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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1.     Service on the music of Ligeti

2.     Midgette overview of contemporary classical music

3.     Muehlhauser overview of modern classical music

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

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

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

 

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

Poster for Samson and Delilah; courtesy of Virginia Opera.

Poster for Samson and Delilah; courtesy of Virginia Opera.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pittsburgh Opera Logo; courtesy of Pittsburgh Opera.

Pittsburgh Opera Logo; courtesy of Pittsburgh Opera.

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

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

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

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

Tosca by Giacomo Puccini: Oct 7-15

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

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

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

Moby-Dick by Jake Heggie: Mar 17-25

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

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

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

Samson and Delilah by Camille Saint-Saens

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

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

            Oct 13, 15 – Richmond, Dominion Arts Center

The Girl of the Golden West by Giacomo Puccini

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

            Nov 17, 19 – Richmond, Dominion Arts Center

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

A Midsummer Night’s Dream by Benjamin Britten

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

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

            Feb 23, 25 – Richmond, Dominion Arts Center

Lucia di Lammermoor by Gaetano Donizetti

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

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

            Apr 13, 15 – Richmond, Dominion Arts Center

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

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

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

Photo by Timeline Photos; courtesy of the Virginia Opera.

Photo by Timeline Photos; courtesy of the Virginia Opera.

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

Photo by Timeline Photos; courtesy of the Virginia Opera.

Photo by Timeline Photos; courtesy of the Virginia Opera.

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

Photo by Timeline Photos; courtesy of the Virginia Opera.

Photo by Timeline Photos; courtesy of the Virginia Opera.

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

O17 -

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

Premiere)

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

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

Museum of Art (Philadelphia Premiere)

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

Academy of Music (Exclusive East Coast Appearance)

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

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

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

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

Season of Two:

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

Production and Philadelphia Premiere)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Washington National Opera’s 2017-2018 Season: Exciting for the New Opera Fan, Though Not for the Fan of New Opera

It’s time, if you haven't already, to start making your opera selections for the 2017-2018 season, which is now only a month away.  Washington National Opera leads off opera in the mid-Atlantic region with its first production starting on Sept 9; so let’s examine what WNO is putting forth.  Upfront, here’s my personal dilemma.  I have become a fan of new opera, and last season, WNO was strong in this regard. This year they seem to have taken a step back, most likely I'm guessing, due to undeserved weak ticket sales for Dead Man Walking and Champion; Kennedy Center audiences, like most audiences around the country, seem to favor the classic operas.  That said, I must admit that the offerings for the next season are appealing to me.  In fact, as a relatively new fan of opera, I am rather excited about the upcoming season, primarily because of two classic operas I haven’t seen, Alcina and Don Carlo, and because of the powerhouse singers coming to town for each of the productions.  I'm not so excited as a fan of new opera.  The one beacon for new opera from WNO is the American Opera Initiative’s January offering of new short operas, which could be especially interesting this season.  Still, it is my hope that by going back to the past for this year’s selections that we are not seeing the future of opera from WNO.  I plan to be in my seat for each of this year’s WNO productions, but it beckons that Opera Philadelphia and Pittsburgh Opera will continue to feature new works for the 2017-2018 season. 

Here are WNO’s productions announced for the coming season, beginning in September (*indicates cast changes for different performance dates):

Sep 9-23:  Aida (1871) by Giuseppe Verdi*; Sep 23 performance broadcast to Nationals Park as “Opera in the Outfield”

Nov 4-19:  Alcina (1735) by George Frederic Handel*; Nov 18: performed by Domingo Cafritz Young Artists

Dec 14-17:  The Little Prince (2003) by Rachel Portman, a Holiday Family Opera

Jan 19-21:  Proving Up (2018) by Missy Mazzoli - American Opera Initiative

Jan 20:  Three New Twenty Minute Operas - American Opera Initiative

Mar 3-17Don Carlo (1867) by Giuseppe Verdi*

Apr 28-May 19: The Barber of Seville (1813) by Gioachino Rossini*, May 17: performed by Domingo Cafritz Young Artists

May 5-26: Candide (1956) by Leonard Bernstein

Aida: photo by Cory Weaver; courtesy of Washington National Opera.

Aida: photo by Cory Weaver; courtesy of Washington National Opera.

Aida, by composer Giuseppe Verdi and librettist Antonio Ghislanzoni, can certainly be called an old warhorse, but there are good reasons for its popularity, mainly the music and the spectacle, and it’s consistently in the top ten to fifteen operas in terms of annual performances worldwide; it is a good choice for the September 23 broadcast to the Nats stadium for “Opera in the Outfield”.  To WNO’s credit this will be a new production with costumes and sets designed by the artist RETNA (that’s correct, all caps); As a prelude, WNO is offering an exhibition of RETNA’s work at the Kennedy Center from Aug 14 to Sep 24.  This is reminiscent of their production this spring of Madame Butterfly with stunning sets by the artist Jun Kenako; that staging substantially enhanced the performance, especially for those of us who had seen it before.  I’ve only seen a couple of performances of Aida, and they were video recordings; it’s a good story involving a love triangle, though the performers in neither that I saw gave convincing performances.  There is, however, no question the great music in Aida is some of Verdi’s best.  WNO will also be including dance and acrobatics in this production, and the role of Aida will be shared by two excellent young sopranos, Tamara Wilson and Amber Wagner; Ms. Wilson has played Aida for the Met and Ms. Wagner, drew positive reviews for her performance in the Met’s recent Der Fliegende Hollander (The Flying Dutchman).  I have high expectations for this production, but it's a toss up as to which Aida I'd rather see; maybe both.

Angela Meade as Alcina: photo by Julio Rodriguez; courtesy of Washington National Opera.

Angela Meade as Alcina: photo by Julio Rodriguez; courtesy of Washington National Opera.

It’s Alcina that really gets my juices flowing.  George Frederic Handel is best known in the U.S. for the Messiah, his oratorio that has become a part of Christmas for many of us. During the first half of the eighteenth century, however, he was the opera guy.  I have a recording of his opera, Semele, staring Kathleen Battle that I love (but it might be mainly because of my love of her voice).   Handel composed over forty operas, often more than one per year; yet, only a few have received production in the U.S.  Alcina is currently (thru 8/17) being performed by the Sante Fe Opera, but that is the only other production in the U.S. in the last three years. In fact, Handel’s operas in total while reasonably popular in Europe have had no more than five U.S. productions in the last three years, most notably Guilio Cesare and RodelindaAlcina’s plot has interesting features, a sorceress on a magical island, an enchanted knight, a woman disguised as a man, and a magic ring, and it explores the nature of love and desire.  It has gender-bending roles for WNO’s excellent young mezzos.  Mezzo-soprano Elizabeth DeShong will play Ruggiero, a knight; this could be played by a castrato, but they are in short supply these days.  Mezzo-soprano Daniela Mack will portray Bradmante, Ruggiero’s betrothed; she is pretending to be her brother, Ricciardo, to elude Alcina’s wrath; Ms. Mack is playing this role in the Sante Fe production.  Headlining will be opera star, Angela Meade, as Alcina.  The staging will be critical for Alcina.  Handel’s operas focus on the arias; what will happen with the rest of the cast when one is being sung?

