Wednesday, November 4, 2015

My Bachtrack review of Great Scott at Dallas Opera

Squee!!!!   JDD and Flicka--
when did I ever think I'd see them on stage together?!
Photo:  Karen Almond, Dallas Opera
Jake Heggie's new opera Great Scott, with a libretto by Terence McNally, opened last week at the Dallas Opera. Heggie and McNally are known individually for their many award-winning works, and best known as a team for their very successful opera Dead Man Walking.

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:

Friday, July 31, 2015

Dialogues of the Carmelites at Caramoor

Last Saturday I was delighted to be in attendance when The Caramoor Festival presented Poulenc's Dialogues des Carmelites in French*. At the end of the evening I had a feeling of being swept away in Poulenc's lush harmonies and dazzled by amazing singing. This semi-staged performance (directed by Victoria Crutchfield, daughter of Opera at Caramoor Director Will Crutchfield) had more detail and direction than some fully staged opera productions I've seen. A lot can be done with a single piece of furniture and a wimple.

Jennifer Check
As I say, the singing was amazing. Jennifer Check was rewarded with hearty applause and shouts of "Brava!" at the curtain for her Blanche de la Force, and one could certainly tell why. Although I've always wished for a warmer sound from Ms. Check, I found her performance of the fearful, indecisive Blanche satisfactory.

I found Hei-Kyung Hong's Madame Lidoine much more than satisfactory. Ms. Hong has been moving into roles much larger than the coloratura roles that made her career in the 80s and 90s. This was a full, warm sound, with sure command of Madame Lidoine's demanding vocal range and challenging melodic lines. Ms. Hong portrayed the role with dignity and a warm authority.

Hei-Kyung Hong
Also impressive was Jennifer Larmore, who pleased so much singing Eboli in Caramoor's Don Carlos, as Mother Marie. Vocally secure and free throughout, she was in full command of Mother Marie's equally difficult demands. Ms. Larmore made Mother Marie earthier than Madame Lidoine but no less dignified. Veteran dramatic soprano Deborah Polaski was an exciting Old Prioress. Not to be repetitive, but Ms. Polaski also sang beautifully and acted the heck out of the challenging role. Her deathbed scene was a marvel. Young and promising Alison Jordheim offered a beautifully sung Sister Constance, full of hope and cheer even in the face of disaster.

Caramoor veteran Daniel Mobbs gave a powerful, sonorous performance of the Marquis de la Force, although he was occasionally overpowered by the orchestra. Noah Baetge offered a passionate and well sung Chevalier de la Force. The Orchestra of St. Lukes, as usual, played with sensitivity and care under Mr. Crutchfield's baton, and the chorus of Caramoor Young Artists and Caramoor Apprentices was quite good.

*While it's true M. Poulenc did specify the opera should be performed in the local language, stated Mr. Crutchfield, that was before the days of supertitles.

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

My final Glimmerglass post of the season

Actually there will be one more after this--an interview with a special Glimmerglass Festival artist.

I have found my calling!
This is where I post some thoughts and events from my visit to Glimmerglass that might not fit in full reviews. But first, let me thank lovely PR Manager Kelly and her able intern Kevin for their consideration in providing me access to Glimmerglass artists and shows.

Second, let me spread the word that, even though the coming weekend is Baseball Hall of Fame Induction Weekend in Cooperstown, it's still a great time to go to Glimmerglass. It's not unheard of for people to be interested in both opera and baseball (I know—I was surprised, too!), but that's certainly not a requirement. Ticket discounts are available, and area lodging is still available, too.

Ruth Bader Ginsburg and 2014 Glimmerglass Young Artists
Photo:  Karli Cadel, Glimmerglass Festival
On Saturday afternoon I was privileged to be in the audience for Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg's program. It thrills me to report that Justice Ginsburg was given a hearty standing ovation the moment she walked on stage. Then began the program of operatic scenes and arias related to the law, presented by the Glimmerglass Young Artists, each introduced by Justice Ginsburg, with off-the-cuff commentary. Some of my favorite Young Artists excelled in this program. Christian Bowers, who wowed us last year as Clyde Griffiths in An American Tragedy, sang a very moving aria from Don Carlo. Kristen Choi, last year's Suzuki in Madama Butterfly, gave us quite a steamy Sequidilla from Carmen. There were also Glimmerglass Young Artists who were new to me, but whom I was happy to see and hear. Vanessa Becerra was perfectly adorable as Susanna in an excerpt from the opening scene of Nozze di Figaro. Figaro in that scene was Rhys Lloyd Talbot. (I really liked Mr. Lloyd Talbot as Speaker/2nd Priest in the The Magic Flute, but that's another post.) Rexford Tester and Maren Weinberger were simply charming and quite amusing as Nanki-Poo and Yum-Yum in a scene from The Mikado. Baritone Nathan Milholin, who impressed with just a few vocal lines as the Doctor and the Servant in Macbeth, impressed a lot more with Wotan's aria Abendlich strahlt der Sonne Auge from Das Rheingold. Raquel Gonzalez gave us a beautifully measured, well sung "We cannot retrace our steps....Where is where" from The Mother of Us All, which I confess I don't know at all.

