jcm’s Top 10 SF Performances of ’11

It’s time for my third annual Top 10 round-up. These don’t attempt to be comprehensive reviews…but rather an Amuse-bouche of the most stellar performances I witnessed by the Bay, in ’11. How in the world can I compare a Pop Star to a Handel opera, you ask? Well…I warm up the jcm-ulator, and out come the tabulated results. It doesn’t lie. I seem to be trending towards opera, with musicals taking a back seat. Why? They sing louder, higher and without mics?

1) RING Cycle, SF Opera  details

With the carefully crafted characterizations of a stage play, this Cycle was a well-deserved hit and had the city abuzz with Wagner. Nina Stemme’s Brünnhilde was an utter triumph, equal parts true Wagnerian and singing actress. Stunning SFO leading role debuts were offered by Heidi Melton as Sieglinde, and Daveda Karanas as Waltraute. There wasn’t a weak link in the cast. Francesca Zambello’s concept was fortunately not too heavy-handed, largely staying out of the way of the story and score…more often informing it, and only periodically misstepping. I found the Industrial Revolution concepts throughout Das Rheingold to be the most iconic and potent. However, the mythic Die Walküre was the emotional highpoint, featuring the burnished, virile tenor of Brandon Jovanovich’s Siegmund. Siegfried was also surprisingly engaging. I had the good fortune of serving as Super Captain and Supernumerary in Walküre and Götterdämmerung.

2) Stacey Kent, Venetian Room, Fairmont Hotel  details

I fell in love with her voice three years ago. After stalking her tour schedule for a Bay Area performance, I got to experience her art live at last. She’s a real pixie…a gentle spirit, with a frail flutter to her vibrato. She completely transported me and her audience, casting a convincing spell. Her palpable, loving connection to her band leader, sax player and husband Jim Tomlinson added to the glow. She embodied “less is more,” drawing us in, rather than overworking her numbers in a too extroverted manner. Her set included lots of brazilian and french songs unfamiliar to me, some off her just released album. Come back soon Stacey!

3) Turandot, SF Opera  details

This was my fifth time seeing this David Hockney production. It’s one of my most beloved productions in my over 25 years of operagoing. The fantastical high-key colors and abstract, graphic shapes appeal directly to my sensibilities. Irene Theorin was the most feminine and visually beautiful Turandot I’ve encountered, but still with the cojones to deliver the amplitude modern audiences have grown to expect in this role. Leah Crocetto’s debut as Liù was a real break-out star turn…vulnerable, loving, and with the perfect emerging spinto for this role. The orchestra and chorus really furthered the story with their committed contributions. A most engaging Ping/Pang/Pong trio, and Ray Aceto, the sexiest (daddy) Timur in memory proved this production is still very much alive.

4) Janice Siegel, The Rrazz Room  details

I discovered Janis, of Manhattan Transfer fame in the late 80’s. Through her recordings, I’ve always felt as if she has spoken directly to me. Her “Short Stories” album with Fred Hersch is one of the most perfect contemporary jazz/cabaret albums. Thanks to the generosity of a theatre colleague, we had front row seats, and sat close enough to get her shout-out to The Cockettes (since we are honorary members). Her set list was practically my own wish list, but with enough songs new to me to keep it fresh. Few singers portray such an effortless singing-as-if-talking delivery, which feels completely authentic, and as natural as story-telling. She also has a spicy, candid NY sense of humor. Highlights included: “Where is love?,” “You’re My Everything,” and “Two Fisted Love.”

5) Jonas Kaufmann, Zellerbach Auditorium, CalPerfs  details

Unfortunately, it appears the Bay Area will have to continue to wait years to see this extraordinary tenor du jour on the stage of the SF Opera. But, at least we got a satisfying dose of him in this recital, with Helmut Deutsch at the piano. Not for a very long time has a tenor come along that has provided the unalloyed pleasure he does, having all the squillo, intensity, and dashing looks of a romantic lead and legendary tenor in-the-making. Although he is his own artist, I’ve always likened him to a Vickers/Wunderlich hybrid (my two VERY favorite tenors). He did not provide as much breadth in the emotional scope of his interpretations, or variation in his tonal palette as someone of Vickers’ stature, BUT what he gave was beautiful and expressive. His tender, high piannissimi are so rare in such a dramatic voice. The program included Schumann’s Dicterliebe, and Strauss songs.

