Washington National Opera’s Silent Night: An Opera Christmas Classic

I had been waiting for this opera, thirsting for it actually.  It is the only one on WNO’s schedule this season that I haven’t seen before, more than once.  Even though it has been performed every year since it premiered in 2011 and won the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for music, I was willing to accept that it probably wouldn’t be as great as La Traviata or Tosca just to get to hear something new, something born of our time.  I discovered Saturday night that it deserves its popularity.  I also discovered that I needed Silent Night for another reason, for the same reason every year I go back to “A Christmas Carol” and “It’s a Wonderful Life”.  In our highly divided and polarized time especially, I need to be reminded of the possibility and joy of simple human goodness in all of us, goodness that awaits the opportunity to come out.

The fog of war enshrouds the Scottish troops. Photo by Teresa Wood; courtesy of Washington National Opera.

The fog of war enshrouds the Scottish troops. Photo by Teresa Wood; courtesy of Washington National Opera.

Based on real events, Silent Night tells the story of a 1914 Christmas Eve ceasefire that emerged between groups of Scottish, French, and German soldiers on the Western Front in World War I.  This unofficial pause in hostilities lasted approximately 24 hours, not a truce negotiated by countries or generals but by combatants facing each other.  They had been at war for six months in the harsh conditions of trench warfare with high casualties and deaths from both enemy fire and disease.  They had expected the war would be brief but starting to grow weary, realizing they would not be returning home soon.  They were fighting in a trench line that ran north south the length of Europe; the homes they longed to return to weren’t that far away. The opposing lines were so close that the soldiers on different sides could hear and see glimpses of each other.  The deadly area between the trenches was known as “no man’s land”.  Before the hostilities ceased in 1918, approximately ten million combatants had died and many more civilians; the casualties were especially high because the strategy and tactics of close encounter warfare had not caught up with the ability of modern weaponry and technology to kill and because of the crowded and unsanitary conditions in the trenches. 

This fictional version of real events was first presented in the 2005 movie “Joyeux Noel”.  The Minnesota Opera commissioned Kevin Puts to compose the score and Mark Campbell to write the libretto for a new opera adapted from the film.  It was Mr. Puts’ first opera and became a Pulitzer Prize winner.  Mr. Campbell was already an experienced librettist; he and Mr. Puts have since produced two additional operas together (Elizabeth Cree and The Manchurian Candidate).

Lt. Audebert played by Michael Adams, Lt. Horstmayer played by Alexsey Bogdanov, and Lt. Gordon played by Norman Garrett negotiating the truce. Photo by Teresa Wood; courtesy of Washington National Opera.

Lt. Audebert played by Michael Adams, Lt. Horstmayer played by Alexsey Bogdanov, and Lt. Gordon played by Norman Garrett negotiating the truce. Photo by Teresa Wood; courtesy of Washington National Opera.

Historians still debate the reasons governments and leaders chose to engage in this war and allow it to go on for so long.  Silent Night presents personal stories of the men doing the fighting - the Scottish brothers William and Jonathan Dale, with William killed in battle causing Jonathan to vow revenge; two opera singers, Anna Sørensen and Nikolaus Sprink, in love and separated by war attempting to reunite, and French Lieutenant Audebert, longing for his wife and the child born while he is at war.  These stories are woven into the narrative of the ceasefire.  Told this way, the drama comes to life, and the important themes are revealed.  Being so close to the enemy in the opposing trenches caused the men to sense the humanity of their opponents and feel a connection with them and become less willing to shoot each other; the generals and higher level field commanders were outraged when they received reports of the ceasefires.  Being close enough to the characters on the stage to see and hear their personal stories pulls you into a connection with them.  I found Silent Night to be deeply affecting.

The truce begins for the men in three trenches. Photo by Teresa Wood; courtesy of Washington National Opera.

The truce begins for the men in three trenches. Photo by Teresa Wood; courtesy of Washington National Opera.

The opera begins and ends displaying a large World War I monument behind a scrim while the names of those soldiers who died scrolled down the scrim.  In between, a clever set shows the three groups of soldiers in their trenches stacked one upon another.  That arrangement makes it easy to see group and individual actions and interactions with all in view at once with few scene changes.  After the opera begins with a scene in a German opera house where the outbreak of war is announced, we see different characters and groups being recruited to fight the war.  The reasons for joining are the same for soldiers on both sides, to protect their families and countries and to do their duty.  We see nothing of the political issues that caused their leaders to push them into combat.  Soon a horrific battle scene occurs.  The action takes place behind a scrim that added mood-enhancing images to the scene (but was also somewhat distracting).  The carnage was perhaps tame by modern standards, but I agree with WNO’s decision to warn parents that the opera is best for those 12 years old or older.  After the battle subsides, the exhausted and dispirited soldiers need a break.  The head officers of each group, French Lt. Audebert, German Lt. Horstmayer, and Scottish Lt. Gordon, bravely carry white flags into no man’s land to meet, agreeing to a brief truce on Christmas Eve with its call for ‘Peace on Earth’.  An evening Christmas mass is given, and the soldiers begin to enjoy their differences in culture and see themselves in their presumed enemies. 

The opera singers, Anna Sørensen played by Raquel González and Nikolaus Spinks played by Alexander McKissick. Photo by Teresa Wood; courtesy of Washington National Opera.

The opera singers, Anna Sørensen played by Raquel González and Nikolaus Spinks played by Alexander McKissick. Photo by Teresa Wood; courtesy of Washington National Opera.

Silent Night is presented in the Eisenhower Theater rather than the much larger Opera House (2364 seats versus 1164).  The reason given is that the smaller venue allows for a more intimate and effective presentation.  I suspect WNO artistic director Francesca Zambello also believed sales for a contemporary opera would be less, though in fact Silent Night is almost a sell out for all seven performances.  She also chose to use current and recent graduates of the Domingo-Cafritz Young Artist Program for the large cast required without bringing in more prominent and seasoned singers.  If that is the deal for getting more new opera into the Kennedy Center, I’ll take that deal any day, and obviously so will a lot of other opera fans. These talented young artists are remarkably good at acting and singing, and as a group were quite believable, conveying the emotional intensity of this story very well. Kudos to Washington National Opera for bringing us a quality contemporary opera.

left: Jonathan Dale played by Arnold Livingston Geis is consoled by Father Palmer played by Kenneth Kellogg. right: Ponchel played by Christian Bowers trims the hair of Lt. Audebert played by Michael Adams. Photos by Teresa Wood; courtesy of Washington National Opera.

I will single out a handful of singers for special mention, but I am grateful to them all for telling this story so well.  The young lovers and opera singers, Anna and Nikolaus, were played by soprano Raquel Gonzalez and tenor Alexander McKissick.  Ms. Gonzalez is a beautiful fit for the role; her voice is especially luminous in singing for the mass.  I have enjoyed Mr. McKissick’s singing in several productions around town and he performed admirably as a soldier torn between love and duty.  Baritone Michael Adams as Audebert, baritone Norman Garrett as Gordon, and baritone Aleksey Bogdanov as Horstmayer gave strong, touching performances as leaders torn between their call to duty and their sense of humanity.  Other noteworthy performances were given by tenor Arnold Livingston Geis as Jonathan Dale, bass Kenneth Kellogg as Father Palmer, and baritone Christian Bowers who portrayed Audebert’s aide de camp Ponchel. 

The director for this production is Tomer Zvulun, General and Artistic Director of the Atlanta Opera.  He has a special attachment to this opera because of his military background and his familiarity with the chaos of battle; he has directed Silent Night previously, including the original production by the Wexford Festival Opera.  Kudos to him for effective story telling.  The conductor is Nicole Paiement who also conducted the recent WNO performance of Candide and who has a specialty in conducting new opera.  One unique aspect of this production was the program statement that this production used a reorchestration by Jacques Desjardins.  The conductor’s program notes explains that this orchestration involved using combinations of instruments to effectively replace a different instrument, allowing the orchestra to be downsized for smaller venues.  Composer Puts was consulted along the way and the final score was approved by him.  I enjoyed the music and the supporting male chorus, which changed in style to reflect the different nationalities, languages, and scenes being presented, and was all original; no traditional Christmas music is employed, but it does feature a bagpipe for the Scots. 

Scottish Father Palmer played by Kenneth Kellogg conducts mass for all the soldiers. Photo by Teresa Wood; courtesy of Washington National Opera.

Scottish Father Palmer played by Kenneth Kellogg conducts mass for all the soldiers. Photo by Teresa Wood; courtesy of Washington National Opera.

Silent NIght is about serious stuff, but not just about the horror of war.  The drama on display reminds us that we are all human beings and that we and our enemies cherish the same things, our livelihoods, our families, and our honor.  Challenging us to remember that will perhaps make us less likely to harm our fellow man.  Perhaps the far too subliminal message to be gained from this opera is the flip-side of its theme - when men on battlefields become merely distant targets that can be hit with drones and modern long-range weaponry, the killing becomes easier and more acceptable.  Silent Night brings us these important Christmas messages and just may take its place alongside other Christmas classics that we know and love. 

Silent Night is an opera and should be judged on its merit as a work of art. I enjoyed the evening and was affected by the work. It’s a good opera with a message to be embraced wholeheartedly and well worth seeing.  It was heartening to see the representatives of countries who participated in the war coming to the stage in the curtain call in memoriam to the men and women who fought in WWI and as an affirmation of this story of Peace.

The Fan Experience: There are six more performances of Silent Night on November 14, 17, 18, 20, 23, and 25.  Only a limited number of seats remain.  I thought the Eisenhower Theater was fine for this production. Colin Brush gave a rapid-fire, but highly detailed and informative pre-opera talk starting one hour before the performance - recommended. Free opera Talk Backs with selected artists take place immediately after the performance. This may be one opera where the closer you sit, the more involved in the drama you may feel and the more empathy for the characters you may develop, if I’ve learned my lesson right.  I now wish to see the movie, “Joyeux Noel”; it is available for streaming on Amazon.



Virginia Opera’s Don Giovanni: Provocative and Funny

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart composed and Lorenzo da Ponte wrote the libretto for Don Giovanni in 1787, turning the Don Juan story into an opera that spoke directly to the social order of their own time and into a classic allegory for the ages, entertaining, provocative, and forever puzzling.  Don Giovanni, a wealthy aristocrat in 18th century Spain uses his looks, charm, and power in constant pursuit of sexual conquest.  The story begins with one gone wrong.  He, wearing a mask, is being chased by Donna Anna as he flees from her chambers where he has forced himself upon her; her elderly father comes to her defense and is killed in a sword fight.  Over the next day, Giovanni, traveling with his aide and enabler, Leporello, comes upon a previous conquest, Donna Elvira, whom he abandoned and who now pursues him for revenge (but in truth wants him back); then he encounters a young country girl, Zerlina, who he tries to seduce on her wedding day and who initially agrees; and later he comes face to face with a graveyard statue that talks, and whom Don Giovanni invites to dinner.  The dinner goes badly, and the Don is escorted to Hell all the while refusing to repent.  Whew! Any questions?  I still have many.

Tobias Greenhalgh as Don Giovanni and Zachary Altman as Leporello. Photo by Ben Schill Photography; courtesy of the Virginia Opera

Tobias Greenhalgh as Don Giovanni and Zachary Altman as Leporello. Photo by Ben Schill Photography; courtesy of the Virginia Opera

I left the theater entertained and thinking more about what I had seen.  The set could serve for a Shakespearean play with shifting courtyard walls and balconies.  It’s just me, but I have one complaint – the large mural of amorphous flower petals(?) that covers the rear of the stage was distracting at best and the torn petal in the middle kept grabbing my attention from the players; the shifting color of its lighting did not work for me and seemed to be a lost opportunity for something more creative.  I make too much of it; the tale is well told.  The directorial flourishes we typically see in a Groag production were there: a wedding cart easily shifts our minds to what is occurring in that scene and its overhead rim serves as a frame for several of the singers; as Zerlina reclaims Masseto with her sweet love, they are light-heartedly drawn from the stage; as Donna Anna kneels, singing an aria against the graveyard gates, lighting hitting the gates appear to frame her in angel wings (what did that mean?); and many more.  She also keeps the action moving with smooth transitions between scenes.  There was only a minor glitch with the supertitles.  Perhaps her finest accomplishment in this Giovanni, and it is major, is that she delivers the humor.  Mozart and Da Ponte meant it to be funny in dealing with a serious subject, and on Friday night the audience frequently erupted or tittered with bemused laughter.

left: Nathan Stark as the Commendatore fatally wounded by Don Giovanni (Tobias Greehhalgh). right: Stephen Carroll as Don Ottavio agrees to Donna Anna’s (Rachelle Durkin) request for him to avenge her father. Photos by Ben Schill Photography; courtesy of the Virginia Opera

Conductor Adam Turner led a 38-piece Virginia Opera Orchestra in delivering Mozart’s outstanding score in fine fashion.  It is to the credit of the singer/actors on stage that I didn’t give over my focus to this most pleasurable music.  A largely young and talented cast of singers bring the characters to life.  Baritone Tobias Greenhalgh does an excellent job as Giovanni, bounding from charm to meanness as things went his way or did not.  His voice is pleasing, and he sings quite well, but his voice was sometimes too soft and easily over ridden by the orchestra, particularly in singing the faster passages.  Overall, his was a very good performance but could benefit from just a little more power and better projection.  This contrasted with Zachary Altman who played his sidekick, Leporello; he has a deep baritone with impressive power and projection that he used to what sounded like perfection.  His portrayal of Leporello was my favorite performance of the night, perhaps a little too slapstick at times, but ingratiating none the less.

left: Leporello (Zachary Altman) shows Donna Elvira (Sarah Larsen) Giovanni’s catalog of conquests. right: Don Giovanni (Tobias Greenhalgh) seducing Zerlina (Melissa Bonetti) on her wedding day. Photos by Ben Schill Photography; courtesy of the Virginia Opera

The trio of sopranos were also an impressive group.  Soprano Rachelle Durkin played the perplexing Donna Anna with gravitas and a strong vocal performance.  Her betrothed, Don Ottavio, was played by tenor Stephen Carroll, who sang well but was playing against type – as he appeared on stage, I’d pick him out as the rakish Giovanni in a police lineup, not the passive Ottavio.  Mezzo-soprano Sarah Larsen played the contorted Donna Elvira with pain and soft fire, gaining my sympathy with her heartfelt arias.  Her mezzo has a lot of vocal color, another standout performance.  Mezzo-soprano Melissa Bonetti proved to be a delight as Zerlina in a breakout role for her.  To me, she managed to sound more soubrette than mezzo and plays Zerlina with coquettish charm.   In supporting roles, baritone Evan Bravos is a believable Massetto, Zerlina’s betrothed, and bass Nathan Stark is a powerful, imposing Commendatore, Donna Anna’s father, at least as the graveyard Stone Guest.

The wedding day scene with Masetto (Evan Bravos) and Zerlina (Melissa Bonetti) seated in the cart. Photo by Ben Schill Photography; courtesy of the Virginia Opera

The wedding day scene with Masetto (Evan Bravos) and Zerlina (Melissa Bonetti) seated in the cart. Photo by Ben Schill Photography; courtesy of the Virginia Opera

Director Lillian Groag has stated that this is Mozart’s and Da Ponte’s version of Don Giovanni and yet at the very beginning, she stacks the deck.  I still believe Donna Anna’s story: she allowed Giovanni into her bed chamber thinking it was her fiancé, Don Ottavio, and he forced himself upon her; realizing her mistake, she fought him off and he fled; she pursued him to keep her unknown assailant from getting away.  Director Lillian Groag, however, raises questions.  Did Anna really think a masked nobleman entering her chamber late at night would be her earnest, reflective fiancé?  Did her reasons for bravely pursuing him to find out his identify perhaps include wanting to know who had fired her passion?  Did her reasons for delaying her marriage include a lack of passion in her relationship with her fiancé.  Personally, I can accept Donna Anna’s answers to these questions, but then Ms. Groag plants evidence not provided by Mozart or Da Ponte.  As the opening overture winds down, Don Giovanni appears, and in darkness a woman comes out onto a balcony and drops a rose to the ground.  He picks it up and climbs the trellis, entering the chamber above.  Methinks this is also Lillian Groag’s Don Giovanni.

Don Giovanni (Tobias Greenhalgh) surprises Donna Elvira (Sarah Larsen) and Donna Anna (Rachelle Durkin) with flowers at the same time. Photo by Ben Schill Photography; courtesy of the Virginia Opera

Don Giovanni (Tobias Greenhalgh) surprises Donna Elvira (Sarah Larsen) and Donna Anna (Rachelle Durkin) with flowers at the same time. Photo by Ben Schill Photography; courtesy of the Virginia Opera

Don Giovanni is a great opera, but it also points to what I feel is missed opportunities in opera today – too little focus on producing operas that show human relationships in today’s terms.  Mozart spoke to the social order and customs and mores of his day, a time with with kings and queens and noblemen.  The themes are certainly still relevant, but do millennials identify with those times?  A young woman seated behind me exclaimed as intermission began, “Those women (referring to Donna Anna, Donna Elvira, and Zerlina). They’re idiots!”  Do the young women of today not identify with these three characters?  I don’t know and where are today’s operas that might enlighten us?  Imagine Don Juan as a star quarterback at a major university today.  Joe Namath once bragged about the hundreds of coeds that he bedded while at the University of Alabama and basketball great Wilt Chamberlain put his number in the thousands.  Don’t you think such a story would bring millennials to the opera, not just because it is sensational, but because it is more clearly relevant to their lives today? No opera for that?  Too sensational maybe? Mozart and Da Ponte had to battle censors. I think it’s unfortunate.  Don Giovanni’s message about the disruptive effect of eros on our lives is worthy of exploring in modern terms. I will further contend that only the power of opera can do that theme justice. 

The ghost of the Commendatore (Nathan Stark) offers Don Giovanni (Tobias Greenhalgh) one last chance to repent. Photo by Ben Schill Photography; courtesy of the Virginia Opera

The ghost of the Commendatore (Nathan Stark) offers Don Giovanni (Tobias Greenhalgh) one last chance to repent. Photo by Ben Schill Photography; courtesy of the Virginia Opera

As I left the theater Friday night, I swear I heard a sound of crying coming from somewhere in the Harrison Opera House.  I think it was Donna Elvira and she was whimpering, “The human heart – it’s a bitch!”

Virginia Opera’s Don Giovanni - Go see it.  Go see it because it is a great opera, maybe the greatest.  Go see it because you want to hear some of Mozart’s best music.  Go see it because you want to laugh.  Go see it because you want to demonstrate how cultured you are.  Go see it because you want to get into arguments with your spouse and friends and me.  Perhaps, go see it because it is the best telling of the Don Juan story and there is nothing like it out there today!

The Fan Experience:  Don Giovanni plays once more in Norfolk on November 6, then moves to Fairfax for performances on November 10, 11, before finishing in Richmond on 16, 18. 

As always the pre-opera talk 45 minutes before the opera by Dr. Glenn Winters, VA Opera’s Community Outreach and Musical Director, is informative and entertaining; in fact, I have never seen him so passionate as he was about Don Giovanni.  Also check out his blog reports on Don Giovanni.  And as always it was standing room only; get there early. 

The Harrison Opera House in Norfolk. Photo by Ben Schill Photography; courtesy of the Virginia Opera.

The Harrison Opera House in Norfolk. Photo by Ben Schill Photography; courtesy of the Virginia Opera.

My visit to the Harrison Opera House allowed me to complete the Virginia Opera hat trick.  I have seen performances in the George Mason University’s Center for the Arts at Fairfax, the Dominion Arts Center in Richmond, and the Harrison Opera House in Norfolk.  Maybe some time I will compare them in a blog post.  I will say that I liked the Harrison as a moderate size opera house with modern décor, ample parking, and easy in/easy out.  I also hope to go back when I can spend some time exploring Norfolk and environs. 


