Virginia Opera’s Girl: Ode to Groag and a Challenge to Directors

Poster for The Girl of the Golden West (La Fanciulla del West); courtesy of Virginia Opera.

Poster for The Girl of the Golden West (La Fanciulla del West); courtesy of Virginia Opera.

Virginia Opera’s The Girl of the Golden West (1910) has so much going for it - Puccini music, a compelling story, a fine cast and orchestra, and outstanding staging for the most part.  It starts so strong, with the creative hand and deft touch of director Lillian Groag very much on display, but then both Ms. Groag and Puccini lose steam a bit at the finish line. There is a lot of action going on in this opera.  Girl starts to swirl with chases in act one and swirls with the snowstorm in act two; then, lets some of the tension dissipate in act three, lessening the climax as the differing swirls come together for a decision on our main characters.  For me, a better pace and at least one more great aria would have enhanced its impact.  It’s a good opera and an excellent show, but for me, its denouement should have been more gripping.  To be a great opera, I should have been speechless, shivering with uneasy relief, and near tears as the two lovers walk away; it didn't quite take me to that point.

Minnie (Jill Gardner) reads the Bible to the miners. Photo by Ben Schill Photography; courtesy of Virginia Opera.

Minnie (Jill Gardner) reads the Bible to the miners. Photo by Ben Schill Photography; courtesy of Virginia Opera.

This opera by Giacomo Puccini and librettists Guelfo Civini and Carlo Zangrini, is based on a 1905 play of the same name by David Belasco; Belasco’s adaptation to the stage of the Madama Butterfly short story also served as the basis for a Puccini opera.  Girl’s plot can be compared to another Puccini opera, Tosca; however, it’s message is all its own and feels like it belongs to simpler times in America, and that makes me love it; reportedly, Puccini said that it was his favorite of his operas.  The scene is a gold rush encampment of the old American West at the foothills of California’s Cloudy Mountains.  The opening takes place in a saloon inhabited by mostly down-trodden and homesick miners and run by a gold-hearted spinster-in-waiting, Minnie, who serves as a sister to the men, helping to sustain them and keep them safe from themselves with gentle caring, even reading to them from the Bible; she has never been kissed.  The Sheriff of the town, Jack Rance, wants to make Minnie his conquest, though his feelings for her are real; but Minnie does not love him.  An outlaw, Ramirez, using the alias Dick Johnson, rides into town aiming to steal the gold in Minnie’s care; instead he steals Minnie's heart and the feeling is mutual.  His connection with Minnie is strong and immediate, making the Sheriff jealous.  Later that evening, Minnie and Dick have their first kiss at her cabin, but later the Sheriff arrives and she plays cards for Dick’s life who lies wounded in the floor.  Johnson escapes, but is soon captured by a Wells Fargo agent.  He is about to be lynched by the miners, when Minnie intercedes.  It’s a powerful story, but I think Puccini let us down in two ways.  First, he chose a western as his vehicle for the story and westerns went out of style a long time ago, likely from overuse, limiting the appeal for today’s audiences (he could not have known, of course).   If there is one opera that might benefit from an updating to move it out of its western setting, this is it.  Second, he wrote a lot of dramatically appropriate music for this drama, but not the usual endearing number of fabulous arias we get in his other operas, La Boheme, Tosca, Madama Butterfly, and Turandot.  Dr. Glenn Winters, Community Outreach Musical Director for the Virginia Opera, argues in his blog this was a purposeful execution of the story given Minnie’s nature, but if so, it was a tactical error.  Even today’s audiences crave those arias, and it limits audience appeal that they are not there.  A change in fashion and an error in judgment by my favorite opera composer limit Girl's success.  A chaste, caring, good girl who is driven to lie, cheat, risk her life, and threaten the lives of others certainly is experiencing strong emotions and deserves a few top-notch, memorable arias. 

left: Sheriff Jack Rance (Mark Walters) and Minnie (Jill Gardner). right: Dick Johnson, aka Ramirez (Roger Honeywell), and Minnie. Photos by Ben Schill Photography; courtesy of Virginia Opera.

Nevertheless, let us sing its praises deserved and begin with Ms. Groag.  She was one of the reasons that I went to see this opera.  I now have seen enough operas that I am paying attention to the staging as well as the music and singing; staging makes a difference in effectively telling the story.  Ms. Groag’s Turandot last season was a smash hit in my opinion.  She crafted a stunning production on a relatively small stage with a limited budget, which could be carted around to three different venues.  So, I was eager to see what she would do with The Girl of the Golden West.  The set, the costumes, and the placement and movement of the cast on stage were all impressive; I had the feeling that I was peering into the Old West in gold rush days.  Kudos to scenery designer John Conklin and costume designer Constance Hoffman.  Ms. Groag’s ability to enhance the drama with professional touches is outstanding.  A couple of examples are Minnie’s dramatic entrance to suddenly increasing the size of the view of snow falling just as the love between Minnie and Dick Johnson is realized with a kiss, making that moment more romantic and profound.  Watching the opera, one could pick out moment by moment small gestures or movements that added to the performance that lesser directors would not have added.  I will just mention two more, including the use of Sheriff Jack Rance to open the opera, in silhouette on a high point in the middle of the stage his legs confidently draped across the side of his table, clearing foretelling his prominence, and his use to end the opera with Rance to the side in front of the curtain lighting a cigarette and in darkened silhouette exiting the stage resigned, but head held high.  I didn’t find Girl to be the complete success that was Turandot, and will have a few negative comments later on, but if you see Ms. Groag’s name on a production, go see it. 

left: Nick the bartender (Chris Carr), Minnie (Jill Gardner), and Wells Fargo agent Ashby (Jake Gardner). right: Sheriff Rance (Mark Walters) and Minnie play for Ramirez' life. Photos by Ben Schill Photography; courtesy of Virginia Opera.

The cast was excellent starting with the most excellent of all, soprano Jill Gardner, who sang beautifully and played Minnie as though the role fit her like a glove.  She was gentle; she was vulnerable, and she was strong as the situation required.  I could easily see her heading up a television comedy-drama.  Baritone Mark Walters, playing Rance, was her equal in most regards, giving us an aggressive, alpha-male Sheriff, yet who was not heartless.  His strong baritone was the most impressive voice on display.  Tenor Roger Honeywell, playing Ramirez, was convincing that Minnie could fall for someone like him.  His softer voice was a bit light and undistinguished, but when he soared into his steely tenor, he was impressive.  His aria “Ch’ella mi credo libero” at the end, pleading for Minnie to be spared the knowledge of his hanging drew the only individual applause of the afternoon.  There was a large number of supporting players who contributed smartly to the production, especially tenor Chris Carr as Nick, bass-baritone Jake Gardner as Ashby, and baritone Joseph Lattanzi as Sonora.  There was a standing ovation for the entire cast once Ms. Gardner appeared on stage. 

The Virginia Opera Orchestra, forty-five pieces, under the baton of Andrew Bisantz brought Puccini’s music to life.  I enjoyed the spirited music from beginning to end.  There was not a chorus as such but there was sometimes over twenty characters on stage singing together with a strikingly warm and lovely sound.

Minnie goes to Ramirez' defense as he stands with the noose around his neck.

Minnie goes to Ramirez' defense as he stands with the noose around his neck.

Act one was quite effective at painting the picture of a gold rush miner enclave, with real men, tender at heart, bound by rules of simple fair play, and with flash point tempers that could rise quickly to violence.  It showed how they could as easily comfort and protect each other as they could argue and fight among themselves, and Rance and Minnie were stabilizing factors.  The set, the staging, the music, and singing all worked perfectly together.  Act two followed much in the same vein engaging us with the relationships of Minnie with Johnson and Rance in a cabin in a lonely, snowy mountain top setting.  The off-stage chases and violence were effectively conveyed.  It was the final scene that left me unfulfilled.  I thought it began effectively with Nick accepting Minnie's difficult to understand love of Ramirez, much to Rance’s chagrin.  This ethos was squandered a bit in the flurry of activity around the capture of Ramirez, mostly off stage.  I found it awkward staging that the position for the noose to hang Ramirez with was almost hidden in the frame of a mine shaft entrance, also blocking the view of Ramirez to a degree.  I thought the makeshift gallows needed to be central with a focus there on Ramirez and Minnie together, ready to die together.  Finally, the pacing seemed rushed in Minnie’s plea to the miners and the union and exit of Minnie with Ramirez and the threat level to Minnie and Jack needed to be higher.  The closing focus on Rance was a very effective touch, however. 

Ramirez had made his case to Minnie that he was born into a life of crime and later to the miners that he was a thief but had not killed anyone, engendering some sympathy.  He had also somewhat redeemed himself with his plea for Minnie to be spared news of his fate.  But for his life to be spared, Minnie’s love for him and the love she had shone to the miners was necessary.  The acting in Girl was generally quite good, but, for me, a little better pacing and a couple more outstanding Puccini arias were needed to burn message of the redemptive power of love into our hearts.  Maybe it is also worth noting that I feel like I have seen the movie, and now I want Netflix to give us the mini-series on how Minnie and Ramirez made a go of it; so, it was affecting.

The miners have given their blessing to Minnie and Ramirez. Photo by Ben Schill Photography; courtesy of Virginia Opera.

The miners have given their blessing to Minnie and Ramirez. Photo by Ben Schill Photography; courtesy of Virginia Opera.

Sadly, my bottom line for this opera is this:  a great theme is imprisoned in a merely good Puccini opera that garners too little viewership.  The production that overcomes this conclusion is yet to be; I hope Ms. Groag has another chance.

The Fan Experience: Sunday's performance was the final one for this production.  Usually for the George Mason University's Center for the Arts Concert Hall, I go for the $54 seats in the back balcony, perfectly fine seats.  But because I wanted the best view of Director Lillian Groag's production, I chose a $110 seat dead center three rows from the orchestra pit.  It was an excellent view of the stage and great sound from the orchestra, but the voices on stage seemed lower volume than I expected.  For the third act, I moved to an empty seat at the back of the orchestra section and the sound was better for the voices.  (It is bad opera etiquette to change seats, but this was for the cause).  There are only fifteen rows in the lower level which is rather wide, so good seats anywhere really and true for the balcony as well; towards the center is best.

Virginia Opera's next opera is the one I'm most excited about this season, Benjamin Britten's A Midsummer Night's Dream.  Dates for Norfolk are February 9, 11, and 13; dates for Fairfax are February 17 and 18, and for Richmond are February 23 and 25.  This one is going to be fun!

Washington Concert Opera’s La Straniera: Beautiful Voices, Beautiful Singing, Beautiful Music

WCO logo; courtesy of Washington Concert Opera.

WCO logo; courtesy of Washington Concert Opera.

Opera cognoscenti have long known about the joys of concert opera.  I’m a recent convert.  Last year the Washington Concert Opera’s performance of Leonore, Beethoven’s earlier version of Fidelio, was my first concert opera; it turned out to be one of my top two or three performances of the opera season.  I followed up with a couple of trips over to see productions of the Baltimore Concert Opera; again excellent experiences.  I now have no hesitation about attending concert opera.

There were two additional reasons I was looking forward to La Straniera (1829), WCO’s initial opera of the season.  First, a highly talented young cast had been assembled, including a couple of Wolf Trap Opera alumni.  Second, it’s Vincenzo Bellini, and a Bellini I haven’t heard  of before.  Who are the titans of bel canto (beautiful singing) Italian opera?  Rossini, Donizetti, and Bellini.  Bellini's Norma and I Puritani are staples of the classic repetoire.  However, Bellini’s La Straniera, while successful in it day, is not often produced in the modern era.  Washington Concert Opera does that -  often presenting worthy operas that you are not going to see performed by the large opera companies.  It’s refreshing, actually.

Henriette Meric-Lalande as Alaide in the original 1829 production of La Straniera. Image from public domain via Wikipedia.

Henriette Meric-Lalande as Alaide in the original 1829 production of La Straniera. Image from public domain via Wikipedia.

This opera, when produced in modern times, has often been presented in concert.  Why might this be?  Let’s talk about the plot; it’s the standard boy meets girl; boy gets girl, and boy loses girl plot…but wait, it’s complicated…the boy (Arturo) is betrothed… the girl (Agnes) is married to the king…except the Pope ruled the king’s previous marriage still holds…so Agnes was sent into secret exile with her brother, Leopoldo, as guardian under assumed names…Agnes is now known to locals as Alaide or as the mysterious la straniera (the foreign woman), and her brother is known as Valdeburgo.  So, boy with baggage meets girl with baggage; he falls hard and she is attracted to him, but resigned to her fate.  Stuff happens along the way – Arturo, whose name should have been ‘Impetuous’, duels with the secret brother jealously thinking the brother is his rival.  He wounds Valdeburgo, who falls into the lake.  Then Alaide tells Arturo he has killed her brother; shocked, he jumps in the lake to attempt a rescue, leaving Alaide holding his bloody sword, which causes her to be blamed for Valdeburgo’s death. Well, the brother is not really dead and makes a surprise entrance at the trial.  I will stop here, but there are even more plot twists to come involving Arturo’s betrothed (Isoletta) and the king’s new wife.  In this performance of La Straniera, the surprise revelations along the way generated laughter in the audience, not the desired effect. True, opera plots are chosen for the range of emotions possible and not for simplicity or internal consistency, but La Straniera is over the top even for opera, especially for modern audiences.  If you don’t want focus on the plot and you have great music to offer, voila – opera in concert, where the focus is on the music and the singing.  By the way, if at this point you are holding out for a happy ending, read more Shakespeare; I did reveal that boy loses girl.

