Cher Public

Una soave immagine me n’ho formato in petto

Here,  on what appears to have been a rather chilly evening,  are Michael Fabiano and his “mom” Renée Fleming in Die Walküre Lucrezia Borgia at the San Francisco Opera.

  • SF Guy

    This just in from my ex: “Did you see Renee Fleming and did you agree with the ghastly review in the Chron?” Actually, I’d forgotten to check it, but it’s only ghastly as far as Renee is concerned; Kosman’s pretty nice to everyone else (except the set designer):

  • SF Guy

    Just back from Thursday’s Lucrezia--unexpectedly enjoyable in a deliriously campy way. No matter how dire the goings-on, Donizetti’s score is unfailingly cheerful and melodic; Michael Fabiano’s hairdo and outfit, with its ever-changing, oft-plummeting neckline (revealing abs of steel in Act 3), make him a dead ringer for Sting in the David Lynch version of Dune, and with Renee in good voice and her misplaced attempts at acting touchingly sincere, and sporting a sideways hairdo in Act 2 with its own built-in pillbox and an Act 3 ensemble somewhere between Saint Joan and Aelita, Queen of Mars…who could ask for anything more?

    Well, I ran into Batty at the second intermission, and he’d like a Lucrezia capable of bringing some genuine tragic gravitas to the part. But given the wackiest libretto I’ve encountered in 45 years of opera-going and the generally bouncy score, I doubt it would raise the dramatic stature of the evening, and it would certainly dampen the fun.

    • CruzSF

      I at last night’s Lucrezia, too (and actually met you last night, SF Guy). I thought Fabiano, DeShong, and Kowaljow all sang stupendously. I could have listened to them all night had Donizetti composed another act for this work. They were all totally into it, too, with Fabiano and DeShong buying into the suggestion that Gennaro & Orsini were closer than “best buds.” I wanted to hear more from Kowaljow. I thought Act III could have used more of his character just so I could hear that deep, resonating bass.

      As for Fleming … she surprised me in a positive way. She was much better than the pirate recordings of her Lucrezia in DC suggested, and her voice had more agility than in her recent Armidas. She managed to keep everything on the rails. As for her acting … there were quite a few “witchy woman” movements borrowed from her Armida, but they were mostly confined to the first act (in other versions called the “prologue”). I wonder if Kowaljow’s commitment and intensity helped her focus her game, because he had little touches of cruelty interspersed throughout the action in addition to the big hair-pulling scene.

      I agree with Batty that this opera could be more than campy fun with the right production and the right cast. Even so, I’m persuaded by this production that Lucrezia deserves more stagings in the US.

    • Batty Masetto

      Oh dear, Cruz -- I thought you and SFGuy had already met so didn’t do introductions. Sorry guys.

      I had a much better time than I expected -- the supporting cast was excellent, all the way down through the current and ex Adler Fellows in the smaller roles, and Ms. F. was actually in better form than I’ve heard her in years, at least judging from Sirius and HD. No funny gear shifts between registers, some lovely tone, and some adroit coloratura. Some of the high notes were just barely where they needed to be, and the middle seems to be showing the inevitable effects of age -- which I suppose is why she had to cut back those difficult ascents through the middle in “Era desso” to a tiny sound. All the same, you can’t deny the lady has technique. And she was much much more committed in the acting than I ever expected to see. At least her emotional gamut this time ranged as far as H or M sometimes, rather than her standard A to B.

      Yes, SFGuy, the production was campy, sometimes to the point of dopeyness: if you have background trees in false perspective you do NOT tell your chorus to run around among them! But I don’t agree at all that the work is inherently campy, and I can’t believe somebody with your experience would hear the score as unfailingly cheerful. In Lucrezia it’s amazing what complicated emotions he can conjure up in major keys. (In fact I’m beginning to rethink my whole attitude about Donizetti, but that’s another post.)

      Just one example: La Renee sang “Com’è bello” in a sort of isn’t-he-cute way that got nowhere near the core of the piece. Montsy -- certainly no Duse -- has a much more solid sense of the tenderness, fascination, approach avoidance, and regret that’s really there:

      Another example: the antsy Lucrezia-Gennaro-Alfonso trio in the second act, where Donizetti combines a surface of urbane politesse with an itchily nervous undertone of menace:

      Hugo’s and Donizetti’s Lucrezia has very little to do with the historical character. Even the facts that were known in their era are exaggerated for effect: if she even poisoned anyone at all, she certainly didn’t do it right and left, and she had only three husbands, not six, the first two of which were removed from the scene by her genuinely awful family. But in the play and the opera she’s the archetype of the Dangerous Woman. A male projection par excellence and something worth treating seriously. My feeling is that if you could find an oltrano who could both handle the vocal demands and unleash a larger-than-life portrayal of a human rattlesnake overcome by maternal instinct, you’d have a sensational piece of drama of the type that only opera can handle.

