Reviewed by Ed Cloos
As seen March 19
Intense, masterly performances by its two leads held a Pensacola Opera audience totally in its dramatic spell on a beautiful Florida afternoon March 19.
Here’s a rundown, in the order in which I saw them on a very hot weekend in August...
Reviewed by Ed Cloos
Seen April 30 - May 2, 2016
Britten's Serenade for Tenor, Horns and Strings
Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra
Glimmerglass Festival 2015, postscript
Candide Lead in Britten Solo Role
Reviewed by Ed Cloos
Seen October 3, 2015
Having seen Andrew Stenson in the lead male role in the comedic Candide as part of the Glimmerglass Festival 40th season, I was glad of the chance to see him in an entirely different setting a few weeks later with the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra since he had been cited by Opera News in a cover photo and article on “25 Rising Stars.”
It was a fascinating experience. The work was Benjamin Britten’s Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings which is not often played and which I had never heard. It is a setting of six poems from the 15th through the 19th centuries dealing with the subject of evening; evening in the sense of dying of the day, and, subtly, with dying itself.
Stenson displayed an assured purity of tone as he worked through some difficult passages. It was quite beautiful. My last-minute seat was too close to the stage to tell if he filled Kodak Hall of the Eastman Theater which is about three times the size of Glimmerglass’ Alice Busch Theater. That might have been a question since he doesn’t have a really powerful instrument.
The work, written in 1943 while Britten was composing Peter Grimes, and reaching the full flowering of his powers, is complex and testing. It was written for two artists very close to Britten. The horn part, for French horn with natural harmonics (that is not using the keys), resulted in some notes that sound “wrong”. But the effect is beautiful. It was written with the help of the legendary horn virtuoso Dennis Brain for whom Britten wrote increasingly complex parts while writing music to go along with World War II radio reports in his native England. For the Rochester performance, RPO horn first chair Peter Kurau ably handled Britten’s demands.
The tenor part was written for Peter Pears, Britten’s lifelong companion, who first performed it and recorded it several times.
Others included in the Opera News list, who I’ve enjoyed in recent years at Glimmerglass, included Ryan McKinney, (as The Flying Dutchman and as the male lead in Carousel) and Nadine Sierra who teamed with Anthony Roth Costanzo in Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater, which for me was the highlight of the 2013 season.
Washington National Opera
at Kennedy Center
Reviewed by Verna Kerans
Runs Sep 19 thru Oct 3, 2015
The opera Carmen by Georges Bizet is my favorite opera. The music is outstanding and emotionally moving. You will recognize the music as soon as you hear it. I always tell people this is good opera with which to introduce young people to the genre.
Playing It Straight for 40th Season; Candide, Macbeth, Magic Flute, and a Baroque Masterpiece
Reviewed by Ed Cloos
Seen August 14-16
Glimmerglass Festival celebrated its 40th season by doing something unusual in today’s opera scene: they played it straight. The result was beautiful music, beautifully sung, with no distracting attempts at novelty.
Glimmerglass, like all regional and festival opera companies, gives bountiful opportunity to young artists with just the right mix of established stars and singers recognized as rising stars.
The biggest hits with audiences were Leonard Bernstein’s Candide, with lyrics by a number of writers, pulled together by the poetry of Richard Wilbur, and Verdi’s Macbeth, based quite closely on Shakespeare’s play and inspired by actual history. So I’ll start with those...
Click here to read the full review.
Opera Theatre of Saint Louis
The Barber of Seville
Loretto-Hilton at Webster University
Reviewed by Isabelle Heidbreder
As Seen Opening Night, May 23, 2015
The Barber of Seville at Opera Saint Louis? Popular for sure… a full house on opening night and certainly not my grandfather’s Figaro!
If the devoted opera lover was disappointed and angered… Rossini’s music was interrupted by policemen knocking and stomping, roosters crowing, guitar strumming and blender whirring, and Sterbini’s original libretto (in Italian) translated… the fun-loving opera-goer was delighted and surprised. The production was fresh, full of zany twists and turns. Beaumarchais would have approved: in this production, Figaro is a true master of ceremonies, a puppetmaster of sorts who eventually pulls all the strings in the true tradition of the Commedia Del Arte’s Harlequin.
The omnipresent eye, cleaved in two by scissors, tells the story from its onset: optometrist Dr. Bartolo will be hood-winked, figuratively blinded, by the Barber of Seville. Figaro, true to the iconic Fitzgerald’s all-seeing eye (also an optometrist’s sign), wears eyes on his coat, so he sees all, hears all, and speaks (and sings) volumes. The rooster, even more prominent, while a reminder that the play takes place during Feria de Abril, the traditional livestock fair in Seville, is the strutting, macho, promiscuous farmyard animal we know and love and to which most characters in the play can relate.
The voices? Emily Fons (Rosina), Dale Travis (Dr. Bartolo), Jeongcheol Cha (Don Basilio), and Eliza Johnson (Berta) were simply amazing. Jonathan Beyer (Figaro) and Christopher Tiesi (Count Almaviva), a touch weak in the opening act, certainly hit stride in the second.
During the overture, Saint Louis native Ryan McAdams’ orchestral conducting was so energy-laden and animated, one forgot there was nothing happening on-stage! Throughout the score, in many places, far from a cakewalk, the orchestra was thrillingly dynamic and in highest form. Kudos!
The entire audience, which laughed throughout the evening, was enthusiastically receptive at the performance’s conclusion, with everyone on their feet for the main characters’ bows, notably for Dale Travis, despite his villain role. The entire cast, including the chorus as a troupe of Keystone-esque cops, was entertaining to watch and hear. In the lobby, an informal poll, by yours’ truly, revealed that a great time was had by the overwhelming majority of audience members asked. Bravo and thank you for a spectacular season opener, Opera Saint Louis!
As a side note to our experience, one of many friends in attendance last night, only recently transplanted in St. Louis but a serious fan of opera (she attended a performance at the Met last month), wondered aloud to us, why, if opera is so strong in Saint Louis (as her Opera Theatre baptism evidenced), is the season only five weeks long? With such enthusiastic supporters and phenomenal performers, we are asking the same thing!
Washington National Opera
Closes Season in Creative ProductionReviewed by Ed Cloos
Gioachino Rossini's beautiful music, a creative Spanish director, humor that has kept audiences laughing for nearly 200 years and a dazzling performance by star mezzo-soprano Isabel Leonard brought the Kennedy Center audience to its feet at the close. All good things.
The problem was that there can be too much of “good things.” The elaborate coloratura ornamentation that sets Cinderella apart from the other characters loses its effect when all of the characters do it. The humor has proven to be durably funny, but when carried to extremes the buffoonery slowed the pace of the production. It also detracted from the beauty of the singing by and between Angelina (Cinderella's name) and Prince Ramiro as they become lovers.
The lead roles were all dual-cast, but I saw just opening night of the two-week run so I can't comment on the alternates. Russian tenor Maxim Mironov was a fine Prince, especially in his love duet with Angelina and his aria, “Si, ritrovarla io giurno” (Yes, I swear I'll find her). His refined tenor didn't have the fireworks of some, but it was exactly suited to the mood of the opera.
Leonard also is a refined and not showy singer. In the first act she sings often—to the annoyance of her selfish step sisters—part of a song that begins, “There was once a king” who sought true love. We know that is to be the story of her life. Operas seldom have happy endings, but, as we all know, this one does. It isn't the magical story in the fairy tale, but a more realistic one in which Alidoro (bass-baritone Shenyang), the tutor and guide to the Prince, is the facilitator rather than the fairy tale's fairy godmother. His role is more acting than singing.
Equally as important a character is Don Magnifico, Cinderella's greedy (and desperate) stepfather. He's a baron and lives in a mansion, but he's broke and the mansion is falling apart. He carries the bulk of the comedy, and Italian baritone Paolo Bordogna was more than up to the task. His baritone is so smooth that he earned (well, at least somewhat) our sympathy for his plight.
To find his true love, the Prince visited the homes of eligible young women and they were to be invited to a ball in the palace, but he did it in disguise as his valet who was disguised as the Prince. Italian bass-baritone Simone Alberghini played the role of Dandini to the hilt, earning frequent warnings from the real prince to tone it down. That important role wasn't dual-cast. The problem I found was that while he was being counterfeit Prince, he wore a fancy costume and blond wig. When the true Prince was revealed, the costumes were switched, so Ramiro appeared to be as fake as Dandini.
So far I've described a standard production of La Cenerentola. It was anything but, thanks to the appearance of six giant rodents, one of which greeted opera-goers in the lobby. We kind of wondered what he was at that point. They were skilled dancers who creatively and humorously performed throughout in costumes that featured long tails and vaguely rodent-like masks. They were: Nancy Flores-Tirado, Damon Foster, A. Maverick Lemons, Monica Malanga, Alvaro Palau and Christopher Pennix. All but Foster have appeared in other WNO productions, but only Pennix was among the very effective dancers in the season-opening Florencia in The Amazon.
The evil sisters deserve credit, especially since it isn't the dream of every singer to appear totally loathsome. And they do have significant singing roles. Domingo-Cafritz Young Artists Jacqueline Echols and Deborah Nansteel filled the bill nicely.
While my companion and I found the action moved along too slowly, it was through no fault of Italian conductor Speranza Scappucci. She moved the orchestra along at a snappy pace, while playing the recitatives herself from the podium on a cembalo (a kind of harpsichord).
This production is a team effort, both in the staging and the sponsorship. It is a co-production of Houston Grand Opera (where it opened eight years ago), Welsh National Opera, Grand Teatre del Liceu (in Barcelona, where it originated), and Grand Théâtre de Genève. The all-Spanish artistic team is led by director Joan Font. All are associated with his Els Comediants theater group in Barcelona. The designer of the extremely simple set and over-the-top costumes is Joan Guillén. Choreographer of the giant rats is Xevi Dorca. The lighting is a crucial part of the scenery, and that was designed by team member Albert Faura. Confused by the names Joan and Xevi? All are men.
Washington National Opera 2014-15
Season Opens with Mystical
Tale of Love in the Rainforest
Reviewed by Ed Cloos
Seen September 26
It was inspired by the writing of Gabriel García Márquez, primarily Love in the Time of Cholera, with libretto by Marcela Fuentes-Berain, a former student of Márquez. It is all about love, and it involves cholera, but in entirely different context. There are no actual quotes from his work, and there was no attempt to copy his style. It is in Spanish. It was composed by Mexican-born Daniel Catán.
As introduction to each performance at the Kennedy Center, Ms. Zambello recalled meeting with Márquez, Catán and Fuentes-Berain during the drug wars of the early 1990s. Under protection of Colombian troops, they met first in Márquez’ walled compound, then flew by open helicopter to the southern tip of Columbia where the action begins along the upper waters of the Amazon.
Since that time, Mr. Catán has died at 62 in 2011 and Mr. Márquez, at 87, just this past April.
The story is the return of Florencia Grimaldi from a 20-year career as an opera star in Europe to her hometown of Manaus, at the edge of the Brazilian rain forest, where she hopes her singing will draw Cristobaldo, her lover when both were young. He was last seen entering the jungle in search of the super-rare Emerald Muse butterfly.
The production is something of a star vehicle for Christine Goerke, who has emerged as an American diva as she has found perfect outlets for her dramatic-soprano voice, especially in the Elektra of Richard Strauss.
