intermissionmag.com

Opera Reviews

July 2017

Albert Herring
Union Avenue Opera

Saint Louis

Ran July 7, 8, 14, 15

Reviewed by Joan Leyden

Try to imagine a charming, funny, beautifully realized production of what has been called “the greatest comic opera of the century” (Sviatoslav Richter), and you will have some idea of the enjoyment awaiting you at the Union Avenue Opera.

First the story:  The autocratic, moralizing Lady Billows has summoned the local authorities in her village to choose a May Queen, but no young woman can be found virtuous enough...

Click here for the full review!

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March 2017

Dead Man Walking:
Great Leads Make Grim Story Come Alive
Pensacola Opera

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.

The opera about the execution of a man convicted with his brother of the murder...

Click here for the full review...


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August 2016

Glimmerglass Festival 2016

Latest Edition Shows Chorus Becoming Major Asset

Reviewed by Ed Cloos

Seen August 12-14

As always, this summer’s season provided high-level solo and ensemble performances, but it also demonstrated the steadily growing strength of its musical core—especially the chorus, under the leadership of David Mooney.

From this aisle seat, special pleasure was enjoyed from Rachele Gilmore in The Thieving Magpie, Jamie Barton in The Crucible, and Luretta Bybee in Sweeney Todd, and they are far from the only ones.

Then there was dance-choreographer Meg Gillentine as Magpie. She didn’t sing a note but almost stole the show, except that no one can do that from Miss Gilmore.

Here’s a rundown, in the order in which I saw them on a very hot weekend in August...

CLICK HERE FOR FULL REVIEW...


May 2016

Washington National Opera

Wagner’s The Ring of the Nibelung: Challenge Met with Smashing Success

Reviewed by Ed Cloos
Seen April 30 - May 2, 2016


Richard Wagner’s Ring Cycle is a challenge as formidable as any an opera company can face. WNO carried it off with smashing success.

The stories of the myth of the Nibelung and the gold that was stolen from nature in the form of the Rhine River are many, and Wagner studied them for years as he sketched out his opera in three parts plus a prologue. He took 26 years to complete the approximately 17 hours of music, so it’s hardly surprising that took a decade to bring it to the Kennedy Center stage.

Artistic Director Francesca Zambello chose to bring the action into the Industrial Age. That's been done before, and the best that can be said is it didn't do much harm. That's an achievement in itself since the story involves the interactions between mortals and a "race" of multiple gods. The mortals prove to be...



November 2015


Washington National Opera

Appomattox:
A Grand Pageant Traces Continuing Rights Struggle

Reviewed by Ed Cloos
Seen November 20, 2015

Appomattox is a grand pageant of history, supported by inventive music. Does that make it an opera? That's difficult to answer since an opera usually dramatizes in music the romance, rise and fall, heroism, tragic fault or, at least, adventure of a human or group of people. In the case of Appomattox the character at its heart is racial equality as exemplified by voting rights.

WNO's world premiere of the second version of the expansive Philip Glass-Christopher Hampton work is a genuine opera, but it tells a story that has yet...

CLICK HERE FOR FULL REVIEW...


October 2015


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.

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Carmen
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.

This Carmen was directed by...

CLICK HERE FOR THE FULL REVIEW! 


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August 2015

Glimmerglass Festival 2015

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.


May 2015

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!


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Washington National Opera

Cinderella

Beautiful Music, Timeless Humor,

Closes Season in Creative Production

Reviewed by Ed Cloos
Seen Opening Night, May 9, 2015

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.

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September 2014


Washington National Opera 2014-15

Season Opens with Mystical
Tale of Love in the Rainforest

Reviewed by Ed Cloos
Seen September 26

Florencia in the Amazon is a fanciful gem of an opera about love in its many forms. WNO opened its 2014-15 season with a beautiful interpretation that rang true. It seemed perfect.

How could it not? Director Francesca Zambello was instrumental in creation of the opera in the early 1990s as a commission of Houston Grand Opera, and co-commissioned by LA Opera, and Seattle Opera. And she directed the premiere production in Houston in 1996. It was an immediate success with audiences, and has been in many productions since. But this was the first in Washington.

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.

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Glimmerglass Festival 2014

Too Many Highlights to Choose;

Plans for 40th Season Next Year

By Ed Cloos

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

Ariadne in Naxos: ‘High’ Art Meets 'Low' in a Brilliant Way

Reviewed by Ed Cloos

Seen August 8

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<<



June 2014

Opera Theatre of St. Louis 2014

Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas Come Alive in Commissioned “27”

Reviewed by Ed Cloos

Seen June 17

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.


**********************

March 2014

Moby Dick

Washington National Opera

Kennedy Center

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.

***  **  ***  **  ***

Glimmerglass Festival 2013

A Celebration of Romanticism in Opera and Musical Theater

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.

Pergolesi’s famous
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.

**  *  ***  **  ***  **  ***  *  **

On a "sad note"...


We are sad to note the loss of one of our longtime and beloved critics, Ronald G. Precup, who had been a major contributor to the opera section of intermissionmag.com and Intermission Magazine print publication, covering the art form for us from Washington, DC for almost 30 years. All of us at intermissionmag.com offer our sincere condolences to his family. We will miss him but his contributions to the arts will not be forgotten.

The following obituary is being re-printed from catholicherald.com:

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.

**  ***  *  ***  **  ***  *  ***  **


Glimmerglass Festival


 Summer Festival 2012

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.

September 2014

Glimmerglass Festival 2014
(continued from center column)

Carousel: American Classic Is Both Musical and Opera

Reviewed by Ed Cloos

Seen August 10

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.



Washington National Opera


May 2010


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.

November 2009


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.

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A DisappointingTurandotConcludes the Season

by Ronald G. Precup

 

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.

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Verdi’s La Traviata: Third Time Charmed

by Ronald G. Precup

First heard in 1997 and repeated in 2004, the current production of Washington National Opera’s season opener, Verdi’s beloved La Traviata, might be expected to show fraying edges. On the contrary, to Washington’s good fortune, brilliant casting and an exceptionally well-executed performance made the show outshine its predecessors by a wide and happy margin.

Soprano Elizabeth Futral, who, by the way, did a great job singing the National Anthem at a Nationals Park baseball game just before the opera season opened, was a com-plete Violetta. She was by turns flighty, sympathetic, and ultimately tragic, enduing the role with depth of character and gracing it with the highest level of intelligent and sensitive musicianship. The part lends itself to melodrama, but Futral avoided excess and at the same time brought out all its heartbreak honestly and credibly.

Mexican tenor Arturo Chacón-Cruz, heard the last two seasons in Mariusz Trelinski’s bizarre productions of Puccini operas that clearly hampered his style, sounded and acted more at ease in this traditional Marta Domingo staging than in those earlier works. Clarity of tone and strong, easy high notes marked his able and satisfying performance.

