Thursday, July 02, 2015

Beethoven's Fidelio at the San Francisco Symphony

The San Francisco Symphony under Music Director Michael Tilson Thomas completed their June Beethoven Festival last weekend with a concert version of Beethoven's only opera, Fidelio, featuring one of the better casts in the world.

I went to the final Sunday performance on Gay Pride Parade Day, which at first felt a little odd but more apt as the evening went on, with Leonore and Florestan singing about the courage, constancy, and faith involved in marriage, ringing cries by the entire chorus about liberty and human rights, not to mention the main character appearing as a female-to-male impersonator through most of the opera.

Fidelio is one of those problematic operas like Verdi's La Forza del Destino or Mussorgsky's Khovanschina whose charm depends partly on their awkwardness and ungainliness matched to heavenly, genius music. It starts off sounding like a Mozart comedy, segues into very dark territory with bass-baritones scheming to kill a political prisoner, continues as an escape tale with an impossibly stirring love duet, and finishes off with what sounds like a variation on the Ninth Symphony's Ode to Joy. Oh, and there's a lot of dialogue too, because it's a musical except with insanely difficult vocal parts for everyone.

The assembled international cast was superb from top to bottom. Even the First Prisoner (Matthew Newlin, above left) and Second Prisoner (Craig Verm, above right) felt like luxury casting.

So did the cameo appearance by baritone Luca Pisaroni as Don Fernando, the ruler who arrives at the prison in the nick of time, along with bass Alan Held as the nasty Pizarro, Kevin Langan as the sweet, materialistic jailer Rocco, and Nicholas Phan and Joelle Harvey as the young lovers Jaquino and Marzelline.

What took this performance into the stratosphere were the two leads, Swedish soprano Nina Stemme as Leonore and Montana tenor Brandon Jovanovich. I had read rumors that Stemme's voice had been shredded from too many Isoldes and Brunnhildes since she sang so splendidly in the San Francisco Opera's 2010 Wagner Ring Cycle, but the rumors were untrue. She sounded great, her diction and acting were remarkable, and she sailed over the orchestra with her customary ease. Jovanovich gave one of the most beautifully sung accounts of Florestan's difficult music that I have heard live since Jon Vickers was slaying us in the role at the SF Opera in the 1970s. Jovanovich is also unusually gallant with his soprano counterparts in all the roles I have seen him perform, from Pinkerton with Patricia Racette to Florestan with Stemme's rescuing wife. They actually looked like a loving pair throughout the final act and injected an emotional layer that the opera requires to succeed.

Sunday, June 28, 2015

Zuni Lipstick Lesbian Party

To escape the noisy crowd a block away from our apartment in Civic Center this afternoon, my soon-to-be-legal-in-50-states spouse and I escaped to the Castro district for lunch. We figured it would be festive and without the mobs, and we guessed right.

On our way, we stumbled across a large sidewalk party outside of the Zuni Cafe on Market Street that seemed to be predominantly lipstick lesbians who were not suburban twinks.

"Is this something new?" I asked one woman, and she replied, "No, I've been coming to Zuni for a lunch party on Pride since the 1980s."

I googled "lesbians Zuni pride" later in the afternoon and found an amusing, well-written account of last year's Pride festivities on a blog by Chris Lenwell called from ellis island to ellis act.

Linwell starts his Pride essay with:
"No self-respecting gay San Franciscan participates in the City’s vast grab for tourist dollars called the Pride Parade...Back in the day it was a street party where you’d run into lots of people you knew being silly and stupid. You would do bad things like get drunk on a Sunday afternoon and eat those awful barbecued turkey legs because it was the only food around. Once fortified you could go on to do other bad things."
But he relents later on:
"The last time I went to Zuni on Pride we sat down and had a late lunch. Not a chance this year. Apparently a decade or two ago it turned into a (mostly) Lesbian hangout on the day of days. It was one huge bar scene spilling out into the street and side alley. Getting up to the bar was impossible but Leigh, in her inimitable way, had our Margaritas in no time. They were so potent we decided to have a second."

Saturday, June 27, 2015

Gay Marriage Evening in the Castro

The US Supreme Court judgment on Friday affirming that marriage is now gender neutral was huge, as was their tentative defense of Obama's healthcare legislation in King v. Burwell the day before.

The US President also sang Amazing Grace acapella Friday afternoon at the Charleston funeral of nine murdered black Christians, and the Confederate flag officially became anathema overnight. It was telling that the South Carolina governor started her defense of flying that flag at the state capitol with "corporate CEOs never mention it as a problem." One week later Wal-Mart is no longer selling Confederate flags, and the governor reversed herself and is calling for it to be taken down. It feels a bit as if we have stepped into a time machine like Rod Taylor and the world speeded up at a completely different rate into the future.