Don Carlo: photo by Kelly and Massa; courtesy of Washington National Opera.

Don Carlo: photo by Kelly and Massa; courtesy of Washington National Opera.

Don Carlo is a power opera, both in terms of its subject matter and its effect on audiences, and is often accorded the term, masterpiece. The team of composer Giuseppe Verdi and librettists Joseph Mery and Camille du Locle composed a Parisienne grand opera in French including five acts and a ballet, titled Don Carlos.  The history of this opera is extraordinary; there are many versions of the opera and many hands as well as Verdi’s in creating them.  It was even cut just before the first performance so that it would end in time for the opera goers in Paris to get the last trains out of the city to the suburbs.  There also was subsequently an Italian version, titled Don Carlo, which is the one most often performed now.  And there were subsequently two Italian versions, the Modena version with the original five acts and the Milan version with only four acts.  WNO is presenting the latter.  The drama revolves around King Philip of Spain’s decision to take as wife, Elizabeth, daughter of the King of France, in order to end the war between the two nations; a complicating factor was that Elizabeth was betrothed at the time to Carlo, son of Phillip, and Carlo and Elizabeth were smitten with each other.  Throw in some rival suitors and political intrigue and it gets messy, and Verdi brings it home with a stunner of an ending; can you say deux ex machina?  There are lots of opportunities for emotional arias to be sung by a primetime cast, including Leah Crocetto, Jamie Barton, and Eric Owens.

The Little Prince: photo by Scott Suchman; courtesy of Washington National Opera.

The Little Prince: photo by Scott Suchman; courtesy of Washington National Opera.

It is traditional for opera companies to feature an opera especially appropriate for children during the holiday season.  WNO is offering The Little Prince by composer Rachel Portman and librettist Nicholas Wright.  This opera was previously offered by WNO in 2014 and is based on the Antoine de Saint-Exupery’s novella of the same title.  The cast will come from the Domingo-Cafritz Young Artists and include the WNO Children’s Chorus.

If Don Carlo is a warhorse, The Barber of Seville (or Il Barbiere di Siviglia in Italian) is a money horse.  Composer Gioachino Rossini’s and librettist Cesare Sterbini’s spirited romantic comedy is consistently among the top grossing operas in the world.   It is one of a handful of operas that you recommend to your friends who want to try opera.  Actually, watching two different versions of this opera taught me just how different it can be depending on the players, especially depending on who plays the pivotal role of Figaro.  Moldovan baritone Andrey Zhilikhovsky will make his U.S. debut performance in the role of Figaro.  For that reason and because soprano Isabel Leonard, who plays Rosina, is a favorite of mine, I will even look forward to another refrain of Figaro, Figaro, Figaro, Fi-gar-ro.

Left photo of The Barber of Seville by Cory Weaver and right photo of Candide by Karlie Cadel for the Glimmerglass Festival; courtesy of Washington National Opera.

Candide could be interesting.  It now seems to be labeled an operetta, but features the music of classical composer Leonard Bernstein.  Having said that, I know him best for his fantastic score for "West Side Story".  This Candide is based on Voltaire’s Candide; the music and libretto have undergone many revisions/additions with quite a few contributors.  WNO describes it as a “funny, philosophical, and fast-paced take on Voltaire’s biting satire, which annihilates any notions of hope with its dizzying display of human depravity and catastrophic disasters.”  It’s sort of like most cable mini-series, but will they be able to make it funny?  Well, “House of Cards” was sort of funny; at least it was for a while.  The draw for me here is the opportunity to hear Bernstein’s music. 

I have discussed the American Opera Initiative before and this year’s is highlighted by the one-hour opera, “Proving Up”, by composer, Missy Mazzoli, and librettist, Roy Vavrek.  This duo’s outstanding Breaking the Waves (premiered by Opera Philadelphia) won the Music Critics Association of North America’s first Award for Best New Opera in North America.   Proving Up is about homesteaders using a clever, but difficult, deception to acquire rights to their lands, which they were too poor to do otherwise.  Jeff Sessions would not approve; I suspect we will.  This offers water for my parched new opera lips and having seen Breaking the Waves, I anxiously await this one.

In conclusion, Washington National Opera’s 2017-2018 Season, though disappointing for what it does not offer, is nevertheless, exciting for what it does.

The Fan Experience: Individual tickets are available for all performances at this time, though tickets for the American Opera Initiative already have limited availability.  If you are interested in buying tickets to more than one opera, check with the box office at 202-467-4600 to see if you are eligible for subscription pricing; you may be eligible for ticket and parking discounts and/or other benefits, such as the ability to change your ticket to an alternate performance date.  Also remember that the Kennedy Center uses dynamic pricing which means that if certain performances are in high demand they may raise the prices for the remaining tickets. 

 

Opera America, Streaming Videos, and a La Boheme Find

With no particular place to go, I wound up in 1965 with Mirella Freni and having a great time.  Let me explain.  Now that I am retired, I have time to spend in stream of consciousness thinking, no mandates or deadlines. When I was working, I had to decide, or was given the objective, that point C was where I needed to go, which then typically necessitated that I begin at point A and move linearly to point C.  There was room for directed creativity, but not so much for wandering aimlessly.  Now I am free to start at a point that interests me with no further directive, other than pursue as I go along what interests me.  Starting wherever my fancy dictates then leads me to another point which leads me to the another and so on, until I tire of the wandering.  The journey may wind up being nothing more than a walk in the woods, but sometimes an item of strong interest is discovered and an objective arises of its own accord, for example, I decide that I want to write about it; then, goal-oriented thinking takes over, i.e., gathering relevant information and verifications.  The aimless, random-walk journey I will relate began with a decision to join Opera America.  You can decide what the moral of the story is.

Opera America, in existence since 1970, is the premiere U.S. organization supporting opera; virtually all opera companies are members or associates of OA.  It offers a strong advocacy program, including supporting increased funding for the arts with Congress.  OA features programming and leadership in the following areas:

Creation: Artistic services that help artists and companies increase the creativity and excellence of opera productions, especially North American works;

Presentation: Opera company services that address the specific needs of staff, trustees and volunteers;

Enjoyment: Education, audience development and community services that increase all forms of opera appreciation.

