Monday, May 4, 2015

Parisian courtesans in Fort Worth! Call the National Guard!

On Sunday I saw my third opera of the Fort Worth Opera Festival, Mr. Verdi's beloved La Traviata. After the very disturbing Dog Days and the unattractive update of Hamlet's setting, this sumptuous traditional production of one of my favorites was balm for my weary soul. Sets and costumes were by Desmond Heeley, and “sumptuous” just begins to describe the luxurious look of the first three acts and the faded luxury in the last act.

Patrick O'Halloran, Rachelle Durkin, and company
Photo courtesy Fort Worth Opera
In the opening party scene one is first impressed by what a good time everyone seems to be having. This was no stand-and-sing operatic party scene, but one where the guests interrelated, chased each other across the stage, allowed themselves to be caught and molested, and I do believe I saw at least one face slapped. I might be imagining the last part, but wouldn't have been surprised to see it! For this I credit director David Gately and a very spirited chorus and group of supernumeraries. The chorus, prepared by Chorus Master Stephen Dubberly, sounded great in spite of all their frenetic activities. It's very unusual for me to lead off with the chorus and the director before mentioning any of the principals, which should be an indication of the strong impression made by the first scene.

Rachelle Durkin as Violetta
Photo courtesy Fort Worth Opera
Not to suggest the chorus outshone the principals. What is La Traviata without a great Violetta? In Rachelle Durkin we had quite a stunning actress and singer. Although her voice is light for the role, in my opinion, she negotiated its demands very well. (Her web site lists a very wide range of roles, from Marie in Fille du Regiment to Donna Anna.) Again I must credit director David Gately and Miss Durkin's acting ability for convincing me that "Sempre libera" is a cry of desperation, not defiance. She dares not hope for the love that Alfredo is offering, and her tears as she sings about living just for joy are real. In Act II, Miss Durkin's scene with the elder Germont had this bitter old critic in tears.

The elder Germont was sung very beautifully by Nicholas Pallesen. He played Germont in Act II as a manipulative jerk (stronger language comes to mind) who conveys just the right affectionate words and actions to get what he wants. Another skillful touch that I credit to Mr. Gately. Violetta believes his shallow, seemingly insincere gestures of paternal love, and the contrast in how the two understood what was occurring contributed greatly to the tears I mention above. (In his defense, Germont does seem genuinely remorseful and loving in Act IV. Just before Violetta dies.) Mr. Pallesen's singing is rich and even and powerful—just what one wants from a Verdi baritone.

Patrick O'Halloran and Rachelle Durkin
Photo courtesy Fort Worth Opera
I regret that I can not report in such glowing terms on the Alfredo of Patrick O'Halloran. Although I reported in these pages in 2013 that I liked his singing in Glimmerglass Opera's production of King for a Day—when he got warmed up—it almost seemed as if he never got warmed up as Alfredo. His sound is somewhat veiled, occasionally yell-y. Although many of his top notes were nice, the upper middle and passaggio area bothered me. Mr. O'Halloran was the only principal who seemed at odds with the conductor's baton. He seemed to be throwing about new ideas about tempi the conductor knew nothing about. I will add, however, that in both King for a Day and in the present La Traviata, I have no complaints about his acting. The young man does know how to throw himself into a role.

Many small roles were populated with Fort Worth Opera Studio Artists. Clara Nieman was a spirited Flora, and Maren Weinberger a very concerned and devoted Annina. Brian Wallin was a devoted and somewhat puckish friend to Violetta as Gaston. Matt Moeller was an appropriately angry Baron Duophol. (I look forward to seeing Mr. Wallin and Ms. Weinberger as Glimmerglass Young Artists when I visit that festival in July.)

Once again Joe Illick deserved the shouts of "Bravo!" for his leadership of the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra in conducting this performance. Once again I praise his sensitive phrasing, his loving way of following singers, and his stylistic instincts. Mr. Dubberly and his chorus again deserve high praise.

Director Mr. Gately and the design team of Mr. Heeley, Steven Bryant (makeup and wigs), and Chad R. Jung (lighting) also deserve high praise. I might question Germont's Act II costume, which didn't seem to fit him at all, but otherwise the show was visually stunning.

Nearly every element of this show deserves praise, and I recommend without reservation seeing the final performance on May 9.

All is not well in Denmark

On my second night at the Fort Worth Opera Festival, I saw Thaddeus Strassberger's new production of Hamlet, that neglected 1868 opera by Ambroise Thomas to a libretto by Michel Carré and Jules Barbier, based on the Shakespeare play. In keeping with Opera Comique tradition and requirement for a happy ending, the original version concluded with Hamlet being crowned king instead of being killed, but it didn't take long for a version true to the original Shakespeare to emerge. Fort Worth presented the later version.