As Florencia, it is she who had the extended arias, concluding with the final scene in which her long aria displayed her range, from rich mid-tones to highly colored heights. The visual conclusion was a stage-filling projection of the rare butterfly, with Florencia’s body as that of the butterfly. She realizes at that point that she is enveloped in the spirit of her lost lover.
Wonderful and flexible as she was in voice, Miss Goerke was the opposite in her movements around the set. The set, by the way, had only one physical piece: the river steamboat on and around which all the action took place. Mounted on a smooth-working turntable, it moved into many different positions, and along with artful projections gave a believable sense of moving down the river.
The second love story involves Rosalba, a young reporter who has been gathering all the information she can for a biography of Florencia. She hopes to meet her when they conclude the trip from Leticia to Manaus. She is the object of the affection of Arcadio, the nephew of The Captain and second in command. The captain hopes to convince Arcadio that life aboard the ship shuttling between Leticia and Manaus doesn’t have to be a prison. He hopes the young man will mature enough to take command. Rosalba returns the affection, but fears being actually in love because she is obsessed with her mission in pursuit of Florencia. She doesn’t want to be distracted.
Andrea Carroll showed her lovely, more lyric, soprano to beautiful effect as Rosalba. She is a consummate actress, and her supple movements added extra life to her singing. Arcadio was Patrick O’Halloran, the only current Domingo-Cafritz Young Artist in the cast. He didn’t have many outlets for his tenor, but he was a very effective actor.
That brings us to Riolobo. While the crew is in starched white uniforms, he’s in local, very casual dress. But we realize at the outset that he’s the most important figure on the boat. Norman Garrett played the part to perfection. His rich baritone was first to sing, and he fit the lush music of Catán as if born to it. Riolobo was ever present, and we soon understood that he was the spirit of the river, and he guided the ship in more ways than taking a turn at the wheel.
In the big storm that grounds the ship, Riolobo appears in spirit form—with wings, no less—and appeals to the gods of the river: “Do not destroy the world.” Then he physically flies away. I know that sounds over the top, but done so smoothly it didn’t seem so. I don’t find a credit for the flying technology, but it was extremely well done.
There’s one more love story; a married couple locked in a power struggle. Paula (Nancy Fabiola Herrera) and Alvaro (Michael Todd Simpson) do nothing but squabble until the big storm. Alvaro is lost overboard, and Paula realizes how much she loves him, a love so strong that the gods are moved to return him safely. Herrera’s the only native Spanish-speaker in the cast, and her mezzo was lovely in the language. She’s a veteran of other Catán operas.
Talking on deck after the storm, Rosalba tells Florencia how crushed she is by the destruction of her notebook containing all she has learned in support of her thesis that Florencia is the perfect example of a free woman. When Florencia suggests that much of the “truth” she has collected may be invention, Rosalba finally realizes that she has been talking with Florencia herself and discards the ruined notebook. Rosalba’s the one who becomes free; free to accept love with Arcadio. Arcadio, for his part, showed in the storm that he was able to take control of the ship, and guide it back into the channel.
I’ve left the gods of the river to last; though they are on stage at almost all times. Choreographed by Eric Sean Fogel, the four men and one woman displayed a range of skills from athletic, to balletic, to gymnastic, and everything in between. Between Riolobo above and themselves in the water, the sense of mystery of the Amazon was maintained constantly.
What about the scheduled concert in Manaus? What is truly important is the journey, not the destination, as we so often hear. The port is closed because of a cholera epidemic, so they cannot dock. We aren’t to ask what they did next.
Dancers in opera don’t often get the individual credit they deserve, so remember: Durell Comedy, Alison Mixon, Christopher Pennix, Matthew Steffens and Ricardo Zayas. All except Comedy were appearing with WNO for the first time.
The orchestra was led with vigor—sometimes maybe just a little bit too much—by rising young conductor Carolyn Kuan.
Projections were a major part of the staging, and designer S. Katy Tucker was responsible. Super titles were by Kelley Rourke, as almost always. She seems to translate just about any language just about flawlessly, at least in a way that satisfies us in the seats.
I should mention that Melody Moore, as scheduled not as cover, played Florencia Sept. 24. I’m familiar with her, and she’s quite wonderful, but I didn’t see the performance so I can’t comment.
Next opera up for WNO is a new production of Puccini’s La Bohème, Nov. 1-15.
This annual report on Glimmerglass Opera usually begins with the production that made the deepest impression or the performers who evoked the greatest response. That simply isn’t possible this season—the best I’ve experienced in seven full seasons. So, I’ll cover them in the order in which I saw them.
The adventure started with Ariadne in Naxos (Richard Strauss) and ended with Carousel, the great work of musical theater by Rodgers and Hammerstein. It really is an opera in its character. In between: An American Tragedy (Tobias Picker) and Madame Butterfly (Puccini).
Often the bill covers a wide range of periods; sometimes a single theme. This time it is just the 100 years or so from the early 20th century to the early 21st. Did it ever work!
For the 2015 season, the company’s 40th (as it will be for Opera Theatre of St. Louis which I visited earlier this season) it will appropriately return to the traditional pattern. In keeping with the celebration of four decades, the program will represent four centuries.
The oldest is Vivaldi’s Cato in Utica (1737), one of his last, representing the Italian Baroque period. This will introduce young countertenor John Holliday to Glimmerglass audiences. The latest is Bernstein’s Candide (1956). Audience response to that was so enthusiastic one would think they had just enjoyed the performance rather than merely its announcement. General Director Francesca Zambello will direct it. Kathryn Lewek, a young (31) coloratura soprano, will make her Glimmerglass debut as Cunegonda, the female lead. She’s well known in Rochester, N.Y., where I live, as she is a bachelor’s and master’s graduate of Eastman School of Music and has performed often in opera, with the Rochester Philharmonic, and in other settings. She’s become best known in many venues in the U.S. and in Europe for her mastery of the very high notes of the Queen of the Night in The Magic Flute. She sang the role in the Met’s new abridged version this past season.
Verdi’s Macbeth (1847) and Mozart’s The Magic Flute (1791) will represent the other periods. Eric Owens, artist in residence for the 2012 season, returns in that role for the 2015 season and also plays Macbeth. The Magic Flute, which seems to be done in English most of the time in recent years, will be in a new translation by Kelley Rourke, Glimmerglass dramaturg and supertitles supervisor, one of some 70 operas she has done.
The Glimmerglass Young Artists program and its alumni filled the majority of the roles this year, except for the most demanding, especially Zerbinetta in Ariadne in Naxos, and Cio-Cio San in Madame Butterfly.
Butterfly was presented once with an all-Young Artists cast (I didn’t see it). The Young Artists, however, aren’t a group of students but young professionals. Forty performers and seven others in different specialties were chosen from 1,200 applicants. Some are also alumni of other companies’ young artists programs and a few returned for a second year in Cooperstown.
There was an interesting mixing of directorial talents as well. Francesca Zambello directed two of the productions herself, but not An American Tragedy, which she had directed in its initial version at the Met. Peter Kazaras instead directed the Tobias Picker opera in the new version, sufficiently revised to be considered a world premiere. He had directed Ariadne auf Naxos a few years ago with Seattle Opera.
Glimmerglass Festival 2014
The title refers to the Greek Myth of Ariadne, princess of Crete, the largest of the Greek islands, and her abandonment, for reasons she doesn’t know, by Theseus, her new husband, on Naxos, a Greek island about halfway between Crete and Athens. That’s not what the opera is actually about.
The Glimmerglass production, under the direction of Francesca Zambello, makes that clear (no mean trick with the confusing story). It is about the universality of the trials and strengths all women have in common–even when they don’t think so. Also, maybe life isn’t as complicated as we make it. It is a very difficult opera both to play and sing, and it requires superb lead singers. It got them here.
Richard Strauss, the composer, was all about beautiful music. He produced it. Hugo von Hofmannsthal, the librettist, was all about grand historical and philosophical themes. Strauss managed to tone them down. He also produced the unusual situation in which the lead high-art female role, Ariadne, of course, is secondary to the low-art female role of Zerbinetta, the leader of a comic troupe.
Dramatic soprano Christine Goerke, 2014 artist in residence, was wonderful as Ariadne, who is called on to sing notes that sometimes were so low I’d swear a baritone could reach them. She made them rich and dark and beautiful. Ms.Goerke’s stunning performances in Strauss’ Elektra over the past few years—she’s continuing to do them—have made her a hot property. But Ariadne allows her only enough to give us a taste of her mastery of his music. I was fortunate to hear a live streaming broadcast of her Lyric Opera of Chicago opening night, but I haven’t been able actually to see one.
Lyric coloratura soprano Rachele Gilmore scored an absolute triumph as Zerbinetta who has to handle extremely high notes, notes in the rarified land well above high C. She danced through them so easily, so gracefully, that one appreciated the beauty of the music without thinking about the novelty of how very high they are. It’s an extended exercise since Zerbinetta has an aria 15 minutes long or so. The message boils down to: the answer to a lost love is to find a new one. Ariadne will have none of that, but that’s what happens.
Gilmore, still just in her early 30s, has been knocking audiences dead in the role for years. The extremely high coloratura material is a young woman’s game, in most cases. Goerke herself was a lyric coloratura until her voice grew larger and bolder, and she had to metamorphose into a dramatic soprano. She’s said in published interviews that it was far from an easy or overnight process.
The story isn’t set in Naxos at all. It is set at the home of a rich man. At first “the richest man in Paris,” then “the richest man in Vienna.” Zambello set it at the country estate of a wealthy man in Central New York State (the area where Glimmerglass is). The plot is that a new serious opera, the Ariadne story, is to be performed for his dinner guests. A comic song-and-dance group will follow it “so the guests won’t fall asleep.”
The opera group, especially “The Composer,” hates the idea as an insult to their work. The comic troupe is flexible, and they seem sympathetic to the falling asleep situation. It gets worse: the manager of the estate tells the two groups that time has run so short that both will have to perform together. Fireworks are to follow and the time for that is fixed. The rich patron is willing to pay both their full agreed fee, so what’s the problem?
Obviously, it’s a huge problem, but Zerbinetta, the leader of the comic troupe, is persuasive, and also flirtatious enough to catch the eye of the composer. He (it’s a “pants role” for a soprano) agrees and convinces the serious singers to go along. Later he’s aghast at the compromise, but it’s too late. The resolution is that as Ariadne, watched over by three nymphs, is pining for her lost love. The traveling comic group arrives on the island and attempts to cheer her up. They fail, of course, but Zerbinetta tries to convince Ariadne that all will be fine once she finds a new love. That’s Zerbinetta’s show-stopping aria, but Ariadne doesn’t even hear it as she leaves the stage.
She returns to finish the opera. The god Bacchus, who has just escaped the clutches of Circe, the sorceress, somehow is drawn to the island and Ariadne. She thinks he is Hermes, the messenger of the gods, come to carry her off to the death she is longing for. Bacchus suspects she is another sorceress, but after a beautiful love duet they go off, transformed into some other kind of life.
The plot was proposed by Von Hofmannsthal, who suggested that it be based on Moliere’s Le Bourgeois Gentilhome, a play based on the theme of a rich man who doesn’t understand the culture he supports in a bid for prestige. It was more than that since the original 1912 version included the entire play, with new incidental music composed by Strauss, followed by a one-act opera. Critics found its virtues, but it was some six hours long, and audiences found it more than they could deal with.
