Wolf Trap Opera’s Rigoletto: Well Done WTO!

It’s a shame that Wolf Trap Opera’s production of Giuseppe Verdi’s Rigoletto (1851) on Friday night was just for one performance.  They had to provide a credible performance of a Verdi favorite while contending with the venue’s challenges for presenting opera in an amphitheater (open walls, outside noise, and necessity to use singer microphones in a large venue).  WTO managed to contend with all these elements, yielding a triumph for the company and a fine grand opera for its community.  I can only quibble that the weather which provided rain throughout the evening, harassing those in the lawn seats, failed to provide atmospheric thunder and lightning for final act.  Again, Wolf Trap’s Filene Center drew in a much younger crowd than I see at the major opera houses, many likely there for their first opera.  When I first fell in love with opera, for a long time Rigoletto was my favorite.  It likely made some new fans Friday night.

 Opening set and cast for  Rigoletto . Photo by Scott Suchman; courtesy of Wolf Trap Opera.

Opening set and cast for Rigoletto. Photo by Scott Suchman; courtesy of Wolf Trap Opera.

The tale of Rigoletto is a painful story to watch.  Librettist Francesco Maria Piave wove a complex story with complex characters based on a play by Victor Hugo which forces us to watch as power-enabled licentiousness pummels tenderness and innocence and our own hearts, a story all the more relevant as we have seen example after example exposed in today’s headlines.  Rigoletto is a court jester, but he’s not funny; his main job is to cajole husbands and fathers in the court to draw attention and wrath away from his boss, the Duke of Mantua, who is seducing and raping their wives and daughters.  Rigoletto, whose outward life has been deformed by his treatment as a hunchback, has a passionate and loving inside, and a young daughter, Gilda, who he keeps hidden away and who knows little of the outside world.  Rigoletto's taunts to one father, Count Monterone, who has confronted the Duke about his daughter elicits a curse from the Count that instills fear in Rigoletto and sets the tragedy in motion.  Verdi originally titled the opera "La Maledizione" or "The Curse". The angered courtiers learn of a young woman in Rigoletto’s life; thinking her his mistress, they steal her away to the Duke's room.  The Duke has previously encountered Gilda in church, the only other place than home she was allowed to go and won her affection.  He trails her home and presents himself as a poor student to further seal her infatuation with him.  When the courtiers leave her in the Duke’s room he realizes it is Gilda and forces himself upon his naive and vulnerable victim.  Rigoletto, turned vengeful, leads Gilda to see the Duke with another woman, Maddelena, and plots the Duke’s murder by a paid assassin, Sparafucile, who is Maddelena’s brother; however, Gilda still loves the Duke and pleads for his life, even to the point of ultimately sacrificing herself for her loved one.  The Duke who earlier sang that Gilda’s beauty and innocence were almost enough to cause him to lead a moral life goes unpunished for his deeds. 

Kidon Choi as Rigoletto in his jester role and as a worried father outside his home. Photos by Scott Suchman; courtesy of Wolf Trap Opera.

The staging of this production was quite effective.  The set which might have been standard at the Metropolitan Opera, was nothing short of stunning at the Filene Center.  The opening oversized towering columns shadowed in colored light on either side of an entrance foyer adorned with an outsized Roman painting (media/light provided) and with steps flowing down to a large ballroom clearly spoke of power and authority.  For the different acts, a circular center stage rotated to provide for an outside view of Rigoletto and Gilda’s domicile and then again to show Maddalena and Sparafucile’s low life tavern.  The gorgeous 16th century costumes were displayed early as two statuesque courtesans masked in silver (or maybe gold, I forget) entered and descended the stairs as courtiers filled the ballroom.  The Duke makes an entrance singing why tell me to hush; the husbands can’t do anything to me; and he is told, yes, but the women might learn you are with another woman.  You are immediately drawn into the action and it proceeds without letup through the entire evening.  The placement and movement of the players worked very well.  There were two inventions for this production that for me, worked for and against the story.  The ventriloquist dummy carried by Rigoletto foretold he was a jester though he was not otherwise funny, and it occasionally accented the emotion, but sometimes was a distraction.  Same for the media and lighting effects which added a modern feel to the production that I liked and in at least one scene helped convey the turmoil, but the images and the effects were interesting separate from the story and thereby sometimes detracted from the emotional impact of the scene.  The staging of the final scene was novel with the singing-Gilda on a balcony overhead while Rigoletto anguishes over the expiring-Gilda in his arms; that choice gives the impression that our true-hearted one is going to heaven, but perhaps detracts slightly from our grief over her death.  Either way works, but it’s likely much easier for the soprano to sing and project outward standing up.  Overall, the team told the story well: Kudos to Director Crystal Mannich, Scenic Designer Erhard Rom, Video & Projections Designer S. Katy Tucker, Costume Designer Court Watson, Lighting Designer Mark Stanley, and Wig & Makeup Designer Anne Nesmith.

Piotr Buszewski as the Duke and Mané Galoyan as Gilda. Photos by Scott Suchman; courtesy of Wolf Trap Opera.

Mainly, it’s the music and singing in Rigoletto that must carry the evening.  Musicologists say that Rigoletto begins a new period in Verdi's development, separating from the Italian "ottocentro" form of opera and initiating Verdi's "march to greatness".  There is very little recitative as the music is integral to telling of the story; and best for me, there are lots of great melodies.  You will likely be singing "Donna e mobile" after a performance, or "Caro Nome" if you are a coloratura soprano; audio recordings of Rigoletto are among my favorites. So, let’s talk about the band, also in this case called the National Symphony Orchestra, which was conducted by Grant Gershon, Resident Conductor of the Los Angeles Opera.  I was glad to see them placed in the pit this time and not behind a set affecting the sound.  I thought they played well, coordinating with the singers well, and contributing to the emotion and the storytelling.  Kudos for that.  However, from where I was sitting they seemed a wee bit muted compared to the highly amplified singers.  Only conscientious of it a couple of times and I loved the music.  I also enjoyed the chorus, a major player, in this opera.  Kudos to Chorusmaster David Hanlon.

 Patrick Guetti as Sparafucile and Zoie Reams as Maddalena as she pleads for the Duke's life. Photos by Scott Suchman; courtesy of Wolf Trap Opera.

Patrick Guetti as Sparafucile and Zoie Reams as Maddalena as she pleads for the Duke's life. Photos by Scott Suchman; courtesy of Wolf Trap Opera.

As always, the highlight of any Wolf Trap Opera is the young singers here to participate in the summer Filene Artists training program. The principal singers, baritone Kidon Choi as Rigoletto, tenor Piotr Buszewski as the Duke, and soprano Mané Galoyan as Gilda sang beautifully.  It is difficult to say much about their power since they were mic’d, but all seemed excellent choices for their roles.  Mr. Choi’s baritone voice is impressive.  I thought his acting was good, but perhaps too youthful to fully convey the depth of feeling in Rigoletto.  Mr. Buszewski has a lovely tenor voice and played the handsome, arrogant, and charming Duke convincingly.  Ms. Galoyan was a stand out as Gilda; her expressive voice and acting fully conveyed the pathos of the innocent, love-stricken 16 year-old daughter.  Her “Caro Nome” was nuanced and lovely.  Often in operas, some of the singers in minor roles make themselves noticed.  For me, that role was taken by Patrick Guetti as Sparafucile; from his first scene he embodied the sinister, scary assassin reinforced by his strong, dark bass voice.  Zoie Reams who played his sister Maddlena gave another fine WTO performance.  Joshua Conyers was also notable as a distraught and angered Count Monterone.  The duets and ensemble arias by this cast were especially well done and enjoyable, including the famous quartet aria near the end between Maddalena, Sparafucile, Gilda, and Rigoletto.  The supporting cast all played their roles well. 

 Johnathan McCullough as Marullo, Joshua Conyers as Count Monterone, and Nicholas Nestorak as Matteo Borsa, as the two courtiers restrain the enraged Count. Photos by Scott Suchman; courtesy of Wolf Trap Opera.

Johnathan McCullough as Marullo, Joshua Conyers as Count Monterone, and Nicholas Nestorak as Matteo Borsa, as the two courtiers restrain the enraged Count. Photos by Scott Suchman; courtesy of Wolf Trap Opera.

WTO has clearly moved into the big time, not only in their principal role of training the next generation of opera singers, but also in providing marvelous opera productions and events to it's greater DC community.  I am glad that the Wolf Trap Foundation provides them the opportunity once a year to show a wider audience what opera can offer.  Congrats to Wolf Trap Opera for an outstanding summer season lighting up the Filene Center, the Barns, and various venues around town, and I look forward to the coming year, again.

The Fan Experience: If you saw this performance as your first opera and liked it, give the Barns a try next season; it is enclosed, but it is just about as informal as the Filene Center; it has easy access and egress, and the acoustics are better for opera.  The Filene Center has large overhead screens to the left and right of the stage that showed a closer view of the singers during the performance, which I liked, but were also annoying because when I was watching the stage they provide considerable background glare.  At the Barns you will be close enough you don’t need them.  Also, you don’t have to wait for next summer to try opera again.  The DC area is blessed with many excellent companies.  As one example, Washington National Opera will be performing La Traviata at the Kennedy Center October 6-21; enjoy another round of great music by Verdi, also with with lots of great melodies.

 

 

Virginia Opera’s 2018-2019 Season: An “American Opera” and Three Italian Classics

 Image courtesy of Virginia Opera

Image courtesy of Virginia Opera

Want to see Puccini’s Madama Butterfly? Donizetti’s The Elixir of Love? Mozart’s Don Giovanni?  Weill’s Street Scene?  I bet you said yes, yes, yes, and huh?  The Virginia Opera will serve up these operas in reverse of that order as they begin their new season in late September, with the usual triple play of each opera being performed in Norfolk, Fairfax, and Richmond.  We’ll get to that "huh" response on Street Scene in a moment, but first a timely, practical matter:  Ticket packages are currently on sale; individual tickets go on sale on August 1 for Fairfax and on August 6 for Norfolk and Richmond.

Virginia Opera’s 2018-2019 Season

Street Scene (1947), Kurt Weill and Langston Hughes

Sep 28, 30, Oct 2 – Norfolk

October 6, 7 – Fairfax

October 12, 14 - Richmond

Don Giovanni (1787), Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Lorenzo da Ponte

Nov 2, 4, 6 – Norfolk

Nov 10, 11 - Fairfax

Nov 16, 18 - Richmond

The Elixir of Love (1832), Gaetano Donizetti and Felice Romani

Feb 8, 10, 12 - Norfolk

Feb 16, 17 – Fairfax

Feb 22, 24 - Richmond

Madama Butterfly (1903), Giacomo Puccini and Giuseppe Giacosa/Luigi Illica

March 15, 17, 19 – Norfolk

March 23, 24 – Fairfax

March 29, 31 – Richmond

 Image courtesy of Virginia Opera.

Image courtesy of Virginia Opera.

First up is the opera you may not have known (I didn’t) by composer Kurt Weill.  Let's focus on that one a bit.  Poet Langston Hughes wrote the libretto based on a Pulitzer-Prize winning play of the same name by Weill’s friend Elmer Rice; the 1929 play ran for over 600 performances on Broadway.  You have to admit that’s a powerful combo of source material, librettist, and composer.  Mr. Weill appears today to be well known among both Broadway people and opera people interested in new opera.  It’s probably no accident that the stage director for this production is Dorothy Danner; among her many achievements/assignments, she has performed on Broadway and directed 15 previous productions for VA Opera.  You have to admit that's a powerful background for directing Weill's work.  But, how did Mr. Weill come to write an American opera.  

 Lotte Lenya and Kurt Weill, 1942; photo from  Wikipedia .

Lotte Lenya and Kurt Weill, 1942; photo from Wikipedia.

In doing background reading about Mr. Weill, I find him to be one of the most interesting people I didn’t know much about.  He led an extraordinary life inside and outside of music.  He was born the Jewish son of a cantor in Germany in 1900 and received training from a number of well-known musical figures of that era, including the composer of Hansel and Gretel, Engelbert Humperdinck.  In his twenties he became a successful composer himself and his works were quite popular in his native land, but as the Nazi threat grew in the 1930’s, he fled to Paris; in addition to his religion, his social views and his music which reflected those views were anathema to the Nazis who took steps to eradicate his work in Germany.  In 1935, he and his wife traveled to the U.S. for work and stayed for the rest of his short life; he died of a heart attack in 1950.  His personal life was punctuated by controversy over his socialist views and his unconventional marriage (twice) to Austrian singer Lotte Lenya. You may recall the name from Bobby Darin’s hit “Mack the Knife”; Weill composed that song for his Three Penny Opera that included fictional characters Jenny Diver, Sukey Tawdry, and Lucy Brown; Louis Armstrong added Lotte Lenya by mistake (she played Jenny Diver) and it stuck.  Ms. Lenya was also an Academy Award nominated actress whom you may remember as the sadistic sharp-toed villain from the James Bond movie “From Russia with Love”.  After his death, Ms. Lenya established the Kurt Weill Foundation to promote Kurt Weill’s music; VA Opera has received an award from the Foundation to support this production.  And yet another interesting fact is that Dorothy Danner is a member of a theatrical family that includes actresses Blythe Danner and Gwyneth Paltrow.  Small world, eh?

 Art work for  Street Scene ; courtesy of Virginia Opera.

Art work for Street Scene; courtesy of Virginia Opera.

Weill’s musical life was also punctuated by controversy, this mainly over his decision to associate with Broadway and write popular music; his German followers and many others worldwide felt he had sold out for commercial success.  While he is credited with having contributed to the development of the American musical, making music an integral part of theater, he reportedly never accepted a difference between serious music and popular music, saying “There is only good music and bad music.”  In the U.S., he studied American popular and stage music, and his style evolved; Langston Hughes, a black poet, took Mr. Weill to Harlem in NYC seeking musical inspiration for Street Scene.  He strove to create a new brand of opera, not necessarily called opera, combining theater, dance, and music not restricted by genre.  Street Scenes, based on a popular play of the time commensurate with his social views, tells the stories of several families and individuals living in a tenement building in New York City, seemingly trapped by their circumstances; the interactions take place over a day and deal with their struggles to overcome or simply come to terms with those circumstances; if it was written in Italian instead of English, you might call it verismo.  The score reportedly contains jazz, Broadway tunes, and operatic arias.  I listened to a couple of snippets from the Street Scene CD to get an idea what the music was like, but stopped after a minute or two because I liked it enough to want to wait.  Professional opera critics may tell you to listen to the score first and you will get more out of the opera.  I think that is correct, but I’m different; I want to experience it first as the complete package.

VA Opera began its 2016-2017 season with a Weill composition, The Seven Deadly SinsSins is termed a ballet chante.  Street Scene is termed an opera and has taken its place as a great American opera.  And yet, as an opera, it first played on Broadway and won the Tony Award for Best Original Score.  This reflects the fact that Weill strove to create music that was both artistically and commercially successful.  In fact, Weill composed over twenty operas, most now unknown; perhaps best known are Street Scene (1947), Mahagonny (Aufsteig und Fall der Stadt Mahagonny) (1930), and The Three Penny Opera (Die Dreigroschenoper) (1928).  This production is the only scheduled performance of Street Scene in the U.S. in the next couple of years.  If you live outside the realms of VA Opera’s venues, I predict this one will be worth the effort to make the trip in.  Kudos to Virginia Opera for bringing it forward this year to Virginia audiences.

Images courtesy of Virginia Opera.

The remainder of the season belongs to great operas in the traditional repertoire.  Giovanni, Elixir, and Butterfly deserve their popularity and are the operas we keep returning to because they combine great stories with the great music of the masters.  When you think of opera, Mozart, Donizetti, and Puccini come to mind among only a handful of others.  Their librettists were also famous in their day and these are among their finest works.  If you are a newbie to opera, it is a great chance to build your personal repertoire of operas seen or just to give opera a try. 

 Conductor Adam Turner; photo courtesy of Virginia Opera.

Conductor Adam Turner; photo courtesy of Virginia Opera.

Going to the opera takes money and effort.  For operas I have seen more than once, I ask myself why I should want to attend a particular performances.  First, how much do I like the music?  For all three of these operas the music is aces.  Virginia Opera’s Principal Conductor and new Artistic Director Adam Turner will conduct all four productions.  Added appeal comes from the fact that for Don Giovanni he will be conducting the Virginia Symphony Orchestra and for Madama Butterfly the Richmond Symphony Orchestra.  If the music is compelling, I look to the singers.  VA Opera employs established professional singers and young professionals who have made a splash and are building their professional careers,.  Some will be returning favorites to VA Opera.  Biographical links are included on the web pages for each opera; looking through the biographies, there are singers in every cast that I would like to hear sing.  Just an impression, but I think this year's singers are an especially strong group. 

l to r: Directors Dorothy Danner (Street Scene); Lillian Groag (Don Giovanni); Kyle Lang (The Elixir of Love); and Richard Gammon (Madama Butterfly); photos courtesy of Virginia Opera.

