Pittsburgh Opera’s Moby Dick: Enjoyable Music and a Classic Tale for Young and Old

Pittsburgh Opera logo; courtesy of Pittsburg Opera.

Pittsburgh Opera logo; courtesy of Pittsburg Opera.

The audience at the March 20 performance of Pittsburgh Opera’s Moby Dick seemed noticeably younger on average than typically seen at operas these days.  I was especially delighted to spot several mother-young daughter combinations in the crowd.  I think Moby Dick is okay for most kids who are old enough to sit through a three-hour show including intermission.  I wonder if the parent-child pairs had read the book already; it is highly recommended for school book reports.  In fact, “Moby Dick” is a literary meme.  Few of us have not heard of the book, but few have read it and still fewer finished this titanic novel; I admit to not having read it.  How likely is it that those daughters went home happy and perhaps moved by an artistic experience?  Is it a good story?  A good opera?  A good show?  Let’s deal with those questions.

Roger Honeywell as Captain Ahab offers a gold doubloon for the man who first spots the white whale, Moby Dick.  Photo by David Bachman Photography; courtesy of Pittsburgh Opera.

Roger Honeywell as Captain Ahab offers a gold doubloon for the man who first spots the white whale, Moby Dick.  Photo by David Bachman Photography; courtesy of Pittsburgh Opera.

The first thing my wife noticed about Moby Dick (composer Jake Heggie and librettist Gene Scheer) was how melodic and enjoyable the music is.  I agree completely; if Disney makes an animated version, the score will delight that audience as well, much like the classical music in “Fantasia”; It is music you would enjoy listening to at home.  The centrality of the music makes conductor Antony Walker and the Pittsburgh Opera Orchestra central players in this opera.  The music from the very opening notes sets the mood for an opera where strong undercurrents are directing character’s actions.  The music moves the story forward and aids in telling the story, such as the tumultuous prelude starting in Act 2 that will not let the audience forget how Act 1 ended.  This is important for newcomers to opera to understand because many opera goers fear modern opera will be abstract, harsh and often dissonant.  That is not Jake Heggie’s music.  I have seen Dead Man Walking by Heggie as well as Moby Dick, and operas by composer Heggie should serve as the antidote for that fear.  Personally, I very much look forward to seeing other operas by Mr. Heggie and even hope to see Moby Dick again in other venues.

left: Roger Honeywell as Ahab and Michael Mayes as Starbuck. right: Sean Panikkar as Greenhorn and Musa Ngqungwana as Queequeg. Photos by David Bachman Photography; courtesy of Pittsburgh Opera.

The four major characters of the novel are those in the opera: obsessed Captain Ahab, idealistic first mate Starbuck, the new to whaling and lonely Greenhorn (Ishmael in the book), and the pagan harpoonist Queequeg are played by four excellent singers, tenor Roger Honeywell, baritone Michael Mayes, tenor Sean Panikkar, and bass-baritone, Musa Ngqungwana.  There are also a host of capable supporting role singers, including the opera’s only female role, a pants role for the young boy Pip, played with stirring emotion by soprano Jacqueline Echols.  Baritone Malcolm MacKenzie’s cheery spirit as Stubb added a needed counter point to his serious colleagues. As I listened to Mr. Honeywell I was reminded of tenors singing Siegfried in Wagner’s The Ring due to its style.  I had previously seen Mr. Mayes in Washington National Opera’s Dead Man Walking; I think he might be even more impressive as Starbuck.  This was my first introduction to Mr. Ngqungwana; he has a beautiful bass-baritone and enormous stage presence.  But my favorite of the evening was Mr. Panikkar, certainly an opera star in the making.  His tenor voice is capable of embellishing lyrics with lovely emotional color.  I first remarked on his notable abilities in my blog report on Pittsburgh Opera’s The Summer King from last season.   As good as the main role players are, they are almost overshadowed by an outstanding all male chorus led by Mark Trawka.  Excellent arias by the major characters, some quite beautiful and touching, are spaced within and supported with gorgeous choral and ensemble singing.  Some of the choral numbers reminded me of another Wagner opera, The Flying Dutchman.

The crew of the Pequod prepares for the final chase. Photo by David Bachman Photography; courtesy of Pittsburgh Opera.

The crew of the Pequod prepares for the final chase. Photo by David Bachman Photography; courtesy of Pittsburgh Opera.

There is no question that the story of “Moby Dick” with its unforgettable characters is first rate material for an opera.  The quest of a crazed sea captain obsessed with capturing the white whale, Moby Dick, who once caused the loss of his left leg and his ability to draw his crew into his obsession is as gripping as they come; though while apparently seeking revenge, he is in reality seeking a rematch with God.  The struggle of Ahab with God and his own humanity, Starbuck’s confrontation with Ahab and his own internal conflicts, Greenhorn’s attempt to outrun his dark outlook, the “savage” Queequeg’s display of true Christian character, and the evolving relationships between these men all add emotional depth to the story.  You will care about them; even Ahab, in singing with Starbuck about missing their families, shows am embraceable side.  There are reasons why Herman Melville’s novel “Moby Dick” endures and the important elements expressing those themes have been captured by Mr. Scheer’s libretto and undergirded by Heggie’s expressive music.

Moby Dick was presented to strong audience responses beginning with the Dallas opera premiere production in 2010 and a handful of performances in a few other cities.  It’s recurrence then dropped off, reportedly due to the cost of staging an elaborate production.   How do you portray a whaling voyage and fight with an enormous whale on an opera stage with limited space and resources?  As opposed to the movies, media effects can only get you so far.  By necessity, sets must to some degree be clever abstractions that suggest and enhance the story when it can’t be presented graphically.  The audience’s willingness to suspend disbelief must be engaged.  Director Kristine McIntyre led the development of this new production of Moby Dick, supported initially by Utah Opera and Pittsburgh opera; it had its first performances in Utah in January.  The San Jose Opera, Chicago Opera and Barcelona’s Teatre Liceu also added support and will be mounting their own performances in the coming months.  Ms. McIntyre will be there to stage each.  A goal was to increase access to a great opera by developing a production that even regional opera companies can afford.

left: First Mate Starbuck's whale boat on the hunt with Michael Mayes as Starbuck. right: Musa Ngqungwanaas Queequeg comforts Jacqueline Echols as Pip while Sean Panikkar as Greenhorn looks on. Photos by David Bachman Photography; courtesy of Pittsburgh Opera.

Director McIntyre says she read the novel seven times as preparation for taking on this enormous challenge.  Pause.  She read a 700-page novel seven times; that is demonstrating commitment to your art!  One might tease whether it became her own white whale, though she managed to achieved a victory.  She is certainly tuned in to the intertwining themes of the novel: the healing nature of friendships, the man-God relationship, indecision in a crisis, dark forces that drive us, complicated or assisted by the good forces that drive us, and soul searching when our beliefs and views are challenged. In the staging Moby Dick, she knew that the opera needed room for big things, for movement of the sea, the vessels, and the whale, to show scenes off the ship Pequod, and the destructive finale.  The music is cinematic and the libretto somewhat abstract, needing fleshing out.  She and set designer Erhard Rom came up with a constant scene of a circular nautical map with a large mast in the center that gives one a sense of being in the keel of a ship with horizon revealing openings higher up in the map; a center section revolves to allow the smaller whale chasing vessels to be a focus.  The expanse of the map gives you a feeling of the open sea while at the same time the curve gives you a sense of being in the keel of a boat.  It is all very clever and creative.  So much so that I am loathe to offer criticism, but I will offer comment.  The denouement lacks the impact that a more graphic depiction of the fight might elicit, and if Queequeg’s coffin could be made to appear floating, that too might add to the illusion.  I learned from Director McIntyre just how totally involved in the production a director and conductor are.  She was involved in everything including musical decisions and Maestro Walker was also involved in the staging.  It was a significant advantage and to our benefit that they have worked together many times in the past.  This team would augur well for any production.