The 1916 version, which has endured and which we now see, created a prologue as the first act to explain what the opera is all about and how the mishmash came to be. The opera itself then became the second act. The Prologue includes all of the singers, but as themselves rather than the opera characters they will be playing. They don’t get to sing much as The Composer does most. Catherine Martin, an alumna of the Young Artists made the most of the role. She covered a range of emotions in her rich, if not exactly silky, mezzo-soprano. She carried the act with verve.
The speaking, and the singing of Zerbinetta’s troupe, was all in English with the “serious” opera in the original German. The English adaptation was by Kelley Rourke—one would almost have to say, of course.
Zambello noted that everyone on stage, and conductor Kathleen Kelly, were Young Artists, alumni of the program, or otherwise connected with it.
>> CONTINUED TOP OF CENTER COLUMN<<
Opera Theatre of St. Louis 2014
Thanks to an extended cover story in Opera News, Opera Theatre of St. Louis’ 27 was a major event long before its first performance June 14. Now it is clear that it is one of the important new works of the young 21st Century.
It is a musical interpretation of the Paris salon hosted by Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas, who lived as husband and wife throughout most of the first half of the 20th Century. Composer Ricky Ian Gordon has written a true opera with a range of different voices, rhythms and colors.
One of the most beautiful musical moments is the duet sung at the end of Act 1 by Elizabeth Futral as Alice and Stephanie Blythe as Stein. Gertrude’s brother Leo, her companion and housemate since they were children, has slammed out of the room—it turns out to be forever—after reviling young Pablo Picasso’s portrait of the writer. Alice starts it off: “Look at me, Gertrude. Let me hear the bells that chime your genius. That only chime for genius.” That is a theme that runs throughout the opera.
All this at 27 Rue de Fleurus where they played host to some of the great—and not so great—artists and writers of the century. It is a handsome four-story building near the Luxembourg Gardens. A plaque next to the entrance commemorates their lives there. The women didn’t actually stay closeted in the salon for 40 years, but it is the only scene and all the action takes place there. The walls were covered with paintings, but in Allen Moyer’s set design the walls are papered with a design of two doves and a nest. Empty frames as directed by the libretto represent the art.
Fascination with Gertrude Stein came to Gordon when, at 17, he was at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh and just coming down with what turned out to be a terrible cold. He recalls he spent a week in bed “eating tangerines and reading about Gertrude and Alice and their milieu” in Charmed Circle. But he certainly didn’t get up and start writing an opera about them.
That story is told in the program by James Robinson, OTSL artistic director and stage director for the production. He had worked with Stephanie Blythe, and they’d become close friends. He was anxious to bring her to St. Louis as part of a planned cycle of three commissioned new operas, but they hadn’t defined a suitable project. Blythe was fond of the work of Ricky Lee Gordon, and she and Robinson agreed it would be great if he could create a work for her. He’s the one who came up with the idea of a fantasy on the life of Stein and Toklas, an inspiration he’d held for the 40 years that had passed since his teenaged experience in Pittsburgh. Through mutual contacts in New York, Royce Vavrek signed on to write the libretto which he did very quickly.
As a way to compress four decades into five brief acts, he came up with the idea to open with Alice knitting, representing the idea of knitting the memories of their lives together. She actually was a needlepoint expert. The text isn’t taken from Stein’s writing, but it uses—liberally—the device of repetition that characterized some of her writing. The result is almost as abstract as many of the paintings in her collection.
Alice Babette Toklas managed all aspects of the household, including ushering out guests when their welcome expired. Futral floated around the set, at times her feet seeming not to touch the floor. (Seán Curran’s choreography deserves notice.) Her clear sweet soprano made beautiful music of lines that made effective use of the repetition device. Blythe didn’t get as many chances for her mezzo to be pretty.
She does have a dramatic and vocally effective scene as Stein experiences a self-trial over the degree to which she was a collaborator of the Nazis while living on a farm in Belignin, near Lyon, in supposedly unoccupied Vichy France. She stands in empty frames, facing the accusations of her own portrait by Picasso as well as the other paintings. As the act ends she died in Alice’s arms.
There still is Act 5 to go, and Gertrude, now as her portrait, has her longest and loveliest song, the closest to an aria in the opera. Let’s call it The Flowers of Friendship aria.
The opera calls for a number of characters that are very important, but appear relatively briefly. The production solves that by using three men from the Gerdine Young Artists program. They play every part except for the two women—even the paintings themselves and the wives of the artists. Picasso, for example, so tenor Theo Lebow switches between characters to become F. Scott Fitzgerald and many others.
Baritone Tobias Greenhalgh has the key role of Leo Stein. He also is Man Ray, who photograph of the women in their salon is iconic, and many minor characters. Bass-baritone Daniel Brevik is Henri Matisse and Ernest Hemingway. Their different voices and physiques make possible the individuality of the characters they play. All three performed as seasoned veterans.
The visitors are all presented as humorous characters. Young Picasso enters wearing the head of a bull. Sure, his Minotaur period came decades later, but this is about the women, not Picasso. Hemingway enters dragging the carcass of a rhinoceros. Of course, he did that only in the stories he told. Still, this isn’t in any sense a comic opera. It creates its own category.
James Schuette designed the costumes, and they required considerable ingenuity. James Mayer designed the set. Wig and makeup designer Tom Watson managed to make the women look very much like their characters did.
Will 27 have a life of regular performance? I’d bet on it, and the audience that leapt to its feet as the lights died seemed to agree.
The 2014 season also includes new productions of Mozart’s Magic Flute and Poulenc’s Dialogues of the Carmelites, reviewed here separately. Also Donizetti’s Elixir of Love which I wasn’t able to see.
Next year is OTSL’s 40th anniversary season. It includes new productions of Rossini’s Barber of Seville, Puccini’s La rondine, Tobias Picker’s Emmeline, and the American premiere of Handel’s Richard the Lionheart. The final in the series of three commissioned new works will be Shalimar the Clown, based on a story by Salman Rushdie, but that won’t be until the 2016 season.
Washington National Opera
Reviewed by Verna Kerans
Modern operas don’t really interest me as much as classical operas. I am a Verdi-Puccini-Wagner kind of person. But I was intrigued by the thought of seeing Moby Dick as an opera. How in the world would they produce this one? As I found out: with a lot of great scenery of sails and rigging and projections that were terrific and wonderful lighting and clouds scudding across the sky.
The libretto was based on the novel by Herman Melville and the music was composed by Jake Heggie. The setting was designed by Robert Brill and the lighting was by Gavan Swift. And I must mention the projection design by Elaine J. McCarthy which captured the excitement of the last few moments of Ahab’s life in what can only be described as, an obsessive search for Moby Dick.
In order to be in this chorus you had to be young and virile and able to mount rope ladders and an amazing background of wall that had climbing steps. What a challenge! Mounting these wall pieces, a lot like climbing walls in sports complexes, would allow the characters to look as if they were in boats and we were looking down on them in the ocean. Hard to describe but fabulous to behold. These boats then could fall into pieces and sailors fall into the ocean. Well done!!
The opening notes were lovely and the aria between Ahab and Starbuck were musically interesting as well, but I am afraid I cannot say the same for a lot of in-between recitative.
I enjoyed Pip, sung by soprano Talise Trevigne, who has a lot of musical credits to her name. Other standouts in the cast are Eric Greene as Queequeg and Matthew Worth as Starbuck. Ahab, sung by Carl Tanner had a powerful voice. The singing was stirring and the Washington National Opera Chorus was great as usual, but alas, I am still a fan of Carmen and probably will never change at this late date in my life. The music of the Washington National Symphony under the direction of Evan Rogister was beautiful.
Reviewed by Ed Cloos
The theme for the season was Festival of American Romantics, and the range was even broader than the theme, from the sacred to the comic. Also, most of the works weren’t American. Wagner and Verdi were included since it was the bicentennial of the birth of both in 1813.
Let’s skip right to the jewel: Stabat Mater, composed by Giovanni Pergolosi in 1736 in the last weeks of his short life. This was the latest in the many versions produced in modern times, this time including dance that truly made a work for two voices in a church setting into an opera. It was the most stunningly beautiful operatic work I’ve seen (live) in years.
This isn’t to compare it to grand opera; it is, after all, just one act, and not much over an hour long. But what an hour! Stabat Mater was in a twin bill with Little Match Girl Passion. More about both later.
The biggest hit with the audience, which rose as one to its feet at the conclusion, was the Lerner-Lowe musical Camelot. The show, based on the King Arthur legend was extremely popular in the 10 years following its 1960 premiere, and it became part of the American DNA as the anthem of the “one brief shining moment” of the John F. Kennedy presidency that ended with his assassination 50 years ago this November. Since opera audiences tend to have a good proportion of people who can remember 50 or 60 years ago, surely many could relive that time. I was a young newspaper reporter in 1960.
Glimmerglass, ever more in her third year, bears the stamp of Francesca Zambello, artistic and general director. She sets the tone, selects the program and artist in residence, and personally directed The Flying Dutchman and Little Match Girl. Her own comments suggested she didn’t concentrate as much on strong female characters this year as in the previous two, but she protests too much as we’ll see in the reviews.
Keeping to the unexpected, the matinee performance I saw of Verdi’s King for a Day wasn’t the master at his best, but it was funny and had many beautiful moments, especially for the two sopranos who are the main characters musically. Neither is the “king” of course. He’s the center of the action.
Zambello, who attends every performance and is accessible to all that wish to speak to her, invited the audience of Camelot to vote on the 2015 musical and promised to abide by the result. It hasn’t been announced yet, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see Showboat dock in Cooperstown someday since she’s directed very successful productions recently with Washington National Opera (where she is artistic director) and Lyric Opera of Chicago.
The spirit of “festival” has caught on and is growing. The American aspect of the romantics was more in evidence at cooperating organizations including, as always, nearby Fenimore Art Museum, and this year adding neighbor to the north Hyde Hall which featured evenings of prose and poetry by American Romantics. The Glimmerglass programs themselves covered nine pages. One of the most popular was a talk by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg of the Supreme Court.
Sad to say, I got to none of them except those at the Fenimore: “The Hudson River School: Nature and the American Vision” and a major show of the works of the extended family of Andrew Wyeth.
The 2014 season is set with the theme “100 years of music,” but you can bet the cooperating venues will be much more specific than that when they announce their programs. The Glimmerglass series will be these new productions, in repertory as always: Puccini’s Madame Butterfly, Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Carousel, Strauss’s Ariadne in Naxos, and Tobias Picker’s An American Tragedy.
Soprano Christine Goerke will be artist in residence, and Ariadne in the Strauss opera. She’s become a celebrated specialist in Strauss and Wagner roles, which tend to be well beyond the maturing sopranos at Glimmerglass. She was one herself 20 years ago when she was a lyric soprano there. She later suffered a musical crisis as her voice developed more fully, but it was all for the better. She was to give a recital in the weekend I was there, but an unexpected surgery forced her to cancel a few days earlier.
Stabat Mater Becomes a Jewel of an Opera
Reviewed by Ed Cloos
Giovanni Pergolosi wrote eight operas in the five-year period before his 1736 death of tuberculosis at age 26. Stabat Mater, probably his most famous work, wasn’t one of them. It was a sacred piece for two voices, meant to be sung only in a sacred setting and never “in public.” Also, it is in Latin. Still, it was criticized by some in his time as “too operatic.”
