Review: World Premiere of ‘Recipe’ by Michael Gene Sullivan at Central Works (***)

October 19, 2014 Leave a comment

(Charles Kruger)

(Rating: ***)

This reviewer is a voting associate member of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle (SFBATCC)

This reviewer is a voting associate member of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle (SFBATCC)

(“Recipe” plays at Central Works in The Berkeley City Club October 18 through November 23, 2014.)

Michael Gene Sullivan is resident playwright for the beloved San Francisco Mime Troupe, whose politically driven, unabashedly goofy agit-prop theatricals have been a Bay Area tradition since 1959 — an astonishing run of more than half a century, which has been recognized by a special Tony Award.

As expected, “Recipe” is solidly within this tradition. That means it is often silly, intentionally over-acted, simplistic in its politics, goofy in its jokes, sentimental in its nostalgia for 1970s counter culture, and full of heart and commitment. In short, fans of the Mime Troupe will not be disappointed. Others may find things a bit overwrought, but will laugh nonetheless.

The Morning Glory Baking Circle for Revolutionary Self Defense is a collective of eccentric old lady activists, nostalgic for the halcyon days of the 1970s counter culture (and before). Gifted bakers all, they have been raising money for revolutionary causes via bake sales for several years. Astonishingly, they have presently accumulated a surprising sum (over $60,000) which they have decided to send, illegally, to Cuba and this has caught the attention of a local radio journalist who comes to a meeting to conduct an interview. When it turns out that these old biddies might not be as irrelevant as they seem, all hell breaks loose in the Baking Circle.

Velina Brown, as Diane, the radio reporter, has a close encounter with revolutionary baked goods in "Recipe" at Central Works. Photo Credit: Jim Norrena.

Velina Brown, as Diane, the radio reporter, has a close encounter with revolutionary baked goods in “Recipe” at Central Works. Photo Credit: Jim Norrena.

Playwright Sullivan has created an ensemble of characters suitable for actresses of a certain age, and his troupe of experienced players have a lot of fun bringing them to life. The featured players include bay area stalwarts Phoebe Moyer and Lynne Soffer as an elderly lesbian couple, one of whom harbors a dangerous secret. These two experienced actresses know exactly when to play for a laugh, and when to get serious, making the most of every line. Jan Zvaifler seems to channel Diane Keaton at her most vague as the addled, hesitant, good hearted Janice. Tamar Cohn all but steals the show as the fiesty revolutionary Ruth whose long experience in the leftist trenches inform her belief that politics matter, even among little old ladies in a baking circle. Rounding out the cast is Velina Brown as Diane, the radio reporter with an unexpected secret identity. Brown is the co-artistic director of the San Francisco Mime Troupe and her flamboyant expertise with this type of material is fully on display.

As one expects from Mr. Sullivan, there is a serious theme underlying the silliness and before the evening is complete, some real political issues are raised. What if, Mr. Sullivan asks, there really is a fascist conspiracy in the United States of America, one that is so paranoid and determined to control us that even little old ladies baking cookies are on the radar?

Gary Graves has directed “Recipe” with a firm hand, moving the story along, hitting the jokes, and turning serious as needed.

If this is your cup of tea (or slice of cobbler), you’ll have a good time.

For further information, click here.

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“Recipe”, a new play by Michael Gene Sullivan, produced by Central Works. Director: Gary Graves. Costumes: Tammy Berlin. Lights: Gary Graves. Sound: Gregory Scharpen. 

Lillian: Phoebe Moyer. Helen: Lynne Soffer. Janice: Jan Zvaifler. Diane: Velina Brown. Ruth: Tamar Cohn.

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Review: ‘Partenope’ at San Francisco Opera (***)

October 18, 2014 Leave a comment
SF Opera presents a surrealist-inspired production of Handel's baroque opera, "Partenope". Photo Credit: Cory Weaver.

SF Opera presents a surrealist-inspired production of Handel’s baroque opera, “Partenope”. Photo Credit: Cory Weaver.

(Hugh Behm-Steinberg and Mary Behm-Steinberg)

(Rating: ***)

(“Partenope” plays at the War Memorial Opera House on October 18, 21, 24, 30 and November 2, 2014.)

