Monday, September 18, 2017

Artist Profile: Judith Skinner, contralto

When I reported on Porgy and Bess and Oklahoma! at The Glimmerglass Fesival I was delighted to learn I have a friend in common with Judith Skinner, the powerhouse contralto who played both Maria in Porgy and Aunt Eller in Oklahoma! I was further delighted to learn that Judith and Talise Trevigne, who played Bess, have been friends for 18 years. My original plan was to write a joint profile on the two, or a profile with a sidebar article, but I wound up with too much material for either option, so I present this stand-alone profile of Judith. My profile of Talise will be published separately.

We met on a lovely July morning in Cooperstown, and soon were talking about the season at Glimmerglass.

Judith Skinner
Photo:  judithsskinner.com
About being cast in two roles:

Talise is the one who actually said, "Let's see if we can get one show together in our lifetime," so I sent my audition materials for Maria. Then they asked if I’d also consider being in Oklahoma! But I wanted to do it. It was crazy—a month of rehearsals going back and forth, back and forth. Crazy but fun. There are worse jobs. There are worse things you could be doing instead of doing something you love to do. I'm definitely happy about that. And happy that we did our first show together.

About the very different vocal demands for the two roles:

Kathryn LaBouff, who is our diction and dialogue coach, helped me a great deal with Aunt Eller by helping me find where in my register I needed to speak that so that it wouldn’t become very strenuous. She loved the way I was doing it, but she helped me fine tune things. I couldn’t tax myself so much that I couldn’t jump into an opera the next day and sing. I couldn’t mark (sing half voice) in rehearsal, because I had to train my body to be able to do this every single day and do it fully. I think that helped me a great deal. I felt like tech week lasted two weeks because we were teching both shows. It has become easier. And I don't feel it as much. There will be one day when I do both shows on the same day—that will be the test!

As Aunt Eller in Oklahoma!
(with Michael Roach as Will Parker)
Photo:  Karli Cadel for The Glimmerglass Festival
We have to train our bodies, because it's all muscle memory. We sacrifice a lot, but we do it because it's what we love. We're like athletes. To look at us you would not think that, but, we are. And we have to rest. We have listen to our bodies and rest when our bodies tell us to rest. I try to sleep a lot. I drink lots of water. I do a lot of cardio just to keep the body warm and you've gotta keep it moving.


About Porgy and Bess and discussions about race:

I don't have any racial issues with Porgy and Bess. I think the story is a beautiful story that is poignant today. There are people on drugs, there are people trying to get off of drugs, and there are drug dealers who try to keep people on drugs so they can keep in business. People can look at it today and see parallels to life today, and can understand everything that's going on there, and love is love.

When I was graduating from college, people warned me about doing Porgy and Bess early in my career and getting stuck with in that role. At that time nobody was producing Porgy and Bess, so I did lots of other roles before my first Porgy.

As Maria in Porgy and Bess
Photo:  Karli Cadel for The Glimmerglass Festival
About her character, Maria:

This production is a little different for me. I've done productions where she has her shop, but she was a little hustler herself and that's how she was making her money there. Sportin' Life was her competition. I've done a number of productions where she gets drunk at the picnic. This is the first time I've done a production where Maria was considered more of a pillar of the society, part of Catfish Row. She was the person that people came to for advice. She was very religious. I've never done a production where Maria was this religious before.

I could see the parallels between her and Aunt Eller from the beginning. Once I read these, I thought, "Oh, I get it. I’m in charge! I'm in charge this summer, no problem, I'm in charge."

Judith and Talise with some goofy guy
On the Glimmerglass production:

I love the dignity and the level of respect that this production has brought to the characters. Francesca (Zambello, director of the production at Glimmerglass) really kept dignity in the forefront. And it makes the music shine even more. John DeMain (conductor of the production) wouldn't allow anyone to make their roles into caricatures. He would explain why you shouldn't do that because he wanted to have a level of respect and dignity that these characters and the music deserve.

You could tell the relationships and how deep the relationships went. And Francesca brought that out of everyone, so even with the minor characters within the ensemble, it became like it was a family of people that lived in this community. We all knew each other, we knew each other's kids. When people live that close together, you know everything that's going on with them.

So when Bess leaves with Sportin' Life, and we discover this baby that's sitting in a basket on the other side of the stage. (Bess has been taking care of Clara’s baby after Jake and Clara are killed in the storm.) The entire community know they have to take this child in and we have to raise him. It was so poignant in that moment. I think that brought it all together and gave a totally different level of understanding of what "community" meant.

On her background:

I am actually a native New Yorker, which is rare to find in New York City. Most singers are transplants to New York. I went to the Fame School (New York’s School of Performing Arts, featured in the 1980 movie Fame). I went there for music, the clarinet and to work. I’ve definitely been doing music and theater since I was a kid!

I came to opera weird because I wasn't trying to be an opera singer. I went to college for theater, although I'd started studying voice in junior high school. I was helping another student with an aria, because I had learned it in high school. The head of the opera department heard us and opened the practice room door, and said, "That was not you, so it had to have been you." And she sat down at the piano and said, "Just sing it for me, just humor me." And I sang it. Two days later, they offered me a scholarship to study voice through opera department.

As a contralto, I think I've gotten a hell of a lot more than I ever would expect. What's next? There's a lot up in the air, so I couldn't really say.

Monday, August 21, 2017

Aida at Salzburg

I've just read a scathing review (link) of Aida at the Salzburg Festival. No, not critical of the performances, but of the opera itself. The reviewer seems to hate Verdi operas on principle, and Aida in particular. He thinks the characters shallow and the stories ridiculous. To put it mildly, I disagree.

Here are two YouTube clips from the production in question. Anna Netrebko sings Aida, Francisco Meli as Radames. (I'm not sure I'd have cast either in those roles, but you be the judge.)




Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Thoughts on Glimmerglass 2017


At the Alice Busch Theater,
The Glimmerglass Festival
I've been coming to The Glimmerglass Festival since 2011. The Siege of Calais was my 20th opera at Glimmerglass. (It would be 28 had I not missed the 2012 and 2016 seasons.) That doesn't count the operas I was fortunate to see more than once and the additional programs such as Deborah Voigt's Voigt Lessons in 2011 or Jonathan Miller's open masterclass on the last act of La Traviata in 2014. I've seen Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg's programs, in which she introduced opera scenes related to the law, more than once, and I've seen Girl's Night Out, a cabaret program of Glimmerglass Young Artists, several times. I've been granted interviews with great singing artists and with General and Artistic Director Francesca Zambello herself. Regular readers will not be surprised to hear again how fond I am of the place. I am quite grateful to Glimmerglass and to the PR Director/Diva Brittany Lesavoy for helping make all of this possible.

This season's programming had a common theme of home, community, belonging. This is plain to see in Porgy and Bess, Oklahoma!, and The Siege of Calais. Less so in Xerxes, but it's there. That's a theme that's been on my mind a lot lately, probably in part because I'm in my 50s now, but also in part because of a career change in my non-musical life. That's part of why the first three shows made me quite misty at times.

With my new pals Judith Skinner
and Talise Trevigne
Highlight of the festival outside of the operas: Meeting Talise Trevigne, who played Bess in Porgy and Bess, in the parking lot Saturday night. I was pulling in, she was already out of her car and walking toward the theater, and she hugged me through the car window! (Watch for an article based on my interview with Talise and Judith Skinner, who played Maria in Porgy and Aunt Eller in Oklahoma!)

Best food: Lunch Saturday at The American Hotel in Sharon Springs.

More fun food: The Village Restaurant in Canajoharie for delightfully low-brow diner food.

Even more fun food (are you sensing a theme here?): Lunch on the dock at the Blue Mingo Grill, overlooking Lake Oswego.

Lodging: This year we didn't stay at the B&B we'd used many times before, but tried something different with a cabin near Canajoharie reserved through AirBnB. Hubby was a bit wary, having never used AirBnB before, but he wound up liking the cabin more than I did. I think we'll try something else next time we come.

Amusements: We haven't gone to the breweries or wineries this year, but there is still lots to do and see in the area. Dear hubby was finally able to visit the Baseball Hall of Fame, while I was otherwise occupied, and we've found lots of cute shops and restaurants. I've added to my collection of dog art. And dog T-shirts. And to my waistline.

Unfortunately, there were no extra programs I could see during my time here. This weekend has been only opera performances. I don't really have any more to say about the opera productions. Sort of a quiet end to my time at Glimmerglass this year.  I expect to be back.

Xerxes at Glimmerglass

The Glimmerglass Festival has created a sumptuous and nuanced production of Mr. Handel's Xerxes (Serse). This opera was innovative in many ways--use of shorter arias and accompanied recitatives to move action forward, inclusion of a comic character, and a storyline that is not as complicated as those of earlier operas. These changes to the opera seria form London knew contributed to the cool reception the opera received in 1738, but also help make it one of Handel's most popular operas in our own time. The story is still convoluted, involving rivals for a maiden's affection, the maiden's scheming sister, and the wacky servant of one of the rivals. Oh, and the fiancée of one of the rivals, disguised as a man. In the end the maiden gets the man she loves and the jilted fiancée gets the man she loves.

John Holiday as Xerxes
Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival
We were fortunate to see the first and second performances of the Glimmerglass production, and found it up to the high standard we always expect, both visually and vocally. From the very beginning, we were delighted by the clarity and sweetness of the reduced orchestra's playing, skillfully conducted by Nicole Paiment. The opera opened with the familiar aria "Ombra mai fu", bane of many a freshman voice student's existence. With maturity one learns to love the piece again, especially when it is performed by a singer like guest artist John Holiday, Jr.  Mr. Holiday still displays the agile vocal technique, pleasing sound, and very sure stage presence as Xerxes that we so admired two years ago in Cato in Utica at Glimmerglass. His show-stopper aria at the end of the opera nearly brought the house down. Xerxes experiences quite a range of emotion, and Mr. Holiday gave us this contrast with apparent ease.

Allegra De Vita as Arsamenes
Photo: Karli Cadel/
The Glimmerglass Festival
Arsamenes, brother and rival of Xerxes, was sung by guest artist Allegra De Vita, whom we also admired in Cato in Utica.  We still love her rich and even sound and her commitment to her role's many conflicting emotions. We believed Arsamenes' love for Romilda, the maiden who attracts these two gents.

The remainder of the cast were all Glimmerglass Young Artists. Romilda was sung by Emily Pogorelc, and her sister Atalanta, who also loves--or at least wants--Arsemenes, was sung by Katrina Galka. Both were made up with long, flowing blonde hair and attired in similar costumes, and did indeed look like sisters. Both were also very good singers, giving us all of Handel's florid and lyrical passages with equal grace. Ms. Pogorelc was all propriety and grace as the virtuous Romilda, while Ms. Galka was all scheming, fiery temperament as Atalanta.

Katrina Galka and Emily Pogorelc
Photo:  Karli Cadel/
The Glimmerglass Festival
The servant Elvino was performed with gusto by Calvin Griffin. We enjoyed his Leporello-like antics and his fine singing. Spurned fiancée Amastris was sung by Abigail Dock with skill and artistry. Her numerous rageful arias displayed vocal range and agility. Ariodates was sung by Brent Michael Smith with sonorous dignity.

Abigail Dock and Calvin Griffin
Photo: Karli Cadel/
The Glimmerglass Festival
There is much to discuss about the production. We quite liked the musical direction by Nicole Paiement, and her leadership of the talented cast and the orchestra. We weren't so sure about the stage direction by Tazewell Thompson. Although opera of this period often didn't involve much movement, which would not be very successful now, we wondered about some of the movement included in this production. we found many of the stage movements either arbitrary or heavy-handed. In particular, the frequent movement back and forth, onto and off of the raised platforms on the stage during angry arias didn't really make sense.

Visual elements also concerned me. While we quite liked the costumes by Sara Jean Tosetti and Lighting by Robert Wierzel, the various elements of the scenery by John Conklin and how they operated together confused me. We didn't mind the raised, raked platforms on stage or the backdrops suggesting ancient Rome. But elements of scenery flew in and out for reasons we couldn't discern, often at unexpected angles to the ground.

You might disagree with my quibbles. It has been known to happen. On the whole, however, do we recommend seeing Xerxes?  Of course we do. The singing alone is worth the price of a ticket.