      By the way, you’ll notice in the trio that Lucrezia says twice in an aside that Alfonso is lying. Standard practice in early 19th century dramaturgy -- when the words and the underlying emotions don’t match, normally it gets pointed out explicitly in one way or another. Which is why Grim’s admirably detailed account of the discontinuity between the two in “Coppia iniqua” still doesn’t explain to me what’s really going on.

      I’m beginning to think that Donizetti -- writing in haste and just giving vent to his intuitions -- came up with effects that are much more modern than he gets credit for.

      • CruzSF

        Batty, good point about those trees. I almost laughed when some of Alfonso’s henchmen ran behind them to hide, and you could still see their hips sticking out at the sides.

        I also agree with you about Fleming’s middle. Especially in the first act, her voice noticeably faded through the middle of her range. To her credit, she managed to pull it together during the latter 2 acts (vocally). I interpreted this development as the work of a veteran knowing what she had to do to manage her trouble spots. Many singers don’t do that (see the video post of Edita above) and even this singer doesn’t do it all the time.

        • CruzSF

          Oops, I meant: see the video post of Edita below (not above).

      • Batty Masetto

        P.S. -- Fabiano does not have purple tits. (Just for those of you who won’t be able to confirm for yourselves.)

        • CruzSF

          PPS. I checked Fabiano’s tits many, many, many times through my binocs and didn’t see any purple tones throughout the entire performance. I can report, however, that his pants fit very well.

      • SF Guy

        Batty--Passing through briefly after a long work day before dashing off to Heart of a Soldier, so this will be brief. Yes, there may be more to Lucrezia as a serious piece of theater than was on view last night, and yes, I may have exaggerated the consistently cheerful nature of the score a bit (Duke Alfonso manages to be pretty menacing, though it’s not exactly Verdi). But…is there any way you can paraphrase the just-awakened Gennaro’s declaration of instant love in Act One, followed by a quick disclaimer to the effect that he’s equally in love with his long-missing mom (not the best way to follow up a successful pickup line, IMHO) and keep a straight face? “I’m not making this up, you know.”

        • Batty Masetto

          I dunno, SFGuy, is it any crazier than, say, “Di quella pira?” (“Sorry to jilt you at the altar, hon, but Mom’s calling and I need to go right now. Except I’m going to sing an aria about it first.”)

          Plus it does kind of show that the guy has, um, “issues.” Except for Lucrezia, Gennaro doesn’t show an iota of interest in women. Donizetti and Romani even cut the play’s perfunctory allusion to a girlfriend. Of course, you’d need a better director and a more emotionally aware Lucrezia to bring the moment off more sensitively. (I bet Fabiano could have taken a reasonable stab at it if he’d been directed right.)

          I’ll be interested to know what you think of Heart of a Soldier.

          • SF Guy

            Batty--Well, it’s more like “Sorry to jilt you at the altar, hon, but Mom’s being burned at the stake,” so I’m willing to cut Manrico a bit more slack. As to the “issues”--did you catch Gennaro and Maffio locking lips in the shadows as they headed off to the Act 3 party? I wish they’d either done more with that or not gone there…probably the latter, because whenever Gennaro was sporting one of his higher necklines and their outfits were close to matching, I kept thinking of Doctor Evil and Mini-Me.

            And as to Heart of a Soldier… Despite the reviews, I’d heard almost nothing but good word-of-mouth beforehand, so I was hoping to like it. I didn’t. I found the libretto’s standard movie biopic format, giving us chronological highlights of a great man’s life from childhood to heroic sacrifice, ill-suited to the needs of opera, and the music unable to give compensating specificity to the characters. I would, in fact, have much preferred a good documentary, or even a standard biopic--everyone would have talked twice as fast, hopefully leaving time for detail and nuance. Things reached their nadir in the cutesy coffee date between Rick and Susan--the rhyming dictionary banter had me (and the couple next to me) cringing in embarrassment. I don’t like saying unpleasant things about a project that wants to pay tribute to the real-life heroes in our lives, but I feel a bit disappointed and almost angry that it fell so far short of the mark. But fictionalizations, in whatever format, generally do. Anyway, you asked, so there it is. Sorry.

          • Batty Masetto

            Well, but that was sort of my point, SFGuy, about the “Di quella pira” -- we cut Manrico slack because we’re familiar enough with the work to build a context for it that seems adequate to us. But we don’t have that for the Lucrezia scene.

