Chanáe Curtis as Alice Ford, Darren Lekeith Drone as Sir John Falstaff. All photos by David Allen.

Verdi admired Shakespeare.  “Macbeth” was among the composer’s great early works.  Four decades later, he would return to The Bard’s folio for his final two operas. Verdi’s penultimate opera, “Otello,” was perhaps his crowning achievement, with many cognoscenti arguing that the opera improves upon the play.  After toiling seven more years, the composer premiered “Falstaff,” based on the character introduced in Henry IV Parts 1 and 2 and fleshed out in “The Merry Wives of Windsor.”  For the librettos of both of these final operas, the composer turned to Arrigo Boito, who perhaps deserves as much credit as Verdi for the greatness of these works.

“Otello” abounds with darkness and tragic intrigue, while “Falstaff” offers spirited roguishness and light intrigue. This would be Verdi’s only attempt at comedy other than the failed early work “Un Giorno de Regno.”  Unlike “Otello,” which is rich with notable arias, “Falstaff” seems to eschew memorable tunes in its through-sung, largely conversational format.  Lacking set pieces that would appear on “Best Hits” albums, “Falstaff” instead treats the listener to endless anticipation and variety.  In its highly inventive score, Verdi’s lifetime of musical mastery comes through.  The mix of texture and rhythm are pronounced, especially in ensemble pieces.

(below) Marc Molomot as Bardolfo, Andrew Allan Hiers as Pistola, (above) Alexander Hernandez-Lopez as Page, Darren Lekeith Drone as Sir John Falstaff, Zhengyi Bai as Dr. Caius.

Frothy delights like “Falstaff” present particular challenges.  Comic timing, enthusiastic affect, and vocal versatility must be heightened.  Opera San José’s production excels in every dimension.  Performers sing with joy and act with charm.  All of the artistic elements strike the right note, resulting in a production that glitters.

As the focus of his comedy, Verdi set his sights on the larger-than-life character Sir John Falstaff.  Licentious and self-indulgent, he is one of literature’s notable comic characters.  He may be viewed as a chauvinist whose confidence to seduce women exceeds his desirability as a love interest, and he’s certainly willing to use whatever deception to entrap the opposite sex.  But his self-delusion will become apparent as his scheming leads to humiliation.  Indeed, Shakespeare and Verdi may be viewed as feminists in the context of this work as the women win the contests by outfoxing the conniving men.

In the central plot line, Falstaff sends love letters to two married women, Alice Ford and Meg Page.  Although he fancies himself an appealing lover, his motivation is financial – to blackmail the women after having assignations with them.  Unknown to the perpetrator, his quarries are friends, and learning of the deception, they are able to turn the tables on Falstaff.  In a secondary plot, Alice’s husband, John Ford, has arranged for their daughter Nannetta to marry the established and older Dr. Caius, but she loves the callow Fenton.  The story develops a little slowly, having incidents that introduce characters without adding to the central narratives. But the story picks up steam and is always aided by the energy of the music as well as the fine performances and production values of this offering.

(seated) Natalia Santaliz as Nannetta, Chanáe Curtis as Alice Ford, Megan Esther Grey as Mistress Quickly, (standing) Shanley Horvitz as Meg Page.

The lively music is punctuated by animated ensemble pieces including the complex a capella patter quartet by the women in which they vow revenge against Falstaff.  Another highlight is the double quartet plus one, in which the four men commit to foil the young lovers Fenton and Nannetta, while the women show support for them, and the lovers pledge their love above the cacophony of their elders.  These clever ensembles are sung with remarkable zest and skill.

The score also includes aria-length soliloquys.  Particularly touching is Ford’s wonderful reflection about his love for Alice.  As previously noted, Verdi does not yield to recurring melodic phrases which mark the beloved arias of his middle period.  While this may disappoint some, “Falstaff” is a masterpiece in its own right.

Opera San José’s casting is superb.  Of course, the sine qua non for success with this opera is a compelling title character, and Darren Lekeith Drone transcends requirements in every way.  His full baritone voice with warm vibrato suits the role well.  Moreover, he nails the portrayal with a full range of visual and vocal expression.  In his flouncy corpulence, Drone commands the stage, displaying pompousness and narcissism with everything from mugging to mock and genuine ire.  His exuberance and smiling visage make him sympathetic enough to ultimately allow forgiveness in the end for his bad behavior.


