Washington National Opera’s Tosca: It’s Tosca And We Will Be Expecting You.

If Tosca is playing and you are an opera fan, you go.  It’s like your mother wants you to come for Sunday dinner. You feel guilty if you don’t go; you would be letting the family down.  You may be tired of Sundays with fried chicken and mashed potatoes and gravy (I grew up in the South), but you go, and in the end, you enjoy the damn fried chicken and mashed potatoes and gravy, and you are glad you did what you had to do.  At least with Tosca, it will likely be a different set of relatives each time.  Now if you are a new invitee to mom’s Sunday dinner, you will love it and wonder why anyone would want to skip it, even occasionally.

left to right: Keri Alkema as Tosca; Riccardo Massi as Cavaradossi; and Alan Held as Scarpia. Photos by Scott Suchman; courtesy of Washington National Opera.

Tosca (1900), with its Hollywood storyline and melodramatic music, is a good opera for new invitees, so I won’t give away the ending or plot twists.  Let’s just say that Tosca, a singer, and her sweetie, the painter Cavaradossi, are in love, but a mean old Roman consul, Scarpia, has his lecherous eye on Tosca and his political eye on her lover.  The story takes place in 1800 in Rome, a tumultuous period before Italy was a unified country.  Over the course of just two days, there is lots of political intrigue and deception, threats, both sudden and planned violence, and beautiful arias.  Tosca is currently number five on the most performed opera list.  The composer Giacomo Puccini has two other familiar best sellers to his credit, La Boheme and Madama Butterfly, that also feature Tosca’s librettists Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacoasa.  The opera is condensed from a play by Victorien Sardou that is a good deal longer, so some significant details may sail past you if are not familiar with the play, especially the historical context.  In particular, it is helpful to know that at the time the story takes place, Rome was under despotic Neapolitan rule, managed by a group of powerful consuls.  Napoleon had departed Rome as a republic a few years earlier but then the King of Naples added Rome to his holdings.  As the events of the opera unfold, Napoleon was fighting for control of Rome again.  During the opera, news arrives that he has been defeated, but later we learn that the earlier news was premature, and Napoleon has been victorious, significant because Scarpia is on the side of the monarchy, and Cavaradossi and his friend, the escaped, political prisoner Angelotti, are on the side of the great liberator.

Wei Wu as Sancristan and the Children’s Chorus. Photo by Scott Suchman; courtesy of Washington National Opera.

Wei Wu as Sancristan and the Children’s Chorus. Photo by Scott Suchman; courtesy of Washington National Opera.

This Tosca has a fine cast, starting with soprano Keri Alkema who plays Tosca and Riccardo Massi who plays Cavaradossi; both have strong, colorful voices.  Ms. Alkema, who returns to the Kennedy Center after having been a member of the original group of Domingo Cafritz Young Artists, sings beautifully and makes a compelling Tosca.  One of the treats of attending yet another opera family dinner is getting to see another soprano’s portrayal of the remarkable transformation that Tosca undergoes in Act II, sort of like seeing another soprano’s mad scene in Lucia di Lammermoor.  She rendered a compelling “Vissi d’arte”, a truly stunning aria in both melody and lyrics at the end of Act II; she received a well-deserved enthusiastic round of applause.  Mr. Massi plays Tosca’s beau with a youthful vigor and Italian charm (he seems to be in the Italian version and everyone else is Anglophile) and delivers the goods with his big, Act III aria, “E lucevan le stelle“; he received a well-deserved enthusiastic round of applause.  A couple of times earlier he held his final notes so long he seemed to be saying look at me and what I can do.  At first, he reaffirmed my prejudice about tenors (pretty boy show-offs who always get the girl), but then it seemed to come to him so naturally he won me over.  The lover’s embraces seemed pro forma, lacking passion, but the banter back and forth to deal with Tosca’s jealousy was amusing and charming.

Michael Hewitt as Angelotti and Riccardo Massi as Cavaradossi. Photo by Scott Suchman; courtesy of Washington National Opera.

Michael Hewitt as Angelotti and Riccardo Massi as Cavaradossi. Photo by Scott Suchman; courtesy of Washington National Opera.

Alan Held’s Scarpia was a mix for me.  He has the stature to be imposing and threatening, but at other times, as my son commented to me, he appeared more Scrooge-like than monster-like in a one-dimensional role.  He has a good voice and sings impressively.  I seem to remember liking him better in WNO’s 2011 Tosca than this one (though I loved him as Wotan in the DC Ring).  His awaited sacrilegious exclamation about his passion for Tosca and his joining in the Te Deum procession got rained on a bit by the early rise in volume by the orchestra on Saturday night (May 11).  Hopefully that will be adjusted in future performances.  The staging which was really quite good overall was startling to no good effect in having the back of the church lift away and the processional move towards the audience.  On the other hand, the ending we all await was handled very effectively.  Kudos to Director Ethan McSweeney.  The supporting performers sang well and added credibility to the story, especially baritone Michael Hewitt as Angelotti, bass Wei Wu as Sancristan, and tenor David Cangelosi as Spoletta.  The brief appearance of the Children’s Chorus in Act I directed by Steve Gathman was enjoyable.

Alan Held as Scarpia, Samson McCrady as Sciarrone, and David Cangelosi as Spoletta. Photo by Scott Suchman; courtesy of Washington National Opera.

Alan Held as Scarpia, Samson McCrady as Sciarrone, and David Cangelosi as Spoletta. Photo by Scott Suchman; courtesy of Washington National Opera.