Finally, I look to the productions and thereby the director; I admit that I personally have been late to the game in focusing on the importance of the stage director and staff members.  There are a lot of people critical to the success of an opera besides the singers and the conductor.  First among these is the director who will make the creative decisions about how the opera is staged and determine whether the story is told effectively or not.  This season shapes up nicely in that regard.  Although Madama Butterfly is my favorite opera, after Street Scene which is new to me, I am most excited about Don Giovanni.  Why? Director Lillian Groag.  I was impressed with her The Girl of the Golden West and blown away by her Turandot, both with VA Opera.  It will also be interesting to get a woman's take on Giovanni.  I can’t wait to see what her production will be like.  Same for Elixir of Love which will be directed by Kyle Lang, who gave us last year’s memorable Lucia di Lammermoor and collaborated previously with Groag, including on TurandotMadama Butterfly will be directed by Richard Gammon in his debut with Virginia Opera; in the DC area he has directed productions for Opera Lafayette at the Kennedy Center.  And I previously mentioned Ms. Danner.

Or you can eschew my analytical approach and say, hey man, it's live opera.  It'a a living, breathing thing.  It has music and singing, sets and costumes and movement to delight your senses, and acting and storytelling to worm its way into your heart.  It has a team of talented, dedicated, live humans who want to engage with you, and it will happen right in front of you.  You may laugh or cry or be bored, but always there is suspense.  If a performance goes down, you go down too.  If it soars, you soar with it.  Celebrate life!  What do you have to do that's better than that?

The Fan Experience:  Although the operas seen in all three venues are exactly the same, the venues themselves have different pricing schemes, including discounts for student tickets.  Check their web sites carefully.  If you are able to purchase your tickets at the box office you can save significant change on fees.  All performances have supertitles in English.  Also, Dr. Glenn Winters, Virginia Opera's Musical Outreach Musical Director, provides pre-opera talks forty-five minutes before showtime; they and his blog reports leading up to each opera offer entertaining and informative insights; the pre-opera talks are frequently standing room only, so get there early.

 

Wolf Trap Opera’s Romeo et Juliette: Great Music, True Love, and Lots of Kissing

Wolf Trap Opera gives us a summer valentine of an opera where true love triumphs over all, even death itself.  It gives us a story of young hearts, and young impetuousness delivered by young opera singers.  I swear, this tragedy felt so light and lovely early on I wanted Juliette, played by soprano Madison Leonard, to break into a version of “I feel pretty”, though her singing of “Je veux vivre” was equally trilling, and any tears at the closing scene are tears of joy.  It’s a story we all know and have seen in many versions and many formats from Shakespeare’s original to Bernstein’s West Side Story.  There are shadings to the story-telling, but no surprises, and for this opera by composer Charles Gounod and librettists Jules Barbier and Michel Carre, that’s a good thing.

 Juliette (Madison Leonard, center) with her nurse Gertrude (Taylor Raven, left) and her father (Joshua Conyers, right) is presented to the Capulets and in disguise, Romeo and the Montagues. Photo by Scott Suchman; courtesy of Wolf Trap Opera.

Juliette (Madison Leonard, center) with her nurse Gertrude (Taylor Raven, left) and her father (Joshua Conyers, right) is presented to the Capulets and in disguise, Romeo and the Montagues. Photo by Scott Suchman; courtesy of Wolf Trap Opera.

That we have seen many versions, and the nature of the story itself, allows us to readily accept it’s updating to the 21st century by director Louisa Muller.  Kudos to her; just about everything in this staging works.  The staging and the performers’ abilities to immerse us in that youthful spirit pulls us comfortably into our suspension of disbelief; corny phrases and incongruities become acceptable.  Romeo and Juliet stories can be fine vehicles for dealing with a darker edge of conflicts between warring factions.  I can imagine for example that it could be used today to shine a light on the conflicts between different religions or sects as it did for clashes between Puerto Ricans and whites in West Side Story.  However, Gounod’s version keeps the attention on the love story.  Ms. Muller’s staging supports that telling by having a simple set with a few props, including smart phones used to take selfies, moved in and out (kudos to scenic designer Timothy Mackabee) and including costumes by costume designer Amanda Seymour that are amusing to the eye and help keep the mood light and that help identify the clans.  The fights and death scene are beautifully choreographed.  And credit chorus master Jeremy Frank - cast ensembles singing as chorus sounded magnificent. 

 Madison Leonard as Juliette and Alexander McKissick as Romeo. Photo by Scott Suchman; courtesy of Wolf Trap Opera.

Madison Leonard as Juliette and Alexander McKissick as Romeo. Photo by Scott Suchman; courtesy of Wolf Trap Opera.

In fact, as appealing to the eye as this production is, it is its sound that hits the highest note.  I had only heard a few arias from this opera.  Hearing it in its entirety, I find it to rival Puccini’s music in beauty.  And Wolf Trap Opera’s head, Kim Witman, should be credited for taking steps to give us the music in full force.  To allow for the 46 instruments recommended for the score, the orchestra is moved from the pit to behind a screen at the back of the stage, which in the cozy Barns, gives you a full orchestral effect. The orchestra under Conductor Eric Melear seemed to take a minute to come together at Tuesday night's show, but then delivered a fine performance; while supporting and not over powering the singers, it drew my attention to the beauty of the music on several occasions.

Romeo (Alexander McKissick) and Juliet (Madison Leonard) kneel in a marraige ceremony performed by Father Laurent (Anthony Reed); Amy Rosen in a pants role sings Stephano's aria. Photos by Scott Suchman; courtesy of Wolf Trap Opera.

The young performers are already accomplished opera singers; I have heard the two leads sing with Washington National Opera.  Our Romeo, tenor Alexander McKissick, just finished a stint as a Kennedy Center Domingo-Cafritz Young Artist.  Ms. Leonard, also a Domingo-Cafritz Young Artist, recently won first place in the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions.  Romeo et Juliette gives them a chance in the spotlight to shine and they shone!  Both have beautiful voices and excellent technique.  It is a pleasure to hear them deliver Gounod’s arias.  Ms. Leonard’s acting and singing in the sleeping potion scene is especially impressive, worthy of an award.  The supporting cast all handle their roles well, adding to this production.   Special note is made of young hot head Tybalt, played by Richard Trey Smagur, Taylor Raven as Juliette’s nurse, Patrick Guetti as Juliette’s betrothed, Joshua Conyers as Juliette’s father, Thomas Glass as Mercutio, and Anthony Reed as Father Laurent.  Special mention should be given to mezzo-soprano Annie Rosen in a pants role as Stephano, Romeo’s page.  She shows feisty theatrical flair as well as accomplished singing in delivering Stephano’s aria; I can see Carmen in her future. 

 Tybalt (Richard Trey Smagur) confronts Romeo (Alexander McKissick) with a knife while onlookers are, l to r, Mercutio (Thomas Glass), Stephano (Amy Rosen), Duke Kim, and Cory McGee. Photo by Scott Suchman; courtesy of Wolf Trap Opera.

Tybalt (Richard Trey Smagur) confronts Romeo (Alexander McKissick) with a knife while onlookers are, l to r, Mercutio (Thomas Glass), Stephano (Amy Rosen), Duke Kim, and Cory McGee. Photo by Scott Suchman; courtesy of Wolf Trap Opera.

 Romeo (Alexander McKissick) believes a sleeping Juliet (Madison Leonard) to be dead. Photo by Scott Suchman; courtesy of Wolf Trap Opera.

Romeo (Alexander McKissick) believes a sleeping Juliet (Madison Leonard) to be dead. Photo by Scott Suchman; courtesy of Wolf Trap Opera.

Ahhh, I feel better.  It is so nice to have Wolf Trap Opera back on their home turf, making opera fun.  With June’s Idomeneo, they ventured into the harsh aftermath of war; even with a so-called happy ending, I went home and fixed myself something to drink and was argumentative with my family for the next week.  But in July they give us Romeo and Juliette, two attractive young lovers smitten with true love doing lots of kissing to make us believe it.  Remember your teen years?

The Fan Experience: Additional performances are scheduled for July 19 and 21; close to a sell out but a few good tickets remain.  Ms. Witman’s pre-opera talk an hour before the show is entertaining and informative, and you get treated to an aria by Studio Artists.  I have mentioned numerous times the pleasure of The Barns as a venue for opera: food, drinks, cozy confines putting you close to the stage and performers, free parking, and easy in and out.  WTO’s next production will not have the easy in and out, but the parking is still free and the Filene Center has a lawn section.  The summer’s final WTO offering, Giuseppe Verdi’s classic, Rigoletto, is a must for opera fans and a great starter opera for newbies, coming up Friday, August 3; tickets still available.

 

 

 

Hamilton delivers: whether it’s opera Is not the point

Hamilton is a great show, seamless non-stop entertainment for two and a half hours.  I saw it recently, and during intermission as I marveled at the impact it was having on me, I could not help comparing Hamilton with opera.  Further while waiting, I checked Facebook thinking I might post a remark about the performance and saw one from Washington Post opera critic Anne Midgette.  In a profound and provocative article, she states that Hamilton is opera; several commenters agreed it was opera.  Up to that point, I had not considered Hamilton to be opera and doubt few of my fellow audience members, if any, were thinking they were seeing a great opera.  So, why did she call this musical an opera, at least “in all the ways that count”?

 Laurens (Reuben J. Carbajal), Hamilton (Austin Scott), Lafayette (Bryson Bruce), Mulligan (Chaundre Hall-Bromfield) and Company - HAMILTON National Tour. Photo by Joan Marcus; courtesy of the Kennedy Center.

Laurens (Reuben J. Carbajal), Hamilton (Austin Scott), Lafayette (Bryson Bruce), Mulligan (Chaundre Hall-Bromfield) and Company - HAMILTON National Tour. Photo by Joan Marcus; courtesy of the Kennedy Center.

The most common definition of opera is a play in which all the words are sung.  And opera is the plural of the latin word for work, opus; opera is supposed to be the works, including music, singing, dancing, costumes, a storyline, and acting.  Hamilton certainly has the works and all the words are sung with pretty voices maneuvered to fit the style and situation.  As part of her argument, Ms. Midgette makes a case that being familiar with the album before seeing Hamilton improves the experience of seeing the show, though it is by no means equivalent to seeing the show; she says that is typical of operas, not Broadway shows.  Maybe, but I found seeing Hamilton as the works before knowing much about it to be thrilling and satisfying in a way it would have lacked if I had listened to the album first.  Critic for the NY Times Anthony Tommasini has made an argument that opera and musicals are different because in musicals the words are more important and in opera the music is more important.  There is merit to that argument, though it is a matter of contention which is more important in opera, and if I think of West Side Story, I’m not so sure about musicals either.  And the music in Hamilton is a major factor in its success as well.  The critical element we associate with operas that Hamilton lacks is singing in an operatic style without a microphone, supported by music in the classical genre.  Thus, it is correct to call Hamilton an opera, but doing so is like calling Russia a republic; technically, that’s correct, but… 

Eliza (Julia K. Harriman), Anjelica (Sabrina Sloan),  Peggy Schuyler (Isa Briones), and Company; Hamilton (Austin Scott) and George Washington (Carvens Lissaint) - HAMILTON National Tour. Photos by Joan Marcus; courtesy of the Kennedy Center.

The definition of opera and whether it fits Hamilton is not the main point of her perspective in the Post.  Consider her poignant lamentation: “The irony is that what “Hamilton” represents now is exactly what opera used to be: a thrilling, contemporary, immersive stage presentation that’s a union of story, text, music, image and movement, and that gets under the skin and into the blood of a wide audience that feels it speaks profoundly to them.”  She then charges: ““Opera” has become, in the popular imagination, a signifier of snooty elitism and artistic exaggeration, not to say stereotype (the fat lady in the Viking Helmet). But the only real difference between “opera” and “Hamilton” is that “opera” has become handicapped by what it is thought to signify — by the idea that it is thought to represent some sort of pinnacle of high art” and after admitting some operas are high art and broadway shows have certain production advantages, finishes with “If I had to list one distinction between “Hamilton” and opera, as a genre, I’d say that “Hamilton” is art, and opera, these days, merely symbolizes it.”  This is a professional critic doing her job, a knight of the opera table.  My take away is that what she wanted to discuss was not so much whether Hamilton was opera or not, but how opera has gone astray.  Hamilton represents what opera was and still should be, a work connected as much to its current audience as to its art.  That is an important and controversial thesis that should not be tossed off as simply whether Hamilton is opera or not.

 Thomas Jefferson (Bryson Bruce) and Company - HAMILTON National Tour. Photo by Joan Marcus; courtesy of the Kennedy Center.

Thomas Jefferson (Bryson Bruce) and Company - HAMILTON National Tour. Photo by Joan Marcus; courtesy of the Kennedy Center.

Let’s consider a bit further how opera compares to Hamilton, keeping in mind that this is rather unfair since Hamilton is one of the very best of its kind.  First, opera companies must deal with audiences closely wed to the traditional repertoire; the box office bottom line works against new opera.  Not so for Broadway musicals, which not only have the freedom to be new and different; but are expected to be.  Thus a musical can connect with its audience by incorporating a popular current music genre, like rap, and nods to current issues such as a line uttered about immigrants. I suspect it also bridges cultural divides by using rap to tell American history.  Hamilton has a feel-good story about the spirit of America going for it, and it presents our founding fathers as humans with opera-style grand passions, but importantly for its connection to a contemporary audience and to its fit as a musical and not an opera, it is the story and not the passions that are the focus, a story that connects readily with its American audience.  Opera companies go to considerable lengths to explain how one to three hundred-year-old operas and their focus on great passions are still relevant today and spend money on updating productions, moving them forward in time, which to my mind are most often plastering over the originals and serve up conflicts, such as characters in modern times worrying about Neptune’s next move.  Yes, the underlying elements of love, betrayal, ambition, and revenge of old operas are still important and relevant, but audiences now are distanced from attachments to Greek gods and royalty and the mores of past generations.  And as Ms. Midgette points out, abstract, arty presentations can add to the gap.  I think the grand passions are fine, but opera needs to tell stories that grip today's audiences.  Opera must loosen its bonds to the past and engage more directly with life today if it wishes to be modern and vibrant, and not like Shakespeare’s repetoire, relegated to a small, loyal following.

 Company - HAMILTON National Tour. Photo by Joan Marcus; courtesy of the Kennedy Center.

Company - HAMILTON National Tour. Photo by Joan Marcus; courtesy of the Kennedy Center.

Unfortunately, new opera has not produced a Hamilton or Les Miserables as yet, nor even a modern Marriage of Figaro.  Therein lies the conundrum: to generate a Hamilton, large-size resources are needed, but until a Hamilton is generated, opera companies are not going to provide new opera that level of resources.  What new opera needs more than Hamilton to show the way is investors who make the way possible.  The question that makes me uneasy is wondering whether a musical with opera-style singing can ever be a Hamilton? Is there too much distance now between the ears of the average music lover and that style?  And how effectively can modern stories that require the breakneck pace of Hamilton be staged with an operatic singing style that requires we pause the action while the soprano finishes her heart-felt aria or the tenor takes ten minutes bleeding out to die?  I don’t know, but some companies are experimenting, mostly small companies, but check out Opera Philadelphia’s Festival O18 for an example of progressive vision.  Even Washington National Opera had a brief run at contemporary relevance with a creative, immersive Ring Cycle and showing two, not one, newer operas in the same season. 

I say all this as an advocate for both new opera and old opera, who wishes to raise Caesar, not bury him…well, maybe a little…certain parts of his prefrontal cortex.  But let’s also talk about what opera has that Hamilton does not, and I will contend that the depth of emotion and beauty of operatic-singing style’s is not as readily achieved with pop or rap music which I also really enjoy.  I note that I went to see Hamilton without knowing any of the singers.  Singers who are famous for singing opera superbly are part of opera’s appeal.  Musicals don’t rely on the fame and reputation of the singers as much as opera does.  I will also contend, though less strongly, that opera singing has more staying power than Hamilton will, perhaps because it focuses on the emotion more than the story.  I enjoy the Hamilton songs, but I love the arias of Mozart and Verdi (maybe emotion over story?).  I did the opposite of Ms. Midgette’s advice – I did not listen to the album before going, but I have listened to it a couple of times now.  Frankly, for me the album is a bit of a letdown.  Yes, it is very good pop music, great for a musical; every tune is likeable, but the music alone is no match for seeing the musical.  It tells the story without the visuals and I don’t know how you can listen to “You’ll Be Back” and not wish you were in the theater listening to King George sing it.  That disappointment rarely happens with opera.  Admittedly, I don’t like Anna Netrebko’s recording from her "Russian" album (shone below from YouTube in video format) of the aria in the letter scene from Eugne Onegin as much as hearing it in a performance, but it’s not a disappointment to listen, even though I was very excited to see the performance in person.  I think the other elements of musicals enhance the music whereas in opera, the music enhances the other elements. Nothing touches the heart as deeply and pervasively as the beauty of the human voice singing opera. 

Anna Netrebko singing the letter scene's "Puskai pogibnu ya, no prezde" from the Metropolitan Opera's Eugene Onegin (Youtube).