Opera Lafayette’s Cerere Placata: Those Crazy Rich Neapolitans

Opera Lafayette is DC’s portal to 18th century musical gems that have largely disappeared from view over the ensuing centuries.  From a century that included Bach, Beethoven, Donizetti, Handel, Haydn, Mozart, Rossini, and Schubert, among others, it is difficult to get noticed and played today.  Many excellent musical works from that period lay dormant.  Cerere Placata (1772) by composer Niccoló Jommelli and librettist Michele Sarcone certainly qualifies.  Ryan Brown, founder, artistic director, violinist, and conductor of OL since its inception, has made discovering these compositions and their performance on period instruments OL’s mission and his life’s work.  Until Sunday night, he had never turned over the reins of the orchestra to another conductor.  Flutist Charles Brink, who has served in the OL orchestra and has an interest in music history used four of the five existing copies of Niccoló Jommelli’s score to painstakingly construct what he believes to be the most authentic version of Cerere Placata. Mr. Brown worked with Mr. Brink on this project and allowed him to conduct Cerere, its first performance since its original presentation 246 years ago. 

Portait of Niccoló Jommelli and a bust of him on the walls of Opera Garnier, Paris. Photos in public domain and copied from Wikipedia.

So, let’s go back to Naples in 1772.  This is now the major center of music in the 18th century; at that time it was known as the “conservatory of Europe”.  There were three schools of music operating in Naples that took in boys between the ages of eight and twelve for a ten-year period of full-time study.  Many of the major composers resided or studied there and the opera house, Teatro di San Carlo, was renown across Europe.  Nicoló Jommelli was born outside of Naples and returned there for the last years of his life as perhaps the most celebrated composer of his time; he died two years after completing Cerere.  His legacy has been one of influence over the music and composers of that period, including a young Mozart. 

It was customary in those days for major events to be celebrated and commemorated with a new musical composition, referred to as a festa teatrale, a music drama performed in concert.  Cerere Placata was commissioned to celebrate the birth and baptism of Princess Maria Teresia di Borbone, daughter of the King and Queen of Naples and Sicily, and who was destined to become the first Empress of Austria through marriage.  Well, those crazy Neapolitans knew how to throw a party for such an occasion, especially enriched by Spain’s King Charles III who sent an emissary to help organize and spare no expense for this extravaganza.  They partied for weeks and everything had to be first rate.  They got the best composer (Jommelli) to create the festa teatrale and the best singers and dancers to perform it; four of the soloists were the top singers in Europe at the time.  We were told at the pre-performance talk that the original opera had 18 rehearsals and the accompanying ballet had 38.  Any of today’s stage directors around the world would be drooling, and company budget managers would be taking tranquilizers.

left: Jennifer Casey-Cabot as Cerere. right: Laetitia Grimaldi as Proserpina. Photos by Russell Hirshorn; courtesy of Opera Lafayette.

A distinguished physician and epidemiologist, Michele Sarcone was selected to write the libretto.  Sarcone would not go on to be a famous librettist, but his medical work would become important in the field of immunizations.  He developed a drama based on the popular story of Persephone’s abduction by Hades, but veered significantly away to suit the politics and the requirements of the occasion, and of course, used the Italian names relating to Roman gods (who correspond to a similar set of Greek gods).  Proserpina and Titano (King of Spain) have eloped since her Mother Cerere, Queen of Sicily, refused to give permission for them to marry.  Cerere believes her daughter was abducted and in her rage vows to have any foreigners who enter Sicilian territory killed.  The young lovers wash up on shore in a storm, fearful of encountering the angry Queen.  We hear a lot from Cerere about being torn between rage and love; from Proserpina and Titano about their love for each other and fear of mom’s revenge; from Cerere’s counselor Alfeo about not acting too harshly; and from the high priest about proper order where Cerere is the law – live with it or die with it.  Just when we thought the couple was done for, the lights shine for Giove (Jupiter) in the back of the auditorium. He swoops in to proclaim that the couple about to be put to death is favored by the gods and destined to produce heirs that will become great rulers, including Maria Teresia.  Mom does one of the all time great about faces and is delighted = grandkids!  I make light of it, but the emotions being expressed up to that point were affecting and the tension until the ending, which comes across as comical today, was palpable.  The opera was given in concert form, but even so, the players are in character and must move around as well as off and back on stage, and use gestures to add to the drama; kudos to stage manager Paul Peers for making this effective.

left: Stephanie Houtzeel as Titano. right: Thomas Michael Allen as Alfeo. Photos by Russell Hirshorn; courtesy of Opera Lafayette.

I have grown to think of OL productions as part PBS special and part pure entertainment.  For me, Part I of Cerere Placata was mainly PBS special.  I watched and listened out of interest at hearing something new and mostly pleasurable overall, but to this untrained ear, early it didn’t always sound quite right, can’t put my finger on it; maybe it was just unfamiliar music to me.  However, Part II provides an impressive aria smackdown, and it got good, real good.  I would go see Part II again.  The music was more interesting and the playing smoother.  Perhaps the 26-piece orchestra and Conductor Brink were hitting their stride.  I especially liked the oboes in some of the arias, one especially mirroring a lovely aria by Proserpina.  And as each singer took their turn delivering an aria, my internal picking of whom was best kept changing.  I would also go to hear this cast of singers again.  It was synchronicity that I just read a definition of “accompanied recitative” the other day, whereby the orchestra instead of a single instrument such as a piano or harpsichord accompanies the recitative; it can add to the dramatic impact of the text.  Jommelli was a master of this form and it was effectively employed in Cerere.

Laetitia Grimaldi as Proserpina and Stephanie Houtzeel as Titano. Photo by Russell Hirshorn; courtesy of Opera Lafayette.

Laetitia Grimaldi as Proserpina and Stephanie Houtzeel as Titano. Photo by Russell Hirshorn; courtesy of Opera Lafayette.

Cerere’s rage and threats were played to perfection by soprano Jennifer Casey-Cabot; I wouldn’t want her angry with me.  Some of her runs could easily expose any singing flaws and every note was spot on, a very impressive performance.  Her daughter Proserpina was played by soprano Laetitia Grimaldi who brought a colorful voice and spark to her role.  These two were very convincing as a mother-daughter pair in conflict.  Ms. Grimaldi also had a very lovely duet with mezzo-soprano Stephanie Houtzeel who played Titano;  Proserpina says she will kill herself if he is put to death and Titano tries to persuade her not to.  Ms. Houtzeel has a warm, velvety voice and an assured stage presence that made her a stand out; her arias might have been my favorite.  Her acting had a Shakespearian quality; she could play both Lady and Lord Macbeth!  And not to be overlooked in the outstanding category was lyric tenor Thomas Michael Allen who played Alfeo trying to reason with Cerere.  Hearing his beautiful voice and singing, I had the feeling of wanting to hear him sing in the Messiah.  Soprano Arianna Zukerman who played the high priest has a powerful voice and used it to bring authority to her role.  Tenor Patrick Kilbride who played Giove sang well, I think.  Actually, his appearance on stage was a surprise and was short, and he moved about the aisles and stage much like a Las Vegas showman pushing his singing into the background, but it was a happy, if rollicking, finish.

In a curtain call for  Cerere Placata ’s first performance in 246 years, at center, Conductor Charles Brink holds up his copy of Jommelli’s score. Photo by Russell Hirshorn; courtesy of Opera Lafayette.

In a curtain call for Cerere Placata’s first performance in 246 years, at center, Conductor Charles Brink holds up his copy of Jommelli’s score. Photo by Russell Hirshorn; courtesy of Opera Lafayette.

Opera Lafayette has a loyal fan base and are now coming close to, if not, selling out the Terrace Theater.  Personally, I no longer ponder whether I want to attend an OL performance or not; I just go.  Their productions are as authentic as you can get.  They often include dance as part of their performances.  I wish some of the ballet had been included on Sunday night.  However, as it was, the opera ran three hours.  Throw in a ballet and you are pushing into Wagnerian territory.  As I said, those crazy rich Neapolitans knew how to party, by Giove!

The Fan Experience: Opera Lafayette has two more productions this season: Handel’s Radamisto on February 5 and Stradela’s La Susanna on April 21, 22. I typically recommend that opera goers attend the pre-performance talks for information and insights that will increase their enjoyment of the opera, but I especially recommend them for Opera Lafayette productions because the works will most likely be so unfamiliar to you.  On Sunday night, Director Ryan Brown, Conductor Charles Brink, and Dr. Anthony DelDonna (professor of musicology at Georgetown University and author of “Eighteenth-Century Opera”) held a fascinating group discussion as the pre-performance talk.  Some of the information in this blog report was gleaned from their comments.

Director Lillian Groag Talks about Don Giovanni: Hers Will Be Mozart’s Version

The great composers, Rossini, Gounod, and Wagner suggested Don Giovanni as the greatest opera ever written; many critics, musicologists, and opera buffs agree.  Thus, it is performed hundreds of times each year across the globe.  Many of these productions will be new or modified versions where the director puts their spin on this oft-told tale of an 18th century Don Juan.  New productions may change the time period, the costumes, the setting, the text, the language, the story line, even sexual orientations of the characters, giving emphasis to a particular view of the story.  In one of the more famous modernized productions, directed by Peter Sellars and broadcast by PBS in 1991, Giovanni is a street-wise thug in South Bronx and Donna Anna has a drug problem; early on, instead of telling her, “Foolish woman! Your screams are in vain,” Giovanni tells her, “Shut up, bitch.”  A different perspective, no?  Rossini, Gounod, and Wagner were not around to see that version, or the various ways their own operas have been modernized; I would love to see their reactions if they did.

Lillian Groag, Director of Virginia Opera’s production of  Don Giovanni , which runs November 2-18. Photo by Ben Schill Photography; courtesy of Virginia Opera.

Lillian Groag, Director of Virginia Opera’s production of Don Giovanni, which runs November 2-18. Photo by Ben Schill Photography; courtesy of Virginia Opera.

We can discuss the merits of updating old works another time, and there are merits.  For now, let’s talk about Virginia Opera’s Don Giovanni (1787, composer Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and librettist Lorenzo Da Ponte).  This will not be my first, or second, Don Giovanni, but I am excited about seeing it again for two reasons.  First, presenting the Don Juan story in the #MeToo era makes it extremely timely, as does its first use of the element of horror in opera, so prevalent in today’s movies and TV shows.  Second, the Director for this production, Lillian Groag, is gifted.  Ms. Groag, in addition to other activities, has directed productions for VA Opera for twenty-five years; she previously directed their 2010 production of Don Giovanni, which I did not see.  Ones directed by her that I have seen have made me a fan.  Her recent La Fanciulla del West was excellent and her Turandot was spectacular.  The reviews of the 2010 production were glowing, described as “powerful and bracing under Lillian Groag’s assured direction”.  I was very curious what Director Groag thought of Don Giovanni today and she graciously agreed to speak with me.

Mozart/Da Ponte’s Don Giovanni is perhaps its most famous telling of the Don Juan story.  A wealthy aristocrat in 18th century Spain uses his looks, charm, and power in constant pursuit of sexual conquest.  He is sensationally successful, but the story begins with one gone wrong.  He, wearing a mask, is being chased by Donna Anna as he flees from her chambers where he has forced himself upon her; her elderly father, the Commendatore, comes to her defense and is killed in a sword fight.  Over the next day or so, Giovanni, traveling with Leporello, his enabling mercenary, comes upon a previous conquest, Donna Elvira, whom he abandoned and is now pursuing him for revenge (he later seduces her maid); encounters a young country girl, Zerlina, who he tries to seduce on her wedding day; and comes face to face with a graveyard statue that talks, and whom Don Giovanni invites to dinner.  The dinner goes badly, and the Don is escorted to Hell all the while refusing to repent.  The funny thing about Don Giovanni, the opera, is that it is also a comedy.  Da Ponte labeled it a “dramma giocoso” or “jocular play”; Mozart called it an opera buffa. It’s actually quite funny, except for when it isn’t.

Pre-production cast photo: Tobias Greenhalgh as Don Giovanni and Rachelle Durkin as Donna Anna. Photo by Ben Schill Photography; courtesy of Virginia Opera.cast

Pre-production cast photo: Tobias Greenhalgh as Don Giovanni and Rachelle Durkin as Donna Anna. Photo by Ben Schill Photography; courtesy of Virginia Opera.cast

One might ask then what is Don Giovanni really about?  Is it just an unhinged master/bumbling side kick comedy team wandering from calamity to calamity?  Even prior to Don Giovanni, Don Juan was presented as a Commedia Dell’Arte play with its set of comedic characters, but such theater was not just for laughs.  It’s comedy arose by mirroring human foibles, and the Mozart/Da Ponte team also used this approach as a little sugar to help the medicine go down and see ourselves as we are.  Mozart had a twinke in his eye and Da Ponte was a bit of a Casanova himself.  They approached the opera with levity and forbearance, yet were direct in dealing with its serious elements.

Pre-production cast photo: Sarah Larsen as Donna Elvira and Tobias Greenhalgh as Don Giovanni. Photo by Ben Schill Photography; courtesy of Virginia Opera.cast

Pre-production cast photo: Sarah Larsen as Donna Elvira and Tobias Greenhalgh as Don Giovanni. Photo by Ben Schill Photography; courtesy of Virginia Opera.cast

Director Groag sees the comedy in Don Giovanni as essential.  Otherwise the audience will be weary of what is essentially a CBS 60 Minutes news exposé going on too long.  She also thinks it is necessary to deliver palatably their critical message for audiences to ponder.  She points out that Giovanni is not a real person.  She views him as Dionysus incarnate.  As he makes clear in the opera, he lives for wine, women, and song and little else, undeterred and unabashed.  What human would invite a ghost to dinner and refuse to repent his ways as he walked with him to the underworld?  This reveals the driving force for the opera – Don Giovanni knows what makes him feel alive; he laughs at your rules and he will not be broken. 

Don’t you envy that just a bit?  His victims are in various ways complicit in their downfall or at least suspect.  Donna Elvira wants to be married to Don Giovanni more than she wants revenge; she hopes to change him.  Zerlina in the face of flattery and authority succumbs readily.  Donna Anna intrigues me; we can’t know the entirety of what happened in her bedroom with Giovanni.  When I read the libretto, I bought her story, but Director Groag raises questions even about her – she accepts a masked nobleman into her bed chamber in the middle of the night thinking it was her mild-mannered fiancé, Don Ottavio, who could see her anytime?  Really? Ms. Groag also turns her microscope on Leporello, Giovanni’s aide.  Leporello is constantly complaining about his boss’s misdeeds and threatening to quit, but for a few gold doubloons, he stays.  Know any people in the news today that sound like that?  The motivations of these characters have been the subject of debates for over two centuries now, a testament to the greatness of this work.

Human beings are wont to both behave and stray, wanting the acceptance and protection of the group and wanting to freely run in the flow that makes us feel most alive.  The Mozart/Da Ponte team was expert at bringing complex human beings to life on the stage.  Even Don Giovanni is part human being, that part of us that loves flattery and wine, women, and song, and longs for the freedom to pursue them without restraint, which brings us to what I think is Director Groag’s view of the central element of the opera, the power of eros to disrupt our will to be civilized, to conform to societal norms.  The moral path follows along the edge of a cliff with Sirens calling below.  What has changed for Director Groag since her 2010 Don Giovanni is the clarity with which she now sees the message that Mozart and Da Ponte bring to us, and therefore, she believes even more strongly that it must be presented as Mozart and Da Ponte wrote it, word for word.

Pre-production cast photo: Sarah Larsen as Donna Elvira, Zachary Altman as Leporello, Rachelle Durkin as Donna Anna, and Tobias Greenhalgh as Don Giovanni. Photo by Ben Schill Photography; courtesy of Virginia Opera.

Pre-production cast photo: Sarah Larsen as Donna Elvira, Zachary Altman as Leporello, Rachelle Durkin as Donna Anna, and Tobias Greenhalgh as Don Giovanni. Photo by Ben Schill Photography; courtesy of Virginia Opera.

Not that the earlier and present productions will be exactly the same.  A major difference is that the singers are different.  Giovanni requires two excellent baritones (Don Giovanni and Leporello), a tenor (Don Octavio), and three sopranos (Donna Anna, Donna Elvira, and Zerlina) capable of both acting and singing music that is not easy to sing.  Director Groag says that every new singer brings their own interpretation to a role and thus each production has its own feel.  She is excited to be working with this cast of singers.  There will also be some minor changes; the costumes for logistical reasons will be 17th century rather than 18th century, which should be transparent to non-experts in costume design. 

I asked the Director what she hoped audiences would remember about Lillian Groag’s Don Giovanni.  She says she hopes the audience will depart feeling that they have been entertained.  She further points out that “this entertainment is not about nothing.  It is not an intellectual exercise either; it is a reactive experience.”  So, she hopes the attendees will be entertained and later over coffee or wine, or maybe lunch the next day, they will think about what one or more of the characters did and ask themselves, what’s going on here?  That would be satisfying.

I haven’t mentioned the music.  I assume you know that Mozart wrote this at the height of his musical powers and that it doesn’t get any better than this.  Director Groag has worked on a daily basis during rehearsals with Conductor Adam Turner in syncing the action and emotions with the music.  That is reason enough to go see Don Giovanni, and if you haven’t seen it before, this is the one to see first, the one that Mozart and Da Ponte intended.

The Fan Experience: Don Giovanni plays in Norfolk on November 2, 4, and 6; in Fairfax on November 10 and 11, and in Richmond on November 16 and 18.  Ticket prices range from $17 to $120; for tickets click on this link, but be aware that the different venues will have different prices and policies (discounts and student tickets, for example).  In general, the best sound quality will be in the middle of the theater, not on the sides or too upfront or way in the back.  However, I have sat in all locations in the Fairfax venue and they are all good, so don’t be afraid of the cheap seats if you can’t afford center orchestra. Live opera is great from any seat that doesn’t have restricted view (for cheap seats check with the box office on this point).  Also, if you are able to purchase your tickets at the box office you can save significant change on fees.  Performances are in Italian and have supertitles in English. 

Finally, Dr. Glenn Winters, Virginia Opera's Musical Outreach Musical Director, provides informative and entertaining pre-opera talks forty-five minutes before showtime; they and his several blog reports leading up to each opera are worthwhile aids to enhance your enjoyment of the opera - the pre-opera talks are frequently standing room only, so get there early.



Virginia Opera’s Street Scene: It Looks Just Like Us

Virginia Opera’s Street Scene provides a trip back into time and points to a future that did not happen as yet, though it allows us to live with the hope that it may still.  As I walked back to my car on Sunday afternoon, I felt a strange mix of nostalgia and unease.  It felt like I had sat down, flipping through an album of old photographs, remembering people and events, some good and some not so good – a forgotten, once cherished friend, an alcoholic uncle, an aunt with loose morals, a mother killed - while at the same time, an ethereal DJ played a mash up of songs going as far back as the pages I turned.  And as I put the album down, got up, and walked away, I wasn’t sure if I was walking in the past, the present, or the future, or a dream; all of the characters that had walked out on the stage had blended with those in my real life.  If you want affecting drama, this is it.

Children playing a game in Kurt Weill’s  Street Scene . Photo by Ben Schill Photography; courtesy of the Virginia Opera.

Children playing a game in Kurt Weill’s Street Scene. Photo by Ben Schill Photography; courtesy of the Virginia Opera.