His operas were comic, but he wrote oratorios, Masses and other sacred works. Stabat Mater, “standing mother,” is an interpretation of a 13th century poem expressing the sorrows of Mary as she stood before the cross on which her son Jesus was dying. The Glimmerglass interpretation was half of a twin bill called Passions, both inspired by the suffering and death of Jesus, but neither specifically about Jesus.
Under the direction of noted choreographer Jessica Lang, it became a true opera with dance providing the action, involving the two singers with eight young dancers. The set was a simple proscenium, perhaps suggesting the tomb to come, in which were suspended two “logs,” for want of a better description. They arranged themselves in different ways, only suggesting a cross from time to time.
This is about the singing, not the stage set, and such singing it was. The lead singer is the soprano, in this case guest artist Nadine Sierra who is in the early stages of a career that surely is enhanced by this performance. The second voice has covered the range from mezzo-soprano, to alto-contralto, and, as at Glimmerglass, to male counter tenor in performances over the centuries. I’ve been a fan of Anthony Roth Costanzo since he first appeared as a Young Artist, then quickly advanced to lead roles and to appearances at Metropolitan Opera, but I never realized he could sing with such pure beauty. Counter tenor is, after all, a false voice, but in this case he sounded as if it were entirely natural: wonderfully so.
In the question and answer session at the end of the evening, he said it at first seemed a little strange for “this Jewish boy” to be singing in this very Christian piece. But the scope of the 12 sections that make up the work is very wide and is a universal story of a mother’s pain.
Jessica Lang has a respected dance company, but this wasn’t it. She molded eight young men and women of the Young Artists program, as well as the two singers, into a coherent dance that expressed the emotions of the music, but always without intruding.
The result was an absolute jewel. The highlight of the Glimmerglass season for me.
The Pergolesi was just half of the evening. Francesca Zambello herself directed The Little Match Girl Passion. Composed and written by David Lang, who describes himself as “a rather religious Jew,” this is a totally different take on the passion of Jesus as written by St. Matthew and others. It also is, Lang said, “in the format” of the J.S. Bach composition based on St. Matthew, but it includes no music by Bach. The story is taken from The Little Match Girl, by Hans Christian Andersen.
Without reference at all to Jesus, it is a story of rejection by the crowd, suffering, death and transfiguration. The little girl is selling matches—though no one has bought any—on the street on New Year’s Eve. Shoeless and freezing, as her strength ebbs she lights some of the matches, one by one. As each burns she experiences visions. At first she sees people, warm of course, celebrating the holiday season, then the final vision is of joining her grandmother in Heaven. She doesn’t return. Sound like a downer? Well, it sort of is, but a beautiful one.
Lang wrote the piece for a cappella singers, accompanied by simple percussion instruments, which the singers play themselves. The match girl doesn’t sing. The four singers, Julia Mintzer, James Michael Porter, Lisa Williamson and Christian Zaremba, are members of the Young Artists program. None of them actually plays a musical instrument, and though the pings, chimes and such sound simple, the singers said in the Q and A they found it a daunting challenge. Anyway, challenge is what the Young Artists program is all about.
Zambello asked Lang to compose music for a brief piece for children’s chorus to accompany the main work. He based it on the words of St. Paul: “When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child; but when I became a man, I put away childish things.” Lang went beyond that King James translation to gather every English translation he could find, and then weave them together. The chorus was 25 children from the area covering a wide range of ages and experience. Tracy Allen, a music teacher in the nearby Richfield Springs Central School District, was chorus master. She’s a soprano herself, and was in the original Young Artists program in Cooperstown 25 years ago. Zambello said she plans to make children’s choruses a continuing part of Glimmerglass programs. If she can find vehicles as good as this one, she’s off to a great start.
By the way, Jessica Lang and David Lang are married, but not to each other.
The ‘Real’ Operas: Flying Dutchman and King for A Day
Reviewed by Ed Cloos
Richard Wagner’s The Flying Dutchman is well known to generations of opera fans, but not to Melody Moore, the young American soprano who played Senta, the leading role, at least from a musical point of view. She said in her blog as she arrived in Cooperstown that she had never heard or seen the opera.
She earned the part through performances with San Francisco Opera, and that was before she stepped in as Tosca on minutes’ notice when Angela Gheorghiu was rushed to the hospital with stomach flu at the first intermission. Response was enthusiastic from an audience already warm to her from previous roles. She’s the singer of the season at Glimmerglass.
Though it was her first Wagnerian role, one she said she wasn’t entirely sure she was ready for, Francesca Zambello, who directed the production herself, had confidence in Melody and it was well placed.
The Dutchman story is well known: cursed for a vaguely-described crime of mocking God, the Dutchman is doomed to sail on a ghostly ship until he earns a woman’s pure love, a chance he gets only at seven-year intervals. Mythology of the sea world is crowded with ghost ships as if it were a usual punishment.
Daland, a Norwegian sea captain, is returning to his home port after a long time at sea. Forced by a storm to anchor outside the harbor, the Dutchman’s ship pulls alongside. Not as fearful as he probably should be, he invites the mystery-ship captain aboard and offers to guide him into port when the storm subsides. The guest tells Daland his story. He also offers a sample of the riches he has accumulated through mysterious means. He says he’s had “many victims” but stresses that he isn’t a pirate.
The arrival of Daland’s ship is greeted by partying on the dock, led by the young women of the village. The crew of the mystery ship is invited ashore to join the party. There is no response, leading us to wonder if there even is a crew of mortal men.
Daland is happy to tell the Dutchman of his lovely daughter who may be the answer to salvation. He invites the Dutchman to his home, ready virtually to sell his daughter. That’s hardly necessary since Senta has long been in love with the stranger through his legend. Her beautiful opening aria speaks to that love. There’s a complication in that Senta is expected to marry Erik, a huntsman. Senta is immediately ready to end that arrangement when she learns that the guest actually is the Dutchman. Jay Hunter Morris, the tenor who played Eric, has the most Wagnerian credits, but his singing role is relatively minor. All the great musical moments involve Senta.
The musical peak is the love duet between Senta and the Dutchman (Ryan McKinny), difficult to pull off with a soprano and a deep baritone, but it was beautiful on multiple levels.
The Dutchman’s prospective redemption is cut short when he accidentally overhears Senta and Eric in their goodbye duet and concludes she is unfaithful to him. He boards his ship and sets sail. Heartbroken, Senta throws herself into the sea. This act of love “saves” the Dutchman who is freed of his curse by death as his ship sinks in sight of the shore.
The one weakness I found in the staging is that the ending wasn’t at all clear dramatically.
King for A Day, is a light-hearted comedy by Giuseppe Verdi. It was written in 1840 on request of Teatro alla Scala when he was a rising young composer. Reception wasn’t good, but within only a few years it was recognized as not all that bad as Verdi’s fame grew. It certainly is minor Verdi, and the new English language production tends to emphasize that. It did, however, enhance the comedy.
I’d eagerly anticipated the return of Ginger Costa-Jackson. She’d been a very fine Carmen two seasons ago, and I wasn’t disappointed as she played an entirely different role as the Marchesa. Unexpected was the performance of Jacqueline Echols, still a member of the Young Artists program, as Giulietta. The two sopranos played the reluctant prospective brides in a double wedding to be witnessed by the king of Poland.
Let’s face it, put two sopranos on stage together and it is a competition. There may not have been a winner, but Echols held her own against the more seasoned Costa-Jackson.
The story has all the twists and turns of a typical opera buffa. The King of Poland, for security reasons, as he conducts delicate negotiations at home, has sent his friend Belfiore as his double to the home of Baron Kelbar (Jason Hardy) in Brittany. Belfiore was played with verve by baritone Alex Lawrence, a member of the Young Artists, and it’s a plum role.
The baron explains to his honored guest that his daughter Giulietta is to marry the wealthy La Rocca, while his niece, the Marchesa di Poggio, is to marry aged Count Ivrea. Giulietta, however, is in love with penniless Eduardo. The Marchesa is the lover of Belfiore himself who had to leave her without explanation to take this undercover assignment.
Naturally, all turns out for the best as the fake king manages to get the right partners together, and Belfiore is forgiven by all when his true identify is revealed at the end.
Verdi’s list of great operas would fill this screen, and King for A Day wouldn’t be among them. But, Verdi being Verdi, there are wonderful singing roles for both sopranos and a charming acting role for Alex Lawrence, another Young Artist, as Belfiore.
Joseph Colaneri, in his first year as Glimmerglass music director, conducted. The resident orchestra is so good that it plays everything, under a host of different conductors, as if each were a specialty so it is difficult to get a sense of the merits of any individual baton wielder.
Camelot: ‘Happily Everaftering,’ A Great Comic Entertainment
It’s hard to believe it’s been 53 years since the opening of the Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Lowe musical based on the King Arthur legend. For a decade or so it infused the popular culture with its mix of romance, humor and music. And it made Robert Goulet a huge star.
Glimmerglass brought star power to its revival this year in the person of Nathan Gunn as Sir Lancelot. The role calls for over-the-top ham-acting combined with a first-class baritone. This year’s co-artist in residence (with his pianist wife Julie) was perfect.
Let’s not short-change the other star-class performances necessary to make it all work. First, Canadian soprano Andriana Chuchman as Guenevere, the at-first reluctant bride of equally reluctant King Arthur (David Pittsinger) in an arranged marriage. Most of the action revolves around her as she becomes Arthur’s loving queen and also lover to the dashing Frenchman Sir Lancelot du Lac. Sentenced to death when that alliance is outed, her rescue brings the death of Arthur’s idealistic “might for right” dream.
Lancelot sings mostly of his own manifest virtues, but “If Ever I Should Leave You,” his song of love to Guenevere, is his musical high point.
Guenevere, known throughout as “Gwen,” sings on multiple levels: from the innocent “The Simple Joys of Maidenhood” to the not-at-all-innocent duet with Lancelot, “I Loved You Once in Silence.” Miss Chuchman, who earlier sang the major role of Magnolia in Showboat, directed by Zambello, with Washington National Opera, will be Miranda in the upcoming Metropolitan Opera reprise of The Enchanted Island. Big stuff.
The story is about Arthur, after all, and David Pittsinger amply filled the bill which required growing from a boy-man hiding in a tree to catch a glimpse of his future bride to the mature leader of a court of knights not totally sold on his goodness campaign. He’s taken his bass-baritone smoothly between operas and musical theater roles, and he’s proven himself to be a fine actor.
Let’s not forget Arthur’s bastard son Mordred, played with evil verve by Equity actor Jack Noseworthy who also is a creditable tenor. Mordred appears by surprise and is the catalyst that brings down the rule of goodness. He rouses the knights to forego goodness—something they are all too ready to do—with the song “Fie on Goodness.” This spirited call to the wicked almost was omitted from the show, but with the encouragement of all concerned the music was hastily rented and rehearsed and it proved to be a highlight.
Camelot is a long show, so all productions starting with the very first have left out a few of the original songs. Glimmerglass trimmed some repetitive lines, but it still ran a little longer than the Wagner, and he’s the king of long.
Ronald George Precup, a parishioner of St. Agnes Church in Arlington and lieutenant of the Middle Atlantic Lieutenancy of the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulcher of Jerusalem, died May 18 of cancer. He was 70 years old.