OA offers a huge number of programs in these areas.  The OA website is extensive and features several pages for the opera fan, though most OA offerings are for opera professionals; see my OA listing on the websites/blogs page.  I have been on Opera America’s email list for some time now, but had not joined.  Membership is open to artists, administrators, and audiences.  Out of the belief that I would be supporting opera in some small way, I succumbed to the emails advertising membership and joined OA this summer.  I didn’t expect much personal benefit other than the subscription to Opera America magazine.  However, I had not recognized that membership also gave me free access to the Naxos Video Library, which includes online access to over 2,600 classical music videos, including opera, and membership is only available to groups. 

I have covered opportunities for opera streaming in other blog posts, such as Met Opera on Demand, StaatsoperTV, Opera Platform, and YouTube; and occasionally opera companies will stream a production of their own and announce the performance on social media.  The Naxos Video Library turns out to be a treat and a treasure trove of operas not available via Met Opera on Demand, which is limited to performances at the Met’s Lincoln Center in NYC.  The Naxos collection covers opera companies in the U.S., such as the San Francisco Opera (but not the Met) and in Europe, such as the Royal Opera House and the Vienna State Opera.  There are many search options that make it easy to find the artist or performance of interest.  The pages are a little slow to load on my, Mac but functionality is fine.  Some of the operas have subtitles, sometimes in as many as five languages, but some have none.  Like YouTube videos you can move forward and back in the recordings.  Some things I sampled by searching briefly were a 1978 performance of Carmen starring Placido Domingo and a 2005 Salzburg Festival Performance of La Traviata starring Anna Netrebko.  It was exciting to see and hear Ms. Netrebko at an earlier point in her career, but not as exciting as seeing her in person in Eugene Onegin at the Met this past Spring.

The Naxos collection provides the opportunity to hear gifted singers not available on Met recordings and/or who no longer perform.  So, it was with pleasure that I stumbled across a 1965 recording of Puccini’s La Boheme with Mirella Freni starring as Mimi.  Ms. Freni, who was 29 years old when this was recorded, went on to be an international opera star of great reknown.  Her voice and singing on this recording are golden.  Rolando Panerai as Marcello and Gianni Raimondi as Rudolfo were stars in their own right, also with wonderful voices. The Milan Scala Orchestra and Chorus was conducted by the famous conductor, Herbert von Karajan and the music is lovely.  This is an interesting recording because it is a studio performance and was not recorded live.  The sound is exceptional, but unfortunately there are no subtitles and in spots the lip syncing is noticeable.  On a very positive note, Franco Zeffirelli was the stage director and the settings are very attractive; they looked rather familiar, and I wonder if he set the standard for latter La Boheme productions.  I didn’t find this dvd available on Hulu, Netflix, Amazon streaming, or iTunes, but it is offered for purchase on Amazon.  In the year the movie was released, I was in college, enjoying the Beatles and Rolling Stones, with no interest at all in opera.  That gulf has now been bridged, though not until about six years ago.  I still enjoy pop music, but now opera is available to me in a way that it wasn’t in 1965, both internally and by streaming.

 

Wolf Trap Opera’s Tosca: A Scarpia for the Ages

(Spoiler alert – plot details are revealed in this blog report)

Original Tosca poster. In public domain from Wikepedia.

Original Tosca poster. In public domain from Wikepedia.

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.  But, do not go gently into this good opera.  It is Shakespearean; all the main characters die in the end.  It portrays local villainy against the backdrop of violent history.  Honestly, Quentin Tarantino, why haven’t you tried staging this one?  This is not a bedtime story.  One would guess that it would be a story that keeps you from sleeping, but it does not.  I suspect that after the play you might have trouble sleeping.  Why not the opera?  Because Puccini’s music and arias wraps this dreadful story in beauty and hope.  The music gives the drama an immediate jolt and swirls around it, pushing the story to its inevitable finish, adding a few lightning strikes along the way.  Composer Giacomo Puccini and librettists Giuseppe Giacosa and Luigi Illica brought this opera, based on Victorien Sardu’s play, to the stage in 1900.  Yet, the themes are as modern as today’s headlines: conflict wrought through the interplay of love, honor, lust, authority, and evil.  Puccini’s music makes you feel these themes differently than the visuals do.  While your eyes must deal with the barbarity, the music makes us feel, through its art and beauty, that love and honor are worthwhile, even against insurmountable obstacles,…and we can sleep.  There is good reason that Tosca remains among the top ten operas each year in terms of performances and attendance.

Kihun Yoon as Scarpia.  Photo by Scott Suchman; courtesy of Wolf Trap Opera.

Kihun Yoon as Scarpia.  Photo by Scott Suchman; courtesy of Wolf Trap Opera.

Wolf Trap Opera’s Tosca, Friday night at the Filene Center, was a crowd-pleaser in music, singing, and story-telling.  It displayed some of the finest young singers that WTO has put forward, which is saying quite a lot.  The standout for this performance was baritone Kihun Yoon.  From his entrance on the stage attired as police chief Scarpia, which gave me a momentary feeling that the evil Count Dracula had appeared, until his last gasps, he dominated the stage.  Every move was evil incarnate, and his baritone had softness when guile was needed, a natural beauty in each utterance, and amazing power to command at his will.  The oozing sound when he was dying was not the blood leaving his body, but air leaving the stage.  As marvelous as Alexandra Loutsion as Tosca and Mackenzie Gotcher as Cavaradossi were, this was Scarpia’s Tosca.  The audience agreed.  Mr. Yoon came onto the stage to take his bow before Gotcher and Loutsion, but it was then that the applause became thunderous and the audience sprang to its feet.

Mackenzie Gotcher as Cavaradossi and Alexandra as Tosca. Photo by Scott Suchman; courtesy of Wolf Trap Opera.

Mackenzie Gotcher as Cavaradossi and Alexandra as Tosca. Photo by Scott Suchman; courtesy of Wolf Trap Opera.

I must emphasize, however, how good Loutsion and Gotcher performed as the lovers, Tosca the singer, and Cavaradossi, the painter.  Perhaps if they had come out first the audience would also have stood.  I had not heard Ms. Loutsion previously.  She has a beautiful soprano voice and played her part convincingly, from coquettish glances at Cavaradossi to venomous looks to Scarpia.  I have written about Mr. Gotcher before.  He has one of the best tenor voices I have heard and sang marvelously.  He is a sure-fire future opera star.  The remainder of the cast were stellar as well.  I rather expected to see bass-baritone Richard Ollarsaba in the role of Scarpia based on his previous roles, but he was also an excellent choice for the haggard and pleading, escaped political prisoner, Angelotti.  Anthony Robin Schneider's bass was almost too impressive for the role of a Sancristan, though he played it well with gruff and humor.  Tenor Nicholas Nestorak was a fine supplicant in a supporting role as the police agent carrying out Scarpia's orders.  Puccini’s music was ably provided by the National Symphony led by conductor, Grant Gershon.

Kihun Yoon as Scarpia and Alexandra Loutsion as Tosca. Photo by Scott Suchman; courtesy of Wolf Trap Opera.