I read that the music in Tosca is through-composed, trying to make the case to musicologists that this opera is more than simply a good melodrama.  Operas originally tended to be a series of arias held together by recitatives.  OK, whatever; this is great music and there are certainly some show stopping arias along the way.   A fun aspect is the use of musical motifs for the characters; most noticeably, you will hear an identifying musical phrase each time Scarpia appears or is mentioned, and his motif actually begins the overture.  The orchestra under conductor Speranza Scappucci did a good job of bringing Puccini’s beautiful music to life.  I liked their playing better though in Acts II and III.  I realized after a while in Act I that I had not noticed the music after the well-done overture, and then later, it seemed to overpower Mr. Held a bit near the end of Act I.  As an aside, in WNO’s recent Faust, I noticed the pony tail bobbing up and down at the head of the pit.  This time it was a French braid, meaning I feel good seeing evidence that decisions being made as to whom will lead the WNO orchestra are not gender-influenced.

The sets for this production of Tosca, which came from the Seattle Opera production, are beautiful and a perfect backdrop for the opera.   The costumes by Lena Rivkina are stunning and add to the romantic atmosphere. The church interior in Act I and the rather large statue of an angel in Act III are uncannily realistic.  The sets convey very well the grandeur and beauty of the actual sites in Rome.  Very well done and a production highlight.

Riccardo Massi and Keri Alkema as Cavaradossi and Tosca. Let’s remember them as lovers. Photo by Scott Suchman; courtesy of Washington National Opera.

Riccardo Massi and Keri Alkema as Cavaradossi and Tosca. Let’s remember them as lovers. Photo by Scott Suchman; courtesy of Washington National Opera.

I have no data, but I’d certainly guess that there were a lot of new attendees for this Tosca, judging by the unusually youthful appearance of the audience, and the younger groups seemed to be having a ball.  So, go; maybe you will meet somebody nice.  Besides, WNO serves up a mighty satisfying plate of Tosca that will be available for another week and a half.  Go, support the family.  Is that so much to ask?

The Fan Experience: There are six more performances - May 14, 17, 19, 20, 22, 25; note that the performance on May 19 (as did the one on May 12) will feature different singers for Tosca (Latonia Moore) and Cavaradossi (Robert Watson).  See the Downey Review of the second cast at this link. Also, heed the warnings about road construction affecting some routes getting to the Kennedy Center and allow plenty of extra time for your commute. In fact, get there early enough to have your supper (I told you I was from the South) at the Kennedy Center; I think the salad bar at the KC Café is a bargain.  The pre-opera talk by Robert Ainsley, Director of the Domingo Cafritz Young Artist program, given an hour before the performance, provides insights about the opera that will enhance your enjoyment.



Pittsburgh Opera’s Don Pasquale: One part Donizetti, one part Oropesa…Stir

How do you brew a great opera experience?  Mixing Donizetti and Oropesa is a great start.  Operas are not a one-person show, ever.  They are the result of many talented, dedicated contributors.  So, I feel guilty raving about one team member in particular, but I am going to rave about Lisette Oropesa, right now, right up front for everybody to see.  She is already a veteran of the Metropolitan Opera and has spent the last couple of years perfecting her craft working in Europe. I previously saw her perform live in 2016 at the Kennedy Center and was impressed.  She recently won the Richard Tucker Award, the top opera award.  When she appeared for the first time Saturday night in Pittsburgh Opera’s Don Pasquale, the impact was even greater than the change from black/white scenery to color suggested; like a light bulb, the life in the performance came on, Donizetti meets star power.  There were other excellent performances and other important good stuff to talk about, but let’s get the ‘why you must not miss this performance’ out of the way up front.  Pittsburgh, go see and hear Lisette Oropesa while you can.

Javier Abreu as Ernesto, Lisette Oropesa as Norina, Kevin Glavin as Pasquale, and Joshua Hopkins as Dr. Malatesta. Photo by David Bachman Photography; courtesy of Pittsburgh Opera.

Javier Abreu as Ernesto, Lisette Oropesa as Norina, Kevin Glavin as Pasquale, and Joshua Hopkins as Dr. Malatesta. Photo by David Bachman Photography; courtesy of Pittsburgh Opera.

Now, I return you to your regularly scheduled blog report.  In a relatively short life, composer Gaetano Donizetti (1797-1848) wrote about sixty operas that include several firmly seated in the currently produced repertoire, including Lucia di Lammermoor, The Elixir of Love, The Girl in Algiers, the Tudor Queen triology.  He is famous for how little time he needed to compose his operas; the estimates for his comedy Don Pasquale (1842) are between 11 days to three weeks according to Pittsburgh Opera’s Kristin Gatch who gave the pre-opera talk; I assume that was the amount of time after librettist Giovanni Ruffini had provided the script, although Donizetti made so many changes that Ruffini refused to have his name published with it.  It appears the main driving force for Donizetti was not producing masterpieces.  He was turning out entertaining bel canto operas to meet the demands of an adoring public.  He wanted his operas to be entertaining.  He, along with Rossini and Bellini, were the masters of the bel canto style of opera, and the music in Don Pasquale is masterful and melodic, perhaps his best; in fact listening to some recordings just for the music is now on my to-do list.  Kudos to Conductor Garry Thor Wedow and the Pittsburgh Opera Orchestra for bringing it so fully to life.  Yes, the arias were delicious, but the music is worth a listen all on its own.  The excellent chorus which only gets to shine near the end of the opera also deserves high entertainment marks.

