Sunday, December 15, 2019

Winter Wonderettes

On Saturday I went with a social group to see the show Winter Wonderettes, presented by One Thirty Productions at the Bath House Cultural Center in Dallas. The site was originally an actual building for changing and showering beside a lake that was then safe for swimming. When the lake was closed to swimming, the building sat neglected for many years, but eventually was reclaimed and renovated as a cultural center. Now there is a black box theater, visual art displays, and historical displays as well. It has been one of the homes of One Thirty Productions for quite a few years. I wasn't sure whether I'd write about this production, because it's very far outside my usual subject matter. But then, I once wrote about a youth production of the musical Shrek, and it's my blog, so here goes!

Bath House Cultural Center
Winter Wonderettes is a really cute jukebox musical written and created by Roger Bean with vocal arrangements by Roger Bean and Brian Baker. As such, the story is simple--a girl group entertaining the troops at a corporate Christmas party in 1963. There is the expected Story Complication, and also the expected Happy Ending. Each of the four girls has a distinct character, and as the show unfolds we see more and more inside of each girl. The girls have been a group since high school days, and now in adulthood (I'd say mid 20s, based on the times and life events revealed about each character) they still perform sometimes. Missy, played with gusto by Janelle Lutz, is the young bride in the group, and it seems something has been awakened within her on her recent honeymoon. Suzy, the homemaker of the group, already has a set of twins and is expecting a third child. (Her husband Richie is an unseen character as the lighting guy for this show, and reveals his feelings with lighting changes.)  As Suzy, Gena Loe deserves special acclaim for acting like the awkward girl who reveals herself to be a very fine dancer. Cindy Lou, played beautifully by Rebecca Paige, is the sensitive girl who tries to be hard, the drifter who longs for stability, the sexy girl who longs for a home life. And Betty Jean is the obligatory cynical character, the only one who actually works for the business hosting the holiday party, played with great dedication by Marianne Galloway. I should also give credit to Director K. Doug Miller, Musical Director Hans Grim, and Choreographer Megan Kelly Bates.

There were many special moments.  I loved so many of the spirited arrangements and girl-group dance moves, but I think the best parts were the solo moments.  Even in the ensemble number "Santa Baby", each character shone in her solo moments. I adored Cindy Lou's "All Those Christmas Cliches". Betty Jean's "Christmas Will Be Just Another Lonely Day" was heartbreaking. Missy was great fun to watch in "Mele Kalikimaka" and Suzy was a riot with "Donde Esta Santa Claus?"  I loved how the girls interacted with the audience, and I have to give them special credit for acting quickly when they realized that the audience member they had singled out as Missy's new husband had mobility limitations--they were there immediately to help with support when they asked him to come on stage, and they rushed Santa's chair to him rather than asking to walk to it.

Flaws? Yes, there were some. There were balance issue, and I think the nature of the performance space didn't help that. Intonation was not always perfect. But who cares? I came away with a very positive impression and thankful for a very fun performance experience.  I look forward to seeing future productions from One Thirty Productions.

Saturday, December 14, 2019

And His Name Shall Be Called......Seth. Seth, Your God.

Or The Second Messiah of the Season

On Friday evening I had the pleasure of witnessing a live performance of dear Mr. Handel's complete Messiah. (Always remember, dear readers, that it is called Messiah. Not The Messiah.) This took place at the lovely Highland Park Presbyterian Church in Dallas, and the artists were Highland Park's Chancel Choir, plus orchestra and soloists, under the very spritely and sensitive direction of Music Director Greg Hobbs. I'd heard great things about Dr. Hobbs and his music making, and I was pleased to learn just how true they were. Under his direction the performance was indeed very musically nuanced, with beautiful interpretive touches at every turn. I had the sense this was a very well rehearsed performance. And I learned some things at this performance. The sensitivity of the performance, combined with my long history with this great work (see my previous post for more info on that), brought tears to my eyes a number of times.

Greg Hobbs
The choir at Highland Park Presbyterian has a very good reputation among Dallas church choirs, I am told. Comprised primarily of volunteers with a few paid singers (and some additional ringers for this concert, it must be admitted), this choir was very responsive to every direction from their skilled conductor. No section was weaker than another, and all had a pleasing sound. In the contrapuntal sections, each voice part was clear and the primary line was always distinguishable from others. Never did I hear any issues with intonation, and these folks can sing fast!

I was also charmed by the orchestra, composed of Dallas Symphony members. But not very many of them. Although playing on modern instruments, they played in a style that suggested an early music orchestra. Again, there was a sense this performance had been quite well rehearsed. The same praise I give to the choir--tone, sensitivity, agility, clarity of line--I give to this orchestra.

I loved the moments when the soloists seemed to be telling the story for the first time. My favorite soloists were soprano Jennifer Wheeler and bass/baritone David Grogan. Ms Wheeler had a beauty and evenness of tone, as well as a sensitivity of interpretation, that were a pleasure. Her performance of "How beautiful are the feet" was balm to my weary soul. And I've never heard a faster "Rejoice greatly"!

