Friday, November 29, 2019

Favorites of 2019: Live performances

Ars Minerva Artistic Director Céline Ricci. Photo: Martin Lacey Photography. Image source:

On this Thankgiving weekend I'm grateful for the amazing live performances we've seen over the past year. Our favorites in the categories of opera, concert and recital, and dance:


Ermelinda. Libretto by Francesco Maria Piccioli, composed by Domenico Freschi. Nikola Printz (Ermelinda), Sara Couden (Ormondo/Clorindo), Kindra Scharich (Rosaura), Justin Montigne (Aristeo), Deborah Rosengaus (Armidoro). Period-instrument orchestra conducted by Jory Vinikour; stage direction by Céline Ricci. ODC Theater, seen November 24, 2019, produced by Ars Minerva.

Nikola Printz as Ermelinda. Photo: Valentina Sadiula. Image source: SF Examiner

My idea of heaven is a Baroque opera where all the leading roles call for voices in the mezzo-soprano or contralto range; watching Ermelinda I was in a state of sheer bliss. The latest discovery of Ars Minerva director Céline Ricci, Ermelinda may have been the group's best production yet.

Composer Domenico Freschi wrote Ermelinda to be performed at the villa of the powerful Contarini family near Padua in the Veneto, where Marco Contarini had built two orphanages and a large private theater. Like the famed Ospedale della Pietà in Venice, Marco's orphanages took in girls who were foundlings—often children born out of wedlock, sometimes to noble families—and provided them with musical training. (Given what we know of the behavior of rich men towards vulnerable young women, we have to wonder whether Marco also had motives other than the musical for his benevolence.) Ermelinda, performed at the Villa Contarini in 1681 for a visiting Polish prince, has no tenor, baritone or bass parts because it was likely sung by an all-female cast drawn from the orphanages. More than three centuries later, Ricci found the score in the Contarini music collection, now housed in the Marciana Library in Venice; the San Francisco performances were likely the first since the work's première.

The story features disguise, feigned madness, star-crossed lovers, imprisonment in chains, false reports of death, attempted suicide, and a happy ending snatched in the final moments from the jaws of tragedy. In other words, Ermelinda has all the elements of a typical Baroque opera. But what was far from typical was Ricci's inventive direction and the inspired work of her superlative cast, which made it all work brilliantly onstage.

Prince Ormondo of Phoenicia (contralto Sara Couden) travels to the remote countryside in disguise as the rustic "Clorindo" in search of his lover Ermelinda (mezzo-soprano Nikola Printz), who has been sequestered there by her suspicious father Aristeo (countertenor Justin Montigne). "Clorindo" encounters a nobleman, Armidoro (mezzo-soprano Deborah Rosengaus), who invites him home. Armidoro himself is in love with Ermelinda, and his sister Rosaura (mezzo-soprano Kindra Scharich) is quickly smitten with "Clorindo."

Scharich offered a scintillating comic turn as the lovelorn Rosaura. Her gorgeous voice and compelling stage presence were known to me from previous Ars Minerva productions such as The Amazons in the Fortunate Isles and La Circe as well as from her superb lieder recitals and recordings, but I had no idea that she was such a terrific comedienne. Her reactions were priceless, as in Act I where she is beginning to bemoan the "madness" of "Clorindo" and to her annoyance is prompted (or mocked) by the orchestra with famous laments from later operas by Handel and Gluck. It's a moment in which director Ricci signals that Rosaura is both genuinely distressed, but also getting secret pleasure from watching her own performance of her feelings.

This is the sort of theatrical duality that is a key to Baroque opera, where stock situations give rise to real emotions. Ricci and her singers and musicians skillfully enhanced the opera's humor but also gave due weight to its genuine pathos. The sorrowful arias sung by each member of the central love polygon in the second half were affecting and beautifully performed. Freschi's music is filled with striking melodies, and the many musical pleasures of this score were showcased by the fluent playing of the musicians under the leadership of harpsichordist Jory Vinikour.

Every element of the production enhanced the whole; special mention has to be made of Matthew Nash's costumes (especially Rosaura's flamboyant gown, a visual correlative to her flamboyant personality), Entropy's scene-setting projections, and Thomas Bowersox's lighting, which created distinct spaces and moods with minimal means.

In Ermelinda Ricci unearthed a true gem. But its rediscovery was only the first step in realizing this delightful production. The success of Ars Minerva's Ermelinda was due not only to Ricci's painstaking archival research, but to her unerring eye and ear, her highly imaginative staging that turned what might have been limitations into virtues, and her ability to pull together singers, musicians and a creative team who were wholly committed to her vision. Ermelinda was a triumph.