Xerxes full cast, 2017
Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival




Monday, July 17, 2017

Cooperstown under siege!

Three out of four Glimmerglass Festival productions this season have brought me to tears, and that includes the opening performance of Mr. Donizetti's The Siege of Calais (L'Assedio di Calais). (I will see Xerxes, which did not have such an effect, a second time and write about it then.)

Aleks Romano and Leah Crocetto
Photo:  Karli Cadel/
The Glimmerglass Festival
The Siege of Calais is based on events in history, when Britain's King Edward III held the French port Calais, located at the narrowest point of the English Channel, under siege in 1346-1347. When Calais, after struggling to defend its walls for so long, could do nothing but admit defeat, the King promised to spare the town if it delivered six nobles to be executed. (We at Taminophile Enterprises don't think the King would have kept his word, knowing what history shows us about the clemency of British monarchs of the age, but that's beside the point.) The King was convinced by his wife to spare the six, and by extension the town. In the opera this is followed by a happy ending finale with lots of impressive singing by the soprano. This probably didn't happen on the battlefield.

Impressive singing we had in abundance from Leah Crocetto as Eleonora, wife of Aurelio. This is pure Donizetti soprano writing, and very beautifully sung by Ms. Crocetto. We heard her in 2015 at Opera Philadelphia as Elisabetta in Don Carlo. We think this role suits her much better, although she sang Elisabetta well. We'd love to hear her tackle other big Donizetti roles. Ms. Crocetto had a wonderful dramatic and vocal chemistry with mezzo Aleks Romano as Aurelio. We saw Ms. Romano in May at Opera Delaware as Arsace in Semiramide, and praised her singing then. We liked it even more now. Donizetti's duet writing in this opera rivals the great duets from Norma and Semiramide, and the two women sang these duets with precision, skill, and great artistry.

Adrian Timpau as Eustacio
Photo:  Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival
Apart from these two guest artists, the entire cast was comprised of Glimmerglass Young Artists, as is the casting practice at Glimmerglass. Standouts include Adrian Timpau as Eustachio, mayor of Calais and father of Aurelio, and Michael Hewitt as Edoardo/King Edward III. Mr. Timpau had the vocal heft and the dignity to play the Mayor well. Michael Hewitt, who was excellent as Jud Fry in Oklahoma!, gave us the same good singing and sure-footed stage presence as Edoardo.

Michael Hewitt as Edoardo III
Photo:  Karli Cadel/
The Glimmerglass Festival
We were happy to have Joseph Colaneri in the pit, as he led the orchestra quite crisply through Donizetti's score. Director Francesca Zambello gave the story shape and flow, and made the second act especially moving, but I'm not sure I understood all of her choices. I did not object to the idea of updating the story to a similar conflict in our own time (regular readers take note), and I was OK with the visual concept, but I found the execution by Scenic Designer James Noone and Lighting Designer Mark McCullough a bit busy, cluttered, and dark. Perhaps the excess was to drive home the feel of destruction and decay.

This is a production to see, as a Donizetti rarity and an opportunity to see and hear great performances.


The six martyrs in prayer
Photo:  Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival







Saturday, July 15, 2017

Oh, what a beautiful mornin'

I've been tormenting the hubby all week by singing, "We know we belong to the land, and the land we belong to is grand...." Poor lad, he was completely innocent to the wonder that is Oklahoma!, the revolutionary 1943 musical by Messrs. Rodgers and Hammerstein. He now knows why I love the show so much, for we saw The Glimmerglass Festival's new production on Friday night. The Glimmerglass production, by Director Molly Smith, Conductor James Lowe, Designer Eugene Lee, and Choreographer Parker Esse (using Agnes DeMille's original dances) was charming and witty and sweet and touching and a hundred other ways to say terrific.
Curley (Jarrett Ott) and Laurey (Vanessa Becerra)
Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival

The cast was very strong across the board.  Guest artists Jarrett Ott and Vanessa Becerra gave us a very sweet but strong Curly and Laurey.  I was charmed by their chemistry together and the way each could easily hold the stage themselves. It is easy to forget how very young these characters would have been, but in Mr. Ott and Ms. Becerra we saw the youthful passion and uncertainty that make Curly and Laurey so likeable, as well as the maturity required for the lives they've led. The two were both wonderful singers--not a trace of the familiar "opera singer slumming in musicals" delivery we sometimes get--and were a pleasure to hear. While each song was lovingly delivered, I was especially touched by "People will say we're in love" and "Oh, what a beautiful mornin'."

Guest artist Judith Skinner as Aunt Eller was tough and funny and warm and endearing, and I was impressed at the way this trained singer--her bio lists both musical theater and opera credits--projected in her low voice without being harsh. Glimmerglass 2017 Artist in Residence William Burden brought Andrew Carnes to life in a way that was comic but not caricature.

Aunt Eller (Judith Skinner), Will (Michael Roach), and the boys
Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival
All the rest of the cast was comprised of Glimmerglass Young Artists.  Emma Roos as Ado Annie and Michael Roach as Will Parker were all charm (a word I will probably overuse in this article) and energy, and together on stage they were delightfully funny. Both artists' bios list impressive musical theater credits, and we expect a bright future for them. (We do wish we could have heard Mr. Roach a little better when singing with full orchestra.) Michael Hewitt's Jud Fry was tormented and vindictive, but also human. He gave the role the dark vocal color and vulnerable interpretation it needed. Peddler Ali Hakim was given comic appeal by Dylan Morrongiello.

Curly (Jarrett Ott) and Jud (Michael Hewitt)
Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival
Oklahoma! was the first collaboration for Rodgers and Hammerstein. It was a remarkable accomplishment for its time in the use of songs and dance in telling the story rather than embellishing it. Brooks Atkinson wrote in The New York Times that the show's opening number, "Oh, what a beautiful mornin'", changed the history of musical theater: “After a verse like that, sung to a buoyant melody, the banalities of the old musical stage became intolerable."* Underneath apparently simple melodies lie recurring musical themes and details that are descriptive of the text and the wide-open spaces so loved by the people of Oklahoma Territory. It should surprise no one who really knows the show and its place in history to learn that it received a special Pulitzer Prize in 1944.