Georgian baritone Lado Ataneli sang a rather stiff elder Germont, maintaining his formal, icy bearing throughout the dramatic second-act duet with Violetta. One could detect little change in his feelings toward her even after she demonstrated how much she was sacrificing in order to protect his good name. Ataneli’s was a valid if unorthodox treatment of the character, and it stood him in good stead in the final scene, where he could show a genuine conversion of heart toward the young couple. He did tend, though, to have minor pitch problems all evening.

Mezzo-soprano Margaret Thompson, a memorable Suzuki in Trelinski’s 2006Madama Butterfly, sang a suitable, pleasing Flora. Of the smaller roles, soprano Micaela Oeste, a new member of the Domingo-Cafritz Young Artist Program, stood out as convincing, stalwart Annina. Tenors Yingxi Zhang as Gastone and J. Austin Bitner as Guiseppe, baritones Nathan Herfindahl as Baron Douphol and Oleksander Pushniak as Dr. Grenvil, and bass Grigory Soloviov as Marquis D’Obigny filled out a top-quality cast.

Marta Domingo’s stage direction varied only slightly from the 1997 and 2004 presentations, classical, solid, and wholly appropriate to the heart of the opera. Giovanni Agostinucci’s sets and costumes, despite the overt treatment of Flora’s place as a house of ill repute decorated in prostitution red, were generally fitting. Setting Violetta’s first-act party in a garden was done imaginatively and beautifully.

The choreography of Sara Erde was much more effective than that of prior years, largely because of solo dancer Eric Rivera, who made the gypsy and toreador entertainment at Flora’s party truly engaging.

The chorus, many of whom had appeared in this production before, sang in their usual clear and forceful manner. Strangely, the program gave no credit to a chorusmaster.

Israeli conductor Dan Ettinger, making his company debut, used the occasion to stamp his mark on the production, introducing tempi and dynamic contrasts not usually heard in this staple of the operatic repertoire. He generally held the large on-stage forces together with the orchestra, no mean feat. Ettinger kept a fast but not frenetic pace going throughout the evening, and its effect was salutary, leaving one with the sense that a wonderful opera had gone by all too soon.


Bizet’s The Pearl Fishersa Pleasant Surprise

by Ronald G. Precup

Georges Bizet’s The Pearl Fishers is anything but a first-rate opera, its Ceylon setting not particularly exotic, and its libretto shallow even by 19th-century standards. The music, though, is a different story, having sweet melodies set well for voices and masterfully orchestrated. When sung by the accomplished and well-matched voices the Washington National Opera selected for its second Fall 2008 production, the result exceeded expectations.

French soprano Norah Amsellem led the cast as Leila, the virgin priestess whose prayers are expected to protect the village pearl fishers from the perils of the sea. Not only does she possess a heavenly voice and keen sense of musicianship, but her physical appearance requires no suspension of disbelief regarding why lifelong friends would fall out vying for her affections. Her bare-midriff costume, so comely on her, is something few sopranos could get away with wearing.

Baritone Trevor Scheunemann, a product of the Domingo-Cafritz Young Artist Program, was particularly well cast as Zurga, one of the rivals. He combined impeccable French – a difficult language to sing in all events – a rich, even, burnished voice, and an acting ability that brought life to this often cardboard character. His stature and natural stage presence only added luster to this most pleasing performance.

Tenor Charles Castronovo, as the other rival for Leila’s affections, Nadir, took no back seat to Amsellem or Scheunemann either in vocal excellence or acting ability. He produced the highest notes equally well in head voice or full voice. And since Nadir ultimately gets the girl – the tenor always does, after all – his character is more sympathetic than that of the village’s leader, Zurga.

Far and away the best-known music in the opera is the Zurga-Nadir duet, “At the foot of the holy temple” (Au fond du temple saint). It can bring down any house even if done merely acceptably. In the hands of Scheunemann and Castronovo, however, the effect was electric. The lone weak voice among the four principals belonged to Russian bass Denis Sedov as the stern, unbending high priest Nourabad. His was a woofy, unfocused sound, often seeming tentative, that fell far below the high musical standard set by the others. His wooden acting did nothing to redeem the character.

Judging from this production, as well as the season opener, La Traviata, the WNO has put some effort into improving the quality of the company’s choreography. French audiences of the 19th century demanded dance in their operas, and Bizet obliged with a great deal of it in The Pearl Fishers. Choreographer John Malashock and assistant Michael Mizerany gave much to do to the twelve-member dance team, who executed it beautifully.

British fashion designer Zandra Rhodes was responsible for both the colorful costumes and the imagin-ative sets of this production, which originated with the San Diego Opera and Michigan Opera Theatre. Her prominent billing was well deserved.

Australian Andrew Sinclair has directed this Pearl Fishers not only with the two companies just mentioned, but also with the San Francisco, Florida Grand, and New York City Operas, and will soon take it to Montreal. It is unusual for any production to be so well traveled, but Sinclair is fully justified by the fine result he has achieved with it.

Good control and a lively pace marked the conducting of Italian Giuseppe Grazioli. This is the first time this reviewer has heard him conduct. Most of his work has been in Europe. The WNO should ensure his early return.

The Steven Gathman-prepared chorus sounded even fuller and clearer than usual. The chorus is undoubtedly one of the WNO’s most valuable assets.

 _____________________________

Lucrezia Borgia:
Donizetti Betrayed

by Ronald G. Precup

Despite the presence of over-whelmingly popular American soprano Renée Fleming in the title role and seven sold-out perform-ances, the Washington National Opera’s new production of Donizetti’s Lucrezia Borgia distorted the historical opera, based on a play by Victor Hugo, beyond recognition. One would hope this one never again sees the light of day.

The fault lies entirely with director John Pascoe, whose “vision” of the work turned the relationship between Lucrezia’s unacknowledged son Gennaro and his comrade-in-arms Maffio Orsini explicitly and publicly homosexual. One need not have a doctorate in history to realize that in Renaissance Italy, where the story is set, let alone on the 19th-century Italian opera stage, one would never find male lovers kissing each other on the mouth or fondling each other’s behinds as one did in this travesty. Pascoe’s misapprehension of the history and the esthetic of the work did violence to it and relegated whatever remaining artistic value it might have had to the back burner. The Borgias and their contemporaries were no saints, but Pascoe’s mistaking the friendship of fellow combatants for homoerotic love is beyond the pale.

It was perhaps a blessing to those with traditional sensibilities in the audience that Orsini is a trouser role, sung by American mezzo soprano Kate Aldrich, so that the interplay between Orsini and Gennaro was less unsettling than it might have been. Aldrich, though, was not a very convincing boy, and although she handled the role acceptably well, she did not give a vocal performance that left one wanting to hear her again.

Tenor Vittorio Grigolo held forth as Gennaro, and though he sang well enough, he seemed to have a great deal of difficulty locating the center of gravity of the character fashioned by Pascoe. One can hardly blame him. He found no balance to his roles as warrior, a son devoted to a mother he never knew, and a loyal friend, proving an uncomfortable, uncertain, and entirely unsympathetic hero, even when spared by Donizetti – at the insistence of the censors – from the matricide of Hugo’s play.