Top: Pasquale (Kevin Glavin) uses a movie director’s megaphone to make his point to Ernesto (Javier Abreu). Bottom: Majordomo Max (Ian Christiansen) stands by Pasquale (Kevin Glavin) buried in bills run up by his new bride. Photos by David Bachman Photography; courtesy of Pittsburgh Opera.

This version of Don Pasquale must be associated with its Director’s name, Chuck Hudson.  It is distinctively his as well as Donizetti’s and Ruffini’s.   This production is updated to the fifties Hollywood.  Don Pasquale is a has-been, but still wealthy, movie star from the silent film era.  He is upset that his nephew, Ernesto, is unwilling to marry the woman of Pasquale’s choice, even with the offer of an allowance and sole inheritance rights to Pasquale’s fortune. Instead, Ernesto insists he will marry a poor widow named Norina for love.  A frustrated Pasquale strikes back by throwing his nephew out and announcing his intention to marry and create a new heir.  He calls on his friend Dr. Malatesta to help him find a bride.  Malatesta sets up a scheme whereby Pasquale marries Norina thinking she is Malatesta’s meek sister.  Norina is beautiful and acts docile, and soon Pasquale is all in.  After a fake wedding ceremony, she becomes the shrew from hell, and Pasquale soon wants out.  All ends well with Pasquale reinstating Ernesto and agreeing to his marriage to Norina to rid himself of her, graciously accepting the lesson he has learned.

Dr. Malatesta (Joshua Hopkins) and Norina (Lisette Oropesa) firm up their scheme. Photo by David Bachman Photography; courtesy of Pittsburgh Opera.

Dr. Malatesta (Joshua Hopkins) and Norina (Lisette Oropesa) firm up their scheme. Photo by David Bachman Photography; courtesy of Pittsburgh Opera.

Director Hudson’s staging includes added physical humor, sight gags, and amusing early-style Hollywood-film clips.  The first film clip is shown while Donizetti’s excellent overture plays, a slight disconnect to the opera, but a genuinely funny addition.  Additional clips shown at the beginning of each subsequent act or scene; the later ones are accompanied by piano music.  According to PO’s Head of Music, Glenn Lewis, “The piano music used as film underscores are adaptations of instrumental pieces by the same composer, Donizetti, as the opera. The first excerpt, for example, is adapted from a Flute sonata.  (This) instrumental music is seldom if ever performed.” It fits very well with the old-time film clips.  The classical production of the opera is amusing, but Mr. Hudson’s is laugh-out-loud funny in quite a few places.  The secondary players were used to great comedic effect – bass-baritone Tyler Zimmerman in a singing role as the notary, Ian Christiansen as Max, Kristy Dalbo as the maid, Mary Catherine Malek as the cook, and JR Graff as houseboy.  How Director Hudson managed to have all these comedic players and effects and still keep pace with the score, I do not know, but it works, and it makes for a very entertaining evening. 

One of the best moments in the performance was one that I was worried about prior to attending, the scene where Norina slaps Pasquale.  It gave the production a touch of pathos that bolsters good comedy and does so without making Pasquale too sympathetic, which would not be funny.  Ms. Oropesa manages such a contrite face after the slap, which Norina felt was necessary to bring Pasquale around, that I felt sympathy for both characters.  Nicely done.  Comedy is tricky to pull off, and this team managed it well.

The supernumerary chorus as A-listers at the party at Pasquale’s house. Photo by David Bachman Photography; courtesy of Pittsburgh Opera.

The supernumerary chorus as A-listers at the party at Pasquale’s house. Photo by David Bachman Photography; courtesy of Pittsburgh Opera.

I said there were other excellent performances and indeed there were.  Another reason to see this Don Pasquale is to see and hear baritone Joshua Hopkins.  His strong baritone voice, which can be authoritative or caressing, was put to good use as Dr. Malatesta which he played with camp and flair. I saw him previously opposite Ms. Oropesa in Washington National Opera’s The Marriage of Figaro mentioned earlier and recently in WNO’s Faust.  In Figaro, I reported that his voice seemed under-powered; in Faust I remarked on how surprised I was at how powerful his voice is.  Go figure.  I had no concerns Saturday night.  He is clearly a rising star I would love to hear again.  This performance was anchored by veteran basso buffo Kevin Glavin who was a perfect Hollywood Pasquale, singing with power and clarity, and acting the role of Pasquale with comedic flair, frustration, anger, or making himself a sympathetic figure as required.  The squirrely role of Ernesto offers little chance to stand out; it focuses the audience on the tenor’s voice and singing and comic runnings about.  I was looking forward to seeing tenor Javier Abreu in the role, but for the most part he did not distinguish himself.  He sang too light for this role, though with a lovely display of emotion; he was often over-powered by the orchestra.  He shone better in Act III when his duet with Ms. Oropesa was quite beautiful.  He scampered about as a young boy for comedic effect, but it added to the opera’s disconnect for me – what in the world does this savvy, powerful Norina see in Ernesto?  I can only conclude he must be good in bed.  Perhaps Mr. Hudson should add a hint of that.  One additional comment about Ms. Oropesa.  This is now the polished Lisette Oropesa, in her prime.  Her voice has truly impressive clarity, pitch perfection, flexibility, and a very pleasing timbre!  My wife said to me during the performance, “The girl is good.”  Yeah, the girl is good!

In truth, I started watching the performance with some concerns whether the comedy would be funny and whether I would like what Pittsburgh Opera had done to a Donizetti classic with updated trappings, but also in truth, I must admit that I left with a happy smile on my face, only regretting that I could not remain in Pittsburgh to see Ms. Oropesa in another performance. There is so much packed into this production, it might be even funnier the second time.