An additional feature adding movement as scene enhancement was the choreography, originally by Daniel Charon and transferred to this production by Natalie Desch. Photo by David Bachman Photography; courtesy of Pittsburgh Opera.

An additional feature adding movement as scene enhancement was the choreography, originally by Daniel Charon and transferred to this production by Natalie Desch. Photo by David Bachman Photography; courtesy of Pittsburgh Opera.

In the end, was it a good story?  Check.  A good opera?  Check.  A good show? Also check.  I will add that it also connects many of us to our past when we struggled with the decision whether to read the book or not and as parents to encourage our children to do so.  When asked what she hoped the audience would take away, Director McIntyre said, “We hope they will be entertained of course, but also moved; that they will understand that behind the mayhem with Ahab, Starbuck, Greenhorn, Queequeg, and others lie journeys of self-discovery.  And, maybe that the novel will seem less intimidating.”

The Fan Experience:

There remain two performances of Moby Dick in Pittsburgh, Friday evening, March 23 and a Sunday matinee, March 25 .  Tickets remain in all price ranges, including specially priced tickets for students.

This opera offers the junior high school through college demographic a chance to view a classic story and give opera a try at the same time.  Future venues ought to offer a special lower price performance for parents attending with their kids; just a feeling – I know  nothing about marketing, but it was so charming seeing the parent-child pairs in the audience at a modern opera.



NSO’s March 22-24 Verdi's Requiem: The Backstory

National Symphony Orchestra logo; courtesy of the National Symphony Orchestra

National Symphony Orchestra logo; courtesy of the National Symphony Orchestra

A couple of weeks ago I noticed an ad for the National Symphony Orchestra’s performances of Verdi's Requiem on March 22, 23, and 24.  Typically, that would have been my last thought about it.  But for reasons known only to the divine, my awareness of the performances keeps re-emerging and has since hijacked my desire to blog about anything else.  Why?  I love Verdi’s operas, but I’m not religious though I claim a spiritual side, and requiems sound like something you should sit through dutifully and respectfully, keeping an eye on your watch.  In my struggle to subdue this emerging directive, I asked myself whether I should even attend a requiem, which I imagine to be religious music for a religious service; I wish no disrespect to the true believers.  Interestingly, Verdi himself was a non-believer, or at most, “a very doubtful believer”; so, I suppose I can’t break away from this compulsion out of respect for religious practices.  Thus, I am compelled to explore further what requiems are, how Verdi came to write one, and what we might anticipate that will be unique to a requiem written by a great master of opera and specifically by Giuseppe Verdi.

Drawing by artist Osvaldo Tofani of the second performance of Verdi's Requiem at La Scala in Milan in 1874. In the public domain, obtained from  Wikipedia .

Drawing by artist Osvaldo Tofani of the second performance of Verdi's Requiem at La Scala in Milan in 1874. In the public domain, obtained from Wikipedia.

A requiem is the musical portion of the Requiem Mass, known as the Mass of the Dead, whose text provides the libretto for Verdi's Requiem and derives from the text for the Catholic Mass with addition of a poem for the Dies Irae ascribed to Thomas Celano from the thirteenth century and deletion of sections dealing with joyful aspects of worship.  The term requiem comes from the Latin meaning rest or repose; so, the Requiem Mass is intended to put the dead to rest and can be performed for one or more people, most typically as part of a Catholic funeral.  Like music and religions, themselves, requiems have followed an evolutionary path.  They have even been adopted by churches of other faiths and have taken on a musical life of their own, and now are often performed as works of art, concerts separate from church services.  Requiems can also be written to honor prominent deceased individuals, and this was the case with Verdi.  However, it would be a mistake to think that separating requiems from church separates them from religion, a point I will return to later.  We must also bear in mind that Verdi was Verdi and representing drama, passion, and humans under stress in music were part of his art, so one would be surprised if a Verdi requiem were merely somber and consoling. In fact, the Verdi Requiem is sometimes called an ‘opera in disguise’ or more correctly in musical terms an oratorio. Conductor Hans von Bulow, his contemporary, called it “Verdi’s latest opera, though in ecclesiastical robes”; he later recanted that opinion.  Nonetheless, one modern commentator lamented that it took religious music, “…out of the sanctuary and into the concert hall; out of its true setting as prayer, and into something that resembles operatic entertainment.”  However, the same author, found sacredness in Verdi’s Requiem because of the “words”, which are primarily from the traditional Requiem Mass, and eventually he lays claims to Verdi – though not a practicing Catholic, he was nonetheless a “Catholic soul”, the author’s way of coming to terms with a great work of sacred art written by a non-believer; but no question, it may be an opera, theatrical in nature, or an oratorio, but Verdi’s Requiem is certainly a religious work.

Poster for the La Scala premiere, 1874. In the public domain, obtained from  Wikipedia .

Poster for the La Scala premiere, 1874. In the public domain, obtained from Wikipedia.

The official title of Verdi’s Requiem is Messa da Requiem per l’anniversario della morte de Manzoni, 22 maggio 1874, and we will return to Mr. Manzoni, but the story of this Requiem in his honor starts with the death of Italy’s great, perhaps greatest, composer, Gioachino Rossini in 1868.  Verdi was moved to propose a requiem for Rossini to be written by the greatest composers in Italy, each writing a different section of a total of 13 sections, with Verdi writing the last section.  This effort was officially to honor Rossini, but the undercurrent was to play to the nationalist fervor to reunify Italy, which at that time was occupied by several countries.  The effort fell apart at the very end due to disagreements.  The Requiem for Rossini was finally performed in 1988.  Verdi’s contribution was the last section, the Libera me, which was to be put to additional use.  One of Verdi’s national idols was poet and author Alessandro Manzoni, whose novel “I promessi sposi” (“The Betrothed”) made him something of a focal point of Italy’s rising nationalism at the time.  Reports are that Verdi was unable to bring himself to attend Manzoni’s funeral, but instead composed the Requiem, which was presented the year after Manzoni’s death.  Verdi is said later to have driven his wife to church each Sunday, but did not attend himself.  I think it is fair to speculate that some of Verdi’s interest in composing a requiem at this point in his life may have arisen from seeing ahead to the end of his own life with unresolved religious issues.  Regardless, all of the issues I have mentioned taken together certainly point to the Requiem being spiritual and sacred in nature.

Maestro Gianandrea Noseda. Photo by Tony Hitchcock; courtesy of the National Symphony Orchestra.

Maestro Gianandrea Noseda. Photo by Tony Hitchcock; courtesy of the National Symphony Orchestra.

Fair enough, but if I attend, will I be glancing at my watch? First, we should bear in mind that this is a 90-minute performance, not your typical three hours for an opera.  And I have already mentioned that Verdi’s Requiem is more dramatic and even theatrical than the typical requiem.  It is also called a mammoth work.  Not only will next week’s performances include the National Symphony Orchestra and four soloists but will also include the Washington Chorus and the Choral Arts Society of Washington.  The appeal is further enhanced by the fact that three of the soloists are opera stars who just appeared in Washington National Opera’s production of Verdi’s Don Carlo: soprano Leah Crocetto who played Elizabeth of Valois, Eric Owens who played King Philip, and Russell Thomas who played Don Carlo.  Critics were unanimous in their praise of their performances; it is a special treat to have them return for the Requiem.  Similarly talented and accomplished mezzo-soprano, Veronica Simeoni, will join this stellar cast.  It is also worth noting that Verdi’s Requiem is something of a specialty for NSO’s director Gianandrea Noseda.  The Requiem provides the conductor with considerable leeway, and the NYTimes said of a recent performance at Lincoln Center in NYC by NSO’s conductor, “Mr. Noseda, an experienced Verdian, played the work’s theatricality to the hilt.”  No watches needed.

clockwise: Leah Crocetto; Eric Owens; Russell Thomas (photo credit to Fay Fox); Veronica Simeoni; all photos courtesy of the National Symphony Orchestra.