Street Scene begins with its only set and it’s a fine one, the facade of a brick and stone tenement in 1940s New York City and the sidewalk and street in front carrying local traffic and passersby and residents hanging about.  In the course of a day, compressed into a two-and-a-half-hour opera, we meet and are touched by the lives of over thirty men, women, and children.  The set and costumes give this period piece just the right feel. Kudos to David Hartwell for the original scenic design for Center City Opera and to Aaron Chvatal for the original costume designs for Brevard Music Center.  And special kudos to Director Dorothy Danner who, as the action begins, brings it all to life in a most effective and engaging way with each vignette flowing seamlessly into the next; well done! 

left: Maureen McKay as Rose Maurrant. right: Jill Gardner as Anna Maurant. Photo by Ben Schill Photography; courtesy of the Virginia Opera.

While many stories are told, the opera’s focus is on the Maurrant family where the mother Anna (soprano Jill Gardner), out of quiet desperation for affection, has begun an affair with the milkman (ask your grandparents who those were), a scandal to the gossipy neighbors who live in the large tenement building alongside her.  Her husband Frank (bass Zachary James), an embittered, threatening man comes home early to find his wife with her lover and dispatches both of them.  Their teenage daughter Rose (Maureen Mckay), is emotionally involved with Sam Kaplan (David Blalock), a young man in the tenement, but works for a boss trying to make her a conquest, with behavior that would get him fired today, we hope.  As a result of the turmoil of her parent’s and her own lives, she makes an insightful decision about marriage and her future to close the show.  Street Scene not only engages personal longings, but social issues as well, a fact that may have limited it popularity.  We are presented with Sam’s dad Abraham (Alan Fischer), who vehemently spouts socialist rhetoric on issues still confronting us today.

left: Zachary James as Frank Maurrant and Jill Gardner as Anna. right: Peter Kendall Clark as Harry Easter, Rose’s boss, and Maureen McKay as Rose. Photo by Ben Schill Photography; courtesy of the Virginia Opera.

Composer Kurt Weill’s music in Street Scene is a blend of musical genres, show tunes, jazz, blues, and doing the heavy lifting, opera.  If you like forties/fifties musicals, you should like this opera.  When it premiered on Broadway, it ran for 148 straight performances.  Played by the Virginia Opera Orchestra, led by Conductor Adam Turner (also now Artistic Director), the music jitters and bugs its way and puts us in the mood for the ups and downs of the lives being witnessed, paving the way for the emotionally intense arias connecting us to the unfolding drama.  Ensemble pieces provide some fun and lighten the mood, such as an ode to ice cream, a stand out song and dance number “Moon-Faced, Starry-Eyed” by dancers/singers Ahnastasia Albert and David Michael Bevis, and a delightful children’s number “Catch Me If You Can”, infused with the sting of class conscientiousness.  In recent times, Street Scene has been adopted by opera companies; I have been listening to the album by the original Broadway cast.  The music is really good, and I find myself surprised this work has not been revived on Broadway. 

left: Benjamin Werley as Lippo Fiorentino singing about ice cream. right: Song and dance by David Michael Bevis as Dick McGann and Ahnastasia Albert as Mae Jones. Photo by Ben Schill Photography; courtesy of the Virginia Opera.

I will single out just a few of the players for comment, but I emphasize that the cast was uniformly excellent and contributed to cohesive storytelling through their acting and singing.  Here are a few personal favorites that stand out in memory:

Soprano Jill Gardner delivers again for VA Opera, with a moving and emotionally sung portrayal of Anna Maurant;  I loved her aria “Somehow I Could Never Believe”.

Soprano Maureen McKay moves easily between musical theater and opera in a convincing portrayal of Rose Maurrant; she seems a natural for musical theater.

Baritone Trevor Neal who plays the janitor had a voice that wrapped itself around the stage and a poignant song, “I Got a Marble and a Star”.

Baritone Peter Kendall Clark plays the despicable boss and yet has such stage presence and sings so well that I almost liked him.

Mezzo-soprano Margaret Gawrysiak as the nosy neighbor Emma Jones handles this role so believably that she almost goes unnoticed; she shouldn’t be.

Soprano Brooke Nicole Jones as the young Jennie who just got a scholarship represents the promise of youth; her colorful voice singing “ Wrapped in a Ribbon and Tied in a Bow” made me want to hear more of her.

Talin Nalbandian who pays Nursemaid #1 in a minor role reveals a lovely mezzo-soprano voice that I want to hear more of also.

left: Rose (Maureen McKay) holds her mothers hand as she is taken away. right: Rose (Maureen McKay) gives her decision to Sam (David Blalock). Photo by Ben Schill Photography; courtesy of the Virginia Opera.

Street Scene is not without issues, I think.  Both the plot and musical development are somewhat dated at this point.  The inventiveness and universal elements shine through but the fashion and references are out of date.  Some of the stereotypes, such as the Italian Mr. Fiorentino (tenor Benjamin Werley), are over the top for today.  Frank Maurrant’s character is so one-sided he simply becomes a villain, not at all a sympathetic character, making his closing aria “I Loved Her Too” impossible to believe.  The musical genres mostly line up separately; I wish composer Weill had not died so young; perhaps he would have further developed their integration. My son had an interesting perspective on the plot development.  He would have finished off Ms. Maurrant in Act I to make room for greater development of the Rose character in Act II.  He wanted to know how Rose’s beautiful insight that you ought to belong to yourself played out.

Poet and librettist Langston Hughes used Elmer Rice’s eponymous play to give us a look at ourselves in 1946 so we might overcome our circumstances.  Kurt Weill meant this to be something new, a fusion of opera and musical theater, an American form of opera (see my blog report on Virginia Opera’s new season for more background). Neither the opera nor the drama seems to have had the influence that we might have wanted.  The personal, social, and political issues unveiled still remain in some form.  New opera is still searching for its direction, and if this team were writing this today and how I wish they were, the only new human element might be disillusionment that the same problems remain, as Mr. Hughes puts it, ‘between the cries of being born and the moans of dying’.  Finally, what about Rose?  Did she manage to belong to herself?

Street Scene is a find. I love the traditional great operas, but I would also like to see more contemporary verismo operas that present people today as they are, that I can more easily relate to, not Greek gods and medieval nobility, and that offer new musical approaches.  With such a large cast, this could not have been an inexpensive opera to mount.  Kudos to Virginia Opera for their vision and courage to bring to Virginia audiences important works that are outside the traditional repertoire.

The Fan Experience: There are two more performances of Street Scene, on Friday evening, October 12 and Sunday afernoon, October 14 in Richmond; use this link for tickets.  I recommend that you arrive for the pre-opera talk 45 min before the opera by Dr. Glenn Winters, VA Opera’s Musical Outreach Director, and read his series of blog reports on the opera.  He compares Street Scene to other operas and points out the musical homage that Kurt Weill makes to other composers, and gives you hints on things to listen for; his insights into the music and the drama will add to your enjoyment of the performance.


Washington National Opera’s La Traviata: Breathing New Life Into Violetta

WNO began a two-week run on Saturday night of its new production of La Traviata by composer Giuseppe Verdi and librettist Francesco Maria Piave.  This opera, this season alone, is scheduled for 459 performances across the globe; it has been performed since 1853. It is fair to ask why do we the opera going public keep going to see this opera, and thereby cause opera companies to keep putting it on their schedules?  It looked like a full house on Saturday night. Admittedly, it is a great story taken from the play La Dame aux Camélias (1852) written by Alexandre Dumas fils (son of the famous author, Alexandre Dumas pére – think The Three Musketeers and The Count of Monte Cristo).  The play was inspired by the life of a real-life Parisian courtesan, Marie Duplessis, who died of consumption and with whom Dumas, the son, had had a non-exclusive liaison that lasted a little under a year.  La Traviata is said to be Verdi’s most realistic opera.  

The party begins with Violetta (Venera Gimadieva) the center of attention. Photo by Scott Suchman; courtesy of the Washington Natonal Opera.

The party begins with Violetta (Venera Gimadieva) the center of attention. Photo by Scott Suchman; courtesy of the Washington Natonal Opera.

Italian opera authority David Kimbell has stated that La Traviata is based on “a single moral idea – that of an ideal of love which survives all man’s attempts to exploit and corrupt it.”  Violetta is a beautiful Parisian courtesan in the 18th century who has chosen a life of pleasure, quite successfully so, while sacrificing her reputation in polite society.  She is in fact a well-paid sex worker in her early twenties, but she is also brilliant, graceful, and charming, qualities that cause her to be adored by those in polite society who come out at night.  She is well aware of the costs of her chosen path (la traviata translates as one who has gone astray, i.e., a fallen woman), but she prefers this life to the pain and weariness that the world lavishes on those who choose more acceptable professions.  She has developed consumption, almost always fatal in that era.  At one of the salon parties she meets Alfredo Germont, a young man from a respectable, well-to-do family.  He has fallen in love with her and his words stir a secret desire within her to love and be loved.  They live happily together for a short time in the country side before Alfredo’s father, Giorgio Germont, appears to plead in private with her to release his son to allow Alfredo to live a respectable life and allow his sister to marry into a respectable family.  Violetta, at great personal suffering, summons the will to do the honorable thing, and in the only way possible, by returning to her former life.  Alfredo, who believes her act, angrily insults her in public before departing with his father.  Later, the father, stricken by guilt, confesses to Alfredo, and the lovers are reunited, moments before she dies.

left: Joshua Guerrero as Alfredo Germont and Venera Gimadieva as Violetta. right: Venera Gimadieva as Violetta and Lucas Meachem as Giorgio Germont. Photo by Scott Suchman; courtesy of the Washington National Opera.

Terrific stuff, but how many times do you want to hear the same great story?  Honestly, I attended WNO’s new production of La Traviata on Saturday night largely because that is what was showing.  The chance to hear Verdi’s music and its incomparable arias sung by a cast of highly-regarded singers made my decision more palatable.  I was also curious to see what this new production by Director Francesca Zambello would be like; she is also WNO’s artistic director. 

There were two stars to the evening: as anticipated, soprano Venera Gimadieva, making her first U.S. appearance, and Ms. Zambello, who breathed new life into this oft told tale.  The opera very much lives or dies based upon how convincing and compelling the soprano who plays Violetta can be, and Ms. Gimadieva gave us an excellent performance.  I was not sure this was going to be the case early in Act I, but by the close of the first act, the warmth and beauty of her voice was in full radiance.  It is worth going to see and hear her Violetta.  On the other hand, I personally did not care for tenor Joshua Guerrero’s portrayal of Alfredo, neither singing nor acting; he was not convincing or compelling to me (in fairness, both my wife and son thought he was a good Alfredo).  I had mixed feelings about Lucas Meachem who plays Germont, the father.  He has a commanding baritone voice to go along with a commanding stage presence.  His portrayal of Germont senior was convincing, though stoic, perhaps to a fault.  I thought he shone best in his scenes with his son as more human, rather than with Violetta.  Several of the minor roles were well played by current or former Domingo-Cafritz young artists, including mezzo-soprano Deborah Nansteel as salon proprietor Flora, tenor Arnold Livingston Geis as Gaston, Alfredo’s friend, soprano Alexandra Shiner as nurse Annina, and bass Timothy Bruno as Dr. Grenvil.  The orchestra led by Conductor Renato Palumbo must have played well considering how much I enjoyed the arias.  However, when I focused on the orchestra, it seemed to vary between almost disappearing and then charging in like the calvary; it seemed uneven to me.  The chorus under the direction of Chorus Master Steven Gathman added enjoyment to the evening, especially when singing in smaller groupings and using softer tones.

left: Arnold Livingston Geis as Gastone and Deborah Nansteel as Flora partying. right: Spanish dancers enliven the party. Photo by Scott Suchman; courtesy of the Washington National Opera.

The other star of the night was Director Francesca Zambello.  There are features of her new production to take issue with, but on the whole, this was WNO’s turn at making opera fun by giving the audience something fresh and different, visually arresting.  For me, it did not succeed as well at fully drawing me into the drama, but did well enough.  The focus seemed to be on the show, the costumes, the sets, the lighting, and the dancing.  All were, in fact, stunning.  The nineteenth century costumes were beautiful, the sets were eye pleasing with a depth and perspective supported by lighting effects that made the scenery both attractive and convincing.  The dancers in colorful costumes showed enthusiasm and fire; though, while delightful, the dance number leading off Act II seemed gratuitous.  Kudos to Costume Designer Jess Goldstein, Set Designer Peter Davidson, Lighting Designer Mark McCollough, and Choreographer Parker Esse.  Ms. Zambello began with the ending with Violetta in a hospital bed as Verdi’s overture played; the overture is sad for about thirty seconds and then becomes more lively dissociating from the action on stage.  This was saved somewhat by Violetta bouncing out of bed revealing her party dress and off she went, though that did not seem like someone gravely ill.  There was another such moment at the opera’s close when Violetta imitates Tosca, but hey, adding something unexpected to refresh this opera is not a bad thing.  The symbolism of having Germont entertain himself with birds in a cage and then pluck petals from a flower as he pleaded with Violetta were double edged as changes tend to be; they made him seem unconcerned with Violetta’s feelings, but then it was harder to believe his conversion in the end.  Overall, staging got an A from me for making something old new.

Alfredo (Joshua Guerrero) comforts Violetta (Venera Gimadieva) in her final moments. Photo by Scott Suchman; courtesy of the Washington National Opera.

Alfredo (Joshua Guerrero) comforts Violetta (Venera Gimadieva) in her final moments. Photo by Scott Suchman; courtesy of the Washington National Opera.

So, why do we keep going back to La Traviata?  We keep going back to our favorite restaurant for our favorite dish for both the pleasure and the nourishment.  La Traviata pleases, especially in sparkling productions such as this one, but what does it nourish?  I often try to put into words what the arts give us that keeps us going back, even for the same thing, and I consistently feel I come up short.  I recently read this quote by Ned Rorem, “If music could be translated into human speech, it would no longer need to exist.”  Maybe, this is the case for the arts in general.  As one of my favorite comedians says, “I can’t tell you why, I just know it’s true.”

The Fan Experience: Future performances by the Gimadieva-Guerrero-Meachem cast will be on Oct 9, 11, 13, 15, 17, 21.  The Jacqueline Echols – Mario Chang – Michael Chioidi cast will perform on Oct 14, 20.  There will be one performance on Oct 19 by the Domingo-Cafritz Young Artists.  Tickets can be accessed here.

My son and I took the Silver Line Metro to Foggy Bottom and walked to the Kennedy Center.  It took about 8 min to walk.  The red Kennedy Center shuttle bus waiting at the metro stop left the station after we did and it beat us there by about 3 minutes. As we were speeding down the middle of I-66 on the subway, I felt sympathy for the folks in the cars fighting the congestion.

Met Opera’s Live HD in Cinemas Broadcasts Begin Saturday: Ten Operas in New Season

The Metropolitan Opera, whose 2018-2019 season runs from September 24 through May 11, will initiate their series of broadcasts into movie theaters, around the U.S. and abroad, on Saturday, October 6.  There are ten operas that will be broadcast live in the new season.  My impression is that this series is quite popular in the Washington DC area, in no small measure due to the Met’s imprimatur; my wife and I typically make a homage to Lincoln Center in NYC at least once or twice a year.  In my area, the good reserved cinema seats sell out months in advance for the “live” broadcasts that occur simultaneously with the performance.  An bonus attraction for the In Cinemas broadcasts is the interviews during intermission with performers and staff for the opera, and insights given into the inner workings of the Met.  Also appealing is that the dress is very casual, and popcorn is allowed in the theaters. 

I keep harping on one point, so here it is one more time: though I personally enjoy attending the In Cinemas broadcasts, they do not match the experience of attending the live event itself.  Nothing compares to being there, even without the popcorn.

Season preview video from Youtube.

Met live HD in Cinemas lineup for the 2018-2019 season:

·       Aida: Oct 6 (live), 10 (re-broadcast)

·       Samson and Dalila: Oct 20 (live), 24 (re-broadcast)

·       La Fanciulla del West: Oct 27 (live), 31 (re-broadcast)

·       Marnie: Nov 10 (live), 14 (re-broadcast)

·       La Traviata: Dec 15 (live), 19 (re-broadcast)

·       Adriana Lecouvreur: Jan 12 (live) 16 (re-broadcast)

·       Carmen: Feb 2 (live), 6 (re-broadcast)

·       La Fille du Regiment: Mar 2 (live), 6 (re-broadcast)

·       Die Walkure: Mar 30 (live), 3 (re-broadcast)

·       Dialogues des Carmelites: May 11 (live), 15 (re-broadcast)

Some things to know: Showtimes are Saturdays at noon, 12:30 pm, or 12:55 pm – check when you buy your ticket.  The re-broadcast (termed an “encore”) of each opera typically takes place on the following Wednesday; these are not as popular as the live broadcasts on Saturdays, so good seats usually continue to be available closer to performance time, often the day of.  Individual theaters may have overriding policies as to when tickets for specific showings can be purchased; check with your local theater.  Each opera listed on the Met in Cinemas website includes a Find Theater button that will lead to a site where you can enter your city/state address and see theaters in your area (note: I have found that entering your zipcode does not work).  Wikipedia provides a history of this program. Tickets are in the in the $20-25 range, with discounts for children and seniors.  To select a performance and buy tickets, click here.

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

What interests me that's coming up: In general, the Met holds lord over most other opera companies in the U.S. for two reasons: first, resources and the size of the venue; nobody can do spectacles like the Met.  Secondly, the Met imprimatur signifies that if you perform at the Met then you have made it in the opera world; so, the Met can attract the best singers, musicians, and creative staff, not that they always do. 

The Met has done a good job of picking out the operas on their 2018-2019 schedule that I would most like to see this year for live HD in Cinemas broadcasta; here are a few reasons:

Anna Netrebko – possibly the reigning top diva in the world, she appears in Aida and Adriana Lecouvreur.  Aida is one of Verdi’s greats, and this is Netrebko’s first time in the role (note: Sondra Radanovsky, also a stand out diva, rotates in the role with Anna for the other live performances at the Met; always check to see if an opera you want to attend has your preferred cast on the date you wish to go).  I have not seen Adriana Lecouvreur before and read that it is not a great opera, but is a great star vehicle; in this opera Anna is paired with tenor favorite Piotr Beczala.

Samson and Dalila and La Fanciulla del West I have seen recently, and my opinion of both these operas has risen quite high.  With Samson you get Elina Garanča and Robert Alagna, top rated talent (read Anne Midgette’s review here).  With La Fanciulla you get a chance to hear top tenor Jonas Kaufmann, who hasn’t been around in awhile, and focus on the beautiful Puccini music.

Nico Muhly’s Marnie – okay, I’m just curious and it has Isabel Leonard and is based on the Alfred Hitchcock movie.

Dialogues des Carmelites – This opera by Francis Poulenc has an unusual opera structure.  The story of nuns committing martyrdom sounds depressing, but again it has Ms. Leonard.

La Fille du Regiment – I can do Pretty Yende.  I also am anxious to hear tenor Javier Camarena who has been getting rave reviews.  A knee operation caused me to miss this one in DC.

Get your seats early.  Better yet, go see these jewels in the perfect setting, the Big Apple!


Washington National Opera’s 2018-2019 Season: It’s Here, Something For Everyone

If football has geared up and baseball is headed into the playoffs, it can only mean that opera season is upon us, and for Washingtonians, it means WNO’s first offering is about to raise the curtain.  Verdi’s La Traviata kicks off on Saturday for an eleven-performance run over two weeks, rotating two professional casts and a single performance with the Domingo-Cafritz Young Artists.  Contemporary opera fans will not have to wait long: Silent Night starts in early November. Kids will get a turn in December with The Lion, the Unicorn, and Me.  This mix of old and new will continue in January when the new works commissioned by the American Opera Initiative are presented, including the hour-long chamber opera, Taking Up Serpents. Then we have trips to Russia (Eugene Onegin), France (Faust), and a return to Italy (Tosca) to finish out the season.