Javier Arrey as Valdeburgo, Gerald Schneider as Arturo, and Amanda Woodbury as Alaide. Photo by Don Lassell; courtesy of Washington Concert Opera.

Javier Arrey as Valdeburgo, Gerald Schneider as Arturo, and Amanda Woodbury as Alaide. Photo by Don Lassell; courtesy of Washington Concert Opera.

It’s surprising to me that Bellini and librettist Felice Romani selected the novel, “L’Etrangere” by Charles-Victor Prevost D’Arlincourt (1825), for deriving a plot this complicated.  Romani is one of Italian opera’s most famous librettists.  It was a very popular novel of its day and spawned a number of plays.  I guess the times were different then, although frankly, I was not among those laughing at the revelations.  I was able to suspend disbelief, required of all operas I think, and go with the Italian flow.  When I was a young boy, I loved going to the movies on Saturday afternoon to see the latest western; it wasn’t serious involvement; it was just fun.  I reacted to La Straniera the same way: I was transported to Italy at the opera on a Saturday afternoon in the nineteenth century and was digging it.  Arturo’s love-struck impetuousness seemed perfectly normal to me.

Javier Arrey as Valdeburgo, Corrie Stallings as Isoletta, Matthew Scollin as Montolino, Jonas Hacker as Osburgo, Conductor Antony Walker, and the WCO Orchestra and Chorus. Photo by Don Lassell; courtesy of Washington Concert Opera.

Javier Arrey as Valdeburgo, Corrie Stallings as Isoletta, Matthew Scollin as Montolino, Jonas Hacker as Osburgo, Conductor Antony Walker, and the WCO Orchestra and Chorus. Photo by Don Lassell; courtesy of Washington Concert Opera.

Regardless, great music it is.  Within two minutes of listening to the opening music, I knew I was going to enjoy this opera.  WCO’s 54-piece orchestra under the direction of Antony Walker sounded great, and WCO has them on the stage behind the singers so the orchestra is in full view and the sound is more directly aligned to the audience.  I previously heard Mr. Walker conduct for WCO, Wolftrap Opera, and the Pittsburgh Opera; I have yet to be disappointed, and I find his enthusiasm in conducting, fully visible in concert opera, to be infectious.  The WCO Chorus sat directly behind the orchestra and performed well and often as Bellini makes full use of the chorus; kudos to the assistant conductor and chorus master, David Hanlon.

Matthew Scollin as Montolino, Corrie Stallings as Isoletta, Gerald Scheider as Arturo, Javier Arrey as Valdeburgo, and Timothy Bruno as the Prior. Photo by Don Lassell; courtesy of Washington Concert Opera.

Matthew Scollin as Montolino, Corrie Stallings as Isoletta, Gerald Scheider as Arturo, Javier Arrey as Valdeburgo, and Timothy Bruno as the Prior. Photo by Don Lassell; courtesy of Washington Concert Opera.

There is legitimate drama in La Staniera.  The singers sang in character, conveying the emotions required by the plot and supported by the music.  Though not fully staged, this is storytelling at a very high level.  And the singers – oh my gosh, it was one beautiful voice after another.  Let’s start with soprano Amanda Woodbury, our Alaide.  I love it when a soprano has a voice that is so easy on the ears; her voice is honey.  She is the 2014 winner of the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions and the second place awardee in the international Operalia competition that year.  Even being under the weather, she sang with convincing emotion and ample power.  Her love interest, Arturo, was sung by tenor Gerard Schneider.  He has borne some criticism in the professional reviews for an inconsistent performance.  Even to my untrained ear, he seemed a bit off on occasion.  However, the Saturday afternoon movie-goer in me looked past that to enjoy the way he embodied the role of the smitten and hot-headed young Arturo.  And, Mr. Schneider has such a beautiful metallic tenor tone that he was sometimes thrilling.  Javier Arrey, with a gorgeous even baritone, is a rising star and was the smooth operator for the evening, playing Valdeburgo with passion and consistency.  Perhaps, the surprise performance for me was mezzo-soprano Corrie Stallings who played Isoletta.  My appreciation for mezzos has grown recently and she was outstanding, on stage far too little for my preferences.  Bass-baritone Matthew Scollin as Montolino was an impressive father figure for Isoletta; he is a resident artist for the Pittsburg Opera.  Two of my favorites from their Wolftrap Opera days were tenor Jonas Hacker who played Arturo’s friend and bass Timothy Bruno who played the Prior.  Mr. Hacker is a fine young tenor and it was fun to hear Mr. Bruno’s deep bass once more; I very much enjoyed their performances with WTO and hold them in high regard.  The cast overall, in both individual arias and ensemble pieces, provided beautiful voices and beautiful singing to make for as an enjoyable evening as you are likely to have at the opera.

If you haven’t been to a concert opera, what can I say to get you to give it a try?  A few years ago, I offered to buy my wife an iPad.  Nope, didn’t want one.  I bought one for her as a surprise gift anyway.  Now, the iPad goes wherever she goes (she’s getting an upgrade for Christmas – she knows) and she told me recently that she’s a digital girl.  Sometimes you don’t know what you are missing until you give it a try (my apologies to Yogi Berra).   Really, if you love opera and you are not attending opera in concert, you are missing some great fun.  Who knows?  You might be a WCO girl, or guy.

The Fan Experience: The WCO performs in Lisner Auditorium on the campus of George Washinton University.  There is a parking deck close to Lisner with typical DC rates, but on Sunday evening parking restrictions are lifted for most of the on street parking in the area which is free at that time; I managed to scarf a spot.  In general for Lisner, I recommend being as close to the center of the auditorium as possible for the best sound.  I was seated close to the stage slightly off center for the first act and got the full immersive experience of being so close.  At intermission, I took an unoccupied seat in the back right rear of the auditorium to see how the sound compared with being close (changing seats is bad opera etiquette, but this was for the cause).  The stereophonic sound that comes from being really close was diminished, but on the other hand, the volume of sound was quite good and the balance of sound was noticeably better farther back.  The voices carry extremely well in Lisner.  So, take your choice.  Program credits were offered for Dorothy and Ken Woodcock who made the performance possible through support of the WCO 2017-2018 season, and Ed and Andy Smith for support of Mr. Hacker, and The Guild for Washington Concert Opera for support of Ms. Woodbury and Mr. Arrey.  A downside for WCO offerings is that you only get one shot, one and done for each production.  The next WCO production is Donizetti’s Maria Di Rohan on February 18Tickets range from $40-100 and $15 for students.  The better seats are selling out, so purchase your seat as quickly as you can. 

 

 

The Exterminating Angel in Cinemas: The Met Done Good

CorrectionThe next showing of The Exterminating Angel in cinemas is November 29 (not November 22); the incorrect date listed in my previous post has been corrected.  Note: this is an “Encore”, not "live" showing and many theaters will carry two showings that day.

I followed my own advice (posted here) on Saturday and attended the Metropolitan Opera’s The Exterminating Angel live in HD at Tysons AMC Theaters on Saturday.  I like the opera and am glad I saw it.  I can’t say I love the opera.  But here is the thing - though modified, it follows the plot of an extraordinary film; so, the element of surprise is lost for the most part.  In an interview during the intermission, composer Thomas Ades said the opera chose him, not the other way around, and we have to accept what our creative people have to offer us.  I would recommend seeing the opera even if you have seen the movie.  Here is what I like about the opera: the music, the character development, the cast, and the message. 

Society manners and personas rule the beginning of the dinner party in The Exterminating Angel. Photo by Ken Howard; courtesy of the Metropolitan Opera.

Society manners and personas rule the beginning of the dinner party in The Exterminating Angel. Photo by Ken Howard; courtesy of the Metropolitan Opera.

The cast truly was an ensemble cast of 15 singers.  No one stood out for me above many of the others.  All were quite good.  The singing was primarily the singers soaring up and down in their highest register to express their emotions, which I gather is not easy to do.  There were only a few arias, but one was a rather lovely duet between the lovers in Act 2.  The cast were also good actors, which is especially important for the cinema broadcast with its extensive use of close-ups.  The focus on recitative or sung dialog allowed for a deeper level of character development than I find in most operas, and towards the end, I found myself starting to care about each of these stuffed shirts and the pain of having their souls bared.  The music was modern and not often melodic enough to hum along with, but it was quite inventive in supporting the story and emotions being expressed.  Kudos to Mr. Ades and Mr. Cairns.

A betrothed couple displaying their passion and a scene where dark sides are emerging in The Exterminating Angel. Photos by Ken Howard; courtesy of the Metropolitan Opera.

It’s not that I liked the message so much as I liked that the opera, like the film upon which it is based, forces us to take a look at ourselves as we really are beneath our personas.  Early on, one of the characters complains that no coffee spoons have been set out; he says the breakfast spoons are too large for his coffee.  Towards the end, the people are slaughtering sheep with whatever implements they can find and cooking the meat over an open flame.  I think the world can be viewed as a dinner party where no one can leave.  The opera and film force us to look into the face of our primal natures.  One character toward the end says he would rather die than endure the degradation.  Perhaps there is a better path than death or hiding of our real selves.  I hope, perhaps optimistically, that this confrontation with ourselves moves us towards greater tolerance and love as the answer to our dilemma.

The need for the proper spoon and then more primitive dining in The Exterminating Angel. Photos by Ken Howard; courtesy of the Metropolitan Opera.

Personally, I am somewhat disappointed in the Met’s 2017-2018 season; in close to thirty offerings, this is the only new opera.  The Met is producing some good things this year in what they are doing with old operas and the quality of singers they can present.  However,  I feel they could be doing so much better for opera and their audiences.  However, in The Exterminating Angel, the Met done good.

The Fan Experience: I bought my tickets online using Fandango; this adds two dollars to the cost, but I get to skip the lines at the box office.  I love it that I can dress casually and take refreshments into the theater for opera.  Bear in mind that movie etiquette applies, so you may have folks squeezing by you to get seated after the opera begins and enjoying their soda and popcorn after it starts; mine was a very polite crowd.  Also, when Act 1 ends, stay seated a few more minutes and take advantage of the interviews with the cast and composer, an advantage of the cinema broadcasts.  You will then be given an intermission without commentary to take your bathroom break or make your soda run.  Also-x2, the opera is in English, but subtitles are also shown.

What I don’t like about the cinema broadcasts: not being able to see the whole stage and the quality of the sound compared to being there in person.  Even with the good quality sound in cinemas today, it is no match for live sound directly to your ears.  If you can make the live production in NYC, do that.

The Exterminating Angel in Cinemas Saturday, November 18: Why You Should Go

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What: Met Opera HD Live in Cinemas will present The Exterminating Angel on this coming Saturday, November 18; at 12:55 pm (2 hrs 40 min with 25 min intermission).  Most of the participating theaters will rebroadcast the Saturday performance once or twice on the following Wednesday, November 29.  Use this link to find participating theaters near you; put in your city and state into the address box (not your zip code).  The next In Cinemas live transmission will be December 9, when Engelbert Humperdinck's Hansel and Gretel will be broadcast as a holiday treat for both children and adults; note that this is a rebroadcast and not live.

The dinner party begins in The Exterminating Angel. Photo by Ken Howard; courtesy of the Metropolitan Opera.

The dinner party begins in The Exterminating Angel. Photo by Ken Howard; courtesy of the Metropolitan Opera.

Why You Should Go:

1.     It is a new opera that you are not going to see produced near you anytime soon.  There have been two previous productions in Europe (Salzburger Festspiele, August 2017; Royal Opera, May 2017); both were well-received.

2.     It is based on the highly acclaimed movie of the same name, directed by Luis Bunuel .  It will be interesting to compare the opera with the movie.

3.     The opera’s plot revolves around a dinner party for wealthy opera goers. The servants are compelled by some inexplicable force to leave, but the guests find that they cannot.  Polite society begins to break down.  Despite the disturbing theme, there are comic elements.

4.     The composer/co-librettist is Thomas Ades, who has received praise for his choral works, chamber music, and operas; his last opera, The Tempest, is a previous success; Ades will also conduct this performance.  A discussion of the opera by Ades and his co-librettist/director Tom Cairns in given in the video at the bottom of this post

5.     The cast is headed by coloratura soprano, Audrey Luna, playing Leticia; she is known for her high range.  She is the only singer to play this role thus far, having done so in the two previous productions.  Overall, there are 15 solo roles in this opera for a highly regarded ensemble cast.