Rusalka. Libretto by Jaroslav Kvapil, composed by Antonín Dvořák. Rachel Willis‐Sørensen (Rusalka), Brandon Jovanovich (Prince), Kristinn Sigmundsson (Vodník, the Water Goblin), Jamie Barton (Ježibaba), Sarah Cambidge (Foreign Princess), with the San Francisco Opera Orchestra and Chorus conducted by Eun Sun Kim; production by David McVicar. War Memorial Opera House, seen June 23, 2019, produced by San Francisco Opera.

Rusalka (Rachel Willis‐Sørensen) and her father Vodník, the Water Goblin (Kristinn Sigmundsson) in 
San Francisco Opera's production of Rusalka. Photo: Cory Weaver. Image source: San Francisco Opera.

Complaining about San Francisco Opera is an irresistible pastime to which this writer isn't immune (see "Pounding us over the head with Tosca"). However, in the 2018-19 season General Director Matthew Shilvock programmed three great but rarely-performed operas, Richard Strauss's Arabella, Handel's Orlando, and Dvořák's Rusalka. All offered excellent singers and magnificent music, but Rusalka had the added bonus of a generally well-conceived and visually striking production by David McVicar. Note to Shilvock: more operas beyond the "twelve chestnuts," please!


Tallis Scholars: Music Inspired by the Sistine Chapel. First Congregational Church, Berkeley, April 4, 2019. Produced by Cal Performances.

Photo credit: Clive Barda. Source: Cal Performances
    By my count this concert was the seventh time the Tallis Scholars had appeared at Cal Performances in the past 10 years, and they will appear again next May. I confess that sometimes when seeing them listed in the season brochure I've felt a twinge of Tallis Scholars fatigue (I know, this is the sort of problem that many people would love to have). The Early Music series usually only features three or four groups, and it feels as though one slot is almost always reserved.

    But every time I attend a Tallis Scholars concert I am amazed anew by their sound, which is both extremely precise and beautifully blended, and by the sheer aural magnificence of their chosen repertory. This program featured music inspired by the Sistine Chapel, including compositions by Palestrina, Festa, Carpentras, Morales and Josquin written to be performed in it (often the composers were members of the choir themselves; in 1998 a worker discovered Josquin's name carved into a Sistine Chapel wall).  And of course, the concert 's peak was the performance of best-known work associated with the chapel, Allegri's Miserere:

    Iestyn Davies and Thomas Dunford: England's Orpheus. First Congregational Church, Berkeley, May 19, 2019. Produced by the San Francisco Early Music Festival.

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    Iestyn Davies' sweet-toned countertenor was ideal for this program of songs by John Dowland, Henry Purcell, and George Frideric Handel, accompanied by Thomas Dunford's lute. The second half of concert was especially striking, when Purcell's "Music for a while shall all your cares beguile" was followed by Dowland's "Come again, sweet love doth now invite," Purcell's "O solitude, my sweetest choice," Handel's "Oh Lord whose mercies numberless" (from Saul), and Purcell's "An Evening Hymn." The movements from Bach's Cello Suite No. 1 that Dunford played between songs seemed out of context, as though they belonged to a different concert program, but they had the virtue of separating and highlighting each of Davies' superb performances. The last encore (of three!) was a special surprise, suggesting an affinity that none of us had suspected (especially those of us who had never heard the song before):

    Vocalists and Orchestra from the American Bach Soloists Academy: Bach, Lotti, Handel. Elijah McCormack, soprano, and Allison Gish, mezzo-soprano, with the Orchestra of the ABS Summer Academy conducted by Jeffrey Thomas, San Francisco Conservatory of Music, August 9, 2019. ABS Festival & Academy.

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    The ABS Festival & Academy is a wonderful two-week-long event every summer that gives audiences the opportunity to see young players and singers showcased in repertory that's often performed nowhere else. This concert featured some beautiful sacred music in the first half: J. S. Bach's unusually scored "Trauerode" (Mourning Ode) for the Electress of Saxony, and Antonio Lotti's celebratory "Mass for Three Choirs," featuring elaborate vocal and instrumental effects.