I went to the Castro district on Friday to meet young friends for Happy Hour, and was greeted by a Mock Bishop at the Muni station. "He's been working at this for a very, very long time," the woman above said in an admonishing tone. "I'm also old," I told her, "and have seen it all too, but glad to know I'm looking young enough that I have to be lectured on gay history."

Castro Street from Market to 18th was closed for an impromptu celebration with a stage and a sound system but not a lot of people seemed very interested, except for annoying volunteers from the corrupt HRC organization handing out equality flags...

...and the couple above who brought their own sound system so they could dance a duet in the streets.

There were a ridiculous amount of uniformed San Francisco police offers stationed around 18th and Castro, engaging in their usual practice of talking amongst themselves and completely ignoring those who they are sworn to protect and serve.

I moved to San Francisco in 1974, when the San Francisco Police Department was routinely coming to the Castro neighborhood to bash people's heads in because they were fags and they could get away with it, and have still never seen or heard an official apology for their behavior. The homophobic and racist texts by SFPD officers that were recently released by the US Justice Department indicate not much has changed in that regard, either.

Still, Friday was an authentically joyous moment, and I hugged strangers and friends like Farzad above all evening with the greeting, "Happy Gay Marriage Day!"

The techie gold rush is transforming San Francisco at what passes for lightning speed in this city. Young Minnesota transplant Eric above was apologizing for the disruption and I told him, "Don't worry about it, the place needed some new energy."

"Capitalism is what really needs to change, and I don't see that happening in my lifetime, but I didn't see going from being criminalized for my sexuality to gay marriage in this lifetime either."

It feels like we're living in a science fiction story.

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Two Women at SF Opera

The world premiere of a new Italian opera, La Ciociara (Two Women), is taking place this month at the San Francisco Opera, and it was a nice surprise at Wednesday evening's third performance. The critical reaction from its premiere a couple of weeks ago has been mostly savage (click here for a media roundup by Lisa Hirsch) with complaints about the Puccini-derivative musical score by composer Marco Tutino and the inadequate libretto by the composer and Fabio Ceresa. (All production photos are by Cory Weaver. Above are Anna Caterina Antonacci as Cesira and Sarah Shafer as her daughter Rosetta, the two women of the English title.)

The music is bizarrely old fashioned, but sincerely so, and the vocal writing is some of the most grateful for bringing out the beauty in singers' voices that I've heard in a while. Puccini in general and his Tosca in particular is the model for this new opera, but Tutino is obviously aware of all that has come since, and it's very much his own music. The libretto is based on an acerbic 1957 Alberto Moravia novel about the horrific WWII adventures of a mother and daughter fleeing Rome during the Nazi retreat in 1943 for Ciociaria, her poor, rugged mountain region homeland.

Moravia came from a wealthy family with a Jewish father and a Catholic mother. During the 1930s and 1940s, one half of his family were leading anti-fascists while the other side were top Fascist government officials. I'll let you guess which branch was which. Alberto spent 1941 to 1943 with his novelist wife Elsa Morante on the island of Capri, avoiding the Fascist authorities who didn't approve of his writing. When Italy was invaded by the Allies, the couple returned to the mainland in Fondo, a southern mountain town on the border of Ciociaria. In his novel, the author's stand-in is Michele, an intellectual schoolteacher who is loved by both mother and daughter and who dies for continually doing the right thing. Dimitri Pittas above wielded a sensationally beautiful tenor in the role, which is reason enough for anyone to love him.

The staging by Francesca Zambello is one of her better efforts, simple yet filled with extravagant touches like the opening bombing of Rome. Not everything worked. The Evil Nazis were as unconvincing as any stock Hollywood villains, and the Moroccan rapists looked like they had escaped from a regional production of The Abduction from the Seraglio or The Italian Girl in Algiers. They were more risible than horrifying.

The singers all evening were superb, from the smallest to the largest parts, and Music Director Nicola Luisotti was completely in his element, conducting the orchestra with the passion he usually brings to Verdi. (Antonacci and Shafer are rescuing injured American parachuter Edward Nelson above.)

The real reason to see this opera in one of the next two performances is Anna Caterina Antonacci, a fabulous Italian diva in her 50s for whom the composer wrote the lead part. Her final scene where she excoriates the surviving village men for not protecting a mother and her daughter from shameful, degrading rape is electrifying. "And you laugh about it," she sings, digging in the knife. We're lucky to be seeing her in two roles this month at the SF Opera demonstrating her range: Cassandra in Les Troyens in a very stylized Martha Graham style performance, and Cesira acted and sung in a neorealist, neoromantic manner. It will be interesting to see whether La Ciociara takes on its own life in Italy, where it's due for a 2018 premiere in Turin.