I could write for days about Oklahoma! and the glorious production at The Glimmerglass Festival. Instead, I will just tell you to go see it and prepare to be amazed.

Oklahoma! at The Glimmerglass Festival, 2017
Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival

*It is not uncommon for ladies (and jaded opera bloggers) to swoon when someone as handsome and charismatic as Jarrett Ott delivers the song.

Friday, July 14, 2017

When God make cripple, He mean him to be lonely

I was fortunate to see the second performance of Porgy and Bess at The Glimmerglass Festival on Thursday evening.* I've always been a big fan of Glimmerglass and its Artistic Director Francesca Zambello, and I call this another riveting operatic experience and a triumph.

Porgy's got plenty o'nuttin'
Musa Ngqungwana with Justin Austin as Jake
Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival
First I must praise the amazing performances. South African bass-baritone Musa Ngqungwana portrayed Porgy's heart-wrenching loneliness and repressed anger, his sweetness and longing, with sincerity and depth. His singing was resonant and full and tender and loving. His chemistry with the Bess of Talise Trevigne was a delight. Ms. Trevigne has graced these pages before, including descriptions of this (link) performance of Jemmy in Guillaume Tell at Caramoor and this (link) performance of Ophelia in Fort Worth. Her Bess was lost and wild and vulnerable and lonely, a perfect match for Porgy. She sang the role just as beautifully and expressively as we expect, and looked as sexy as Bess should.

Bess struggles to free herself from Crown
Talise Trevigne and Norman Garrett
Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival
The entire cast were excellent. Meroë Khalia Adeeb's "Summertime", Clara's lullaby that opens the show, was shimmering, and Simone Z. Paulwell's "My man's gone now", Serena's lament after her husband is killed, was hearbreaking. Norman Garrett was menacing in voice and character as Crown, and Sportin' Life was given the appropriate balance of court jester and evil blood sucker by Frederick Ballentine. Ms. Adeeb and Ms. Paulwell are Glimmerglass Young Artists, and many other roles were very well performed by other Glimmerglass Young Artists. Guest artist Judith Skinner gave ample volume and character to Maria. (We look forward to seeing Ms. Skinner as Aunt Eller in the concurrently running Oklahoma!)

Visually, this production is stunning. (Sets by Peter J. Davison, Costumes by Paul Tazewell, lighting by Mark McCullough.) One is struck from the beginning by how much this Catfish Row looks like a prison, with two tiers of doors that resemble cell doors. Interiors were represented by set pieces that rolled in and out smoothly. Kittiwah Island had the feel of a dilapidated seaside amusement park. Costumes were also beautiful--drab tones for everyone except Bess and Sportin' Life, although Bess dressed much more conservatively when she was living with Porgy. Everything period-appropriate, nothing surprising. Lighting effects both subtle and dramatic were very well done. And once again I praise the choreography of Eric Sean Fogel.

Conductor John DeMain has a very long history with this work, so one wondered why at times he seemed at odds with the orchestra, seeming to struggle to bring them to the brisk tempi he wished to use. It could be because this was the second performance of the season, and six days had passed since the first.

It seems almost compulsory to discuss Porgy's history and its reception politically and socially. Based on DuBose Heyward's novel and play Porgy, the opera premiered in 1935 on Broadway, and had varied success in subsequent revivals, including worldwide tours sponsored by the US Department of State. The work fell out of favor in this country for decades, with some groups and individuals criticizing the story's racial stereotypes. A 1976 Houston Grand Opera revival (also conducted by John DeMain) was influential in bringing the piece back into the public eye. Separate 2006 and 2011 adaptations called The Gerswhins' Porgy and Bess sought to adapt the work for the conventions of the Broadway musical. (Stephen Sondheim publicly criticized the new title for discounting DuBose Heyward's role in creating the opera.) The current production is a new production, faithful to Gershwin's conception of the piece as a folk opera.

Once again, I call this a triumph, and I highly recommend seeing it if you can get a ticket. Many performances are sold out, so that might be difficult!


The picnic on Kittiwah Island
Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival


*This is the third production I have witnessed--it's not that common to have seen even one. The other two were at Charlotte Opera and Greater Miami Opera, as the two companies were called in the Dark Ages.

Saturday, June 17, 2017

My Fellow Americans

I've never made a secret of my political leanings. I think life is about service to others, not the acquisition of riches. But I've become terribly cynical about the ways of this world, especially since November, 2016. It feels terribly unsafe for sensitive people like me to care deeply about the world. The greatest balm for my weary soul is beauty--beauty in music and art and words and the acts of men and women. That's why I was inspired to discover composer Glen Roven's settings of two of dear Hillary Rodham Clinton's speeches--that declaring her candidacy for the 2016 Presidential election, and her speech after the results were known.  Here is a YouTube video trailer for this work, featuring the voices of many beloved singers:



I've written before that I'm not qualified to write about new music. I've always called myself a bel canto bear, but sometimes newer things come along that impress me. (For example, that Puccini guy was pretty good.) Usually it's about the overall experience, such as a new operatic work that is an amazing piece of theater and performed with great skill and passion.  That is my feeling about The Hillary Speeches. The texts make me very emotional, even upon remembering them as I write this. The setting is, of course, highly skillful. I liked the reuse of important motives like the fanfare "My fellow Americans" theme. I liked the contrast between lyrical and declamatory sections, and the use of rhythmic and melodic motives that bring to mind different images--the driving rhythm that brings to my mind the industrious, hard-working image of America, the syncopated rhythm that brings to mind more joyful, innocent images of our country.

In addition to the trailer above, I was also able to see a live performance from April that was part of an evening of an evening of social protest expressed in the arts.  (Click the Archive tab and scroll down to "Let Us Persist". The songs appear at the beginning of the program, but there is a reading between the two songs.) This performance was just as inspiring as the trailer I link above.

Although they were written for a female voice, I think any singer with the range and interpretive chops should perform them. I would encourage the singers among my readership to investigate programming them. This is a work that will stand the test of time.