6.     The reviews have been overwhelmingly positive.

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

Reviews (additional reviews listed in sidebar):

1.  Anthony Tommasini, NY Times, “Review: If You See One Opera This Year, Make it ‘The Exterminating Angel’

2.  Wilborn Hampton, Huffington Post, "Met Opera: Thomas Ades', "The Exterminating Angel" Wows at Its U.S. Premiere"

Composer/co-librettist/conductor Thomas Ades and co-librettist/director Tom Cairns discuss The Exterminating Angel (YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lZ7-PanwJCI; the Metropolitan Opera).

WNO’s Alcina: Six Singers in Search of a Modern Drama

I resonate between being enthusiastic about Washington National Opera’s production of Alcina and then again, being somewhat reserved, depending on how I think about it.  Let’s work through it.  (If I seem a bit fatalistic in this blog report, keep in mind that as I write I am listening to a CD titled “Classical Music for the Zombie Apocalypse” which I somehow stumbled across looking in Apple Music for albums by Barbara Hannigan).

Painting by Francis Kyte of George Frideric Handel. Photo is in public domain in Wikipedia Commons.

Painting by Francis Kyte of George Frideric Handel. Photo is in public domain in Wikipedia Commons.

Alcina is the opera in this season’s WNO lineup that excited me the most.  It is was to be my first baroque opera and my first Handel opera, and the announced cast for this production was outstanding.  George Frideric Handel’s life (1685-1759) and his music productivity is an astonishing story in itself.  He was primarily an opera composer, though best known in the US and perhaps the world, for his oratorios (e.g., “Messiah”) and his orchestral works (e.g., “Water Music”).  Handel was born and educated in Germany, and his first few operas were written and performed with modest success in Germany.  He initally supported himself as a violinist.  His father had wanted him to study law.  A trip to Italy around the turn of the 18th century to explore the flourishing opera scene there lasted over four years during which he further enhanced his education and reputation, composing his first Italian operas.  He returned to accept, but did not settle into, a music position in Germany.  Instead, he soon traveled with his employer's permission to London in 1710, where he stayed and began to write more Italian operas.  Part of his success was his ability to find and entice to London outstanding singers.  His was a chaotic career in composition, production, and the opera business; brought to ruination on several occasions by enemies and/or changing times, he was each time reborn a success, a tale worthy of a British mini-series.  His life was not without personal conflicts.  In his early years he fought a duel that came close to ending his life.  It is said that he once held a soprano out a window until she agreed to sing an aria in one of his operas.  He produced over forty operas, all with Italian librettos.  As the tastes of London moved away from Italian opera, around 1740, he switched from compositions in Italian to mainly composing oratorios with English texts, and over his lifetime completed over thirty oratorios.  He lost his eyesight in his last years, but then pursued a successful career as an acclaimed organist and conductor until his final days.  His productivity boggles the mind.

Angela Meade as Alcina. Photo by Scott Suchman; courtesy of Washington National Opera.

Angela Meade as Alcina. Photo by Scott Suchman; courtesy of Washington National Opera.

Baroque opera has a style where the aria’s the thing.  This was pointed out by Ken Weiss, Principal Coach of the Domingo-Caftitz Young Artists Program in his entertaining and informative pre-opera talk.  The baroque format has the opera move from aria to aria with each singer having the opportunity to display their talent.  Recitative and ensemble pieces are given short shrift.  This style by its nature imposes limits on storytelling and for engaging modern audiences in the drama.  The arias in baroque operas typically follow the da capo form, an ABA form whereby section A of the aria is followed by section B with a return to section A.  The cool thing about baroque opera arias is that when returning to section A, the singer is allowed to add flourishes and trills, to dress it up and display the singer’s skills and prowess, sort of jazzing it up if you will.  Mr. Weiss said this is also somewhat true for the continuo section of the orchestra so that each production of a baroque opera will be different as different singers and musicians favor their own improvisations.  I wouldn’t mind seeing Alcina again to listen more closely for this.

Angela Meade as Alcina, Elizabeth DeShong as Ruggiero, and Daniela Mack as Bradamante. Photo by Scott Suchman; courtesy of Washington National Opera.

Angela Meade as Alcina, Elizabeth DeShong as Ruggiero, and Daniela Mack as Bradamante. Photo by Scott Suchman; courtesy of Washington National Opera.

WNO’s Alcina excels at the voices and the arias, the focal point of baroque opera; job one is well done.  Kudos to Francesca Zambello, WNO’s artistic director for assembling a truly impressive cast of singers, especially the women.  Angela Meade, our Alcina, is an established star who easily anchors this production with her powerful soprano, even in the midst of so many highly talented cast members.  Ms. Zambello reported that it was Meade's desire to play the role of Alcina that was the genesis of it being produced.  I found her performance to ebb and flow in how completely it engaged me.  I thought her singing was especially beautiful and forceful towards the end of act one.  The other singer I was especially looking forward to is mezzo-soprano Daniela Mack, who I saw recently in The Trial of Elizabeth Cree.  She is a convincing Bradamante singing with passion and providing the most convincing acting performance of the evening.  As good as Meade and Mack were – very, very good – the stars who shone most brightly for me were mezzo-soprano Elizabeth DeShong as Ruggiero and soprano Ying Fang as Morgana; to my surprise, both had me leaning forward in my seat.  I was aware of Ms. DeShong’s reputation, but the clarity and color of her voice was even better than I had anticipated.  Ruggerio is a pants role today for mezzo-sopranos, but in Handel's time, the role was given to a castrato; I would not wish that fate on anyone, but I kind of wish I could hear one sing.  The other standout for me was Ying Fang who owned the evening from the very beginning.  She possesses a gorgeous soprano voice and exudes a winsome graceful charm in playing Morgana.  The guys, baritone Michael Adams as Melisso, and tenor Texford Tester as Oronte, acquitted themselves well in their roles.  They are both young artists from the Domingo-Cafritz Young Artists program.

left: Ying Fang as Morgana. right: Angela Meade as Alcina, Elizabeth DeShong as Ruggiero; Michael Adams as Melisso, and Daniela Mack as Bradamante. Photos by Scott Suchman; courtesy of Washington National Opera.

I thought the orchestra’s performance was another highlight of the evening.  The WNO orchestra is conducted by Jane Glover for Alcina; she is an experienced hand with baroque music.  Handel’s music always sounds perfect to me, and it did in her hands.  He is the master chef of baroque music.  It always has the right amount of salt and pepper, and the finish of each musical phrase satisfies.  This production is in the smaller Eisenhower Theater instead of the Opera House, deliberately so to better showcase a baroque opera where the spotlight falls mainly on the singer.  Even in the smaller venue, the orchestra sounded a bit light to me in terms of volume; it might have benefited from additional players. 

Rexford Tester as Oronte and Elizabeth DeShong as Ruggiero, and chorus. Photos by Scott Suchman; courtesy of Washington National Opera.

Rexford Tester as Oronte and Elizabeth DeShong as Ruggiero, and chorus. Photos by Scott Suchman; courtesy of Washington National Opera.

Alcina is a quality product, but now it’s time to complain: I think this story actually has possibilities for a modern updating, and therein may be my problem with Alcina.  The librettist for Alcina is Ricardo Broschi and it is extracted from Ludovico’s long poem, “Orlando Furioso”, a source for many other operas as well.  Alcina is a sorceress who rules an island where she creates illusions and fantasy to control her love life.  Ruggiero, a warrior, has been placed on the island to escape his fate but has fallen under the spell of Alcina.  Ruggiero’s betrothed, Bradamente, shows up disguised as her brother looking for her lover; she is accompanied by her tutor Melisso.  Alcina has a sister Morgana who falls for Bradamente, to the displeasure of her suitor, Oronte.  The WNO version was somewhat shortened and a character, Oberto, was deleted, thereby I think, maybe further limiting the storytelling.  The plot actually deals with some important themes, but they are not developed in either a gripping or thought-provoking way.  Maybe that is just baroque opera for you.

Angela Meade as Alcina, Elizabeth Deshong as Ruggiero, and chorus. Photo by Scott Suchman; courtesy of Washington National Opera.

Angela Meade as Alcina, Elizabeth Deshong as Ruggiero, and chorus. Photo by Scott Suchman; courtesy of Washington National Opera.

As a baroque opera, not much staging is required, and director Anne Bogart delivered that, minimal sets and staging, done well for the most part, modern and chic, accented with a quartet of dancers from time to time; kudos also to choreographer Barney O’Hanion.  The action takes place on a raised circle of stage with a large circle on the back wall used for shaded images of lighting.  On each side were square white ottomans, often occupied by the chorus, which had little to do in this production, though often onstage as props.  The chorus members, male and female, each associated with an ottoman, apparently represented the lovers that Alcina had turned to stones, trees, and animals.  A mysterious orb appears from time to time that seems to be Alcina’s source of power. A small peeve of mine is the costumes: was there a fire sale not too long ago on military costumes and opera companies stocked up?  If all you are going to do to update an opera is put some of the characters in military garb, which I have seen too many times lately, why do it?  Traditional staging is fine and updating is often distracting, such as having Bradamente and Ruggiero brandish a handgun from time to time.  Ok, I feel better. 

Given that important themes of attraction versus true love, the power of illusion, and the pain of disillusionment are present in this story, I’d love to see a version that really updates the story.  Why not add some recitative and give the singers a chance to develop their characters?  Maybe add a little deux ex machina delight/shock by showing people converted to stones and back.  Perhaps just the concept of transmogrification delighted fans of the 18th century, but we live in the super hero/CGI world.  If you are just going to update a baroque opera with cosmetics, even artful ones, don’t.  Just give the audience the entire opera as it was presented in the 18th century.  That at least helps set our expectations for the 18th century.

There you have it.  I love the singing and would go back again to hear it if I could make it.  Is my longing for something more fulfilling due to WNO’s production of Alcina or just my reaction to baroque opera?  I wonder myself.

(By the way, the music on the Zombie CD is quite good, featuring selections from an impressive list of contemporary composers; there is also a volume 2.  Oh, also by the way, Barbara Hannigan is giving a Renee Fleming “Voices” recital at the Kennedy Center next Tuesday evening; I have my ticket.)

Fan Experience: Getting to the Kennedy Center from Tyson’s corner on a Saturday afternoon is definitely easier than a weekday, but is not traffic tie-up free.  I say this often, but allow extra time, always.  I cough up the $20 to use Kennedy Center Parking; entering the lot can be a bit stressful as the QR code reader can be difficult to satisfy.  My email confirmation with the code was not downloading on my iPhone when I entered.  Finally, staff took my name and phone number and let me enter.  From now on, I will take a paper copy.  The pre-opera talk began one hour before the performance; it was well worth the effort to get there early; kudos to Mr. Weiss.  To my dismay, there was no Alcina coffe mug being sold in the gift shop.

An Elegant Evening of Early Music, Compliments of Opera Lafayette

Logo for Opera Lafayette; courtesy of Opera Lafayette.

Logo for Opera Lafayette; courtesy of Opera Lafayette.

For the last few months, I have been angry with Opera Lafayette, mildly so, borne of disappointment.  It’s their fault; more later.  I only decided to attend “An Evening of Monteverdi” at the last minute, drawn mainly because I was not familiar with the music of Claudio Monteverdi and because Lea Desandre was to be a featured performer.  I quickly was glad I had attended as I encountered the emotion and haunting beauty of this early music.  One might compare the experience to attending an elegant dinner party, where charming guests are dressed formally and the authentic silver and best china are on display.  The planning and execution was almost flawless and the music was intoxicating.  Within minutes, I felt like I had already had an aperitif prior to sitting down.  Truly, the final applause should have been served with champagne (French) for everyone to toast a satisfying musical and cultural event. 

Monteverdi is famous for being there at the beginning of opera, the turn of the 17th century.  His opera Orfeo, though not the first opera is the first to become entrenched in the traditional canon of operas performed.  The exact timing or event when music, singing, and drama combined to become a thing known as opera is a bit messy.  The music for this concert was taken mainly from Monteverdi’s madrigals, an important secular musical form where poems are sung.  The music was provided by a small group of expert period players called a continuo, including at times all, or different combinations, of an archlute, harpsichord/organ, cello, bass, viola, and two violins.  At the pre-performance talk, Ryan Brown, violinist and head of Opera Lafayette, and Thomas Dunford, archlutist and guest musical director, discussed why Monteverdi’s music was selected, perhaps best summed up in the program notes: “Claudio Monteverdi (1567-1643) bridges renaissance, baroque, and modern musical worlds…prioritized an aesthetic of emotional persuasion over contrapuntal purity…the balanced treatment of dissonances and harmony towards emotional expression…”, this at a time when the church still dominated music.  His fellow composers were not always pleased with his changes to the established rules, which we now consider innovations.  Brown and Dunford even managed to connect Monteverdi's invention of riffing on a base line to Gladys Knight and the Pips, a journey of some distance since this would be Monteverdi’s 450th birth year.  In short, Monteverdi was the musical bad-ass of his day.

Lea Desandre, Doug Balliet, Liv Redpath, and Jean Rondeau. Photo by Louis Forget; courtesy of Opera Lafayette.

Lea Desandre, Doug Balliet, Liv Redpath, and Jean Rondeau. Photo by Louis Forget; courtesy of Opera Lafayette.

