Attending Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream? Do you Dare?

I can think of three possible reasons that might give you concern over attending Virginia Opera’s production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1960) playing in Fairfax on Saturday and Sunday, February 17, 18 and in Richmond on February 23, 25?  First, the opera is based on a play by Shakespeare and, while you enjoy opera, maybe you hate Shakespeare.  Ok, you got me there.  But do you hate all Shakespeare? “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” is one of Shakespeare’s comedies, and it is a very funny comedy.  Furthermore, sweet love will lure you, and fairies with magic potions will attend your amusement, and all that's not well to begin, ends well.  I love Shakespeare, but I think I’d like this one even if I found no favor with his other plays.  Virginia Opera’s version is by composer British Benjamin Britten (1913-1976) with libretto by Peter Pears and Britten.  The opera follows the play very closely but is shortened, mainly by eliminating act one where the main players and their relationships are introduced. It might be helpful to review the main players prior to the performance:

Queen of the fairies, Tytania is miffed at the

King of the fairies, Oberon, for trying to steal away a member of her troupe; their fighting spills over to humans, including

Lysander, an Athenian citizen who loves

Hermia, an Athenian citizen, and she loves him, but is legally betrothed to

Demetrius, an Athenian citizen, who wishes to marry her, but it’s complicated by

Helena, an Athenian citizen, who is in love with Demetrius, and all are at the hands of

Puck, a fairy, who is Oberon’s fixer assigned to apply a love potion

So, comedy is unleashed by a squabbling mature couple; two young male suitors and two pursued young women afflicted with romantic love; and a playful fixer who is prone to error.  And for good measure, there is a group of actors who will put on a play within this play spoofing opera performers and composers. Dr. Glenn Winters, opera composer and Community Outreach Musical Director for Virginia Opera, has written a series of blog posts on this opera; I especially enjoyed his discussion of Britten’s spoofing of opera rather than actors, as in Shakespeare’s play.

Cast members Owen Willetts as Oberon, Morgan White as Puck, Heather Buck as Tytania, and Hannah Ramsbottom as Peaseblossom. Photo by Ben Schill Photography; courtesy of Virginia Opera.

Cast members Owen Willetts as Oberon, Morgan White as Puck, Heather Buck as Tytania, and Hannah Ramsbottom as Peaseblossom. Photo by Ben Schill Photography; courtesy of Virginia Opera.

Reason number two to be tempted to avoid the opera might be that Benjamin Britten is a modern composer and maybe you dislike modern classical music.  Not to worry!  This opera has some of Britten’s most listenable music, with melodies, vocal color, and an endearing children’s chorus.  I listened to parts of a CD recording to be sure.  I might encourage you someday to give modern atonal music a try, but this opera does not qualify as that test.  If you enjoy opera, I think you will enjoy the music.

And the final reason you might approach A Midsummer Night’s Dream with caution is that it’s not just entertainment, it is also art.  One of my favorite summations in all of literature is Puck’s final speech to end the play.  He says that if you’ve been bothered by what you’ve seen, just pretend it was a dream.  Indeed, the play is presented in dream-like fashion, but why this statement by Shakespeare?  Some witty banter to close the play?  Expressing genuine concern for your reaction to the play?  Or something else?  I feel the latter.  To me the passage is included as a wink to acknowledge there was more afoot here than a comedy of errors, with advice to just let its effect be absorbed.  There is an element of risk in viewing art; if the art is successful, you will be changed, for the better, in the viewing.  Art, like dreams, also communicates on a subconscious level.  Are you willing to dare?  Perhaps Puck’s closing words can ease your worry:

“If we shadows have offended,

Think but this, and all is mended,

That you have but slumber’d here

While these visions did appear,

And this weak and idle theme,

No more yielding but a dream.”

And if you are only looking for entertainment, that works too. I will even add my own closing refrain for you:

Dreams and art are profit made

Though meaning lingers in the shade

Not instruct, more to unhinge

And free you from your Netflix binge


Preview of Washington Concert Opera’s February 18 Maria di Rohan: Part II, Conductor Antony Walker Answers OperaGene's Questions

Conductor Antony Walker. Photo by Don Lassell; courtesy of Washington Concert Opera.

Conductor Antony Walker. Photo by Don Lassell; courtesy of Washington Concert Opera.

I first took real notice of Conductor Antony Walker when I saw his feet leave the floor.  Never before had I seen a conductor exhibit such enthusiasm and robust involvement.  Of course, for staged opera since Wagner, the conductor’s feet and the orchestra are out of sight in an orchestra pit. For all I know, in the pit they may take off their shoes.  Not so with concert opera where the conductor and orchestra are on the stage. This remarkable sighting occurred during my first concert opera, Beethoven’s Leonore (Washington Concert Opera) and it has stuck with me; I was energized by watching Mr. Walker.  This also turned out to be one of my favorite opera performances of last season and turned me into a concert opera fan. 

Maestro Walker is much in demand.  He is both Artistic Director and Conductor of the Washington Concert Opera, a position he has held for half of WCO’s thirty-year history.  He is also Music Director for the Pittsburgh Opera and Founding Artistic Director and Conductor Emeritus of the Pinchgut Opera in his native Sydney, Australia.  Conductor Walker held a position with the Welsh Opera in Britain before moving to the U.S in 2002.  Since his opera conducting debut in 1991, he has led almost 200 operas, conducting in opera houses around the US, including the prestigious Metropolitan Opera, and around the globe and often goes back to Australia.  He was trained in piano as a child, then music composition, and as an operatic tenor later on.  He once made national headlines by singing the role of Rhadames from the orchestra pit for one act of a Pittsburgh Opera performance of Aida; the tenor became too ill to continue and his replacement had not yet arrived, so Mr. Walker filled in.  He is able to use this talent in rehearsing singers and the chorus.  I have now attended four performances where Mr. Walker was conducting (Washington Concert Opera-x2, Pittsburgh Opera, and Wolf Trap Opera) and have enjoyed every one.  Maybe one day I will even make it to a performance in Sydney.

Conductor Antony Walker and the Washington Concert Opera Orchestra. Photo by Don Lassell; courtesy of Washington Concert Opera.

Conductor Antony Walker and the Washington Concert Opera Orchestra. Photo by Don Lassell; courtesy of Washington Concert Opera.

As explained in Part I of this preview blog report, which covered background information for Maria di Rohan, my purpose in posing questions to Conductor Walker was to help address two overriding questions for fans considering attendance: Why should I want to attend a performance of this particular opera and why should I want to attend this particular performance of that work?  Who better to learn about Washington Concert Opera’s production than from the conductor?  My ancillary interests were to learn more about Mr. Walker himself and to learn more about what a conductor does beyond standing in front of the orchestra to lead the performance.  Mr. Walker was most gracious to address the questions I posed for OperaGene readers, and I am impressed with the directness of his answers and the thought behind them.  He clearly cares about opera and communicating his love for it to its fans.

