The SF Opera seasons continues now with Don Pasquale and opening this week-end, The Makropulos Case in the same excellent production as a couple years ago. Previously, the company presented the Chinese-themed opera Dream of the Red Chamber and Umberto Giordano's Andrea Chenier as well as the traditional Opera in the Park. The SF Symphony recently celebrated the 80th anniversary of minimalist composer Steve Reich, shortly after its Opening night.

Chenier: This year again, the SF Opera opening night adopted a revolutionary theme. As last year, we are bemused by SF's upper crust enjoying calls for upheaval and more equality. Unfortunately, as an opera lover, the joke is on us. It's a reflection on the state of the art form: it used to cater to the aspirations of wider swaths of society and now finds itself relegated to a corner of popular culture. Opening Night was the first one hosted by new SF Opera general director Matthew Shilvock, and it's one of the cornerstone of his agenda, to make opera as relevant as ever. We sincerely hope he succeeds.

Andrea Chenier features the French Revolution as viewed by an Italian composer. For those who don't know much about history or the French they took, that revolution ended with Napoleon taking over and promptly invading Italy, putting his brother on the throne of Naples and Sicily. It's not a surprise then that Giordano goes straight from the tyrannical Monarchy and "let them eat cake," to the tyrannical Reign of Terror and the guillotine, skipping any optimistic, idealistic phase in between. It features a poet caught up in the events, Andrea Chenier, in love with an aristocrat, Maddalena di Coigny.

Maddalena (Anna Pirozzi) shows why the revolution is more than necessary: after the peasants storm her castle, she is saved by her maid Bersi (J'Nai Bridges, who calls Renee Fleming her mentor and flashed some moments of brilliance). In order to provide for them on the run, Bersi prostitutes herself. Only later on, when Maddalena needs a little dough to bribe a guard, does she remember that she still has a bejeweled necklace and some gold coins. Ooops, sorry Bersi. Pirozzi seemed lost in the first half, which does not give her much to work with and anyway, aside from an aria complaining about fitting in a fancy dress, to which half of the audience silently nodded. She found her footing in her showpiece, La Mamma Morta (famously used in the movie Philadelphia, just worth watching for how un-Sully-like Tom Hanks looks) and in her final love/death duet with Lee, which were gripping.

Chenier (Yonghoon Lee) starts dismayed by Maddalena's frivolous attitude towards love. In his morose glumness, he views love as an invitation to follow a deadly fate. Surprisingly enough, he succeeds in convincing her to join him on that path. Lee provides a surprising intensity to the character of Chenier. He seems seething inside even when his character is silent. And that intensity carries in his voice full of a lyrical anger.

It's hard to not draw the parallel with Tosca, where in order to seduce the soprano, the baritone keeps the revolution-friendly tenor hostage. Joel Sorensen was a vicious henchman here, as he was in SF Opera's last Tosca production. However, Gerard is a more multi-dimensional character than Scarpia: an early enthusiastic revolutionary, he later doubts the cause; and while he reaches a position of power, he can't bring himself to abuse it to coerce Maddalena, rather devoting his unrequited love to her assistance. That's a lot of broken dreams. Unfortunately, baritone George Gagnidze seemed subdued throughout.

The production by David McVicar is ravishingly lush, exquisitely detailed, and the set received applause from the audience. The orchestra was uniformly excellent under the guidance of Nicola Luisotti, with a special acknowledgment of Olga Ortenberg-Rakitchenko's harp accompaniment.

SF Symphony Opening Night:


The SF Symphony opening night gala featured two opera stars, who stole the spotlight from the orchestra. We won't complain, we will enjoy any opportunity to see Renee Fleming and Susan Graham sharing the stage, and with these two, fireworks are pretty much guaranteed.

The Gala opened up with an operatic overture, the only appropriate beginning for an evening of arias and songs. It was the whole William Tell overture by Rossini, which has permeated popular culture in the oft excerpted version of its final cavalcade. You've heard that bit in Gladiator or Braveheart. It's a shame the rest of the overture is not as well known, it starts with a delicious cello solo, perfectly rendered by Michael Grebanier; as followed Russ di Luna with his English horn. MTT seemed to bring more gravitas than strictly necessary for a Rossini overtures, but concluded with the expected freewheeling barnstorming.

The other orchestral bit was Three Movements by Steve Reich, an ever-shifting work of small repeated motives exchanged in between the different orchestral instruments. It alternates in fast-slow-fast movement, the last one including an electric bass to rock things up. MTT described it as the essence of San Francisco in the 70s (Steve Reich is a New Yorker, but took up residency on our coast for a while then), and we'll take his word for it.