The evening’s program consisted mainly of short pieces from madrigals, some based on poems by Petrarch, sung as solos or duets or ensembles, anchored by Monteverdi’s longer theatrical madrigal, Il combattimento di Tancredi di Clorinda, a narrated single scene where the knight Tancredi does battle with and defeats an armored warrior who turns out to be the woman he loves; a good example of the human emotion Monteverdi addressed with his music.  This group of performers seemed like the perfectly balanced crew for this production, each performer talented and well suited to their roles.  The voices for the singers were uniformly excellent.  Lea Desandre’s emotional renditions as a solo artist and with other singers were gorgeous, satisfying my expectations.  Young soprano Liv Redpath was also featured in the duets and ensemble pieces and was a voice I am anxious to hear again.  The guys in featured roles, tenor Patrick Kilbride as Tancredi and baritone David Newman as the narrator were excellent in their roles.  Alto Kristen Dubenion-Smith and bass Alex Rosen were quite good in the ensemble work but had less prominent roles; I hope our paths cross again. 

The music was enlivened by some improvisations in part two creating sort of a renaissance hoe-down beginning with archlutist Dunford, bass player Doug Balliet, and organ/harpsichordist Jean Rondeau and ending with the entire ensemble, adding an element of fun to the beauty of the music.  Violinists Brown and Elizabeth Field, Paul Miller on viola, and cellist Beiliang Zhu enhanced and rounded out the troupe.  I will make one minor criticism: the Tancredi and Clorinda piece might have benefited by having dancers provide the enactment; the posturing of Mr. Kilbride as Tancredi and Ms. Redpath as Clorinda did little to enhance the story-telling.  For an entertaining and scholarly review of the program, I refer you to Charles Downey’s review in Washington Classical Review.

So, from whence does my underlying disappointment with Opera Lafayette arise.  Last season, I attended my first Opera Lafayette production, Pierre Gavaeaux’s Leonore, ou L’Amore du conjugal.   It was an excellent, fully-staged version, and I thought I had found an excellent source of lesser-known operas.  It also gave me the opportunity to see within a matter of weeks, three versions of the Leonore story, including Beethoven’s Leonore by the Washington Concert Opera and Beethoven’s Fidelio by the Metropolitan Opera.  That opera hat trick was the highlight of the season for me.  Fidelio rolls around every now and then, but the other two are rarely performed.  That’s what I thought Opera Lafayette’s mission was – to produce mainly 18th or 19th century operas rarely performed these days.  I was anxious to see their plans for the 2017-2018 season; I was somewhat disappointed – no fully-staged operas.  In fairness, Opera Lafayette’s offerings have varied over time and their commitment is to period music, instruments, and dance, not just opera.  And the house was packed.  Maybe Opera Lafayette and I can get past this.  The forging of our new relationship, expanded to 17th century music and short works, began Tuesday night in the Kennedy Center’s newly renovated Terrace Theater.  I intend its further pursuit.

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The Fan Experience: After Monday night’s performance at the Kennedy Center, Opera Lafayette, as per their usual practice, took the production to an additional single night’s performance in New York.  The hour and forty minutes of music plus a fifteen-minute intermission seemed about right for this production.  They have two more productions coming up this season which are described at this link.  This was my first concert in the Terrace Theater, a smaller venue (475 seats) that was recently renovated.  The acoustics seemed fine to me, but I found the seats a bit cozy, especially mine jammed against the wall in the rear; not much fidgeting room, but not enough of a problem keep me from going back.  The Terrace Level is a maze, but there are lots of helpful volunteers standing around to help you find where you want to go once off the elevator.  Fighting rush hour traffic in DC to get to the Kennedy Center is always fun.  Please ignore my complaining, but do allow yourself more extra time than you think you will need, especially for weekday performances.

I discovered one unexpected treat that is available until November 5 on the Terrace Level – an excellent, free exhibition on American composer Leonard Bernstein, who would have turned 100 this year and whose music is being highlighted by the Kennedy Center this season.  Allow at least a half hour for the walk through, but it is well worth the effort.

The Parker Quartet and Ligeti: What’s Happening to Me?

I sat there on the edge of my seat, mesmerized, transfixed, spellbound.  Pick your adjective.  This is supposed to be Ligeti, I wondered?  Might it be Bartok?  Did Ligeti slip by me and I’m listening to Bartok.  I don’t know Ligeti at all; I don’t know Bartok well.  It’s somewhat dissonant, or at least warped.  It must be Bartok.  If so, my appreciation for Bartok just went up, way up.  This is modern classical music.  But I like it.  I like it a lot.  What’s happening to me?

The Parker Quartet (Daniel Chong, Ying Xue, Kee-Hyun Kim, and Jessica Bodner) take their seats at the October 13, 2017 concert at St. John's College at Annapolis. Photo by Debra McCoy Rogers.

The Parker Quartet (Daniel Chong, Ying Xue, Kee-Hyun Kim, and Jessica Bodner) take their seats at the October 13, 2017 concert at St. John's College at Annapolis. Photo by Debra McCoy Rogers.

This is what I was experiencing as I listened to the second selection of the evening’s program, performed by the Parker Quartet in what has become its annual visit to St. John’s College in Annapolis.  St. John’s holds a weekly Formal Lecture Series during the academic year, open to the public and free.  Typically, these Friday night affairs are enlightening lectures on history, philosophy, or metaphysics with optional group discussions afterwards; on a few occasions each year, they offer a concert as part of the series.  I first heard the Parker Quartet there two years ago and wrote a blog report about it.  I was quite taken with this quartet then and was glad to have the opportunity to hear them again this past Friday night.  They played three quartets with their customary technical mastery and engaging showmanship, providing both visual and aural pleasure, in a program that included Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s Quartet in B-flat major (1790), Gyorgy Sandor Ligeti’s Quartet No. 1 “Metamorphoses nocturnes” (1953-1954), and Bela Bartok’s Quartet No. 6 (1939).  My only complaint was that, for me, the Ligeti quartet was the highlight of the evening, and I wish it had been played last.  The Bartok piece was good, but it had to filter through my Ligeti high. 

Ligeti, Quartet No. 1, first movement by the Parker Quartet, downloaded from YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_f9ugcGqJoQ; here they are in a recording session for the CD (Naxos: Ligeti Quartets, Nos. 1-2) that won the 2011 Grammy Award for Best Chamber Music Performance. 

Ligeti’s music is different, so not Mozart or Beethoven, and yet somehow familiarly strange. I’ve since found out that I’ve heard his music in movie soundtracks such as “2001: a Space Odyssey”. In a Guardian article by Tom Service on the music of Ligeti (in list below), I learned that his music was influenced by his life; he had family members who died in Hiter’s concentration camps and he escaped Hungary in 1956 as Russian tanks were rolling in.  Service says“Ligeti's idea was to make texture as much of a driving force in musical architecture as pitch or rhythm, developing what he called a "micro-polyphony" of incredibly dense pile-ups of musical lines so that you're more aware of an ever-changing amorphous cloud of sound than the movement of individual instruments or voices.”  It’s understandable I guess that he sought to give his music freedom, given his life.  Ligeti is also known for an opera titled, Le Grand Macabre.  Halloween might be a good time to investigate Ligeti, since his music often has an other-worldliness quality.

Ligeti's Kyrie, an example of his choral work, which is part of the soundtrack for "2001: A Space Odyssey"; downloaded from YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JWqxPp6SvMw.  Suggest playing when trick or treaters come to the door. 

Enjoying modern classical music isn’t supposed to happen to me.  I have to take into account that this was live music which always sounds better, but still, I am a just a music lover, not a musician and certainly not a composer or musicologist.  I don’t have the background to understand modern music or the vocabulary to talk about such concerts with precision and accuracy.  I can only talk about my reactions as a fan.  I have not been a fan of modern classical music, especially atonal, dissonant classical music or avant-garde forms that might be considered “Advanced Music”.  I’m supposed to be disinterested, bored, or dislike modern classical music just like I am by “Advanced Calculus”, or just about any other advanced topic that I haven’t studied.  Right?

Sometimes it sure seems that way.  Yes, I know that I’m painting all modern classical music with the same brush, and much is accessible and enjoyable – or so I’m told.  At least it has lots of terms: modern classical, contemporary classical, minimalism, post-minimalism, serialism, neo-romanticism, and alt-classical.  If you want to check out the assertion for yourself that much modern classical music is approachable and likeable, I recommend the informed authors and informative articles listed below:

1.     Service on the music of Ligeti

2.     Midgette overview of contemporary classical music

3.     Muehlhauser overview of modern classical music

If you read them and listen to some of the selections discussed, you will realize a seriously limiting problem with modern music – time, or at least our feeling there is not enough of it.  So maybe, just turn on the familiar that you’ve heard your whole life.  Don’t risk what I am experiencing, a fear that Ligeti could be a gateway drug to Bartok, Ives, and even Schoenberg, for God’s sake!

Maybe I’m changing.  Maybe I’ve just taken the time to listen.  But whatever it is that’s happening to me, I feel sure it’s fueling my excitement about my oft expressed preference for new opera.  You will hear more about this.

The Fan Experience: Folks in the Baltimore/DC area can catch the Parker Quartet appearing on October 28 at the Smith Theater, Horowitz Performing Arts Center (Howard County Community College) in Columbia, MD; other performances can be found in the link provided.  Sponsored by the Candlelight Concert Society, the program will feature works by Stravinsky, Shostakovich, and Prokofiev.  Go hear them.  I predict you will not regret it, but it is risky.

 

Virginia Opera’s Samson and Delilah: Opera Above the Hemline

Poster for Samson and Delilah; courtesy of Virginia Opera.

Poster for Samson and Delilah; courtesy of Virginia Opera.

What a marvelous melange is Virginia Opera’s Samson and Delilah!  I sometimes wonder how audiences viewed an opera, or painting, or about any other work of art, at the time of its premiere.  Remember that in 1877 when Samson and Delilah premiered, movies, television, color photography, radio, stereos, hi-fi speakers, Playboy magazine, personal computers, the internet, streaming video, Kindles, and iPhones had not yet been invented, and Alexa and Siri were yet to speak.  Think what we are exposed to today that those audiences had not.  Think what exposure to stimuli does to our nervous system and thought processes and sensitivities.  If you are a wine connoisseur it will take a much better wine to excite you than if you are a wine novice.  If you had only heard church hymns and Christmas carols, how would you react to rock music and gangsta rap?  If you had only been exposed to the faces, hands, and feet of other humans in public, how would you react to performers on stage who leave little to the imagination.  I won’t say that our senses have been dulled, because that is pejorative; a wine connoisseur’s senses have been sharpened, not dulled, but I will contend that our senses have been modified, and so have our expectations. Virginia Opera’s production of Samson and Delilah moved through time as it progressed.  An 1877 audience likely would have been enthralled by act one, thrilled by act two, and outraged by act three; harm would have been done to the theater and the composer chased out of town.  We, however, unavoidably live in 2017; it takes more complexity, skin exposure, and volume to satisfy us.

Delilah (Katharine Goeldner) and Samson (Derek Taylor). Photo by Ben Schill Photography; courtesy of Virginia Opera.

Delilah (Katharine Goeldner) and Samson (Derek Taylor). Photo by Ben Schill Photography; courtesy of Virginia Opera.

I was attentive in act one, engaged by act two, and entertained by act three.  I suspect if I had seen the opera in the 1930s, I would have been engaged, entertained, and a little shocked.  In fact, Virginia Opera chose to place composer Camille Saint-Saens' and librettist Ferdinand Lemaire’s Samson and Delilah in a 1930s setting. I suppose that Director Paul Curran felt that today’s audiences might find Nazi-style occupation more relevant than that by the Philistines in biblical times, but that created certain inconsistencies, such as using swords, not guns, and worshiping the god, Dacon in the 1930s.  It didn’t really work for me and seemed to rule out the use of color in act one.  The stage was rather dark most of the opera with two simple sets and I never figured out Samson’s costume; perhaps his tunic had religious significance, but from the rear balcony it just looked an off white tunic.  Lighting effects came and went as obvious add-ons, and the strobe effect for the denouement between Samson and Delilah made it almost impossible to see the two performers; for me it detracted from, rather than enhanced, the tension.  Better staged it could have been.  To continue in a critical vein, I even have a bone to pick with Saint-Saens and Lemaire: Samson is a tenor? Really?!  Also, the opera was unbalanced; it needs a steamy scene at the beginning to make us feel Samson’s attraction to Delilah.  And some of the music did not fit what the libretto was expressing; the music for an aria in act two when Delilah was expressing how she was going to bring Samson down sounded like she was singing a sweet love song about him.  Here’s my quick overview:  Act one felt more like a narration than a drama acted out.  Act two was strong, a fine, engaging opera, even a little titillating.  Act three was quite racy and a little over the top, but entertaining it was, and it sent everyone home happy.  And in the end, Samson brought down the house, and those sinful, oppressive Philistines, got their just desserts.  All’s well that ends well.

The High Priest (Michael Chioldi) and Delilah (Katharine Goeldner). Photo by Ben Schill Photography; courtesy of Virginia Opera.