So, where is the opera today that connects so strongly with its audience and that provides such good singing, including operatic-style singing and music that it provides the total immersion and ecstasy of a Hamilton or a Les Mis?  I don’t know, but I keep going, hoping that one comes along that I don’t just like and enjoy, but that blows my socks off.  Until then, we have Hamilton.

Opera Philadelphia’s 2018-2019 Season: September’s Festival O18 Plus Four Operas in 2019

“What do you want from opera?  What does opera not give you that you wish it did?  How can opera make the hairs on the back of your neck stand up?” asks star countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo in the promo for Glass Handel, also stating that his team’s goal is to create new esthetic experiences existing within the contexts of opera.  That seems to me to capture the fun, but serious spirit of Festival O18, Opera Philadelphia’s kick off to its 2018-2019 season.  OP wants to engage you in forging the future of opera. 

Last year’s Festival O17 was a major opera event in the U.S.  I was very impressed by the vision and leadership demonstrated by OP, so much so that my wife and I took a mini-vacation to Philly to see The Trial of Elizabeth Cree and a clever version of The Magic Flute (see photos below) and felt regret we could not take in the other O17 offerings.  O18 begins this season and will be followed up beginning in Feb 2019 by two classics and two newer operas to complete the season.  I’m sure my wife and I will be hitting I-95 North from DC once again.  The challenge is making our choices and doing so soon, before performances sell out.  Let’s start with their grand ball that is Festival O18.

Scenes from last year's O17: Troy Cook is John Cree in The Trial of Elizabeth Cree and Ben Bliss as Tamino in The Magic Flute. Photos by John Pisano; courtesy of Opera Philadelphia.

O18’s concept is to envelope the entire area’s arts community, fans, and potential fans over eleven days with creative new or re-designed works, on what OP calls an urban stage.  Thus, O18 will offer two world premieres, 3 new productions, and emerging artists concerts with the Curtis Institute of Music.  If you prefer to stick with the classics, they have you covered with a new production of Lucia di Lammermoor.  These events will be presented in five different venues over the period of September 20-30. 

Festival 018, Sept 20-30:

Sky on Swings, world premiere – Sept 20, 22, 25, 27, 29

Lucia di Lammermoor, new production – Sept 21, 23, 26, 28, 30

Ne Quittez Pas: A Reimagined La Voix Humaine, new production – Sept 22, 23, 27, 29, 30

Glass Handel, world premiere – Sept 22, 23, 30 (performances are sold out)

Queens of the Night, cabaret – Sept 24, 25, 28

Fridays at the Field, emerging artists concerts – Sept 21, 28

Opera on the Mall – Sept 29, pending funding

Venues, respectively (the urban stage): Academy of Music, Perelman Theater, Theater of the Living Arts, the Barnes Foundation, Field Concert Hall, Theater of Living Arts.

 Marietta Simpson and Frederica von Stade in  Sky on Swings . Photo by Dominic M. Mercier; courtesy of Opera Philadelphia.

Marietta Simpson and Frederica von Stade in Sky on Swings. Photo by Dominic M. Mercier; courtesy of Opera Philadelphia.

This year’s strategy for the program for O18 is similar to last year’s, starting with a premiere of a chamber opera and a new production of a traditional work.  Sky on Swings is a new chamber opera by composer Lembit Beecher, a former OP composer-in-residence and librettist/playwright Hannah Moscovitch; this team last year provided O17 with I Have No Stories To Tell You.  Working closely with director Joanna Steele, they embrace the timely and sensitive topic of Alzheimer’s Disease and use it to explore how music can reflect the changes caused by the disease and to explore hidden barriers to love that are revealed.  The performances are highlighted by star mezzo-sopranos Fredericka von Stade and Marietta Simpson playing the leads.  Gaetano Donizetti's Lucia di Lammermoor is one of the most popular operas in the world and the role of Lucia is coveted by coloratura sopranos.  This is a new production by famed director Laurent Pelly featuring famed coloratura soprano Brenda Rae, who recently appeared in OP's Tancredi.  Mr. Pelly is reknown across the globe for inventive and stylish productions.  What will his production of Lucia be like?  The production is co-produced by Wiener Staatsoper and will be performed in Vienna, Austria in 2019.

Lucia di Lammermoor director Laurent Pelly (photo by Kelly and Massa) and soprano Brenda Rae (photo by Carole Parodi).  Photos courtesy of Opera Philadelphia.

Glass Handel is the next edition of combining opera with art at the Barnes Foundation, done so effectively last year in O17's highly regarded The Wake World.  Leading the effort is countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo who is working with multimedia company Visionaire and the Barnes Foundation to present an audience immersion experience with music by Philip Glass and George Frederic Handel, that involves music, singing, art, fashion, dance, film, and technology.  It will also be the coming out party for Mr. Costanzo’s new album also covering music by Glass and Handel.  Sadly at this point, it’s three performances are sold out; if you wish to join me on the waiting list, click on this link.  The creation of new experiences continues with a new production of Ne Quittez Pas: A Reimagined La Voix Humaine.  It will begin with a selection of French art and cabaret songs by baritone Edward Nelson followed by opera luminary Patricia Racette performing Poulenc’s one-act opera for a soprano, La Voix Humaine, which focuses one side of telephone conversations between ex-lovers; James Darrah of Breaking the Waves fame directs.

Anthony Roth Costanzo (photo by Matthu Placek) in Glass Handel and Patricia Racette (photo by Devon Cass) in Ne Quittez Pas: A Reimagined La Voix Humaine. Photos courtesy of Opera Philadelphia.

Now, for something different – hopefully that intro at least got a smile, but I do mean different.  Over three nights, opera star Stephanie Blythe as her alter ego Blythely Oratonio and Dito van Reigersberg as Martha Graham Cracker will alternate hosting evenings of drag-infused cabaret songs ending the third night with Dito and Aeneas, a concert and dance party, which was well received in last year’s O17.  Festival O18 will also offer two Friday emerging artists concerts, program yet to be announced, with singers from the Curtis Institute of Music.

 Star soprano Stephanie Blythe in  Dito and Aeneas: Two Queens, One Night.  Photo by Dominic M. Mercier; courtesy of Opera Philadelphia.

Star soprano Stephanie Blythe in Dito and Aeneas: Two Queens, One Night. Photo by Dominic M. Mercier; courtesy of Opera Philadelphia.

Philadelphia is currently attempting to crowdsource funding to include an Opera on the Mall to provide a free showing of last year’s sold out and highly acclaimed production, We Shall Not Ne Moved that revisits the 1985 bombing of the MOVE compound to address issues about “national identity, race, gender, the failure for some of the public education system, and personal responsibility.” An announcement will be forthcoming.

After O18, Opera Philadelphia regroups and prepares for the second half of the season which will begin in February:

OP 2018-2019 Season, Part II:

A Mid-Summer Night’s Dream, U.S. production premiere – Feb 8, 10, 15, 17

Don Giovanni, new production – Mar 7, 8, 9, 10

La Boheme – Apr 26, 28, May 1, 3, 5

Empty the House, new production – May 2, 4, 4, 5

I recently saw Virginia Opera’s production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream by composer Benjamin Britten with a libretto written by Peter Pears and Britten, and I have to say that Dream is a very underrated opera.  It provides beautiful music and arias with clever twists and maintains Shakespeare’s humor, charm, and heart.  And Shakespeare’s story, if you will consider, can be viewed from a darker perspective as biting commentary on human nature.  The keys to a great performance will be the staging and the singers who play Oberon (countertenor Tim Mead) and Tytania (soprano Anna Christy).  I hope to make it up in February to take this one in. 

The great Don Giovanni by Mozart and the equally great La Boheme by Puccini are among the operas that opera fans cut their teeth on.  If you are new to opera, you must go, and if you are already a fan, you most likely will attend.  Giovanni is a collaborative effort with Curtis Institute of music combining young singers with established production staff.  La Boheme will feature soprano Vanessa Vasquez as Mimi; she won the 2017 Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions.  This production will also feature art from the Barnes Foundation and the Philadelphia Museum of Art. 

Empty the House (2016) composed by Rene Orth with libretto by Mark Campbell is new to me.  Ms. Orth is currently OP’s sixth composer-in-residence.  She has rearranged this version for a chamber orchestra rather than the original 9-piece ensemble.  The story involves the interactions between a mother and a daughter and memories encountered in moving mom out of the family home.  This is another collaboration with Curtis.

OP's 2018-2019 lineup looks impressive and enticing.  If nothing else, Opera Philadelphia deserves our applause.  Right now, they are leading the opera pack.

The Fan Experience: It’s obvious but worth saying: the sooner you secure your tickets the less likely you are to encounter a sell out (Glass Handel is already sold out).  Opera Philadelphia’s website is excellent and chockful of useful information.  Performance pages have links to find tickets or you can use this one for all performances.  In addition to single tickets, packages are available as well as special offers such as discounted student tickets.  I also find their Guest Services telephone staff to be quite helpful at 215-732-8400.  I suggest you peruse the web sites of the individual performances of interest because extra features such as lectures or meetings with composers, directors, etc. are sometimes planned.  Philadelphia is a great tourist destination beyond opera.  For out-of-towners, Guest Services will recommend hotels and dining options.

 

“The Music of Silence”: A Movie About Andrea Bocelli You Might Have Missed

The flight from Dubai to Washington Dulles lasts over 13 hours.  Fortunately, Emirates airlines has over 700 films to choose from on its entertainment menu, including a rich array of foreign films.  One movie I watched returning from our family vacation was Andrea Bocelli’s life story titled “The Music of Silence”, oddly placed in the Documentaries section by Emirates and also odd in that it is made in English using Italian actors – critics were not happy with the language choice.  I only knew that Bocelli was a popular Italian tenor who has a beautiful voice and that he is blind.  I was intrigued to learn more of his story.  While it is an acted drama and not a documentary, one should keep in mind that it is the story of Mr. Bocelli’s life as told by himself, as though it were a story he imagined; the movie suffered from that decision according to critics who accused him of hagiography.  The movie is based on a 1999 book of the same title by Bocelli and is available for streaming on iTunes, Amazon, etc.

If you are not familiar with his singing, you can listen to his signature song, Con te partiro, below from YouTube:

The movie covers the period from his birth and early childhood, when his vision problem was first detected, until his first major successes.  He gives his character the name of Amos Bardi in the movie; his son in real life is named Amos.  The movie focuses on his difficulties with his complete loss of his vision at age 12 and his struggles to become a singer, and then an opera singer, and his first marriage.  He demonstrated his singing ability early in his youth, but his family wanted him to be a lawyer.  He did obtain his law degree and was a court appointed attorney.  During that period of his life he maintained his involvement in music by playing piano and singing in bars.

You can view below the trailer for the movie on YouTube:

I especially liked the portrayal in the movie of Bocelli’s path from being a singer with a beautiful voice to becoming an opera singer with a beautiful voice.  Success in opera is not easily won.  The scenes with the maestro, his voice teacher in the movie, played by Antonio Banderas, are for me the heart of this movie.  One gets a more visceral understanding of the commitment and discipline required to sing opera.  The maestro explains to Bocelli the term “the music of silence”.  Banderas gives what I thought was an Oscar worthy portrayal; it took me several minutes to recognize that it was he in the role. 

Mr. Bocelli has appeared in ten opera productions; this aspect of his career is not explored in the movie.  His commercial success has come largely through his concerts and recording career.  His big break came when Pavarotti heard a tape of his and helped promote his career.  A major part of Andrea Bocelli’s career has been crossing over singing pop music songs, especially duets with pop stars such as Celine Dion and Jennifer Lopez, up to present day.  Most recently his duet with current pop star, Ed Sheehan has received a lot of play, below from YouTube:

“The Music of Silence” was not popular with critics or audiences in the U.S., though I don’t think it was highly promoted here.  I am unable to find that the Washington Post even reviewed it; the NY Times published a brief review. I'm glad I didn't see the reviews ahead of time because I enjoyed the movie, in no small measure because of my interest in opera, but I found it touching and inspirational as a movie in many regards.  What’s wrong with a beautiful, sentimental, inspirational movie every now and then.  Think of it as a Hallmark Christmas movie for opera fans and others who would like to know more about Bocelli.  Who knows?   He published a book in 1999, made a movie in 2017.  Might an opera be next?  Nah, but a Broadway musical?  Now that’s a real possibility.

Wolf Trap Opera’s Idomeneo: The Only Italian Poet in Salzburg

 Logo courtesy of Wolf Trap Opera

Logo courtesy of Wolf Trap Opera

What happens when you pair a composer arriving at greatness with the only Italian poet working in Salzburg during the emergence of the Enlightenment: Idomeneo.  In an excellent pre-opera talk Friday night, Wolf Trap Vice President for Opera and Classical Programming, Kim Witman told us that Giambattista Varesco was selected to write the libretto for Idomeneo because Wolfgang Mozart had a commission to write an opera for an important court event, and Mr. Varesco was the only Italian poet in Salzburg at the time.  Mozart struggled with Varesco in revising the libretto, eventually publishing it in two forms, Mr. Varesco’s original and Mozart’s revision, which was used for the opera.  Despite that struggle and despite having to write arias for contentious singers, Mozart at age 24 managed to make Idomeneo his first operatic masterpiece.  Fortunately, the gods intervened and provided him with librettist Lorenzo da Ponte just a few years later, a collaboration that produced his most popular operas (The Marriage of Figaro, Don Giovanni, and Cosi fan tutte); if only da Ponte had been available in 1781. 

Ian Koziara as King Idomeneo, then Megan Mikhailovna Samarin as Idamante and Madison Leonard as Princess Ilia. Photos by Scott Suchman; courtesy of Wolf Trap Opera.

It is music not words by which Idomeneo is elevated to greatness.  Mozart’s music and arias, and in breaking from the opera seria tradition, a number of ensemble pieces, which no one does better than Mozart, are rated among his best by professional opera critics and musicologists.  Idomeneo is a transitional opera with the themes of the eighteenth century's Enlightenment - love, freedom and the rule of reason - overtaking the rules of duty to the monarchy and religion.  However, a traditional subject for the plot was required, as was a happy ending, and a sacrifice drama based on Greek legend was chosen.  King Idomeneo of Crete returning from fighting in the Trojan War is threatened by a storm at sea; he vows to Neptune that he will make a sacrifice of the first person he encounters in his homeland if his life is spared.  After washing ashore, his son Idamante is the first person he sees.  The plot is further infused with unrelenting tension because his son has fallen in love with Princess Ilia who was captured in the war and has strong feelings against Idomeneo, and Greek Princess Elletra (known more commonly as Electra) has arrived in Crete, now exiled from her homeland for her role in the killing of her mother Clytemnestra, and she has also fallen in love with Idamante and resents his love for Ilia.  These conflicts drive the plot: man against god, love versus duty, and the turmoil of spurned love. 

left photo: Madison Leonard as Princess Ilia, Ian Koziara as King Idomeneo, and Cory McGee as A Voice. right photo: Megan Mikhailovna Samarin as Idamante, Ian Koziara as King Idomeneo, and Yelena Dyachek as Elettra. Photos by Scott Suchman; courtesy of Wolf Trap Opera.

While the appeal of Idomeneo is primarily Mozart’s music and arias, the appeal of WTO’s production is the singing of its highly talented Filene and Studio Artists.  Each of the major players, Madison Leonard as Ilia, Megan Mikhailovna Samarin in a pants role as Idamante, Yelena Dyachek as Elettra, and Ian Koziara as Idomeneo stood out.  Ms. Leonard has a pretty soprano voice and plays her role with convincing tenderness and internal struggle.  The transformation of Ms. Samarin, a talented mezzo-soprano, into a young man was remarkable and entirely believable; I thought her voice and acting fit the role beautifully.  These players I have heard before.  New to me was Ms. Dyachek and immediately I was struck by the power of her voice which ranged  in tone from edgy to lovely, though I thought her costume and portrayal of Elletra at times seemed more evil witch than a woman driven to madness.  Finally, Mr. Koziara, with a beautiful, enjoyable tenor notable in his first vocal phrase, has already arrived; he gave a strong performance as the tormented King, a man divided against himself, and could as easily command the stage at the Kennedy Center as The Barns.  The minor players, Duke Kim as Arbace, Senhica Klee as High Priest, and Cory McGee as The Voice were all excellent.  I thought the orchestra played beautifully and the chorus (the Studio Artists playing Trojan and Crete men and women) provided a strong complement to the soloists in bringing Mozart’s music to life. 

IDOMENEO_0195.JPG

Megan Mikhailovna as Idamante, Madison Leonard as Princess Ilia, and Ian Koziara as King Idomeneo. Photo by Scott Suchman; courtesy of Wolf Trap Opera.