Susan Graham kicked off with an aria by Mozart, and Renee Fleming followed with one by Cilea; in a bit of diva-ship, she intoned Puccini's "O mio babbino caro" from Gianni Schicchi, not listed on the program, explaining: "Susie's aria was longer." And we wouldn't want Renee to get less than the best bit, wouldn't we. Together they joined for Mozart “Ah, guarda sorella” from Così fan tutti, where two sisters egg each other on, a perfect fit for the chemistry of this duo of friends. They later got together for Delibes' Flower Duet as an encore, and a few who left early for intermission missed a truly magical moment. The second half had them perform Gershwin. “Fascinating Rhythm” for Susie and "Summertime" for Renee, the former amplified for extra sassiness, the latter acoustic for pure vocal awesomeness. They joined again Berlin's "Anything you can do (I can do better)," where they did try to out-sing each other faster, slower, softer, in a wickedly fun romp. So much fun we are not sorry one bit the orchestra got second billing on their night back from Summer break.

Dream of The Red Chamber:

The sumptuous sets of Dream of the Red Chamber at SF Opera, by Tim Yip. Picture: Cory Weaver/SF Opera

As part of reaching new audience, the SF opera has turned towards Asia. The 2008 commission of The Bonesetter's Daughter was a step in that direction, that filled the seats to 97% capacity. The pipeline of young Chinese and Korean artists in the Merola and Adler programs was another one. There is definitely a market opportunity for opera in Asia; and for Chinese-themed opera here, as proved by the crowd clad mostly in red, for good luck.

Dream of the Red Chamber is one of the most celebrated novels from China, ensuring interest and name recognition for the opera, which will be produced in Hong-Kong in the Spring. Written in the mid-1700s, the book is a giant opus unfinished at 80 chapters, with over 400 characters, complex political machinations, and of course a love triangle. Librettist David Henry Hwang and Bright Sheng (who also composed the score) distilled it down to the essence of the story, down to two and a half hours of music.

They frame the story about a stone, who has watered a flower with dew for thousand years. Stone and flower ask to be incarnated into humans so they can consume their love; they found themselves as Bao Yu, au young poet from a powerful clan in deep debt to the emperor, and his cousin Dai Yu, now an orphan. It's love at first sight. But the emperor would like Bao to marry Bao Chai, and so do Bao's mom, who views in the rich Bao Chai's family a way out of their debt. Eventually, poor Bao Yu is tricked into marrying her. The devious emperor uses Bao Yu's family debt to seize all their assets, as well as those of Bao Chai's family, who basically acquired the liability through the marriage. They are all ruined. The opera is also an invitation into a world, it opens with a monk stating: "welcome to my dream," and in this dream, lovers sing about building a world on music. That is: welcome to opera.

Yijie Shi and Pureum Jo are the star crossed lovers of Dream of the Red Chamber.

Giordano in Chenier liberally borrowed from the French folklore, citing "Dansons la carmagnole", "La marseillaise" or "Ca ira". We don't know how much Bright Sheng recycled in his score from Chinese tunes, we're not familiar with that canon, but it definitely feels tinged in folk modes and melodies (though the Chinese operas we heard like, say, the Peony Pavilion, were much more orchestrally pared down). Sheng did borrow from Ravel's Le Tombeau de Couperin, among other musical allusions from the Western divide.

The typical western orchestra includes an expanded percussion section, with gongs and woodblocks, which sonorously punctuated the melodic sentences, and a qin, some form of zither with a delicate sounds which requires amplification. Listening to the soft sonorities when it provides accompaniment in two of Dai Yu's arias, we were thinking of the glass harmonica of Lucia, a somewhat eerie and incongruous hue in the music that adds depth to the character. Once amplified, the qin is slighly twangy, as a cross between banjo and harp.

Pureum Jo (as Dai Yu) is a perfect fit, with a pure and direct voice devoid of affectation. Tenor Yijie Shi is a petulant and slightly clueless Bao Yu, but he finds lyricism in his love duets, and a painful melancholy at the end. Qiulin Zhang is an overpowering grandmother as Granny Jia. They shone in the ensemble pieces, in particular the final septet of Act I or the duets bewteen Dai Yu and Bao Yu.

The sets unfold at the curtain rise like a giant intricate pop-up book, with the pieces of the background floating up and down the back wall. In the same vein, blue silk ribbons figure ocean waves. The 3D perspective effect are impressive, especially considering it's totally devoid of high tech bells and whistles, just traditional stagecraft. The costumes were advertised as sumptuous, costing tons of money and using yards and yards of fabric, and indeed they were.

Sheng wrote lush music, with richly upholstered orchestrations, but at first listen, the score seems to repeat itself through a rather uniform language throughout. There are outstanding lyrical moments, and it is very well made. There's humor in an orchestral fit of cough; lyrics about destiny are orchestrated as a march, letting us know clearly that fate will push us and we have no agency. Sheng varies his colors: he follows the intimate ethereal qin aria with a lustful horn band, complete with a trombone blare reminiscent of the post-coital glissando in Lady McBeth of Mtsenk.