As background for this post, I began to listen to a recording of the Requiem.  The music quickly snapped my head to attention and I turned it off.  I decided on the spot that I wanted to make my first hearing be "live".  Live is always better but for some works live is much, much better, especially choral works.  Some snippets from additional reading: includes a reworked Libera me from the Requiem for Rossini; wonderful symphonic music; virtuosic solos; Verdi ensured each soloist has equal time, but also uses them in combinations; stand out accents by the base drum and punctuations by trumpet fanfares; chanted somber sections and two fugues; music evoking terror in the Dies Irae section which constitutes nearly half the work; and evoking in the end, hope.  I am anticipating powerful moments when the concert hall will be awash in a wall of sound.

The Washington Chorus; photo by Bern Bel and courtesy of the National Symphony Orchestra.

The Washington Chorus; photo by Bern Bel and courtesy of the National Symphony Orchestra.

The Choral Arts Society of Washington; photo by Russell Hirshorn and courtesy of the National Symphony Orchestra.

The Choral Arts Society of Washington; photo by Russell Hirshorn and courtesy of the National Symphony Orchestra.

I hope I have provided information that will help you decide on attendance for yourself, whether for love of music or opera or art, or for spiritual reasons, or because you are Italian and wish to commemorate the life of Alessandro Manzoni.  Maybe you will have my experience: I have no choice but to go – the spirit has moved me.

The Fan Experience: It is important to recognize that no one will be seated after a performance begins and performances are 90-minutes without an intermission; it is imperative to be there early.  Performances are next Thursday, Friday, and Saturday nights - March 22, 23, 24. For the Friday and Saturday evening performances, there will be a pre-concert discussion at 6:45 pm with Classical WETA’s Deb Lamberton.  Tickets range from about $20 to $110 and can be purchased through this link.  From personal experience, I think some of the cheap seats in the first and second tiers might be the best listening spots.


WNO’s Don Carlo: Verdi’s Masterpiece with Singers and Conductor to Match

Portrait of Giuseppe Verdi by Giacomo Brogi;  Wikipedia, public domain .

Portrait of Giuseppe Verdi by Giacomo Brogi; Wikipedia, public domain.

Don Carlo is a…maybe…“the” Verdi masterpiece.  Professional reviews (see six listed in the sidebar) all agree that Washington National Opera's version has an excellent conductor and orchestra producing beautiful music, great singers and singing producing stunning arias, but about the sets and staging, not so much agreeing, but with good agreement that it is worth attending because the good parts are really good; the most critical review says that it still manages to dazzle.  And Don Carlo doesn’t come around that often.  There; end of story. Buy your tickets and go see it.  And from Yoda: enjoy you will.

But wait…I want my time on the soapbox:

Giuseppe Verdi’s Don Carlo came home to the Kennedy Center last Saturday evening for a two-week run (but only seven performances) after a twenty-year absence.  Unless you travel to Europe you probably have not seen this opera for a while.  According to Operabase for the period 2016-2019, there have been or are currently planned 75 productions of Don Carlo(s), but only three of those are in the U.S., one by San Francisco Opera in 2016, the current Washington National Opera run, and a scheduled LA Opera production in October 2018.  When an opera is held in such high regard as Don Carlo is and thought by many to be his masterwork, why isn’t it performed more often in the U.S., like Tosca or La Traviata which seem to appear monthly?  The common answer offered is that it is an expensive opera to produce.  Ken Weiss, Principal Coach of the Domingo-Cafritz Young Artist program explained in his pre-opera talk that Don Carlo requires five, really six, top notch soloists, a large chorus, and a large orchestra.  I accept the explanation that this opera is too expensive to produce very often in the U.S.; apparently opera companies in Europe have regular singers on staff, so the cost is somewhat defrayed.  However, I think there might also be another reason or two that it gets passed over by artistic directors which I will bring up later, along with one why now might be the time to bring it up more often.

Poster from the 1867 Paris production and a libretto title page from 1869 Italian production; images in public domain from Wikipedia.

If you have seen one Don Carlo by composer Giuseppe Verdi and librettists Joseph Mery and Camille du Locle based on the play by Friedrich Schiller, you have not seen them all.  Originally written as a Parisian Grand Opera of five acts including a ballet, Verdi revised it to four acts for Italy, of which several versions exist with at least one restoring the deleted act. WNO chose to go with a four act version and changed the ending.  As Mr. Weiss explained in his talk, there are three levels to this opera: 1) inter-family conflicts; to cement peace with France, King Philip II of Spain has married Elizabeth of Valois, the fiancé of his son Don Carlo, but she and Carlo are still in love with each other; then there is Princess Eboli, a member of the court and secret mistress of the king, who has taken a liking to Carlo herself; 2) Philip has to deal with problems in his own country, especially the Inquisition who insist on strict adherence to Catholic Church doctrine and its preeminence; and 3) internationally there is an uprising in the Netherlands where many Flemish citizens want to be protestant, and Spanish authorities are clamping down hard; the Flemish case is being pushed by Rodrigo, Marquis of Posa, an aide to Philip, who is trying to get Carlo to join the cause.  Philip is dealing with a wife trying to be faithful to him, but doesn’t love him, a rebellious son, an aide pushing him to allow the Flemish to worship as they wish, and an Inquisitor who demands complete loyalty to the Catholic church.  What was the great one trying to do engaging such an intricate plot? Author David Kimbell (“The New Penguin Opera Guide”, ed. Amanda Holden, 2001, p.977) says he was trying to do what Verdi always tried to do: “He never wavered in his loyalty to values he inherited in his youth: a good opera was an opera that was acclaimed all over Italy by enthusiastic audiences in packed theatres; its object was the exploration of human passions and human behaviour in situations of extreme dramatic tension, and its principal means of expression was the fusion of poetry and music in dramatic song.”  It also helps explain why after completing his commission to write Don Carlos as a French Grand Opera, he completed additional versions as Don Carlo in Italian.

left: Russell Thomas as Don Carlo. right; Leah Crocetto as Elizabeth of Valois. Photos by Scott Suchman; courtesy of Washington National Opera.

I agree with the professional reviews about the singers and their performances. Mezzo-soprano Jamie Barton as Eboli demonstrates she has arrived and is a commanding voice and presence on the stage.  Not far behind was soprano Leah Crocetto, who played Elizabeth as an obedient subject of the king, but also showed she could use her lovely voice to reign down fire when called for.  Venerated bass-baritone Eric Owens as Philip and tenor Russell Thomas as Don Carlo gave the quality performances expected.  Bass Andrea Silvestrelli made the Inquisitor a threatening presence.  A surprise for me was Quinn Kelsey as Rodrigo, whom I had not heard previously; a more beautiful, lyrical baritone I have not heard.  In fact, he often sounded like he was in a different opera, a bel canto opera; perhaps Verdi wrote his role that way?  The minor pants role of Tebaldo was played in a sprightly and courtly manner by the versatile mezzo-soprano Allegra De Vita.  The orchestra supplied the beautiful music under Maestro Philippe Auguin’s direction, his final scheduled production with WNO, and the large chorus was a pleasure to the ears; kudos to Chorus Master Steve Gathman. 

left: Eric Owens as King Philip. right: Jamie Barton as Elizabeth of Valois. Photos by Scott Suchman; courtesy of Washington National Opera.