Here is an OperaGene Q&A with Antony Walker:

OperaGene: How are your duties different as conductor and artistic director?

Antony Walker: As Artistic Director of Washington Concert Opera, I have complete input to the artistic vision of the company, and I make all repertoire and casting decisions. I even negotiate contracts with artists’ managers, book the venues, choose each chorister and write the supertitles! As Conductor of Washington Concert Opera I rehearse the singers, chorus and orchestra, and conduct the performances.

OperaGene: How is your preparation different for concert and fully staged versions of an opera?

Antony Walker: When I prepare singers for a concert performance I need to work on all the musical details (tempo, color, articulation, ornaments, expression) that I would normally refine with the singers over the course of a three week period in 3 DAYS! Therefore the experience is quite intense and everyone’s learning curve is very rapid, especially as many singers are performing their roles for the first time, due to WCO’s commitment to rarely performed operatic masterpieces.

OperaGene: What was your role in selection of the opera for this performance? The version of this opera to be performed? The cast? The make up of the orchestra?

Antony Walker: I have long been a fan of late Donizetti in particular, as his style in this last period is very comparable to the middle period Verdi of Rigoletto, Trovatore and Traviata. I have been wanting to program Maria di Rohan for some years now, and felt that it would be a marvelous role for Marina Costa-Jackson, who is a consummate singer and actress. The visceral writing for the role of Maria is so suited to Marina’s voice and personality: it’s a perfect fit. As Marina’s also highly talented sibling Ginger was available, this was a fantastic opportunity to showcase her talents in the 1843 Paris version of the opera, where the character of Gondì was re-written from a tenor into a mezzo “en travesti”. It is a wonderful role, and gives the audience a chance to see two extremely talented sisters side by side in very different roles! In casting Chalais, I wanted a youthful but full lyric tenor who would be extremely compatible with Marina musically, artistically and in intensity, and Norman Reinhardt will be tremendous in all those aspects: a very exciting and elegant singer. In the role of the jilted husband, Chevreuse, I wanted a Verdi baritone of tremendous power, musicality, intensity, flexibility who is capable of showing the complex emotions of this particular character, and I am so thrilled that the wonderful Lester Lynch is singing this role. Donizetti places extreme vocal and dramatic demands on ALL of his lead roles in his later operas, and I am extremely excited about the cast we have in place for Maria di Rohan. The orchestra is basically very similar to that of La Straniera, and they play this repertoire so well, with such dedication and passion and flexibility. 

OperaGene: What decisions have you made for Maria di Rohan, such as emphasizing aspects or trimming the score to be used?

Antony Walker: I will be emphasizing the drama of Maria di Rohan. It is an opera that is very taut, dramatically, with each scene having a really interesting and clear dramatic arc that is so satisfying to underscore. The Paris version of 1843 that I have decided on has some really fine new music for Maria and Chalais, and particularly fleshes out the role of Gondì, which is now a “pants role” for a mezzo, and much more interesting and bigger than the role he wrote initially for the secondo tenore.  

OperaGene: Is there anything special about the music in Maria di Rohan that the audience should be attuned to, compared to other operas and to other Donizetti operas?

Antony Walker: There are many moments in the score where the audience will feel transported into Verdi’s middle period, starting with Maria’s dark opening cavatina “Cupa fatal mestizia”. The sinfonia is also very fine, and shows how far Donizetti has come in his musical sophistication and orchestration. Those who saw our performances of La Favorite and Maria Padilla will recognize the mature Donizetti idiom when they hear it, and those who know Donizetti primarily through Lucia, and the 3 Queen operas will be pleasantly surprised and excited by the richness of the score and harmonic language, as well as the excitement of the melodrama.

OperaGene: Is there anything you think the audience should know about the cast?

Antony Walker: Marina Costa-Jackson is an incredible young soprano who not only has a voice of great beauty and excitement, but is also a commanding actress with an incredible stage presence. Once you have heard her, you will never forget her. The other members of the principal cast that I have mentioned are also thrilling singers and will complement our diva and stand out in their own rights. This is an all-American cast that has sung (and sometimes lived) much in Europe, and so their sensibilities in singing Italian bel canto are very refined and idiomatic. Can you tell how excited I am!?

OperaGene: Should the audience prepare in any way for what they are going to hear that might enhance their enjoyment?

Antony Walker: Not really. I don’t necessarily recommend any CD recording or YouTube video in particular for this performance because I actually believe we have a stronger cast for this incredible work, and I would prefer the audience to hear the freshness of the performance without another particular performance in mind. A good way to prepare for this is perhaps listening to La Favorite with Kasarova and Vargas (even though it is an example of Donizetti in French) or even Maria di Rudenz with either Ricciarelli or Miricioiu in the title role. Both operas are wonderful examples of the mature Donizetti. 

OperaGene: Where else can we hear you conducting the next year or two?

Antony Walker: Apart from Pittsburgh and DC, I’m not allowed to tell you yet, I’m sorry!

Marina Costa-Jackson will play Maria (photo by Dario Accosta; courtesy of Washington Concert Opera). Norman Reinhardt will play Chalais (photo courtesy of Norman Reinhardt and Washington Concert Opera). Ginger Costa-Jackson will play Gondi (photo courtesy of Ginger Costa-Jackson and Washington Concert Opera). Lester will play Chevreuse (photo courtesy of Lester Lynch and Washington Concert Opera).

Many heartfelt thanks to Maestro Walker and Washington Concert Opera for these responses.

The Fan Experience: Washington Concert Opera performances are one time events.  February 18 at 6 pm in the Lisner Auditorium is the only opportunity to see a live performance of Maria di Rohan.  Tickets can be purchased through this link.  In my experience, all the seats are fine for viewing the performance, but the sound is probably better towards the center of the auditorium.  Parking on the street around the auditorium is catch as catch can, but if you find a spot, the meters are usually turned off on Sunday, but be sure to read the signs!  Metro is two blocks away.  WCO has a web page with directions and parking info, helpful in finding lot parking. 

Preview of Washington Concert Opera’s February 18 Maria di Rohan: Part I, Background

One of my New Year’s resolutions to make OperaGene more helpful to its readers was to write opera previews and to include comments from the performers or staff for those operas when possible.  In the mid-Atlantic region, we are rich in the number of opera events available to us; so, in deciding whether to attend a particular event, like most opera fans, I have to consider the time and money involved.  I ask myself two questions: why should I want to attend a performance of this particular opera?  And, why should I want to attend this particular performance of that work?  The bottom line question of ‘considering everything, do I want to attend’ comes later.  Previews can be helpful in answering those questions.  The Washington Concert Opera offered to help authors interested in writing previews of their February 18 performance of Donizetti’s Maria di Rohan (1843) connect with performers for interviews.  My first choice was Conductor Antony Walker; the conductor is at the center of an opera production.  So, I screwed up my courage and made a request.  Mr. Walker was available to answer questions by email and to my delight did so with considerable thought and detail.  I am pleased to be able to share his comments with you in Part II of this blog report.  I hope the information will benefit you in considering attendance at the upcoming production of Maria di Rohan.  I was already intending to be there for reasons that will become clear, but Conductor Walker’s insights greatly add to my anticipation.