Renée Fleming, as everyone knows, sings beautifully and is deserving in every way of her popularity and critical acclaim. That said, the bel canto repertoire is probably not her long suit. Yes, the rapid runs and turns, accuracy of pitch, and the treacherous and precipitous leaps from high range to low were all there every time. That extra vocal spark, though, that made sopranos like Joan Sutherland and Beverly Sills so successful in these coloratura roles, was just not there.

Italian bass Ruggero Raimondi sang Lucrezia’s consort – one of several the historical figure has during her lifetime – Duke Alfonso. His voice may have seen better days, but his stage presence and his complete grasp of the evil the Duke represents made his a most satisfying performance.

Of the several secondary roles, two stood out. Chinese tenor Yingxi Zhang, a former Domingo-Cafritz Young Artist, was impressive, if somewhat small-voiced, as Rustighello. Bass-baritone Robert Cantrell, a frequent visitor to the WNO stage, exhibited a rich, well-focused voice and a powerful bearing as Gubetta.

The remaining roles included bass Grigory Soloviov as Apostolo Gazella, baritone Oleksandr Pushniak as Ascanio Petrucci, tenors Jésus Daniel Hernandez as Jeppo Liverotto and Jose Ortega as Oloferno Vitellozo, and bass David B. Morris as Astolfo.

WNO’s general director Placido Domingo conducted with a sure hand, without any annoying idiosyncrasies, though the WNO orchestra did not particularly distinguish itself. Pascoe’s sets were generally quite good, and the trapdoor setting for the prison entrance in the last act was particularly impressive. His costum-ing was good for most characters, but the shiny-fabric outfits of Gennaro and Maffio were out of place.

One expects better.

 _____________________________
 
 
This Carmen Ages Like Fine Wine

by Ronald G. Precup

Like La Boheme and Madama Butterfly, Bizet’s Carmen is far too frequently performed, this Washington National Opera revival being the second major local production in the last four months. But thanks to a superb cast, good stage direction, and the incomparable Denyce Graves in the title role, there was nothing shopworn about the lively and powerful offering.

Productions of Carmen rise or fall on the strength of the mezzo soprano who portrays her. Washington audiences were blessed in November by the return of Graves, who first sang the role here fourteen years ago. Although that earlier performance was first-rate, Graves, as the world’s reigning Carmen, has nearly perfected her treatment of the steamy character, giving her a depth and complexity surpassing any that one is likely to experience in our generation.

The sweet, rich voice seems undiminished, and Graves’s familiarity with the role she has sung so often brings a naturalness to her portrayal that contrasts strongly with the stereotypical Carmens too frequently heard. The rest of the singers, chorus included, seemed to sense they were part of something special, and they lived up to the occasion.

Italian-Brazilian tenor Thiago Arancam gave an intense, stirring performance as Don José. He developed his character’s fall from model soldier to despairing deserter with subtlety and consistency over the opera’s long three-plus hours. His powerful voice never seemed to tire, and his frequent high notes had a ring reminiscent of a young Placido Domingo.

Escamillo, the Toreador, was in the capable hands of a newcomer to Washington, Russian bass-baritone Alexander Vinogradov, who has the slim, athletic physique one can easily see dodging the horns of an enraged bull. Vinogradov’s acting was secure and his stage presence credible. Most remarkable, though, was the large, clean, full sound of his voice, utterly lacking in woofiness and absolutely even from bottom to top. This is a singer we should encourage to return to Washington early and often.

Slovenian soprano Sabina Cvilak gave us a traditional, purely acted and well sung Micaela, avoiding the sappy sweetness to which the part is sometimes subject. Only a slight stridency in the top register detracted a little from her performance.

Local bass John Marcus Bindel reprised his 2002 role as Zuniga, bringing better stage presence this time and giving substance to the character lesser singers often lack.

Baritone James Shaffran also returned as Dancairo, repeating his delightful comic duet with the character Remendado, finely sung in this production by tenor Peter Burroughs.

The roles of Carmen’s companions Frasquita and Mercedes, who have quite a bit of singing to do over the course of the four acts, were ably filled by soprano Emily Albrink and mezzo Cynthia Hanna, who shared the roles with others during the run.

Steven Gathman, the company’s long-time chorus master, wielded the baton in place of Julius Rudel for the reviewed performance. His firm hand and straightforward conducting kept the large forces well coordinated, in welcome contrast to the tense competition between singers and maestro reported for the opening night performance.

The most significant shortcoming of the production was Allen Charles Klein’s single set, which failed in its futile attempt to represent, in successive acts, the outside of a cigarette factory, the inside of a tavern, a gypsy camp, and the exterior of a bullring. The lack of imagination in design was a major disappointment.

Appropriate costuming by Lennart Mark and first-rate stage direction by David Gately helped overcome the dreariness of the set.

All in all, this Carmen is one of the better productions of the warhorse one is likely to encounter.

September 2014

Glimmerglass Festival 2014
(continued from column at left)

An American Tragedy
;
a Spare Drama; Doomed by Love of Upward Mobility

Reviewed by Ed Cloos
Seen August 9

Tobias Picker's (with librettist Gene Sheer) interpretation of Theodore Dreiser's epic novel was a world premiere in that it was a major reworking of his opera, which opened at the Met in 2005. He said in a pre-performance talk that it entirely replaces the original, which won't be performed again.

The story, in simple terms, is based on an actual case that took place in July 1906 in the Central New York region, near where Glimmerglass itself is. The body of 20-year-old Grace Brown was found in Big Moose Lake in the Adirondacks. It was quickly traced to a young man, Chester Gillette, who lived in Cortland, to the south, because the couple had registered in a hotel near the lake. The trial that followed, and his eventual execution, was a major media event.

Dreiser’s novel (I confess that this years-ago English major has read only summaries) isn’t in simple terms. It was nearly 20 years (1925) until it was published. He wrote some million and a half words examining the potential tragedy of obsessive love of the idea of upward mobility, and joining the lifestyle of the economic upper class. The work was pared to a mere million words before publication. In contrast, the less-praised but more widely read, The Great Gatsby, by F. Scott Fitzgerald, much shorter and covering somewhat similar themes, also was published in 1925.

The main character in the novel and the opera is Clyde Griffiths (Christian Bowers, a Glimmerglass Young Artist in a very major role). He was brought up in poverty by street missionary parents in the Midwest. He gets his chance to advance when he is able to meet his rich uncle who owns a shirt-collar factory in Cortland, N.Y. (Yes, it’s hard for a man today to imagine collars as separate from shirts. Shirts were made in upstate New York then as well.) Dreiser renamed the city Licurgus, after an obscure Roman general, for reasons only he knew. The name is carried through in the opera while the other place names revert to their actual names.

Given a minor supervisory position in the factory, he is warned that it is against company police—not to mention Griffiths family pride—to get involved with any of the young women. Naturally, that’s the first thing Clyde does. Step One on the road to tragedy.