Fault has been found by professional reviewers with the staging and the sets, though opinions vary.  The most dramatic difference of opinion occurs between the Kennicott and Salazar reviews.  Mr. Kennicott in his Washington Post article felt the opera had been pared and dumbed down in sets and staging, while Mr. Salazar, who writes for OperaWire thought Director Tim Albery had cleverly used the staging and sets by Andrew Lieberman to signal how the events in Don Carlo mirror what is happening today in government and politics.  He also thinks the director connects with current events by having a crowded theater audience hear a gunshot coming out of nowhere; I didn’t make that connection myself, just resented the shock to my nerves.  The set and the staging worked for Mr. Salazar and he has raised some interesting interpretations which may or may not have been intended by Mr. Albery and Mr. Lieberman.  Mr. Kennicott, who reviews opera occasionally is the Post’s Arts and Architecture Critic; it is perhaps to be expected that he would emphasize the opera’s visual aspects.  I found both reviews to be thought-provoking reading. 

left: Quinn Kelsey as Rodrigo and Russell Thomas as Don Carlo. right: Eric Owens as King Philip and Andrea Silvestrelli as the Grand Inquisitor. Photos by Scott Suchman; courtesy of Washington National Opera.

This was my first Don Carlo, so I can only comment with the perspective of having attended Saturday night’s performance.  Initially, I was impressed by the set with the tilted stage and cloister walls drawing in the rear to an octagonal ceiling, but that set served, with some minor modifications, for the entire opera and thus it became weary; the ceiling was open in the second half to reveal a clouded sky and I became involved in finding angry god faces in the clouds (at least three).  Even if Mr. Salazar is right, I think in the case of Don Carlo subtle allusions are not what’s needed. Sets and staging that plainly support the plot would have been helpful; as I said before, there is a lot going on here.  The points made by Mr. Kennicott about the decisions to not use an act that clarified the relationship between Carlo and Elizabeth and the effect of the chosen ending on the drama are on target.  One point made by Mr. Salazar and echoed by others is the relevance of the story to current day and that does argue for this opera receiving more attention in the U.S.

Here is my problem with Don Carlo which I think may lessen its demand: Don Carlo could have easily been titled Philip or Elizabeth or Eboli or Rodrigo; I might even vote for Inquisitor; everybody gets attention, but no one gets enough.  As a result, I could not get viscerally into the story or develop strong feelings for any of the characters.  They are presented as stick figures that are fleshed out by arias and the singers in limited ways.  Eric Owens’ aria to begin the second half gives some depth to his character as he laments his inability to garner Elizabeth’s love and is then bullied by the Inquisitor.  Leah Crocetto’s response to Eboli’s intrigue showed a new side to her character.  Rodrigo probably receives the most attention of all, motivated by concern for the Flemish and torn between Philip and Carlo.  What we essentially get is an expose of corruption in the Spanish monarchy and that’s a fine Verdi opera.  However, these days tune in to CNN or Fox News and hear it daily.  What’s lacking that is needed for modern day audiences is greater character development and greater coverage of how these people come to make the decisions they do and how it affects their subjects, starting by including the omitted first act.  Perhaps for audiences in Verdi’s day accustomed to royalty the plot cut closer to home.  Modern American audiences need to identify with these distant characters and their motivations.  I don’t know how this can be effectively achieved in a three-hour opera, which is equivalent to maybe a two hour play.  Verdi should have made Don Carlo a three-opera miniseries.  Suppose we first had seen an opera about the love affair of Elizabeth and Carlo against the backdrop of Spain/France peace negotiations, ending with his father announcing she would be his bride; and then one about Rodrigo and the suffering of Flemish protestants; now we are set up to bring in the king and the Inquisitor for the finale.  If Verdi were alive today and did that, he could sweep the Emmys and Golden Globes.

The Fan Experience:

There are five remaining performances of Don Carlo, March 8, 11, 14, 16, 17; note that there are different singers in the lead roles for the March 16 performance.

For Don Carlo, I strongly advise attending the excellent pre-opera talk by Ken Weiss which takes place an hour prior to showtime, or at least reading a synopsis with background information; otherwise, you will likely miss a lot of what is going on, and there is a lot going on. 


Candlelight Concert Society: Reaching Out to Kids, Reaching Out to a Community

Eric Posner, Director of Bands and Music Dept. Chair at Atholton High School; Megan Hartten, Resource Teacher, Music for Howard County Public School ; Jessica Julin White, Executive Director of the Candlelight Concert Society; and Jeff Nelsen, Professor of Horn, Indiana University Bloomington.  Photo by Ron Fedorzcak; courtesy of Candlelight Concert Society.

Eric Posner, Director of Bands and Music Dept. Chair at Atholton High School; Megan Hartten, Resource Teacher, Music for Howard County Public School; Jessica Julin White, Executive Director of the Candlelight Concert Society; and Jeff Nelsen, Professor of Horn, Indiana University Bloomington.  Photo by Ron Fedorzcak; courtesy of Candlelight Concert Society.

Sometimes one thing leads to another; well, actually it always does.  OperaGene’s focus is definitely opera, but occasionally I attend other classical music events and write about those as well.  My interest in the Parker Quartet led me to a concert sponsored by the Candlelight Concert Society.  The concert was coupled with an entertaining lecture about the featured composers and their historical era.  I further learned that CCS not only sponsored the concert and lecture, but had arranged for the members of the Parker Quartet, while in town, to provide training to area middle school music students.  This community-centered outreach, especially for kids, intrigued me.  I asked CCS Executive Director Jessica Julin White if I could sit in on a future meeting of one of their incoming professional musicians with students.   Ms. White, a soprano who has sung professionally, suggested I attend a program arranged with French horn player, Jeff Nelsen.  CCS had planned for Mr. Nelsen to conduct a masterclass on the French Horn with high school and middle school students and to give a CandleKids concert. I have not trained in music, so I looked forward to observing a masterclass, and OperaGene’s purity was saved by the fact that the planned CandleKids concert also included mezzo-soprano Nina Yoshida Nelsen.  Things have a way of working out when you follow your genuine interests, which was one of Mr. Nelsen’s masterclass points.

Masterclass on the French Horn

Jeff Nelsen is a French horn virtuoso.  He didn’t decide to be a musician until college when someone who heard him play thanked him, and he realized  that he could give something to people by playing music.  He chose to initiate his professional career by securing a position with the Winnipeg Symphony in his native Canada at the end of his junior year of college (he chose to follow his genuine interests).  Since then he has traveled the globe and performed with dozens of orchestras, both symphonic and Broadway shows, and may be best known for the eight years he played with the well-known group, Canadian Brass.  Currently, he is Professor of Horn at the Jacobs School of Music, Indiana University Bloomington and President of the International Horn Society.  He possesses distinguished academic credentials, but when he introduces himself, his persona is definitely more that of a member of a band than a professor, confident as a result of his success and outgoing with an audience, but he comes across simply as a horn player you can learn with, more than from.  That trait and a quick sense of humor served him well in the February 23 masterclass he taught at Atholton High School in Howard County Maryland.  The students warmed to him quickly and he had their full attention.  Thus, out of respect and henceforth, I will refer to him as Jeff, instead of Mr. Nelsen though I’ve only just met him and formally should refer to him as Professor Nelsen.

An audience view at the masterclass and one of the students who volunteered to perform with Jeff Nelsen.  Photo by Ron Fedorzcak; courtesy of Candlelight Concert Society.