On Tuesday afternoon, after seeing Macbeth a second time, I enjoyed the first of the season's Meet Me At the Pavilion series--Ladies' Night Out, when women of the company treated the audience to mostly non-operatic music. Among the highlights: a truly sensitive, contemplative performance of the Lennon/McCartney hit "Yesterday" by Marietta Simpson, who had wowed us as The Old Woman in Candide; "Alto's Lament", on having to sing low and boring ensemble parts, performed with comic flair by Cynthia Cook, who played Vanderdendur in Candide and Sondra Finchley in last season's An American Tragedy; a delightfully droll comic song about trying to find love when one is a turnpike toll collector, sung by the truly charming Maren Weinberger, who will delight audiences in Odyssey, the new children's opera offering at Glimmerglass, later this summer; a moving performance of "Summertime" by Jacqueline Echols, this season's Pamina in The Magic Flute; and an encore performance of "Taylor the Latte Boy" by Kristen Choi, who had sung the song on last year's program, and whose interpretation has grown by leaps and bounds in the interim. Indeed, one of the joys of going back every season is seeing the ongoing development in the Glimmerglass Young Artists.

Today we must wend our way homeward, alas. But here's another plug for Overlook Mansion in Little Falls, just a half hour away from Glimmerglass.

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Peace can be ours when love we find

On Monday afternoon I saw the Glimmerglass Festival's new production of The Magic Flute, in a new English version by Glimmerglass dramaturg Kelly Rourke. Ms. Rourke's adaptation brings the action to the current day in a forest near a large city, where Tamino has gone to seek peace. In this setting a dragon would just be silly, so he's pursued in the opening scene by walking tree branches. Birnham Wood recycled from the concurrently running Macbeth?  No, shape-shifting vines. Papageno is a modern-day hunter who exchanges his kill with the Three Ladies for provisions like food and drink. The Masonic element of the original libretto is eliminated and elements of Native American spirituality and folklore are included. At least one person has suggested to me the Queen of the Night seems like a hippie, in direct opposition to Sarastro's representation of institutional science.

Sean Panikkar and Jacqueline Echols
Photo:  Karli Cadel, Glimmerglass Festival
Maybe I'm softening in my old age, but this is the second time in less than a week I'm saying the setting update didn't bother me. The story was timeless already, and this setting makes much more sense than using space suits or a post-apocalyptic freeway underpass as a setting. What did bother me, however, were occasionally awkward rhymes, occasional difficult vowels for some vocal ranges, and rare bad syllabification. An example of a rhyme that I didn't like: "I can hear his brilliant tones./Soon his song will join our own./And the second we've connected/we will make a hasty exit." (Pamina and Papageno). The title of this post is another example of the language I found a bit awkward.

These are minor qualms, I admit, and my only real complaints about the show. The singing was stellar. Sean Panikkar is a fine Tamino—certainly an experienced one, as at his tender young age this is his eighth Flute production—and gave Tamino a good combination of dignity and passion. His singing was quite pleasing. Papageno was sung by the charming Ben Edquist, whom we loved last year as Jigger Craigin in Carousel. Appropriately earthy, child-like, wise without book learning, and tremendously charming are ways to describe Mr. Edquist's Papageno.

Ben Edquist and Jacqueline Echoles
Photo:  Dory Schultz, Glimmerglass Festival
Pamina was sung by Jacqueline Echols, whom we loved as Giulietta in King for a Day at Glimmerglass in 2013. A lovely young woman with a beautiful voice, Ms. Echols was a perfect Pamina--sweet and vulnerable and not very bright. (An opera ingénue is supposed to have more sense than to pin her heart on a man she's never met, or to contemplate suicide because the same man isn't speaking to her.)

The Queen of the Night was sung by Glimmerglass Young Artist So Young Park. Her coloratura and her high Fs were spot on, and boy howdy, did she seem angry! Her accent was a little distracting in the spoken dialogue, however. Sarastro was guest artist Solomon Powell, also Banquo in the current Macbeth. He warmed up as the afternoon wore on, and his sound became ever more rich and sonorous.

Claudia Chapa, Aleksandra Romano, Raquel Gonzalez
Photo: Karli Cadel, Glimmerglass Festival
The remainder of the cast were all Glimmerglass Young Artists, all very good. The Three Ladies of Raquel Gonzalez, Aleksandra Romano, and Claudia Chapa were charming and lusty. Jasmine Habersham was a delight as Papagena, and Nicholas Nestorak was quite the smarmy Monostatos. Rhys Lloyd Talbot sang the Speaker and the 2nd Priest beautifully.

This was the second performance, and ten days had passed since the first. The performance I saw in some ways had the feel of opening night as final dress. There were ragged moments from the orchestra, and there were times when orchestra and stage were not together. I'm sure this will resolve itself as the cast and orchestra get more performances under their belts. And this in no way prevented me from enjoying the performance. Still highly recommended.

Because I forgot to mention this above, allow me to give credit where credit is due:

Conductor: Carolyn Kuan
Director: Madeline Sayet
Choreographer: Eric Sean Fogel
Sets: Troy Hourie
Costumes: Kaye Voyce
Lighting: Mark McCullough
Hair & Makeup: Anne Ford-Coates

Monday, July 20, 2015

The best of all possible whirls

On Sunday afternoon I was happy to see the opening of Glimmerglass Festival's new production of Mr. Bernstein's Candide, based on the work of Mr. Voltaire, with significant adaptation and new lyrics by a long list of writers that includes Stephen Sondheim and Lillian Hellman. Voltaire's story mocks the extreme optimism of Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, having the protagonist struggle between his training in such philosophy while enduring loss and hardship that becomes comical in its proliferation and extremity. Poor, witless Candide finally realizes he can't reconcile optimism with experience, but can only take care of himself and his own, can only tend his own garden.