Conductor Antony Walker and the Washington Concert Opera Orchestra. Photo by Don Lassell; courtesy of Washington Concert Opera.

Conductor Antony Walker and the Washington Concert Opera Orchestra. Photo by Don Lassell; courtesy of Washington Concert Opera.

But first, let’s explore a little background.  Gaetano Donizetti (1747-1848), the composer of Maria di Rohan, wrote sixty-five operas during his lifetime.  In his day, one of every four operas performed in Italy was his; he wrote three to four operas per year for most of his composing life; he could have composed a mini-series for Netflix on an annual basis.  He is known today, along with Gioachino Rossini and Vincenzo Bellini, as one of the masters of bel canto (beautiful singing).  A few of his operas are perennial favorites in terms of performances each year, L’elisir d’amore, Lucia di Lammermoor, and La fille du regiment.  However, less than ten of his operas are performed with any regularity today.  Maria di Rohan (librettist, Salvadore Cammarano) is not one of those, which meets one of the qualifications for presentation by WCO – rarely performed; the other is it’s a masterpiece.  Maria di Rohan was composed towards the end of his life.  William Ashbrook and Sarah Hibberd in “The New Penguin Opera Guide” (ed. Amanda Holden, 2001, p.246) state that Maria di Rohan shows Donizetti “in complete control of his musico-dramatic goals.”  He actually produced two versions of the opera, a Vienna and then a Paris version, differing mainly by having the role of Gondi changed from a tenor role to a mezzo-soprano in a pants role.  Donizetti is particularly known for raising the level of drama in Italian opera and is often viewed as laying the groundwork for the great one, Giuseppe Verdi.  Interestingly, many of Donizetti’s operas have women’s names and/or central figures who are women.  In the heyday of opera in Italy, getting the best singers was crucial and what better way than by writing operas with great roles for sopranos, often with a particular soprano in mind. 

Soprano Marina Costa-Jackson who will sing the role of Maria (photo by Dario Accosta; courtesy of Washington Concert Opera) and Norman Reinhardt who will sing the role of Chalais (photo courtesy of Norman Reinhardt and Washington Concert Opera).

What is the story about? One Italian stereotype is a person ruled by passion.  My impression (prejudice) of the attitude of Italians of the past toward infidelity is, well, what can you do, you must follow your heart, and on the other hand, if you do, there will be blood.  Even worse, Maria, countess of Rohan succumbed to her passion in a politically charged situation.  She fell for the count of Chalais during the period of the ruthless Cardinal Richelieu in Paris.  She asks Chalais who is still in love with her as she with him to intercede to save her husband Chevreuse who is in jail for killing Richelieu’s nephew in a duel.  Did I mention Chalais is unaware of Maria’s secret marriage to Chevreuse? A fellow named Gondi insults Maria, and Chalais challenges him to a duel.  Chevreuse is freed and grateful, so decides to be Chalais’ second in the duel defending the honor of Maria.  At this point Chevreuse does not know about Maria’s liason with Chalais.  These are the principal players and forces at work at the end of Act l.  I won’t reveal any more plot details, but there will be blood.

Ginger Costa-Jackson who will sing the role of Gondi (photo courtesy of Ginger Costa-Jackson and Washington Concert Opera) and Lester Lynch who will sing the role of Chevreuse (photo courtesy of Lester Lynch and Washington Concert Opera).

Even though concert opera is not staged, the story is told and the emotions are displayed in song and music, sung in Italian, but with English supertitles.  The performers are not in costumes, but they are in character.  One might compare it to a live audiobook experience, but it is more than that.  Seeing the singers, the conductor, and the orchestra, which is on stage and not in a pit, adds to the excitement, drawing you further into the fantasy.  You will not only hear the conductor and orchestra support the singers and the libretto, you will see it.  In the last couple of years, I have attended concert opera performances by the Washington Concert Opera and the Baltimore Concert Opera.  I have become an enthusiastic fan of concert opera; they have been among my most favorite opera experiences of the past year, about as much fun as you can have at the opera.

Part II with Conductor Walker’s Q&A will soon follow with answers to these and other questions:

Is there anything special about the music in Maria di Rohan that the audience should be attuned to, compared to other operas and to other Donizetti operas?

Is there anything you think the audience should know about the cast?

Should the audience prepare in any way for what they are going to hear that might enhance their enjoyment?

Was It Just a Dream? Time Travel with Opera Lafayette

Do you think time travel is possible?  I have only followed Opera Lafayette for the last couple of years, but I have started to believe.  If you’d like to visit France in the eighteenth century, OL could be your conduit.  That is the era from whence this group selects their music and plays the pieces on period instruments.  Commander Ryan Brown and Starship OL’s latest voyage visited eighteenth century composers Alessandro Scarlatti (1660-1725) and Francesco Geminiani (1687 to 1762).  I bought a ticket and showed up at the Terrace Theater at the Kennedy Center on the evening of January 31 (the voyage also departed on the day before). The thing is, I was not sure I wanted to go there.  I took the trip because my experience with Opera Lafayette has led me to believe that regardless of the destinations I will be glad I came along.  Just trust in Mr. Brown and Opera Lafayette; you will be delighted and will benefit culturally from your trip, just as I was by last week’s excursions. 

The program was Artistic Director Brown’s vision; it was a combination of inspiration, need, and opportunity.  He was looking for eighteenth century works that Opera Lafayette could stage with music, voice, and dancing.  Mr. Brown explained how it all came together in his pre-opera talk.  I cannot do his excellent talk justice, but somehow a late serenata by Scarlatti which had apparently never been staged before, and for which the score and most of the libretto for act two are missing, was chosen with help from his contacts to complement a concerto grossi-like piece by Geminiani written for a dance pantomime, which had to be altered by moving the location for both works from Jerusalem to India and having the conflict be between the Mughals and Marathas, instead of Christians and Muslims, because Mr. Brown had contacts with an Indian dance company that had the skill set to pull this off.  The unifying factors other than Director Brown’s imagination were that the source for both works was a sixteenth century poem about the First Crusade that occurred in the twelfth century, both pieces drawing on a love story from the poem involving a Christian man and Muslim woman, both warriors, and both episodes take place in a forest.  Time travel is a complicated business. 