For me, my emotional involvement in the story never rose very high, try as I might.  Mostly I place this on Mr. Varesco's head, not WTO's.  Director Omer Ben Seadia sought to emphasize the impact of war on individuals and what they would sacrifice when called on.  The men and women of Crete and Troy played by the Studio Artists looked very down trodden, and I was touched by Idamante’s character, his selfless devotion to his father in spite of their long separation.  However, my grasp on empathy for a man willing to sacrifice another life for his own was very thin and the role of Elettra in the drama seemed very strained and was left unresolved; she does, however, have some great arias.  I suppose my response is odd in a way since I had no problem with the story of Abraham and Isaac or the opera Turandot, both involving human sacrifice; perhaps it is Neptune I have trouble taking seriously and he should play a larger presence in the story.  The set for Idomeneo was minimal, grey walls with doors on either side and a large window in the rear, with flat stones arrayed on the stage that were moved around to provide platforms.  Not much is needed, but this minimalism left the story to fend for itself, and I thought the story was problematic.  The time period of the drama was moved forward from ancient Greece to some unspecified future period; the costumes gave little hint of period or roles.  In one scene, Idomeneo lights up a modern looking cigarette as he bemoans his fate, which for me made a human sacrifice drama even harder to accept.  I should admit my own prejudice against modernizing traditional operas without special inventiveness and a compelling rationale for doing so, which I didn’t find here.  Two aspects of the staging that I thought were quite successful were use of the country people played with enthusiasm by WTO’s Studio Artists and especially the use of a character roaming about in silence linking Ilia to her dead father and the war and who sang the role of A Voice at the end; this invention was very effectively employed. 

For this opera fan, the drama and staging did not often enough rise above academic interest that I associate with Greek tragedy, despite the emotions conveyed by the young singers.  In fact, it strikes me that Idomeneo might make an excellent concert opera.  Viewed on that level, however, the performances of the young singers and hearing great Mozart music make for a highly entertaining evening well worth your time, especially if you haven’t heard Idomeneo before.  And there is a happy ending, at least for everyone except Elettra.

The Fan Experience: Additional performances of Idomeneo will take place on Wednesday, June 27, and Saturday, June 30.  WTO’s Idomeneo is quite popular and good seats are available but limited.  Ticket prices vary by both seating section and date; they range from $36-$80; the cheapest seats have partially obstructed view.  The free pre-opera lecture an hour before the performances is highly recommended, especially as an aid to understanding this libretto.  The Barns offers food and drink and you can take your drinks to your seat.  For many opera venues you will face traffic woes near the theater, expensive parking, and backups to exit the theater parking decks after the performance.  Not so with The Barns; this is as stress free as it gets unless you can afford a limo and a driver.

 

 

Pittsburgh Festival Opera 2018: 17 Days of Mission Inspired Creativity

 Logo courtesy of Pittsburgh Festival Opera

Logo courtesy of Pittsburgh Festival Opera

From July 6 to July 22, Pittsburgh Festival Opera will fill the region’s opera table with three classic operas, a children’s opera, lectures, recitals, concerts, and parties.  There will be 37 presentations/performances in all, with literally something for everyone.   There will also be a preview event titled Opera in Bloom on Saturday, June 23 that will feature many of the opera performers singing arias and songs from the upcoming productions.  These will not be the standard versions of the operas to be performed; rather, they are arranged to be more accessible to American audiences; where else can you hear Wagner sung in English.  More on that later, but what better time to try something new or at least embodying a new approach than the summer; after all, this is a festival.  If you are an opera fan or just curious, you should be getting excited, and if out of town, consider Pittsburgh for an opera vacation.

Schedule for staged operas:

July 6, 8, 12. 14, 19 - La Boheme Warhola by Giacomo Puccini, Falk Auditorium

July 7, 14, 21 - Goldie B. Locks and the Three Singing Bears by John Davies with music by Mozart and Offenbach (a children’s opera), Hilda Willis Room

July 13, 15, 21 – Rhinegold by Richard Wagner, Falk Auditorium

July 20, 22 – Arabella by Richard Strauss, Falk Auditorium

The Parous preview of the PFO season provides an excellent overview of these productions and I recommend it to you.  Additional information can be found on the PFO’s extensive website; click on the What’s On tab and then select the event of interest.  I will make a few comments about the nature of these productions and how they fit with the mission of Pittsburgh Festival Opera.

 Jonathon Tetelman as Rudolph and Jessica Sandidge as Mimi in  La Boheme Warhola . Courtesy of Pittsburgh Festival Opera.

Jonathon Tetelman as Rudolph and Jessica Sandidge as Mimi in La Boheme Warhola. Courtesy of Pittsburgh Festival Opera.

When you saw the first opera in the list, I bet you paused – what is “Warhola” doing in the title?  Suppose I also told you that the setting will be the New York art scene of the sixties as inspired by the art of Andy Warhol and that it will be a new arrangement and the opera will be sung in English?  And that there is also a connection to Pittsburgh which has the Andy Warhol Museum.  What is going on, you say? Mission inspired opera, that’s what.  Pittsburgh Festival Opera wants to bring new American productions and updates of classic works using innovative methods to increase the audience for opera in all demographic categories; for example, the Goldie Locks opera for kids. Voila, PFO productions will not be of the traditional variety.  They will be known works, but shortened, and they will be sung in our native tongue, English.  They will also be presented in smaller venues that place the singers and the audience in close proximity, which PFO terms “intimate opera theater”, which I feel adds to the excitement and enjoyment.

Kenneth Shaw as Wotan; Hanna Brammer, Kathleen Shelton, and Emily Hopkins as Rhinemaidens in Rhinegold. Courtesy of Pittsburgh Festival Opera.

One of PFO’s goals made explicit last year was to bring back Richard Wagner’s Ring Cycle to Pittsburgh.  Making good on that commitment, this summer’s program features Rhinegold, the first entry in the Ring in a version shortened to 2 hours with reduced orchestration which will be sung in English.  I attended Washington National Opera’s Ring Cycle a couple of years ago and loved every minute of the 18 hours it required, but that was after dauntingly having prepared myself to take on Wagner.  The PFO version of Rhinegold might be a good way to give him a try; it is highly likely you will be hooked.  PFO states the remaining three Ring operas will be produced over the next three years: The Valkyrie in 2019, Siegfried in 2020, and all four, adding The Twilight of the Gods in 2021, which will require ten hours viewing time in all.

 Katie Manukyan as Zdenka and Melinda Whittington as Arabella in  Arabella . Courtesy of Pittsburgh Festival Opera.

Katie Manukyan as Zdenka and Melinda Whittington as Arabella in Arabella. Courtesy of Pittsburgh Festival Opera.

Arabella is the final staged opera of the Festival and continues the PFO tradition of staging one of Richard Strauss’ less often performed masterpieces.  Arabella with libretto by Hugo von Hofmannsthal is said to be the most romantic Strauss opera, involving love at first sight, a family ploy presenting one daughter as a boy, and a comedy of mistaken identity.  It will also be sung in English, but otherwise follows the original.  And there will be waltzes.

Pittsburgh Festival Opera wants to make it easier for you to get to know the beauty of opera.  Looking at the leadership and creativity being shown by Pittsburgh Festival Opera, Pittsburgh Opera, and Opera Philadelphia, I get the feeling that the rebirth of opera is beginning, centered in Pennsylvania.

The Fan Experience: The best overview of the Festival and its many events can be gained by viewing the PFO performance calendar at this linkTicket prices are set at modest levels to encourage as wide an audience participation as possible, starting as low as $5 to as high as $65.  Package discounts are available and a student discount of 50% from full price is offered.  The performances include projected titles in English as well as being sung in English.  I have made opera trips to Pittsburgh a couple of times now and it scores high with accommodations in all price levels, excellent restaurants, and many tourist attractions as well as an extraordinary geographical setting. 

 

Critics List: Susan Galbraith, DC Theatre Scene

OperaGene’s list of recommended opera critics in the mid-Atlantic region is found by clicking the Opera Info page link and then the Critics link.  In January, OperaGene began an annual review of opera critics in the mid-Atlantic region in which I referred to professional critics as “Knights of the Opera Table”.  Susan Galbraith who writes for DC Theatre Scene has now been added to the list.

Ms. Galbraith holds a B.A. degree in English and Drama from Tufts University and a Masters in Fine Arts from the University of Minnesota.  She has extensive experience in professional theater, including directing and writing, with a particular emphasis in music-theater.  She worked as an actress at the Boston Shakespeare Company under Artistic Director Peter Sellars.  Another entry on her CV that caught my eye was that she once worked with Prince on writing songs.  The earliest DC Theatre Scene opera review I located for her was I Pagliacci in January 2011.  

I now routinely seek out Ms. Galbraith’s reviews of DC area opera productions; they are knowledgeable and detailed.  For example, in her recent review of Washington National Opera’s Candide, her insights into how WNO’s production was modified from earlier versions were especially detailed.  As another example, I thought her analysis of Missy Mazzoli’s music in WNO’s premiere of Proving Up was especially illuminating.  However, I find her reviews to offer less professional criticism than I might prefer; perhaps her extensive background in theater makes her more appreciative of what the directors and performers put into their performances and less critical of the results.  Thus, I read her reviews more for color and background than criticism.  Nonetheless, I typically learn something about opera and the performances by reading her reviews.  if you add Ms. Galbraith’s reviews to your reading list, you will achieve a more in depth and fleshed out impression of the performances. 

 

Wolf Trap Opera’s Summer of 2018: Making Opera Fun Returns May 31

Wolf Trap Opera comes to life in June each year when most opera companies have just closed up shop for the season.  And this year again, WTO will not only be turning on the fun factory at The Barns, their Filene/Studio Artists will be on display at several venues across the DC area.  During June, July, and August, they will bring Mozart and Gounod to The Barns, Verdi to the Filene Center, Weill to Dock 5 at Union Market, and participate in numerous concerts and recitals around town.  The Wolf Trap family players will be involved in thirteen events in all by my count, beginning on May 31 with a recital with Steven Blier and guest Filene Artists called the “Art of Pleasure” and continuing through August 3 with a new production of Verdi’s marvelous, Rigoletto, at the Filene Center, supported by the also marvelous National Symphony Orchestra.  If you are still deciding on the timing for your summer vacation, check the WTO calendar first.   

While we reap the benefit of their efforts at the beginning of each summer, WTO director, Kim Witman and the WTO staff will have been at work since the end of the previous season, with months of auditioning singers across the country, making opera selections based on the talent that has been recruited, and initiating rehearsals, as well as the myriad other activities that are required to produce opera.  And while I stand by my oft made claim that Wolf Trap Opera makes opera fun, they are also quite serious about opera as art and the development of the next generation of opera professionals. This year’s class of twenty Filene Artists, including nine returnees, are emerging artists, but already accomplished singers, given emphasis by the fact that this year WTO decided to change the name from Filene Young Artists to just Filene Artists.  Their crew also includes 18 Studio Artists, somewhat more junior as yet on the development scale, and five Fellows receiving training in directing and coaching.      

OPERA PRODUCTIONS: The three fully-staged opera productions are classics and musts for opera fans, but my personal not-to-be-missed WTO offering is “Aria Jukebox”, but more on that later.  Right now, here is the operas list:

June 22, 24, 27, 30 (The Barns) - Idomeneo by composer Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and librettist Giambattista Varesco

July 15, 17, 19, and 21 (The Barns) - Romeo Et Juliette by composer Charles Gounod and librettists Jules Barbier and Michel Carre

August 3 (Filene Center) - Rigoletto by composer Giuseppe Verde and librettist Francesco Maria Piave

Idomeneo (1781) was composed by Mozart when he was 24 years old and is his earliest opera to be performed with any regularity today, though not that frequently.  King Idomeneo is washed upon his native shore after being shipwrecked and having promised Neptune that he would sacrifice the first living thing he sees upon arrival in Crete if his life is spared; his first live sighting is of his son Idamante.  The tension is also carried along by a love triangle between Idamante, Ilia, and Elektra; it helps to know a little Greek mythology.  Probably because of its formal style and a somewhat stiff libretto, Idomeneo is not as often performed as Mozart’s more popular operas, but this lack of more frequent productions is often lamented by critics who credit the opera as having some of Mozart's greatest music and arias.  Check it out for yourself; personally, I am excited to have a chance to see this one in the DC area.  Next, WTO will put forward a new production of Gounod’s popular Romeo et Juliette that it promises to make “fresh for modern audiences”.  You know the story and no question Gounod’s music is beautiful; it includes the famous aria, “Je veux vivre“.  As usual, the season wrap up is a grand opera performed at the Filene Center with the National Symphony Orchestra with an intent of exposing a wider audience to grand opera.  This year, Verdi’s Rigoletto is on tap; for the first few year’s after I became interested in opera, this was my favorite opera.  It contains music you will love and arias you will likely recognize as a court jester tries to protect his young daughter from the lecherous Duke.  

While that is a respectable summer season for a small opera company, WTO is doing much more: Concerts and Recitals, WTO Untrapped, and even throwing in a Master Class on July 21 with opera star and former Filene Young Artist Christine Goerke.  WTO Untrapped is simply getting their emerging opera stars out of Wolf Trap and into the surrounding communities.  If you can’t come to opera, perhaps opera will come to you.

CONCERTS AND RECITALS: Here is the list:

May 31, June 1 - “The Art of Pleasure” - Opera star and WTO alumnus Steven Blier teams with WTO Filene Artists, tenor Piotr Buszewski, baritone Johnathan McCullough, mezzo-soprano Zoie Reams, and WTO Studio Artist soprano Laura Corina Sanders to perform pleasurable songs that “heal listeners with calmness, courage, and a sense of connection.”  I only know of one song on the list, that by way of WTO’s opera blog, which is the Kink’s “Lola”. Huh?  WTO makes opera fun.

July 14 - “Beethoven’s Ninth” - National Symphony Orchestra with WTO Filene Artists soprano Yelena Dyachek, baritone Thomas Glass, mezzo-soprano Zoie Reams, and tenor Richard Trey Smaug’s take on a symphony that includes singing.  Oh “Ode to Joy”!

July 22 - “Aria Jukebox” - Don’t even think about this one; just buy your tickets now.  It’s a party where you enjoy treats and beverages, talk to the Filene Artists and vote on which arias you want them to sing, then advance to The Barns where you will hear each singer perform their aria that got the most votes.  You will not have more opera fun than this.

July 28 - “Wagner’s Ring” - WTO alumni soprano Christine Goerke, tenor Simon O’Neill, bass-baritone Alan Held, and bass-baritone Eric Owens will perform aria highlights from Richard Wagner’s Ring Cycle.  These  opera stars are known for performing Wagner.

UNTRAPPED - This is a WTO play on words - they call all operas, concerts, and recitals their performers do off the Wolf Trap campus this, implying becoming un-Wolf Trapped.  By partnering with other local organizations, they are reaching out to bring excellent opera experiences to a broader audience in the DC area.  Are you listening Washington National Opera?

June 2 - “Pops Extravaganza: Bernstein at 100” - A joint Festival program with the National Orchestral Institute, part of the Clarice Center for the Performing Arts at the University of Maryland.  The featured performers will include WTO Studio Artists soprano Ester Tonea, mezzo-soprano Nicole Thomas, tenor Ricardo Garcia, and baritone De’Ron McDaniel with John Morris Russell conducting

June 16 - NOI+Festival and WTO plot once more (yes, there was collusion) to perform a program of American composers that also continues the Bernstein celebration, titled “Copeland, Gershwin, and Bernstein”.  With WTO Orchestra’s James Judd conducting, the program will include Copeland’s “An Outdoor Adventure”, Gershwin’s “An American in Paris”, and Bernstein’s “Songfest’.  The latter will include performances by WTO Filene Artists baritone Joshua Conyers, bass Patrick Guetti, tenor Alexander McKissick, mezzo-soprano Taylor Raven, mezzo-soprano Zoie Reams, and soprano Vanessa Vasquez.

June 23, 24 - “The Seven Deadly Sins” by Kurt Weill will be performed by WTO as part of the Halcyon By the People Festival at Dock 5 at Union Market in DC.  The performances last year at Halcyon by WTO were sell outs, so be warned.  This ballet chante with the songs by opera singers and a Hitchcockian plot is an unusual mix that has become very popular.  Contrasting sisters Anna I, a singer, and Anna II, a dancer, set out in America to seek their fortunes and sin along the way, just a few times, maybe seven.  The musical style is the jazzy, cabaret rhythms and melodies of prewar Germany.

June 28, July 19 - With “Vocal Colors” to be performed at The Philips Collection in DC, we get art reinforced by art in a classy setting.  Songs on June 28 will be performed by soprano Mane Galoyan, baritone Thomas Glass, and bass Patrick Guetti with Nathan Ruskin accompanying on the piano.  On July 19, the performers will be soprano Madison Leonard, mezzo-soprano Megan Mikailovna Samarin, tenor Ian Koziara, and pianist Joseph Li.   

No, we are not quite finished.

EDUCATION AND OUTREACH - WTO has two activities in these catagories, one for kids and one for opera singers (but open to the public).

July 20, 21 - “Listen, Wilhelmina!” is an interactive mini-musical for kids performed at Wolf Trap’s Theatre-in-the-Woods, meant to introduce kids to a fun concert experience.

