Virginia Opera’s Tosca: Let Me Paint You a Picture

I attended Virginia Opera’s Tosca Saturday night and as I think about it today, I so wish I had gotten a ticket for Sunday’s matinee as well.  So many questions.  Oh, it’s a good show with fabulous music and singing.  Giacomo Puccini’s “shabby little thriller”, as one early critic called it, has never failed to deliver in my experience, and I don’t mean to ignore his outstanding librettists, Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa.  There are many fine features to VO’s production with only a few minor complaints from me.  One of the three main characters in Tosca is a painter, so let’s examine VO’s Tosca as if it were a painting or a series of paintings like Thomas Cole’s “The Voyage of Life” (National Gallery of Art in DC) covering the four stages of a man’s life; we will only cover 16 hours.  Our paintings’ canvases and backgrounds are provided by Director Lillian Groag and the creative staff.  The singers playing their roles claim our eyes and ears, revealing themselves visually, further defined by vocal and musical colorations.  Their actions keep the colors changing before our eyes, leading to a series of paintings that move by us so fast that we can’t look away, nor even stop to examine one in more detail; like a river current, Tosca sweeps us up and carries us along at a breath-taking pace.  Tosca doesn’t have a paint by the numbers set, so let’s paint by the singers.  See how your paintings differ from mine. (Caution- plot spoilers abound after this point)

Matthew Vickers as Mario Cavaradossi and Ewa Płonka as Floria Tosca. Photo by Ben Schill Photography; courtesy of Virginia Opera.

Matthew Vickers as Mario Cavaradossi and Ewa Płonka as Floria Tosca. Photo by Ben Schill Photography; courtesy of Virginia Opera.

First a word about the canvas, the macroenvironment shaping Mr. Puccini’s opera: it is 1800 and Napoleon is marching on Rome to crush the rule of the church and the monarchy in power, a rule much favored by most Romans.  Italy is not a unified country then, but a collection of fiefdoms.  Some Romans secretly support Napoleon’s establishment of an Italian republic and its freedoms.  There is tension in the air as the status quo of all Romans is at stake.  At first there is word Napoleon has lost a key battle, but then later as the opera progresses, news comes that Napoleon has won.  (See this blog report for an excellent historical summary of the real events that influenced Tosca’s storyline).

left: Joshua Arky as Sacristan. right: Matthew Vickers as Cavaradossi and Andrew Simpson as Cesare Angelotti. Photos by Ben Schill Photography; courtesy of Virginia Opera.

Mario Cavaradossi – We will use lots of red for this virile, even hot-blooded young man, patriotic in his own way.  Life is good believes painter Mario Cavaradossi.  He is painting a new portrait of Mary Magdalene for a private chapel inside the church of Sant’Andrea delle Valle, a landmark cathedral in Rome. He is an artist, a handsome young man, wealthy and in love, of noble virtue.  He appreciates his model’s beauty, her blue eyes, though not as lovely as his Tosca’s brown eyes.  He believes in freedom from the church and monarchy, though he has apparently not yet rebelled.  Nothing bad ever happened to him before.  That’s one side of Mr. Cavaradossi.  He is also sees himself as an elite, of better station than the Sacristan working in the church and the Roman chief of police who will be his undoing.  He assumes he is protected by his station in life.  Then, an escaped political prisoner and former friend, Angelotti, appears needing his help; we will color him gray as he stays in the shadows.  In the next 16 hours, Mr. Cavaradossi will be tortured, betrayed by his love, and dead.  I am unsure if he sees his cause or just himself as heroic, but he remained true and unyielding to the end.  Cavaradossi is played by tenor Matthew Vickers, who has been a VO young artist and who sang the role of Pinkerton in VO’s recent Madama Butterfly.  I am happy to report that this is the best that I have heard Mr. Vickers.  He is an excellent Cavaradossi visually and vocally, especially in Acts I and III, spirited in Act I and displaying heart touching beauty in Act III. He has a rich, lovely tenor voice, and he showed much more power in this role than he did in Butterfly.  He was a pleasure as Cavaradossi and the most effective performer at adding depth to his role. 

Kyle Albertson as Baron Scarpia and cast in the Te Deum scene closing Act I of  Tosca . Photo by Ben Schill Photography; courtesy of Virginia Opera.

Kyle Albertson as Baron Scarpia and cast in the Te Deum scene closing Act I of Tosca. Photo by Ben Schill Photography; courtesy of Virginia Opera.

Floria Tosca – Ms. Tosca is a successful singer, who is in love with Cavaradossi.  She is a devout Catholic and committed to artistic ideals.  She is a good person and, though a mature woman, she is a good girl.  She expects that good things come to good people.  She does present with the jealously of a diva, quick to suspect that Cavaradossi has been unfaithful; she plans to catch her lover in an assignation with the model for his painting.  We must color her green.  Her suspicions are unfounded, but then she knows Cavaradossi better than I do.  I now wonder what she might have done if she had caught him with someone.  Ms. Tosca is not political.  Personal life is her venue, but her misfortune is that she has become ensnared by history and by Scarpia, the evil head of police who is obsessed with her.  He fuels her mistrust of her lover and plans to make her his conquest.  In less than 16 hours, she will betray her lover, commit murder, and die.  Her transformation from apparent good girl to action hero will make your head spin; perhaps we chose the wrong color for her?  When she falls victim to Scarpia’s grasp, she musters the strength to plan and arrange her escape with her lover.  Did she really plan to submit to Scarpia at that point to arrange passage?  Tosca is portrayed by soprano Ewa Płonka, herself undergoing a transformation as she sings a soprano role for the first time.  She sang beautifully Saturday night.  She has a remarkably colorful voice.  I thought that in moving from mezzo-soprano to dramatic soprano her voice was well-matched to the tessitura of the role.  Her vocal colorations were clean and spot on.  Her acting was serviceable, following well established patterns for Tosca, but her leap which we all wait for seemed a little cautious.  Perhaps with more experience we will see more of her in her Tosca; how would Ewa Płonka jump to her death?  Her voice is extraordinary; I would go again just to hear her sing so beautifully.  She was one of the highlights of this performance and clearly has a bright future ahead.  The thought of hearing her again is exciting.

left: Louis Alexander Riva as police agent Spoletta and Kyle Albertson as Scarpia. right: Matthew Vickers as Cavaradossi and Kyle Albertson as Scarpia in the fight scene. Photos by Ben Schill Photography; courtesy of Virginia Opera.

Baron Scarpia – As with the other two key characters, we know little of Scarpia’s past, but we quickly learn he is a brutal, amoral, and highly effective police chief with almost absolute power at the local level.  In his arias we learn of his true nature.  He is not content just to enjoy life; his pleasure is in taking what he desires.  He sees Cavaradossi as his adversary for Tosca and Cavaradossi’s political leanings as the wedge to take him down.  He likely also hates Cavaradossi for his privileged arrogance.  Scarpia sees Tosca as worthy prey he can make submit to his will without fear of retribution.  He sees the political struggle as a threat to his position; his loyalty is to Scarpia.  Is he simply someone controlled by his appetites?  He speaks of love for Tosca and a belief she will respond sexually to his power.  Love?  He sips wine and does paperwork while his victims are tortured and complains his supper has been interrupted.  He attempts to coerce Tosca into his bed by making her an offer she can’t refuse.  In less than 16 hours, he will be defeated by a woman and dead.  Scarpia is played by bass-baritone Kyle Albertson, who will soon play Angelotti in Met Opera’s Tosca.  Mr. Albertson has the right appearance and voice for Scarpia, and he sings well, but somehow, to me he came across as a villain who is more of a jerk than a monster.  I see Scarpia as a monster, someone who not only relishes his success, but his victim’s defeat as well.  Mr. Albertson is menacing enough and his aria coupled with the Te Deum’s celebration of Napoleon’s defeat is quite good, but I was left with the feeling that he could have done more; for me, it was a good performance that stopped short of outstanding.

Ewa Płonka as Tosca and Kyle Albertson as Scarpia. Photo by Ben Schill Photography; courtesy of Virginia Opera.

Ewa Płonka as Tosca and Kyle Albertson as Scarpia. Photo by Ben Schill Photography; courtesy of Virginia Opera.

Tosca’s Director is Lillian Groag.  Let’s color her silver; it is her 25th production for Virginia Opera.  If you read my blog, you will know that I am very enamored of her directing abilities.  In fact, her constant directorial theme of showing the characters as complex human beings inspired my approach to this blog report. Each of her productions are marked by professional touches, such as her use of children in Tosca. She, of course, helps the singers color their performances as well as direct the action on the stage.  Virginia Opera cannot match the Metropolitan Opera’s budget for grandeur, but it’s not needed to tell a good story.  The sets for VO’s Tosca were quite effective, floor to ceiling, and the costumes were excellent.  For me, there were a few questions raised by the staging.  The people walking by the knave where Cavaradossi was working were distracting, and I could not locate the young shepherd boy on stage who was singing to begin Act III (voice supplied offstage by soprano Celeste Godin).  In the early part of an excellent Te Deum, the congregation was turned towards Scarpia, which seemed odd to me as he was singing about Tosca making him forget God; perhaps the cross should have come down sooner.  The Act II fight scene was excellently choreographed by Gregg C. Lolyd, but in performance was carried out at too slow a speed for maximum impact as most punches seemed telegraphed; Scarpia’s punch to the painter’s gut was the most effective part of the sequence.  Nonetheless, the fight scene added to the excitement.  There was a glitch with St. Michael’s statue in Act III, which appeared disassembled.  However, all of this is getting into the weeds about my personal responses.  I did like the touch of having Tosca make a cross placing her bloodied white gloves on Scarpia’s body as she forgave him.  You can tell by all my harping that the staging drew me in.

Cavaradossi (Matthew Vickers) and Tosca (Ewa Płonka) share their last moments together.

Cavaradossi (Matthew Vickers) and Tosca (Ewa Płonka) share their last moments together.

I regret taking so long to get to the music because I think this was Conductor Adam Turner’s finest effort among many excellent ones that I have heard.  The music was always right there as it should be, making Puccini sound as beautiful as possible and in perfect sync with the action.  I don’t know if he brings out the best in Puccini or if Puccini brings out the best in him, but kudos to him and the Virginia Symphony Orchestra.  The chorus was also excellent with special kudos to Children’s Chorus Master Emily Russell.  The singers with smaller roles, such as bass-baritone Joshua Arky as Sacristan, bass-baritone Andrew Simpson, and tenor Louis Alexander Riva as Spoletta also contributed substantially to the performance. 

Yes, I have seen Tosca multiple times now; yet Virginia Opera’s production was still entertaining and thought-provoking. I have painted you a picture, a series of pictures in fact, as to how I saw it.  But of course, seeing it for yourself makes all the difference.  Then you will have your own pictures and be moved by them, as you need.

The Fan Experience: Virginia Opera will perform Tosca twice more, in Richmond, on Friday night, October 18, and on Sunday afternoon, October 20.  The opera is sung in Italian with English subtitles.  Dr. Glenn Winters, Virginia Opera's Community 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; I reference his report on historical aspects of Tosca above.  The pre-opera talks are frequently standing room only, so get there early.

Virginia Opera’s final opera of the season will be Aida, also directed by Lillian Groag, but for technical reasons this production will not be performed at GMU.  VO has arranged a travel/opera package for those interested in traveling to Richmond to see a performance.  Virginia Opera’s next two productions, Catán’s Il Postino and Rossini’s Cinderella will be performed at GMU’s Center for the Arts.

For the parking deck at GMU’s Center for the Arts which is adjacent to the theater, the price as gone up to $9 from last year’s $8, still reasonable, and you can walk from a more distant lot for free.  I wish the Center for the Arts would consider adding side screens for the showing the English subtitles.  The overhead one serves the balcony well but is too high up for the orchestra section in my opinion.  Refreshments offered prior to the performance and during intermissions include beer and wine, but food items are meager.  The Center for the Arts offers a wide variety of performance types throughout the year; check them out at this link

Pittsburgh Opera's 2019-2020 Season: Blockbusters and a New App Starting Saturday

As October cools down, the Pittsburgh Opera heats up.  As I look through their 2019-2020 season, I am truly impressed with this program.  This season might be PO’s best ever – classics by Bellini, Bizet, Handel, and Mozart with a contemporary American drama (practically hot off the press) and a modern opera with a libretto in Spanish that adds balance and currency; each opera will have four performances.  Plus, this season, starting with Don Giovanni on Saturday, PO will go public with their new mobile app, tested in performances last year, meant to give attendees an option of accessing information about the opera on their smartphones, including during the performance.

Poster art, left to right, for Don Giovanni, Florencia en el Amazonas, and Alcina; courtesy of Pittsburgh Opera.

Pittsburg Opera 2019-2020 Season

Don Giovanni (1787) – Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Lorenzo Da Ponte 

October 12, 15, 18, 20

Florencia en el Amazonas (1996) – Daniel Catán and Marcela Fuentes-Berain

November 9, 12, 15, 17

Alcina (1735) – George Frideric Handel

January 25, 28, 31, February 2

The Last American Hammer (2018) - Peter Hilliard and Matt Boresi 

February 22, 25, 28, March 1 

Carmen (1875) – Georges Bizet and Henri Meilhac/Ludovic Halévy

March 28, 31, April 3, 5

Norma (1831) – Vincenzo Bellini and Felice Romani

April 25, 28, May 1, 3

Poster art, left to right, for The Last American Hammer, Carmen, and Norma; courtesy of Pittsburgh Opera.

The mobile app – Pittsburgh Opera has developed visual and audio content for the opera being attended, to be received on your smartphone.  Early testing appeared to validate the desirability and usefulness of the app, especially among younger audience members.  PO is proceeding opera by opera at this point and anticipate providing a report on how well it worked for Don Giovanni and have plans for using it for Florencia.  Here are bullet points PO gave for last season’s test with the performance of La Boheme:

  • Listen to interviews with cast members, the director, and the conductor before the show

  • Learn more about La bohème’s musical themes and motifs

  • Get historical context for specific scenes in the opera

  • Enjoy interesting trivia about Puccini, La bohème, and Pittsburgh Opera’s production

  • Listen to supplemental audio commentary in real time

Clearly there are challenges: timing of some material with the flow of the opera, how well attendees can integrate online information with opera in progress, and how to receive this info without disturbing your neighbors in the audience.  I wonder how this will work, but I think it is an exciting idea and look forward to giving it a try myself.

Don Giovanni is in everyone’s top ten best operas and top ten most popular operas lists; perhaps not surprisingly, it is about power and sex. It is an opera you would go to just for the music if it didn’t offer so much more.  For opera fans, it is required viewing.  In the opinion of musicologists, it is not without some flaws. and you have to buy into all this action taking place in a single day, but in return, you get a fascinating hero, Don Giovanni, who is a villain that leaves you uncomfortable with your fascination; he is coupled to a comic sidekick, Leporello, who both amuses and disgusts you - he sings a delightful aria about Giovanni’s 2,065 sexual conquests he has recorded (maybe not as funny as it once was), and there will be more before the day is out. You are left with ambiguities about sexual motives, class privileges, and what actually happened that keep you wondering long after the performance is over.  It is called a dramma giocoso, a drama with jokes or a serious playful duality.  You also get the sort of arias that you go home humming.  Director Kristine McIntyre has created a film noir version of the opera that will likely have a different flavor than versions you have seen previously; she has Don Giovanni portrayed as a film noir antihero - one wonders how the humor in Giovanni is maintained in this production.  One of the great features of Don Giovanni is that it has so many outstanding roles for singers.  I have heard soprano Rachelle Durkin’s Donna Anna previously and found her to be impressive.  Baritone Musa Ngqungwana returns to PO as Leporello and that should be fun.  The conductor is Maestro Antony Walker, which is a guarantee in itself.  Don’t miss this one.   

Florencia en el Amazonas is based on the works of Nobel Prize winning author Gabriel Garcia Márquez that combine realism with incidents of magic.  A soprano longing to be reunited with her true love makes a trip down the Amazon river to find him, a butterfly hunter.  For her and the other passengers it becomes a spiritual as well as a travel adventure. I am curious how a boat ride down the Amazon river will be staged.  Composer Catán has two operas that receive regular performances in the US.  Virginia Opera will be staging his opera Il Postino in November as well.  One of my personal goals this year is to attend both.  These will be the first operas in Spanish that I have heard.  Mr. Catán’s music is often described as being Puccini-like and at least one critic has evaluated his work as being “neo-Romantic” with music is that is too melodious.  Hmmm, my worry with modern operas is usually the atonality and lack of melody.  Count me in for neo-romanticism and lots of melody.  Music Director Antony Walker will again conduct, and Director Stephanie Havey will be reviving the original production of Jose Maria Condemi.  Standout soprano Alexandria Loutsion, who I loved in Wolf Trap Opera’s Tosca, will return to PO to play Florencia and the great baritone Nathan Gunn will return to PO to play Alvaro. 

Alcina is one of Handel’s many baroque operas.  I had thought of baroque operas as recitals for great singers with a little story thrown in for amusement until seeing Handel’s Semele in Philadelphia recently .  That made me realize that the staging is critical in importance for modern audiences.  I saw Washington National Opera’s Alcina last season and had reservations about the staging, though the cast was fabulous.  Director Matthew Haney will have his hands full with PO’s production.  I sort of view Alcina as ‘Gunfight at the OK Corral’ for sopranos; which soprano will prevail?  See if it hits you that way.  Two sopranos and two mezzo-sopranos will square off with one playing a guy and one playing a woman pretending to be a guy, and yes there are a couple of real guys thrown in.  By the way, Alcina is a sorceress who turns her lovers into shrubs or rocks when she tires of them; I don’t know if that is kinder than Turandot or not.  Handel’s music for Alcina is marvelous.  Antony Walker will conduct the orchestra provided by Chatham Baroque, which specializes in baroque music, for this performance.

The Last American Hammer was commissioned and first presented by UrbanArias in DC in 2018. UrbanArias is a champion of contemporary, accessible opera.  Hammer touches on some of the flashpoint issues of modern America: the economic erosion of life in rural America, conspiracy theories, and distrust in the government.  It is a comedy expressing serious concerns.  Reviews of the DC performance were mainly positive but expressed a need for a more focused message and a wish for more ensemble vocal numbers.  Glenn Lewis will conduct a small ensemble orchestra.  The music is reported to be influenced by country and folk music elements.  The singers will come from former and current Pittsburgh Opera Resident Artists.  This chamber opera runs for about an hour and forty minutes.

Carmen, are you kidding?  It’s Carmen, what’s not to like.  I think Carmen comes as close to a Broadway hit show as you are going to see in opera.  Carmen has been controversial since its beginning; many considered it too profane when first performed, and Bizet died before it became a hit.  Composer Georges Bizet has two currently popular operas.  The Pearl Fishers is also one of my favorites.  He died when he was only 36 years old; I can’t help but wonder what wonderful operas he might have composed if he had lived a full lifespan.  With its focus on a powerful, sexually promiscuous, young female, cigarette factory worker, even today Carmen draws concerns about political correctness, but sit back and let the music wash over you until that gut-wrenching ending.  It is an experience that will stay with you, and very likely you will go home and listen to a recording to further enjoy the music. The role of Carmen will be played by mezzo-soprano Zanda Švēde in a role that is greatly shaped by the performer singing the role.  Ms. Švēde, though a relative newcomer has several national and international productions of Carmen under her belt already in which she garnered praise.  Timothy Myers will conduct the PO orchestra.  He made his debut conducting for the Sante Fe Opera this past season, conducting The Pearl Fishers.  The setting for Carmen is Spain but Bizet and the libretto are French.

Come to think of it, Da Ponte placed Don Giovanni in Spain, but the libretto is in Italian.  If you want to hear an opera in Spanish, Florencia is your option.  Spain has been a cultural center for the development of music and dance, but somehow opera did not flourish there.

Are you ready for some bel canto! Last, but certainly not least, we get to Norma.    Bellini, Rossini, and Donizetti are the big three composers known for bel canto (beautiful singing) operas. Bellini also died early, at age 33.  Despite that he wrote ten operas, five of which have become entrenched in the classic repertoire.  Norma is his masterwork; its aria “casta diva” is considered by many to be the greatest aria of all time.  Bellini and his librettist Romani were like Mozart and Da Ponte, collaborating on several great operas.  One of my favorite statements about Bellini refers to his “art of conjuring poetry, character, and drama into song.”  Norma is a Druid priestess in Gaul who secretly has an affair with an invading Roman proconsul Pollione which then turns into a love triangle with another priestess Adalgisa; these things never end well. Antony Walker conducts and Stephanie Havey directs.  Norma is a challenging and plumb role for sopranos, and PO is bringing in an exciting talent, soprano Leah Crocetto to sing this role.  I will be seeing her as Desdemona in Washington National Opera’s Otello later this month. 

If you have made it this far, I think you will agree that this is an exciting lineup for Pittsburgh Opera’s 2019-2020 season.  If you live away from Pittsburgh, consider an opera vacation trip or two.  If you live in the Pittsburgh area, season tickets seem in order.

The Fan ExperienceIndividual tickets as well as season subscriptions are now on sale.  Also peruse the Pittsburgh website for special discounts, such as student tickets and group purchases. The venue for Alcina is the CAPA Theater and for The Last American Hammer the Pittsburgh Opera Headquarters.  All others will be held in the Benedum Center. One of the things I really like about Pittsburgh Opera performances is the range of prices for the tickets, which should accommodate most people's budgets. 

I also like their website which is easy to maneuver around.  If you click on the "Seasons" header on the home page, a list of the operas will pop up; then clicking on any of these will take you to the homepage for that opera, and there you will find information on all aspects of the opera and performances, especially helpful for buying tickets and finding info on the casts and creative teams.  It is also worthwhile perusing the Pittsburgh events calendar for other opera related events that Pittsburgh Opera hosts.

 

 

 

Opera Philadelphia’s Festival O19, part IV: Death Becomes Him

I attended the premiere of bass-baritone Joseph Keckler’s Let Me Die on September 21, one of the events in Opera Philadelphia’s Festival O19.  I still do not know what to call it: an opera event, a music theater piece, performance art; or as OP stated, this “ensemble performance collage is at once a festive meditation, strange ritual, and morbid medley of epic proportions”.  I prefer to think of it as academic opera, in this case, exploring opera for underlying meaning in operatic death scenes, with insights and case-supporting snippets of operas. 

Joseph Keckler, creator of  Let Me Die . Photo by Johanna Austin; courtesy of Opera Philadelphia.

Joseph Keckler, creator of Let Me Die. Photo by Johanna Austin; courtesy of Opera Philadelphia.