    But the best was saved for the secular second half: Handel's Terpsicore, a prologue written for the 1734 revival of his opera Il Pastor Fido (The Faithful Shepherd). Terpsichore is the Muse of Dance (as viewers of the Rita Hayworth movie Down to Earth know well), and Terpsicore's many dance interludes were designed by Handel to highlight the innovative skills of the French danseuse Marie Sallé. Alas, there was no room on the stage at the SF Conservatory of Music for a dancer, but the interludes were brilliantly performed by the young musicians. Even better, though, was the musical dialogue between Apollo, the god of music and dance (Allison Gish), and Erato, the muse of lyric and erotic poetry (Elijah McCormack). Gish's rich mezzo-soprano and McCormack's brighter soprano were well-matched. Both were capable of handling florid runs, but could also bring out all the emotion in the slower music. The words they sang together in praise of dance applied just as well to their own performances: "Col tuo piede brilla Amor, e fa l'anima goder! Co' tuoi giri incanti 'l cor stupefatto dal piacer." Or, "With your steps Love shines, and makes the soul rejoice! Your every turn enchants the heart stupefied with pleasure."

    Voices of Music: Concerto delle donne. Sophie Junker and Sherezade Panthaki, sopranos, with Voices of Music directed by Hanneke van Proosdij and David Tayler. St. Mark's Lutheran Church, San Francisco, seen October 12, 2019. Produced by Voices of Music.

    Sophie Junker (left) and Sherezade Panthaki. Image source: Voices of Music

    Speaking of being stupefied with pleasure, that was pretty much our state after this program of music written for or influenced by the concerto delle donne. The Consort of Women, a group of virtuoso singers at the court of Duke Alfonso II d'Este of Ferrara in the last decades of the 16th century, was renowned for its performances of "secret music" (musica secreta). The music was secret in multiple senses: it was private, and only those invited by the duke could hear it; and because it was in a new style, it was kept closely guarded (it was only published after the duke's death in 1597 ended d'Este rule). The music featured ornate vocal lines and vivid word-painting with expressive dissonances at key moments, and much of it was written by the court composer Luzzascho Luzzaschi. Other composers came to Ferrara from across Italy to hear the group, write music for them, and take back these innovations to their own courts (one such visitor was madrigalist and murderer Carlo Gesualdo). Soon the style that Luzzaschi had pioneered became the seconda practica, or "new [second] practice," adopted and developed even further by Monteverdi and other composers from the generations that followed.

    In the program note Voices of Music implies that composers of instrumental music also took up the seconda practica, writing pieces with "'dueling' treble parts with competitive imitations and ornamentations." To perform these virtuosic pieces by composers such as Salomone Rossi and Dario Castello the Voices of Music continuo group of Hanneke van Proosdij on harpsichord and organ, David Tayler on archlute and baroque guitar, and Elizabeth Reed on viola da gamba were joined by Elizabeth Blumenstock and Alana Youssefian on violin. Youssefian visibly responded to the sounds she and Blumenstock were producing with a wide-eyed wonder that was shared by the audience.

    The instrumental music alone would have made this concert one of our favorites of the year, but even better were the vocal pieces by Luzzaschi and later composers such as Monteverdi, Marco Uccellini and Barbara Strozzi, performed by sopranos Sophie Junker and Sherezade Panthaki. Panthaki has appeared often with early-music groups such as the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra; Junker, who performs largely in Europe, was a voice new to us and a wonderful discovery. In the surpassingly beautiful duets their voices were exquisitely intertwined.

    From the concert, Salomone Rossi's  Sonata quarta 'l'arie di Ruggiero':


    Mark Morris Dance Company: Mozart Dances. Mark Morris Dance Company with Inon Barnatan and Colin Fowler, pianos, and the Berkeley Symphony conducted by Fowler.   Zellerbach Hall, UC Berkeley, seen September 22, 2019. Produced by Cal Performances.

    Image source: Cal Performances

    I wrote about the "austere (but often quite beautiful)" movement in Mark Morris' Mozart Dances when it was new (it was only the eighth post on E & I). Seeing it again after more than a decade confirmed my initial impression that this is one of Morris' strongest works. While in the allegro sections Mozart's music has a bright and sunny quality, the dancers repeat movements that express supplication, rejection, and pain. As I wrote in 2007, "in many places in Mozart Dances the music is suggesting one thing while the dance is telling us another. For a choreographer who is sometimes accused of slavishly illustrating musical structure, Morris has done something striking here: he uses the structure, but alters the emotional meaning." Many thanks to Cal Performances for bringing this modern masterpiece back to Berkeley.

    Other favorites of 2019:

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