Talise Trevigne and Wes Mason
Photo courtesy Fort Worth Opera
The singing in this production is beyond compare. Wes Mason was a Hamlet not to be trifled with. Commanding and yet brooding in appearance, fully committed to Hamlet's heartbreak and rage, and able to convey all the heightened emotion with highly skilled singing that one wished would never end. His tone is even and free throughout, beautiful to hear, with an easy high voice that suits Hamlet's music very well. The drinking song "Ô vin, dissipe la tristesse" and the monologue "Être, ou ne pas être", two highly contrasting scenes, were both beautiful and passionate, and Mr. Mason's commitment to the text and character were abundantly clear.

Talise Travigne, who has graced these pages before, sang and acted a stunning Ophelia. She was vocally dazzling from beginning to end—high notes, agility, tone quality and evenness of scale were exceptional. Her acting was believable as she experienced Ophelia's turbulent and conflicting emotions. The mad scene was a feat of singing and acting that will long live in this reporter's memory.

The Gertrude of Robynne Redmon and the Claudius of Kim Josephson were also a treat. Mr. Josephson was every bit the pompous but guilt-ridden king. The scene in which he expresses overwhelming remorse for his heinous acts, and begs his brother's soul to intercede for him with God, was very moving. Ms. Redmon was excellent as Gertrude, who sees how her acts result in her son's anguish and yet is terrified that the crime will be discovered.

Fort Worth Opera Music Director Joe Illick and the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra deserve high praise for their performance. Sensitive phrasing, cohesive ensemble playing, and warm, lush sound are the impressions this reporter takes from the performance. Chorus Master Stephen Dubberly and his chorus deserve high praise as well.

The setting was updated to some indistinct, crumbling Cold War era city, and the date appeared to be about 1960. I've written before that I don't like updated opera settings. The usual intention is to clarify social roles and power structures, but I've rarely seen that happen successfully. Usually the update offers more distraction than illumination. This production of Hamlet has not changed my feelings on the matter, for distraction there was in abundance: Why were those peasants huddling in the periphery? Why so many uniformed guards with guns? Why was Ophelia wearing heels instead of flats on a picnic? Did I learn more about any of the characters or their relationships from the pretty costumes by Mary Traylor or the sets of Mr. Strassberger? I'm afraid not.

There is one more performance of Hamlet, on May 10. For the singing I highly recommend seeing it.


Sunday, May 3, 2015

Fort Worth Dog Show

Lauren Worsham as Lisa and John Kelly as Prince
Photo courtesy Fort Worth Opera
On Friday night I was fortunate to see Dog Days, a new opera by composer David T. Little and librettist Royce Vavrek, at the Fort Worth Opera Festival.  Dog Days was first produced in 2012. The story is of a family trying to stay together and preserve a normal life as the country is thrown into chaos by war on U.S. soil. There is no work, and food consists of a box of rations abruptly dropped from a helicopter periodically, along with whatever they can forage. For all practical purposes the family is trapped in their very traditional home, for travel to escape the city is impossible, and there is little reason to even go outside. They cling with differing amounts of desperation and rationality to the idea of staying together as a family. The hymn-like grace the family sings as if on auto-pilot at every meal gives pathetic evidence of the emptiness of their lives from the beginning, and grows more ragged as the family grows more desperate. Kudos to Mr. Little and director Robert Woodruff for that and a thousand other details that added up to a riveting show.

The family is accustomed to beggars at their door for what little food they have, but the appearance of a man who costumes himself as a stray dog and acts more like a dog than a man incites surprisingly strong and diverse reactions from the family members. Howard, the father, is enraged by the appearance of the dog-man, while Lisa, his daughter, is at first repulsed but then finds in the dog a good listener and even a friend. She names the dog Prince.

Marnie Breckenridge and James Bobick
Photo courtesy Fort Worth Opera
I call myself a bel canto bear, and I've written before that I'm not qualified to evaluate new music, but I must say I liked this opera. Critic Jeffrey Edelstein writes in the program: "While the music is energetic and amplified—a cloisonné of rock and Broadway vernacular held within outlines formed from classical styles—it conveys the feeling of traditional operative recitative and aria." The chamber ensemble Newspeak, under conductor Alan Pierson, were a sometimes subtle, sometimes raucous accompaniment to the singing and acting on stage. The sound design of Garth MacAleavey also played a very important role.

I can not praise the performers highly enough! James Bobick as Howard was gruff and desperate in his attempt to maintain normalcy and family life. His vocal lines sometimes showed that desperation with extreme high range, but his singing was never unpleasant or "yell-y", and in fact was quite beautiful most of the time. Marnie Breckenridge was equally outstanding as the Mother, who cooks and cleans and feeds her family like an automaton. When she allows herself to feel she is paralyzed, only able to move in reaction to her family's needs or orders. Also a very fine singer, Ms. Breckenridge sang the often but not always lyric lines of her role beautifully.

