Friday, April 23, 2010

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Bravé! Frauen Österreichische Kammersängerinnen

Two days after the wonderful French soprano Natalie Dessay was named an Österreichische Kammersängerin (it is sort of like being knighted in Austria) your smorginess is happy to report that my most obsessive operatic addiction, the huskily mesmerizing Bulgarian mezzo-soprano Vesselina Kasarova, along with German soprano Ricarda Merbeth was also bestowed the title earlier today by Culture Minister Claudia Schmied at the Vienna State Opera's Tea Salon.

Fotos: Natalie Dessay (Simon Fowler), Ricarda Merbeth (, Vesselina Kasarova (Teatro Sao Carlos)

I confess I'm not familiar with Merbeth, though the other two ladies need no introduction. Dessay and Kasarova are two of the most artistically adventurous artists of their generations who dare to perform their own conviction even in the face of criticism (some deserved and some totally not).

But then that's what an artist has to do in order to be able to look back at their career one day in their old age and really say that they had used their talents and opportunities to try to do something special and worthy of remembrance rather than just going along having an inoffensive money-making career, I think. Being ardently hated by some is often a price of greatness... And as uncomfortable as that may seem, hopefully it is well off-set by the adoration they truly earned from those who value their unique contribution.
Herzliche Glückwünsche Frauen Österreichische Kammersängerinnen Dessay, Merbeth, und Kasarova!

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Verdi's La Traviata at San Diego Opera (17 April 2010)

Saturday night saw the opening performance of Giuseppe Verdi's La Traviata (The Fallen Woman) at the San Diego Opera (at the SD Civic Theater in Downtown). The show had a glitchy start when Ian Campbell, the SDO's General Director and Artistic Director, came to the curtain to announce that maestro Karen Keltner (the SDO's Principal Conductor) will be substituting for Renato Palumbo, who was to make his house debut with the performance. It was a really last minute sort of change and caused a 15 minutes delay as the technical crew made adjustment on the conductor's podium and music stand.

Most opera fans would already know the story of the opera, of course. It is based on a real story of famous 19th century French courtesan Marie Duplessis, as semi-fictionalized by one of her lovers, Alexandre Dumas (fis) shortly after her untimely death from tuberculosis at age 23.

Fabulously pretty and nearly universally bewitching courtesan Violetta Valery (Elizabeth Futral) gives a party as she is recovering from tuberculosis. One of her guests, Alfredo Germont (Marius Brenciu), declares his love for her. And though Violetta was keen on remaining free of bondage in order to live in pleasure, she is overcome by the force of their mutual attraction.

After a few months of living together at Violetta's country villa Alfredo finds out from Annina the maid (Rebecca Skaar) that his beloved has been selling off her possessions in order to fund their lifestyle, so he plans to go off to be their bread-winner. Unbeknown to him, though, his dad, Giorgio Germont (Alan Opie), beats him to a meeting with Violetta where he successfully asks her to let go of his son (because this affair with a courtesan is casting a bad light on the family and Alfredo's sister would find it harder to marry with this cloud over her). Distraught but determined to do the right thing for Alfredo, Violetta extracts from his father the promise that he would reveal her real motif for ditching his son after her death.

Being young, angry and overly flushed with hormones that make him think with the wrong body part, Alfredo publicly humiliates Violetta at Flora (Susanna Guzmán)'s party and is challenged to a duel by Baron Douphol (Nicolai Janitzky) while the heroine collapses. Papa Germont is immensely regretful of how his well-intended request has turned out for everyone decides to fulfill his promise a bit early and reveals the truth to Alfredo... who must now race the clock to get back to Violetta before she expires from tuberculosis-induced-heartache-compounded deadness (I know, I know, that is neither a real word nor a bonafide medical diagnosis... but then what can you expect from an opera queen, ay?).

This production of La Traviata is traditionally set and flawlessly directed by Andrew Sinclair. The sets are beautiful and uncluttered, nicely treading the line between being minimalistic and lavish (the flashy supporting cast costumes helped). The Act II scenery was actually applauded by a segment of the audience when the curtain went up! (I should note, though, that the opening night audience really couldn't wait to clap at many things. By the end of the third act I was hoping that the curtain would get stuck and refuse to come down until the last note of the music has sounded because the minute that thing moved nearly everyone started clapping and there was no hope of hearing the final bars of what the orchestra was still playing ).

The San Diego Symphony Orchestra was in the pit, of course, and sounded like a million buck all night long. The gltichy side-effect of the substitution showed up soon after the superbly performed overture, however, when the singers and the orchestra were just a tad out of sync for much of the first act. The orchestra was a bit ahead of the principal singers, but when the chorus joined in they were a tad ahead of everybody else... And the adjustments everybody was trying to make showed a bit more than they should... which goes to show that even the pros need practice time in order to perform flawlessly and I'm happy to report than most of the audiences very much appreciated the difficulties maestro Keltner faced in having to jump in to a performance with literally no notice at all. She got a well deserved warm ovations every time she entered the pit and at the curtain call.

