Tom’s Review: Winter of Content – Midwinter Opera in Sunny Southern California 2007-08

Note from William.  With this webpage, we will begin a series of articles on what we believe is a relatively unknown travel destination for excellent operatic productions – Southern California during the winter months. You have seen my reviews for recent blockbuster performances at Los Angeles Opera and San Diego Opera.  However, as Tom’s multi-part discussion of the SoCal “opera scene” will demonstrate, these well-liked performances were not isolated examples, but are a consistent pattern of world class operatic fare being presented South (and West) of the Tehachapi Mountains.

If one takes note of the route of Amtrak’s “Pacific Surfliner”, an opera aficionado could travel back and forth economically by train between San Diego, Orange County, Los Angeles and Santa Barbara, in a region whose winters are mild (and even sunny most days), where the Euro buys a lot of opera, and where the dollar still finds value.  Here, in Tom’s Reviews, the past is prologue to our recommendation for your opera touring next Midwinter – a Winter Solstice Opera Vacation in Southern California.]

Winter of Content: Southern California Opera 2007-08, Part I

Although recent times may have been a Winter of Discontent for California’s economy, it has been a winter of operatic contentment throughout Southern California, beginning with a stunning Los Angeles Opera production  of Mozart’s “Don Giovanni”, starring Eric Schrott in the title role, and a very traditional, Christmastime mounting of Puccini’s “La Boheme”.

A Christmas-time excursion to Yosemite’s Ahwahnee

[Below: cast members of the Bracebridge Dinner pageants, which are held on the days around Christmas in Yosemite National Park; photograph by Tom Rubbert.]

Speaking of the Christmas season: among California’s great traditions are the annual Bracebridge Dinners in the Ahwahnee Lodge at Yosemite National Park. Surrounded by icicles and snow in the incomparable Yosemite Valley, the much celebrated and very formal Bracebridge Dinners are literally pageant-feasts.  They feature seasonal music from artists that include several regular members of the San Francisco Opera chorus (whose Fall season ends in early December).

William, your website host, most of his family and I were the lucky (paid) guests of the Squire of Bracebridge Hall.  (The Squire in the picture above is at the left in yellow, in which the hostess – the “housekeeper” Andrea Fulton, dressed in black, presides over the dinner and also directs her splendid Andrea Fulton Chorale.) The seven course spectacle, much of it originally designed and directed by world-famous photographer Ansel Adams, takes place in the venerable 1927 stone Ahwahnee Hotel.  Renaissance-costumed musicians, singers, jugglers and jesters provide the merriment.

[Below: Yosemite Valley in wintertime; photograph by Tom Rubbert.]

The Andrea Fulton Chorale presents (on another fireside evening) An Opera Potpourri, featuring operatic excerpts typically including choice tidbits from Bellini, Mozart, Verdi, Gounod, Leoncavallo, Bizet, Strauss (take your pick) and Mascagni, so opera lovers lavish in a delightful evening of operatic singing as snowflakes fall just outside the windows.  On another snowy eve, they present their Say it With Music concert, whose selections – both individual solos and choral numbers – are typically from Broadway musicals. Sound enchanting? The Bracebridge Dinner is like no other pageant in American.  Do look at their excellent website

Winter solstice was followed with stellar performances of Wagner’s monumental “Tristan und Isolde” in Los Angeles Opera’s David Hockney-designed  production (seen January 23, 2008) and San Diego Opera’s huge, lush and very grand presentation of Wagner’s “Tannhauser” – both sensational, both utterly world-class.

Then San Diego Opera followed up its “Tannhauser” triumph with a smashing production of Donizetti’s “Mary Queen of Scots (Maria Stuarda)”.  The two Wagner productions and “Maria Stuarda” were favorably reviewed by William, your website host. In the recent past, treats on this scale seemed not to come around all that often. Lately, we seem to be part of a renaissance of operatic production.

