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L'elisir d'amore (The elixir of love) is not only one of most melodious and rhythmically exciting works in all opera, it also testifies to its composer's defiant humanity. Gaetano Donizetti endured many personal tragedies, including the loss of his wife in a cholera epidemic in 1837, the deaths of all three of his children shortly after their births, and a horrible, debilitating disease, which caused his mental deterioration and death in 1848.
When Jacques Offenbach's Orpheus in the Underworld was first performed in Paris, in 1858, the famed critic Jules Noriac, of mighty Le Figaro, stammered with delight: "Unheard-of. Splendid. Outrageous. Graceful. Charming. Witty. Amusing. Successful. Perfect ..."
West Bay Opera's current production of Così fan tutte stands tall on the twin ramparts of Barbara Day Turner's rock-solid conducting of a fair-to-middling orchestra, and Douglas Nagel's vital, if risky, staging. Combined, they made for fine musical theater, if not quite dramma per musica.
If noble titles were given as rewards for excellence, the FOG Trio would be royalty. While "FOG" also indicates the trio's connections with San Francisco, the name is formed by the players' last names: F is for violinist Jorja Fleezanis (former San Francisco Symphony associate concertmaster), O is for world traveler/San Francisco resident pianist Garrick Ohlsson, G is for San Francisco Symphony principal cellist Michael Grebanier. W is for Wow.
A music teacher returned to his old school on Saturday night, three decades after writing his breakout piece there, and the brilliant concert that took place exceeded all expectations of such an occasion. More than a sentimental reunion or dutiful observance of the passage of time, this was a poignant and powerful musical lovefest, some of the teacher's finest and most complex music, performed with startling excellence by a new generation of students.
When the ghost of Jacob Marley first appears in Dickens' A Christmas Carol, practical, level-headed Ebenezer Scrooge suspects "an undigested bit of beef" at work, rather than a supernatural knocking at the door. Thursday night, in Davies Hall, I was searching my memory for any recent digestive mishap that might have caused my strange state of mind.
You haven't lived fully until hearing opera in a small Italian town — the smaller the better. Forget the niceties of production values and flawless performances; instead, you can revel in the most essential component of the genre: passion.
For those who can't (or won't) see the forest of an opera for the trees of performance minutiae, here's the word about the San Francisco Opera's new production of Wagner's Tannhäuser that opened on Tuesday night: Donald Runnicles' Opera Orchestra and Ian Robertson's Opera Chorus give a magnificent account of the music, which is among Wagner's most sweeping and bewitching.
Stephen Sondheim's Sweeney Todd is a big musical — large in passion and in production values. It originally opened in 1979 at one of Broadway's biggest theaters, in Harold Prince's hugely operatic production, and went on to be performed by opera companies as well as in theaters around the world. Come Christmas, it will be a big, expensive movie, directed by Tim Burton and starring Johnny Depp.
From Oakland, drive 40 miles south on 880, that overcrowded, dangerous highway, paved like hell, and not with good intentions. Then, 10 miles north of San Jose, hang a left on Auto Mall Parkway, in search of Ohlone College. You are now in Fremont, formerly rural, now a mixed industrial-residential city of 200,000, with the largest number of expatriate Afghanistanis in the U.S. But Fremont’s latest distinction is that it is home to America's newest opera company.
Can a simple story, deliberately lacking in operatic gestures, make a good play? Thornton Wilder's 1938 Our Town certainly did. It was a subtle, laid-back, and whimsical account of small-town America, more of an archetypal abstraction than practical reality. But can the same slow-moving, relaxed material be made into an opera, a genre whose essence is tension, conflict, and high emotions?
What do you know: a grand operatic discovery at a chamber-music concert. But consider the source. He was both the "Paganini of the Double Bass" and the conductor of the Cairo premiere of Verdi's Aida. He was a composer who went on stage with the double bass at the intermissions of performances he conducted, to play fantasies on the opera's themes.
I don't know how many Danielle de Nieses there are, but I have already heard two of them. The first was a terrific Cleopatra in a remarkable presentation of excerpts from Handel's Giulio Cesare in Calistoga's Castello di Amorosa on July 14. The second appeared a week later in an hour-long song recital, in the Napa Valley Opera House, accompanied by Royal Opera House Music Director Antonio Pappano. As the French say, Quel difference! But there was no Vive for this performance.
As the lights were going down in Davies Symphony Hall on Saturday night, I caught a line in the program book asking "What are we to make of Prokofiev ..." but had no chance to read further before the hall went dark. The question — after a childhood of mandatory Prokofiev in a Soviet-occupied country and a subsequent lifetime of listening to him by choice — didn't make sense. What is there to "make" of the composer of the ever-loving Romeo and Juliet, of the sparkling piano concertos, of great film scores?
The star in the San Francisco Opera's summer run of Der Rosenkavalier, which opened Saturday, is Richard Strauss' music; higher praise is difficult to come by. Under Donald Runnicles' direction, the orchestra played marvelously the complex, interwoven layers of music that constitute this nearly century-old score, which has lost none of its modernity and power.
You may notice her 6-foot-plus height first, but when Kendall Gladen begins to sing, she makes another, far more important impression. Even at an age that's young for a mezzo, and at the beginning of her career, Gladen has the "it" of the It Girl, a certain something, the je ne sais quoi. She had fierce, if collegial, competition Monday night: four excellent singers from the San Francisco Opera Center, at a concert closing the Music at Meyer season in Temple Emanu-El's Martin Meyer Sanctuary. Soprano Heidi Melton has a huge, rafter-shaking voice.
During her recent Merola and Adler years, Melody Moore developed a reputation and an avid fan base. Her operatic and song cycle performances well earned her both. High esteem and fans followed her on Sunday into the Martin Meyer Sanctuary of Temple Emanu-El and she received an ovation as she first appeared.
... and then there was the concert against carbon dioxide.
Inspired by Al Gore's (and now Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger's) environmental campaign, and the film An Inconvenient Truth, opera conductor Sara Jobin and environmentalist Monisha Mustapha have organized the "Cozy Concert for Climate Concerns," an impromptu musical celebration of the national campaign for "cutting carbon dioxide 80 percent by 2050." The series began on Saturday evening, in San Francisco's First Unitarian Universalist Church.