Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Rigoletto at Amore Opera

On Sunday afternoon I was very pleased to see the final performance of Amore Opera's Rigoletto--Amore's final performance of the season. In these pages I have often sung the praises of performance organizations like Amore, whose purpose is to produce enjoyable opera using young professionals.  I hope how much I enjoyed Amore's L'Elisir d'Amore and Poliuto in March came through in my posts about those operas.

Allow me to talk first about the singers I liked the most. Gennadiy Vyotskiy as Sparafucile and Kathleen Shelton as his sultry sister/partner in crime Maddalena were my two favorites. Mr. Vyotskiy had the wonderful masculine bearing of a hired assassin while singing the low and demanding role of Sparafucile quite beautifully. I hope he achieves great things with that powerful voice of his. Ms. Shelton satisfied in the same way as Maddalena. She was sexy and seductive, and a pleasure to hear.

The orchestra was pretty ragged. In fact, my biggest complaint is that the whole show seemed ragged. Perhaps it is because it was a matinee, which I know some singers simply loathe, or perhaps it was because it was the last performance of the run, perhaps it was mistakes in casting, but I can't really say every performer I witnessed was completely committed to his or her character, or that all were suited their roles by vocal quality or maturity. Without slamming anyone individually, which I don't do with singers at this level, I'll just say I heard singing that sounded tired, or not technically ready for the role, or as if the individual had one voice for high notes and another for everything else. None of them are bad singers, and some are quite effective actors, so I hope I'll hear them again under better circumstances. Direction, however, was difficult to detect, and there was a lot of stand-and-sing positioning. Costumes were a hodge-podge of eras and styles. Choreography was cute, however, and it was a pleasure having the small group of dancers on stage.

While I don't regret going to see this performance, it does pain me very much to report on it in this way

Friday, May 20, 2016

Coming soon on TLC: Real Courtesans of Paris

No, not really, but below we have an excellent review by guest blogger Kristen Seikaly about the new book from Oxford University Press, The Real Traviata: The Song of Marie Duplessis, by Rene Weis:

When asked to name operas based on historical figures, a long list would naturally appear before La traviata. René Weis strives to change this perception though through his book The Real Traviata: The Song of Marie Duplessis. This biography examines the life of one of the most famous courtesans in 19th century France. She also inspired the novel and play La Dame aux camélias, which subsequently led to Verdi’s La traviata.

Told primarily in chronological order, this well-researched account gives a wealth of information about Marie Duplessis--arguably too much. The author takes his readers through Duplessis’ life from birth to death, and leaves out no gruesome detail. Starting with her impoverished childhood, Weis delicately lays the foundation of Duplessis’ tragic life. Although she began life with a different name, Duplessis began to use her body as her livelihood from an incredibly young age. Others shamed her for this while also taking advantage, including her own family.

As Duplessis grew older and into the courtesan immortalized by Verdi, she began to refine her skills. Her charm became just as valuable as her body, if not more so. This led to a higher class of client and more notoriety in Parisian society. Still, it only took her so far before she died of consumption (now known as tuberculosis) just shortly after she turned 23.

Weis then takes time to discuss the works that were inspired by the courtesan’s story. First, he discusses La Dame aux camélias by Alexandre Dumas fils, who knew her intimately and was a main character throughout this biography. Then, a considerable amount of time is spent discussing Verdi, La traviata, and the opera’s initial reception.

At times this book is wonderfully narrative. When telling this sad story, the author often resembles a sort of historical tour guide. In these moments, the reader is able to explore the information given, and consider more deeply the effect the heroine’s life had on others (such as Liszt, who is confirmed as one of Duplessis’ lovers in the book). Other times, however, the biography gets bogged down by the weight of its own information. The author will find himself stuck in particular dates, factual inconsistencies, or side stories that have little to do with the heroine. As a result, the narrative flow is halted and it can be difficult to press on.

Still, it is refreshing to read a biography of someone who affected so much culture, yet is largely lost to the contemporary mind. It is also a pleasure to be invited into Weis’ passion for the subject matter at hand, even if it is not always easy for the reader to follow him on his quests for truth.

Readers who are preparing either to perform or to see La traviata as an audience member would enjoy this book. Furthermore, those who wish to study Ms. Duplessis, La traviata, French history, or any subject relating to this cultural figure would be well served by the history this book has to offer. As a work of research, The Real Traviata is second to none.

