George Crumb’s Black Angels. Crumb’s string quartet was written in 1970 and was intended to capture some of the emotional strife in a country at war. And while it came from a very different time and place from Webern’s miniatures, the musical link between the pieces with their extended playing techniques couldn’t have been more clear in the performance. Crumb uses water-filled glasses in the final movement, “God-music”, but even this seemed right at home against the old Viennese master.

There was a song cycle in the first half of the Sunday show as well by Maria Schneider whose jazz band had played earlier the same day. The songs, written especially for Dawn Upshaw were based on poems from Ted Kooser written in response to early morning pre-dawn sights and experiences he’d had while undergoing cancer treatment. There is a deep reflection on mortality and living in the words Schneider captured well, albeit in a jazzy movie music kind of way. It seemed about as far as you could get from Crumb and Webern and I’ll admit I could have used about 10 minutes of it instead of around 30 with its piano and horn jazz arrangement and swelling strings.

Was this the best Ojai program ever? Probably not. There was certainly a wide scope of works played by familiar and new faces. But the shows seemed rather undercooked. Some of this went hand in hand with a festival that seemed to be testing new waters this year. But I’ll say more on that later.


Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory

June 11, 2011

Dawn Upshaw with George Crumb (far right), Gilbert Kalish and members of red fish blue fish Photo: mine 2011

There is a history of particular artistic collaborations in the arts that can become synonymous with certain time periods or places. In the opera and vocal arts world, we have been watching one of those landmark pairings unfold between soprano Dawn Upshaw and stage director Peter Sellars. One, if not both, of these artists have had their hands in most of the important vocal music events of the last two decades. Sellars directed Upshaw in several important operatic stagings in the 1990s including Handel’s Theodora at Glyndebourne, Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress in Paris, and Messiaen’s St. Francois d’Assise in Salzburg. In the early 2000’s there were a number of world premiere works as well, including John Adam’s El Niño and Saariaho’s L’Amour de Loin where he memorably talked her into lying on her back half-submerged on a flooded stage. Stirring images to be sure, and recent seasons have provided new outlets for their work together in a series of staged and semi-staged solo works and song cycles. Los Angeles has been lucky enough to see the two together in Saariaho’s La Passion de Simone and a semi-staged version of Kurtág’s Kafka-Fragmente. So it was exciting to see Upshaw and Sellars together again in another new collaboration on Friday night at the 65th Ojai Music Festival. (the following two video clips feature Sellars and Upshaw working together in Salzburg in the late 1990s and more recently talking about their work together in Ojai.)

The work was George Crumb’s The Winds of Destiny (American Songbook Vol. IV). Crumb was on hand for the performance, and the evening started in the most engaging of ways with a conversation between Sellars, Crumb, and pianist Gilbert Kalish who also performed that evening alongside percussion ensemble red fish blue fish. It was an interesting conversation and contrast between Sellars, one of the most politically inclined theater directors around and Crumb, one of the least politically-minded composers by his own description. Sellars gave Crumb several opportunities to talk about sociopolitical undertones in his Songbook series, but the composer demurred insisting that he prefers to let the music go where it takes him. Of course, hearing arch commentary in Crumb’s now multi-volume settings of over 70 American songs is tempting. As evidenced earlier this season on the Los Angeles Philharmonic stage, Crumb’s preservation of the lyrics and vocal melodies to songs such as “When Johnny Comes Marching Home” and “Shenandoah” stands in high contrast to the thorny dark avant-garde arrangements that surround them (See the final video clip for a sample of the music performed by a college graduate ensemble.). The Winds of Destiny is true to form. The eight songs here are all from the civil war era including several spirituals such as “Go Tell It on the Mountain” and those mentioned previously. The score is for soprano and percussion alone, but as Crumb himself noted, the era of percussion as punctuation in a musical sentence is long gone, and the wide array of instruments sang out in numerous colorful ways the average listener might not expect from the description of a song cycle for soprano and percussion.

Given that most of the songs in this cycle are associated with a time of war and unrest, Sellars went for the clear contemporary parallels. Upshaw arrived on stage in desert fatigues and laid down to sleep on an elevated bed. Her character was a modern day American soldier returned from any one of America’s current ongoing military conflicts. She is now marked with the specter of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and is filled with feverish twisted dreams and memories of the horrors she has seen in foreign lands. The cycle opened with a haunting “Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory” which set the tone for this very unsettled and sleepless night. Upshaw and the players were amplified and at turns she could sound both tortured and enlightened. She would sit on the edge of the bed, and then later stand in front of it with microphone in hand like some rock singer. Later the soldier would cradle her pillow as if it were an infant or drink mouthwash in an allusion to the drug problems common in one so troubled. I was most taken with the final visual, the soldier performing “Shenandoah,” perhaps one of the loveliest of all traditional American songs, with Crumb’s haunting, decaying musical setting as she punted with a pole on some imaginary river of the mind.