July 21 - “Master Class with Christine Goerke”: the 1995 WTO Filene Young Artist, current WTO Artist-in-Residence, and current opera superstar will work with WTO’s young artists to improve their skills.  However, this class is open to the public; so if you want to learn more about just how opera singing is done, or just see Ms. Goerke in person, attend and give it a listen!

Sometimes you just know there is a good thing going on that deserves to be supported.  Wolf Trap Opera and its emerging artists are one such thing.

The Fan Experience: Wolf Trap has a program I have not noticed before and am excited about, called Young at Arts.  For selected performances this summer, adults who purchase a ticket can receive a youth ticket for free that allows them to bring someone with them who is 17 or under.  What a great way to introduce your youngsters and teens to concerts, especially opera.  Two of the eligible preformances are "The Best of Wagner's Ring" on July 28 and Rigoletto on August 3.   Check the details and a link to obtain tickets here.

Idomeneo and Romeo et Juliette will both be performed in The Barns, which deserves mention for its atmosphere and accessibility.  Indeed, I find it to be a significant factor in WTO’s making opera fun.  Opera in The Barns has a dinner theater vibe; there is good food and drinks available in a separate room and you can take your drinks to your seat in the auditorium, which is indeed rustic and barn-like on the inside.  You won’t find many suits and ties in The Barns, but you will find an enthusiastic crowd ready to enjoy an evening’s entertainment.  It’s relatively small and cozy, putting the audience and singers in close proximity, a great way to experience opera singing.  Another great thing about The Barns is the easy in/easy out (free) parking.  Going to the opera could hardly be less stressful.

 

Washington National Opera’s Candide: Excellent Broadway Comes to the Kennedy Center

So, get this: Leonard Bernstein and one of his lyricists, so many of them for this show, use his…uh…what shall we call it…opera? operetta? singspiel? musical? Oh, never mind; in Candide, they rhyme bottle with Aristotle.  That could be the best of all possible blog reports right there, except I also want to discuss the singing and stuff.  I have written a few poems for my own enjoyment over the years, and I never thought of using bottle and Aristotle, either to rhyme or as belonging in the same refrain, but then Bernstein and his cronies were a clever group; they not only used bottle but then filled it with bourbon.  Throughout, Candide makes excellent use of juxtaposing the commonplace with philosophy and history for comedic effect, and then adding acting, singing, dancing, sets, costumes, lighting, etc. to produce a bit of a pill, but also a rather good opera, operetta, singspiel, or musical and a splendid night’s entertainment, and a rather charming ode to Mr. Bernstein for his centennial celebration ongoing this year at the Kennedy Center. 

  The   frontispiece   of the 1759 edition published by   Sirène   in Paris, which reads, "  Candide  , or Optimism, translated from the German of Dr. Ralph." Copied from  Wikipedia , in public domain.

The frontispiece of the 1759 edition published by Sirène in Paris, which reads, "Candide, or Optimism, translated from the German of Dr. Ralph." Copied from Wikipedia, in public domain.

Candide is of course based on Voltaire’s very popular classic novella know by the same name ( formally titled "Candide, ou L'Optimisme" (1759)).  Bernstein’s score and the libretto has undergone multiple revisions since its premiere in 1956, both by his hands and many collaborators.  Here is how the Kennedy Center program gives credit: Music by Leonard Bernstein/Book Adapted from Voltaire by Hugh Wheeler/ in a New Version by John Caird/Lyrics by Richard Wilbur with Additional Lyrics by/Stephen Sondheim, John La Touche, Lillian Hellman, Dorothy Parker, and Leonard Bernstein.  I don’t know who should get credit for bottle and Aristotle.  Candide has appeared in many opera house but not the Met.  The whole thing has the feel of a very good Broadway show, though more accurately, this version is a Glimmerglass show.  It was put together for the Glimmerglass Festival in 2015 by WNO’s Artistic Director, Francesca Zambello, who also directs this production; kudos to her and thanks for bringing it to DC.

Candide is the main character in the story (just can’t bring myself to use the word eponymous).  He is a disciple of Dr. Pangloss (Voltaire’s satire of his contemporary, mathematician and philospher Gottfried Wilhelm Liebniz) who champions optimism and believes this is the best of all possible worlds.  Candide falls in love with Cunegonde and spends most of the operetta trying to reunite with her across the old and new worlds of the eighteenth century.  His journey exposes him to just about all the world’s hardships and evils, and his final disillusionment is delivered by Cunegonde herself.  We are given a semi-happy ending, but you may want to have your own bottle of consolation waiting at home; Aristotle won’t be much help.

 Dr. Pangloss (Wynn Harmon) teaches optimism to Maximillian (Edward Nelson), Candide (Alek Shrader), Cunegonde (Emily Pogorelc), and Paquette (Eliza Bonet). Photo by Scott Suchman; courtesy of Washington National Opera.

Dr. Pangloss (Wynn Harmon) teaches optimism to Maximillian (Edward Nelson), Candide (Alek Shrader), Cunegonde (Emily Pogorelc), and Paquette (Eliza Bonet). Photo by Scott Suchman; courtesy of Washington National Opera.

Candide has an excellent cast.  Tenor Alek Shrader’s beautiful voice keeps the entire production from ever sinking below the enjoyable level, though the production flags a bit in the middle.  Colortura soprano Emily Pogorelc delivered the show stopping aria “Glitter and Be Gay” with both panache and feminine power; the audience erupted with applause and from there the train regained its momentum.  Baritone Wynn Harmon anchored the production as both Voltaire and Pangloss, narrating the story the entire evening.  I think a couple of hours of narration weakened his voice for an aria late in the game.  Nonetheless, his palpable confidence and control in playing to the audience was very winning for himself and the performance as a whole.  There are a host of other players who deserve mention for their contributions, perhaps first with Denyce Graves who plays The Old Lady with winning appeal, as does Edward Nelson as Maxmillian, Frederick Ballantine as Cacambo, Matthew Scollin as James/Martin, Eliza Bonet as Paquette, Alexander McKissick as the Grand Inquisitor/Governor, and Keriann Otano as the Baroness/Vanderdendur.

 Emily Pogorelc as Cunegonda and Alek Shrader as Candide. Photo by Scott Suchman; courtesy of Washington National Opera.

Emily Pogorelc as Cunegonda and Alek Shrader as Candide. Photo by Scott Suchman; courtesy of Washington National Opera.

The staging is crucial to both the telling and the appeal of the story and here the production excels.  The set is simple, a stage frame with props brought in as needed.  The key and a highly successful element is the use of a group of players titled as soloists who were dressed mainly in simple, white eighteenth century undergarment costumes and who without speaking performed as our most excellent servers for the evening, adding vocals, background, context, and humor – even serving as animals when needed.  Like Mr. Shrader’s voice, they sustained our interest and amusement.  Kudos to all: Andrea Beasom, Tom Berklund, Jaely Chamberlain, Andrew Harper, Katherine Henley, Michael Hewitt, Nicholas Houhoulis, Jarrod Lee, Danny Lindgren, Alison Mixon, Ameerah Sabreen, Louisa Morrison Waycott.  The dance and movements of over twenty performers around the stage were excellently choreographed by Eric Sean Fogel.  The Washington Opera Chorus also contributed to the operetta's impact, especially in the ensemble numbers "Auto da fe", "Easily Assimilated", and "El Dorado"; kudos to Chorus Master Steven Gathman.

left: Emily Pogorelc as Cunegonde, Denyce Graves as The Old Lady, and Alek Shrader as Candide. right: Alek Shrader as Candide and Frederick Ballentine as Cacambo visit El Dorado. Photos by Scott Suchman; courtesy of Washington National Opera.

Leonard Bernstein’s music for Candide is well worth a listen and Conductor Nicole Paiement and the Washington National Opera Orchestra performed it with energy and enthusiasm that buoyed the performance.  I will always love Bernstein for West Side Story, and while Candide doesn’t reach that level, it adds to my appreciation for him.

 Cast of WNO's Candide. Photo by Scott Suchman; courtesy of Washington National Opera.

Cast of WNO's Candide. Photo by Scott Suchman; courtesy of Washington National Opera.

In the end, after Candide and we have been disillusioned by the world and his own true love Cunegonde, he and we need emotional rescue.  We are only offered a raft to move forward with.  It feels like we have been through the stages of grief and arrived at acceptance as our raft, though we hopefully have years to go and miles to sail the raft, doing what we can to add value and meaning to our lives.  The closing refrain goes

“We're neither pure, nor wise, nor good

We'll do the best we know.”

And if while we row, we can rhyme bottle with Aristotle, we can make it through, especially if the bottle is filled with bourbon.

The Fan Experience: Candide has eight more performances: May 9, 12, 14, 18, 20, 22, 24, and 26.

For the first time, I took the subway to see a WNO production.  I picked up the Silver Line at Tyson’s Corner and when exiting at Foggy Bottom I spotted the red Kennedy Center shuttle buses directly ahead on 23rd street, couldn’t be easier.  The shuttles run every fifteen minutes and my guess is there is always one waiting.  The shuttle dropped us at the Hall of Nations entrance.  I had a ride home and didn’t take the subway home, but I suspect there might be a waiting line to get on the return shuttles.  My trip down took about an hour overall door to door.  It was definitely less stressful than driving.

 

 

Washington National Opera’s The Barber of Seville: Is It Too Funny?

There was every reason in the world to like Wednesday night’s performance (May 2) of Washington National Opera’s The Barber of Seville.  In fact, I can heap praise on this production.  It had some of Rossini’s most popular music, a great cast, great singing, traditional staging with costumes and sets that are a pleasure to behold, and comedy galore.  Of three reviews I’ve seen (see sidebar), all have praised it.  So, maybe before going further you should read Charles Downey’s professional review; it is insightful, balanced, well-written, and covers all the major points knowledgeably.  If, however, you’d like to know what the Grinch thinks, read on.

There are two significant factors that restrained my enjoyment, one a personal preference and one I ascribe to the performance.  First, I was not really excited about seeing The Barber of Seville once more.  It is a great opera and every opera fan should see it at least once; most will want to see it more than once.  However, I have reached a point in my opera journey where I look forward more to attending less often performed operas, rediscovered masterpieces, new works, or just something I haven’t seen before.  I will say, however, that Saul Lilienstein did pump me up somewhat.  His pre-opera talk was excellent; he discussed The Barber of Seville as a grandchild of the Commedia dell’Arte, the early theater of Italy and many of whose principal characters are represented in The Barber, including Figaro in the Harlequin role, Rosina in the Columbina role, and Dr. Bartolo in the Pantolone role.  His presentation did heighten my interest and provided me with a wonderful new perspective on the comedic beginnings of The Barber.

 Figaro (Andrey Zhilikhovsky), Almaviva (Taylor Stayton), and Rosina (Isabel Leonard). Photo by Scott Suchman; courtesy of Washington National Opera.

Figaro (Andrey Zhilikhovsky), Almaviva (Taylor Stayton), and Rosina (Isabel Leonard). Photo by Scott Suchman; courtesy of Washington National Opera.

Director Peter Kazaras' unrelenting slapstick comedy, however, got piled a little too high for me (sorry, Harlequin)  You have to get in the spirit and ride the wave of that sort of thing, and I never did.  You might think that saying The Barber has too much humor is like saying that a person is too beautiful, but think about it this way: if you like tea, maybe a spoonful or two of sugar will make it more enjoyable, but what about four or five or ten spoonfuls of sugar; at some point the sugar is out of balance and starts to detract from everything else.  And for Barber, Mr. Kazaras had almost three hours to add sugar.  The characters are supposed to be funny, but not only funny; what about tenderness, passion, sympathy, etc.?  I want to develop feelings for each of the characters.  What about other elements – anticipation, intrigue, suspense – sacrificed here to slapstick?  Is there a directing term equivalent to mezza voce?  I think getting the right amount of comedy should be the goal, not how much can be packed in, even for The Barber of Seville

 Dr. Bartolo (Paolo Bordogna), Ambrogio (Matthew Pauli), Rosina (Isabel Leonard), and Almavira (Taylor Stayton). Photo by Scott Suchman; courtesy of Washington National Opera.

Dr. Bartolo (Paolo Bordogna), Ambrogio (Matthew Pauli), Rosina (Isabel Leonard), and Almavira (Taylor Stayton). Photo by Scott Suchman; courtesy of Washington National Opera.

If you don’t know the story of The Barber of Seville in Italian by composer Giachino Rossini and librettist Cesare Sterbini - Figaro, a barber/fixer and arranger of all things in eighteenth century Spain undertakes helping Count Almavira secure the hand of Rosina, the ward of Dr. Bartolo who plans to marry Rosina himself.  Bartolo is assisted by the effete music teacher Don Basilio.  Disguises and plots abound until our two young lovers are united with a happy ending for everyone except Dr. Bartolo.  Standard Commedia dell’Arte stuff, but throw in Rossini’s music and arias and you have great opera stuff.

 Ambrogio (Matthew Pauli), Don Basilio (Wei Wu), and Paolo Bordogna (Dr. Bartolo). Photo by Scott Suchman; courtesy of Washington National Opera.

Ambrogio (Matthew Pauli), Don Basilio (Wei Wu), and Paolo Bordogna (Dr. Bartolo). Photo by Scott Suchman; courtesy of Washington National Opera.

Some specific comments on my more positive responses to the performance:

First, let me give Mr. Kazaras some credit – much of the humor is funny.  Ploys such as having Figaro offer Almaviva a guitar, then open a door and bring out a woman playing a guitar is unexpected and genuinely funny.  With a little balance, I would gladly bow and applaud.

 A sample of the lighting, costumes, and choreography with soldiers, Figaro (Andrey Zhilikhovsky), Almaviva (Taylor Stayton), and Rosina (Isabel Leonard). Photo by Scott Suchman; courtesy of Washington National Opera.

A sample of the lighting, costumes, and choreography with soldiers, Figaro (Andrey Zhilikhovsky), Almaviva (Taylor Stayton), and Rosina (Isabel Leonard). Photo by Scott Suchman; courtesy of Washington National Opera.

I also give credit to the set and costume designers Allen Moyer and James Scott (sadly, now deceased).  The costumes and sets were lovely and conveyed the setting, time-period, and light-hearted mood of the story perfectly.  Mark McCollough’s lighting was effective and Rosa Mercedes met the challenge of arranging choreography for such an action-filled play that sometimes had the stage filled with players.

Mezzo-soprano Isabel Leonard plays Rosina and is a delight every moment she is on stage.  I heard her sing in Cold Mountain a few years ago and was impressed.  I think she sounds even better now and she showed a sparkling comedic touch.  She reminded me of what I felt when Susan Graham walked onto the stage in WNO’s Dead Man Walking - Professionalism and quality singing at that level makes it easier to relax and enjoy the show; you know you are in good hands.

Newcomer baritone Andrey Zhilikhovsky made a fine Figaro as advertised, charming, funny, and possessing a pleasing and forceful voice.  However, his ingratiating swagger and comedic smarter than thou attitude gets masked after the first few scenes, lost in the helter-skelter mugging and running about to spin the comedy.

The other singers in the cast are uniformly excellent.  Tenor Taylor Stayton seemed perfectly cast as Lindoro/Alfonso/Almavira in his many disguises.  His voice timbre and singing reminded me a bit of Juan Diego Florez.  Bass Paolo Bordogna played Bartolo with relentless comic zeal, often quite funny, but which to some degree obscured what I think probably is a very nice voice.  Wei Wu playing Don Basilio put the opera world on notice that his booming beautiful bass voice and stage presence are forces to be reckoned with.  Even governess Berta played by Alexandria Shiner in her first season as a Domingo-Cafritz young artist got in a shiny aria for her efforts.  Baritone Christian Bowers who played Fiorello in the beginning scene garnered attention with his distinctive voice.

One character in a non-speaking role having a big effect was Matthew Pauli, who played the servant Ambrogio.  His character’s sole purpose is quite appropriately adding to the comedy in a silent movie style and he was extraordinarily effective.  In fact, I think his antics provided space not used to develop the other characters in a little more depth.  If any Marx brothers’ movies get remade, give him the role of Harpo.

I thought Conductor Emily Senturia and the orchestra gave a fine rendition of Rossini’s score whenever I could turn my attention to them which was infrequent given the almost non-stop action on the stage.  I can say that I went home humming several of Rossini’s melodies.  And kudos to Washington National Opera for allowing some refreshing diversity on the podium.

 WNO's The Barber of Seville Gay Finale. Photo by Scott Suchman; courtesy of Washington National Opera.

WNO's The Barber of Seville Gay Finale. Photo by Scott Suchman; courtesy of Washington National Opera.

I certainly don’t mean to discourage your attendance, especially if you’ve not seen The Barber of Seville before, but be prepared and jump on the humor train early.  I simply offer one opera fan’s perspective that I’ve not seen mentioned elsewhere.  Did Director Kazaras overdo the comedy or am I a sour pus Grinch?  You be the judge.  One of my opera neighbors at the performance would undoubtedly point the finger at me.  I heard him say leaving the performance, “Well, that certainly brightens up the week.”  God knows, we need that.