(L-R) Christan Bowers, David Garrison,
Andrew Stenson, Kathryn Lewek, Kristen Choi
Photo:  Karli Cadel, Glimmerglass Festival
As with most Francesca Zambello productions I've seen, I can hardly resist singing the praises of the production team before mentioning the stellar cast. Ms. Zambello, as Director, and Conductor Joseph Colaneri, Scenic Designer James Noone, Costume Designer Jennifer Moeller, Hair/Makeup Designer Anne Ford-Coates, Lighting Designer Mark McCullough, and Choreographer Eric Sean Fogel, have created a treasure. From the opening bars of Mr. Colaneri's energetic reading of the score, I knew this would be a special show, and I was not disappointed. The clever arrival of some of the ensemble members on stage (I won't spoil it, but you'll remember it if you get to see it!) and the many other visual delights created by the design team, choreographer, and Ms. Zambello before the first words were sung only added to the excitement.

Marietta Simpson and
Andrew Stenson
Photo: Karli Cadel
Glimmerglass Festival
The mostly young cast deserves the highest praise as well. I first saw Andrew Stenson in 2011. As a Glimmerglass Young Artist, he nearly stole the show in John Musto's Later the Same Evening. This young man has the vocal chops and the charisma to carry an eponymous role like Candide. A strong but sweet voice and a gentle and sweet persona on stage made Mr. Stenson's portrayal a success. When Candide learns his beloved Cunegonde is supposed dead, his pain is palpable, and when after two and a half hours of reunions and separations, he finally realizes how Cunegonde has survived all this time, we feel the same loss and pain, with added anger.

Kathryn Lewek was a delight as Candide's main squeeze Cunegonde. Spirited, energetic, with a very earthy and pragmatic side, Ms. Lewek's Cunegonde was a great contrast to Mr. Stenson's extreme optimism. Ms. Lewek delivered a dazzling "Glitter and Be Gay", and of course was quite equal to all of the role's other vocal demands.

Kathryn Lewek
Photo: Karli Cadel
Glimmerglass Festival
Musical theater and television veteran David Garrison was an appropriately self absorbed Pangloss, arguing around any flaws in his philosophy with faulty logic that convinces his willing victims students. When Mr. Garrison took off his coat and became Voltaire as narrator, he often had a delightful look of "Isn't this fun? See what I can dupe these people into doing?"

Marietta Simpson, the only other guest artist in the cast, was delightful as the Old Lady. Other roles in Ms. Simpson's bio are legit opera roles, which explains the occasionally awkward transition between lusty belt voice and equally strong head voice--a very small criticism given the many other great qualities she brought to the role. Ms. Simpson had a great sense of timing in delivering her comic lines and a great sense of physical comedy in portraying an old lady with only one buttock.

The remaining cast members were all Glimmerglass Young Artists. Christian Bowers, who wowed us last year as Clyde Griffiths in An American Tragedy, was Cunegonde's self-absorbed brother Maximilian. Kristen Choi was very good last season as Suzuki in Madama Butterfly, and our opinion of her grows and grows with her coquettish Paquette and other things she is performing at Glimmerglass. Andrew Marks Maughan was a fine Cacambo and Matthew Scolin a delightfully cynical Martin. The ensemble was composed of Glimmerglass Young Artists, all a pleasure to watch for their energy and commitment.

I find that Candide is my favorite Glimmerglass production of the season. This production is full of magic and power and zest, and never disappointed. Go see it if you can get a ticket!

Photo:  Karli Cadel, Glimmerglass Festival

Yes, it's another plug for the beautiful Overlook Mansion in Little Falls, just a half hour away from Glimmerglass. Take a look!

Sunday, July 19, 2015

This is the very stuff of opera

So says Tazewell Thompson in his director's essay on the Glimmerglass Festival production of Vivaldi's Cato in Utica, thought to be the U.S. premiere of this opera. In addition to the instrumental and church music for which Vivaldi is celebrated today, he was also a successful composer and producer of opera. Glimmerglass Artistic Director Francesca Zambello has expressed a fascination for the abundance of town names from the ancient world found in upstate New York, and producing an opera that takes place in nearby Utica seemed inevitable.  On Saturday night I attended the first performance.

Megan Samarin and
Thomas Michael Allen
Photo: Karli Cadel
Glimmerglass Festival 
The typically convoluted story centers around the rivalry between Caesar and Cato, the last remaining senator to oppose Caesar's grab for power. There is intrigue—Pompey's widow Emilia is obsessed with vengeance—and ill-fated romance. Just pick a character and you'll find he or she suffers from unrequited or thwarted love. I had to read the synopsis four times, including once aloud, before I could grasp all the characters and how they relate to each other, but seeing it on stage made it all more clear. 

The star of the show was the Caesar of countertenor John Holiday. His voice is high but never shrill, and his pyrotechnics are beyond compare. He sang with great passion and tenderness, and commanded the stage easily with his enormous presence. He impressed especially with arias like the angry and florid Dovea svenarti allora.

