Washington National Opera’s Candide: Excellent Broadway Comes to the Kennedy Center

So, get this: Leonard Bernstein and one of his lyricists, so many of them for this show, use his…uh…what shall we call it…opera? operetta? singspiel? musical? Oh, never mind; in Candide, they rhyme bottle with Aristotle.  That could be the best of all possible blog reports right there, except I also want to discuss the singing and stuff.  I have written a few poems for my own enjoyment over the years, and I never thought of using bottle and Aristotle, either to rhyme or as belonging in the same refrain, but then Bernstein and his cronies were a clever group; they not only used bottle but then filled it with bourbon.  Throughout, Candide makes excellent use of juxtaposing the commonplace with philosophy and history for comedic effect, and then adding acting, singing, dancing, sets, costumes, lighting, etc. to produce a bit of a pill, but also a rather good opera, operetta, singspiel, or musical and a splendid night’s entertainment, and a rather charming ode to Mr. Bernstein for his centennial celebration ongoing this year at the Kennedy Center. 

  The   frontispiece   of the 1759 edition published by   Sirène   in Paris, which reads, "  Candide  , or Optimism, translated from the German of Dr. Ralph." Copied from  Wikipedia , in public domain.

The frontispiece of the 1759 edition published by Sirène in Paris, which reads, "Candide, or Optimism, translated from the German of Dr. Ralph." Copied from Wikipedia, in public domain.

Candide is of course based on Voltaire’s very popular classic novella know by the same name ( formally titled "Candide, ou L'Optimisme" (1759)).  Bernstein’s score and the libretto has undergone multiple revisions since its premiere in 1956, both by his hands and many collaborators.  Here is how the Kennedy Center program gives credit: Music by Leonard Bernstein/Book Adapted from Voltaire by Hugh Wheeler/ in a New Version by John Caird/Lyrics by Richard Wilbur with Additional Lyrics by/Stephen Sondheim, John La Touche, Lillian Hellman, Dorothy Parker, and Leonard Bernstein.  I don’t know who should get credit for bottle and Aristotle.  Candide has appeared in many opera house but not the Met.  The whole thing has the feel of a very good Broadway show, though more accurately, this version is a Glimmerglass show.  It was put together for the Glimmerglass Festival in 2015 by WNO’s Artistic Director, Francesca Zambello, who also directs this production; kudos to her and thanks for bringing it to DC.

Candide is the main character in the story (just can’t bring myself to use the word eponymous).  He is a disciple of Dr. Pangloss (Voltaire’s satire of his contemporary, mathematician and philospher Gottfried Wilhelm Liebniz) who champions optimism and believes this is the best of all possible worlds.  Candide falls in love with Cunegonde and spends most of the operetta trying to reunite with her across the old and new worlds of the eighteenth century.  His journey exposes him to just about all the world’s hardships and evils, and his final disillusionment is delivered by Cunegonde herself.  We are given a semi-happy ending, but you may want to have your own bottle of consolation waiting at home; Aristotle won’t be much help.

 Dr. Pangloss (Wynn Harmon) teaches optimism to Maximillian (Edward Nelson), Candide (Alek Shrader), Cunegonde (Emily Pogorelc), and Paquette (Eliza Bonet). Photo by Scott Suchman; courtesy of Washington National Opera.

Dr. Pangloss (Wynn Harmon) teaches optimism to Maximillian (Edward Nelson), Candide (Alek Shrader), Cunegonde (Emily Pogorelc), and Paquette (Eliza Bonet). Photo by Scott Suchman; courtesy of Washington National Opera.

Candide has an excellent cast.  Tenor Alek Shrader’s beautiful voice keeps the entire production from ever sinking below the enjoyable level, though the production flags a bit in the middle.  Colortura soprano Emily Pogorelc delivered the show stopping aria “Glitter and Be Gay” with both panache and feminine power; the audience erupted with applause and from there the train regained its momentum.  Baritone Wynn Harmon anchored the production as both Voltaire and Pangloss, narrating the story the entire evening.  I think a couple of hours of narration weakened his voice for an aria late in the game.  Nonetheless, his palpable confidence and control in playing to the audience was very winning for himself and the performance as a whole.  There are a host of other players who deserve mention for their contributions, perhaps first with Denyce Graves who plays The Old Lady with winning appeal, as does Edward Nelson as Maxmillian, Frederick Ballantine as Cacambo, Matthew Scollin as James/Martin, Eliza Bonet as Paquette, Alexander McKissick as the Grand Inquisitor/Governor, and Keriann Otano as the Baroness/Vanderdendur.

 Emily Pogorelc as Cunegonda and Alek Shrader as Candide. Photo by Scott Suchman; courtesy of Washington National Opera.

Emily Pogorelc as Cunegonda and Alek Shrader as Candide. Photo by Scott Suchman; courtesy of Washington National Opera.

The staging is crucial to both the telling and the appeal of the story and here the production excels.  The set is simple, a stage frame with props brought in as needed.  The key and a highly successful element is the use of a group of players titled as soloists who were dressed mainly in simple, white eighteenth century undergarment costumes and who without speaking performed as our most excellent servers for the evening, adding vocals, background, context, and humor – even serving as animals when needed.  Like Mr. Shrader’s voice, they sustained our interest and amusement.  Kudos to all: Andrea Beasom, Tom Berklund, Jaely Chamberlain, Andrew Harper, Katherine Henley, Michael Hewitt, Nicholas Houhoulis, Jarrod Lee, Danny Lindgren, Alison Mixon, Ameerah Sabreen, Louisa Morrison Waycott.  The dance and movements of over twenty performers around the stage were excellently choreographed by Eric Sean Fogel.  The Washington Opera Chorus also contributed to the operetta's impact, especially in the ensemble numbers "Auto da fe", "Easily Assimilated", and "El Dorado"; kudos to Chorus Master Steven Gathman.

left: Emily Pogorelc as Cunegonde, Denyce Graves as The Old Lady, and Alek Shrader as Candide. right: Alek Shrader as Candide and Frederick Ballentine as Cacambo visit El Dorado. Photos by Scott Suchman; courtesy of Washington National Opera.

Leonard Bernstein’s music for Candide is well worth a listen and Conductor Nicole Paiement and the Washington National Opera Orchestra performed it with energy and enthusiasm that buoyed the performance.  I will always love Bernstein for West Side Story, and while Candide doesn’t reach that level, it adds to my appreciation for him.

 Cast of WNO's Candide. Photo by Scott Suchman; courtesy of Washington National Opera.

Cast of WNO's Candide. Photo by Scott Suchman; courtesy of Washington National Opera.

In the end, after Candide and we have been disillusioned by the world and his own true love Cunegonde, he and we need emotional rescue.  We are only offered a raft to move forward with.  It feels like we have been through the stages of grief and arrived at acceptance as our raft, though we hopefully have years to go and miles to sail the raft, doing what we can to add value and meaning to our lives.  The closing refrain goes

“We're neither pure, nor wise, nor good

We'll do the best we know.”

And if while we row, we can rhyme bottle with Aristotle, we can make it through, especially if the bottle is filled with bourbon.

The Fan Experience: Candide has eight more performances: May 9, 12, 14, 18, 20, 22, 24, and 26.

For the first time, I took the subway to see a WNO production.  I picked up the Silver Line at Tyson’s Corner and when exiting at Foggy Bottom I spotted the red Kennedy Center shuttle buses directly ahead on 23rd street, couldn’t be easier.  The shuttles run every fifteen minutes and my guess is there is always one waiting.  The shuttle dropped us at the Hall of Nations entrance.  I had a ride home and didn’t take the subway home, but I suspect there might be a waiting line to get on the return shuttles.  My trip down took about an hour overall door to door.  It was definitely less stressful than driving.

 

 

Washington National Opera’s The Barber of Seville: Is It Too Funny?

There was every reason in the world to like Wednesday night’s performance (May 2) of Washington National Opera’s The Barber of Seville.  In fact, I can heap praise on this production.  It had some of Rossini’s most popular music, a great cast, great singing, traditional staging with costumes and sets that are a pleasure to behold, and comedy galore.  Of three reviews I’ve seen (see sidebar), all have praised it.  So, maybe before going further you should read Charles Downey’s professional review; it is insightful, balanced, well-written, and covers all the major points knowledgeably.  If, however, you’d like to know what the Grinch thinks, read on.