Andre Courville as Pastore and Julia Dawson as Erminia in Erminia. Rehearsal photo by Louis Forget; courtesy of Opera Lafayette.

Andre Courville as Pastore and Julia Dawson as Erminia in Erminia. Rehearsal photo by Louis Forget; courtesy of Opera Lafayette.

The first stop offered a presentation of Erminia by composer Alessandro Scarlatti based on the story of Erminia and Tancredi in the epic poem, “La Gerusalemme liberate (Jerusalem Delivered)”, by Torquato Tasso .  Oddly enough it looked like the stop was in India, for reasons explained above.  This epic poem has been the basis for many other European works of art, plays, and musical works.  In this episode, Erminia, daughter of a Muslim king and now smitten by Tancredi, our Christian hero, arrives in a clearing in the forest on the run from Polidoro, a friend of Tancredi and a Christian warrior who believes Erminia to be Clorinda, a Muslim adversary, but who is also secretly the true love of Tancredi.  So, both warriors believe her to be Clorinda (she had disguised herself with Clorinda’s armor), but Polidoro wants to kill her and Tancredi wants to save her.  In the clearing, Erminia sheds Clorinda’s armor.  She then encounters a local shepard, Pastore, and asks him for garb to disguise herself as a shepardess.  Polidoro arrives and falls in love with the shepardess.  Tancredi arrives, finds the shed armor and learns the woman who shed the armor is now dressed as a shepardness, who he still thinks is Clorinda.  Tancredi listens to his friend Polidoro sing about how taken he is with the shepardess and slowly becomes enraged with jealousy; we now a love triangle with the object of affection being a ringer.  In between these events, the peasant and the shepardess have some dialog about peasant life.  End of story; remember act 2 is yet to be found.  All of this takes up a little over an hour.

( r.) Asitha Tennekoon as Polidoro and Allegra De Vita (a girl) as Tancredi in Erminia. Rehearsal photo by Louis Forget; courtesy of Opera Lafayette.

( r.) Asitha Tennekoon as Polidoro and Allegra De Vita (a girl) as Tancredi in Erminia. Rehearsal photo by Louis Forget; courtesy of Opera Lafayette.

The music sounded like pleasant baroque music, well played by the small ensemble and conducted by Mr. Brown.  It was a fine group of singers that included Canadian mezzo-soprano Julia Dawson as Erminia, (the French connection: one tends to find Canadian singers in OL productions). I was not sure I was enjoying Ms. Dawson’s singing at first, but then I warmed up to it considerably and was left with wanting more.  Maybe baroque-style melismatic singing takes time to smooth out, or my ears did.  Tenor Asitha Tennekoon who played Polidoro has a smooth voice and was convincing in his role as smitten warrior. The two stand-outs for me were bass-baritone Andre Courville playing Pastore, the peasant; he has strong stand out voice and portrayed a philosophical peasant shepard with passivity but underlying strength.  Finally, mezzo-soprano Allegra De Vita displays a beautiful voice in the pants role of Tancredi.  I have seen her in three performances in a little over a year, as a glamorous wife of a dictator (The Dictator’s Wife), as a dead teen child of a prairie family (Proving Up), and now as a male crusader; she was excellent in all three.  How’s that for versatility!

This presentation and the one that followed seemed like a dream, primarily, because of the staging; the staging was very clever and quite charming, Disney-like.  Opera Lafayette is a small company.  One does not expect a great deal in the way of sets and staging for their performances.  The team for these performances managed to use four carved tree-like trunks of a cupola, some flower props, and very creative lighting effects for Erminia to create a fairy tale atmosphere; the same magic was worked in The Enchanted Forest using the four tree-like props and a few others.  It was truly impressive, especially the use of lighting.  Another important element of the fantasies were the costumes, which were colorful and seemed perfect for the story and time period.  Both productions were delightful.  Kudos to Director Richard Gammon, Scenic Designer Richard Ouellette, Costume Designer Meriem Bahri, and Lighting Designer Rob Siler.

Members of the Kalanidhi Dance Company in La Foret enchantee (The Enchanted Forest). Rehearsal photo by Louis Forget; courtesy of Opera Lafayette.

Members of the Kalanidhi Dance Company in La Foret enchantee (The Enchanted Forest). Rehearsal photo by Louis Forget; courtesy of Opera Lafayette.

The final stop, The Enchanted Forest began in the forest clearing where Erminia left off.  The story centered around the efforts of the Mughals (Christians in the poem) to cut down forest trees for the wood and obstruction by the Marathas (Muslims in the poem) led by a Maratha Wizard who puts a spell on the forest to make the tree trunks inpenetrable.  There were five acts each acted out with dance pantomime, performed by the Kalanithi Dance Company led by Choreographer and Director Anuradha Nehru and Assistant Choreographer Chitra Kalyandurg.  Act one: in the forest at night the Wizard (Uday Singh) casts his spell.  Act two: the scene is the Maratha court magically appearing by use of lighting to recast the trees as pillars; the Maratha ruler (Smitha Hughes) and his advisers consider strategy.  Act three: back in the forest at dawn, the Mughal warriors are unsuccessful at chopping down the trees and the spirits dance. Act four: in the crusader’s camp, heat and frustration are making the Mughal warriors rebellious, but Knight Rinaldo (Rustam Zaman) arrives to calm them.  Act five: in the forest, Rinaldo overcomes obstacles, including the spirits, to break the spell, giving the victory to Mughal leader, Godfrey (Vijay Palaparty).  The meaning of the pantomime was sometimes obvious and sometimes not, but the flash and spirited dance movements were always engaging.  Kudos to all the dancers.  I would not mind seeing more dance in opera.  I would like to report more on Geminiani’s music which was entertaining baroque music, but my focus was on the delightful dancing.  I did, a couple of times, notice Conductor Brown playing the violin as well as conducting the orchestra; it looked kind of awkward.  The Enchanted Forest was a shorter piece with the timing about right to conclude the evening.

Members of the Kalanidhi Dance Company in La Foret enchantee (The Enchanted Forest). Rehearsal photo by Louis Forget; courtesy of Opera Lafayette.

Members of the Kalanidhi Dance Company in La Foret enchantee (The Enchanted Forest). Rehearsal photo by Louis Forget; courtesy of Opera Lafayette.

Honestly, if I had only looked at offerings of the program, I might have shied away from attending this performance.  It was unknown and seemed complicated.  But a creative designer can take pieces of cloth from here and there, a buckle, a piece of ribbon, and a few pieces of thread, then create  a fine tapestry, and in Mr. Brown’s case turn it into a magic carpet capable of travel through time, or maybe just weave a dream?

The Fan Experience: The next voyage of Starship OL takes off in May with a performance called “Visitors to Versailles”.  Other than French music of the eighteenth century, I don’t know what all it includes, but then, have faith in Commander Brown. 