Kihun Yoon as Scarpia and Alexandra Loutsion as Tosca. Photo by Scott Suchman; courtesy of Wolf Trap Opera.

Now here’s the part I had problems with, the set and visual effects.  The set for act one imagined the inside of a cathedral with an imposing statue, angled floor and frames, and video screens within the frames.  I could accept that.  However, for me, the visual effects using the screens were only really effective in Scarpia’s aria where he boasts of his evil ways while flames were shown on the screens; this was a little reminiscent of Don Giovanni.  Act two takes place in Scarpia's office which pretty much looked like the cathedral of Act one with different pictures in the frames.  Act three had a bare stage that was supposed to be a prison courtyard for the firing squad to take aim at Cavaradossi and have a nice jumping off place for Tosca.  I spent a little time trying to imagine just where Tosca was going to take her leap; she finally stepped out onto something at the back of the stage and fell backwards.  Tosca does not need much in the way of set design.  The focus is clearly the story and the interactions between the players.  The set was imaginative as was some of the staging, but for me, it was wrong for this opera; at its creative best, the set and visual effects competed with or distracted from the story rather than supporting it.  Fortunately, this cast could have made Tosca work without any set at all.  To be fair, I heard some positive comments about the set and visual effects from the crowd leaving the theater, so my view was not unanimous.

The Fan Experience:  Other than the traffic getting in and out of Wolf Trap’s parking areas (at least they are free), Wolf Trap is a delightful place to visit, lovely setting, beautiful open air theater, lawn seating available, and picnicking encouraged; it is formally a national park.  The gods even cooperated by sending in afternoon thunderstorms to clear out the heat and humidity before show time.  The acoustics of Wolf Trap are not ideal for opera since amplification is needed to cover all audience areas, as I’ve covered before, but I didn’t find them to be a problem for this production.  One wonders, however, if the sound wouldn’t be better if the orchestra were in a pit, rather than at the back of the stage, mostly behind the set. 

It appeared to me that the place was sold out, and as I’ve noted before for previous operas at the Filene Center, it had a younger audience than we typically see at major opera venues.  One can only wonder why Wolf Trap doesn’t stage more operas here over the summer (but not at the expense of the ones in The Barns, a venue I prefer).  It was the National Symphony playing Friday night; if they can do Wolf Trap, why not Washington National Opera or Washington Concert Opera?

Met Live HD in Cinemas: Tickets for 2017-2018 Season Available Wednesday

I don’t typically cover what is going on with the Metropolitan Opera (they spend millions of dollars doing that), but the Met Live in HD series has gotten so popular locally that I feel compelled occasionally to do so.  Thinking of Met cinema broadcasts still reminds me that Anne Midgette wrote a column last July where she referred to anything not a live, staged opera as an opera product.  I found that characterization annoying because I have seen a few of these broadcasts, and I think they are quite good.  So, I felt compelled to write a snooty, defensive blog report defending broadcasts in cinemas. In fairness to Ms. Midgette, an outstanding classical music critic with the Washington Post, she was trying to emphasize the point that there ain’t nothing like opera live, hearing the soaring human voice unmodified by electronic transmission.  I completely agree.  If behind door number one you can choose to attend in person a live opera performance or behind door number two you can choose to attend a live, cinema broadcast, by all means, choose door number one.  However, that doesn’t mean that door number two is a bad choice, especially if you consider the price and convenience and the fact that you can wear shorts and T-shirts.  Ok, enough re-venting about “opera product” and enough of encouraging you to attend some live performances in person.

Metropolitan Opera has just announced that you can buy tickets for next season’s shows in cinemas on Wednesday.  Why am I bothering to bring this up in my blog?  Simply to pass on my experience with theaters that offer reserved seating, which I prefer to having to arrive early and stand in line to get a desirable seat.  For reserve seating theaters, I have found that the seats that allow you to watch the performance without being so close that you must turn your head from side to side to see all the action, sell out well in advance of the show dates, and seats for non-reserve theaters can sell out early for popular operas.  So, it’s not too early to buy your seats as of July 19, or at least start thinking about it.

Some things to know: Tickets will be available for purchase this coming Wednesday, July 19. Showtimes are Saturdays at noon, 12:30 pm, or 12:55 pm – check when you buy your ticket.  There typically is a rebroadcast of each opera on the following Wednesday evening; these are not as popular as the live broadcasts on Saturdays, so good seats usually continue to be available closer to performance time, often the day of.  Individual theaters may have overriding policies as to when tickets for specific showings can be purchased; check with your local theater.  Each opera listed on the Met in Cinemas website includes a Find Theater button that will lead to a site where you can enter your city/state address and see theaters in your area.  For a comprehensive list of participating theaters check here.  Last year tickets were in the in the $20-25 range, with discounts for children and seniors. If you join the Met as a member at or above the $150 level, you can choose your seats now through July 18.  To select a performance and buy tickets, click here.

Here is the Met live HD in Cinemas lineup for the 2017-2018 season:

Norma – Oct 7

Die Zauberflote (translate: The Magic Flute) – Oct 14

The Exterminating Angel – Nov 18

Tosca – Jan 27

L’Elisir d’Amore – Feb 10

La Boheme – Feb 24

Semiramide – Mar 10

Cosi fan tutte – Mar 31

Luisa Miller – Apr 14

Cendrillon (translate: Cinderella) – Apr 28

What interests me that's coming up: Norma has Sandra Radvanovsky and Joyce DiDonato. The Exterminating Angel is a new opera by Thomas Ades, based on the Luis Buneul film of the same name.  I read both good and not so good things about the opera; the film is a cinema classic.  This will be the opera's American Premiere.  Tosca – I’ve been wanting to see Sonya Yoncheva; it also has Vittorio Griglio and Bryn Terfel.  Hmmm, La Boheme also has Sonya Yoncheva and it has Susanna Phillips as Musetta, but I’ve seen Tosca and La Boheme multiple times.  What to do?  Semiramide  – a Rossini opera that seems to get performed a lot lately; I haven’t seen it and it has Javier Camarena, a tenor getting truly rave reviews.  Cosi fan tutte – can’t say that I want to see this opera one more time, but it does offer an imaginative new production (look at the Met ad above).  Luisa Miller – a Verdi opera I have not seen and guess who is in it?  Sonya Yoncheva.  Problem solved.  Plus, it has Placido Domingo.  Cendrillon – might be interesting to compare DiDonato’s performance in Massenet’s Cinderella to the one in Rossini’s Cinderella (La Cenerentola).  One other dilemna - I like to go to a live performance or two each year at the Met; which to go live and which to attend the cinema broadcast?

By the way, there is a summer encore broadcast of Carmen on Wednesday evening, July 19 at 7 pm.  Plenty of seats available at movie prices. All-star cast (2010): Barbara Frittoli, Elina Garanca, Robert Alagna, and Teddy Tahu Rhodes. 