Everything came together well by the time Elizabeth Futral launched into Violetta's Act I ending 'E strano! - Sempre libera', however. The American soprano looked quite fetching as her role requires and performed like a real veteran. Her top notes didn't rub well on me, but everything else was worthy of the fascinating courtesan who was well known in nearly every corner of Europe in the days before the invention of telecommunication and internet and when the rich and famous traveled in a horse-drawn carriage instead of a Porche or an H2 Hummer.

Her Violetta is neither very young nor very subtle, but she was convincing in her own ways. Sempre Libera was turned into something of a mad (as in angry mad) scene and elicited a warm round of applause. Her best qualities shone the brightest in the dramatic final act, however, with all the right accent and dynamism to highlight Violetta's hopeless distress in a very touching rendition of 'Addio, del passato.'

The most gorgeous voice of the cast, however, belongs to her onstage lover, the Alfredo of Romanian Marius Brenciu, whose beautifully Italianate tenor comes with a silky legato that no smoothie in San Diego County can compete with. It is a beautiful and well projected lyrical voice from top to bottom, deployed with prolific controlled... which makes him very easy to listen to even though he wasn't theatrically and vocally quite as ardent and hot-headed as my vision of Alfredo is.

The really splendid surprise appeared in the 2nd act of the opera when the British baritone Allan Opie appeared on stage as Alfredo's meddling papa, Giorgio Germont. His was easily the most theatrically and vocally commanding performance of the night. Excellent stage presence and full of all the right vocal gravitas, and I somehow found myself listening for his vocal line rather than Violetta's during their gorgeous Act II duet (the two voices don't really match that well).

The supporting cast was quite well done with Susanna Guzmán returning as a theatrically adept if vocally rather hideous Flora (I and everyone like the lass, mind you, but her voice sounded really shot.... by an uzi or something worse. It helped that she didn't have much to sing and when she did much of it was nearly inaudible). Rebecca Skaar was pleasing to hear as Violetta's devoted maid, Annina. Joseph Hu made a pleasantly wobbly Gaston, and Nicolai Janizky suitably snobbish Baron Douphol.

The San Diego Opera Chorus was (after the initial sync problem with the orchestra) spot on. The gypsy and toreador dancers were delightfully snappy and earned their choreographer, Kristina Cobarrubia, a nice round of applause at the curtain.

It was a good show! And everyone I talked to in the audience enjoyed the performance and LOVED the special treat of getting to see the stage crew change the set when they left the curtain up for much of the intermission between Acts II and III.

If you are in San Diego or within an easy driving distance, there are still 3 performances of La Traviata left: Tuesday April 20 (7PM), Friday April 23 (8PM), Sunday April 25 (2PM). Ticket information available at

Photos: All stage photos are by Ken Howard and posted courtesy of the San Diego Opera.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

New Tests of Einstein's General Relativity

Like Charles Darwin's theory of the diversity of life, Evolution by Natural Selection, Albert Einstein's theory of gravity, General Relativity, has been around for a hundred year now, and it is still being tested by current independent studies based on real observations... without failing to produce accurate results.

Chandra X-Ray Observatory recently (as of April 14th, 2010) reported on how Einstein's theory stood up better to independent observations of gravitational effects in distant galaxies than its two new challenging theories; the f(R) theory and the DGP gravity, do (calculations based on General Relativity correspond better to what were observed than calculations based on the other two theories do).

This doesn't mean that Einstein's theory has been positively proven to be 100% accurate, of course. Science is not in the business of offering 100% certainty. It is in the business of minimizing uncertainties. And the more theories like General Relativity and Evolution by Natural Selection withstand their (almost daily) tests against real observations and experimental data, the more confidence they earn in that they are the current best description of the natural phenomena they describe. And since the people that came up with f(R) and DGP gravity are good and real scientists, they aren't pushing for their idea to be given equal time in science class with the theory that beat them.... Unlike what those people who are trying to push for a religion in disguise as a 'science' to be taught in science classes in America regardless of how thoroughly it had been debunked like to do...

Courtly Noyse at Museum of Art & a visit with a few local birds

Entrance to the San Diego Museum of Arts
I was surfing the internet for classical music groups in San Diego area when I came across the San Diego Early Music Society website and saw a listing of Renaissance music concert at the Museum of Art on Easter Sunday. The MoA being within a walking distance from my pad, I decided to have a go even though I had some misgivings about non-opera music from the Baroque period and before (come to think of it, I even have misgivings about Baroque opera music... The arias are wonderful, but after a bunch of them in a roll they start to sound the same).

Naturally I was most delightfully surprised by how refreshingly diverse and earthy the Renaissance music the Courtlÿ Noÿse early music group played for an hour long concert at the MoA's 2nd floor Hibben Gallery proved to be. Not only did they show up in period costume (and looked good in it!), they also played on period instruments - some that they made themselves!

The 3 women 3 men group performed 19 pieces of music ranging from the late 1300's to mid 1600's. Each musician played multiple instruments and even sang everything from soulful songs of longing to rousing drinking songs that had the audiences swaying and wishing for stein-fuls of beer to pass around to highlight the merry mood with. The voices were quite well trained and cast a hypnotic effect both singing a capella and accompanied by a continuo viola da gamba or a viol.

