Sunday, September 27, 2015

A vocally arresting Luisa Miller at San Francisco Opera

Directed by Francesca Zambello, San Francisco Opera's current production of Luisa Miller premiered in the 2000/01 season. It's revival fifteen years later seems a trifling amount of time for an opera that sits at the perimeter of repertory choices but it presents great confidence in the dramatic merit of Verdi's middle period romantic tragedy which premiered in 1849 at the Teatro San Carlo. On virtually every level it's a refreshingly stylistic and visually absorbing production, vocally arresting and musically strident.

Director Francesca Zambello's Luisa Miller 
In Verdi's adaptation of Friedrich von Schiller's 1784 play (Intrigue and Love), dramatic segueing requires astute handling. Verdi gives enough potent vocal expressivity to his characters in building belief to overcome otherwise often improbable coincidences of characters being in the right place at the most unlikely time. Zambello obliges, successfully giving the drama an energetic flow and interspersing it with dance-like gestures and captivating silhouetted vignettes for dynamic effect.

A sensitive cohesion exists between Zambello's directorship and set designer Michael Yeargan's elegant minimalism featuring a sweeping alpine forested diorama that identifies its Tyrolean setting and which opens for various entrance effects. A cantilevered beam which cuts through it, and on which slides a large canvas portraying scene-specific associations, is curiously successful in its use.

Dunya Ramicova's costume designs delineate the classes with such striking thematic vivacity that their beauty can be excused for their sanitised division of the classes. The peasant villagers celebrate in a spectrum of pastels, the ruling class parade in shimmering crimson and soldiers are distinguished in emerald. Gary Marder's lighting design adds appropriate emotional colour and dramatic scale and is used to great effect for casting intriguing projected shadows. Visually, the eyes are delightfully, sometimes deceitfully, dazzled.

Leah Crocetto as Luisa and Michael Fabiano as Rodolfo
How the village girl Luisa Miller and Rodolfo meet is unknown but Luisa is initially unaware that Rodolfo is the son of Count Walter. When their relationship is revealed, their love is trodden by atrocious self-interest as the classes become embroiled in the affair. Luisa is a well-loved popular member of her community but her effervescent contentment is torn away. In her distress, her psychological state is challenged by both a self-sacrificing act to save her father and her own self-preservation, even if that means contemplation of suicide.

As Luisa, Leah Crocetto nails the shifting emotional corners of character with her luscious and powerful soprano. Opening brightly with "Lo vidi e 'l primo palpito", Crocetto impresses with shining cyclical top notes. A clean and mighty coloratura is on display in Act II's "Tu puniscimi, O Signore" and an urgent, surging lower range in "A brani, a brani, o perfido". Vocally, from Act III's "La tomba รจ un letto sparso di fiori" through to the subsequent finale, Crocetto is unfaltering in her delivery and receptiveness to her circumstances.

American tenor Michael Fabiano's role debut as Rodolfo is steeped in thrilling and masterly vocal technique and accompanied by acting of the most operatically convincing. In Act II's "Quando le sere al placido", Fabiano's passionately warm and fluid style and elegant open top is intoxicating as he recalls happier times with Luisa. And nothing is ever lost in his exhilarating iron-strength recitatives.

But neither Fabiano nor Crocetto are helped by Act III's more dubious events. Rodolfo enters the Miller home, calls Luisa a whore (believing she has deceived him and plans to marry the Count's henchman Wurm), slips poison in a cup, drinks it unbeknownst to Luisa and then gives it to her. A villainous, violent side emerges in Rodolfo which goes unnoticed by Luisa, as does the fact that having just happily saved herself from suicide, she appears content in the throws of a poisonous death. Clearer direction and a little more attention to the acting in the slow-crawling last moments could have elevated the finale immensely.

Vitaliy Bilyy as Miller and Leah Crocetto as Luisa
As Luisa's father, Baritone Vitaliy Bilyy is excellent, imbuing Miller with demonstrative fatherly love and understanding, protective in the face of danger and sympathetic in Luisa's pain. Bilyy deftly shapes his expansive sound and liquid warmth of tone while thrusting his vocal line with wholehearted meaning.