The Band room at Atholton High has lockers on either side and on top are too many trophies to count.  Seated in the chairs were students from 12 area schools in all, as well as teachers, both public and private.  In opening remarks, Jessica noted that this is the 45th year of the Candlelight Concert Society and offered free tickets to Jeff’s CandleKids concert for those kids in the audience having a birthday.  Jeff began with brief comments about himself, then about the French Horn, its history and how it produces sound (the notes are closer together on the French horn than other instruments, making it easier to miss notes), proper posture, and how music is about tension and release.  He also talked about the art of performing, which he said begins when you step onto the stage: in the beginning, bow to the audience to show your appreciation and bow at the end, claiming what you did well and gave to the audience; be positive, it make’s everybody feel better.  Five students and one group had signed up to go to the front of the class to play with Jeff. First each student played a short piece.  Jeff’s initial question was always “What did you play well?”.  He never answered for a student.  He patiently pursued the question until the student narrowed down, sometimes to a single note, what they thought they did well.  His directing the students to focus on playing well, rather than avoiding mistakes, seemed to me a good lesson for musicians and not a bad life lesson.  Jeff then played along with each student; the student and audience could hear how their playing improved in the duet with Jeff.  Jeff discussed with the student how it was better.  Another lesson was to play the music, not the notes.  Jeff told the group that they will miss notes, and while they needed to work to correct errors that the goal was to play the music.  He also told them to give it your all, every time; it will become a habit.

Group photo of the masterclass students. Photo by Ron Fedorzcak; courtesy of Candlelight Concert Society.

Group photo of the masterclass students. Photo by Ron Fedorzcak; courtesy of Candlelight Concert Society.

In closing remarks, Jeff took questions and talked about positioning of the lips on the horn and use of the hand to affect the sound from the horn.  Then the students participated in group photos.  Even this non-musician observer learned some things about the French horn and some valuable life lessons.  I was now primed for the concert.

Schools represented at the masterclass: Atholton High; Glenelg High; Ellicott Mills Middle; Dora Kennedy Montessori; Wilde Lake High; Oakland Mills High; Forest Ridge Elementary; Burleigh Manor Middle; Mt View Middle; Clarksville Middle; Glenwood Middle; Clemons Crossing Elementary.

CandleKids concert: Jeff Nelsen, French Horn, Nina Yoshida Nelsen, Mezzo-Soprano, with Joy Schreier, Piano

This concert, as many CCS events, was held in the Smith Theater on the campus of Howard County Community College.  I arrived early and took a seat to watch an audience of parents and kids arrive and get settled in.  I immediately developed an appreciation for the courage of the performers in facing an audience this young.  I’d guess the final audience approached two hundred members.  Most parents were chaperoning multiple kids and the kids were mainly 2-8 years old by my guess, a tough audience for maintaining attention.  And the audience was an active beehive until the show started and then only a very few kids found the chairs or the floors of greater interest than the show.  But for most in the audience, Jeff soon had them staring. 

Joy Schreier, Nina Yoshida Nelsen, and Jeff Nelsen. Photo by Ron Fedorzcak; courtesy of Candlelight Concert Society.

Joy Schreier, Nina Yoshida Nelsen, and Jeff Nelsen. Photo by Ron Fedorzcak; courtesy of Candlelight Concert Society.

I didn’t mention it before, but Jeff also dabbles in magic and a French horn player who has some fingertips that are glowing with flame will get your attention.  Jeff held our attention during his first number “The Happy Blues” and then signaled for Ms. Schreier to play the piano.  As she did, a voice was heard in the back of the theater and walking down the aisle was a mezzo-soprano singing “Habenera”, the lead singer’s entrance aria, from the opera Carmen.  The audience’s eyes and ears were now wide open.  Nina Nelsen whose husband is Jeff had no problem maintaining attention of what had become a quiet and well-behaved crowd except for the enthusiastic clapping at the end of numbers.  Next, Jeff played themes from popular movies on his horn and asked the audience to guess the movies.  Then the group performed a piece with special meaning for the Nelsens, "Remembering the Future".  It had been composed by Ryan O'Connell, a student of Jeff’s around the time of their son's birth, based on stories and drawings, shown on a screen, by Brian Andreas.  The lyrics for the piece carry the message to love and embrace life.  After one more number, “Almost Time to Say Goodbye”, Ms. Schreier left the stage and it was time for the big finish, “Somewhere Over the Rainbow”.  The Nelsen’s seven-year old son walked up to the stage and took a seat at the piano.  We were all treated to the premiere of the Jeff Nelsen Trio – Jeff, Nina, and Rhys.  Rhys’ playing sounded perfect to me and the trio drew a well-deserved round of applause.  It may seem that there was no room left on the stage for additional charm and endearment, but then, Ms. White appeared on the stage with her three-year old daughter and the performers, joined by the audience, sang “Happy Birthday” to her.  Outside there were refreshments and treats for the kids.

Rhys Nelsen, Nina Yoshida Nelsen, and Jeff Nelsen. Photo by Ron Fedorzcak; courtesy of Candlelight Concert Society.

Rhys Nelsen, Nina Yoshida Nelsen, and Jeff Nelsen. Photo by Ron Fedorzcak; courtesy of Candlelight Concert Society.

One can only guess what the impact of such an event might be on the kids who attended.  Maybe some will be inspired to sing or play music, or maybe to be fans of classical music.  How many saw themselves alongside Rhys at the piano or the grown-ups for that matter?  Parents struggle to find wholesome entertainment for their families, and I am certain that the parents appreciated having an event that provided 45 minutes of entertainment and exposure to live classical music at an extraordinary level of quality. There is also another aspect to an event like this that should not be overlooked.  This was caring people reaching out to others in their community through the sharing of music.  I have to believe that this message of love and caring by a community will influence the youngsters in attendance in a positive way beyond the impact of the music itself.

The Candlelight Concert Society

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CCS sponsors concerts, high quality chamber music concerts, for all and concerts specifically for young kids.  But that’s not all.  An Angell Foundation grant enables them to offer an array of outreach activities.  I’ve talked about the concerts, the lectures, and the masterclasses, but I haven’t mentioned their musical outreach to special populations, like elder care centers and medical facilities.  They are also planning some popup concerts at area malls and are considering a podcast program.  Local musicians are often used in these outreach efforts, thereby promoting their development.  One objective of these efforts is to increase the audience for classical music and to foster the interest of young people in music. However, it goes beyond that.  When I asked Executive Director White what she considered the prime directive for the Candlelight Concert Society, she replied, “Serving the community.” 

I came to know CCS as an organization that sponsors concerts.  Rather impersonal, right?  Well, for most performance companies we do tend to view them impersonally, or at best a company committed to art.  There is, however, a personal aspect to these organizations – people, not just people trying to earn a living, but people reaching out to share what they love with others.  And that motivation is worth fostering in yourself and your children. Take your family to a concert.  Music live and in person is so much more enriching than ear pods and screen time.

The Fan Experience: If you’d like to get a flavor of instruction by Jeff Nelsen, he has a popular Tedx talk you can view on Youtube titled “Fearless Performance”.

The CCS community right now is mainly Howard County, Maryland, with ventures into Baltimore County, but the concerts, both CCS and CandleKids are open to all.  I ventured all the way from Tysons Corner, VA.  The price is modest, the theater cozy with open seating, and the parking is free and convenient - a large deck across the street from the theater.  Attending a concert doesn’t get much easier.  The next CCS concert features the Calefax Reed Quintet on March 10 at 7 pm, with a special post-concert reception featuring the University of Rochester acapella group, the YellowJackets.   