The Los Angeles Opera followed the “Tristan” with a production of Verdi’s “Otello” with a virtually all-new cast. Meanwhile, Orange County’s Opera Pacific presented a dazzling Mozart “Magic Flute”, which was a flat-out romp for now-international star Rodney Gilfry as the feathered bird-catcher.  Later Opera Santa Barbara presented its Italian Passions festival in its beautiful Mediterranean-gorgeous setting, presenting Donizetti’s wildly funny “Elixir of Love” and the classic double bill of “Cav-Pag” (Mascagni’s “Cavalleria Rusticana” and Leoncavallo’s “I Pagliacci”).

Elsewhere, Long Beach Opera invited us to “take the plunge” and “dive” into Ricky Ian Gordon’s Orpheus & Euridice, in, on and around an Olympic swimming pool (gotta get into the operatic swim of things . . .) about which opera the New York Times reviewer commented “It’s caviar for a world gorging on pizza!”. LBO also presented Grigori Frid’s Diary of Anne Frank – in a parking garage!

L. A. Opera presented a two-opera package, themed as Recovered Voices, featuring Alexander Zemlinski’s The Dwarf and Viktor Ulmann’s The Jug, both Nazi-censored pieces.  In the United States, only New York City could match a winter of opera like this, but the Big Apple had many fewer warm, sunny days!

December in Los Angeles

Don Juan’s Back and L. A. Opera’s Got Him! So reads Los Angeles Opera’s mailer about their quite spectacular Winter 2007 Don Giovanni production, starring Eric Schrott in the title role – observing that his lady-conquests catalogued in his sidekick Leporello’s telephone-book-sized black book total 2065! The bold and dramatic sets and most costumes were those of the Polish National Opera in Warsaw, and were matched by Schrott’s bold and dramatic Hollywood Oscar-quality acting.  (I saw his dazzling performance of December 4, 2007 –  the best I have seen for this role, anywhere.)

Three of the principals had performance successes at the San Francisco Opera in the past three seasons.  (Reviews of those S. F. performances can be found on this website.) Schrott’s sidekick Leporello was Kyle Ketelsen (Escamillo in S. F. Opera’s December 2006 performances of Bizet’s “Carmen”).  Ketelsen thrilled the L. A. audience with his clever antics and marvelous singing.

[Below: Don Giovanni (Erwin Schrott, left) and Leporello (Kyle Ketelsen) are indecisive about their direction; edited image, based on a copyrighted Robert Millard photograph, courtesy of the Los Angeles Opera.]

Alexandra Deshorties (Fiordiligi in Mozart’s “Cosi Fan Tutte” in San Francisco in Summer 2005) debuted with Los Angeles Opera as Donna Anna. Charles Castronovo was a striking Don Ottavio (repeating the role he performed in S. F. in Summer 2007.)

Lauren McNeese played a feisty Zerlina (who debuted last year as Tebaldo in L. A. Opera’s fabulous production of Verdi’s “Don Carlo”).    Maria Kanyova was the Donna Elvira (for whose Gretel in Humperdinck’s “Hansel und Gretel” she received a roaring ovation in an adorable and charming production in L. A. last season).

James Creswell was the Masetto. Creswell is now an ensemble member of Berlin’s sensational Komische Oper Berlin, one of Berlin’s three (along with Staatsoper unter den Linden and Deutsche Oper Berlin) world class opera companies. Kang-Liang Peng from Canton, China, made an auspicious company debut as the Walking Statue – the Commendatore.

The production was firmly and compassionately conducted by Hartmut Haenchen from the former East Germany, whose CDs and DVDs  of Wagner’s “Ring” I treasure. Although most veteran opera goers have seen Don Giovanni often, this stellar production particularly ranks as a blockbuster!

[The next installments of the Winter of Content cover the Opera Pacific “Magic Flute”, the Los Angeles Opera “Otello”, Angela Gilbert’s appearances in the title role of San Diego’s “Maria Stuarda” and the Italian Passions Festival at Santa Barbara Opera.

For those interested in traveling to Southern California  in 2008-09 to see opera, we will be featuring our “best bets” for an Operatic Winter Wonderland within a few weeks.]