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CLASSICAL  September 2007

CLASSICAL September 2007

Subject:

Byrne - The Transfigured Tenor

From:

Janos Gereben <[log in to unmask]>

Reply-To:

Moderated Classical Music List <[log in to unmask]>

Date:

Sun, 23 Sep 2007 13:30:24 -0700

Content-Type:

text/plain

Parts/Attachments:

Parts/Attachments

text/plain (87 lines)

San Francisco Lyric Opera's premiere of "The Tales of Hoffman" tonight
featured an excellent cast, way beyond what you'd expect from a small
regional company, but there was one performance that just came out of
the blue.

A month ago, Richard Byrne sang the role of the Stage Manager in Festival
Opera's presentation of Ned Rorem's "Our Town," impressing with his clear
diction, and expert handling of Rorem's "Ivesian American dissonance."
Tonight, when he sang the first phrase as Hoffman, I pretty much fell
out of my seat - it was (and remained through the evening) a clear, pure
example of the timbre and projection of a "French tenor" - with great,
unforced diction - about as far from his previous "American sound" as
anyone can get.

There were some problems with tempi, but in tiny, ersatz-Viennese
Florence Gould Theater (more about that later), I heard the sound of
a clear, appealing, authentic Hoffman, a thrilling experience.  For
a moment, I thought about the possibility of discovering an exciting
newcomer, but then I found Byrne's biography in the program, talking
about his New York City Opera debut *two decades ago*, and 250 performances
around the world since.  So how come he is not known for his French
roles?

Notice the emphasis on sound.  As far as dramatic presence is concerned,
Byrne - and the rest of the cast - was done in by Heather Carolo's bizarre
stage direction, making everybody stagger about, as if Offenbach had a
secret wish to present a musical version of "The Drunkard." Honestly,
at one point the Coppelius strutted in, hiding his face with his cape,
a la Snidely Whiplash.  Byrne kept lurching, knees bent, in a weird,
incongruous contrast with the effortless elegance of his singing.

It was a miracle that the frantic, amateurish stage action didn't do in
Shawnette Sulker, but her Olympia turned out to be a delightful fireworks
of coloratura, with amazing staccato notes, and echo imitations that
made one look for a double in the wings.  All this while scrambling all
over the stage, not a mechanical doll but an insane dervish.  The tiny
soprano's mezzo-ish Giulietta and lyric Antonia were beautifully sung,
except for a couple of blown high notes and a lack of more "fat" in the
voice..

Katherine Growdon's Niklausse was big and bright.  Roberto Gomez's
singing overcame the handicaps imposed by the director: his Coppelius
was OK, Dappertutto better (except for his unfortunate tendency to push
an already big voice that could do more with less), and Dr.  Miracle
the best of them all.  Ross Helper, Martin Bell, Igor Vieira and Trey
Costerisan sang well in multiple roles, although the staging excesses
for Costerisan's Andreas, Chochenille, and Frantz were downright
embarrassing.  (You don't have to be a big opera company in Germany
to present high-school dramatics by way of being hip, relevant, or
non-static.)

Not all went well in music direction either.  For the first time in
that tiny space, I heard Barnaby Palmer conduct at times as if he were
not aware of his surroundings.  Each act opened with volume befitting
the Royal Albert Hall, slowly settling down to what was more proper, and
yet most of the performance was unnecessarily noisy.  The small, ad-hoc
orchestra performed well, as usual, the quartet of Rita Lee, Claude
Halter, Meg Titchener, and Robert Howard (each representing, respectively,
a whole section of first and second violins, violas, and cellos) supported
by woodwinds and four brass.  Ann Levin (clarinet) and Anna Maria Mendieta
(harp) made fine contributions.

Kim Tolman's sets represented a triumph of imaginative minimalism over
lack of space and resources.  The designer - a new arrival here from
Cologne - used a different large, semi-abstract painting upstage for
each scene, a chair here, a bed there, keeping it all clean and fluid.

Now about the Florence Gould Theater.  Located in the Legion of Honor,
it is managed by the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco.  It is FAMSF,
which - according to a note in the program - is raising the rental by
more than doubling it, from $1,750 per performance to $4,250, *and* is
demanding "an arbitrary cancellation clause." That contract provision
means that if SF Lyric Opera plans and prepares a production months or
years in advance, the hall management can send them packing on any date
"arbitrarily." So, next year, instead of accepting the new contract
terms, the company is moving to Cowell Theater in Fort Mason, a hall
with better facilities.

Janos Gereben
www.sfcv.org
[log in to unmask]

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