Ultimately, through this book, Weis strives to bring humanity and empathy back to the characters of opera through one heroine in particular. Far too many modern audiences feel that opera is too separate from life today. Perhaps modern audiences, reminded that some of the most famous operas are based on real people, can connect to operas in the same way they would movies or television programs. This possibility alone makes The Real Traviata a worthwhile read above all else.

Kristen Seikaly
Materials for this review were provided by the publisher. The views and opinions expressed here are completely those of the reviewer.

Kristen Seikaly is a freelance writer, singer, and voice teacher in the Philadelphia area. Additionally, she runs Operaversity, a website geared towards providing resources on opera for artists and audiences.

She tweets at @KristenSeikaly.

Readers! Don't forget you can get an attractive discount buying the book at the publisher web site using this code: AAFLYG6.

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Falstaff at Opera Delaware

Yesterday I wrote about Opera Delaware's intense and beautiful production of Amleto, and today is my time to write about their perfectly delightful production of Falstaff. Although it is unknown whether the two operas were chosen for this reason, Opera Delaware has made a lot of the fact that these are Arrigo Boito's first and last completed opera libretti. All I know is they're both great operas.

Sean Anderson as Ford and Steven Copley as Falstaff
Photo:  Moonloop Photography
One goes to a Falstaff performance expecting to be delighted by comedy high jinx and amazed by great singing and acting. Opera Delaware's production did not disappoint. In Steven Condy, we had a Sir John Falstaff who was appropriately blustery and self absorbed, while remaining likable and vulnerable. His skillful singing was certainly plain to all, and his solo passages were quite memorable.  By the end one was more sympathetic toward an old fool than bitter toward an old would-be Lothario, so that we were all on board for the final, rousing chorus.

Equally well sung and acted was the Ford of Sean Anderson. Just as proud and full of bluster as Falstaff--probably more, since the times and his own hard work have granted him close to equal social position--Ford is another baritone full of pride and bluster and, in the end, not all that bright.

Maariana Vikse as Meg Page, Sharin Apostolou as Nanetta,
Ann McMahon Quintero as Mistress Quickly and
Victoria Cannizzo as Alice Ford
Photo: Moonloop Photography
Alice Ford, as sung by Victoria Cannizzo, was also a delight, full of spunk and charm and great vocal skill. Her pals, Maariana Vikse as Meg Page and Ann McMahon Quintero as Mistress Quickly, were another treat to see and hear.  Ms. Quintero was especially endearing as the flirtatiously matronly Quickly. Real-life couple Ryan McPherson and Sharin Apostolou as Fenton and Nanetta were simply adorable. Both are highly accomplished singers and actors, so of course one enjoyed every moment they were on stage.

One of my favorite parts of Falstaff is Verdi's remarkably skilled writing in the large ensembles, where the male characters usually sing together, with music of one character and texture. The female characters have similar independence, with a melodic and rhythmic passages that are their own and might seem to collide with, but actually coincide with those of the men. Fenton and Nanetta observe and sing their own melodic line that transcends all the others. Sidekicks Matthew Curran as Pistola and Jeremy Blossey as Bardolfo completed a quite fine cast of principals.

Jeremy Blossey as Bardolfo, Ryan MacPhereson as Fenton,
Sharin Apostolou as Nannetta, Matthew Curran as Bardolfo
Photo: Moonloop Photography
I rather think conductor Giovanni Reggioli handled all of this chaos successfully. There might have been one or two moments that were a tiny bit ragged, but in a score of this size and complexity, that's quite an accolade! Also successful were stage director Dean Anthony, set designer Peter Tupitza, and all of the rest of the technical team.

Falstaff will be performed again next weekend in Wilmington. I hope you'll go see it!

Sunday, May 15, 2016

Essere o non essere - questo è il problema

On Saturday evening, Opera Delaware opened its 2016 Opera Festival with a much-anticipated production of Franco Faccio's Amleto (Hamlet) and a very happy return to Wilmington's Grand Opera House. One almost doesn't know what to report first--the beautiful production, the extremely fine performances, the opera itself, or Opera Delaware's tremendous achievement of returning to financial stability and growth after a few somewhat uncertain years. (Opera Delaware's comeback story has been well documented elsewhere, and will have to be a separate article in these pages.)