Falstaff’s nemesis, Alice Ford, provides a counterbalance.  Played brilliantly by Chanáe Curtis, Mistress Ford possesses enterprise and quick wit to defeat him.  Curtis exudes charm and a full range lyric soprano with considerable power in the mid and upper portions.  Every other cast member contributes well to the happy outcome.  It is a little unfair to mention one individual without mentioning them all, but Natalia Santaliz, with a sweet soprano voice, as the young lover Nannetta is a favorite.

Joseph Marcheso conducts the orchestra with complete authority.  The sound is always rich and bright and the pace is brisk. Marcheso navigates the dynamics and staccato elements with particular skill.  Director José Maria Condemi deserves special commendation for orchestrating the onstage chaos, with striking movement and positioning.  The laundry scene, in which the women have Falstaff hide in a clothes basket only to get dumped into the river is particularly raucous.  Steven C. Kemp’s scenic design also deserves a nod.  He uses a single and appropriate basic set in a reddish wood color that is built around the visual theme of wine kegs and openings framed by the head hoops of barrels. Additionally, kudos to Howard Tsvi Kaplan for costumes, Christina Martin for wigs and makeup, and David Lee Cuthbert for lighting.

Darren Lekeith Drone as Sir John Falstaff.

“Falstaff” stands as a great achievement in the exquisite catalog of Giuseppe Verdi as well as that of librettist Arrigo Boito.  It is a work that will satisfy the greatest opera afficionados yet is accessible to newcomers to the genre as a great comedy supported by exhilarating music.  Opera San José has shown again what an asset it is to the Bay Area’s cultural community.

“Falstaff” is composed by Giuseppe Verdi with libretto by Arrigo Boito, produced by Opera San José, and plays at California Theatre, 345 First Street, San Jose, CA through February 19, 2023.

Everest: An Immersive Experience (Opera)

Sasha Cooke as Jan Arnold, Hadleigh Adams as Doug Hansen, Nathan Granner as Rob Hall, Kevin Burdette as Beck Weathers. All photos by Stefan Cohen.

For all of human history and eons before, Mount Everest has stood as steady as a rock – literally.  In its eight years, the opera “Everest: An Immersive Experience” has had three very different realizations, even though under the baton of Nicole Paiement for each version.  The genesis of the opera’s narrative is a real-life tragedy about three members on an Everest expedition in 1996, two of whom never came back. 

“Everest” premiered in traditional stage form at Dallas Opera.  Then, motivated by the pandemic, it transmutated under Brian Steufenbiel’s direction into an immersive, animated opera film by Opera Parallèle for home viewing.  Extending the film’s structure, it now returns to performance before a live audience in an innovative form under the guidance of the same two creative artists and their company.  The result is a unique and gripping 70-minute operatic experience.

Rather than a traditional live performance, the soundtrack for this production is recorded.  The box-like, flat-floor theater provides scenic-surround, with motion-capture animation projections on all four walls.  Having the grainy, low-resolution, slow-moving look of images from a graphic novel, its illustrations are by Mark Simmons, projection design by David Murakami, and scenic design by Jacquelyn Scott.  Most of the important visuals project onto the forward sections of the venue’s wall, but scouring the full 360 degrees is certainly grounds for neck ache.

The full expedition.

Mountaineers confront many enemies – possibilities of illness, falling, storm, avalanche, and more.  One constant is the inevitability of the race against time.  The climbers are reaching the summit 30 minutes after safe turnaround time.  Visual portrayal of the passage of time on the screen in addition to the slow dimming of light on the projections constantly forewarns of the risks ahead and adds to the tension of the score and the visual account.

Expedition guide Rob Hall has left Beck Withers 2,000 feet below, as the latter is suffering high altitude blindness.  Hall struggles to help Doug Hansen on the final assault, passionately urging him, but Hansen weakens and is unable to keep up.  The portentous depiction of the repetitious entreaties and pulsing music leaves the viewer quavering.  Flashbacks, reflections by the climbers, and radio communications with loved ones, both fearful and mundane, add to the anxiety sensed by the audience.  In a series of “what if” circumstances, a combination of deadly factors befalls the climbing party.

Beck Withers’ dreams in vivid colors.