The chosen one, Roberta Alden (Vanessa Isiguen, also a Young Artist) is plain and dressed to look formless and mousy. She sang in a soft, lovely soprano. Like many in the Young Artists program she has a string of major roles in regional companies. Still, it is a major role that would usually go to a guest artist. Glimmerglass has well-placed confidence in its Young Artists. To me she was the standout in the cast—not to take anything away from Bowers’ fine baritone and sensitive acting. The story doesn’t lend itself to beautiful arias, but Picker does write very attractive music that isn’t dulled by the somber story. A touching love duet closes the first act that ends with the promise of marriage. Step Two on the road to tragedy.

The promise becomes urgent in the second act when we learn that Roberta is pregnant and threatens to expose him if he doesn’t carry through.

The death of an innocent young woman is a tragedy, of course, but Dreiser was writing about much more than that in his million words. He was writing about the gulf between the social and economic upper class, and the rest of society. The tragedy came from obsessive love of the idea of sharing the lifestyle of that upper class, to which he had a familial relationship but in which he wasn’t accepted. Picker said how he saw the story in his pre-concert talk. He found Clyde the victim of his serial bad decisions, the worst of which was when “he thought it was a good idea to kill his knocked-up girlfriend.”

That is Step Three on the road to tragedy.

That step isn’t reached right away. As a Griffiths, he is invited to social functions and meets lovely rich-girl Sondra Finchley (Cynthia Cook, who looked the part and sang appealingly), a friend of his female cousin. She responds to Clyde’s attentions, partly to spite his male cousin whom she doesn’t like. Soon, though, she develops real feeling for Clyde, enough so that he begins to believe there is a reasonable chance of marriage.

That makes the pressure on Clyde to deal with his Roberta situation too much to bear, and it leads to his plan to do away with Roberta. His story after the death is that, while he did have such a plan, he was unable to go through with it. The capsizing of their boat, and the drowning of Roberta, was entirely an accident, and he was unable to rescue her.

A trial, in which both sides introduced specious evidence, ended in conviction and, eventually in Clyde’s execution. Neither Dreiser’s novel nor the opera attempt to determine whether he truly was guilty or not.

Dreiser was making a much bigger point, and invented some material beyond the actual case that inspired the novel. The biggest, according to an historical exhibit at the nearby Fenimore Art Museum, was the love affair with Sondra. That apparently was an invention to make Sondra a symbol of the obsessive love of the idea of moving up in society.

The pre-concert talk was rewarding and, I feel, didn’t color an objective view of the opera. Picker said the music he created was intended to go beyond what the characters were able to put into words, a sort of counterpoint. It’s certainly a worthy goal, but the result sometimes was more like mood music, with lots of dark intimations of something else bad about to happen. Those were the times to opera seemed to veer toward being just a play with music.

Clyde’s uncle, Samuel Griffiths, played with feeling by Aleksey Bogdanov, is a major figure in the opera. He supports Clyde, stands by him by paying for his defense, and treats him as truly family. Samuel’s wife Bella (Meredith Lustig) has a coarser view. She tells Samuel he is helping Clyde purely out of guilt for maneuvering his brother, Clyde’s father out of his rightful inheritance. She says the brother would only have squandered it on street mission work.

George Manahan, who will conduct Picker’s Emmeline next season with Opera Theatre of St. Louis, has studied Picker’s work and was in the pit. So I’m sure he got what Picker intended from the orchestra. Besides, Picker was there to tell him if he didn’t.

Picker called the original version at the Met a “four and a half million dollar, eight performance workshop”. He insisted that opera doesn’t have to, and shouldn’t, cost so much. Francesca Zambello, who directed the 2005 Met production, turned the directing over to Peter Kazaras at Glimmerglass. She’s worked at the high-budget Met, the modest-budget Glimmerglass, and with companies all over the United States and the world at all levels in between. She’s plainly comfortable in all those worlds.

Picker said that he and Scheer learned from the “workshop” that trying to summarize the back-story of how Clyde found himself in Licurgus resulted in 25 minutes before the real action started. This time they cut it to no more than five.

In response to a woman in the pre-concert audience who said she had seen the original and enjoyed it, Picker responded: “you didn’t waste your money; it was a good show.” He added, though, that after he saw the first performance at Glimmerglass he felt real sympathy for all three of the main characters. “I didn’t feel that in the original,” he said. I felt it too.

Glimmerglass Festival 2014

Madame Butterfly:
Yunah Lee Brings Stunning Soprano to Classic

Reviewed by Ed Cloos

Seen August 9

The story of the left-behind Japanese bride is said to be the most-performed opera in America. It never gets old. To get right to the point: Yunah Lee is the best Cio-Cio-San I’ve ever seen, and most of the great sopranos of our time have played it.

Born and raised in Korea until college graduation, she’s said in interviews that, being Asian, audiences can easily see her as the young Japanese bride and mother. She’s called a lyric soprano, but her voice is rich and intensely colored. If there is such a thing as a dramatic lyric soprano, she is one. There is a pleasing tremolo at times, but no self-conscious ornamentation.

She’s a dramatic actress who invested the role with fire. Cio-Cio-San is only 15 at the time of her marriage, and only 18 at her death, but the music is considered so difficult and taxing that the role normally falls only to mature artists. Ms. Lee is one; she put off trying the role until she was in her early 30s. She’s now well into her second 100 performances, but after 10 years as a specialist, and five of doing relatively little else, as her reputation has grown, she’s anxious to move into a broader repertory. Not that she hasn’t done Mozart, Verdi and considerable concert performances of a wide variety of composers.

The story is set in early 20th century Nagasaki, at the time the port city was the focus of Japan’s opening to the West after wars with China and Russia. There was a permanent American consulate, and regular visits by the U.S. Navy, Lt. Benjamin Franklin Pinkerton among the sailors. Through a marriage broker—a key person in the opera, played with verve by Ian McEuen—he arranges to marry a young geisha. The marriage, like the lease on the small house he has rented for them, is for 999 years, with the right to cancel on 30 days notice.

Since her name means butterfly in English, she often is addressed as Madame Butterfly, but she insists on Madame Pinkerton. She abandons her religion, her culture, and even the souls of her ancestors to be an American bride. Well, everybody knows the story, so let’s talk about the production.

Francesca Zambello directed with a spare set, consisting of strip-like scrims and projections, opening with a giant American Flag. A slanted platform toward the rear served to represent the hilly nature of Nagasaki, and climbing the hill figures in the story. (The terrain is the reason the second U.S. atomic bomb 40 years later was much less destructive than the first in Hiroshima.)

Dinyar Vania brought a rich tenor to Pinkerton, and sensitive acting that made the Navy lieutenant a real, feeling person rather than a young man feeling no responsibility for what he’s done, or response to the love of his bride. He’s played the role before, and this time he surely must have grown in it to play with a great Cio-Cio-San.