Monday, May 15, 2017

News: Will Crutchfield's Bel Canto program to move to SUNY Purchase

Will Crutchfield announces Teatro Nuovo, a new Bel Canto opera program to debut in July 2018
The nine-day inaugural festival will feature semi-staged productions of Rossini’s Tancredi and Mayr’s Medea in Corinto at the Performing Arts Center at SUNY Purchase

Teatro Nuovo will continue and expand upon Crutchfield’s acclaimed
Bel Canto at Caramoor series

Monday, May 15, 2017 — 
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE — Will Crutchfield, longtime director of the Bel Canto at Caramoor series, announced today the formation of a new organization, Teatro Nuovo, that will continue and expand that program’s work as it departs from Caramoor next year. 
Teatro Nuovo will make its debut in July 2018 with a nine-day festival at the Performing Arts Center at SUNY Purchase, a versatile facility with multiple performance spaces. Headline events will be semi-staged productions of Rossini’s Tancredi and Mayr’s Medea in Corinto, along with orchestral concerts, vocal recitals, chamber music, and the afternoon lectures and panel discussions that have been a popular feature of Caramoor opera days. Full details of the Festival, running from July 28 to August 5, 2018, will be announced in a forthcoming release. 
The Festival will be preceded by an expanded version of Crutchfield’s renowned training program for young singers, which already counts over 500 alumni singing on stages and serving on faculties worldwide. The intensive five-week program will now be opened to selected orchestral players as well. Teatro Nuovo and SUNY Purchase are currently finalizing a partnership to host the training program.
Crutchfield said of the new venture: “Teatro Nuovo is an exciting next step for us. It is a continuation of what our fans have enjoyed in Bel Canto at Caramoor, but goes far beyond that. Through a major expansion of the training program, the collaboration with SUNY Purchase, and the move to our own dedicated Festival, we are now poised to offer much more both to the operagoing public and to the young musicians who come to us in the summer.”
Thomas J. Schwarz, President of SUNY Purchase College, added: "Teatro Nuovo’s debut at the Performing Arts Center at SUNY Purchase will add a rich and vibrant program offering to our summer months.  We are proud to be involved in continuing this fine tradition started at Caramoor 20 years ago.  I also look forward to the intensive five-week program that will expand our efforts to collaborate with organizations that provide the finest education and training in the performing arts.”
Bel Canto at Caramoor, in its 20 years of operation, presented over 40 operas by Rossini, Donizetti, Bellini, and Verdi, attracting consistent coverage and high praise from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Financial Times, The New Yorker, New York Magazine, Opera News, Opera (UK), and the rest of the national and international musical press. Alex Ross of The New Yorker spoke for many when he wrote that "Under Crutchfield, Caramoor has become an operatic paradise." The program will celebrate its 20th anniversary with five performances at the 2017 Caramoor International Music Festival, after which its team and their activities will move to Teatro Nuovo
Said Jeff Haydon, CEO of Caramoor: “Caramoor is immensely proud of its role in creating and supporting the first 20 years of the Bel Canto Opera Program and we are happy to hear about its new home. There is a tremendous legacy to continue, and with both Caramoor’s future plans and the launch of Teatro Nuovo, there will be rich operatic summers for all in the coming years.”
Further information about Teatro Nuovo, the training program, and the organization’s personnel and other plans will be found at www.teatronuovo.org.

 ABOUT WILL CRUTCHFIELD
Will Crutchfield has divided his opera career between conducting, musicology, and education. As Director of Opera for the Caramoor International Music Festival from 1997 to 2017, he has conducted over 30 titles by Rossini, Donizetti, Bellini and Verdi with the Orchestra of St. Luke's and soloists including Lawrence Brownlee, Angela Meade, Vivica Genaux, Ewa Podleś, Sumi Jo, Jennifer Larmore, Georgia Jarman, John Osborn, Michael Spyres, and Hei-Kyung Hong. He has also held posts as Music Director with the Opera de Colombia (Bogota) and Principal Guest Conductor of the Polish National Opera (Warsaw), and has made guest appearances with many theaters, including the Rossini Opera Festival (Pesaro), the Canadian Opera Company, the Washington National Opera, and the Minnesota Opera among others. For Ricordi and the Fondazione Rossini he prepared the critical edition of Aureliano in Palmira, also conducting the production in Pesaro that won first place as "Best Rediscovered Work" in the 2015 International Opera Awards. In the same year he was named a Fellow of the Guggenheim Foundation in recognition of his operatic work. He has contributed articles on historical performance practice to the New Grove Dictionaries of Music and numerous scholarly journals, and is currently completing a book on the same subject for Oxford University Press. 


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Sunday, May 14, 2017

More about Opera Delaware's 2017 Opera Festival

I wrote last week about Opera Delaware's charming production of La Cenerentola at Wilmington's beautiful Grand Opera House. I regret that I have not yet written about the performances of Semiramide presented concurrently, or about the lovely performance of Mr. Rossini's Petite Messe Solennelle presented on Friday, May 5.

Lindsay Ohse and
Aleksandra Roman
c. Moonloop Photography
Briefly, the best feature of the Messe was the solo quartet, four very fine singers: soprano Colleen Daly, mezzo Chrystal E. Williams, tenor William Davenport, and bass Ben Wager. Miss Daly's O solutaris hostia and Miss Williams's Agnus Dei were especially beautiful.

Likewise, the singing was the best part of Semiramide--a good thing, since Semiramide requires only the highest level singing. One thinks of Sutherland and Caballe and Cossotto and Horne when one thinks of Semiramide. I am happy to report that every one of the principals was fully equal to the vocal demands of their roles. Soprano Lindsay Ohse, although a little light in timbre for Semiramide, nonetheless gave a dazzling and committed performance to the role, and delighted with fireworks and passion. Mezzo Aleksandra Romano also performed with great technical flair and musicianship, and the duets between the two women were stunning. Basses Daniel Mobbs and Harold Wilson, both featured on these pages before, are both very good singers and fully inhabited their roles of Semiramide's former main squeeze Assur and the High Priest Oroe, respectively. Young-Bok Kim gave the brief role of Nino's ghost (Semiramide's husband, in a Hamlet-like plot element--there are also Oedipal plot elements) gravitas and resonance. Conductor Anthony Barrese skillfully led the orchestra through a beautiful performance.

