Thursday, August 21, 2014

Fair is foul, and foul is fair

Having been enchanted by Dell'Arte Opera Ensemble's production The Fairy Queen/ A Midsummer Night's Dream, the first installment of its Summer of Shakespeare, I knew I must see their production of Macbeth, Mr. Verdi's setting of The Scottish Play. I was privileged to see the opening night performance on August 20. I've always been a great supporter of opera on this professional level, where young professionals gain experience and audiences can see what really creative minds are able do with a modest budget. Dell'Arte can do a lot!

Jackie Hayes, Elizabeth Bouk,
Monica Niemi as Witches
Photo: Brian Long
This was a semi-staged performance, which can mean anything more than a concert version but less than a full production with sets and costumes. Dell'Arte's production was very close to a fully staged production. True, costumes were mostly simple modern dress with add-on pieces suggesting the roles, and sets were almost non-existent, and a few of the props were mimed, but in all other ways this was a fully staged performance, and a very good one. All roles were very well prepared (no opening-night-as-final-dress-rehearsal insecurity), and all scenes were staged and acted with commitment and conviction. Music Director Christopher Fecteau and Stage Director Myra Cordell deserve congratulations for the vocal and dramatic commitment and highly musical performances of this capable young cast.

Mary Ann Stewart
as Lady Macbeth
Photo: Brian Long
The star of the show was Mary Ann Stewart as Lady Macbeth. Ms. Stewart has a long list of mezzo roles to her credit, and a growing list of soprano roles, including Madame Lidoine, Ariadne, and Donna Elvira. Her sound is full and rich, with secure high notes and booming low notes. She has a commanding stage presence, and acted the demanding role of Lady Macbeth with conviction and unwavering commitment. I expect to hear more of her in the future.

Another favorite was the Banco of Hans Tashjian. His rich and deep sound, although young, shows great promise. And I liked the three energetic Witches of Monica Niemi, Elizabeth Bouk, and Jackie Hayes.

I wonder about casting Jason Plourde as Macbeth. The role requires a powerful, stentorian voice, a true Verdi baritone. I believe Mr. Plourde's voice is lighter than that. His acting, however, leaves nothing to be desired. We saw Macbeth's conflicting emotions, his terror, his pride--all were there.

Jason Plourde
as Macbeth
Photo: Brian Long
Again I must praise Christopher Fecteau for leading the reduced orchestra in the tiny but resonant East Thirteenth Street Theater. Throughout, the pickup orchestra played like a true ensemble, following Mr. Fecteau's admirable musical instincts beautifully. Again I must praise Director Myra Cordell for her inventive staging in this unusual space, and for bringing committed performances from every one of the singers. The lighting design of Scott Schneider and costumes of Nina Bova also deserve praise, as does the fight choreography of David Laws.

Macbeth runs through August 24, so you'd better hurry if you want to see it!

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Fairies really are timeless, aren't they?

I had the opportunity to see Dell'Arte Opera Ensemble's presentation of Mr. Purcell's The Fairy Queen on Saturday, August 8. It was a delight. Dell'Arte is another one of New York's opera companies built around young talent--a professional level I think underrepresented and under-heralded in the mass media and the blogosphere. Under the leadership of Christopher Fecteau, Dell'Arte's Artistic Director, the company has presented quite a large range of standard repertoire in both workshop and staged performances since its founding in 2000.

Jason Duverneau as Oberon
Imani Jade Powers as Titania
Photo: Brian E. Long
Dell'Arte Opera Ensemble
The Fairy Queen is really a masque, not an opera, meaning it was presented as musical interlude between acts of another entertainment. This was written specifically for A Midsummer Night's Dream. (Click the link for a plot summary.) It was presented as an accompaniment, commentary, and potentially integral part of the play. Dell'Arte and the excellent small instrumental ensemble The Sebastians presented an abridged version of Mr. Shakespeare's work, featuring Mr. Purcell's masque. Titania's fairies were the vocal ensemble. Director/Choreographer Christopher Caines was also dramaturg, updating where necessary. Puck told the audience in iambic pentameter where the bar and fire exits were, and asked them to turn off cell phones. I was enchanted by the insertion of bits from The Importance of Being Ernest into the players' rehearsal scene, when they are charmed by Puck into being real actors. (I won't tell you who winds up as Lady Bracknell.)

Drew Paramore as Puck
Photo: Brian E. Long
Dell'Arte Opera Ensemble
The action of the four lovers, the players, and Theseus/ Hyppolita was updated to the current day, but fairies really are timeless, aren't they? In this case their playground was Central Park. Most of the action was around the fairies, so that the updated parts and location, which didn't work for me, also didn't bother me much.

The vocal ensemble was composed of eleven accomplished and very flexible young singers. Both as an ensemble and as individuals, these young people showed vocal finesse and great humor and commitment. Their choreography was at times quite frenetic, at times graceful, but never did anyone seem breathless or even awkward. Music Director Jeff Grossman brought out the pathos in the vocal ensemble numbers that required it, while also showing great spirit in the dance-like numbers. I can't describe each singer, for they were all good, but I'll mention a few standouts: baritone John Callison, bass Andy Berry, countertenor Brennan Hall, and soprano Tamra Paselk.

Dancers Aynsley Inglis & Luke Tucker
Photo: Brian E. Long
Dell'Arte Opera Ensemble
The non-singing principals were all spot-on for their roles. In particular I must praise the Bottom of Andrew Gelles and the Puck of Drew Paramore. Bottom was both oafish and endearing, and Puck was spritely, mischievous and energetic. Great praise must also be given to the non-singing fairy dancers, Aynsley Inglis and Luke Tucker, and to their choreographer, once again Christopher Gaines. And the very, very young Gabriel Griselj was quite the focused young man as Ariel, the boy over whom Oberon and Titania are fighting.

The production team also deserves kudos. I've mentioned Director/Choreographer Christopher Caines, and Music Director Jeffrey Grossman already. Kate Powers, faculty Shakespeare teacher, and Caroline Copeland, faculty Baroque dance teacher, deserve much of the credit for this fine performance. I must praise Lighting Designer Scott Schneider for some lovely effects. At one point, while Titania and Bottom are watching the entertainments, Bottom's donkey head piece (which also deserves praise for Costume Designer Nina Bova) seemed to glow, to pick up different colors from the set.

All in all a perfectly charming performance. It did run a little long, but quite a lovely experience. The Fairy Queen runs through August 23 as part of Dell'Arte Opera Ensemble's Summer of Shakespeare.

The ensemble
Photo: Brian E. Long
Dell'Arte Opera Ensemble