Sunday, March 1, 2015

We wonder what the world can be

On Saturday night I was delighted to see Theater 2020's The Singapore Mikado, an adaptation of that great work of Messrs. Gilbert and Sullivan.

The action takes place in Singapore, three days after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941. The Mikado becomes the play within the play, presented by a group of Brits stationed or living in Singapore. I usually don't like updating opera settings, but this was not an update. Rather, it added the context of an enthusiastic and good-hearted community production. All the actors had well-defined roles as members of the British community in Singapore. (There was even a program with bios of all these characters.) I found the treatment of the finale, where tragic news of war brings festivities to a halt, only to have them resume and build into a gesture of British strength and resolve, quite moving. We cared about these charming characters as much as we did Nanki-Poo and Yum-Yum.

The original concept was by Charles Berigan and David Fuller. I like it very much. Mr. Fuller also directed this production. The cast were all eager and energetic musical theater singer-actors, many with classically trained voices. (Several appeared in this show courtesy of Actor's Equity Association.) In some ways I'm a purist, but this casting worked, and even lent credibility to the community production concept.

If Ko-Ko is not the first character a reviewer wants to mention, I say you haven't cast a successful Mikado. I could't wait to start writing accolades for Greg Horton. This stage veteran brought to Ko-Ko all the naive self-importance, all the shallow cynicism, all mischievous energy a good Ko-Ko requires. Best of all, he was fun! The young lovers Yum-Yum and Nanki-Poo were very effectively sung by Briana Keefe and Michael Penick. Mr. Penick has a sweet lyric tenor that is perfect for Nanki-Poo, and uses it to great effect. Ms. Keefe brings beautiful singing and comic talents to her role. These two were at their best when onstage together, bringing to each other an energy that delighted the audience.

David Arthur Bachrach's role as Sir Evelyn Estebrooke, British Consul to Singapore, was more important than Sir Evelyn's role as the Mikado. Sir Evelyn was host and patron for the evening's proceedings, and acted as master of ceremonies. Mr. Bachrach was in character from the very beginning, handing out the Singapore programs and chatting up the audience as Sir Evelyn.

Pooh-Bah is often played as a great stick in the mud. I liked David Fuller's portrayal, where the stiff persona is merely posturing that falls away easily to reveal a good-hearted chap. I found his instant character shifts as he described all his roles in city government quite amusing. (I've seen other actors attempt these shifts without the same success.)

The Katisha of Chrysten Peddie was a delight to see and hear, as were Yum-Yum's sisters Lorinne Lampert as Pitti-Sing and Michelle Seipel as Peep-Bo. The ensemble was really a double-quartet, with each vocal part covered once--typical of the sort of community theater production portrayed. This lent an intimate feel to some of the choruses that was unfamiliar but quite welcome. Although not a typically operatic sound, the ensemble had a pleasing sound.

Kudos must go to the production team. David Fuller's direction showed great attention to character and effective traffic control. Judith Jarosz's choreography was charming. (Mr. Fuller and Ms. Jarosz are Co-Artistic Directors of Theater 2020, and also deserve kudos for creating and keeping alive and vibrant this delightful small company.) Costumes by Ricky Lurie were beautiful--quite appropriate 1940s wear, still visible when the actors donned Japanese-looking robes to take their Mikado characters. Hair and make-up were uncredited, but these, too, were quite effective.

The Singapore Mikado has five more shows--March 1 matinee, March 6 and 7 at 8 p.m., and March 7 and 8 matinees. I would encourage you to go.

Monday, February 9, 2015

An Opera of No Importance--My Bachtrack Review of Opera Philadelphia's Oscar

I was thrilled to travel to Philadelphia on February 6 to see Opera Philadelphia's East Coast Premiere of the new opera Oscar, co-commissioned with The Santa Fe Opera, first performed at Santa Fe in 2013. The opera was composed by Theodore Morrison with a libretto by Mr. Morrison and John Cox, based on the writings of Oscar Wilde and his contemporaries.