The Fan Experience: Don Pasquale has only three more performances - April 30, May 3, and May 5 - but tickets are available in all price ranges.  I also recommend the informative pre-opera talk by Kristin Gatch, Assistant to the General Director/Board Liaison for Pittsburgh Opera, given in the opera house one hour prior to the performance. 

Author’s Soapbox and a Spoiler Alert – I’m about to reveal a surprise in the opera.  Not having seen Don Pasquale before, I was caught completely off guard by the follow-on to the patter duet in the last act as Maletesta and Pasquale sing of how to deal with Norina’s secret meeting with a paramour (Ernesto);  in patter song, the singers sing very fast, sort of like an auctioneer making a quick sale; it is an amusing feat.  This redux is part of the opera, though it is handled differently in this version.  The supertitle screen read “Would you like an encore?” as they finished the scene.  The audience roared its approval and one was provided; it was great fun!  I think opera folks should consider the lesson here, which I think is that audiences want to be connected to performances, perhaps like they used to be for opera when the stories were new and going to the opera was a social event, when rowdy audience members might shout to a singer and encores were not all that unusual.  Just a thought.  This Don Pasquale provided that connection through its updating, modern comedy effects, and that engaging encore.  It’s not your father’s Don Pasquale, but then, you are not your father.

Once more, my wife and I had a great visit to Pittsburgh for opera – Hotel Monaco (my wife got us a free night with points), dinner from Nicky’s Thai, and Sunday brunch at Union Standard, and miracle upon miracle, no traffic jams on the Pennsylvania Turnpike – well, one brief slowdown due to fog on the way home.  Great city, great opera company!

Opera Lafayette/Heartbeat Opera’s La Susanna: Opera's Back to the Future

With Opera Lafayette, it is never just an opera or a concert; it is always an extraordinary experience.  Their collaborative effort with Heartbeat Opera to give us La Susanna is no exception.  From beginning to end, I sat immersed in what was unfolding.  It was old made new both by resurrecting a work from the 17th century by Opera Lafayette and by creation of a modernized framing of the story of Susanna and the Elders by Heartbeat Opera.  It could have been a meeting of an irresistible force with an immovable object, HO’s penchant for updating classical works to better connect with audiences of today clashing with OL’s commitment to musical authenticity of works from the 17th and 18th centuries.  It actually became a synergistic blending of cultures.  Kudos to both for an outstanding collaboration.

Paul Max Tipton and Patrick Kilbride as the judges, Lucia Martín Cardòn as Susanna, and Sarah Couden as Testo. Photo by Louis Forget; courtesy of Opera Lafayette.

Paul Max Tipton and Patrick Kilbride as the judges, Lucia Martín Cardòn as Susanna, and Sarah Couden as Testo. Photo by Louis Forget; courtesy of Opera Lafayette.

Susanna’s story derives from the 13th chapter of the Book of Daniel.  Baroque composer Alessandro Stradella and librettist Giovanni Battista Giardini followed the biblical story closely in this work, written as an 1682 oratorio to be performed in concert; the story lends itself to staging, and it is also classified as an opera.  Susanna is a victim of sexual coercion and retribution.  Her crime was being the lust-object of two elders (judges) who spot this chaste, young married woman bathing alone.  They approach her.  When their attempts at coercing her to have sex with them are rebuffed, they turn vengeful, accusing her in public of adultery with another man and eventually sentencing her to death.  She is saved from stoning by the young prophet Daniel whose questioning exposes the judges as liars.  All is set right in the biblical tale, but not in this modern telling, though both end with her being set free.  Many disturbing issues are exposed or in the terms of Director Ethan Head of Heartbeat Opera – problemalized with the casting of two male roles, Testo, the narrator, and Daniel, with women singers, forcing us to look at this story from a different, feminine perspective.  In the pre-opera discussion  with OL’s Artistic Director Ryan Brown, HO Director Ethan Heard, and HO dramaturg Peregrine Heard, one line of the libretto became a focal point; the judges sing “Great goodness and great beauty justify the desire to possess,” a societal theme that women through their sexual appeal are complicit in the sexual violence visited upon them.  Thus, a tale written primarily to praise the righteousness of God is viewed through a #MeToo lense presenting a different view of society, past and present. Susanna was saved from death, but mankind was not changed.

Susanna (Lucia Martín Cartòn Martin) enjoying the privacy of her bath. The judges (Paul Max Tipton and Patrick Kilbride) pressure Susanna (Lucia Martín Cartón) to have sex with them. Photos by Louis Forget; courtesy of Opera Lafayette.

In this new production, contralto Sara Couden playing Testo, initiates the drama by announcing she is a professor of women’s studies who will be presenting a lecture on female empowerment. Her young female student, Daniel, played by Ariana Douglas, is seated by her side, recording notes.  Her lecture is acted out by the three principals, tenor Patrick Kilbride and baritone Paul Max Tipton as the judges and soprano Lucia Martín Cartòn as Susanna.  The intermittent movements of the actors lead to a series of still poses framing the recitatives and arias of each scene, pauses that both add emphasis and give time for the chamber ensemble to keep pace with an oratorio being performed as an opera.  The poses are effective at portraying the depravity of the judges in the bathing scene as the judges take poses groping at Susanna.  As Susanna is sentenced, Daniel rises up and can no longer endure the miscarriage of justice, the reality of the present breaking into the reality of the past, shattered by a woman’s rage (I was reminded of The Purple Rose of Cairo when Jeff Daniels steps out of the movie on a screen into the audience).  Soprano Ariana Douglas was effective as an outraged Daniel, her vocals somewhat overshadowed by her emotion.  The staging is largely a grouping of statues around a circular marble bath, that are symbolic and moved around for effect.  For me, the least effective part of the staging was the prison scene; somehow, I lost emotional connection and was just an observer.  Daniel’s outrage drew me back in.