Let Me Die was cosponsored by Philadelphia’s Fringe Arts as part of their 2019 festival.  The Fringe Arts mission is to expose “audiences to genre-defying dance, theater, and music performances by accomplished and emerging innovators who push the boundaries of art-making and redefine the artistic landscape worldwide.”  The two festivals are indeed complementary.

Mr. Keckler gives several reasons for his interest in opera death scenes, perhaps most amusing is that he was born on the anniversary of the Day of the Dead, but most germane is his training in singing opera.  As a student he was required to learn “Lasciatemi morire” (in English, “Let me die”), an aria that survived from a lost Monteverdi opera.  His takeaway lesson from the experience was that to sing opera is to die.  I wish he had thought more deeply about that.  His collaborator and arranger for Let Me Die is Matthew Dean Marsh.  This work was developed as part of Keckler’s residency at University of Michigan Stamps School of Art & Design; its academic roots were also in evidence as a list of references was distributed to the audience prior to the performance.

Joseph Keckler. Photo by Johanna Austin; courtesy of Opera Philadelphia.

Joseph Keckler. Photo by Johanna Austin; courtesy of Opera Philadelphia.

Let Me Die is based on a viable premise for skits: death scenes are crucial to opera, and viewed out of context, they are edgy and easy prey for humor.  He asserts that they are the most important part of an opera, the scene we all wait for, an assertion mildly amusing for fun, but a stretch too far if he is serious.  I am usually waiting for the scene where the soprano sings my favorite aria; I tend to only look forward to the death scene when it is the bad guy getting his comeuppance.  But Mr. Keckler collects these scenes and categorizes them and presents them to his audience one after another, sort of a “Keckler’s Catalog of Death by Opera”, again a mildly amusing basis for a stand-up routine and maybe a neat coffee-table book or a good date-night presentation on a college campus.  He mentioned that three-quarters of opera death scenes had women dying; that might have been more meaningfully explored.  Throughout the 90-minute performance, Lavinia Pavlish on violin and William Kim on piano contributed expertly to the production; they even had their own death scene.

Mr. Keckler then goes a step further by wondering what the cumulative effect might be of viewing a production consisting of only opera death scenes, removing the extraneous material and getting, in his words, right to the good stuff.  When he presented this hypothesis, I wondered whether it indeed might have a cumulative effect; he still had me at that point.  I think, however, he failed to properly consider that catalogs are only interesting for so long, especially if the viewer doesn’t connect with that many of the items in the catalog.  The lyrics lost much of their sting separate from their lead ups. As the evening wore on, my interest waned.  Based on my wife’s response, it was clear that the waning of interest for this performance was proportional to how many of the operas you knew and could identify; she is not an opera fan to the extent that I am and got bored.  For me, deaths without their lead ups was just a pile-up of disparate corpses for whom we knew or mostly knew the names, and no other meaning surfaced.  The exercise grew tedious after awhile. The audience was expected to be familiar with opera, but that also means a knowledgeable audience is expecting to learn or experience something new about opera, a high bar. 

l to r : Veronica Chapman-Smith, Augustine Mercante, and Natalie Levin. Photo by Johanna Austin; courtesy of Opera Philadelphia.

l to r: Veronica Chapman-Smith, Augustine Mercante, and Natalie Levin. Photo by Johanna Austin; courtesy of Opera Philadelphia.

To begin the performance, Mr. Keckler came out and without comment, stepped up on a chair, spotlight now shining on his face; he sang the last couple of lines of Tosca in falsetto, and jumped off the chair, collapsing on the floor.  The opening was funny enough with a slap stick appeal, plus Mr. Keckler has a dramatic presence and rather a beautiful voice.  I wonder why he has not focused his career on singing opera; on the hand, if he wants to be a professor, I’d happily take his class.  He then tried a few jokes and went through a few more death scenes, throwing in some songs of his own.  His singing and antics held my interest during his monologue, always wondering what might come next.  Unexpectedly, he then spun the lectern around, revealing it was lined in coffin fashion, and he laid down for the remainder of the program (and ouch, bumping his head on the make-shift coffin); even that was mildly amusing for a while.  I expected his repose to be brief, but it lasted for the remainder (majority) of the program; his participation was missed.

Natalie Levin, Veronica Chapman-Smith, and Augustine Mercante. Photo by Johanna Austin; courtesy of Opera Philadelphia.

Natalie Levin, Veronica Chapman-Smith, and Augustine Mercante. Photo by Johanna Austin; courtesy of Opera Philadelphia.

Three singers, mezzo-soprano Natalie Levin, soprano Veronica Chapman-Smith, and countertenor Augustine Mercante, came out as reinforcements to continue the march of death scenes, this time with arias grouped into categories, such as icons, couples, and witches.  Grouping them didn’t seem to add much meaning; it might have helped if Mr. Keckler had revived to add some context.  At this point it seemed a game of name that tune or aria.  The singers’ costumes were colorful and identified the performers, but otherwise made no apparent connection to the proceedings; one could get catty about the costumes.  The singers moved about and mimed some stage action, which added a bit of visual interest.  The vignettes came and went before I could emotionally connect with the scenes.  Still, about ten minutes into this group’s medley, I started to just enjoy the singing, and I thank them for that; evidently, the human voices were making a connection, but I think to opera, not death.  The ending involved dancer Saori Tsukada appearing as death (?), gracefully walking across the stage, killing the remaining singers and musicians with a wave of her hand, and finally approaching the audience for an anticlimactic finish (maybe next time have her wave her hand and drop black confetti from the ceiling onto the audience); again, I felt that Mr. Keckler should have been there at the ending to tie it all together – it’s his show.  A professor friend of mine says that when he lectures, he tells them what he is going to say; then he says it, and then, he tells them what he said.  Performance art may need a non-verbal equivalent.

O19 was another huge success for Opera Philadelphia.  Three of the four events I attended were stellar, and all of them maintained my opinion of Opera Philadelphia as an opera leader, perhaps the opera leader in the US today. Anticipating O19, I was curious about Let Me Die, and I’m glad I got to see it. In fact, I enjoyed it as an event, even though I don’t think it lived up to its promise. Mr. Keckler himself still shows promise.  Even if my response to Let Me Die is that it didn’t measure up, I am pleased that Opera Philadelphia/Fringe Arts gave Mr. Keckler the opportunity to further develop his work and present it.  OP must take chances in order to let opera evolve.  Some avenues are not going to pan out, and that’s okay.  In fact, it is more than okay; it is critical to the encouragement of the next generation of creative artists. 

The Fan Experience:  Festival O19, five different productions over twelve days, ran September 18-29.  This is part IV of my reports on four events I attended, part I on Semele, part II on The Love of Three Oranges, and part III on Denis & Katya

Let Me Die started 15 minutes late; I wanted to start a chant, “we’re dying out here.”  For this event, we changed hotels and stayed at the Holiday Inn Penn Landing which is adjacent to the Fringe Arts Theatre and made it convenient to hop on I95 South the next morning, an excellent choice.

The dates for Festival O20 have already been posted: September 17-27, 2020.  Block those off on your calendar now.  I’ve attended parts of O17, O18, and O19 and loved them all.  The festival events will likely be announced in early 2020.  Philadelphia is a great city to visit just for the food, historical sights, and the arts. 

Opera Philadelphia’s Festival O19, part III: Breaking News

What a fake news headline! This news in this new opera isn’t breaking.  I mean the story of Denis and Katya is like sooooo yesterday, IMHO.  Why would we want to spend our time on news from 2016 for God’s sake.  That’s ancient history.  I mean get online and get with the times already.  There are thousands of stories happening right now and we can watch and even talk to the actors, I mean people involved.  Denis and Katya were jerks, though it was fun to watch them thumb their noses at everybody. But let’s move on.  I do wish she had showed us her tits.

The world premiere of  Denis & Katya  presents the story of a real-life event…really. Photo by Dominic M. Mercier; courtesy of Opera Philadelphia.


The world premiere of Denis & Katya presents the story of a real-life event…really. Photo by Dominic M. Mercier; courtesy of Opera Philadelphia.

Disturbing paragraph, right? I’ve been thinking about Opera Philadelphia’s “new opera” entry into Festival O19.  It’s titled Denis & Katya.  Its composer is Philip Venables and the librettist is Ted Huffman.  For some odd reason, as I thought about it this morning, I found myself in voyeur space, not involved with the story, just viewing it in my head and becoming a heckler.  How might a voyeur write about this opera, seeing the characters as objects in a computer game?  I drew my deliberately provocative first paragraph above from themes in the opera itself.  The shocking last line is from a comment sent to Katya as she streamed their standoff with Russian police and special forces on the worldwide internet using her cellphone, just before she and her friend and fellow high schooler Denis died.  They built a large audience, a popular but brief show on the internet. Some online watchers even sent comments that they should kill themselves, that that was what they deserved.  I don’t know if the comments were all taunting ones; I don’t recall seeing any in the opera that offered any sympathy or comfort or assurance they could get through this if they turned themselves in.  The opera only reported the police as telling them to put down their weapons and come out.  The opera uses verbatim text.

Theo Hoffman and Siena Licht Miller each play all six characters. Photo by Dominic M. Mercier; courtesy of Opera Philadelphia.

Theo Hoffman and Siena Licht Miller each play all six characters. Photo by Dominic M. Mercier; courtesy of Opera Philadelphia.

The composer and librettist picked up on their story from a news feed and became increasingly drawn to it.  Opera Philadelphia gave them the opportunity to turn it into what became a 70-minute chamber opera.  Denis and Katya, two Russian, apparently normal 16-year-olds, became friends.  After a row with their families, they headed to a relative’s cabin in a small Russian village where they found alcohol and guns and ammunition.  They began a standoff against family, friends, and authorities.  They posted photos, and much of what they did from inside the cabin they streamed using Periscope, an online streaming service.  They shot the cabin’s television to perform for their online audience, shot out a neighbor’s window recklessly, and shot up a police van dangerously with guns and bullets, and shot Katya’s mother in the hip with an air-pistol.  Eventually, the police stormed the cabin and brought out the two teenagers dead from bullet wounds.  Some thought the girl was a hostage. How they died apparently depends on what you prefer to believe: did they commit suicide or did the police kill them?  In researching the story, Mr. Venables and Mr. Huffman traveled to Russia and spoke with several of those involved.  Ksenia Ravvina is a co-creator and translator for the production.

The Journalist portrayed by Theo Hoffman and Siena Licht Miller has a moment on stage accompanied by four cellos. Photo by Dominic M. Mercier; courtesy of Opera Philadelphia.

The Journalist portrayed by Theo Hoffman and Siena Licht Miller has a moment on stage accompanied by four cellos. Photo by Dominic M. Mercier; courtesy of Opera Philadelphia.

What was the story here that the composer and librettist wanted to tell?  With what they had to go on, I think they chose correctly to focus on the developing story as a revelatory event in time that came and went, not on Denis and Katya themselves.  To avoid any appearance of being disrespectful, Denis and Katya are not characters in the opera; they are talked about, but not present.  The events are related by two singers, a mezzo-soprano and a baritone, who play six different roles from among those who witnessed the event – journalist, friend, neighbor, teenager, teacher, and medic.  Each role is played by both singers with different singing and speaking parts, and texting between the composer and librettist is displayed on a screen as the opera progresses.  Mr. Venables has called it role-play theater.  Electronic, digital sounds and video footage as well as lighting effects were used to enhance the story telling. It is told as a docu-opera.  The singers were dressed in clothes as you might see them in the mall.  It offers something new to the realm of how opera can tell a story.

Theo Hoffman and Siena Licht Miller move about in playing the roles. Photo by Dominic M. Mercier; courtesy of Opera Philadelphia.

The singers in Saturday’s matinee were mezzo-soprano Siena Licht Miller and baritone Theo Hoffman, two excellent young performers with strong, beautiful voices.  The acting and singing of both enhanced my enjoyment of the opera, though I never quite got comfortable with the male-female role switching for the same character.  I was, however, highly impressed with their ability for rapid fire switching between characters and immediately displaying the moods/temperaments of the next character.  Their voices conveyed the emotion that reporting does not, the crux I suspect of why this story was told as an opera. 

Mr. Venables’ choice for the music was four cellos, placing one each in the four corners of the stage, cellos because of the moods they evoke and their placement to add drama as they played individually or in combinations and four because he wanted the opera to be an easy one to take on tour.  It reminded me of the dramatic impact of a single cello passage in the aria “La momma morta” from the opera Andrea Chenier. There is different music for the different characters. My wife thought composer Venables deserved kudos for the progression of the music, especially towards the end. Mr. Venables’ strategy works and the music is supportive of the drama and is also engaging to the ear.  Also kudos to Emily Senturia, who directed the cellists. 

Shapes and footage as well as text appear on the screens. Photo by Dominic M. Mercier; courtesy of Opera Philadelphia.

Shapes and footage as well as text appear on the screens. Photo by Dominic M. Mercier; courtesy of Opera Philadelphia.

Since the opera, I still wonder what actually happened and what role the internet audience played.  Why did Denis and Katya want their story streamed?  What role did knowing that they were being watched play in the way events unfolded?  What influence did the commenters have on them and on the authorities?  (Suppose Hannibal Lechter was commenting on Twitter or a streaming service even when he was out of sight: Clarice, why didn’t your mother love you?)  I saw a comment the other day that pointed to the scary realization that the worst of us are now connected with the best of us.  Some commenters wanted to know if it was all fake.  If Denis and Katya thought that an audience might come to their rescue, they could not have been more wrong.  There was no resolution in the opera beyond death and an ending of the story, and that is still unsatisfying and unsettling.  Two teenagers died and we don’t quite know why.  The day after their deaths the audience moved on.  The opera left me sad with the feeling that something had come into modern life that is exerting control over us in a highly impersonal way that we don’t yet understand. 

A text exchange between the composer Philip Venables and the librettist Ted Huffman. Photo by Dominic M. Mercier; courtesy of Opera Philadelphia.

A text exchange between the composer Philip Venables and the librettist Ted Huffman. Photo by Dominic M. Mercier; courtesy of Opera Philadelphia.

Denis & Katya is a hard hitting drama and an outstanding work of art, but let’s place it in a bit of context.  If you only want to hear beautiful melodies and harmonies in arias you will want to listen to again and again, this one is not for you.  It is a small opera in terms of time and scope and ensemble size.  It’s emotional impact is powerful and lingering, but experienced as a story being told; I personally want to see Act II where we meet Denis and Katya. Nonetheless, the tale of Denis and Katya is gripping and the telling of it is inventive and effective, and the music works.  Perhaps most importantly, It speaks to our time, the internet age, a period in human history not just fashionably different, but fundamentally different, in ways we don’t fully comprehend.  To me, this was a different story, more about its audience really, told in a new way, opera helping us to come to grips with this new age.  it is another strong component of Festival O19, and it will stay with you long past your exit from the theater. I am thinking of it as verismo opera for the twenty-first century, and in that way, it is breaking news.

The Fan Experience:   Festival O19, five different productions over twelve days, continues through September 29; performances of Denis&Katya continue through September 29 and tickets are available, but check the website to ensure the singers you wish to see are performing on the date you wish to attend.   Ms. Miller and Mr. Hoffman rotate performances with mezzo-soprano Emily Edmonds and baritone Johnny Herford.  Also check OP’s website carefully for What’s On; the performances are often accompanied by special events, lectures and meetings with those involved.  For example, Denis & Katya did not have a pre-opera talk, but there was a post-opera talk-back. Performances are held in the Suzanne Roberts Theatre, a cozy venue where all the seats are close enough to suit me, but seats way to the side might have a limited view of one of the cello players.  Guest services at 215-732-8400 can answer any questions.

This report is part III;  part l on Semele and part ll on The Love of Three Oranges preceded this one.  I have one more event on my schedule for reports.

Philadelphia is a great city to visit for food, historical sights, and the arts. 

 

Opera Philadelphia Festival O19, part II: Three Oranges Minus Two Oranges Equals?

The answer is one princess because it is a theater problem, not a math problem, but we will get to that in a minute.  One of the joys of Opera Philadelphia’s season-opening festivals each Fall is getting to see works that are either new or not often performed in the US.  OP’s production of The Love of Three Oranges (1921) by Sergei Prokofiev (1891-1953) fits in the not often performed in the US category.  The opera is, however, quite popular in Europe where it is often staged as a children’s opera.  But Friday night in the Academy of Music, it brought madcap zaniness and eruptions of laughter to a largely adult audience that went home as happy as a child.

The Eccentrics announce  The Love of Three Oranges  will be performed. Photo by Kelly & Massa; courtesy of Opera Philadelphia.

The Eccentrics announce The Love of Three Oranges will be performed. Photo by Kelly & Massa; courtesy of Opera Philadelphia.

I think three intertwining elements are at work to make Oranges a success.  First is that we all love fairy tales, the fanciful way we connect with truths about human nature; second, humans seem to innately love to play the fool or laugh at others playing the fool (we are especially amused when we realize that there is a method to the fool’s madness); and finally, the composer and thus, the music, is world class.  The Russian composer Prokofiev wrote only one other opera well known worldwide, War and Peace, but he is renown for his ballets such as Romeo and Juliet and Cinderella, and many orchestral works, especially Peter and the Wolf.  He wrote the libretto for Oranges with Vera Janacopoulos, based on Vsevolod Meyerhold’s adaptation of seventeenth century playwright Carlo Gozzi’s fiaba.  Gozzi’s play used stock commedia dell’arte costumes for different character types and several of these are used in OP’s staging. OP’s productions uses the English adaptation by David Lloyd-Jones, interesting since Prokofiev wrote the libretto in French because he thought Americans would eschew Russian, but I would add important, since the opera moves at a pace that would make keeping up with subtitles taxing, especially since much of the fun is in the visuals.

The King of Clubs played by Scott Conner seeks medical advice for his son. Photo by Kelly & Massa; courtesy of Opera Philadelphia.

The King of Clubs played by Scott Conner seeks medical advice for his son. Photo by Kelly & Massa; courtesy of Opera Philadelphia.

The Eccentrics keep watch and react to the tale’s twists and turns. Photo by Kelly & Massa; courtesy of Opera Philadelphia.

The Eccentrics keep watch and react to the tale’s twists and turns. Photo by Kelly & Massa; courtesy of Opera Philadelphia.

Partly, The Love of Three Oranges is the result of Prokofiev’s determination to be original, to refuse to accept the restrictions of current conventions.  He had the talent to write the sort of works that were in vogue, but not the inclination.  In Oranges, he not only eschews opera conventions, but literary as well, most notably by “breaking the fourth wall” (stages have three walls; the fourth wall is the invisible barrier between the performers and the audience; if a performer directly addresses the audience or comments on the play itself, the fourth wall is broken).  Four groups of characters appear on the stage before the story appears.  Each group expresses their preference for the type of story to be presented: tragedy, comedy, romance, and farce.  They were followed by a group called the Eccentrics who announced the story and expressed the desire that all watch until the end. The Eccentrics broke the fourth wall at least twice by interfering in the story’s direction.  All the groups entered makeshift stands on each side of the stage to react to the parts of the story they liked.  A prince is unhappy, bedridden with depression and potentially fatal hypochondria.  His father, the King of Clubs is worried who will inherit the reign. Plots by family and court members abound to wrest power away from the Prince. Grand attempts to make the Prince laugh fail, until the person least likely to make him laugh does.  For laughing, he is cursed to be obsessively in love with three oranges, and he leaves on a quest to find them.  The three small oranges he finds grow into three very large oranges, each containing a princess.  He falls in love with the last one opened.  I was going to tell you how two oranges were subtracted, but it’s too sad – it’s theater and it had to be done.  Anyway, the dark forces try to interfere, but all ends happily.  Along the way we are entertained by one over the top character after another.  Director Alessandro Talevi had his hands full.  I really liked his synopsis of the meaning of the quest myth printed in the program book: “…only through contact with new, often seemingly dangerous forces, can an individual experience personal growth or maturation.”  He strove to bring forward this message in the mayhem; he even uses references to known personages and partly a wild west setting to do so. Kudos to him.

left photo: The Prince played by Jonathan Johnson is not amused by Truffaldino’s antics, played by Barry Banks. right photo: The evit witch Fata Morgana played by Wendy Bryn Harmer seeks to keep the Prince from laughing. Photos by Kelly & Massa; courtesy of Opera Philadelphia.

Commenting on the singing for this opera is difficult because there are so many singers and because of the nature of the music.  There are sixteen singers named in the program book even without listing the singers in the groups that Prokofiev thought of as the Greek Chorus, whose job is to sing, but also comment on the action; kudos to Chorus Master Elizabeth Braden.  The entire cast gave an excellent performance.  My favorite was bass Zachary James who played the funky chicken with the feline personality, alias The Cook, the possessive and dangerous holder of the three oranges.  Tenor Jonathan Johnson as the Prince gave us all one of the best laughs of the night with his operatic approach to laughter.  Soprano Wendy Bryn Harmer gave us a fierce evil witch Fata Morgana, and tenor Barry Banks as Truffaldino provided much of the energy in his scenes.  The whole affair was anchored by an authoritative King of Clubs played by bass Scott Conner.  Each member of a large cast had their moments. The costumes (Manuel Pedretti), scenic design (Justin Arienti), action design (Ran Arthur Braun), and lighting design (Giuseppe Calabro) were all excellent and contributed to the fun.

The Prince (Jonathan Johnson), Farfarello (Ben Wager), and Truffaldino (Barry Banks) begin their quest to find three oranges. Photos by Kelly & Massa; courtesy of Opera Philadelphia.

The Prince (Jonathan Johnson), Farfarello (Ben Wager), and Truffaldino (Barry Banks) begin their quest to find three oranges. Photos by Kelly & Massa; courtesy of Opera Philadelphia.

Oranges is through composed by Prokofiev.  I’d have to hear it again to know if any themes were repeated.  The action on stage and the music were intimately involved; every movement on stage and every mood change in the story were responded to or anticipated by the music.  I like it for that reason.  The music is melodic and harmonious and to be enjoyed on that basis, but in relatively short discontinuous segments.  It can be tender, raucous, foreboding, whatever is required, in fast succession.  Kudos to Conductor Corrado Rovaris for bringing this music to life and for deft coordination with the action on stage. Mr. Rovaris was also instrumental in getting this opera onto the O19 program. The singing is almost completely recitative to tell the story.  A famous march theme in the opera offered one of the few extended melodies.  The music is so good it can’t be discounted, but it is so integral to the opera that I doubt you will want to play it at home.  Prokofiev did compose The Love for Three Oranges suite abstracted from the opera that is pleasant enough and worth a listen.

The Cook played by Zachary James sings softly but carries a big ladle. Photos by Kelly & Massa; courtesy of Opera Philadelphia.