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Monday, February 2, 2015

Sunday Artist Spotlight at Opera Delaware

Opera Delaware announced in January, 2014, it would cancel its planned May, 2014, production of Il Trovatore. Concern arose throughout the land about another regional opera company closing its doors, but General Director Brendan Cooke was confident the company could survive this crisis. Through savvy fundraising and community outreach, the company has indeed survived. In November the world learned Opera Delaware [is] on Solid Financial Ground. The company is now presenting a series of Sunday Artist Spotlights, where artists present full concerts on Sunday afternoons, and also perform preview concerts for patients and families at the Alfred I. duPont Hospital for Children. Opera Delaware will present an opera festival entitled "Wine, Women, and French Opera" May 8‑17, 2015, including a fully staged presentation of Peter Brook's La Tragédie de Carmen and a concert performance of Lakmé.

Today's Sunday Artist Spotlight featured soprano Sharin Apostolou, with collaborative pianist Jeffrey Miller. Ms. Apostolou is no stranger to these pages, and also no stranger to Opera Delaware audiences. She sang Adina in Opera Delaware's adorable production of L'Elisir d'Amore in 2013. This happy reporter first saw her as Belinda in Dido and Aeneas, and has since seen her remarkable performances as Guinevere in Camelot and Carrie Pipperidge in Carousel, as well as a fantastic but uncredited supernumerary role in Verdi's King for a Day (Un Giorno di Regno) that earned her a very favorable mention in a New York Times review of the Glimmerglass production.

The program featured American Songbook standards including "It's De-Lovely" and "Someone to Watch Over Me", as well as "Glitter and Be Gay" from Mr. Bernstein's Candide and "They Don't Let You in the Opera if You're a Country Star", a song written for operatically trained Broadway ingenue Kelli O'Hara. Songs like "Where are the Simple Joys of Maidenhood" and "When I Marry Mr. Snow" we're just as lovely and sweet as expected, and "'Til There Was You" and "Along Came Bill" had sweetness and pathos. "Glitter and Be Gay" had dazzling fireworks, and "They Don't Let You in the Opera" had rip-roarin' comedy. My two favorite songs were "Stars and the Moon", made popular by Audra McDonald, and "I'll Be There", a song about a 9/11 widow finding new love. Both had me in tears.

In a question & answer session afterward, Sharin answered the predictable questions about changing styles vocally to suit different musical styles and about the choice of the program selections. Her most insightful comments had to do with a question from a student, about her path to her current career stage—she talked about finding what set her apart from other beautiful young soubrettes and focusing on showing those skills and talents. In effect, on being as genuine as she possibly could be on stage. I hope the students in the audience understood the depth of those words, and how such learning never comes without trial and error, to put it lightly.

As my concert-going companion said, it was the perfect way to spend a gray Sunday afternoon--great company, great singing, great music, and unexpected insights, too!

Friday, January 23, 2015

Guest blogger Judy Dixey has been at it again!

Two masterpieces in one week – comic and sublime!

London has a wealth of excellent opera and the audience is lapping it up — even in obscure places. I went to a brilliant adaptation of The Barber of Seville in a pub theatre, and a stark, sublime production of Monteverdi’s Orfeo in a former railway repair shed, all within a week.

The Kings Head in Islington has hosted a huge range of stunning, challenging theatrical productions over the last 30 years and this was no exception. Opera Up Close presented the Barber, transferred to Salisbury, which is absolutely fine for a British audience who know that Salisbury was a backwater at the end of the 1700s, beginning of the 1800s, i.e., the Regency period. Bath was THE place to be, and Rosina and her guardian are just returned home from a visit to Bath, where Rosina and the count, a noted rake, had somehow met.

Singing great, piano reduction excellent, production sharp, translation witty — what more can you want? We were really up close and personal, and the singer/actors gave it their all. The moment of revelation when Almaviva is unmasked and Rosina realizes she’s hooked a Count — WOW! Her expression said it all — she loved him before, but now she really loves him! Enormous fun.