Daniel (Ariana Douglas) comes to Susanna’s (Lucia Martín Cardón) defense. Photo by Louis Forget; courtesy of Opera Lafayette.

Daniel (Ariana Douglas) comes to Susanna’s (Lucia Martín Cardón) defense. Photo by Louis Forget; courtesy of Opera Lafayette.

For me, the highlight of the opera are the vocals due both to the libretto’s insights and to the singing, especially the recitatives and arias by Lucia Martín Cartón as Susanna.  The simple beauty of Ms. Cartón’s voice singing baroque arias is not to be missed.  I hope she returns to the DC area in the future after having spent a few more years mastering her craft.  With her voice, she has the potential to become a premier soloist.  The libretto as well as the singing is notable in expressing the views of the different characters.  Mr. McBride and Mr. Tipton have pleasant, strong voices and delivered their vocals effectively, revealing their character traits as well as the appeal of their voices and singing, some of which we as men must own and confront.  Ms. Couden is also singled out for praise for her clear, expressive contralto voice.  The music is supplied, as the original score requires, by two violins, a cello, a bass, a harpsichord, and a theorbo (sort of two lutes made into one stretching three times the size). The music was pleasant and an effective accompaniment for the drama for the most part, though my attention mainly was drawn to the vocals and the drama.  At the very beginning, I found the violins to be a little shrill and a bit annoying; sorry but that was my honest response. One of the violinists was Ryan Brown, who is a master of this type of music; so maybe it was just a bit of undigested potato I was experiencing.  I would have to listen more to the music to determine whether I think the music fits an opera of aspiration as adapted to this version of the story as well as one of inspiration for which it was written.

La Susanna ’s cast and musician ensemble. Photo by Louis Forget; courtesy of Opera Lafayette.

La Susanna’s cast and musician ensemble. Photo by Louis Forget; courtesy of Opera Lafayette.

Opera Lafayette/Heartbeat Opera’s La Susanna is the sort of arts experience that stays with you for a while, raising questions, provoking discussion.  I think this is probably a case where doing the bathing scene as a nude scene would be justified to impart just how exposed and vulnerable Susanna was, similarly to Breaking the Waves.  As done, her innocence and allure is conveyed, but also her power as though in a swimsuit competition.  The funny thing is that I feel uncomfortable raising this issue because it increases the element of voyeurism (not to mention the logistical issues of finding a soprano willing).  The performance led me to read chapter 13 of Daniel.  I was struck by the fact that Susanna disappears from the biblical story when Daniel enters and the chapter’s last line proclaims: “From that day onwards, Daniel’s reputation stood high with the people.”  It says nothing about Susanna’s reputation.  Especially, her opinion of herself…and her changed view of the world in which she lived.  As Susanna exited the stage at the end, I didn’t have the feeling she was the same anymore. 

The timeliness of this ancient story hits you squarely in the face.  Suppose for a moment that Susanna had had a chariot that could travel in time.  I can imagine she would have made her escape, hopped into her chariot and headed to the future.  Now, suppose she stopped by random chance in the present day.  The first thing she sees when she bolts 2500 years into the future are news headlines about Harvey Weinstein.  I like to think she would have jumped back into her chariot and headed even farther into the future, though I fear worse; she might have given up.  What do you think she would have done?

The Fan Experience: La Susanna played on April 21 and 22 in the Terrace Theater of the Kennedy Center.  Several of Opera Lafayette’s recent productions have been sell outs or close to.  I hope the two performance format giving more fans a chance to see their productions will continue.  As usual their production will move to New York, though this time in Brooklyn on May 2-5.  Having attended Opera Lafayette productions for a couple of years now, I feel comfortable in saying that for an alive, pulsating opera experience, Opera Lafayette is the most reliable ticket in town.


31st Annapolis Opera Vocal Competition: Awesome, Winners All!

Logo courtesy of Annapolis Opera.

Logo courtesy of Annapolis Opera.

It was an awesome experience.  My family was looking to get away for the weekend of April 13-14, so I suggested Annapolis where we love to go, and oh by the way, Annapolis Opera is having its 31st Annual Voice Competition  that weekend.  Mason’s famous lobster rolls and Vin 909’s holistic cuisine and well-curated wine by the glass list is enough to make the Annapolis junket worthwhile anytime, but throw in soaking up opera arias sung live by talented young artists, and you are hitting my awesome button.  Frankly, I was amazed at the quality of the competition.  It is now on my permanent to do list.