The Fan Experience: I left my driveway in Tyson’s Corner at 4:59 pm heading into rush hour traffic on Rte 123 and I-66 for the 12.5 mile trip.  I arrived at the Kennedy Center parking garage at 5:50 pm and sailed right into the parking deck, making it easily to the 6:15 pre-opera talk held in the Opera House, which I greatly recommend.  The KC Café (cafeteria) has undergone further changes to speed up flow through since my last trip – the salad and soup bar is now serve yourself, but the price is set and not determined by weight as far as I could tell.  And the machines are now used to dispense the wine.  For DC the prices are reasonable, if not modest.  In both the Hall of Nations and the Hall of States there are new art exhibits that looked pretty cool.

The Barber of Seville has five more performances on May 7, 11, 13, 17, and 19.  The cast for the May 17 performance only will be changed, with several of the major roles to be played by Domingo-Cafritz Young Artists.  Read the details at this link.

OperaDelaware’s Puccini Festival: Well Worth the Drive (120 miles)

Unexpected detours occur along the way when you are pursuing an interest.  I recently attended Baltimore Concert Opera’s twin bill of Giacomo Puccini’s Gianni Schicchi and Michael Ching’s comedic sequel Busoso’s Ghost, productions that were headed for full staging by OperaDelaware as part of its Puccini Festival 2018.  My decision to attend BCO’s performance had been made because my son and two of his friends in college had just watched a video of Schicchi and raved about what an under-appreciated comedy it is.  I didn’t know much about the opera except that it had one of operas most famous arias, “O mio babbino caro”.  My son’s interest piqued mine, and I offered to take him and his friends to see the BCO concert version.  They accepted and were particularly looking forward to seeing Ghost for the first time.  We all enjoyed the performances, and I wrote a blog report on our adventure.

 Setting the mood,  Il Tabarro , begins with Michele (Grant Youngblood) sitting atop his barge as the sun sets. Photos by Moonloop Photography; courtesy of OperaDelaware.

Setting the mood, Il Tabarro, begins with Michele (Grant Youngblood) sitting atop his barge as the sun sets. Photos by Moonloop Photography; courtesy of OperaDelaware.

The General Director of OperaDelaware, Brendan Cooke, read the blog report and sent me a gracious invitation to attend their staged version of Schicchi in Wilmington.  As it turned out, our schedules would not permit attending Schicchi, but my wife and I did make the 120-mile drive up for Saturday night’s (April 28) performances of Il Tabarro and Suor Angelica.  In researching Gianni Schicchi, I had also read about Il Tabarro and Suor Angelica.  All three were composed by Puccini under the heading of Il Trittico and were meant to be performed together.  I have sort of ignored Il Trittico in the past.  It is rarely performed as a unit these days, though the individual operas are occasionally performed as a coupling of two out of three, or singly coupled to another short opera.  I guessed Il Trittico wasn’t often performed because it was not one of Puccini’s better works.  Shame on me for doubting Puccini, but more on that later.  It turns out that Il Trittico is not often performed as a unit because the logistical problems are huge, making it a drain on any opera company’s resources – three sets of singers are employed with little overlap; separate stage sets for the same evening are required, and the audience must be willing to take on four hours of opera at one sitting, not readily embraced by today’s fans (sadly so – kid’s stuff, if you are a fan of Wagner’s).  OperaDelaware made the necessary compromise to break them up, but still gives us Puccini’s hat trick by doing so over two consecutive days, adding for interest Mr. Ching’s sequel paired with Schicchi.  So, the opportunity to see the remainder of Il Trittico, with my wife’s encouragement, made the trek up I-95 a go; my wife, who has an interest in architecture, especially looked forward to visiting Opera Delaware’s venue, the Grand Opera House - well named.  Now of course, I am so glad that I did not pass up this opportunity.

left: Eleni Calenos as Giorgetta and Grant Youngblood as Michele. right: Matthew Vickers as Luigi and Eleni Calenos as Giorgetta. Photos by Moonloop Photography; courtesy of OperaDelaware.

If you have hung with me this long, I won’t make you wait for the bottom line on these two members of Il Trittico – these operas as performed by OperaDelaware are excellent, small gems actually, with creative, immersive staging and wonderful singers and music; if you have not heard soprano Eleni Calenos before, head to your phone or computer and order your tickets now for the coming weekend’s performances. Having seen concert versions of Gianni Schicchi and Buoso's Ghost in Baltimore, I can recommend those productions as well, which also feature great Puccini music - and much happier outcomes.

 Michele (Grant Youngblood) forces Giorgetta (Eleni Calenos) to look at Luigi's corpse (Matthew Vickers). Photos by Moonloop Photography; courtesy of OperaDelaware.

Michele (Grant Youngblood) forces Giorgetta (Eleni Calenos) to look at Luigi's corpse (Matthew Vickers). Photos by Moonloop Photography; courtesy of OperaDelaware.

First up was Il Tabarro.  A barge owner, Michele, suspects correctly that his wife Giorgetta is secretly meeting with one of the stevedores, Luigi.  He catches them together on the barge at night and exacts his dreadful revenge.  Puccini and his librettist Giuseppe Adami and Il Tabarro’s director Crystal Manich present Michele, Giorgetta, and Luigi as complex characters, invoking our sympathey and caring for each before the shocking denouement.  There is no happy ending for this third of Il Trittico, but there is excellent acting, music, and singing.  Puccini is a great master and Conductor Anthony Barrese, also OperaDelaware's Music Director, and the orchestra gave good Puccini.  I thought that the music in Il Tabarro was more characterized by simple pairings of instruments to provide emotional color to the story, instead of Puccini’s sweeping string statements, although the story’s undercurrents were frequently moved along by the basses (a non-musician’s reading).  Ms. Manich chose to set the chorus off stage, which worked for the drama, but not surprisingly, made them sound more distant.

I seriously thought about beginning this blog report by gushing about Ms. Calenos, but restrained myself.  She had me at her first aria.  She has a lovely, strong soprano voice and sings and acts well, but the remarkable thing about her is a rare quality of her voice; it is a natural for conveying pathos, a little reminiscent of that special quality that Maria Callas possessed.  No wonder General Manager Cooke cast her in the lead role of Suor Angelica as well.  I think her voice is more dramatic than coloratura, but if she sang the Queen of the NIght, I'm sure I'd tell Pamina to do what her mother says.  I was initially not that impressed with the guys; baritone Grant Youngblood who played Michele and Matthew Vickers who played Luigi started softly, but both have strong, enjoyable voices and they soon warmed up, making a fan of me.  Mr. Youngblood was especially impressive in the role of Michele, conveying his sympathetic softer side and his fearful darker one, and Mr. Vickers stood out on several arias requiring impassioned singing.  The supporting cast was excellent, adding some humor and comraderie and additional professional voices to the action. 

 Eleni Calenos as Sister Angelica. Photos by Moonloop Photography; courtesy of OperaDelaware.

Eleni Calenos as Sister Angelica. Photos by Moonloop Photography; courtesy of OperaDelaware.

The bridge opera of Il Trittico is Suor Angelica.  The action takes place mainly in a flower garden within the convent cloisters.  Enter at your own risk.  You don’t want to watch this story, but you can’t help it.  Why can’t we all just get along.  Sister Angelica was forced into the convent by her family seven years prior when she bore a son out of wedlock.  She’s had no contact with her family or word about her son since entering, until she is visited by an aunt to force her to sign away an inheritance.  Sister Angelica learns in brutal fashion that her son took sick and died two years ago.  Her secret desire to be with her son again now only has one possible resolution: the audience must cry.  So, Puccini and his librettist for this one, Giovachinno Forzano set about to make us cry: the sister takes a deadly poison and pleads with the Virgin Mary for absolution for this deadly sin and to be allowed to be with her son once more, which she and we are granted.  We are a reserved people, somewhat inured to such dramatic scenes by television.  As I watched, I keep thinking that if I were in the Grand Opera House in 1918, the ushers would now be mopping the floors. 

left: Sister Angelica (Eleni Calenos) kneeling among the nuns. right: Sister Angelica (Eleni Calenos) and her aunt (Alissa Anderson). Photos by Moonloop Photography; courtesy of OperaDelaware.

Ms. Calenos gave another excellent performance as Sister Angelica.  Playing Angelica’s abusive aunt who believes she is doing the right thing for the family, is mezzo-soprano Alissa Anderson.  Ms. Anderson also played the comedic, worldly-wise role of Frugola with panache in Tabarro; Ms. Anderson was as enjoyable in that role as she was insufferable as the conflicted aunt.  Several of the nuns had passages to sing and performed well, and as a group provided a beautiful chorus.  Kudos to Chorus Master Aurelien Eulert.

The sets for each production were minimalist but effective.  I especially like the set in Tabarro where the action takes place inside the barge.  Director Manich gave a terrific pre-opera talk; a warm and animated speaker, she walked us through some of her thought processes in preparing for and staging her two pieces of Il Trittico.  She pointed out that she wanted the interactions taking place inside the boat to give the feeling of being captive which each of the main players felt, each in their own way.  Kudos to Steven Dobay for set design, which is particularly effective for Tabarro; the set, costumes, and staging gave the opera a La Boheme feel to me (I might change out Luigi's modern-looking blue sweater).  Ms. Manich said for Suor Angelica she wanted each nun, about a dozen in all, to look different, not a flock of look-alike nuns, providing more reality to the story.  Costume designer Howard Tvsi Kaplan achieved that aim with slight variations in costumes and activities for each nun; it felt real.  She also talked about the important role of lighting and although it is not attention grabbing, if you pay attention to the lighting, especially in the the background, changes with the drama all evening.  Certainly, the lighting for the last scene of Suor Angelica is critical and well done. 

 Sister Angelica (Eleni Calenos) and her son (Rex Cooke) in a non-speaking role. Photos by Moonloop Photography; courtesy of OperaDelaware.

Sister Angelica (Eleni Calenos) and her son (Rex Cooke) in a non-speaking role. Photos by Moonloop Photography; courtesy of OperaDelaware.

I have recently heard three directors talking about staging operas: Kristine McIntyre said she read the novel “Moby Dick” seven times before beginning the staging of the opera ; Kyle Lang said he focused on each line of text in Lucia di Lammermoor in working out the staging, and Director Manich said she highlighted “events” in the libretto (moments when all the characters on stage were involved) for these two operas and had about a thousand events underlined for each opera, if I remember correctly.  A lot of hard work by a lot of creative and dedicated people, not all named in the program, go into staging an opera, and I always feel a little guilty for only singling out a few by name for comment.

As I close, I’ve noticed that, without meaning to, my writing style moved to a more humorous approach in my description of Suor Angelica than with the earlier discussion of Il Tabarro.  Perhaps to distance myself from dealing with the emotional impact of both these operas?  Though the three operas of Puccini’s Il Trittico have little in common that apparently binds them (unless there is something he didn't tell us), it makes me think that maybe with Gianni Schicchi he was just trying to soften the blows.

 The Grand Opera House in Wilmington, DE. Photo by Debra Rogers.

The Grand Opera House in Wilmington, DE. Photo by Debra Rogers.

The Fan Experience: The Grand Opera House is worth a visit by itself.  Attractive on the outside and inside, and on the inside, it transports you into the late eighteenth/early nineteenth centuries.  It is as good a venue for Puccini as you are likely to find.  There are many fine restaurants close to the opera house, some less than a mile away with river views.  There are several hotels close by.  We stayed at the Courtyard Marriott, entirely satisfactory with free parking in an adjacent garage, and walked to the opera.  If you are in the mood for luxury, the historic Hotel Dupont is only three blocks from the opera house.  The drive from Tysons Corner, VA using mostly I-95 took about 2 hours in moderate traffic; having EZ pass for the toll gates is recommended.

Gianni Schicchi/Buoso’s Ghost will show again on Saturday May 5 at 7:30 pm and Il Tabarro/Suor Angelica will be on Sunday May 6 at 2 pm.  Tickets range from $29 to $99 and there are good seats for both performances.  A third feature of the Puccini Festival are performances of Puccini arias on May 3 and 4, called A Flight of Puccini and paired with an optional wine tasting; these are sold out, but there is a waiting list.

Met’s Cendrillon Live HD in Cinemas on Saturday, April 28 (Encores on May 2): Best Met Offering This Year?

What: On Saturday, April 28, the Metropolitan Opera live HD in the Cinemas broadcast will feature Cendrillon (1899) by French composer Jules Massenet and librettist Henri Cain, based on Charles Perrault’s version of the classic fairy tale, Cinderella (1697).  Massenet (1842-1912) is highly regarded for his operatic craftsmanship and beautiful music.  Two of his operas, Werther and Manon, are part of the standard opera repertoire, and several other operas by him are performed occasionally. Cendrillon closely follows Perrault’s Cinderella, and this is its first staging at the Met.

left: Joyce DiDonato as Cendrillon, a.k.a. Cinderella. right: Maya Lahyani as stepsister Dorothee, Stephanie Blythe as stepmother Madame de la Haltiere, and Ying Fang as stepsister Noemie. Photos by Ken Howard; courtesy of the Metropolitan Opera.

Movie theaters representing several different chains carry the HD Live performances in the US.  Use this link to find those nearest you; use city and state, not zip code in the search bar.  After the Saturday performances, an Encore performance is typically shown on the following Wednesdays.  The Saturday performance only is broadcast live, but the video shown on the following Wednesday is exactly what the audiences see and hear on Saturday, and the remaining seat selection is typically much, much better. 

left: Kathleen Kim as Fairy Godmother applying a little magic to sleeping Joyce DiDonato as Cendrillon. right: Cendrillon is transformed. Photos by Ken Howard; courtesy of the Metropolitan Opera.

Why You Should Go:

1.     Cendrillon is by all accounts a beautiful opera in music, singing, and staging in which Massenet emphasized the lower registers of the female voice. 

2.     Outstanding mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato sings the lead role and is perhaps the reigning diva among mezzos.  She has sung Cinderella in five previous productions in the US and Europe.  Her current performance drew this comment from ascerbic critic James Jorden of The Observer, “From the very first note she sang, DiDonato enthralled: she was not just a mezzo in some opera, but a human being upon whose life seemed to hang the fate of the universe.”

3.     Excellent mezzo-soprano Alice Coote, in a pants role, plays Prince Charming.  The love duets are not to be missed.

4.     In supporting roles, excellent mezzo-soprano Stephanie Blythe plays the nasty stepmother, and excellent coloratura soprano Kathleen Kim hits some high notes as the fairy godmother.

5.     The staging is inventive, and the magic of the story is portrayed as opposed to Rossini’s adult version of Cinderella, Cenenterola.  Ms. DiDonato is known for that role as well.

 Cendrillon travels to the ball. Photo by Ken Howard; courtesy of the Metropolitan Opera.

Cendrillon travels to the ball. Photo by Ken Howard; courtesy of the Metropolitan Opera.

6.     If you thought of taking your kids to Engel Humperdinck’s Hansel and Gretel, consider taking them to this one (a little over two hours and 47 min from opening to ending notes, including intermission).

 Love happens - Alice Coote as Prince Charming and Joyce DiDonato as Cendrillon. Photo by Ken Howard; courtesy of the Metropolitan Opera.

Love happens - Alice Coote as Prince Charming and Joyce DiDonato as Cendrillon. Photo by Ken Howard; courtesy of the Metropolitan Opera.

7.     You can take your popcorn, candy, and soda into the theater, unlike opera houses.  There is a 30 min intermission during which you can adjust your body’s response to all the soda you drank during Act 1.

8.     You can wear what you usually wear to see a movie; nobody will care.

9.     Watching Met productions in cinemas is a different experience.  You will see a slightly different opera on screen than being there, mainly caused by close ups and view selections made by the video director.  This can expose bad acting, even juxtaposed with good singing, and the odd trifle: at Luisa Miller in cinemas I noticed that there was no poison draining from its bottle into Luisa’s cup. 

10.  One of the great advantages of Met operas in cinemas are the interviews conducted with members of the cast and/or the conductor, stage manager, stage or costume designers, etc. and views of the staging being assembled during the intermissions  At Luisa Miller, it was a huge treat to see the interviews with Placido Domingo, Sonya Yoncheva, and Piotr Beczala.  The live broadcasts go to over 70 countries and are seen by over 350,000 people.  Yoncheva gave a shout out to the watchers in Bulgaria and Beczala to those in Poland.

Reviews: The reviews for Cendrillon have been strong overall, especially praising its charm.  Critic James Jorden expressed the view that musically it might be the best thing done by the Met this year.  Click on the links below for professional reviews:

Woolfe            Jorden             Salazar

 

 

 

Baltimore Concert Opera’s Gianni Schicchi and Buoso’s Ghost: Seven Revelations

BCO_Logo_Color Higher Res.jpg

Gianni Schicchi (1918) is an opera by composer Giacomo Puccini and librettist Giovacchino Forzano.  Buoso’s Ghost (1996) by composer and librettist Michael Ching is a comedic sequel to Schicchi and an excellent pairing for Schicchi.  I attended the April 15 performance of these two operas by Baltimore Concert Opera.  I took my son and two of his college friends with me, not intending to write a blog report, just to enjoy the operas and my accomplices' company.  But then I started to think about what we had experienced.