More than many works, “Partenope” is a bit difficult to review because, by its very nature, it is emotionally inaccessible. You can’t easily care about any of the characters because Baroque opera lacks the narrative structure typical of late 18th century to 20th century operas with which contemporary audiences are more familiar. Rather, Baroque operas, of which “Partenope” is both example and critique, are mostly series of arias designed to show off the vocal skills of the performers while only loosely relating a story.

In Handel’s time, operas weren’t meant to be viewed silently in the dark: they were social events, more akin to seeing a cabaret show or a live band at a dance club (not to mention what might go on in a private, curtained box on the upper levels of the theatre). In such a context, a four hour long opera, where the performers mostly just stand and sing, would be perfectly acceptable. Because such an approach would never work in a contemporary performance, modern stagings of Baroque operas offer a blank slate: the music is more or less the same, but everything else is up for grabs.

“Partenope” has no chorus, no ballet, and precious little recitative. One person sings, then another person sings.

This particular production of “Partenope” employs lavish stage sets and fills much of the open space around and between the arias with physical comedy. While the story, such as it is, could be set in any time or place, the choice of a Dadaist/Surrealist set of references and a 1930’s monochromatic modernist salon reasserts the emotional inaccessibility of the work, as if the staging was meant to render “Partenope” as dream, with archetypes, rather than real people, as characters.

Danielle de Niese as Partenope, Philippe Sly as Ormonte, Anthony Roth Costanzo as Armindo, David Daniels as Arsace and Daniela Mack as Rosmira in SF Opera's production of Handel's "Partenope". Photo Credit: Cory Weaver

Danielle de Niese as Partenope, Philippe Sly as Ormonte, Anthony Roth Costanzo as Armindo, David Daniels as Arsace and Daniela Mack as Rosmira in SF Opera’s production of Handel’s “Partenope”. Photo Credit: Cory Weaver.

The story line is both simple and needlessly complex. Partenope, Queen of Naples, is being courted by three male caricatures (manly Arsace, sensitive Armindo, and brutish Emilio) when, unexpectedly, a fourth, Eurimene, turns up. Eurimene, however, is Rosmira in disguise. Having been jilted by Arsace, she is seeking revenge by upending his relationship with Partenope. Arsace still loves Rosmira as well as Partenope, and is torn. Eurimene/Rosmira encourages Armindo to openly declare his feelings for Partenope so that she can have Arsace for herself. And Emilio, resembling a cross between Man Ray and Buster Keaton, declares war. That’s act one.

Each act’s set is a different kind of space whose alteration mimics the dreamlike progression of the characters through the plot. The enormous pristine white wall in act one is grafittied with the suggestion of Partenope’s body. The plot of act three could be summed up by the completion of a giant photo collage of Rosmira’s body, whose true gender, revealed at the end, sorts out the various entanglements as arrestingly as the popping of a very lovely soap bubble.

By the end of the opera, one has a sense of each of the characters through the variety of arias they sing expressing various aspects of their feelings. We care about them because they mirror our own memories and feelings of love and jealousy.

The production features some standout musical performances, particularly Danelle de Niese as Partenope, Daniela Mack as Rosmira, and Alek Shrader as Emilio. All of them perform their vocal acrobatics with skill and elegance. Countertenors David Danels (Arsace) and Anthony Roth Costanzo (Armindo) both sing roles originally meant for castrati, and Daniels seems to have problems projecting at several points in the show. Costanzo performs physical comedy with extraordinary grace, singing while falling down stairs, hanging from a stairwell, and dancing with a rebellious hat, a reference to Hans Richter’s 1927 Dadaist film “Ghosts Before Breakfast“. Shrader as Emilio is also physically brilliant with his gymnastics in a public restroom and his hand shadows over Man Ray projections on the rear wall. Some of the stage business leans too heavily on postmodernist clichés, such as having characters at various points walk very slowly across the stage for no apparent reason other than to give them something to do. And the boob jokes in act three are juvenile at best.