 

 

Wolf Trap Opera’s Aria Jukebox: Opera Singers, Choices, And Fun!

Imagine that for a Sunday afternoon’s entertainment you could attend a wine and cheese party, followed by hearing arias that you helped select, sung by some of the best of today’s young opera talents.  You could have had that this past Sunday simply by buying a ticket to Wolf Trap Opera’s “Aria Jukebox”. The singing alone was worth the modest price of admission, but getting there early allowed you entrance to the party and the opportunity to vote on which of four arias should be sung by each Filene Young Artist. The young artists were also at the party and available to meet and talk with patrons.  This has become an annual affair for Wolf Trap Opera, so you will have another chance next year. Don’t miss out!

Wolf Trap Opera's 2017 Filene Young Artists. Top row, l to r: Alistair Kent; Alexandra Loutsion; Annie Rosen; Anthony Robin Schneider; Ben Edquist; Jonas Hacker; and Kihun Yoon. Bottom row, l to r: Mackenzie Gotcher; Madison Leonard; Megan Mikailovna Samarin; Nicholas Nestorak; Richard Ollarsaba; Shea Owens; Summer Hassan; and Zoie Reams.

Wolf Trap Opera's 2017 Filene Young Artists. Top row, l to r: Alistair Kent; Alexandra Loutsion; Annie Rosen; Anthony Robin Schneider; Ben Edquist; Jonas Hacker; and Kihun Yoon. Bottom row, l to r: Mackenzie Gotcher; Madison Leonard; Megan Mikailovna Samarin; Nicholas Nestorak; Richard Ollarsaba; Shea Owens; Summer Hassan; and Zoie Reams.

Thirteen of the Young Filene Artists sang the aria that got the most votes from the four they had prepared to sing.  Alistair Kent was the only young artist not scheduled to perform; Alexandra Loutsion, who will star in Tosca on Friday at the Filene Center, was to perform, but had to withdraw.  After all the young artists had sung, Filene Artist in Residence Simon O’Neill sang, and he spoke of his time as a young artist himself at Wolf Trap and the impact on his career.  All soloists were ably accompanied on piano by WTO Opera Director Kim Whitman, who even provided some vocal back up for one of the young artists.  Host Marcus Shields was an affable host adept at setting the scene for each aria.

I will comment a bit on the performances, but honestly, all the young artists are excellent, and mine are the personal opinions of an opera fan, not a professional critic. Further, as Mr. O’Neill noted in his comments, these are talented young performers who already have received top notch training and performance experience.

Last year, I thought the boys got the better of it in “Aria Jukebox”, but this year I think the gals held their own, even without Ms. Loutsion and though outnumbered 8-5.  Leading off was second year tenor Shea Owens who sang a Meyerbeer aria from Dinorah.  Mr. Owens has a fine voice and is a gifted stage performer.  Next, bass Anthony Robin Schneider sang Gremin’s aria from Eugene Onegin, one of my favorite operas.  He possesses a lovely bass voice and gave a convincing rendition of this aria.  Then, the first soprano of the afternoon was up, Annie Rosen, who sang William Bolcom’s cabaret song “Amor”.  Ms. Rosen provided a charming performance with an amusing vocal assist from Ms. Whitman.  Following was Mackenzie Gotcher, who has become a favorite of mine.  He sang “E lucevan le stele” from Tosca and sang beautifully with his strong tenor voice.  I personally was hoping the group’s choice would be one of his other arias since I will be hearing him Friday night in Tosca.  Soprano Madison Leonard performed Puccini’s wildly popular aria “O mio babbino caro”; she has a lovely voice and gave a gentle rendition to an appreciative audience.  Tenor Nicholas Nestorak sang “Not While I’m Around” from Stephen Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd; singing with such feeling he makes a very compelling Tobias.  The first half of the concert was closed out in stellar fashion by WTO returnee Kihun Yoon whose powerful baritone commands your attention.  Talking to him, I learned he is planning to return to home in Seoul, Korea after WTO to perform in the role of a father prior to taking off for performances in Germany.  He sang Iago’s aria “Credo in un Dio crude” from Verdi’s Otello.  I don’t know if he has more opportunity this year to display the softer side of his voice or if I am paying more attention to it now, but he is effective singing softly as well as with the power his is capable of.  In my opinion, his was the most impressive performance to that point.

Leading off the second half was tenor Jonas Hacker, also a returnee from last year, who sang “Una furtive lagrima”, a hit aria from Donizetti’s L’Elisir D’Amore.  In my report on Aria Jukebox 2016, I stated that I anticipated a successful professional singing career for Mr. Hacker; he again demonstrated why.  Soprano Megan Mikailovna Samarin performed an aria from Gounod’s Faust, “Faites-lui mes aveux”, a pants role which she sang in a lovely dress. No matter, she has a strong voice and sang the love song with conviction.  Next returnee, Richard Ollarsaba turned his powerful bass-baritone to the tender “Autumn Leaves” leaving us wanting more.  At the reception, I learned that he will perform again in this area next spring when he will be performing with the Virginia Opera in their production of Lucia di Lammermoor.  "Autumn Leaves" by Joseph Kosma was originally known as “Les fueilles mortes”, literally “the dead leaves”; and you ask what’s in a name.  Soprano Summer Hassan, another WTO returnee, sang Debussy’s “Air de lia”.  I found that I especially liked her voice in its lower register.  WTO newbie, baritone Ben Edquist sang Papageno’s “Suicide” Aria from Mozart’s The Magic Flute; I gathered from the audience reaction to the announcement of the winning selection there must have been a sizable contingent voting for a different aria.  Mr. Edquist did justice to this popular aria and I look forward to hearing him again.  Last in order among the Young Artists was Zoie Reams whose singing in the recent WTO production The Touchstone made me a fan.  This young mezzo soprano made more fans with her warm rendition of “Amour, viens aider” from Saint-Saens’ Samson et Dalila.  This closed out the performances by the Filene Young Artists, and I am certain they sold more tickets for WTO in the future.

But the show was not over.  It was time for the Wolf Trap Artist in Residence to perform.  This year that artist is opera star, heldentenor Simon O’Neill, especially well known for his Wagnerian roles.  I was already impressed with Mr. O’Neill from a performance earlier this year in the Washington Concert Opera’s production of Beethoven’s Leonore.  For Aria Jukebox, he sang not one, but two arias (nobody objected); the first was his choice and the second was the audience’s.  He explained that he wanted to perform Wagner’s “Wintersturme” from Die Walkure with Ms. Witman accompanying to celebrate remembering his days as a Filene Young Artist and how it helped launch his Wagnerian career.  It was an impressive performance, with an amusing moment when the young artists, out of sight, provided choral support.  However, as impressive as it was, the best was yet to come.  He sang the audience’s choice, “Nessun dorma” from Puccini’s Turandot, one of world’s favorite arias, and he was simply sensational. I sat in my chair and thought, oh yeah, this is what opera is about.  It was as though the Filene Young Artists had made a powerful statement and Mr. O’Neill had added the exclamation point!