Joshua Kohl as Amleto, with friend
Photo:  Moonloop Photography
The opera itself is the primary news item, having been rescued from obscurity only recently. A collaboration between Faccio (1840-1891) and librettist Arrigo Boito (1842-1918), Amleto was a success at its 1865 premiere in Genoa. The autograph had been in the Ricordi archives since 1871, however--never performed after a much less successful La Scala debut. Conductor and composer Anthony Barrese began reconstructing the work in 2003 from images of faded and marked up autograph pages. It was first performed on these shores in productions by Baltimore Concert Opera and Opera Southwest in 2014.

As usual my focus is primarily on the performances, and I was happy with every singer on stage. First and foremost I must report that tenor Joshua Kohl was a tremendous Amleto (Hamlet). Beautiful singing throughout, powerful stage presence, gripping characterization are just some of the accolades I could shower on this gifted young singer. The aria after the ghost of his father implores Amleto to avenge his murder was a wonder.

Joshua Kohl as Amleto
Lara Tillotson as Geltrude
Photo: Moonloop Photography
Ofelia (Ophelia) was sung by Sarah Asmar, whom we were told might be coming down with a cold. We heard no evidence of illness in her beautiful tone, and like her stage lover, she gripped the audience every moment she was on stage.

Geltrude (Gertrude) was sung just as beautifully by Lara Tillotson, and Claudio (Claudius) was sung and acted with great skill by Timothy Mix. The ghost of Hamlet's father was sung by commanding and sonorous bass Ben Wager, with great authority and commitment.

Mr. Barrese led the Opera Delaware Orchestra with a skilled hand, and the chorus, prepared by Jeffrey Miller, deserves applause, as well. The dancers, members of the First State Ballet Theater, were a delight.

The production was spare but beautiful. Although costumed as a traditional production of Hamlet, the set was constructed of various platforms on scaffolding, and made skillful use of projections. (Sets by Peter Tupitza, costumes by Howard Tsui Kaplan for Malabar Ltd.) It worked well for this production, and was easily morphed into the set for the concurrently running Falstaff.

Amleto will be performed again next weekend. I hope anyone who can will be there to see it!

Monday, May 9, 2016

Profile: Keith Chambers and New Amsterdam Opera

Keith Chambers
Founder and Artistic Director
New Amsterdam Opera
What goes into creating a new opera company? There's no single answer to that question--each company has its own story, its own goals, its own people driving it. I had the opportunity to discuss this at length with Keith Chambers, Founder and Artistic Director of New Amsterdam Opera, recently. The group will present its first performance, a concert production of Fidelio with orchestra, on June 9. In Keith's case, there were several driving factors--having his own ideas about forming a group, having some great ideas for potential performance projects, having the right people suggest and/or encourage the idea at the right time, and seeing a need in both the singing and opera-going communities for what he can offer. While the group is still young and some strategies and specific plans are still in the formative stages, the bottom line is that New Amsterdam Opera plans to offer a high-quality role preparation and performance experience to singers and a satisfying audience experience to opera goers.

Kirsten Chambers
sings Leonore
Keith already has an active conducting and coaching career. He has conducted for The Dallas Opera, Amarillo Opera, Asheville Lyric Opera, American Lyric Theater, and American Opera Projects. He has also been assistant conductor under noted conductors Emmanuel Villaume, Patrick Summers, and Riccardo Frizza, among others. With credits like these, it's no wonder he has already assembled an Artistic Advisory Board with names like Frederica von Stade, Richard Cross, Anthony Roth Costanzo, and Willie Anthony Waters. It's also no wonder he has been able to attract a promising cast of young professionals and veterans for Fidelio. The cast includes Kirsten Chambers as Leonore, Brent Reilly Turner as Florestan, Kevin Langan as Rocco, and Richard Cross, narrator. The narration is intended to substitute for dialogue usually used in staged performances. The Fidelio concert takes place on June 9 at WestPark Presbyterian Church in Manhattan. Click here for ticket information. (Please note the venue change.)