The music and visuals alternately resound and dissipate as the characters declare their feelings, become frustrated, rewarded and released.

If one is looking for a concise, realistic plot, this opera will seem disappointing. Instead, “Partenope” offers a dreamlike, meandering experience, an evening spent listening to beautiful arias on the nature of love and desire.

For further information, click here.

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“Partenope”, music by George Frederic Handel, libretto by Anonymous. Production originally created by English National Opera and Opera Australia. Director: Christopher Alden. Conductor: Julian Wachner. Set Designer: Andrew Lieberman. Costume Designer: Jon Morrell. Lighting Designer: Adam Silverman. Associate Lighting Designer: Gary Marder.

Partenope: Danielle De Niese. Rosmira: Daniela Mack. Arsace: David Daniels. Emilio: Alek Shrader. Armindo: Anthony Roth Costanzo. Ormonte: Philippe Sly.

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Review: ‘A Masked Ball’ at San Francisco Opera (*****)

October 8, 2014 Leave a comment

(Candy Shue)

(Rating: ****)

Julianna Di Giacomo as Amelia and Ramon Vargas Gustavus III in SF Opera's production of Verdi's "A Masked Ball". Photo Credit: Cory Weaver.

Julianna Di Giacomo as Amelia and Ramon Vargas Gustavus III in SF Opera’s production of Verdi’s “A Masked Ball”. Photo Credit: Cory Weaver.

(“A Masked Ball” plays at The War Memorial Opera House on October 10th, 13th, 16th, and 22nd, 2014.)

The twists and turns of plot in Guiseppe Verdi’s “A Masked Ball” are as convoluted and engaging as a Saturday matinee melodrama. Antonio Somma’s libretto is inspired by the historical assassination of King Gustav III of Switzerland, in 1792, less than fifty years before the opera’s premiere.

Gustav III.

Gustav III.

In the early years of the 19th century, the subject of political assassination of kings was rather touchy and the opera ran afoul of the censors before it even opened. Indeed, in its premiere performance, all the characters had to be renamed and the locale reset (absurdly) to Boston, Massachusetts. But its effective dramatic sweep could not be denied and it was an immediate success.

Verdi purposefully chose stories he believed would capture the audience’s attention completely; he said he wanted his work to be “original, interesting  . . . and passionate; passions above them all!”

Guiseppe Verdi

Giuseppe Verdi

And passionate “A Masked Ball” is. We are introduced to King Gustavus III of Sweden, who believes that political power must be used to benefit the people, or it cannot be called “just.” In return, he is beloved by his people, and Gustavus believes that their goodwill will protect him, even as his close friend and advisor, Count Anckarström, warns that enemies within the court are plotting to assassinate him.

Another kind of trouble is lurking as well. As Gustavus goes about his royal duties with good cheer, he sings that “praise can sustain my glory, but not my heart.” He has been harboring a secret love for Amelia, Anckarström’s beautiful wife. When his page brings in the guest list for the royal masquerade ball, Gustavus is overjoyed to find her name.

Gustavus is a man of the people, interested in justice, but he is also cavalier and heedless, a man who falls in love with his friend’s wife against his own better judgment. Which side of the king will prevail—the light or the dark?

The San Francisco Opera production captures the themes of light and darkness in every aspect. The sets are invitingly atmospheric, starting with the light-filled castle court and its architecture reminiscent of the Arc de Triomphe, with tall upright columns bracing either side of the stage. The witch Ulrica lives in a dark haunt worthy of a Dickens novel, all dim and dusty, with clever lighting (by designer Gary Marder) that makes the sorceress’s shadow appear twice as large as any of her visitors who come to beg for her advice, including the king.

Nicola Luisotti conducts the orchestra in a lively performance of Verdi’s score that completely supports Jose Maria Condemi’s direction, creating a musical chiaroscuro that combines the elements of lightness in the dark scenes and vice versa. The effect of Verdi’s music is to perfectly mirror the contradictions within his characters, while adding a dash of humor in just the right places.

