Monthly Archives: February 2015

50 arias you’ll love


… Or at least that’s what my friend Grace is promising me. I’d asked her for a list of favorite arias, you see, because I am illiterate when it comes to operas and arias. It’s odd that I’m not an opera person. I’ve always loved classical music, and revel in the luxury of attending performances at the symphony, the ballet. I’ve sung in choirs since my youth, and one of the best things about going to Mass, sporadically as I do, is the singing. But for whatever reason, sitting and watching opera leaves me feeling very restless.

But I can still appreciate a beautiful melody. And every now and then, I hit upon an aria that steals my breath and my heart, it’s so beautiful. I have my own little top 5 list. I’m going to bet that you are familiar with most of these, too. I discovered them through movies and commercials and other lowbrow forms of entertainment. Hey, what can I say? I embrace my lowbrow side, too. Where would the world be without Taco Bell, Budweiser beer, and opera in TV commercials? To hell In a hand basket, my friend.


Here’s my list (note: the last two aren’t operas, really, so they only count for half a point each)

  1. Catalani: La Wally – Ne Andrò Lontano (
  2. Puccini: Gianni Schicchi – O Mio Babbino Caro (featured in the opening credits of Room With a View and I’ve talked about this one before here:
  3. Bellini: Norma – Casta Diva
  4. Puccini: Turandot – Nessun Dorma (*See below)
  5. Offenbach: Les Contes d’Hoffmann – Barcarolle (featured in the movie Life is Beautiful)
  6. Grieg: Peer Gynt – Solveig’s Cradle Song. This one’s so exquisite, you have to hear it.

(Here’s the link in case my embeds are malfunctioning.

But back to my friend, Grace. When, six months ago, she brought up how much she’d enjoyed seeing Bellini’s Norma, multiple times now, I’d mentioned my opera illiteracy. Knowing she was much better educated than I in opera, I asked for her advice. “Ooh, let me compile a list for you,” she told me. “I’ll whittle it down to my favorites.”

Well. The list was 50 favorites (which I’m going to call “arias” in this post to keep it simple but really there are quartets, too, and choruses, and such, but you’re okay with that, right? Good).

Lucky me: Grace burned me three CDs to accompany her list. My habit is to listen to one CD over and over, getting a feel for which one speaks to me. You know how it is: sometimes you’ll have an instant favorite on the first listen. Some take several listens. Sometimes, by the 10th listen, you’ve grown tired of your initial favorite, and you’ve been drawn in, utterly beguiled, by one that you didn’t even register during the first few listens.

Here’s what was on the first CD. Are any of these your favorites?

  1. Beethoven       Fidelio             Chorus of the Prisoners
  2. Beethoven       Fidelio             Mit ist so wunderbar
  3. Bellini              Norma             Oh! Di Qual Sei Tu Vittima
  4. Bellini              Norma             Oh! Qual Traspare Orrible
  5. Bellini              Norma             Mira, O Norma
  6. Bellini              Norma             Si, Fino All’ore Estreme
  7. Bellini              Norma             In Mia Man Alfin Tu Sei
  8. Von Weber      Der Freischutz Und ob die Wolke sie verhülle
  9. Gounod           Romeo et Juliet Ah! j…
  10. Donizetti         Lucia Di Lammermoor
  11. Donizetti         Lucia Di Lammermoor
  12. Donizetti         Lucia Di Lammermoor
  13. Verdi               Rigoletto         Gaultier Malde’ Caro Nome
  14. Verdi               Rigoletto         E il sol dell’ anima
  15. Verdi               La Traviata      E Strano! E Str
  16. Verdi               La Traviata      Sempre Libera
  17. Gounod           Faust               Salut! Dem

Among three or four rising favorites at this point, here’s the hands’ down winner: Carl Maria Von Weber’s Der Freischutz. “Und ob die Wolke sie verhülle” is performed here by Anna Tomowa-Sintow:

