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.