And then the Royal Opera House/Roundhouse, live-streamed on 21st January. The Roundhouse for opera? Why not? It’s a massive circular building, topped by a broad, conical roof supported by 24 columns and cast iron girders, built in the 1840s to function as a railway repair shed. Inside, it’s stark, and atmospheric. It became a performing arts venue in the 1970s and has had an extraordinary career. I think this is the first foray into opera and, boy did it work brilliantly, due to the imagination and verve of the entire production team and the participants. In terms of audience, it brought in the usual opera audience but additionally many people really new to opera – perhaps because of the venue but also because of the engagement of a number of young people. There was a balcony for the great and good to watch proceedings (perhaps they were the Duke and Duchess of Mantua, where the piece had its first performance?); from there, at one point, they came down as dei ex machina (Pluto and Persephone); but otherwise, the set was formed by young dancers from East London Dance who became, most effectively, the rolling River Styx, the gates to the underworld, the silent chorus – what a coup. We are getting used to minimal sets, and in this venue, it certainly works.

Mary Bevan as Euridice and Gyula Orendt as Orfeo
Photograph: Stephen Cummiskey © ROH
As for the performances, another wow. The Roundhouse itself holds 20 times as many people as the Kings Head but because of its arena-like auditorium, we were close to the stage, sound was excellent and every note worth hearing. I don’t remember appreciating the intensity of Orfeo’s appeal to Charon to let him across the Styx and into the underworld as it is rendered so thrillingly by virtuosic repeated stressed notes, heard here far more than through the rest of the opera. Music and meaning matching — as should happen in opera. Even if you don’t know the story, you can tell from the opening notes that it is a sad story, the outcome is not going to be good; but you are gripped and enthralled. There are some weird concepts which have you scratching your head — is the bevy of priests there because Orfeo sings “father” several times? Why the Pieta tableau? What is all that about? Rather mixed messages here, Christian and pre-Christian religious. I wish they’d not done that.

But such exciting things happening around the UK capital for opera. It sure is a lively art form!

Saturday, January 17, 2015

Great Singer: Mady Mesplé

I last wrote about the amazing Mady Mesplé in 2009. I shared at that time my delight as a teenager in finding an LP of the lovely lady singing French coloratura arias. This was my introduction to the Bell Song from Lakmé, and to Olympia's and Ophelia's and Philine's arias, for starters. Wikipedia concludes its bio-blurb:
The archetype of the light French coloratura soprano, Mady Mesplé was noted for her technical security, her musical refinement and her charming stage presence. Her voice was particularly recognisable for its quick vibrato, intensely focused intonation, the instrumental-like quality of her runs and an amazing upper register extending easily to high A-flat.
We are delighted to learn Mme Meplé is still with us at 83 (using Wikipedia's birth date), teaching and adjudicating.

Here is dear Coloraturafan's (how can you not love him?) tribute:


Mme Meplé's Italian repertoire included Gilda, Rosina, Norina, Amina, and quite surprising, taking over a run of Lucias from La Stupenda herself in 1960!  (This was a 1963 studio recording.)


The inspiration for my 2009 post about Mme Mesplé--this video of Zerbinetta from Salzburg, 1966:


Notice how she makes everything look and sound easy, like breathing to her.  I wish we had more of that today.

Monday, January 5, 2015

Guest blogger Judy Dixey sees Covent Garden's Ballo in Maschera

On Friday 2nd January 2015 I went to see Un Ballo in Maschera at the Royal Opera House. Sitting high up and on the side (so that one can afford to go more often and it is not a once in ten years treat), you are very aware that the design has been created for those sitting centrally and lower down.

Liudmyla Monastyrska as Amelia and Joseph Calleja as Riccardo
© ROH. Photographer Catherine Ashmore
The singers mostly stayed centre stage, so you could see most of what was happening. I wish we didn’t have a mise en scene over the overture--it leaves so many questions unanswered. Isn’t the music glorious enough for us to listen to without distractions?