A funeral Mass was offered by Arlington Bishop Paul S. Loverde at the Cathedral of St. Thomas More in Arlington May 23.
Precup was born June 11, 1942, in Aurora, Ill., to parents Emily and George. He obtained his secondary education at Marmion Military Academy in Aurora, operated by the Benedictine monks. He earned his bachelor’s degree in government from Georgetown University in Washington in 1964 and his doctorate in law from Georgetown University Law Center in 1967. Precup served on active duty as a captain in the Army Judge Advocate General’s Corps from 1968 to 1972.
In 1964, he married Alicemarie Veronica (“Ronnie”) Mauro of New York. The couple has lived in Arlington since 1967 and has three children and four grandchildren.
Washington Cardinal James A. Hickey invested Precup and his wife into the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulcher of Jerusalem in 1994. They were promoted to knight and lady commander in 2001, to knight and lady commander with star in 2005, and to knight and lady grand cross in 2011. Precup was appointed lieutenant of the Middle Atlantic Lieutenancy by Cardinal John P. Foley, then grand master, in 2010. He continued to serve in that role until his death.
Precup and his wife made a pilgrimage to the Holy Land with the knighthood in May 2009 and February 2013. Both musicians, they served as members of the resident choir of the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington for 14 years, at one point singing in Rome before the tomb of St. Peter for Blessed John Paul II. They also sang frequently with the Metropolitan Chorus and Ron Freeman Chorale and performed in several operas with local companies. Most recently they sang with the choir of the Cathedral of St. Thomas More.
Precup had a particular interest in liturgical music, especially chant and the motets of Renaissance composers. He also was the opera critic for Intermission Magazine in Washington from 1984 to 2010.
Since 1972, he worked in a private law firm in Washington and Virginia, representing individuals and small businesses in areas such as corporate law, government contracts, trademarks, and copyrights and appellate practice.
He is survived by his wife, Ronnie; his brother, James Precup; his children, Ronald Jr. Precup, Liz Saarie and Peggy Marlin; and four grandchildren, Madeline, Calvin and Finnian Saarie, and Arcadia Precup.
Contributions in his name may be made to Arlington diocesan Catholic Charities or to the American Cancer Society.
Excitement and Challenges
Reviewed by Ed Cloos
In the second year under the leadership of Francesca Zambello, Glimmerglass has entered a new age. A new age is exciting, but also challenging.
One of the best results is Artist in Residence, started last year. This year it was again a stunning success with bass-baritone Eric Owens. A Young American Artist there two decades ago, he returned with hundreds of Met performances behind him as a distinguished singer and accomplished actor. And he held nothing back: two leading roles plus a concert of Billy Eckstine songs (which, unfortunately, I wasn’t able to attend).
Another positive result is continued and expanded co-operation with other companies. Ms. Zambello is surely the best-known female director in the opera world. She knows everybody, and everybody respects her. She hasn’t hesitated to call on her contacts with artists like Dolora Zajick and Deborah Voigt, last year’s artist in residence, back again in a teaching and singing role apart from the four productions.
The highlight for me was the joint production of Jean-Baptiste Lully’s Armide, a masterpiece of early opera, co-produced with Atelier Opera of Toronto.
It also was an anniversary season: 25 years in the 900-seat Alice Busch Theater. It was celebrated at the Aug. 11 performance of Lost in the Stars. Architect Hugh Hardy was in the audience, and we all sang “Happy Birthday” since it was his birthday as well as that of the building. Here’s my report in the order I saw them Aug. 10-12.
Armide: Meticulously Crafted and Performed
Armide is the French gem of the mid-17th century Baroque period. Jean-Baptiste Lully was born in Italy but lived in France from boyhood. Believing the French language wasn’t as suited to the Baroque style of opera as Italian, he carefully studied the delivery of the leading French dramatic actors of the day to try to make French as musical as Italian, especially in the half-sung, half-spoken recitative sections. The result was recitative so musical that it seemed not a word was actually spoken.
The production with Opera Atelier of Toronto was a gem polished by a series of performances in Toronto and the Versailles venue for which it was originally written though not performed. Instead it opened in 1686 at Théâtre Royale in Paris. So the Toronto company was the first to perform it in the Versailles Palace. The leading roles and the very important dancers were the original company with Glimmerglass, primarily Young Artists, filling the other roles and providing the chorus.
The story is the same as that of the many Italian interpretations of the epic poem by Torquato Tasso on the liberation of Jerusalem by the First Crusade in 1099. The story is part fiction (the main characters themselves), part history and part mythology, incorporating elements of the story of Dido and Aeneas.
It was characteristic of Baroque opera in France to include dance interludes, often with little relevance to the story. Not the case here: the dance was integral to the opera, and presented eloquently in the production. It could almost be called a ballet with singing. Well, almost. Himself an accomplished dancer, the 20-year-old Lully caught the eye of 14-year-old Louis XIV and began a lifetime of music in the court of the “Sun King.”
The story is similar to last year’s Medea: a powerful woman falling in love with the enemy, using sorcery to ensure that the love is returned. Soprano Peggy Kriha Dye was a convincing sorceress-warrior who was able to sing her lines with beauty while acting the powerful and often enraged warrior. Her rage is triggered when she learns that the Christian hero Renaud has, practically single-handed, freed the prisoners her forces had captured (with the help of her powers, combined with those of her uncle Hidraot). A wonderful duet with bass João Fernandes celebrated their joint power.
Her uncle urges her to take a husband from among her many suitors, but she vows to accept only a man able to kill Renaud. Soon she gets the chance to do that herself, but falls under the spell of his beauty. She vows, in song, to punish him by making him her lover. So began an intimate and erotic drama for Miss Dye and tenor Colin Ainsworth (the only Canadian in a leading role), inside a larger scene of demons, dancers and chorus. They sang so beautifully together that one was almost sorry the story required their love to end as Renaud heeds his call to return to duty. Miss Dye revealed, in a post-performance question and answer session on the night I was there, how daunting it was for a mid-western American girl to be singing in French before a knowing French audience. “They weren’t looking at super titles; they were looking directly at me!”
Conductor David Fallis, who led other musicians in the Toronto and Paris performances, led the Glimmerglass orchestra which never fails.
If I’d had to leave Glimmerglass after only Armide, I would have felt fulfilled, but I would have missed many wonderful things.
Aida, Beautiful Singing In Quirky Production
Giuseppe Verdi’s Aida is one of the greatest Italian operas, so, naturally, it is one of the most frequently performed.” Ms. Zambello elected to direct this one herself, clearly determined to have an original take on the masterpiece.
Michelle Johnson, cited in Opera News earlier in the summer as an up and coming young soprano, and illustrated with a page-length photo (she’s lovely indeed), lived up to her billing. She played the captured Ethiopian princess in love with the Egyptian soldier Radamès, who becomes the heroic leader of the troops, with royal bearing, passion, impetuousness and lovely singing. Unlike Armide, no sorcery is needed to have her love returned.
In the opening aria with tenor Noah Stewart as Radamès, one of the best known in all opera, I’m sure; he expresses his love with fervor. He sang beautifully, but his voice to my ear had more of a baritone-tenor character. Together, they energized the passion of their love in a commanding way Radamès is portrayed as a, perhaps, over-eager young soldier looking for his chance to take command. The Egyptian troops are dispirited and back in Egypt after an only partially successful campaign in Ethiopia.
Radamès changes all that and quickly (Aida wastes no time on off-stage battles) returns in glory, parading captives that include Aida’s father, the king. Miss Johnson played her character with intensity that justified blurting out in court that one of the captives is her father, Amonasro. Having no choice, he confirms that he is her father but claims that the king was killed in battle. Eric Owens is so kingly in his role that it is no surprise the high priest doubts his story. Later, his singing, as he convinces his daughter to betray her lover and Egypt in the interest of her country, is as royal as his bearing.
Radamès is promised the hand of the Egyptian king’s daughter Amneris in marriage as a reward for his victory, an offer he can’t refuse. The role of Amneris is quite demanding, with soaring highs and the need for vocal power. So an older singer who is, well, not as physically attractive as Aida usually gets the role. Mezzo-soprano Daveda Karanas changed all that: she is trim and lovely and fully up to the role. She also showed more depth to her character. Not a cold, unfeeling princess whose job is to stand in a royal way and sing, she was animated, and she displayed some empathy for Aida, even if the libretto did call for her to address Aida as “vile slave.” She’s a singer to watch.
The Glimmerglass orchestra is flexible and versatile. Playing under three conductors for four productions, they took fluently to Cairo-born Nader Abbassi. The great anthem celebrating appointment of Radamès to lead the troops is a perfect example.
Ms. Zambello promised last year that her interpretation would be intimate rather than the pageant-like spectacle often seen. The opera is, after all, just an intimate story of four characters with relatively little onstage action. But moving the story from an undefined two- to three thousand years ago to World War I era; one can only wonder why. It made possible use of loud explosions, but they don’t enhance intimacy. Then there was the race-blind casting. One of the sub-stories is that Egyptians and Ethiopians are of different ethnic backgrounds, normally expressed by casting Egyptians as white and Ethiopian as black (as they are). But as cast with an African-American Radamès, he and Aida could be brother and sister, and the Egyptian king an Ethiopian as well with a white daughter.
But that’s minor compared to water boarding Radamès, for some reason, and sentencing him to death by lethal injection. I don’t read any other reviews before I write this report, but I’ll bet I could predict their quotes.
Lost in the Stars, a Play With Music and Songs
We know Kurt Weill best for his German works of social commentary in partnership with Berthold Brecht, but there is another side that filled the greater part of his career. Such is Lost in the Stars, an interpretation by Maxwell Anderson of Alan Paton’s novel Cry, the Beloved Country, which has become a modern classic. Paton’s moving and poetical novel, published in 1948, so lent itself to stage interpretation that the first version of Anderson’s play appeared the following year.
It is a story of love and hope in a situation of hopelessness and hatred in South Africa. It was a beautiful call for tolerance and inclusion, but only months after its publication the National Party gained control and soon instituted Apartheid. It remained the law until 1994, six years after Paton’s death. To some, the novel resonated in America as a metaphor for our “separate but equal” laws and practices at the time.
Paton worked tirelessly against brutal prison conditions and injustice against blacks, but Lost in the Stars describes none of that in an overt way. It is the story of Stephen Kumalo, priest and spiritual leader of his village, as he goes to Johannesburg to search for his son and to convince his wayward sister to leave her undefined “shameful ways” and return to the village.
His sister declines (in song) to return to “The Little Grey House,” one of the musical highlights of the play-opera. Son Absalom (in biblical stories a lost son who rebels against his father), had gone to work in the mines but gave that up. Stephen Kumalo finds him only after the young man and two friends commit a robbery—against a prominent white friend who supports their cause—and Absalom accidentally kills the man. Absalom refuses to lie (as his friends did) even though legal evidence is weak and lying might beat the charge. Instead, he accepts the sentence of death by hanging.
This doesn’t sound like a beautiful story or a foundation for beautiful music, but it is.
Eric Owens was magnificent as Stephen Kumalo, both in voice and as an actor. In a controlled way, he expressed the power of a man of God who failed to save his son and sister, and who loses faith in himself. But he is so much stronger than anyone else in his community that he has to maintain his role as wise-man leader. He’s helped by the father of the slain Arthur, James Jarvis, who opposed any contact with the blacks until forced by circumstance to join in support of a fellow father who has lost his son. This hit me so personally that this review is going to end about here.