Brent Reilly Turner
sings Florestan
And what of the future? What does life after Fidelio hold? Although many of these details are in the formative stages, Keith's eyes lit up when I asked whether he envisioned performing other operas for singers with large, dramatic voices. He agrees there are not enough opportunities for young singers with large voices and works like Fidelio are not performed often enough. Although he wouldn't make specific statements about such plans, on some points he was very firm and determined:
  • Singers would gain valuable, valid experience from New Amsterdam Opera productions. 
  • A New Amsterdam Opera credit on a singer's resume would be respected.
  • Audience members would enjoy high-level performances of great operatic repertoire. 
  • Each production, whether concert or fully staged, would have orchestra.
  • Every singer, every production or technical worker, every orchestra member would be paid for their work.

For now, I'm looking forward to seeing and hearing Fidelio on June 9, and on reporting any other news I learn about plans for New Amsterdam Opera.

Tuesday, May 3, 2016

NY Opera Fest: An exciting time to be an operaphile in NYC!

From Anna Mikhailova's video opera
'in the distance go on forever/
the story of contemporary frankenstein,'
scheduled for MAY 6 & 7 at the
Anthology Film Archives.
Photo: Experiments in Opera
Last week I had the opportunity to speak with Peter Szep, who is in charge of the exciting New York Opera Fest, currently running in and around NYC. The Opera Fest is organized by New York Opera Alliance, a consortium of over 40 independent opera companies in New York, ranging from more established companies like Bronx Opera and Regina Opera (both of which have been featured in these pages) to newer, more experimental groups like Rhymes With Opera and Experiments in Opera. The festival opened last week with an event at Opera America headquarters honoring WQXR's revered opera columnist Fred Plotkin, with performances from NY Opera Fest participating companies Opera Upper West, On Site Opera, Bronx Opera, and Regina Opera.

Following are just some of the exciting offerings presented as part of NY Opera Fest:

Ardea Arts presents “BOUNCE: The Basketball Opera”
Performed on an actual basketball court, BOUNCE is grounded in contemporary issues facing today’s youth.

Center for Contemporary Opera presents “The Wild Beast of the Bungalow.”
A new work by Rachel Peters and Royce Vavrek, part of CCO’s Development Series.

Hunter Opera Theater presents Jake Heggie’s “At the Statue of Venus.”
Accompanied by several opera shorts by composer Richard Burke.

On Site Opera presents North American premiere of Portugal’s “The Marriage of Figaro.”
A site-specific production of Beaumarchais beloved comedy at the opulent West Village townhouse 632 on Hudson.

Opera on Tap presents New Brew Series.
Curated concerts of new music, with a focus on music written by local composers.

Opera Upper West presents two classic 20th Century operas.
Poulenc’s “Le voix humane” and Menotti’s “The Telephone,” seen through a modern prism. 

Paula Kimper Ensemble presents “Patience and Sarah - A Pioneering Love Story.”
A revival of Paula Kimper’s opera, with two staged concert performances for Pride Week.

Spectrum Symphony of New York, New York Baroque Dance Co, and Deborah Mason present "Alexander Pope's The Rape of the Lock Opera-Oratorio.”
Alexander Pope's exquisite poetry set to music in a modern madrigal style.

Vertical Player Repertory presents the North American premiere of Giovanni Pacini’s “Malvina di Scozia.”
Pacini’s controversial opera based on a true story. Its first performance in over 150 years.
This is just a partial list. Check the web site to see a complete listing and calendar.

Opera on Tap will present several
programs in area bars
Photo: Opera on Tap
What comes next for NY Opera Alliance? In addition to NY Opera Fest 2.0, already in its planning stages, Mr. Szep envisions expanding the consortium's support activities with workshops on topics like fund raising and development, and finding and managing volunteers. He also spoke of a database of shared resources, including lists of recommended production personnel (lighting designers, stage managers, etc.).

From NYOA's formation in 2011, founders Mr. Szep, Gina Crusco, and Cori Ellison envisioned a festival featuring the work of many different opera groups. NYOA has grown from four organizations to more than 40, and since 2013 the consortium has been fiscally sponsored by OPERA America. Mr. Szep states,"We believe that New Yorkers and visitors to New York alike can be better informed about the breadth, range and vitality of New York City’s opera-producing community. Together we aspire to increase awareness of participating organizations, share ideas and resources, and generate revenue for collaborative projects."