I arrived at the Kennedy Center early enough to grab a quick bite at the cafeteria, the KC Café.  It, like the Terrace Theater, has undergo renovations since I was last there.  It now has more visual appeal, but I was disappointed the self-service salad bar was gone.  You now have to have your salad made by someone, as you request it, which may cost you a wait in line.  There are more pre-packaged items now for grab and go.  Overall, it’s a nice upgrade.

I selected a cheap seat for this performance which put me in row U in the Terrace theater which is behind a railing.  In between row U and the next row of installed seats is a row of movable chairs, presumably for more accessible seating, which I applaud.  However, beware that if there are patrons seated in that row, and you are in the middle section of row U, your view of the stage can be significantly blocked.  Better I think to sit even farther back in the cheap seats or more to the sides.  I recommend asking the box office about this if those are the seats you are considering.  I am unable to find the seating chart on the Kennedy Center web site that shows rows by letter and seats by number; none of the links show a chart in my browser.



Who Was Bubbles? Belle Miriam Silverman

Does the name “Bubbles” ring a bell?  If you are a longtime opera fan it should.  It didn’t for me until my wife gave me Bubbles’ autobiography for this past Christmas.  Does the name “Belle Miriam Silverman” ring a bell?  I bet even a lot of opera lovers don’t recognize that one.  Bubbles and Belle both belonged to the famous opera diva, Beverly Sills (1929-2007), a name I did recognize and associate with opera.

“Bubbles: A Self Portrait by Beverly Sills”, Bobbs-Merrill, Indianapolis/New York, 1976.

“Bubbles: A Self Portrait by Beverly Sills”, Bobbs-Merrill, Indianapolis/New York, 1976.

Reading her autobiography, diva is not the word that best describes Ms. Sills, as much as American does, as in hard working, fun loving, an all American, Jewish girl.  Ms. Sills picked up her nickname as a child; she started performing at age three and took her stage name at age nine.  Bubbles rose to become a major star on national and international opera stages, but surprisingly was long shunned by the Metropolitan Opera.  Her bubbly, down to earth personality and quick wit led to frequent guest appearances on American television shows.  I remember seeing her on the Johnnie Carson show.  At that time, opera was not among my personal preferences.  I only remember her as an amusing, talkative guest who was an opera singer. 

Ms. Sills was gifted with most skills needed by opera singers.  She had the voice, facility with languages, and an extraordinary memory.  She was also an attractive and statuesque redhead.  She loved the stage and acting and knew early what she wanted to do.  She had a truly impressive work ethic.  She had confidence borne of accomplishment early on and from a secret weapon – a highly supportive, even doting, mother who backed her in all things, affording voice lessons, travel, even making her costumes for most of her early appearances; I had the feeling that for a while the marquee should have read Beverly Sills and mother.  But make no mistake, Beverly Sills earned her success and deserved her diva status.  In the final chapter, she muses, “On May 26, 1977, I will be forty-eight years old and I have been singing since I was three.  I have a repertoire of more than a hundred operas and I have sung in fifty or sixty of them, in opera or concert form.  I have sung in every major opera house in the world. I have sung with all the major symphonies in this country and many abroad.  For the past five years, I have averaged a hundred performances a year.  If not the highest paid opera singer in the world, I am certainly among the top three.  So, what do I do for an encore?  More.”  Ms. Sills retired from singing in 1980.

Being American worked against Ms. Sills in the opera world of her day. According to her book, Sir Rudolf Bing, who ran the Metropolitan Opera form 1950 to 1972, did not believe that an American soprano could be good enough for the Met, without at least years of training in Europe.  She was denied the Met imprimatur during the height of her career.  He was finally forced to offer her a role at the Met at the end of his career and nearing the end of hers.  That story and a few others regarding conflicts, people and operas she liked and some she didn’t, all dealt with mostly matter of factly, are covered in a book that reads like a travelogue of Ms. Sills professional and personal life, but not too personal and always positive.  We learn of her marriage and her children’s physical challenges and how that led to her work with the March of Dimes.  This is not a tell all book, though she does mention that Pavarotti once pinched her on the behind.  One of the best features of the book is the over 200 photographs of Ms. Sills and her family, friends, and colleagues, most having famous names you may recognize. 

Of course, having read the book, I had to listen to some of her recorded work , and I dialed up “The Best of Beverly Sills” on Apple Music.  Within seconds, the talent and artistry was obvious and within minutes I could sense the word ‘brava’ rising within me.  I have found that for some of the great sopranos of the past, I do not like the sound of their voices, most prominently Maria Callas, perhaps somewhat due to the poor quality of the recordings of that era and/or not having heard them live.  This was not a problem with Ms. Sills’ voice; I like her voice, a lot.  Beverly Sills as a diva was the real deal. 

An aspect of her story that I really enjoyed was her development as an artist and a professional.  Early on, she sought approval and fame.  As she achieved that success, she realized that at that point she wanted to sing for herself.  It was the outlet she needed to do what she wanted to do.  And at that point she took control.  This happens with successful people in all walks of life.  By the end of the book, it is clear that Ms. Sills bowed to no one in her professional world.  One wonders if there is any such woman in opera today.  I found the obituary in the Washington Post by Tim Page to be revelatory.  In her self-portrait, Ms. Sills expresses some definite opinions on opera and how it should be performed.  However, Mr. Page noted that in 1987 she published a second book, ”Beverly",  which “was much less guarded and contained a number of surprisingly personal attacks on critics, opera-house directors and fellow singers."  Mr. Page quotes her as saying, "I've come to the stage in life where I'm not afraid to use my influence.”  He credits her with the controversial decision to first use English supertitles at the New York City Opera in 1983, which other companies eventually followed and now are used everywhere.  In 2002 she became the chairwoman of the Metropolitan Opera.  There was a new sheriff in town and her name was “Bubbles”.


Norma and Tosca on Screen This Weekend: one free and one worth the price

Norma and Tosca, two of the powerhouse operas of the current canon are being broadcast this weekend.  Both have roles that sopranos covet.  Both presentations have sopranos to do justice to the fabulous music of Bellini and Puccini.  If you enjoy watching opera on screen as well as live, and I do, these are worthy of a viewing.

Image (public domain) from Wikipedia.

Image (public domain) from Wikipedia.

Friday night (1/26/18): Public Broadcasting (PBS) will begin its 12th season of Great Performances at the Met with a showing of Norma by composer Vincenzo Bellini and librettist Felice Romani; this is a recording of the October 7, 2017 performance broadcast in cinemas.  The staging drew criticism for being too mushy, but the singing by current divas Sandra Radvanovsky and Joyce DiDonato was widely praised.  The plot involves Norma, a Druid priestess, who falls in love with Pollione, a leader of the conquering Romans, against whom she and priest Oroveso are plotting a revolt; not only did she fall in love with a Roman, but she has secretly borne him two children.  How’s that for balancing your work life and personal life?  And there is yet one more complication; Pollione has fallen in love with someone else, a friend of Norma’s, Adalgisa.  How do you see this going down?  The New York Times review can be accessed here, and additional reviews can be found on the Seasons Listing page.  Check your local PBS channel for time.  For this one, you can even record it and watch later.