Here’s Grace’s second CD list

  1.  Gounod           Faust               Ballet Music
  2. Mozart               Cosi Fan Tutte            Soave sia il vento
  3. Mozart               Magic Flute     Chorus of Priests
  4. Mozart              Magic Flute     Der Vogelfanger bin …
  5. Mozart               Magic Flute     Dies Bildness is bezaubernd
  6. Mozart              Magic Flute     O Isis un Osiris
  7. Nicolai             Merry Wives of Windsor
  8. Puccini             La Boheme      O Soave Fa…
  9. Puccini              Turandot         Nessun Dorma
  10. Puccini              Gianni Schicchi O Mio babbino caro
  11. Puccini                La Boheme      Chegelida manina
  12. Rossini            Barber of Seville          Ecoo, ridente in cielo
  13. Rossini            Barber of Sevillw        Una voco poco fa
  14. Verdi               Rigoletto                     La Donna E Mobile
  15. Verdi               Rigoletto                     Bellla Figlia Dell’amore
  16. Verdi               Il Trovatore     D’ amor sulla ali rosee
  17. Bellini              Norma             Casta Diva

* Pause for a commercial break, and that’s great, because that’s precisely what it is: a commercial. For beer. But oh, what a splendid commercial, using Bellini’s Nessun Dorma from my Top 5 list. It’s not just funny to watch, but to listen to, because they’ve changed the words. You’ve GOT to watch this. Kudos to Carleton Draught [beer] for an absolutely brilliant commercial.

And here’s the third of Grace’s list, which brings us to the aforementioned 50 arias we’ll love. Thank you, Grace!

  1. Bellini              I Puritani         O Rendeterni La (JS)
  2. Bellini              La Sonnambula            Ah! Se U
  3. Bellini              La Sonnambula            Ah! Non Credo mirati
  4. Bellini              La Sonnambula            Ah! Non giunge
  5. Bellini              I Puritani         O Rendetemi La          (AN)
  6. Bellini              I Puritani         Vien, Diletto, E
  7. Wagner            Flying Dutchman        Spinning Chorus
  8. Wagner            Die Meistersinger
  9. Wagner            Tannhauser     Entry of guests
  10. Wagner            Tannhauser     Pilgrim’s chorus
  11. Wagner            Lohengrin        Bridal chorus
  12. Wagner            Lohengrin        Procession
  13. Wagner            Parsifal            Grail chorus
  14. Von Weber       Der Freischutz            Huntsmen’s chorus
  15. Mozart               The Magic Flute Bei Mannern, welche

Enticing Diablo Ballet


I’ll say this: Diablo Ballet knows how to entice. And their enthusiasm is infectious. As I parked my car and headed toward Walnut Creek’s Del Valle Theatre last Saturday afternoon, I couldn’t help but enjoy the cheerful anticipation of others descending from their own cars, walking briskly toward the entrance, decked out in various levels of dress up (etiquette: wear whatever makes you feel happy). No, this isn’t the San Francisco Ballet, nor San Francisco’s War Memorial Opera House. It’s not Walnut Creek’s svelte Lesher Center for the Arts. But Diablo Ballet continues to find something that works, and works well, in their 21st season and their “Enticing Beauty” program.

The program commenced with a pas de deux from Christopher Wheeldon’s dreamy Sea Pictures, staged by Joanna Berman and set to music by Edward Elgar. I felt that momentary jolt, that occurs in a new venue when you realize just how close (or not) the dancers are to the audience, and your ears, as well, must adjust to the recorded music levels (maybe too loud?). But Tetyana Martyanova and Justin VanWeest offered a solid performance of this tender pas de deux, one that explores love and imminent departure, to gorgeous music. Martyanova is a lovely dancer, graceful in her sea-green leotard and skirt (costume design by Holly Hynes). Jack Carpenter’s stage lighting, too, with its marine hues, served the mood well.


A pas de deux from Balanchine’s 1962 Harlequinade was next on the program. Balanchine created this as a revival of sorts to Marius Petipa’s own Millions d’Arlequin, in the commedia dell’arte style. While visually a light-hearted, playful piece, it’s a difficult pas de deux in that it’s easy for “playful” to degenerate to sloppy, or camp. The female, especially, must have razor sharp elegance and strong technique supporting the playfulness. Dancers Roselyn Ramirez and Derek Sakakura proved up to the task. The partnered pas de chat lifts, with Ramirez’ feet tucked up perfectly were very cat-like and satisfying to watch. A minor slip-up into a partnered step was deftly covered with unfaltering smiles. The female solo — a real workout, it should be noted — was finely executed, with a strong, clean piqué-and-pirouette-turn passage. Sakakura’s solo was also satisfying, if not “wow” – blame it on the black face mask that is part of the costume and steals, somehow, from the full effect, as did his costume’s gauzy balloon sleeves. Roy Bogas at the piano provided excellent live musical accompaniment, although placement of the piano at a less obtrusive angle to the audience might have brought a better aesthetic sense.