            Remember, here are the specifics of what happens: Gennaro wakes up and sees this beautiful person, asks her not to go away -- but SHE is the one who brings up love, and he says, “sì quanto lice, t’amo” -- “Yes, I love you, so far as it’s permitted.” So he’s not in rut over her, it’s not Tristan and Isolde, it’s warm but not red-hot, the initiative was hers, and he indicates from the start that there’s some kind of reservation. Which he explains right away: there’s his Mom, whom he loves more than this strange lady (not equally). So this one isn’t quite as silly as it looks at first sight, either. And that Mom “issue” … oy.

            I too wish Orsini had looked a little less like a Mini-Me, but she sang so well that it would have been unfair to want more. I do think the homoerotic aspect is fitting. Gennaro isn’t the hot mess that Manrico is, but he’s got some interesting kinks to him, and he’s at least polymorphous perverse. The “buddies to the death” aspect won’t read any more, but it translates pretty neatly into a more contemporary psychosexual configuration. Anyway I think the horse may be dead so I won’t flog it any more.

            Sorry Heart didn’t please you more. I saw a lot of what you mention but it didn’t bother me as much. The piece has clearly been pleasing a certain demographic that maybe doesn’t usually go to the opera, so I think it deserves some credit for that much at least. But I was grossed out to learn that the National Anthem is a part of the production, not an opening-night fluke. If I’d realized that I might have felt differently myself. Coming right at the start like that it changes the balance and taints the whole affair with a kind of jingoistic manipulation that seemed refreshingly absent to me most of the rest of the time.

          • SF Guy

            Batty--Yes, the national anthem played once again last night, with a larger-than-life Old Glory waving on the scrim as we sang along. Some members of the audience in my vicinity had damn good voices, I must say. During intermission I chatted with the man beside me, who was also bothered by the jingoistic aspect. I found a lot to admire in the production and the commitment everyone brought to it; I was particularly struck by Melody Moore’s austere intensity in the epilogue. But I thought their efforts were largely wasted on unworthy material.

            As to that scene in Lucrezia--well, Donizetti isn’t Verdi; Verdi’s skill at defining character and subtext through the music helps me buy into many a ridiculous situation. With Donizetti’s tragic operas, I need a stronger libretto (such as Lucia’s) to seal the deal.

          • Indiana Loiterer III

            [Heart of a soldier] has clearly been pleasing a certain demographic that maybe doesn’t usually go to the opera…

            Straight white males?

          • CruzSF

            Definitely a case of chacun à son goût, since I gladly paid to see 3 performances of Heart of a Soldier. I agree that the music doesn’t jump out at you at the first hearing. I didn’t leave the opera house humming many arias (I did immediately like “Heart of a lion,” “Train Your heart,” “Marathon, Agincourt,” and “a man who can drill men can be king,” and remembered those after the first performance). The score definitely yielded more layers under repeated listenings, becoming more interesting (not less), and I clearly saw a structure to most of it. It could use another revision for some tightening, and some further development of Melody Moore’s character, IMO.

          • SF Guy

            Cruz--It was a pleasure meeting you on Thursday, even if we didn’t realize it at the time. Glad you enjoyed Soldier--a worthy project, and we’ll agree to disagree about its success.

          • Batty Masetto

            The demographic I meant was (apparently) militarily-oriented males -- both CruzSF and I noticed there seemed to be a lot of involvement from current or ex-soldierly types.

          • Batty Masetto

            Remember that business about “Heart of a Soldier” connecting with an unusual demographic?

            Check this letter from today’s SF Chronicle:


          • CruzSF

            Interesting, Batty M. Thanks very much for the link.

      • ilpenedelmiocor

        This is simply a response to the Caballe rendition of Com’e’ bello that Batty posted. What gorgeous singing. Truth in advertising: not even a Caballe fan. Hats off to her.

  • La marquise de Merteuil

    This is how a Lucrezia -- and all bel canto should sound:

    • CruzSF


    • Buster

      This was pretty exciting too:

    • thomas

      If I were going to hold up Gruberova as a paragon of bel canto, it certainly wouldn’t be this clip. It’s pretty awful to listen to and to watch.

    • La marquise de Merteuil

      Considering what passes for bel canto these days I’d much rather listen to Gruberova in distress than others at their supposed peak…

      • Clita del Toro

        me too

  • lorenzo.venezia

    SF guys: I’m surprised none of you has mentioned Leah Crocetto’s Liu in Turandot hereabouts, which I caught at the ball park (a less than desirable venue). I thought the tenor almost unbearable (often boo-able), and Irene Theorin’s ice princess was icy and princessy in a matronly way, her voice big and often lovely, but tyro Crocetto gave me a serious “sit-up-and-listen” — big, sumptuous, full dynamic range; sensational, IMHO, promising much to look forward to! Worth the price of admission (although it was free). I couldn’t be very enthusiastic about the Lucrezia I saw the following night except for Kowaljow who gave me a serious Hans Peter König buzz-- dark, powerful, rhythmically incisive, a total pleasure to listen to…

    • Batty Masetto

      Lorenzo -- for my part, the answer’s simple: I didn’t go to Turandot. I saw the production when it was brand new and all that red in the second act left me semi-blinded for days!