It was a stirring if somewhat grim performance. Upshaw sang with an urgency that wasn’t always about simply producing beautiful sound, although that was not an uncommon occurrence. Not all of the staging elements worked. Some of the falls Sellars had Upshaw execute as if in response to exploding bombs could look clumsy and comical. But overall, the emotional intensity of the performance outstripped its political agenda.

In a crafty move, Upshaw, who is this year’s musical director at the festival, and Sellars paired this performance with a highly contrasting but complementary one. The Sakhi ensemble alongside Ustad Farida Mahwash presented several ghazals, or folk songs and melodies from Afghanistan. Unlike the American songs that preceded them, these works concerned matters of love and spirituality. Instead of the angst and violence of peoples at war, these traditional songs stood in contrast as a reminder of those human attributes that persevere in even the worst of circumstances. It was a touching counterpoint in an evening of committed and heart-felt performances with much, much more than music making on its mind. And it was a great evening for revisiting the contributions of two long time collaborators.


Small Business Administration

June 10, 2011

Gary Cole and Edi Gathegi Photo: Michael Lamont/Geffen Playhouse 2011

How do you follow up writing a Great American Play? Well, if you are Tracy Letts, you write Superior Donuts, which is now receiving its Los Angles premiere at the Geffen Playhouse in a very well done production. Letts' Great American Play, of course, is August: Osage County, and after having won every major award he could, a new direction was called for. Superior Donuts is a far more modest, less ambitious work. It's a surprisingly genteel comedy about reconciling our American pasts. This is not a completely different project from August. Letts is digging for something deeper in the American character and how we got where we are. But Superior Donuts has far fewer sharp edges than its predecessors and it achieves its goals without a daunting ideological framework.

Superior Donuts is set in a contemporary Chicago neighborhood. Arthur, played by an excellent Gary Cole, is an ex-hippy and draft dodger who now runs the decaying and not very successful neighborhood donut shop he inherited from his father. The play opens after the shop has been vandalized and Arthur has lost his only employee. He soon hires Franco, played by Edi Gathegi, a young smart alec from the neighborhood. The two become an unlikely odd couple despite the difference in their races and agesl based in part on their mutual histories of uniquely American traumas. Franco's efforts to revitalize the business fail to win over Arthur who is mired in his lifetime of losses. Soon Franco's own demons arrive, forcing him to reevaluate his future prospects as well.

This is not new or unique material, and there are more than enough buddy picture tropes to go around, but Letts' sharp writing, particularly for the effervescent and witty Franco, is a powerful draw. And there are some humorous set pieces, including a geriatric brawl. And, while it's a nicer world than Letts has offered in the past, the themes of American cultural change are still prominent. The great chemistry between Cole and Gathegi make the play. There is an admirable restraint to the performances that relies on the characters' nonverbal interactions. The several members of the supporting cast were also quite good as the handful of remaining customers and friends Arthur sees in his store. And there are genuine laughs as well. Director Randall Arney has put together a wonderful version of this more accessible version of the Letts's America, and it's worth seeing at the Geffen where is runs through July 10.


Pull Up to the Bumper

June 09, 2011


Did you get your exclusive offer from the Hollywood Bowl in the mail yet? I got mine today:
"As a 5 or More Concert Series patron, we invite you to take advantage of a unique opportunity at the Hollywood Bowl – Donor Valet Parking. Through this exclusive program, you can enjoy a designated, non-stacked valet parking space for each concert in your 5 or more series.

Donor Valet Parking spaces are in very high demand, but a limited number of spaces has become available for the upcoming 2011 season. This benefit is exclusively for L.A. Phil donors who contribute $2,000 or more. Donations are required per series, per space and are renewed annually.

We offer three levels of valet parking: Platinum, Gold and Bronze. Platinum level parking donors have the added benefit of using a dedicated express exit lane."

I understand L.A.’s car culture and all. And I recognize that stacked parking at the Bowl can be arduous. But a $400 (at a minimum) per show donation for valet parking? Am I missing something?