Rosslyn Ramirez, Reflexiones. Photographer: Bérenger Zyla

More successful melding of music and dancer came when Ramirez returned later in Reflexiones, a solo dance, accompanied by classical guitarist Gabriel Navia. A delight to watch and hear, with Navia’s playing giving the piece a spicy infusion. Choreographed by Sean Kelly, the piece was inspired by reflections on Venezuela. Dimmer lighting suited the piece well, and Ramirez’ costume whirled around her like a diaphanous scarf as she leapt, spun, ever moving, to the strains of Isaac Albéniz’ “Asturias” (also called, and recognizable, as “Leyenda”).

I liked hearing backstory on the program’s third piece, cares you know not, for this, my second viewing of the ballet. I learned the title phrase comes from a lullaby that Robert Dekkers, choreographer-in-residence for Diablo Ballet, remembered as a child. The long, dun-colored jersey fabric that covers the dancers in the opener, stretching like a giant worm across the stage, suggests a well-loved blanket from childhood. I liked, as well, the implication beyond the title, of the ominous: maybe you don’t want to know about the things of which you are blissfully unaware. This helped me find more meaning in composer Samuel Carl Adams’ eerie, often discordant music. (The little girl behind me kept asking, “Daddy, why is it making those sounds?”) Tetyana Martyanova and Justin VanWeest, in their second run of the night, here became exceptional, finding the art and beauty within the movement that lent the piece the softness it needed. Amanda Farris, new to the company this season, made a great third member of the trio as the three of them stretched, separated, came together, retreated, via rolls and lifts, all in a dreamy, languorous state, aided by the undulations of the dun jersey/blanket.

cares you know not - Photographer: Bilha Sperling

cares you know not – Photographer: Bilha Sperling

Sonya Delwaide’s world premiere of Sérénade pour Cordes et Corps closed the program, a highly enjoyable melding of contemporary and classical. It featured a live string trio (Janet Witharm, cello; Philip Santos,violin; Katrina Wreedie, viola) performing Ernö Dohnányi’s “Serenade in C major for String Trio.” The trio of dancers in the first movement came onstage side by side with the musicians, an adorable, innovative opener, particularly when you realize the title of the ballet translates into English as “Serenade for Strings and Bodies.” The music sounded great and the dancing was pure pleasure to watch, enough contemporary for those who like that sort of thing, enough classical for those of us who lean that way. The end result: clean classical lines within contemporary twists and intertwinings. Robert Dekkers, a senior company member, is always a powerhouse with his energy, impeccable technique and 500 watt smile, and here was no exception. Derek Sakakura, too, delivered a strong performance (no mask!). The trio of new company members, Amanda Farris, Christian Squires (formerly Smuin Ballet) and Ludmilà Campos, blended seamlessly, strong in both ensemble work and individuality. Ludmilà Campos is a gorgeous classicist with strong, pliant feet and enviable extensions. Having previously danced with San Francisco Ballet, Royal Ballet of Flanders and Hong Kong Ballet, she’s an appealing addition to Diablo Ballet’s roster of dancers.


A “meet the artists” talk and Q&A followed immediately after the program. It was interesting to observe how almost all the patrons remained in their seat to listen. I’m reminded that these are people who genuinely care about Diablo Ballet and the dance they are watching. A good number of people had brought children, too, which is always a gratifying sight to see. A Diablo Ballet performance really does provide an ideal setup for exposing your kids to the arts. The dance and music engage, the venue feels enough like a “real” theater experience, the program is short, at one hour (plus twenty-five minutes for the talk afterward). And you get the kids to come with the lure of “free cake” afterwards. A win-win situation. Like I said: trust Diablo Ballet to entice. And with “Enticing Beauty,” they’ve created another winning program.


Diablo Ballet will be celebrating its 21st Anniversary with a celebration performance on Thursday, March 26th at the Lesher Center for the Arts in Walnut Creek.  The performance will be followed by a Gala dinner with the dancers at Scott’s Garden, walking distance from the Lesher Center. Or check out their return to the Del Valle Theatre when the season concludes with “Celebrated Masters,” May 8th and 9th.