The singers give ovation-worthy performances, especially Julianna Di Giacomo making her SF Opera debut as Amelia. Her voice trembles with fear and desperation as she begs Ulrica to help her quench the fire in her heart, but her soprano soars with passion as Gustavus begs her to favor him with her love.

Ramón Vargas‘s tenor starts out a bit tentatively as King Gustavus, but grows into the role as the opera progresses. In the early scenes, his king is a lightweight and rather self-satisfied, but as his passion grows and he comes to understand the consequences of his unchecked actions, his voice also grows in resonance and emotional depth. In the end, he earns his right to his royal reputation as an enlightened ruler.

Brian Mulligan performs the part of Anckarström very well, going from devoted friend to betrayed husband bent on revenge. His baritone is at first stronger than the king’s voice, indicating his steadfastness, but that strength is turned into anguish and anger the moment he realizes what has transpired between his wife and friend. (Thomas Hampson will sing the role for the rest of the run except 10/22, when Mulligan will return for the last night.)

Soprano Heidi Stober brings fun to the trouser part of Oscar the page, and Dolora Zajick is deliciously wicked as the witch, Ulrica. Stober’s energy lights up the stage throughout the evening, while Zajick makes the most of her single fortune-telling scene. In the roles of assassins, Samuele and Tommaso, Christian Van Horn and Scott Conner provide both menace and comic relief.

“A Masked Ball” presents a tale where all of the characters are on the giving and receiving ends of love, betrayal, duty, and remorse, mercy, and redemption. Everyone has felt these emotions in their lives and the excellence of the SF Opera’s production makes it a pleasure to experience them again.

For further information, click here.

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 “A Masked Ball” , music by Giuseppe Verdi, libretto by Antonio Somma. Produced by the San Francisco Opera. Director: Jose Maria Condemi. Musical Direction: Nicola Luisotti. Choreography: Lawrence Pech. Lighting Design: Gary Marder. Costume Design: John Conklin. Chorus Director: Ian Robertson.

Amelia: Julianna Di Giacomo. Oscar: Heidi Stober. Gustavus III: Ramón Vargas. Count Anckarström: Thomas Hampson/Brian Mulligan. Ulrica: Dolora Zajick. Count Horn/Samuele: Christian Van Horn. Count Ribbing/Tommaso: Scott Conner. Christian: Efrain Solís. Judge: A.J. Glueckert. Amelia’s Servant: Christopher Jackson.

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Wily West Productions* Is At It Again With Two New Plays for October

September 28, 2014 Leave a comment

(Charles Kruger)

Wily West Productions, a Bay Area company specializing in new work, follows up recent successes with two new plays opening in October.

Morgan Ludlow’s “Drowning Kate” is a contemporary Frankenstein story with a love interest in which a young doctor tries to revive his recently drowned wife (the titular Kate) with disturbing results. “Unhinged” by Krista Knight tells the story of a house painter with a disturbing obsession.

drowningkate

unhinged

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Both Ludlow and Knight are playwrights to be reckoned with.

Morgan Ludlow

Morgan Ludlow

 

Krista Knight

Krista Knight

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Morgan Ludlow, a founder of Wily West who also fills the role of Artistic Director, is the author of more than a dozen full length plays and numerous shorter pieces.  His work has been enthusiastically received in the Bay Area, and last season his script, “Gorgeous Hussy“, about movie star Joan Crawford, received a “best original play” award from the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle (SFBATCC).

Krista Knight is a playwright of note in the world of academia, having earned prestigious graduate level degrees from both NYU and UC San Diego. In recent years, she has taught playwriting at UC San Diego (where she received a Teaching Excellence Award), the Berkeley Repertory Theatre, Cal State San Marcos and the State University of New York in Oswego. Her plays have been produced to acclaim across the United States.

Both plays are helmed by director Wesley Cayabayab, an actor himself, and the company’s technical director. And, in true classical repertory fashion, the acting companies will overlap.  Audiences will, therefore, have the rare opportunity (in San Francisco) to see the same actors in different productions over a single weekend.