WNO Season 2018-2019

La Traviata (1853) – Oct 6, 7, 9, 11, 13, 14, 15, 17, 19, 20, 21

Silent Night (2011) - Nov 10, 14, 17, 18, 20, 23, 25

The Lion, the Unicorn, and Me (2013) – Dec 14, 15, 16

Taking Up Serpents (American Opera Initiative, 2019) – Jan 11, 13

Three New 20-Min Operas (American Opera Initiative, 2019) – Jan 12

Eugene Onegin (1879) - Mar 9, 17, 20, 23, 25, 29

Faust (1859) - Mar 16, 18, 22, 24, 27, 30

Tosca (1900) - May 11, 12, 14, 17, 19, 20, 22, 25

Jacqueline Echols as Violetta and Joshua Guerrero as Alfredo. Photo by Cade Martin; courtesy of Washington National Opera.

Jacqueline Echols as Violetta and Joshua Guerrero as Alfredo. Photo by Cade Martin; courtesy of Washington National Opera.

La Traviata: La Traviatas are all about the sumptuous music and Violetta, the secretly ill courtesan who lives for pleasure until she falls in love and must make a heart wrenching choice (composer Giuseppe Verdi and librettist Francesco Maria Piave).  Upfront, WNO gives us the choice of three Violettas. Rotating in the role will be Russian soprano Venera Gimadieva, American soprano Jacqueline Echols, and Domingo-Cafritz Young Artist Marlen Nahhas.  You can see this as a dilemma, having to choose just one, or as an opportunity to see all three.  I will be giving first priority to Ms. Gimadieva because this will be her first U.S. appearance and she comes with rave reviews from Europe and Russia; she was also named by opera authority Fred Plotkin as one of the 40 under 40 opera singers to watch.  However, I can also give a strong endorsement to Ms. Echols whom I have seen in several minor roles that I praised in OperaGene blog reports, and this might be the breakout performance that propels her to stardom.  I am not yet familiar with Ms. Nahhas, but seeing the performances by young stars-in-the-making has its own special excitement.  The guys all have impressive CVs and add appeal, and they might also factor into which performance you decide to see.  Also adding luster to this La Traviata is that it will be a new production, directed by WNO’s Artistic Director Francesco Zambello with new set designs and turn-of-the century Paris costumes.  One of Ms. Zambello’s themes during her tenure at WNO has been to use color and art in WNO’s productions to increase their visual appeal (see the OperaGene reports on WNO’s Aida and Madame Butterfly). 

Production photo for  Silent Night . Photo by Jeff Roffman for the Atlanta Opera; courtesy of Washington National Opera.

Production photo for Silent Night. Photo by Jeff Roffman for the Atlanta Opera; courtesy of Washington National Opera.

Silent Night: Coming up in November is the opera I anticipate will be the highlight of the season for me as a fan of new opera.  Silent Night by composer Kevin Puts and librettist Mark Campbell tells the World War I story of a ceasefire initiated by trench soldiers of different nationalities to honor Christmas Eve; it is based on the film “Joyeux Noel”.  Mr. Puts won the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for Music for Silent Night.  It has been regularly produced in the U.S. since its premiere in 2011, including productions in five cities this season.  The Puts/Campbell team worked together on two other operas, Manchurian Candidate and Elizabeth Cree; I am a fan of Cree which premiered at last year’s O18 Festival Opera Philadelphia.  The cast will be headed by Domingo-Cafritz Young Artists and recent graduates, bass Kevin Kellogg, tenor Alexander McKissick, and soprano Raquel Gonzalez.  I recently heard Mr. Kellogg’s strong bass voice in Maryland Lyric Opera’s La Fanciulla del West and Mr. McKissick’s impressive tenor voice as Romeo in Wolf Trap Opera’s excellent production of Romeo and Juliette. Contrasting with the beauty of the music is the ugliness of war. Depiction of warfare in the trenches has caused WNO to caution that this opera is appropriate for ages 12 and above, even though the scene is short, bloodless, and is obscured behind a scrim; better to err on the side of caution.

The Lion, the Unicorn, and Me: December is the holiday season and parents are always on the lookout for something festive to do with their kids.  WNO has an excellent option for you.  The Lion, the Unicorn, and Me presents a fable based on animals contending to lead Mary and Joseph to Bethelem and is based on a book of the same name by Jeanette Winterson with lyrics by poet J.D. McClatchy and music by Jeanine Tesori. Composer Tesori wrote music for “Thoroughly Modern Millie” and “Shrek the Musical”, and has five Tony Award nominations. Directed by Francesca Zambello who has been involved with this opera from the beginning, the cast will principally be from The Domingo-Cafritz Young Artists and the Washington Children’s Chorus.  Washington Post critic Anne Midgette provides an informative overview of this work as first presented in 2013. One immediate caution: kid’s operas at the Kennedy Center tend to sell out; get your tickets early. 

AOI: January belongs to the American Opera Initiative, WNO’s program to provide support and collaborative opportunities to emerging composers and librettists for the advancement of contemporary American opera.  On Friday evening and Sunday afternoon, a one-hour opera is premiered, and on Saturday evening three new 20-min operas are presented in two different performances, all using cast members from the Domingo-Cafritz Young Artist program.  This year’s one-hour opera has composer Kamala Sankaram and librettist Jerre Dye.  The story revolves around a daughter’s return home to the deep South when her father, a fire and brimstone preacher, is bitten by one of the snakes he handles.  I grew up in Georgia and its hard to say which scares me more, snakes or fire and brimstone preachers. You can read the bios for this talented team here: Ms. Sankaram; Mr. Dye.

Stock photo of Eugene Onegin. Photo by Todd Rosenberg; courtesy of Washington National Opera.

Stock photo of Eugene Onegin. Photo by Todd Rosenberg; courtesy of Washington National Opera.

Eugene Onegin: The rest of the new year will be allotted to the traditional greats, beginning with Eugene Onegin by composer and librettist Piotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky based on the novel by Alexander Pushkin.  Tatiana is a young woman reared in the country who falls in love with a more mature, more sophisticated man, Eugene Onegin, and declares her love in a letter to him.  She is rejected, but as time passes the tables start to turn.  One of our favorite opera experiences for my wife and I was hearing Anna Nebtrebko sing Tatiana at the Metropolitan Opera.  WNO is bringing in talented Russian singers for the lead roles of Tatiana (soprano Anna Nechaeva), Onegin (baritone Igo Golovatenko), and Lensky (tenor Alexey Dolgov).  Tchaikovsky’s music is lush and lovely and Onegin has a central theme and melody that will stick in your head for a very long time. 

Faust: Faust with composer Charles Gounod and librettists Jules Barbier and Michael Carré has perhaps the best known story in the world - Dr. Faust sells his soul to the Devil to have his youth restored - and some of the most recognizable music in the repertoire.  Soprano Erin Wall who will play Marguerite is a highly sought after opera performer and concert artist.  Marco Puente (Faust), Raymond Aceto (Mephistopheles) and Joshua Hopkins (Valentin) have all earned stellar reputations.  WNO’s production was originated by Ms. Zambello with the Houston Grand Opera and uses a “storybook aesthetic”.

Tosca: Tosca’s librettists are Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa.  The composer is…pause…let’s all bow, and repeat “we are not worthy several times” to…Giacomo Puccini!  I recently heard Puccini’s La Fanciulla del West played by an 80-piece orchestra on stage and now have an even greater respect his music.  And Tosca has some of his best.  It also has a dynamite tale of lust, power, critical miscues, a surprise plot twist or two, and a villain (Scarpia) that you can really sink your teeth into, and you will want to.  WNO will also do this one with rotating casts, but all performances will be anchored by renown base-baritone Alan Held as Scarpia, especially well-known to DC audiences; in many ways, this is Scarpia’s opera.  This year Mr. Held is serving his second stint as Artist in Residence for the Domingo-Cafritz Young Artist Program. 

The Fan Experience: Individual tickets are available for all performances at this time, though tickets for the The Lion, the Unicorn, and Me and American Opera Initiative already have limited availability.  For La Traviata and Tosca, be sure to select the date when the cast you wish to hear is performing. If you are interested in buying tickets to more than one opera, check with the box office at 202-467-4600 to see if subscriptions are still possible for two or more operas ; with subscriptions, you may be eligible parking discounts and/or other benefits, such as the ability to change your ticket to an alternate performance date.  Also remember that the Kennedy Center uses dynamic pricing which means that if certain performances are in high demand they may raise the prices for the remaining tickets closer to the performance.  Generally all operas will have a pre-opera talk by a local expert and some performances will have after opera Talk Backs with members of the cast and creative staff; check the WNO webpage for the opera of interest for exact times and dates.

Parking is available in the Kennedy Center Garage for $23, currently with discounts of $3 for pre-paid reservations. Traffic in the area near performance times is typically highly congested and can cause significant delays.  You can save wear and tear on your nerves by taking the subway to Foggy Bottom Metro stop and then the red KC bus parked right outside the station; it runs every fifteen minutes.

Please note that Silent Night carries the following statement: “This performance is recommended for audience members age 12 and up.”


O18’s Brenda di Lammermoor or is it Laurent di Lammermoor?

Lucia di Lammermoors are often best known for the sopranos who played the role of Lucia, and thus, the famous mad scene.  I have suggested that it might be helpful to just name each production of this very popular opera for the soprano.  In this case, Brenda Rae plays Lucia, so to aid our memories why not simply call it Brenda di Lammermoor.  Think how much easier it would be to remember which Opera Philadelphia Lucia that you saw or to find articles in Google on this production if it was so named.  However, my plan hit a bump with this production.  There are two prominent stars for this presentation.  As I will discuss more, Director Laurent Pelly’s fingerprints are all over this edition.  This one should also have an alias, Laurent di Lammermoor.

Lucia played by Brenda Rae. Photo by Steven Pisano; courtesy of Opera Philadelphia.

Lucia played by Brenda Rae. Photo by Steven Pisano; courtesy of Opera Philadelphia.

If you don’t know the story already, Lucia falls in love with and pledges herself to Edgardo from a rival family. Edgardo is the arch enemy of her brother Enrico who now heads her family.  Enrico desperately needs her to marry Lord Arturo to save the family from ruin.  With deception and pressure, he forces Lucia into the marriage.  Edgardo, who has been on travel, finds out and believes his betrothed has deceived him.  Under the strain, Lucia becomes unhinged and, well, lots of bad things happen.  The composer is Gaetano Donizetti and the librettist is Salvatore Cammarano.  This singing is bel canto and the music is a crowd pleaser.  However, key to your response to this opera is how you feel about Lucia. 

l: Lucia (Brenda Rae) has been summoned by Enrico (Troy Cook). r: Edgardo (Michael Spyres) and Lucia (Brenda Rae) sing of their love. Photos by Steven Pisano; courtesy of Opera Philadelphia.

My wife and I attended Friday night’s opening performance after attending Thursday night’s opening of Sky on Swings, the first of O18 Festival productions.  With Sky, Opera Philadelphia pushed into contemporary opera, facing a current topic head on.  With Lucia, they probe opera’s boundaries more modestly by giving us a classic opera in a new dress and new shoes and new accouterments. What you make of that might very well depend on whether you have seen Lucia before, especially a version you are fond of.  This was my wife’s first, and she became immersed in the story and enjoyed it.  I have seen Lucia a couple of times before, and while I enjoyed this OP performance, I viewed it more like I was going to see what Christmas decorations Saks has in its windows this year.  So even for the marvelous Ms. Rae who sings beautifully and played the mad scene to the hilt, I was not emotionally involved, but simply looking on as though I was watching an Olympic diving competition (I gave her a 9.0; I’m easy).  Too bad really, because seeing Lucia should be a highly visceral experience.

l: Raimondo (Christian Van Horn) instructs Lucia (Brenda Rae) to marry Arturo. r: Arturo (Andrew Owens) is greeted by Enrico (Troy Cook). Photos by Kelly & Massa; courtesy of Opera Philadelphia.

There is lots of other good stuff in this production as well as the mad scene.  Opera Philadelphia brought in the singers to match the reputation of the in-demand director, Mr. Pelly.  As stated already, Ms. Rae is certainly worth seeing and hearing; her ability to sing naturally while standing, sitting, or lying prostate is amazing.  Personally, I loved all the voices and liked the singing very much.  Tenor Michael Spyres was a fine Edgardo and baritone Troy Clark was an edgy, self-interested Enrico that you could easily dislike.  I find the role of the chaplain Raimondo to be one of the more interesting; it’s never quite clear whose side he is on, stability I suppose.  Christian Van Horn who plays him has a stage-commanding bass-baritone voice; he recently won the 2018 Richard Tucker award.  I was also impressed with Andrew Owens in the relatively small role of Arturo; he has a beautiful tenor voice that I’d love to hear more of. So, if for no other reason, go to hear this excellent group of singers in a great opera.

l: Arturo (Andrew Owens) and Enrico (Troy Cook) look on as Lucia (Brenda Rae) signs the wedding contract held by Raimondo (Christian Van Horn). r: Edgardo (Michael Spyres) arrives and denounces Lucia (Brenda Rae). Photos by Steven Paisano; courtesy of Opera Philadelphia.

Another good thing about this opera (and I’m not including the music) is getting to see it through modern European eyes.  This Lucia is a collaborative effort between Opera Philadelphia and Wiener Staatsoper and will play next in Vienna. This production isn’t wild like some European productions, but it does have a chic style that I associate with Europe.  It’s also clever.  A snow-covered hill on stage has to be worked around all evening and manages to provide the staircase that Lucia is supposed to enter for the mad scene.  The walls of estate are see-through screens.  The lighting plays with our emotions using colors and shadings and plays with our eyes using perspective to make a mansion appear at different distances in the background.  There are a few surprises I won’t disclose.  It’s all very fun to watch.

But it never really engaged me in the drama, and I was looking forward to that.  Mr. Pelly and Ms. Rae have turned Lucia into a basket case from the get-go, starting with the death of her mother.  Enrico was blinded by his desperate situation and did not see her breaking down, but I wondered why Edgardo does not see this and back off.  The Lucias I have seen before were initially stable women who were pushed too far; the psychotic break comes as a bit of a shock.  I wanted to call a doctor for Ms. Rae’s Lucia within a few minutes of seeing her contort on stage.  And then when she went mad, I wondered where she found the strength to strike back.  I know everyone wants to put their stamp on a performance but I’d like to see Ms. Rae again as a more traditional Lucia.

Lucia (Brenda Rae) has gone completely mad. Photo by Kelly & Massa; courtesy of Opera Philadelphia.

Lucia (Brenda Rae) has gone completely mad. Photo by Kelly & Massa; courtesy of Opera Philadelphia.

Ah yes, the music.  Conductor Corrado Rovaris has gotten high marks in the professional reviews I’ve read (see listings in sidebar), but I was found the performance to be unremarkable.  The sound seemed thin and for me seemed mostly reactive to the emotional turmoil on stage, not really a player in the opera.  Perhaps I need to give it another listen, and I offer a few caveats to my view.  It may take awhile before I am satisfied with the small to modest-sized opera orchestras in the pits after hearing Puccini’s La Fanciulla del West played by an eighty-piece orchestra on stage.  Also, balance my remarks with my wife’s opinion that the music was fine and did support the story.  We also have to give Mr. Rovaris some points for being a Donizetti enthusiast.  He was born in Bergamo, Italy which is Donizetti’s hometown and returns there every year to lead a program honoring him on Donizetti’s birthday.  So, I undoubtedly got a genuine Donizetti, if not the sound I like.

The Fan Experience: There are two more performances: September 28 and 30.  The auditorium in the Academy of Music has been renovated; the new seats are comfy and give more legroom.  We had good center orchestra (Parquet) seats, but our view was partially blocked by tall heads in front of us, just the luck of the draw.  The front row seats in the Parquet Circle and Balcony looked pretty appealing.  For Swings, we stayed in the Klimpton Palomar and for Lucia the Marriott Fairfield Inn and Suites; my wife had free nights coming at both.  We had a spacious room at the Palomar which is well appointed in an historic building and offers a free wine tasting in the afternoon.  The room at the Fairfield was quite small but charming in its own way and came with a good buffet breakfast.  We enjoyed both hotels and both were within easy walking distance of the venues.

O18’s Sky on Swings: Like Alzheimer's, Bleak, But Human

Opera Philadelphia opened the O18 Festival with the premiere of Sky on Swings, an opera that presents Alzheimer’s disease in full frontal nudity.  O18 is purposed with exploring boundaries for opera, pioneering new directions.  The reins for this new production addressing a contemporary issue were handed to Lembit Beecher, based on his concept originated while he was OP’s first composer in residence, and to librettist Hannah Moscovitch, a leading Canadian playwright; they also collaborated on O17’s I Have No Stories to Tell You.  In the 74 minutes of Swings, they offer no silver linings or happy endings, nor do they plead for a cause, but they do offer compassion.  As the character Danny says as she voluntarily enters a facility to provide for her care as an Alzheimer’s patient, this is where she will lose her mind including herself, and then die, a comment bleak, but human in that the exact line as delivered appropriately drew a laugh.

Martha (Marietta Simpson) comforts Danny (Frederica von Stade) when she enters the Alzheimer’s care facility. Photo by Dominic M. Mercier; courtesy of Opera Philadelphia.

Martha (Marietta Simpson) comforts Danny (Frederica von Stade) when she enters the Alzheimer’s care facility. Photo by Dominic M. Mercier; courtesy of Opera Philadelphia.

The topic hits close to home for many people today.  Frankly, I don’t want to think about Alzheimer’s disease.  But every time I forget something, the name of someone I know that I can’t make surface or what it was that I went down to the basement for, I think about getting older and memory loss, and I wonder.  I wonder if it is getting worse.  I think there are a lot of us who are wondering.  Those in the audience who have friends and family members with this disease must have found watching this opera especially painful and perhaps provocative.  My wife who lost her father to AD had tears in her eyes, not just from sympathy for the story being presented, but also from the connection it made to her own life.

At this point, you might say no thanks.  The problem is this: if you don’t go to see Sky on Swings you will miss a lot.  You will miss an excellent work of art doing its job, in this case forcing us to confront one of today’s worst fears, enabling us to see it for what it is and what it isn’t, and maybe to some degree bring us together in facing it.  You will miss the understanding and insight this production offers, as it shows us not just the medical, but the human face of Alzheimer’s disease. 

Sharleen Joynt alone as Winnie; Daniel Taylor as Ira forces his mom, Danny played by Frederica von Stade to confront her memory loss. Photos by Dominic M. Mercier; courtesy of Opera Philadelphia.

You will also miss two famous mezzo-sopranos turning in outstanding acting as well as singing performances. Marietta Simpson plays Martha, a woman in her seventies with advanced disease, who is visited often by her daughter, Winnie, played by soprano Sharleen Joynt.  Frederica von Stade plays Danny, a researcher in her sixties forced to confront her failing memory by her son, Ira, played by tenor Daniel Taylor.  Martha and Danny meet in the facility and develop an emotional connection.  Martha has hallucinations and is often fearful without knowing why, but she is calmed by Danny’s presence.  She recalls a memory of a girl she had fallen in love with when she was fifteen and begins to place Danny in that role; Danny slowly succumbs to her fantasy.  We see these two, even in what we call an impaired state, as human, capable of emotional bonding.  Ms. Stade and Ms. Simpson are fine actors with very appealing stage presence.  Their natural likability easily elicits sympathy for their distress.  I thought the pairing was perfect; if they were to become co-stars in a television series, it would be a hit.  It takes talent and maturity to deliver those lyrics, sometimes mumbled, as recitative or as arias with such clarity and precision and believability.  The younger members of the cast, Ms. Joynt and Mr. Taylor also sang and played their roles well and seem to have bright careers ahead of them.  The use of elders, inmates at the memory center facility provided continuous motion and background vocalizations helping to set the stage and mood.

l to r: Composer Lembit Beecher (photo by Jamie Jung); Librettist Hannah Moscovitch (photo by Ian Brown); Director Joanna Settle (photo courtesy of Joanna Settle. Photos courtesy of Opera Philadelphia.