Although the storyline is accompanied by simple graphics, the severity of the consequences carry inherent drama, which is amplified by the thumping of the music and the urgency of the dialog.  Joby Talbot’s eerie music for “Everest” is appealing and effective.  In keeping with the geographic situation, grandness, howling, groaning, and ringing abound in the score, describing the vastness of the horizon, the wind, and obstacles to overcome.

While there are some brief soliloquies and duets, conversational mode dominates the libretto.  The instrumental music backing the lyrics emphasizes percussiveness, while the sung melody lines are largely tonal.  Gene Scheer’s crisp and often stressful lyrics provide tautness, especially as Hall tries to induce Hansen onward.  The libretto speaks both to the grandeur and threat of the environment as well as the intimacy of the human experience.  Among the many ominous and touching lyrics are “Is this how it ends?” and “How can you know when you’re starting to let go?”

The quality of the musical performances is nearly flawless, delivered by a system that produces rich, full, spatially-mapped sound.  It is outstanding recorded music, but it is not comparable to live opera.   The voices of Nathan Granner, Hadleigh Adams, Kevin Burdette, and Sasha Cooke are electronically enhanced and presumably re-recorded until everything is just right.  The chorus that represents the soul of the mountain sounds like 40 voices, but is four singers who are repeatedly overtaped.  Rather than a traditional orchestra, the orchestral sound comes from MIDI (musical instrument digital interface).

Nathan Granner as Rob Hall, Sasha Cooke as Jan Arnold.

The great appeal of this unusual entertainment raises a couple of broader questions.  First is whether immersive, electronic opera represents a form that surpasses novelty to become a significant niche, a Cirque de Soleil of opera.  Perhaps some other productions will follow “Everest,” but the answer to the question is probably not.  To be sustainable as a form requires an audience with interests at the intersection of immersive electronic performance and opera music.

Among its many attractions, live opera is compelling because of the thrill of hearing highly accomplished vocalists and instrumentalists operating without aids.  Another aspect is the sheer humanity of the living form on stage interacting with the audience, from the crowd’s gaiety in the Café Momus scene of “La Boheme” to the intimate death scene sequence in “Otello.”  Electronic entertainment certainly has its benefits, but the market for live opera will remain.

The psycho-social issue is why mountaineers risk death for exhilaration.  Is it to accomplish or to escape?  To conquer? To stroke one’s ego? Rob Hall notes that “This is where I want to be.” It’s the only place that he can find bliss, but what does that say about the rest of his life?  And in seeking that bliss, he endangers the future of his pregnant wife and children.  It may be the ultimate price to pay.

“Everest,” an opera composed by Joby Talbot with libretto by Gene Scheer, is produced by Opera Parallèle and plays at Z Space, 450 Florida Street, San Francisco, CA through February 12, 2023.

Paradise Blue

Anna Marie Sharpe as Pumpkin, Titus VanHook as Blue. All photos by Kevin Berne.

Post-World War II urban planning from New York City to San Francisco and many cities in between failed egregiously.  It supplanted ethnic neighborhoods, usually African-American, with sterile public housing that failed to improve living conditions, or with freeways that divided communities but rarely reduced traffic.  Though the previous housing stock often consisted of blighted tenements, they were neighborhoods that provided a sense of belonging and dignity to most residents.  Most of these areas were largely redeemable if granted the investment that went instead to rebuild from scratch.  But by political imposition, not only was the baby thrown out with the bathwater, but the replacement was more pernicious bathwater.

Against this backdrop, Dominique Morisseau has authored the final installment of her Detroit Trilogy.  Previously, she explored race riots and relationships in “Detroit ‘67” and the effect of economic decline in traditional industries on the Black working class in “Skeleton Crew.”

Kenny Scott as P-Sam, Michael J. Asberry as Corn.

With “Paradise Blue,” she looks at a Black neighborhood of Detroit called Black Bottom, so named for its soil and geography, not for the people who later settled it or for the dance.  The area housed a vibrant jazz quarter in a district called Paradise Valley.  In the late ‘50s, Black Bottom had been targeted for urban renewal – read, destruction.  Morisseau has written a sometimes funny but always tense noirish drama which Director Dawn Monique Williams plumbs for all its nuance.  The actors find the essence of each character and deliver a gripping entertainment.