Baltimore Concert Opera’s Sweeney Todd: A Sell-out Crowd and a Standing Ovation

It was getting uncomfortably warm in the ballroom at the Engineer’s Club in Baltimore on Sunday afternoon, where Baltimore Concert Opera was putting on Steven Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd. The unseasonably warm February weather outside was contributing, but it was the sell-out sized audience inside that was generating the heat.  The climate-control recovered during the intermission, but the audience’s enthusiasm only grew as act two proceeded.  When the show concluded, audience members started immediately to rise to their feet, and the applause did not end until several seconds after the last cast member had left the stage.

Ron Loyd as Sweeney Todd and Jenni Bank as Mrs. Lovett. Photo by Britt Olsen-Ecker; courtesy of Baltimore Concert Opera.

Ron Loyd as Sweeney Todd and Jenni Bank as Mrs. Lovett. Photo by Britt Olsen-Ecker; courtesy of Baltimore Concert Opera.

This was my first Sweeney Todd; many in the pre-talk audience raised their hands when Conductor JoAnn Kulesza asked who had seen Todd previously.  I had avoided Sweeney Todd; the story seemed rather gruesome and bloody.  Ms. Kulesza said Sondheim stated the story was about revenge and she noted its connection with Dies Irae.  I had decided, that if ever I was going to attend, at least going to a concert opera version should be blood-free.  To my surprise, I noted just before attending that it was going to be a semi-staged version.  Uh…oh, the prospect of blood again.  However, before it began, Director Courtney Kalbacker told me not to worry, no blood.  And indeed, though we saw Mr. Todd swing his shiny razor often, the victims were dispatched bloodlessly (the first couple of times, I still closed my eyes).  She explained, “We thought that the story merited some simple action onstage. A "horror" story can easily get campy if, for example, we used supertitles to explain the death scenes. We wanted to be true to the spirit of the work. Also, we knew most of our performers had experience with these roles and wouldn't be using their scores as much. We wanted to allow them to be as expressive as possible, and that included some very light staging this time.” Kudos to Ms. Kalbacker; the staging for this…what shall I call it, opera or musical…regardless, it worked.  The play was acted out, with limited costumes and only a few props, but it drew me into the story more quickly and effectively.  My only criticism is that the white leather chair chosen for the barber’s stool made me worry about blood stains; did they have Scotchgard in 19th century London?

Ron Loyd as Sweeney Todd and Matthew Curran as the Judge. Photo by Britt Olsen-Ecker; courtesy of Baltimore Concert Opera.

Ron Loyd as Sweeney Todd and Matthew Curran as the Judge. Photo by Britt Olsen-Ecker; courtesy of Baltimore Concert Opera.

The story, if you don’t know already, centers on a barber who has served fifteen years in prison on a trumped-up charge.  Assuming a new name and consumed by revenge, Sweeney Todd returns to London’s Fleet Street where he is abetted by a woman who has long had a secret desire for him, Mrs. Lovett.  She tells him his wife was abused and disgraced by the Judge and she took poison; she further reveals that the Judge took Todd’s young daughter as his ward, whom he now intends to marry.  Mrs. Lovett runs a rather unsuccessful bake shop and cannot afford good meat for her pies.  Thoroughly embittered, Sweeney Todd believes that no one deserves to live and longs to give the Judge the closest shave he’s ever had.  He starts supplying Lovett with fresh meat directly from his barber’s chair, and her business swells.  In her opening remarks for the performance, Executive Director of BCO Julia Cooke noted that people ask whether Sweeney Todd is an opera or a musical. Her answer is “Yes”.  I agree.  It is a musical with operatic elements and is often performed by opera companies.  Mr. Sondheim milks the macabre action for humor using musical elements, and it is very funny in spots, but turns very, very dark at the end; operatic singing strengthens the dark elements.  Regardless, it is a show with marvelous music that is very entertaining. 

left: Mackenzie Whitney as Anthony Hope and Kate Jackman as the Beggar Woman. right: Jeni Houser as Johanna. Photo by Britt Olsen-Ecker; courtesy of Baltimore Concert Opera.

The excellent ensemble cast of nine performers and a chorus complimented each other well in bringing the music and the drama to life.  Sweeney Todd has spoken dialogue as well as singing and the acting was remarkably good.  Pianist and Chorus Director James Harp supported the singers well with an emotional touch to his playing.  For this production, the accompaniment by piano gave the performance a Broadway feel.  Leading the cast was Ron Loyd as Sweeney Todd.  An especially funny moment occurred when he and his admirer Mrs. Lovett, superbly played by mezzo-soprano Jenni Bank, sing about how pies made of practitioners of different professions might differ in taste ("A Little Priest").  Especially tender and moving was Tobias Ragg’s song (“Not While I’m Around”) promising to protect his mother figure Mrs. Lovett; Ragg was played by tenor Ian McEuen who shone in each of his scenes.  Anthony Hope who befriended Todd and fell in love with his daughter, Johanna, is played by tenor Mackenzie Whitney.  Very pretty was a duet (“Johanna”) between Hope and Todd as each sings of his feelings for Johanna, who was played effectively by soprano Jeni Houser.  The supporting cast of Kate Jackman as the Beggar Woman, Matthew Curran as the Judge, Orin Strunk as Beadle, and Jeremy Blossey as Pirelli all had their moments and would be welcomed by me in any future productions that I attend.

left: Olin Strunk as the Beadle. middle: Ian McEuen as Tobias Ragg. right: Jeremy Blossey as Pirelli. Photo by Britt Olsen-Ecker; courtesy of Baltimore Concert Opera.

Sweeney Todd is worth attending just for the music and songs.  As a play, it is funny and horrifying in turns. This BCO production had a good balance between those extremes.  It also was a good introduction to this opera-musical for me.  I like composers mixing different genres and styles when it works for a story.  I have seen that done recently in Dead Man Walking, Champion, and The Summer King.  One other thing - I think my assertion that The Trial of Elizabeth Cree was the first slasher opera stands, in as much as it was opera only.  It might be fun though if an enterprising young composer came up with a sequel, Elizabeth Cree Meets Sweeney Todd including a marriage ceremony performed by Hannibal Lecter.  Starting to feel queasy?  I felt a little like that when Todd was over.  I may attend another production some time; at least now I know when to close my eyes.

The Fan Experience: It is usual for Baltimore Concert Opera productions to have a strong audience turnout, but this is the first sell-out I have attended.  I asked Kalbacker, who is also Managing Director to what did she attribute the sell-out.  She thought the popularity of Sweeney Todd was a factor.  She added, “We have been working to get the rights for Sweeney for some time and we're thrilled to be able to present it at BCO!” She also alluded to time of the year; at this point in winter, folks are staring to experience cabin fever.  I might add one more.  This production, like all BCO productions, are incredible values.  You are not going to find Sweeney Todd of this quality anywhere else at these prices.  I suspect the word is spreading about Baltimore Concert Opera.

Sweeney Todd is over for now, but BCO has two more events this year - one, a night of opera featuring Puccini’s Gianni Schicchi and Michael Ching’s comedic follow up, Buoso’s Ghost, on April 13 and 15; and one remaining Thirsty Thursday on March 22 that will feature a wine tasting.  I can vouch that their Thirsty Thursdays are about as much fun as you can have attending opera.