Monday, May 2, 2016

More book news

Here is your chance to order either or both of these books from the publisher at 30% off!  Just go to the following sites and use the code AAFLYG6 at checkout to receive the discount:




Quoth the publisher:
Ever since its invention in Florence around 1600, opera has exerted a peculiar fascination for creative artists and audiences alike. A "Western" genre with a global reach, it is often regarded as the pinnacle of high art, where music and drama come together in unique ways, supported by stellar singers and spectacular staging. Yet it is also patently absurd--why should anyone sing on the stage?--and shrouded in mystique. In this engaging and entertaining guide, renowned music scholar Tim Carter unravels its many layers to offer a thorough introduction to Italian opera from the seventeenth to the early twentieth century. Complete with synopses, cast lists, and suggested further reading for each opera discussed, Understanding Italian Opera is a must-read for anyone with an interest in and love for opera.

The Real Traviata is the rags-to-riches story of a tragic young woman whose life inspired one of the most famous operas of all time, Verdi's masterpiece La Traviata, as well as one of the most scandalous and successful French novels of the nineteenth century, La Dame aux Camelias, by Alexandre Dumas fils.
And the guest reviewer for these books will be Kristin Seikaly.  Watch this space in the coming weeks for her reports!

Potent potables for 1000 lire, Alex

Dimitri Pittas as Nemorino
Photo:  Opera Philadelphia
On Sunday I was delighted to attend the second performance of Opera Philadelphia's L'Elisir d'Amore. I call this production, which originated with the Santa Fe Opera, a success. Although I'm not completely sure why they updated the setting to 1940s-era Italy (although all the military costumes looked quite American), it was a visually beautiful production with design by Ashley Martin Davis, and full of delightful touches from director Stephen Lawless.

Good performances always win me over, and those we had in abundance. Tenor Dimitri Pittas, a late replacement for ailing tenor Christopher Tiesi, was a charming Nemorino. The role fits him like a glove vocally, and he easily adopted the persona of the naive but not dumb peasant. Mr. Pittas performed the role in this production at Sante Fe in 2009, with Opera Philadelphia Music Director Corrado Rivaris conducting and Stephen Lawless directing, and garnered high praise there--Opera News opined, "His Nemorino was no illiterate klutz but a young man who, with delightful spontaneity, is discovering the joys and woes life has to offer. "

Kevin Burdette as Dulcamara and Sarah Shafer as Adina
Photo:  Opera Philadelphia
As Adina Sarah Shafer was a delight. With just the right vocal weight and tone for the role--I've always believed a good Adina would also be a good Blondchen and a great Susanna--she charmed the audience with her opening aria about the story of Tristan and Isotta (Isolde), and had them in the palm of her hand with "Prendi, per me sei libero." A well handled "Prendi" always makes this hardened cynic shed a tear, and I must say I wasn't disappointed.

I've praised Kevin Burdette highly in these and other pages before, and my faith in his talents and ability to win an audience has not wavered one bit. As Dulcamara, snake oil salesman extraordinaire, Mr. Burdette was slimy and unsavory while still remaining somehow lovable. Of course, his singing was just as skillful as that of his cast mates. Craig Verm as Belcore was delightfully smarmy and self-involved, showing just enough of Belcore's vulnerability to allow us to like him while we're cheering on his rival.

Corrado Rivaris held the Opera Philadelphia Orchestra together with the spritely tempi we have come to expect from him, with only one or two spots where there seemed a lack of togetherness between pit, chorus, and principals. My only complaint about the Opera Philadelphia Chorus, which I've made before, is that it needs to be bigger. As I mentioned, director Stephen Lawless was full of clever ideas, but I'm not sure the case was made for the update in setting. The fact that these events could have occurred in the new time frame as easily as the original is not reason enough to my perhaps too traditional mind.

Minor qualms aside, I call this a successful production. I hope all the remaining performances are sold out and many, many audience members come away remembering happy tunes and beautiful singing.

Also, a shout-out of congratulations to Opera Philadelphia for their 2016 International Opera Awards nomination as Best Opera Company, putting them in the highly esteemed company of the Deutsche Oper Berlin, Theater an der Wien, Welsh National Opera, and others.