There are two significant factors that restrained my enjoyment, one a personal preference and one I ascribe to the performance.  First, I was not really excited about seeing The Barber of Seville once more.  It is a great opera and every opera fan should see it at least once; most will want to see it more than once.  However, I have reached a point in my opera journey where I look forward more to attending less often performed operas, rediscovered masterpieces, new works, or just something I haven’t seen before.  I will say, however, that Saul Lilienstein did pump me up somewhat.  His pre-opera talk was excellent; he discussed The Barber of Seville as a grandchild of the Commedia dell’Arte, the early theater of Italy and many of whose principal characters are represented in The Barber, including Figaro in the Harlequin role, Rosina in the Columbina role, and Dr. Bartolo in the Pantolone role.  His presentation did heighten my interest and provided me with a wonderful new perspective on the comedic beginnings of The Barber.

 Figaro (Andrey Zhilikhovsky), Almaviva (Taylor Stayton), and Rosina (Isabel Leonard). Photo by Scott Suchman; courtesy of Washington National Opera.

Figaro (Andrey Zhilikhovsky), Almaviva (Taylor Stayton), and Rosina (Isabel Leonard). Photo by Scott Suchman; courtesy of Washington National Opera.

Director Peter Kazaras' unrelenting slapstick comedy, however, got piled a little too high for me (sorry, Harlequin)  You have to get in the spirit and ride the wave of that sort of thing, and I never did.  You might think that saying The Barber has too much humor is like saying that a person is too beautiful, but think about it this way: if you like tea, maybe a spoonful or two of sugar will make it more enjoyable, but what about four or five or ten spoonfuls of sugar; at some point the sugar is out of balance and starts to detract from everything else.  And for Barber, Mr. Kazaras had almost three hours to add sugar.  The characters are supposed to be funny, but not only funny; what about tenderness, passion, sympathy, etc.?  I want to develop feelings for each of the characters.  What about other elements – anticipation, intrigue, suspense – sacrificed here to slapstick?  Is there a directing term equivalent to mezza voce?  I think getting the right amount of comedy should be the goal, not how much can be packed in, even for The Barber of Seville

 Dr. Bartolo (Paolo Bordogna), Ambrogio (Matthew Pauli), Rosina (Isabel Leonard), and Almavira (Taylor Stayton). Photo by Scott Suchman; courtesy of Washington National Opera.

Dr. Bartolo (Paolo Bordogna), Ambrogio (Matthew Pauli), Rosina (Isabel Leonard), and Almavira (Taylor Stayton). Photo by Scott Suchman; courtesy of Washington National Opera.

If you don’t know the story of The Barber of Seville in Italian by composer Giachino Rossini and librettist Cesare Sterbini - Figaro, a barber/fixer and arranger of all things in eighteenth century Spain undertakes helping Count Almavira secure the hand of Rosina, the ward of Dr. Bartolo who plans to marry Rosina himself.  Bartolo is assisted by the effete music teacher Don Basilio.  Disguises and plots abound until our two young lovers are united with a happy ending for everyone except Dr. Bartolo.  Standard Commedia dell’Arte stuff, but throw in Rossini’s music and arias and you have great opera stuff.

 Ambrogio (Matthew Pauli), Don Basilio (Wei Wu), and Paolo Bordogna (Dr. Bartolo). Photo by Scott Suchman; courtesy of Washington National Opera.

Ambrogio (Matthew Pauli), Don Basilio (Wei Wu), and Paolo Bordogna (Dr. Bartolo). Photo by Scott Suchman; courtesy of Washington National Opera.

Some specific comments on my more positive responses to the performance:

First, let me give Mr. Kazaras some credit – much of the humor is funny.  Ploys such as having Figaro offer Almaviva a guitar, then open a door and bring out a woman playing a guitar is unexpected and genuinely funny.  With a little balance, I would gladly bow and applaud.

 A sample of the lighting, costumes, and choreography with soldiers, Figaro (Andrey Zhilikhovsky), Almaviva (Taylor Stayton), and Rosina (Isabel Leonard). Photo by Scott Suchman; courtesy of Washington National Opera.

A sample of the lighting, costumes, and choreography with soldiers, Figaro (Andrey Zhilikhovsky), Almaviva (Taylor Stayton), and Rosina (Isabel Leonard). Photo by Scott Suchman; courtesy of Washington National Opera.

I also give credit to the set and costume designers Allen Moyer and James Scott (sadly, now deceased).  The costumes and sets were lovely and conveyed the setting, time-period, and light-hearted mood of the story perfectly.  Mark McCollough’s lighting was effective and Rosa Mercedes met the challenge of arranging choreography for such an action-filled play that sometimes had the stage filled with players.

Mezzo-soprano Isabel Leonard plays Rosina and is a delight every moment she is on stage.  I heard her sing in Cold Mountain a few years ago and was impressed.  I think she sounds even better now and she showed a sparkling comedic touch.  She reminded me of what I felt when Susan Graham walked onto the stage in WNO’s Dead Man Walking - Professionalism and quality singing at that level makes it easier to relax and enjoy the show; you know you are in good hands.

Newcomer baritone Andrey Zhilikhovsky made a fine Figaro as advertised, charming, funny, and possessing a pleasing and forceful voice.  However, his ingratiating swagger and comedic smarter than thou attitude gets masked after the first few scenes, lost in the helter-skelter mugging and running about to spin the comedy.

The other singers in the cast are uniformly excellent.  Tenor Taylor Stayton seemed perfectly cast as Lindoro/Alfonso/Almavira in his many disguises.  His voice timbre and singing reminded me a bit of Juan Diego Florez.  Bass Paolo Bordogna played Bartolo with relentless comic zeal, often quite funny, but which to some degree obscured what I think probably is a very nice voice.  Wei Wu playing Don Basilio put the opera world on notice that his booming beautiful bass voice and stage presence are forces to be reckoned with.  Even governess Berta played by Alexandria Shiner in her first season as a Domingo-Cafritz young artist got in a shiny aria for her efforts.  Baritone Christian Bowers who played Fiorello in the beginning scene garnered attention with his distinctive voice.

One character in a non-speaking role having a big effect was Matthew Pauli, who played the servant Ambrogio.  His character’s sole purpose is quite appropriately adding to the comedy in a silent movie style and he was extraordinarily effective.  In fact, I think his antics provided space not used to develop the other characters in a little more depth.  If any Marx brothers’ movies get remade, give him the role of Harpo.

I thought Conductor Emily Senturia and the orchestra gave a fine rendition of Rossini’s score whenever I could turn my attention to them which was infrequent given the almost non-stop action on the stage.  I can say that I went home humming several of Rossini’s melodies.  And kudos to Washington National Opera for allowing some refreshing diversity on the podium.

 WNO's The Barber of Seville Gay Finale. Photo by Scott Suchman; courtesy of Washington National Opera.

WNO's The Barber of Seville Gay Finale. Photo by Scott Suchman; courtesy of Washington National Opera.

I certainly don’t mean to discourage your attendance, especially if you’ve not seen The Barber of Seville before, but be prepared and jump on the humor train early.  I simply offer one opera fan’s perspective that I’ve not seen mentioned elsewhere.  Did Director Kazaras overdo the comedy or am I a sour pus Grinch?  You be the judge.  One of my opera neighbors at the performance would undoubtedly point the finger at me.  I heard him say leaving the performance, “Well, that certainly brightens up the week.”  God knows, we need that.

The Fan Experience: I left my driveway in Tyson’s Corner at 4:59 pm heading into rush hour traffic on Rte 123 and I-66 for the 12.5 mile trip.  I arrived at the Kennedy Center parking garage at 5:50 pm and sailed right into the parking deck, making it easily to the 6:15 pre-opera talk held in the Opera House, which I greatly recommend.  The KC Café (cafeteria) has undergone further changes to speed up flow through since my last trip – the salad and soup bar is now serve yourself, but the price is set and not determined by weight as far as I could tell.  And the machines are now used to dispense the wine.  For DC the prices are reasonable, if not modest.  In both the Hall of Nations and the Hall of States there are new art exhibits that looked pretty cool.

The Barber of Seville has five more performances on May 7, 11, 13, 17, and 19.  The cast for the May 17 performance only will be changed, with several of the major roles to be played by Domingo-Cafritz Young Artists.  Read the details at this link.

OperaDelaware’s Puccini Festival: Well Worth the Drive (120 miles)

Unexpected detours occur along the way when you are pursuing an interest.  I recently attended Baltimore Concert Opera’s twin bill of Giacomo Puccini’s Gianni Schicchi and Michael Ching’s comedic sequel Busoso’s Ghost, productions that were headed for full staging by OperaDelaware as part of its Puccini Festival 2018.  My decision to attend BCO’s performance had been made because my son and two of his friends in college had just watched a video of Schicchi and raved about what an under-appreciated comedy it is.  I didn’t know much about the opera except that it had one of operas most famous arias, “O mio babbino caro”.  My son’s interest piqued mine, and I offered to take him and his friends to see the BCO concert version.  They accepted and were particularly looking forward to seeing Ghost for the first time.  We all enjoyed the performances, and I wrote a blog report on our adventure.