Flash Report: Free MDLO Young Artists Concert This Friday Evening in Bethesda, MD

This report is last minute, but if you haven’t made plans for Friday evening (February 23), might you be interested in having five talented young opera singers sing famous Donizetti, Mozart, Puccini, and Verdi arias for you?  The Maryland Lyric Opera’s Young Artist Institute is sponsoring a concert featuring its current class of young artists: tenor Dashaui Chen, baritone Hunter Enoch, soprano Maria Natale, soprano Cong Cong Wang, and mezzo-soprano Chantel Woodard; they will be accompanied on piano by Associate Conductor Rafael Andrade. After competing successfully for the slots, the young artists receive intensive vocal instruction by staff of the Maryland Lyric Opera. 

Maryland Lyric Opera poster from Facebook.

Maryland Lyric Opera poster from Facebook.

Opera singing is hard; a while back I wrote a blog report on why singing opera could be an Olympic event.  Young artist programs accept very promising, already accomplished, young singers to provide them additional training and exposure, a further step in becoming fully developed professional soloists.  They are literally training opera’s stars of tomorrow.

The concert is free, an excellent cheap date.  This is also a good opportunity to sample live opera in a small, cozy venue.  Plus, not only is the price excellent, but it’s a relatively short program, so you won’t be investing the usual 2-4 hours for a fully staged opera. 

I am not able to attend on Friday and was allowed to sit in on today’s rehearsal.  I am very impressed; I enjoyed each performance.  You really should have to pay for performances this good.

The Fan Experience: The free concert is at 7 pm at the Lerner Family Theater at the Imagination Stage in Bethesda.  There is a parking deck next door to the theater; the slot I parked in did not accept credit cards.  There was a number to call or you could download and use an app to pay; I chose to download and use the Parkmobile app, which was straightward and has the advantage you can extend your time using the app on your phone; I think it also accepted coins.  It’s a half mile from the Bethesda Metro stop.

If you miss this MDLO young artist concert this time, there will be another on April 20; check the website closer to that date for details.


WCO’s Maria di Rohan Singers Deliver on Maestro Walker’s Promise

Conductor Antony Walker in his Q&A with OperaGene recommended against listening to recordings to prepare for attendance at Washington Concert Opera’s Maria di Rohan.  He believed his cast of singers would rise above the level of available recordings, and he hoped the audience would come with fresh ears.  I have not listened to all of the recordings, but Marina Costa-Jackson, Norman Reinhardt, Ginger Costa-Jackson, and Lester Lynch made a strong argument to support his contention.  Those of us who were there had the privilege of seeing it live, which takes the pleasure to another level.  However, you will still be able to get a taste of this scintillating performance in recorded form.  Microphones were present recording the event for later broadcast on radio, WETA-FM. 

Norman Reinhardt, Ginger Costa-Jackson, and Marina Costa-Jackson. Photo by Don Lassell; courtesy of Washington Concert Opera.

Norman Reinhardt, Ginger Costa-Jackson, and Marina Costa-Jackson. Photo by Don Lassell; courtesy of Washington Concert Opera.

Washington Concert Opera’s motto is ‘it’s all about the music’, which is true for the performers and mostly true for the audience.  However, it would be a mistake to underplay the visual appeal of concert opera.  The conductor and orchestra are on the stage with the singers in full view, as is the chorus.  It is hard to imagine a more involved, interactive conductor that Antony Walker.  Physical communication from Conductor Walker to the orchestra might give someone trained in music a sense of the piece even if they could not hear the music. The audience also gets to watch the cues exchanged between conductor and singers.  Additionally, the singers are singing in character though dressed in smart-looking tuxedos and gorgeous evening dresses; you can see the emotions on their faces and gestures between characters.  I also find it fascinating to watch the orchestra as an instrument solos, or as the different sections of the orchestra come to life, and the interplay of sections with each other.  And Donizetti’s music is exciting to hear, especially played live by a talented conductor, orchestra, and chorus.

The Costa-Jackson sisters as Marina enters and Ginger exits the stage, in character and as sisters, and far right is Norman Reinhardt. Photo by Don Lassell; courtesy of Washington Concert Opera.

The Costa-Jackson sisters as Marina enters and Ginger exits the stage, in character and as sisters, and far right is Norman Reinhardt. Photo by Don Lassell; courtesy of Washington Concert Opera.

Maria di Rohan has a complicated plot (see OperaGene's preview, Part I) that revolves around the 1) Countess Maria; 2) a secret love of hers, the Count Chalais; 3) an unwanted suitor, courtier Gondi; and 4) an unwanted husband, the Duke Chevreuse.  Their interactions are played out against a backdrop of the Paris court in the late seventeenth century, in the time of Cardinal Richelieu and dangerous court intrigue.  It does not end well for the man she loves or herself.  The version of Maria di Rohan selected by Mr. Walker, who is also WCO’s Artistic Director was the Paris 1843 version, which expands and turns the role of Gondi into a pants role.  The Costa-Jackson sisters, coloratura soprano Marina, who sang the role of Maria, and mezzo-soprano Ginger, who sang the smaller role of Gondi, possess the goods and deliver with both singing and acting as well as Conductor Walker could have asked.  Both have strong beautiful voices and bring excitement to the stage.  Marina several times hit high notes that brought applause from an already enthusiastic crowd, and Ginger also sang beautifully and showed a natural stage presence; she possesses a certain fire that obviously connected with the audience.  Anyone who heard them Sunday evening will want to hear them again; I certainly hope they will be in the DC area again, and soon.  Tenor Norman Reinhardt’s voice did not demonstrate the power of his co-stars, but he has a lovely voice and sang with a beauty and depth of feeling, at times seeming to caress phrases, that won me over completely.  Lester Lynch, however, can push back the walls with his strong, colorful baritone and matched his colleagues, emotion for emotion.  Mr. Lynch and Marina Costa-Jackson had the opportunities with arias in Act III to show off their virtuosity and vocal fireworks, and they rose to the occasion.  Capable supporting performances were supplied by Timothy Bruno, Efrain Solis, Adam Caughey, and Andrew Bawden.   The substantial chorus that participated, mainly in Act I and the conclusion, excelled, especially in creating some powerful moments when all singers, soloists and the chorus sang together.  Maria di Rohan, especially in Acts I and II, focused on duets and other ensemble pieces; these groupings were uniformly excellent.  Overall, this cast seemed to stimulate each other, which brought additional excitement to the performance. 

Norman Reinhardt, Ginger Costa-Jackson, Marina Costa-Jackson, Antony Walker, Lester Lynch, Efrain Solis, and the Washington Concert Orchestra. Photo by Don Lassell; courtesy of Washington Concert Opera.

Norman Reinhardt, Ginger Costa-Jackson, Marina Costa-Jackson, Antony Walker, Lester Lynch, Efrain Solis, and the Washington Concert Orchestra. Photo by Don Lassell; courtesy of Washington Concert Opera.

Experts can argue whether this late opera by Donizetti is a true masterpiece, as Maestro Walker contends, but for an evening’s operatic entertainment for an opera fan, it was excellent.  If I were to revise Mr. Donizetti’s and Maestro Walker's recipe for this performance, I might only add a touch more spice, perhaps a little more Ginger.

The Fan Experience: Washington Concert Opera's next season was announced prior to the start of Maria di Rohan and the announced cast for the coming season is exciting and familiar to Washington DC fans (note that the April 2019 performance will be on a Friday; and subscriptions go on sale in April 2019):

Sunday, November 18, 2018 - Sapho by Charles Gounod, featuring Kate Lindsey and Addison Marlor

Friday,  April 5, 2019 - Zelmira by Gioachino Rossini, featuring Silvia Tro Santafe and Lawrence Brownlee


Virginia Opera’s Excellent Dream and Me: One of Us Got Better in Act II

Benjamin Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream was the Virginia Opera production this year that I most looked forward to (my preview comments can be found here).  At the end of Act I of Saturday night’s performance, I turned to the fellow seated to my left and asked how he liked the opera so far.  He replied that he was enjoying it, probably more than he had expected.  I also enjoyed it, but frankly was feeling a little let down.  I will explain why, but though my enthusiasm for Act I was muted, I can enthusiastically and happily report that Act II and beyond was all that I hoped for.  It became enchanting as a fairy-tale should, sweeping me into the fantasy, moving me to the sweet spot, the suspension of disbelief.