John Holiday
Photo: Karli Cadel, Glimmerglass Festival
I adored the three women in the cast—Sarah Mesko as Emilia, Pompey's vengeful widow; Allegra De Vita as Fulvio, Caesar's aide, who loves Emilia; and Megan Samarin as Marzia, Cato's daughter, whom he has promised to Arbace, but who loves Caesar. Miss De Vita and Miss Samarin are both Glimmerglass Young Artists. All three young women sang beautifully from bottom to top of their quite extensive ranges, all sang Vivaldi's challenging coloratura with ease, all conveyed their characters' turbulent emotions quite well.

Thomas Michael Allen sang Cato and Glimmerglass Young Artist Eric Jurenas sang Arbace, both rather well. Conductor Ryan Brown led the Glimmerglass Festival Orchestra in beautifully stylized playing of the Baroque score. Quite striking sets were by John Conklin and beautiful costumes were by Sara Jean Tosetti.

My only real complaint about the production is not a valid complaint. This is early opera, without 19th-century conventions of plot movement. Typical of its time, there is a lot of introspection, revelation, and commentary through vocal fireworks, but there isn't much story telling--and I can't say this opera has a very strong story to tell. But consider that the audience experience in the early 18th century was nothing like today's reverential experience--it would have been much more social, with many diversions during the performance itself.

Do I recommend this production? Of course I do. The singing alone is worth the trip.

Photo: Karli Cadel, Glimmerglass Festival

Macbeth at Glimmerglass

On Friday I happily made my annual trek to Cooperstown, NY, to the Glimmerglass Festival. I'll be here for about six days, enjoying the excellent operatic and vocal offerings while Glimmerglass celebrates its 40th season. I write every year about how fond I am of this Festival and how impressed I am with the productions I see here.

Eric Owens and Melody Moore
Photo:  Karli Cadel
Glimmerglass Festival
Friday night I saw the new Glimmerglass production of Mr. Verdi's Macbeth, and was blown away by the singing. Eric Owens was an outstanding Macbeth, always present with vocal power and tone and total commitment to the character. Mr. Owens portrayed Macbeth's conflicting emotions—ambition, greed, indecision, guilt, terror—to great effect, and he was more than equal to the role's strenuous vocal demands. Macbeth's death aria was particularly effective. (Having also seen Mr. Owens as Filippo in Don Carlo quite recently, I can say this is no surprise.)

Melody Moore, whose Senta in the Glimmerglass production of Der Fliegende Hollander we praised highly two years ago, again deserved high praise as Lady Macbeth. The role requires a voice that is large and warm, but one that can move and trill, and Ms. Moore did not disappoint in any way. Her opening aria, Vieni t'affreta, was powerful and glorious, and her Brindisi was full of Lady Macbeth's contrived joy. The end of the sleepwalking scene was magical.

Melody Moore
Photo:  Karli Cadell
Glimmerglass Festival
Rising young bass-baritone Solomon Powell was a rich and sonorous Banquo. We look forward to hearing great things from him. (Please do look at this video of Mr. Powell in action!) Glimmerglass Young Artist Michael Brandenburg was a worthy Macduff, and Glimmerglass Young Artists Marco D. Cammarota a pretty damn good Malcolm. Joseph Colaneri led the Glimmerglass Festival Orchestra in a well shaped and rousing performance.

This production was updated to the early 20th century, “in a world that is both recognizable to us now but also removed from us,” to quote director Anne Coates's note in the program. This might surprise regular readers, but the updating didn't bother me. I say this for two reasons: first, the story of Macbeth is timeless, so that it can afford a little flexibility in setting; and second, the directorial concept didn't seem to depend heavily on period detail. The visuals, especially the costumes, were quite handsome, whereas traditional productions of the Scottish play often feature somewhat drab visuals. (Set and costume design by James Schuette and Beth Goldenberg, lighting by Robert Wierzel, hair and makeup by Anne Ford-Coates.)

I'd recommend seeing this opera at Glimmerglass, if there are tickets available. And seeing everything you can at Glimmerglass.

Photo:  Karli Cadel, Glimmerglass Festival
Can't resist another plug for Overlook Mansion, the B&B where I've stayed numerous times over the years in nearby Little Falls.  Click the link and give them a look!

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

La Favorite at Caramoor

I was happy on Saturday evening to venture up to Katonah, NY, for another visit to Caramoor. This was my third French opera by an Italian composer written for the Paris Opera presented by Caramoor: La Favorite, now known primarily in its Italian version, La Favorita.

Clémentine Margaine
The story is typical opera fare: Fernand (Fernando), a monk, wants to leave his monastery to experience life. He meets Léonore (Leonora) and experiences life in a big way. Opera things happen, as they say, and he learns on their wedding day that Léonore has been the king's "favorite"--a nice way to say his mistress. He returns to the monastery. Léonore waits a few years, until she's about to die, to follow him there and die in his arms. Although very popular for decades after its introduction in 1840, La Favorite subsequently fell out of favor. In our own time is usually only revived when there is a special singer for Léonore.

There was a very special singer for Léonore on Saturday night, in the person of Clémentine Margaine. A young French mezzo on the rise, this Léonore impressed with her sound, her commitment to the character and the text, and her beautiful yellow dress in the first half. (Her tasteful black and white number in the second half was also very nice.) Léonore's aria "O mon Fernand" ("O mio Fernando") left one breathless. Ms. Margaine's bio lists an impressive string of venues for her Carmen--Berlin, Munich, Montreal, and Dallas, as well as future engagements in Paris, at the Chicago Lyric, and at the Metropolitan Opera.