Yet, we just made the comparison with Chenier, which we saw for the first time as well this season, because we felt the same way watching these two performances. We were in a comfortable place between mild discovery and traditional expectations. Both were a tragic love story, both developed along a political background, both had some music of tremendous power and some rather drab moments in between, and both delivered the proper mix of emotion and of reassuring deja vu. Chenier was written at the end of the 19th century, and serves exactly the impact we'd expect from a good opera from that period. It's a bit harder to place DRC in time, it just has this same ageless quality, this feeling of comfort and well worn patina. We expected this from Chenier, which has gained its spot in the repertory, but from a world premiere, we were surprised. We're ambivalent, as it is an impressive feat that it could pass for a somewhat obscure yet traditional piece of the repertory, but also a hint that it is not taking too many risks.

Opera in the Park: Opening week-end includes the traditional Opera in the Park, at Sharron Meadows in Golden Gate Park. This year, the weather did not cooperate, the sun never came out, and we were cold. Luckily, the performance on stage warmed our heart.

The singers delivered highlights from the current opera season, including Anna Pirozzi in Giordano's La Mamma Morta from Andrea Chenier and Pureum Jo and Yijie Shi in Bao Yu and Dai Yu's love duet from Dream of the Red Chamber. But two tenors stole the show, Lawrence Brownless in a breathtaking "Ah, mes amis!" with its nine high C's, and Pene Pati in Arlen's tune from the Wizard of Oz, Somewhere over the rainbow, in the Israel "Iz" Kamakawiwo'ole arrangement for voice and ukulele. We hear helicopter tour pilots in Hawaii would rather get punched in the face than hear it another time, it's mandatory soundtrack by the glittery waterfall, but we loved it and Pene Pati's voice has way more heft and much nicer edges than Iz's. Plus, uke is fun.

The afternoon split along a celebration of opera and a set of songs to commemorate the events of 9/11 on its anniversary (a couple years ago, the whole concert featured Mozart's Requiem, the early September start of the season is bound to collide with that date). That second part included an "Imagine" where Lucas Meachem forgot to keep the necessary gravitas for such a remembrance while bantering with Maestro Luisotti at the piano.

MTT and Steve Reich perform hand claps. Picture: Cory Weaver/San Francisco Symphony

Steve Reich, An American Maverick: MTT and composer Steve Reich go back a long way, and even though Reich lives on the East Coast, he got some of his training at Mills with Darius Milhaud and Luciano Berio in the East Bay. It's quite appropriate then the SF Symphony celebrated the composer for his 80th birthday; plus he wrote some beautiful music that doesn't need any excuse to be performed. Additional context was provided by some videotaped bits.

One in particular was hilarious, when MTT and Reich reminisced about a performance in the 70s at Carnegie Hall, which ended up with the audience booing loudly. This was not the "richly upholstered music" they expected. The humble Reich was "blank as a sheet" for they hated his music; the brash MTT was jubilant, for there hadn't been a musical scandal this forceful since Rites of Spring, and this would put Reich on the map.

The music has lost its scandalous power, it's gained a trailblazing recognition. It is still potent though. The evening started with Six Marimbas, the title describing exactly the orchestration. Each marimba repeats a short rhythmic phrase, some together, some off the beat from the others, some playing the whole phrase, some playing only some elusive echoes. The lead rotates from one player to the next, the roles intertwine, the music shifts shape. There is no melody to speak off, but a color emerges from the intricately woven dialogue of the marimbas, an evocative meditative landscape. Steve Reich emerged from the minimalist movement, but it's quite a misnomer for these sophisticated patterns.

Kronos Quartet proved that a string quartet could take many unexpected form, this one played along a tape of voice recordings (the lyrics were in the program, even though they don't really make much sense). The instrument mimics the voices' tone and rhythms, and add the energy associated with trains whistling and rustling. The viola is featured more prominently than in the typical string quartet where it fills some voids. Here, it's a leader among equal. The piece breaks in two movements, the first being driven by the tape and the second one by the instruments, the latter opening in an almost classical manner before reverting to a more Reichian style.

We didn't particularly enjoy the Electric Counterpoint, maybe because looping with an electrical guitar has been done so many times that this piece doesn't feel as controversial. It is still quite impressive to see Derek Johnson sync so effortlessly with the other taped guitar lines and blur the distinction between the live and the recorded. And we didn't particularly care for Clapping Music (click the link for the score!), performed by MTT and Steve Reich himself, that lacked rhythmic accuracy and sounded approximate (Reich's music rely so much on beat precision). That said, we tried clapping through it ourselves and it's a bitch, so kudos for them to get out of it in one piece.

The last bit of the concert mixed the performers of Eighth Blackbird, a Chicago-based sextet with the same number from the SF Symphony into an exhilarating performance of Reich's Double Sextet. Surprisingly, they split the two namesake sextets, half out-of-towners and half local ones, instead of pitting them against each other, blending their sounds. The piece is full of humor in its first fast movement, then takes the sexy hues of tango in the middle movement, and ends up in another fast movement with a final in unison. It's a wonderfully rich and inventive score, and Steve Reich fully deserves the honor of an exclusive program of his music.

Susan Graham, Renee Fleming and MTT at the SF Symphony Opening Night. Photo credit: Moanalani Jeffrey/SF Symphony.