Aleksey Bogdanov, a Young Artist alumnus, was especially effective as Sharpless, the American consul. He tries to warn Pinkerton that Butterfly is no ordinary girl but truly loves him, and the marriage should be taken seriously. The Ukrainian-born baritone made the role a touchstone; an anchor for the main characters and continuity during the three years Pinkerton is away. He did it not just with sensitive acting, but with his expansive baritone singing. He also was a sort of father figure to Butterfly in her final days.

As in all Puccini operas there is at least one great aria for the lead soprano (in Tosca, only one). For Butterfly it is Un bel di, one fine day my love will return. It’s right up there with what might be called the Greatest Hits of Opera, and Ms. Lee more than merely sang it. She convinced us it was really true. There is more: the duet with her maid Suziki (Kristen Choi, another Young Artist) who made the most of the chance to sing it with a master.

The love duet with Pinkerton was another high point because Vania’s rich tenor, maybe not terribly high but as powerful as a baritone, made it equal in a way a weaker Pinkerton would not.

If the Navy men thought of geishas as prostitutes, and they likely did, they were wrong. The only sign of shyness and vulnerability in Butterfly was when it was time to consummate the marriage. She is hesitant and fearful and delays, but she also is obedient so she joins him in the marriage bed. The subject of obedience is first raised when Butterfly keeps the large dagger that had belonged to her father as one of the few possessions retained from her Japanese life. She tells that the Mikado gave it to her late father. Asked how he responded, Pinkerton is told simply, “he obeyed.”

When Pinkerton returns, Cio-Cio-San is overjoyed. Not for long. Sharpless has been told about the American wife, but Butterfly, in her excitement over his impending return, never let him read her the letter. Sharpless has known about the child, but he hasn’t been able to tell Pinkerton. He does before Pinkerton and Butterfly are reunited, and the American wife is ready to accept the child.

After waiting all night, Butterfly finally has her reunion. She’s the last to know about the American wife, but she recognizes the situation immediately. She accepts that it would be in the best interest of her son, and she agrees to give him up but Pinkerton must come to claim him in person. Butterfly is preparing to take her own life, with her father’s fatal dagger, not out of remorse or weakness but to spare her son the dishonor of being abandoned by his mother.

Ms. Lee relates personally to the culture since it is the same in Korea, and her own father was born in Japan.

The end of the drama needs no description. Pinkerton arrives, calling from a distance, “Butterfly. Butterfly.” He had a sense of what he would find.

One very special part of the production was the performance of Louis McKinney as Sorrow, the boy. In a role that is often incidental, even given over to a puppet in modern productions, he was expressive and right on cue every time—all without saying a word. Since he was so talented, he was given much more to do than usual, even helping to spread the flowers that were to fill the home for the arrival of Pinkerton. He’s the son of Ryan McKinney, the male lead in Carousel, so he travels around the country and the world with his parents. He got well-deserved guest-artist billing.

Glimmerglass music director Joseph Colaneri conducted the orchestra, which is a dramatic part of the opera. He had worked with Ms. Lee early in her career when she was a graduate student at Juilliard and appearing with the New York City Opera.

Often costumes are sort of taken for granted (at least by me), but Chinese-born Anita Yavich is something of a superstar in the field, and her costumes were so right that scenery wasn’t necessary. 

<<CONTINUED AT TOP OF RIGHT COLUMN>>


June 2014

Opera Theatre of St. Louis 2014

Kelly Kaduce Returns in Grim

Dialogues of the Carmelites

Reviewed by Ed Cloos

Seen June 18

As “27” is a potentially important 21st Century opera, Dialogues of the Carmelites is firmly established as one of the most important of the 20th.

Of course, the reputation of Francis Poulenc doesn’t rest on opera, or necessarily even be enhanced by it. He’s an orchestral, choral and organ giant.

For me, this was a long looked-for chance to hear Kelly Kaduce because of regular Opera News reports on how St. Louis audiences loved her. It was a wish more than fulfilled since Dialogues of the Carmelites is built around the novice Sister Blanche of the Agony of Christ. Seeking safety from the terrors facing the aristocracy in the French Revolution, Blanche de la Force seeks to join the Carmelite order. Denied orders by the prioress, who lectures her on the duties of the order’s Catholic faith, she is nevertheless allowed to remain for refuge. Thanks to protection of local authorities, the convent is refuge—for a few years.

The nuns of the order are the chorus, and the principal singing roles are Blanche, Sister Constance, her companion and fellow novice (Ashley Emerson, a former Gerdine Young Artist) and Madame Lidoine, the new prioress (Christine Brewer, also a favorite of St. Louis audiences). But the opera, singing and acting, is all about Blanche, and Kaduce makes the most of it. The story, and the eventual death by guillotine of 16 nuns, is history, but Blanche is fictional. German writer Gertrude von Le Fort, who chose a name similar to her own, created her in a novel. This later was made into a screenplay for a film that was never made, and later the screenplay was made into a stage play. That is what Poulenc adapted.

Director Robin Guarino, in program notes, said she tried to create a setting for the words of the dialogues to come through. She did. She also acknowledged that the words, especially as they describe the “transference of grace,” are hard to comprehend. Sister Constance expresses them when she states that the death of one is the death of all. The name chosen by Sister Blanche: “of the Agony of Christ,” is another expression of such “transference.”

The most difficult part for me was the conclusion: as the sisters are led, one, by one to their deaths, singing the Salve Regina with fewer and fewer voices until Sister Blanche, who has arrived late, is alone. Instead of hearing the guillotine each time as the women are led off stage, they enter the multi-purpose open structure that is the only stage set. We hear the swish of the machine of death, but see each nun jerk upward and collapse to a seat in death. Sister Blanche alone remains standing after her death.

Adding Dance Effective in New

Production of The Magic Flute

Reviewed by Ed Cloos

Seen June 18

Mozart’s more or less comic opera has been staged in many, many ways in the more than 200 years that it has delighted audiences. Yet, fashion designer Isaac Mizrahi has come up with an original. His concept was to make it a dance event, and it works.

He said in program notes he was fortunate to be able to get John Heginbotham as choreographer, and to think of jazz-ballet style as popular in 1950’s Hollywood. That led to the inspiration to set the story in a Hollywood sound stage in which the ghost of an earlier movie queen moved about.

That was the perfect setting for the Queen of the Night who haunts the story as she seeks vengeance on her former husband, Sarastro, High Priest of the Sun and leader of a Masonic-like brotherhood. It may be the best-known story in opera, so I won’t go into it.

Claire de Sévigné, a young Canadian soprano making her OTSL debut, is every inch a queen. She is tall and striking, and she can toss off those high Fs with ease and beauty. If she isn’t the “good guy” in the story (she isn’t) she should be.

As the young prince, who kind of wanders in as the potential rescuer of the queen’s kidnapped daughter, Sean Panikkar is a handsome, strapping tenor of Sri Lankan heritage and with Metropolitan Opera credits. He has the honor of playing a character that is brave and honorable and dumb as a post. He sings beautifully while doing it.