The remaining cast give solid performances. Daniel Sumegi's broad-ranged guttural bass gives aloof authority to Count Walter. The dark and threatening bass of Andrea Silvestrelli bonded magnificently with the lurking and plotting of the evil-eye Wurm. And as Federica enters on a life-size black stallion statue (to a few chuckles), in order to secure the man she has loved since childhood (Rodolfo), Ekaterina Semenchuk brought the sophistication and demeanour of privileged upbringing with stylishly dusky mezzo-soprano aplomb.

The fine-voiced San Francisco Opera Chorus are unified and energetic but I couldn't help but wish that their large numbers were reduced to a smaller ensemble in the opening act and employed more fittingly across the stage in the Act I finale.

Whilst Luisa Miller might not garner the sympathetic reactions and intimate immediacy achieved in Verdi's 4-year later La traviata, it has much dramatic and contemporary relevance, and music that nonetheless matches it. With Nicola Luisotti conducting, Luisa's story is told in its most heartrending way and he shows complete understanding of both the potential of Verdi's score and the attention to his onstage artists. The undulations and depth of sound was golden and the San Francisco Opera Orchestra responded with magnificence.

The next time I meet Luisa again will be here in my hometown when Opera Australia's new production opens early next year. She deserves the attention she's gaining.

Production photographs: Cory Weaver

Saturday, September 19, 2015

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Maria Mercedes beguiles in Master Class at Fortyfivedownstairs

Who could possibly have delivered Terrence McNally's Master Class other than Maria Mercedes herself? Based on a series of master classes held at New York's Julliard School in 1971 given by the legendary Maria Callas (it's almost superfluous stating that she remains one of opera's most celebrated singers), Mercedes completely owns her space.

Maria Mercedes as Maria Callas
It was Maria Mercedes being Maria Mercedes, commanding her performance in the same way Callas boasts that it could only be Callas when on the stage in all her glory. It's a high intensity experience that keeps its audience alert and the body tense. 

Master Class superbly blends an informative class, a beguiling introspective portrayal of La Divina and searing vocal performances shared by her attending students Georgia Wilkinson as Sophie De Palma, Blake Bowden as Tony Candolino and Teresa Duddy as Sharon Graham. The audience is there to learn, to take notice and, quite possibly, to take down notes. The depth of realism and immediacy is astounding. That the portrayal of Callas is warped to heighten her bite becomes irrelevant. 

Darting from worldly instructive tidbits to self-idolatry smugness, Callas ends up in almost pitiable territory. "If you don't have a look, get one", Callas tells her students. What she calls a sense of humour feels more like an assault on her prey. Callas is in perpetual combat with her own demons and the talented and spirited young students she can shred in an instant. Her students don't take it altogether lightly. 

Callas won't be challenged despite her contradictions but her credo can be boiled down to first listening, then feeling and finally singing. It's the singing part that each successive, bemused student struggles to demonstrate due the relentless interruptions. 

Maria Mercedes as Maria Callas
"Next victim!", Callas jokes, but the consequences of her tongue are knowingly laid bare as each aspiring student is pulverised by her unforgiving style. When they do sing, you can't help but relish the talent before you. Callas excuses herself for being harsh. You might not like her methods but, here in front of you, Maria Mercedes coerces and moves these singers to their best performance, at times not without tears. 

Mercedes is authoritative as she traps her audience into Callas' disturbed psyche. It's wordy, and quick and you might pause listening to her self-indulgent, self-idolatry spiel but watching Mercedes is transformative. With each student's learned aria comes a flashback on her soul and Mercedes mirrors them nothing short of breathtaking.

Still, behind this woman whose hair is pulled back tightly in a bun, each hair drawn to seemingly manipulate her every concocted expression, a team consisting of director Daniel Lammin, producer Cameron Lukey and designers  Brendan Jellie (lighting), Owen Phillips (costumes) and James Hogan (sound) create the striking pedestal for Callas to look down from. 

Cameron Thomas, as Manny Weinstock the piano accompanist, obliges her with smiling good-naturedness and technical excellence. 

I first saw Master Class in London in 2012 starring Tyne Daly at the sizeable Vaudeville Theatre. Daly was natural, formidable. But here at Fortyfivedownstairs, the generations-worn New York warehouse-style space lent a powerful intimacy and unequivocal connection between Mercedes' ownership of the role and her audience. 

Don't be afraid to take pen and paper.  

Production photographs by Clare Hawley