You will also miss a high-quality production of minimalism that worked to effect an overall cohesive, compelling drama; kudos to Director Joanna Settle who collaborated closely with Beecher and Moskovitch in developing the opera.  The set in white and shades of gray and lighting conveyed the sterility of a medical facility, occasionally in a surreal fashion befitting a confused or hallucinatory mental state; kudos to Set Designer Andrew Lieberman and Lighting Designer, Pat Collins.  The music provided by only an eleven-piece orchestra supports and wraps around the drama, with occasional dissonance that complements the confusion of Alzheimer’s; kudos to Conductor Geoffrey McDonald.  Mr. Beecher worked closely with the two leads using their voices and singing abilities in developing the score.  Ms. Moscovitch’s excellent libretto effectively communicated the nature of the disease and the impact on the characters without ever being preachy.  The pacing of the drama set by Ms. Settle allowed the drama to unfold naturally without being rushed or having scenes that dragged.

l: Martha (Marietta Simpson) and Danny (Frederica von Stade) sit together in a surreal landscape with the Elders in the background. r: Martha is comforted by Danny. Photos by Dominic M. Mercier; courtesy of Opera Philadelphia.

Opera Philadelphia says that Sky on Swings asks the question is there grace in memory loss.  My son tells me that the Greek historian Herodotus around 400 B.C. reported on ancient tribes, otherwise moral, in which family members would descend on their elderly males, kill them, and make a stew of the meat, returning it to the society from which it sprang.  I guess their answer to the question was no.  Thank goodness we have come far from that.  But it is still a question we grapple with – is there worthwhile life after loss of our memories?  My wife lives with the hope that her father was able to have some enjoyment of his life in his last couple of years when he did not know members of his own family.  She found solace in this opera in Martha’s connection with Danny.  One scene I found especially poignant was when Winnie arrived to take her mom home for the day.  Martha did not want to go.  Winnie did not understand and was frustrated.  I think Martha had moved on and Winnie’s and our expectations no longer applied.  I felt for Winnie’s dilemma.  And the scientist in me wonders how we can help our loved ones who will move on past a veil we cannot see behind?

If you don’t see Sky on Swings, you will miss a lot – the human connection that art can provide.

The Fan Experience: There are three more performances including tonight plus September 27 and 29. I found the pre-opera talk by Stephen Humes, OP Education Manager, to provide interesting information about how this production came together and useful insights into watching it; starts one hour prior to the performance.


Maryland Lyric Opera’s La Fanciulla del West: MDLO Proves Me Wrong

Frankly, I thought that the Maryland Lyric Opera, a relatively new, though resurgent, small opera company, might be overly ambitious in beginning their season performing a concert version of La Fanciulla del West (The Girl of the Golden West; composer Giacomo and librettists Guello Civinini and Carlo Zangarini).  This is one of Puccini’s less popular operas that still gets performed, and MDLO planned to give it a full orchestra and chorus for an opera that already has a large number of singing parts, and then perform it in the concert hall at Strathmore Music Center in Bethesda which seats almost two thousand attendees.  That’s a big treatment for an opera that might not draw that well. I should have more faith. Kudos to the creative team and staff; I’m happy to report that MDLO took a swing and hit one out of the park.  I thought the turn-out was good, though there were too many empty seats.  For this production, MDLO deserved a packed house.  I attended both Friday (Sept 14) and Saturday (Sept 15) performances.

Opening night of  La Fanicula del West  begins. Photo by Julian Thomas; courtesy of Maryland Lyric Opera.

Opening night of La Fanicula del West begins. Photo by Julian Thomas; courtesy of Maryland Lyric Opera.

Ok, first off I have to eat my words.  I have previously referred to Fanciulla as a merely good Puccini opera, that happens to have a great theme – the ability of love to enable redemption.  I felt this opera lacked the number of stand-out arias so characteristic of Puccini’s more popular operas, necessary to push it into the great category.  MDLO has changed my mind.  La Fanciulla del West is a great Puccini opera.  From the opening refrain, the MDLO orchestra, under MDLO Conductor and Music Director Louis Salemno, knocked me back in my seat.  The recurring musical themes coupled to the complex and intricate orchestration brought forth by the eighty-piece orchestra were worthy of a symphony.  I had not gotten this effect from the orchestras in the fully-staged versions I have seen previously. Those orchestras were smaller and placed in the pit (concert versions typically have the orchestra on stage with the singers), and there was competition for my attention between the sound and the visual unfolding of the drama in fully-staged versions.  Indeed, I feel like I heard this music for the first time.  But that was not all; the stage not only held a full orchestra, it also had a 37-member male chorus behind the orchestra and a cast of 17 singers rotating up front.  More on that later, but it was one of those experiences you don’t forget.

Susan Bullock as Minnie; Mark Delavan as Rance and Jonathan Burton as Johnson. Photos by Julian Thomas; courtesy of Maryland Lyric Opera.

So that you know who’s who in this story, here is my synopsis of the plot, largely what I wrote for my blog report on MDLO’s new season: Imagine a saloon in a tiny mining town during the California gold rush.  Good-hearted and virtuous Minnie, who has never been kissed, runs the saloon and is the surrogate mother/fantasy girlfriend for a group of miners.  Local sheriff Jack Rance wants her for himself and is pressuring her to give in; she is having none of it.  Bandit and gang leader Ramirez sneaks into town using Dick Johnson as an alias, planning to check out the saloon for a planned robbery, while his gang awaits him on the outskirts of town.  Instead, Dick falls for Minnie and she for him.  There are chases and a high stakes card game, where virtuous Minnie cheats to secure her love.  The lasso around Dick’s heart is eventually joined by a noose around his neck as the dramatic conclusion unfolds.  

left: at center stage, SeungHueon Baek as Sonora, Mark Delavan as Rance and Jonathan Burton as Johnson; right: the miner crew to stage right, Jesus Daniel Hernandez as Harry, Mauricio Miranda as Joe, Yazid Gray as Bello, Tim Augustin as Trin, and Hunter Enoch as Happy. Photos by Julian Thomas; courtesy of Maryland Lyric Opera.

After my son heard my praise for Friday night’s show, he wanted to attend; so, I went with him to see Saturday night’s performance as well.  The singers for the lead roles were different, so it gave me an opportunity to see how the different performers affected my view of the opera.  Among the minor roles, Joseph Michael Brent as Nick, Kenneth Kellogg as Ashby, SeungHueon Baek as Sonora, and Catherine Martin as Wowkle all impressed; interestingly I thought Baek added a measure of soulfulness on the second night that was very appealing.  Another standout for me was the group of miners standing together (Jesus Daniel Hernandez, Mauricio Miranda, Yazid Gray, Tim Augustin, and Hunter Enoch) and often singing together with a remarkably appealing tone.  All of the cast sang well, individually in character and as a group, as did the chorus.  The chorus sounded beautiful; kudos to Chorus Master Steven Gathman.  When the entire ensemble sang together the effect was emotionally powerful.

left: Yi Li as Johnson and Jill Gardner as Minnie; photo by Sam Trotman. right: standing - Alexsey Bogdanov as Rance and Jill Gardner as Minnie; seated - Joseph Michael Brent as Nick and Yi Li as Johnson; photo by Dhanesh Mahtani. All photos courtesy of Maryland Lyric Opera.

The differences in the Friday and Saturday night performances arose mainly from what the singers in the lead roles brought to the performance (respectively, sopranos Susan Bullock and Jill Gardner as Minnie; baritones Mark Delavan and Aleksey Bogdanov as Sheriff Rance; and tenors Jonathan Burton and Yi Li as Dick Johnson).  Ms. Bullock has a lovely voice with a soft edge that fits Minnie well; she sang the aria ending her card game with Rance with such conviction and vocal power that she brought down the house.  I personally liked Ms. Gardner’s voice best, and she sang with remarkable power, though she didn’t convey to me the pathos/involvement that I felt from her when I saw her sing Minnie in Virginia Opera’s production.  Perhaps my perception was influenced by seeing her in two stunning evening dresses instead of saloon/miner garb.  Baritone Mark Delavan seemed a natural as Rance.  While I loved Aleksey Bogdanov’s voice and singing, his voice seemed to me a little too dark, more bass like, to play Rance, and motivated too much by power lust, while Mr. Delevan managed to imply at least some carnal desire.  Tenors Jonathan Burton and Yi Li both sang well and sounded great. However, I liked that Mr. Burton managed to sing more to Minnie, while Mr. Li sang more to the audience, which was less convincing.  The Friday night cast seemed the most cohesive and told the story the most convincingly in my opinion.  My son thought the Saturday night group told the story quite well and was also enamored of the singing and playing of the orchestra.  Both performances got enthusiastic and well-deserved standing ovations at the end; I will claim that Friday’s was more genuinely enthusiastic.

Curtain call for Saturday night’s performance. Photo by Sam Trotman; courtesy of Maryland Lyric Opera.

Curtain call for Saturday night’s performance. Photo by Sam Trotman; courtesy of Maryland Lyric Opera.

One of the unfortunate aspects of a live performance is that once it’s over, it’s over.  I can tell you about it, but you can’t experience it.  And recordings if they exist just don’t quite sound the same or carry the same experience.  A book can be passed around and be the same for everyone, but for a live opera performance, you gotta be there!  The Maryland Lyric Opera has several more events this season (see my preview) and based on their stunning production of La Fanciulla del West, I suggest you be there.

The Fan Experience: This was not only my first concert version of Fanciulla, it was also my first trip to the Strathmore Music Center.  Strathmore is worth both seeing and hearing.  Plus, I really appreciated the free, easy access parking adjacent to the concert hall.  I sat in front orchestra on Friday and in the first tier on Saturday.  The sound was excellent in both locations, though the stereophonic effect is stronger in the front orchestra.  I did come away wondering if the sound of the music carries a tad better than operatic voices in the hall, but that could just reflect the individual singer’s technique.  Ms. Gardner’s voice certainly arrived with authority in the first tier.

MDLO’s next production will be October 19, 20 - “MDLO Young Artists Institute - An Evening of Mozart, German Masters”, the date for which was scheduled after my season preview.

Pittsburgh Opera’s 2018-2019 Season: Two Seasons Actually

It took driving through a snow storm last winter, but my wife and I managed to attend Pittsburgh Opera’s Moby Dick where, in opening remarks, the 2018-2019 season was revealed.  My reaction to the announcement was…well, a slight letdown…four grand operas were to be performed, great operas to be sure and two that I haven’t seen before, but it seemed a season apparently lacking the contemporary opera or premiere that previous seasons had provided.  Then, when next season’s lineup was formally announced and placed on PO’s website, I realized only two-thirds of next year’s offerings had been given earlier.  Also planned are performances by the Pittsburgh Opera’s Resident Artists of a contemporary opera and a re-imagined version of a traditional one, exactly the spice I needed.  De facto, there will be two seasons this coming year, one end-capping the opera season with grand operas at the Benedum Center, which will offer a great big helping of Italian opera, one a bit of a surprise, and a taste of fanciful German.  And another season wedged into winter break, which will provide two chamber operas in more intimate settings featuring a young cast exploring new opera and opera made new.  Now I’m on board the excitement train; I only wish it was a high speed rail line that ran between DC and Pittsburgh, especially during winter.  Let’s take a look at the 2018-2019 season in total:

Pittsburgh Opera’s 2018-2019 Season:

October 6, 9, 12, 14

Madama Butterfly (1903)

Composer Giacomo Puccini and librettists Giuseppe Giacosa and Luigi Illica

November 3, 6, 9, 11

Hansel and Gretel (1893, sung in English)

Composer Engelbert Humperdinck and librettist Adelheid Wette

January 26, 29, February 1, 3

afterWARds – Mozart’s Idomeneo Reimagined (2017; Idomeneo, 1781)

Composer Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and librettist Giambattista Varesco

Reimagineer/Director David Paul

February 23, 26, March 1, 3

Glory Denied (2007)

Composer and librettist Tom Cipullo

March 30, April 2, 5, 7

La Boheme (1896)

Composer Giacomo Puccini and librettists Giuseppe Giacosa and Luigi Illica

April 27, 30, May 3, 5

Don Pasquale (1843)

Composer Gaetano Donizetti and librettists Giovanni Ruffini and Gaetano Donizetti

Benedum Center Grand Operas: First, let’s deal with the Italian grand dames of opera.  Puccini’s Madama Butterfly leads off the season and is perfect opera, some of the most gorgeous music ever written wed to a story with great emotional depth.  It affects me every time I see it; I well up with tears for the tender, vulnerable Cio Cio San and bristle and hiss (not too loud) at the faithless Lieutenant Pinkerton.  It is simply my favorite opera.  The soprano playing Cio Cio San must bear her soul as well as her voice; she enters as a 15-year old Japanese girl and is fated to become a disillusioned and despairing young mother.  PO is bringing in a highly accomplished Russian soprano, Dina Kuznetsova, to play Cio Cio San; she heads an impressive cast and creative team that includes director Linda Brovsky, tenor Cody Austin as Pinkerton, baritone Michael Mayes as Sharpless, and mezzo-soprano Laurel Semerdjian as Suzuki (a role to covet for young mezzo-sopranos, providing a great opportunity to get noticed). 

Photos from previous performances of Madama Butterfly (left, photo by David Bachman) and La Boheme (right, photo by David Bachman). Photos courtesy of Pittsburgh Opera.

The first production of Spring will be the classic La Boheme, another Puccini crowd pleaser for both music and story.  Among opera fans this might come in as the all time favorite opera.  Young artists of 1830’s Paris, living in poverty and devoted to their art, are joyful in their spirit and camaraderie and buoyed by the occasional good fortune of one of their members.  A chance meeting of seamstress Mimi and aspiring author Rodolfo sets a bittersweet romance into motion with a bumpy ride to its sad conclusion.  You will be given the opportunity to hear soprano Nicole Cabell as Mimi, which I would very much like to do (Ms. Cabell, much in demand as an opera singer and soloist, won the 2005 BBC Cardiff Singer of the World competition), and tenor Sean Panikkar as Roldolfo.  I have been a fan of Mr. Panikkar’s since hearing him in PO’s premier of The Summer King in 2017.

Now for the surprise - The final grand Italien will be the highly regarded comedy, Don Pasquale, which I have wanted to see for some time.  But while Puccini takes Italian opera to Japan and France; Director Chuck Hudson takes Donizetti's Don Pasquale to 1950’s Hollywood.  Dr. Malatesta and his sister Norina conspire to trick Don Pasquale into allowing his nephew Ernesto to marry Norina.  Only in this inventive production, Pasquale is an aging silent film star trying to make a comeback.  Originated by Mr. Hudson in 2014 with Arizona Opera, his production has since played at Cincinnati Opera, Atlanta Opera, Minnesota Opera, and Fort Worth Opera to a consensus that it is fresh, fun, and lively.  Donizetti’s music, a comedic plot, a trip to Hollywood - if you need another reason to attend, one word…Lisette Oropesa.  Ok, that’s two words, but one soprano and a delightful one in singing and acting.  Ms. Oropesa playing a Hollywood starlet makes Don Pasquale an irresistible proposition.

Photos from previous performances of Don Pasquale by Cincinnati Opera (left, photo by Philip Groshong) and Hansel and Gretel by Washington National Opera (right, photo by Scott Suchman). Photos courtesy of Pittsburgh Opera.

Hansel and Gretel as we all know is the Brothers Grimm tale about baking, or in composer Engelbert Humperdinck’s hands and his sister’s libretto, singing about baking.  Nah, don’t worry, the kids escape the oven and it is the witch’s goose that gets cooked.  This fairy tale opera's first performance was conducted by composer Richard Strauss; an instant success, it has stayed in the popular repertoire since 1893.  This opera is noted for its music, which often uses theme songs from German children’s songs of its day, and is often performed during the holiday season to entice parents to bring the kids and Pittsburgh Opera's version is sung in English.  Hey, I want to see it.

Chamber Operas: Now let’s discus the Jan/Feb mini-season to be performed by Pittsburgh Opera’s Resident Artists: let it be noted that Resident Artists had to compete against over 500 applicants to get into the program and are already accomplished young singers who, while with PO, are honing their skills for professional careers.  Their performances have their own special excitement as previews of young opera stars to be.  The common theme of the two productions they will perform is the ravages of war; one production leaves us with a ray of hope and the other leaves us with no apparent way out. 

Poster art courtesy of Pittsburgh Opera.

Closing out January and heading up February is afterWARds: Mozart’s Idomeneo Reimagined.  I recently saw Wolf Trap Opera’s production of Mozart’s Idomeneo and found the production wanting.  My main difficulty was moving the drama to an earlier time period and yet keeping Greek god Neptune’s wrath as an important driver of the tension.  In Mozart’s version, the boat carrying King Idomeneo of Crete home from the Trojan War sinks in a storm, and to save himself, he promises Neptune he will sacrifice the first person he sees if he arrives home safely.  He does and naturally the first person he encounters is his son, Idamante.  In Director David Paul’s shortened version, the person that King Idomeneo is pressured to put to death is whoever has performed the traitorous act of saving the life of Ilia, a Trojan princess.  The traitor of course turns out to be Idamante who further compounds his sin by falling in love with Ilia.  Interesting…this sounds to me like it might play better to a modern audience, but either way, in the end, true love conquers all, and you get Mozart’s music and some beautiful arias.

True love does not come to the rescue in Glory Denied, but succumbs to harsh reality.  Based on a true story, a Vietnam War veteran returns home after nine years as a P.O.W. to find that his wife, who believed him dead, has remarried.  While she has moved on, Colonel Jim Thompson is left to deal with questions about his involvement in the war and the loss of his wife.  Each time Glory Denied has been produced it has drawn highly laudatory reviews.  Resident Artist Ben Taylor will portray the older Thompson and Terrence Chin-Loy will portray the younger Thompson.  The Vietnam War ended in 1975, but young men are still coming home to America from military conflicts to find out that they and the their country have changed, questions at the heart of Glory Denied.

So, there you have it, a little tragedy, a little comedy, plot twists, opera re-imaginings, stellar singers, great music, grand operas in the historic Benedum Center, and something newer in chamber operas in more intimate settings.  Grab your seats; the Maestro enters…

The Fan Experience: Individual tickets as well as season subscriptions are now on sale.  Also peruse the Pittsburgh website for special discounts, such as student tickets and group purchases.  One of the things I really like about Pittsburgh Opera performances is the range of prices for the tickets, which should accommodate most people's budgets.  I also like their website which is easy to maneuver around.  If you click on the "Seasons" header on the home page, a list of the operas will pop up; then clicking on any of these will take you to the homepage for that opera, and there you will find information on all aspects of the opera and performances, especially helpful for buying tickets and finding info on the casts and creative teams.