The Cook played by Zachary James sings softly but carries a big ladle. Photos by Kelly & Massa; courtesy of Opera Philadelphia.

In most fairy tales, the elements of the story and staging are there to sugarcoat the underlying moral of the story.  For Oranges, the moral of the story provides the engine to which the gags are hooked onto.  You can dig more deeply into it; it is claimed to be satirical, but if so, it satirizes everyone.  I prefer to believe Prokofiev’s intent, as he himself was quoted as saying, was for us to enjoy each train car filled with visual and audio fun as the little engine of the story pulls it past us.  All seriousness aside seems to be the point of his opera.

The three oranges, once secured by the Prince (Jonathan Johnson) and Truffaldino (Barry Banks), have grown. Photos by Kelly & Massa; courtesy of Opera Philadelphia.

The three oranges, once secured by the Prince (Jonathan Johnson) and Truffaldino (Barry Banks), have grown. Photos by Kelly & Massa; courtesy of Opera Philadelphia.

I think how you approach this production will affect your response to it.  My wife who loves fairy tales was into it immediately.  I didn’t really start laughing until the Prince did.  I think base-baritone Zach Altman who played prime minister Leander offered a good approach with a comment in the OP study guide, “Don’t try to get the whole experience in one try.  Just let it wash over you.”  In fact, if I lived in Philadelphia, I’d take it in again.

The heart of the Princes (Jonathan Johnson) is captured by Princess Ninetta played by Tiffany Townsend. Photos by Kelly & Massa; courtesy of Opera Philadelphia.

The heart of the Princes (Jonathan Johnson) is captured by Princess Ninetta played by Tiffany Townsend. Photos by Kelly & Massa; courtesy of Opera Philadelphia.

Festival O19 and its two predecessors are seeking to push opera towards its edges and find what it can be.  Sergei Prokofiev was doing the same thing.  It’s a good fit.

The Fan ExperienceFestival O19, five different productions over twelve days, continues through September 29; performances of The Love of Three Oranges continue through September 29 and tickets are available.  Check their website carefully for What’s On; the performances are often accompanied by special events, lectures and meetings with those involved.  One of the special events not to miss is the pre-opera talks occurring one hour prior to performances that provide a excellent orientations to the performances.  The Academy of Music is modest in size for a major opera house, which means all the seats are relatively close to the stage, but I recommend checking with guest services at 215-732-8400 on seat selection for best viewing.

This report is part II; my part I blog post preceded this one.  I have two more events on my schedule for reports.

Philadelphia is a great city to visit for food, historical sights, and the arts. 

 

Opera Philadelphia’s Festival O19, part I: Handel Gets His Sexy Back

And Juno is not happy.  However, if you attend this brilliant production of George Frideric Handel’s Semele (1744), you will be.  If all you need to know is whether it is worth seeing, the answer is yes. It offers a fresh take on baroque opera with an extraordinary cast and the entertainment value of this production hits the top of the scale.  It is a don’t miss component of Opera Philadelphia’s Festival O19 with its theme of rarely presented works.  This production with this cast is worthy of having a run across the country.

Amanda Forsythe as Semele. Photo by Dominic M. Mercier; courtesy of Opera Philadelphia.

Amanda Forsythe as Semele. Photo by Dominic M. Mercier; courtesy of Opera Philadelphia.

After just witnessing two husbands (in Il Tabarro and Cavalleria Rusticana) polish off their rivals who are messing with their wives, I saw on Thursday night a woman do the honors to her husband’s lover.  The guys were violent and the woman a clever god, but jealousy, that green-eyed monster, drives both gods and mortals to exhibit lethality.  Semele is a character in Greek mythology mirrored here in the Roman version.  She turns down a chance to marry a prince and make her father the King happy and everybody in the cult lead a nice, tranquil life.  Instead she runs away with the most powerful god, Jupiter.  Jupiter has a wife, Juno, who learns of his affair.  She sets about a plot to use Semele’s desire to become immortal against her.  Through her intrigue Juno pushes Semele to extract a promise from Jupiter to give her anything she wants.  Semele’s wish is to see Jupiter as a god instead of in human form, hoping she will become immortal.  Semele comes to realize too late that viewing gods in their divine form is fatal to humans.  She bursts into flame; hubris is punished, and the normal order is restored.  Juno is happy, Semele not so much.  That is the way it works with gods and mortals: both sin, but only the humans pay. 

Tim Mead as Athamas, Daniela Mack as Ino and Lindsey Matheis as principal dancer. Photo by Dominic M. Mercier; courtesy of Opera Philadelphia.

Tim Mead as Athamas, Daniela Mack as Ino and Lindsey Matheis as principal dancer. Photo by Dominic M. Mercier; courtesy of Opera Philadelphia.

The libretto for Semele is derived from a drama written thirty years earlier as an opera by poet William Congreve, which itself was based on Ovid’s Metamorphoses.  Congreve’s poetry adds to the arts experience of attending the opera.  Handel composed Semele, a three-hour opera, in about a month’s time; after listening to the music you will find this impossible to believe.  Congreve and Handel’s drafter for the libretto intended it to be performed as an opera, but oratorios were what was selling at that period in London, and Handel designated it be performed in “the manner of an oratorio”.  If that was his strategy, it did not work.   The opera has been performed both ways but was largely ignored altogether after its introduction in 1744 and even today is not often staged, thus fitting O19’s theme.  Handel’s use of a secular story centering on a sexual theme was not welcomed in its day, not evidently a problem for modern day Philadelphia – Handel has got his sexy back.  Opera Philadelphia’s production based on the 2016 Opera Omaha production of Director James Darrah is a company premiere; Mr. Darrah has revised and added to the 2016 version for OP’s festival.  Kudos to him for a marvelous staging.

Daniela Mack as Juno, Sarah Shafer as Iris, and Alex Rosen as Somnus. Photo by Dominic M. Mercier; courtesy of Opera Philadelphia.

Daniela Mack as Juno, Sarah Shafer as Iris, and Alex Rosen as Somnus. Photo by Dominic M. Mercier; courtesy of Opera Philadelphia.

I tend to think of even Handel’s Italian operas as mainly vehicles for outstanding singers to have great arias to sing, so I had wondered how Semele would be staged and whether it would be engaging for three full hours.  Well, the singers in this production don’t just stand around singing with some acting thrown in.  Dance is used heavily for both the singers and chorus to convey emotion, mood, and movement.  Sad at times, funny at times, the choreography is enormously effective at drawing the audience into this surreal world and making us care about both gods and mortals.  Mr. Darrah made one very clever use of dance.  Semele’s sister Ino is in love with the prince Athamas that Semele is supposed to marry.  Ino is rather reserved and Darrah uses a dancer Lindsey Matheis to portray Ino’s feeling-self throughout the opera; when Juno appears to Semele in human form, impersonating Ino, it is the dancer she manipulates to influence Semele.  The staging is further augmented by set design, costumes, and lighting.  The opening set in dark colors and ragged scenery for a cult-like group convey the rigid social order of Semele’s existence and thus the audacity of her relationship with Jupiter.  The cosumes draw a clear distinction between mortals and gods; kudos to Costume Designer Sarah Schuessler.  The use of curtain panels played a significant role in providing a surface for lighting effects and a dramatic moment, dropping one by one from the ceiling; kudos to Emily Anne McDonald and Cameron Jaye Mock for scenic and lighting design.  Projections upon them supported certain scenes, especially the mirror projections during Semele’s aria, “Myself I will adore”; kudos to Adam Larsen for projection design.  The staging made this baroque opera substantially more interesting and compelling than it might have been otherwise.

l to r: Alex Rosen as Cadmus; Amanda Forsythe as Semele. Photos by Dominic M. Mercier; courtesy of Opera Philadelphia.

The small cast of five singers not only sung their roles, they embodied the characters and participated in the dancing.  I am always impressed when singers sing from a supine postion on the floor.  I am even more impressed when they do so while being carried across the stage in a supine position.  Six singers played eight roles.  Here I will confess to being duped.  I knew that Daniela Mack, one of my favorite mezzo-sopranos was playing Ino, but I had overlooked the fact that she also sings the role of Juno.  During the opera I was so impressed with the singer playing Juno that I was looking forward to looking up her background, egg on my face for me, but a genuine compliment for Ms. Mack.  See if you readily recognize that it is the same singer in the two very different roles.  While you are at it, see if you think baritone Alex Rosen, who also plays two roles, makes a better Cadmus, the King, or Somnus, the god of sleep.  He is excellent in both, but I adored his performance as the sleepy Somnus.  OP has maintained a tradition of using these double roles. While mentioning double roles, note the outstanding chorus also supplied the excellent dance crew that were moving about the stage just about all the time and carrying the lead singers around quite often.  Their choral number near the end made me think I would be willing to pay just to hear this group sing by themselves; kudos to Chorus Master Elizabeth Braden.  It was an impressive supporting group performance. 

In listening to my CD of Semele with Kathleen Battle my focus has been on the singing, but at this performance I also found myself appreciating Handel’s music more.  I thought it had much more variety and complexity than I have realized, and yet it has arias you will go home humming.  Kudos to Conductor Gary Thor Wedow for presenting the music in such a compelling way from a group of only about twenty players, mainly using period instruments, including a harpsichord and archlute.

The lead role in Semele is Semele, so much so that it is often viewed as a showpiece opera for light, lyric sopranos with beautiful voices.  With all the singers giving such strong performances, I was starting to wonder about that assessment.  However, in the second half, soprano Amanda Forsythe showed why this is her opera.  As I listened to her trill and melisma her way through “Myself I will adore” and other arias, sometimes at a patter pace, I sat there thinking I will never hear this again; what she just did is hers alone and I am glad I was there to hear it.   

Okay, suppose you have an arena full of candidates to play Jupiter and you want to pick the one that looks most like the most powerful god.  Believe me, you would pick tenor Alek Shrader (my wife confirms this).  Not saying that’s what OP did, because the thing is that he also sings and acts beautifully.  Countertenor Tim Mead who played Prince Athamas also turned in a fine performance; in one of his melodic moments, the purity of his voice made me want to sigh.  Rounding out a strong cast was mezzo-soprano Sarah Shafer who played a funny, delightful Iris, assistant to Juno; with her clear, bright tone, she appeared to me to be ready to take on lead roles.  Overall, the cast for OP’s Semele did more than hold up its end of the bargain.

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Alek Shrader as Jupiter. Photo by Dominic M. Mercier; courtesy of Opera Philadelphia.

Sadly, I did not get to see Semele burst into flames, but then, was that really so important?  At the end the gods were certainly cool about it.  To sort of make amends and give a big finish…well, I will let you view that for yourself.

I will end with additional kudos to Opera Philadelphia and Director James Darrah, first for treating sexual themes in a sexy, but not a salacious way and for not moralizing, just telling the story.  In doing so and by supporting its hummable arias and often toe-tapping music with a presentation that connects strongly with today’s audience…well, after a couple of hundred years, Semele may have found its time.

The Fan Experience: Opera Philadelphia’s annual opera festivals that lead off their seasons have become an annual event for my family.  Festival O19, five different productions over twelve days, continues through September 29; performances of Semele continue through September 28 and tickets are getting scarce.  Check their website carefully for What’s On; the performances are often accompanied by special events, lectures and meetings with those involved.  One of the special events not to miss is the pre-opera talks occurring one hour prior to performances that provide a excellent orientations to the performances. This report is part 1; I have three more events on my schedule.

Philadelphia is a great city to visit for food, historical sights, and the arts. 

 

MDLO’s Il Tabarro and Cavalleria Rusticana: This Time the Veterans Show How It’s Done

Suburban Maryland now has a hometown opera company (I’m talking to you Bethesda, College Park, Kensington, Rockville, Silver Spring, and Wheaton).  And folks, the hometown opera company can bring it!

Maryland Lyric Opera is known for training up young opera singers to start them on the road to regular employment and stardom, but the MDLO brain trust is an impressive contingent of veteran opera and classical musicians with connections to other performers who have been there and done that.  They know quality and can attract it.  On Saturday night, they called on an impressive array of veteran performers with a few of the youngsters thrown in.  Not only did MDLO bring it, but they brought it in force.  In addition to the singers, there was an 80-person chorus led by veteran Chorus Master Steven Gathman and an 80-piece orchestra with Concertmaster Jose Cueto, led by veteran Conductor Louis Salemno.  Both talent and experience were on full display in the concert performance of Giacomo Puccini’s Il Tabarro (1918, librettist Giuseppe Adami) and Pietro Mascagni’s Cavalleria Rusticana (1890, librettists Giovanni Targioni-Tozzetti and Guido Menasci).  In the few previous years of their existence, I might have referred to MDLO performances as undiscovered gems, but based on the crowd Saturday night, I’d say word is getting around.

Baritone Mark Delavan who played Michele in  Il Tabarro  and Alfio in  Cavalleria Rusticana . Photo courtesy of Maryland Lyric Opera.

Baritone Mark Delavan who played Michele in Il Tabarro and Alfio in Cavalleria Rusticana. Photo courtesy of Maryland Lyric Opera.

Il Tabarro is a portrait of a loving relationship gone bad all the way to a tragic ending when an emotionally-estranged barge captain on the river Seine realizes his wife is having an affair.  Tabarro, like Cavalleria Rusticana, is a short, one-act opera that is often paired with another short opera to serve out an evening.  In fact, it is part of Puccini’s trilogy of short works titled Il Trittico; the other two are Suor Angelica and Gianni Schicchi.  Pietro Mascagni might appear to be a one-hit wonder and might not be even that, but for his wife.  He wrote Cavalleria Rusticana for a one-act opera competition.  He had doubts and was considering using another of his works, when his wife submitted it for him, and it won.  CR is also about a love gone bad, and in fact, this opera led a shift to the verismo (realism) style of Italian opera that focused on the problems and often harsh conditions encountered by everyday people.  Mascagni did have some smaller successes as a composer (L’Amico Fritz is still performed) and also led a very successful conducting career.  Both Il Tabarro and Cavalleria Rusticana are masterworks and well worth giving a listen. My guess is that some of the music in CR will be familiar even if you haven’t attended the opera before. We are fortunate to have MDLO bring them to us in concert mode where the focus is on the music and the singing, and with a full orchestra and chorus, a rare opportunity. 

Tenor Yi Li as Luigi and soprano Jill Gardner as Giorgetta in  Il Tabarro . Photo courtesy of Maryland Lyric Opera.

Tenor Yi Li as Luigi and soprano Jill Gardner as Giorgetta in Il Tabarro. Photo courtesy of Maryland Lyric Opera.

I do have one small suggestion based on personal preference.  Listening to Puccini’s Il Tabarro followed directly by listening to Cavalleria Rusticana is like listening to an Aerosmith album, then following it with one by Van Halen.  I love them both, but not since I was in the under-thirty demographic would I listen to two hard rock albums back to back.  Both Il Tabarro and Cavalleria Rusticana are about husbands who get angry, like really, really angry because their wives are cheating on them and apply the Italian solution to their rivals.  It’s intense and the music is often driving and eruptive.  And keep in mind the number of performers on the stage is approaching two hundred!  Both of these musical experiences are powerful.  This is not a criticism; it is a plea for mercy.  Okay, I am over emphasizing this aspect a bit; there is variety in Il Tabarro’s music, a rather interesting variety, and Cavalleria Rusticana begins gently and has a lovely, tranquil intermezzo before Alfio’s denouement.  With a three-hour opera, the moods are dictated, but when you have a choice, why not take more advantage of that terrific orchestra: say, warm me up with a mixed program of opera/musical pieces, starting with Smetana’s Moldau, then hit me with either Il Tabarro or Cavalleria Rusticana, bring me down easy with Barber’s Adagio for Strings or something similar, and then leave me happy with the Marriage of Figaro overture.  Let me believe it was all a dream and nobody got killed.  Even Puccini ended Il Trittico with a comedy.  For two years in a row now, the MDLO Orchestra has shown it can dazzle us with extraordinary playing and a rich, powerful sound.  Now it is time to romance us a little.

Tenor Jonathan Burton as Tirrudu and soprano Susan Bullock as Santuzza in  Cavalleria Rusticana . Photo courtesy of Maryland Lyric Opera.

Tenor Jonathan Burton as Tirrudu and soprano Susan Bullock as Santuzza in Cavalleria Rusticana. Photo courtesy of Maryland Lyric Opera.

Okay, the music was great; what about the singers?  For me personally, it is mainly the sopranos that keep me going back to the opera house, but Saturday night, I have to admit that it was the guys whose stars shown the brightest.  In Il Tabarro, baritone Mark Delavan delivered an authentic portrayal of the Parisian boat captain Michele, who off’s his wife’s lover, Luigi, in a macabre finish worthy of Alfred Hitchcock.  Powerful in both voice and appearance, he was on point communicating both his pain and anger, sufficient to cause me to feel a moment of sympathy for him, all the while projecting the threat of a shark circling in the water.  He even showed a magnanimous side, giving up his coat to cover Luigi’s corpse at the end (actually to briefly hide it, but we quibble).  Importantly, he was able to ride the crest of the music from the full orchestra that occasionally slightly submerged some of the other singers.  Kudos to Mr. Delavan on a bravura performance.  Not far behind was soprano Jill Gardner’s performance as his wife Giorgetta.  I love the timbre of Ms. Gardner’s soprano, and she sings with great beauty and emotion.  Young tenor and MDLO graduate Yi Li served capably as Luigi.  Another stand out was young mezzo-soprano Allegra de Vita, who sang the role of La Frugola, wife of stevedore Talpa, with a lovely, clear voice.  She also sang the role of Mama Lucia in Cavalleria Rusticana; with hair up and wearing a more matronly dress, she projected an entirely different attitude.  In two polished and quite different performances, she showed she has mastered her recent training and is on her way to stardom (don’t miss her in MDLO’s Thaïs later this season).   

Bass-baritone Jake Gardner as Talpa and mezzo-soprano Allegra De Vita as La Frugola in  Il Tabarro  (she also played Mama Lucia in  Cavalleria Rusticana ). Photo courtesy of Maryland Lyric Opera.

Bass-baritone Jake Gardner as Talpa and mezzo-soprano Allegra De Vita as La Frugola in Il Tabarro (she also played Mama Lucia in Cavalleria Rusticana). Photo courtesy of Maryland Lyric Opera.

A supporting cast filled out and enhanced the performance of Il Tabarro, including veteran base-baritone Jake Gardner as Talpa, recent MDLO trainees, tenor Joseph Michael Brent as Tinca and tenor Mauricio Miranda as song seller/young lover, and Madeleine Gray and Luciana Cecille as Una Donna.  There was a bit of staging proffered in addition to the placement of Michele’s coat.  The song seller was in the chorus balcony along with seven Mindinettes (members of the female chorus); impressively, the harp was also there for Il Tabarro.  There was also an off-stage chorus of stevedores contributing.  Lost of course, in a concert version, is some of the charm and story enhancement of these side characters, and use of different character placements adds welcome variety.  The full chorus did not appear on stage until Cavalleria Rusticana.  To add drama and irony, the action takes place outside a church during Easter Sunday Mass, a setting that gave Mascagni an opportunity to work in some beautiful choral numbers.

In CR, soprano Susan Bullock played the role of Santuzza, jilted lover of Turiddu.  Ms. Bullock, a very popular headliner in Great Britain, has a beautiful voice that can soar, but her voice really excels in the gentler, highly expressive passages.  On occasion, I had to concentrate to get its full measure against MDLO orchestra’s powerful backdrop.  Jonathan Burton stepped up with a strong, bright, clear tenor voice, bringing Turiddu fully to life, another bravura performance that was a delight.  Mr. Delavan again delivered an excellent performance in the role of the outraged husband, Alfio.  Newcomer soprano Joowon Chae brought a fresh, colorful voice to the role of Lola, who despite being married, had jealously drawn Turiddu away from Santuzza.  The youngsters were all good, but on that night, it was the veterans that showed us what opera can be.

A few years ago, I went to an opera concert while visiting Vienna, Austria.  It was held in a palace but had the feel of a hometown performance.  The singers were in the employ of the company and appeared often there.  It seemed to me that for that audience this was a regular thing, for entertainment, go to the opera, particularly that opera company.  It was a marvelous experience.  I wondered why more companies didn’t use repeat performers.  It’s fun to see favorites perform in different roles.  Many of the singers on Saturday night were in last year’s MDLO concert performance of La Fanciulla del West, including Bullock, Burton, Delavan, and Gardner.  Additionally, I have seen Ms. Gardner in two performances with Virginia Opera.  It was also a pleasure to see Allegra De Vita again; she is a recent member of the Domingo Cafritz Young Artists at the Kennedy Center and has performed in several Washington National Opera productions.  Most of the young singers have performed in previous MDLO concerts.  So, the evening’s experience felt familiar and that felt good to me, a hometown feel. 

I have found Maryland Lyric Opera to consistently deliver quality arts experiences with high entertainment value, using either veteran singers or their recent trainees.  And if you want to make them your hometown opera, what’s wrong with that?

The Fan Experience: The Music Center at Strathmore is a great place to attend concerts -a beautiful, modern concert hall, free parking in the evenings and relatively easy in/easy out.  For fully staged operas, MDLO uses the Kay Theatre on the campus of the University of Maryland, College Park.

Shot of the stage during intermission showing the orchestra and chorus. Photo by author’s spouse, Deb Rogers (fiammatravels.com).

Shot of the stage during intermission showing the orchestra and chorus. Photo by author’s spouse, Deb Rogers (fiammatravels.com).

MDLO presented the same program again on Sunday afternoon, but had the lead performers change roles, e.g., Ms. Bullock played Giorgetta and Ms. Gardner played Santuzza.  This appears to be a breakout season for Maryland Lyric Opera, with expanded offerings for 2019-2020, including concerts by the MDLO Orchestra; one is with famed pianist Leon Fleisher.  Their next performance will be the MDLO Young Artist Institute in Concert on November 1.

 

 

 

 

Santa Fe Opera 2019, part III: A Primal Cosi fan tutte

(This is part III of a three-part series based on an August 2019 trip to attend two operas at the Santa Fe Opera.  Part I on The Fan Experience was posted previously and followed by part II, reporting on the premiere of The Thirteenth Child.

Cosi fan tutte  illustration; image by Stuart McReath; courtesy of the Santa Fe Opera.

Cosi fan tutte illustration; image by Stuart McReath; courtesy of the Santa Fe Opera.

