Monday, October 5, 2015

Visually stunning Traviata in Philly

I was thrilled on Sunday afternoon to see the second performance of Opera Philadelphia's visually stunning and vocally opulent production of La Traviata. I highly recommend seeing one of the remaining performances.

Lisette Oropesa and company
Photo: Opera Philadelphia
I was surprised to learn Lisette Oropesa, who sings delicious Nanettas and Susannas and Maries (Fille du Regiment) all over the world, would sing Violetta. But I was delighted with the result, both vocally and dramatically. Of course the coloratura sections of Sempre libera sounded easy and fun for Ms. Oropesa, but she also gave Addio del passato the line and gravitas it required, and she held her own in ensembles with other singers. Best of all, we believed her as a young woman who knows her days are numbered and makes choices with that in mind.

Tenor Alek Shrader is also a light voice for Alfredo, but he negotiated the role's challenges well. There were one or two moments when I wanted a meatier sound than Mr. Shrader's sweet lyric tenor, but I can't complain about his vocalism. Neither can I complain about his acting, for he delivered both Alfredo's naive ardor and his wounded rage well. He and Ms. Oropesa had a lovely chemistry together.

Stephen Powell, Lisette Oropesa
Photo:  Opera Philadelphia
I first saw Stephen Powell as Rodrigue in Caramoor's Don Carlos in 2013, and was impressed then. I continue to be impressed, for his singing is highly skilled and his vocal weight is perfect for Giorgio Germont. This Germont was all stiff reserve and manipulation--even in his softer moments in his scene with Violetta one doubted Germont's sincerity. He did seem to come around by the end, however. Once she was dead.

The action is updated to late 1950s Paris. In his Director's Q&A in the program, Paul Curran states this is the most recent time a young lady's match could be threatened by the company her brother keeps. This is true, but it doesn't fully explain why he felt the need to update the setting.

I'm not sure I support this updating from a storytelling viewpoint, but I found the visual effects to be quite beautiful. Mr. Curran, Set and Costume Designer Gary McCann, Lighting Designer Paul Hackenmueller, and Wig and Make-up Designer David Zimmerman have beautifully recreated the time, successfully portraying moods both conservative and licentious. I especially liked the two party scenes. The Act II party scene was very effective, the confrontation and Alfredo's subsequent punishment by party guests very powerful and moving.

Lisette Oropesa, Alek Shrader, following Act II confrontation
Photo:  Opera Philadelphia
The very fine Opera Philadelphia Orchestra and Chorus, under the baton of Corrado Rovaris, gave every satisfaction, and then some! A beautiful sound, elegant phrasing, and intelligent musicianship are what we expect from this ensemble, and all of this there was in abundance--plus a great feeling of fun in the parties.

Once again, I highly recommend seeing this show.

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Paisiello's Barbiere di Siviglia

On Saturday afternoon, in the middle of my week-long Nozze binge, I was happy to see Giovanni Paisiello's 1782 setting of Il Barbiere di Siviglia. This was, of course, part of dell'Arte Opera Ensemble's Beaumarchais Trilogy. (Recall that Pierre Beaumarchais [1732-1799] wrote the plays on which Le Nozze di Figaroand Il Barbiere di Siviglia are based.) I congratulate dell'Arte Opera for the work they have done in creating this Beaumarchais season, and for the work they do every season in providing real training for singers cast in their productions. Performances continue through August 30, and I highly recommended catching as many as you can.

Paisiello's Il Barbiere di Siviglia was first performed in 1782, and Rossini's version in 1816. Paisiello's opera was still wildly successful, even in Rossini's time, and Paisiello supporters nearly caused the suppression of the Rossini version. In our own time the Rossini version is much more popular, although there are some lovely moments in the Paisiello.

Although I usually start with the vocal elements of a production, in this case I must start with some of the visual elements. Those familiar with the opera know the importance of a letter to the story line. Rosina writes the letter to the Count Almaviva, whom she believes to be the penniless Lindoro. The letter changes hands several times in various attempts at deception and trickery. Scenic Designer Meganne George and Costume Designer Carly Bradt have created a visual universe that makes more references to that letter than you can imagine. In ways that are neither cheap nor chintzy, we see the letter in elements of the set and of costumes. I think this is very clever.