Conduit for Sale

June 06, 2011

Nina Stemme, Andrea Silvestrelli, Ian Storey, and cast Photo: Cory Weaver/SFO 2011

After years in the making and a late-term abortion in Washington, D.C., Francesca Zambello’s production of Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen reached its conclusion in San Francisco with the opening performance of Götterdämmerung on Sunday. (For those of you who may have forgotten, Washington National Opera was the original venue for this production that only made it through the end of Siegfried before the economy and the company pulled the plug with 2 concert performances of the finale.) Perhaps more than Zambello’s Ring or Wanger’s Ring, or for that matter San Francisco Opera’s Ring or America’s Ring, what has arrived in California is above all else Nina Stemme’s Ring. The company appears to be acutely aware of this. Following a superb performance on her part Sunday, Stemme took a solo bow on the empty stage and was forcibly put forward by Zambello for a third one after her bows with the rest of the cast. The company knows when they have a great thing, and Stemme is it. The following cycles in San Francisco will mark her first appearances as Brünnhilde in complete Ring performances and it is already clear that she is on top of the current heap. No one currently singing before the public can touch the ease and clarity of her top notes in this role and the power with which she manages them. The beauty and effortlessness of the vocal performance was jaw dropping at times. I’ll admit that I wasn’t as certain about the middle and lower parts of her range on this particular Götterdämmerung Brünnhilde afternoon, where the power seemed to drop away at times. But as a total artistic performance, she leaves everyone around I can think of in the dust.

To be honest, the rest of the afternoon could have been horrific and it would have been irrelevant compared to Stemme’s work, but it wasn’t. The much loved and missed maestro, Donald Runnicles was back in the pit for an assured and often lovely performance. I personally could have used a little more dynamic range overall, but the pacing was first rate. Perhaps the biggest vocal surprise of the show was tenor Ian Storey as Siegfried. He’s proven to be a somewhat controversial Tristan, and when he backed out of the Siegfried performances he had originally committed to last month due to inadequate preparation time stemming from a prior illness, eyebrows were raised. He delivers in Götterdämmerung without strain or warble anywhere. His voice is lighter than one might expect, with more a head than chest quality, but also has an athletic ease. He was well paired with Stemme, and they had good stage chemistry, even in some of his more buffoonish moments on stage. There were many other notable performances including the large voiced Andrea Silvestrelli as Hagen and Melissa Citro as a vamped-up, man-hungry Gutrune. (More on that later, and for those who don't want any specific spoilers, this may be a good place to stop reading.)

The biggest disappointment in the whole show is Francesca Zambello’s decidedly middle-brow modern-dress production. It’s hard to judge how close or far the production strays from being successful, in part, because Zambello has so many ideological irons in the fire it's not really certain what she is driving at here. It certainly is not the culmination of an "American" Ring as billed by WNO, a fact that Zambello acknowledges in her own program note. She states, "When we began the production in 2005 in Wahington, D.C., the seat of political power, we focused on the misuse of it. In San Francisco, where Californians have a keen consciousness of nature and the environment, we placed more emphasis on despoilation." If by this she means we know garbage when we see it, she's right on that count and the whiff coming off this show is mighty suspicious.

At times, this Götterdämmerung comes off as an amalgamation of every directorial idea floated for a Ring cycle in the last 30 years. Zambello’s vision is a standard post-Chereau approach and is simultaneously presented as a number of things including an environmental ring and a feminist ring and others. Wagner's opera are certainly big enough for holding a whole world's worth of ideas. But in the home stretch Zambello's vision is muddled and indecisive. Götterdämmerung now takes place in an identifiable near future on the grounds of an oil refinery. The three Norns appear after the introduction dressed in surgical outfits and busily laying cable. They are behind a scrim where digital circuitry blinks and glows, only to be later replaced with five hours of ominous billowing black and gray clouds. The sets are uniformly static and filled with modernist furnishings Hollywood has misappropriated for decades from their utopian origins in order to signify menace and evil. (See Los Angeles Plays Itself for footnotes.) A sexed up Gutrune and leather clad brother lounge around a massive steel frame atrium in leopard skin bar stools and curvy white sofas. All of this is surrounded by massive amounts of conduit designed to carry who knows what.

Although initially visually attractive, much of the opera visually grows cold quickly. In Act II, Zambello brings on a group of black-clad cowering women following the male chorus during Brünnhilde's arrival in the Gibichung Hall. They skulk around suggesting the Gibichungs have systematically engrained a physically oppressive misogyny as a cornerstone of their culture. The women claw at the comparatively shiny and pretty Brünnhilde like a sort of space rock until she spots her now brainwashed husband. All of this comes home to roost in Act III, which opens in the dry riverbed of the Rhine now strewn with mountains of plastic bottles and other garbage. The filthy Rheinmaidens are busy filling garbage bags with trash until they come across Siegfried in his bright orange hunting outfit and carrying his semi-automatic assault rifle and Nothung. The staging of the subsequent murder is clunky and awkward with Siegfried raising his arm from a prone position when he is returned in the final scene.

