Saturday, April 26, 2014

Dead Man Walking at Madison Opera

Go. You must see this opera. I never begin a review like that, but I can not lie. If you love emotionally devastating opera, go to Madison and see the second and final performance of Jake Heggie's Dead Man Walking on Sunday, April 27.

The final walk to the death chamber
Photo by James Gill, courtesy of Madison Opera
The libretto is by Terrence McNally, based on Sister Helen Prejean's book about her experience as spiritual advisor to a man convicted of a gruesome murder. The work premiered at San Francisco Opera in 2000, and has had many successful productions in North America, Europe and Australia. It is unusual for a contemporary work, particularly one with such a sensitive subject, to become so popular. It's also unusual for the work to be successful in smaller cities such as Eugene, Tulsa, and Fort Worth. (Forth Worth Opera owns the production Madison presented.) Madison Opera is to be commended for presenting this work, and for the skillful marketing and ancillary programming campaign they have presented. I regret not being able to see any of the presentations leading up to Friday night's opening, and not being able to stay for the question and answer session after the show. (I had an early Saturday flight.)

Michael Mayes played convicted murderer Joseph De Rocher. Through his powerful performance, as well as the finely crafted libretto and score, our perception of Joseph transforms from monster to man tortured by rage and self contempt, and we feel sympathy for his suffering alongside the suffering of his victims and their families. Mr. Mayes has a beautiful instrument, which he used quite skillfully in acting the role vocally, just as skillfully as he used his huge stage presence in acting the role physically.

Daniela Mack and Michael Mayes
Photo by James Gill,
 Courtesy of Madison Opera
Daniela Mack showed us Sister Helen's growth from a woman who isn't quite sure what she's gotten herself into to a strong and confident woman of faith. We see her initial fear of Joseph grow into both sympathy and strength, until she is able to both stand up to him and forgive him for his heinous deeds. Miss Mack has an impressive list of lyric mezzo-soprano credits and upcoming performances, and I'd love to see and hear her in any of those roles.

Susanne Mentzer's performance as Joseph's mother was heart-wrenching. Mrs. De Rocher is not an educated woman, and plainly not of the same socio-economic class as the families of the victims, but she eloquently speaks at her son's pardon hearing, wondering how his death can make anything right for anyone. She firmly wants to believe her son is not guilty, and will not listen to his apologies. And Ms. Mentzer sings the role with confidence and beauty.

Emotionally stunning scenes abound. The quintet of parents, beginning with the parents of the two murdered teenagers, then joined by Mrs. De Rocher, brings tears to the eyes in memory. Joseph's scene alone in his cell, when he is told a date has been set for his execution, is amazingly powerful. (The word powerful can not be overused in discussing Mr. Mayes as Joseph De Rocher.) The scene in which Joseph finally confesses the truth to Sister Helen took my breath away, as did the full ensemble scene singing The Lord's Prayer as he is walked to the death chamber, and his actual execution. I can write no more without sobbing.

The supporting cast is very large. I must single out Karen Slack as Sister Rose, Jeffrey Beruan (whom I've praised for his work at Caramoor) as the prison warden, Clay Hilley as the prison chaplain and Alan Dunbar as Owen Hart, father of the young girl who was murdered, for fine performances. The remaining supporting cast all deserve more praise than I have space or time to give. The choruses, both adult and children, performed with confidence and dexterity. Artistic Director John DeMain has conducted Dead Man Walking in other productions, and it showed in his shaping of the opera as a whole.

Visually, the show was stark and beautiful. Harry Frehner's sets and Marcus Dilliard's lighting effectively suggested the actual settings while also reminding one of the constant prison theme. Director Kristine McIntyre brought touching performances from major and supporting cast alike, and was very good at traffic control.

Once again, I say go. This is a must.

Prisoners on death row as Sister Helen is led to see Joseph
Photo by James Gill, courtesy of Madison Opera

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Taminophile falls prey to an ear worm

Because a dear friend recently mentioned the song "Taylor the Latte Boy", I've been obsessed with it.  You can find lots of performances of the song online, as well as the clever rebuttal song.  Dear Pagerbear wrote these new lyrics for me:

There's a bear at the Met gift shop 
Who is very inspirational.
He is very inspirational
Because of many things!

I come just before the curtain,
And he smiles and says, “How are you?”
When he smiles and says “How are you?”
I could swear my pants take wings!

So tonight at intermission
I decided I should meet him.
I decided I should meet him
In a proper way, right now!

So tonight at intermission
When he smiled and said, “How are you?”
I said, “Fine, and my name's Oleg.”
And he softly answered, “Ciao.”

And I said, “My name is Oleg,
I'm looking for the right Boheme....”
And he said his name was Pager,
Which provides the inspiration for this po-em:

Pager the opera bear, 
Sling CDs and tchatchkes rare!
Oh Pager the opera bear, 
io t'amo, io t'amo, io t'amo....

So I'd like to get my nerve up
To recite my poem musical
He would like the fact it's musical
Because he sings around.

So tonight at intermission,
Pager told me he was singing
With a church-hall opera company
In a space with crappy sound

And he smoothly took my ticket
for the parking lot, to stamp it,
But for me he comped the ticket,
and he didn't think I knew!

But I saw him comp the ticket,
and for me that saved a bundle,
And I knew that parking ticket
Meant that Pager loved me too!

I said, “Where is this church hall?
And thank you for the extra time!”
And he said, “Christ and St. Stephen's,
'round the corner” (but I just #%^$^$'d up this rhyme).

Pager the opera bear,
Sling CDs and tchatchkes rare!
Oh Pager the opera bear,
io t'amo, io t'amo, io t'amo....

I used to be the kind of cub
who'd run when love came calling.
But finally a voice whispered "Love can be yours,
If you go to the shop and quit stalling!”

Pager the opera bear,
Sling CDs and tchatchkes rare!
Oh Pager the opera bear,
io t'amo, io t'amo, io t'amo....

So many years with no alma del core,
Who knew at the Met was my own ursine amore?
Pager the opera bear,
Io t'amo, io t'amo, io t'amo!
Ich lieb' dich, je t'aime, io t'amo!

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Golden Age Singer Profile: Mattiwilda Dobbs

Imagine my delight on discovering a beautiful, accomplished soprano from the mid-20th century who was new to me! Mattiwilda Dobbs, although not the first African-American singer to perform at the Metropolitan Opera, was the first with a long-term contract there. Among her roles there were Zerbinetta, Zerlina, Olympia, Lucia(!), and Oscar. The list of other houses where she performed is quite impressive as well. Born in 1925 in Atlanta, she now lives in retirement in Atlanta, having performed all over the world and taught at several universities. Alas, Miss Dobbs is not well represented in recordings, but there are a few to be found.

This is Mozart's Exsultate, Jubilate, cond. Walter Goehr, 1959:

Zerbinetta, Sydney Symphony Orchestra, 1955 (not 1959, as indicated by the video's titles),
cond. Joseph Post:

"How beautiful are the feet of them" from Messiah, Händel Society London, cond. Walter Goehr, undated.