Scott Cox and Genevieve Purdue will feature in both plays. Cox has been a significant contributor to the SF theatre scene for more than a decade, especially known for his work with the New Conservatory Theatre Center. He has performed with other local companies as well, including SF Playhouse, where he gave a particularly memorable performance in their 2012 production of “Bell, Book and Candle“. Purdue has been an enthusiastic participant as a reader of new work at the Playwrighting  Center of San Francisco, as well as performing at City College and with the Actors Ensemble of Berkeley.

Scott Cox

Scott Cox

 

Genevieve Purdue

Genevieve Purdue

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

While there are several companies in the San Francisco Bay Area that regularly produce new work, Wily West Productions is unique in that they produce work exclusively by local playwrights and rely on local talent for every aspect of production. As a result of these policies, they have presented professionally staged productions of plays by over two dozen local playwrights in a span of just five years.

This is an extraordinary accomplishment that has received wide attention, as evidenced by the company being recently featured in “The Dramatist”, the magazine of The Dramatists Guild of America.

All of this exciting new work has not gone unnoticed. For their last season, they have received no fewer than four Theatre Bay Area award nominations, and they are one of only a few smaller theatre companies to receive regular attention from the San Francisco Chronicle.

For further information, click here.

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*TheatreStorm Sponsor

Review: ‘Slaughterhouse Five’ at Custom Made Theatre Company (**1/2)

September 20, 2014 Leave a comment

(Charles Kruger)

(**1/2)

American prisoners of war are transported to Dresden by boxcar in "Slaughterhouse Five" at Custom Made Theatre. Photo Credit: Jay Yamada.

American prisoners of war are transported to Dresden by boxcar in “Slaughterhouse Five” at Custom Made Theatre. Photo Credit: Jay Yamada.

This reviewer is a voting associate member of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle (SFBATCC)

This reviewer is a voting associate member of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle (SFBATCC)

(“Slaughterhouse Five” plays at the Gough Street Playhouse through October 12, 2014.)

Kurt Vonnegut’s post modern masterpiece, “Slaughterhouse Five”, appears on many lists along the lines of “100 Best Books” of the 20th century. In typically post modern fashion, it tells a story while simultaneously undermining the trustworthiness of the narrator, as indicated in its famous opening line: “All this happened, more or less.”

In the first chapter, Vonnegut himself appears to be the narrator (but is this the real Vonnegut?) who assures us that he was personally present at the bombing of Dresden during World War II, and thus can be considered an eye witness to the events of the story. But the events which follow are jumbled, out of sequence, bizarre and include such details as an interplanetary kidnapping, and an unlikely affair between the book’s antagonist and a porn star that takes place in a cage in a zoo on a planet called Tralfamador whose inhabitants resemble plumbers’ helpers. This nonsense is interspersed with descriptions of the bombing of Dresden and the behavior of American prisoners of war, as well as other more-or-less “normal” details of the protagonist’s life on earth. The implication seems to be that nothing makes sense: the horrific accidents of war are as absurd and meaningless as aliens who look like plumbers’ helpers or conventions of optometrists. Everything is equally horrifying and equally meaningless and, in Vonnegut’s brilliant treatment, equally funny. In his narrative, Vonnegut’s tone does not differentiate between realism and absurdity, thus making the absurd seem real and the real absurd until it is impossible to know which is which. He repeatedly punctuates his examples of the absurdity of life with the wry refrain “and so it goes”.

Billy Pilgrim has a vision. Photo credit: Jay Yamada.

Billy Pilgrim has a vision. Photo credit: Jay Yamada.

This complex material does not easily lend itself to adaptation. In my view, Eric Simonson’s effort, as interpreted by director Brian Katz, does not entirely succeed. I suspect it is not really possible to make narrative sense of the material. It is more like a series of absurdist images whose impact is primarily emotional. The intellectual and narrative content only begins to register upon reflection. This production failed to work for me, I think, because it is presented episodically and tries to make sense. For example, as Billy Pilgrim skips through time, each jump is indicated by an intrusive music cue, and a repeated physical motion that clearly marks the transition. This serves rather to blunt the impact of the story’s outrageously random movement and seems to be more stultifying than clarifying.