What fun!

The Fan Experience: On arrival at the wine and cheese reception you are given a small number of voting tokens, but not enough to vote on each Filene Young Artists selections.  You can purchase more tokens or vote with bills to cast a vote in every artist’s “jukebox” or you can stuff the ballot box for a favorite.  While I have no complaints at all with Aria Jukebox, I will respectfully put forward the suggestion to put the lists of arias to vote for online on the day before the performances.  I needed a little time to think about the choices, especially when so many of the arias were unfamiliar to me, and it would free me up to spend more time chatting with the young artists at the reception.

 

OperaGene: Taking Stock and Seeking Suggestions

Original OperaGene logo

Original OperaGene logo

OperaGene.com went live on Feb 29, 2016.  The website was started with a mission and certain goals in mind.  OperaGene’s mission is to help opera fans, and potential opera fans, to access and enjoy opera; for convenience I categorize those who are opera fans as sharing the opera gene.  As a relatively new opera convert, I wanted to share what I had learned pursuing my interest in opera.  And to offer a wider perspective than just the DC area where I live, I decided to cover opera companies and performances that I could reach in half a day’s drive; this roughly corresponds to the U.S. mid-Atlantic region.  The principal feature of the website is the blog where I report on things opera, including opera schedules and performances.  I also installed other pages on the website: an About section; a three months sidebar performances list; seasonal lists of opera schedules; info on other opera websites/blogs, venues, and critics; an info for newbies page, and a for parents page. 

One goal that I had for OperaGene, that has not materialized is generating and supporting discussions about opera performances and other opera topics.  In fact, very few comments have been received.  I have come to realize that views, discussions, and opinions these days have moved to social media.  There are several professional opera critics that I follow and, when I look for comments to their articles in newspapers, very few if any comments are received, with rare exceptions.  Articles on sports and hot political topics still get heavy comment traffic on newspaper articles. I will leave the comments section intact for now, but I also now have Twitter and Facebook feeds (Twitter: OperaGene @douhavethegene; Facebook: facebook.com/operagene).  I’m more active on Twitter right now; Facebook presents some problems I'm still working out in having a personal Facebook and a separate page for your blog or business.  I use these feeds to point to new OperaGene blog posts that have been added, but also to point out or muse about current topics in opera.

I am doing OperaGene for the enjoyment of it, my avocation in retirement.  It provides me an outlet for writing, which I enjoy, and a place to express my personal opinions about opera and opera performances.  I try to emphasize that my opinions are those of an opera fan, not an opera authority; I refer readers to professional critics for professional reviews.  The website also provides me with motivation to see more operas and to take mini-vacations to attend operas in other venues in the mid-Atlantic.  I have learned a great deal about the large array of opera companies and performances in the mid-Atlantic each year and still have not covered it all.

Beyond my personal enjoyment, however, I would like OperaGene to have an audience and to attend to the needs of those readers.  So, I am using this post to ask for suggestions on how the website might be improved to better serve reader interests.

Some questions to stimulate your thinking (you can see a month by month listing of the blog reports in the Archives section):

Are there features of the website you especially like or dislike?

Is there an opera feature that you’d like to see added to the website?

What blog topics interest you the most:

comments on performances,

descriptions of upcoming performances,

comments on “in cinema” performances,

informative blog reports on different aspects of opera?

Other topics?

Please send me any thoughts you are willing to share.  Critical comments intended to improve the website are welcomed.  You can use the Contact page to comment; to respond anonymously, do not fill in your name or email address on that page (just type your comments and hit the send button), or you can email me directly at Mike@operagene.com

 

Wolf Trap Opera’s The Touchstone: True Love and Singing Triumph

In her pre-opera talk, WTO Director Kim Witman stated that in composing The Touchstone, Rossini’s goal was to put on a good show.  Well, WTO has taken this opera and put on a good show.  The mad cap comical action of this opera was so fast paced it reminded me of the Marx brothers’ films, including one called “A Night at the Opera”.  In fact, it causes me to state up front that my personal preference would have been to slow down the comedic touches a bit and scale it back to let the love story be more at the forefront, given the marvelous singing of The Touchstone’s love triangle, but maybe I am trying to rewrite the plot.  And I doubt my fellow audience members would have been willing to part with a comedy that evoked such out-loud laughter.  As with all of Wolf Trap Opera’s productions, the main attraction is the fresh, yet already trained voices of and the infectious enthusiasm of the young singers who come to WTO each summer to practice their craft; Friday night was no exception.  As I reported in my blog post on the 2017 WTO season and oft have repeated, Wolf Trap Opera makes opera fun!

Rotating columns holding the members of The Touchstone's love triangle: Zoie Reams as Clarice; Richard Ollarsaba as Count Asdrubale; and Alasdair Kent as Giocondo.  Photo by Scott Suchman and courtesy of Wolf Trap Opera.

Rotating columns holding the members of The Touchstone's love triangle: Zoie Reams as Clarice; Richard Ollarsaba as Count Asdrubale; and Alasdair Kent as Giocondo.  Photo by Scott Suchman and courtesy of Wolf Trap Opera.

The Touchstone begins with some clever staging as rotating columns appear with wall paper on one side and period paintings on the other side.  These are used to enter and exit characters from the action.  This and the colorful 19th century costumes representing the social status of the players are the primary staging elements and, with the frequently rapid fire action are sufficient.  However, the plays the thing, and I must admit to a personal difficulty in following the plot: I have a tendency to sometimes still be taking in an aspect of the production, such as how wonderful the previous aria was or considering what someone’s motives might be, while the plot moves on; I come back to the moment and realize I’ve missed something.  As I said, the action for The Touchstone moves fast; so, to get all the jokes you must pay close attention.  Most of the audience did and laughter erupted frequently.

Conductor Anthony Walker and his thirty-piece ensemble brought Rossini’s music to life.  Somehow that wonderful sound manages to project out of the tiny box that is The Barns orchestra pit.  Although Rossini wrote this opera when he was only twenty years old, it is spot on Rossini.  The ensemble arias are delightful and the Wolf Trap Opera chorus is excellent.  You will enjoy the music.

The story of The Touchstone (La Pietra del Paragone; composer Giachino Rossini and librettist Luigi Romanelli) revolves around a rich Count’s scheme to determine who his real friends are and to test his true love by feigning to have lost his fortune. A touchstone of old was a type of rock against which metals such as gold were struck to aid in their determining the identity of the precious metals.  In her program comments, director E. Loren Meeker quotes an Italian proverb that says “Men use a touchstone to test gold, but gold is the touchstone to test men.”