Sometimes you get surprised, and sometimes, it’s even a good surprise.  The world premiere of The Thirteenth Child was the opera we went to Santa Fe to see.  Cosi fan tutte was an add on because we were going to be there a few days and thought it would be fun to see two operas in our first trip to the Santa Fe Opera.  Don’t get me wrong, Cosi is a great opera, and I anticipated that it would be enjoyable as always, for the music if nothing else.  I knew it was going to be a “modernized” Cosi, which always makes me skeptical, but we were getting to see it at the Santa Fe Opera, a treat all by itself.  In fact, SFO’s Cosi fan tutte turned out to be “the” opera to see, in my opinion, and my favorite Cosi so far.

This opera is one of the big three by composer Amadeus Wolfgang Mozart and librettist Lorenzo da Ponte (along with The Marriage of Figaro and Don Giovanni); this libretto, unlike the other two, is original with da Ponte, though the plot device of testing a mate’s fidelity was not.  The story is simple but requires two leaps of faith, one that all this happens in a day, and two, that the boys’ and the maid’s disguises are adequate to deceive the girls.  One also has to set aside moral judgement of the two young men; it’s a comedy, remember?  Well okay, as listed by Mssrs. Mozart and da Ponte, a “drama giocoso” that has been described as a playful/serious duality.  Regardless, your suspension of disbelief is well rewarded, until you realize even you have been duped, as your anticipation of laughs is replaced by anxiety.  Two young men, Guglielmo and Ferrando, enter into a bet with a more mature and cynical acquaintance Don Alfonso that their girlfriends Fiordiligi and Dorabella will remain faithful to them when tempted.  Alfonso enlists the young women’s maid, Despina, in his plan to make them believe that their young gentlemen have joined the army and have departed, then have the guys return disguised as two different suitors to test the girls’ faithfulness.  Played as comical with a bit of slapstick thrown in, the disturbing undertones slowly rise to the surface and ends with everyone wiser, but no one happy.  Cosi’s themes and messages ran against the zeitgeist of the 19th century, and the opera was disdained as lewd and immoral, unworthy of Mozart’s genius and its music co-opted for other productions.  It was only until, roughly, the 1930’s that it became regularly produced and is now one of the more popular operas.  It is remarkable how the estimation of a work’s greatness depends on the century from which it is viewed.  Audiences and performance art are co-dependent; do you realize when you attend a performance you are a participant in the making of art?  I digress.

l to r : Fiordiligi (Amanda Majeski), Guglielmo (Jarrett Ott), Don Alfonso (Rod Gilfry), Ferrando (Ben Bliss), and Dorabella (Emily D’Angelo). Photo by Ken Howard; courtesy of Santa Fe Opera.

l to r: Fiordiligi (Amanda Majeski), Guglielmo (Jarrett Ott), Don Alfonso (Rod Gilfry), Ferrando (Ben Bliss), and Dorabella (Emily D’Angelo). Photo by Ken Howard; courtesy of Santa Fe Opera.

During her pre-opera talk, Cori Ellison, SFO dramaturg extraordinaire, declared that the cast for this Cosi was a dream team.  I assumed her assertion was to some degree company hype, but in fact, it was spot on.  Each performer in a six-member cast deserved this superlative as part of their praise, a member of the Cosi dream team.  Fiordiligi was brilliantly played by soprano Amanda Majeski, who I heard sing as Countess Almaviva in DC three years ago.  She was good then; she is even better now!   A commanding stage presence was united with her beautiful, expressive voice.  Her lover Guglielmo played by baritone Jarrett Ott was well cast and matched his companions in quality of performance.   A riveting portrayal of Dorabella was given by mezzo-soprano Emily D’Angelo, the winner of the 2018 Operalia competition; she demonstrates remarkable on-stage confidence.  With a beautiful voice and singing, she made Dorabella’s transformation possibly the most poignant of the group.  Tenor Ben Bliss played her lover Ferrando, completing a quartet of outstanding performances.  Not to be outdone, baritone Rod Gilfry as Don Alfonso and veteran soprano Tracy Dahl as Despina carved their own niches in a powerhouse cast - Ms. Dahl was clearly an audience favorite.  Each sang well and served effectively as cynical counterpoint to the naïve young lovers.  Honestly, I can offer nothing but praise for all the arias and recitatives.  Name your favorite Cosi aria; it was well done.  Mozart was also the master of ensemble singing and Cosi is filled with duets, trios, quartets, quintets, and sextets.  As good as all the voices were individually, they sounded as good or better when singing together.  They were joined by a capable off-stage chorus (Chorus Master Susanne Sheston).  Kudos to the cast and Mr. Mozart.  Conductor Harry Bickett directed a lively orchestral performance that supported the vocals well but was worthy of listening to on its own.  I am also going to make the case that SFO’s staging of this opera was outstanding, but clearly, singing of this caliber could override the deficiencies of just about any production, so bear that in mind.

l to r: Amanda Majeski as Fiordiligi and Jarrett Ott as Guglielmo embracing Emily D’Angelo as Dorabella. Photos by Ken Howard; courtesy of Santa Fe Opera.

Take away scenery; take away period costumes.  Instead have grey walls and flooring, with a couple of escape hatches on the floor and a couple of access windows on the narrowing sides, simple costumes (e.g., tennis whites, suits, cowboy jeans and jackets) changed each scene (scenic design by Paul Tate Depoo III), but revealing a more modern, but unspecified time and place.  What have you got?  The set for Director R. B. Schlather’s Cosi fan tutte.  Why was this barren landscape Mr. Schlather’s choice?  He wanted to take away the familiar that brings with it ingrained presuppositions, so that we could see more clearly what is going on with the characters who have converged on this journey together; movie travel dramas attempt something similar.  Peeling back the layers of expectations imposed by epoch and status in society puts the spotlight on the inter-working of human hearts and relationships, revealing their truths (that, frankly, don’t seem to have changed that much over 200 years, which is why classic operas are still relevant today, even when cloaked in their own time).  It also strips away excuses; each character must own their actions.  Without the attachment to another time or place, Don Alfonso, Despina, Gulielmo, Ferrando, Fiordiligi, and Dorabella all felt more like soul mates this time through.

The movement and placement of characters in each scene was choreographed to carry messages.  The lighting on stage carried those messages as well; a humorous example occurred when Despina took center stage to lecture the girls; she signaled for a spotlight and one appeared, though generally the lighting effects were more subtle; kudos to Jax Messenger for lighting design.  The costumes carried messages also and as my wife noted, they freed lots of bare arms and legs, allowing the players to move about and use their bodies to express themselves in ways not possible shrouded in the typically heavy raiment of the classics. Dance poses and moves were employed; kudos to Terese Wadden for costume design.  Luckily Bliss, Ott, Majeski, and D’Angelo were all young and in excellent shape because athleticism was required, rolling and tumbling about on the floor, jumping in and out of openings.  A couple of scenes that come to mind – Dorabella and Fiordiligi being drawn as if by a magnet to new suitors departing from sight; Dorabella rolling about on the floor while delivering a sensational aria; and Don Alfonso’s cowboy entrance, giving a tip of the hat to the production’s locale.  Perhaps the most searing image for me was of Dorabella, after her fall from grace, standing at the back of the stage, dressed in a classy, sexy suit that announced her new, worldly-wise sophistication.  In the end, even Despina was unhappy with her victory, but Alfonso crowns his cynicism by pouring liquor (water?) over each of the heads of the crew whose innocence he has smashed, and each of them then exited the stage single file…to what?  I learned that a lot can be done with a blank stage.

Rod Gilfry as Don Alfonso opening  Cosi  with a tip of the hat to the southwest. Photo by Ken Howard; courtesy of Santa Fe Opera.

Rod Gilfry as Don Alfonso opening Cosi with a tip of the hat to the southwest. Photo by Ken Howard; courtesy of Santa Fe Opera.

Somehow, I feel there must be a name for this type of opera production that falls somewhere between concert opera (which I adore), where the singing and music are the focus, and grand opera, where we get the whole ball of wax.  Some term for opera set adrift in time and space, but not lacking movement.  How about “primal” opera?

Kudos to the Santa Fe Opera and their brilliant cast, and I’m so glad that we included Cosi in this trip.  Ya know, Cosi fan tutte doesn’t translate well but essentially means “thus do all women”.  However, Cosi’s impact does not allow anyone to leave with a feeling of moral superiority; more human, yes, but superior, no.. One could argue that the opera would be more appropriately named “Cosi fan tutti” or “thus do we all”. Thankfully, SFO did allow us to leave without pouring anything on our heads.

Farewell to Santa Fe Opera this season. Thanks for a great experience. (Santa Fe Opera illustration. Image by Stuart Mcreath; courtesy of Santa Fe Opera.)

Farewell to Santa Fe Opera this season. Thanks for a great experience. (Santa Fe Opera illustration. Image by Stuart Mcreath; courtesy of Santa Fe Opera.)

 The Fan Experience: I covered this aspect in Part I of this series; take a look if you don’t know what a wonderful ride the Santa Fe Opera is.  My single caution is that if you are buying tickets that are way on the side, like for just about any opera house, inquire from the ticket office whether you will lose sight of a small portion of the stage, not a major consideration and those side seats are a bargain, but unpleasant if you are surprised.  I found driving to, parking, and exiting SFO to be relatively straightforward. The SFO website is comprehensive in providing all the logistics info you need, including the fact that the nights in the desert in an open-air theater can get chilly. The pre-opera talks are exceptional and are given both one and two hours before the performance. Food is available, including a special purchase, elegant buffet dinner with its own pre-opera talk, but also consider tailgating, an SFO tradition.

SFO’s new season, July and August 2020, has already been announced. If you want to enrich your arts and cultural experience even more, consider visiting while the 99th annual Santa Fe Indian Market is occurring, August 15-16, 2020.

Santa Fe Opera 2019, Part II: The Thirteenth Child Premiere

(This is Part II of a three-part series based on an August 2019 trip to attend two operas at the Santa Fe Opera.  Part I on The Fan Experience is posted and part III on Cosi fan tutte will follow.)

King Hjarne (David Leigh) talks with his young son Corbin as a worried Queen Gertrude (Tamara Mumford) and other sons look on. Photo by Ken Howard; courtesy of Santa Fe Opera.

King Hjarne (David Leigh) talks with his young son Corbin as a worried Queen Gertrude (Tamara Mumford) and other sons look on. Photo by Ken Howard; courtesy of Santa Fe Opera.

The Thirteenth Child is a new opera by Danish composer Poul Ruders and American librettists Becky and David Starobin, based on the Brothers Grimm fairy tale, “The Twelve Brothers”.  The Santa Fe Opera production which was performed in July/August was a world premiere and a co-production with Denmark’s Odense Symphony Orchestra.  In the Grimm’s tale, a king plans to kill his twelve sons if the next child born is a girl, the thirteenth child.  The boys flee to hide in the woods and plot their revenge on the girl.  When she is grown, their sister learns about them and seeks them out; they successfully reconcile and live together.  The sister cuts down twelve lilies for a celebration only to find out this action turned her brothers into twelve ravens.  Her quest for redemption involves staying silent and without expression for seven years.  Near the end of this term, her life is threatened as she draws near completing her quest; just in time, the seven years is up, causing her brothers to turn back into human form and come to her rescue.  There are a few versions of this short, but little-known tale, easily accessed via Google.  Ms. Starobin changed the story somewhat to fit the needs of presenting it as an opera, then she and Mr. Starobin developed the libretto from their modified version: a motive is added for the King’s actions - he is mentally ill and fears his sons will take his throne; the queen gets a bigger role; and, a power-hungry, evil prince is added as the villain, as well as a good prince for romance. The good versus evil theme is more focused.  There are several turns in the story that seem unexplained on a conscious level, but fairy tales move in the wonderland of the collective unconscious; the stories spin on the interactions of the archetypes and our visceral reaction to them. I was scared and angry at the King, sympathetic with the mother, sorry for the boys, hissed at the villain, cheered for the daughter, and was sad for innocent Ben, the youngest boy.  Overall, the story worked.  The problem is that it worked like a fairytale in a Disney movie, a likeable diversion, but lacking the transformative impact that one expects from opera.  It doesn’t confront modern issues; neither is it thought-provoking. In fairness, I should report that my wife liked the story significantly more than I did; her argument is that it was a treat to see a fairy tale in opera form, and it doesn’t have to be more than that. At only an hour and twenty minutes, The Thirteenth Child, is fine entertainment, but for me, the high art comes from the music and the quality of the production, which in SFO’s hands was very well done.

l to r: Tamara Mumford as pregnant Queen Gertrude; Jessica E. Jones as her daughter, Princess Lyra, the thirteenth child. Photos by Ken Howard; courtesy of Santa Fe Opera.

The Thirteenth Child is the fifth opera by Mr. Ruders, a prolific and highly regarded composer of classical music.  He made a splash recently with a Boston Lyric Opera production of his opera, The Handmaid’s Tale (2000), based on the book by Margaret Atwood, now known by many of us from the Hulu mini-series.  Modern opera is scary for the average opera fan.  The question that always looms is will I like the music?  Even today, after I have attended quite a few modern works, I wonder how much dissonance and atonal music I will have to endure when I approach a new one.  But having said that, I have also come to realize that atonal and dissonant music and sounds can be effective in creating mood and adding to the tension in certain situations.  My wife had read that Mr. Ruders described his music for The Thirteenth Child as “ear candy with chili peppers.” I am happy to report that Mr. Ruders’ score is a mixture of atonal and tonal music; these elements are used effectively together and unlike some modern works, his score has several beautiful, lyrical arias.  Mr. Ruders has mastery of all these elements.  The lyrical elements are used judiciously rather than to simply add beauty overall.  The music is created specifically for each scene using combinations of instruments and sections of the orchestra in cleverly effective ways, but central themes (that I was able to detect on one hearing) were lacking that might weave the story together into a more unified musical composition; also lacking was a standout melody that might call to mind the opera when you hear it (one reviewer did claim to have spotted a leitmotif for Queen Gertrude in several scenes; so, maybe there was more than I realized).  I thought the music was enjoyable and interesting throughout and did its job in adding to the emotion and story line.  I thought that the orchestra and Conductor Paul Daniel did a marvelous job, and the children’s chorus led by Chorus Master Suzanne Sheston was used effectively.  There is a recording out of the opera with a largely different cast made before the opera was performed on stage, and a future recording is in the works.  My bottom line is that I think you should look forward to this music and not worry about its modernity if you get a chance to see it; the music is good, and Boston Lyric Opera, San Francisco Opera, and the Royal Danish Opera currently have scheduled productions.  I have listened to the recording since returning home, and I like the music more than I realized at the time, when I was taking in all the other aspects of the opera as well.  Maybe being in the southwest I was first experiencing the chili peppers and now the sweetness is coming through. I also admit that after attending The Thirteenth Child, I am even more inclined to see composer Ruders’ The Handmaid’s Tale, though it is a much darker opera.

Bradley Garvin as Drokan in a spectacular set. Photo by Ken Howard; courtesy of Santa Fe Opera.

Bradley Garvin as Drokan in a spectacular set. Photo by Ken Howard; courtesy of Santa Fe Opera.

I thought the cast of singers was uniformly excellent and certainly the vocals were a highlight of the opera.  I especially liked mezzo-soprano Tamara Mumford as Queen Gertrude, the guiding force for good in this version of the story.  She sang beautifully with a voice perfectly suited for the role.  In an aria in Act II when Gertrude returns as an apparition, she sings an aria with a ghostly echo.  I was curious how this was managed and received the following response from SFO, “The ghostly echo effect was achieved with a wireless microphone. It was the only microphone used on stage, and only for that scene. The effect was written in by the composer and was also very important to the librettists. They all worked closely with our A/V Technician, the head of our Music Staff, and the conductor to achieve the desired effect, which was then mixed every performance night live from the house.”  It is impressive that the singers can be heard all the way to the back row in an open-air opera house of this size without amplification.

Princess Lyra (Jessica E. Jones) is visited by the ghost of Queen Gertrude (Tamara Mumford). Photo by Ken Howard; courtesy of Santa Fe Opera.

Princess Lyra (Jessica E. Jones) is visited by the ghost of Queen Gertrude (Tamara Mumford). Photo by Ken Howard; courtesy of Santa Fe Opera.

Newcomer soprano Jessica E. Jones also sang beautifully with a lovely voice and gave an effective portrayal of gentle goodness as Princess Lyra, charged by her mom with finding her brothers.  David Leigh, who played Hjarne, King of Frohagord, is a young bass who already has appeared in major opera houses and can sing low enough to make your table rattle.  He threw in falsetto to add to the sense that the King was unbalanced.  He also appeared in a second role as the grown Corbin, eldest of the brothers.  Base-baritone, Bradley Garvin who sang the role of Drokan, Regent of the Kingdom of Hauven, projected a suitably detestable and menacing villian.  Tenor Johsua Dennis served capably as Prince Frederic, Lyra’s love interest, though in a role that was not well-developed in the opera. Young tenor Bille Bruly gave a heart-rendering performance as Ben, the youngest sibling; I am intrigued enough to want to see a bit more of Mr. Bruly. 

Here’s the thing – the story is good and the music is good, but two things are required to make this a successful opera, I think.  Excellent performers, of course, but one more aspect is critical for The Thirteenth Child – staging.  Something has to keep us engaged while the archetypes are moving around in our heads. In general, Director Darko Tresnjak and the SFO creative team did this well.  Even so, a little more magic would have aided keeping the audience enthralled and more effectively bringing out some of the ties between the characters.  In the scene where Gerturde sent Lyra with a key to bring her the contents of a cabinet drawer, Lyra walks offstage and returns with its contents.  In that moment, I was so hoping for a holographic chest to appear by the wall when the key came near.  Also, the scene where Lyra is replaced by the villain in the fire was a little awkward; he was subdued so easily that there was a small ripple of laughter at a moment when people should have been holding their breath.  In the Grimm tale, the villain is thrown into a vat of oil filled with poisonous snakes, a powerful image.  On stage, the fire needs to appear more threatening and its victims more resistant than we were presented.  The part human, part raven Ben at the end worked to evoke a bittersweet edge to the ending.

Princess Lyra (Jessica E. Jones) comforts Ben, who was wounded before returning completely to human form. Photo by Ken Howard; courtesy of Santa Fe Opera.

Princess Lyra (Jessica E. Jones) comforts Ben, who was wounded before returning completely to human form. Photo by Ken Howard; courtesy of Santa Fe Opera.

I thought the set used was spectacular and worked very well (scenic design by Alexander Dodge), and the costumes were wonderful (costume design by Rita Ryack). The set was primarily an interior castle wall that wrapped around the stage with openings and stairs on either side and open in the rear, coupled with just a few pieces of furniture from time to time; the sides and back were covered in a dark blue glaze of light that glittered (lighting design by York Kennedy), an overall very dramatic effect.  The walls were used effectively as a screen for lighting and images (projection design by Aaron Rhyne), such as large serpents moving around on the walls, great for the mood changes and instilling a feeling of being in a wondrous place (as did I might add seeing the real sunset through the back of the stage and hearing the rain that fell sporadically during the performance).  Fairy tales need their magic. 

My experience was no doubt enhanced by the special excitement of attending a premiere and the also special excitement of attending one’s first opera at the Santa Fe Opera; I am curious to see how the opera does in future productions. Still, I say go see The Thirteenth Child when it comes to your area (my wife enthusiastically concurs).  The operatic impact is moderate, but the entertainment value is quite good.  And dang if that music doesn’t keep growing on me.

The Fan Experience: I covered this aspect in Part I of this series; take a look if you don’t know what a wonderful ride the Santa Fe Opera is.  My single caution is that if you are buying tickets that are way on the side, like for just about any opera house, inquire from the ticket office whether you will lose sight of a small portion of the stage, not a major consideration and those side seats are a bargain, but unpleasant if you are surprised.  I found driving to, parking, and exiting SFO to be relatively straightforward. The SFO website is comprehensive in providing all the logistics info you need, including the fact that the nights in the desert in an open-air theater can get chilly. The pre-opera talks are exceptional and are given both one and two hours before the performance. Food is available, including a special purchase, elegant buffet dinner with its own pre-opera talk, but also consider tailgating, an SFO tradition.

SFO’s new season, July and August 2020, has already been announced. If you want to enrich your arts and cultural experience even more, consider visiting while the 99th annual Santa Fe Indian Market is occurring, August 15-16, 2020.

 

Getting More Out of Tosca: Virginia Opera’s Lillian Groag and Adam Turner

Virginia Opera is leading off their 2019-2020 season with Tosca, which is one of the world’s most often performed operas.  As a developing opera fan, I have gone through several phases in regard to seeing the same opera over and over.  As a newbie, I couldn’t get enough, but after a while, seeing the same story again and again was getting to me.  Soon that advanced to “Oh please, not another Tosca”.  Next it was resignation; I compared attending my most recent live performance to having to go to mom’s every Sunday for dinner.  Now, I think I have moved on to rebirth, largely thanks to Tosca – I watched a movie version recently and found myself fascinated by the remarkable change in the character Tosca at the end of Act II.  Suddenly, I was going deeper into the characters and their story and found myself being fascinated and rewarded yet again.  So, let’s explore some reasons why you should see Tosca again, including the music, a new cast, and a new telling, reasons that will also apply to why see it the first time, but let’s also take a deeper dive into Floria Tosca herself and her moment of truth.

Virginia Opera’s Conductor and Artistic Director Adam Turner. Photo courtesy of Virginia Opera.

Virginia Opera’s Conductor and Artistic Director Adam Turner. Photo courtesy of Virginia Opera.

Tosca is pretty much the perfect opera, a beautiful wedding of a great story and great music.  A critic once called it “a shabby little thriller”, so you know it has to be good.  Take your friends who have never seen opera before to this one.  This is Puccini at his lyrical best; same for his librettists Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacoasa.  But be warned - it is not an opera for young children - it is romantic, but also violent, even brutally so, and profane, not so much in language, but by deed.  It has shocks; there is an attempted rape, two suicides, and two executions.  Yet, the tale is focused on a love story between the singer Floria Tosca and the painter Mario Cavaradossi, harassed by an evil villain, Baron Scarpia, all played against the backdrop of a true historical battle for rule of Italy as Napoleon advanced to retake control of Rome in 1800.  You will probably never forget the dramatic opening chords of Tosca which reoccur throughout each time Scarpia appears or is even mentioned.  One reason to hear Tosca again is to hear a new conductor and orchestra bring Puccini’s music to life and see how well they manage to integrate the music into the telling of the story.  We will be getting a performance by VA Opera’s Conductor Adam Turner and the Virginia Symphony Orchestra.  Perhaps the best reason to go is that it is a live performance.  I have a good stereo system, but it is no match for hearing the music live.