Another jarring element is the presence of Vonnegut as narrator. In the book the narrator “Vonnegut” is not a real person, but a character who has the same name as the author. This nuance is glossed over by an actor made up and costumed to look like the real Vonnegut and speaking in a logical way about the events.

The effect of these flaws is to translate Vonnegut’s abstract, aburdist, fantastic, outraged and outrageous comic and tragic poem of a novel into prose. The story remains intact, but the poetry is sacrificed for the sack of clarity.

Director Katz chooses to close the show with a recording of the song, “We’ll Meet Again”, a reference to Stanley Kubrick’s brilliantly absurd anti-war film, “Dr. Strangelove”. It is clear that Katz intended this production to be equally funny and shocking, and that he truly loves this material. His desire to explain the unexplainable (or “ef the ineffable” in Robert Anton Wilson‘s happy phrase) has undermined his success.

This is not to say that the production is dull. It has many fine moments, and some excellent performances, especially in the work of Sam Tillis as a crazed soldier intent on vengeance. Tillis is a talented actor with an unusual and charismatic stage presence, making his Custom Made Theatre debut. Based on this performance and other recent success, he should be cutting quite a figure in the SF theatrical scene for some time to come.

For further information click here.

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“Slaughterhouse Five” by Eric Simonson, adapted from the novel by Kurt Vonnegut. Director: Brian Katz. Scenic Design: Sarah Phykitt. Lighting Design: Maxx Kurzunski.  Costume Design: Karina Chavarin. Video Design: Rebecca Longworth. Sound Design: Liz Ryder. Movement: Daunielle Rasmussden. 

Man: Davie Sikula. Billy Pilgrim: Ryan Hayes. Young Billy Pilgrim: Brian Martin. Boy Billy Pilgrim/Ensemble: Alun Anderman/Myles Cence (alternate performances). Valencia/Derby/Ensemble: Stephanie Ann Foster. Weary/Rosewater/Ensemble: Sal Mattos. Chetwynde/Campbell/Ensemble: Chris Morrell. Barbara/Tralfamadorian/Ensemble: Jessica Jade Rudholm. Montana/Dotty/Ensemble: Carina Lastimosa Salazar. Trout/Reggie/Ensemble: Paul Stout. Lazzaro/Rumfoord/Ensemble: Sam Tillis.

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Review: ‘Norma’ by Vincenzo Bellini at San Francisco Opera (**1/2)

September 17, 2014 Leave a comment

(Charles Kruger)

(Rating: **1/2)

Christian Van Horn as Druid leader Oroveso, with the San Francisco Opera Chorus, in "Norma". Photo Credit: Cory Weaver.

Christian Van Horn as Druid leader Oroveso, with the San Francisco Opera Chorus, in “Norma”. Photo Credit: Cory Weaver.

This reviewer is a voting associate member of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle (SFBATCC)

This reviewer is a voting associate member of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle (SFBATCC)

(“Norma” plays at the War Memorial Opera House on 9/19/14, 9/23/14, 9/27/14, and 9/30/14.)

This new production of “Norma”, directed by Kevin Newbury, reminded me of the mythical pushmi-pulyu of Dr. Dolittle fame, in that it appears to be an animal with two heads, struggling against each other to take matters in opposite directions. The musical production is magnificent, offering a spectacular rendition of Bellini’s bel canto masterpiece, pulling us towards opera heaven. Alas, the unfortunate staging pulls in quite the opposite direction.

The lengthy overture offers ample opportunity to introduce us to the action of the drama, but it is an opportunity missed. Norma stands and gazes at the moon. And stands. And stands. And stands. She turns, strikes a new pose, and stands some more. She seems more like a mannequin in a window display then a priestess about to prepare her people for war. As she stands and poses, two oddly costumed stage hands (surely we are not expected to believe they are druid priests) adjust pulleys and ropes to fly in a presumably sacred artifact of a tree with all the religious solemnity typical of working a fork lift. The stage director’s primary directive — to tell the story — seems to have been completely ignored. The opening chorus, Ite sul colle, o Druidi, does not fare well dramatically as the Druid singers, presumably preparing for war against the Roman occupation, move and emote with such languidity and lack of purpose that they appear to be refugees from an Esther Williams movie, dancing under water.