The storyline is very close to that of Rossini, although the librettists are different (Giuseppe Petrosellini for Paisiello, Cesare Sterbini for Rossini). In both cases, without a stellar Rosina, you have no show. For Saturday's performance of the Paisiello version, we had Alessandra Altieri, and we were not disappointed. Although Rossini's Rosina is sometimes performed by a soprano, we nowadays associate the role with a lyric mezzo-soprano. Not so with Paisiello, whose Rosina is 100% soprano. Ms. Altieri lists roles like Gretel, Despina, and Sophie among her credits, so we knew we were getting a high soubrette or lyric coloratura of the first quality. She brought a shimmering vocal sound and a very solid technique to the coloratura and legato demands of the role, and was also a joy to see act on stage.

Almaviva was the very good tenor Jonathan Morales, whose tone quality and stage persona suggested the young and ardent lover who had a sense of humor. One wished Mr. Paisiello had written more gratifying music for young Almaviva to sing, but we were nonetheless left with the feeling that Mr. Morales could easily sing the Paisiello Almaviva one night and the Rossini Almaviva the next. Figaro was baritone Sean Kroll, also a fine singer. (It did seem to take a little while for him to become accustomed to singing in the performance space.) He had the cocky, "I know what I'm doing" air of a good Figaro while also being the avuncular figure Rosina and the story need. Cherubino is not part of this stage of the story, but several useful and amusing servants are, including the hysterically funny Giovinetto of William Mulligan.

Daniela Candillari led the Metamorphosis Chamber Orchestra quite well, and Emilie Rault's stage direction was clever and functional.  There are two more performances of this opera, on August 26 and 29, and I urge  you to see one of them.  

Monday, August 24, 2015

Fidelity's enemy is time

On Sunday I saw the third of five performances of Rosina, by Hiram Titus with libretto by Barbara Field based on characters in Beaumarchais, commissioned by Minnesota Opera and first performed in 1980. Mr. Titus (1947-2013) was known primarily for musical theater and film scores, including the 1987 film "The Little Mermaid".  This is part of dell'Arte Opera Ensemble's  Beaumarchais Trilogy, which also includes Mozart's beloved Le Nozze di Figaro and the little-performed Paisiello Il Barbiere di Siviglia. I've posted about Nozze, and will post about the Paisiello Barbiere quite soon.

Marie Masters
Photo: Kelly Kruse
In this opera the Countess (Rosina) has run away with Cherubino, a bit more grown up and now a tenor. They've been living in Madrid and have a baby. The Count has tracked them down and now comes in a useless disguise (la precauzione inutile?) and in the company of a courtesan. Opera things happen, as they say, and in the end the Countess and her child go back to Seville with the Count, and Cherubino and the courtesan are together.

Recall that I'm a bel canto bear, and not really qualified to speak intelligently about newer works like this, but I can say I found several scenes quite effective, including one between Rosina and the courtesan Amparo, and an aria for Rosina in which she muses over having no real choices of her own ahead of her--just options provided by men. On the other hand, the scene in which the Count and Cherubino talk about women on a familiar level meant to suggest an avuncular or friendly relationship seemed a bit unlikely.

The performances sold me on this piece. Marie Masters as Rosina was a lovely standout. Hers is a light lyric voice, consistently free and beautiful from high to low. Her bio and her web site include roles and excerpts ranging from Ännchen and Gilda to Donna Anna and Lady Billows. (I know young singers are always a work in progress, but frankly, I hope she keeps the lighter roles in her repertoire a few years longer, for the way she handles the high and light passages is quite lovely.) To say she negotiated well the vocal challenges of her role, from wide leaps to extensive legato singing in every part of her range, would be an understatement. Her Rosina had the dignity of Mozart's Countess, along with a touch of humility related to her present, reduced circumstances.

Christopher Lilley sang Cherubino. His bio lists roles like Tamino and the Liebeslieder Singer quartet in A Little Night Music, both of which he would have sung very well if Sunday was any indication. Although I didn't find the solo passages he was tasked with as gratifying as those given to Rosina, I must praise his singing and his handling of the vocal writing, particularly his high voice. Elizabeth Bouk sang the courtesan Amparo quite well, and gave even the predictable passages about the courtesan's life and her difficult upbringing charm and beauty. Min Gu Yeo sang the Count's music with gruff affect and rich baritonal sound, but I would like to have seen more depth in his characterization.