Puccini not only delivers great music; he also gives his singers some great arias to perform.  Scarpia gets “Tre sbirri…Va, Tosca (Te Deum)” in Act I; Tosca gets “Vissi d’arte” in Act II, and Cavaradossi gets “E lucevan le stelle” in Act III, all possessing stunning beauty.  These are plum roles for singers everywhere, and hearing a new cast deliver these arias and give their interpretations of the characters are compelling reasons to see Tosca again, especially for a singer you have longed to hear.  Established star bass-baritone Kyle Albertson will play Scarpia and tenor Matthew Vickers, who sang Pinkerton in last season’s Madama Butterfly, will play Cavaradossi.  Relative newcomer, soprano Ewa Płonka will play Tosca.  In reading about Ms. Płonka, it seemed most of her roles to date were for a mezzo soprano, and Tosca calls for a soprano.  I posed a couple of questions to Conductor Turner, who is also the Artistic Director for Virginia Opera, about his choice of a singer to play Tosca, and he generously provided these insightful written responses –

l to r - Virginia Opera’s Floria Tosca, Baron Scarpia, and Mario Cavaradossi played, respectively, by Ewa Płonka, Kyle Albertson, and Matthew Vickers. Photos courtesy of Virginia Opera.

What can you say about why you selected Ewa Płonka to play Tosca? What attracted you to her?  

“Every autumn Virginia Opera holds mainstage auditions in New York City, typically over a period of 2-3 days, during which we hear anywhere from 80-120 artists for consideration in future seasons. These indispensable opportunities to scout fresh talent for VO's audiences provide us with a number of tremendously qualified candidates, and last fall was certainly a fine example of that! Ewa presented arias by Puccini and Wagner, and I was immediately transfixed by her vocal quality, expressive colors, nuanced shaping of text, ability to embody a character and provide captivating storytelling, etc. All of the essential elements that contribute to a well-rounded and thoughtful artistic presentation were offered in those "high stakes" moments, and I knew that Ewa was without question *our* Floria Tosca.”

Most of Ms. Płonka's roles thus far have been mezzo-soprano roles. I have also read she is a spinto soprano. Can you explain for readers what characterizes a spinto soprano? How do you think this will distinguish her portrayal of Tosca?

“Throughout their careers, singers' voices evolve and go through various transitions. Especially for many women, vocal range can change, the voice's timbre and weight can mature into uncharted territory, and the instrument can generally unfold completely different colors. How any singer identifies their vocal category, placing themselves in the so-called appropriate "Fach box", is a truly difficult and personal process. While Ms. Płonka's more recent history has featured mezzo-soprano roles, she's currently exploring more "spinto" or "dramatic" soprano roles - Turandot, Tosca, etc. I think we have the ability to offer artists a profoundly important platform at Virginia Opera - the opportunity to "try-out" a role, in a safe environment, experiencing a run of seven performances, during which an artist can adequately explore all the challenges and rewards of a new role. Like any compelling theatrical experience, for an audience this represents an exciting evening in the theater - similar to attending a sporting event, with all the thrilling leaps and (hopefully) slightest falls.”

Virginia Opera’s Director of  Tosca , Lillian Groag. Photo courtesy of Virginia Opera.

Virginia Opera’s Director of Tosca, Lillian Groag. Photo courtesy of Virginia Opera.

So, attend Tosca to see Ewa Płonka give us her Tosca.   All the singers, Płonta, Albertson, and Vickers will bring the characters to life in their own way; how will we feel about these characters from their portrayals?  You take a risk in attending live opera; the evening could be a disappointment or your best night at the opera ever.

In my early viewings of Tosca, I have considered it to be Scarpia’s opera with his attempt to bed Tosca by coercion and his very embodiment of evil.  But lately, it is the dramatic transformation of the heroine Tosca that has intrigued me.  The moment of truth is a term I heard a lot in regard to dramas when I was young, not so much anymore.  It applies when a character has to face a decision and neither the character nor we know what she is going to do.  As my son once said when he first witnessed Tosca’s most dramatic scene, “I didn’t see that coming!”.   Her decision emerges from the depths of her soul and changes her forever, a defining moment, a moment of truth, when the true character of the character is revealed.  A new Floria Tosca emerges at the end of Act II.  I really wanted to know how Director Lillian Groag would approach VA Opera’s Tosca this time and she graciously agreed to chat with me.

Ms. Groag’s first directing effort with VA Opera was also forTosca.  Before devoting herself to directing plays and operas, she also had successful careers as an actress and as a playwright.  I asked her why she moved from acting and writing to directing.  At first, she gave her funny answer: she was tired of being directed badly, then more reflective responses that as she aged, she would likely have had to take mainly supporting roles and she wanted the major roles, and with blunt honesty, she likes to be in charge.  It seems to be working for her; this will be the 25th production she has directed for Virginia Opera over a 27-year association with the company. 

I had also talked to Ms. Groag prior to last season’s Don Giovanni.  The themes I have detected in her approach to directing are first the importance of presenting the composer’s work as intended.  She tells the composer’s and librettist’s story, not her story.  She also firmly believes that the great composers chose stories with complex characters, not ones that can simply be labeled as good guys or bad guys.  She doesn’t want the audience to see characters as one-dimensional, and she adds depth to the characters by emphasizing their complexity.  Finally, for her, the words matter.  She says that the music generalizes, presenting large emotions like joy, sadness, suspense, but the nuance is found in the words.  “You must listen carefully to opera,” she says. 

She offered some unsettling insights into each of the characters’ motives.  I have viewed Cavaradossi as the archetypal tenor hero who put himself at risk fighting for freedom.  She pointed out that he was supporting a foreign invasion of his home country, and asks, “Is this what a good guy does”?  She further noted that Cavaradossi was an aristocrat and spoke down to Consul Scarpia adding to their tension.  Is that what we associate with our heroes?  She agreed with me that Tosca becomes a new person in Act II, but insists the potential was there in Act I, foreshadowed by her jealousy.  She says that Scarpia had no idea he was poking a sleeping tiger.  I view Scarpia as evil incarnate, but she points out that he performed admirably in his public servant role.  He came off the rails because of his obsession with Floria Tosca.  She even raised the question whether it is possible that at some point Tosca might have been attracted to this powerful man.  There is a dark side to sex she said that we are not comfortable admitting, and she likes for audiences to be jolted out of the complacency that sets in when they ‘think’ they know what is going on. 

She said that Puccini gives little wiggle room in presenting one of his operas, that once the train leaves the station, the events are in play.  She maintains that room is still allowed for nuances one can discern from the words.  She says that because she speaks Italian she can discuss just what the words in the libretto mean or might mean with each of the singers so they can take that into account in their portrayals.  In rehearsals, she goes word by word.  Each character she insists seals their own fate which is foreshadowed by their words.  Even she still finds surprises in the libretto.  Preparing for this production, she said that four words in Act II had jumped out at her.  What four words?  Those four words she says will provide the basis for a surprise in this production.  Hmmm?

Even watching the same recording of an opera again will reveal new things, like the detective who wants to watch the crime video over and over, until he sees the clues he has been missing.  Even more clues can be brought by new singers, directors, conductors, and orchestras. What is this particular performance of Tosca going to say about the characters, about their motives, and ultimately about ourselves as human beings?  What will you realize for the first time from a new production or just by seeing it once more?  As Director Groag says, watch opera carefully; pay attention to the words.  I will also add to feel the music; it will also be offering you clues.

You think you know Tosca?  Really?  Have another look.

The Fan Experience: Tosca will be performed in Norfolk on October 4, 6, 8; in Fairfax on October 12, 13; and Richmond on October 18, 20.  Single tickets are available as well as season subscriptions. If you are able to purchase your tickets at the box office you can save money on handling fees charged online.  Tosca is sung in Italian with projected English subtitles.

Dr. Glenn Winters, Virginia Opera's Community Outreach Musical Director, provides pre-opera talks forty-five minutes before showtime; the talks and his blog reports leading up to each opera offer entertaining and informative insights; look for the blog posts on Tosca a few weeks before the production begins its run. The pre-opera talks are frequently standing room only, so get there early.

 

 

Virginia Opera’s 2019-2020 Season: Tosca Leads Off A Winning Lineup

As baseball season winds down and moves into its post season, opera season gears up for a run.  Leading off for Virginia Opera this season will be Puccini’s Tosca.  What?  Isn’t that like Babe Ruth batting first instead of clean up?  Good question, and if you are going to hit the Babe first, your follow-up hitters better be Hank Aaron and Willie Mays.  I am showing my age, but though I am a huge baseball fan, I did not see the Babe in action, okay?  Fortunately, VA Opera does have Rossini’s Cinderella and Verdi’s Aida waiting in the wings, along with a promising rookie, Catán’s Il Postino, in the on-deck circle.  For opera fans, that’s a winning lineup.

Here are the dates at the different venues:

Tosca (1900) by Giacomo Puccini:

            Norfolk – Oct 4, 6, 8

            Fairfax – Oct 12, 13

            Richmond – Oct 18, 20

Il Postino (The Postman, 2010) by Daniel Catán:

            Norfolk – Nov 8, 10, 12

            Fairfax – Nov 16, 17

            Richmond – Nov 22, 24

Cinderella (La Cenerentola, 1817) by Giaochino Rossini:

            Norfolk – Jan 31, Feb 2, 4

            Fairfax – Feb 15, 16

            Richmond – Feb 21, 23

Aida (1871) by Giuseppe Verdi:

            Norfolk – Mar 20, 22, 23

            Fairfax – *No performances; see The Fan Experience section below for an explanation

                             and news about a plan to help Fairfax fans see a performance in Richmond.

            Richmond – Mar 27, 29

Tosca is one of the most often performed operas in the world; I think the number of Metropolitan Opera performances alone of Puccini’s Tosca since 1901 is up to about a thousand, and fans keep returning for additional productions year after year.  If you haven’t seen Tosca, go.  If you haven’t seen any opera, go.  If you have seen it multiple times, still go.  I plan to address why I make these exhortations in my next blog report, soon to follow this one, and it will include comments from VA Opera Conductor/Artistic Director Adam Turner and Director Lillian Groag who began her career with the Virginia Opera in 1993 by directing Tosca.

Il Postino (The Postman) is next up.  Name the last Spanish-speaking opera you attended.  If you can’t think of one, don’t be surprised; somehow opera did not flourish in Spain as it did in Italy, France, and Germany.  So, perhaps Il Postino could be your first.  Mexican composer Daniel Catán’s opera is based on the 1994 award-winning movie of the same name and follows it closely in presenting the story of a postman who seeks the aid of exiled poet Pablo Neruda in finding the words to win the hand of the woman he has fallen in love with.  Composer Catán also wrote the libretto, in Spanish, and fashioned the role of poet Neruda specifically for tenor Placido Domingo, who starred in its 2010 premiere.  This was Mr. Catán’s final opera; he died the year following its premiere.  He is credited with adding Spanish operas to the international repertoire; his opera Florencia en el Amazonas is also performed today.   Il Postino has a political theme as well, and it should be interesting to see where Director Crystal Manich sets the balance in this new production.  Worried whether you will like the music?  Washington Post’s Anne Midgette covered the premiere of Il Postino, stating that “It has lyrical vocal writing, lush orchestral interludes, hints of Verdi and Puccini”.  And it has poems by Neruda transformed into arias.  This could be the sleeper in a season of more renown operas by Puccini, Rossini, and Verdi. 

Cinderella, La Cenerentola, Cendrillon, or Altschutten: what’s in a name?  All these names have been used to tell the story of the good girl mistreated in an oppressive family situation, yet who somehow prevails to marry a prince.  Rossini provides pleasing music with beautiful arias and ensemble pieces.  The libretto by Jacopo Ferritti, adapted from Charles Perrault’s “Cendrillon”,  tells a story that pleases children and also has twists and turns to amuse adults.  It is easy for charm and humor to rule in Cinderella, but it is the triumph of the good heart that must reign to capture the enduring impact of this endearing fairy tale.  After all, the full title is La Cenerentola, ossia La bontà in trionfo (Cinderella, or Goodness Triumphant).  Virginia Opera’s production is in sure hands with veteran director Kyle Lang; I thought his Elixir of Love last season was a pleasure from beginning to end.

Verdi’s Aida is about spectacle or is it?  One might ask if this is Verdi as P. T. Barnum or the same Verdi who touched hearts with Rigoletto and La TraviataAida has triumphant rulers of Ancient Egypt, the plight of the captured, and palatial intrigue, all as backdrop for a prohibited, secret love affair.   Aida has three spectacular roles: Aida, the captured princess; Amneris, the reigning princess; and Radamès, an ambitious military leader, and oh, what a love triangle they make.  Director Lillian Groag will return to direct VA Opera’s Aida, and I am willing to bet that this Aida will be much, much more than spectacle.

Each opera will be directed by Adam Turner featuring the Virginia Symphony Orchestra for the first three operas and the Richmond Symphony Orchestra for Aida.  An exciting cast mixed with younger stars and veterans has been arranged for each opera; the web page for each production lists principal cast members with hyperlinks to their bios.  I got even more excited reading them.  It’s live opera.  Tape the playoff games.  Let the season begin!

The Fan Experience: Virginia Opera gives performances in three different cities and venues: Norfolk (Edythe C. and Stanley L. Harrison Opera House), Fairfax (George Mason University’s Center for the Arts), and Richmond (Carpenter Theater at Dominion Energy Center).  The same opera travels from city to city, typically three performances in Norfolk, followed by two each in Fairfax, and Richmond.  Each venue has its own ticket pricing and policies, including discounts for student tickets.  Check their web sites carefully.  All performances have supertitles in English.  Here is Virginia Opera’s statement about the exception being made this year regarding Aida.

"Virginia Opera is disappointed that due to technical limitations at George Mason University’s Center for the Arts we are unable to present our production of Aida in Northern Virginia.  Patrons are encouraged to attend Friday or Sunday, March 27 or 29, 2020 performance of Aida at the Dominion Energy Center in Richmond.  Virginia Opera is also planning a Sunday, March 29 Aida ticket/brunch package that includes round-trip transportation from George Mason University to Richmond’s historic Jefferson Hotel and the Dominion Energy Center.” VA Opera also reports that the easiest way for people to secure the package is to call their box office: 866-673-7282, Monday through Friday 10am-5pm. There is the same information on their Aida webpage

A couple of suggestions: Subscriptions and single tickets are available. If you are able to purchase your tickets at the box office you can save money on handling fees charged online.  Also, Dr. Glenn Winters, Virginia Opera's Community 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 The Barber of Seville: Watching Stars Being Born

On a rare cool, clear summer evening in August at Wolf Trap’s Filene Center, when the stars overhead could shine, there were ones on the stage being made in an ensemble cast from one of Wolf Trap Opera’s most exciting contingents of young artists who come each summer to hone their craft.  Remember these names – Taylor Raven, Johnathan McCullough, Christopher Bozeka, Calvin Griffith, and Patrick Guetti, each of whom had standout moments on stage.  Such uniform excellence in the main players in a cast of this size is remarkable and quite a treat for the audience.  In all, including some refined orchestral playing and a novel staging, this was as fine a Barber as you are likely to encounter. 

l to r on the grande piano: Johnathan McCullough as Figaro, Christopher Bozeka as Almavira, Taylor Raven as Rosina, Niru Liu as Berta, Patrick Guetti as Don Basilio, and Calvin Griffin as Dr. Bartolo. Photo by Scott Suchman; courtesy of Wolf Trap Foundation for the Performing Arts.

l to r on the grande piano: Johnathan McCullough as Figaro, Christopher Bozeka as Almavira, Taylor Raven as Rosina, Niru Liu as Berta, Patrick Guetti as Don Basilio, and Calvin Griffin as Dr. Bartolo. Photo by Scott Suchman; courtesy of Wolf Trap Foundation for the Performing Arts.

Let us start with mezzo-soprano Taylor Raven who played Rosina with a dazzling stage presence and sang impressively with a beautiful, powerful mezzo voice; I quickly stopped analyzing and just enjoyed her.  If you did not attend this performance or WTO’s earlier L’Heure Espagnole in which she also starred, fret not.  I have no doubt she will be appearing on the stages of the major opera houses in the near future, but thanks to Wolf Trap Opera, I can claim that I saw her at the beginning!  In composer Gioachino Rossini and librettist Cesare Sterbini’s plot for this opera buffa, Rosina is a young maid being vied for by Count Almavira and Dr. Bartolo.  Figaro, a barber/fixer and arranger of all things in 18th century Spain undertakes helping Count Almavira secure the hand of Rosina while maintaining the secrecy of his wealth.  She is the ward of Dr. Bartolo who plans to marry Rosina himself.  Bartolo is assisted by the unashamedly mercenary music teacher Don Basilio.  Disguises and comedic plots abound until our two young lovers are united with a happy ending for everyone except Dr. Bartolo.  The characters are straight out of commedia dell’arte and the young players dish it up with their own flair and touches that kept the laughter flowing. 

l to r: Johnathan McCullough alone as Figaro. Calvin Griffin as Dr. Bartilo and Taylor Raven as Rosina. Photos by Scott Suchman; courtesy of Wolf Trap Foundation for the Performing Arts.

Shall we move on to baritone Johnathan McCullough who played Figaro, one of the most recognizable roles in all of opera (remember Mozart’s The Marraige of Figaro, also with Count Almavira?).  Mr. McCullough (notice the spelling of Johnathan for future reference) not only has an extraordinary voice, he is one of those people you can’t help but like the minute they smile, which he seems to almost always be doing, and his stage presence is imbued with the capable, yet fun, good-naturedness that is perfect for Figaro.  His client Count Almavira, played by Christopher Bozeka, goes through several disguises to gain access to Rosina.  Mr. Bozeka manages the appropriate balance of passion and campiness in the different disguises, and his tenor voice seems made for bel canto singing.  Not to be outdone, bass-baritone Calvin Griffin who played Dr. Bartolo made his presence felt each time he was upon the stage, once singing falsetto for comic effect to everyone’s surprise and delight; I felt this was a break out performance for Mr. Griffin.  Rounding out this team was bass Patrick Guetti who at first seemed more scary than funny (Barber as a vampire movie, hmmm…think about it), but he soon began to collect his share of laughs as well as display some excellent singing.  Rounding out this overall excellent cast was baritone Justin Burgess as Fiorello, mezzo-soprano Niri Liu as Berta, and bass Jeremy Harr as Officer, all adding to the performance; this cast was supported by a team of active supernumeraries.

l to r: Christopher Bozeka as Almavira disguised as a soldier and Taylor Raven as Rosina. Taylor Raven as Rosina and Christopher Bozeka disguised as a music teacher. Photos by Scott Suchman; courtesy of Wolf Trap Foundation for the Performing Arts.

Great music and bel canto singing are anticipated highlights of Rossini operas, but adding to the fun in Barber are the patter arias where for comedic or dramatic effect the singers must sing a great many words in a short amount of time – think if auctioneers sang their what am I bids in rapid fire fashion.  Also quite fun in Rossini operas and Barber, in particular, are the ensemble arias.  All the players and the chorus did this pleasingly well, and they were supported by one of the finest orchestral performances I have heard at an opera.  Conductor Lidiya Yankovskaya gave the beauty of Rossini’s music full measure while keeping volume supportive of the singers and the pacing laid back enough to let the music speak for itself.  I’m not expert enough to say it was flawless, but to an opera fan’s ear, it was perfect.

Johnathan McCullough as Figaro, Jeremy Harr as the Officer, Patrick Guetti as Don Basilio, and Calvin Griffin as Dr. Bartolo. Photo by Scott Suchman; courtesy of Wolf Trap Foundation for the Performing Arts.

Johnathan McCullough as Figaro, Jeremy Harr as the Officer, Patrick Guetti as Don Basilio, and Calvin Griffin as Dr. Bartolo. Photo by Scott Suchman; courtesy of Wolf Trap Foundation for the Performing Arts.

The staging of WTO’s Barber used Houston Grand Opera’s creative production of 2011 with direction by Joan Font and set and costume design by Joan Guillén; kudos to them.  The effectiveness of the lighting by Albert Faura and Mark Stanley also deserves mention for adding to the production. One could spend an entire report discussing the innovations of this production, from an oversized pink piano to a servant riding the chandelier to the puppet character make-up to the señora who sat on either side of the stage the entire performance. I’m not sure this was the right Barber of Seville for a newbie’s first opera or first Barber, which is a goal of Wolf Trap Opera for operas at the Filene Center.  And I sort of missed the classic staging in the first act, which takes place on a deserted street and cove in 19th century Spain.  Mostly in the beginning Count Almavira and Figaro are conversing over the situation and plan; it almost inevitably drags a bit, but a good classic set can help by communicating the loniliness and romantic charm of such a place.  The angular sets with see through walls were interesting, but didn’t help the first act much, and as good as the staging was overall, there was a lot going on in this traditional/non-traditional staging.  It had an odd Ariadne auf Naxos character as though two performances were occurring at the same time.  Mostly it worked as the supernumeraries acted out various sketches in the background while the main action was occurring.  The sketches were intended to support the themes occurring, but my attention often shifted between the two; throw in reading subtitles, and it was too much to take in in one sitting, and I wound up missing parts of the opera.  That’s just a commentary: an overabundance can be viewed positively as well as negatively, and the bottom line is that I liked it overall.  Maybe a more modern telling of The Barber of Seville (1816) is just what will attract new fans to opera, and frankly, as a fan who has seen other versions, something new was appreciated, especially something new that works.

I wish I could tell you more performances are scheduled, but I can’t; the Filene Center opera is always one off.  I wish I could tell you what Wolf Trap Opera will offer next summer, but I can’t.  For now they begin a several months long process of screening over a thousand applicants and auditioning hundreds of singers across the county to select next years contingent of Filene Artists, singers already with advanced degrees and some performance experience who desire additional training, and of Studio Artists, singers who have completed bachelors degrees and are still in the training process.  About 20 young singers for each program will make it to the Wolf Trap Farm for the Performing Arts next year.  Only once the singers have been selected will operas be chosen for performance, and they will be chosen to fit the singers who have been recruited. Wolf Trap Opera is unique in this approach.  I just know that I heard Taylor Raven at the beginning.

The Fan Experience: Attending events at the Filene Center is always fun and are a great way to sample opera for the first time, but it is a different experience from being in the opera house.  For such a large capacity theater, the singers must be miked, just fine in musicals, but a no-no in opera, and with its open-air nature, acoustics are not ideal.  Also in the summer, the weather can choose to be hot and sticky if it wants to, making wearing heavy costumes on stage a strain.  This production compensated as well as possible for those problems, including managing the weather. I just accepted the limitations and had a great evening of opera. 