I keep examining why I did not find Act I more arresting.  Was it the performance, or did it just take me a while to get my head in the game?  My first thought is that the deletion of Shakespeare’s Act I by composer Benjamin Britten and his co-librettist Peter Pears made the introduction of each new character in Act I a little jarring.  I also blame the staging; there was not much of a set, mostly curtains that moved about and the creative use of lighting.  I was longing for an enchanted, moonlit wood just outside Athens, to be dazzled, but I was having a hard time conjuring up that scene in my mind given the bare floor of the stage.  The fairy costumes were quite good for the fairies, and at the end, for the Duke of Athens and his bride to be, Hippolyta, but the more modern dress of the young couples, Hermia and Lysander and Helena and Demetrius, was somewhat spell-breaking.  And while Puck’s darting movements (acted in a non-singing role by J. Morgan White) were flittingly fairy-like, his tumbling, though impressive for it’s athleticism, distracted from Puck’s impish fairy nature.  Also, while I was enjoying Mr. Britten’s music, it seemed light to me; each character seemed supported by mainly one lead instrument.  These distractions kept my head bobbing above the immersion I was seeking.

Countertenor Owen Willetts as Oberon, King of the fairies. Photo by Ben Schill Photography; courtesy of Virginia Opera.

Countertenor Owen Willetts as Oberon, King of the fairies. Photo by Ben Schill Photography; courtesy of Virginia Opera.

What did I like about Act I?  Best was Britten’s casting of a countertenor as Oberon, the fairy king.  Owen Willetts who played the part had an excellent voice and sang very well; and the high pitch of his voice did give the role an other-worldly effect, and his suggestive costume, somewhere between sexy and creepy, worked for his fairy-ness.  If “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” is to be redone, Mr. Willetts should definitely audition wearing that costume.  The other characters, and almost twenty in total, were introduced in Act I, so many in fact that it is hard to single them out. Each role contributes (two-thirds were singing roles) but each is too brief in individual vocalizations to gauge them and sometimes the singing is deliberately distorted for effect, but it is fair to say that the cast was excellent overall.  I will single out a few more that made impressions.  Matthew Burns had an agreeable bass-baritone voice playing Bottom and gave an excellent comedic performance as an overbearing thespian who spends some time as a jack-ass changeling.  Tenor Billy Bruley was a hoot in a skirt role, singing and playing the female lead of Thisbe, in the play within a play.  I continue to be impressed with Kristen Choi, a strong voiced young soprano playing Hermia who appeared recently in Washington National Opera's Madame Butterfly.  It was, however, soprano Heather Buck playing Tytania who upped the production’s game with her return in Act II.  She has a very engaging voice, and her presence was felt anytime she was on stage.   The youth chorus contributed significantly to the fairy charm.

Heather Buck as Tytania, Queen of the fairies. Photo by Ben Schill Photography; courtesy of Virginia Opera.

Heather Buck as Tytania, Queen of the fairies. Photo by Ben Schill Photography; courtesy of Virginia Opera.

Why was I swept up by Act II?  By then, I already knew all the characters, their motivations, and the setting.  Also, the action was more focused – especially the group of thespians rehearsing in the wood and the delightful interlude of Tytania and her beloved jack-ass, Bottom, lying together in her silvan bed chamber.  Few props were needed, and in Act II, the lighting was especially effective in creating atmosphere.  Kudos to lighting designer, Driscoll Otto.  The Tytania's fairy entourage, as well as the lighting, adorning the bed chamber at Tytania’s beck and call, added charm to the fantasy.  In the final scene of this act, we encounter Shakespeare’s pathos and the beginning of the resolution of conflicts, a relief of tension that was needed. The choppiness of Act I became sweet caring and caresses in Act II, even though still comedic.  The music had also succeeded in casting its spell and by the end of this act I found myself wanting to focus more on the music.  Kudos to conductor Adam Turner and the Virginia Opera Orchestra.  Overall, there was a seductive harmony to this Act.

Act III was about young lovers emerging from their dreams and the farce, the play within a play, which was quite funny.  I laughed, but also wondered why Shakespeare added this part, just for laughs?  Aside from the hilarious telling of the Pryamus and Thisbe tragedy, as played by our rustic thespians, we see young lovers choosing death over living without their beloved.  So in all, the comedy of A Midsummer Night’s Dream shows us young lovers eager to make commitments they don’t yet fully understand and offers us two endings in one play, couples coming to terms with real love and young lovers who choose to end their lives.  Thus, we have a playwright who used his incredible inventiveness and craft to create a story with fairies and humans, and further delight us with a play within a play, all to soften the blow of seeing ourselves struggling with love, and we have a composer who used his incredible inventiveness and craft to reinvigorate this tale and enliven us to receive it. 

All wells that ends well; yet, there are loose ends: Oberon has stolen the thing Tytania struggled to keep, and Demetrius is in love with Helena because he was drugged.  But maybe this is a fitting point to conclude after all.  I offer my ending below:

Life and love, loose ends left hanging,

Ever after but a dream,

Mature we see the play,

Move by us as a stream

And laugh bittersweet,

And in a troubled way

Endings sweet, not all they seem

The Fan Experience:  I looked outside Saturday afternoon and the lawn, driveway, and road were covered in a half inch of sleet and it was still coming down.  I tried walking in the driveway and it was no go, too slippery.  I was worried. I came back out an hour and half later and the hardened sleet had turned to slush and was manageable.  I made it without trouble, but this performance was undeservedly poorly attended; I suspect the weather had a significant effect. 

There are two more opportunities to see this excellent production and enrich your lives and laugh a lot, both in Richmond, on February 23 and 25.  I wish I could be in Richmond to take it in once more.  There is a lot to this opera to digest in one viewing.  It can be enjoyed on several storyline and musical levels.  I strongly recommend reading Virginia Opera’s Dr. Glenn Winters’ blog posts and/or attending his entertaining and informative pre-opera talk forty-five minutes before the opera for insights.  Get there early; late comers may have to stand. 

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

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

Queen of the fairies, Tytania is miffed at the

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

Lysander, an Athenian citizen who loves

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“If we shadows have offended,

Think but this, and all is mended,

That you have but slumber’d here

While these visions did appear,

And this weak and idle theme,

No more yielding but a dream.”

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

Dreams and art are profit made

Though meaning lingers in the shade

Not instruct, more to unhinge

And free you from your Netflix binge


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here is an OperaGene Q&A with Antony Walker:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Was It Just a Dream? Time Travel with Opera Lafayette

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



Who Was Bubbles? Belle Miriam Silverman

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

Image (public domain) from  Wikipedia .

Image (public domain) from Wikipedia.

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Amazing American Opera Initiative 2018: Opera As Poetry

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Fan Experience:

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

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

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

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


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

Public domain knight illustration by Paul Mercuri: http://www.oldbookart.com/2012/01/15/middle-ages-medieval-dress/.

Public domain knight illustration by Paul Mercuri: http://www.oldbookart.com/2012/01/15/middle-ages-medieval-dress/.

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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


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

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

Washington DC:

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

WCO logo; courtesy of Washington Concert Opera.

WCO logo; courtesy of Washington Concert Opera.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



The Exterminating Angel in Cinemas: The Met Done Good

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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