The High Priest (Michael Chioldi) and Delilah (Katharine Goeldner). Photo by Ben Schill Photography; courtesy of Virginia Opera.

This production has an excellent cast of singers and their accompaniment by the Virginia Symphony Orchestra directed by Adam Turner is a special treat.  I liked the Saint-Saens’ music and several of the arias are especially beautiful.  I found myself wanting to observe the action on the stage, listen to the singing, and listen to Saint-Saens music as separate activities, and found myself switching back and forth.  Katharine Goeldner, as Delilah, has a lovely mezzo soprano voice; her act two aria, “Mon coeur s’ouvre a ta voix” was beautiful and touching.  Tenor Derek Taylor’s acting was not always convincing and his Samson did not seem like a feared strong-man.  However, the power and handsomeness of his voice really shone in his mill scene aria expressing his sorrow at having disobeyed God.  The other singers performed well. I will only single out Michael Chioldi who was the High Priest; he was convincing and his voice commanded the stage.  His sensuous scenes in Act 2 with Delilah were a highlight of the opera.

The Philistine Bacchanalia in act three. Photo by Ben Schill Photography; courtesy of Virginia Opera.

The Philistine Bacchanalia in act three. Photo by Ben Schill Photography; courtesy of Virginia Opera.

Prior to attending this opera, I had read a series of blog posts on Samson and Delilah by Dr. Glenn Winters, Community Outreach Musical Director for Virginia Opera, which delve into the events of Saint-Saens' life and probable psychological reasons that influenced the composer to select this biblical story for his opera.  Now that’s a story someone should write an opera about! 

So, while there are some things I don’t care for in this opera and in the Virginia Opera production, there is also much that I liked, and some that I loved.  As for whether you should attend, I give it a strong thumbs-up.  You will have the rare opportunity to sample Saint-Saens’ opera, experience some beautiful music and singing by excellent performers, and be entertained.  That’s a good deal.

The Fan Experience:  There are two remaining performances on October 13 and 15 in Richmond. in  Richmond’s Dominion Arts Center which is in a downtown business area; it has both street parking and lots close by, priced moderately.  Tickets range from $20 to $120 and are available in all price tiers.  Looking around the Performing Arts Center at George Mason University, it appeared only about 70% full; I thought the production deserved a much stronger turnout.  My appreciation for Virginia Opera continues to grow. It takes courage in these times to present operas that are not in the top ten.  It also takes a commitment to provide their audience with variety as well as excellence in opera.  I, for one, applaud them and encourage them to continue.

Pittsburgh Opera 2017-2016 Season: Embracing the Past and the Future of Opera

Pittsburgh Opera Logo; courtesy of Pittsburgh Opera.

Pittsburgh Opera Logo; courtesy of Pittsburgh Opera.

There is something in the air in Pennsylvania; I keep getting whiffs of visionary leadership floating out.  Both major opera companies there have made commitments to support and produce new and contemporary operas.  Again this season, Pittsburgh Opera has a substantial offering of new and contemporary operas on their 2017-2018 schedule.  Opera Philadelphia began its season this year with Festival O17, full of exciting, innovative works. Clearly the accepted safe path for opera companies today is to offer traditional operas, most often from the top twenty list of most often performed operas; to make them more relevant to our time in order to attract new audiences, companies will frequently offer new or updated productions of these operas that are now hundreds of years old.  However, without support for creative composers and gifted librettists of today to work on developing their talents and skills, opera will largely be confined to living off the genius of past masters. One of the contemporary operas on Pittsburgh’s schedule is Moby-Dick, which premiered in 2010, based of course, on Herman Melville’s allegory about Captain Ahab’s pursuit of his nemesis, the whale Moby-Dick.  Perhaps there is some meaning here for opera: obsessive pursuit of changes to attract new audiences is to be bedeviled by the whale; better to spend a substantial part of your resources charting a course towards new directions with eyes steadfastly on tracking the evolution of the art by contemporary artists.  Personally, I am most excited by the newer offerings, but there are also three, justly renown picks planned for traditional fans to relish.

Here is Pittsburgh Opera’s lineup for 2017-2018:

Poster for Pittsburgh Opera's 2017-2018 season; courtesy of Pittsburgh Opera.

Poster for Pittsburgh Opera's 2017-2018 season; courtesy of Pittsburgh Opera.

Tosca by Giacomo Puccini: Oct 7-15

The Marraige of Figaro by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Nov 4-12

The Long Walk by Jeremy Howard Beck: Jan 20-28

Ashes & Snow by Douglas J. Cuomo: Feb 17-25

Moby-Dick by Jake Heggie: Mar 17-25

The Elixir of Love by Gaetano Donizetti: Apr 21-29

Photocall photo with Leah Crocetto as Tosca and Thiago Arancam as Cavaradossi. Photo by David Bachman Photography, taken at Stanislaus Kostka Church in the Strip District; courtesy of Pittsburgh Opera.

Photocall photo with Leah Crocetto as Tosca and Thiago Arancam as Cavaradossi. Photo by David Bachman Photography, taken at Stanislaus Kostka Church in the Strip District; courtesy of Pittsburgh Opera.

Tosca is up first, an extremely popular opera – this season will see 77 productions of Tosca in 71 cities across the world.  Composer Puccini and librettists Giuseppe Giacosa and Luigi Illica present a story made for opera; it has rape, murder, suicide, plot twists, and one of the most villainous villains in opera, and did I mention it is a love story?  It also has three outstanding roles for opera singers: a soprano for Tosca, a tenor for Cavaradossi, and a baritone for Scarpia (boo, hiss).  Pittsburgh Opera has assembled a fine cast, beginning with their Tosca; our heroine is played emerging opera star, Leah Crocetto, who just finished a stint as Aida for Washington National Opera’s production.  Tenor Thiago Arancam sings the role of painter and Tosca’s beau, Cavaradossi; Mr. Arancam starred as Prince Calaf in Pittsburgh Opera’s Turandot earlier this year.  Bass-baritone Mark Delavan plays corrupt Police Chief Scarpia; Mr. Delavan is a veteran of both the Pittsburgh Opera (Nabucco in 2015 and Tosca in 2012) and the Metropolitan Opera. Top that off with glorious music by Puccini and you have the perfect night at the opera (and your sweetie will love you for it). 

Joining this season’s triad of power operas, along with Tosca, is The Marriage of Figaro and The Elixir of Love.  If you haven’t seen Figaro, you must; it’s a requirement in opera and probably a law in Italy.  Composer Mozart and librettist Lorenzo Da Ponte have concocted a comic romp involving a battle of wits between Figaro and his lecherous boss, the Count, with their marraiges at stake; who is manipulating whom and who are the real pawns gets to be an interesting question.  Mozart’s music is as melodic and delightful as ever.  You will probably recognize the overture even if you haven’t seen the opera before.  The cast is excellent and has been previewed by Operawire.  This is one you take your friends to who would like to see an opera for the first time.

The Elixir of Love is composer Gaetano Donizetti’s and librettist Felice Romani’s gift to Valentine’s Day, although PO’s version will be in April.  Ah yes, springtime and a young man’s fancy turns to love potions;  why do these things always cause such mix ups?  Oh well, where would comedy be without them.  There are quite a few popular arias in this one and a chance for the leads who play the love interests to shine.  Pittsburgh Opera has put together a star cast for this one.  Both soprano Ekaterina Siurina who plays Adina and tenor Dimitri Pittas who plays Nemorino have appeared in the major opera houses in the US and Europe.  Ms. Siurina will next appear at the Royal Opera House in London as Mimi in La Boheme, and Mr. Pittas has appeared as Nemorino on the stage of the Metropolitan Opera.  It will be hard to leave The Elixir of Love without a smile on your face and a glow in your heart.

The new operas begin with The Long Walk by composer Jeremy Howard Beck and librettist Stephanie Fleischman, based on the book of the same name by Brian Castner.  This opera is at the opposite end of the opera spectrum, dark, emotionally difficult, and deeply moving.  Walk had its world premiere with Opera Saratoga in July 2015.  The opera is based on Mr. Castner’s service in a bomb disposal unit in Iraq and his difficult reintegration into normal life in the US.  I’m not aware of any operas in the traditional repertoire that cover PTSD; maybe Lucia di Lammermoor comes closest.  I like critic Amy Biancolli’s insightful review of the premiere, which is a strong yes vote for attendance.  I found this quote from the libretto in a NY Times article about the opera; it is quite moving.  The wife is pondering life with her changed husband and recalls:

“When my husband deployed to Iraq,
I went and asked. “Grandma, I need to know:
How do I live with my husband gone?
Just me and the boys.
How do I help him
When he comes home?”
“He won’t come home,” my grandmother said.
“The war will kill him either way.
He’s as good as dead.
I hope for your sake he dies over there.
Because if the war doesn’t kill him,
It’ll take him here.
The war will kill him at home. With you.”
“But Grandma,” I said. “I won’t live in dread.
He’s coming home. And when he does,
Your story — it’s not coming true.
Not on my watch. Not to this family.
It can’t happen here. I’m going to keep us whole.”

The next offering is the world premiere of Ashes & Snow by composer Douglas J. Cuomo, developed with support from Pittsburgh Opera and American Opera Projects that explores another facet of opera. The setting is a trashed motel room in the desert in the American southwest; therein a distraught young man at the end of his rope must confront his life.  The libretto is based on Franz Schubert’s famous “Winterreise (Winter Journey)”, which is based on Wilhem Muller‘s 24 poem cycle.  One singer, Eric Flerring as the young man, is joined on stage by musicians playing the electric guitar, trumpet, and piano.  This dramatically searing piece is called “a seventy-five minute monodrama” and “21st century art song, infused with acid jazz and punk energy, to create a very raw and emotional experience”.  This work appears to be for those willing to be moved by art, even if painful.  I’m in; how about you?

Last up in my discussion is the opera I’m most excited about, Moby-Dick, a contemporary opera by composer Jake Heggie and librettist Gene Scheer.  Just to see the staging for this one could be worth the price of admission; how they get Captain Ahab’s ship (the Pequod), the whale, and the ocean on the stage is going to be interesting.  Reviews of previous productions of Moby-Dick since its premiere in 2010 have been laudatory, and Mr. Heggie has become one of the more celebrated American opera composers; his opera, Dead Man Walking has become part of the traditional repertoire.  The cast assembled by PO has very strong credentials.  .  Rogers Honeywell who plays Ahab will star in three additional operas this season, including Moby-Dick again for Utah Opera.  Also, I was very impressed by Sean Panikkar, who plays Greenhorn, in PO’s The Summer King last season, and want to see him perform again.  No need to worry that the music in this modern work will be too avant-garde for you; critic Anne Midgette in her review of the 2014 Washington National Opera production states, “If you like traditional opera, you will probably like Moby Dick” and further says, “…features big tunes for full orchestra, impassioned arias and tender ensembles, and choral scenes for sailors yo-ho-hoing as they tug at ropes on the foredeck.”  I plan to make a special effort to get up to see Moby-Dick.

The Fan Experience: The season starts this Saturday, but Season tickets are still available, as well as individual tickets, online or at the box office. Ticket prices for most performances range from about the cost of a movie to the price of a dinner for two at a fine restaurant; I’m impressed that Pittsburgh Opera can offer such a range.  The venues are different for the different operas; be sure to check the venue when purchasing tickets.  Pittsburgh Opera’s website is excellent; after you click on the link for a specific opera, you will be taken to a page that gives you loads of information, i.e., cast, synopsis, previews and reviews, etc, and a link to buy tickets.

 

Baltimore Concert Opera’s Guillaume Tell: Giving Voice To Rossini

Guillaume Tell (William Tell, 1829) is Rossini’s best opera.  That was the audacious claim made by conductor Anthony Barrese in his pre-opera talk on Friday evening as Baltimore Concert Opera kicked off its ninth season with an enjoyable and enlightening concert version of composer Gioachino Rossini’s classic tale, most often known as the story of an archer forced to shoot an apple off the head of his son; the story is based on a play by Friedrich Schiller and librettists for this opera are Etienne de Jouy and Hippolyte-Louis-Florent Bis.  Considering that Rossini also wrote 38 other operas, including one of the most popular operas of all time, Il Barbiere di Siviglia (The Barber of Seville), one might question Mr. Barrese’s choice.  He supports his assertion by saying this French opera was different in musical style and complexity than Rossini’s previous works and had a strong influence on composers who were his contemporaries and those who came after.  While Guillaume Tell is part of the standard opera repertoire, it is known even to non-opera fans for its striking overture popularized as the theme song for an early television hit series; you know the one.  That Guillaume Tell is an important legendary figure in Swiss history and that the opera involves the important theme of a struggle for freedom, as well as a love story in a time of conflict, are much less well known in the US.  I had not seen Guillaume Tell previously, and as an opera fan (and not a musicologist), I remain unsure which Rossini opera I would pick for his best, but the Baltimore Concert Opera has certainly drawn me into giving this opera more attention.