6) Janet Jackson #1’s, Bill Graham Civic Auditorium  video

Thanks to my participation in the BAFM’s “Rhythm Nation,” my interest in Miz Jackson’s tour was piqued. In fact, we performed our FlashMob out front twice beforehand, to much fanfare. The concert was a very satisfying look back at her career. I couldn’t call up a single classic she didn’t do. It was like an emotional romp through my teens and 20’s. We had a ball dancing at our seats, and squeezing out as much Janet choreo as room would allow. Her intimate, new arrangements of some songs kept the surprises coming. A musical/video tribute to Michael was quite moving.

7) Xerxes, SF Opera  details

This Nicolas Hytner production doesn’t belie its years (1985). It’s an unfailingly clever, stylish and nuanced production (those British!). All of the daring decisions enhanced this somewhat confectionary opera. The Supers played a HUGE role in setting the stylized tone of this production. As choreographer Larry Pech told them, each movement should have an almost spiritual intentionality. And, they succeeded! The cast was a who’s-who of early music. The debut of Lisette Oropesa was very promising. I look forward to seeing more from her. Her voice has a complex texture which is rare for lyric sopranos these days (offering shades of Streich’s fragility).

8) Clybourne Park (play), American Conservatory Theatre  details

The poignant mirroring of two generation’s racism was almost embarrassingly real at times. It reminded me that subtle racism can be just as or even more harmful than more overt forms. It left me looking at myself wondering what shards of it dwell in me. The cast performed roles in both generations, so it was fascinating to see an actor try on two very different characters. Red-headed Emily Kitchens was the most strikingly real in both acts. Her deaf speech impediment as Betsy was so spot on, I thought she must be a deaf actress, until she spoke without it in the second act. Betsy was so endearing, never for a moment did she feel a caricature or mockery…a very difficult balance to strike with such a role. Kitchens mused on the challenges here.

9) Nadine Sierra, Salon at the Rex, Hotel Rex (SF Perfs)  details

Hers is arguably one of the great lyric soprano voices of the new generation. There is such an ease to her production. I experienced her natural technique months before in Heart of a Soldier, in which she broke hearts as a barefoot, letter-writing wife, but I had fallen for her much earlier via YouTube. She’s been the belle of the ball at many recent vocal competitions, and for good reason. Highlights wereA Sleeping Bee,” an old Arlen/Garland standard, that was a great discovery for me. My tears flowed freely, thanks to her innocent air, the easy spin of her vocal production, and song choice (and truth be told, my recent break-up). Kudos to her mother for making her practice for at least an hour a day, as she shared. Her song introductions were a bit unfocused and less informing than I would have liked, but she IS only 23. Pianist Tamara Sanikidze added some knee-slapping color to the dialogue. One wasn’t surprised that Tamara and Jackie Horne were friends.

10) Maroon 5 (+ Cheryl Crow & Daughtry), Genentech Gives Back, AT&T Park  videos

Thanks to a friend’s invitation, I tagged along for this annual Genentech concert at AT&T Park. The artists weren’t pre-announced, but there were plenty of rumors. I had joked that it might be such casino-performing has-beens as Sha-Na-Na and The Temptations. But, NO…we got a legit concert. Perhaps I’m wooed by Adam Levine’s bell-like tenor…or his toned physique…or his tattoos…or his moves like Jagger? He is even better in concert than on recordings. A true, charismatic pop-rock star. He gave A LOT on that stage. Cheryl Crow was excellent, not bothering with many/any new ditties, but satisfying with old, crowd favorites. Daughtry was a fine opener.

Honorable Mentions:
Tales of the City, ACT (the “Mouse” of Wesley Taylor was a stand-out)
Mozart’s Requiem, 9/11 Opera in the Park, SFOO & SFOC
Madeleine PeyrouxPalace of Fine Arts
Drowsy Chaperone, Diablo Theatre Company
Assassins, Ray of Light Theatre

Notable Individual Performances (not above):
Christine Goerke as Elektra, Teatro Real, Madrid
      (a career defining assumption, my sole intl. inclusion)
Anita Rachvelishvilli as Carmen, SF Opera
Ji Young Yang
german recital
, The Music Salon at Salle Pianos, Lieder Alive!

Most Overrated: Rock of Ages Tour, Curran Theatre

Most Improved: SFGMC, Home for the Holidays, Masonic Auditorium

What were you favorites of the year? Did I miss any notables? Next year I’ll hope to have some dance on my list again! Enjoy my past lists here: ’10 Top Ten, ’09 Top Ten.

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