This is a joint production with Cape Town Opera Company. Director Tazewell Thompson, a distinguished black actor, directed the Cape Town production with South African actors and carried through to Cooperstown with the mostly American cast, though three South African performers had roles as invited members of the Young American Artists. Brandy Lynn Hawkins, an American mezzo-soprano who is relatively accomplished for one of the Young Artists, was moving as Irina, Absalom’s pregnant fiancée.
The music for the “opera” is partly original to the work and partly songs composed earlier. One of them is “Lover Man,” recast as “Trouble Man.” It is a lovely background to the play even when it isn’t truly integrated.
The Music Man: Robert Preston Re-incarnated
It must have been daunting for Dwayne Croft to recreate the role of “Professor” Harold Hill that the late Robert Preston created and owned through stage and motion picture productions. Not a problem for hometown guy and Glimmerglass alumnus Croft. He was almost Preston himself as the traveling salesman whose scam was to sell a town on creating a boys’ marching band, then skipping town after he’d collected the money for instruments and uniforms. Not only was he masterful in acting the role, but he added a well-developed singing voice.
As everyone knows, his scheme runs afoul of his heart when he actually falls in love with “Marian the librarian” whom he’d hoped only to romance, as he had a woman in every previous stop. Shirley Jones created that role in the super-popular movie version, but Elizabeth Futral made it her own in a different way. She’s a well-known (and lovely) lyric coloratura soprano, much more experienced than the young sopranos who usually fill such roles at Glimmerglass. Her refined operatic voice wasn’t at all out of place in a musical comedy, and she acted the part with charm and conviction.
The cast is large, so it offered many opportunities for Young Artist members. Four who took full advantage were Eric Bowden, Adam Bielamowicz, John David Boehr and Derrell Acon. They composed the constantly squabbling school board that Professor Hill quickly converted into a polished barbershop quartet. They said they couldn’t sing, but he convinced them that “singing is just extended talking.” Sure enough, they sang (and acted) great.
The opening number, “Salesmen on a Train,” was cast entirely with Young Artists except for Croft and anvil salesman Charlie Cowell (Wynn Harmon, an Equity actor) whose mission is to be Hill’s nemesis. It’s a highlight of every production.
The refrain, “he doesn’t know the territory,” and the description of how he works, sets up the whole story.
Another of the experienced Equity actors is Josh Walden who played Marcellus Washburn, a crony of Hill’s from the past who had settled in River City, and is on to his scheme and tries to help. With different comic talents from Buddy Hackett of the movie role, Walden added considerable and charming dancing skill. He also was associate choreographer (with director Marcia Milgrom Dodge). The entire production, including the scenery changes, was perfectly choreographed. Nobody took an unchoreographed step.
The 1957 premiere was set in 1912. This version was placed in 1946, perhaps to show how little the town had changed. It also made the casting for dance scenes easier. A few inconsistencies, such as Hill’s planned, but aborted, escape by carriage.
Most of the key roles, beyond Marian and Hill, were speaking ones (even though talented singers played them) and experienced actors played them flawlessly, including Jake Gardner as Mayor Shinn, Ernestine Jackson as his wife, Eulalie Mackecknie, and Cindy Gold as Mrs. Paroo, Marian’s mother. That is a singing role.
Two other Young Artists were wonderful in the important roles of Tommy Djilas and his girlfriend Zaneeta Shinn (the mayor’s eldest daughter). They are Allan K. Washington and Megan Ort.
Not a Young Artist, but definitely young, Henry Wager was a scene stealer as Winthrop, Marian’s lisping little brother, singing “Gary Indiana” (the supposed hometown of Professor Hill.
The final scene, in which Professor Hill is unmasked and about to be tarred and feathered and run out of town, is the happy ending to end all happy endings. After the impassioned testimony of Marian, who recounts all his efforts have done for the town, the band marches through the theater and onto the stage, dressed in snappy uniforms, Trained only by the “think system”, and whipped into some sort of shape by Tommy Djilas, they play a series of out-of-tune blats and squawks. The parents are consumed with pride at the accomplishments of their darlings.
All is well with Marian and Hill who is ready to settle down. It’s left to us to wonder if he actually will. The audience loved it; so did I.
2113 Season: Ideals Ideas of the Romantics
That’s the way Francesca Zambello described the next season. In cooperation with regular partner Fenimore Art Museum in Cooperstown and the added participation of nearby historic Hyde House, the three will present The Festival of American Romantics July 6 through August 24.
The new collaboration with Hyde Hall will offer readings of literary works by American Romantics, complemented by musical performances. Fenimore will show more than 45 works themed around the Hudson River School, along with a 30-painting loan exhibition of works of the Wyeth family.
Star power will continue with American baritone Nathan Gunn and his wife pianist Julie Gunn as Artists in Residence. Gunn will be Lancelot in Camelot, the Lerner-Loewe hit of 1960, a romantic story if there ever was one. Gunn is a leading figure in opera—known almost as much for his “heartthrob” appeal as his singing—but has done musical stage as well, most recently in Ms. Zambello’s production of Showboat with Lyric Opera of Chicago.
Two of the operas will be new productions of early works marking the 200th anniversary of the births of their authors: King for a Day by Giuseppe Verdi and The Flying Dutchman by Richard Wagner. The fourth program will be a twin bill of one-acts called Passions: David Lang’s Pulitzer-prize-winning The Little Match Girl Passion, and Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater.
King for a Day will be a new production of Verdi’s seldom seen comic opera. It centers on a decoy for the king who helps with the happy coupling of two young lovers and finds himself a pretty widow as his bride. It will be in an English adaptation by Kelley Rourke.
The Flying Dutchman will be a new Glimmerglass production directed by Ms. Zambello. It is inspired by the Hudson River School romantic vision that applies to the Glimmerglass Otsego Lake setting itself. There’s to be Metropolitan Opera gloss with conductor John Keenan who conducted Gotterdämmerung with Deborah Voigt, and Hunter Morris who was Siegfried in the Met’s 2012 Ring cycle.
Subscription renewals are already on sale. The box office is 607-547-2255. The website is www.glimmerglass.org.
Carousel is a great American musical—Time Magazine in 1999 called it the greatest—but it is also very much an opera. It was intended to be.
Glimmerglass produced it as both, and they couldn’t have done it better. Carousel is the second musical teaming the music of Richard Rodgers and book and lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II. Their first was Oklahoma, so they started as winners.
The story of the carousel barker, Billy Bigelow, and his wooing and marriage to Julie Jordan, calls for appealing actors who are accomplished singers. It found them in Roger McKinney and Andrea Carroll. They sang, in a way I can’t really describe, one of America’s favorite songs, “If I Loved You”. I can only say it sounded just right.
The story is set in coastal Maine in 1873, and there was no inappropriate updating. Billy Bigelow is a drunk, a bully, and a generally undesirable guy who is unable to relate to other people—except pretty young women. That makes him a success as a barker who attracts the girls to ride. It also makes him the unrequited love interest of the much older Mrs. Mullins who owns the carousel.
Julie Jordan is a pretty young mill worker who gets too much attention from Billy as she rides with her friends. When he puts her arm around her, that is too much for Mrs. Mullins (Rebecca Finnegan). She bans Julie and fires Billy. She doesn’t really mean it, but Billy never comes back. Julie takes to Billy, has a drink or two with him, and loses her job as well because there is a curfew for the mill girls and she is set on staying out late. Julie is given the chance to come in, but she decides not to.
The production called for pretty much the entire forces of the Glimmerglass company because the show includes large dance and chorus numbers. It isn’t just a lot of lusty singing. It calls for a wide range of emotions and expressing of motivations. Not a single song is simply belted out.
The show opens with a dance. Daniel Pelzig, who has worked with most of the major companies in America, choreographed it as a sort of vigorous calisthenics. It was effective, if a little confusing.
Julie and her friend Carrie Pipperidge (Sharin Apostolou) sing “You’re a Queer One, Julie Jordan” when Julie refuses to reveal how she feels about Billy. It’s pretty clear to us. Carrie’s the alternate female lead though she doesn’t get the hit songs. He love story is the opposite of Julie’s since she is in love with Enoch Snow, a hard-working ambitious fisherman who is the opposite of Billy. That brings the song, “When I Marry Mr. Snow.”
This is straightforward musical theater rather than semi-opera. I needn’t say over and over that it was very good: every song was.
That brings the hit of the show, “If I Loved You,” with Billy and Julie. We all know the song even if we can’t place where it came from. Great as it is, Carousel hasn’t been produced all that often by major companies in its nearly 70 years. After another Carrie and company song, Julie’s cousin Nettie Fowler (Deborah Nansteel) breaks out with the company in “June Is Bustin’ Out All Over”. It’s another song we all know and, I suspect, think it is from Oklahoma. Nettie runs a spa and is a key figure in the story. She’s sort of a stable center to the hardscrabble community. She also has taken in Julie and Billy. Miss Nansteel was so strong and so good that I had to check to see if she was another Young Artist. No, she isn’t, but she’s an alumna.
I won’t go into every song, but soon comes Billy’s “Soliloquy”. I didn’t remember its name, but when he sang “When my son is born,” it was achingly familiar. But what if it’s a girl? The song covers that too. Billy is dead before the sex of his child is known, in any case.
The annual community clambake is the next big event. (Hammerstein had to research this because he had no idea what a clambake was.) That’s a song for the company, a rousing one, but Billy and his fisherman friend Jigger Craigin (Ben Edquist) plan to use the event as cover to sneak away and hold up David Bascombe (actor Drew Taylor), the mill owner, as he makes his daily cash deposit in his bank. Billy, reluctant at first, agrees it is the only way he can make money to support his wife and unborn child.
Julie realizes Billy is planning to sneak away with Jigger, and she even feels the knife under his shirt and begs him to give it to her. But he can't be stopped. He’s determined to go to his doom. In the attempted holdup, Mr. Bascombe, who’d already made the bank deposit, is way too smart for the hapless holdup team. He draws a gun, calls the town cop, and holds Billy at gunpoint as the human Satan, Jigger, runs away. Billy, distraught, kills himself with the stolen knife.
Julie rushes in before he dies and is able, finally, to tell him she loves him. Her friends try to console her, and Nettie arrives to sing “You’ll Never Walk Alone.” It’s a tearjerker, and was meant to be.
Rodgers and Hammerstein needed a happier ending than in the play (Liliom) on which Carousel is based, so they came up with the idea that Billy be told by the Starkeeper (Mr. God in Liliom) to wait outside the gates of Heaven until he gets the chance to do something good for someone. As long as someone on Earth remembers him, he’ll be able to return once. He gets the chance at the high school graduation of the daughter he’s never seen. At the graduation, Dr. Seldon, the graduation speaker (he bears a remarkable resemblance to Starkeeper) urges the entire assemblage to sing the “old song,” “You’ll Never Walk Alone.” Fifteen years have passed on Earth, but, of course, there is no time in Heaven.
Billy encounters his daughter, telling her he was a friend of her father and that the father wasn’t truly the wife-beating rotter that everyone says. It helps her overcome her inability to relate to people, and Billy gets a chance to enter Heaven by the back door. Hey, sometimes you really have to reach to come up with a happy ending to a sad story.