Sondra Radvanovsky as Norma and Joyce DiDonato as Adalgisa. Photo by Ken Howard and courtesy of the Metropolitan Opera.

Sondra Radvanovsky as Norma and Joyce DiDonato as Adalgisa. Photo by Ken Howard and courtesy of the Metropolitan Opera.

Original cover of the 1899 libretto (public domain) from Wikepedia.

Original cover of the 1899 libretto (public domain) from Wikepedia.

Saturday afternoon (1/27/18): The next Metropolitan Opera’s “In Cinemas” live in HD broadcast will feature Tosca, by composer Giacomo Puccini and librettists Luigi Illica and Victorien Sardu.  Tosca is one of the most performed operas of all time and deserves to be, both for the story and the music.  I have previously written about Tosca, “Tosca is not the opera to attend to introduce your children to opera.  It is violent, even brutally so, and profane, not so much in language, but by deed.  It has shocks; there is an attempted rape, two suicides, and two executions.  It has one of the most purely villainous characters in performance art. Yet, it is a love story and a story about commitment to higher callings.”  I do recommend you go.  The love story rises above the dark elements and it is one of the most entertaining operas out there.  It is one of the few things I have watched with my son where at one point he said, “I didn’t see that coming.”  But perhaps, the best reason for paying the price of admission at your local theater is its star soprano, Sonya Yoncheva, who seems to be slaying audiences on both sides of the Atlantic.  Reviews -see sidebar to right – have credited her with saving this production which had a number of scheduled performers drop out.  It also features the hot young tenor, Vittorio Grigolo.  You can find participating theaters in your area at this link; put your city and state, not zip code, in the search bar.  A re-broadcast of this live event will take place in theaters the following Wednesday, January 31; it will be easier to get a desirable seat for the re-broadcasts.

Sonya Yoncheva as Tosca. Photo by Ann Ray; courtesy of the Metropolitan Opera.

Sonya Yoncheva as Tosca. Photo by Ann Ray; courtesy of the Metropolitan Opera.

The Amazing American Opera Initiative 2018: Opera As Poetry

New opera has its own special excitement; it's fresh and speaks more directly to our time.  More new operas are appearing now, and the Washington National Opera brings an American brand of that excitement to the Kennedy Center through its American Opera Initiative.  Each year, one 1-hr and three 20-min new operas are premiered.  The 1-hr opera was presented on Friday night and Sunday afternoon, while there were two presentations of the three short operas as a group on Saturday night.  The AOI focus is on American opera, not so much by the stories themselves which are universal, but through the opera’s creators, American composers and librettists, primarily giving creative opportunities to new and unproven talents.  The critical importance of the program was made clear by well-known librettist and a mentor for the AOI program, Mark Campbell, who stated that how to write opera is not taught in colleges or music conservatories.  Kudos to AOI and its director, Robert Ainsley for helping to fill that void.

Proving Up by Missy Mazzoli and Royce Vavrek, 1-hr

l to r: Allegra De Vita, Madison Leonard, Alan Naylor, Christopher Kenney, Leah Hawkins, and Arnold Livingston Geis. Photo by Scott Suchman; courtesy of Washington National Opera.

l to r: Allegra De Vita, Madison Leonard, Alan Naylor, Christopher Kenney, Leah Hawkins, and Arnold Livingston Geis. Photo by Scott Suchman; courtesy of Washington National Opera.

I have trouble with this one.  Everything about it was exciting.  It was this year’s one-hour opera premiere.  This composer/librettist team of Missy Mazzoli and Royce Vavrek were already successful; their opera last year, Breaking the Waves, won rave reviews and awards, probably my favorite opera of last year.  The cast of Domingo-Cafritz Young Artists are opera stars in training.  My anticipation was high.  Yet, as I watched and listened, I disliked this one, and still do, but the truth of it keeps smacking me in the face; it haunts me.  This opera is about gambling on the American Dream and losing, the American Dream as a suicide mission, not because it’s believers didn’t work hard enough, but because the odds of success were against them.  Sending soldiers into battle, success is not assurred and you know you some will not survive; the same was true of settlers in Nebraska, attempting to take advantage of the Homestead Act in the 1870s.  It wasn’t complicated to “prove up” to the requirements of the Act - settle on a parcel of land, build an adobe hut, bring in five harvests, exhibit acres of waving grain, and have a glass window in your hut…the deed to the property is won.  However, many of the settlers started with almost nothing, depending on every harvest.  The Karen Russell short story (from her book “Vampires in the Lemon Grove”) on which the opera is based involves neighbors attempting to pass around a window, scarce and expensive, to fool inspectors and get their deeds.  Some managed to succeed; this is not their story.  This is the other story, the Greek Tragedy one.  For some, it was just bleak, impoverished failure marked by poverty, hunger, disillusionment, and death after wanting it so much and trying so hard, even compromising morals, as the rains did not come, but the insects did, and family members wore down and died from starvation, disease, accidents, and the harsh conditions.  What haunts me?  It has raised the question in my mind of “Is it happening now” to some in pursuit of the American Dream, maybe not death by starvation, but by spirits broken against insurmountable odds?  And do we care?  A certain American leader said that he likes heroes who didn’t get captured.  Is that the American spirit today - be a winner and losers are just collateral damage? 

Christopher Kenney as Pa Zegner and Leah Hawkins as Ma Zegner. Photo by Scott Suchman; courtesy of Washington National Opera.

Christopher Kenney as Pa Zegner and Leah Hawkins as Ma Zegner. Photo by Scott Suchman; courtesy of Washington National Opera.

Details?  The set was minimal and bleak, conveying the theme.  The opera involves a family of six and a character known as The Sodbuster.  It involves the supernatural and is difficult to follow.  It’s not clear whether The Sodbuster is real or a demon.  Initially, I delighted in the two young daughters played spot on with the charm of youth by Allegra De Vita and Madison Leonard, until they sang about the hardships the family had endured including “two dead daughters”.  Uh oh, very cute versions of Marley’s ghost I surmised, until their teasing became sinister and unsettling.  Their voices were perfectly paired to sing their duets.  Having seen them perform locally as young sopranos, it was fun to see these two convincingly portray children.  Another highlight for me was Leah Hawkins who played the mother with a powerful voice imbued with emotional sensitivity and with an awareness of the impending doom.  Her aria about what she would never hate was probably the only warm tug on my heartstrings.  The father was played effectively by baritone Christopher Kenney, but the role seemed a little off.  A man beaten down, he had turned to drink; where did the alcohol come from?  At least we should have seen him staring despairingly at an empty flask.  Milo, the young, impetuous son entrusted with too much responsibility was played convincingly by tenor Arnold Livingston Geis, and his distraught, defeated brother Peter, who had no vocals, was portrayed effectively by actor Alan Naylor.  Timothy Bruno’s The Sodbuster lifted the bad dream all the way into the nightmare category; his imposing size and impressive base voice were perfect for his role as abstract unrelenting opposition.  Tim, if they ever make an opera of Nightmare on Elm Street, you must audition.  At the same time, The Sodbuster role seemed disproportionately large and might have been even more effective if trimmed back a bit.