Baltimore Concert Opera’s 2018-2019 Season: Ten Years Strong

Baltimore Concert Opera’s seasons are built around four operas presented in concert and three events called ‘Thirsty Thursdays at the Opera’.  The Thursday events feature professional opera singers in a program of arias selected to complement the evening’s libations.  Each season, BCO strives to present to the Baltimore audience they know well a balanced offering of both traditional and newer works, heavier and lighter pieces, and well known and lesser known works.  The BCO experience is focused on opera singing in an intimate setting; it is not offered as an alternative to fully-staged opera; it is meant to be its own thing.  BCO succinctly and amusingly describes the upcoming 2018-2019 season of four operas as Lust, Love, Legend, and Laughs. The theme for the first Thirsty Thursday has just been set as Madness, Malbecs, and More.  Personally, I would label the BCO experience as Friendly Folks and Fun.  In fact, Executive Director of BCO Julia Cooke graciously agreed to chat with me about their new season and also reviewed some of BCO’s history with me.  But first, let’s get right to the season’s agenda.

Baltimore Concert Opera’s 2018-2019 Season:

Season banner courtesy of Baltimore Concert Opera

Season banner courtesy of Baltimore Concert Opera

September 28, 30 (Lust)

Don Giovanni (1787)

Composer: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

Librettist: Lorenzo Da Ponte

October 18 (Madness, Malbecs, and More)

Thirsty Thursdays at the Opera

Wine Tasting

November 9, 11 (Love)

L’amico Fritz (1891)

Composer: Pietro Mascagni

Librettist: P. Suardon

January 31 (TBA)

Thirsty Thursdays at the Opera

Cocktail Tasting

March 1,3 (Legend)

The Flying Dutchman (1843)

Composer: Richard Wagner

Librettist: Richard Wagner

April 5, 7 (Laughs)

Scalia/Ginsburg (2015)

Composer: Derrick Wang

Librettist: Derrick Wang

Trial by Jury (1875)

Composer: Arthur Sullivan

Librettist: W. S. Gilbert

May 23 (TBA)

Thirsty Thursdays at the Opera

Beer Tasting

The BCO story began in the Fall of 2008 when word circulated that the 58 year-old Baltimore Opera Company was in financial distress and had canceled the second half of the season.  A group of performers, including Ms. Cooke, a soprano, and her husband bass-baritone Brendan Cooke, banded together with the idea of producing a concert opera in the Spring to keep the opera momentum going in Baltimore for the sake of performers and patrons.  The venue selected was the Engineers Club of Baltimore, where the Cookes had been married, and the opera selected was Don Giovanni.  This was intended to be a one-time event, but when the Baltimore Opera Company then filed for bankruptcy, it was decided to continue producing concert operas in the Engineers Club and BCO was born as a continuing presence. 

Ms. Cooke reports that it was difficult going initially, but now moving into its tenth season, it is thriving.  They are proud of their subscription rate of 42% among their attendees and that they are showing an increasing number of first time attendees and attendees under 45 years of age.  I myself have been impressed with the number of young people who attend.  They are pleased to be able to offer employment opportunities to opera singers in the Baltimore area.  And BCO remains firmly committed to their format of presenting concert operas with piano accompaniment, and to their venue, the Engineers Club, and to their mission of service to opera in Baltimore and the cultivation of the next generation of opera-goers. 

First up in their tenth season will be a celebration of their first season by presenting Don Giovanni in concert, the very first BCO offering.  Giovanni, a contender for the most popular opera on the planet, is Mozart and Da Ponte’s classic tale of an unrestrained seducer (rapist?) who is starting to lose the race to stay one step ahead of the anger and turmoil of broken lives he has created, a comedy that grows darker as the evening progresses.  This production will be different from seeing Giovanni fully staged or presented in concert with a full orchestra.  BCO productions are a stand alone products with their own advantages.  Opera in concert allows singers and the audience to focus on the singing and music.  In BCO’s case, accompaniment is by piano only.  Opera aficionados not only find the focus on the singing enjoyable, but that it causes the emotional relationships between the characters to stand out more.  According to Ms. Cooke, the performers also benefit in that they are given considerable autonomy in their interpretation of the role compared to fully staged opera, and they have only the relationship with the pianist to develop compared to a large orchestra.  She also notes and I have pointed out in previous blog reports that BCO performances are a good way for newbies to try opera for the first time for a relatively small price.  It would be interesting to know how many BCO newbies go on to attend a fully-staged performance.  Perhaps the crowning advantage of opera by BCO for the audience is the performance site.  The Engineers Club is cozy; wherever you sit you will be close to the singers, and I can assure you that being in close proximity to a professional opera singer in full voice will impress, if not blow your socks off.

With L’amico Fritz (Friend Fritz), Lust is followed up by Love, a desirable progression, is it not?  The composer is Pietro Mascagni who has one big hit in the modern repertoire, Cavalleria rusticana, which helped introduce verismo opera in Italy.  L’amico Fritz is much lighter in tone and outcome; this time the guy gets the girl and doesn’t have an angry husband coming after him.  This is a love story that qualifies as a good date opera.  Mascagni chose a simple story because he wanted to showcase his music; he was peeved that some critics claimed Cavalleria’s success was mainly due to the libretto.  I am also curious to hear the music; the “cherry duet” is a famous piece from it.  L’amico Fritz had a substantial following in Italy during his life but is very rarely performed today.   BCO can afford to produce these little known gems because they will be welcomed by their audience; the Met and the Kennedy Center can’t afford to take such chances.  I sort of crave the opportunities to see something new.

The Flying Dutchman (Der fliegende Holländer) is what I call “introductory Wagner”.  It’s what I practiced on to get ready for Wagner’s The Ring Cycle.  But I warn you; once you get hooked on Wagner, you are looking at 20 hours of The Ring.  But fear not the Dutchman, for BCO has a commitment to three hours or less for all performances.  The Legend is that a sea captain is cursed to ride the seas forever unless he finds salvation, which he can go ashore to seek once every seven years.  The opera begins with once such stopover in a storm; the music was reportedly inspired by Wagner getting tossed about in a stormy boat trip to England.  Ashore, he meets Senta whose true love and sacrifice break the spell, at no small cost to her. This truly is Wagner music anyone can like; very likely you will go home humming a tune or two.

The Dutchman has a large cast and chorus and is on the more expensive side for Baltimore Concert Opera.  One way to balance that out and sustain quality is to have a collaboration.  BCO has been involved in two collaborations the last few years, one with Delaware Opera, including last year’s Gianni Schicchi/Buoso’s Ghost combo, and the other with Opera Southwest, including last year’s Guillame Tell.  In these cases, the same cast does the opera in concert at BCO and then fully-staged at the collaborating venue. 

This is where Laughs come in.  Opera Delaware takes another turn as collaborator on the timely and entertaing close-out twin bill of Derrick Wang’s Scalia/Ginsburg and Gilbert and Sullivan’s Trial by Jury.  Both operas are both funny and poignant and have legal themes.  Scalia/Ginsburg was first a special presentation to the Supreme Court in 2013 and was then produced at the Caselton and Glimmerglass festivals.  Mr. Wang has modified the libretto somewhat post Justice Scalia’s death.  The libretto uses some of the justices own language and the music is playful, incorporating themes from other operas – see how many you can pick out.  It is tonal, melodic, and clever and not to be missed.  Trial by Jury gives BCO a companion to Scalia/Ginsburg that is also lighter and legal and provides an opportunity for BCO to present Gilbert and Sullivan.  You and I think “operetta”, but Gilbert and Sullivan called their works “comic opera”.  Its story is an outrageous satire, funny and prickly with barbs directed at England’s judicial system.  If you are interested and I bet you are, act quickly; Ms. Cooke reports that this event is already half sold.

Baltimore Concert Opera’s 2018-2019 season means many things to many people:  For the newbie, it’s gateway opera; for the opera aficionado, it’s a deeper dive.  For the younger opera goers, it’s a cool (and inexpensive) night out for entertainment mixed in with a serving of culture.  For opera singers, it’s a gig with a chance to develop a role their way.  For staff and board members, it is a continued commitment to deliver quality art to a community that has come to depend on them and to grow that community both for themselves and opera in general.  For me, it is another chance to enjoy pleasant afternoons/evenings in the cozy, welcoming confines of the posh Engineers Club of Baltimore, listening to opera up close and personal.  For Baltimore, it is a success story for opera in a great city that needs it.

The Fan Experience: Tickets, both individual and discounted packages, can be purchased online.  Prices for operas range from $27.50 to $71.50; tickets for the Thirsty Thursday are $29 and the tastings are included in the price of admission.  On street (read the signs carefully) parking and parking lots are close by and valet parking is offered for Sunday performances.  For photos of the Engineers Club and area, see the Fan Experience Section of my blog report on Guillaume Tell at this link.


Maryland Lyric Opera 2018-2019: Something’s Abuzz in Bethesda

Maryland Lyric Opera, which began in 2014 and reorganized in 2017, is planning a breakout season for 2018-2019.  It’s primary events the last couple of years have been its excellent MDLO Young Artist Institute concerts.  The graduates of the Institute have now grown in number, providing relationships with a cache of professional singers and networks, enabling more ambitious undertakings.  Plans this year will include performing a full opera in concert this fall and a fully-staged opera in winter, while still maintaining the young artists program and concerts.  Word is there might also be a special Mozart program this Fall, as yet unannounced.  This is an exciting time for this young suburban-Maryland opera company whose fundamental commitment is to the training and employment of young professional opera singers.  What’s abuzz in Bethesda is that MDLO is bringing opera to Strathmore.  They will be giving their first performance in just one month in Strathmore’s beautiful and acoustically-refined concert hall, accompanied by a full orchestra. 

Maryland Lyric Opera’s 2018-2019 Season

September 14, 15: 

La Fanciulla del West (1910) (The Girl of the Golden West, in concert)

Composer Giacomo Puccini and Librettists Guello Civinini and Carlo Zangarini

The Music Center at Strathmore, Bethesda

January 24, 25, 26: 

Lucia di Lammermoor (1835) (fully staged)

Composer Gaetano Donizetti and Librettist Salvatore Cammarano

Kay Theatre at the University of Maryland at College Park

May 17, 19:

An Evening of Verdi

MDLO Young Artists and Alumni Concert

Kay Theatre at the University of Maryland at College Park

June 7, 9:

An Evening of Puccini

MDLO Young Artists and Alumni Concert

Kay Theatre at the University of Maryland at College Park

MDLO begins the season in Bethesda at Strathmore with a concert version of Puccini’s foray into the American wild west, La Fanciulla del West, based a play that Puccini saw in New York by David Belasco titled “The Girl of the Golden West”.  There will be no costumes or sets, but there will be drama.  The singers will be in character; there will be subtitles in English, and the story will play in your head as you listen to the music.  The advantage of concert opera is that you and the performers get to focus on the singing and the music.  Conductor Louis Salemno, who is Music Director for MDLO, will lead a full, 78-piece orchestra on the stage for these performances.  Personally, I have become a huge fan of concert opera since my initial exposure a couple of years ago; in fact, Washington Concert Opera gave one of my favorite opera performances of 2017-2018 season

Poster courtesy of Maryland Lyric Opera.

Poster courtesy of Maryland Lyric Opera.

Ok, a word about the story - imagine a saloon in a tiny mining town during the California gold rush.  Good-hearted and virtuous Minnie, who has never been kissed, runs the saloon.  Local sheriff Jack Rance wants her for himself and is pressuring her to give in; she is having none of it.  Bandit and gang leader Dick Johnson sneaks into town using an alias, planning to check out the saloon for a planned robbery, while his gang awaits him on the outskirts.  Instead, Dick falls for Minnie and she for him.  There are chases and a high stakes card game, where virtuous Minnie cheats.  The lasso around Dick’s heart is eventually joined by a noose around his neck as the dramatic conclusion unfolds.  The key to Fanciulla is the effectiveness of its three principal characters, Minnie, Dick, and Jack, and for these roles, MDLO has recruited a different set of impressive singers for each night, all established opera stars.  Soprano Susan Bullock, tenor Jonathon Burton, and baritone Mark Delavan will star on the first night and soprano Elizabeth Blancke-Biggs, tenor Yi Li, and baritone Alexsey Bogdanov on the second night.  All have played major opera houses. I’d like to see both performances; what to do?  The eight supporting roles will be played by the same young singers each night; these are primarily alumni of the MDLO Young Artist Institute. 

Louis Salemno, Conductor and Music Director, MDLO; photo courtesy of Maryland Lyric Opera.

Louis Salemno, Conductor and Music Director, MDLO; photo courtesy of Maryland Lyric Opera.

Starting a breakout year with La Fanciulla del West could be viewed as risky; this is not one of Puccini’s blockbusters in terms of popularity, though the music is highly regarded.  Less popular operas are often presented in concert, allowing the great music and singing to be heard without the expense of putting on the fully staged version, cheaper for the company and the audience.  In the U.S., there were three staged productions of Fanciulla in 2017-2018, one by Virginia Opera.  The Metropolitan Opera will be offering a staged production starting October 4 this Fall.  One big draw of this opera for me is its theme: the triumph of love and the possibility of forgiveness and redemption, and after all, it is music by Puccini.   For Maestro Salemno, it’s personal, “La Fanciulla del West has been a part of my repertory for over 40 years, and it is always a privilege to play Puccini’s music in the Opera House.  Giacomo Puccini has a unique ability to illuminate the humanity of his characters, combined with his musical genius and his extraordinary skill in choosing the right note, at the right time, and in the right place....  again, any occasion to present Fanciulla is  precisely that... an occasion to celebrate our common humanity.”  I think you will be happy you attended this one. 

Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor is to be fully staged and performed in the Kay Theatre at the University of Maryland at College Park and the roles to be played by MDLO young artists and alumni.  Lucia is one of the stalwarts of opera’s standard repertoire and playing its principal character’s mad scene is the desire of every coloratura soprano.  The singers for these performances will be MDLO young artists and alumni.  Maeve Höglund will play Lucia on January 24 and 26 and Nayoung Ban will play the role on Jan 25.  Maestro Salemno will again be at the helm of the Maryland Lyric Opera Orchestra.  And once more, the dilemma of which to attend. 

May and June will feature Maryland Lyric Opera’s young artists and alumni in concert at the Kay Theatre, featuring arias by Verdi and Puccini, respectively.  These concerts will differ from their previous young artist concerts, using an expanded format.  They will include semi-staged opera vignettes directed by Nick Olcott, and the accompaniment will be by the MDLO orchestra on stage led by Conductor Salemno.  I have attended a couple of the previous concerts accompanied only by piano, and can report that watching their young artists display their wares is exciting.  They are already accomplished singers and the quality of the performances is high.  Plus, each performance is watching a life story unveiling.  In a previous blog report on MDLO, I described their training and the concerts as part of their artists' struggle for beauty; sometimes it’s breathtaking.  The format for these concerts will give them an enhanced opportunity to display their talents. 

The full operas to be performed and the concerts with an expanded format offer their Young Artist Institute singers enhanced training by providing with the opportunity to work with their peers who have gone on to professional careers and to work with an orchestra, as well as providing additional employment opportunities for opera professionals and orchestra musicians.  Kudos to the MDLO team for the expanded benefits to their singers and to their audiences..

Fan Experience: I have not been to either of the scheduled venues and very much look forward to doing so.  Anne Midgette, classical music critic for the Washington Post, has written that Strathmore offers “the best concert hall, acoustically and aesthetically in the region”.  The Music Center at Strathmore has free and easy access parking as well as valet parking for a fee.  See this link for details.  Tickets can be purchased at this site.

The Music Center at Strathmore; photo courtesy of Strathmore.

The Music Center at Strathmore; photo courtesy of Strathmore.

Kay Theatre, which is part of the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center at the University of Maryland, appears to be a smaller theater, about 600 seats, well-designed for opera.  I tend to like the smaller venues because you can be closer to the singers without paying close up seat prices of the larger arenas.  See this link for parking information.  There will be a charge for tickets to the Verdi and Puccini concerts; tickets start at $20 and will go on sale soon.

Kay Theatre in the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center of the University of Maryland; photo courtesy of the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center.

Kay Theatre in the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center of the University of Maryland; photo courtesy of the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center.

Wolf Trap Opera’s Rigoletto: Well Done WTO!

It’s a shame that Wolf Trap Opera’s production of Giuseppe Verdi’s Rigoletto (1851) on Friday night was just for one performance.  They had to provide a credible performance of a Verdi favorite while contending with the venue’s challenges for presenting opera in an amphitheater (open walls, outside noise, and necessity to use singer microphones in a large venue).  WTO managed to contend with all these elements, yielding a triumph for the company and a fine grand opera for its community.  I can only quibble that the weather which provided rain throughout the evening, harassing those in the lawn seats, failed to provide atmospheric thunder and lightning for final act.  Again, Wolf Trap’s Filene Center drew in a much younger crowd than I see at the major opera houses, many likely there for their first opera.  When I first fell in love with opera, for a long time Rigoletto was my favorite.  It likely made some new fans Friday night.

Opening set and cast for  Rigoletto . Photo by Scott Suchman; courtesy of Wolf Trap Opera.

Opening set and cast for Rigoletto. Photo by Scott Suchman; courtesy of Wolf Trap Opera.

The tale of Rigoletto is a painful story to watch.  Librettist Francesco Maria Piave wove a complex story with complex characters based on a play by Victor Hugo which forces us to watch as power-enabled licentiousness pummels tenderness and innocence and our own hearts, a story all the more relevant as we have seen example after example exposed in today’s headlines.  Rigoletto is a court jester, but he’s not funny; his main job is to cajole husbands and fathers in the court to draw attention and wrath away from his boss, the Duke of Mantua, who is seducing and raping their wives and daughters.  Rigoletto, whose outward life has been deformed by his treatment as a hunchback, has a passionate and loving inside, and a young daughter, Gilda, who he keeps hidden away and who knows little of the outside world.  Rigoletto's taunts to one father, Count Monterone, who has confronted the Duke about his daughter elicits a curse from the Count that instills fear in Rigoletto and sets the tragedy in motion.  Verdi originally titled the opera "La Maledizione" or "The Curse". The angered courtiers learn of a young woman in Rigoletto’s life; thinking her his mistress, they steal her away to the Duke's room.  The Duke has previously encountered Gilda in church, the only other place than home she was allowed to go and won her affection.  He trails her home and presents himself as a poor student to further seal her infatuation with him.  When the courtiers leave her in the Duke’s room he realizes it is Gilda and forces himself upon his naive and vulnerable victim.  Rigoletto, turned vengeful, leads Gilda to see the Duke with another woman, Maddelena, and plots the Duke’s murder by a paid assassin, Sparafucile, who is Maddelena’s brother; however, Gilda still loves the Duke and pleads for his life, even to the point of ultimately sacrificing herself for her loved one.  The Duke who earlier sang that Gilda’s beauty and innocence were almost enough to cause him to lead a moral life goes unpunished for his deeds. 

Kidon Choi as Rigoletto in his jester role and as a worried father outside his home. Photos by Scott Suchman; courtesy of Wolf Trap Opera.