The musical is based on a play, Liliom, by Hungarian Ferenc Molnár, premiered in Budapest in 1909. But unlike the situation of Tobias Picker and Gene Scheer with An American Tragedy (Theodore Dreiser, author of the novel, had died in 1952, more than 50 years before the opera project), Molnár was alive, had become an American citizen and was living in the United States. They needed his permission, and he was notoriously tight with his rights. They took him to see Oklahoma, and he was impressed. But he resisted some of the changes they wanted to make. It all worked out, and he even helped with some of the proposed story changes.
Le Nozze di Figaro:The Voice is the Thing
Reviewed by Ronald G. Precup
There are so many facets to opera that it is easy to overlook what matters most: great singing. How fortunate for us that the Washington National Opera did not overlook it in mounting a memorable, lively production of Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro that never let down, from the opening notes of the overture through the concluding ensemble. Brisk tempi and a single intermission for this four-act opera resulted in a three-hour, six-minute evening that seemed even shorter.
Though none of the singers is – at least yet – a marquee name, one would be hard put to cast better voices, more attractive actors, or a better fit among principals than in this sparkling production.
As with most grand operas, an instrumental overture preceded the singing, and it was the first clue that this was anything but humdrum. Conductor Patrick Fournillier, mak-ing his company debut, set an uncommonly swift, exciting, but entirely controlled pace. The WNO orchestra never missed a beat.
The tempo proved less than ideal for the opening duet between Russian bass Ildar Abdrazakov’s Figaro and Argentinian soprano Veronica Cangemi’s Susanna, leaving them working too hard to produce a lyrical sound. After that “warm up,” though, the pair hit their stride and provided nothing but the most pleasing, idiomatic singing.
Abdrazakov, a spry, engaging Figaro, held forth with just the right balance of wit, cunning, and slapstick to command the center of attention without going overboard. Cangemi seemed the very embodiment of Susanna, flirtatious, strong-willed, tender, inhabiting the set with easy grace, all the while singing impeccably.
New Zealand baritone Teddy Tahu Rhodes was ideally suited to the role of Count Almaviva. Standing tall, feet apart, arms akimbo, with shoulder-length hair and a sometimes open shirt, he portrayed the most Don Giovanni-like Almaviva imagin-able. His bold, resonant voice perfectly matched his swashbuckling manner, and his hold on the women in the audience seemed as powerful as his hold on the Countess, Barbarina, and even Susanna on stage.
Argentinian soprano Virginia Tola brought a youthful, yet noble and dignified mien to the Countess. Though the tempo for her aria “Porgi amor,” unlike the pacing of the rest of the opera, was too slow to carry the musical line, “Dove sono” floated poignantly and beautifully through the opera house, holding the audience in thrall. Tola and Cangemi together struck the ideal balance of mistress and chambermaid, fully realizing the complexity of their relationship, equal in intelligence and character, if disparate in station.
Mezzo soprano Michèle Losier as Cherubino sang well, with a straight-forward reading of the sometimes exaggerated role. Like the opening duet, her “Non so più” was rushed to the detriment of its lyricism, but that must fall to the conductor, not Losier.
Victoria Livengood simply sang and acted the spots off the role of Marcellina, her huge voice filling the hall and her comedic sense adding immeasurably to the success of the production. Bass Valeriano Lanchas was an uninspired Bartolo, not quite up to the excellence of the rest of the cast. Tenor Robert Baker’s Basilio was the quirky, silly characterization Baker does so well, and soprano Emily Albrink delighted as a sweet, endearing Barbarina.
Harry Silverstein’s stage direction was classic, never imposing out-of-time or out-of-place idiosyncrasies for their own sake, but laying out the Mozart masterpiece with the greatest respect for its art. As a result, the inherent humor and the brilliant and beautiful music shone through in the best of operatic tradition.
Falstaff: Verdi’s Last Opera No Laughing Matter
by Ronald G. Precup
An excellent supporting cast barely managed to survive baritone Alan Opie’s lackluster title character in the Washington National Opera’s dis-appointing production of Giuseppe Verdi’s final and perhaps greatest masterpiece, Falstaff. The operatic comedy, fashioned from parts of Shakespeare’s Henry plays and The Merry Wives of Windsor, is a delightful panoply of musical forms and parodies, but it demands a larger-than-life Falstaff, and Opie did not provide it.
Vocally, Opie was certainly adequate for the role, earning high passing marks for tone quality, pitch, and precision. His acting, though, was far too restrained to convey the breadth – physically and dramatically – of his complex character. Better suited to the introspective aria “Va, vecchio John,” Opie’s characterization was reserved when it needed to be expansive, straitened when it needed to be broad, constrained when it needed to be free. That simply left too much for the rest of the cast to do.
The opera’s inherent brilliance got little help from the play-within-a-play conceit director Christian Räth imposed on a work that didn’t need it. The conceit did nothing to deepen the audience’s understanding of the characters, the plot, or the music. It seemed to be little more than a difference for difference’s sake, seldom a good reason to “improve” a proven work of art.
Other directorial failings robbed the opera of some of its funniest moments. In the final scene, with the townspeople, costumed like various spirits of the forest to taunt and frighten Falstaff down from his throne of self-importance, singing “pizzica, stuzzica” (“poke him, stick him”), there was no poking or sticking. That left flat and meaning-less Verdi’s hilarious musical parody that Falstaff sings on the Latin hymn “Salva me, Domine” (“Save me, Lord”): “Ma salvagli addomine” (“But save my belly”).
The stalwart supporting cast did much to salvage the production. Tenor Robert Leggate, fondly remembered for his sensitive portrayal of Starry Vere in WNO’s Billy Budd of 2004, sang a subtler, deeper Dr. Caius than is usually heard. Chinese tenor Yingxi Zhang used his youthful, lovely voice to project a lithe and handsome Fenton, perfectly matched by the sweet soprano voice of the comely German-born Micaela Oeste.
Baritone Timothy Mix sang and acted a multifaceted Ford, strongly into the plot and interacting fully with the other characters. Aided by a powerful stage presence, he proved more a personage than the title character. Mezzo-soprano Nancy Maultsby pleased as Mistress Quickly. Her clear voice, agile bear-ing, and wonderful sense of the comic contributed to a memorable performance. Elizabeth Bishop’s Mrs. Page, Tamara Wilson’s Alice Ford, David Cangelosi’s Bardolfo, and Grigory Soloviov’s Pistola were all well-cast and helped salvage what was otherwise a humdrum pro-duction.
Hayden Griffin’s sets did a lot with little, and the giant oak that forms the backdrop for the final scene was particularly well done. Sebastian Lang-Lessing’s conducting was tradi-tional, exacting competent but uninspired sounds from the company’s orchestra.
The large chorus, superbly prepared by chorus master Steven Gathman, was unerring in its diction, timing, precision, and stage movement. Like the supporting cast, it did a lot to save the production from mediocrity.
Falstaff is a large work requiring a dramatically large title character and a large directorial vision to be successful. Both elements were lacking here, and the result was sadly predictable.
Although perhaps not Puccini’s most popular opera, Turandot, incomplete at the composer’s death, is generally recognized as his best. Beginning with an exotic fable from a faraway land, Puccini weaves some of his most haunting, potent, compelling music to portray the melting of the ice princess of ancient China.
This review takes in the final performance, the only one conducted by WNO general director Placido Domingo. Unfortunately, the second cast sang, and the combination was not a happy one.
Any assessment of a Turandotproduction must start with the title character, a role so powerful that it took Wagnerian sopranos like Inge Borkh and Birgit Nilsson to do it justice. No Mimis need apply. Based on her earlier fine performances a Salome and Tosca, French soprano Sylvie Valerie has a strong and lovely voice and more than a little acting ability. As Turandot, she sang her notes on time and on pitch, but with little else. Nothing in her singing or acting brought any magic to the stage. The audience never had a chance to experience the high drama and tension of the signature aria, “In questa reggia,” because Valerie never provided it.
Tenor Franco Farina fared far worse, though, as Calaf, Turandot’s success-ful suitor. He barked and strained his way through the opera with a most unpleasant voice, doing almost no acting and seeming careless of the role he was paid to sing. His rendition of the overwhelmingly popular “Nessun dorma” lacked fire, intensity, and any other quality that might have raised it above the purely mundane.
Domingo’s conducting suffered from what appeared to be a lack of rehearsal time, and the tempos, dynamics, and entrances the cast had gotten used to under the baton of Keri-Lynn Wilson, who led the other seven performances, were different enough under Domingo to lead to a raggedness and lack of precision that were all too amateurish for this city and company. Never did Domingo seem to have a clear idea of where the work was going.
Latvian soprano Maija Kovalevska was as infected with ennui as the rest of the cast as Liu, especially in the first act’s “Signore, ascolta”. By the time of her torture and death scene in Act Three, the intensity of her acting and the warmth of her voice had markedly improved.
Ping, Pang, and Pong, ably and delightfully sung by baritone Nathan Herfindahl, tenor Norman Shankle, and tenor Yingxi Zhang, easily proved to be the high point of the production. They were lively, en-gaged, enthusiastic and most enter-taining. More importantly, they performed so superbly in ensemble that they might have been perform-ing their roles together for years.
Bass Morris Robinson gave an affecting, tender performance as Calaf’s blind, deposed father. Tenor Robert Baker was his usual, accomp-lished self as the Emperor Altuom. Ukranian baritone Oleksandr Pushniak did not measure up, delivering the stentorian announce-ment of the Mandarin with poor Italian pronunciation and a lackluster voice.
The chorus, except for the conducting problems already men-tioned that were not the singers’ fault, was a massive, focused mount-ain of sound, filling the important role with force and decisiveness.
The production, that of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, is now 25 years old. Its one-time inno-vations are no longer new, and they add little to either the story or the staging’s entertainment value. The chorus was sometimes used as an audience to the unfolding events and sometimes as a participant. The conceit seemed superfluous at best.
The first cast, conductor included, provided an acceptable level of performance to this great opera.Washington audiences deserve much more than the poor facsimile of this second cast.
Glimmerglass Opera is the highlight of my summer, and this year was no exception, although it had to share top billing with the Santiago de Compostela Camino. That’s a story for another time. This season, the production I most looked forward to wasTolomeo, one of the many Italian operas composed in England by the German George Frideric Handel in the early 1700s, before he went on to compose the great oratorios so popular today.
Glimmerglass, near Cooperstown in rural upstate New York, is within a day’s drive of probably 100 million people, yet it is in an isolated world best known for the National Museum of Baseball. I saw all four of its productions Aug. 13 through 15.
Tolomeo: This was the professionally-staged American premiere of the work which seems like an early draft of Handel’s masterpiece Giulio Cesare in Egitto, done by the company in 2008. It actually was produced four years later and is an entirely different take on the fictional stories of the son of Cleopatra III. Nicola Francesco Haym was librettist for both.
In this version, Tolomeo, deprived of his right to be co-ruler of Egypt by his mother and his brother, Alessandro, is in exile, living secretly in disguise in Cyprus. Pretty soon just about the whole family, except for Mom, turns up but no one seems to recognize anybody as romance blooms between the “wrong” parties.
The tangled web provides opportunity for a steady stream of beautiful arias, many of them sung by Anthony Roth Costanzo, the young countertenor who impressed last year as the Sorceress in Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas. Handel wrote many leading roles for the great castrato Senesino, so there are great opportunities for modern counter-tenors. Costanzo made the most of this one.