Of course, the big finale is when all hell breaks loose ideologically. After Siegfried's body is returned and Brünnhilde arrives, all the men, including Hagen leave the stage leaving Gutrune and the Rheinmaidens as the sole witnesses to her entire climactic aria. When she calls for the funeral pyre to be built, the village women again appear with garbage bags they drop at the back of the stage before the Rheinmaidens douse it with gasoline. Siegfried's body is dumped and Brünnhilde discusses the ring directly with the Rheinmaidens. Hagen returns suddenly for the operas final line only to be tackled by the Rheinmaidens who kill him by suffocating him with one of their bright yellow garbage bags. This bizarre collision of feminist and environmental frames is followed by a rain storm, a flood of water, and the men returning while the photographed faces of the real-life veterans used in Die Walküre fall from the sky. And just in case you weren't confused enough, the old-favorite of a small child in a white gown bringing a tree to plant at the foot of the stage as the gray sky clears to blue wraps up the whole show. And thus ends Wagner's four day music drama on the origins of Arbor Day.

No, I'm not making this up. And to be honest as much as I appreciated the effort, the big finish was more disappointing than anything else. I'm all for unusual challenging productions. Heck, I don't typically care if they are "faithful" to anything in particular or even if they completely make sense. But I'm also for committing to an idea or vision and sticking with it. Zambello's take on the Ring smacks of intellectual desperation in the end, or at least a decision to change horses mid-race that doesn't pay off. Oddly though, all of this doesn't really amount to much when you consider the musical qualities of the show. And missing Nina Stemme would be on the order of the gravest error - like failing to give up a cursed ring. Full cycles kick off in San Francisco next week so stick around for further reports.


Population Density

June 05, 2011

Judy Kaye and Betsy Wolfe in Tales of the City Photo: Kevin Berne/ACTSF

Given the longstanding popularity of Armistead Maupin’s episodic Tales of the City novels of San Francisco in the 70s and 80s, it’s to be expected that the story lines would cross over into the musical world at some point. There have been at least two Tales-inspired musical projects to date. But the full-fledged world-premiere stage musical developed by Jeff Whitty with music and lyrics from Jake Shears and John Garden is by far the largest scale live theatrical experience associated with the work thus far. Tales of the City with its rich group of beloved characters and wealth of storylines is a natural choice for an excellent musical. And there is a chance that just such a musical lives somewhere within the current production now onstage at San Francisco’s American Conservatory Theater. But this great musical is expertly buried among so much excess in the current version of the work, it would be hard to identify it.

The show needs significant cuts, and despite the presence of two Scissor Sisters (Shears and Garden) it appears an ax may be more in order. One of the charms of Maupin’s originally serialized works are their large cast of characters and the stories' episodic natures. Over time, all of these details convey a romanticized version of a time and place that becomes greater than the sum of its parts. Perhaps for this reason, the creators have had a hard time letting go of anything in the stage version. Of course, there are nice story arcs about being true to yourself embodied by Michael “Mouse” Tolliver’s struggle to share his life with his parents and Anna Madrigal’s revelation of her many secrets. But there are too many underdeveloped static dead ends here from the polyamorous adventures of Beauchamp Day to Mary Ann’s cliffside thriller with Norman Neal Williams.

There are some lovely star turns in the show with capable songs for them to sing. Judy Kaye stars as Mrs. Madrigal, and her Act I closing number is a barn burner. Wesley Taylor plays Michael and he gives a touching beauty to a sung coming-out letter to his parents. Shears music is true to the spirit of the late-1970s with plenty of dance beats. But there are also a wide variety of out-of-the-box genre numbers from blues-influenced tunes to gospel choral bits that feel like they could have come from any other show. There's even a little The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas. There is plenty dirty going on here including period-realistic rampant drug use. Some of the more dated material hits a sour note once in awhile, and there are a few odd moments where the show attempts to take material that is profoundly disturbing, such as child pornography, and pass it off as a footnote in a larger story. Maybe a little more updating was called for here an there.

The show also seems to be trying awfully hard at times and, despite some flashy numbers on the clever multi story set, the energy sometimes peters out without warning with everyone huffing and puffing away for unclear reasons. Admittedly though, as the show continues, it does grow on you somewhat. And people who go expecting to see specific things in novels they have come to know and love, won’t be disappointed. But for the uninitiated, and particularly those living outside of San Francisco, this show is going to be a much tougher sell in its current format. But there’s a great musical in there somewhere and with enough effort it could be found and exposed. And on the stage, certainly stranger things have happened.