Briefly for Gianni Schicchi, a wealthy Italian landowner, Buoso Donati, has died, and to the horror of his relatives, his will leaves his entire fortune to a monastery.  The Donati clan engages Gianni Schicchi, a man of a lower class but known for his shrewdness, to change the will before it is filed.  He accepts in order to allow his daughter to marry into their social class, but his ideas for the new will and theirs aren’t exactly a match.  Buoso’s Ghost, picks up where Schicchi leaves off with more comedic, but darker revelations, especially about how Buoso was dispatched.  This pairing of operas made for a consistently funny and heart-warming afternoon’s entertainment.  Mr. Ching’s music is pleasant and enjoyable, but to no one’s surprise, it the great Puccini’s music that carries the day, including perhaps the most famous aria in the opera repertoire, "O mio babbino caro".

Sean Anderson who plays Gianni Schicchi and Sara Duchovnay who plays Lauretta. Photos courtesy of Baltimore Concert Opera.

With 14 singers in all in this performance, the stage was often crowded.  All of the cast performed well. I will only single out a few for comment.  Sean Anderson playing Gianni Schicchi easily makes himself the center of attention with a strong baritone voice and an equally strong stage presence.  He gave the standout closing lines for each opera with just the right touch.  Soprano Sara Duchovnay as Lauretta delivered an enjoyable “O mio babbino caro” and possesses a voice of distinctive coloration.  Tenor Kirk Dougherty singing Rinuccio is especially impressive when singing the softer passages of his arias.  Baritone Matthew Curran, in his second consecutive appearance with BCO, sang the role of Simone with a steadying presence among a peripatetic crew.  And I very much enjoyed Aurelian Eulert’s piano accompaniment.

 The will is read in a production photo by Opera Delaware: seated left to right - Orin Strunk, Dana MacIntosh, Claudia Chapa, Andrew Pardini; standing left to right - Hans Tashjian, Alexandra Rodrick, Matthew Curran, Kirk Dougherty. Courtesy of Baltimore Concert Opera.

The will is read in a production photo by Opera Delaware: seated left to right - Orin Strunk, Dana MacIntosh, Claudia Chapa, Andrew Pardini; standing left to right - Hans Tashjian, Alexandra Rodrick, Matthew Curran, Kirk Dougherty. Courtesy of Baltimore Concert Opera.

Going to the opera can be educational as well as fun, of course, and I found this opera pairing to be revelatory in seven ways:

Revelation #1: Gianni Schicchi was written as part of a triptych named Il Trittico, three one-act operas meant to be performed as a group.  Under pressure, Puccini finally agreed to allow them to be performed separately and paired with other operas.  The other two parts, Il tabarro and Suor Angelica are darker in nature and also performed separately; an intact Il Trittico is rarely performed today.

Revelation #2: Gianni Schicchi is Puccini’s only comedic opera and is his penultimate opera; he didn’t live to finish his final opera, Turandot.  Giuseppe Verdi ended his opera composing career with Falstaff, his only comedy.  Were they finally able to loosen up and write a comedy after so much success with drama and tragedy?  Or, near the end, did they see their lives with such drama as comedies instead?  Perhaps unlikely, given the tragedy in Verdi's life, but If they had lived longer, would we have seen more comedies?

Revelation #3: The conductor for these performances was Michael Ching, the composer and librettist for Buoso’s Ghost. How cool is that!  Ghost is the fourth of his 13 operas; his opera Speed Dating Tonight! Is among the most often performed American operas.  I highly recommend the short interview conducted by Julia Cooke, BCO's Executive Director, with Mr. Ching in the BCO blog; he talks about elements of Buoso's Ghost and a special change he made to the opera just for soprano Sara Duchovnay's abilities!

Revelation #4: There was more acting in these performances than is typical with concert opera, a bonus for the audience.  The reason for this is that these performers had already been working together for presenting these two operas as fully staged versions for Opera Delaware on April 29 and May 5.  Mr. Ching will also conduct these performances.  Collaborations like this are definitely a benefit for BCO fans and to be encouraged.

Revelation #5: “O mio babbino caro” is an extraordinarily popular aria and often performed in recitals and on recordings.  But, do you know what the aria is about or its context? Unless you have seen Gianni Schicchi (pronounced like Johnny Ski’-key), probably not.  It sounds beautiful, but what’s up?  Here are the lyrics in English from Wikipedia:

Oh my dear papa,
I love him, he is handsome, handsome.
I want to go to Porta Rossa
To buy the ring!

Yes, yes, I want to go there!
And if I loved him in vain,
I would go to the Ponte Vecchio,
but to throw myself in the Arno!

I am anguished and tormented!
Oh God, I'd want to die!
Papa, have pity, have pity!
Papa, have pity, have pity!

Sounds Juliet-ish, as in Romeo and Juliet, right? But the lyrics don’t tell the whole story.  In this scene, Lauretta is singing about her love for Rinuccio and her desire to marry him; she is singing to her father, Gianni Schicchi.  But no need to call 911.  She is serious about her love, but she has no real intention of doing herself in; moreover, she is trying to manipulate her father to intervene so she can marry Rinuccio – please do this for your daughter you love so much.  In BCO’s version, Ms. Duchovnay sang it with a coquettish flair.  It is still a great aria, but now you know the rest of the story.

Take a listen to Dame Kiri Te Kanawa singing it in this YouTube video:

Revelation #6: In the last couple of years I have become a huge fan of concert opera.  There are many benefits to concert opera.  One of the great benefits in attending concert opera is often having the chance to hear excellent operas that, for various logistical reasons, are not often performed by the major opera companies.  If you wished to see Buoso’s Ghost this season, this production (Baltimore and Wilmington) is your only chance. 

Revelation #7: BCO’s 2018-2019 season was revealed by Ms. Cooke, for the most part; the season ending production is yet to be revealed: Don Giovanni, L’Amico Fritz, The Flying Dutchman, and one TBA.  One of the productions for next season, L’Amico Fritz by Pietro Mascagni, is unknown to me and I am now excited to see it; as far as I can determine, it may be our only chance to see that one next year anywhere.

Bottom line - My accomplices had viewed a video of Gianni Schicchi just a week before attending these performances; they thought Schicchi a great comedy and were anxious to see Buoso’s Ghost.  They left happy.  For me, as always, hearing BCO’s professional opera singers perform in the posh, yet cozy Engineers Club ballroom is a delight, and this was no exception.  The BCO staff does everything possible to make opera feel like home.  Baltimore Concert Opera productions often seem more like a soiree than a concert. 

The Fan Experience:  I am usually able to find on-street parking near BCO’s venue, the Engineers Club of Baltimore, but this time, an accident on the Baltimore Beltway caused me to arrive only two minutes before time for the opera to start.  For speed, I used the valet parking (available on Sundays only; my cost was $15 plus tip), which worked out very nicely; I made it to my seat on time.  Actually, the performance start was delayed for ten minutes due to traffic problems – two of the singers were late!

Note added on 4/23/18: The fully staged versions of Gianni Schicchi and Buoso's Ghost to be presented on April 29 and May 5 are part of Opera Delaware's 2018 Puccini Festival, celebrating the 100th anniversary of Il Trittico.  They are presenting Il Tabarro and Suor Angelica, the other two parts of the Trittico, on April 28 and May 6. 

 

 

Opera and the Struggle for Beauty: MLDO’s Young Artist Concert, Free, April 20

Maryland Lyric Opera’s next Young Artist Institute Concert will be held in Bethesda, MD on Friday April 20.  The seven young artists who will sing popular arias at this performance competed against hundreds of applicants for the MDLO training slots.  All of them have college degrees and graduate degrees or graduate level training and all have sung in operas already, most professionally.  Why do they seek additional training at this point?  It set me to thinking.

 "Rayonnant rose window in Notre Dame de Paris. In Gothic architecture, light was considered the most beautiful revelation of God", says  Wikipedia's caption . I might contend that the human voice can be even more effective at revealing beauty than a stained glass window. Photo from  Wikipedia commons .

"Rayonnant rose window in Notre Dame de Paris. In Gothic architecture, light was considered the most beautiful revelation of God", says Wikipedia's caption. I might contend that the human voice can be even more effective at revealing beauty than a stained glass window. Photo from Wikipedia commons.

What is it that young artists training programs for emerging opera singers do?  Yes, they provide young singers with voice lessons and performance lessons and build resumes and networks for seeking performance opportunities, but what is it that opera singers are really trying to do?  Yes, they want to master their craft and this training provides a step up, but what is it that they are really trying to accomplish, the end result?  Perhaps a sense of satisfaction and personal fulfillment from their accomplishments?  When I wax philosophical, I find it is not straightforward statements of truths that help, but rather stories or vignettes.  To get at my question, I’d like to relate a few vignettes including a couple of chance encounters with transcendence.

Vignette one: In the 1994 movie, “Shawshank Redemption”, a scene occurs (above video from YouTube) where inmate Andy (Tim Robbins) is cleaning the prison warden’s office and chooses to play a record over the prison sound system.  The recording is a duet from The Marriage of Figaro.  The camera pans the prison and everywhere prisoners stop and listen to the music, entranced.  As the guards break down the door to the office, inmate Red played by Morgan Freeman is heard in voice-over saying, “I have no idea to this day what those two Italian ladies were singing about. Truth is I don’t want to know; some things are better left unsaid. I would like to think it’s something so beautiful it cannot be expressed in words and makes your heart ache because of it.” Beauty has the power to entrance because it speaks directly to our hearts, just like stained glass windows.

Vignette Two: Once when I was a young teen looking for something to watch on television, I landed on a channel that had an image of a guitar resting against a stool in the middle of an empty stage.  This seemed to promise music, so I remained stationary for a moment.  The camera panned stage left to a man walking with assistance towards the stool, a very old, white-haired man dressed in a tuxedo.  I was impressed by the tuxedo but felt sorry for him needing assistance and was intrigued that he was headed for the guitar.  He sat down and took the guitar that was handed to him.  Then, he began to play what I remember as some of the most beautiful music I had ever heard.  I sat in rapture.  When he finished, I no longer found the man to be pitiable but instead felt that he had become beautiful, had transcended time and forged a connection between us; I had glimpsed the soul of the man, and maybe my own.  I think he was a famous classical guitarist of the time, though I never learned his name (no Google in those days).  The details of that moment have gotten hazy over the years, but I have never forgotten that moment and I never will; it changed me.  Beauty is transformative.

Vignette Three: Back in February, I was invited by Matthew Woorman, general manager of the Maryland Lyric Opera, to attend a rehearsal of their February young artist concert.  I find the opportunity to hear opera sung up close and personal to be practically irresistible, so of course, I said yes. I sat down not far from the stage in a modest-sized theater in Bethesda to observe the proceedings.  Something occurred that took me back to that teen age experience so long ago.  Each of the young artists walked onto the stage to rehearse their arias with only piano accompaniment.  Each was attractive and attired in casual dress, but not otherwise remarkable, the sort of people you might run into in your local mall.  However, when they started to sing, they, the auditorium, and I were transformed; the contrast between how they seemed and what they became when they began to sing opera was stunning.  I only expected to be entertained by some good music and learn more about opera, but somehow my spirit felt lifted, or like the men in the prison yard, freed for just a moment.  Beauty exalts. 

left to right: Nayoung Ban, Sarah Costa, and Nina Duan. Photos courtesy of Maryland Lyric Opera.

Maryland Lyric Opera is a small opera company with an ambitious agenda.  It’s founder and president is collaborative pianist and opera/chamber music administrator Brad Clark.  This season MDLO added as music director, conductor Louis Salemno; head of voice training, baritone William Stone, and associate conductor Rafael Andrade.  MLDO is committed to education and training in opera singing with the goal of ensuring “that the next generation of singers are exposed to and have the opportunity to learn from experienced professionals who have spent years studying and improving their craft on the world’s stages.”  It has produced staged operas in its past short history and announced plans last October to return to that effort in the near future; according to Mr. Woorman, the plan is to use their Institute as a pipeline to involve new talent in these productions.  They also operate a Sharing Music, Sharing Love series that performs short opera programs for underserved populations.   There is one more scheduled training session for this season, which will begin in June. 

left to right:  SeungHyeon Baek, Joseph Michael Brent, Yongxi Chen, and Chunlai Shang. Photos courtesy of Maryland Lyric Opera.

Today, they are focused on training the current members of its Young Artists Concert Institute: baritone SeungHyeon Baek; soprano Nayoung Ban; tenor Joseph Michael Brent; tenor Yongxi Chen; soprano Sarah Costa; mezzo-soprano Nina Duan; and, baritone Chunlai Shang.  MLDO is considering talent world-wide.  This session includes three singers who received appointments after auditioning in China: Mr. Chen, Ms. Duan, and Mr. Shang.  By Friday, these already accomplished young opera singers will have received approximately a month of intensive one-on-one professional level training in opera performance and singing on a daily basis from the experienced staff of Maryland Lyric Opera.   They will have previously excelled in singing somewhere, maybe in a chorus or choir when someone noticed they had promise and mentored them toward this path.  I believe that they will have received this attention and training and mentoring because their teachers and mentors are also inspired by beauty; their hearts are in this work.  And at MLDO, they will have received this training at no charge because there are friends and donors to MLDO that are also inspired by beauty.

So on Friday, seven young singers will take the stage in the next step on their journey to beauty.  When you see these young artists on recital night, they will be dressed appropriately, and beauty will not emerge as a surprise.  However, consider this: these young kids (kids to me) do not become beautiful in their singing; they are already beautiful.  I think that they, like my elderly guitarist of years ago, are capable of becoming beauty itself.  I believe that that is what opera singers are really trying to accomplish.  It is entertainment, but more than that, it is art.  Opera at its best is art, and it not only entertains us, but via its art, connects us to each other and inspires us to rise to our better selves.  This is why so many artists are inspired to make it their life’s work.  This is why opera endures, and it explains what these young artists are trying to do - struggling to become beauty itself, shaped and colored by who they are, just like the stained glass windows transmitting the light.  Yes, you will be entertained Friday night, and just maybe, get a glimpse of beauty.

 Poster image courtesy of Maryland Lyric Opera.

Poster image courtesy of Maryland Lyric Opera.

The Fan Experience: Free and open to the public, the young artist recital begins at 6:30 pm Friday, April 20, at the Bethesda United Methodist Church at 8300 Old Georgetown Road in Bethesda, MD.  There are two parking lots adjacent to the church which sits at the corner of Huntington Parkway and Old Georgetown Road; the entrance to the sanctuary is near the intersection.  After turning onto Huntington from Old Georgetown Road, the first right turn will take you to the parking lots.  The Bethesda Metro Stop is slightly under a mile from the Church. 

The next Young Artists Institute Concert will be on June 22.

 

Virginia Opera’s Rachele di Lammermoor Could Be the Lucia You Will Remember

If you are an opera fan, Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor is one of the classic operas to check off your list and repeat as opportunity arises, which can lead to memory difficulties.  I have a suggestion.  An opera, of course, is not about one performer, even when it’s the lead soprano, but for Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor, the soprano playing Lucia is critical.  I suggest we start giving each production the name of the soprano – a Lucia di Lammermoor with Joan Sutherland for example would be known as Joan di Lammermoor.  I think this would make it easier to rank and remember our favorites.  I loved Natalie di Lammermoor (Natalie Dessay), but wish I had seen Maria di Lammermoor (Maria Callas), for example.  It could even help in drawing distinctions: La Scala’s Maria di Lammermoor was better than Covent Garden’s Maria di Lammermoor.  Thus, to help all our memories, Virginia Opera’s current Lucia di Lammermoor should be remembered by its fans as Rachele di Lammermoor (for coloratura soprano Rachele Gilmore).  It will be a fond memory; I thoroughly enjoyed Sunday (April 8) afternoon’s performance.

 Rachele Gilmore as Lucia in the famous mad scene. Photo by Ben Schill Photography; courtesy of Virginia Opera.

Rachele Gilmore as Lucia in the famous mad scene. Photo by Ben Schill Photography; courtesy of Virginia Opera.

Partly, I had looked forward to VO’s Lucia due to a conversation I had with Director Kyle Lang about costumes and staging for this opera, which I reported in a previous blog post.  This bel canto opera by composer Gaetano Donizetti and librettist Salvatore Cammarano deals with a couple, Lucia and Edgardo, from rival families who fall in love with each other. Lucia’s brother, Enrico, and his entourage, including the chaplain, Raimondo, force Lucia into a politically advantageous marriage with Arturo while Edgardo is away.  The abandonment and stress pushes Lucia into madness.  The sumptuous period costumes by noted designer Catherine Zuber are an outstanding element of the opera, and the sets conceived by Mr. Lang which he described as minimalist (everything plays a role in telling the story) were very effective in providing appropriate backdrops for the story.  I especially liked the lighting effects in Act I to portray the forest in shimmering moonlight, and I am still amazed at how effectively the ballroom set conveyed a spacious ballroom.  Each scene beginning with the forest scene was introduced by a short film clip created by Mr. Lang that escorted the audience into the mood of the scene.  I enjoyed these and think maybe even more could be done with such mixing.  One drawback to the staging on Sunday was the rather prolonged “short pause” between the mad scene and the final scene in the cemetery; also, the moving of heavy sets at that point caused some groaning sounds creating ripples of laughter in the audience, a minor quibble, but a noticeable drop off in tension resulted.

left: Joseph Dennis as Edgardo and Rachele Gilmore as Lucia. right: Tim Mix as Enrico and Rachele Gilmore as Lucia. Photos by Ben Schill Photography; courtesy of Virginia Opera.