To begin the overall competition, some 70 applicants sent CDs and recordings to Annapolis Opera that were evaluated by three judges (Terry N. Eberhardt, Coordinator of Music in Howard County Public Schools; JoAnn Kulesza, Director of the Opera Program at the Peabody Conservatory; baritone Grant Youngblood, winner of the AO’s first vocal competition.  The judgers had no information about the singers except their voice type; the applicants were evaluated only  on the quality of their voices and singing.  The semi-finalists selected almost always had a BS and a Masters degree in an area of music or voice and had several performance experiences already in recitals and operas; they were already accomplished performers.  Thirty semi-finalists were selected from the applicant group, and twenty-seven competed on Saturday – by my count, ten sopranos, six mezzo-sopranos, one countertenor, five tenors, three baritones, one bass-baritone, and one bass.

left to right : pianist Eileen Cornett; finalists: Anastasiia Sidorova, Dana McIntosh, Joshua Conyers, Rebecca Achtenberg, Mandy Brown, Kelsey Roberston, Min Kim Sang, and Rachel Blaustein. Photo by Mike Halbig; courtesy of Annapolis Opera.

left to right: pianist Eileen Cornett; finalists: Anastasiia Sidorova, Dana McIntosh, Joshua Conyers, Rebecca Achtenberg, Mandy Brown, Kelsey Roberston, Min Kim Sang, and Rachel Blaustein. Photo by Mike Halbig; courtesy of Annapolis Opera.

Saturday was the semi-final competition, lasting from 10 am until 4:30 pm.  The three judges were already seated in the middle of the orchestra section of the 725-seat auditorium when I arrived.  Spectators were not allowed to sit in front of the judges.  I sat in the center, a few rows behind the judges.  At any given time of the day, there were no more than 30 people in the audience; some of them I suspect were family members rotating in and out.  The singers came prepared to sing five arias they had selected.  At the competition, they chose the first aria to sing, and then, the judges selected one and sometimes two more arias from their list for them to perform.  They were all accompanied by the same pianist, more on her later.  After each singer was dismissed by the judges, there was appreciative applause from the small audience that always drew a smile from the performers.  I have been conditioned for hearing opera with only piano accompaniment by attending performances of the Baltimore Concert Opera, but again I remarked to myself how beautiful these opera arias are with just piano.  Part of me wondered why if you love opera, you weren’t in the audience; the other part said enjoy it - this is as close to a private concert with opera stars as you are going to get.

Third Prize winner, mezzo-soprano, Kelsey Roberston. Photo by Mike Halbig; courtesy of Annapolis Opera.

Third Prize winner, mezzo-soprano, Kelsey Roberston. Photo by Mike Halbig; courtesy of Annapolis Opera.

I would be totally remiss if I did not point out the phenomenal job done by the pianist, Eileen Cornett.  Ms. Cornett established the graduate Vocal Accompanying Program in Collaborative Piano at the Peabody Conservatory and serves as principal coach with Peabody’s Opera Theatre Program; she also has a distinguished performance history.  She played piano accompaniment for twenty-seven different singers singing about fifty different arias and sounded great for all of them.  Her page turner was Ms. Sophia Dutton.  Kudos to both!!!

Ok, I have to give the judges credit too, though I’m going to disagree with them some.  I’m just an opera fan, while they have impressive opera credentials.  The distinguished semi-final judges were soprano Phyllis Bryn-Johnson, who recently retired after 31 years as chair of the Voice Department at the Peabody Conservatory, solo pianist Dr. Lester Green, Artistic Director for the the Coalition for African Americans in the Performing Arts; soprano Arianna Zukerman, who I saw perform recently at the Kennedy Center in Opera Lafayette’s Cerere Placata; enough said.  But having said that, I could not resist making my own evaluations as the singers performed.  While the judges used criteria of Voice, Music, Muscianship, Technique, Interpretation, Stage Presence/Personality, and Potential for Career in Opera.  I on the other hand used the more demanding criterion of how much I enjoyed the performance; enough said.  Hey, when you are watching the Olympics gymnastics competitions do you always agree with the judges, or how about those baseball umpires calling balls and strikes?

Eileen Cornett, page turner Sophia Dutton, and Second Prize winner, soprano Rebecca Achtenberg. Photo by Mike Halbig; courtesy of Annapolis Opera.

Eileen Cornett, page turner Sophia Dutton, and Second Prize winner, soprano Rebecca Achtenberg. Photo by Mike Halbig; courtesy of Annapolis Opera.

Again, the judges were not given any biographical info on the contestants, only their names and list of arias.  The judges picked eight singers and two alternates to move forward to the finals; the finalists were soprano Rebecca Achtenberg, soprano Rachel Blaustein, soprano Mandy Brown, baritone Joshua Conyers, countertenor Min Sang Kim, soprano Dana McIntosh, mezzo-soprano Kelsey Roberston, and mezzo-soprano Anastasiia Sidorova; the alternates were baritone Nate Buttram and tenor Christopher Wolf. 

I myself had rated about two-thirds of the semi-finalists as finalist-worthy and of those I chose eight as my favorites.  Of my favorites, three were the judges’ finalists (Conyers, Kim, and Roberston) and one (Wolf) was an alternate.  Among my eight favorites, Kelsey Roberston was my top choice.  When Ms. Roberston first started to sing her Mozart aria, I was looking at her bio listing in my lap.  My head involuntarily snapped up as though called to attention and for the next several minutes all I could think was ‘please keep singing’.  My four favorites who didn’t make the judges’ list of finalists or alternates were tenor Hyunho Cho (who came in 2nd last year), soprano Yihan Duan, soprano Nina Mutalifu, and baritone Daniel Rich.  I’m telling you; keep an eye on this Rich fellow. All touched me with their beautiful sound, and I hope to hear them perform again.  I liked all the singers. You know, for me the competition was just fun, but for them, it must have been really stressful.  I admired their courage to do this as well as their talent.

Pianist Eileen Cornett, page turner Sophia Dutton, and First Prize winner, baritone Joshua Conyers. Photo by Mike Halbig; courtesy of Annapolis Opera.