From Mr. Grogan's first "Thus saith the Lord" I was impressed. Some vocal entrances should part your hair, and this entrance certainly parted what hair I have left on my head. But Mr. Grogan also sang with sensitivity. In "The people that walked in darkness", where the melody actually mimics walking a very scary path, I could feel a great sense of relief when the melody becomes more tonal with "...have seen a great Light". His other arias, particularly "Why do the nations so furiously rage together?", were quite good, too.

Mezzo Claire Shackleton seems to have a voice suited to a higher tessitura than the alto solos in Messiah. It must be admitted they're low. It's not that she was weak in her low voice--indeed not!--but I kept hearing a shine in her voice that might have blossomed with a higher tessitura. When I realized she would sing both parts of "He shall feed his flock/Come unto him" I was looking forward to hearing her in a higher range, but in this performance they used the version where both halves are in the same key. (There are many valid versions and alternatives for nearly all the solos. This is one of them.)

In all I call this a highly successful performance. Unfortunately, this was the only performance, but I am told this choir sings Messiah every year--well, every other year, alternating with Dr. Hobbs's all-professional choral ensemble, Highland Park Chorale. I hope I will witness these performances every year for as long as I am in Dallas.

Saturday, December 7, 2019

If God Be For Us, Who Can Be Against Us?

Or, The First Messiah Performance of the Season

Whilst looking for entertainment I happened upon this performance of dear Mr. Handel's Messiah, and I was perfectly charmed. The information given by the individual who posted this to YouTube is infuriatingly useless, but a commenter noted that the ensemble is Collegium 1704 in Prague, and the conductor is Vaclav Lucs. A quick screen shot at the end revealed the soloists' names.  I found the tempi spritely and quite appropriate, quite a contrast to many of the stodgy performances I've witnessed and been a part of. I was impressed with the coloratura ability of each section in those difficult choruses we all know. It was of course obvious that these people are not native English speakers, but after a while I didn't care. At least there was consistency in their mispronunciations!

Let me say this. I have been a choral singer all of my life, and I have always loved Messiah. The score I used in my freshman year of college to perform Messiah is still one of my most treasured possessions.  I miss with all my heart the days when I was capable of singing this music. There has never been a time when I was cynical about Messiah. (OK, maybe sometimes about the Hallelujah chorus, but that's understandable.) I used to sing "Comfort Ye/Ev'ry Valley" at every opportunity. Every few years the second Sunday of Advent, when that text is appropriate, falls on my birthday, and that delights me especially. (For the record, that happens this year, but I'm certainly not attempting to sing it this year.)

There are different schools of thought about performance practice. Some people are accustomed to symphonic presentations of this great work, while others will only accept "authentic early music practice", whatever that is. It is my opinion that both positions are valid, and I enjoy them both. I don't need to feel "earlier than thou" to enjoy a Baroque masterpiece, but I do appreciate some nuances that suggest the performers are not reading exactly as printed in the G. Schirmer edition. On the other hand, I still find it surprising to have the alto soloist sing "For he is like a refiner's fire". I want the tenor to sing all four of "Thy rebuke/Behold and see/He was not cut off/But thou didst not leave", but that's probably because I used to enjoy doing them as a set.

If you can read the screen shot above, you can get the soloists' names. I liked them all. Yes, dear readers, I liked all the soloists. All of them had the appropriate tone, agility, and artistry for their roles. Because of the quick tempi, none of that tension-causing artificial darkness we so often hear was present. It's simply not possible to sing this music this well with that kind of tension. At the same time, they didn't have that bland, white sound we sometimes hear from "early music" artists, with the possible exception of a few sustained tones sung straight, with no vibrato. 

But. Maybe it's a sign that I'm aging, but I was more focused on the choruses than the arias. I loved them. For that I credit Mr. Lucs, the conductor. Overall I quite approve of this performance, if that matters, and I recommend giving it a listen when you get a chance.

Saturday, November 2, 2019

Yes, Virginia, There is a Santa Claus

OR Tell the Truth, Even if it's a Crime!

Both titles are are relevant nowadays. I won't go into the second, a direct translation of one of Pamina's lines in Mr. Mozart's Die Zauberflöte, but I must explain the first a little bit. I've had far too much sadness in my life in the past few years, and it's little moments when I'm reminded of magic and wonder that give me strength. That is why dear little Wolfie's perfect overture to Die Zauberflöte at Dallas Opera on Friday night, conducted by Emmanuel Villaume, had me in tears. (When's the last time you heard someone say that about a Mozart overture?)

Andrea Carroll and Sean Michael Plumb
Photo:  Karen Almond for Dallas Opera
The cast was pretty darn good, but Andrea Carroll brought the most magic vocally. Whenever she sang one felt a buzz of electricity. Miss Carroll is a member of the Vienna State Opera, and I must say I'd dearly love to hear the roles she is singing there--Norina, Susanna, Adina, among others. I saw her sing Julie Jordan at Glimmerglass a few years ago, and wrote about her in glowing terms. As Pamina, she shone vocally, and showed Pamina's madness without overdoing it. (Let's face it--by contemporary story-telling standards, Pamina is not a sane girl! Then again, how might any of us react if we were held captive and didn't understand why, and the man who'd promised to save us seemed to reject us?)