 Setting the mood,  Il Tabarro , begins with Michele (Grant Youngblood) sitting atop his barge as the sun sets. Photos by Moonloop Photography; courtesy of OperaDelaware.

Setting the mood, Il Tabarro, begins with Michele (Grant Youngblood) sitting atop his barge as the sun sets. Photos by Moonloop Photography; courtesy of OperaDelaware.

The General Director of OperaDelaware, Brendan Cooke, read the blog report and sent me a gracious invitation to attend their staged version of Schicchi in Wilmington.  As it turned out, our schedules would not permit attending Schicchi, but my wife and I did make the 120-mile drive up for Saturday night’s (April 28) performances of Il Tabarro and Suor Angelica.  In researching Gianni Schicchi, I had also read about Il Tabarro and Suor Angelica.  All three were composed by Puccini under the heading of Il Trittico and were meant to be performed together.  I have sort of ignored Il Trittico in the past.  It is rarely performed as a unit these days, though the individual operas are occasionally performed as a coupling of two out of three, or singly coupled to another short opera.  I guessed Il Trittico wasn’t often performed because it was not one of Puccini’s better works.  Shame on me for doubting Puccini, but more on that later.  It turns out that Il Trittico is not often performed as a unit because the logistical problems are huge, making it a drain on any opera company’s resources – three sets of singers are employed with little overlap; separate stage sets for the same evening are required, and the audience must be willing to take on four hours of opera at one sitting, not readily embraced by today’s fans (sadly so – kid’s stuff, if you are a fan of Wagner’s).  OperaDelaware made the necessary compromise to break them up, but still gives us Puccini’s hat trick by doing so over two consecutive days, adding for interest Mr. Ching’s sequel paired with Schicchi.  So, the opportunity to see the remainder of Il Trittico, with my wife’s encouragement, made the trek up I-95 a go; my wife, who has an interest in architecture, especially looked forward to visiting Opera Delaware’s venue, the Grand Opera House - well named.  Now of course, I am so glad that I did not pass up this opportunity.

left: Eleni Calenos as Giorgetta and Grant Youngblood as Michele. right: Matthew Vickers as Luigi and Eleni Calenos as Giorgetta. Photos by Moonloop Photography; courtesy of OperaDelaware.

If you have hung with me this long, I won’t make you wait for the bottom line on these two members of Il Trittico – these operas as performed by OperaDelaware are excellent, small gems actually, with creative, immersive staging and wonderful singers and music; if you have not heard soprano Eleni Calenos before, head to your phone or computer and order your tickets now for the coming weekend’s performances. Having seen concert versions of Gianni Schicchi and Buoso's Ghost in Baltimore, I can recommend those productions as well, which also feature great Puccini music - and much happier outcomes.

 Michele (Grant Youngblood) forces Giorgetta (Eleni Calenos) to look at Luigi's corpse (Matthew Vickers). Photos by Moonloop Photography; courtesy of OperaDelaware.

Michele (Grant Youngblood) forces Giorgetta (Eleni Calenos) to look at Luigi's corpse (Matthew Vickers). Photos by Moonloop Photography; courtesy of OperaDelaware.

First up was Il Tabarro.  A barge owner, Michele, suspects correctly that his wife Giorgetta is secretly meeting with one of the stevedores, Luigi.  He catches them together on the barge at night and exacts his dreadful revenge.  Puccini and his librettist Giuseppe Adami and Il Tabarro’s director Crystal Manich present Michele, Giorgetta, and Luigi as complex characters, invoking our sympathey and caring for each before the shocking denouement.  There is no happy ending for this third of Il Trittico, but there is excellent acting, music, and singing.  Puccini is a great master and Conductor Anthony Barrese, also OperaDelaware's Music Director, and the orchestra gave good Puccini.  I thought that the music in Il Tabarro was more characterized by simple pairings of instruments to provide emotional color to the story, instead of Puccini’s sweeping string statements, although the story’s undercurrents were frequently moved along by the basses (a non-musician’s reading).  Ms. Manich chose to set the chorus off stage, which worked for the drama, but not surprisingly, made them sound more distant.

I seriously thought about beginning this blog report by gushing about Ms. Calenos, but restrained myself.  She had me at her first aria.  She has a lovely, strong soprano voice and sings and acts well, but the remarkable thing about her is a rare quality of her voice; it is a natural for conveying pathos, a little reminiscent of that special quality that Maria Callas possessed.  No wonder General Manager Cooke cast her in the lead role of Suor Angelica as well.  I think her voice is more dramatic than coloratura, but if she sang the Queen of the NIght, I'm sure I'd tell Pamina to do what her mother says.  I was initially not that impressed with the guys; baritone Grant Youngblood who played Michele and Matthew Vickers who played Luigi started softly, but both have strong, enjoyable voices and they soon warmed up, making a fan of me.  Mr. Youngblood was especially impressive in the role of Michele, conveying his sympathetic softer side and his fearful darker one, and Mr. Vickers stood out on several arias requiring impassioned singing.  The supporting cast was excellent, adding some humor and comraderie and additional professional voices to the action. 

 Eleni Calenos as Sister Angelica. Photos by Moonloop Photography; courtesy of OperaDelaware.

Eleni Calenos as Sister Angelica. Photos by Moonloop Photography; courtesy of OperaDelaware.

The bridge opera of Il Trittico is Suor Angelica.  The action takes place mainly in a flower garden within the convent cloisters.  Enter at your own risk.  You don’t want to watch this story, but you can’t help it.  Why can’t we all just get along.  Sister Angelica was forced into the convent by her family seven years prior when she bore a son out of wedlock.  She’s had no contact with her family or word about her son since entering, until she is visited by an aunt to force her to sign away an inheritance.  Sister Angelica learns in brutal fashion that her son took sick and died two years ago.  Her secret desire to be with her son again now only has one possible resolution: the audience must cry.  So, Puccini and his librettist for this one, Giovachinno Forzano set about to make us cry: the sister takes a deadly poison and pleads with the Virgin Mary for absolution for this deadly sin and to be allowed to be with her son once more, which she and we are granted.  We are a reserved people, somewhat inured to such dramatic scenes by television.  As I watched, I keep thinking that if I were in the Grand Opera House in 1918, the ushers would now be mopping the floors. 

left: Sister Angelica (Eleni Calenos) kneeling among the nuns. right: Sister Angelica (Eleni Calenos) and her aunt (Alissa Anderson). Photos by Moonloop Photography; courtesy of OperaDelaware.

Ms. Calenos gave another excellent performance as Sister Angelica.  Playing Angelica’s abusive aunt who believes she is doing the right thing for the family, is mezzo-soprano Alissa Anderson.  Ms. Anderson also played the comedic, worldly-wise role of Frugola with panache in Tabarro; Ms. Anderson was as enjoyable in that role as she was insufferable as the conflicted aunt.  Several of the nuns had passages to sing and performed well, and as a group provided a beautiful chorus.  Kudos to Chorus Master Aurelien Eulert.

The sets for each production were minimalist but effective.  I especially like the set in Tabarro where the action takes place inside the barge.  Director Manich gave a terrific pre-opera talk; a warm and animated speaker, she walked us through some of her thought processes in preparing for and staging her two pieces of Il Trittico.  She pointed out that she wanted the interactions taking place inside the boat to give the feeling of being captive which each of the main players felt, each in their own way.  Kudos to Steven Dobay for set design, which is particularly effective for Tabarro; the set, costumes, and staging gave the opera a La Boheme feel to me (I might change out Luigi's modern-looking blue sweater).  Ms. Manich said for Suor Angelica she wanted each nun, about a dozen in all, to look different, not a flock of look-alike nuns, providing more reality to the story.  Costume designer Howard Tvsi Kaplan achieved that aim with slight variations in costumes and activities for each nun; it felt real.  She also talked about the important role of lighting and although it is not attention grabbing, if you pay attention to the lighting, especially in the the background, changes with the drama all evening.  Certainly, the lighting for the last scene of Suor Angelica is critical and well done. 

 Sister Angelica (Eleni Calenos) and her son (Rex Cooke) in a non-speaking role. Photos by Moonloop Photography; courtesy of OperaDelaware.

Sister Angelica (Eleni Calenos) and her son (Rex Cooke) in a non-speaking role. Photos by Moonloop Photography; courtesy of OperaDelaware.

I have recently heard three directors talking about staging operas: Kristine McIntyre said she read the novel “Moby Dick” seven times before beginning the staging of the opera ; Kyle Lang said he focused on each line of text in Lucia di Lammermoor in working out the staging, and Director Manich said she highlighted “events” in the libretto (moments when all the characters on stage were involved) for these two operas and had about a thousand events underlined for each opera, if I remember correctly.  A lot of hard work by a lot of creative and dedicated people, not all named in the program, go into staging an opera, and I always feel a little guilty for only singling out a few by name for comment.

As I close, I’ve noticed that, without meaning to, my writing style moved to a more humorous approach in my description of Suor Angelica than with the earlier discussion of Il Tabarro.  Perhaps to distance myself from dealing with the emotional impact of both these operas?  Though the three operas of Puccini’s Il Trittico have little in common that apparently binds them (unless there is something he didn't tell us), it makes me think that maybe with Gianni Schicchi he was just trying to soften the blows.

 The Grand Opera House in Wilmington, DE. Photo by Debra Rogers.

The Grand Opera House in Wilmington, DE. Photo by Debra Rogers.

The Fan Experience: The Grand Opera House is worth a visit by itself.  Attractive on the outside and inside, and on the inside, it transports you into the late eighteenth/early nineteenth centuries.  It is as good a venue for Puccini as you are likely to find.  There are many fine restaurants close to the opera house, some less than a mile away with river views.  There are several hotels close by.  We stayed at the Courtyard Marriott, entirely satisfactory with free parking in an adjacent garage, and walked to the opera.  If you are in the mood for luxury, the historic Hotel Dupont is only three blocks from the opera house.  The drive from Tysons Corner, VA using mostly I-95 took about 2 hours in moderate traffic; having EZ pass for the toll gates is recommended.

Gianni Schicchi/Buoso’s Ghost will show again on Saturday May 5 at 7:30 pm and Il Tabarro/Suor Angelica will be on Sunday May 6 at 2 pm.  Tickets range from $29 to $99 and there are good seats for both performances.  A third feature of the Puccini Festival are performances of Puccini arias on May 3 and 4, called A Flight of Puccini and paired with an optional wine tasting; these are sold out, but there is a waiting list.

Met’s Cendrillon Live HD in Cinemas on Saturday, April 28 (Encores on May 2): Best Met Offering This Year?

What: On Saturday, April 28, the Metropolitan Opera live HD in the Cinemas broadcast will feature Cendrillon (1899) by French composer Jules Massenet and librettist Henri Cain, based on Charles Perrault’s version of the classic fairy tale, Cinderella (1697).  Massenet (1842-1912) is highly regarded for his operatic craftsmanship and beautiful music.  Two of his operas, Werther and Manon, are part of the standard opera repertoire, and several other operas by him are performed occasionally. Cendrillon closely follows Perrault’s Cinderella, and this is its first staging at the Met.

left: Joyce DiDonato as Cendrillon, a.k.a. Cinderella. right: Maya Lahyani as stepsister Dorothee, Stephanie Blythe as stepmother Madame de la Haltiere, and Ying Fang as stepsister Noemie. Photos by Ken Howard; courtesy of the Metropolitan Opera.

Movie theaters representing several different chains carry the HD Live performances in the US.  Use this link to find those nearest you; use city and state, not zip code in the search bar.  After the Saturday performances, an Encore performance is typically shown on the following Wednesdays.  The Saturday performance only is broadcast live, but the video shown on the following Wednesday is exactly what the audiences see and hear on Saturday, and the remaining seat selection is typically much, much better. 

left: Kathleen Kim as Fairy Godmother applying a little magic to sleeping Joyce DiDonato as Cendrillon. right: Cendrillon is transformed. Photos by Ken Howard; courtesy of the Metropolitan Opera.

Why You Should Go:

1.     Cendrillon is by all accounts a beautiful opera in music, singing, and staging in which Massenet emphasized the lower registers of the female voice. 

2.     Outstanding mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato sings the lead role and is perhaps the reigning diva among mezzos.  She has sung Cinderella in five previous productions in the US and Europe.  Her current performance drew this comment from ascerbic critic James Jorden of The Observer, “From the very first note she sang, DiDonato enthralled: she was not just a mezzo in some opera, but a human being upon whose life seemed to hang the fate of the universe.”

3.     Excellent mezzo-soprano Alice Coote, in a pants role, plays Prince Charming.  The love duets are not to be missed.

4.     In supporting roles, excellent mezzo-soprano Stephanie Blythe plays the nasty stepmother, and excellent coloratura soprano Kathleen Kim hits some high notes as the fairy godmother.

5.     The staging is inventive, and the magic of the story is portrayed as opposed to Rossini’s adult version of Cinderella, Cenenterola.  Ms. DiDonato is known for that role as well.

 Cendrillon travels to the ball. Photo by Ken Howard; courtesy of the Metropolitan Opera.

Cendrillon travels to the ball. Photo by Ken Howard; courtesy of the Metropolitan Opera.

6.     If you thought of taking your kids to Engel Humperdinck’s Hansel and Gretel, consider taking them to this one (a little over two hours and 47 min from opening to ending notes, including intermission).

 Love happens - Alice Coote as Prince Charming and Joyce DiDonato as Cendrillon. Photo by Ken Howard; courtesy of the Metropolitan Opera.

Love happens - Alice Coote as Prince Charming and Joyce DiDonato as Cendrillon. Photo by Ken Howard; courtesy of the Metropolitan Opera.

7.     You can take your popcorn, candy, and soda into the theater, unlike opera houses.  There is a 30 min intermission during which you can adjust your body’s response to all the soda you drank during Act 1.

8.     You can wear what you usually wear to see a movie; nobody will care.

9.     Watching Met productions in cinemas is a different experience.  You will see a slightly different opera on screen than being there, mainly caused by close ups and view selections made by the video director.  This can expose bad acting, even juxtaposed with good singing, and the odd trifle: at Luisa Miller in cinemas I noticed that there was no poison draining from its bottle into Luisa’s cup. 

10.  One of the great advantages of Met operas in cinemas are the interviews conducted with members of the cast and/or the conductor, stage manager, stage or costume designers, etc. and views of the staging being assembled during the intermissions  At Luisa Miller, it was a huge treat to see the interviews with Placido Domingo, Sonya Yoncheva, and Piotr Beczala.  The live broadcasts go to over 70 countries and are seen by over 350,000 people.  Yoncheva gave a shout out to the watchers in Bulgaria and Beczala to those in Poland.

Reviews: The reviews for Cendrillon have been strong overall, especially praising its charm.  Critic James Jorden expressed the view that musically it might be the best thing done by the Met this year.  Click on the links below for professional reviews:

Woolfe            Jorden             Salazar

 

 

 

Baltimore Concert Opera’s Gianni Schicchi and Buoso’s Ghost: Seven Revelations

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Gianni Schicchi (1918) is an opera by composer Giacomo Puccini and librettist Giovacchino Forzano.  Buoso’s Ghost (1996) by composer and librettist Michael Ching is a comedic sequel to Schicchi and an excellent pairing for Schicchi.  I attended the April 15 performance of these two operas by Baltimore Concert Opera.  I took my son and two of his college friends with me, not intending to write a blog report, just to enjoy the operas and my accomplices' company.  But then I started to think about what we had experienced.

Briefly for Gianni Schicchi, a wealthy Italian landowner, Buoso Donati, has died, and to the horror of his relatives, his will leaves his entire fortune to a monastery.  The Donati clan engages Gianni Schicchi, a man of a lower class but known for his shrewdness, to change the will before it is filed.  He accepts in order to allow his daughter to marry into their social class, but his ideas for the new will and theirs aren’t exactly a match.  Buoso’s Ghost, picks up where Schicchi leaves off with more comedic, but darker revelations, especially about how Buoso was dispatched.  This pairing of operas made for a consistently funny and heart-warming afternoon’s entertainment.  Mr. Ching’s music is pleasant and enjoyable, but to no one’s surprise, it the great Puccini’s music that carries the day, including perhaps the most famous aria in the opera repertoire, "O mio babbino caro".

Sean Anderson who plays Gianni Schicchi and Sara Duchovnay who plays Lauretta. Photos courtesy of Baltimore Concert Opera.

With 14 singers in all in this performance, the stage was often crowded.  All of the cast performed well. I will only single out a few for comment.  Sean Anderson playing Gianni Schicchi easily makes himself the center of attention with a strong baritone voice and an equally strong stage presence.  He gave the standout closing lines for each opera with just the right touch.  Soprano Sara Duchovnay as Lauretta delivered an enjoyable “O mio babbino caro” and possesses a voice of distinctive coloration.  Tenor Kirk Dougherty singing Rinuccio is especially impressive when singing the softer passages of his arias.  Baritone Matthew Curran, in his second consecutive appearance with BCO, sang the role of Simone with a steadying presence among a peripatetic crew.  And I very much enjoyed Aurelian Eulert’s piano accompaniment.

 The will is read in a production photo by Opera Delaware: seated left to right - Orin Strunk, Dana MacIntosh, Claudia Chapa, Andrew Pardini; standing left to right - Hans Tashjian, Alexandra Rodrick, Matthew Curran, Kirk Dougherty. Courtesy of Baltimore Concert Opera.

The will is read in a production photo by Opera Delaware: seated left to right - Orin Strunk, Dana MacIntosh, Claudia Chapa, Andrew Pardini; standing left to right - Hans Tashjian, Alexandra Rodrick, Matthew Curran, Kirk Dougherty. Courtesy of Baltimore Concert Opera.

Going to the opera can be educational as well as fun, of course, and I found this opera pairing to be revelatory in seven ways:

Revelation #1: Gianni Schicchi was written as part of a triptych named Il Trittico, three one-act operas meant to be performed as a group.  Under pressure, Puccini finally agreed to allow them to be performed separately and paired with other operas.  The other two parts, Il tabarro and Suor Angelica are darker in nature and also performed separately; an intact Il Trittico is rarely performed today.

Revelation #2: Gianni Schicchi is Puccini’s only comedic opera and is his penultimate opera; he didn’t live to finish his final opera, Turandot.  Giuseppe Verdi ended his opera composing career with Falstaff, his only comedy.  Were they finally able to loosen up and write a comedy after so much success with drama and tragedy?  Or, near the end, did they see their lives with such drama as comedies instead?  Perhaps unlikely, given the tragedy in Verdi's life, but If they had lived longer, would we have seen more comedies?

Revelation #3: The conductor for these performances was Michael Ching, the composer and librettist for Buoso’s Ghost. How cool is that!  Ghost is the fourth of his 13 operas; his opera Speed Dating Tonight! Is among the most often performed American operas.  I highly recommend the short interview conducted by Julia Cooke, BCO's Executive Director, with Mr. Ching in the BCO blog; he talks about elements of Buoso's Ghost and a special change he made to the opera just for soprano Sara Duchovnay's abilities!

Revelation #4: There was more acting in these performances than is typical with concert opera, a bonus for the audience.  The reason for this is that these performers had already been working together for presenting these two operas as fully staged versions for Opera Delaware on April 29 and May 5.  Mr. Ching will also conduct these performances.  Collaborations like this are definitely a benefit for BCO fans and to be encouraged.

Revelation #5: “O mio babbino caro” is an extraordinarily popular aria and often performed in recitals and on recordings.  But, do you know what the aria is about or its context? Unless you have seen Gianni Schicchi (pronounced like Johnny Ski’-key), probably not.  It sounds beautiful, but what’s up?  Here are the lyrics in English from Wikipedia:

Oh my dear papa,
I love him, he is handsome, handsome.
I want to go to Porta Rossa
To buy the ring!

Yes, yes, I want to go there!
And if I loved him in vain,
I would go to the Ponte Vecchio,
but to throw myself in the Arno!

I am anguished and tormented!
Oh God, I'd want to die!
Papa, have pity, have pity!
Papa, have pity, have pity!

Sounds Juliet-ish, as in Romeo and Juliet, right? But the lyrics don’t tell the whole story.  In this scene, Lauretta is singing about her love for Rinuccio and her desire to marry him; she is singing to her father, Gianni Schicchi.  But no need to call 911.  She is serious about her love, but she has no real intention of doing herself in; moreover, she is trying to manipulate her father to intervene so she can marry Rinuccio – please do this for your daughter you love so much.  In BCO’s version, Ms. Duchovnay sang it with a coquettish flair.  It is still a great aria, but now you know the rest of the story.

Take a listen to Dame Kiri Te Kanawa singing it in this YouTube video:

Revelation #6: In the last couple of years I have become a huge fan of concert opera.  There are many benefits to concert opera.  One of the great benefits in attending concert opera is often having the chance to hear excellent operas that, for various logistical reasons, are not often performed by the major opera companies.  If you wished to see Buoso’s Ghost this season, this production (Baltimore and Wilmington) is your only chance. 

Revelation #7: BCO’s 2018-2019 season was revealed by Ms. Cooke, for the most part; the season ending production is yet to be revealed: Don Giovanni, L’Amico Fritz, The Flying Dutchman, and one TBA.  One of the productions for next season, L’Amico Fritz by Pietro Mascagni, is unknown to me and I am now excited to see it; as far as I can determine, it may be our only chance to see that one next year anywhere.

Bottom line - My accomplices had viewed a video of Gianni Schicchi just a week before attending these performances; they thought Schicchi a great comedy and were anxious to see Buoso’s Ghost.  They left happy.  For me, as always, hearing BCO’s professional opera singers perform in the posh, yet cozy Engineers Club ballroom is a delight, and this was no exception.  The BCO staff does everything possible to make opera feel like home.  Baltimore Concert Opera productions often seem more like a soiree than a concert. 

The Fan Experience:  I am usually able to find on-street parking near BCO’s venue, the Engineers Club of Baltimore, but this time, an accident on the Baltimore Beltway caused me to arrive only two minutes before time for the opera to start.  For speed, I used the valet parking (available on Sundays only; my cost was $15 plus tip), which worked out very nicely; I made it to my seat on time.  Actually, the performance start was delayed for ten minutes due to traffic problems – two of the singers were late!

Note added on 4/23/18: The fully staged versions of Gianni Schicchi and Buoso's Ghost to be presented on April 29 and May 5 are part of Opera Delaware's 2018 Puccini Festival, celebrating the 100th anniversary of Il Trittico.  They are presenting Il Tabarro and Suor Angelica, the other two parts of the Trittico, on April 28 and May 6. 

 

 

Opera and the Struggle for Beauty: MLDO’s Young Artist Concert, Free, April 20

Maryland Lyric Opera’s next Young Artist Institute Concert will be held in Bethesda, MD on Friday April 20.  The seven young artists who will sing popular arias at this performance competed against hundreds of applicants for the MDLO training slots.  All of them have college degrees and graduate degrees or graduate level training and all have sung in operas already, most professionally.  Why do they seek additional training at this point?  It set me to thinking.

 "Rayonnant rose window in Notre Dame de Paris. In Gothic architecture, light was considered the most beautiful revelation of God", says  Wikipedia's caption . I might contend that the human voice can be even more effective at revealing beauty than a stained glass window. Photo from  Wikipedia commons .

"Rayonnant rose window in Notre Dame de Paris. In Gothic architecture, light was considered the most beautiful revelation of God", says Wikipedia's caption. I might contend that the human voice can be even more effective at revealing beauty than a stained glass window. Photo from Wikipedia commons.

What is it that young artists training programs for emerging opera singers do?  Yes, they provide young singers with voice lessons and performance lessons and build resumes and networks for seeking performance opportunities, but what is it that opera singers are really trying to do?  Yes, they want to master their craft and this training provides a step up, but what is it that they are really trying to accomplish, the end result?  Perhaps a sense of satisfaction and personal fulfillment from their accomplishments?  When I wax philosophical, I find it is not straightforward statements of truths that help, but rather stories or vignettes.  To get at my question, I’d like to relate a few vignettes including a couple of chance encounters with transcendence.

Vignette one: In the 1994 movie, “Shawshank Redemption”, a scene occurs (above video from YouTube) where inmate Andy (Tim Robbins) is cleaning the prison warden’s office and chooses to play a record over the prison sound system.  The recording is a duet from The Marriage of Figaro.  The camera pans the prison and everywhere prisoners stop and listen to the music, entranced.  As the guards break down the door to the office, inmate Red played by Morgan Freeman is heard in voice-over saying, “I have no idea to this day what those two Italian ladies were singing about. Truth is I don’t want to know; some things are better left unsaid. I would like to think it’s something so beautiful it cannot be expressed in words and makes your heart ache because of it.” Beauty has the power to entrance because it speaks directly to our hearts, just like stained glass windows.

Vignette Two: Once when I was a young teen looking for something to watch on television, I landed on a channel that had an image of a guitar resting against a stool in the middle of an empty stage.  This seemed to promise music, so I remained stationary for a moment.  The camera panned stage left to a man walking with assistance towards the stool, a very old, white-haired man dressed in a tuxedo.  I was impressed by the tuxedo but felt sorry for him needing assistance and was intrigued that he was headed for the guitar.  He sat down and took the guitar that was handed to him.  Then, he began to play what I remember as some of the most beautiful music I had ever heard.  I sat in rapture.  When he finished, I no longer found the man to be pitiable but instead felt that he had become beautiful, had transcended time and forged a connection between us; I had glimpsed the soul of the man, and maybe my own.  I think he was a famous classical guitarist of the time, though I never learned his name (no Google in those days).  The details of that moment have gotten hazy over the years, but I have never forgotten that moment and I never will; it changed me.  Beauty is transformative.

Vignette Three: Back in February, I was invited by Matthew Woorman, general manager of the Maryland Lyric Opera, to attend a rehearsal of their February young artist concert.  I find the opportunity to hear opera sung up close and personal to be practically irresistible, so of course, I said yes. I sat down not far from the stage in a modest-sized theater in Bethesda to observe the proceedings.  Something occurred that took me back to that teen age experience so long ago.  Each of the young artists walked onto the stage to rehearse their arias with only piano accompaniment.  Each was attractive and attired in casual dress, but not otherwise remarkable, the sort of people you might run into in your local mall.  However, when they started to sing, they, the auditorium, and I were transformed; the contrast between how they seemed and what they became when they began to sing opera was stunning.  I only expected to be entertained by some good music and learn more about opera, but somehow my spirit felt lifted, or like the men in the prison yard, freed for just a moment.  Beauty exalts. 

left to right: Nayoung Ban, Sarah Costa, and Nina Duan. Photos courtesy of Maryland Lyric Opera.

Maryland Lyric Opera is a small opera company with an ambitious agenda.  It’s founder and president is collaborative pianist and opera/chamber music administrator Brad Clark.  This season MDLO added as music director, conductor Louis Salemno; head of voice training, baritone William Stone, and associate conductor Rafael Andrade.  MLDO is committed to education and training in opera singing with the goal of ensuring “that the next generation of singers are exposed to and have the opportunity to learn from experienced professionals who have spent years studying and improving their craft on the world’s stages.”  It has produced staged operas in its past short history and announced plans last October to return to that effort in the near future; according to Mr. Woorman, the plan is to use their Institute as a pipeline to involve new talent in these productions.  They also operate a Sharing Music, Sharing Love series that performs short opera programs for underserved populations.   There is one more scheduled training session for this season, which will begin in June. 

left to right:  SeungHyeon Baek, Joseph Michael Brent, Yongxi Chen, and Chunlai Shang. Photos courtesy of Maryland Lyric Opera.

Today, they are focused on training the current members of its Young Artists Concert Institute: baritone SeungHyeon Baek; soprano Nayoung Ban; tenor Joseph Michael Brent; tenor Yongxi Chen; soprano Sarah Costa; mezzo-soprano Nina Duan; and, baritone Chunlai Shang.  MLDO is considering talent world-wide.  This session includes three singers who received appointments after auditioning in China: Mr. Chen, Ms. Duan, and Mr. Shang.  By Friday, these already accomplished young opera singers will have received approximately a month of intensive one-on-one professional level training in opera performance and singing on a daily basis from the experienced staff of Maryland Lyric Opera.   They will have previously excelled in singing somewhere, maybe in a chorus or choir when someone noticed they had promise and mentored them toward this path.  I believe that they will have received this attention and training and mentoring because their teachers and mentors are also inspired by beauty; their hearts are in this work.  And at MLDO, they will have received this training at no charge because there are friends and donors to MLDO that are also inspired by beauty.

So on Friday, seven young singers will take the stage in the next step on their journey to beauty.  When you see these young artists on recital night, they will be dressed appropriately, and beauty will not emerge as a surprise.  However, consider this: these young kids (kids to me) do not become beautiful in their singing; they are already beautiful.  I think that they, like my elderly guitarist of years ago, are capable of becoming beauty itself.  I believe that that is what opera singers are really trying to accomplish.  It is entertainment, but more than that, it is art.  Opera at its best is art, and it not only entertains us, but via its art, connects us to each other and inspires us to rise to our better selves.  This is why so many artists are inspired to make it their life’s work.  This is why opera endures, and it explains what these young artists are trying to do - struggling to become beauty itself, shaped and colored by who they are, just like the stained glass windows transmitting the light.  Yes, you will be entertained Friday night, and just maybe, get a glimpse of beauty.

 Poster image courtesy of Maryland Lyric Opera.

Poster image courtesy of Maryland Lyric Opera.

The Fan Experience: Free and open to the public, the young artist recital begins at 6:30 pm Friday, April 20, at the Bethesda United Methodist Church at 8300 Old Georgetown Road in Bethesda, MD.  There are two parking lots adjacent to the church which sits at the corner of Huntington Parkway and Old Georgetown Road; the entrance to the sanctuary is near the intersection.  After turning onto Huntington from Old Georgetown Road, the first right turn will take you to the parking lots.  The Bethesda Metro Stop is slightly under a mile from the Church. 

The next Young Artists Institute Concert will be on June 22.

 

Virginia Opera’s Rachele di Lammermoor Could Be the Lucia You Will Remember

If you are an opera fan, Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor is one of the classic operas to check off your list and repeat as opportunity arises, which can lead to memory difficulties.  I have a suggestion.  An opera, of course, is not about one performer, even when it’s the lead soprano, but for Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor, the soprano playing Lucia is critical.  I suggest we start giving each production the name of the soprano – a Lucia di Lammermoor with Joan Sutherland for example would be known as Joan di Lammermoor.  I think this would make it easier to rank and remember our favorites.  I loved Natalie di Lammermoor (Natalie Dessay), but wish I had seen Maria di Lammermoor (Maria Callas), for example.  It could even help in drawing distinctions: La Scala’s Maria di Lammermoor was better than Covent Garden’s Maria di Lammermoor.  Thus, to help all our memories, Virginia Opera’s current Lucia di Lammermoor should be remembered by its fans as Rachele di Lammermoor (for coloratura soprano Rachele Gilmore).  It will be a fond memory; I thoroughly enjoyed Sunday (April 8) afternoon’s performance.

 Rachele Gilmore as Lucia in the famous mad scene. Photo by Ben Schill Photography; courtesy of Virginia Opera.

Rachele Gilmore as Lucia in the famous mad scene. Photo by Ben Schill Photography; courtesy of Virginia Opera.

Partly, I had looked forward to VO’s Lucia due to a conversation I had with Director Kyle Lang about costumes and staging for this opera, which I reported in a previous blog post.  This bel canto opera by composer Gaetano Donizetti and librettist Salvatore Cammarano deals with a couple, Lucia and Edgardo, from rival families who fall in love with each other. Lucia’s brother, Enrico, and his entourage, including the chaplain, Raimondo, force Lucia into a politically advantageous marriage with Arturo while Edgardo is away.  The abandonment and stress pushes Lucia into madness.  The sumptuous period costumes by noted designer Catherine Zuber are an outstanding element of the opera, and the sets conceived by Mr. Lang which he described as minimalist (everything plays a role in telling the story) were very effective in providing appropriate backdrops for the story.  I especially liked the lighting effects in Act I to portray the forest in shimmering moonlight, and I am still amazed at how effectively the ballroom set conveyed a spacious ballroom.  Each scene beginning with the forest scene was introduced by a short film clip created by Mr. Lang that escorted the audience into the mood of the scene.  I enjoyed these and think maybe even more could be done with such mixing.  One drawback to the staging on Sunday was the rather prolonged “short pause” between the mad scene and the final scene in the cemetery; also, the moving of heavy sets at that point caused some groaning sounds creating ripples of laughter in the audience, a minor quibble, but a noticeable drop off in tension resulted.

left: Joseph Dennis as Edgardo and Rachele Gilmore as Lucia. right: Tim Mix as Enrico and Rachele Gilmore as Lucia. Photos by Ben Schill Photography; courtesy of Virginia Opera.

For me the sound of the singer’s voice is critical to my enjoyment of the singing.  Rachele Gilmore has a very pretty soprano voice and to my ear, sings beautifully, especially when dancing around in the higher registers.  Sometimes her trills seemed to me more workman-like than natural, but I would gladly listen to her sing Donizetti again anytime.  Her acting and singing seemed to keep within the bel canto tradition, always under control, though Lucia might be expected to lose it sometimes and sometimes be fighting to regain her sanity or to evade it.  One might permit her a scream or two.  Her poignant mad scene will be one I remember to compare with others.  I expected Ms. Gilmore to be excellent, but two of the singers surprised me.  Joseph Dennis as Edgardo was a delight; he has a fine tenor voice and plays his role well.  The other surprise was Richard Ollarsaba who played the chaplain Raimondo.  I was impressed with Mr. Ollarsaba in his performances as a young artist with Wolf Trap Opera, but his strong, resonant bass-baritone and stage presence now are commanding the stage.  Tim Mix as Enrico has a pleasant baritone voice and played the narcissistic brother well, though he seemed more in character with moments of comfort to Lucia than expressing his rage and cruelty; his irate shoves to his comrades in the forest scene were rather gentle; if any had tipped I think he would have had a pillow under them before they landed.  The other principal cast members were all effective in supporting roles, mezzo-soprano Melisa Bonetti as Lucia’s companion Alisa, tenor Bille Bruley as Arturo, and tenor Stephen Carroll as Normano, an assistant to Enrico.  Special kudos to the chorus, led by Chorus Master Shelby Rhoades; their sound is beautiful and worth going to hear alone.  Also, not just the individual arias but the duets and ensemble singing, including the famous Act II sextet, were all immensely enjoyable.

Perhaps the best reason to attend Lucia is Donizetti's sumptuous music.  Maestro Ari Pelto and the fifty-three piece Richmond Symphony gave us a good rendition of Donizetti with full support of the singers and drama.  The overture's opening which sounds like a funeral march, the repetition of lyrical themes, and emotional shadings all added to the opera's dramatic impact; the employment of the harp and flute/Lucia duet added to the delights.

Watching just my second Lucia, I became somewhat amused by thinking that if the Donizetti/Cammarano team were alive today, the murder scene would not take place unseen off stage, but would be the center piece of the opera, complete with a nude scene.  Today’s audiences would demand it.  So, enjoy this, even if sad, return to the good old days.

The Fan Experience: I am finding that where you sit in the Center for the Arts auditorium at GMU significantly affects the sound you hear.  My advice is to seek out the center and, if in the orchestra section, farther back is better.  I also detect a disproportionately large drop off in singer sound volume when they move from front stage to rear stage; something perhaps for directors to note for staging purposes.

In addition to opera fans, I also recommend Lucia for newbies, though not for those not yet into their teen years.  There are still two performances left for Rachele di Lammermoor, both in Richmond, on Friday evening, April 13, and a Sunday matinee, April 15.  If you arrive at least 45 minutes early, you can hear the entertaining and enlightening pre-opera talk by Dr. Glenn Winters, Virginia Opera's Community Outreach Musical Director, which will enhance your appreciation and enjoyment of the opera.

 

Met’s Luisa Miller Live HD in Cinemas on Saturday, April 14: Why You Should Go

What: On Saturday, April 14, the Metropolitan Opera live in HD in the Cinemas broadcast will feature Luisa Miller, a dramma tragico, by composer Giuseppe Verdi and librettist Salvatore Cammarano.  The cast is led by probably the most famous opera singer in the world, Placido Domingo, who is amazing everybody that at age 77 he can still perform at the Met. 

 Placido Domingo as MIller; Sonya Yoncheva as Luisa, and Piotr Beczala as Rudolfo. Photo by Chirs Lee; courtesy of the Metropolitan Opera.

Placido Domingo as MIller; Sonya Yoncheva as Luisa, and Piotr Beczala as Rudolfo. Photo by Chirs Lee; courtesy of the Metropolitan Opera.

Cammarano’s libretto is based on Schiller’s play, “Kabale und Liebe” (Intrigue and Love).  In the story, Miller, a retired soldier, dotes on his daughter, Luisa, all he has left in the world.  She has fallen in love with Rudolfo and he with her.  Miller is worried that he knows too little about his daughter’s chosen one, and in fact, he is to learn disturbing news about the young man.  Rudolfo’s father, Count Walter, wants his son to marry the Duchess Fredericka. Courtier Wurm, who previously asked Miller for Luisa’s hand still wants Luisa for himself and plots to force Luisa to marry him instead, setting in motion the events that lead to the tragic conclusion.

Movie theaters representing several different chains carry the Live in HD performances.  Use this link to find those nearest you; use city and state, not zip code in the search bar.  After the Saturday performances, an Encore performance is typically shown on the following Wednesdays.  Only the Saturday performance is broadcast live but the video shown on Wednesday is exactly what the audiences saw on Saturday, plus the best seats sell out quickly on Saturday and the remaining seat selection for Wednesday is usually better.  Tickets are usually around $25 with small discounts for seniors and children.

Why You Should Go:

1.     It’s a Verdi opera. In fact, Luisa Miller is actually quite good Verdi.  For me, LM is a story where everyone wears their emotions on their sleeves and the final tragedy seems a little too familiar after having seen quite a few other tragic operas with similar and stronger plot lines and endings.  I suspect this is why it is not performed more often, but it has enough plot twists to be engaging.  Having said that, you do get the Verdi chorus in the beginning and each lead character gets their own beautiful Verdi arias, and there are also great duets and ensemble singing.  Critics say that Luisa Miller is underrated and demonstrates Verdi’s growth in the sophistication of his compositions, beginning his middle period.

2.     Placido Domingo sings the baritone role of Miller.  In his later years, he switched from tenor to baritone roles.  His voice draws gentle criticism from professional critics for its condition today, but at the same time, he is praised for adding excitement to the production.

3.     The cast around Placido is outstanding, especially the currently very hot diva, soprano Sonya Yoncheva, playing Luisa; and the the excellent tenor Piotr Beczala as Rodolfo,

 Placido Domingo in 1971 production of  Luisa Miller  as Rudolfo; the 1979 production was his second  Luisa Miller . Met Opera Archive photo taken from Placido Domingo's  website .

Placido Domingo in 1971 production of Luisa Miller as Rudolfo; the 1979 production was his second Luisa Miller. Met Opera Archive photo taken from Placido Domingo's website.

4.     You can try a neat experiment: Do you like Placido better in the tenor role or the baritone role?  Go see the current version where Placido plays Miller, then watch the Met video of the 1979 production of Luisa Miller, which starred Placido at age 38 in the tenor role of Rodolfo.  In the video, you get to see a dashing, still young Placido with golden curls singing opposite the great Renata Scotto (my personal all-time favorite soprano) singing in the role of Luisa, a duo of historic opera dimensions.  The 1979 Luisa Miller can be purchased on DVD or rented for streaming to your streaming devices such as Apple TV and Roku from Met Opera on Demand.

5.     You can take your popcorn, candy, and soda into the movie theater, unlike opera houses.

6.     You can wear what you usually wear to see a movie; nobody will care.

Reviews: The reviews are generally favorable with special praise for the aura provided by Placido and the performance of Ms. Yoncheva.  Links to individual reviews are in the right side bar.  For a summary of the reviews click on this link.

Director Kyle Lang on Staging Lucia di Lammermoor, Beginning with the Costumes

 Etching by Charles Robert Leslie of scene from Sir Walter Scott's "The Bride of Lammermoor". Etching is in public domain; accessed via  Wikipedia .

Etching by Charles Robert Leslie of scene from Sir Walter Scott's "The Bride of Lammermoor". Etching is in public domain; accessed via Wikipedia.

Moving into the Center for the Arts at George Mason University on April 7 and 8 will be composer Gaetano Donizetti’s classic dramma tragico, Lucia di Lammermoor (1835), this after having premiered in Norfolk on March 23, 25, and 27 and before traveling to Richmond for an April 13 and 15 wrap up to Virginia Opera’s current season.  The libretto by Salvatore Cammarano, based on the “Bride of Lammermoor” (1819) by Sir Walter Scott, is timeless in portraying the unraveling under stress of a vulnerable personality; the music by Donizetti is stunning.  The story takes place in 17th century Scotland, a time of wars and religious conflicts, often setting families against families in lethal feuds.  Historical novels about that period were popular in Europe of the 19th century.  Lucia is a young woman who falls in love with Edgardo, the remaining head of a rival family in conflict with her own family, but she is then manipulated by her brother Enrico to save him from peril by agreeing to marry Arturo from a different family.  Each of the major characters is compelled to act by dire circumstances and their own natures, honorable or not.  Lucia becomes more and more isolated and pressured until she becomes undone.  Lucia is one of opera’s great tragedies and perhaps its most effective at pulling audiences into the drama.  It also contains the most famous mad scene in opera; with a role coveted by coloratura sopranos; the story’s impact is dependent on the soprano’s performance in that scene.

left: Joseph Dennis as Edgardo and Rachele Gilmore as Lucia. right: Tim Mix as Enrico and Rachele Gilmore as Lucia. Photos by Ben Schill Photography; courtesy of Virginia Opera.

When I first saw that this opera was on the schedule for 2017-2018, I was uncertain if I wanted to see it again.  But in truth, I have only seen one previous version of Lucia and that was a video of a Metropolitan Opera production from 2011 starring the fabulous Natalie Dessay as Lucia.  Even watching it as a video on television, the opera was deeply affecting and such a satisfying gem I have not felt the desire to see another performance.  But then I saw that Rachele Gilmore is playing Lucia, and I read about her coloratura soprano voice and the opportunity to see her version of the famous mad scene caused the opera to grow in appeal.  Finally, one of my daughters asked me to consider writing about opera costumes and staging, and the Virginia Opera’s Lucia seems an excellent candidate for such an effort with 17th century costumes and staging by director and choreographer, Kyle Lang; he previously directed 2015’s La Boheme for VA Opera and choreographed 2017’s Turandot.

 Rachele Gilmore as Lucia. Photo by Ben Schill Photography; courtesy of Virginia Opera.

Rachele Gilmore as Lucia. Photo by Ben Schill Photography; courtesy of Virginia Opera.

I chatted with Director Lang by phone to learn more about how this production came to be.  The conductor of an opera has primary responsibility for what you hear, but the director has primary responsibility for what you see.  He explained that generating costumes and sets for an entirely new production of an opera is very expensive, and today, most operas are performed using rental costumes and sets from previous productions.  Finding rental sets for Lucia that fit with the dimensions of the Harrison Opera House in Norfolk appeared problematic, so he made the decision to begin with costumes and re-purpose existing VA Opera sets as needed.  He was aware of a 2005 Glimmerglass Festival production of Lucie de Lammermoor, Donizetti’s Paris revision of Lucia, that had been staged by his mentor Director Lillian Groag, who is herself quite familiar to VA Opera audiences (Turandot and Girl of the Golden West).  He knew that the costumes for that production had been prepared by award winning designer, Catherine Zuber and were historically accurate.  Ms. Zuber has been nominated for twelve Tony awards and has won six times.  The Groag production was meant to be a period piece; costumes help the singer/actors assume the character.  The costumes were designed in the cavalier style of the 17th century.  Think silks, taffetas, brocades, and velvet, sashes and doublets for the men and double skirts for the women; think romantic.  Ms. Zuber’s costumes for the Glimmerglass production also use color patterns to support the drama in a more subliminal fashion.

There were Lucie/Lucia differences.  The character of Alisa, Lucia’s royal attendant, was absent from Lucie, so Mr. Lang and VA Opera costume manager Pat Seyller were tasked with creating a costume for that character.  Also, a character in Lucie, missing in Lucia, allowed a costume switch for Normanno in Lucia.  However, Director Lang chose not to use the abstract version of blood in the Groag production.  He prefers the real thing, or at least the stage version of the real thing.  So, the red lace and rose petals of Glimmerglass mad scene dress have become the wet, blood stained Lang version.  This required creating a copy of the rented costume that was then permanently stained iteratively with blood and Ms. Gilmore gets an extra splashing before her appearance each night; this requires washing the blood out of the dress after every performance.  Director Lang believes the blood is critical to achieving full dramatic impact of this scene.  All very tastefully done, of course.

 Enrico played by Tim Mix clashes with Edgardo played by Joseph Dennis. Photo by Ben Schill Photography; courtesy of Virginia Opera.

Enrico played by Tim Mix clashes with Edgardo played by Joseph Dennis. Photo by Ben Schill Photography; courtesy of Virginia Opera.

Mr. Lang’s goal is to use every aspect of the production to bring the story of Lucia di Lammermoor to life.  Re-purposed sets and props from Virginia Opera’s stock were designed to create the appropriate world for each scene, but created to be minimalist in the sense that none of the elements is padding, but rather plays a significant role in telling the story; he created special film clips to introduce each scene.  I wondered if hauling the sets from venue to venue might be a problem, but Mr. Lang indicated that getting the floor moved and reinstalled was a bit of a challenge but packing up and moving did not present too many challenges. 

A much greater challenge resulted from the inherent difficulty in staging bel canto operas.  Lucia is iconic for bel canto opera, especially coloratura singing. Director Lang opines, “Bel Canto is characterized by long, sustained vocal lines to show the virtuosity of the voice, which means one could be singing about one emotion or thought for an extended period of time, and you can basically be pulled out of real time within the music.  This is difficult dramaturgically because one needs to keep the story moving forward. Long passages and repeats can often make it difficult for action/conflict/resolution to continue at an ample pace.”  This necessitates a middle ground in staging where the director and conductor, in this case Maestro Ari Pelto, must work closely together, including making sure that staging allows the arias to be both sung and heard, getting the tempo of the music and movement on stage in step, and assessing what the dramatic intent of the music requires of the acting.  Director Lang examines every line since movement on stage is dictated by the text.  For Lucia, Acts I and II are different in flow:  Act I – exposition setting up our knowledge of the characters and conflicts; Act II – the events unfold.  Director Lang’s background in addition to directing is dancing; so, he knows how to keep movements flowing.  His background also helps in staging movements for the chorus members, an important part of Lucia

 Lucia played by Rachele Gilmore in the mad scene. Photo by Ben Schill Photography; courtesy of Virginia Opera.

Lucia played by Rachele Gilmore in the mad scene. Photo by Ben Schill Photography; courtesy of Virginia Opera.

I asked Mr. Lang what he hoped the audience would take away from his Lucia di Lammermoor.  He believes people will remember the beautiful singing.  He says this production has a cast of outstanding singers who produce the vocal fireworks that Donizetti intended.  He also thinks that the audience will find that their emotional connection to Lucia is stronger than for most other operas, that they may find that they identify with the characters more than in other operas, and that this will help them put their own lives in greater perspective.  But, a director’s work is never done, at least if he wants to earn a living.  Mr. Lang is already working on his next production – directing Johann Strauss’ comedic opera, Die Fledermaus for Utah Opera, a very different opera temperament from Lucia.

One of the things I read when my love of opera first materialized was that opera was plural for the Latin word opus, which means work; so, opera was ‘the works’; it included music, singing, storytelling, acting, dancing, costumes, and lighting.  Yet thus far my attention has been focused mainly on the singing and the music, with occasional nods to the other aspects, but my awareness and appreciation of ‘the works’ is growing.  The next time you are reviewing your program just prior to the conductor’s entrance to the pit and after you’ve looked over the list of singers, take a look at the other names, those of the director, the chorus leader, the lighting manager, the costume designer, and sets designer.  You will start to find favorites among those contributors as well.  It is ‘the works’ of all of those individuals that integrate to provide the art that will engage you, entertain you and move you, offering a connection for the moment with all humanity and putting you more in touch with your own.  Looked at that way, the price of a ticket is very good value indeed.

The Fan Experience: Remaining performances for Lucia are April 7 and 8 in Fairfax (April 8 will be the 170th anniversary of Donizetti’s death) and April 13 and 15 in Richmond.  Tickets can be purchased through this link.  To enhance your understanding and appreciation for Lucia, I recommend the series of blog posts written by Dr. Glenn Winters, opera composer and Community Outreach Musical Director for Virginia Opera.  Dr. Winters also presents the pre-opera talk given prior to each performance; get there early if you want to get a seat.

 

 

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

 Pittsburgh Opera logo; courtesy of Pittsburg Opera.

Pittsburgh Opera logo; courtesy of Pittsburg Opera.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Fan Experience:

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

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

 

 

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

 National Symphony Orchestra logo; courtesy of the National Symphony Orchestra

National Symphony Orchestra logo; courtesy of the National Symphony Orchestra

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

But wait…I want my time on the soapbox:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Fan Experience:

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

Masterclass on the French Horn

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Candlelight Concert Society

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

 Maryland Lyric Opera poster from Facebook.

Maryland Lyric Opera poster from Facebook.

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Life and love, loose ends left hanging,

Ever after but a dream,

Mature we see the play,

Move by us as a stream

And laugh bittersweet,

And in a troubled way

Endings sweet, not all they seem

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

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

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

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

Queen of the fairies, Tytania is miffed at the

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

Lysander, an Athenian citizen who loves

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“If we shadows have offended,

Think but this, and all is mended,

That you have but slumber’d here

While these visions did appear,

And this weak and idle theme,

No more yielding but a dream.”

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

Dreams and art are profit made

Though meaning lingers in the shade

Not instruct, more to unhinge

And free you from your Netflix binge

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here is an OperaGene Q&A with Antony Walker:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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