Alegra De Vita and Madison Leonard as the dead Zegner sisters, and Arnold Livingston Geis as son, Miles Zegner. Photos by Scott Suchman; courtesy of Washington National Opera.

Ms. Mazzoli’s music is designed to fit the characters, circumstances, and the theme and is elegantly effective for that.  She is unusually inventive in creating and employing new sounds to color the story, such as using acoustic guitars being struck not strummed to create an effect she wanted associated with the family.  The orchestra conducted by Christopher Rountree was chamber size at 14 pieces and accompanied all four operas, although the conductor changed for the shorter versions.  With the constraints on orchestration and set design, the words become the focus, and I felt that I was experiencing opera as poetry, rather than as straight-forward narrative, with staging and music enhancing the imagery and emotion.  Richard Wagner called some of his works “music dramas”; this was a “music poem”.

Timothy Bruno as The Sodbuster. Photo by Scott Suchman; courtesy of Washington National Opera.

Timothy Bruno as The Sodbuster. Photo by Scott Suchman; courtesy of Washington National Opera.

I said I dislike this opera, and I do, immensely.  Am I glad I saw it?  Yep.  Would I attend another performance?  Yep.  In fact, the opera’s commission was supported not only by AOI, but by Opera Omaha and the Miller Theater of Columbia University and Proving Up will now receive new productions in those locations, and were I there, I’d attend at least one of them, maybe both.  Go figure.

A Bridge for Three by Nathan Fletcher and Megan Cohen, 20-min

Three characters from different time periods stand on the Brooklyn Bridge about to jump: Jimmy James (tenor Alexander McKissick), to test his artificial wings; Molly (mezzo-soprano Eliza Bonet) over a failed relationship, and Roland Archister (baritone Michael Hewitt), a Wall Streeter in the stock market collapse of 1929.  Each jumps and expresses their varying reactions as they fall; love of life is affirmed for some, but not all.  I especially enjoyed Mr. Fletcher’s music, which included a few jazz riffs.  All three 20-min operas are presented as concert versions (without sets) with George Manahan conducting, and this one qualifies as a music poem.

Fault Lines by Gity Razaz and Sara Cooper, 20-min

A father (played by baritone Michael Hewitt) sexually abuses his Japanese maid (played by soprano Laura Choi Stuart) during the time of WWII; she complies to save her job and avoid being sent to a California internment camp, and she faces the wrath of the wife (played by mezzo-soprano Eliza Bonet).  Later, a struggle ensues with the son (played by tenor Alexander McKissick) mortally wounding the maid.  This is a powerful vignette of racism and sexism made especially poignant by the internal struggle of the mother as she accepts her maid’s revelation she has been raped, but then chooses to protect her family over justice when the maid is killed, repeating the line “…we are good people, and we do what we must do.”  Indeed, what ills we good people will allow.  This opera was more drama than poetry which could justify a larger staging; it packed a lot into 20-min.

Precita Park by John Glover and Erin Bregman, 20-min

A family of five move into their new residence, a small shack in Precita Park, following the 1906 San Francisco earthquake.  While Lilah (played by soprano Alexandria Shiner) mourns that loss of someone close, she suffers the bickering of her siblings, contrasting comedy with pathos.  The siblings were played by soprano Laura Choi Stuart, mezzo-soprano Eliza Bonet, tenor Frederick Ballentine, and baritone Michael Hewitt.  For me, the comic elements were subdued somewhat by having witnessed the trauma of the previous two performances.  This one was also a music poem.  Probably the best short operas will be.

I greatly enjoyed the singing and performances by all the Domingo-Cafritiz Young Artists in all three operas.  Brava, bravo, bravi!

Note to composers and librettists: It would be ok with me to insert a few longer arias with great melodies into new opera, something I would find myself humming on the way home and maybe try to find on iTunes to hear again.  Really, I’m ok with music written just to sound good as well as support the libretto.  I love the new opera you create; it’s just a small wish.

The Fan Experience:

Talk backs were held for thirty minutes after Proving Up and after the three shorter pieces.  All composers and librettists were in attendance for their respective talk backs, as well as the AOI director.  It was especially interesting to hear them describe how their working relationships had developed.  I strongly recommend these after-performance talks at the Kennedy Center.

At the Proving Up talk back were AOI director Robert Ainsley, librettist Royce Vavrek, composer Missy Mazzoli, and writer Karen Russell.  Photo by author.

At the Proving Up talk back were AOI director Robert Ainsley, librettist Royce Vavrek, composer Missy Mazzoli, and writer Karen Russell.  Photo by author.

To beat commuting stress, I headed to the 9 pm performance on Saturday early.  I arrived a block away from the Kennedy Center North B entrance at about 8:15. Earlier KC performance crowds were emptying from the parking decks and it took 25 min to go the last block.  While waiting, I remembered I had forgotten my ticket.  Here the good begins.  When I finally got to the gate I was waved in for free to move the traffic along.  I went to the purchase ticket booth and show them my ticket email on my iPhone; thank you iCloud, though I suspect they could have managed with my name and phone number.  They printed a ticket for me and I arrived at my seat with ten minutes to go, richer for the experience.  As always for DC, I advise allowing more time than you think you will need.


Knights of the Opera Table – Favorite Opera Critics in the Mid-Atlantic

Public domain knight illustration by Paul Mercuri:

Public domain knight illustration by Paul Mercuri:

I am a fan of opera and greatly enjoy reading reviews by professional opera critics.  But, since opera critics are always offering their opinions on performances, performers, directors, and other opera-relevant things, why should they not be subjected to some scrutiny for their body of work?  How better to begin the second half of the 2017-2018 opera season than by reviewing the reviewers.  So, let’s talk about them – and read and support them so we don’t lose them.  I read a lot of opera reviews, including most of the ones posted in the sidebar to the right and on the Seasonal Lists page, and many covering operas outside the mid-Atlantic region.  So, I will offer one fan’s comments on my favorites. 