His sidekick in the adventure is Papageno, a bird catcher for the queen and who seeks only two things from life: a wife and food. Baritone Levi Hernandez makes him real in song and humor.

The queen’s daughter, by far the most dramatic role since she struggles between the mother-daughter bond, the new knowledge that her abductor is actually her father, and her attraction to the young man sent to “save” her. Elizabeth Zharoff, a former Gerdine Young Artist, proves up to the challenges, both dramatically and with her lovely soprano.

That leaves Sarastro of the major characters. Matthew Anchel, another former Gerdine Young Artist, carries it off with his bass that is able to handle the extremely low notes in the score and still make them sound musical. He’s a little stiff as an actor, though.

One shouldn’t forget Papagena, destined to be bride of Papageno. Katrina Galka, a Young Artist and Festival Artist, is charming—and gorgeous after she sheds her disguise as an old woman. Mizrahi carries the joke about as far as it can go with a giant nest with eggs that hatch into bird-person babies.

He also carries costumes as far as you can go with the men of the Brotherhood dressed in red blazers and fez caps that are like a cross between Target associates and a Shriners’ parade.

On to the dance theme that definitely does work. Unfortunately, the program doesn’t tell the roles the dancers played so I can’t give specific credit. I can’t think of any that don’t deserve it. The main characters had sort of dance doppelgangers, illustrating their emotional trials. The Temple of the Sun was guarded by statues of Isis and Osiris (Egyptian mythology seems to be part of Masonic lore) that also were dancers, and wonderful ones.

************************

Glimmerglass Festival
Summer 2011:


Two Super Sopranos Ruled


Reviewed by Ed Cloos


In its first season with a famous and high-powered artistic director, five works including the world premiere of one completed in rehearsal there, full houses and extra media attention were the happy result. The presence of Deborah Voigt, one of the great divas of our day didn’t hurt either.


All that was overshadowed by two such dazzling performances by young sopranos that one is at a loss for words to describe them. Of course, I’ll try. I saw all five productions Aug. 5-7.


First for me was Ginger Costa-Jackson, a 24-year-old Italian mezzo who took her own command of Carmen, the role that has been filled by some of the world’s greatest sopranos in its 136 years of performance. Surely it was the one performance that would  stand out over all this season. Then along came Canadian soprano Alexandra Deshorties as Medea, one of the best known and least understood characters in Greek mythology. She invested her demigod character with such profoundly human anguish and emotion that the audience leapt to its feet at the curtain call, and went home emotionally drained. So I’ll begin with that.


Medea: Luigi Cherubin was Italian but much of his working life was in France so the opera was in French when completed in 1797, but a revised libretto by Carlo Zangarini five years later was in Italian and that's the one that continues to be performed. The Medea legend has many versions. The opera is based on that told by Euripides in a drama presented in 431 BCE. The story is set sometime more than 1,000 years earlier in the Bronze Age and involves many of the sites visited in theIliad and the Odyssey, including passing by Troy, presumably before it was destroyed.


The character of Medea is known in popular culture as the woman who killed her children out of anger over rejection by her husband Jason. There’s much more to the story than that, of course, and it made for some sublimely beautiful music. Medea has supernatural powers, but director Michael Barker-Caven chose to present her entirely in mortal human terms as a spurned wife and dishonored mother. Alexandra Deshorties carried it off brilliantly. The humanity of Medea made the transcendent beauty of Cherubini’s music even more moving.

To get the story out of the way as briefly as possible, here it is. Jason was a heroic figure of royal birth, but he was a danger to the king of Corinth so he was sent on the supposedly impossible mission to recover the “golden fleece.” That was the hide of a divine ram that had flown a brother and sister away from a vengeful stepmother queen. The boy arrived safely in Colchis (in modern-day Georgia) at the far-eastern shore of the Black Sea and lived out his life there. His sister Hellé had fallen off and drowned in the strait overlooked by Troy. The strait was called the Hellespont and later the Dardanelles. The ram was sacrificed to Zeus and its hide hung in a sacred grove guarded by a dragon that never sleeps.

Leading a group of heroic warriors aboard a 50-oar ship called the Argus, Jason reached Colchis, met Medea, both fell deeply in love, married and, with the help of Medea’s magical powers and such deeds as bringing about the death of her own brother, recovered the fleece. Along the way back (it took years) two children were born. Back in Corinth, Jason has the opportunity to marry the daughter of King Creon and give his children a royal life. The fleece itself was center stage in the opera, but has nothing to do with the action.

As wedding plans are being made, Medea appears, bringing fear to the people and Jason’s intended bride, Glauce. Withdrawing from their roles by guest artists gave Glimmerglass Young Artists Jeffrey Gwaltney the key role of Jason and Jessica Stavros the role of Glauce. Gwaltney made a potentially career-building use of the opportunity.

He looked the part of a hero and handled the music of Cherubini with a confident, clear resonant tenor, and what music it is. It is more beautiful than the despicable cad his character is presented as would seem to deserve. In an extended duet, Medea begs him to return to her. He coldly refuses, but with such beautiful melody that we almost have hope for them as a couple. The back and forth battle is the musical highlight of the opera.

Medea thwarts the wedding by sending Glauce a robe and crown that was made by the god Phoebus himself. Glauce is gravely afraid of Medea but the garment is so beautiful that she has to put it on, and she immediately dies of the curse Medea has put on it.

Medea’s emotional struggles are far from over as she struggles with the love she feels for her children and her growing hatred of Jason and those who would take her children. Creon, claiming compassion but fearful of Medea himself, grants her beautifully sung pleas to spend one last day with her children. She’s under the power of the Furies, and despite her back and forth emotions, is unable to accept the death of Glauce as revenge enough.

The final scene, as she emerges from the underground crypt to which she has retreated with the children, bloody and half naked, was devastating.

Carmen is Georges Bizet's masterpiece and surely known to everyone who would be reading this. It's been played many ways since its premiere in 1875, but again the Glimmerglass team, led by director Anne Bogart, chose to give us in human terms a conflicted woman who loves the attention of men, but has little respect for them.

Ginger Costa-Jackson gave us a Carmen who wasn’t explicitly sexy in terms of costume or action beyond the dictates of the music, but whose spirit and personality were convincingly irresistible to men. The musical themes as well as the cards consistently thrown by two friends show she is fated to die, and she faces the bleak future without apparent fear.

Don Jose, the young corporal through whom she is to meet her fate, is indifferent to the charms of the girls with whom Carmen works in a cigarette factory in Seville, but Carmen soon overcomes that. Korean tenor Adam Diegel was a wonderful Don Jose in voice, especially in several interchanges with Carmen, but played the character as such a hapless sap that one doubted he’d be able to kill Carmen.

Micaëla, the young woman from Don Jose’s home village whom he has promised to marry, is the other important singing role. Anya Matanovic gave lovely singing support and believable courage to her character.