Baltimore Concert Opera poster for Guillaume Tell; l-r and t-b: Sean Anderson, Matthew Vickers, Caroline Worra, Claudia Chapa, Sharin Apostolou, Justin Hopkins, Jeffrey Beruan, Hans Tashjian, and Anthony Barrese. Image courtesy of Baltimore Concert Opera.

Baltimore Concert Opera poster for Guillaume Tell; l-r and t-b: Sean Anderson, Matthew Vickers, Caroline Worra, Claudia Chapa, Sharin Apostolou, Justin Hopkins, Jeffrey Beruan, Hans Tashjian, and Anthony Barrese. Image courtesy of Baltimore Concert Opera.

An interesting sidelight to this opera is that Rossini wrote the score for Tell when he was 37 years old and retired from composing operas at that point. He lived forty more years.  He composed 39 operas from the age of 20 to 37 and then stopped, having displayed amazing productivity and produced important, influential works.  He was the star composer of the times and a wealthy man, of such fame and influence, he was able to negotiate a generous pension from the French government as his last opera was being written.  Following Tell, he composed additional short musical pieces and some songs, but mainly devoted himself to eating and holding parties with the elite and promising young musicians of his day.  There is much speculation as to why he retired at this point.  I perhaps can appreciate his decision more than most since I left a career in science to retire when I could have stayed longer; and now, I write an opera blog – I also do my share of eating, though my form of partying is to attend opera.

The story takes place in Switzerland in the 14th century when the country was occupied by Austria.  The people resented Austrian rule and resisted.  The hated Austrian governor, Gesler, ruled with an iron hand.  Guillaume conspired with his fellow villagers to rebel, especially seeking the help of young Arnold, son of a respected town elder, Melchtal.  Arnold struggled with this decision because he had fallen in love with Mathilde, the daughter of Gesler.  And yes, as part of the action, Gesler forces Guillaume, who he accused of treason, to shoot the apple off his son Jemmy’s head.  Having to do this caused the archer much fear and anguish, but Jemmy’s belief in the cause and in his father’s skill helped Guillaume make the shot successfully, which inspired the town’s people and set into motion the final conflict with Gesler.  This legend has been adopted with great pride by the Swiss and its theme of the common people resisting authoritarianism resonated with that sweeping the European continent in the 1800s.

Claudia Chapa as Hedwige; Sean Anderson as Guillaume; Caroline Worra as Mathilde; and Matthew Vickers as Arnold. Dress rehearsal photo by Courtney Kalbacker; courtesy of Baltimore Concert Opera.

Claudia Chapa as Hedwige; Sean Anderson as Guillaume; Caroline Worra as Mathilde; and Matthew Vickers as Arnold. Dress rehearsal photo by Courtney Kalbacker; courtesy of Baltimore Concert Opera.

Guillaume Tell was originally four acts, almost five hours long.  It was cut even as it was being rehearsed, and whenever presented, the director and conductor, must make decisions about what to leave in and what to take out.  Rossini was unconcerned with this; he never intended that the full five hour version should be presented.  The opera includes a large number of singers and a chorus.  It also involves boating and a storm which must pose challenges to directors of fully-staged productions.  BCO uses ten singers performing eleven roles and a nineteen-member chorus to present a two hour and forty-five minute version.  BCO employs a pianist to provide musical accompaniment.  Elizabeth Parker was the pianist for this performance; she impressively stepped in to take the assignment with only a week to prepare when the scheduled pianist had to withdraw.  Hearing the opera’s themes and melodies played on the piano is educational; and gives me a greater appreciation for the texture of Rossini’s orchestral score. 

Pianist Elizabeth Parker; Baltimore Concert Orchestra chorus. Dress rehearsal photos by Courtney Kalbacker; courtesy of Baltimore Concert Opera.

The performers sing in character as the English translation of the French libretto is shown overhead.  Although the audience becomes immersed in the plot, the focus for BCO performances is clearly on the voices and singing. The singers are all professionals who have established careers singing in fully staged productions and concerts at opera houses and music halls around the US; many have performed previously with BCO.  The chorus is BCO’s very own of whom they are justifiably proud; they are led by chorus master James Harp.  They gave the audience a special treat by opening the performance with a choral version of the overture.  The theater in the Engineers Club is relatively small (see photos at bottom), holding 220 patrons and the acoustics are good, which means you very quickly have the experience of learning just how powerful operatic voices are.  It is a divine treat to be so close to the singers as they perform.  Without an orchestra, costumes, and stage movement, there are no distractions.  For the performers, this is laying their voices and singing bare.  Any mistakes will be noticed, possibly even to the untrained ear; there were only a few I wondered about.  I will mention a few of my favorites among the singers.  The stand out performer for me was tenor Matthew Vickers who sang the role of Arnold. I thought he sang beautifully and his voice had that metallic resonance I like.  Baritone Sean Anderson’s strong stage presence made for a compelling Guillaume.  Soprano Caroline Worra sang Mathilde with style and feeling.  We had the experience of hearing a coloratura soprano, Sharin Apostolou, singing a pants role, and she had the rare experience of wearing a dress while doing it.  I also want to mention bass Jeffrey Beruan, who played Walter; I’d like to hear more of that voice and I hope he will return to BCO in a larger role.  Other capable cast members were Timothy Augustin (two roles, Ruodi, a fisherman, and Rodolphe, a Gesler guard; Claudia Chappa, Tell’s wife; Hans Tashjian, Melchtal; Jeffrey Grayson Gates, a shepard; and Justin Hopkins, Gesler; all added to the performance.  The action was driven by the recitative.  However, my impression of this opera is that the individual arias, with exceptions, are not the stand outs.  It was the duets and ensemble arias, including the very strong chorus, that drew the most ooh’s and aah’s from my heart. 

Justin Hopkins as Gesler, Sean Anderson as Guillaume, Sharin Apostolou as Jemmy, and Timothy Augustin as Rodolphe. Dress rehearsal photo by Courtney Kalbacker; courtesy of Baltimore Concert Opera.

Justin Hopkins as Gesler, Sean Anderson as Guillaume, Sharin Apostolou as Jemmy, and Timothy Augustin as Rodolphe. Dress rehearsal photo by Courtney Kalbacker; courtesy of Baltimore Concert Opera.

The education aspect of concert opera for opera fans should not be overlooked.  Perhaps it was the concert format that caused the ensemble work to stand out for me.  No doubt my opera knowledge took a step up by attending this performance.  I also think that attending the concert version is a useful rehearsal for attending a fully staged version.  I have started to listen to a recording of Guillaume Tell and find my appreciation for it has escalated.  I sort of passed on making the trip up to the Met Opera last season to attend their William Tell, but now, attending a fully staged version is in my personal queue. 

This was my first attendance at a BCO performance and there are many ways to view the BCO experience: a pleasant evening of opera with an add-on of exploring an interesting Baltimore neighborhood; experiencing the charm and grandeur of a 19th century mansion as an opera venue, the excitement of attending live opera up close and personal, and a chance to rub elbows with other opera fans.  I hope to return with my wife in the future.  Baltimore Concert Opera is an important contributor to the city’s cultural landscape

The Fan Experience: Baltimore Concert Opera presents each of their productions on Friday evening with a second performance on Sunday afternoon.  For fans coming from the DC area, the matinee might be preferable.  I left Tysons Corner, VA on Friday afternoon, catching the beginning of the DC rush hour which added about 35 minutes to a trip that can take as little as an hour.  The Engineers Club is easy to find in the Mount Vernon area of Baltimore.  There is adequate street parking and public parking lots; I readily found a street slot two blocks from the club; the public parking is relatively inexpensive; limited valet parking is available on weekends.  For additional parking info click here.  Prices for BCO performances are modest for what you get, ranging from $27.50 to $72.50 depending on how close to the front and middle you are.  The stage is elevated so seeing at least the top half of the performers is possible even seated in the rear, which is all you need to see.  Their next performance is the popular Jules Massenet’s Werther to be held on November 10, 12; you can order tickets at this link.

The area is a delight to walk around and take in the sights: The Baltimore Washington Monument stands between the Peabody Institute and the Engineers Club, a block apart, and the Walter’s Art Museum is only a block away in another direction; and there is a beautiful, small park across the street from the Club.  The neighborhood is a blend of apartments, dorms, business offices, and restaurants.  I grabbed dinner at the Mount Vernon Marketplace two blocks from the Engineers Club, an indoor food court with ethnic and standard fare, but not chains.  The Pinch stand sells very tasty Chinese dumplings.  It is also possible to dine in the Engineers Club; arrangements must be made 48 hours ahead.  The Engineers Club is stationed in the Garrett-Jacobs Mansion and worth a trip by itself, where you can step back into the elegance of wealth in the 19th century, including Tiffany glass windows; I am told that several scenes from The House of Cards were filmed here.  I have posted a slideshow of photos of the Engineers Club and its environs below (click on the image to advance to the next image).

Click image to see next image. Photos by author: Entrance to Engineers Club; entrance hall; dining area; social area; ballroom and concert hall; view of park across street; another park view; view of Walters Art Museum across public parking lot; street scene.

O17’s The Trial of Elizabeth Cree: The First Slasher Opera, Tastefully Done

I am really annoyed, mad even. Opera Philadelphia’s Elizabeth Cree, by composer Kevin Puts and librettist Mark Campbell, one of the Festival O17 offerings, is in…well, Philadelphia, and I am here in Virginia!  I saw it on Saturday, and I can’t go see it again up in Philadelphia, which means that I might never have it figured out for sure.  Here’s the good news:

"Lambeth Marsh Lizzie", aka Elizabeth Cree (Daniela Mack) tells how she came to be an orphan. Photo by Steve Pisano; courtesy of Opera Philadelphia.

"Lambeth Marsh Lizzie", aka Elizabeth Cree (Daniela Mack) tells how she came to be an orphan. Photo by Steve Pisano; courtesy of Opera Philadelphia.

Alert the movie crowd: the premiere of The Trial of Elizabeth Cree has provided the opera world with its first slasher opera.  Oh, I know that murders are the stock and trade of the opera canon, and even Jack the Ripper makes an appearance in Berg’s Lulu, but for sustained servings of Hannibal Lecter excitement, Cree climbs to the top of the dead body pile, but artfully done; after all, this is opera.  The thing is…it works.  Scenes of horror lurking among good people, and the not so good, have a fascination that grips us, especially when the locale is the dark, smoggy streets of a seedy section of 1880’s London.  Overall, the staging of this smallish opera is excellent, especially the scenes of murder shown behind a scrim such that each demise is largely in caricature, but even in outline, entrails elicit a shudder.  The gloom enters early.  Cree draws us in immediately with the body of a dead woman hanging from the ceiling behind a scrim on the darkened stage, even as the opera begins; we can only see her in shadowy outline, but the image will stay with me a very long time.  I assumed at that point that things had not gone well for Ms. Cree in her trial, but all is not as it first seems to be in this opera. Opera Philadelphia wanted Festival O17 to make more contemporary connections – well done; “The Silence of the Lambs”, "Halloween", and The Trial of Elizabeth Cree; It doesn’t get much more modern than that.

John Cree (Troy Cook) describes the murder of the Gerrard family. Photo by Steve Pisano; courtesy of Opera Philadelphia.

John Cree (Troy Cook) describes the murder of the Gerrard family. Photo by Steve Pisano; courtesy of Opera Philadelphia.

It’s not all gloom. True, Ms. Cree (Daniela Mack), once known as Lambeth Marsh Lizzzie, is on trial for poisoning her husband.  However, interspersed with the prosecutor’s questioning we view scenes from her life; develop some sympathy for her based on her childhood; and see her achieve some success on the vaudeville stage; she likes the fame.  We see her future husband John (Troy Cook) sitting at a desk in the Reading Room of the British Museum, writing about murders; he is a novelist, but is it a notebook or a diary entry I wonder as the scenes of murder play out in the background; are they imagined, or being relived, by Mr. Cree.  We meet some famous users of the Reading Room, music hall comedian Dan Reno, novelist George Gissing, and philosopher Karl Marx, all of whom are interviewed by the police inspector, in regard to the murder spree.  Finally, Elizabeth and John meet; are married; and secrets are revealed.  We will leave the story there, except to say that at the end, I thought I knew what had transpired, but was uncertain enough to be confused.  I tried to find the answers in reviews and the internet to no avail.  The opera is based on a book of the same name by novelist Peter Ackroyd; I may have to read it.

Left: Dan Leno (Joseph Gaines) introduces Elizabeth as "Little Victor's Daughter". Right: Inspector Kildare (Daniel Belcher) interrogates Karl Marx (Thomas Shivone) about one of the serial murders. Photo by Steve Pisano; courtesy of Opera Philadelphia.