As you read my comments, think a bit about what you think makes a good review… besides that it agrees with your opinion.  I try to emphasize in OperaGene that I don’t write opera reviews.  I write blog reports.  Why the distinction?  Simply, I report on my view of a performance as an individual fan and give you my personal opinion, which I like to do, but I’m not qualified to pose as a critic.  I don’t have the training and experience in music and opera to write authoritative critiques.  I write to share with my readers what I’ve learned on my opera journey, but critical comments in my blog reports are just one fan’s opinions. 

What are the goals of a professional reviewer?  I think one is to act as a journalist, to convey accurately what happened at a performance both in essence and in detail that space will allow, or when writing a feature, to present something significant occurring in the opera world, and secondly and most importantly, to serve as a critic, a knowledgeable arbiter of the good.  When they make criticisms, their opinions are undergirded by a substantial base of knowledge and experience.  Professional critics add to our awareness and enjoyment of opera and help maintain standards in the field.  Though sometimes maligned, I find it a noble profession. I dub them Knights of the Opera Table; it is their job to champion good performances and slay the bad ones. 

To get those sorts of quality reviews, you have to pay a professional a fair wage.  Therein lies a problem for the arts and classical music.  Newspapers, magazines, and other media today are in a rapidly changing world due to the internet, which has clouded their future.  Some reviewers have stable positions as professional critics; but reviews are often done by those working free-lance.  Most print media are cutting back on staff positions, and sadly, the arts and music staffs are among the first to be let go. Hopefully it won’t happen for a long while, but I fear that like King Arthur’s knights, full-time opera critics may be on the way out, and I wish to celebrate them while we have the benefit of their knowledge and insight. 

Generally, all the reviews that I read are informative about specific performances and about opera itself, and frequently entertaining.  But some are definitely better than others, expanding our knowledge of opera and offering helpful insights, and some reviewers are better than others.  Unfortunately, there is often little to no information available about the backgrounds of opera reviewers.  I run into some excellent reviews by free-lancers, but I tend to trust more the opinions of experienced opera critics for the major newspapers.  Here are my completely biased impressions.

Opera critics of the mid-Atlantic region grouped by city:


Peter Dobrin, Philadelphia Inquirer – Mr. Dobrin is one of two…well, actually now only one full-time, classical music critic for the Inquirer.  I enjoy the insights in his typically thorough reviews.  For some reason, I pegged him as very traditional early on, but his sparkling review of Opera Philadelphia’s premiere (as part of the O17 festival) of “The Wake World” changed my mind.

David Patrick Stearns, Philadelphia Inquirer – Mr. Stearns was the other veteran, full-time reviewer for the Inquirer, but departed as of December 8.  His departure was not entirely voluntary, a victim of downsizing, and is a loss for the opera scene in Philadelphia.  He is very experienced and knowledgeable.  Most of his reviews are thorough and provide thoughtful critiques, but occasionally, he seems to focus on just a few key points.  I enjoyed his reviews for O17’s War Stories and The Trial of Elizabeth Cree.  He plans to free lance some for the Inquirer, continue to do reviews for WQXR’s Operavore, and write features for New York-centered media.


Elizabeth Bloom, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette – Ms. Bloom shares coverage of Pittsburgh’s classical music scene with her colleague below, but in a recent shift, Ms. Bloom is mainly covering the Pittsburgh Pirates, although still doing some opera reviews.  I love baseball almost as much as opera, but I hope she does more opera reviews.  She writes straight-forward, informative reviews that tend to be positive, but she is willing to call out a poor performance when she sees one.  I particularly enjoyed a sensitive feature she wrote in advance of Pittsburgh Opera’s premiere of The Summer King.

Robert Croan, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette – Mr. Croan is a veteran opera critic, very knowledgeable and experienced, though I have not been able to find much about his background searching online.  I enjoy his thorough reviews.  Lately, they have been very positive.  For the time being, I will just assume Pittsburgh Opera is turning out truly excellent work.  I especially enjoyed his review of The Summer King, which I saw in Pittsburgh.

Washington DC:

Charles Downey, Washington Classical Review – Mr. Downey also occasionally reviews for the Washington Post.  He works as a musician, a pianist, in addition to writing classical music reviews; actually I’m not sure what he considers his primary gig.  He writes very scholarly reviews, sort of like getting your term paper graded by your professor.  I look forward to his reviews because I always learn something.  See his review of Washington National Opera’s Alcina as an example.

Philip Kennicott, Washington Post –   Mr. Kennicott is actually the Arts and Architecture Critic for the Post and rarely writes opera reviews, though he does write opera features, mainly for Opera News, which are well worth reading.  I include him because he is not just good; he is a gifted writer, and I find myself reading his pieces for that reason alone.  His arts pieces often offer sensitive insight linking arts and/or their presentation to societal issues, which I think reveal a somewhat romantic view of the past.  I was especially fond of his review of this year’s Kusama exhibit, which also delved into the role of selfies.  His beat is “everything visual in the nation’s capitol”, which could include opera.

Anne Midgette, Washington Post – Because she is the opera critic in the town where I see most of my operas, Ms. Midgette is the reviewer I read most often.  Fortunately, she is very knowledgeable, highly experienced, and adheres to the highest standards for herself and the classical music she reviews.  She often draws the ire of readers who resent her critical comments about something they liked; I rarely can disagree with her well-reasoned assessments.  Her features are especially enjoyable, often dealing with social issues and opera; I will point out her piece, “Female Conductors to Watch“ as just one example.

I have one disappointment with Ms. Midgette: she is dauntingly prolific, but does insist on having a personal life, and thus, doesn’t review all the things I want her to, especially performances by the Virginia Opera.  Most often, other Post staff fill in quite capably.  However, I'd like to see a regional opera company in my area receive the quality feedback that she can provide.  Based on comments I saw in one of her reviews, it seems a part of her avoidance is related to the required journey into the wilderness of Fairfax County.  The Post probably has a rule against it, but Ms. Midgette, I make you this offer: I will provide door to door transportation from your abode to the Arts Center at GMU for any Virginia Opera performance that you are willing to review; I will even use my wife’s Volvo S80 to ensure your comfort and safety.  Your hubby can come along.  I might even try to be quiet, and I am not associated with Uber.  The reader can see how much I value professional opera reviews by my favorite critics.

My selections, of course, are not an exhaustive list of opera critics in the mid-Atlantic, but a list of those I read most often and have developed the most trust in as professionals.  There were some that almost made the list and might in the future, such as Tim Smith of the Baltimore Sun; I enjoy his reviews of Baltimore Concert Opera productions, but unfortunately, Baltimore is currently without a fully-staged opera company; I keep hoping the Lyric will return.  At any rate, I plan to make this an annual post, so let me know about critics to whom you think I should give more attention.  Perhaps they will make next year’s report.


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:; 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.


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:; 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:  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.