Pianist Eileen Cornett, page turner Sophia Dutton, and First Prize winner, baritone Joshua Conyers. Photo by Mike Halbig; courtesy of Annapolis Opera.

The audience was larger for the finals on Sunday. With a smaller area roped off for the judges, I’d guess the concert hall was a little over half full. The judges for the finals were also accomplished and distinguished: soprano Carmen Balthrop, Professor and Chair of the Department of Voice/Opera Division at the School of Music, University of Maryland Baltimore County; Joan Dorneman, Assistant Conductor at Met Opera, famous opera coach, and generally regarded as opera royalty; Ronald J. Gretz, Artistic Director and Conductor, Annapolis Opera, also Organist and Choir Conductor, University Baptist Church in Baltimore.  One aspect of the finals was that each singer’s choice of their aria to sing was the same on both days, but the judges choices were different in six of the eight cases from day to day.  My responses to the singers changed somewhat on hearing them on day two, especially when their second aria was different.  The overall winner was baritone Joshua Conyers, a member of the Kennedy Center’s Domingo-Cafritz Young Artist Program and a Wolf Trap Filene Artist.  I had heard Mr. Conyers sing several times before and definitely was prejudiced in his favor; he has a big, emotionally-laced baritone voice and excellent diction.  The audience voted on their favorite performer and he won that award as well. I admit I had under-estimated soprano Rebecca Achtenberg on Saturday and had to agree with the judges awarding her second prize on Sunday.  Then, my personal favorite came in third – yes!!!  I thought all the finalists gave excellent performances and would love to hear them sing again. 

The judges final results:

FIRST PRIZE ($3,500): baritone Joshua Conyers

SECOND PRIZE ($2,000): soprano Rebecca Achtenberg

THIRD PRIZE ($1,500): mezzo-soprano Kelsey Roberston

ENCOURAGEMENT AWARDS ($1,000): soprano Rachel Blaustein; soprano Mandy Brown; countertenor Min Sang Kim; soprano Dana MacIntosh; mezzo-soprano Anastasiia Sidorova

AUDIENCE CHOICE AWARD ($1,500): baritone Joshua Conyers

During the 2016 Olympics, I wrote a blog report titled, “Why Singing Opera Could Be An Olympic Event”.  I ended by saying why I thought it would not actually become an Olympic event: “Opera’s ultimate purpose is different from athletics.   First, the higher purpose of neither the Olympics nor Opera is to entertain us.  I think that the Olympics’ purpose is to inspire us with human achievement and its potential.  Opera’s is to touch our hearts, minds, and souls by re-connecting us to our humanity.”  I still agree with myself, but I was certainly entertained on Saturday and Sunday.

I honestly did not care that much who won the top spot in the finalists competition on Sunday.  I felt everyone who participated won by taking another step towards realizing their dream of becoming a professional opera singer.  The audience was also a winner for getting to hear such wonderful performances, and for the finals, I just wanted to hear the singing!  So, thank you Annapolis Opera, and to all the singers, please keep singing! 

The Fan Experience: This event was open to the public and free thanks to a grant from the Helena Foundation, Jim and Silvia Earl.  The acoustics in the Maryland Hall for the Creative Arts was quite good and parking was free.  The next event there by Annapolis Opera will be the Grand Finale: Denyce Graves in Concert, May 5 at 3 pm.  

Washington Concert Opera’s Zelmira: A Bel Canto Showpiece for Concert Opera

How many times have you seen Gioachino Rossini’a Zelmira (1822)?  Unless you were in the audience at Lisner Auditorium last Friday night, your answer is almost assuredly never; it was last performed in the United States in 1835.  Rossini is considered one of three bel canto masters in Italian opera along with Gaetano Donizetti and Vincenzo Bellini.  Rossini wrote 34 operas in total; roughly ten of these are still performed, and one, The Barber of Seville, is among the most often performed operas in the world.  Why bring this one back?  It’s rather bold to do so, but Washington Concert Opera under Conductor and Artistic Director Antony Walker’s direction has a solid record of unearthing forgotten treasures to enjoy once more…but still, there is the question why this one.  There is an interesting history to this opera, though ultimately the answer to the question lies in the impact of the performance.  I went home happy…though not completely fulfilled.

Silvia Tro Santafé as Zelmira and Lawrence Brownlee as Prince Ilo. Photo by Don Lassell; courtesy of Washington Concert Opera.

Silvia Tro Santafé as Zelmira and Lawrence Brownlee as Prince Ilo. Photo by Don Lassell; courtesy of Washington Concert Opera.

If you go searching for information on Zelmira, you won’t find a lot; at least I couldn’t.  Fortunately, Peter Russell, General Director of Vocal Arts DC, provided helpful insights in the program notes and his pre-opera talk.  One message is that composers must be evaluated in the context of  economic and social fabric of the composer’s day.  Rossini was a great composer, but he was to some degree a laborer.  He was required by the Teatro San Carlo company in Naples to write an opera per year as terms of a lucrative ten-year contract with one of the premier opera houses of its time. (I wonder if there is a composer who would accept those terms today; turn out an opera every year?). These became known as Rossini’s Neopolitan Operas and Zelmira was the last he wrote before heading to be feted in Vienna, then to London and finally to Paris, where he settled down for the rest of his life.  Another tidbit to know was that early composers often wrote, even rewrote, music and arias for specific performers – as Mr. Russell noted, the success of the composer was wed to the success of the singer.  Mr. Rossini’s sweetie at the time was a soprano whose voice was moving into the latter stages of its career, and who did little to enhance the appeal of Zelmira as the production moved around Europe.  But I think Mr. Russell’s key point was that at that time opera was already starting to move away from bel canto singing, and thus, there soon were few singers with the training to do justice to Zelmira’s music and provide for its performance into the next century.