The staging of this production was quite effective.  The set which might have been standard at the Metropolitan Opera, was nothing short of stunning at the Filene Center.  The opening oversized towering columns shadowed in colored light on either side of an entrance foyer adorned with an outsized Roman painting (media/light provided) and with steps flowing down to a large ballroom clearly spoke of power and authority.  For the different acts, a circular center stage rotated to provide for an outside view of Rigoletto and Gilda’s domicile and then again to show Maddalena and Sparafucile’s low life tavern.  The gorgeous 16th century costumes were displayed early as two statuesque courtesans masked in silver (or maybe gold, I forget) entered and descended the stairs as courtiers filled the ballroom.  The Duke makes an entrance singing why tell me to hush; the husbands can’t do anything to me; and he is told, yes, but the women might learn you are with another woman.  You are immediately drawn into the action and it proceeds without letup through the entire evening.  The placement and movement of the players worked very well.  There were two inventions for this production that for me, worked for and against the story.  The ventriloquist dummy carried by Rigoletto foretold he was a jester though he was not otherwise funny, and it occasionally accented the emotion, but sometimes was a distraction.  Same for the media and lighting effects which added a modern feel to the production that I liked and in at least one scene helped convey the turmoil, but the images and the effects were interesting separate from the story and thereby sometimes detracted from the emotional impact of the scene.  The staging of the final scene was novel with the singing-Gilda on a balcony overhead while Rigoletto anguishes over the expiring-Gilda in his arms; that choice gives the impression that our true-hearted one is going to heaven, but perhaps detracts slightly from our grief over her death.  Either way works, but it’s likely much easier for the soprano to sing and project outward standing up.  Overall, the team told the story well: Kudos to Director Crystal Mannich, Scenic Designer Erhard Rom, Video & Projections Designer S. Katy Tucker, Costume Designer Court Watson, Lighting Designer Mark Stanley, and Wig & Makeup Designer Anne Nesmith.

Piotr Buszewski as the Duke and Mané Galoyan as Gilda. Photos by Scott Suchman; courtesy of Wolf Trap Opera.

Mainly, it’s the music and singing in Rigoletto that must carry the evening.  Musicologists say that Rigoletto begins a new period in Verdi's development, separating from the Italian "ottocentro" form of opera and initiating Verdi's "march to greatness".  There is very little recitative as the music is integral to telling of the story; and best for me, there are lots of great melodies.  You will likely be singing "Donna e mobile" after a performance, or "Caro Nome" if you are a coloratura soprano; audio recordings of Rigoletto are among my favorites. So, let’s talk about the band, also in this case called the National Symphony Orchestra, which was conducted by Grant Gershon, Resident Conductor of the Los Angeles Opera.  I was glad to see them placed in the pit this time and not behind a set affecting the sound.  I thought they played well, coordinating with the singers well, and contributing to the emotion and the storytelling.  Kudos for that.  However, from where I was sitting they seemed a wee bit muted compared to the highly amplified singers.  Only conscientious of it a couple of times and I loved the music.  I also enjoyed the chorus, a major player, in this opera.  Kudos to Chorusmaster David Hanlon.

Patrick Guetti as Sparafucile and Zoie Reams as Maddalena as she pleads for the Duke's life. Photos by Scott Suchman; courtesy of Wolf Trap Opera.

Patrick Guetti as Sparafucile and Zoie Reams as Maddalena as she pleads for the Duke's life. Photos by Scott Suchman; courtesy of Wolf Trap Opera.

As always, the highlight of any Wolf Trap Opera is the young singers here to participate in the summer Filene Artists training program. The principal singers, baritone Kidon Choi as Rigoletto, tenor Piotr Buszewski as the Duke, and soprano Mané Galoyan as Gilda sang beautifully.  It is difficult to say much about their power since they were mic’d, but all seemed excellent choices for their roles.  Mr. Choi’s baritone voice is impressive.  I thought his acting was good, but perhaps too youthful to fully convey the depth of feeling in Rigoletto.  Mr. Buszewski has a lovely tenor voice and played the handsome, arrogant, and charming Duke convincingly.  Ms. Galoyan was a stand out as Gilda; her expressive voice and acting fully conveyed the pathos of the innocent, love-stricken 16 year-old daughter.  Her “Caro Nome” was nuanced and lovely.  Often in operas, some of the singers in minor roles make themselves noticed.  For me, that role was taken by Patrick Guetti as Sparafucile; from his first scene he embodied the sinister, scary assassin reinforced by his strong, dark bass voice.  Zoie Reams who played his sister Maddlena gave another fine WTO performance.  Joshua Conyers was also notable as a distraught and angered Count Monterone.  The duets and ensemble arias by this cast were especially well done and enjoyable, including the famous quartet aria near the end between Maddalena, Sparafucile, Gilda, and Rigoletto.  The supporting cast all played their roles well. 

Johnathan McCullough as Marullo, Joshua Conyers as Count Monterone, and Nicholas Nestorak as Matteo Borsa, as the two courtiers restrain the enraged Count. Photos by Scott Suchman; courtesy of Wolf Trap Opera.

Johnathan McCullough as Marullo, Joshua Conyers as Count Monterone, and Nicholas Nestorak as Matteo Borsa, as the two courtiers restrain the enraged Count. Photos by Scott Suchman; courtesy of Wolf Trap Opera.

WTO has clearly moved into the big time, not only in their principal role of training the next generation of opera singers, but also in providing marvelous opera productions and events to it's greater DC community.  I am glad that the Wolf Trap Foundation provides them the opportunity once a year to show a wider audience what opera can offer.  Congrats to Wolf Trap Opera for an outstanding summer season lighting up the Filene Center, the Barns, and various venues around town, and I look forward to the coming year, again.

The Fan Experience: If you saw this performance as your first opera and liked it, give the Barns a try next season; it is enclosed, but it is just about as informal as the Filene Center; it has easy access and egress, and the acoustics are better for opera.  The Filene Center has large overhead screens to the left and right of the stage that showed a closer view of the singers during the performance, which I liked, but were also annoying because when I was watching the stage they provide considerable background glare.  At the Barns you will be close enough you don’t need them.  Also, you don’t have to wait for next summer to try opera again.  The DC area is blessed with many excellent companies.  As one example, Washington National Opera will be performing La Traviata at the Kennedy Center October 6-21; enjoy another round of great music by Verdi, also with with lots of great melodies.



Virginia Opera’s 2018-2019 Season: An “American Opera” and Three Italian Classics

Image courtesy of Virginia Opera

Image courtesy of Virginia Opera

Want to see Puccini’s Madama Butterfly? Donizetti’s The Elixir of Love? Mozart’s Don Giovanni?  Weill’s Street Scene?  I bet you said yes, yes, yes, and huh?  The Virginia Opera will serve up these operas in reverse of that order as they begin their new season in late September, with the usual triple play of each opera being performed in Norfolk, Fairfax, and Richmond.  We’ll get to that "huh" response on Street Scene in a moment, but first a timely, practical matter:  Ticket packages are currently on sale; individual tickets go on sale on August 1 for Fairfax and on August 6 for Norfolk and Richmond.

Virginia Opera’s 2018-2019 Season

Street Scene (1947), Kurt Weill and Langston Hughes

Sep 28, 30, Oct 2 – Norfolk

October 6, 7 – Fairfax

October 12, 14 - Richmond

Don Giovanni (1787), Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Lorenzo da Ponte

Nov 2, 4, 6 – Norfolk

Nov 10, 11 - Fairfax

Nov 16, 18 - Richmond

The Elixir of Love (1832), Gaetano Donizetti and Felice Romani

Feb 8, 10, 12 - Norfolk

Feb 16, 17 – Fairfax

Feb 22, 24 - Richmond

Madama Butterfly (1903), Giacomo Puccini and Giuseppe Giacosa/Luigi Illica

March 15, 17, 19 – Norfolk

March 23, 24 – Fairfax

March 29, 31 – Richmond

Image courtesy of Virginia Opera.

Image courtesy of Virginia Opera.

First up is the opera you may not have known (I didn’t) by composer Kurt Weill.  Let's focus on that one a bit.  Poet Langston Hughes wrote the libretto based on a Pulitzer-Prize winning play of the same name by Weill’s friend Elmer Rice; the 1929 play ran for over 600 performances on Broadway.  You have to admit that’s a powerful combo of source material, librettist, and composer.  Mr. Weill appears today to be well known among both Broadway people and opera people interested in new opera.  It’s probably no accident that the stage director for this production is Dorothy Danner; among her many achievements/assignments, she has performed on Broadway and directed 15 previous productions for VA Opera.  You have to admit that's a powerful background for directing Weill's work.  But, how did Mr. Weill come to write an American opera.  

Lotte Lenya and Kurt Weill, 1942; photo from  Wikipedia .

Lotte Lenya and Kurt Weill, 1942; photo from Wikipedia.

In doing background reading about Mr. Weill, I find him to be one of the most interesting people I didn’t know much about.  He led an extraordinary life inside and outside of music.  He was born the Jewish son of a cantor in Germany in 1900 and received training from a number of well-known musical figures of that era, including the composer of Hansel and Gretel, Engelbert Humperdinck.  In his twenties he became a successful composer himself and his works were quite popular in his native land, but as the Nazi threat grew in the 1930’s, he fled to Paris; in addition to his religion, his social views and his music which reflected those views were anathema to the Nazis who took steps to eradicate his work in Germany.  In 1935, he and his wife traveled to the U.S. for work and stayed for the rest of his short life; he died of a heart attack in 1950.  His personal life was punctuated by controversy over his socialist views and his unconventional marriage (twice) to Austrian singer Lotte Lenya. You may recall the name from Bobby Darin’s hit “Mack the Knife”; Weill composed that song for his Three Penny Opera that included fictional characters Jenny Diver, Sukey Tawdry, and Lucy Brown; Louis Armstrong added Lotte Lenya by mistake (she played Jenny Diver) and it stuck.  Ms. Lenya was also an Academy Award nominated actress whom you may remember as the sadistic sharp-toed villain from the James Bond movie “From Russia with Love”.  After his death, Ms. Lenya established the Kurt Weill Foundation to promote Kurt Weill’s music; VA Opera has received an award from the Foundation to support this production.  And yet another interesting fact is that Dorothy Danner is a member of a theatrical family that includes actresses Blythe Danner and Gwyneth Paltrow.  Small world, eh?

Art work for  Street Scene ; courtesy of Virginia Opera.

Art work for Street Scene; courtesy of Virginia Opera.

Weill’s musical life was also punctuated by controversy, this mainly over his decision to associate with Broadway and write popular music; his German followers and many others worldwide felt he had sold out for commercial success.  While he is credited with having contributed to the development of the American musical, making music an integral part of theater, he reportedly never accepted a difference between serious music and popular music, saying “There is only good music and bad music.”  In the U.S., he studied American popular and stage music, and his style evolved; Langston Hughes, a black poet, took Mr. Weill to Harlem in NYC seeking musical inspiration for Street Scene.  He strove to create a new brand of opera, not necessarily called opera, combining theater, dance, and music not restricted by genre.  Street Scenes, based on a popular play of the time commensurate with his social views, tells the stories of several families and individuals living in a tenement building in New York City, seemingly trapped by their circumstances; the interactions take place over a day and deal with their struggles to overcome or simply come to terms with those circumstances; if it was written in Italian instead of English, you might call it verismo.  The score reportedly contains jazz, Broadway tunes, and operatic arias.  I listened to a couple of snippets from the Street Scene CD to get an idea what the music was like, but stopped after a minute or two because I liked it enough to want to wait.  Professional opera critics may tell you to listen to the score first and you will get more out of the opera.  I think that is correct, but I’m different; I want to experience it first as the complete package.

VA Opera began its 2016-2017 season with a Weill composition, The Seven Deadly SinsSins is termed a ballet chante.  Street Scene is termed an opera and has taken its place as a great American opera.  And yet, as an opera, it first played on Broadway and won the Tony Award for Best Original Score.  This reflects the fact that Weill strove to create music that was both artistically and commercially successful.  In fact, Weill composed over twenty operas, most now unknown; perhaps best known are Street Scene (1947), Mahagonny (Aufsteig und Fall der Stadt Mahagonny) (1930), and The Three Penny Opera (Die Dreigroschenoper) (1928).  This production is the only scheduled performance of Street Scene in the U.S. in the next couple of years.  If you live outside the realms of VA Opera’s venues, I predict this one will be worth the effort to make the trip in.  Kudos to Virginia Opera for bringing it forward this year to Virginia audiences.

Images courtesy of Virginia Opera.

The remainder of the season belongs to great operas in the traditional repertoire.  Giovanni, Elixir, and Butterfly deserve their popularity and are the operas we keep returning to because they combine great stories with the great music of the masters.  When you think of opera, Mozart, Donizetti, and Puccini come to mind among only a handful of others.  Their librettists were also famous in their day and these are among their finest works.  If you are a newbie to opera, it is a great chance to build your personal repertoire of operas seen or just to give opera a try. 

Conductor Adam Turner; photo courtesy of Virginia Opera.

Conductor Adam Turner; photo courtesy of Virginia Opera.

Going to the opera takes money and effort.  For operas I have seen more than once, I ask myself why I should want to attend a particular performances.  First, how much do I like the music?  For all three of these operas the music is aces.  Virginia Opera’s Principal Conductor and new Artistic Director Adam Turner will conduct all four productions.  Added appeal comes from the fact that for Don Giovanni he will be conducting the Virginia Symphony Orchestra and for Madama Butterfly the Richmond Symphony Orchestra.  If the music is compelling, I look to the singers.  VA Opera employs established professional singers and young professionals who have made a splash and are building their professional careers,.  Some will be returning favorites to VA Opera.  Biographical links are included on the web pages for each opera; looking through the biographies, there are singers in every cast that I would like to hear sing.  Just an impression, but I think this year's singers are an especially strong group. 

l to r: Directors Dorothy Danner (Street Scene); Lillian Groag (Don Giovanni); Kyle Lang (The Elixir of Love); and Richard Gammon (Madama Butterfly); photos courtesy of Virginia Opera.

Finally, I look to the productions and thereby the director; I admit that I personally have been late to the game in focusing on the importance of the stage director and staff members.  There are a lot of people critical to the success of an opera besides the singers and the conductor.  First among these is the director who will make the creative decisions about how the opera is staged and determine whether the story is told effectively or not.  This season shapes up nicely in that regard.  Although Madama Butterfly is my favorite opera, after Street Scene which is new to me, I am most excited about Don Giovanni.  Why? Director Lillian Groag.  I was impressed with her The Girl of the Golden West and blown away by her Turandot, both with VA Opera.  It will also be interesting to get a woman's take on Giovanni.  I can’t wait to see what her production will be like.  Same for Elixir of Love which will be directed by Kyle Lang, who gave us last year’s memorable Lucia di Lammermoor and collaborated previously with Groag, including on TurandotMadama Butterfly will be directed by Richard Gammon in his debut with Virginia Opera; in the DC area he has directed productions for Opera Lafayette at the Kennedy Center.  And I previously mentioned Ms. Danner.

Or you can eschew my analytical approach and say, hey man, it's live opera.  It'a a living, breathing thing.  It has music and singing, sets and costumes and movement to delight your senses, and acting and storytelling to worm its way into your heart.  It has a team of talented, dedicated, live humans who want to engage with you, and it will happen right in front of you.  You may laugh or cry or be bored, but always there is suspense.  If a performance goes down, you go down too.  If it soars, you soar with it.  Celebrate life!  What do you have to do that's better than that?

The Fan Experience:  Although the operas seen in all three venues are exactly the same, the venues themselves have different pricing schemes, including discounts for student tickets.  Check their web sites carefully.  If you are able to purchase your tickets at the box office you can save significant change on fees.  All performances have supertitles in English.  Also, Dr. Glenn Winters, Virginia Opera's Musical Outreach Musical Director, provides pre-opera talks forty-five minutes before showtime; they and his blog reports leading up to each opera offer entertaining and informative insights; the pre-opera talks are frequently standing room only, so get there early.


Wolf Trap Opera’s Romeo et Juliette: Great Music, True Love, and Lots of Kissing

Wolf Trap Opera gives us a summer valentine of an opera where true love triumphs over all, even death itself.  It gives us a story of young hearts, and young impetuousness delivered by young opera singers.  I swear, this tragedy felt so light and lovely early on I wanted Juliette, played by soprano Madison Leonard, to break into a version of “I feel pretty”, though her singing of “Je veux vivre” was equally trilling, and any tears at the closing scene are tears of joy.  It’s a story we all know and have seen in many versions and many formats from Shakespeare’s original to Bernstein’s West Side Story.  There are shadings to the story-telling, but no surprises, and for this opera by composer Charles Gounod and librettists Jules Barbier and Michel Carre, that’s a good thing.

Juliette (Madison Leonard, center) with her nurse Gertrude (Taylor Raven, left) and her father (Joshua Conyers, right) is presented to the Capulets and in disguise, Romeo and the Montagues. Photo by Scott Suchman; courtesy of Wolf Trap Opera.

Juliette (Madison Leonard, center) with her nurse Gertrude (Taylor Raven, left) and her father (Joshua Conyers, right) is presented to the Capulets and in disguise, Romeo and the Montagues. Photo by Scott Suchman; courtesy of Wolf Trap Opera.

That we have seen many versions, and the nature of the story itself, allows us to readily accept it’s updating to the 21st century by director Louisa Muller.  Kudos to her; just about everything in this staging works.  The staging and the performers’ abilities to immerse us in that youthful spirit pulls us comfortably into our suspension of disbelief; corny phrases and incongruities become acceptable.  Romeo and Juliet stories can be fine vehicles for dealing with a darker edge of conflicts between warring factions.  I can imagine for example that it could be used today to shine a light on the conflicts between different religions or sects as it did for clashes between Puerto Ricans and whites in West Side Story.  However, Gounod’s version keeps the attention on the love story.  Ms. Muller’s staging supports that telling by having a simple set with a few props, including smart phones used to take selfies, moved in and out (kudos to scenic designer Timothy Mackabee) and including costumes by costume designer Amanda Seymour that are amusing to the eye and help keep the mood light and that help identify the clans.  The fights and death scene are beautifully choreographed.  And credit chorus master Jeremy Frank - cast ensembles singing as chorus sounded magnificent. 

Madison Leonard as Juliette and Alexander McKissick as Romeo. Photo by Scott Suchman; courtesy of Wolf Trap Opera.

Madison Leonard as Juliette and Alexander McKissick as Romeo. Photo by Scott Suchman; courtesy of Wolf Trap Opera.

In fact, as appealing to the eye as this production is, it is its sound that hits the highest note.  I had only heard a few arias from this opera.  Hearing it in its entirety, I find it to rival Puccini’s music in beauty.  And Wolf Trap Opera’s head, Kim Witman, should be credited for taking steps to give us the music in full force.  To allow for the 46 instruments recommended for the score, the orchestra is moved from the pit to behind a screen at the back of the stage, which in the cozy Barns, gives you a full orchestral effect. The orchestra under Conductor Eric Melear seemed to take a minute to come together at Tuesday night's show, but then delivered a fine performance; while supporting and not over powering the singers, it drew my attention to the beauty of the music on several occasions.

Romeo (Alexander McKissick) and Juliet (Madison Leonard) kneel in a marraige ceremony performed by Father Laurent (Anthony Reed); Amy Rosen in a pants role sings Stephano's aria. Photos by Scott Suchman; courtesy of Wolf Trap Opera.

The young performers are already accomplished opera singers; I have heard the two leads sing with Washington National Opera.  Our Romeo, tenor Alexander McKissick, just finished a stint as a Kennedy Center Domingo-Cafritz Young Artist.  Ms. Leonard, also a Domingo-Cafritz Young Artist, recently won first place in the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions.  Romeo et Juliette gives them a chance in the spotlight to shine and they shone!  Both have beautiful voices and excellent technique.  It is a pleasure to hear them deliver Gounod’s arias.  Ms. Leonard’s acting and singing in the sleeping potion scene is especially impressive, worthy of an award.  The supporting cast all handle their roles well, adding to this production.   Special note is made of young hot head Tybalt, played by Richard Trey Smagur, Taylor Raven as Juliette’s nurse, Patrick Guetti as Juliette’s betrothed, Joshua Conyers as Juliette’s father, Thomas Glass as Mercutio, and Anthony Reed as Father Laurent.  Special mention should be given to mezzo-soprano Annie Rosen in a pants role as Stephano, Romeo’s page.  She shows feisty theatrical flair as well as accomplished singing in delivering Stephano’s aria; I can see Carmen in her future. 