Santiago Ballerini
It was a fine night for singing all around. Argentinian tenor Santiago Ballerini, another young singer on the rise, sang Fernand with passion and beautiful tone throughout. Although I consider his voice a little light for the role, he sang skillfully and with ever increasing sensitivity throughout the night. His Act III aria "Ange si pur" ("Spirto gentil") was a heartbreaking delight.

Baritone Stephen Powell impressed us at Caramoor in 2013 with his Rodrigue in Don Carlos, and impressed us again with his highly skilled singing and committed interpretation of Alphonse, the king with whom Léonore has been on friendly terms. Bass-baritone Daniel Mobbs was the reliable, resonant, musically sensitive singer we've come to know and love as Balthazar, the Prior of Fernand's monastery.

Caramoor Bel Canto Young artists SungWook Kim and Isabella Gaudi deserve mention for their sidekick roles,  and the chorus comprised of Bel Canto Young Artists and apprentice artists also deserves praise. The Orchestra of St. Luke's, under Maestro Will Crutchfield, were also as reliable and musical as ever.

I am very sorry that Saturday night was the only performance of La Favorite. Were there a second performance, I'd happily recommend seeing it.

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

ROH's La Boheme Revisited

Joseph Callejah and Anna Netrebko
Photo: (c) 2015 Bill Cooper, ROH
At one time I was viewing and writing about quite the Metropolitan Opera's HD opera broadcasts fairly regularly. I think it's a great medium for viewing opera, with prices usually in the Family Circle range or lower, usually great views and sound, and the availability of overpriced movie theater junk food to make the experience complete. (I don't think it's a complete substitute for experiencing opera in the opera house, though—that is a separate conversation.)

I've known for some time that other world-class opera houses have been doing similar broadcasts, and on Sunday I was thrilled to see an NYC showing of a June 10 live broadcast of La Boheme from Royal Opera House Covent Garden. This is the last season the beloved John Copley prodution will be used, and this was the final performance of the cast we saw—Anna Netrebko, Joseph Calleja, Jennifer Rowley, and Lucas Meacham. There will be four more performances later on with a different cast. To thoroughly evaluate the performance would be redundant, considering Ed Beveridge's guest post of a few weeks ago. Let me say I quite agree with nearly everything Ed says. I merely have a few additional comments.

Jennifer Rowley as Musetta with the waiter
Photo: (c) 2015 Bill Cooper, ROH
Anna Netrebko in recent years has ventured into vocal territory that wasn't right for her—my humble opinion, and other opinions vary on that—but her Mimi on Sunday contained some of the best singing I've heard her do in years. Rich and subtle, with very sensitive phrasing and an uncommon commitment to the text. It seems Mimi is a role that suits her right now. Her Rodolfo, Joseph Calleja, usually has a pleasing sound and manner, and did not disappoint. In fact, his occasional tendencies to sing sharp or with a too-fast vibrato were seldom present in this performance. American Lucas Meacham was a delightful Marcello, with very solid, comfortable sound, and very convincing acting. I quite liked Marco Vinco as Colline. His Act IV coat aria was one of the most touching moments in the performance, sung with tender feeling and deep, resonant sound.

Jennifer Rowley as Musetta—wow! I know I sound like a broken record, having written about her many times, but what a great, scenery-chewing performance! Her Act II aria was full of naughtiness and glorious in rich, creamy sound. I've compared her Act II Musetta to Veruca Salt of Willy Wonka fame. By Act IV, and even within Act IV, she is a changed woman. This is no longer an impetuous child, but a woman who has known sorrow.

Although this production has been in service for 42 years, we are told that John Copley himself is involved as often as possible with revivals. He directed this revival, and the performance was full of subtle directorial choices that make great sense. Each chorus member in Acts II and III had his own story. All of the cast reacted to each situation as if for the first time hearing it—which is as it should be. Rodolfo's "Una donna" in Act I (when Mimi calls from behind the closed door) should be more puzzled than lecherous, unless we are meant to imagine young ladies lose their flames (or anything else) on those garret steps more often than implied. Messrs Copley and Calleja had that bit right. We also learn just why the guard in Act III is so slow to respond, and sleep is not the reason! Miss Rowley, in her live intermission interview on Sunday, described many such detailed moments—far too many to repeat here—when there was always something happening behind the actions of the main characters.

Indeed, such details make one love and revere a production more and more, and wonder why, at 42 years, it isn't too early to retire it. We will have to wait and see whether the replacement production deserves its new place. It will have a tremendous lot of tradition and beauty to replace, as well as a tremendous amount of love and affection from the ROH and the worldwide audience.
Act II: Jennifer Rowley as Musetta
Photo (c) 2015 Bill Cooper, ROH

Sunday, June 14, 2015

Guest blogger Ed Beveridge has been at it again!

Season opening at opera Holland Park, June 2015

Il Trittico (Puccini) – Opera Holland Park, June 2nd 2015
Flight (Dove) – Opera Holland Park, June 6th 2015

Opera Holland Park could no longer be described as London’s best kept operatic secret, since its publicity machine is sophisticated and active, but unlike the other summer festivals in the UK, it is one of the most accessible. The performances happen on a temporary but robust stage and auditorium built in front of what remains of Holland House, in the middle of London's Holland Park. This summer the company presents five mainstage shows and one show for children. Repertoire is a mix of popular classics and collector’s items, mainly from the early 20th century Italian repertoire.