I think that mezzo-soprano Daniela Mack is a force to be reckoned with. Her strong, beautiful voice filled the theater with a convincing portrayal of Elizabeth.  She could succeed on the stage as an actress alone; her performance anchored this production.  Those of us in the Washington DC area will be treated to another of her performances in November when the Washington National Opera stages Handel’s Alcina; she will return to Philly in April to play Carmen.  I have my ticket for Alcina, and after seeing Ms. Mack in person, it is even more precious.  Baritone Troy Cook gives a fine performance as John Cree.  I thought that tenor Joseph Gaines was a delightful Dan Reno with his singing and dancing, and stage mentoring to Elizabeth.  The real-life Dan Reno is so well known in Great Britain that the British edition of Mr. Ackroyd’s book is titled “Dan Reno and the Lighthouse Golem”.  The secondary characters were all good and added to the performance.  I would like to give kudos to director David Schweizer, but will stay that until I am sure I have it all figured out.

Left: Elizabeth (Daniela Mack) accepts John Cree's (Troy Cook) proposal of marraige. Right: The marraige has developed problems. Photo by Steve Pisano; courtesy of Opera Philadelphia.

Oh yes, and there is also music, quite good music, performed by a small group of 16 musicians, and conducted by Corrado Rovaris.  My focus was mainly on the drama and the singing, but when the music gained my attention, I liked what I heard; the score was musically varied in style and instruments, pleasing and supporting the action on stage.  There are some catchy dance hall songs performed, more reminiscent of musicals than opera – I do not object.  I thought the music served the opera well, but can’t offer more without hearing it again, and as previously stated, I can’t do that!

How does this new opera stack up in the opera world?  Too early to tell.  It is a ninety-minute chamber opera that packs a musical and dramatic punch.  I suspect it will get some play.  Knowing what I know now, if I had not seen it yet, I’d tell myself to go.  Having seen it, I’d like to see it again – but I can’t!  It’s not going to substitute for La Traviata, but for a Saturday afternoon or evening’s engaging, artful entertainment, it is clearly worth the investment.  And as a new opera, it has its own, special excitement.

The Fan Experience:  See my blog report on The Magic Flute for this section with comments about my trip to Philly to take in some of O17.  I will add that I really liked the 90 minute, non stop format for a matinee.  Also, the Perelman theater seems to have no bad seats and was perfectly designed for a smaller production.  For remaining performances see the OperaGene blog sidebar at the right (or bottom for viewing on mobile phones).   I implore you: please go see it, and then explain it to me.  In the last three seasons, I have seen Cold Mountain, Breaking the Waves, and The Trial of Elizabeth Cree, all new operas and all in Philadelphia.  Many thanks and kudos to Opera Philadelphia for breathing fresh life into this wonderful art form!

 

 

Virginia Opera 2017-2018 Season: Covering the State, Covering the Repertoire

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There is much to like about the Virginia Opera – their productions move about the state giving a wider audience access to opera; their outreach programs engage younger audiences, including in schools; and the creativity and excellence of their opera offerings is impressive.  This year again, each opera production will be performed in Norfolk, Fairfax, and Richmond. For their 2017-2018 season, as last year, they are offering broad coverage of the opera repertoire, providing audiences a wide sampling of fine opera.  This year there is French opera in a biblical setting, Italian opera that takes place in the American West, English opera based on Shakespeare, classical Italian opera, opera with happy endings, opera with tragic endings, traditional works, modern opera, less often performed operas, and widely popular ones.  I thought last year’s productions of Der Freischutz and Turandot were stand out achievements for the Virginia Opera; they have raised my expectations even higher for the season now upon us.  Season tickets or buying them one by one will expose you to a wide, delightful range of operatic experiences.

Here is the line-up for the Virginia Opera's 2017-2018 season:

Samson and Delilah by Camille Saint-Saens

            Sep 29, Oct 1, 3 – Norfolk, Harrison Opera House

            Oct 7, 8 – Fairfax, GMU’s Center for the Arts

            Oct 13, 15 – Richmond, Dominion Arts Center

The Girl of the Golden West by Giacomo Puccini

            Nov 10, 12, 14 – Norfolk, Harrison Opera House

            Nov 17, 19 – Richmond, Dominion Arts Center

            Dec 2, 3 – Fairfax, GMU’s Center for the Arts

A Midsummer Night’s Dream by Benjamin Britten

            Feb 9, 11, 13 – Norfolk, Harrison Opera House

            Feb 17, 18 – Fairfax, GMU’s Center for the Arts

            Feb 23, 25 – Richmond, Dominion Arts Center

Lucia di Lammermoor by Gaetano Donizetti

            Mar 23, 25, 27 – Norfolk, Harrison Opera House

            Apr 7, 8 – Fairfax, GMU’s Center for the Arts

            Apr 13, 15 – Richmond, Dominion Arts Center

Samson et Dalila (Samson and Delilah) poster; courtesy of the Virginia Opera.

Samson et Dalila (Samson and Delilah) poster; courtesy of the Virginia Opera.

Samson and Delilah (1877, fr. Samson et Dalila) by composer Camille Saint-Saens and librettist Ferdinand Lemaire is an opera in French (shown with English supertitles) based on the well-known Bible story found in the Book of Judges.  Saint-Saens was a child prodigy known both as a concert pianist and organist and as a composer.  He is best known today for his orchestral music, perhaps most widely for his suite, “The Carnival of Animals”.  Sampson and Delilah is the only one of his 13 operas that is performed today.  In the story, Samson is a hero of extraordinary strength rallying the Hebrews in their struggles with the Philistines; Delilah is used by the Philistines to seduce and bring about the his downfall.  It is a story rich with political and psychological dimensions.  Dr. Glenn Winters, Community Outreach Musical Director for the Virginia Opera, writes a series of blog posts on each opera produced by the Virginia Opera.  The posts are well-researched and typically offer unique insights into each opera, their historical contexts, and analyses of their music.  The ones for Samson and Delilah are now posted, and I recommend them to you.  Delilah will be played by mezzo soprano Katherine Goeldner, who owns Lyric Opera of Chicago and Metropolitan Opera credits.  Samson well be portrayed by Derek Taylor, who made a fine Prince Calaf in last season’s Turandot

Photo by Timeline Photos; courtesy of the Virginia Opera.

Photo by Timeline Photos; courtesy of the Virginia Opera.

Next up, by composer Giacomo Puccini and librettists Guelfo Civinini and Carlo Zangarani, is opera’s only spaghetti western (long before Clint Eastwood showed up), The Girl of the Golden West (1910, it. La Fanciulla del West), complete with outlaws, a menacing sheriff, and a 'purty' girl.  Levity aside, I like this opera.  Mention the music is by Puccini and count me in.  I also recommend this opera because it has a message of redemption through love that is made for our time.  The production has an additional feature that adds considerable interest for me. The director is Lillian Groag, who staged last year’s immensely impressive Turandot. I am intrigued and look forward to seeing how this opera will be staged in her hands.

Photo by Timeline Photos; courtesy of the Virginia Opera.

Photo by Timeline Photos; courtesy of the Virginia Opera.

I love opera, especially modern and contemporary opera, and I love Shakespeare.  A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1960) by English composer Benjamin Britten and librettists Benjamin Britten and Peter Pears is made for me.  This comedic opera buffa follows Shakespeare’s famous play with some alterations; this plot involves a play within a play and use of a love potion gone awry to set the comedy in motion.  It is a challenge for the opera stage given the large number of characters involved, but this also means that the audience gets to experience an unusually large sampling of opera voices.  One unusual opera feature is that one of the more prominent characters, Oberon, is sung by a counter tenor.  I ran across a short, but engaging exploration of this opera at a web site, The Opera 101, complete with some samples of the music and a graphic of the relationships being jostled about in the opera – check it out.  Be not afraid of this modern opera; the music is said to be among the most melodious music ever written by Britten and contains enchanting choral pieces.

Photo by Timeline Photos; courtesy of the Virginia Opera.

Photo by Timeline Photos; courtesy of the Virginia Opera.

The Virginia Opera’s last production for the 2017-2018 season, Lucia di Lammermoor (1835), is a staple of opera companies worldwide. This opera by composer Gaetano Donizetti and librettist Salvadore Cammerano tells the story of Ill-fated love and a woman driven mad.  The mad scene in the opera is quite famous and allows a soprano with the requisite singing and acting skills to own the stage for an extended period of time.  Virginia Opera’s choice for this role is coloratura soprano Rachele Gilmore.  Her performance will be the defining element for this production.  There is no question she has the skills and ability, having performed at leading opera houses around the globe. Wikipedia credits her with possibly having hit the highest note ever on the Metropolitan Opera stage.  This most traditional and beautiful Italian opera will likely leave you with tears in your eyes, but a sense of greater artistic enrichment in your heart.

These offerings by the Virginia Opera are going to be fun rides!

The Fan Experience:  Subscriptions and single tickets are now on sale.  Single tickets range in price from about $30 to $120, varying by seat selection, venue, and day of the performance.  There is a discount when you buy season tickets and easy ticket exchange.  If you live close to one of the box offices you can save a few bucks on the handling fees by obtaining your tickets there.  The performance patterns are for Norfolk to lead off a production with a Friday evening performance followed by a Sunday matinee followed by a Tuesday evening performance; for Fairfax it is a Saturday evening performance followed by a Sunday matinee; and for Richmond it is a Friday evening performance followed by a Sunday matinee.  I have attended performances in Fairfax and Richmond.  There is free parking at George Mason University’s Performing Arts Center that requires a short walk and a parking garage with a modest price (around $8) next door to the Center.  Richmond’s Dominion Arts Center  is in a downtown business area; it has both street parking and lots close by, priced moderately.  I have yet to attend opera at the Harrision Opera House in Norfolk.  Looking over the season schedule, my guess is that the enormously popular Lucia di Lammermoor, is most likely to sell out, so get your tickets for that one as early as you can commit.  In my experience, even the cheap seats are good, so if price is a factor (and it is for me), don’t be afraid of the less expensive seats; you will be viewing from a little farther away, but the music will not suffer and sometimes the acoustics are better for the higher up seats.

 

Opera Philadelphia’s 2017-2018 Season: Opera Blitzkrieg And A Season Of Two

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The brightest star in the U.S. opera universe this season is not in New York, but in Philadelphia.  Opera Philadelphia is bringing excitement and modern relevance to opera this year, in bucket loads.  If you haven’t already, and I hope you have, take a long look at Opera Philadelphia’s new season which begins on September 14.  Do not blink.  It is going to come at you fast.  It begins with a festival they are calling O17; scheduled are five productions and one major recital over 12 days held in five different venues, which includes only one opera that you have likely heard of, The Magic Flute.  In addition, there will be a September 23 Opera on the Mall, a screening of last year’s Opera Philadelphia performance of The Marriage of Figaro.  Opera Philadelphia is hoping that the currently popular binge-watching of television series will transfer to opera; ticket sales so far indicate the strategy is working.  For the remainder of the season, they offer a new production in February of Written on Skin.  They close out the season in April-May with a new production of Carmen.  I am so impressed with Opera Philadelphia for demonstrating what a forward-thinking opera company can do!  Metropolitan Opera, are you paying attention?!

Left photo: Elizabeth Cree; photo by Dominic M. Mercier and courtesy of Opera Philadelphia.  Right photo: War Stories; photo by Stephanie Berger and courtesy of Opera Philadelphia.

Opera Philadelphia’s 2017-2018 schedule can be divided into two parts, O17 and the Season of Two:

O17 -

Sep 14-23: Elizabeth Cree by Kevin Puts/Mark Campbell at the Perelman Theater (World

Premiere)

Sep 14-23: War Stories by Claudio Monteverdi (Il combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda) and

Lembit Beecher/Hannah Moscovitch (I Have No Stories To Tell You) at Philadelphia

Museum of Art (Philadelphia Premiere)

Sep 15-24: The Magic Flute by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart/Emanuel Schikaneder at the

Academy of Music (Exclusive East Coast Appearance)

Sep 16-24: We Shall Not Be Moved by Daniel Bernard Roumain/Marc Bamuthi Joseph at the Wilma Theater (World Premiere)

Sep 17: A recital featuring Sondra Radvanovsky at the Perelman Theater

Sep 18-25: The Wake World by David Hertzberg at the Barnes Foundation (World Premiere)

Sep 23: The Marriage of Figaro, re-broadcast for the Opera on the Mall event.  

Season of Two:

Feb 9-18: Written on Skin by George Benjamin/Martin Crimp at the Academy of Music (New

Production and Philadelphia Premiere)

Apr 27-May 6: Carmen by Georges Bizet/Ludovic Halevy and Henri Meilhac at the Academy of Music (New Production)

Left photo: The Magic Flute; photo by Robert Millard/LA Opera and Courtesy of Opera Philadelphia.  Right photo: We Shall Not Be Moved; photo by Dominic M. Mercier and courtesy of Opera Philadelphia.