There are two screens on either side of the stage that display the English subtitles for operas sung in foreign languages (Barber is in Italian).  The top screen on each side is quite large and provides a live stream of the performance on stage enabling close ups.  That can be a neat addition and I’m generally in favor of using technology to enhance the theater experience, but for Barber it was distracting to see the heavy puppet-like make-up on the cast for the commedia dell’arte effect.  I also had the feeling that the close ups could have been better chosen. This concern coupled with the fact that so much was already going on on stage made the streaming’s effect mainly one of distraction for me.

Finally, the pre-opera talk was held on the farm lawn close to the arrival center, and mercifully, they kept bringing out folding chairs to accommodate the growing crowd, and the crowd was in for a treat of a pre-opera talk.  Morgan Brophy, the WTO Assistant Director for Artistic Administration, gave a talk imbued with humor and sparkle, not only reporting on but foreshadowing the opera.  I always sit in on the pre-opera talks to gain insights about the opera. Ms. Brophy’s talk covering background on the composer and opera, the opera itself, and the WTO production was filled with informative and often funny insights.  One of her interesting points was the role of the overture in operas of that day – lacking modern technology to call the patrons to their seats, the overture was a signal to take your seat, and while The Barber of Seville is now one of the most famous overtures in opera, it was not new; Rossini reused an overture from an earlier opera of his, Aureliano in Palmira, for Barber, actually the second time he had recycled the overture.  It sort of makes you wonder why today we hold the classics to be inviolate. In their day, in large measure, they were just putting on a show and making money.

 

Opera Philadelphia’s Season 2019-2020: And Yes, Festival O19!

Logo courtesy of Opera Philadelphia.

Logo courtesy of Opera Philadelphia.

I first notice splashes of color and art when I look at the web page for Opera Philadelphia’s 2019-2020 Season (just take a look at their new logo to the left).  Then I notice the variety in the schedule, classical works and hip new offerings.  The wealth of creative, artistic expression gushes forth all the way from today’s internet back to the Roman gods.  I have become a huge fan of Opera Philadelphia’s annual September festival, now up to Festival O19, and immediately examine its features.  O19, cutting-edge and engaging once again, as was O17 and O18, will again fill stages around the city with art, which is to say, life.  For an opera fan, it is the place to be, not only to be entertained, but by opera fan response to these innovative offerings, to help determine what opera can be. Each September, Philadelphia becomes the arts capital of the world. 

For the third year in a row, Opera Philadelphia has programmed two seasons, its innovative festival in September and a program of classical works in the new year.

l to r: Composers Philip Venables (photo by Dominic M. Mercier, courtesy of Opera Philadelphia); George Frideric Handel (photo of painting by Balthasar Denner, Wikipedia); and Sergei Prokofiev ( image in US Library of Congress, Wikipedia).

Festival O19 (September 18-29)

Denis and Katya (Venables, World Premiere) – Sept 18, 21 (2), 22, 23, 25, 28, 29

Semele (Handel, 1744) – Sept 19, 21, 24, 26, 28

The Love for Three Oranges (Prokofiev, 1921) – Sept 20, 22, 27, 29

Let Me Die (Keckler, World Premiere) – Sept 21, 22, 25, 26, 27, 28

“Curtis in Concert” – Sept 21, 22, 28, 29

Winter/Spring 2020 Season

Verdi’s Requiem (Verdi, 18740) – January 31, February 2

Madame Butterfly (Puccini, 1904) – April 24, 26, 29, May 1, 3

l to r: Creator Joseph Keckler (photo by Frans Franciscus; courtesy of Opera Philadelphia); composer Giuseppe Verdi (photo of portrait by Giovanni Boldini, Wikipedia); composer Giacomo Puccini (studio photograph, Wikipedia).

My personal favorites have changed as a result of reading more about the individual offerings in the O19 Festival.  Originally my favored order was Semele, The Love of Three Oranges, and Denis&Katya, but after reading more about them, the order has reversed for me.  I am also intrigued by Let Me Die, and hearing the emerging talent from Curtis Institute of Music is always of interest.  I offer a few comments on why I find each production appealing.

Denis and Katya (World Premiere) - This is now the opera I am most interested in seeing; I am quite sure it won’t be like anything else I have seen to date.  Composer Philip Venables makes operas that “engage with politics, sexuality, gender, and violence”.  The librettist is opera director Ted Huffman, a long-time collaborator of Venables; this is the first libretto that Mr. Huffman has written.  Together they have created a “documentary opera” to examine the tragic and bizarre deaths of two Russian teenagers played out over the internet; the two runaways streamed live their stand-off with police.  While the focus is the lives of the two young people, the underlying theme is how we interact with each other in the age of the internet.  Scored for two voices and four cellos, the opera has won an international award for best opera in development, the Fedora - Generali Prize for Opera 2019; this opera is a co-commission with partners Music Theatre Wales and Opéra Orchestre National Montpellier.  Venables/Huffman previously collaborated on the award-winning opera, 4.48 Psychosis. (Performed in English and Russian with English subtitles; 70 minutes, no intermission)

Scene from  Semelee . Photo by James Darrah; courtesy of Opera Philadelphia.

Scene from Semelee. Photo by James Darrah; courtesy of Opera Philadelphia.

Semele (1744) –To earn a living, composer George Frideric Handel had to reinvent himself several times in his career as times and tastes changed.  After the popularity of his Italian operas in London faded, he turned to writing English oratorios which were in favor, such as his Messiah (1742).  In Semele, a lyric soprano showpiece, Handel created scenarios for singers to portray Roman gods and sing beautiful arias in English “to be performed in the manner of an oratorio”, trying, I suppose, to have his operatic English cake and eat it too.  OP’s version is said to be “an energetic makeover by visionary director James Darrah”. When I first became interested in opera, I bought a CD recording of Semele because it starred my favorite soprano at the time, Kathleen Battle, and found it delightful – “The Morning Lark”, Endless Pleasure”, and “Myself I Shall Adore” still ring in my ears.  It is a special treat now to get to see the opera staged; my thanks to OP for validating my interest.  O19’s Semele has Amanda Forsythe as Semele; I listened to a clip of her singing and greatly look forward to hearing her performance.  (Performed in English with English subtitles; three hours with a 20 min intermission).

Scene from  The Love of Three Oranges . Photo by Michele Borzoni; courtesy of Opera Philadelphia.

Scene from The Love of Three Oranges. Photo by Michele Borzoni; courtesy of Opera Philadelphia.

The Love for Three Oranges (1921, first performance by Opera Philadelphia) – Sergei Prokofiev is that Russian composer you know is famous for some reason, a ballet (“Romeo and Juliet”), right, a classical work for children (“Peter and the Wolf”)?  This opera is now #2 on my want to see list; the more I read about it the more it intrigues me.  It is based on a commedia dell’arte play based on a fairytale by the 18th century author, Carlo Gozzi, and Prokofiev’s version is a satirical parody of nineteenth century opera, ala Wagner and Verdi.  The music has been praised for its inventiveness and includes a famous march. The original libretto was written in French while Prokofiev was living in the US; he was not well versed in English and believed Americans would not accept Russian; in another twist, it is often performed in English.  On the Opera Philadelphia website, the OP advertising staff shamelessly says Oranges is a “zesty” love story of a prince searching for oranges containing princesses, and the staff poses the question, “…will he run out of juice or can he concentrate...”, and in another spot “Orange you glad tickets are still available?”   Perhaps a seed of an idea there, but that kind of writing is just the pits.  It sounds a little wacky, but an opera that inspires such puns has to be seen. (Performed in English with English subtitles; a little over two hours including a 20 min intermission)

Let Me Die – OP says this is from the mind of bass-baritone and performance artist Joseph Keckler.  What is it?  It’s called an “aria-logue”, a weaving of death scenes from classic operas into Mr. Keckler’s narrative about life.  So, is it a story embellished by great arias? Or is it great arias embellished by a story?  And what does it say about death and dying?  And about opera?  This original production will be performed by Mr. Keckler and a small ensemble (soprano, mezzo-soprano, countertenor, and a Dancer/Actor) accompanied by piano.  This work was developed as part of Keckler’s residency at University of Michigan Stamps School of Art & Design and is presented in partnership with Fringe Arts as part of the Fringe Arts Festival.  A quote from an interview with Mr. Keckler, “Let Me Die is titled after Monteverdi's “Lasciatemi Morire,” also known as “The Lament of Arianna.” It was among the first arias I sang when I started to study voice. It's a longing for death, an appeal to the gods, after she (Arianna, or Ariadne) has been abandoned on the island of Naxos. And it's the only part of the opera that has survived. So, I like the way in which she is doubly stranded, the way this is a singing fragment. I also like that this is one of the first pieces you learn in classical voice, implying that to learn to sing is to learn to die.”  (Still being finalized but expected to be around 90 minutes with no intermission)

“Curtis in Concert” – Young singers, emerging artists from Curtis Institute of Music, including recent graduates, strut their stuff on successive weekends. 

The early 2020 season is somewhat abbreviated from previous years.  Only two additional works will be produced for the remainder of the season.  The past few seasons have included co-sponsored productions between Opera Philadelphia and Curtis Institute of Music.  Recent changes in leadership at Curtis have caused that arrangement to be paused.  Curtis plans to publish its 2019-2020 season this summer, and OP will help promote those events. Another imbalance worth noting at this point is the gender imbalance in the composer/creator, conductor, and director roles in the coming season. In that regard, let us note that Ksenia Ravvina is the co-Creator and Dramaturg for Denis&Katya and Emily Senturia is its Music Director. Elizabeth Gimbel is the Director and Dramaturg for Let Me Die. OP also reports that three new works by women composers are in development.

Conductor Corrado Rovaris. Photo by Gabello Studios; courtesy of Opera Philadelphia.

Conductor Corrado Rovaris. Photo by Gabello Studios; courtesy of Opera Philadelphia.

Verdi’s RequiemRequiem by Giuseppe Verdi was written to honor author Alessandro Manzoni, an Italian nationalist icon revered by Verdi, thus a religious mass to honor a hero and support a cause.  The conductor is Corrado Rovaris and the soloists are also outstanding, soprano Leah Crocetto, mezzo-soprano Daniela Mack, tenor Evan LeRoy Johnson, and bass In-sung Sim, plus over 100 choristers and 80 instrumentalists.  You might hear this monumental requiem called a choral work; it’s more complicated than that.  It is highly dramatic; the Dies Irae section is a barn burner.  The drama is unsurprising given that it’s Verdi, but it is a Verdi unlike what you have heard before.  Here are comments of mine about a performance of the Requiem this past season in DC (also with Ms. Crocetto as a soloist), “You can say what Verdi’s Requiem is, but you can’t say what it’s not.  It is a requiem.  It is also a beautiful piece of music with equally beautiful choral and soloist parts. It is a religious work and experience. It is dramatic and can be considered an opera or an oratorio.” Regardless, it is a magnificent work of art.

Scene from Madame Butterfly. Photo by Toni Suter; courtesy of Opera Philadelphia.

Scene from Madame Butterfly. Photo by Toni Suter; courtesy of Opera Philadelphia.

Madame Butterfly – Giacomo Puccini wrote this opera especially for me.  At least, I like to believe that.  It is my favorite opera.  Do you like tragedy?  There is none more gut-ripping than this one.  In 1904 Japan, a callous US naval Lt. Pinkerton marries a 15 year-old Geisha, Cio-Cio San, with no intent on remaining married, rather hoping to someday wed a “real-American bride”, while Cio-Cio San believes she has married for life.  He returns alone to the US not knowing a child has been conceived.  It doesn’t end well, but we are compensated with gorgeous music and beautiful arias by Puccini.  Join in the booing of tenor Bryan Hymel who dares to play Pinkerton, the cad; I’m kidding of course, but I have heard Pinkertons booed who gave excellent performances. Rising star soprano Eri Nakamura, herself born in a small village in Japan, will perform in the role of Cio-Cio San. In addition to the personal drama, there are issues of cultural clashes, First World and white privilege, and sex with a minor.  OP states, “Director Ted Huffman eloquently unravels Puccini's 115-year-old musical masterpiece for today's audiences, elevating what was once considered a period piece into a modern-day commentary on power dynamics and western exploitation…”.  We will have to wait to see what that means, but reviews of Mr. Huffman’s previous productions have praised his “traditionalist approach” for its authenticity in effectively conveying the world’s cruelty, but also the beauty of this extraordinary opera.

As I stated earlier, Festival O19 is the place to be for opera fans, but I’d also like to add that OP’s September festival is a beacon of hope for new opera composers. The classic works to be performed in early 2020 have their enduring appeal.

The Fan Experience: Subscriptions and single tickets are still available for all performances, but my experience has been that tickets, especially for the best seats and smaller venues, can become hard to come by closer to the performance dates. Click on the ‘What’s On’ tab at the top of Opera Philadelphia’s web site for links to each event; the event web sites have information and links to purchase tickets online.  On the Festival O19 web page is a grid with all events and dates. A ‘Chat with Guest Services’ link and phone number is at the bottom of each web page, as is a sign up link to get OP email, a good idea if you are a regular opera goer.  There is also an Opera Philadelphia app available with much of the same information. 

When purchasing tickets, I most often call guest services at 215-732-8400; they are extremely helpful with selecting tickets and getting the best deals when tickets are discounted; they can even help with hotels and restaurant recommendations.  Note performances of Denis&Katya are split between two separate casts; make sure your tickets are for the cast you wish to hear.  A wide array of venues are used for O19 events; be sure to check the venue for the event you plan to attend.

 

Wolf Trap Opera’s Ariadne auf Naxos: From Chaos Emerges Love

Wolf Trap Opera’s Ariadne auf Naxos on Saturday left me with two primary impressions: Strauss’ music is exceptional and WTO’s young performers are terrific.  The opera bursts onto the stage with raucous vaudevillian humor worthy of the Marx brothers and ends with a fade to true love worthy of Frank Capra.  Kudos to composer Richard Strauss and librettist Hugo von Hofmannstahl for allowing true love to develop amid a clash of two cultures without anyone dying from swordplay or committing suicide and to the WTO players and creative team for bringing such a funny and charming story so compellingly to life. 

l to r : Lindsay Kate Brown (Composer), Ian Koziara (Tenor), Alexandria Shiner (Prima Donna), Joshua Conyers (Music Master), Wilford Kelly (Wigmaker), Jeremy Harr (Lackey), Conor McDonald (Major-Domo), Seiyoung Kim (Brighella), Victor Cardamone (Scaramuccio), Ian McEuen (Dancing Master) and Ron Dukes (Truffaldin) in the Prologue. Photo by Scott Suchman; courtesy of Wolf Trap Opera.

l to r: Lindsay Kate Brown (Composer), Ian Koziara (Tenor), Alexandria Shiner (Prima Donna), Joshua Conyers (Music Master), Wilford Kelly (Wigmaker), Jeremy Harr (Lackey), Conor McDonald (Major-Domo), Seiyoung Kim (Brighella), Victor Cardamone (Scaramuccio), Ian McEuen (Dancing Master) and Ron Dukes (Truffaldin) in the Prologue. Photo by Scott Suchman; courtesy of Wolf Trap Opera.

Ariadne auf Naxos is one of a string of opera hits by the Strauss/Hofmannstahl team, but the opera has a convoluted history.  It was originally intended to be an innovative combination of a play by Hofmannsthal and an opera by Strauss, now known as Ariadne I (1912).  Ariadne I became cumbersome and drawn-out (play and opera combined at about 6 hours), and expensive to produce, requiring two separate troupes of performers.  Hofmannsthal went back to the drawing board, wrote a Prologue in which the characters set the stage for the Opera that follows.  Strauss made the needed changes to the music, and Ariadne II (1916) is what is most often performed today, coming in at a little over two hours. That sounds easier than it was.  There was considerable tugging back and forth between the two, Strauss and Hofmannsthal, though played out very politely:  At one point, Strauss wrote Hofmannsthal to the effect that the libretto was wonderful, but if he couldn’t understand it what hope might there be for the average fan.  Fortunately, they worked it out.

l to r: Alexandria Shiner as Ariadne, Alexandra Nowakowski as Zerbinetta, and Lindsay Kate Brown as Composer. Photos by Scott Suchman; courtesy of Wolf Trap Opera.

The opera begins on a set that is the backstage with an opening onto the performance hall, which is being used for dinner and music.  We meet the characters by their titles, not their names, Composer, Tenor, Prima Donna, etc.  The Major-Domo explains to the Music Master that the opera is to be followed by a commedia dell’arte performance of “Zerbinetta and Her Four Lovers”, and then fireworks 9 pm sharp.  The Music Master and Composer are highly upset at this juxtaposition of this low art with their high art.  The comedy players believe they will bring blessed relief to a bored audience.  It gets worse – the Major-Domo returns to state the opera and the play must be performed together to make certain that they can start the fireworks on time.  Cuts must be made; egos must be attended to.  Meanwhile, the irate Composer finds himself warming to Zerbinetta who herself becomes enchanted by the Composer’s commitment to presenting his vision of true love; her view is that if God wanted women to be faithful to one man, he would not have produced them in so many varieties.  Next, the backstage set has become the performing stage with small off-stage views on both the right and left. The Opera mashup begins, interweaving the stories of Ariadne and Zerbinetta to comedic and heartwarming effect.  Director Tara Faircloth did an excellent job in presenting the story, especially in choreographing the moves of a large number of players on a small stage and bringing each character to life.  The set designs by Laura Fine Hawkes and the costumes by Rooth Varland are marvelous, further drawing us into the drama.

The orchestra is on stage behind the set for this performance to allow all the musicians, a chamber orchestra of thirty-something players, to fit in one spot.  The music caught my attention right away because it has to move back and forth between the styles of opera seria and commedia dell’arte, as it helps flesh out each of the characters.  It also switches between small groupings of instruments for characterizations and the entire ensemble that sounds full and rich.  Whether Wagnerian in nature or comedic in nature, Strauss’ music is both pleasing and fitting, and always his own.  Conductor Emily Senturia and the Wolf Trap Orchestra gave a marvelous performance, especially considering that only tv screens afforded views of the conductor to the singers, and Ms. Senturia had to fly blind without a view of the singers. 

l to r .:Victor Cardamone as Scaramuccio, Alexandra Nowakowski as Zerbinetta, Ron Dukes as Truffaldin, and  (bottom)  Michael Pandolfo as Harlekin taking their turn in the Opera/comedy mashup. Photo by Scott Suchman; courtesy of Wolf Trap Opera.

l to r.:Victor Cardamone as Scaramuccio, Alexandra Nowakowski as Zerbinetta, Ron Dukes as Truffaldin, and (bottom) Michael Pandolfo as Harlekin taking their turn in the Opera/comedy mashup. Photo by Scott Suchman; courtesy of Wolf Trap Opera.

My son expressed the opinion that the Opera section of Ariadne was a parody of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde.  Once he said that I began to see parallels myself – Ariadne believes her depression over lost love could only be assuaged by death, ala Isolde, and when Bacchus arrived causing her transformation and salvation, the horns sounded very Siegfried-leitmotif-like.  Moreover, the opera within the opera is heroic in style and Strauss was a fan of Wagner’s music; might this be a tip of the hat to Wagner? 

Ariadne auf Naxos provides WTO the opportunity to use 17, by my count, of its Filene and Studio Artists.  The professionalism of this early-career crew is impressive; opening night went off without an apparent hitch.  The stand-out opportunities in Ariadne are the roles of Ariadne and Zerbinetta played in WTO’s production by soprano Alexandria Shiner and soprano Alexandra Nowakowski.  Both of these two WTO Filene Artists delivered stand out performances.  Ms. Shiner as Ariadne (Isolde?) sang with such power and compelling gravitas that I began to buy into the opera’s opera much as Zerbinetta did.  Ms. Nowakowski as Zerbinetta proved to be both a talented singer and a delightful actress. Her trills and roulades were used effectively, and she exuded a natural charm, nailing the coquettish nature of the role completely.  Both sopranos received enthusiastic rounds of applause.  Mezzo-soprano Lindsay Kate Brown also delivered a strong performance; her vibrant, lovely voice was thoroughly engaging in a pants role as the Composer.  

left photo: (top row L-R) - Anastasiia Sidorova as Dryade and Meagan Rao as Najade. (front row L-R): Ashley Marie Robillard as Echo and Alexandria Shiner as Ariadne. right photo: Ian Koziara as Bacchus and Alexandria Shiner as Ariadne. Photos by Scott Suchman; courtesy of Wolf Trap Opera.

There were many fine supporting performances, and I will mention a few.  Baritone Conor McDonald who played the speaking-only role as Major-Domo was perfect in appearance and in spewing his messages with a ringing German accent.  The operatic Dyads – soprano Meagan Rao as Najade, mezzo-soprano Anastasiia Sidorova as Dryade, and soprano Ashley Marie Robillard as Echo – had a beautiful sound together and a deft comic touch that reminded me of the Rhine Maidens (Wagner again).  In a performance that might be too easily brushed aside in the midst of so much action, tenor Ian Koziara was excellent, looking nothing like Ian Koziara in sight or sound; he was dressed and moved about for comedic effect and gave us a heroic heldentenor that was certainly respectable.  Fully engaging, singing and acting performances were also given by baritone Joshua Conyers as Music Master, bass Jeremy Harr as Lackey, and tenor Ian McEuen as Dancing Master. 

Ariadne can be enjoyed just for its take down of high art pretensions by commedia dell’arte styled comic antics; yet, I felt I went home having had an experience far richer than just having a few laughs.  Somehow an opening to the transformative power of love had been tapped. Opera can do that, and Wolf Trap Opera and it’s young ensemble consistently delivers on opera’s promise. 

The Fan Experience: There two more opportunities to see Ariadne, July 24 and 27; tickets can be found at this link.  The opera is in German with English supertitles.  Also recommended is the informative pre-opera talk by pianist Joseph Li that begins in The Barns one hour prior to the performance.

I have written many times about the benefits of opera in The Barns – a cozy venue for opera putting the singers and audience close together, casual dress and atmosphere, food and refreshments available, drinks can be taken to your seat, air-conditioning, free parking, and easy in/easy out access.  There are seats on the main floor that do not allow viewing of the supertitles and a few in the balcony where structure posts can split your view; if this is the first time to attend opera there, I’d advise talking with the box office in selecting your tickets.

 

 

 

Met Opera’s “In Cinemas” 2019-2020 Season: Tickets Available, Wednesday, July 17

Actually, tickets for live in HD “In Cinemas” broadcasts have already been on sale to Metropolitan Opera members, but they will be made available to the general public starting Wednesday, July 17.  These Saturday live-streamed transmissions of Met operas have become quite popular; the Met replays the video recording of the Saturday broadcast the following Wednesday in most locations; dubbed “encore” presentations, many of these are later added to the Met Opera “On Demand” video service, and some are broadcast again in the summer between seasons.  My experience is that seat availability varies depending on the popularity of the opera and the popularity of the series in the location closest to you.  In my area, the best seats go early, and even weeks before the broadcast, the only seats remaining are in the neck-straining first few rows.  So, my advice is to get your tickets early for the operas you most want to see live; seats for encore performances are not that often a problem.  Wednesday, July 17 is not too early for performances in 2019; some seats will have already been sold to Met Opera members.