The program presented was so witty and wisely diversed (and the tone colors of the period instruments were so interesting) that an hour felt like a few minutes. The only glitch was when one of the performers' cellphone rang unanswered during the show (she was a good sport, though, and owned up to it immediately after the song). The enthusiastic crowd didn't mind and successfully demanded a spirited encore number with a prolonged round of applause.

The group also has its first CD, Courtly Noyse: A Portrait, out on sale for $15. You can sample a few track at their website. It is well worth the price!

On the quaky way back home I made a detour through Florida Canyon hiking trail and caught a few local birds along the way. It is amazing how plump and fluffy the hummingbirds look when they are staying still! I wish I have more zoom power on my camera since I couldn't get close enough to many of the shyer birds to get a good photo of them (that redtailed hawk saw me coming from like a mile away!). San Diego is really a great place for bird-watchers... There really are many cool bird species around to see there when you stop to look for them (look for bare-ish branches near the top of flowering trees. Red bottlebrushes are favorites of hummingbirds and hooded orioles!).

Monday, April 5, 2010

A note of excuse...

Just dropping in a little note to beg your pardon for my increasing state of slow-sluggedness when it comes to posting, emailing, and commenting online. The modem died an peaceful sleep late last week and my landlord had decided to improvise with a friend's spare modem... which doesn't seem to be interfacing very well with the signal provider. It comes and goes on a whim and is driving me batty trying to stay online for longer than 10 minutes at a time. Hopefully this will get fixed soon. Though... for the moment yours Smorgily is by necessity more of an internet sloth than usual. :o(

If you hadn't caught them, though, I did release 2 new interviews in the past week at
AssociatedContent with Christy Erb (ex-LPGA Tour player who now writes books and articles) and Arturo Chacon Cruz (a really good young operatic tenor whose brain is as fetching as his voice is).

And yes, I did feel the earthquakes yesterday (and this morning). Was out at Cactus Garden in Balboa Park trying to catch a few birds on film when the ground started rolling (I think this one is a black-chinned hummingbird). Hope the folks down in Mexico are ok!

Saturday, April 3, 2010

Happy Easter/Spring!

Spring is here! I don't know if all the flowers are blooming, but the colorful Ranunculus at Carlsbad's famous Flower Fields are.... along with the roses at their Walk of Fame. Yours truly spent a day acting quite less than my age while putting my camera (now with a clean lens. Thanks very much!) to good use.

So, here's a flowery spring greeting and happy Easter (or Passover or whatever else is being celebrated this weekend) wishes to all in the northern hemisphere. To our friends on the south side of the Equator, though, happy autumn! Aren't you glad you survived summer without melting? :oD

The soundtrack is from Vesselina Kasarova's recital at Konzerthaus Wien in 2006.

Friday, April 2, 2010

SD Master Chorale at St. Paul's Cathedral & Balboa Park at Night

Apology for a really late post. What an annoying coughy bug that last flu was (it's been over two weeks and I'm still in the process of shaking it off), though it wasn't quite nasty enough to prevent me from going off to St. Paul's Cathedral a couple of Saturdays ago to catch the San Diego Master Chorale in a concert of church music.

The program was packed mostly with music by Vaughan Williams and other composers I'm not very familiar with (the exception being the text-setting of Barber's famous Adagio for strings, of course). They were taping the show and I did my best (if not all that successfully) not to cough too much. There was a consolation in that the gentleman in the row in front of me was having an even harder time at it. That Mr. Flu sure has been wreaking havoc around town!

The SDMC was joined by St. Paul's Cathedral Chorus, St. Cecilia Choir, and the Cathedral Choristers who thrilled the capacity audience with their exuberant singing in surround-sound (literally, since the choruses split and sang from opposite ends of the hall in many numbers. The brass players were also having a good time... It had been a long time since I last got to hear trumpets and trombones in a cathedral setting. They really sounded wonderful and made me half expect St. Paul and the archangels to burst through the high ceiling during the proceeding during the voluntaries!

Anyhow, the concert went very well and was dedicated to Harriet Peckenpaugh, a Master Chorale alto who passed away recently.

By the way, the SDMC is planning an ambitious and very Latino-friendly season ending concert called 'Amigos en Concierto' at Copley Hall in Downtown San Diego on June 19th. It is a collaboration between the SDMC, The Romero Duo, Mariachi Garibaldi, The San Diego Children's Choir and Tijuana Children's Choir, and will feature Enrique Toral (tenor) and Monica Abrego (soprano) as vocal soloists.

It was only 9:30PM when I walked out of the cathedral, so I decided to take a stroll through Balboa Park to get a night look at it before catching bus 7 home on the other side (won't have to take any connecting bus, then as I would have to from 5th Avenue). The place really is amazingly romantic and peaceful at night... There were a few migrants sleeping here and there, mind you, but they are probably more afraid of being harassed by the passerby than the other way around.

If you ever stop by to visit San Diego for a few days, you really have to jot Balboa Park down as one of the places to visit at night.