For me the sound of the singer’s voice is critical to my enjoyment of the singing.  Rachele Gilmore has a very pretty soprano voice and to my ear, sings beautifully, especially when dancing around in the higher registers.  Sometimes her trills seemed to me more workman-like than natural, but I would gladly listen to her sing Donizetti again anytime.  Her acting and singing seemed to keep within the bel canto tradition, always under control, though Lucia might be expected to lose it sometimes and sometimes be fighting to regain her sanity or to evade it.  One might permit her a scream or two.  Her poignant mad scene will be one I remember to compare with others.  I expected Ms. Gilmore to be excellent, but two of the singers surprised me.  Joseph Dennis as Edgardo was a delight; he has a fine tenor voice and plays his role well.  The other surprise was Richard Ollarsaba who played the chaplain Raimondo.  I was impressed with Mr. Ollarsaba in his performances as a young artist with Wolf Trap Opera, but his strong, resonant bass-baritone and stage presence now are commanding the stage.  Tim Mix as Enrico has a pleasant baritone voice and played the narcissistic brother well, though he seemed more in character with moments of comfort to Lucia than expressing his rage and cruelty; his irate shoves to his comrades in the forest scene were rather gentle; if any had tipped I think he would have had a pillow under them before they landed.  The other principal cast members were all effective in supporting roles, mezzo-soprano Melisa Bonetti as Lucia’s companion Alisa, tenor Bille Bruley as Arturo, and tenor Stephen Carroll as Normano, an assistant to Enrico.  Special kudos to the chorus, led by Chorus Master Shelby Rhoades; their sound is beautiful and worth going to hear alone.  Also, not just the individual arias but the duets and ensemble singing, including the famous Act II sextet, were all immensely enjoyable.

Perhaps the best reason to attend Lucia is Donizetti's sumptuous music.  Maestro Ari Pelto and the fifty-three piece Richmond Symphony gave us a good rendition of Donizetti with full support of the singers and drama.  The overture's opening which sounds like a funeral march, the repetition of lyrical themes, and emotional shadings all added to the opera's dramatic impact; the employment of the harp and flute/Lucia duet added to the delights.

Watching just my second Lucia, I became somewhat amused by thinking that if the Donizetti/Cammarano team were alive today, the murder scene would not take place unseen off stage, but would be the center piece of the opera, complete with a nude scene.  Today’s audiences would demand it.  So, enjoy this, even if sad, return to the good old days.

The Fan Experience: I am finding that where you sit in the Center for the Arts auditorium at GMU significantly affects the sound you hear.  My advice is to seek out the center and, if in the orchestra section, farther back is better.  I also detect a disproportionately large drop off in singer sound volume when they move from front stage to rear stage; something perhaps for directors to note for staging purposes.

In addition to opera fans, I also recommend Lucia for newbies, though not for those not yet into their teen years.  There are still two performances left for Rachele di Lammermoor, both in Richmond, on Friday evening, April 13, and a Sunday matinee, April 15.  If you arrive at least 45 minutes early, you can hear the entertaining and enlightening pre-opera talk by Dr. Glenn Winters, Virginia Opera's Community Outreach Musical Director, which will enhance your appreciation and enjoyment of the opera.

 

Met’s Luisa Miller Live HD in Cinemas on Saturday, April 14: Why You Should Go

What: On Saturday, April 14, the Metropolitan Opera live in HD in the Cinemas broadcast will feature Luisa Miller, a dramma tragico, by composer Giuseppe Verdi and librettist Salvatore Cammarano.  The cast is led by probably the most famous opera singer in the world, Placido Domingo, who is amazing everybody that at age 77 he can still perform at the Met. 

 Placido Domingo as MIller; Sonya Yoncheva as Luisa, and Piotr Beczala as Rudolfo. Photo by Chirs Lee; courtesy of the Metropolitan Opera.

Placido Domingo as MIller; Sonya Yoncheva as Luisa, and Piotr Beczala as Rudolfo. Photo by Chirs Lee; courtesy of the Metropolitan Opera.

Cammarano’s libretto is based on Schiller’s play, “Kabale und Liebe” (Intrigue and Love).  In the story, Miller, a retired soldier, dotes on his daughter, Luisa, all he has left in the world.  She has fallen in love with Rudolfo and he with her.  Miller is worried that he knows too little about his daughter’s chosen one, and in fact, he is to learn disturbing news about the young man.  Rudolfo’s father, Count Walter, wants his son to marry the Duchess Fredericka. Courtier Wurm, who previously asked Miller for Luisa’s hand still wants Luisa for himself and plots to force Luisa to marry him instead, setting in motion the events that lead to the tragic conclusion.

Movie theaters representing several different chains carry the Live in HD performances.  Use this link to find those nearest you; use city and state, not zip code in the search bar.  After the Saturday performances, an Encore performance is typically shown on the following Wednesdays.  Only the Saturday performance is broadcast live but the video shown on Wednesday is exactly what the audiences saw on Saturday, plus the best seats sell out quickly on Saturday and the remaining seat selection for Wednesday is usually better.  Tickets are usually around $25 with small discounts for seniors and children.

Why You Should Go:

1.     It’s a Verdi opera. In fact, Luisa Miller is actually quite good Verdi.  For me, LM is a story where everyone wears their emotions on their sleeves and the final tragedy seems a little too familiar after having seen quite a few other tragic operas with similar and stronger plot lines and endings.  I suspect this is why it is not performed more often, but it has enough plot twists to be engaging.  Having said that, you do get the Verdi chorus in the beginning and each lead character gets their own beautiful Verdi arias, and there are also great duets and ensemble singing.  Critics say that Luisa Miller is underrated and demonstrates Verdi’s growth in the sophistication of his compositions, beginning his middle period.

2.     Placido Domingo sings the baritone role of Miller.  In his later years, he switched from tenor to baritone roles.  His voice draws gentle criticism from professional critics for its condition today, but at the same time, he is praised for adding excitement to the production.

3.     The cast around Placido is outstanding, especially the currently very hot diva, soprano Sonya Yoncheva, playing Luisa; and the the excellent tenor Piotr Beczala as Rodolfo,

 Placido Domingo in 1971 production of  Luisa Miller  as Rudolfo; the 1979 production was his second  Luisa Miller . Met Opera Archive photo taken from Placido Domingo's  website .

Placido Domingo in 1971 production of Luisa Miller as Rudolfo; the 1979 production was his second Luisa Miller. Met Opera Archive photo taken from Placido Domingo's website.

4.     You can try a neat experiment: Do you like Placido better in the tenor role or the baritone role?  Go see the current version where Placido plays Miller, then watch the Met video of the 1979 production of Luisa Miller, which starred Placido at age 38 in the tenor role of Rodolfo.  In the video, you get to see a dashing, still young Placido with golden curls singing opposite the great Renata Scotto (my personal all-time favorite soprano) singing in the role of Luisa, a duo of historic opera dimensions.  The 1979 Luisa Miller can be purchased on DVD or rented for streaming to your streaming devices such as Apple TV and Roku from Met Opera on Demand.

5.     You can take your popcorn, candy, and soda into the movie theater, unlike opera houses.

6.     You can wear what you usually wear to see a movie; nobody will care.

Reviews: The reviews are generally favorable with special praise for the aura provided by Placido and the performance of Ms. Yoncheva.  Links to individual reviews are in the right side bar.  For a summary of the reviews click on this link.

Director Kyle Lang on Staging Lucia di Lammermoor, Beginning with the Costumes

 Etching by Charles Robert Leslie of scene from Sir Walter Scott's "The Bride of Lammermoor". Etching is in public domain; accessed via  Wikipedia .

Etching by Charles Robert Leslie of scene from Sir Walter Scott's "The Bride of Lammermoor". Etching is in public domain; accessed via Wikipedia.

Moving into the Center for the Arts at George Mason University on April 7 and 8 will be composer Gaetano Donizetti’s classic dramma tragico, Lucia di Lammermoor (1835), this after having premiered in Norfolk on March 23, 25, and 27 and before traveling to Richmond for an April 13 and 15 wrap up to Virginia Opera’s current season.  The libretto by Salvatore Cammarano, based on the “Bride of Lammermoor” (1819) by Sir Walter Scott, is timeless in portraying the unraveling under stress of a vulnerable personality; the music by Donizetti is stunning.  The story takes place in 17th century Scotland, a time of wars and religious conflicts, often setting families against families in lethal feuds.  Historical novels about that period were popular in Europe of the 19th century.  Lucia is a young woman who falls in love with Edgardo, the remaining head of a rival family in conflict with her own family, but she is then manipulated by her brother Enrico to save him from peril by agreeing to marry Arturo from a different family.  Each of the major characters is compelled to act by dire circumstances and their own natures, honorable or not.  Lucia becomes more and more isolated and pressured until she becomes undone.  Lucia is one of opera’s great tragedies and perhaps its most effective at pulling audiences into the drama.  It also contains the most famous mad scene in opera; with a role coveted by coloratura sopranos; the story’s impact is dependent on the soprano’s performance in that scene.

left: Joseph Dennis as Edgardo and Rachele Gilmore as Lucia. right: Tim Mix as Enrico and Rachele Gilmore as Lucia. Photos by Ben Schill Photography; courtesy of Virginia Opera.

When I first saw that this opera was on the schedule for 2017-2018, I was uncertain if I wanted to see it again.  But in truth, I have only seen one previous version of Lucia and that was a video of a Metropolitan Opera production from 2011 starring the fabulous Natalie Dessay as Lucia.  Even watching it as a video on television, the opera was deeply affecting and such a satisfying gem I have not felt the desire to see another performance.  But then I saw that Rachele Gilmore is playing Lucia, and I read about her coloratura soprano voice and the opportunity to see her version of the famous mad scene caused the opera to grow in appeal.  Finally, one of my daughters asked me to consider writing about opera costumes and staging, and the Virginia Opera’s Lucia seems an excellent candidate for such an effort with 17th century costumes and staging by director and choreographer, Kyle Lang; he previously directed 2015’s La Boheme for VA Opera and choreographed 2017’s Turandot.

 Rachele Gilmore as Lucia. Photo by Ben Schill Photography; courtesy of Virginia Opera.

Rachele Gilmore as Lucia. Photo by Ben Schill Photography; courtesy of Virginia Opera.

I chatted with Director Lang by phone to learn more about how this production came to be.  The conductor of an opera has primary responsibility for what you hear, but the director has primary responsibility for what you see.  He explained that generating costumes and sets for an entirely new production of an opera is very expensive, and today, most operas are performed using rental costumes and sets from previous productions.  Finding rental sets for Lucia that fit with the dimensions of the Harrison Opera House in Norfolk appeared problematic, so he made the decision to begin with costumes and re-purpose existing VA Opera sets as needed.  He was aware of a 2005 Glimmerglass Festival production of Lucie de Lammermoor, Donizetti’s Paris revision of Lucia, that had been staged by his mentor Director Lillian Groag, who is herself quite familiar to VA Opera audiences (Turandot and Girl of the Golden West).  He knew that the costumes for that production had been prepared by award winning designer, Catherine Zuber and were historically accurate.  Ms. Zuber has been nominated for twelve Tony awards and has won six times.  The Groag production was meant to be a period piece; costumes help the singer/actors assume the character.  The costumes were designed in the cavalier style of the 17th century.  Think silks, taffetas, brocades, and velvet, sashes and doublets for the men and double skirts for the women; think romantic.  Ms. Zuber’s costumes for the Glimmerglass production also use color patterns to support the drama in a more subliminal fashion.

There were Lucie/Lucia differences.  The character of Alisa, Lucia’s royal attendant, was absent from Lucie, so Mr. Lang and VA Opera costume manager Pat Seyller were tasked with creating a costume for that character.  Also, a character in Lucie, missing in Lucia, allowed a costume switch for Normanno in Lucia.  However, Director Lang chose not to use the abstract version of blood in the Groag production.  He prefers the real thing, or at least the stage version of the real thing.  So, the red lace and rose petals of Glimmerglass mad scene dress have become the wet, blood stained Lang version.  This required creating a copy of the rented costume that was then permanently stained iteratively with blood and Ms. Gilmore gets an extra splashing before her appearance each night; this requires washing the blood out of the dress after every performance.  Director Lang believes the blood is critical to achieving full dramatic impact of this scene.  All very tastefully done, of course.

 Enrico played by Tim Mix clashes with Edgardo played by Joseph Dennis. Photo by Ben Schill Photography; courtesy of Virginia Opera.

Enrico played by Tim Mix clashes with Edgardo played by Joseph Dennis. Photo by Ben Schill Photography; courtesy of Virginia Opera.

Mr. Lang’s goal is to use every aspect of the production to bring the story of Lucia di Lammermoor to life.  Re-purposed sets and props from Virginia Opera’s stock were designed to create the appropriate world for each scene, but created to be minimalist in the sense that none of the elements is padding, but rather plays a significant role in telling the story; he created special film clips to introduce each scene.  I wondered if hauling the sets from venue to venue might be a problem, but Mr. Lang indicated that getting the floor moved and reinstalled was a bit of a challenge but packing up and moving did not present too many challenges. 

A much greater challenge resulted from the inherent difficulty in staging bel canto operas.  Lucia is iconic for bel canto opera, especially coloratura singing. Director Lang opines, “Bel Canto is characterized by long, sustained vocal lines to show the virtuosity of the voice, which means one could be singing about one emotion or thought for an extended period of time, and you can basically be pulled out of real time within the music.  This is difficult dramaturgically because one needs to keep the story moving forward. Long passages and repeats can often make it difficult for action/conflict/resolution to continue at an ample pace.”  This necessitates a middle ground in staging where the director and conductor, in this case Maestro Ari Pelto, must work closely together, including making sure that staging allows the arias to be both sung and heard, getting the tempo of the music and movement on stage in step, and assessing what the dramatic intent of the music requires of the acting.  Director Lang examines every line since movement on stage is dictated by the text.  For Lucia, Acts I and II are different in flow:  Act I – exposition setting up our knowledge of the characters and conflicts; Act II – the events unfold.  Director Lang’s background in addition to directing is dancing; so, he knows how to keep movements flowing.  His background also helps in staging movements for the chorus members, an important part of Lucia

 Lucia played by Rachele Gilmore in the mad scene. Photo by Ben Schill Photography; courtesy of Virginia Opera.

Lucia played by Rachele Gilmore in the mad scene. Photo by Ben Schill Photography; courtesy of Virginia Opera.

I asked Mr. Lang what he hoped the audience would take away from his Lucia di Lammermoor.  He believes people will remember the beautiful singing.  He says this production has a cast of outstanding singers who produce the vocal fireworks that Donizetti intended.  He also thinks that the audience will find that their emotional connection to Lucia is stronger than for most other operas, that they may find that they identify with the characters more than in other operas, and that this will help them put their own lives in greater perspective.  But, a director’s work is never done, at least if he wants to earn a living.  Mr. Lang is already working on his next production – directing Johann Strauss’ comedic opera, Die Fledermaus for Utah Opera, a very different opera temperament from Lucia.

One of the things I read when my love of opera first materialized was that opera was plural for the Latin word opus, which means work; so, opera was ‘the works’; it included music, singing, storytelling, acting, dancing, costumes, and lighting.  Yet thus far my attention has been focused mainly on the singing and the music, with occasional nods to the other aspects, but my awareness and appreciation of ‘the works’ is growing.  The next time you are reviewing your program just prior to the conductor’s entrance to the pit and after you’ve looked over the list of singers, take a look at the other names, those of the director, the chorus leader, the lighting manager, the costume designer, and sets designer.  You will start to find favorites among those contributors as well.  It is ‘the works’ of all of those individuals that integrate to provide the art that will engage you, entertain you and move you, offering a connection for the moment with all humanity and putting you more in touch with your own.  Looked at that way, the price of a ticket is very good value indeed.

The Fan Experience: Remaining performances for Lucia are April 7 and 8 in Fairfax (April 8 will be the 170th anniversary of Donizetti’s death) and April 13 and 15 in Richmond.  Tickets can be purchased through this link.  To enhance your understanding and appreciation for Lucia, I recommend the series of blog posts written by Dr. Glenn Winters, opera composer and Community Outreach Musical Director for Virginia Opera.  Dr. Winters also presents the pre-opera talk given prior to each performance; get there early if you want to get a seat.