Suor Angelica at Opera Holland Park
Photo:  Robert Workman

This season is perhaps one of the most diverse yet. Later on we have Aida, Lakme and Montmezzi’s L’amore dei tre Re. The first two shows neatly top and tail the last century—Il Trittico had its premiere in 1918 in New York, and Flight at Glyndebourne 80 years later. Quite different pieces and brave choices both, and happily the company scored not one, but two great successes.

Il Trittico is a fearsomely demanding work even for the best resourced company. The combination of canny casting, strong direction and first class music making makes the evening way more than the sum of its considerable parts. Holland Park wisely opts for a traditional aesthetic—by which I do not mean unimaginative—and in so doing brings a complementary view of the pieces to the more interpretative productions London has seen in recent years. 

The productions are by Martin Lloyd-Evans (Il Tabarro) and Oliver Platt (Suor Angelica, plus revival director for Lloyd-Evans’ Gianni Schicchi). Designers at this venue must take account of a potentially awkward space with a wide, shallow stage and no fly space above. Neil Irish uses versatile common scenic elements, but there is no attempt to make links between the three operas which are not present.

Ironically Il Tabarro’s midnight Parisian skulduggery takes place during the lightest part of a sunny London evening. A stage-wide realistic barge with quayside arches behind thrusts the action right out towards the audience. (One of the pleasures of this festival is how close the orchestras and singers are to the listener.) It looks to be set around the time of its premiere – the “lovers” who appear at points look like a first world war soldier and his girlfriend - and the pervading colour is grey, appropriate for the characters’ impoverished existence on the waterways of France. In her first role of the evening Anne Sophie Duprels, a diva-in-residence at Holland Park (and elsewhere in the UK) was Giorgetta – a Georgette from this French soprano, surely? Attired in a plain housecoat, cardy and skirt, she shows vestiges of her former, carefree existence, alongside flashes of searing pain when her dead child is mentioned; her resentment for her husband Michele is as vivid as her passion for the stevedore Luigi (the imposing Jeff Gwaltney, returning after Fanciulla last year). And what a clever soprano she is – it’s a lyric voice, punching far above its weight in this repertoire, but making it work; now throaty, now gutsy, the money notes present with a healthy high C. Michele is Stephen Gadd, whose careworn, grizzled husband becomes something far more dangerous as the opera progresses, sung in a baritone which begins rather grey but grows in stature as the opera progress. Had Luigi’s feet not been visible from under his cloak, we could have had a more gripping finale, but it was a strong start to the evening nonetheless.

Suor Angelica was the shattering centrepiece of this production. Traditional? Sort of, although the setting took us to Ireland and the Magadalen Laundries. Precious little redemption to be had here, in a regime where the young “novices” are subjected to constant abuse and humiliation. It’s a neat and valid interpretation of the piece, with the young women ruled over by a Badessa and Suora Zelatrice with precious little grace and plenty of venom. Irish’s set, again grey but beautiful, created an eerie sense of time and place, and Platt’s direction had some telling details – Angelica’s forlorn reaction when a delivery boy tries to play ball with her but is taken away, for example. I’m not sure the cruelty of this setting is quite present in the score, but the sheer impact of the ending – no redemptive vision of Angelica’s child, but an agonizing death – hits home with terrible force. 

Anna Patalong Richard Burkhard in Gianni SchicchiPhoto:  Robert Workman
Duprels returned as Angelica. Her performance was gut-wrenching. She is a singer who gives and gives, tiring slightly towards the end but turning the dramatic screw til the last. Again it was the intelligence of her singing—such scrupulous dynamics—which impressed as much as the technique. Her Angelica was a spirited, strong woman, whose defiance as she looked her aunt in the eye made her final collapse all the more shocking. As her aunt, La Zia Principessa, Rosalind Plowright, a notable Suor Angelica in the past, returned to a stage where she is much loved. She was no stiff psychopath but a proud, conflicted woman, full of guilt and unable to bear Angelica’s distress when she finally reveals the terrible news of her son’s death. Some wayward intonation apart, she can still pack a vocal punch. There was a charming Genovieffa from Johane Ansel (she was also one of the lovers in Il Tabarro) and a fine supporting cast.

After being put through the emotional wringer of Angelica’s laundry (sorry), Gianni Schicchi was a rich dessert, although one with a grown up flavour (think bitter chocolate with a liberal slug of liquor). The production is set around wartime, judging by Rinuccio’s uniform. Again, broadly traditional, although wickedly well directed, treading a fine line between slapstick and subtlety, and doing so by and large successfully. Richard Burkhard’s Schicchi is oily, charming and uncommonly well sung, eschewing pantomime geniality in favour of sinister but irresistible charm. Anna Patalong’s golden-voiced Lauretta scores with “O mio Babbino Caro”, whilst James Edwards (back from his cameo in Il Tabarro) is appealing as Rinuccio. No weak links in the cast but special mention for Sarah Pring’s campily venomous Zita (she was also an appealing Frugola in Tabarro) and Aled Hall’s bright Gherardo.

This was a long evening which did not seem so. Pacing was one of the many virtues of Stuart Stratford’s expert conducting, creating lucid textures and near perfect ensemble in what must be a tricky acoustic. He is shortly to become Music Director at Scottish Opera but has remained loyal to Holland Park. 

A word, finally, about Flight, since in my previous post I promised a review. From the “boarding passes” and airport announcements that greeted the audience in the foyer, to the dazzling production, this was a gamble that paid off thanks to a fine musical performance and a superb cast which brought the piece leaping—flying?—off the page in a way I have rarely seen.