The Metamorphosis Chamber Orchestra played very well under Music Director and company Artistic Director Christopher Fecteau--quite possibly the best I heard the group play in the festival.

A chaotic scene from Rosina
Photo: Karen Rich

There are more performances of this work on August 28 and 30. I'd recommend seeing it.

Sunday, August 23, 2015

My last Nozze post of the summer. Probably.

On Saturday I was very happy to return to dell'Arte Opera to hear this weekend's cast perform Le Nozze di Figaro.  (See my impressions of the cast from last weekend here.) I won't compare the two casts with each other, either as a whole or on a role-by-role basis. Nothing about last weekend's cast should be inferred from my comments about this weekend's cast. Both casts are equal in talent and accomplishment. There is no first or second cast, no A or B. To borrow from the 1980s movie Steel Magnolias, let's call the two casts Blush and Bashful.

I've already written about the Bashful cast. (Click here.) The Blush cast, which I saw on Saturday night, had many delightful standouts. First is Susanna, who owns the entire opera. Alexa Smith has a high, light soprano voice, and although she was sometimes out-balanced with the orchestra and other singers in ensembles, there was never a note or phrase that did not fall upon the ear with delight.  Ms. Smith' Susanna had a great chemistry with all the characters she interacted with.  Seung-Hyeong Baek was a rather angry and flustered Count Almaviva.  He was a perfect foil for this Susanna. His singing was a little dark occasionally, but always seemed right for the message portrayed. Natasha Nelson was a delightful Cherubino, singing beautifully and acting the pubescent boy awkwardly. I can not fail to mention the Don Basilio of Milan Rakić, who was delightfully smarmy, and could be heard in ensembles.

The orchestra for both Blush and Bashful was the Metamorphosis Chamber Orchestra, under the baton of this show's Music Director, John Spencer. In this case comparison is fair, since it is two performances of the same group. I felt like I was a bit harsh--well, harsh for me--in what I wrote about the orchestra's performance on Nozze's opening night. They did sound under-rehearsed on opening night, as I stated, but boy howdy, have they come a long way! They sounded much more polished, more together, more rehearsed after a week.

Recall that dell'Arte Opera Ensemble's Beaumarchais Festival runs through August 30, and that tickets are still available.  Go to any of the shows remaining.  You won't regret it!

Saturday, August 22, 2015

Another Nozze di Figaro

I simply adore Le Nozze di Figaro. This is a good thing, because I'm in the middle of a Nozze binge. Last week I saw dell'Arte Opera's excellent production, and on Friday night I saw OperaRox perform the same delightful work. On Saturday I am privileged to see dell'Arte's other cast perform Nozze. Let me be clear--badly performed Nozze is more boring than Wagner and more painful than, well, Wagner. Fortunately, I haven't faced that problem.

Michael Maliakel and Devony Smith
Photo (uncredited) courtesy of OperaRox
OperaRox is a rather new group that grew out of an Internet community of opera lovers. This is the group's first production, and I must say to them, well done! The entire production seemed very professional, including the performance space, lighting, direction, and even the programs.  In terms of funding this project, they knew what they were doing.

The performances were on a young professional level. These young singers are cutting their teeth, paying their dues--whatever metaphor you like for gaining experience while honing skills and polishing technique--but I had very few complaints, and quite a lot of praise.  The Figaro and Susanna of Michael Maliakel and Devony Smith were charming, fun, and a pleasure to hear. Michael Hofmann's Count Almaviva was delightfully blustery and frustrated, and also quite nice to hear.  The Cherubino of Kimberly Feltkamp was a treat to see, with all the awkwardness and dumb enthusiasm of a teenage boy. Special mention goes to Maayan Voss de Bettancourt as Marcellina and Eric Alexieff as Don Basilio/Don Curzio. These two delightful comic actors inhabited two roles that are sometimes throwaways, and made them very funny.

Music Director Dmitry Glivinsky kept things moving with brisk tempi and judicious cuts. Stage Director Amber Treadway deserves kudos for traffic control and for some very effective stage business. I have never laughed out loud at the Act III sextet the way I did with this performance. The awkwardness between Figaro and Don Bartolo (cleverly performed by Kevin Miller) was priceless.

