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

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.