The Paradise of the title refers to the name of the jazz club and boarding house where the action of the play takes place.  Blue refers to its second-generation owner, who leads a quartet that performs at the club.  He is considered a second-tier trumpet player compared to his late father.   And though Blue is not the primary character in terms of stage time, “Paradise Blue” is about him.  Fittingly, he treats everything in his orbit as being about him.  And despite the fact that the other characters live and work in close proximity and feel like family, Blue, who would be the titular head of household, stands apart.

Rolanda D. Bell as Silver, Michael J. Asberry as Corn.

Titus VanHook portrays Blue in an apt, chillingly cool manner.  Suave and sartorially smart, his empathetic detachment from those around him is almost complete.  He runs the quartet in his own manner and brooks no interference.  A triggering event that has put the other band members (pianist Corn played by Michael J. Asberry and percussionist P-Sam played by Kenny Scott) out of work is that Blue refuses to pay the bass player before gigs rather than after, despite the known consequences of his intransigence. 

Blue suffers the unsettling spirits of his parents in the four walls around him.  Selling the property for the renewal project would give him the money to escape and begin a new life elsewhere, but the question is whether the demons would follow.  As far as others in the community who would be displaced, he doesn’t seem to have any concern.

Titus VanHook as Blue, Rolanda D. Bell as Silver.

Like many dissociative types, Blue has room for only one person who he can share warm moments with, even if he can’t totally open up.  That person is Pumpkin, who is delightfully portrayed by Anna Marie Sharpe.  While Blue is a one-note character who has difficulty living in his own skin, the well-written character of modest Pumpkin is complex, yet she is highly content with the simplicity of her existence.  A one-woman boarding house cook, server, and cleaning crew, she is happy to serve others and perform simple tasks in a small sandbox.  Despite her mousy affect, she draws empowerment from the beauty and symbolism of the works of Harlem Renaissance poet Georgia Douglass Johnson.  And though Pumpkin blushes at foul language, she does appear to have a carnal relationship with Blue.

Into this already tempestuous situation walks trouble in the form of a traveling woman, Silver, who takes lodging at the Paradise.  Rumors about this black-widow, Louisiana woman swirl – 50 men in 50 cities, murdered her husband, practices voodoo.  What is true is that she’s an exceptionally strong woman, and her plans and actions could have some significant consequences in a short period of time.  As with Pumpkin, Morisseau endows this female with more breadth than the men in the show.  As Silver, a sassy and confident Rolanda D. Bell shows how women with conviction can hold their ground.

Anna Marie Sharpe as Pumpkin, Titus VanHook as Blue.

Although the context of “Paradise Blue” is a grand scale project, the playwright’s concerns are with the individuals whose lives will be buffeted by the larger scheme of things.  The intimacy of Aurora Theatre serves this play well.  There is some stage clutter having both the club venue and bedroom scenery on the stage throughout, but the closeness of the performers to the audience enhances the intensity of the fine drama.

“Paradise Blue” is written by Dominique Morisseau, produced by Aurora Theatre, and plays on its stage at 2081 Addison Street, Berkeley, CA through February 26, 2023.

Cashed Out

Rainbow Dickerson as Rocky. All photos by Vita Hewitt.

The government-mandated discrimination against and subjugation of minorities in the United States is legend.  Among the more egregious abuses have been those suffered by Native Americans, the country’s original denizens.  Under official aegis, they have suffered armed conflicts resulting in loss of life and lands; devastating dislocations; breaches of treaties; and attempts to eliminate their cultural heritage.

One official effort to rectify wrongs was the creation of Indian Reservations throughout the country, which has engendered mixed results.  Among the benefits to the tribes has been the authority to permit gambling on their lands, which has yielded financial benefits, but considerable social liabilities.  Addiction, especially alcohol-related, had long been a major affliction on “the res,” but casino society has exacerbated the plague.

Chingwe Padraig Sullivan as Levi, Rainbow Dickerson as Rocky.

“Cashed Out” takes place on the Gila River Reservation in southern Arizona, home to the Pima tribe, traditionally noted for their finely woven baskets – tightly twined bowls with crisp angular patterns.  The Camu family, whose women are noted as talented weavers, serve as the focal point.  While the compelling narrative gives interesting insights into the culture of the native people, universal themes abound – the power of love in family and friendship; internal struggle and external conflict; forgiveness and redemption.  The production is striking and highly appealing.