I didn’t get a programme. I have too many of them stashed away, and there is so much rich material included that you need a few days to read and assimilate it. So I prefer to take the show on face value, rather than find out later what the director’s intention was.

This production has had poor reviews, as is the case with so many updated productions when the director’s desire to “make a statement” takes over from the piece itself. Ballo had to have its historical location changed even before its first performance could go ahead, for political reasons, so it is quite reasonable to change it again, if it works. This production is set in the second half of the 19th century. The fortune-teller Ulrica is holding a séance in a society house, and the only person in 18th century clothes is Oscar. Why?

For the most part, the story and the opera do work in this revised setting. The singing was good: Renato (Dmitri Hvorostovsky) a loyal and stern courtier (perhaps too stiff); Amelia (Liudmila Monatyrska), wracked with guilt as a matron who has been struck with a coup de foudre over Riccardo; and Riccardo himself (Joseph Calleja), a weak ruler, who believes his good intentions will overcome the hatred his previous actions have inspired. Oscar and Ulrica (Serena Gamberoni and Marianne Cornetti) deservedly got the loudest applause at the end. The other soloists and the chorus were great. (I wish they’d stayed a bit more with the orchestra.) I’m not sure that any passions were really expressed through the acting--it was all a bit stiff--but then I was sitting a long way away. There were some risible moments, such as Riccardo under the table at the séance, raising the tablecloth to sing his asides; and in the gallows scene, when the child walked across the stage as Amelia (according to the surtitles) was singing that something had crossed her path. Oh dear.

The original production was scheduled to premiere for the carnival in 1858. What a shame then, that there was no carnival feel about this production--colours were dull and masks were hardly visible. I’m not sure I’d have terribly wanted to go to that ball, even without its disastrous outcome. And where was the menace as the conspirators closed in on their prey? Riccardo and Amelia are singing together on their own and on comes Renato with a gun and Bang!, the man is down. He is laid on one of the tombs which are conveniently rolled on, sings his final piece propped up on an elbow then flops down (again with a bang, but fortunately no sniggering from the audience).

Ultimately, however, it really was a satisfactory and worthwhile evening; despite everything, you are reminded that a 150 year old opera like this can be very enjoyable. Perhaps the message is, don’t strain too much to make too many new statements, and do try to ensure the principals are truly engaged and fired up, inspired, themselves, and so, inspiring the audience.

Sunday, January 4, 2015

Jennifer Rowley and "Healthy Body, Healthy Voice"

Readers of this blog will not be surprised to read another expression of love and adoration for the beautiful soprano Jennifer Rowley. From her surprise debut at Caramoor several years ago to her more recent Metropolitan Opera debut, I've been following Miss Rowley's career closely.

Jennifer Rowley and Rosario La Spina
(c) James Rogers, West Australia Opera
When Jennifer made her debut with the West Australia Opera as Leonora in Il Trovatore, I was heartsick that I couldn't travel to be in attendance. I tried to reach out to find others who would be there in my stead, and although I met many charming Perth men online, most were interested in things other than opera!  Fortunately a representative from Bachtrack was there, and wrote this review.  To wit, the most important lines are these:

Making both her Australian and role debut[s] as Leonora, soprano Jennifer Rowley is large in voice and expressive in range, displaying natural vibrancy and controlled phrasing. Opening with pensive yearning in “Tacea la notte placida”, then frolicking with mature, seductive playfulness as she undresses to “Di tale amor”, Rowley's Leonora continues to feed every aspect of the drama with heartfelt conviction. 

Alas, I probably won't be able to travel to Dresden to see her first Tosca in April, or London to see her Covent Garden debut as Musetta in May/June.

However, I will be able to be among the audience for Jen's first webinar, as part of the Sexi Soprano collective,  on the subject of "Healthy Body, Healthy Voice".  Click the link to find the details.  I'll write more about it after the fact.