With this sort of production there is never enough rehearsal time, but it was clear every singer had done the work and learned his role well, performing with enthusiasm and understanding. I left wanting to hear every one of the singers again after another year or two of training and experience. I'm sure many will go far.

Sunday, August 16, 2015

Le Nozze di Figaro at dell'Arte Opera Ensemble

On Friday night I was delighted to be in attendance at the opening of Le Nozze di Figaro, part of dell'Arte Opera Ensemble's Beaumarchais Trilogy. (Pierre Beaumarchais [1732-1799] wrote the plays on which Le Nozze di Figaro and Il Barbiere di Siviglia are based.) I was quite impressed with the company's all-Shakespeare season last year, and thought their work on the two shows I saw was quite amazing. I was excited to see what they would do with Beaumarchais, and I was not disappointed. (Click this link to see a profile I recently published of dell'Arte Opera and its training program for singers.)

Rodolfo Nieto as Figaro with Olivia Betzen as Susanna
Photo:  Brian Long
The cast was a fine group of young singer-actors, without a dud in the bunch. In any Nozze production, Figaro himself is what I want to hear about, and I'm happy to report that Rodolfo Nieto was a fine young Figaro. Strapping, athletic, and handsome, Mr. Nieto sings with beautiful tone and commitment to the text, and acts Figaro's many contrasting and at times contradictory feelings with confidence. His Susanna was Olivia Betzen, whose feisty characterization and musically sensitive singing were an equal to Mr. Nieto's Figaro.

The other primary couple, the Count and Countess, were beautifully sung by John Callison and Jennifer Townshend. Ms. Townshend opened Act II with a tentative but lovely "Porgi amor" and warmed up to fully confident singing and acting throughout. The Countess, the same character as Rosina in Il Barbiere di Siviglia, is just as spunky as Rosina (and Susanna), but two or three years older. She and Susanna really are friends as well as mistress and servant.

We appreciated John Callison's singing (and his abs) in last year's The Fairy Queen, and we continue to be pleased with his singing and acting. (For some strange reason his abs were not on view in this role.) The Count is the most complex character in Nozze--part privileged young man with a feeling of entitlement to whatever he wants, including Susanna, and part stick-in-the-mud comic straight man who isn't clever enough to keep up with Figaro, Susanna, and the Countess. We were able to see all of this in Mr. Callison's multi-dimensional characterization.

Heather Jones as Cherubino
Olivia Betzen as Susanna
Photo:  Brian Long
Cherubino is a teenage boy--all lust and dreams and play, but mostly lust. Heather Jones, who appears from her bio to be among the youngest of the cast members, gave us all of these qualities, along with an easy sound and skillful delivery.

As part of dell'Arte's thorough preparation, the singers work very hard on the libretto--the language of the time; the stage, style, and social customs of the time; and of course a word-for-word understanding of the entire libretto, not just their own lines. Although the singers wore current-day clothing (costume design by Carly Bradt), there was no period-specific feel. In fact, it appeared the intention was for the action to be based on 18th century reality, but also easily transferred to the current day. I credit Stage Director Eve Summer with this easy timelessness, as well as with the commitment each singer showed to every line of music.

Dell'Arte has a new orchestra this year, the highly-acclaimed Metamorphosis Chamber Orchestra. Dell'Arte veteran John Spencer is Music Director and Conductor for Nozze. On Friday night, I am sorry to report, the orchestra had the ragged sound of needing more rehearsal--inexact notes on fast passages, completely wrong entrances in one or two cases, occasional intonation issues--and there were times when conductor and singers were not in agreement on tempi. As the night wore on, orchestral playing improved and a cohesiveness was achieved, but still there were occasional errors from pit or podium.

Dell'Arte Opera Ensemble's Beaumarchais Trilogy Project continues through August 30, with more performances of Le Nozze di Figaro, as well as Paisiello's Il Barbiere di Siviglia and the 1978 opera Rosina, with libretto based on the Beaumarchais characters, although not directly from Beaumarchais.

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

My HuffPo article about dell'Arte Opera and Christopher Fecteau

Photo:  Carl Jenks
Christopher Fecteau is on a mission. By creating opera productions that ensure the intent of the music and libretto are clear, and by offering young singers training in music, theater, career building, and sometimes even life skills, he intends to keep opera relevant in today's world. He wants to keep opera alive.

Read the rest: