Baltimore Concert Opera’s The Flying Dutchman: Hale and Hearty, Mates!

Depiction of the last scene of  The Flying Dutchma n (1843); artist unknown. Public domain; from  Wikipedia .

Depiction of the last scene of The Flying Dutchman (1843); artist unknown. Public domain; from Wikipedia.

Baltimore Concert Opera gave a stirring performance of Richard Wagner’s The Flying Dutchman (Der Fliegende Höllander in german,1843) on Sunday afternoon, maybe the best in terms of impact of their productions I have seen.  However, there is an important point to be made before I give you the remainder of my report.  Word has gotten around about Baltimore Concert Opera.  I am pleased to have been introduced to this opera company when you could get a ticket last minute, but that is increasingly not the case.  The Dutchman was sold out; their next production, Scalia/Ginsburg and Trial by Jury, is also sold out (I suggest a possible work around in The Fan Experience section below if you really, really want to see Scalia/Ginsburg).  Even BCO’s “Thirsty Thursdays” events are starting to sell out.  There are reasons for this: their performances and events are engaging and fun and performed in a lavish and cozy setting, and they are a bargain.  You have been warned – plan ahead and get your tickets early; in fact, it may be time to seriously consider getting a season subscription for next season. 

Let’s begin with a short synopsis of this opera which is based on a myth from the 17th century that composer Richard Wagner adapted for his purposes – the Dutchman is the captain of a ghost ship who must sail the seven seas until he finds a true love that will remain faithful forever.  Once every seven years he is allowed to go ashore to search for the woman who will be faithful to him for eternity.  A storm drives his ship into a port where he encounters another captain, Daland, who has a daughter, Senta, that he is willing to betroth to the Dutchman for the great wealth he will gain.  Senta who is obsessed with the legend of the Dutchman is more than willing to accept the proposal.  Unfortunately, the Dutchman later sees her with another pursuer, Erik, and thinks she has reneged and starts out to sea without her despite her protestations.  She proves her faithfulness by leaping off a cliff into the sea.  The ship disappears, and the Dutchman and Senta ascend to heaven in embrace.  Only opera can turn leaping to your death into a happy ending.

The Baltimore Concert Opera Chorus with Conductor and Pianist James Harp at the piano and Assistant Conductor Ryan Tani seated. Photo by Britt Olsen-Ecker and courtesy of Baltimore Concert Opera.

The Baltimore Concert Opera Chorus with Conductor and Pianist James Harp at the piano and Assistant Conductor Ryan Tani seated. Photo by Britt Olsen-Ecker and courtesy of Baltimore Concert Opera.

The Flying Dutchman is probably the gentlest opera of Wagner’s for newbies to get indoctrinated into his music.  I have to admit, though, I was wondering what the effect of hearing Wagner without an orchestra would be.  BCO performances are with only piano providing accompaniment to the singers.  At first, I missed the orchestra; the overture to the Dutchman is one of Wagner’s best.  And in truth, as good as it was, Conductor and Pianist James Harp’s short overture on the piano was no match for a 60-piece orchestra going on for another ten minutes, but I must also add that he provided fine accompaniment throughout the performance portraying both a roaring storm and gentle ballads with a deft touch.  A very enjoyable feature of this opera is Wagner’s extensive use of choruses, and BCO gave us three, a real treat, especially in the cozy setting of the Engineer’s club.  The male members of the BCO Chorus kicked off the opera singing the strong-voiced Norwegian crew chorus.  The female members added to the pleasure at the beginning of the second act as young women singing the delightful and popular spinning song.  The Maryland State Boychoir entered in Act III to sing the role of the Ghost Chorus, the Dutchman’s crew, capping the afternoon’s surfeit of excellent singing by the choruses. Kudos to Maestro Harp and Assistant Conductor Ryan Tani for their work with these crews.

Todd Thomas as the Dutchman. Photo by Britt Olsen-Ecker and courtesy of Baltimore Concert Opera.

Todd Thomas as the Dutchman. Photo by Britt Olsen-Ecker and courtesy of Baltimore Concert Opera.

It’s amazing how, on rare occasion, a single performer will cause me to relax and have confidence that I am really going to enjoy the proceedings.  Sunday afternoon, baritone Todd Thomas was that performer.  On his entrance, his demeanor, voice, and singing said “I am the Dutchman” (well, all right then), and he anchored this production from thereon with a voice well suited to the part and with his ability to transmit both weary hopelessness at his unhappy fate and cautious relief that his suffering might not be in vain.  Senta was played by soprano Alexandra LoBianco whose voice I really enjoyed.  Senta is a fascinating character to me.  I’m never sure whether she exists in some altruistic metaphysical realm or has simply gone bonkers.  Ms. LoBianco sang Senta with less power than most Senta’s I’ve heard (though she certainly turned it on a couple of times), choosing to spend her time in the high registers with a soft, at times eery, yet beautiful sound suggesting madness. Her portrayal was of an obsessed and resolute Senta, an effective and distinguished characterization. 

Alexandra LoBianco as Senta. Photo by Britt Olsen-Ecker and courtesy of Baltimore Concert Opera.

Alexandra LoBianco as Senta. Photo by Britt Olsen-Ecker and courtesy of Baltimore Concert Opera.

Another major role in the Dutchman is Senta’s father, Daland who was played credibly by bass-baritone Justin Hopkins who has a rich, warm sound.  Senta’s father is also an interesting character: Is he a somewhat comedic figure whose eyes get large when he sees a chance to grab some gold and sees no problem with picking a rich suitor for his daughter, or is he a more sinister character willing to sell his daughter for his own profit?  BCO and Mr. Hopkins chose the former characterization which drew some laughs, perhaps offering some comedic relief for an intense drama.  Personally, my preference runs toward maintaining the intensity of the drama.  Myths and stories from long ago can have the suspension of disbelief broken if the audience finds something funny that shouldn’t be funny.  BCO largely avoided this.

left: Todd Thomas as the Dutchman, Alexandra LoBianco as Senta, and Justin Hopkins as Daland. right: Alexandra LoBianco as Senta and Dane Suarez as Erik. Photo by Britt Olsen-Ecker and courtesy of Baltimore Concert Opera.

The role of Senta’s would-be beau, Erik, was played by tenor Dane Suarez.  Mr. Suarez’s singing was another highlight of the performance, though he looked rather suave to be a provincial, hunter type.  He and Senta have a stirring duet where he reveals a dream he had of Senta going away with a sea captain dressed in black, which disturbs Erik but inflames Senta’s passion, well done by both singers, though the audience did find comedy in the contrast between their reactions.  Other performers who ably supported the drama were tenor Orin Strunk who sang the role of the Steersman and mezzo-soprano Kate Farrar who sang the role of Senta’s Nurse who vainly sought to move Senta away from her obsession with the ghost captain.  Mr. Strunk had a lovely, well delivered aria of longing for his sweetheart, though there was some uncertainty in his mid-range early on. 

Overall, this cast brought this story home, hale and hearty fare, and I’ve been chewing on it quite a bit since then.  I decided to listen once more to a recording of the Dutchman.  Yes, hearing the overture delivered by an orchestra was again marvelous, but I also discovered to my surprise that my appreciation for this opera had grown significantly.  Somehow, attending the BCO concert version has opened me up even more to the fully-staged opera.  With the BCO version under my belt, I am enjoying and appreciating even the orchestral music more.  In fact, I now realize that this is a much better opera than I thought before and would like to see it again.  Hmmm; how did that happen?

The Fan Experience: As noted in the above report, Baltimore Concert Opera’s last opera production of the year, Scalia/Ginsberg and Trial by Jury, coming up on April 5 and 7, is sold out.    You can get on a waiting list, but here is something you may not know.  BCO often collaborates with Opera Delaware to co-sponsor a production – a concert version by BCO, then a fully-staged version by Opera Delaware with the same cast for both.  Guess what?  This is the case for Scalia/Ginsburg and Trial by JuryOpera Delaware’s performances are coming up April 28 and May 3, and of this writing, tickets are still available.  These performances are part of their 2019 Festival which also features Jake Hegge’s opera, Dead Man Walking.  Opera Delaware performs in The Grand Opera House in Wilmington, less than 70 miles up I-95 from Baltimore.  Tempting, isn’t it?

Getting It Off My Chest: The Superbowl Commercial Mercedes Should Have Made

I had a mama hen moment watching the Super Bowl a few weeks ago (that would be “mother hen” for you folks that didn’t grow up in the South); a mama hen is overly protective of her biddies (“baby chicks” for you folks that didn’t grow up in the South).  At any rate, if you will allow me one overreaction, I am annoyed, to put it mildly, by the Mercedes Superbowl commercial that features pop singer Ludacris in what I view as a put down of opera to help sell their cars (I like Ludacris’ music by the way and Mercedes cars).  The one-minute commercial is available on YouTube.  This ode to instant gratification features an attractive, hip young guy who goes through several fast-paced scenes giving brief verbal commands that makes the scene more to his liking – at a traffic light, he says “change light” and it changes to green;  he says “make it rain” and it rains money; he sees a parking ticket being placed on a car, says “tear up ticket”, and the ticket is instantly shredded; and so forth.  It ends with him getting into his new Mercedes and giving it verbal commands to make it change the lights color, make it cooler in the car, and play his music.  I feel sure that Mercedes is wanting to appeal to the young, upwardly mobile generation to sell them their luxury car, at least a sporty version of their car, with a tribal message to the young demographic that says inside a Mercedes you can have it your way on demand.  Ok, they are selling a car.

There is a scene where the young man is in the audience with his date at an opera performance with Ludacris in costume singing opera on stage; the obviously bored young man says “change music”, and Ludacris breaks into an up tempo hip-hop number, much more to his liking.  Bam, opera put-down.  I also note that in changing the music, Ludacris’ face changes from a lighter shade to his natural skin tone.  Not really sure what to make of that , but is the message that opera is for old white people? Admittedly, opera audiences are dominated by older, white people, but not exclusively so.  I think it is fair to say that increasing minority participation in all aspects of opera is a goal of the opera community.  Maybe it is just intended to say that pop music is more natural than opera which is artificial. Regardless, let me raise this question, is putting down a musical art form, in front of young people, in order to sell their cars a strategy Mercedes really wants to be associated with? 

When they go low, we go high.  I offer a different commercial with a different message for Mercedes to use.

Opening - a conductor is working with a diversified youth orchestra to learn a Mozart piece of music and it’s not going so well.  Or maybe it’s the final movement of Beethoven’s ninth symphony.

Each subsequent scene with the orchestra the music sounds better.

Intersperse with young artists being coached in learning Mozart arias or Ode to Joy from Beethoven’s ninth.

 In each subsequent scene with the singers they are getting more confidant.

Finish with the singers and orchestra playing the piece together.

Last scene is the conductor getting into her new Mercedes to drive away; she says “change the color, make it cooler, and play my music…wow, how did they develop this feature?”; she drives away with the music still gently playing in the background.

The closing voiceover says, “It takes a lot of dedication and hard work, but when it all comes together, it’s beautiful!”.

The ending caption reads – And Beauty Never Goes Out of Style.

Even if I am overreacting, I think this would be a cool commercial.



Knights of the Opera Table 2019: How’d My Favorite Opera Critics Do?

Public domain knight illustration by Paul Mercuri: .

Public domain knight illustration by Paul Mercuri:

I wrote a blog report a year ago on professional opera critics whose beats are in the mid-Atlantic, in which I proclaimed my appreciation for the work they do as journalists and as knowledgeable arbiters of the good.  I deemed them Knights of the Opera Table who champion the shining examples of opera productions and slay the weak ones.  But I also claimed that some reviews and reviewers are better than others, so the reviewers deserve some scrutiny themselves.  So, how did the critics in the mid-Atlantic do this past year?  Well, here is my quasi-scholarly review, or as with all of my blog reports, one fan’s opinion.

What do I expect of professional critics?  First of all, I expect that a critic will be knowledgeable and experienced in their area of coverage and use that expertise to provide insights and relevant information about performances and performers.  Unfortunately, information about the backgrounds of critics is often difficult to find; see my Critics web page for information I culled together on backgrounds of some of the critics.  Second, I expect a critic to be a good journalist, providing an informative and balanced report on what happened at a performance.  Lastly, I expect them to be objective and critical in reporting on what measured up to or exceeded professional standards and what did not.  I always read reviews either before or after I see a performance to compare my views with an experienced professional critic. I learn more about opera that way and, I believe, enhance my enjoyment of opera that way. 

I should mention that I live in the DC area and tend to read more reports by DC critics because I see more operas in this area and have the Washington Post delivered each morning.  However, I make pilgrimages to Philly and Pittsburgh (and NYC) at least once a year, and I check for reviews of all operas in those areas.

Let’s begin at the top.  My favorite Knight in the mid-Atlantic realm continues to be the Washington Post’s Anne Midgette.  She had an exceptional year in terms of both productivity and quality of her reviews and features.  Her reviews are timely; she frequently writes what she calls “insta-reviews” that she posts online the morning after a performance - I stand in awe.  If you want to read an article that sparkles in terms of presentation, composition, and content, read her piece on composer Philip Glass.  She makes helping her audience better understand classical music a priority; read her recent piece on the best way to understand a Beethoven concerto. She also takes on social issues in opera and classical music, especially championing women performers, conductors, and composers.  A series of articles (beginning with this one) with her colleague Peggy McGlone on sexual misconduct in the classical music community have had significant impact.    I don’t always agree with her assessments; for example, I thought her view of Silent Night seemed a little jaded, but maybe mine was a little too naive.  If there is a better classical music and opera critic anywhere, please point her out to me.

The DC area continues to be informed by reviews from Charles Downey who writes for Classical Review. Mr. Downey’s review is usually the first one I read because he is usually the first to post online; virtually all of his reviews are insta-reviews.  To write such concise, knowledgeable, balanced, and insightful critical reviews that quickly is impressive, and I always learn something by reading his reviews.  His reviews also sometimes help provide balance to Ms. Midgette’s; for example, compare his review of WNO’s La Traviata with Ms. Midgette’s.  I was more in his camp than hers.

Continuing with critics in the DC area, I will also mention Susan Galbraith, Philip Kennicott, and newcomer, at least to my attention, Patrick Rucker.  Ms. Galbraith, who I only recently added to the Opera Table, writes longer, more detailed reviews, perhaps less critical, but an excellent place to add to your opera knowledge.  She also reviews theater and musical theater for DC Theatre Scene. 

What to do about the Post’s Mr. Kennicott?  He is a Pulitzer Prize winner and my favorite writer among journalists, though his beat is actually art and architecture.  His work in those areas displays an acute sense of the human and societal undercurrents influencing art and being influenced by art; I found his review of the National Memorial for Peace and Justice to be especially powerful.  His lone opera review this past season was a rather dark critique of Washington National Opera’s Don Carlos.  Given the infrequency of his opera reviews and features this past year, I have decided to institute a reserve corps and move Mr. Kennicott to the Knights of the Opera Table Reserves.  In fairness, he spent much of the past year writing a book titled “The Goldberg Variations: A Memoir”.   The publisher notes that the book investigates “the nature of learning and mastery, and how they might help us during times of grieving and loss”; his particular loss was his mother’s death.  The book is due out this winter.   

Patrick Rucker, a classical music critic for the Washington Post, drew my attention this year with a strong, incisive writing style.  I’m not awarding him opera knighthood yet, with his limited forays into opera battles, but he is one to watch.  I hope he reviews more operas.  Oddly, he doesn’t have a Washington Post web page I can refer you to, but you can look up his reviews on the Post website.   

Let’s move up I-95 to Philly and consider the lone resident Knight in that area, Peter Dobrin of the Philadelphia Inquirer.  His review of “Glass Handel” made me regret again I waited too late to buy tickets and it was sold out. He split reviewing the other performances in Opera Philadelphia’s O18 Festival with his former colleague and former mid-Atlantic Knight, David Patrick Stearns, who relocated to NYC, but returned to contribute free lance reviews of a couple of O18 Festival performances for his former employer, the Philadelphia Enquirer.  I enjoyed his review of Sky on Swings, but the one on Lucia di Lammermoor seemed to me to be overly critical, though I enjoyed reading the review nonetheless.

Let’s head out the Pennsylvania Turnpike to see who’s been writing criticism in Pittsburgh.  Well, there is a new sheriff in town.  Jeremy Reynolds joined the Pittsburg Gazette as chief classical music and opera critic.  I found his review of Madama Butterfly to be rather lyrical, while his review of Idomeneo afterWARds was a straightforward critique.  These are good reviews whose merits rest mainly on the reporting and criticisms they offer.  His craft is still developing, and my hope for his future reviews is that he will help forge the connection of his readers to opera and classical music by sharing more of his knowledge and insights about opera and classical music in addition to his reporting and criticism; I also extend this plea to all the critics.  Regardless, welcome to the Opera Table, Mr. Reynolds. Critic Robert Croan, who is retired from the Gazette, made a return visit to provide an excellent review of Pittsburgh Opera’s Hansel and Gretel.   

What to do about the city of Baltimore?  Baltimore, a major mid-Atlantic city, continues without a fully-staged opera company and has also now lost its primary classical music and opera critic.  They had an excellent one in Tim Smith, but he retired from the Baltimore Sun this past year.  As of this writing, the Sun is advertising for a free-lance writer to cover classical music for them, not a permanent staff member.  It seems unlikely there will be a Knight patroling the Baltimore area anytime soon, and for sure, not one who is permanently employed.

Two additional opera critics have drawn my attention for consistently providing quality reviews in their locales, George Parous in Pittsburgh who writes for Pittsburgh In The Round and Cameron Kelsall in Philadelphia who writes for the Broad Street Review.   Perhaps they will merit knighthood in the future.

In closing, let me add that most of the critics have a presence on social media (Facebook, Twitter, etc.) where they advertise their articiles and pass along other relevant and timely info and comments. I have found it remarkable that even the best known critics get few, if any, comments online to their newspaper articles, and I have also noticed that they often do get comments on social media. If there is any chatter about a performance, that is where you are most likely to find it.

There you have it for the 2019 edition of the Knights of the Opera Table.  Those are my favorites.  How about you? Support your local Knight!



Virginia Opera’s The Elixir of Love: Boy Meets Girl and Nobody Dies

The title for this report seemed more attention grabbing than my alternate title of “An Italian Confection Well Made” and more in the comedic spirit of the opera itself.  There are underlying themes we could get serious about, but The Elixir of Love (1832) is meant to be enjoyed, and the Virginia Opera’s production is a pleasure from beginning to end.  I could stop there, right?  But you know I am not going to.

Nemorino played by Carlos Enrique Santelli longs for Adina played by Cecilia Violetta Lopéz. Photo by Ben Schill Photography; courtesy of Virginia Opera.

Nemorino played by Carlos Enrique Santelli longs for Adina played by Cecilia Violetta Lopéz. Photo by Ben Schill Photography; courtesy of Virginia Opera.

Let’s start with the comedy.  The composer of The Elixir of Love (L’elisir d’amore in Italian) is Gaetano Donizetti and the librettist is Felice Romani; this is the A-team of its time.  The story revolves around a young peasant Nemorino’s efforts to advance his cause with Adina, a wealthy landowner.  Nemorino is honest and sincere in love, but timid in expressing it.  Adina is at first unsure of Nemorino’s intentions and courage and instead shows interest in the attention paid her by the egotistical and audacious Sergeant Belcore, accepting his proposal to wed…in good time.  Ah, but along comes the traveling medicine man Dr. Dulcamara who professes to be selling a potion that will cure whatever is wrong with you.  He assures Nemorino that if he drinks the potion (actually Bordeaux wine) women will find him irresistible, and then they do, though not for the reason he thinks.  With likeable, developing characters and comedic plot twists, the A-team does a nice job of causing us to laugh, all the while feeling the longing, heartache, and anxiety in Nemorino’s and Adina’s evolving relationship, and then rejoice when true love triumphs.

I read a comment that the humor might have been a little too slapstick in this production.  I take a different view.  If you saw Washington National Opera’s The Barber of Seville last season you saw a production that was over the top, IMHO.  But in truth, both comedies are rooted in the early Italian theater known as Commedia Dell’arte, which used stock characters to create humor based on human foibles of the times (and continuing to present day).  In this case, Director Kyle Lang has gotten it right.  Elixir is meant to be funny and this one is.

left: Sergeant Belcore played by Corey Crider arrives to court Adina played by Cecilia Violetta Lopéz. right: Dr. Dulcamara extols his potion to the villagers. Photos by Ben Schill Photography; courtesy of Virginia Opera.

Let’s move on to the music.  Operas are typically written over a period of at least months and sometimes years.  Donizetti dashed this one off in six weeks, and yet for a dozen years, it was the most often performed opera in Italy.  Even today it is consistently in the top twenty operas in terms of performances and edges out the tragic Lucia di Lammermoor, his other top seller which also stays in the top twenty, as his most popular opera.  Why?  The music.  Oh, it’s got a good story, but listening to the music and arias in Elixir is like listening to a recording of opera’s greatest hits; it is just one beautiful tune after another.  It was hearing a recording of Birgit Nilsson singing Turandot that lured me into trying opera, but it was a recording of Elixir with Luciano Pavarotti and Kathleen Battle that sealed the deal (and made me a huge fan of Ms. Battle).  Adam Turner and the Virginia Opera Orchestra delivered Donizetti’s music beautifully and seamlessly coordinated with the singers, allowing me to enjoy the music and singing while still remaining involved in the story. 

left: Adina senses a change in Nemorino who is awaiting the effects of the potion he has taken. right: Nemorino, whose hand is being held by Giannetta played by April Martin, is now pursued by the ladies as a result, he thinks, due to drinking the elixir. Photos by Ben Schill Photography; courtesy of Virginia Opera.

And the singers?  Donizetti along with Rossini and Bellini are considered the masters of bel canto singing, beautiful singing.  Dr. Glenn Winter, who provides the pre-opera talks for Virginia Opera performances, made the case in his series of articles on Elixir  that this is the tenor’s opera, and the tenor has the major responsibility for the success of the show.  Newcomer Carlos Enrique Santelli, winner of the 2018  Metropolitan National Opera Council Auditions, provides a reasonably convincing transformation from timid peasant into an assertive suitor, but it is his sonorous tenor voice that gives us a compelling Nemorino; you won’t be disappointed in his “Una furtiva lagrima”, the opera’s most famous aria.  However, for me, it was soprano Cecilia Violetta Lopéz that truly held my attention.  I expect singers in a professional production to sing well, but if they also have voices that I like, it is a special treat.  Ms. Lopéz has a pretty voice laced with charm and warmth, and she sings beautifully.  She also is an excellent actress with an ingratiating stage presence; her facial expressions alone convey the comedy and the drama.  The chemistry between the two worked to draw me into their love story.  

The principal comedic characters were Sergeant Belcore, played by baritone Corey Crider, and Dr. Dulcamara, played by bass-baritone Matthew Burns.  Mr. Crider’s baritone was clear and bright, and he gave Belcore just the right swagger with hilarious over-confidence.  Mr. Burns took a while for the richness of his bass-baritone to warm up and reveal itself, but it did.  He gave Dulcamara the appropriate mixture of salesmanship, an edge of cynicism, and bewilderment when his potion appears to his surprise to work on Nemorino.  April Martin contributed admirably in the supporting role of Adina’s friend, Giannetta.  I might also add that a chorus of over twenty members playing roles as villagers almost stole the show.  Donizetti employs the chorus frequently, and this group sounded terrific.

Two cast photos as examples of the set and staging. Photo by Ben Schill Photography; courtesy of Virginia Opera.

And let’s wrap up with the staging.  Kudos to Director Kyle Lang and his creative team – the staging worked.  First, the costumes were bright and cheerful, fitting the era; they set the stage all by themselves, especially as Lang choreographs the movement and placement of each person on stage to create an effect of posing for photos.  It was quite remarkable and very effective.  The team also used a large golden frame adorned with grapes for vino to focus our attention, and a screen backstage showing mood creating tapestries and artwork.  I’m not sure if the entrance of Dr. Dulcamara went off as desired, since the gondola cage floated by and then Dulcamara entered from the side.  As a package, it all worked quite well to support the story telling.

True love triumphs and happiness reigns. Photo by Ben Schill Photography; courtesy of Virginia Opera.

True love triumphs and happiness reigns. Photo by Ben Schill Photography; courtesy of Virginia Opera.

Well, not only did nobody die, but the worst sin revealed was a bit of deception and even that worked out for the better. Virginia Opera’s The Elixir of Love gave me over two hours in another world, away from the concerns in mine, entertaining me with beautiful music and singing, and sent me home with a smile on my face and warmth in my heart. Not a bad evening.

The Fan Experience: The Elixir of Love now moves to Richmond for its final two performances on Friday, February 22, and Sunday, Feb 24. Recommended is the pre-opera talk 45 minutes before the opera by Dr. Glenn Winters, VA Opera’s Community Outreach and Musical Director. It can be standing room only; so get there early. 

WCO and WTO’s Le Vin Herbé: A Requiem For All Who Love

Once upon a time, there was a forbidden love between a man and a woman, not made by choice but by a love potion, irrevocable, inescapable, and embodying not only romantic love, but more, the union of two souls, not separable even by death.  It was a curse.  So was the love of Tristan and Iseut.  Wolf Trap Opera and Washington Concert Opera collaborated Saturday night to offer a visitation via a staged concert relating their tale.  As the performance began, the orchestra and conductor were on the right side of the stage.  The singers were seated behind music stands to the left.  The cast and orchestra were largely dressed in black; even Conductor Antony Walker forsook his tuxedo for black shirt and trousers.  To perform their role in a scene, the singers moved in front of the stands and returned to the chorus when finished.  The props were minimal, a bench, a cushion.  The music, always intense, thematic, medieval in tone, and occasionally atonal, gave a serious and reverential accounting of their story.  I thought I was going to an opera that evening, but I also found myself attending a service.

Le vin herbé  begins. Photo by Angelina Namkung for Wolf Trap; courtesy of Washington Concert Opera and Wolf Trap Opera.

Le vin herbé begins. Photo by Angelina Namkung for Wolf Trap; courtesy of Washington Concert Opera and Wolf Trap Opera.

Composer Frank Martin based the libretto for Le vin herbé (The Love Potion) on Joseph Bédier’s book, “Roman de Tristan et Iseut”.  One finds many, many versions of this Celtic story assembled over the years, and there are slight variations in the names in different versions; Iseut is perhaps best known as Isolde.  The story used in Le vin herbé, but not the music, is similar to Richard Wagner’s opera, Tristan und Isolde.  Tristan was a trusted 12th century knight charged with escorting the Irish Princess Iseut to marry King Mark of Cornwall, but due to a servant’s error, he and Iseut drink a love potion (le vin herbé) mixed by Iseut’s mother and intended to seal the marriage between Iseut and King Mark.  Their infidelity causes much unhappiness and conflicts that eventually lead to their separation and deaths and spiritual reunion.  In Martin’s opera, Tristan and Iseut only fall in love after drinking the potion and it is a much shorter work than Wagner’s and not on as grand a scale; Martin’s is considered a medievalist Tristan with a small ensemble for an orchestra.  For me, Wagner’s seems to be more the telling of the story; Martin’s is more commemorating the story.

Seated are the lovers, Iseut played by Shannon Jennings and Tristan played by Ian Koziara, unable to resist the effect of the potion. Photo by Angelina Namkung for Wolf Trap; courtesy of Washington Concert Opera and Wolf Trap Opera.

Seated are the lovers, Iseut played by Shannon Jennings and Tristan played by Ian Koziara, unable to resist the effect of the potion. Photo by Angelina Namkung for Wolf Trap; courtesy of Washington Concert Opera and Wolf Trap Opera.

Twelve singers served as a choir that provided narration for the story and provided actors in the scenes presented.  Nine of these emerging artists are alumni or currently members of Wolf Trap Opera’s training programs.  They were in character even as chorus members, playing concerned observers, always serious and respectful; I don’t think I saw a smile the entire evening prior to bows.  Tenor Ian Koziara as Tristan and soprano Shannon Jennings have stellar voices and sang beautifully, fully portraying the emotion of their characters in voice and demeanor.  The supporting cast also acquitted themselves well: mezzo-soprano Renée Rapier (Iseut’s mother), soprano Summer Hassan (Branghien), baritone Joshua Conyers (King Marc), bass Anthony Robin Schneider (Duke Hoël), tenor Frederick Ballentine (Kaherdin), mezzo-soprano Nicole Thomas (Iseut of the White Hands), and additional chorus members – soprano Megan Sill, contralto Leah Marie Heater, tenor Joshua Sanders, and bass Matthew Fleisher.

With the unhappy lovers in mortal repose, the chorus (front row, left to right: Meagan Sill, Summer Hassan, Nicole Thomas, Renée Rapier, and Leah Marie Heater; back row, left to right: Joshua Sanders, Frederkick Ballantine, Joshua Conyers, Anthony Robin Schneider, and Matthew Fleisher.) provides closing remarks. Photo by Angelina Namkung for Wolf Trap; courtesy of Washington Concert Opera and Wolf Trap Opera.

With the unhappy lovers in mortal repose, the chorus (front row, left to right: Meagan Sill, Summer Hassan, Nicole Thomas, Renée Rapier, and Leah Marie Heater; back row, left to right: Joshua Sanders, Frederkick Ballantine, Joshua Conyers, Anthony Robin Schneider, and Matthew Fleisher.) provides closing remarks. Photo by Angelina Namkung for Wolf Trap; courtesy of Washington Concert Opera and Wolf Trap Opera.

The orchestra, or chamber ensemble, led by Conductor and Artistic Director for Washington Concert Opera, Antony Walker, consisted of seven strings and a piano.  I liked and enjoyed the music very much, but it was a strange sort of liking.  Martin’s music has a hypnotic effect; I felt unable to look away as this sad and at times painful drama played out.  The music enhanced each narration and scene, but always seeming to convey the gravity of the tale unfolding.  With eight players it seemed perfectly balanced, and I typically long for a larger orchestra in almost every opera. The performance overall was a small gem.

Maestro Walker said he was unable to place a label on Le vin herbe in classical terms such as listing it as an opera or oratorio or chamber work. Mr. Martin called his work a “secular oratorio”.  I think it can be described as all those things, but for me, the term that fits most appropriately is requiem, or perhaps secular requiem. However, requiems are written for actual people.  You might ask if the story of Tristan and Iseut is true?  We don’t know with certainty if similar events actually took place in the 12th century or before.  However, as the chorus tells us, using Bédier’s words in the libretto, it is a tale told as support “for all who love, not for others.”   My conclusion – it is true for all who love, and Le vin herbé is their requiem. 

The Fan Experience: There was a second performance of Le vin herbé, a matinee the next day.  Having two of my favorite opera companies collaborate is welcomed, especially since we got a winter concert with the Wolf Trap and other young artists out of the deal. We also got to hear a work that otherwise might never have been available to us.  Pooling resources makes sense to me; I hope it is the first of many collaborations.  Having the orchestra on the stage was a definite advantage for the quality of the sound.  The small, cozy atmosphere of The Barns was particularly suitable for this production. 


Opera Lafayette’s Radamisto: Faithful Women, Great Music, and Spirited Dancing

Handel  (centre)  and King George I on the River Thames, 17 July 1717, by Edouard Hamman (1819–88); image in public domain, copied from  Wikipedia .

Handel (centre) and King George I on the River Thames, 17 July 1717, by Edouard Hamman (1819–88); image in public domain, copied from Wikipedia.

The thought that hit me coming out of Opera Lafayette’s performance of Radamisto was Cosi fan tutte it’s not.  Vows mean something in Radamisto, at least if you are a woman.  Dorabella and Fiordiligi may struggle with sexual ambivalence in Cosi, but Zenobia and Polissena do not.  They are faithful and strong, and you mess with them at your own peril.  Radamisto is an Italian opera by composer George Frederic Handel and librettist Nicola Francesco Haym. It premiered in 1720 in the King’s Theater in London as Handel’s first opera produced by the Royal Academy of Music.  The opera received a dedication from Handel to King George I of England who had just reconciled with his son, the Prince of Wales.  Radamisto, ostensibly, has a theme of strife and reconciliation in a royal family, but like other operas by Handel, the story is mainly a vehicle for excellent singers to display their wares singing Handel’s beautiful arias.

Nicolas Poussin – Queen Zenobia Found on the Banks of the Araxes; image in public domain, copied from  Wikipedia .

Nicolas Poussin – Queen Zenobia Found on the Banks of the Araxes; image in public domain, copied from Wikipedia.

The plot engages one quickly, builds on the conflicts, but then ends with an unlikely redemption of a tyrant, an ending used by Handel to wrap things up while avoiding the bloodshed that most later composers more committed to the story would have indulged in.  The characters represent historical figures though their personalities and actions are altered. King Tiridate of Armenia is the bad guy, a tyrant possessed.  He has become infatuated with Zenobia, who is married to Prince Radamisto of Thrace.  It’s even more complicated – Tiridate has a wife, Polissena, who also happens to be the sister of Radamisto.  To make Zenobia his conquest, he invades Thrace, eventually capturing Zenobia, Radamisto, and Radamisto’s father, King Farasmane.  In his single-minded pursuit of Zenobia, Tiridate threatens and alienates all around him for most of the opera, including a early, painful pushing away of the faithful Polissena.  Near the end a revolt forces Tiridate to see the error of his ways.  His supporters, who subsequently form the opposition, are Faarte, the King’s sibling, who is also in love with Zenobia, and Tigrane, a general of Tiridate, who is in love with Polissena.  These latter two are eventually instrumental in the revolt against Tiridate, but get nowhere with the objects of their affections.  The story is packed with emotion for all the characters, but what stood out to me was the strong-willed character of Zenobia and Polissena.  Zenobia begs Radamisto to kill her rather than let her be taken by Tiridate, then calls him a coward because he failed to do so and attempts suicide by leaping into the Araxes River.  Polissena stands by her husband, even after he rejects her to pursue Zenobia, but eventually unleashes her fury when he threatens the killing of her family members.  One character after another sings beautiful arias expressing their feelings.  For the ending, Tiridate’s sudden change of heart is smartly downplayed by Opera Lafayette, making his fate unclear and keeping the focus on Radamisto’s and Zenobia’s triumphal reunion.

left: Caitlin Hulcup as Radamisto. right: Hagar Sharvit as Zenobia and Robin Yuloong Kim as Tiridate. Photos by Louis Forget; courtesy of Opera Lafayette.

The music is wonderful.  The twenty-seven piece Opera Lafayette orchestra, playing on period instruments and led by Conductor, OL Founder, and Artistic Director Ryan Brown, delivers an authentic baroque experience.  Several arias were selectively deleted to keep the time, including two intermissions, under three hours, which may alarm purists, but seemed prudent to me.  In his pre-opera talk along with Director and Choreographer Seán Curran, Mr. Brown expressed the opinion that music of the eighteenth century had a natural connection to movement and dance, which was one reason why he was drawn to music of that era.  Radamisto closes each act with a short dance number.  Mr. Curran with six dancers from his company arranged the dances to be a blend of period and modern dance. I found that focusing on the dances, meant to be part of the story, provided spiritual renewal, with release from the preceding tension-causing arias.  In fact, I found myself wondering if performing this work in concert with even more dances included to suggest, rather than portray, the action might be a more effective way to present this opera.  The costumes by Amanda Shafran suggested a later, but unspecified era in Armenia, and aided drawing us into the drama.

left: Caitlin Hulcup as Radamisto and Dominique Labelle as Polissena. right: Alex Rosen as Farasmane. Photos by Louis Forget; courtesy of Opera Lafayette.

Each cast member was pleasing and distinctive in singing their arias.  The cast overall offered a gender mashup as Handel’s operas do, which in this case worked.  Playing the role of Radamisto was mezzo-soprano Caitlin Hulcup who managed to appear masculine enough.  I was especially touched by the beauty of her voice and the emotion it carried in an early act II aria bemoaning Zenobia’s apparent suicide.  Zenobia was portrayed by Hagar Sharvit who possesses a deeper mezzo-soprano sound that I relished all evening.  Polissena was sung by soprano Dominique Labelle, whose voice is lovely and carries a natural warmth.  Only the two kings were sung by men.  Tenor Robin Yujoong Kim was a menacing Tiridate with a satisfying tenor voice. Bass Alex Rosen demonstrated a powerful voice and presence in portraying the captured Farasmane, that promises greater things ahead for him.  Tigrane was originally played by a soprano in a pants role and Faarte was a male role played by a castrato.  Opera Lafayette dressed these characters in uniforms but allowed them to be female.  Soprano Véronique Filloux as Tigrane and soprano Nola Richardson as Faarte were both delights, offering both charm and beautiful voices.  The acting overall might have benefited from another rehearsal or two but grew more natural as the evening progressed.  This was a solid cast all around.

left: Nola Richardson portraying Faarte and Véronique Filloux portraying Tigrane. right: Dancers of the Seán Curran Dance Company perform with Zenobia and Radamisto onlooking. Photos by Louis Forget; courtesy of Opera Lafayette.

Back to not being a purist for a moment: It is, of course, a pleasure to be able to hear the beauty of a Handel opera performed essentially in it’s original form, but clearly the drama in Radamisto doesn’t work as well for modern audiences; I found that it affected me, but did not grip me.  I sometimes try to imagine what it was like to sit in an opera theater in the 1700s.  My senses would have not been dulled by thousands of hours of being bombarded by amplified music of many genres on radio, television, and in movies, played too loudly, and I would have been more closely connected to royal families and their dramas and the customs/mores of that era.  Several times during Tuesday night’s performance, the audience quietly laughed at lines and scenes that I suspect caused audiences long ago to gasp and hold their breath.  To those who want to see Handel operas in their original form, keep in mind that they were not created for us because we are not an audience with tastes and sensitivities molded by the 18th century. What was it like to hear a Handel opera when it was the new thing, nothing like had been done before.  Radamisto was a hit in its day, perhaps the Hamilton of its time, but it doesn’t quite rise to that level today because the audiences have changed, not the opera. Some adaptations to make the presentation more appealing to modern audiences are welcomed by me.  That we can still greatly enjoy the music and connect with the emotions being conveyed are a testament to Radamisto’s greatness, the singers’ talents, and Opera Lafayette’s wisdom in presenting it, using their own good judgment.

Photo of cast and dancers with Conductor Ryan Brown (front row, second from left), who is also Opera Lfayette’s Founder and Artistic Director, and Director and Choreographer Seán Curran (end of front row on right).

Photo of cast and dancers with Conductor Ryan Brown (front row, second from left), who is also Opera Lfayette’s Founder and Artistic Director, and Director and Choreographer Seán Curran (end of front row on right).

 The Fan Experience: Since Opera Lafayette moved their performances to the Kennedy Center’s Terrace Theater, tickets have become increasing more difficult to come by. Radamisto was sold out weeks in advance. Their next offering will be Alessandro Stradella’s La Susanna to be held in DC on April 21 and 22 with additional performances in NYC May 2-5. The additional performances should help with securing tickets, but I still recommend making your ticket purchases early.



WTO and WCO’s Le vin herbé: A collaboration initiated in the 12th century arrives Feb 9-10

La mort de Tristan et d'Yseut. Miniature du xve siècle.  BnF . Public domain image from  French Wikipedia .

La mort de Tristan et d'Yseut. Miniature du xve siècle. BnF. Public domain image from French Wikipedia.

Le vin herbé or Le Vin herbé or Le Vin Herbé - all are variations I have seen listed in a simple Google search.  One might think this French phrase would be translated as “the herb-infused wine”, but my search revealed translations of “the drugged wine”, “the spiked wine”, “a magic potion”, and “the love potion”.  Wolf Trap Opera and Washington Concert Opera go with that last one.  Regardless, I admit that I had never heard of Swiss composer Frank Martin’s Le vin herbé, before seeing this opera listed in the Washington Concert Opera and Wolf Trap Opera schedules.  But then, I’m still in my first decade of loving opera.  Several of the productions by WTO and WCO that I have attended the last few years were operas unfamiliar to me, some by famous composers whose better known works I had seen.  Yet, some of those performances of little known works rank among my best opera experiences in terms of entertainment value and artistic enrichment.  So, I tend not to be daunted by seeing an unfamiliar title in their schedules.  Instead, I look forward to seeing the performance.  Add having WTO and WCO work together to put forward a lesser known work, and my curiosity and motivation to attend get even greater. 

 Interested yet?  What if I add that the story is a version of the Tristan and Iseut legend.  In fact, it has been described as “a Tristan with a difference”.  Tristan… love potion…starting to make sense?  Composer Martin based his libretto on a book, Joseph Bédier’s “Roman de Tristan et Iseut”, itself a variation on the 12th century legend about the Cornish knight Tristan and the Irish princess Iseut, a story with a plot of adulterous love (Iseut was wed to King Mark) that has since been retold in countless variations, famously used by Richard Wagner in his great opera, Tristan und Isolde, and even more famous perhaps from Camelot (you know, Lancelot and Guinevere).  The temptation for opera fans will be to compare this modern telling with Wagner’s version.  However, Martin composed his opera in the late 1930s in Switzerland as Nazi aggression was mounting in Europe and had its first performance in 1941 at the beginning of WWII; according to one report, he chose Bedier’s version of the myth to distance himself from Wagner’s and from Wagner’s adulation by the Nazi’s.  Martin called his opera “a secular oratorio” and began it originally as a 30-min piece, later expanded.  It was after the war that it was first fully staged, but all of this really started in the 12th century.

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

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

Le vin herbé is a chamber piece composed for 12 voices, seven strings, and piano.  The opera is viewed as a statement of Martin’s musical individuality, powerful in its conveyance of emotion.  The conductor for this performance is WCO’s Music Director Antony Walker, who conducted WTO’s The Touchstone in June 2017. The majority of the young artists who will be singing come from current and former members of Wolf Trap Opera training programs, including leads tenor Ian Koziara and soprano Shannon Jennings.  Mr. Koziara was a stand out in this past summer’s production of Idomeneo by WTO.  In the Post’s Anne Midgette review, she said he “sung with a striking beauty of tone” and called him a “wonderful young artist.”  Ms. Jennings who was previously a WTO Studio Artist is returning this year as a Filene Artist.  She will be singing the role of Michaela in Annapolis Opera’s upcoming production of Carmen on March 15, 17.

Ian Koziara, who will portray Tristan and Shannon Jennings who will portray Iseut la Blonde. Photos courtesy of Wolf Trap Opera.

Because of my unfamiliarity with Le vin herbé, I submitted questions to Conductor Walker to ask more about the collaboration and the music.  He first responded, “This collaboration between WCO and WTO came about principally because I had a desire to present Le vin herbé, and thought that I could do this best in a co-production with WCO and WTO at The Barns of Wolf Trap, featuring young singers who had an association with WCO, WTO and Pittsburgh Opera (where I am Music Director, and where we have a Resident Artist program).  Luckily, WTO’s Kim Witman was very receptive too, and excited by the idea of such a co-production and by Le vin herbé itself. My association with Wolf Trap Opera goes back to 1997, where I conducted Mitradate Re di Ponto as my US debut!  It was this association with WTO that led to my being appointed Artistic Director & Conductor of Washington Concert Opera in 2002, as WCO knew my work through WTO! Thus, both WCO and WTO are very dear to me, and I am so thrilled that we are able to collaborate in this way.”

 Given that Le vin herbé is a modern work, I also asked Maestro Walker what we might expect of the music.  He responded, “Le vin herbé is so intimate and intense, so beautifully scored for the chamber ensemble and creates a sound-world that is both medieval and romantic, and quite accessible if you enjoy French music from the early 20th century like Debussy or Ravel. Is Le vin herbé an opera? Is it an oratorio? Is it a chamber work? How is it that one can hear Wagner and Debussy in the score and still be struck by Martin’s distinctly individual voice. I am unable to define Le vin herbé by any category or label that we generally use in classical music, and I think that this is partly what makes the work so compelling, fascinating, intense, and fresh.” 

Dear reader: I only asked for you.  I was not going to miss this one.

The Fan Experience: Two performances of Le vin herbé are scheduled, Saturday evening, February 9 and Sunday afternoon, February 10.  Click this link for tickets.  The Barns at Wolf Trap is one of my favorite venues – modest ticket prices, easy in, free parking, close up seating, food and drink available, ok to take drinks to your seat, easy exit after the performance.  What’s not to love? Many thanks to WCO staff and Maestro Walker for the responses to my questions.

“Mad Love: An Introduction to Opera”: Hello, I’m Vivien and I will Be Your Guide Today

Vivien Schweitzer, the author of “Mad Love” certainly has the credentials to serve as an opera guide.  First, she is a classical pianist with an intimate knowledge of music.  Second, she worked as a classical music and opera critic for the New York Times between 2006 to 2016, an experience that immersed her in opera and the New York opera scene, providing her access to many opera performers and insiders.  I recently took her book along on a vacation to Egypt.  For several of our days traveling about we didn’t have internet access.  To combat the anxiety borne of feeling disconnected, I used the time freed up to read.  Imagine that; I was reading a book again, not some item pulled from the internet.  In fact, I had been wanting to read Ms. Schweitzer’s book for a couple of months, but simply hadn’t found the time.  Now, I know why I had not found the time.  (Mental Note: screen time and book reading are inversely proportional). 

Photo by blog post author.

Photo by blog post author.

Ms. Schweitzer has written a gentle, flowing narrative that provides an overview of the origination and evolution of opera to the present day.  Amusing us with anecdotes about famous composers and performers, she leads us from room to room in the opera museum, commenting on specific operas, coupled with remarks how the changing times influenced those operas and other arts.  However, as I began reading the book, two reservations arose, one that dissipated as I got deeper into the text.  At first It seemed thin in substantive content, even for an introductory book.  You can garner most of the knowledge in the first half of the book with a few years of attending opera and reading the reviews.  The author has managed, however, to condense that knowledge into a relatively short volume and the cumulative impact of knowledge and insights to be gained pile up handsomely as you read more.  She manages to touch on most of the major points useful for newbies; these points will likely fill in some missing pieces for more experienced opera fans.  Plus, by moving fast, she makes it difficult to get bored.  This leads to my second caution that came up from reading the book, the one that remains: I think you will get more out of the book if you have seen at least a few of the more popular operas so that you can compare your thoughts and feelings about an opera or two you have seen with hers. 

Ms. Schweitzer’s comments on specific operas often includes insights into how the orchestration and individual instruments compliment or even control the mood of a scene.  The stories she tells are often placed in the context of the political and cultural changes taking place in each era, including how societies have attempted to control opera.  Most helpful to the opera newbie might be the explanation of opera terms such as bel canto and melismatic singing that arise with regularity throughout the text.  Pacing, voice types, as well as updating operas are all covered.  She also addresses topics often overlooked in opera guides, such as the role of the conductor and how his/her decisions influence the performance and how the translator’s skill in constructing translations of the librettos into English subtitles can affect how the performance is perceived.  What she does cover in detail is contemporary opera works, such as operas composed by Britten, Adams, Glass, Heggie, and others.  Her discussion provides an outstanding, easily digestible, introduction to modern opera.  She calls out some operas for missing the mark while praising others – some serious food for thought in that.  I’ve not seen anything similar; this section will likely even be of interest to the opera cognoscenti. 

Here is a Mental Note for you, if you are a newbie – all opera performances are not all the same, even if they are performances of the same opera.  Obviously, operas differ by composer and less obviously perhaps by the era in which they were written.  Different performances of the same opera can be hugely different also, depending on who is conducting, who is singing, and who is directing.  Much as a tour guide attempts to provide information needed to understand how the culture of a people developed, Ms. Schweitzer aims to provide her readers with “the fundamentals of the Western operatic tradition in a narrative context to show how composers have used different techniques and voices to create sung drama.”  Her goal is to give her readers a sense of how opera has changed over time and a basis for understanding the potential effects and impact of the choices that today’s conductors, singers, and directors make in the performances they bring forward.  She has largely succeeded, I think.  I’ve been a fan of opera for about seven years now and I found the book insightful and informative, especially in discussing modern works and interpretations.  The farther into “Mad Love” I got, the more pleased I felt at having taken the tour.

The Fan Experience:  Ms. Schweitzer has established a Spotify Playlist to complement the text, called “Mad Love: An Introduction to Opera”.  Also, “Mad Love” is an easy read of only 232 pages.  An added benefit - when the tour is over, no tips are required; which, after returning from a guide-driven vacation, is much appreciated pecuniary relief.


The Fan Experience of Attending Live Opera: The Agony and the Ecstasy

I love opera; however, I know opera can be a little intimidating for newbies and people who think they might like to give it a try (and honestly, for most of the rest of us too).  It is commonly seen as expensive and formal and the venues are most often in the middle of a metropolis with all the attendant traffic and parking issues.  Sometimes even knowing where you can see opera is an issue, much less where to park.  My blog can help with the where, and I include a ‘The Fan Experience’ section at the end of opera blog posts where I address such issues.  I offer some general comments below on attending-opera challenges, but here’s the thing, live opera is definitely worth it, sort of like trekking carefully through a few briars to get to a picnic, and no insect repellent is required, at least in the opera houses I visit. For me, the agony while not insignificant is minor, but the ecstasy is to be coveted. I read recently a comment by a famous opera director that someone watching live opera should have their senses intoxicated by the experience, and when the music is good, the singing is good, the dancing is good, the costumes are good, the scenery is good, and the story-telling is good, that happens. 

Moby Dick  , 2018: Photo by David Bachman Photography; courtesy of Pittsburgh Opera.

Moby Dick, 2018: Photo by David Bachman Photography; courtesy of Pittsburgh Opera.

I listen to radio and watch video recordings of opera all the time but let me re-emphasize:  Live opera is a different experience.  First of all, opera singers don’t wear microphones.  That’s one of the beauties of opera, what you hear comes directly from the singer’s vocal cords.  You might wonder how they do it, filling up a 2,000-seat arena with sound.  It’s difficult.  Opera is also visual, and when attended live, you get to choose what you focus on, not the video director, and there is frequently a lot going on.  Watching live is different in two other respects.  First, you are cloistered, so your attention is focused and intense, heightening the experience.  Second, you are responding individually but also in a group.  On an emotional level you are connecting with your fellow human beings; you will be able to feel it.  I compare the experience of recorded versus live opera with hearing your spouse say I love you over the phone versus saying it in person, both good, but two different experiences - make mine live. 

The Price: Live opera is expensive, with good reason (lots of singers, chorus members, dancers, costume designers and makers, directors, conductors, orchestra members, production staff members, theater managers, etc. that must be paid), but not much more so than other live events.  The best seats are expensive but good seats can usually be found for $50-100, sometimes cheaper, even in the major venues – have you checked the ticket prices at rock concerts and professional sporting events these days?  Also, companies offer discounts for season tickets or multi-performance packages, student discounts, and promotions (sign up for opera company mail lists/newsletters to learn about these).  I’ve not sat in a seat in any location where I didn’t enjoy the performance, so don’t eschew the cheap seats, though I avoid seats with restricted view.  The smaller companies usually offer lower prices to their events frequently using more regional singers and/or beginning artists/students, who are nonetheless excellent singers, and some are opera stars in the making.  I also recommend concert opera performances, which are a little less expensive, for the great sound.  Some of my peak opera experiences have been at small venues and at concert opera performances.

Left photo - Romeo et Juliette, 2018: Photo by Scott Suchman; courtesy of Wolf Trap Opera. Right photo - Sapho: Photo by Don Lassell; courtesy of Washington Concert Opera.

The Dress Code: Opera is not as formal, or as much of a high society event, as it once was.  I see many casually attired patrons these days, particularly in the smaller venues, and we commoners make up a sizable percentage of opera attendees.  I usually wear a sport coat, not always a tie, and sometimes a sweater instead of a coat.  It is an occasion to dress up if you want to and many people do wear suits, and even the occasional tuxedo and evening dress for the romance (Nicholas Cage and Cher in “Moonstruck”), but others wear slacks, blouses, nice pullover shirts, the sort of crowd you’d see in a nice restaurant.  Be aware too that short grand operas are well over 2 hours with intermissions and can run up to five hours; so, make sure your finery allows you to breathe and relax. 

The Barber of Seville : Photo by Scott Suchman; courtesy of Washington National Opera.

The Barber of Seville: Photo by Scott Suchman; courtesy of Washington National Opera.

Opera etiquette and house rules: You may like to chat with a spouse or friend during performances, but for opera, your neighbors will definitely not be pleased.  Once upon a time, operas were raucous affairs, but not today.  (Unfortunately, I think) Opera performances now require church-like behavior; be quiet and be reverent.  Most people don’t want to be distracted or miss a note of the music, which I understand, but would trade for more fun.  Also, turn off the cell phone and don’t text during an opera; some companies are experimenting with allowing texting, and I like to hit Twitter and Facebook during the intermission.  And big taboo, no photos during the performance, with or without flash – house rules.  The photos in this report are from OperaGene blog reports and were provided by the sponsoring opera company; additional photo information can be found in the blog reports themselves. Finally, at the performers will come out and take bows at the end. If at all possible, stay and applaud until the final curtain falls. Part of their reward is to know that they have touched you, affected your life, that their efforts meant something to you.

Street Scene  , 2018: Photo by Ben Schill Photography; courtesy of the Virginia Opera.

Street Scene, 2018: Photo by Ben Schill Photography; courtesy of the Virginia Opera.

Where to sit: In my humble opinion, you can have the best view or the best sound, choose one.  For me, the closer, the better you can see the singers and what’s on stage up close.  The farther back and higher up, the better the sound.  And center is better than the sides for sound and viewing.  But really, the only seats that I avoid are those with restricted view, including those so close up that it’s difficult or impossible to see the supertitles (in English) overhead.  Many people prefer seats in the balconies, which are usually cheaper, and I think, offer superior sound.

Lucia di Lammermoor   , 2018 : Photo by Steve Pisano; courtesy of Opera Philadelphia.

Lucia di Lammermoor, 2018: Photo by Steve Pisano; courtesy of Opera Philadelphia.

Bodily needs: Another aspect of opera length is a need to plan your bathroom breaks. Intermissions are usually about 20 minutes; you may have to choose between enjoying a martini and relieving your bladder.  Shorter operas are sometimes given without an intermission.  Check ahead.  Food is not welcome inside the auditoriums and typically only snacks are available during intermission.  When we visited Teatro di Liceu in Barcelona, food and drink was served in the hallways during intermission; lots of champagne and cheese and Iberian ham subs were being scarfed down.  I would really like to see a company experiment with casual Tuesdays, serving pizza slices and beer during a lengthened intermission.  Probably you will want to have dinner either before or possibly after the opera.  Some opera venues have in house restaurants, and some opera houses are allowing drinks inside the theater if you purchase a special spill-free cup.

Left photo - Cerere Placata, 2018: Photo by Russell Hirshorn; courtesy of Opera Lafayette. Right photo - Suor Angelica, 2018: Photo by Moonloop Photography; courtesy of Opera Delaware.

The Hassle: Can’t do much about the traffic and parking woes of big cities, but often public transportation is available.  I’ve found the subway to the Foggy Bottom Metro stop and taking the Kennedy Center’s own buses from there to be a cheap and efficient option in DC.  In Pittsburgh, I’ve stayed downtown within walking distance to the Benedum Center, and in Philadelphia, I stayed a little out of city center to get a cheaper hotel rate and take a taxi to the Academy of Music, cheaper than I expected.  On the couple of visits I typically make to the Met each year, we choose a hotel within walking distance; getting a taxi in Manhattan close to opera/theater performance times can be almost impossible.  Traveling out of town to attend opera is a very cool mini-vacation since you can also take in the restaurants and attractions in a different city.  There are also smaller companies with venues that sometimes have more accessible locations where parking is free or at least cheap.  Company websites usually have parking and access information; I often like to talk to the ticket office/guest services staff who can be very helpful in answering most of your questions, even making hotel and restaurant suggestions.  Getting there early enough to have dinner close by is a good strategy that can help take the sting out of commuting.  And always allow more time for commuting than you think you will need; traffic will have its way.  Finally, I recommend getting there early enough to hear the pre-opera talk that most companies offer today.  There is a good chance the knowledge and insights to be gained will increase your enjoyment of the performance.

Special needs: Opera venues offer special seating and help with access for those with special needs such as limited mobility.  Consult with the house staff ahead of time.

OK, getting up off the sofa and heading to the opera house is a hassle and requires effort, but getting to hear live opera is a big reward.  Opera live is different. It’s not that rare that I attend an opera performance, then go home and listen to a recording of that opera, only to be disappointed; it had so much more appeal hearing it live. The entertainment value of the experience is high, and sharing with your fellow man the sense of beauty that good opera commands is a bonding, humanizing experience.  It will be rare, if ever, you regret the expense or the effort – if your wife forces you to wear a tux, you might regret that, justifiably.   


From DC to Pittsburgh to Philadelphia to Richmond: Where to See Opera in the Mid-Atlantic

Tickets are an opera fans best friend! Just planting a gift idea for some opera fan out there.  Someone at a party recently asked me where he could see live opera in DC.  There are more choices available than you might think.  Indeed, in the larger mid-Atlantic region of the U.S., we have many options for attending opera.  Below, I list twenty-six companies arranged by state.  The larger, more visible companies are Opera Philadelphia, Pittsburgh Opera, and Washington National Opera, as well as the Virginia Opera that performs in three Virginia cities.  However, there are also many small companies that present fully-staged operas, some serving a city or region and some that specialize in operas of a specific type.  There are also concert opera companies that focus on the music and the singing.  Some companies operate during the September to May opera season and a few perform in the summer months.  A few are devoted to presenting festivals.  And there are several with a primary mission for the education and/or training of students and new opera singers.  A surprising omission is that there is no longer a major fully-staged opera company operating in Baltimore; we keep hoping.

Seeing Wolf Trap Opera last in my listing causes me to emphasize that the listing order is not an expression of my preferences.  Readers of this blog will know that Wolf Trap Opera is among my favorites, and there is entertainment and artistic experiences to be had with all these companies.  Some of my peak opera experiences have been at the small venues and at concert opera performances.  And remember, opera tickets make great holiday gifts!!!

In Series: Opera & More, DC ( - The InSeries focus is presenting innovative opera, intimate cabaret, and inspiring Latinx programming.  Information: 202-204-7763.

New York Opera Society, DC ( - NYOS presents opera events with the goal of creating new audiences for opera at venues in the U.S. and abroad, frequently in DC, often free programs held at the Smithsonian. Information: email to

Opera Lafayette, DC/NY ( - OL offers a varied program at the Kennedy Center’s Terrace Theater each season that may include fully-staged opera, concert opera, or concerts, and that may include dance; then that production moves to NYC for another performance.  Music is selected from less well-known works, primarily from the 18th century, and is played on period instruments.  Information: 202-546-9332.

Washington Concert Opera, DC ( - WCO presents two operas in concert with a full orchestra each year, one in the Fall and one in the Spring in Lisner Auditorium of George Washington University.  This year they have added a February performance at The Barns at Wolf Trap in collaboration with Wolf Trap Opera.  Information: 202-364-5826. 

Washington National Opera, DC ( - WNO offers fully-staged grand opera all season long at one of the venues in the Kennedy Center, usually the Opera House. They also offer the American Opera Initiative each January featuring a new one-hour opera and three new twenty-minute operas.  Information: 202-467-4600 or 800-444-1324.

Washington Opera Society, DC ( - WOS is a a relative newcomer onto the opera landscape.  They present full operas/operettas, scenes, or concerts in local embassies throughout the season.  Information: 202-386-6008.

Urban Arias, DC ( - Urban Arias presents short, contemporary operas several times each year at either the Atlas Performing Arts Center or the Signature Theater. Information: email to

Opera Delaware, DE ( - Opera Delaware presents an opera festival with fully staged operas in the spring and other opera events during the year.  They frequently collaborate with Baltimore Concert Opera with BCO first presenting a work in concert, and then the same cast presenting the work fully staged at Opera Delaware.  Information: 302-658-8063.

Annapolis Opera, MD ( - AO presents fully staged operas during the season, frequently including a children’s opera, as well as concerts during the year, in the Maryland Hall for the Creative Arts.  Information: 410-267-8135.

Baltimore Concert Opera, MD ( – BCO presents operas in concert, both well-known and lesser-known works, during a season, with piano accompaniment, along with periodic events called Thirsty Thursdays, mixing arias with libations.  Performances are the small, cozy confines of the elegant Engineers Club. Some of their productions move up the road for fully-staged versions in collaboration with Opera Delaware.  Information: 443-445-0226

Belcantanti Opera, MD ( – Belcantanti Opera presents fully-stage operas throughout the season, using primarily local singers in several venues in the Maryland suburbs of DC.  Information: 240-230-7372

Maryland Lyric Opera, MD ( - MDLO, still a relatively young company, presents operas, fully staged and in concert, as well as recitals and concerts in venues in the Maryland suburbs of DC, though its main mission is to provide training for young opera talent.  Information: 240-427-5568.

Maryland Opera Studio, MD ( - Maryland Opera Studio in the School of Music at the University of Maryland presents operas, both new works and ones from the standard repertoire, and concerts, performed by students during the opera season. Information: 301-405-7794.

Peabody Conservatory, MD ( – Through its “Opera Outreach” program, the Peabody Conservatory presents two staged opera offerings each season, utilizing upper-level students of the conservatory, currently the only fully-staged operas being performed in Baltimore.  Information: email to

The Princeton Festival, NJ ( – As part of The Princeton Festival for Opera, Musical Theater, Jazz, and Chamber Music each June, a fully-staged opera is performed using professional opera singers.  Information: 609-759-0379.

Academy of Vocal Arts, PA ( - AVA is all about post-graduate training in opera, and as part of that training their students are guaranteed to participate in operas produced by AVA during the season; they also sponsor recitals, concerts and a prestigious bel canto singing competition.  They utilize several venues around Philadelphia, but operas are held in AVA’s Helen Corning Warden Theater.  Information: 215-735-1685.

Curtis Opera Theatre, PA ( - Also in Philadelphia, the Curtis Opera Theatre is part of the Curtis Institute of Music, an undergraduate institution.  The Theatre puts on several fully-staged operas during the season using students as performers.  I like their slogan, “Come see our finest become their best”.  Information: 215-893-5252.

Opera Philadelphia, PA ( - OP offers fully-staged, grand opera all season long at the Academy of Music.  The last two years, OP has opened their seasons in September with exciting festivals offering several different opera events in a three-week period at different venues around town; the lineup for next season’s festival will be announced in late January.  Information: 215-732-8400. 

Pittsburgh Festival Opera, PA ( - Think opera in the summer and not the Pittsburgh Opera.  PFO, a separate company, produces a summer festival of operas in Pittsburgh, as well as other opera events during the year.  The festival occurs in June/July; all operas, both new and old, are sung in English, reaching out to as wide an audience as possible.  Information: 412-621-1499.

Pittsburgh Opera, PA ( - PO offers fully-staged, grand opera all season long at the historic Benedum Center, including the occasional premiere of a new work, as well as chamber works at smaller venues around town.  Information: 412-281-0912.

Charlottesville Opera, VA ( - Charlottesville Opera, formerly Ash Lawn Opera, typically presents two fully-staged operas in the summer.  Information: 434-293-4500.

Opera in Williamsburg, VA ( - Opera in Williamsburg, VA presents fully-staged opera and other events during the season.  Information: email to

Opera Roanoke, VA ( - Opera Roanoke presents several fully-staged operas during the opera season.  Information: 540-345-2550.

Victory Hall Opera, VA ( - a troupe of 12 professional opera singers form the core of VHC with goal of “bringing thrilling opera theater to new audiences in Charlottesville, VA”. They perform in small, intimate venues around Charlottesville, VA. Information: 434-227-9978.

Virginia Opera, VA ( - VA Opera is a regional opera company. They offer fully-staged grand opera all season utilizing venues in three cities in Virginia.  Each opera has its first run with three performances in Norfolk, followed by two in Fairfax, and finishing with two in Richmond on successive weeks.  The different venues have different ticket offices and policies.  I am proud to be able to say that I have seen a VA Opera performance in each of the cities.  Norfolk information: 866-673-7282; Fairfax information: 703-993-8888; and Richmond information: 866-673-7282.

Wolf Trap Opera, VA ( – WTO, in Vienna, VA, primarily offers events in the summer, including two fully-staged operas at The Barns, a small venue, and one at the Filene Center, an open-air amphitheater.  Young professionals around the U.S. compete each year to spend the summer at Wolf Trap honing their skills and performing in these operas/events.  This year they have added a February performance at The Barns in collaboration with Washington Concert Opera.  Information: 703-255-1900.

The information telephone lines for smaller companies may not be regularly staffed, or they may be for a parent organization; best to start with the websites.  I likely have overlooked some companies in the mid-Atlantic that are off my radar.  If you know of one that is active that I have not included, please let me know, and I will add them to the list.



Holiday Gift Idea: Books For Your Opera Lover and the Newbie, Too

Many opera fans just want to enjoy opera, not study it. Fair enough, but I find that learning more about opera increases my enjoyment of it, and I look forward to discovering new books about opera. Personally, I have found that a good way to build an opera book library is by visiting used book sales.  Still, there is something satisfying and even exciting about getting a new and current book as a gift.  So, even though I have a stack of unread books awaiting me already, I have asked Santa for several new ones this year that caught my eye.  I point these out below as well as mentioning a couple of opera reference books to consider and links to additional book suggestions in articles on the internet, in no particular order.  One of the books below might be a treat for an opera fan on your gift list.

Current and Topical:

The Kirkus reviews I highlight are short and more descriptive than critical, to give you a better idea of the scope of the books. 

“Mad Love: An Introduction to Opera” by Vivien Schweitzer; Basic Books, 2018, 288 pages – Ms. Schweitzer is a concert pianist and served as a classical music and opera critic for the NY Times from 2006-2016.  She provides a light, easy-read tour of opera from its beginning, circa 1600, to present day that is targeted to opera newbies.  Helpful for picking up the lingo and understanding how opera has evolved. *Kirkus Review

“Mad Scenes and Exit Arias: The Death of the New York Opera and the Future of Opera in America” by Heidi Waleson; Metropolitan Books, 2018, 281 pages – Ms. Waleson has reviewed opera for the Wall Street Journal for 25 years.  Her book provides a deep dive into the history the illustrious New York City Opera which operated as the lower cost rival to the Metropolitan Opera from 1943 to 2013 and that came to be known as “the People’s Opera”; the company was revived in 2016.  Ms. Waleson also examines the lessons from the company’s history for current opera companies. *Kirkus Review

“The Indispensable Composers: A Personal Guide” by Anthony Tommasini; Penguin Press, 2018, 496 pages – It was a very good year for books from New York music critics, .  Mr. Tommasini is the Chief Classical Music Critic of the NY Times; he has authored two other books and has performed professionally as a pianist.  He is most likely the author of any opera reviews you encounter in the NY Times.  He has tackled the subject of greatness in this tome and I, for one, want to know what he has to say about it.  He provides stories and insights about the great composers, including more recent ones. *Kirkus Review 

“Toscanini: Musician of Conscience” by Harvey Sachs; Liveright, 2017, 944 pages – Mr. Sachs is on the faculty of the Curtis Institute of Music; he is the author of several books and a long list of articles for major U.S. periodicals.  He has written an extensive biography of the great conductor, Arturo Toscanini, who had a major influence on classical music in the twentieth century and was an opponent of the rise of Fascism in Italy.  It was recommended to me by a cardiologist who is an opera fan, so I assume it is good for your heart.  He insists he could not put it down; I assume except for emergencies.  The critical reviews uniformly call this book an outstanding biography.  *Kirkus Reviews

“Sing for Your Life: A Story of Race, Music, and Family” by Daniel Bergner; Lee Boudreaux Books - Little, Brown and Company, 2016, 320 pages – Mr. Bergner is the author of several books, both fiction and non-fiction, and a frequent contributor to major U.S. publications.  This is the story of Ryan Speedo Green who overcame a background of poverty, child abuse, and incarceration to become a singer (bass-baritone) performing on the stage of the Metropolitan Opera.  It reveals how he overcame a brutal background and the challenges by opera singers of color today to rise above it all.  *Kirkus Review

Reference Books

“The New Penguin Opera Guide” edited by Amanda Holden; Penguin Books, 2001, 1168 pages – This is my personal favorite opera reference book; I’ve even written a blog report about it.  Ms. Holden is a highly regarded author and translator in the field of opera.  The Guide, arranged by composer, includes more than 100 contributors covering over 800 composers and 1500 operas (including operettas).  It is usually the first place I check to read a synopsis of an opera I’m not familiar with and to get insights into why it is important.  Like all reference books, it only covers contemporary works up to close to the time the book was written. 

The Grove Book of Operas, Second Edition edited by Stanley Sadie and Laura Macy; Oxford University Press, 2005, 740 pages - I picked this one up recently at the Arlington County Library book sale for less than one-third of the going rate on Amazon, a good find. Similar in concept and types of information to the Penguin reference book, but using different contributors and arranged by opera in alphabetical order. Like all the books I’ve collected on opera, I find some new bits of information and insights not encountered in my other books.

“The New Pocket Kobbé’s Opera Book” by Earl of Harwood; Ebury Press, 2018, 544 pages – This just appeared in September and is on my Christmas wish list.  It is based upon what many readers consider the essential opera reference, “The New Kobbé’s Opera Book” published in 1997.  I haven’t been able to find a lot of information on this updated and likely shortened edition as a pocket version, so check it out carefully before buying; the 1997 edition may still be preferable.  A British Earl writing an opera book?  There might be a story here for a future blog report. 

Selected Articles With More Book Suggestions

I am familiar with most of the books on these lists. Some that I’ve found especially interesting and helpful beginning my opera journey include “Opera for Dummies” by David Pogue and Scott Speck (don’t laugh; this helped get me started, “Opera 101” by Fred Plotkin (still a good starting point for newbies), and “A History of Opera” by Carolyn Abbate (scholarly and interesting history). I selected the articles below because they mention books I either know or that seem like they might be worthwhile reads, at least worth checking out further.

The Best Books About or Featuring the Opera (Fiction and Non-Fiction) 

Five Books to Ignite an Opera Obsession 

The Five Best Books on Opera 

Best Opera Books

I’m hoping the listings above will provide you with some gift ideas. If you know of any recent good opera books I’ve missed, let me know.  There is still time for me to get in touch with Santa!

Washington Concert Opera’s Sapho: Team WCO Pulls Out a Win for Gounod

If you will allow me a sports analogy, watching a Washington Concert Opera performance is like watching the New England Patriots play football, the best coached team in professional sports in my opinion.  Every player is a competent professional with some stars in the mix, but the key is that every player does their job and does it well.  On Sunday night for the American professional premiere of Sapho, every WCO player did their job, did it well, and team WCO pulled out a win for composer Charles Gounod.

Gounod had the gift.  I’ve seen his Faust and Romeo and Juliet, his only two operas that get performed with any regularity.  Like Mozart, Verdi, and Wagner and only a few others, Gounod had the gift.  But the gifted don’t always produce a great work (the Patriots don’t always win).  Even the great ones have duds.  Over a couple of years of attending WCO productions, I have developed confidence in WCO’s Artistic Director and Conductor Antony Walker’s acumen at selecting lesser-known, but worthy operas, and an excellent cast of singers to present the work in concert.  Sapho turns out to be another find.  I’m not even sure that this opera couldn’t work as a fully-staged version.  It has important, timeless themes and the music is marvelous; with the right singers, I’d go see it. 

Addison Marlor as Phaon, Brian Vu as Alcée, Kate Lindsey as Sapho, and Musa Ngqungwana as Pythéas. Photo by Don Lassell; courtesy of Washington Concert Opera.

Addison Marlor as Phaon, Brian Vu as Alcée, Kate Lindsey as Sapho, and Musa Ngqungwana as Pythéas. Photo by Don Lassell; courtesy of Washington Concert Opera.

Sapho (1851), the opera, is a fictionalized story about the real poetess, Sappho, whose poems about love and sex became classics. She was born on the Greek Island of Lesbos around 600 BC, the time and place of this story. Her name has become associated with lesbianism; however, like so many aspects of her life, her actual sexual orientation is not known with certainty, and that is not part of this story.  However, themes of love and sex and honor are the sustaining elements of the drama.  In the plot by Gounod and librettist Émile Augier, a love triangle between Sapho, Phaon, and courtesan Glycère, is enmeshed with an uprising against the authoritarian ruler of Lesbos, Pittacus. The action begins at the Olympic Games where Sapho competes for the poetry prize where the poems are sung (yes, poetry competition at the Olympic games; I told you this was fiction - not that singing opera couldn’t be an Olympic event).   Phaon has been struggling with his new love of Sapho and his remaining attraction to the alluring Glycère. Sapho wins both competitions.  She defeats Alcée, who is attempting to incite the uprising against Pittacus; he sings about justice and liberty, and she sings about love.  Phaon, who has become involved in the insurrection, chooses Sapho because of the purity of her heart and soul.  Glycère goes on the offensive against her rival and proves willing to fight for Phaon; she plies useful information from his friend Pythéas using a sexual bribe, then resorts to guile and deceit to coerce Sapho into giving up Phaon in order to save his life, gloating in her victory over Sapho.  Sapho declares that even in defeat, she’d rather be her than Glycère. She relinquishes Phaon to spare him but cannot bear life without him and leaps from a cliff into the sea.     

Amina Edris as Glycère and Kate Lindsey as Sapho. Photo by Don Lassell; courtesy of Washington Concert Opera.

Amina Edris as Glycère and Kate Lindsey as Sapho. Photo by Don Lassell; courtesy of Washington Concert Opera.

This truly was an outstanding cast headed by Richmond native, mezzo-soprano Kate Lindsey.  Ms. Lindsey is also gifted, and her extraordinary voice and professionalism were on full display in her portrayal of Sapho.  Several times she hit the wow level on my ‘response to the singer’ scale.  Always talented, she seems to have grown much more confident and self-assured than when I saw her in Washington National Opera’s Dead Man Walking.  The surprise Sunday night was that she was matched in fire and determination by soprano Amina Edris playing Glycère.  Ms. Edris has a voice that is to love.  She sang beautifully and the confrontations between her Glycère and Ms. Lindsey’s Sapho as they fought over Phaon were exciting to behold.  The three principal male singers were also standouts.  Tenor Addison Marler as Phaon displayed an exquisite voice.  Baritone Brian Vu as Alcée was strong and clear in portraying an insurgent.  Finally, base-baritone Musa Ngqungwana added his strong voice and excellent singing to the mix as Pythéas.  It was fun to see Mr. Ngqungwana again.  I saw him earlier this year in Pittsburgh Opera’s Moby Dick, where he played Queequeg and made an impression as somewhat to watch.  I would welcome the opportunity to hear any of these singers again.  The music was also a star in this performance. Maestro Walker makes it musically engaging, but also visually interesting as well with his animated orchestrations.  The music was beautiful, so listenable with its melodies and harmonies, ably aided by the chorus under the direction of Chorus Master David Hanlon. 

Sapho cast with WCO Artistic Director and Conductor Antony Walker in center. Photo by Don Lassell; courtesy of Washington Concert Opera.

Sapho cast with WCO Artistic Director and Conductor Antony Walker in center. Photo by Don Lassell; courtesy of Washington Concert Opera.

This was Gounod’s first opera.  There is an interesting backstory to this opera and to Gounod’s artistic development that was related in the pre-opera talk and an excellent earlier WCO Opera Gems lecture by Peter Russell, WCO co-founder and head of Vocal Arts DC.  A superstar performer and celebrity of her day, Pauline Viardot, took an interest in Gounod.  Ms. Viardot seems to have been a combination of Rene Fleming and Oprah Winfrey, with extraordinary musical ability and extraordinary clout.  She made it possible for him to secure Augier as librettist and have it performed at the Paris Opera when completed, with of course, Ms. Viardot singing the lead role.  It was rumored that her relationship with Gounod was more than professional and more than friendship.  The choice of the classical setting with a virtuous heroine was in reaction to the excesses of Parisian grand operas in vogue at the time; also Augier was a staunch moralist, and it offered Ms. Viardot a plum role.  Perhaps at least in part due to its veering away from opera currently in vogue, Sapho was not very successful at the time and has been little performed since, though even in its day, the professional critics liked it and recognized that Gounod had the gift.  Mr. Russell made the point that the popularity of operas seems to wax or wane in response to the tenor of the times, noting that Romeo and Juliet is now overtaking Faust in popularity.  Perhaps we will see more productions of Gounod’s Sapho.

In the two years I have been attending their performances, Washington Concert Opera has provided some of my peak opera experiences.  You can add Sapho to that list.  And just so you know, I am not a New England Patriots fan.

The Fan Experience: Attendance for Sapho seemed to me to be very strong, maybe in response to the appearance of Washington favorite, Kate Lindsey, or just maybe, the secret is getting out about concert opera.  In two short years, I have become something of a concert opera junkie.  I just find that the sound with the orchestra on the stage is superior to when it is sequestered in the pit; it also permits a larger orchestra and chorus to be used, and I love getting to hear reclaimed gems that way.  WCO’s next offering will be a new venture for them.  They are partnering with Wolf Trap Opera to perform Frank Martin’s Le Vin Herbé at the Barns of Wolf Trap on February 9 and 10. The Barns is one of my favorite places to hear opera. It is a small, cozy venue that puts you close to the singers. Food is available and drinks can be taken to your seat. Parking is plentiful and free, and it is easy in, easy out.


Baltimore Concert Opera’s L’Amico Fritz: Mixed Success With A Vault Opera

Logo courtesy of the Baltimore Concert Opera.

Logo courtesy of the Baltimore Concert Opera.

I wonder if “vault opera” is a term, because Baltimore Concert Opera moved away from the standard opera repertoire to pull one out of the history vault for performance as their second offering of the current season.  Personally, I love it when they do this.  It is so refreshing to get to experience an opera for the first time, even if it is not a new opera.  About a two dozen opera standards get performed almost continuously around the world, but there are thousands of operas that have been written and performed, many quite good, that rarely if ever reach the stage.  Suppose we only got to see remakes of the same twenty-five movies over and over again.  L’amico Fritz (1891) by composer Pietro Mascagni and librettist Nicola Diaspuro (based on the 1864 book “L’ami Fritz” by Émile Erckmann and Pierre-Alexandre Chatrian) was Mascagni’s second opera, and while it enjoyed a measure of success in its day, it has been little performed in the years since. 

Concert opera companies have an advantage when it comes to vault operas because they don’t have to endure the expense of mounting a fully-staged opera and then risking weak box office sales for a lesser-known work.  They also can resurrect works like L’amico Fritz, where the music is good but is wed to a weak or problematic libretto.  Presenting lesser-known works with something to offer is part of BCO’s mission and performs a valuable service to its opera fans.  Regarding L’Amico Fritz, the great Giuseppe Verdi is reported to have called it the worst libretto he had ever seen; kinda harsh, but that’s the rap on L’amico Fritz.  It’s not that the story for L’amico Fritz is bad. In fact, it is an amusing, light-hearted love story.  As a movie in the 1950s with Cary Grant and Grace Kelly playing the leads and directed by Billy Wilder, it would probably have been very successful film, but it doesn’t meet the needs of grand opera.  Probably one critic nailed it when he said that Mascagni, though responsive to the audiences of his era, “too readily mistook emotion for deep feeling”.  Maybe there is a lesson there; in regard to the question of which is more important in opera, the music or the words, the answer is both.

Pietro Mascagni, photo in public domain in Library of Congress; accessed from  Wikipedia .

Pietro Mascagni, photo in public domain in Library of Congress; accessed from Wikipedia.

Pietro Mascagni (1863-1945) lived, shall we say, an interesting life; he was reportedly both egotistical and an opportunist and who eventually overplayed his hand.  He was what we call today a one-hit wonder.  L’amico Fritz was his second opera.  His first was Cavalleria Rusticana, an opera that became an instant smash hit.  It was soon being played in opera houses around the world and even today, it is one of the repertoire’s most popular.  It is also one of the operas of that period that ushered in the Italian verismo style of opera, focusing on the hardships and heartaches of everyday people.  Though L’amico Fritz was successful, it was not the great follow on opera that people expected.  One could say that Mascagni shot himself in the foot.  He deliberately picked a light story to focus attention on his music because he was peeved at criticism that Rusticana’s popularity was propelled by the libretto.  He also abandoned the verismo style for this opera, moving the music back to a more bel canto style.  This inability to match his early success plagued him his entire life, though he could always say that he had produced a great one.  A few other anecdotes about his interesting life: Cavalleria Rusticana won an opera competition that launched his composing career when his wife submitted that score instead of a lesser one he intended to submit; early in his development he attended the Milan Conservatory but was kicked out without graduating for not doing his work; later in his career, he managed to succeed the legendary Toscanini as director of music at La Scala; finally his support of Mussolini and fascism caused him to fall out of favor, and he died penniless in a small hotel in Rome.  There must have been a movie about this guy; anybody know of one?

The plot of L’amico Fritz revolves around a wealthy landowner in Italy named Fritz.  He is being lobbied by his friend Rabbi David to provide a dowry for a young couple in the village who are to be wed.  Fritz can’t understand why anyone would choose to be married, but David tells Fritz that he will be wed one day, and Fritz wagers a parcel of land that he won’t.  Then, in walks Suzel, the attractive young daughter of a local farmer.  They are smitten with each other, but Fritz is not yet willing to accept or reveal his true feelings.  Finally, the threat of her father pushing her to marry someone else causes them to express their love for each other and plan to marry.  David wins the bet and gives the land to Suzel as a wedding gift.  Presumably, they all live happily ever after.  Mascagni probably should have revisited them a few years into their marriage; there might have been a verismo opportunity.  Oh wait, that was what Cavalleria Rusticana was about; looks like he also made the mistake of getting the cart before the horse.

Victoria Cannizzo as Suzel and William Davenport as Fritz. Photo by Britt Olsen-Ecker; courtesy of Baltimore Concert Opera.

Victoria Cannizzo as Suzel and William Davenport as Fritz. Photo by Britt Olsen-Ecker; courtesy of Baltimore Concert Opera.

All that said though, it was a treat to hear the music from this opera for the first time, and it became clear why BCO chose it.  Even beyond its famous ‘Cherry Duet”, it displays many pleasing melodies and several beautiful arias.  We were also treated to two excellent violin solos by Sarah Hedlund, concertmaster for the Occasional Symphony in Baltimore.  Kudos to Conductor Giovanni Reggioli for helping to bring this opera forward.  Best all, as usual for BCO performances, was the opportunity to hear an excellent cast of singers, and to get to experience them in the warm and cozy confines of the Engineers Club Ballroom!  Tenor William Davenport who played Fritz was a standout.  I thought his voice and singing were simply beautiful and very natural.  If I closed my eyes listening to him, I could easily imagine I was in an opera house in Italy.  It took me awhile to start enjoying soprano Victoria Cannizzo as Suzel.  Initially, I thought her voice was rather dramatic and powerful to portray Suzel, but I was won over and found delight with her arias in Acts II and III.  Baritone Eric McKeever stood out portraying David as did mezzo-soprano Kate Jackman portraying Fritz’s gypsy friend Beppe.  Kylena Parks as a servant was featured only briefly, but made an impression; let’s hope BCO brings her back.  Tenor Wesley Morgan and bass Cody Muller served admirably as Fritz’s friends.  I also enjoyed the chorus; kudos to Chorus Master James Harp.

Now we get to the verismo part of this blog report, what I didn’t care for.  I have mixed feelings about only having piano accompaniment for this opera (I understand the BCO focus is the singing and this has not been an issue for me in other BCO productions).  Since hearing this performance, I have listened to a recording of L’amico Fritz with Gavazzeni conducting and Pavarotti and Freni as Fritz and Suzel – well worth a listen, available for streaming on Amazon Music and Apple Music.  Mascagni’s music is beautiful and relies heavily on violins played softly to express the emotion.  I’m not sure how well this translates to simple piano accompaniment.  Part of my difficulty is that pianist Justina Lee, I thought, played with a heavy hand, as though she were trying to make up for the lack of an orchestra.  Many of the arias are quite tender and needed more finesse and delicacy in the playing, at least according to my ears.  I would have enjoyed it more with a gentler approach. By the way, Mascagani made a recording of L’amico Fritz with the RAI National Symphony and Chorus conducted by himself in 1942; I haven’t found a source for that one just yet.

For me, L’amico Fritz offered many treats, though I didn’t enjoy all aspects.  However, the BCO experience is always worth it overall.  Getting to hear professional opera singers singing up close and personal in such pleasant surroundings is not to be passed up.  Neither is getting to hear excellent music you are not likely to hear anywhere else. If you get a chance, give L’amico Fritz a chance; you will be rewarded.

The Fan Experience: The Garrett-Jacobs Mansion which houses the Engineers Club, BCO’s venue, is worth a visit by itself.  Dinner in the club can be arranged in advance.  Paid parking is available and valet parking is usually available on Sunday performances.  So far, I have always been able to find free street parking; you just have to be careful to read the street signs and warnings.  Next up for BCO is a Thirsty Thursday offering “Velvety Voices and Cozy Cocktails” on January 31.  They begin again with a complete opera on March 1 and 3 with Wagner’s The Flying Dutchman.  These events are always fun and quite a bargain for a date night outing.



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!