Morris Robinson as Sarastro. More magic. I saw Mr. Robinson a few years ago as the Grand Inquisitor in Don Carlo at Opera Philadelphia, and was quite impressed. I wrote, "He sang and acted the role in a manner both subtle and chilling. It was clear Mr. Robinson had the secure technique from top to bottom to sing a great Philip, which made his Grand Inquisitor even more powerful." He continues to impress as Sarastro, full of sonorous dignity and tenderness. I must have annoyed those sitting behind me, because my posture improved immeasurably every time he sang!

Bryan Frutiger as Monostatos, Sean Michael Plumb as Papageno,
Andrea Carroll as Pamina, and ensemble
Photo: Jason Janik, Dallas News
I saw Sean Michael Plumb, Papageno in this production, sing Fiorello in Barber of Seville a few years ago, again at Philadelphia, and I wrote, "...this is a voice we'll hear sing Figaro soon – and I hope often!" His singing was quite good, and his acting charming. I even like the pompadour (Papa-dour?) hairdo the designers gave him.

Ensemble members were uniformly excellent. The three ladies of Diana Newman, Samanatha Hankey, and Hannah Ludwig were great fun. Especially the Third Lady! I quite liked the two Armed Men of Aaron Short and Ryan Kuster.

Tamino was very well sung by Paolo Fanale. Jeni Houser was a good Queen of the Night, but I prefer a steelier voice in that role.

I told a fellow audience member I had never seen this production, which was perpetrated by Los Angeles Opera and Seattle Opera, but surely I must have. Costumes that ugly don't happen twice by accident. I hope most agree I'm a pretty nice guy, and it takes a lot for me to publish a statement that harsh, but these costumes deserve it. Second Lady--what were they thinking? And the chorus of priests brought to mind Planet of the Apes.

I could write Magic Flute stories for days. I have actually sung every tenor role in the opera, and have often used Papageno's music for mid-range warm-ups. (Mozart is said to have hated tenors, and one look at any tenor role in this opera will convince you of that idea--First Armed Man requires a baby heldentenor, and Tamino himself requires almost perfect vocal technique in the particular weight of tenor voice in fashion for Tamino this week. Monostatos is not an easy sing, and even the First Priest is a challenge!) And there's the time a new friend went on and on about how he hated Mozart operas, and then asked, "What's your blog again?"  Um. Taminophile.

I regret there is only one more performance of this run of Die Zauberflöte, but I hope that readers in the area will go to see it. I do highly recommend it. As always, excellent singing wins out over all other considerations. Even those costumes.

Sunday, October 13, 2019

Love is fleeting, but revenge is forever!

Or I'm sorry, but I miss the trills

Ludovic Tézier as DiLuna and
Maria Agresta as Leonora
Photo:  Teatro Real
I recently watched another wonderful production on OperaVision, as it had been far too long since I'd witnessed any opera.  Or done much writing, for that matter. This was Il Trovatore from Spain's Teatro Real. I believe it was streamed live in June and will be available to view until next June.

Caruso is said to have opined that all you need to produce Il Trovatore is the four best singers in the world. While most of the singing was pretty darn good, I wouldn't call these the best singers in the world. My favorite was the Azucena of Ekaterina Semenchuk. Very robust, healthy, and beautiful sound throughout, and a very affecting performance. Ludovic Tézier as Count di Luna was a fine singer, but a bit distracting to watch. I wondered whether he was in pain at times. Maria Agresta is a name I knew, but I don't believe I'd ever seen her before. Her Leonora had some very fine moments, and overall I like her singing, but I really missed the trills and fioritura required of the role. (In fact, none of the singers seemed able to trill.) Ferrando was quite well sung by Roberto Tagliavini. Tenor Francesco Meli, never a real favorite of mine, was adequate as Manrico, but he did have some beautifully tender moments vocally.

Ekaterina Semenchuk as Azucena
In fact, there were many tender moments in this traditionally "park and bark" opera, thanks to the music direction of Maurizio Benini and the production of Director Francisco Negrín. Both of Leonora's arias, which are glorious to hear when sung well but not always very interesting to watch, were a pleasure. We could see in her first aria the young girl Leonora is instead of the middle-aged woman it takes to sing that difficult role, and in her last act aria the tormented woman she has become. I was also deeply moved when Azucena sang "Ai nostri monti" to the ghost of her son.

Oh yes. There were ghosts in this production. Two of them, to be exact. Unless you count the very fine men's chorus, which was all made up to look like zombies, whether they were soldiers or gypsies. (The women's chorus was also quite good.) There were quite a few things I didn't understand, but I found the flame that remained lit on state for the entire opera effective. There was a moveable column that confused me, although I will say I liked that in the last act, it had projections of flames on it as the pyre was being prepared for Azucena's execution.

I gripe about a few things, and those more in-the-know about current European opera production might mock my traditional viewpoints (for the record, I had more complaints about a Met production of Il Trovatore I saw several years ago than this), but I do recommend viewing this opera if you have a few hours to spend at your computer. In the end, the tender moments and most of the singing win the day.

Leonora's convent scene
Photo:  Teatro Real