Lambarena versus Lambaréné

San Francisco Ballet dancers in Caniparoli's "Lambarena"
San Francisco Ballet dancers in Caniparoli’s “Lambarena”

I never thought I’d get the chance to mention San Francisco Ballet and my two-year African experience in the same breath, much less blog about it, but here we are. Tuesday night I attended San Francisco Ballet’s 2015 season opener, a program that featuring Serenade, RAkU and Lambarena. Balanchine’s Serenade has been praised, reviewed, analyzed, waxed lyrically over since its premier in 1935, so I’ll say no more. RAkU, choreographed in 2011 by Yuri Possokhov, I loved, even more than I’d expected to. For Val Caniparoli’s 1995 Lambarena, it was the reverse. Not that it was bad in any way, mind you. It was great: spirited, joyful, beautifully choreographed, impressively performed. It’s just that it felt Caribbean, Brazilian, when I wanted more Africa, more Lambaréné. Can you blame me? I lived there.

Jungle (1 of 1)

My friend Missy, accompanying me Tuesday night, loved Lambarena. Most people do. The music is a fusion of Bach and African traditional music (arranged by Pierre Akendengue and Hughes de Courson) and the choreography is accessible: classical with African movements incorporated (with consultation by African dance experts Zakariya Sao Diouf and Naomi Gedo Washington). Here’s an excerpt.

Now, Lambaréné, as in the Gabonese city. Oh, to capture what was so powerful to witness, living there in my early twenties. They didn’t have ballet classes, even in Libreville, the capital city, cosmopolitan and French-oriented as it was. To the Gabonese, the term ballet meant a performance, a play with music and dance. There was no studio for me to go to and pay to dance. Dance was outdoors, and free.

You danced at friends’ houses; you danced at outdoor gatherings. You danced in church, you danced in bars, you danced any time someone put on the right music. Dancer that I was, I still couldn’t move like the Gabonese. Something in me was too rigid and had to break down, not just physically but psychologically. Call it a ballet dancer genetic defect. The Gabonese moved with a freedom within their bodies I couldn’t even imagine. Relaxed energy flowed from all parts of their body: the legs, the torso, the arms. Sometimes the movement would be so small, just this gentle, rhythmic shifting from one foot to another. And, like most white people, I couldn’t duplicate it.


There seemed to be a different on/off mentality, to boot. For me, dance was like a light switch. Like jumping into a swimming pool versus standing on the side. No middle ground. That wasn’t the case with Africans. An innate flexibility in the hips (when you see toddlers learning to dance in tandem with learning to walk, you understand the source of this intuitive movement) allowed them to have a more fluid stance. A micro-bend in the knees contributed too. Once I caught on to these two un-ballet-like adjustments, practicing them over and over, I learned to find that middle ground, at least as much as my white-girl, ballet dancer’s body was going to find.

On YouTube I found a music video that’s the perfect example of African dance found in everyday life, even (especially?) amid an argument. Wow, a different kind of pas de deux. A fun fact: the singer, Patience Dabney, was once First Lady of Gabon, married for thirty years to [former] president Omar Bongo, before taking on a new persona as a professional singer and performer. She rocks. Here’s the flavor of Africa, of Gabon, that I’d been seeking. Ahh….

Back to Lambarena. Here’s what I had to say in my Bachtrack review of the night’s performance: A shout-out to the dancers I found to be especially good in the ballet: Lorena Feijoo, Kimberly Braylock, Ellen Rose Hummel (the three dancers featured in the above photo), Daniel Deivison-Oliveira and Joseph Walsh (a new principal this season, coming from Houston Ballet). Really nice job, all of you, as well as the dancers I didn’t mention.

And RAkU, which left such a powerful impression on me. The set, costumes, gorgeous music composed by Shinji Eshima (a longtime musician with the San Francisco Ballet Orchestra), the whole phenomenal cast. Great job, Gaetano Amico, Steven Morse, Sean Orza, Myles Thatcher as the four warriors who opened the ballet with such power and energy. Yuan Yuan Tan, as the princess, Carlos Quenedit as the prince, Pascal Molat as the psychopathic monk intent on destroying both the temple and the princess. What a riveting performance by all of you. What a ballet. What a great night of great dance.

Carlos Quenedit and Yuan Yuan Tan in Possokhov's RAkU

Carlos Quenedit and Yuan Yuan Tan in Possokhov’s RAkU


PS: A humorous aside. Spell Check kept insisting that, instead of Lambarena, I surely wanted lamb arena. Since then, I’ve been visualizing lambs in an arena. It makes me smile.

PPS: The Backtrack review covers both Serenade and RAkU more extensively, so give it a peek if you’d like to learn more.