George von Bergen and Kitty Whately in Flight
Photo:  Financial Times
Stephen Barlow’s production is wonderful and dare I say even more enjoyable than the original by Richard Jones. Andrew Riley’s set was a sleek, aquamarine arch of airport with three elevator doors and a tower for the Controller. It was transformed by the lighting—disco purple for the conga of the Act 1 ensemble, deep blue for the night in Act 2. There were evocative projections of weather radar, storms and, appropriately, an aircraft climbing into the clouds for the finale. Against this backdrop Barlow judiciously used extras to create crowds at some key moments, full of priceless detail (I love that the passenger boarding a plane with skis in Act 1 returned on crutches in Act 3), which in turn emphasized the intimacy and loneliness in other scenes. There was farce (Bill and the Steward’s scene, “We’re so high!”, was a riot, and had the Steward scouring the trolley for snacks throughout Act 3); and searing tragedy—the Refugee’s chilling aria describing his journey, stowing away under an aircraft with his brother, was far more compelling than I remember it before.

I suspect this was at least in part the result of James Laing’s gloriously rich, penetrating, communicative counter tenor which gave Dove’s lines such immediacy. The Steward (George von Bergen) and Stewardess (Kitty Whately) were a scream, whilst Tina (Ellie Laugharne) and Bill (Jeffrey Lloyd-Roberts) were an older couple than when the piece was premiered, and made it work; dead ringers for Linda and Richard in Duty Free , for which cultural reference I apologise if you are not from the UK or of a certain age. Victoria Simmonds—who created Pinocchio in Dove’s very different opera some years back—brought proper gravitas to Minskwoman’s aria, “Whose bag is this?”. The standouts, apart from Laing, were Lucy Schaufer’s warm Older Woman—her music theatre credentials meaning every tart one-liner came pinging across the footlights—and the young Jennifer France whose performance of The Controller was little short of sensational; in full command of the stratospheric lines and of her enigmatic, misanthropic character.

The score, under Brad Cohen, sounded wonderful and I was delighted that both Jonathan Dove and April de Angelis were present for a curtain call. A wonderful evening and another huge success for the company.

Opera Holland Park, the mouse that roared. You just keep on getting better.

There are a few performances of Il Trittico and Flight remaining plus new productions of Lakme (Delibes), Aida (Verdi) and L’amore dei tre Re (Montmezzi) –

Flight:  Set design by Andrew Riley
Photo:  Robert Workman

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

My Bachtrack Review of Charlie Parker's Yardbird at Opera Philadelphia

Lawrence Brownlee as Charlie Parker
Photo:  Dominic M. Mercier
Opera Philadelphia is clearly doing something right with its American Repertoire Program. Begun in 2012 with co-productions like Nico Muhly's Dark Sisters(which I found brilliant), and Kevin Puts' Silent Night (2012 Pulitzer Prize winner), the program has earned Opera Philadelphia great praise for helping keep new opera alive. An Opera News quote in the program states the company is “one of the leading instigators of new work in the country”. Judging by the scarcity of empty seats on Sunday for the second performance of Daniel Schnyder's Charlie Parker's Yardbird, I'd say that must be true. This is the second “new” opera I've seen this season in Philadelphia, and Opera Philadelphia's first world première since 1976. It has completely sold out.

Read the whole review

Sunday, June 7, 2015

Guest blogger Ed Beveridge reviews ROH's beloved Copley La Boheme production

Addio, senza rancor - La Boheme at the Royal Opera House, London, May 23, 2015

Nothing lasts forever, and John Copley's much loved production of La Boheme has done sterling service for the company since it was new in February, 1974. Copley’s successor will have their work cut out. Rumour has it that it will be Richard Jones (whose Il Trittico demonstrates an aptitude for Puccini) and his sideways view will produce something quite different. Probably for the best. Rumour also suggests the Copley will be mothballed, not junked, but we shall see.

Jennifer Rowley as Musetta in ROH's La Boheme
Photo:  Bill Cooper, ROH
May 23 was the start of a long run of farewell performances. It’s a popular production of a popular piece—this performance the 614th at the Royal Opera House. Clearly each revival needs to be special, and for these performances there is a mostly new cast with Copley himself directing and taking a well deserved curtain call at the close. Copley’s direction is naturalistic and detailed, subtle and skillful (it's not easy to direct the characters in the Act 2 crowd so that they both appear naturally and can be spotted straight away). Direction this understated but this good is rare.

With lesser performers, the evening could easily have been all about the production, which is absolutely beautiful. The late Julia Trevelyan Oman's designs seem definitive, traditional without being monumental or showy, intimate when they need to be. The colour palette is muted and earthy. The loft of the outer acts uses split levels to frame parts of the action and create effective entrances and exits. The interior and exterior of Act 2—the Cafe Momus with its steaming kitchen, the busy street outside—give way to the austere Act 3 city gate, queasy greenish sky and romantic snowstorm.