Met live HD in Cinemas lineup for the 2019-2020 season

Oct 12 (live); 16 (encore) ------- Turandot (Giacomo Puccini)

Oct 26 (live); 30 (encore) ----- Manon (Jules Massenet)

Nov 9 (live); 13 (encore)  ------ Madama Butterfly (Giacomo Puccini)

Nov 23 (live);27 (encore) ------ Akhnaten (Philip Glass)

Jan 11 (live); 15 (encore) ------ Wozzeck (Alban Berg)

Feb 1 (live);  5 (encore)    ------   Porgy and Bess (George Gershwin)

Feb 29 (live); May 3 (encore) – Agrippina (George Frideric Handel)

Mar 14 (live); 18 (encore) ——- Der Fliegende Holländer (Richard Wagner)

Apr 11 (live); 15 (encore) —---- Tosca (Giacomo Puccini)

May 9 (live); 13 (encore) —–-- Maria Stuarda – (Gaetano Donizetti)

Reasons to go: Everyone will have their own reasons, but here are some of mine beyond liking movie popcorn and soda.  I mostly want to see the ones I haven’t seen before, but let’s look just a little deeper. Note for each listing, the title is hyperlinked to the Met webpage for that opera and the synopses links are to the Met’s own summaries:

Scene from  Turandot . Photo by Marty Sohl; courtesy of the Metropolitan Opera.

Scene from Turandot. Photo by Marty Sohl; courtesy of the Metropolitan Opera.

Turandot (synopsis)– I saw this Zeffirelli production live a couple of years ago at the Met, also with soprano Christine Goerke in the lead role.  Goerke was outstanding and Puccini’s music is always gorgeous, but what really blew me away were the costumes, sets, and staging as only the Met can do; I felt that I was experiencing high art in just this aspect of the performance. If you can’t see it in person, then yes, see it live on the really big screen, the biggest one you can find.

l to r: Scenes from Manon (photo by Karen Almond), Madama Butterfly (photo by Marty Sohl), and Akhnaten (photo by Richard Hubert Smith). Courtesy of Metropolitan Opera.

Manon (synopsis)– Massenet’s Manon is performed often enough that I am embarrassed to admit I have not seen it before, so it’s definitely on my list.  The added attraction is that soprano Lisette Oropesa and tenor Michael Fabiano play the leads.  I saw Ms. Oropesa recently in Pittsburgh Opera’s Don Pasquale and she was fabulous; she had just won the Richard Tucker Award.  She will be in DC on November 24 to perform in Washington Concert Opera’s performance of Ambroise Thomas’ Hamlet.

Madama Butterfly (synopsis)– Ok, it’s my favorite opera and has the great tenor, now baritone, Placido Domingo, in his role debut as Sharpless.  This opera is so popular you might be the 1,000,000,000 customer.  It looks like a very colorful production.

Akhnaten (synopsis)– The story is about the rise and fall of the 14th century, BC pharaoh.  Other than that, I am clueless on this one but won’t miss it because it is Philip Glass and this opera doesn’t get performed that often.  I do know that it has the currently hot, star countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo in the lead role.  It also includes the very fine, young mezzo-soprano J’Nai Bridges.                                                     

l to r: Peter Mattei in Wozzeck, Eric Owens and Angel Blue in Porgy and Bess, and Joyce DiDonato in Agrippina. Photos by Karen Kudacki; courtesy of Metropolitan Opera.

Wozzeck (synopsis) – I saw Berg’s Lulu on video and I’m not sure I enjoyed it; it was more like a car wreck I could not keep from looking at.  The music was a mix of melody and atonality.  I did read the synopsis for Wozzeck.  It seems to also be a bleak uncompromising look at poverty and adultery, so I guess I’ll go.  It does have one of my favorite baritones, Peter Mattei, playing Wozzeck.

Porgy and Bess (synopsis)– I love Gershwin’s music, and this production has an amazing cast headed by Eric Owens and Angel Blue, but I will pass because I plan to see the Washington National Opera production next May.

Agrippina (synopsis) – Think Joyce DiDonato, Kate Lindsey, and Brenda Rae.  That’s all you really need to know; anyone of those sopranos could headline an opera.  Plus, there seems to be a Handel revival going on. When I read the synopsis, I was thinking tragedy, but it is in fact a satirical comedy where the characters use plotting, deception, and murder to get what they want.  Sounds like fun.

l to r: Scenes from Der Fliegende Holländer (photo by Paola Kudacki), Tosca (photo by Ken Howard), and Maria Stuarda (photo by Ken Howard). Courtesy of Metropolitan Opera.

Der Fliegende Holländer (synopsis)– Or in English (with no umlauts), The Flying Dutchman, who is cursed to sail the seas until he finds true love and is given a chance once every seven years.  I have viewed the Dutchman as introductory Wagner, but I attended this opera in concert (Baltimore Concert Opera) this past year and came away thinking this is truly a great opera.  Sir Bryn Terfel will sing the Dutchman and German soprano Anja Kampe, famous for singing works by Wagner, will sing Senta. I am currently lobbying my wife for us to drive up to the Met to see this one in person.

Tosca (synopsis) – No, no, and no; I cannot stand to see one more Tosca.  It’s starring Anna Netrebko?  Well, of course I will attend.  I always feel I don’t want to attend yet another performance of Tosca, but when performed nearby, I always go, and I’m always charmed again; Tosca is pretty much the perfect opera.  For Ms. Netrebko, I am willing to travel. It and she are among the great ones.

Maria Stuarda (synopsis)– Met favorites Diana Damrau and Jamie Barton lock heads as Mary Queen of Scots and Elizabeth I in a famous historical drama and an opera that gives it stars a chance to show what they can make of it.  The Met says, “the opera’s drama is true to history in a way the facts are not.”  Hmmm.  In the current climate, that might benefit from some explaining.   

I think the Met has done an excellent job this year of setting the opera table for fans of “In Cinemas” broadcasts, with an array that should appeal to all tastes in opera.  While not the equal of attending the opera in person at the Met, these broadcasts offer less travel and cheaper prices to witness a Met performance, casual dress and taking refreshments to your seat, the possibility of close ups of the singers, and cast interviews in intermission. Looking over the season, I have my favorites; what’s yours?  See you at the concession stand. 

The Fan Experience: Showtimes for live performances are Saturdays at 12:55 pm, but always check when you buy your ticket.  The re-broadcast (termed an “encore”) of each opera typically takes place on the following Wednesday, often more than one showing.  The encores are not as popular as the live broadcasts on Saturdays though what you see on screen is exactly the same, so good seats usually continue to be available closer to performance time, often the day of.  Individual theaters may have overriding policies as to when tickets for specific showings can be purchased; check with your local theater.  Each opera listed on the Met in Cinemas website includes a Find Theater button that will lead to a site where you can enter your city/state address and see theaters in your area (note: I have found that entering your zipcode does not work).  Wikipedia provides a history of this program. Tickets are in the in the $20-25 range, with discounts for children and seniors.  To select a performance and buy tickets, click here.

Note that Intermissions can be a little tricky. When intermission begins don’t head for the restrooms just yet; the performer and staff interviews come next. After the interviews, there is a 15-20 minute intermission when you can leave for the restrooms and refill your soda without missing anything.

 

Two Engaging Opera Movies (Not Videos): “Tosca” (1976) and “Don Giovanni” (1979)

Watching movie versions of operas and videos of operas performed on stage can be both enjoyable entertainment and worthwhile arts experiences.  Opera purists should stop reading at this point or take more anti-hypertensive medication.  Seeing Met Opera “In Cinemas” broadcasts streaming on the big screen in a movie theater as I eat popcorn while wearing jeans and a sport shirt is fun.  Also true for watching movie and video recordings of operas on my big screen TV while I have lunch or dinner and can hit the pause button for bathroom breaks or hit the rewind button when I realize I missed something.  Besides, who can afford to go to the Met in NYC more than a couple of times per year or wants to wait a month between operas for local company productions?  And of course, movies and videos are cheaper than live performances. However, if you replace hearing opera live, local or at the Met, with only screen experiences, I’d insist that you are missing out on the best opera experiences, what the purists contend is true opera, hearing trained human voices without electronic transformation and experiencing the emotional impact those live voices carry, plus the deeply humanizing effect of live, shared arts experiences.  

“Tosca” movie, 1976, DVD cover; photo by author.

“Tosca” movie, 1976, DVD cover; photo by author.

Perhaps the biggest difference in producing staged and filmed/video versions is the acting demands on the singers.  Acting on stage requires broad dramatic gestures to be seen throughout the opera house.  Acting must be more nuanced for the close-ups of film and videos.  Now, let’s clearly make the distinction between movie versions of operas and videos that are recordings or streamed showings of live operas being performed on a stage; these are two very different formats that tend to get clumped together, especially when you are ordering DVDs from vendors.  They share certain advantages and disadvantages.  Videos and movies both offer close-up shots during the performance; if you want to see a close-up in the opera house you need opera glasses or binoculars. Both formats control the focus of what you see, not true in the opera house.  Both can also offer additional viewing material.  I especially like the performer interviews during intermissions of Met Opera “In Cinemas” broadcasts, pretty cool actually.  Video directors have some creative options not available to stage directors, movie directors even more so.  Movie versions are not restrained by time or space.  Nothing can make a story that takes place in the 1800s look like you are viewing it taking place in the 1800s in real time like a movie, and movement in time or place is more easily made in films since you don’t have to wait for sets and costume changes. A currently underappreciated advantage of movies and videos is that they capture performances of great singers and productions that can be viewed on demand forever more.  I often watch videos of operas, but I am just venturing into movie versions, mainly at the urging of my son who also loves opera.  I recently watched engaging movie versions of Tosca and Don Giovanni recorded on DVDs that were recommended to me by knowledgeable opera folks, and wish to report on these.

“Don Giovanni” movie, 1979, DVD; photo by author.

“Don Giovanni” movie, 1979, DVD; photo by author.

The 1976 movie based on Giacomo Puccini’s Tosca with soprano Raina Kabaivanska as Tosca, tenor Placido Domingo as Cavaradossi, and baritone Sherrill Milnes as Scarpia, is an excellent, classical production of Tosca and an excellent film that is a made for TV version.  Puccini and librettist Lorenzo Da Ponte wrote Tosca as taking place in three stunning locales in Rome, the church of Sant’Andrea della Valle in Act I, Palazzo Farnese in Act II, and Castel Sant’Angelo in Act III.  A major advantage of this movie is that it was shot on location, so those three venues are where the movie was filmed, and they are sumptuous; you see what the staged versions are trying to emulate.  In fact, the movie is worth seeing just to compare the actual venues with various stage sets you may have seen.  One can certainly argue that the realism of movies is not as effective for enhancing mood or emotionalism central to the artistic experience as theatrical staging, but in this movie, the real thing certainly works.  Another aspect of film-making that works is the ability of movies to move the action to different places easily and rapidly, i.e., the escaped Angelotti is hurriedly moving along a path to enter the church, not so easily shown on stage due to the distance covered.  This also works for movements required in filming the excellent execution of the “Te Deum” scene. 

For me, the best reason to view this film is the singers, all in the prime of their opera careers when the film was made.  I had not heard Ms. Kabaivanska before and am delighted to report she is a wonderful Tosca with a beautiful tone to her voice; she gives an emotional “Vissi d’arte”, and an overall fine acting performance; in Europe she was known at the time for her Tosca.  Seeing renown tenor Placido Domingo in his prime is a particular treat, and he made a convincing Cavaradossi.  However, the highlight of this film is baritone Sherrill Milnes, whose singing and acting in the role of the villainous Scarpia are superb.  The sound track is excellent; Conductor Bruno Bartoletti gives us a fine recording of the music.  One could take issue with a few features of the film, such as lacking the candelabra placement ritual on Scarpia’s demise, and Ms. Kabaivanska’s acting early in the movie is more suitable for the staged version, but overall, everything works.  Tosca is perhaps one of the better operas for making film versions due to its story and pacing, and the fact that it comes in at a little under two hours, which is short even by today’s movie standards.  This one is even worth watching again for the pleasure of it.

The 1979 movie of Mozart’s great opera Don Giovanni takes liberty with the setting as Director Joseph Losey attempts to adapt the theatrical version to a movie format.  The film opens in Venice with principal characters visiting a glass factory and using gondolas for transport and is filmed in a palazzo in Vicenza, Italy, though Mozart’s opera takes place in Spain.  It is an intriguing and promising operning and the change in locale allows use of very dramatic Venetian carnival costumes.  Otherwise, Mr. Losey stuck carefully to the Mozart’s score and Lorenzo da Ponte’s libretto, probably to the detriment of the movie, as I explain below.  The movie is beautifully filmed in beautiful locales.

One of the problems with Don Giovanni as a movie is that even as an opera it meanders a bit in the middle in order to offer up beautiful music and great arias, and the sequence of events gets confusing.  If this is to be your first Don Giovanni, read a good synopsis of the plot first, or better, see a staged version.  Some of the scenes in the movie are spirited and enjoyable from that perspective, but all of the roaming about in the opera becomes a bit puzzling even in staged versions, which presumably covers a 24-hour period and yet has a statue to the deceased appear by the end.  This doesn’t play well in Mr. Losey’s version which mixes day and night scenes and thereby loses the mood and momentum of Giovanni spiraling towards hell.  The finale could definitely benefit from today’s CGI effects.  This film is fascinating to watch as an attempt to make a great movie based on Don Giovanni, though in the end, it misses the mark. A NYTimes review hit the nail on the head with the comment that the film fails to evoke “a movie world in which we believed”.

A fantastic cast does a credible job of acting and a marvelous job of singing.  Famed baritone Ruggero Raimondo plays an impressively baleful, privileged nobleman in Giovanni, but does less well in projecting his charm or lust.  Raimondi is known for his portrayal of Giovanni and listening to his vocals one can understand why.  Baritone Jose Van Dam is very good as Leporello, as is soprano Teresa Berganza as Zerlina.  Soprano Edda Moser as Donna Anna and Kiri Te Kanawa as Donna Elvira are fabulous.  The conductor for the opera is Lorin Maazel, leading the Paris Opera Orchestra and Chorus, and the music is also fabulous.  The voices and vocals of the extraordinary singers are a compelling reason to watch the film in themselves.

Movie versions of operas were mostly made in the last half of the last century and many were made for TV versions with limited budgets, and thus lack today’s media and sound refinements.  Nonetheless, I recommend these two. I also think there is an opportunity being missed here by today’s movie directors.  I’d be happy to see Amazon, Netflix, and Hulu jumping into the field: Movie directors, accept the creative challenge of using today’s film-making possibilities to give us a great opera-based film.  Can you create a world we can believe in, even a fantasy world, around a great opera or, for a bigger challenge, overcome the deficiencies of a flawed one that prevents its great music from being oft performed today? 

The Fan Experience: Both of these films are currently unavailable for streaming from any of the usual sources, such as Amazon or Apple.  You should be able to find DVD copies in the $20-30 range, but a little effort in checking options can prove worthwhile in that prices can vary considerably depending on source and type of DVD – regular or blue ray. I called Amazon to ask that they add these operas to their streaming service, but don’t expect them anytime soon. If you’d like to look further into movie versions of operas, a good starting point is Cinema Dailies list of the top 25.

 

Wolf Trap Opera’s “The World Turned Upside Down”: a Funny Merlin, a Brilliant Emperor

Wolf Trap Opera’s opening salvo of opera at The Barns this summer is a twin bill combining Gluck’s Merlin’s Island and Ullman’s The Emperor of Atlantis.  I enjoyed Merlin’s Island.  It’s a fine farce providing social commentary that is still valid today.  As done by WTO’s young artists, it is a piece of puff pastry to be relished.  However, The Emperor of Atlantis is the one not to miss; I thought it brilliant.  Sometimes, something special happens.  Stage directors are always trying to achieve that thing, but it’s illusive.  First, they have to have a good play or opera to work with; then they have to be talented, and then, they have to be lucky; somehow it all works.  It’s like the heavens, maybe as a tease, occasionally allow us a glimpse of the truth of our lives through such works.

l to r : Two sailors from Paris, Scapin (Daniel Noyola) and Pierrot (Ben Edquist) approach Atlantis as Merlin (Conor McDonald) tracks them overhead. Photo by Scott Suchman; courtesy of Wolf Trap Opera.

l to r: Two sailors from Paris, Scapin (Daniel Noyola) and Pierrot (Ben Edquist) approach Atlantis as Merlin (Conor McDonald) tracks them overhead. Photo by Scott Suchman; courtesy of Wolf Trap Opera.

Merlin’s Island (1758) is essentially Gluck does French vaudeville, a surprise to me; the libretto, written by Louis Anseasume, is in French.  But speaking of surprises, in my preview blog report, I labelled WTO’s new season as “Here Comes the Judge” and as if by fate, early on in this opera the Judge appears.  Maybe I should say that Gluck does “Laugh In”.  Though he wrote quite a few operas, Composer Christoph Willibald Ritter von Gluck is today popularly known for his opera, Orfeo ed Euridice, and for having a major impact on the opera genre by flipping the script, giving the drama precedence over the music, rather serious stuff.  Merlin’s Island is an opéra comique, a genre that evolved from French vaudeville productions of the time and consisted primarily of arias and spoken dialog; if a comedy, the humor derived from its social commentary.  In this Gluck commentary on French Society, two sailors are shipwrecked on an island where there is no crime; philosophers recommend laughter; being rich is frowned upon, and husbands and wives are always faithful. The sailors’ world has been turned upside down.  WTO’s production is modified, somewhat shorter I think, and a few touches added to make it more Parisian, such as adding an accordion to the ensemble and performing the opera in a cabaret style.  The result is disarmingly funny from the very beginning until the end.  The music is pleasant and for the most part sounds very traditional of the mid eighteenth century, though varied in style for the different scenes.  The focus of this opera is the scenes not the continuum.  The Filene Artists and their younger siblings in the Studio Artist program showed remarkable acting ability in a comedy staged to veer sharply from classical opera.  Believe me, you will laugh.  All of the artists acquitted themselves well in their vocals.  Highlights for me included the remarkably strong, clear voice of bass Daniel Noyola who played sailor Scapin and baritone Conor McDonald’s campy and engaging Merlin.  I thought that soprano Shannon Jennings and mezzo-soprano Niru Liu who played Merlin’s nieces, Argentine and Diamantine, sounded especially good together in a duet where they were singing on opposite sides of the stage, and finally, mezzo-soprano Megan Ester Grey demonstrated remarkable calm while projecting power as the island’s doctor; her voice caused me to take notice, and she showed some good moves coming down the slide.  For me, the storyline fizzles a bit with Merlin needing to deliver a deux ex machina ending, but perhaps there is meaning there that Merlin had to convert the sailors to the ways of Atlantis.  Clearly Merlin’s Island is as relevant for today’s society as its original audience.  Gluck’s opera is not just an historical curiosity; otherwise, it wouldn’t be funny.

l to r : Merlin’s nieces, the rich, young bachelorettes, Argentine (Shannon Jennings) and Diamantine (Niru Liu) arrive to court the sailors. Photo by Scott Suchman; courtesy of Wolf Trap Opera.

l to r: Merlin’s nieces, the rich, young bachelorettes, Argentine (Shannon Jennings) and Diamantine (Niru Liu) arrive to court the sailors. Photo by Scott Suchman; courtesy of Wolf Trap Opera.

I came expecting two comedies, one light and one dark.  However, while The Emperor of Atlantis (or Der Kaiser von Atlantis in German) has some laughter-generating scenes, they were over shadowed by the darkness.  And the back story to the opera casts its own shadow.  But as the libretto notes, it is human to laugh, even as we hold back tears, and we need to keep laughing.  The opera was written in 1943 when composer Viktor Ullmann and librettist and poet Peter Kien were held in Theresienstadt, a “model ghetto” that the Germans used to show the world how well the inhabitants were treated as a means to deflect attention from the gas chambers.  While opportunity there existed for creating works of art, the German authorities would not allow this work to be performed, correctly viewing it as anti-Hitler.  The underlying story line is that Death, wearied of human folly, finally gets fed up by Emperor Overall’s call for total war, everyone against everyone, and Death goes on strike.  The Emperor at first claims not dying is a gift to his supporters but soon the absence of death undermines his authority, and Death requires as a condition of returning to work that the Emperor be his first customer.  Both Ullmann and Kien were transferred to Auschwitz and died in the gas chambers there.  For them, their message of tolerance for all humanity ended horrifically.  The opera finally premiered in 1975 in the Salzburg Festival.  Somehow, I feel honored to have witnessed it.

l to r : Hippocratine (Megan Ester Grey) arrives while Merlin (Conor McDonald) observes overhead. Photo by Scott Suchman; courtesy of Wolf Trap Opera.

l to r: Hippocratine (Megan Ester Grey) arrives while Merlin (Conor McDonald) observes overhead. Photo by Scott Suchman; courtesy of Wolf Trap Opera.

At first the mix of characters seemed weird - Loudspeaker, Harlekin, Death, Drummer, Emperor Overall, Soldier, and Girl with the Bobbed Hair, and there were times in some of the scenes when I did not know what was going on.  The character Harlekin danced and sang and laughed and asked Death to kill him; Death refused.  A drummer spreads the news of Emperor Overall’s decrees.  Loudspeaker would not lie but would not reveal the truth.  A man and woman try to kill each other and fall in love.  I don’t know that I will ever get the image out of my mind of Emperor Overall prancing around in his office while admiring himself in a handheld mirror.  What made me love this opera was the slow realization that something was stirring inside me, that somehow the opera was communicating with me in spite of the apparent lack of coherence. That is why I call it brilliant.  I also think Kien’s poetry is brilliant, making me want to read the libretto.  By the end, my laughter had been replaced by tears.  As I have thought more about this opera, it is likely brilliant for another reason.  Ullman and Kien could not have told their story straight up; it needed the cover of a zany fantasy to survive in their world at the time.  In the end, I found the opera unsettling.  Given the divisiveness in our country and the world today, might it happen again?  Kudos to Director Richard Gammon, and as he alludes in his program notes, this encounter with Death causes one to embrace life even more strongly, and I will add for Viktor and Peter - for everyone.

Emperor Overall (Ben Edquist) isolated and ruling from his office. Photo by Scott Suchman; courtesy of Wolf Trap Opera.