Lindsay Ohse and
Young-Bok Kim
c. Moonloop Photography
I am sorry to report the production was not at the same level as the great singing I heard, and certainly not the equal of the charming Cenerentola. Without focusing too much on specifics, I will say I was disappointed in the direction of Dean Anthony, who directed Opera Delaware's delightful L'Elisir d'amore a few years ago, and the numerous visual elements.  (The only other review I have found online agrees with my opinion of the visual elements and merely mentions the name of the director, but also agrees about the high level of singing.)

Opera Delaware has always done very fine work on a very limited budget, and the fact this show had some disappointments does not damage my high opinion of the company and its General Director Brendan Cooke (not to mention his very fine team, paid and volunteer).  Overall I call the 2017 Opera Festival a success, and I look forward to seeing more fine work from this crew. Already hints about next year's Festival indicate more excitement, and doubtless more great singing.

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Guest blogger Jeffrey Nytch reviews Pelléas et Mélisande at the Norwegian National Opera

Performance date: April 28, 2017
Music by Claude Debussy, libretto adapted from the play by Maurice Maeterlinck

New production by Maria Costa
Barbora Horáková Joly, director
Karl-Heinz Steffans, conductor

CAST:
Golaud: Paul Gay
Mélisande: Ingeborg Gillebo
Pelléas: Edward Nelson
Arkel: Anders Lorentzson
Genevieve: Randi Stene
Yniold: Aksel Rykkvin

Back in 1987 I went to my first production of Debussy’s masterpiece, Pelléas et Mélisande. It was one of those performances that remains with you for the rest of your life: the Met orchestra positively glowed under James Levine, José van Dam menaced as Goloud, and of course, Frederica von Stade’s grace and beauty were beyond compare.

My companion for that performance, my dear friend Barb, was not so impressed. Oh yes: the singing and the orchestra were magnificent, the music beautiful. “But nothing happened!” she declared.

Susanna Hurrell (who replaced an injured Ingeborg Gillebo)
 and Edward Nelson
Photo c. Erik Berg
“That’s not true!” I protested.

There was a pause. “Well?”

“Goloud gets jealous and kills Pelléas, and then she dies. Of…something.”

Barb shot me an exasperated look and said, “And it took THREE HOURS.”

Barb was a Verdi and Puccini sort of operagoer. She loved to quote a commentator who once had described Puccini’s music as “silver macaroni, exquisitely tossed.” [I tried to look up that quote, by the way, but all I found were recipes for mac ‘n cheese.] So for Barb, Debussy’s only opera was a bit of a stretch: adapted from the Symbolist play by Maeterlinck, the opera is low on outward action and vocal display, and high in psychological complexities and musical subtleties.

Premiered in 1902, smack dab between two of Puccini’s greatest hits, Tosca (1900) and Madama Butterfly (1904), Pelléas is simultaneously indebted (however grudgingly) to Wagner on the one hand, and also the first opera truly borne of the 20th century on the other. While Puccini was continuing the tradition of grand Italian opera, Debussy was looking ahead to what opera might become, a form less about outward actions and twists of plot and more about the human psyche; a form where the external world was merely an illusion, a reflection of the internal world. And lastly, a form in which the voice was merely a vehicle to explore that inner world, the goal being understanding, empathy, insight, pathos…not the vocal acrobatics at the center of the Italian opera circus. In an 1890 letter to Ernest Guiraud Debussy wrote about this new, and thoroughly modern, concept of what opera should be: "The ideal would be two associated dreams [the text and the music]. No time, no place. No big scenes [...] Music in opera is far too predominant. Too much singing and the musical settings are too cumbersome [...] My idea is of a short libretto with mobile scenes. No discussion or arguments between the characters, whom I see as being at the mercy of life or destiny."

Susanna Hurrell, Anders Lorentzen, Edward Nelson
Photo c. Erik Berg
With such a completely new view of what opera might be, it’s understandable that the piece took Debussy so long to finish. Debussy first encountered Maeterlinck’s script in late 1892, attended a performance in early 1893, and began composing the music later that year. It was a long and tortured process, though, as Debussy struggled with this new concept of the opera form at the same time his musical style was likewise evolving. He continued to revise his score for much of the next eight years, pausing periodically to work on other projects such as Prelude to the afternoon of a faun, the Nocturnes, and a number of piano works. Further revisions took place during rehearsals for the premiere, including expanding several orchestral interludes to allow sufficient time for scene changes. (It’s interesting that these expansive interludes, which now seem of such fundamental importance to the musical structure of the work, were not part of Debussy’s original conception.)

Now more than a century since the opera’s premiere, it would seem that opera audiences still struggle to come to terms with this enigmatic masterpiece. Last week in Oslo, where I happened to be presenting at a conference, I had the pleasure of attending the opera’s latest production (and its first-ever in Norway, something that is itself quite revealing). As I made my way to my seat, I overheard an English patron mutter to his wife, “Well it’s fine to hear this once, but once is enough for me!” It would seem that “silver macaroni, exquisitely tossed” is still what most patrons seek when they come to the opera.
Susanna Hurrell
Photo c. Erik Berg

Fortunately, the vast majority of Oslo’s enthusiastic audience didn’t share that sentiment: the National Opera & Ballet’s magnificent house was nearly full, and other than a few tubercular patrons the audience sat in rapt attention to this gripping production. So let’s get to that, for there is much to admire.

In a work that is so much about the interior world of the characters, expressing that internal world through the staging is everything. The set, lighting, and blocking all must serve to open up the characters so that we might glimpse a piece of their reality. Too often, productions of this opera stop at simply evoking the general mood of the piece (dark, glowering). Or, as they did at the Met, they go with the “fairy tale” aspect of the work, set in a place that doesn’t exist and a time out of reckoning. (I’ll never forget the stunning lace drapes that replaced the Met’s famed golden curtain for their Pelléas. It was a gorgeous evocation of “a dream…no time…no place.”) In Oslo, however, Maria Costa’s new production was designed from start to finish to serve as a symbolic portrait of the tortured interior world of the characters. As became very clear, very quickly, every detail of the staging was an expression of what lies beneath the surface, the suffocating confinement of a prison that is more psychological than physical.