More important to the plot than the music is Escamillo, the toreador who steals Carmen’s affections from Don Jose. Baritone Michael Todd Simpson’s Escamillo was an imposing figure. He carried off his few memorable singing phrases securely.


Costa-Jackson was more than a singer through it all: she was a driven force of nature.


A Blizzard on Marblehead Neck was created for its world premiere and to some extent completed at Glimmerglass. Composer Jeanine Tesori and librettist Tony Kushner were on site for rehearsals and Tesori conducted the orchestra in performance.


The libretto tells the story of a battle between a sick Eugene O’Neill and his borderline psychotic wife Carlotta in their seaside cottage one 1951 winter evening in Marblehead, Massachusetts. He wanted the thermostat set low because they were broke, and she was freezing. The incident actually happened, but of course the details in the cottage had to be imagined.


I must confess at this point that the plays of O’Neill meant so much to my theater-loving late wife and myself that I was absorbed in the play and can’t give a good account of the music. It’s hard to make a beautiful aria, in any case, out of the long string of anti-Irish epithets that Carlotta hurls at “Gene.” Critical failure of The Iceman Comethwhen it opened on Broadway in 1946 is another part of her ammunition.


College juniors with a baby son when the play was revived at off-Broadway Circle in the Square in 1956, under the direction of Jose Quintero and starring then little-known Jason Robards Jr., we were as broke as Gene and Carlotta, but we made it to New York City to see it. Later the same year (seniors now), we got to Long Day’s Journey Into Night, this time on Broadway but directed and acted by the same team.


In the opera, Carlotta’s harping onIceman’s critical failure is reinforced by three of the critics passing by, presumably as delusions. The argument leads to O’Neill making good on his threat to go outside in a raging snowstorm. One of the critics, Mary McCarthy (Stephanie Foley Davis, a young artist), returns and visits Carlotta, encouraging her to go after her husband. Music can’t be more than background to all this action.


In the end, Officer Christopher Snow (Jeffrey Gwaltney again) types up his report telling us that the “old guy” was found in a snow bank and was sent to the hospital where he was found to have a broken leg. The “old lady” found wandering around in the snow also was hospitalized. When they were found their prominent identities weren’t known.


The opera is a concentrated 30 minutes, entirely unlike O’Neill’s major plays which are comparable to parts of the Wagner Ring Cycle in length.


Later the Same Evening, music by John Musto and libretto by Mark Campbell, was the other half of the twin bill. It gives life to the subjects in five Edward Hopper paintings. They were reproduced on large panels that served as most of the set. The artist gave the paintings titles, but offered no further information.


The opera changes all that, giving personalities to the characters and bringing them together at a performance of the popular new showCall Me Tomorrow, and two of them end up for coffee in the Automat in which one woman sits alone in the painting. The opera isn’t brand new, but Glimmerglass gave it its first professional production.


It truly is an opera in which conversations are sung, and the music fits the Jazz Age time reflected in the paintings though it wasn’t itself jazz.


The Hopper paintings peek in—often through windows—on people in private situations, even when they are in public places. The opera takes the next step and reveals their lives and their thoughts to us. It manages to make trivial situations and conversations interesting and important to us. What more can we ask?


Along with the opera, Fenimore Art Museum, a few miles down the road on the outskirts of Cooperstown, offered a display of Hopper paintings, including the ones in the opera, and summaries of the opera interpretation. It all made for a wonderful day.


Annie Get Your Gun is classic Irving Berlin, but perhaps more suited to summer stock (of 50 years ago) than a “real” opera house. It continued the practice of offering one musical theater production each season, and Glimmerglass Festival plans to carry on with it. It starred perhaps the most famous opera star ever to appear there, Deborah Voigt.


She was wonderful as Brünnhilde inDie Walküre at the Met in the season just past, but she’d made up her mind a year ago to do something entirely different, and here she was on the shores of Otsego Lake playing in a traveling Wild West Show.


Annie didn’t need an operatic voice (it was sung in its original key), but she needed charm, energy and certainly a sense of humor, and Voigt provided plenty of each. Earlier in her career she’d done musical theater and even in recent years has sung and recorded in styles other than opera.


She played opposite Rod Gilfrey whom she’d known since college days but hadn’t appeared with since. His booming baritone is perfect for the Frank Butler character he played. Butler is the full-of-himself rival to Annie as a marksman as well as her love interest.


As is often the case with Irving Berlin songs, we know them as part of our popular culture—songs like There’s No Business Like Show Business—but we’ve forgotten when they came from. It was good to be reminded.


The 2012 Season (July 7-Aug. 25)


Francesca Zambello’s second season promises to display additional aspects of her creative stamp, offers two co-productions with other companies, and continues the new artist-in-residence program.


Lost in the Stars will be the first production of a Kurt Weill (with Maxwell Anderson) work. It is a joint production with Cape Town Opera of South Africa. It is based on Cry, theBeloved Country, the Alan Paton novel that has become a classic. Eric Owens, the 2012 artist in residence, will star. Owens is an acclaimed American bass-baritone who, like this year’s Deborah Voigt, has extensive Wagnerian roles behind him. He’ll offer several solo performances, including, according to his agency’s website, a jazz concert. Weill figures prominently in Zambello’s background, but she’s chosen to direct Giuseppe Verdi’sAida.


Aida will open and close the season. Owens will take the role of Amonasro, the Ethiopian king who is Aida's father but whose identity isn’t known to their Egyptian captors. Zambello promises a more intimate interpretation than the spectacle (with elephants and such) of many productions.


The Music Man, by Meredith Willson. Hard to believe that it was more than 50 years ago (1957) that this beloved show opened. It has been identified since it opened, and especially after the 1962 movie, with Robert Preston who originated the role of “Profesor” Harold Hill, the con man whose scheme went awry in a good way. Preston was trained in music, but he wasn’t in any sense a singer. Cooperstown native Dwayne Croft, who will take on the role, is an opera star through and through so it surely will be a different experience. I can’t wait. Marcia Milgrom Dodge, whose Broadway production of Ragtime won several Tony awards, will direct.


Armide, by Jean-Baptiste Lully, is a joint production with Opera Atelier of Toronto. The company is known for lavish productions with period ballet. Lully is known for including dance interludes that have little to do with advancing the plot but much to do with pleasing the audience. Armide continues the tradition of presenting operas of historical interest, but it will be the first from the French Baroque period (its premiere was in 1686).


Croft started with Glimmerglass while still in high school in Cooperstown. He started as a supernumerary and graduated to singing roles in many productions over 15 years, but none in the past 22. He left the company in 1989 to join the Metropolitan Opera Young Artist Development program, and develop he did. He’s sung nearly 30 major roles at the Met. He’s appeared with most major American opera companies and many symphony orchestras (including St. Louis Symphony in Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem in 2006).

Croft’s brother, David, is an acclaimed tenor but they aren’t rivals as Croft is a baritone.