Emperor Overall (Ben Edquist) isolated and ruling from his office. Photo by Scott Suchman; courtesy of Wolf Trap Opera.

I was so absorbed in the drama that I am hard pressed to speak to the music.  Gluck would have been proud.  Ullman’s music is varied in style and was scored for the limited number of instruments likely available in Thieresienstadt.  It certainly supported the story and contributed to moods and was enjoyably melodic.  Ullman was a student of Schoenberg, but the score was not disconcertingly dissonant, though it reflected the tension in the drama.  In fact, kudos are due Conductor Geoffrey McDonald and the WTO orchestra for both performances.  Again, the young artists acquitted themselves well, in some cases smashingly so, with some holdovers from Merlin’s Island who had to sing in both French and German that night.  Anthony Robin Schneider gave a tour-de-force performance as the moody and depressed Death; with his stature and rich baritone voice he dominated the stage.  Baritone Ben Edquist gave an excellent performance in Merlin’s Island, but an even better one as Emperor Overall; I am sorry to report, Mr. Edquist, that you were an amazingly effective loathsome dictator.  Tenor Joshua Blue was both funny and touchingly sad at the same time as Harlekin, and Daniel Noyola returned to make an outstanding, if duplicitous, Loudspeaker. 

l to r: Harlekin (Joshua Blue) engages Death (Anthony Robin Schneider) in a macabre dance; Soldier (Victor Cardamone) embraces Girl with the Bobbed Hair (Shannon Jennings) after they try to kill each other. Photos by Scott Suchman; courtesy of Wolf Trap Opera.

I liked the pairing of these two operas.  Two light pairings might test our endurance and two dark pairings might send us in for therapy.  Kudos to Wolf Trap Opera for again giving us the opportunity to hear such talented performers and for bringing us less well-known operas so high in both entertainment and artistic value. 

And don’t miss The Emperor of Atlantis.

The Fan Experience: “The World Turned Upside Down” has additional performances on June 28 and 30.  The Barns continues to be one of my favorite venues for attending opera, and it’s coziness works especially well for the intimate cabaret styling of this double bill.

Pianist Joseph Li, who accompanied Steven Blier in his 25th anniversary concert, gave one of the best pre-opera talks that I have heard, providing substantive background and insights into these operas.  The pre-opera talk begins one hour before the performance.

 

Wolf Trap Opera and the NOI+Festival’s Engaging L’Heure Espagnole

A lot had to come together for the semi-staged performance of Maurice Ravel’s opera, L’heure Espagnole on Saturday night, a lot more than you might realize.  The National Orchestral Institute had to bring about eighty (by my guess) of the most promising young musicians in the country to University of Maryland, College Park for a month of training and performances at the Clarice under the aegis of the National Orchestral Institute + Festival program.  Wolf Trap Opera had to bring in a new class of the most promising operatic emerging artists for their Filene Artists summer program at Wolf Trap.  Wolf Trap Opera does not select the operas to be presented until they know the voices and talent that will be available for that year.  Then finally, the opera and program to be presented had to be chosen and the myriad logistics of presenting a collaborative opera production worked out.  The end result was a delightful evening of opera by Ravel and suites from operas by Benjamin Britten and Richard Strauss.  I love it when a plan comes together, especially if it involves opera.

Joshua Conyers as Ramiro, the muleteer (standing), Ian Koziara as Torquemada, the clock maker (seated), and Taylor Raven as Concepcion, the clockmaker’s wife (lighted in back). Photo by Rob Wallace/MIndful Photo; courtesy of Wolf Trap Opera.

Joshua Conyers as Ramiro, the muleteer (standing), Ian Koziara as Torquemada, the clock maker (seated), and Taylor Raven as Concepcion, the clockmaker’s wife (lighted in back). Photo by Rob Wallace/MIndful Photo; courtesy of Wolf Trap Opera.

The NOI + Festival orchestra opened the program with “Four Sea Interludes” from Peter Grimes (1945) by composer Benjamin Britten.  The orchestra was led by Conductor Ward Stare, Musical Director of the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra, who was assisted by Joel Ayau, a frequent contributor to Washington National Opera.  Peter Grimes, perhaps Britten’s most popular opera, is a psychological drama of vigilante justice in a small fishing village.  This is a musically diverse piece, modern in containing elements of dissonance, raucous in places as the music is tossed around from section to section of the orchestra, much like the sea can toss boats about.  The four interludes are titled Dawn, Sunday Morning, Moonlight, and Storm, with the titles being somewhat descriptive of the music, especially Storm.  I suspect this would be a challenging piece for even a seasoned orchestra of professionals, and NOI+Festival’s young performers displayed impressive artistry and came together beautifully, with an especially impressive orchestra-wide flourish to end the Storm interlude. 

While a bit of shuffling about was taking place to rearrange some instruments and players for the next piece, Conductor Ward Stare gave insightful comments about the different sections of the evening’s program.  The second offering of the night was “Suites from Der Rosenkavalier”.  The suite was assembled by Strauss himself combining different excerpts from the opera. Der Rosenkavalier (The Knight of the Rose, 1911) is one of Strauss’ most popular operas.  The story revolves around Marschallin, a middle-aged married woman having an affair with a young man, Octavian.  As the story progresses, she has to face the realization that she must give up Octavian who has fallen in love with the young Sophie, fiancé of Marschallin’s cousin, Baron Ochs.  The opera is amusing and sentimental, and the music by Strauss is lush and beautiful, complete with waltzes, what you might expect if you were attending an important concert in 19th century Vienna.  It was quite a contrast with the opening interludes by Britten, and surely, gave the youthful players a chance to master a different area of their repertoire.  To those of us in the audience, it was sheer pleasure.  As applause was given for each section of the program, conductor Ware charmingly recognized first the solo players in the piece and then each section of the orchestra by having them stand.  The applause was both appreciative and heartfelt.

left: Gonsalve hidden inside a clock and played by Joshua Lovell is carted off by Ramiro played by Joshua Conyers. What? You don’t see the clock? right: Torquemada played by Ian Koziara tries to sell Don Iñigo the clock he is stuck in. Sometimes suspending disbelief involves seeing things that aren’t there. It’s fun; remember when you were little. Photos by Rob Wallace/MIndful Photo; courtesy of Wolf Trap Opera.

Each of the opening works were about twenty-five minutes.  The forty-five minute L’heure Espagnole (The Spanish Hour, 1911) constituted the second half of the program after intermission.  To be honest, I did not know that Ravel composed operas until I saw the WTO season announcement.  And in fact, he only composed two; he also composed a fifty-minute opera titled “L’enfant et les sortiléges (The Child and the Sorceries) which tells the tale of a mischievous child who after a tantrum of breaking items in his room must face the things as they come to life to confront him.  L’heure espagnole is a more adult tale.  In fact, though the opera score was completed by 1907, the director of the Opéra-Comique delayed it’s production until 1911 due to his concerns about the risqué storyline, though tame by today’s standards and totally in keeping with what we have come to expect of the French, but then…the story is set in Spain.  For the libretto, Ravel used an eponymous play by Franc-Nohain, making only a few changes to the drawing room comedy.  The story takes place in a clock repair shop.  The muleteer Ramiro arrives to have his watch repaired by the clockmaker Torquemada.  Torquemada’s wife Concepcion reminds her husband that the hour approaches that he must leave each week to service the clocks in the town, a time when she has regular male visitors unbeknownst to her husband; Torquemada leaves them both to await his return.  First, her current lover, the poet Gonsalve, arrives followed soon by another suitor, the banker Don Iñigo Gomez.  To keep them separate and on point, Concepcion has the muleteer Ramiro cart clocks hiding her suitors to her bedroom, offstage.  While Concepcion wants to get down to business of making the most of the hour, Gonsalve becomes self-absorbed creating poetic lines, and Don Iñigo gets stuck in a clock, leaving only the muleteer, who has sudden appeal to the practical-minded Concepcion.  You can see the comedic potential, and the opera ends with everybody happy, except perhaps for the Parisian censors (in case you are wondering, Torquemada was happy from the sale of two clocks).  It was pointed out in the pre-opera discussion that Ravel composed the rare opera where female sexuality is accepted, and the heroine does not get killed off.  Who knew this was once frowned on in France?

Concepcion (Taylor Raven) decides that in love, it is the muleteer’s turn (Joshua Conyers) - regards to Boccacio. Photo by Rob Wallace/MIndful Photo; courtesy of Wolf Trap Opera.

Concepcion (Taylor Raven) decides that in love, it is the muleteer’s turn (Joshua Conyers) - regards to Boccacio. Photo by Rob Wallace/MIndful Photo; courtesy of Wolf Trap Opera.

L’heure espagnole does not have big show-stopping arias and much of the singing is recitative.  The vocals are mainly intended to carry the plot, not delve deeply into the emotional life of its characters.  Wolf Trap Opera’s Filene Artists had the right voice types and did a fine job making this semi-staged version work. Mezzo-soprano Taylor Raven who played Concepcion had the only challenging role, to exude sexuality carefully while maneuvering the players around to achieve her aim; she sang beautifully and did a credible job of acting for a young performer.  The other characters are one-dimensional stereotypes that serve to frustrate and finally satisfy Concepcion as she struggles to find the release she seeks.  Joshua Conyers, winner of the recent Annapolis Opera vocal competition, played Ramiro and shone with his warm baritone; he gave us a simple, happy Ramiro.  The fine young tenor Ian Koziara, who starred to rave reviews in last year’s Idomeneo, presented Torquemada as a presence as functional as his clocks.  The comedic foil and primary source of Concepcion’s exasperation was Gonzalve played by tenor Joshua Lovell.  He possesses a striking tenor worth hearing more of and appeared amusingly self-absorbed in his poetic creations.  Bass-baritone Calvin Griffin took a bit to warm up, but soon settled in to display his deep voice and give us the officious, self-important Don Iñigo.  The opera ends with an ensemble of all the characters that was a highlight of the performance and cemented the happy ending.  Director Emily Cuk did a fine job of staging the action through and around the orchestra.  Lighting was effectively handled by Christopher Brusberg. Kristen Ahern designed the costumes and a special thanks to production designer C. Murdock Lucas for the giant stack of clocks forming the portal to the off-stage bedroom.

The finale quintet shows each player content, especially Concepcion (Taylor Raven), in line with Don Iñigo (Calvin Griffith), Torquemada (Ian Koziara), Gonsalve (Joshua Lovell), and Ramiro (Joahua Conyers. Photo by Rob Wallace/MIndful Photo; courtesy of Wolf Trap Opera.

The finale quintet shows each player content, especially Concepcion (Taylor Raven), in line with Don Iñigo (Calvin Griffith), Torquemada (Ian Koziara), Gonsalve (Joshua Lovell), and Ramiro (Joahua Conyers. Photo by Rob Wallace/MIndful Photo; courtesy of Wolf Trap Opera.

The sixth major character in this story is the orchestra and Ravel’s music, which joins in propelling the farce forward.  Every action and emotion is painted with musical color, sometimes to the point of causing me to want to pause the characters and focus on the music.  The sound of clocks and metronomes added to the coloring.  Sometimes the music added to the drama, and sometimes it performed as a comedic foil generating musical slapstick in the background.  I’d also like to hear this score as a suite.  Conductor Stare led the NOI+Festival orchestra through a marvelous performance.  The opera is written for a chamber-sized orchestra, but NOI gave us a full orchestra, and the semi-staging of the opera allowed the orchestra to also be on the stage instead of being in a pit; this aspect enhanced the emotional impact of the performance which led to thunderous applause at the end.

The  L’heure espagnole  creative team, conductor, cast, and orchestra taking bows. Photo by Rob Wallace/MIndful Photo; courtesy of Wolf Trap Opera.

The L’heure espagnole creative team, conductor, cast, and orchestra taking bows. Photo by Rob Wallace/MIndful Photo; courtesy of Wolf Trap Opera.

Kudos to Wolf Trap Opera and the National Orchestra Institute for providing us with such an engaging and enjoyable evening of classical music and opera performed by some of the best young talent in the US.  These two organizations complement each other beautifully and their collaboration is to be encouraged, and then enjoyed.

The Fan Experience: L’heure espagnole was a single performance, but part of a triple bill for Wolf Trap Opera.  On the same night the Filene Artists back at The Barns in Wolf Trap were staging Merlin’s Island and The Emperor of Atlantis.  The twin bill at The Barns continues on June 26, 28, 30.  The National Orchestral Institute + Festival orchestra concludes its season on June 29 with a performance of Mahler’s 5th Symphony.  The Dekelboum Concert Hall in the Clarice is a fine venue; the clarity of the sound is very good, and I love the free parking after hours and weekends at the Clarice.

Getting to the Clarice from Tyson’s Corner is often problematic due to traffic on the beltway, even on the weekend.  Traffic issues early Saturday evening made me fifteen minutes late to the pre-opera talk.  A trip that should have taken 35 minutes took a little over an hour.  The pre-opera talk was a discussion panel that included Amanda Consol from the UMD’s Maryland Opera Studio, Morgan Brophy from Wolf Trap Opera, and Emily Cuk who directed L’heure Espagnole.  I enjoyed the comments I heard on how the program came to be, interactions between WTO and NOI, and challenges encountered.

 

 

Pittsburgh Festival Opera 2019: Wagner, Strauss, Puccini, and Mister Rogers

Logo courtesy of PIttsburgh Festival Opera.

Logo courtesy of PIttsburgh Festival Opera.

Pittsburgh Festival Opera’s annual summer season begins on July 12 and runs through July 28.  With an array of seven operas and three concerts over 17 days, PFO is focused on attracting as wide an audience as possible to the world of opera.  PFO is not associated with Pittsburgh Opera whose new season begins in the Fall.  Pittsburgh Festival Opera’s mission is to bring “the power of world-class performances to humanize, energize and re-define opera as an experience that is up-close and personal, approachable, and relevant to today’s audiences.”  How do they do it?  Check the variety of listings, but first, check the title of this report. It sounds like a Sesame Street game of ‘which one of these doesn’t belong’ – Richard Wagner, Richard Strauss, Giacomo Puccini, or Fred Rogers.  Yet, all four names are associated with operas that are being performed, and who doesn’t like Mister Rogers?

Artwork for  The Valkyrie ; courtesy of Pittsburgh Festival Opera.

Artwork for The Valkyrie; courtesy of Pittsburgh Festival Opera.

Pittsburgh Festival Opera places their productions under the banner of “Intimate Opera Theater”, meant to convey their intent to more fully immerse the audience in the opera experience.  They make it as easy as possible for you to attend performances in several ways – neighborhood settings, free parking, refreshment availability, and modest prices.  To further increase accessibility, almost all operas are sung in English with projected English subtitles.  The festival is a great way to introduce yourself to new opera and lesser known operas than you are likely to hear in the major opera houses; and it is a low-cost option for trying opera for the first time or introducing your kids to this wonderful art form (I can almost hear PFO whispering Mister Rogers’ refrain saying “We like you just the way you are”).  For those whose love of opera is a pre-existing condition, it offers the chance to get a new perspective on works you are familiar with already; I am not sure where else you might hear Wagner’s The Valkyrie sung in English.  And for the average Joe or Josephine, it is also a really fun way to enjoy the last two weeks of July and help make it to October when Pittsburgh Opera starts up again.

Pittsburgh Festival Opera’s program of operas:

The Love of Danae (Richard Strauss) - July 12, 7:30pm at Winchester Thurston School, Falk Auditorium

The Enchanted Forest (Children’s opera by Anna Young) - July 13, 27; sensory friendly, July 20; all performances at 11 am at Winchester Thurston School, Hilda Willis Room

“Mister Rogers' Operas” - July 13, 20, 25, 7:30pm; July 14, 2:00pm; all performances at Winchester Thurston School, Falk Auditorium

The Valkyrie (Richard Wagner)- July 19, 27 at 7:30pm; July 21, 2:00pm; all performances at Winchester Thurston School, Falk Auditorium

Gianni Schicchi at Snuggery (Giacomo Puccini)- July 20 at 6:00 pm, picnic and performance at Snuggery Farm 

Night Flight of Minerva’s Owl (Music That Matters Series) - July 24 at 7:30 pm at Winchester Thurston School, Falk Auditorium

 “Scandals and Schicchi” - July 26, 7:30pm, July 28, 2:00pm; all performances at Winchester Thurston School, Falk Auditorium

Concerts and events:

“Master Class Series”, July 13- Jane Eaglen; July 20- Danielle Pastin; July 27- Mark Trawka;all performances at 2:00pm at the Cabaret Lounge at Winchester Thurston School. 

“Wagner and the Mastersingers”, Act I - July 14; Act II - July 18; all performances at 7:30pm at First Unitarian Church. 

“Lenya in the Light: Daphne Sings Weill”: July 17, 7:30 at First Unitarian Church. 

“Degenerate Art Concert” - July 23, 7:30pm. First Unitarian Church

Artwork for  Love of Danae ; courtesy of Pittsburgh Festival Opera.

Artwork for Love of Danae; courtesy of Pittsburgh Festival Opera.

I can’t resist commenting on just a few of the offerings.  PFO has a long-standing commitment to producing works of the great composer Richard Strauss and Love of Danae (1944) sounds like a pleasing one for the human spirit.  The librettist is Hugo von Hofsmannsthal who worked with Strauss on his more famous operas as well, such as Der Rosenkavalier and Ariadne auf Naxos.  The plot is a little complicated with the god Jupiter on the make again, this time for Danae, and he creates a Midas touch for his accomplice in wooing her.  It backfires of course, and the god is taught a lesson by the humans.  Strauss is said to have intended this to be a light, operetta-like creation, but grew more sympathetic to the Jupiter character in its development.  Danae was composed during WWII and the war prevented its full performance during Strauss’ lifetime. It was finally presented at the Salzburg Festival in 1952.  Though the opera is little performed, the music draws great praise.  This one is sung in German with English suoertitles.

The Valkyrie, known in German as Die Walküre is the second opera in Richard Wagner’s series, The Ring of the Nibelung (Ring des Nibelungen), among the most famous and highly regarded operas in the repertoire.  The first opera in the series, Rhinegold, was presented by PFO last year to very positive reviews.  The story focuses on the Valkyrie Brünnhilde’s struggle with her father Wotan, the head of the gods. The Valkyries are maidens who speed through the sky to take fallen heroes to Valhalla, the home of the gods. The “Ride of the Valkyries” which opens Act III is one of the more famous and dramatic musical themes you are likely to hear; it was the theme used in the movie Apocalypse Now in the helicopter scene.  PFO’s production will be sung in English with English supertitles and shortened from the four-hour original to two hours and 45 minutes.  Though The Valkyrie is the most popular opera of the group, If it whets your appetite for Wagner, the entire 18 hours of the four Ring operas is well worth your time.

Artwork for  Gianni Schicchi;  courtesy of Pittsburgh Festival Opera.

Artwork for Gianni Schicchi; courtesy of Pittsburgh Festival Opera.

Gianni Schicchi by composer Giacomo Puccini is one of the better opera comedies in the repertoire if well played.  Family members are shocked when a relative leaves his entire fortune to the church. To acquire the inheritance instead of the church, they employ the low-bred lawyer Gianni Schicchi to come up with a plan.  The plan works, but for whom? The opera includes one of the most popular arias of all time, “O mio babbino caro”; if you don’t know what the aria is about, you will likely be surprised to find out.  PFO serves up Schicchi in a couple of different ways.  One includes a play called “Scandal and Schicchi” performed prior to the opera itself. The play sets up a judgment of Puccini based on Dante’s response to the opera.  Once you see Gianni Schicchi it all makes sense. If you prefer your Schicchi straight up, you can attend a performance at the Snuggery Farm instead and couple it with a gourmet picnic prior to the performance.

Night Flight of Minerva’s Owl by composer Guang Yang and librettist Paula Ciznet is the third in a series begun in 2015 called “Music That Matters”, new opera commissions that focus on contemporary issues. Owl presents views of three young girls longing for the educations out of reach for them. Last year’s A Gathering of Sons in this series won an international award for excellence in productions dealing with society and societal issues.

I want to make special mention of Anna Young’s children’s opera, “The Enchanted Forest” which adapts music from Bizet, Mozart, and Sullivan.  I am impressed and pleased by the inclusion of a special sensory friendly performance for children who might be especially sensitive to light and sound.  When my son was young, sounds my wife and I considered normal would cause him to put his fingers in his ears.  PFO says this performance will “feature less stage lighting and lower sound levels. We invite families to bring familiar, comforting objects to the performance and to feel free to move around the theater as necessary.”

There are many other delightful offerings in the festival, including more operas, concerts, and even master classes with distinguished artists.  The PFO website provides interesting and helpful information on each activity, easily accessed through the “What’s On” button at the top.  There is little specific information on the website about performers, singers or orchestra; however, the roles will mainly be played by PFO Resident Artist Singers who are here for summer training.  Based on reviews of last year’s performances, which can be found on this blog’s Seasonal Lists page in the 2017-2018 Season listing, one can feel comfortable that casting and orchestration will be well handled.

Artwork for “Mister Rogers’ Operas”; courtesy of Pittsburgh Festival Opera.

Artwork for “Mister Rogers’ Operas”; courtesy of Pittsburgh Festival Opera.

Ahhh, you didn’t think I was going to end the report without saying anything about Mister Rogers’ operas, did you?  PFO will present two, Windstorm in Bubbleland and Spoon Mountain.  For a discussion of the truly extraordinary life and contributions of Fred McFeely Rogers, I refer you to PFO’s web page about this program.  While most famous for his gentle and engaging children’s program on public broadcasting, “Mister Rogers Neighborhood” which ran nationally from 1968 until 2001, it is little known, I suspect, that he was the composer and lyricist of over 200 songs during his lifetime; he died in 2003 at the age of 74.  PFO will present two short operas developed and written by Mister Rogers and composed with his show’s musical director, Johnny Costa.  Fred Rogers had a friend in college, John Reardon, a baritone who later became a frequent performer at the Metropolitan Opera.  The process Mister Rogers used for developing his operas was to have Mr. Reardon show up on Monday and be directed by King Friday on the show to create an opera by Friday, and over the week, the characters would do so.  Mister Rogers told the kids that “An opera is just a story for which you sing the words instead of saying them.”  Adults make it a little more complicated, and these performances will be sung by young opera artists, but Mister Rogers’ operas are certainly accessible and fun, and those are principal themes of this entire festival.  Check ‘em out.

 The Fan Experience: Tickets range in price from $15 to $65 and are available online, by phone, or at the box office. My experience is that buying tickets at the box office can save you a few dollars in fees. A student discount of 20% is available. For questions, call the box office at 412-326-9687.