Lauren Worsham as Lisa
Photo: Fort Worth Opera
The real star of the show was Lauren Worsham as the young daughter Lisa. With two older brothers who keep to themselves and parents overwhelmed by their own lives, Lisa has a very lonely existence, so she welcomes the dog as a listener. She reminds me of Anne Frank at times. Lisa has extended monologues in which she reveals her deepest thoughts and feelings, which Ms. Worsham sang and acted with amazing dexterity and beauty. Lisa's mirror aria, in which she exults that starvation has finally allowed her to achieve beauty, was a marvel both in Ms. Worsham's performance and in the audience experience. Lisa's actual reflection is projected on a screen as she carries the mirror about. The audience experiences an uncomfortable level of intimacy with Lisa. (Projections by Video Engineer Eamonn Farrell are used just as effectively throughout the show.)

John Kelly was remarkable in his portrayal of the dog. Always on all fours except in his last moments, he acted and reacted as a dog always. His simple but mangy-looking costume of tattered pants and furry shirt (all costumes were by Victoria Tzykun, and his wig was by Anne Ford-Coates) added to his dog appearance and character.

The cast is rounded out by Michael Marcotte and Peter Tantsits as Elliott and Pat, the two teenage boys. They are up to no good, of course, and at one point are brought home by the Army Captain played by Cherry Duke. All three were worth watching and hearing.

I regret there is only one more performance of this amazing opera, on May 9. If you haven't seen it, I would urge you to go.

Postscript:  When I saw the show Friday night I was thinking analytically.  When I wrote this review and posted it, I was thinking analytically.  When I later told a friend about the show, I couldn't talk about it without tears.


Thursday, April 23, 2015

Living on Love ticket giveaway!

Renée Fleming and Douglas Sills
Courtesy livingonlovebroadway.com
I promised you an opportunity to win a pair of tickets to Living on Love, and here it is:
Renée Fleming plays a diva writing her memoirs in Living on Love. What is the name of Renée's own autobiography?
Answers must be submitted via private message at Taminophile's Facebook page. Answers submitted in any other way will be discarded. Winner will be chosen in a way that will probably be sort of impartial from among correct answers received before midnight, Saturday, April 25 Sunday, April 26.

Please share and retweet as much as you like!

The link

I'll be loving you always.....

Your intrepid reporter has traveled far and wide to see opera before, but this was his most challenging assignment yet: to venture into deepest, darkest Manhattan, find parking that didn't require a second mortgage, and see the new Broadway play featuring dear Renée Fleming, Living on Love. For comps your reporter will subject himself to any indignity (opera company marketing and PR departments take note), so your Taminophile grabbed his husband and went. And he didn't regret a minute of it.

Douglas Sills and Renee Fleming
Courtesy livingonlovebroadway.com
What a charming show! Joe DiPietro has adapted Garson Kanin's 1985 play Peccadillo to create Living on Love, a story of a self-absorbed but loveable diva married to a self-absorbed but loveable conductor, and their attempts to use eager young ghost writers Robert and Iris to complete autobiographies.

Of course this whole play is about Renée Fleming, so at this point I must pause to lavish her with praise. The part of Raquel De Angelis is perfect for Miss Fleming, who delighted in portraying the egotism, the false modesty, the brash assurance of the Diva, as she is called by everyone. The moments when she revealed the true Raquel, insecurities and all, were handled skillfully, although at times one suspected the character was using even those moments to manipulate people. In spite of one or two bumpy transitions from the grandiloquent Diva to the genuine Raquel, one was left entirely satisfied by Miss Fleming's portrayal of the Diva.

Blake Hammond and Scott Robertson
Courtesy livingonlovebroadway.com
The casting director for this play, James Calleri, deserves kudos for assembling a marvelous cast of Broadway, film and television veterans. Douglas Sills was all bluster, ego, and self delusion as the Maestro, Vito De Angelis. As the play opens he and Robert, terrified and spineless and played with great aplomb by Jerry O'Connell, are working on the Maestro's autobiography, having made little progress. With Miss Fleming's first sweeping entrance as Raquel De Angelis (nearly all of Miss Flemings's entrances seemed to be of the sweeping sort--go figure!), she establishes both her own grandeur and the important plot point that the Maestro is compelled to finish the book because they've already spent the publisher's advance. Anna Chlumsky plays Iris, junior assistant editor who becomes the Maestro's next ghost writer. Her Iris is all nervous charm and intellectual gusto, and we see both Iris and Robert grow into more confident people as the story unfolds.

With the stage set just so, the rest of the story is no surprise. But that's not important. The Diva explains, recalling a very young fan's comment, people go to the opera because it's better than life. So it is with the theater.