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Summer 2010:

 

Handling Handel with Verve

Reviewed by Ed Cloos

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.

 

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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.

 

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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.

Act 2 has to work out all of the action so it isn’t such concentrated beauty as the first, but there is beauty aplenty. 

Das Liebesverbot (The Ban on Love),by the young Richard Wagner, was in keeping with the Glimmerglass tradition of uncovering lesser-known works and making them bright and new. Wagner would have loved it as it’s first production, directed by Wagner himself in 1836 at age 23, was a fiasco and it wasn’t produced again in his lifetime—another 50 years.

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. 

Wagner’s plot is complex, and there are too many fine performances to list, but it would be a crime not to recognize Claudia Waite as Isabella, who is summoned from the convent to save her brother Claudio who has been condemned to death. The new law bans Carnival, closes the clubs and outlaws love, especially that such as between Claudio and Julia who is pregnant out of wedlock. Miss Waite sang with power yet with a controlled and beautiful tone. She made it entirely believable that she could expose the hypocrisy of Friedrich, who promulgated the laws, save her brother and restore happy life in Palermo. 

Giulio Cesare in Egitto is to me the incongruous blend of Italian opera with the very British Baroque music of Handel and the tradition of writing male roles for the castrato voice. It works amazingly well. Castrati had soon passed from the scene so there is a long tradition of women who can be convincing in men’s roles replacing them.

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.

The costuming was a strange blend of 1930s Italian military, vaguely Egyptian desert fighters from any period and gowns that could be from the time of Cleopatra. It didn’t matter. Tolomeo, the evil brother of Cleopatra, her rival for sole possession of the Egyptian throne, wore a sort of dress. Along with the soft appearance of countertenor Gerald Thompson, the brutal cruelty of his character was made all the more chilling. It’s a long, complex tale with excursions away from the main story for the sole purpose of including beautiful music, and who can argue with that? 

Kiss Me, Kate rounded out the program. Musical comedy isn’t normally part of the Glimmerglass experience, but it was carried off with great energy and the audience loved it.

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.

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Philip Glass:Orphée,
Screenplay set to music

by Ed Cloos

Glimmerglass Opera is a summer festival and school for advanced students in the beautiful setting ofOtsego Lake in upstate New York. For 30 years it has been offering creative and unusual programs, and I was able to catch the Philip Glass opera based on the 1949 film Orphéeby Jean Cocteau.

Actually, the 1993 opera, one of more than 20 by Glass, isn’t just based on the film; the libretto is the screenplay with few changes. So it is essentially a play set to music, a play in French with super-titles. Fully professional singers with long lists of performance credits are cast in all major roles, but they are called on to do little actual singing. Orphée is a famous poet in this version, but the poetry we hear is broadcast over a mysterious radio by another poet.

The set is the modern apartment of Orphée and his wife Eurydice. In the myth, Orpheus is a singer of amazing abilities­--even his eventually-severed head is able to sing--who sings his way to the Underworld to win back his wife who had died soon after their marriage. He has the illusion of success, but the condition that he not look back at his wife until they are back among the living proves impossible. In the Cocteau/Glass version, he must not look at her at all ever again. So the certainty of failure is pretty well recognized right from the beginning.
The way to the Underworld is through a mirror (with an authorized guide, of course). To emphasize this, a glazier carries a mirror through the set from time to time and a full-mirror door is opened and closed. During travels between the two worlds, duplicate copies of La Princesse, the agent of death, and Eurydice appear simultaneously with the originals. When Orphée is led to “La Zone” he sees what looks like normal life and asks, “Are they living?” The answer is “they think they are.”

La Princesse is an attractive woman. She wears a fur coat. The overall appearance, she says, is much more effective than the robed, hooded figure carrying a scythe that most people expect. It certainly is as she's the dominant character in the opera. Heurtebise, who is identified as her chauffeur (though he says at one point that he isn’t a real chauffeur), assists her.

The agents of death were sent to claim Cégeste, a young poet, who is carried into the scene by two men in motorcycle regalia with helmets and full face shields that render them anonymous. They are apparently the very ones who killed the poet in a supposed accident. But the agents of death way overstep their orders. La Princesse falls in love with Orphée and Heurtebise with Eurydice. And that love eventually is returned. As we should know, such love is doomed from the start.

There isn’t much to say about the singing in Orphée since there wasn’t much, but the music was stunning. Dramatic moments were overlaid on the repetitive themes characteristic of Glass. Conductor Anne Manson brought out all of the drama in the music, and, to me, infused some of her own personality. The audience was very responsive to the effects she drew. She told the Opera Newscorrespondent that she feels strongly that the music should follow the action rather than control it. Glimmerglass' theater orchestra pit is shallow and the conductor is fully visible to the audience so she became almost a character in the play.

Ms. Manson was unknown to me, but certainly not to the St. Louis arts community as she was music director of the Kansas City Symphony from 1999 to 2003. She lives now in Washington, DC with her husband and two children and restricts her travel on their account.

Glimmerglass productions often have moved to other venues for the winter season, but so far only theMonteverdi, a co-production withOpera North of the UK and Norwegian Opera, has a definite schedule. It is moving to Norway. The press representative said discussions are going on about others. The Glass may find a home, especially since there is so much buzz aboutAppomattox, his Civil War opera with libretto by Christopher Hampton, which began its world-premiere run Oct. 5 with San Francisco Opera.

The 2008 Glimmerglass season will offer four operas on a single set byJohn Conklin, the company’s associate artistic director. He has designed 26 sets over the years for Glimmerglass (though not the one for the Glass opera) as well as sets for most of the leading opera stages in America, including Metropolitan Opera as well as Opera Theater of St. Louis. It will depict an Elizabethan theater because the operas are all based onShakespeare plays.

The productions are: Wagner’s early comedy, Das Liebesverbot, (Forbidden Love), inspired byMeasure for Measure, Handel’s Giulio Cesare in EgittoCole Porter’s Kiss Me, Kate, and Bellini’s I Capuleti e I Montecchi. They’ll run in repertoryJuly 5 to August 24. All performances are in the lovely Alice Busch Opera Theater north of Cooperstown.

Glimmerglass schedules its repertory so that it is usually possible to see all four in a single weekend and at least three in two days when there are weekday matinees. The web site iswww.Glimmerglass.org.

Otsego Lake is the heart of James Fenimore Cooper’s Leatherstocking Tales. He called it Glimmerglass. Cooperstown is known best as home of the Baseball Hall of Fame, but it also has Fenimore Art Museum which displays an astounding collection of items and history of Indians from all over America, not just Mohawks and Senecas of the area. Also, a wonderful collection of early American painting known as “Genre Art.” Across the road is the Farmers' Museum. I spent the afternoon at the art museum, but I still have vivid memories of the Farmers' Museum even though I last visited as a child.

About 90 minutes away is Saratoga Springs, summer home of New York City Ballet and the Philadelphia Orchestra as well as the horse racing that I love. Albany Airport is about 90 minutes from Cooperstown.

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