The set, consisting of white walls and ceilings with harsh lighting, evoked a hospital setting: the heavy castle of the original is now an asylum, the characters are patients (or inmates). The doctor, who normally doesn’t appear until the final scene, is constantly in the background, silently observing. Mélisande’s prior trauma, never identified, is made explicit by her torn, blood-stained clothing and a catatonic stare, while the young boy Yniold is played as a deeply disturbed child in his own right, dismembering the dolls he carries and shooting his bow and arrow at whomever happens to be in his line of sight. The most striking use of the hospital metaphor was the two grotto scenes – first in the sea cave where Mélisande ventures at night, ostensibly to find her wedding ring, and later when Goloud takes Pelléas deep into the castle vaults for a not-too-subtle warning about the direction he’s headed with Mélisande. These locations are cast as the asylum’s infirmary, with rows of harsh beds and patients in various stages of illness (or madness). The message is clear: beneath this rich castle and beautiful gardens is a sickness, the kingdom rotten at its very core. The idea that these characters are trapped – either by fate or by their own tangled dysfunctions – is further made evident by the walls and ceiling of the set, which sometimes converge to literally box in the characters. In this production, everyone – not just Mélisande – is a prisoner in a fortress built on sickness and decay.

One other aspect of the opera I hadn’t fully appreciated earlier is the role of Genevieve, the mother of Goloud and Pélleas (though by two different men). Most productions simply present her as the resigned enabler of the family’s various dramas, but in this production she was portrayed far more starkly: an alcoholic depressive, perhaps a picture of where Mélisande is headed in another 20 years. Related to this portrait of a woman brought down by the men around her is the exploitation of Mélisande, made explicit and sexual in a number of arresting scenes. Rather than just passively eluding to Mélisande as Goloud’s possession, this production adds a chilling layer of meaning to the libretto: while uttering empty words of comfort and admiration, Goloud, and later Arkel, grope and penetrate her. Though shocking, these scenes were not used for shock value: they made clear the degree to which Mélisande is nothing but an object to these men, something to be used by them for their own needs. Their words of admiration or comfort are only meant to ease their own consciences, even as they continue to abuse her. This aspect of the production made me wonder if this opera, in addition to being the first modern opera, was perhaps the first feminist opera as well.

Which brings me to the treatment of the relationship that is the title of the work: that of Pelléas and Mélisande. It seems to me that if one is going to amp up Mélisande’s exploitation by her husband and father-in-law, as was certainly done here, one then has to take a stand on whether or not Pelléas is himself just another instrument of exploitation: is he merely a handsomer and gentler version of his brother, or is his character fundamentally different? Maeterlinck’s text is, predictably, not very helpful in answering this question. It’s obvious that Pelléas is still an innocent: he is constantly patronized by his brother and the King – they practically pat him on the head while saying things like, “You’re still young. Someday you’ll understand.” – and yet he seems to hold no resentment of their condescension. At the same time, he strikes me as oblivious to what’s going on around him: he asks the King if he can go away to visit his sick friend – even while his father is dying in the next room; he doesn’t really seem to get that he’s treading on dangerous ground with his brother until things have progressed far past the point of no return; and perhaps most revealingly, though he praises Mélisande for her many physical attributes (her hair, her eyes), he doesn’t really indicate that he has any true empathy or understanding of her abiding sadness. So is Pelléas another male oppressor, or just clueless? There certainly is ample evidence to argue that he’s the former – just a prettier version of Goloud, unaware of how his actions are impacting the object of his alleged love, indifferent to her suffering, and destined to someday become as dark and cynical as his older brother.

But I don’t think that’s the correct reading of this character. I think the answer to this question can best be found in Mélisande, and in her music. For it is only through Pelléas that we see her come alive, expressing emotions and passion that are otherwise completely inert. This contrast is made all the more clear in this production: when she is being physically exploited by Goloud or Arkel, her body freezes, her post-traumatic stare returns. She has completely shut herself off from the world in order to bear what’s happening, lying inert and lifeless until the violation is over. But with Pelléas she is animated, expressive, her previously catatonic eyes sparkling with life. The music certainly supports this interpretation: the only moments in the opera that would approach anything like “silver macaroni exquisitely tossed” are the scenes with the two lovers, especially their final parting moments before Pelléas is murdered: as Goloud stalks them, they finally declare their love for each other – sealing their fate and completely, and consciously, submitting to it as well. The music soars ecstatically, the lovers kiss, and Goloud moves in for the kill.

In the end, Pelléas remains more of an enigma to me than Mélisande. Perhaps he is a symbol of those rare innocents whose fate always seems to be that they are either destroyed by the world or taken from it prematurely. In a world dominated by darkness (a constant presence in the opera, almost as if it’s a character in its own right), perhaps Pelléas is the one source of light, doomed to be extinguished.

No opera review is complete without talking about the singers, and in this case I have nothing but praise. Paul Gay was a brooding presence as Goloud, his rage only barely concealed (when it’s concealed at all). He sang with power and expression, switching his color on a dime while alternating between anger, regret, and supposed tenderness. Anders Lorentzson sometimes pushed his voice too hard, but his portrayal of Arkel powerfully conveyed an old man resigned to his helplessness in the face of fate. Boy soprano Aksel Rykkvin sang magnificently as Yniold (be on the lookout for where this lad’s career takes him once his voice changes!), and Randi Stene perfectly captured Genevieve’s emotional fatigue, her voice dark and morose with resignation. I found her presence on stage to be far more powerful and compelling than the norm for a relatively minor character – which in turn helped me appreciate Genevieve’s importance in this drama as an illustration of what this place does to its women. Just as Arkel shows us where Goloud is headed, Genevieve is the future shadow of Mélisande.

And lastly, of course, are the title roles. Ingeborg Gillebo was a mesmerizing presence as Mélisande, her voice conveying the proper mix of innocence and fear, her grief held tightly under wraps, just barely submerged beneath the surface, her elegant features shattered by eyes “that never shut.” Mélisande’s sadness resides in an outward beauty that stands in stark relief to an internal world of sadness and trauma. That’s not easy to convey to a vast and darkened auditorium, but Gillebo pulled it off magnificently.