The central figure is Rocky Camu (Rainbow Dickerson), a bright and aspirational young woman.  Among the most talented weavers of her generation, she feels overshadowed by her deceased mother, Virginia (Lisa Ramirez), a legendary designer and artisan who views her creations as life forms.  Rocky wants to be somewhere other than the res, but despite going away for college, fortune brings her back.  However, unlike her working-class family, she would join the white-collar world, becoming an accountant working for the reservation.

Lisa Ramirez as Virginia.

Virginia’s downfall would be addiction to pain pills.  Rocky avoided the physical pitfalls of drugs and alcohol, but she would succumb instead to the psychological lure of gambling.  In Rocky, playwright Claude Jackson, Jr. has created a character who arouses mixed emotions.  In her early days, we laud her enthusiasm; her tender feeling for those near to her; and her quest to better herself.  Although we feel betrayed and reproachful as she makes unwise decisions, we wonder, does she suffer a disease for which we should sympathize, or does she bear full responsibility for her plight?  The playwright conveys in Rocky not just the desperation caused by gambling addiction, but also the loneliness and alienation.  

Rocky’s plight begs questions.  What makes a person believe that they can beat the odds, especially in a 100% chance proposition like slots or craps or roulette, where the long-term outcomes are highly predictable and always negative?  Why do people evaluate themselves and think that others will value them based on their hitting the jackpot?  Why do they shirk responsibility and sacrifice human interaction for the repetitive spin of the wheel?

Louisa Kizer as Maya, Matt Kizer as Buddy, Chingwe Padraig Sullivan as Levi, Sheila Tousey as Nan.

Women dominate the action of the story, displaying agency, leadership, and humanity.  One of the interesting aspects of “Cashed Out” is that the addicts are women.  In virtually all other artistic works about gambling, the gambler is a male, which may be true in high stakes games.  But the glazed eyes of slots players like Rocky usually belong to women.

Apart from the addiction issue, the narrative is full of well-developed collateral relationships.  Rocky’s drunkard father, Buddy (Matt Kizer), abandoned Virginia and has a new family, but he makes appearances in the latter period of the play.  Appropriately, he lives in Gallup, New Mexico, fondly known as “Drunk Town, USA.” Rocky has a complex, life-long friendship with Levi (Chingwe Patraig Sullivan) who rises to become Manager of Security in the casino.  She also has a daughter, Maya (Louisa Kizer – whose real father plays her grandfather), who faces the conflicts of growing up Native American on the reservation, and an aunt Nan (Sheila Tousey) who is a community leader and has takes on guardianship responsibilities when needed.

Louisa Kizer as Maya, Rainbow Dickerson as Rocky.

The portrayals of the two leads drive the production.  Rainbow Dickerson plays the complex role of Rocky.  With a quick smile and equally easy despair, her unquestionable charisma carries much of the show, though her performance is not fully consistent.  Sheila Tousey as the stoic and steady matriarch, Nan, is every bit Dickerson’s equal in easy emotional expression.  Tousey demonstrates noble command and great likeability in her character, though she did flub a few lines on opening night.  All of the characters in the play are distinctive, and most reveal complexities that generate a strong sense of realism.

Staging is another asset.  Designer Tanya Orellana takes advantage of San Francisco Playhouse’s revolving stage to offer two sets for scene shifts, and the stage walls are covered in a woven design to represent basketry.  Michael Oesch’s lighting offers contrasts and highlights, and Tara Moses directs with conviction.

Chingwe Padraig Sullivan as Levi, Sheila Tousey as Nan, Matt Kizer as Buddy.

The script does suffer a couple of weaknesses that were mentioned by multiple attendees.  One easily correctible is that time changes between scenes are often difficult to comprehend, which is exacerbated by flashbacks and imaginary sightings of Virginia.  Another is that the ending surprises with its suddenness.  It occurs without buildup, and there is a resolution of a character relationship that occurs without sufficient explanation.  In terms of performance, a number of lines were difficult to hear, particularly Maya’s.  Nonetheless, the play makes an important contribution by exploring Native American society.  Its topic matter and treatment are provoking and interesting.

“Cashed Out” is written by Claude Jackson, Jr., produced by San Francisco Playhouse, and appears on its stage at 450 Post Street, San Francisco, CA through February 25, 2023.