Looking at the listing above should give you an immediate impression of O17.  I also recommend an excellent overview of O17 written by David Patrick Stearn, music critic for the Philadelphia Enquirer. I found his discussion of the staging challenges and innovations being attempted by Opera Philadelphia in five different venues to be especially enlightening.  I will only briefly mention the story line for each production.  Elizabeth Cree, by Pulitzer Prize winning composer Kevin Puts and currently hot librettist Mark Campbell, is based on Peter Ackroyd’s novel, The Trial of Elizabeth Cree.  Taking place in 1880 London, Cree is on trial, accused of poisoning her husband; suspense and surprises ensue; in English with English supertitles.  War Stories combines in a double-bill a classic composition of Monteverdi’s involving false identity in an episode of Christian-Muslim warfare with a more modern take on war as a cause of PTSD by composer Beecher and librettist Moscovitch.  The Magic Flute by our great benefactor Mr. Mozart and librettist Schikaneder enmeshes singers with animated projections for a modern take (a Los Angeles Opera original) on this classic.  For me, the new staging is welcomed since the story here is not much more than a framework for Mozart’s music (with apologies to Ingmar Bergman), but such magnificent music it is! The Queen of the Night’s aria is one of the great operatic arias.  We Shall Not Be Moved by composer Roumain and librettist Joseph is based on a real event, the 1985 standoff between the black liberation group, MOVE, and the Philadelphia police; a police helicopter dropped a bomb on members of the group, besieged in a row house, that resulted in eleven deaths, including five children, and started a fire that destroyed dozens of nearby homes.  In the opera, a current group of teens move into the warehouse which was MOVE’s headquarters and encounter ghosts.  The Wake World, a one-act opera by composer/librettist David Hertzberg, held in the Barnes Foundation, utilizes an imagined magical journey by a young girl through the Barnes collection.  A highlight of the festival will be a recital by famed soprano Sondra Radvanovsky whose recent appearances in Met Opera and Lyric Opera performances have drawn wide acclaim.

Left photo: Sondra Radvanovsky; photo by Andrew Eccles and courtesy of Opera Philadelphia.  Right photo: Ensemble view, Room 1, north, The Barnes Foundation; courtesy of Opera Philadelphia.

The Season of Two does not let up on pushing the frontiers of opera.  The February selection, Written on Skin is a new production of a full-length, modern opera by composer George Benjamin and librettist Martin Crimp that premiered in 2012 and has been produced a dozen or so times since then worldwide.  I am amused by Opera Philadelphia’s tagline, calling it “A thrilling portrait of godliness and lust”.  From watching TV series like Game of Thrones and The Handmaid’s Tale, I guess it doesn’t get any more modern than that.  A powerful landowner, the Protector, commissions a young male artist to prepare an illustrated manuscript of his life and good deeds.  The Protector is described as “addicted to purity and violence” and considers his wife his “property”.  What could go wrong in this triangle?  The proof is in the pudding; read the synopsis and you will get my meaning.  Angels narrate the action; good choice.  I’m intrigued; there has to be a profound meaning in there somewhere.  I’m also curious how it will be presented by Opera Philadelphia.  Of course, the music’s the thing, and this is a good chance to get to know Mr. Benjamin’s music.

As if to make a statement that the traditional repertoire has not been abandoned, Opera Philadelphia finishes up in April/May with Carmen, composer Bizet’s and librettists Halevy’s and Meilhac’s masterpiece.  Carmen is, of course, one of the most performed operas in the world.  As such, Opera Philadelphia has promised a new production of the fiery Spanish gypsy’s seductive and deadly entanglements.  There is probably no other opera with more recognizable music and memorable arias than Carmen.  It is a chance for the singers to shine, and of particular note, is mezzo-soprano Daniela Mack who will portray Carmen.  She appeared in Santa Fe Opera’s recent production of Handel’s Alcina and will reprise that role for Washington National Opera’s Alcina in November.  In addition, she will portray the lead in Elizabeth Cree for Opera Philadelphia.  She is accompanied by emerging stars, Evan LeRoy Johnson as Don Jose, Adrian Timpau as Escamillo, and Kirsten MacKinnon. 

Usually, I am wishing I lived a little closer to Manhattan to take in more opera, but this year, the apple of my eye is Opera Philadelphia.

The Fan Experience: Tickets for Opera Philadelphia performances can be ordered online or by calling the box office at 215-732-8400.  To help navigate the O17 Festival, they have produced a nifty app that can be accessed in the App Store; search for Opera Philadelphia 2017-2018.  Tickets are limited for many O17 performances and there are many sell outs.  Opera Philadelphia also offers suggestions for hotels in the area; I recommend checking with the box office.  My wife and I have stayed at the Doubletree Hotel across the street from the Academy of Music, which can’t be beat for convenience, and at the Courtyard Philadelphia South at the Navy Yard, convenient to I-95 and is only about a $25 taxi ride to the Perelman Theater; both hotels were fine with the Courtyard being less expensive.

Wolf Trap Opera’s Bastianello and The Juniper Tree: Fun and A Moment of Transcendence

On Friday night, the master chefs of Wolf Trap Opera served up a fable, Bastianello, and a fairy tale, The Juniper Tree; the first about realizing what is important in life and the second from a Grimm fairy tale exploring the darker forces with which humans must contend.  They are complementary only by being magical stories about marriage and by sharing many of the performers.  The operas are modern and not members of the traditional repertoire.  Bastienello (music by John Musto and libretto by Mark Campbell) premiered in 2008 and The Juniper Tree (music by Philip Glass and Robert Moran and libretto by Arthur Yorinks) in 1985.  I reviewed the basic outline of the stories prior to attending, but had no idea what to expect in terms of music or staging.  I can report that I heartily enjoyed both WTO’s productions; I recommend you attend this double bill both for the pleasure and the opportunity to expand the range of your opera experiences.  And Wolf Trap Opera’s vivacious young singers will make you glad you came by adding a satisfying dollop of fun to the opera world’s nouveau cuisine.

From Bastianello, first scene, Richard Ollarsaba, the groom, Zoie Reams, the bride, Shea Owens, the father, and Summer Hassan, the mother; photo by Scott Suchman and courtesy of Wolf Trap Opera.

From Bastianello, first scene, Richard Ollarsaba, the groom, Zoie Reams, the bride, Shea Owens, the father, and Summer Hassan, the mother; photo by Scott Suchman and courtesy of Wolf Trap Opera.

To delve a little deeper into these two productions, we must start with the staging.  Bastianello presents the story of a young groom who becomes disenchanted with his new bride and family and leaves vowing to only return if he can find six people as foolish as they are.  Bringing fables and fairy tales to a stage is challenging and requires creativity and imagination on the part of the director and a willingness on the part of the audience to suspend disbelief.  We can mentally personalize the stories of fairy tales we read to seduce ourselves, but in staged productions, the director’s vision is what must enable our immersion into the story.  Both operas were composed to be presented in concert halls with minimal sets, but for me, Bastianello still somewhat misfired on this point.  There was a minimal set with different scenes simply being held in different locations on the stage; initially it had the feel of skit night on a college campus, but perhaps this was intended.  The potential for humor of a typically dysfunctional family in the aftermath of a wedding and out of wine was mildly realized, but stronger character motivations would have helped, especially for the husband whose outburst over his family attitudes, or maybe the fact that all the wine was gone, seemed to come out of nowhere.  Nonetheless, the lesson of the fable was nicely realized in the scene by the lake where a farmer mistakes the reflection of the moon in the water for his wife who had drowned there earlier.

From Bastianello, third scene, Richard Ollarsaba, the groom, Summer Hassan, a bride, Shea Owens, a horse owner, Jonas Hacker, the horse, and Zoie Reams, a mother; Photo by Scott Suchman and courtesy of Wolf Trap Opera.

From Bastianello, third scene, Richard Ollarsaba, the groom, Summer Hassan, a bride, Shea Owens, a horse owner, Jonas Hacker, the horse, and Zoie Reams, a mother; Photo by Scott Suchman and courtesy of Wolf Trap Opera.

I thought director Schlather‘s staging and scenic/costume designer Blake Palmer’s sets and costumes were much more effective in The Juniper Tree.  This is Wolf Trap Opera’s synopsis of the opera: “This famous Grimm fairy tale tells of a wicked stepmother who murders her stepson. The boy’s sister buries her brother’s bones under a juniper tree, and the child’s spirit returns as a singing bird who wreaks vengeance on the stepmother before being restored to life with his father and sister.” Now take that and turn it into a convincing opera!  And yet, for me, it was in this production that Wolf Trap Opera put it all together, the sets, the staging, the lighting, the performers, and the music in synchrony achieved for its audience, at least briefly, transcendence, where you lose yourself, totally absorbed in the experience, and lifted to a higher place of awareness.  From the beginning I was immediately drawn in by the costumes and the dark, slow march of the birds onto the stage in step with Glass’ music and who would have thought that a stage dominated by a long, rectangular table could draw the audience into foreboding and then deliverance by a slow undrapping and then drapping of this central object? Minimal staging can be effective.  Special kudos to all involved in The Juniper Tree.

From The Juniper Tree: Madison Leonard, the daughter, Ben Edquist, the husband, and Annie Rosen, the stepmother.

From The Juniper Tree: Madison Leonard, the daughter, Ben Edquist, the husband, and Annie Rosen, the stepmother.

So, let’s talk more about those involved.  With modern opera, I am always apprehensive whether I will like the music; some stretch my limits in terms of what I can appreciate.  This proved not the case for these two, even though I was particularly anxious about Bastianello because I knew nothing of composer John Musto.  However, I found myself really liking his music and it served the opera well.  Interestingly, the score for The Juniper Tree was assembled by sections assigned by the composers' agreement to either Mr. Glass or Mr. Moran.  I thought their work fit together and complimented each other well.  The score sounded a bit more like it came from a movie or broadway musical rather than what one might expect of an opera, but again was quite pleasing and effective in supporting the action on stage.  Conductor Lidiya Yankovskaya and her ensemble of musicians were excellent.

From The Juniper Tree: Ben Edquist, the father, is fed a stew containing his son; Madison Leonard, the daugher, assists; and Annie Rosen, the stepmother serves the stew atop a the large table; photo by Scott Suchman and courtesy of Wolf Trap Opera.

From The Juniper Tree: Ben Edquist, the father, is fed a stew containing his son; Madison Leonard, the daugher, assists; and Annie Rosen, the stepmother serves the stew atop a the large table; photo by Scott Suchman and courtesy of Wolf Trap Opera.

In Bastianello, Filene Young Artists Jonas Hacker, Shea Owens, Summer Hassan, Richard Ollarsaba, and Zoie Reams combined to present twelve characters in three scenes.  Each sang their parts convincingly.  Mr. Hacker and Mr. Owens perhaps shone brightest in this opera.  Summer Hassan appeared in both operas, in The Juniper Tree as the wife; she was joined by fellow young artists Ben Edquist as husband, Megan Mikailovna Samarin as son, Annie Rosen as stepmother, and Madison Leonard as daughter.  Talented and professional, they were all good.  Ms. Rosen especially impressed me with her singing and by giving a menacing edge to the stepmom and Ms. Samarin for singing effectively in a pants role, but for me the stand out in this opera was Ms. Hassan.  if I'm being honest, I was a little disappointed with her Musetta in last year’s La Boheme.  I had started to take note of her this year in earlier Wolf Trap performances, but in The Juniper Tree, her voice and singing and the music so complemented each other they became magic together.  The principal cast members were ably supported by a large contingent of young Wolf Trap Studio Artists in other roles, including choral accompaniment. 

From The Juniper Tree: Megan Mikailovna Samarin, the son, drapped by the golden tablecloth, stands triumphantly over Annie Rosen, the stepmother;  photo by Scott Suchman and courtesy of Wolf Trap Opera.

From The Juniper Tree: Megan Mikailovna Samarin, the son, drapped by the golden tablecloth, stands triumphantly over Annie Rosen, the stepmother;  photo by Scott Suchman and courtesy of Wolf Trap Opera.

I truly admire the Wolf Trap Opera Company for their excellence and their role in developing young operatic talent, but also for the enrichment they provide to Washington area communities.  Under the leadership of Kim Pensinger Witman, they annually look beyond the traditional repertoire (except for the singular, annual Filene Center presentation) and bring to life either more modern works or unearth past operatic jewels that have been forgotten.  Couple that with the enthusiasm and talent of their outstanding young Filene Artists and their productions are always sure bets for enjoyable entertainment and distinctive arts experiences.  Bastianello and The Juniper Tree add to that assessment.  

The Fan Experience: My son and I made the dubious choice of having dinner at The Barns instead of attending the pre-opera talk; these talks by Ms. Witman are always informative and helpful in appreciating the opera being presented, though for The Juniper Tree, do have your dinner prior to the opera.  The meal service begins an hour and a half before the opera and the pre-opera talk begins an hour prior to the opera performance; by rushing a little you could work in both.  Our meals were fine and we especially liked the crafts beers offered to accompany our entree choices.  Perhaps because the weather outside was not as warm as usual this time of year, I found the air-conditioning in The Barns to be a bit chilly.  The opera crowd at The Barns is typically mainly casually attired, but if you are sensitive to the cold, bring an over-shirt or light sweater with you.  As a reminder, parking at The Barns is free and egress after a performance is mercifully much less stressful than dealing with the large crowds leaving performances at the Filene Center.  Wolf Trap Opera makes opera as accessible and stress free as it can be done, and oh yes, it makes it fun.

The final two performances of this double bill are Wednesday night, August 16, and Saturday night, August 19.  For tickets, click here.  You can save on service fees by purchasing your tickets from the Wolf Trap Box Office in person.