jcm’s Top 10 SF Performances of ’12

In the midst of the embarrassment of riches jcm partook in this year, above all, it was the year of the art song, “Hasa Diga Eebowa,” and contemporary american opera (and THIS without even having seen Moby Dick ;-(. This was particularly good news for art song and american opera, as it’s more the norm to bemoan their demise these days.

In capturing the highlights of the year, the performance and production were weighed most heavily, but in the case of new material, the script and score were of course considerations. Oh, and who can help some personal biases slipping in? Not jcm (ie: West Side Story = the greatest show ever written)! SO, here goes…

1) Sandrine Piau, (Susan Manoff, piano) CalPerfs, Hertz Hall

It was as if a gentle, gamine spirit had landed for just an hour or two, gracing us with her rare magic. She left us transfixed, susceptible to the whims of her potent storytelling. The program was studio-ready in its refinement and attention to detail, yet never bland or white-washed. She uses her lyric instrument to full advantage, painting a broad palette of tones and expressions. The very satisfying program featured french, german and english sets of Fauré, Bouchot, Chausson, Mendelssohn, Strauss and Britten, followed by a generous set of encores: “Voyage a Paris,” “Clair de lune,” and Strauss’s “Madchen Blumlein.”



Karina Gauvin,  (Michael McMahon, piano) Weill Hall at the Green Music Center

The Bay Area has been given a great gift in the form of the new Green Music Center. In structure it is reminiscent of the great Musikverein of Vienna. It is nearly all wood, which is visually rich, and acoustically perfect. In a word, intoxicating. This was the inaugural recital of the hall’s vocal series. They programmed very well, especially as Karina’s Bay Area appearances are rare. Highlights included: “Le Printemp” by Hahn, “Phylidé” and “L’Invitation au Voyage” by Duparc. For her encores, she performed Weill (ie: Weill Hall) and the Scottish “Ae Fond Kiss.” The latter was deeply satisfying. Her english diction is stunning, and her textual delivery particularly soulful. On a personal note, her sister and mother were in the audience, just a few rows in front of me. She shared that this was the rare performance they were able to attend, and dedicated a song to her sister. A special night indeed.


2) The Book of Mormon, National Tour, Curran Theatre

It takes you by the balls, and won’t let you go. I’ve rarely seen the kind of go-for-broke commitment from a cast as this. 21 year-old Grey Hensen, who played Moroni and Elder McKinley, as well as Jared Gertner as Elder Cunningham stole the show. I live for Gavin Creel, but oddly he seemed not to embody the role as much as to act it. Surely he’s settled into it by now, or will fully by its UK West End run. The first 20 minutes have to be the most perfectly crafted portion of almost any Broadway show I’ve seen LIVE. You know…those laughing-and-crying at the same time moments? The vocal power in the ensemble numbers was very impressive. Having an 8 year-old behind us in the audience made the profanity and vulgarity seem even more raucous and saucy.


3) Martin Sexton, The Fillmore

Martin had his audience wrapped around his finger. He has an almost cult-like fan base/following. It transcended the normal acoustic rock performance, as there was something spiritual…almost church-like about the show. Audience participation was frequent and welcomed. He works his falsetto in a particularly vulnerable and sensitive way. I’d liken him to a cross between Jack Black and Jeff Buckley.


4) Einstein on the Beach, CalPerfs at Zellerbach Hall

At times trying, at times transcendent, but never dull. I can’t imagine a finer performance. Surprisingly, Glass, Wilson, and Lucinda Childs were present at this third and final Berkeley performance, and enjoyed vociferous applause in the final bows. Their overseeing of this production is notable, in that it will likely never happen again. More than with any other piece on this list, the material and the performance ensemble were inseparable, as if they entirely emptied themselves to serve and illuminate the work. It’s perhaps no surprise that the two operas nearly always considered in the same breath as the finest contemporary american operas are 4 and 5 on this list. They’ve both been on my wish list for over a decade. What a fortunate year!


5) Nixon in China, SF Opera

The overture and accompanying staging effects were truly cinematic and thrilling in their stage-craftiness. The first image of Nixon was of his face peering intensely out from an airplane window…then he seemingly magically zoomed away into the surrounding clouds before a portion of the actual size airplane (below) appeared. Pat Nixon’s aria “This is Prophetic,” with the projected close-up of Maria Kanyova on the scrim behind was sincere and heartening. Her very warm-blooded, human performance was the highlight of the night for me. Plenty of camp and caricature ensued, particularly in the stream-of-conscious Act 3, balancing out the more dramatic, historic moments.


6) The Normal Heart, A.C.T.