But, when Sondra Radvanovsky as Norma launches into the prayerful Casta Diva, the singing blessedly takes over. It is not enough, however, to make the production work as well as it ought.

And so it goes for three long hours, with passages of sublime singing interspersed with dull and pedestrian staging which fails to engage. The music is inspiring, but the narrative is unnecessarily muddy and dull. Some of the staging gaffes are downright laughable. The chorus repeatedly enters on one side of the stage, clumped together like bits of curdled milk, looking confused and disoriented, anything but battle ready. On one occasion, they respond as a group with vague muttering in such an obvious bit of fakery that my companion (a playwright of some distinction, whom I won’t embarrass by identifying) had to stifle a fit of giggles before returning to his nap. I was grateful that he does not snore.

Jamie Barton as Adalgisa and Sondra Radvanovsky as Norma together scale the heights of bel canto artistry. Photo Credit: Cory Weaver.

Jamie Barton as Adalgisa and Sondra Radvanovsky as Norma together scale the heights of bel canto artistry. Photo Credit: Cory Weaver.

In addition to Radvanovsky’s singing, there are two elements of this “Norma” that are quite wonderful. Firstly, and emphatically, Jamie Barton makes a stunning SF Opera debut as Adalgisa, the young priestess who is Norma’s rival for the love of a Roman occupier. When Barton and Radvanovky sing the famous duet, Sola, furtiva al tempio, the production springs to life. The rendition is musically perfect, the two voices gorgeously blending, every detail of supple melody delineated with care, no harmony lost. The two divas communicate passion and joy in the music that is the emotional highlight of the entire production. It is lovely in every way. Secondly, Jacqueline Piccolino, a first year Adler Fellow, sings well and demonstrates notable acting skills in the role of Clotilde.

A full production of a grand opera should be as thrilling for its narrative and stagecraft as it is for its singing. As a concert performance, this “Norma” would have been grand indeed, but as a fully staged theatrical event, it is rather disappointing.

For further information click here.

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“Norma,” by Vincenzo Bellini, text by Felice Romani, based on a play by Alexandre Soumet, co-produced by San Francisco Opera, Gran Teatre del Liceu, Barcelona, Canidan Opera Company, and Lyric Opera of Chicago. Director: Kevin Newbury. Set: David Korins. Costumes: Jessica Jahn. Lighting: D. M. Wood. Conductor: Nicola Luisotti. Chorus Director: Ian Robertson. 

Oroveso: Christian Van Horn. Pollione: Marco Berti. Flavio: A. J. Glueckert. Norma: Sondra Radvanovsky. Adalgisa: Jamie Barton. Clotilde: Jacqueline Piccolino. Norma’s Chidlren: Oliver Kuntz and Miles Sperske. 

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Review: ‘Susannah’ by Carlisle Floyd at San Francisco Opera (*****)

September 14, 2014 Leave a comment

(Charles Kruger)

(*****)

A beatifully staged church square dance opens SF Opera's production of "Susannah". Photo Credit: Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera.

A beatifully staged church square dance opens SF Opera’s production of “Susannah”. Photo Credit: Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera.

This reviewer is a voting associate member of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle (SFBATCC)

This reviewer is a voting associate member of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle (SFBATCC)

(‘Susannah’ plays at the War Memorial Opera House through September 21, 2014. There are two remaining performances on 09/16/14 and 9/21/14.)

Carlisle Floyd‘s ‘Susannah’ is one of the most successful American operas in the repertoire, having had nearly 800 performances since its debut in 1956, including productions at The Metropolitan Opera and other major houses around the world.

For its debut at San Francisco Opera House, the creative team headed by Director Michael Cavanagh and conductor Karen Kamansek have achieved greatness. This stunning production is a deeply moving theatrical and musical experience.