      • lorenzo.venezia

        you should get thee down to war memorial; she’s a gem even thought the rest is not! I’ve never liked David Hockey’s Turandot, or Tristan for that matter; comic-bookey, like much of his art (I used to bump into him all the time at symphony and opera in LA, mis-matched socks and all, all affectations; he’s charming but over-rated I believe). I had never heard Crocetto before, and even over the loud bad sound system, loved what I heard and hope she will be traveling!!

        • MontyNostry

          Crocetto from about 1’40”

    • CruzSF

      Crocetto was great, as usual. It’s been exciting to watch her grow as an artist, right before our very eyes and ears, from someone with a big sound and lots of potential, to a very good singer, to a great singer with improved acting.

      Otherwise, I’ve written so often  here about my experiences with Turandot, it’s probably best to contact me directly if you want to know more about what I thought of this production and this cast.

      • lorenzo.venezia

        It’s a mess; ’nuff said. But Crocetto was such a wonderful surprise, better than the garlic fries, and almost made up for the hideous tenor!

        • CruzSF

          Hahaha! I did like Theorin more than you did, perhaps. She was a vast improvement over Eaglen, the one other Turandot I’ve seen. As for the tenor …

          I really liked Ping, Pang, and Pong, too.

          • marshiemarkII

            Hi Cruz, since you have seen both Theorin and Stemme at the War Memorial, how would you rate them in terms of size (i.e volume that is, they are females after all :-)), because I saw Theorin as Brunnhilde in Goetterdaemmerung in Washington in 2009, and she was nice-sized, but not overwhelming in Act II, and you know who I was used to at the big Met (and SF for that matter), and she was overwhelming!. Theorin did phrase very nicely and altogether I felt she had more than a claim to the role, but I didn’t think she was answered prayers, as Stemme seems to be, according to others. I trust your opinion and fresh ears.

          • CruzSF

            Thanks, Marshie.

            Hmmm, comparing just on size of voice, I would give the edge to Theorin. I never felt that Theorin’s voice got lost in the orchestration, and she managed to sound like she was singing (as opposed to screaming) through the entire dynamic range.

            Re: Stemme, I just fell in love with her during the Ring here. Her voice soared above the orchestra, too, but I didn’t feel like her sound encompassed me from all sides. I did feel that from Theorin. I’ve read people describe the voices of past singers as being so large that they felt pushed back in their seats. I didn’t feel that way from either singer.

            Unfortunately, I missed You-Know-Who live and in person, but I’m pretty sure that her voice was the largest of the 3 singers under discussion.

          • marshiemarkII

            Wow, very interesting, many thanks!

            You are still on my list of hotties to meet :-) but my fabled trip to SF has STILL not materialized, believe it or not. But I will let you know when it happens :-)

          • CruzSF

            I’d thought you’d already come and gone, and forgotten poor, old CruzSF!

          • marshiemarkII


          • lorenzo.venezia

            I thought the conductor totally misunderstood P,P,and P in Act II Sc I, one of the great nostalgia-melancholy moments this side of Fanciulla Act I and maybe my favorite music in the opera? I liked Theorin OK, but not wildly.

  • miredinchaos

    LUCREZIA BORGIA last night was ultimately so much fun that I decided to forgive Renée_Fleming for some transgressions in the first and second acts. After all were it not for her we wouldn’t have gotten to see this opera. Her costumes made her look like a circus pony sometimes and Jane Fonda in BARBARELLA in the last act. She had irritatingly idiosyncratic moments vocally, and personality wise she doesn’t have the temperament for this part. She couldn’t spit out a line in fury if her life depended on it. Still I had a good time. The rest of the cast was fine. For once we had a tenor who appeared to be singing a role that was exactly right for his voice. He may have a long career ahead of him strictly as a Donizetti tenor, but there are worse ways to make a living.

    I saw Beverly Sills in this role at New York City Opera in Los Angeles. I also saw Katia Ricciarelli with OONY at Carnegie Hall. I remember both evenings fondly. I suspect the same will be true about last night’s San Francisco Opera performance.

  • I just read a post on Facebook that the SF Ring cycle is coming out “soon” on DVD -- I don’t remember reading about this anywhere, so, a) is it? and b) does anyone know when?

    • Batty Masetto

      WOW! I sure hope that’s true louann!

      • hope I didn’t misunderstand the post, but it was on David Cangelosi’s page.

    • bluecabochon

      I’d buy it! I’d love to see it again!