Tybalt (Richard Trey Smagur) confronts Romeo (Alexander McKissick) with a knife while onlookers are, l to r, Mercutio (Thomas Glass), Stephano (Amy Rosen), Duke Kim, and Cory McGee. Photo by Scott Suchman; courtesy of Wolf Trap Opera.

Tybalt (Richard Trey Smagur) confronts Romeo (Alexander McKissick) with a knife while onlookers are, l to r, Mercutio (Thomas Glass), Stephano (Amy Rosen), Duke Kim, and Cory McGee. Photo by Scott Suchman; courtesy of Wolf Trap Opera.

Romeo (Alexander McKissick) believes a sleeping Juliet (Madison Leonard) to be dead. Photo by Scott Suchman; courtesy of Wolf Trap Opera.

Romeo (Alexander McKissick) believes a sleeping Juliet (Madison Leonard) to be dead. Photo by Scott Suchman; courtesy of Wolf Trap Opera.

Ahhh, I feel better.  It is so nice to have Wolf Trap Opera back on their home turf, making opera fun.  With June’s Idomeneo, they ventured into the harsh aftermath of war; even with a so-called happy ending, I went home and fixed myself something to drink and was argumentative with my family for the next week.  But in July they give us Romeo and Juliette, two attractive young lovers smitten with true love doing lots of kissing to make us believe it.  Remember your teen years?

The Fan Experience: Additional performances are scheduled for July 19 and 21; close to a sell out but a few good tickets remain.  Ms. Witman’s pre-opera talk an hour before the show is entertaining and informative, and you get treated to an aria by Studio Artists.  I have mentioned numerous times the pleasure of The Barns as a venue for opera: food, drinks, cozy confines putting you close to the stage and performers, free parking, and easy in and out.  WTO’s next production will not have the easy in and out, but the parking is still free and the Filene Center has a lawn section.  The summer’s final WTO offering, Giuseppe Verdi’s classic, Rigoletto, is a must for opera fans and a great starter opera for newbies, coming up Friday, August 3; tickets still available.




Hamilton delivers: whether it’s opera Is not the point

Hamilton is a great show, seamless non-stop entertainment for two and a half hours.  I saw it recently, and during intermission as I marveled at the impact it was having on me, I could not help comparing Hamilton with opera.  Further while waiting, I checked Facebook thinking I might post a remark about the performance and saw one from Washington Post opera critic Anne Midgette.  In a profound and provocative article, she states that Hamilton is opera; several commenters agreed it was opera.  Up to that point, I had not considered Hamilton to be opera and doubt few of my fellow audience members, if any, were thinking they were seeing a great opera.  So, why did she call this musical an opera, at least “in all the ways that count”?

Laurens (Reuben J. Carbajal), Hamilton (Austin Scott), Lafayette (Bryson Bruce), Mulligan (Chaundre Hall-Bromfield) and Company - HAMILTON National Tour. Photo by Joan Marcus; courtesy of the Kennedy Center.

Laurens (Reuben J. Carbajal), Hamilton (Austin Scott), Lafayette (Bryson Bruce), Mulligan (Chaundre Hall-Bromfield) and Company - HAMILTON National Tour. Photo by Joan Marcus; courtesy of the Kennedy Center.

The most common definition of opera is a play in which all the words are sung.  And opera is the plural of the latin word for work, opus; opera is supposed to be the works, including music, singing, dancing, costumes, a storyline, and acting.  Hamilton certainly has the works and all the words are sung with pretty voices maneuvered to fit the style and situation.  As part of her argument, Ms. Midgette makes a case that being familiar with the album before seeing Hamilton improves the experience of seeing the show, though it is by no means equivalent to seeing the show; she says that is typical of operas, not Broadway shows.  Maybe, but I found seeing Hamilton as the works before knowing much about it to be thrilling and satisfying in a way it would have lacked if I had listened to the album first.  Critic for the NY Times Anthony Tommasini has made an argument that opera and musicals are different because in musicals the words are more important and in opera the music is more important.  There is merit to that argument, though it is a matter of contention which is more important in opera, and if I think of West Side Story, I’m not so sure about musicals either.  And the music in Hamilton is a major factor in its success as well.  The critical element we associate with operas that Hamilton lacks is singing in an operatic style without a microphone, supported by music in the classical genre.  Thus, it is correct to call Hamilton an opera, but doing so is like calling Russia a republic; technically, that’s correct, but… 

Eliza (Julia K. Harriman), Anjelica (Sabrina Sloan),  Peggy Schuyler (Isa Briones), and Company; Hamilton (Austin Scott) and George Washington (Carvens Lissaint) - HAMILTON National Tour. Photos by Joan Marcus; courtesy of the Kennedy Center.

The definition of opera and whether it fits Hamilton is not the main point of her perspective in the Post.  Consider her poignant lamentation: “The irony is that what “Hamilton” represents now is exactly what opera used to be: a thrilling, contemporary, immersive stage presentation that’s a union of story, text, music, image and movement, and that gets under the skin and into the blood of a wide audience that feels it speaks profoundly to them.”  She then charges: ““Opera” has become, in the popular imagination, a signifier of snooty elitism and artistic exaggeration, not to say stereotype (the fat lady in the Viking Helmet). But the only real difference between “opera” and “Hamilton” is that “opera” has become handicapped by what it is thought to signify — by the idea that it is thought to represent some sort of pinnacle of high art” and after admitting some operas are high art and broadway shows have certain production advantages, finishes with “If I had to list one distinction between “Hamilton” and opera, as a genre, I’d say that “Hamilton” is art, and opera, these days, merely symbolizes it.”  This is a professional critic doing her job, a knight of the opera table.  My take away is that what she wanted to discuss was not so much whether Hamilton was opera or not, but how opera has gone astray.  Hamilton represents what opera was and still should be, a work connected as much to its current audience as to its art.  That is an important and controversial thesis that should not be tossed off as simply whether Hamilton is opera or not.

Thomas Jefferson (Bryson Bruce) and Company - HAMILTON National Tour. Photo by Joan Marcus; courtesy of the Kennedy Center.

Thomas Jefferson (Bryson Bruce) and Company - HAMILTON National Tour. Photo by Joan Marcus; courtesy of the Kennedy Center.

Let’s consider a bit further how opera compares to Hamilton, keeping in mind that this is rather unfair since Hamilton is one of the very best of its kind.  First, opera companies must deal with audiences closely wed to the traditional repertoire; the box office bottom line works against new opera.  Not so for Broadway musicals, which not only have the freedom to be new and different; but are expected to be.  Thus a musical can connect with its audience by incorporating a popular current music genre, like rap, and nods to current issues such as a line uttered about immigrants. I suspect it also bridges cultural divides by using rap to tell American history.  Hamilton has a feel-good story about the spirit of America going for it, and it presents our founding fathers as humans with opera-style grand passions, but importantly for its connection to a contemporary audience and to its fit as a musical and not an opera, it is the story and not the passions that are the focus, a story that connects readily with its American audience.  Opera companies go to considerable lengths to explain how one to three hundred-year-old operas and their focus on great passions are still relevant today and spend money on updating productions, moving them forward in time, which to my mind are most often plastering over the originals and serve up conflicts, such as characters in modern times worrying about Neptune’s next move.  Yes, the underlying elements of love, betrayal, ambition, and revenge of old operas are still important and relevant, but audiences now are distanced from attachments to Greek gods and royalty and the mores of past generations.  And as Ms. Midgette points out, abstract, arty presentations can add to the gap.  I think the grand passions are fine, but opera needs to tell stories that grip today's audiences.  Opera must loosen its bonds to the past and engage more directly with life today if it wishes to be modern and vibrant, and not like Shakespeare’s repetoire, relegated to a small, loyal following.

Company - HAMILTON National Tour. Photo by Joan Marcus; courtesy of the Kennedy Center.

Company - HAMILTON National Tour. Photo by Joan Marcus; courtesy of the Kennedy Center.

Unfortunately, new opera has not produced a Hamilton or Les Miserables as yet, nor even a modern Marriage of Figaro.  Therein lies the conundrum: to generate a Hamilton, large-size resources are needed, but until a Hamilton is generated, opera companies are not going to provide new opera that level of resources.  What new opera needs more than Hamilton to show the way is investors who make the way possible.  The question that makes me uneasy is wondering whether a musical with opera-style singing can ever be a Hamilton? Is there too much distance now between the ears of the average music lover and that style?  And how effectively can modern stories that require the breakneck pace of Hamilton be staged with an operatic singing style that requires we pause the action while the soprano finishes her heart-felt aria or the tenor takes ten minutes bleeding out to die?  I don’t know, but some companies are experimenting, mostly small companies, but check out Opera Philadelphia’s Festival O18 for an example of progressive vision.  Even Washington National Opera had a brief run at contemporary relevance with a creative, immersive Ring Cycle and showing two, not one, newer operas in the same season. 

I say all this as an advocate for both new opera and old opera, who wishes to raise Caesar, not bury him…well, maybe a little…certain parts of his prefrontal cortex.  But let’s also talk about what opera has that Hamilton does not, and I will contend that the depth of emotion and beauty of operatic-singing style’s is not as readily achieved with pop or rap music which I also really enjoy.  I note that I went to see Hamilton without knowing any of the singers.  Singers who are famous for singing opera superbly are part of opera’s appeal.  Musicals don’t rely on the fame and reputation of the singers as much as opera does.  I will also contend, though less strongly, that opera singing has more staying power than Hamilton will, perhaps because it focuses on the emotion more than the story.  I enjoy the Hamilton songs, but I love the arias of Mozart and Verdi (maybe emotion over story?).  I did the opposite of Ms. Midgette’s advice – I did not listen to the album before going, but I have listened to it a couple of times now.  Frankly, for me the album is a bit of a letdown.  Yes, it is very good pop music, great for a musical; every tune is likeable, but the music alone is no match for seeing the musical.  It tells the story without the visuals and I don’t know how you can listen to “You’ll Be Back” and not wish you were in the theater listening to King George sing it.  That disappointment rarely happens with opera.  Admittedly, I don’t like Anna Netrebko’s recording from her "Russian" album (shone below from YouTube in video format) of the aria in the letter scene from Eugne Onegin as much as hearing it in a performance, but it’s not a disappointment to listen, even though I was very excited to see the performance in person.  I think the other elements of musicals enhance the music whereas in opera, the music enhances the other elements. Nothing touches the heart as deeply and pervasively as the beauty of the human voice singing opera. 

Anna Netrebko singing the letter scene's "Puskai pogibnu ya, no prezde" from the Metropolitan Opera's Eugene Onegin (Youtube).

So, where is the opera today that connects so strongly with its audience and that provides such good singing, including operatic-style singing and music that it provides the total immersion and ecstasy of a Hamilton or a Les Mis?  I don’t know, but I keep going, hoping that one comes along that I don’t just like and enjoy, but that blows my socks off.  Until then, we have Hamilton.

Opera Philadelphia’s 2018-2019 Season: September’s Festival O18 Plus Four Operas in 2019

“What do you want from opera?  What does opera not give you that you wish it did?  How can opera make the hairs on the back of your neck stand up?” asks star countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo in the promo for Glass Handel, also stating that his team’s goal is to create new esthetic experiences existing within the contexts of opera.  That seems to me to capture the fun, but serious spirit of Festival O18, Opera Philadelphia’s kick off to its 2018-2019 season.  OP wants to engage you in forging the future of opera. 

Last year’s Festival O17 was a major opera event in the U.S.  I was very impressed by the vision and leadership demonstrated by OP, so much so that my wife and I took a mini-vacation to Philly to see The Trial of Elizabeth Cree and a clever version of The Magic Flute (see photos below) and felt regret we could not take in the other O17 offerings.  O18 begins this season and will be followed up beginning in Feb 2019 by two classics and two newer operas to complete the season.  I’m sure my wife and I will be hitting I-95 North from DC once again.  The challenge is making our choices and doing so soon, before performances sell out.  Let’s start with their grand ball that is Festival O18.

Scenes from last year's O17: Troy Cook is John Cree in The Trial of Elizabeth Cree and Ben Bliss as Tamino in The Magic Flute. Photos by John Pisano; courtesy of Opera Philadelphia.

O18’s concept is to envelope the entire area’s arts community, fans, and potential fans over eleven days with creative new or re-designed works, on what OP calls an urban stage.  Thus, O18 will offer two world premieres, 3 new productions, and emerging artists concerts with the Curtis Institute of Music.  If you prefer to stick with the classics, they have you covered with a new production of Lucia di Lammermoor.  These events will be presented in five different venues over the period of September 20-30. 

Festival 018, Sept 20-30:

Sky on Swings, world premiere – Sept 20, 22, 25, 27, 29

Lucia di Lammermoor, new production – Sept 21, 23, 26, 28, 30

Ne Quittez Pas: A Reimagined La Voix Humaine, new production – Sept 22, 23, 27, 29, 30

Glass Handel, world premiere – Sept 22, 23, 30 (performances are sold out)

Queens of the Night, cabaret – Sept 24, 25, 28

Fridays at the Field, emerging artists concerts – Sept 21, 28

Opera on the Mall – Sept 29, pending funding

Venues, respectively (the urban stage): Perelman Theater, Academy of Music, Theater of the Living Arts, the Barnes Foundation, Field Concert Hall, Theater of Living Arts.

Marietta Simpson and Frederica von Stade in  Sky on Swings . Photo by Dominic M. Mercier; courtesy of Opera Philadelphia.

Marietta Simpson and Frederica von Stade in Sky on Swings. Photo by Dominic M. Mercier; courtesy of Opera Philadelphia.

This year’s strategy for the program for O18 is similar to last year’s, starting with a premiere of a chamber opera and a new production of a traditional work.  Sky on Swings is a new chamber opera by composer Lembit Beecher, a former OP composer-in-residence and librettist/playwright Hannah Moscovitch; this team last year provided O17 with I Have No Stories To Tell You.  Working closely with director Joanna Steele, they embrace the timely and sensitive topic of Alzheimer’s Disease and use it to explore how music can reflect the changes caused by the disease and to explore hidden barriers to love that are revealed.  The performances are highlighted by star mezzo-sopranos Fredericka von Stade and Marietta Simpson playing the leads.  Gaetano Donizetti's Lucia di Lammermoor is one of the most popular operas in the world and the role of Lucia is coveted by coloratura sopranos.  This is a new production by famed director Laurent Pelly featuring famed coloratura soprano Brenda Rae, who recently appeared in OP's Tancredi.  Mr. Pelly is reknown across the globe for inventive and stylish productions.  What will his production of Lucia be like?  The production is co-produced by Wiener Staatsoper and will be performed in Vienna, Austria in 2019.

Lucia di Lammermoor director Laurent Pelly (photo by Kelly and Massa) and soprano Brenda Rae (photo by Carole Parodi).  Photos courtesy of Opera Philadelphia.

Glass Handel is the next edition of combining opera with art at the Barnes Foundation, done so effectively last year in O17's highly regarded The Wake World.  Leading the effort is countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo who is working with multimedia company Visionaire and the Barnes Foundation to present an audience immersion experience with music by Philip Glass and George Frederic Handel, that involves music, singing, art, fashion, dance, film, and technology.  It will also be the coming out party for Mr. Costanzo’s new album also covering music by Glass and Handel.  Sadly at this point, it’s three performances are sold out; if you wish to join me on the waiting list, click on this link.  The creation of new experiences continues with a new production of Ne Quittez Pas: A Reimagined La Voix Humaine.  It will begin with a selection of French art and cabaret songs by baritone Edward Nelson followed by opera luminary Patricia Racette performing Poulenc’s one-act opera for a soprano, La Voix Humaine, which focuses one side of telephone conversations between ex-lovers; James Darrah of Breaking the Waves fame directs.

Anthony Roth Costanzo (photo by Matthu Placek) in Glass Handel and Patricia Racette (photo by Devon Cass) in Ne Quittez Pas: A Reimagined La Voix Humaine. Photos courtesy of Opera Philadelphia.

Now, for something different – hopefully that intro at least got a smile, but I do mean different.  Over three nights, opera star Stephanie Blythe as her alter ego Blythely Oratonio and Dito van Reigersberg as Martha Graham Cracker will alternate hosting evenings of drag-infused cabaret songs ending the third night with Dito and Aeneas, a concert and dance party, which was well received in last year’s O17.  Festival O18 will also offer two Friday emerging artists concerts, program yet to be announced, with singers from the Curtis Institute of Music.

Star soprano Stephanie Blythe in  Dito and Aeneas: Two Queens, One Night.  Photo by Dominic M. Mercier; courtesy of Opera Philadelphia.

Star soprano Stephanie Blythe in Dito and Aeneas: Two Queens, One Night. Photo by Dominic M. Mercier; courtesy of Opera Philadelphia.

Philadelphia is currently attempting to crowdsource funding to include an Opera on the Mall to provide a free showing of last year’s sold out and highly acclaimed production, We Shall Not Ne Moved that revisits the 1985 bombing of the MOVE compound to address issues about “national identity, race, gender, the failure for some of the public education system, and personal responsibility.” An announcement will be forthcoming.

After O18, Opera Philadelphia regroups and prepares for the second half of the season which will begin in February:

OP 2018-2019 Season, Part II:

A Mid-Summer Night’s Dream, U.S. production premiere – Feb 8, 10, 15, 17

Don Giovanni, new production – Mar 7, 8, 9, 10

La Boheme – Apr 26, 28, May 1, 3, 5

Empty the House, new production – May 2, 4, 4, 5

I recently saw Virginia Opera’s production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream by composer Benjamin Britten with a libretto written by Peter Pears and Britten, and I have to say that Dream is a very underrated opera.  It provides beautiful music and arias with clever twists and maintains Shakespeare’s humor, charm, and heart.  And Shakespeare’s story, if you will consider, can be viewed from a darker perspective as biting commentary on human nature.  The keys to a great performance will be the staging and the singers who play Oberon (countertenor Tim Mead) and Tytania (soprano Anna Christy).  I hope to make it up in February to take this one in. 

The great Don Giovanni by Mozart and the equally great La Boheme by Puccini are among the operas that opera fans cut their teeth on.  If you are new to opera, you must go, and if you are already a fan, you most likely will attend.  Giovanni is a collaborative effort with Curtis Institute of music combining young singers with established production staff.  La Boheme will feature soprano Vanessa Vasquez as Mimi; she won the 2017 Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions.  This production will also feature art from the Barnes Foundation and the Philadelphia Museum of Art. 

Empty the House (2016) composed by Rene Orth with libretto by Mark Campbell is new to me.  Ms. Orth is currently OP’s sixth composer-in-residence.  She has rearranged this version for a chamber orchestra rather than the original 9-piece ensemble.  The story involves the interactions between a mother and a daughter and memories encountered in moving mom out of the family home.  This is another collaboration with Curtis.

OP's 2018-2019 lineup looks impressive and enticing.  If nothing else, Opera Philadelphia deserves our applause.  Right now, they are leading the opera pack.

The Fan Experience: It’s obvious but worth saying: the sooner you secure your tickets the less likely you are to encounter a sell out (Glass Handel is already sold out).  Opera Philadelphia’s website is excellent and chockful of useful information.  Performance pages have links to find tickets or you can use this one for all performances.  In addition to single tickets, packages are available as well as special offers such as discounted student tickets.  I also find their Guest Services telephone staff to be quite helpful at 215-732-8400.  I suggest you peruse the web sites of the individual performances of interest because extra features such as lectures or meetings with composers, directors, etc. are sometimes planned.  Philadelphia is a great tourist destination beyond opera.  For out-of-towners, Guest Services will recommend hotels and dining options.