Floyd’s tight libretto tells the story (based on bible apocrypha) with force and sympathy: Young Susannah Polk is beautiful and charming, and the elders of the Appalachian church in the mountain hollow where she lives cannot resist flirting with her, much to the chagrin of their wives, a situation which creates much resentment and tension in the community. The tension comes to a head with the arrival of revival preacher Reverend Blitch. When the elders go searching for a suitable watering hole for revival baptisms, they spy upon Susannah bathing in the nude. Shaken by their own lust, and pushed by their jealous wives, they immediately turn on Susannah,  and intimidate her feeble-minded admirer, Little Bat, to falsely confess an illicit love affair. Pressured by the Reverend Blitch to publicly confess and repent, she refuses to admit to any wrongdoing, and is ostracized by the community. The charming young woman sinks into depression. In a gorgeous moment, she expresses her sorrow with the lovely and insightful line: “I can’t wait till pretty things look pretty again.” Susannah’s stubborn and dignified refusal to compromise the truth, and an unfortunate encounter with the confused Reverend Blitch, leads inevitably to tragedy.

Patricia Racette as Susannah Polk  and James Kryshak as Little Bat McClean. Photo Credit: Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera

Patricia Racette as Susannah Polk and James Kryshak as Little Bat McClean. Photo Credit: Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera

Along the way, Floyd gives us wonderfully expressive and accessible music, rooted in the folk traditions of Appalachia. He offers original hymns for the congregation and two superb arias for Susannah: The innocent “Ain’t It A Pretty Night”, sung before her troubles begin, and later, the sad and haunting “The Trees on the Mountain Are Cold and Bare” which she sings after being falsely accused. The great Patricia Racette brings a stunning degree of vocal and acting artistry to the role of Susannah. Her singing is supported by excellent acting as her character moves from happy innocence through painful depression to angry pride. Her physical expression is superb. In one memorable moment, as the congregation begins singing hymns, she wraps her arms about herself in a plaintive gesture of protection that is perfectly honest and pure.

As the Reverend Olin Blitch, baritone Raymond Aceto creates a subtly layered character, both good and evil, and sings with a rich and forceful lyricism. James Kryshak‘s Little Bat McLean is a perfectly realized physical charactization as he runs about and sulks and struggles with complex feelings he cannot quite comprehend. And Brandon Jovanovich is powerful as Susannah’s sympathetic but alcoholic brother Sam Polk. His rendition of the aria “It’s About The Way People Is Made, I Reckon” and a light hearted folk song duet with Ms. Racette are musical highlights.

Brandon Jovanovich as Sam Polk and Patricia Racette as Susannah Polk. Photo Credit: Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera

Brandon Jovanovich as Sam Polk and Patricia Racette as Susannah Polk. Photo Credit: Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera

The rest of the company is working to the same high standard. As church women, Erin Johnson, Jacqueline Piccolino, Catherine Cook, and Suzanne Hendrix convey bitterness and harsh judgment without ever resorting to caricature. The same is true of the elders as played by Dale Travis, Joel Sorenson and A.J. Glueckert.

Erhard Rom‘s gorgeous set, that combines video with scrims and and wooden structures, is cinematic in impact, supported beautifully by Gary Marder‘s lighting.

The theatrical gods shine brightly on this production; it flirts with perfection.

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“Susannah” , music and text by Carlisle Floyd. Produced by the San Francisco Opera; costumes from a co-production with Lyric Opera of Chicago and Houston Grand Opera. Conductor: Karen Kamensek. Director: Michael Cavanagh. Set: Erhard Rom. Costumes: Michael Yeargan. Lighting: Gary Marder. Chrous Director: Ian Robertson. Choreographer: Lawrence Pech. Fight Director: Dave Maier. 

Mrs. Gleaton: Erin Johnson. Mrs. Hayes: Jacqueline Piccolino. Mrs. McLean: Catherine Cook. Mrs. Ott: Suzanne Hendrix. Elder McLean: Dale Travis. Reverend Olin Blitch: Raymond Aceto. Elder Hayes: Joel Sorenson. Elder Gleaton: A.J. Glueckert. Elder Ott: Timothy Mix. Susannah Polk: Patricia Racette. Little Bat McLean: James Kryshak. Sam Polk: Brandon Jovanovich. Two Men: Jere Torkelsen. 

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