And Edward Nelson was basically flawless as Pelléas, a role which is definitely not a run-of-the-mill baritone part. Not only should Pelléas be the embodiment of youthful, innocent beauty, the role requires a singer of extraordinary vocal range and flexibility. Debussy writes in such a high register that it could almost be sung by a tenor! (In fact, in the production I saw at the Met back in the 80’s, it was sung by a tenor: Douglas Ahlstedt.) Nelson delivered on all counts: a regular on the Barihunks website (and for good reason), he radiated youthful charisma on stage and ease of color and diction throughout his vocal range. He was an absolute treat in this, his European debut, and I hope I have the opportunity to hear him again soon.

I have but one gripe with this otherwise wonderful production – but unfortunately it’s a rather significant one. To be blunt, they totally botched the ending. What I’d hoped would happen, as Mélisande slips away into death, is that those oppressive walls and ceiling would gently, quietly lift away, finally releasing her from her prison. After the extensive use of those moving walls to symbolically illustrate the characters’ state, how could they do anything but be lifted away in the end? Such a gesture is absolutely suggested by both the nature of her passing (so quiet as to almost escape notice by the others in the room) and by the music: delicate, resolved, at peace. Instead, we see a video projection of Mélisande’s newborn baby on the back wall, while Yniold stands over the cradle with a camcorder in his hand, filming. While the intent was clearly to underscore Arkel’s statement that this newborn girl will have to carry on in Mélisande’s place – a line that is more or less tossed away but is pretty chilling when you think about it – the gesture was completely wrong for the moment. For one, projections had not been used at any other point in the production, so to introduce one into the final seconds of the piece is guaranteed to jar the audience during the most delicate of moments. Also, though props and costumes were suggestive of the 20th century, there was a sufficient mix of styles as to not suggest any particular moment in time – precisely the “no time, no place” that Debussy stated as being his ideal. Given that, the expressly present-day feel of Yniold’s camcorder was likewise out of place. Lastly, after all the symbolism and subtleties of the production, something this literal was far too on the nose, and completely out of sync with the sensibilities of everything else in the show. “Details” such as these are often underestimated, even by the finest theatrical directors, and the more delicate the moment the more such details end up being like taking a sledge hammer to piece of silk embroidery. I couldn’t escape the sense that the director wasn’t sure how to handle these last moments, and so she simply punted …an unfortunate blemish on an otherwise glorious evening.

Photo c. Erik Berg

In the end, what is it about this opera that is so beguiling? The work is filled with music of almost unbearable beauty, and simultaneously, a sadness as deep as the well in Mélisande’s garden. I think the juxtaposition of beauty and pain is at the heart of so much great art because it strikes right to the heart of what it means to be human. We see ourselves in Mélisande, perhaps not trapped as literally as she is, but trapped nonetheless in a life where death and loss are unavoidable, and where our own fragile state seems so completely inadequate to face whatever Destiny sends our way. We long for a Pelléas, but such purity is not meant for this world; in the end we end up like Arkel: unable to see the light, and resigned to our end. And when we weep, we don’t weep for Pelléas or Mélisande, we weep for ourselves.

Ultimately I don’t accept the notion that our fate is so completely out of our hands, or that we’re destined to darkness. Nonetheless, so much of our world still boils down to great beauty living side by side with immutable pain – with the latter being unavoidable. What Debussy reminds us, in this his crowning achievement, is that in the face of that pain we have beauty to salve it, if only for a little while.

Monday, May 8, 2017

Quest'è un nodo avviluppato*

Megan Marino and Jack Swanson
Joe del Tufo/Moonloop Photography
I wrote that Opera Delaware's 2013 production of L'Elisir d'Amore was cuter than a box of puppies, and I'll be darned if they haven't done it again with Mr. Rossini's comic opera La Cenerentola, part of the company's 2017 Opera Festival. A spirited and clever production by director A. Scott Perry, a cast of good singers and actors, and visual effects both comic and dazzling made this a highly enjoyable show.

From the first moments I was charmed by the antics of stepsisters Clorinda and Tisbe, quite capably sung by Jennifer Cherest and Alexandra Rodrick, and their blustering father Don Magnifico, given great comic flair by Steven Condy. (Mr. Condy graced Opera Delaware's stage last season as Falstaff.) I was even more delighted with the Angelina (Cenerentola, or Cinderella) of Megan Marino. She believably gave us Angelina's despair at her lot and and her love for Prince Ramiro disguised as a servant. With a pleasing sound throughout her voice and very clear coloratura singing, she was fully the equal of this demanding role. I especially loved her final aria and cabaletta, Naqui all'affano/Non piu mesta and her first act duet with the Prince. (I just learned Ms. Marino is the wife of dear Michael Mayes, who has graced these pages before—see this link and this additional link.)

Alexandra Rodrick, Sean Anderson, Jennifer Cherest
Joe del Tufo/Moonloop Photography
The Dandini of Sean Anderson was a joy to watch. His foppish appearance when he is disguised as the Prince is darling, with his mock-royal demeanor and his extreme wig. His singing was beautiful in sound, evenness and agility. His chemistry with Don Magnifico was comic and charming. (Mr. Anderson was Ford to Mr. Condy's Falstaff in last season's Falstaff at Opera Delaware.) I was pleased with tenor Jack Swanson's Prince Ramiro, as well.

I keep using the word charming in describing this production, and that is very much due to director A. Scott Perry. There were too many clever touches to list, but among them were the way in which the men's chorus pranced onstage for their first entrance, the way in which the storm in Act II was staged, the Don Magnifico's apparent delight at the misapprehension that the Prince (Dandini) wants to marry him instead of one of his daughters—the list goes on and on. I quite liked the effects Mr. Perry and Lighting Designer Driscoll Otto achieved in those "freeze" moments—when time stops and all those on stage try to grasp what is going on. The very first, in the Ramiro/Angelina Act I duet, brought well-earned chuckles from the audience.

Great credit goes to Brendan Cooke and the entire team at Opera Delaware for presenting a wonderful Opera Festival this year. I have long been a fan of Opera Delaware's work, and I am happy to say this production ranks among my favorites.


Megan Marino as Angelina and cast
Joe del Tufo/Moonloop Photography

*The title of this post means, literally, "This is a wrapped knot". It is the title of one of the exciting ensembles in the opera.