Left photo - Richard Ollarsby as Count Asdrubale and Zoie Reams as Clarice.  Right photo: Alasdair Kent as Giocondo and Zoie Reams as Clarice.  Photo by Scott Suchman and courtesy of Wolf Trap Opera.

The center of the opera is the love triangle: Count Astrubale (Richard Ollarsaba) loves Clarice (Zoie Reams); the Count’s true friend Giacondo (Alasdair Kent) is also in love with Clarice. Clarice loves, well…let’s leave a little suspense.  Each of these three singers has a beautiful voice and is able to convey the feelings of their characters.  Richard Ollarsaba (Astrubale) and Alasdair Kent (Giacomo) are returning Filene Young Artists, who proved their mettle last year.  Given the chance to display some tender moments in this year’s selection, Ollarsaba’s rich bass-baritone shone the entire evening.  Last year I thought he was talented; this year I think he has star quality.  It was obvious last year that Kent’s high tenor had star quality and his aria in act 2 of Touchstone was a show stopper.  Zoie Reams in her first season with WTO was the surprise.  Ms. Witman’s decision to give this contralto/mezzo soprano the lead was fully redeemed by her performance.  I liked the sound of her voice from the beginning and by the end of the evening the richness of her voice and her ability convey emotion with her singing made me a fan. 

Left photo - Alasdair Kent as Giocondo, Richard Ollarsaba as Count Asdrubale.  Right photo - Shea Owens as Pacuvio and Summer Hassan as Donna Fulvia.  Photos by Scott Suchman and courtesy of Wolf Trap Opera.

In large measure, the plot is simply a vehicle for Rossini and Romanelli to have fun with some character stereotypes, all with designs on the Count’s riches and their love interests. The comedy rests on the shoulders of capable supporting players: returnee Shea Owens as Pacuvio, a hack poet; Anthony Robin Schneider as Fabrizio, the Count’s servant; Megan Mikailovna Samarin as Baroness Asplasia who has designs on the Count; Summer Hassan, also a returnee, as Donna Fulvia who also has designs on the Count; Kihun Yoon as Macrobio, the corrupt newspaper critic.  Mr. Schneider's mugging and deadpan humor as a servant brought laughs.  Shea Owens showed his comedy chops in last year’s L’Opera Seria and delivers again in a stand out performance, sometimes a little too over the top, but clearly loved by the audience.  Summer Hassan had a nice aria in act 2 which she sang well; to my ear, she sounded significantly improved over last year and piqued my interest to hear more.  Kihun Yoon has a thunderous baritone that he can also use to some really charming, gentler moments; he becomes a major character as the story develops.

A rehearsal cast photo for The Touchstone; not previously shown, far left, is Megan Mikailovna Samarin as Baroness Asplasia.  Photo by Scott Suchman and courtesy of Wolf Trap Opera.

A rehearsal cast photo for The Touchstone; not previously shown, far left, is Megan Mikailovna Samarin as Baroness Asplasia.  Photo by Scott Suchman and courtesy of Wolf Trap Opera.

So, if you can get a ticket at this point, go see The Touchstone, maybe get your favorite beverage in hand, and sit back to have a fun, memorable summer evening.

The Fan Experience: Wolf Trap’s The Barns has its advantages: air conditioning (not so at the Filene Center); free parking, easy in and out; all seats close to the stage; beverages, including alcoholic beverages, and lite dinner fare available; drinks, but not food can go with you to your seat and some seats have cupholders; and excellent acoustics.  It has a few disadvantages: first some seats on the floor level do not have visibility for the supertitles; part of the structure of the balcony is two 5x5 inch support beams that run from the balcony bannister to the ceiling and are positioned at the aisles adjacent to seats AA101 and AA112 in the front row.  Depending on where you sit, you could have restricted view; generally, this will be listed online, but something to consider when you purchase your tickets if restricted view is an issue for you.  One other note on seats and this may never happen to you: If you think there is a problem with your seat, bring this up with the usher; management may be able to re-seat you, and if there are no other suitable seats, your case will be improved for seeking a refund or some compensation. On the balance, I love attending opera at The Barns, especially the intimacy of the audience and singers so close together.

Seating is limited but a few tickets remain for the performances on June 28 and July 1.

 

 

Metropolitan Opera Tickets for the 2017-2018 Season Now on Sale

Metropolitan Opera Ad

Metropolitan Opera Ad

For many people, including myself, the Metropolitan Opera is opera's Mecca.  I make a pilgrimage there every year.  New York is a great city to visit for a mini- or complete vacation, and combined with attending an opera at the Met, it is sublime.  Thus, it is worth noting that as of today, you can purchase tickets for individual performances at the Met for next season.  You can view the list of productions here.  Overall, with the exception of a new opera, The Exterminating Angel, it is a pretty standard line up.  So, you might want to look closely at who the singers are.  For example for La Boheme, you can have Angel Blue singing Mimi on Oct 2, 6, 9, 14, 19, 23, and 27, or Anita Hartwig on Nov 1, 4, or Sonya Yoncheva on Feb 16, 21, 24, Mar 2, 7, and 10.  Likewise for Musetta, you can have Brigitta Kele on Oct 2, 6, 9, 14, 19, 23, or Susanna Phillips on 27 or Feb 16, 21, 24, Mar 2, 7, and 10.  Ms. Hartwig is great, but personally, I'd really like to catch Ms. Yoncheva live.  I'm not familiar with Ms. Kele, but Susanna Phillips is can't miss.  Check carefully not only what opera is playing the dates you want to travel, but also who the performers are for that date!

If you need help selecting an opera to attend, Met Opera offers a web site quiz to provide you with some insight as to what operas might fit your taste.  The best seats and the cheap seats tend to go fast, so act as soon as you can if you plan to make a trip in the coming year.  The Met advises that the best way to purchase tickets for the 2017-2018 is through the Met website.  You may also call 212-362-6000 for assistance.  If you happen to be in NYC and can make it over to the box office, you can save a few bucks on fees.

The Met Opera HD in Cinemas 2017-2018 broadcasts have also been announced, and the list can be found here.  Tickets for cinema showings do not go on sale until July 19.  Perusing the list might help your decision of which to attend at the Met itself.

Happy Opera!

Pittsburgh Festival Opera: A Summer Six-Week Opera Festival Happening Now

Pittsburgh has options for live summer opera and not everywhere does.  Just recently I read a Facebook post from someone asking if cinema broadcasts of operas were any good because there was no opera in his city until September.  How can we satisfy our taste for opera in the summer while the productions of the major opera companies are gestating for birth in the 2017-2018 season that begins in the Fall?  Most often by looking around the country for summer opera festivals, combining vacations with opera.  Yes, there is the occasional cinema or television broadcast and there are options for streaming opera on your electronic devices. Television, with streaming possible, has certain advantages; for ease and convenience it is hard to beat. But it has its disadvantages – you are watching pictures and videos of action, not action; your attention is focused on shots picked by the director, not allowing you to see the complete stage, and most importantly, you are hearing electronically manipulated sound, not direct voice or instrument to ear sound.  The excitement often missing from broadcasts is typically present at live performances.  I enjoy opera recordings, on the radio, the TV, and in the cinemas, but opera is meant to be enjoyed live so you can experience, without filters, the profound effect that the trained, human voice can have, touching your heart and elevating your soul.  Just think of the difference in having your sweetie say 'I love you' in person and saying it on a recording.  Both are good, but there is a difference.