In the Wings - June '11

June 03, 2011


June is a month of package deals when it comes to the performing arts here at Out West Arts. There’s plenty to do and see in L.A. and beyond, but much of it comes in festival-sized bundles that can be exhausting in that wonderful way. It’s also an opera intensive month that will be centered around San Francisco where San Francisco Opera will be presenting its newly completed production of Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen in three full cycles starting June 14. Despite what has been a so-so staging thus far from Francesca Zambello, the production boasts perhaps the best Brünnhilde going right now in Nina Stemme along with contributions from Mark Delavan, Ian Storey, and Jay Hunter Morris among others. I’ll be heading up to San Francisco on the 5th as well to see the premiere of the cycle’s Götterdämmerung, which never saw the light of day when Washington National Opera bailed on the completion of Zambello's Ring production after Siegfried and the economic downfall of 2008. All that Wagner may create a need for some contrast, so while I’m in town I’ll also be checking out the world premiere musical adaptation of Armistad Maupin’s Tales of the City with a book from Jeff Whitty and music from Jake Shears. I’d also mention that the Bay Area Rainbow Symphony will present a program with the music of Virgil Thompson on the 16th that will be joined by New York Times music critic and Thompson scholar, Anthony Tommasini.

From the Los Angeles Poverty Department's State of Incarceration Photo: Anne Maike Mertens

Of course, the absolute worst thing about the San Francisco Opera Ring Cycle is that it falls right in the middle of a very exciting arts week in Southern California. Long Beach Opera will present three performances of David Lang’s The Difficulty of Crossing a Field starting on June 15 and repeating twice on the 18th. And if that isn’t enough, REDCAT, along with consortium of other organizations will present the first RADAR L.A. festival of international contemporary theater. Over 14 works from all over the world will be presented in several different venues around town from June 14 through June 19. Highlights include Austin, TX’s Rude Mechs who’ll present The Method Gun at the Kirk Douglas Theater. Meanwhile troupes from Japan and Latin America will take over REDCAT, and L.A.’s own Los Angeles Poverty Department will fill a stage with government issue prison bunk beds for their show at the Los Angeles Theater Center downtown. These are low-cost shows and you can check out the full schedule at the RADAR L.A. site.

Dawn Upshaw Photo: Brooke Irish/Ojai Festival

And if you’re looking for adventurous music, there is the annual Ojai Music Festival, which kick off on June 9. This year’s program is curated by soprano Dawn Upshaw and will feature collaborations with Richard Tognetti and his Australian Chamber Orchestra. The six shows will cover everything from Beethoven to Schoenberg, including a staged version of George Crumb’s The Winds of Destiny, directed by Peter Sellars paired with music from Afghanistan. There will also be a world premiere from Maria Schneider on Sunday, which, like all the music on the schedule, will take place under the roof of the newly redesigned Libbey Bowl.

Elliot Madore as Don Giovanni Photo: Ken Howard/OTSL 2011

I’m also headed out to Saint Louis for the tail end of the festival season presented by Opera Theater Saint Louis on the 24th. This year will include performances of Donizetti’s La Fille du Regiment, Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande, and Mozart’s Don Giovanni. Perhaps most intriguing, though, will be a new production of John Adams’ The Death of Klinghoffer. This will be the first time the opera has been seen in a fully-staged version in the U.S. since the work's notorious stateside premieres in New York (at BAM) and San Francisco in 1991 and 1992. Whether or not this is a precursor to a renaissance for Adams’ most-controversial work is yet to be seen, but it is certain to be an event. (And FYI, in case you hadn't heard, OTSL will present the U.S. Premiere of Unsuk Chin's Alice in Wonderland in 2012 so you should start planning now.)

Of course, there are some non-festival oriented offerings around town as well, including the local premiere of Tracy Letts’ Superior Donuts at the Geffen Playhouse on the 8th. San Diego’s Globe Theater will mount new productions of Peter Shaffer’s Amadeus starting on the 5th, with Shakespeare’s The Tempsest, and Much Ado About Nothing not far behind. And if your ready for that first summertime trip out to the Hollywood Bowl, my first pick there for the summer would be the program featuring some of Japan’s best and brightest on the 26th, including Cibo Matto and the Yellow Magic Orchestra. Oh, and if you are lucky enough to have tickets already, Adele, whose career is skyrocketing, will hit L.A. on the 6th at the Greek Theater and on the 9th at the Palladium. I missed the boat on that show, sadly, so if you’ve got a ticket to spare, feel free to email me and hook me up. In any event, hope your summer gets off to a great start.


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