This was a preview performance, so I’m leaving out any minor quips. The piece feels like, and IS a time capsule from the 80’s. And, that served as a sort of gift. It further enlightened me as to why some gay friends from that generation feel so much anger and rage at times. It really opened my eyes to their perspective, especially as I don’t easily identify as an “angry” person in a political sense. The very effecting set presented relevant, historic typographic messages embossed on a white surface. One of the most memorable moments was Emma Brookner’s (Jordan Baker) rant monologue…which was physically directed at the audience. What a ride that was.


7) I Capuletti e i Montecchi, SF Opera

It’s no Norma, but it’s STILL Bellini. This night belonged to the Romeo and Juliette. We were blessed with two stellar divas, who tore into the material. Nicole Cabell’s Juliette was no shrinking violet, or fragile ingenue. She portrayed her in a taut, often mad manner. Their duet scenes and the way in which they were staged were the highlights of the evening. I loved the ethereal, abstract set, which portrayed no specific place or time, and the reflective floor, which at times made them look at is they were floating in space. This encouraged you to see them as archetypes, more than as specific, singular characters. At times DiDonato pressed her voice, perhaps to show her character’s virility and swagger. But, it’s no secret she’s a star, and commanded the stage. Cabell’s portamento and sensuous phrasing slayed me.


8) Stern Grove Presents San Francisco Opera,
featuring Leah Crocetto and Michael Fabiano

Fabiano owned the day. The promise he showed in The Audition was delivered in spades here. I can’t help but thinking of a young Carreras when he performs. They have a similar passion and squillo. He is nothing if not Italianate. Crocetto was a wonderful partner to his successes here. The mics didn’t serve her bright-toned voice, as a resonant acoustic like the War Memorial does. Nadine Sierra’s “Ruhe Sanft” was perfection. I don’t know that I’ve heard a more beautiful rendition, even on recording. Other fresh Adlers added to the program.


9) High, Broadway Tour, Curran Theatre

Kathleen Turner’s star power alone made this a memorable night. The voice itself is legendary, and her conviction so forceful. Despite it flopping on Broadway, it proved an effective piece and worthy performance. Given the struggles of faith portrayed, and the role of Sister Jamison Connelly, I couldn’t help but make comparisons to Doubt, which is the finer script. The progression of the beautiful sponsee Cody’s addition was heart-wrenching.


10) West Side Story, Broadway Tour, the San Jose Center for the Performing Arts

Somehow this was my first experience seeing WSS live. I grew up on the soundtrack, and enjoyed the great pleasure of playing Diesel in a stage production at Broadway By the Bay, but had never seen it from the audience. It was emotionally overwhelming from the first notes of the overture. The production was very lovingly crafted. The dancing was full-out, and the Jets and Sharks were very virile in their movement. The Tony was excellent, and the Maria good enough. I do struggle with the more pop, contemporary Broadway vocal style, as compared to the most light classical style of the original in the 60’s, which I grew up on, but was very satisfied by this production.


Honorable Mentions:

Spunk, CalShakes: A captivating three-part story, including some emotionally devastating pantomime fight choreography between man and woman.

Becoming Britney, The Retro Dome: A rollicking, new musical by Daya Curley and Molly Bell.

Bride of Death, from Thrillpeddler’s Shocktoberfest, Hypnodrome: A melodramatic mystery/horror. This romp, written by Michael Phillis and Flynn DeMarco was loads of zany fun.

Bluebeard’s Castle, SF Symphony: A rare glimpse of this haunting Hungarian opera.

Attila, SF Opera: There is nary a treat like early Verdi.

Performance A-“Broad”:

DragStars Caribbean Cruise: 3 Shows
Highlights: Stacey Layne Matthews impromptu LIVE “Diamonds in the Sky”, Mimi Imfurst’s epic “And I’m Telling You I’m Not Going” mash-up, Morgan McMichael’s Pink medley, Jiggly Caliente’s Missy Elliott/Gangnam Style mash-up, and Manila Luzon’s To Wong Fu “Last Dance” break-down/tribute.

Young talents to watch:

Jacqueline Piccolino as Arminda, La Finta Giardiniera, Merola Program:
a very impressive, emerging spinto soprano

Allegra Rose Edwards as Paris Hilton, Project Lohan, A.C.T.

Michael Phillis as Timothy Truman, Bride of Death, Thrillpeddler’s Shocktoberfest

Adam Theodore Barry as Man 1, Becoming Britney, The Retro Dome

Most bitter, racist, scandalous, funniest gal on stage:

Jackie Beat, Come They Told Him, Rebel: Very few comics can get away with the risks Jackie takes, but the pay-off is great. She’s hysterical.

Please enjoy jcm’s past Top Ten lists here: 2011, 2010, 2009
AND, do share your favorites of 2012, especially if there were any glaring omissions!

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