Pittsburgh Festival Opera wants you to experience opera live and first hand. They call their version “Intimate Opera Theater”.  Mainstage productions are in the 360-seat Falk Auditorium, and children’s performances are in the 125-seat Hilda Willis Room, though other venues around town are also utilized.  I truly believe they would come to your living room to perform if they could, but the best they can do is to bring you live, innovative, quality opera in settings much more intimate than the large 2-3,000 seat opera houses.  (Of course, if you have very deep pockets I suspect they might be willing to visit you in your living room).  They can however match your air conditioning, and this summer PFO is offering mainstage operas, recitals, and family events in cool comfort.  They also make it about as easy for you as possible – neighborhood settings, free parking, refreshment availability, modest prices, and operas sung in English with projected English subtitles.  It is a great way to introduce yourself to new opera and lesser known operas than you are likely to hear in the major opera houses; and it is a low-cost option for trying opera for the first time or introducing your kids to this wonderful art form. 

Pittsburgh Festival Opera is not new, but rather, with name change, is building on success and is teeming with ambition.  This is the 40th season for this innovative opera company, known in previous years as Opera Theater of Pittsburgh and Summerfest.  See OperaGene’s coverage of the 2016 season at this link.  PFO maintains the same commitment to engaging Pittsburgh audiences broadly in intimate settings presenting American works, reinterpretations of older works, and new works involving themes of contemporary interest; it plans to continue its signature series of rarely performed Richard Strauss operas and its presentations of Handel operas. The company has also committed itself to new or expanded efforts on these fronts: 1) revive the Pittsburgh Ring Cycle starting in 2018; 2) launch an effort to spread the word of this festival nationally and internationally, drawing opera fans to Pittsburgh in the summer; and 3) establish a new friends organization to support an Endowment campaign, with $3 million in pledges already.  PFO is setting its sights high and providing the content to justify it. 

So, what exactly does Pittsburgh Festival Opera have planned for you this summer?  I list just the operas and one musical below, but also check out the recitals and family events at this link:    

A Gathering Of Sons by Dwayne Fulton and Dr. Tameka Cage Conley – June 15, 16, 24, 28, 29, July 1, and 8

Hansel and Gretel by Engelbert Humperdinck – July 1, 8, and 15

Sweeny Todd by Stephen Sondheim – July 7, 9, 15, 20, and 22

Xerxes by George Frideric Handel – July 14, 16, and 22

Intermezzo by Richard Strauss – July 21 and 23

A Gathering of Sons - Victor protects his magic from the rogue cop, Lockdown. (l-r) Terriq White (Victor), Robert Gerold (Lockdown). Photos by Patti Brahim; courtesy of Pittsburgh Festival Opera.

A Gathering of Sons - Victor protects his magic from the rogue cop, Lockdown. (l-r) Terriq White (Victor), Robert Gerold (Lockdown). Photos by Patti Brahim; courtesy of Pittsburgh Festival Opera.

A Gathering Of Sons is a new opera commissioned by PFO’s Music That Matters series.  It is described as a gospel and jazz opera, and the story deals with the shooting of a black man by a white police officer, hoping to promote understanding.  The composer, Dwayne Fulton, and the librettist, Tameka Cage Conley, are locals.  See an early review here.  This is the second Pittsburgh premier of a new opera dealing with race relations; Pittsburgh Opera presented the well-received “The Summer King” in May.  Sons is an opera you will take home with you to ponder for some time to come.  Humperdinck’s Hansel and Gretel is a perennial opera favorite, usually presented around the Christmas season.  You know the fairy tale and the music is well worth the adventure for both adults and children, though this will be an abbreviated version suitable for children.  Sweeney Todd is the well-known, highly successful Sondheim Broadway musical, most recently embodied by Johnny Depp in the movie version by the same name.  Although technically a musical and not an opera, it is often performed by opera companies around the U.S..

A Gathering of Suns - The Spirits of the Sky, the Earth, and the Waters mourn the loss of Victor. (l-r) Charlene Canty (The Sky That Can’t Stop Seeing), Demareus Cooper (The Speaking Earth), and Michele Renee Williams (The Waters). Photo by Patti Brahim; courtesy of the Pittsburgh Festival Opera.

A Gathering of Suns - The Spirits of the Sky, the Earth, and the Waters mourn the loss of Victor. (l-r) Charlene Canty (The Sky That Can’t Stop Seeing), Demareus Cooper (The Speaking Earth), and Michele Renee Williams (The Waters). Photo by Patti Brahim; courtesy of the Pittsburgh Festival Opera.

Closest to my operatic heart in terms of appeal are Handel’s Xerxes and Strauss’s Intermezzo.  Last year’s Summerfest production of Handel’s Julius Caesar was a sell-out, and PIttsburgh Festival Opera offers another chance to hear baroque opera by the great maestro.  In baroque opera, the counter tenor is the thing since the castrati seemed to have disappeared, and PFO is bringing in the highly regarded Andrey Nemzer of the Metropolitan Opera to play Xerxes, King of Persia; he will also appear in the PFO recital, The Three (Counter) Tenors on June 30.  Again in opera, we have a straying king who has designs on the love interest of another.  Therein lies the drama and the comedy; who will marry whom in the end?  Richard Strauss wrote his own libretto for Intermezzo about an event in his married life.  The opera, a comedic drama revolves around a letter and a case of mistaken identity.  The composition by Strauss was considered innovative for its time in incorporating everyday events into an opera.  All told, Strauss composed 15 operas, so FPO has a ways to go to present them all.  Interestingly, Strauss was also a great conductor and conducted the 1893 world premiere of Hansel and Gretel.

The Fan Experience:  Ticket sales are not limited to citizens of Pittsburgh and the city is great place to visit.  Check out The Fan Experience section of my report on The Summer King, which my wife and I drove up from DC to attend.  PFO offers childcare options for children 2-5 for their Sunday matinees; check with the box office for more info.  I will reiterate here that if you plan to drive in the downtown area, have a good map and plan your routes ahead of time.  The inner city is situated across from a high bluff and has narrow streets with tall buildings – our GPS was unable to consistently maintain its signal.  While there, check out if the Pirates are in town for major league baseball.

TICKETS ONLINE: pittsburghfestivalopera.org

Box Office: 412-326-9687