Joseph Calleja and
Anna Netrebko
Photo:  Bill Cooper, ROH
The cast was mostly new, but with familiar elements. Joseph Calleja's Rodolfo is a known quantity and he was on good form here, much better than his Gustavo in the disastrous Un Ballo in Maschera earlier in the season; not quite at his best though, and underpowered at times in this company. His characterization was straightforward and touching. Straightforward would not be a good description for Anna Netrebko’s Mimi. As ever she is utterly compelling to watch and hear and there was nothing routine about this performance. She was no shrinking violet, but neither was there Diva-style mannerism or affectation; she was almost ghostly in Act 4. It’s a big voice for Mimi—nothing wrong with that—and her basic sound is beautiful, smoky and complex. There was plenty of detail in her dynamics and phrasing. I don’t think she will be singing Mimi for much longer, as she gravitates towards dramatic soprano repertoire, so I am glad to have heard her score such a success here.

The second couple were American. Lucas Meachem is becoming a firm favourite at this house and his burly Marcello looked and sounded handsome, his disbelief at the end Act 4 very touching. Musetta was Jennifer Rowley, making an overdue house debut. She gave notice of an important singer—brassy and comic (and a dab hand at billiards) in Act 2, moving and sincere later on, delivered with a bright and ample soprano of which I would be happy to hear more.

It wasn’t all good news. The rest of the cast I found competent, but unremarkable, and the conducting of Dan Ettinger has some serious flaws, mainly around ensemble with the stage. I wondered at first if this was first night nerves or lack of rehearsal but as the evening went on it felt more of a fundamental failure to follow his singers. A great shame to find oneself wishing Pappano had been at the helm. Still, this was a great and in some ways historic night at Covent Garden, and Copley’s show is being given a fine send-off. Best of all, my goddaughter, who had never seen any opera before, had a ball and can’t wait for the next show. Definitely Addio, senza rancor.

Further performances with this cast before conductor Alexander Joel and singers Lianna Haroutounian, Piotr Beczala, Ekaterina Bakanova and Levente Molnar take over. Until July16th.

Saturday, May 30, 2015

Come Fly with Opera Holland Park – Introducing Jonathan Dove’s Flight

by guest blogger Ed Beveridge

First, I will admit that Jonathan Dove’s 1998 opera Flight has particular personal significance for me (I saw it the same night as I met my partner and happily the rest is history), so I have a special affection and admiration for it. Since it forms part of the Opera Holland Park’s season in London this summer I am taking the opportunity to spread the word about it and will also be back to write a review.

Flight, Glyndebourne 1998
 - Nuala Willis (Older Woman), Anne Mason (Minskwoman),
Richard Coxon (Bill), Mary Plazas (Tina),
Christopher Robson (Refugee)
Glyndebourne, Mike Hoban
Flight is unusual, not just because it is one of very few operas set in an airport but also because it is a contemporary opera which has established itself in the modern repertoire in a way others have not. Its wonderful premiere production by Richard Jones was also seen in Belgium, the Netherlands, and Australia, and there have been other professional productions in the USA, Germany, and the UK. Interestingly Opera Holland Park’s production will be the first professional London production. Others have been by student or young people’s companies. It is a brave departure for a company usually associated with established classics and rare verismo.

Dove created the opera with a libretto by established British playwright April de Angelis. It is based in part on the true story of an Iranian refugee who lived for many years in one of the terminals at Paris Charles De Gaulle airport. He is the inspiration for the Refugee, the character at the centre of the work (sung at OHP by James Laing) who, it emerges in the course of the opera, escaped his country of origin by stowing away in the undercarriage of an aircraft with his brother, who died in transit.

The opera, in three acts, takes place across two days. A group of travelers are brought together when electrical storms ground all flights, leaving them stranded overnight in the terminal. During a truly operatic, stormy night they, along with the unnamed Steward and Stewardess, disclose their stories. Relationships are formed and changed. Morning brings a birth – again, not a common occurrence on the operatic stage – and departures begin once more. The Refugee is left alone with the other airport character who frames the action, the mysterious Controller - “encased in glass, First Class, enchantress”.

De Angelis’ libretto is highly skilled, treading successfully a path between bawdy comedy and serious drama, and her characters are developed in depth. She has an ear for the lyric stage, too – “Luggage left alone, unloaded, will be immediately exploded” announces the Controller.

Dove’s music develops the drama in a deft and mercurial way. Its contemporary nature need frighten nobody, as it is highly accessible, mixing musical styles and using thematic material and different instrumentation to portray his characters, building to a truly grand operatic climax in the “take off” of the third act. His style is reminiscent of others both in the classical and music theatre idiom (John Adams and Stephen Sondheim spring to mind), but is nonetheless distinct, rarely simply derivative. Listeners will notice his witty use of familiar airport and “holiday” sounds in the orchestra, along with the marimba (and the rest of a fully stocked percussion section), all of which create a unique sound world. His vocal lines, too, are memorable, particularly for the other-worldly Refugee and Controller, written originally for counter tenor Christopher Robson and coloratura soprano Claron McFadden. Dove’s innate gift for communication through music perhaps explains how his work continues to appeal to a particularly broad audience, including children.

I hope Londoners and those from further afield will take the opportunity to become acquainted with this wonderful piece. I understand seats are still available for their production which opens on June 6 for five performances only (see picture) with a cast of established performers (Lucy Schaufer, Jeffrey Lloyd Roberts, Victoria Simmonds) and rising stars (Jennifer France, Kitty Whateley, George von Bergen).

I also understand that there are reduced price available for under-30s so readers - please alert any young people who may be interested in a very special night at the opera – including those who have never experienced the art form before.

Flight opens on June 6 at Opera Holland Park.  For more information - box office 0300 999 1000, or