The intricately choreographed efficiency of the two butlers (played by with great joy by Blake Hammond and Scott Robertson) was a delight, both in changing scenes and in their condescending interaction with the two young writers. When they sang along with the opera recordings that accompanied the scene changes--quite well, I might add--it was amusing and quite charming. Their lounge-act performance of "Makin' Whoopie"  as they were setting the stage for the the Diva's and the Maestro's grandest attempts to seduce the two ghost writers was a delight.

Anna Chlumsky and Jerry O'Connell
Courtesy livingonlove.com
Mr. DiPietro's and Mr. Kanin's writing sparkled with clever quips that went by so fast I couldn't make note of any, but also with further interesting detail. There was the obvious metaphor of the snow globes, gifts from the Maestro and the Diva to each other upon return from various tours, featuring important cities in opera. There was the fact that even in their most intimate and genuine moments, the Maestro and the Diva called each other by the labels Husband and Wife, not by their names. In fact, the Maestro didn't seem to call anyone by name, and had a number of colorful labels for the poor young ghost writer Robert. (Giving Robert the surname Samson, seeming to imply his new-found strength was more predestined by God than by conventional plot point, might have been a bit heavy-handed.)

Kudos to director Kathleen Marshall for a thousand delightful details. Kudos also to the spectacular design team: costume design by Michael Krass, scene design by Derek McLane, wig and hair by Tom Watson. The Eisenhower-era costumes and wigs were absolutely stunning.

One of the most touching details is the story of how the Maestro and the Diva met. Seated next to each other at a sidewalk cafe in Vienna, they both delighted in a small boy performing the Irving Berlin song "Always" on his tiny violin. They asked for another song, but the lad claimed to know no more songs, so he played "Always" again and again, and soon young Vito and Raquel were in love. The Maestro has never been able to progress beyond this story with any of his ghost writers, and at the end, it is instrumental in the Maestro and the Diva reaffirming their love. Miss Fleming's sweet performance of this song almost brought a tear to your hardened reporter's eye. This is how the play ended, and this is how I choose to end this review--with an image of the Diva in the Maestro's arms, singing sweet, romantic songs to him.

Renee Fleming and Douglass Sills
Courtesy livingonlove.com



Wednesday, April 15, 2015

BYOB Opera in Upper Manhattan

Opera Company of Brooklyn (OCB) was founded in 2000 to give young singers experience with opera, and its Bring Your Own Beverage (BYOB) series of intimate readings began in 2005. With very little rehearsal as a group, OCB presents semi-staged readings (not yet memorized) of popular operas in intimate venues such as company founder and Artistic Director Jay Meetze's upper Manhattan apartment. The format of the BYOB series is to cut dialogue and most chorus music to focus on the music of the principal roles. On Saturday I was able to hear the group present the curious combination of The Impresario and Pagliacci.

Aine Hakamatsuka
Courtesy ainehakamatsuka.com
Saturday night's performance began with Mozart's popular one-act opera Der Schauspieldirektor (The Impresario). Cutting all the dialogue left two arias, a trio, and a quartet, all beautifully sung. My favorite from this small cast was Aine Hakamatsuka, who sang Madame Silberklang with a light, agile sound, and acted the prima donna with the childish impetuousness required. Tenor Ivan Rivera was a fine Vogelsang in the famous trio, trying to make peace between the two warring prima donnas. Heidi Sauser as Madame Hertz and Boris Mitchell as Buff rounded out the cast.

It must have been the limited rehearsal time and the fact some of the singers had previously sung their roles in German that prevented Mr. Meetze from presenting the opera in English to really bring the comedy across. For shows like The Impresario and Die Fledermaus, I'm a big fan of performing in the local language and making the lyrics topical whenever possible.

Elana Gleason
Courtesy elanagleason.com
The undisputed star of Pagliacci was Elana Gleason as Nedda. Although a lighter voice than one usually hears as Nedda, Ms. Gleason sang the role with great skill and beauty. Whether she was acting as Nedda, longing to run away with her lover, or play-acting as Colombine in the play within the play, one couldn't tear one's eyes away.

Nedda's young lover Silvio was well sung by Brian Ming Chiu. Villain Tonio was sung by Michael O'Hearn, who seemed impaired by allergies but otherwise fully committed to the jealous, vengeful clown. Canio, Nedda's husband, was sung by Byron Singleton. I don't think the role suits his voice, but he managed it capably.

Pianist Naoko Aita very capably accompanied both operas, with Mr. Meetze conducting.

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

My Bachtrack review of Don Carlo at the Met


(c) Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera
On Monday I was in attendance as the Metropolitan Opera presented this season's revival of Nicholas Hytner's 2010 production of Don Carlo. Verdi's longest opera is always a wonder, and this was a successful production, with good singing and acting. 




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