The arias, as the program explains, are in the da capo form in which the first statement is followed by a contrasting section and then a return to the first. Emotional development is shown by musical embellishment. Handel, however, didn’t specify what that embellishment should be. Nor did he leave behind music to accompany the recitatives between the arias. Conductor Christian Curnyn, with assistance from David Moody, did himself and the fine orchestra proud.
As for embellishment, the surprise for me was Julie Boulianne, the French-Canadian mezzo-soprano who played the lead last year in Rossini’s La Cenerentola. Her singing then was lovely, but it lacked the coloratura so often associated with the role. This time she offered coloratura in spades. Perhaps the red wig her character wore inspired the difference.
Tosca: My three-day tour of the repertory began with Giacomo Puccini’sTosca. The suffering and death of a beautiful woman, and the sublimely beautiful music she gets to sing along the way characterize the greatest of Puccini’s operas. Though the title character is an opera diva, she has just one major aria and mostly has to act out her jealous nature. Lise Lindstrom fully met that challenge.
Although Tosca is the reigning diva of the Rome opera stage, she is also a kind of “bird in a gilded cage,’ who must do the bidding of the ruling powers. Those powers are personalized in the character of Baron Scarpia who, as chief of the security police, is the operative power. He’s determined to seduce Tosca with as little force as possible. The best interpretations of the role lead Tosca to feel some attraction to him even as he is threatening to execute artist lover, Mario Calvaradossi. Despite fine singing, Lester Lynch’s Scarpia didn’t reach that level.
Where Handel left a lot to the musicians to improvise, Puccini specified fine detail, especially for the bells that play important roles in expressing emotional and dramatic moments in several scenes. Joel Morain, audio/visual coordinator, adapted recordings of bells and chime sounds specified by Puccini so a percussionist could play them on a drum pad and output through 14 speakers. He did this to great success.
It should be noted that the singers are never miked, and are heard without speakers between them and the audience.
The Marriage of Figaro is a Mozart masterpiece, and one of the most frequently produced of all operas today. So, alas, it doesn’t lend itself to new and original interpretation. Glimmerglass, thankfully, didn’t try. At least that’s how I saw it.
The action centers—swirls is more like it—around Count Almaviva who has designs on the naïve Susanna, serving maid to the countess and bride-to-be of Figaro, the count’s valet. The happy couple, and, indeed, his whole household and village conspire to thwart, deceive and humiliate the count. But he is frustrated most of all by his innate decency.
“I know all that,” you are probably thinking: “cut to the chase.” You want to know how the countess handled Dove Sono, one of the great arias in opera. I’m happy to report Caitlin Lynch was wonderful. I get goose bumps writing about it now, several weeks later. The countess gets two arias while Susanna (Lyubov Petrova) just one, but Susanna is the center of the action and gets lots of singing in ensembles. Petrova, a young Russian who was a magnificent Cleopatra in Giulio Cesare, was a fine Susanna. But dramatic roles show off her talent better than broad comedy.
Patrick Carfizzi was an excellent Figaro, both in voice and comedy. The force of romantic obsession that knits the action together—or shreds it, depending on your point of view—is Cherubino. He’s the Puck-like character who is page to the count and would-be lover to just about every woman, but primarily the countess (incidentally, his godmother). Aurhelia Varak played the role to perfection, making the character almost believable even though it is just a 13-year-old boy being played by a woman. It’s a singing role, but only the acting made an impression on me.
The Tender Land: More than 50 years after its world premiere, Aaron Copland’s slender work is having something of a renewal, especially among regional theater. This was the third production of the little-known work that I’ve seen. As Copland intended, it was cast entirely with young singers, in this case all members of the Glimmerglass Young American Artists program.
The opera is fine, typical Copland music and a not-very-strong play by the famous dancer Erik Johns with whom Copland lived at the time. Johns used the pen name Horace Everett, for some reason. On a superficial level it is a story of the farmer’s daughter and the traveler. In this case it is about Laurie Moss who is about to become her family’s first high school graduate.
Loved, but suffocated, in the household headed by her grandfather, she is anxious to break away. The chance comes along in the persons of two wandering young men who happen by looking for work, and the farm has that to offer with the spring harvest coming in. One thing leads to another and Grandpa Moss catches Laurie and Martin, one of the travelers, in a tender moment that is no more than a kiss. The young men are ordered to leave before daybreak and do that, leaving Laurie, who was to join them, behind with suitcase in hand.
With an aria that is the vocal highpoint of the opera, which otherwise offers few, Laurie decides to leave anyway. Laurie is a difficult role, and Lindsay Russell carried it off with convincing style. Young Artists play many roles at Glimmerglass, including those of characters much older than themselves. Always they look the part; a credit to Anne Ford-Coates, responsible for hair and makeup in all productions.
Glimmerglass performances almost always end with the audience (increased this year over last) on its feet and applauding with enthusiasm. The Tender Land audience stayed seated, but I think that is more because the opera doesn’t end with grand and dramatic music rather than any dissatisfaction with the performance.
A Preview of the Glimmerglass 2011 Season
You can count on fresh performances by talented young artists at Glimmerglass, but one doesn’t expect to hear a world-famous diva. Until now.
Next season, Deborah Voigt has signed on as the first Artist in Residence, and will sing the lead in Annie Get Your Gun. Who would have expected that! She’ll make other appearances outside of the main productions as well as mentoring. I can’t wait.
A new general and artistic director takes over from Michael MacLeod, Francesca Zambello, who comes from San Francisco Opera. She’s an American, grew up in Europe, has vast international credits yet has a local connection in that she is a graduate of Colgate University, about 45 minutes west of the theater.
She says it will be Glimmerglass Festival rather than merely opera, although each season has been called “festival season” right along and features a Festival Weekend as well as a Seminar Weekend. “My goal is to have a variety of offerings so you can come to a concert or reading in the afternoon, have a picnic, go to the opera, and stay afterward for a cabaret,” she says in a statement released by the theater.
In any case the new season, in addition to the musical with Ms. Voigt, is: Bizet’s Carmen, Cherubini’s Medea,and a double-bill about American artists. A Blizzard at Marblehead Neck, a Glimmerglass-commissioned work, by composer Jeanine Tesori, who usually writes for the musical stage, and librettist playwright Tony Kushner, will be a world premiere. The other half of the bill will be the professional premiere of Later the Same Evening, based on five paintings by Edward Hopper, by John Musto and Mark Campbell.
Shakespeare in Spirit if Not in Word
by Ed Cloos
In its 34th season, Glimmerglass Opera at Cooperstown in upstate New York applied its trademark youth-powered ensemble skills to the world of Shakespeare. The result was joy upon joy. The Shakespeare theme was emphasized in John Conklin’s set, a representation of his Globe Theater, that was used in all productions. Conklin, who includes Opera Theater St. Louis in his credits, retires from Glimmerglass after 18 seasons.
I was able to experience the entire season over three days, an opportunity that will be even more available next season when the season is condensed, beginning two weeks later (July 18) but still including 39 productions compared with 41 this year. It will conclude Aug. 25.
It would be impossible to single out one as the best, but I’ll do it. Every performance was rewarded with extremely enthusiastic audience response, but Vincenzo Bellini’s I Capuletti e I Montecchi brought the audience to its feet, shouting and cheering. Me too. It is the familiar story of Romeo and Juliet, but based on the sources Shakespeare used rather than the classic play itself.
The production was on the murky side. Costumes were of no particular period, lighting was dark, weapons used by the warring factions were symbolic in form: gray sticks rather than swords. Against this back-ground, the luminous doomed couple glowed in their music and in their persons: Giulietta, played by Sarah Coburn, and a career-boosting per-formance by cover Emily Righter, a member of the Young American Artists program. Her Romeo captured the physical aspects (he’s the warrior-leader of the Montecchi) and the warm sensuality of her singing stirred the audience. She was rewarded with a rave in The New York Times, and I second the view. She did about half of the performances in place of Sandra Piques Eddy who was indisposed. I didn’t hear Miss Eddy, but the favorable New Yorker review called her Romeo "ferocious."
The rich beauty of Miss Coburn (herself once one of the Young Artists) was stunning in voice and person as she sang her lovely first-act aria reclining on a bench and even lying on her back, filling the Alice Busch Theater where all voices are free of amplification.
Her following duet with Romeo, ending in a kiss, matched glowing beauty with warm and sensitive strength. The act ended with Romeo, who had come to meet the Capuletti in the guise of his own emissary, proposing peace to be sealed by the marriage of Romeo and Giuletta. In a complex and beautiful quintet, backed by the chorus, Romeo and Giulietta state their case, while the principal players on the Capuletti side express their implacable objection.
It’s more or less based on Measure for Measure, the Bard’s tale of justice restored. He set it in Vienna, but Wagner put it back in Sicily where the original story first appeared. There it contrasts the stern temperament of the German deputy to the absent King of Sicily, with the easy-going warmth of the natives. There’s a connection with the Bellini opera in that Wagner had conducted it while working on his own. Bellini, 12 years older, was an accomplished composer at the time while Wagner was showing just intimations of his mature greatness. We don’t know what Bellini might have done when truly mature because he died in 1835 before his 34th birthday.
Such a singer is Laura Vlasak Nolen. She carried off the role of Julius Caesar with easy strength and her lovely mezzo-soprano tone. Caesar was invulnerable to all enemies, but not to affairs of the heart. Russian soprano Lyubov Petrova displayed such beauty of voice and person that it was easy to believe her Cleopatra could lead so mighty a man almost to his doom and then share his eventual triumph.
You’ll remember that the Cole Porter musical is about a travelling theater company that is producing Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew. It’s mostly about "off-stage" goings on but contains the only actual Shakespeare lines of the "Shakespeare" season. As staged, the troupe has arrived in Cooperstown and local references are added.
Brad Little was a handsome and commanding Fred Graham, the overbearing director, and Petruchio, the suitor of Kate in the play. Lisa Vroman was perfect as Lilli Vanessi, the prima donna who plays Kate. To me she resembles a young Julie Andrews only with a stronger, more operatic voice. Their characters have been divorced a year.
On the surface, it is hard to accept that the way to a woman’s heart is through repeated and rather brutal spanking, but the deeper story is the love that is revealed as the show progresses.
We know all the songs, but haven’t heard them much lately. It was a great chance to "Brush Up on Your Shakespeare" even when "It’s Too Darn Hot." And it’s "Wunderbar" to be "So In Love" even if the object of your affection may be "Always True to You in My Fashion." And so forth.
Important and entertaining supporting roles were contributed by Courtney Romano as Lois Lane/Bianca, and Michael Mott and Bradley Nact as gangsters, sent to collect a gambling debt, who practically stole the show with their "Brush Up on Your Shakespeare" which threatened never to leave the stage.
On the weekend I was there, Little and Miss Vroman, who are experienced Equity actors, returned to the stage on Sunday morning to read the appropriate Shakespeare text for Mendelssohn’s Incidental Music for A Midsummer Night’s Dream. This gem of a concert got the orchestra out of the pit and onto the stage. In addition to the spoken parts, there were lovely solos by soprano Caitlin Lynch and mezzo soprano Angela Brower, both members of the Young American Artists program which also supplied a fine chorus.
The orchestra is a solid and respected collection of professional union musicians that performed equally well with four different conductors.
Glimmerglass Opera, (607) 547-2255,glimmerglass.org.