Enter Lawrence Brownlee, one of today’s few leading bel canto tenors.  Bel canto singing and operas made a resurgence in the 1960s, Maestro Walker had worked before with Mr. Brownlee and a star mezzo-soprano who performs bel canto, Silvia Tro Santafé.  So ,there was motive (Rossini’s music), means (bel canto singers), and opportunity (concert opera format).  The concert opera format was important because it turns out that the greatest deterrent to Zelmira’s appeal is the story and libretto by Andrea Leone Tottola, based on the play “Zelmire” by Pierre-Laurent Buirette de Belloy.  Excellent music coupled to a flawed story line and/or libretto is fertile territory for concert opera as WCO has proven many times; see my reports on WCO’s La Straniera or Maria di Rohan

Singers left to right are Vivica Genaux, Silvia Tro Santafé, Lawrence Brownlee, Matthew Scolin, and Julius Ahn. Photo by Don Lassell; courtesy of Washington Concert Opera.

Singers left to right are Vivica Genaux, Silvia Tro Santafé, Lawrence Brownlee, Matthew Scolin, and Julius Ahn. Photo by Don Lassell; courtesy of Washington Concert Opera.

Zelmira is a princess on Lesbos who gets falsely accused of murdering her father King Polidoro and a neighboring king named Azor.  Antenore who wants to become king of both islands himself is aided in this deception by his follower, Leucippo; together they rile the people with the lies against Zelmira and even convince her husband Ilo of her guilt.  Zelmira is aided in protecting her son and Polidoro, who is still alive, by her confidante Emma.  The opera begins confusingly in the middle of the story and never provides compelling motivations for the characters, especially why Ilo believes the lies about Zelmira, and ends with a rather convenient happy ending: Ilo realizes Zelmira is innocent; he rescues the family and has Antenore and Leucippo hauled off to prison.  I think there is a good story there, but Tottola failed to find it.  Nonetheless, the arias within the context of the story are more effective than if they stood alone, but the story as told doesn’t work for audiences today and strained the credulity of audiences of its time.  It seems an enigma that a great composer would agree to compose for such a contrivance.  I puzzled for a while and posed the question to Mr. Russell who responded that there is little in the historical record that explains Rossini’s choice.  He further states “Truthfully, lots of plays (in this case, a French source) that were relatively popular at the time and seemed adaptable in terms of numbers/types of roles to available personnel wound up becoming operas, and the motivation may have been that simple. Sometimes, simply churning out the product to satisfy a contract guesstimating what will find favor with an opera audience based on what sold theater tickets seems to have been the modus operandi.”  Fair enough.  When I was a boy, I remember going, what seems like weekly, to the movies to see the latest western.  I enjoyed them all, and some were actually good movies.  I get the feeling that opera-goers in nineteenth century Italy were like that, and the composers churned out operas to meet the demand.

The greatest enigma with Rossini is why he stopped composing opera so early in his life.  He died at the age of 76, but he retired from composing opera at age 37 when he was still near the top of his game and seemed to be evolving into a new era of composition for him.  I have puzzled along with many others about what caused him to stop writing operas.  The NY Times’ Zachary Woolfe wrote an informative article on this question, but was unable to resolve the riddle.  Maybe it’s not a riddle at all.  You might ask why I retired from a career in science in which I had training and experience and started writing an opera blog where I had neither.  I retired because I was ready to and was in a position to, and I started the blog because I wanted to; I cannot tell you why I wanted to.  I imagine Rossini was the same.  He retired from composing because he was ready and could, and did what he wanted to do.  I can only tell you I am having the time of my life, and I suspect Rossini did as well, at least I am choosing to believe that version.

Back to Mr. Brownlee – he added a new experience for me with WCO.  I can’t remember Conductor Walker previously having to pause the performance for several minutes while the audience poured forth with applause like they did for Lawrence Brownlee at the end of his first aria, admittedly a barn burner.  If you came for bel canto singing, this is what you came for, and it went on with shorter periods of applause until the end.  Ms. Tro Santafé was also excellent, though somewhat more reserved in manner; I enjoyed her performance very much and realized I had heard her sing previously in Barcelona.  For an expert critique of the singers in Zelmira, I refer you to Charles Downey’s excellent review.  As an opera fan, I thought the entire cast and chorus were pretty great.  Mezzo-soprano Vivica Genaux as Emma displayed a lovely voice and extraordinary emotion and artistry.  The other guys, Patrick Carfizzi as Polidoro, Julius Ahn as Antenore, and Matthew Scolin as Leucippo displayed powerful and attractive voices.  On the amusing side, I thought Mr. Carfizzi sometimes sounded like he was singing a love song rather than a lament ; Mr. Ahn sometimes seemed bemused at what a powerful leader he was, and Mr. Scolin’s Leucippo clearly had anger issues.  I had seen Mr. Ahn the previous week in Virginia Opera’s Madama Butterfly.  

Maestro Walker was again part of the show with his bouncy, animated style of conducting and the orchestra played well.  I enjoyed the music greatly.  Rossini’s music had the elements we enjoy with Rossini, the melodies, harmonies, and crescendos.  As a fan though, I must admit I found this Rossini slightly less satisfying overall than other works of his; for me it had great Rossini moments, but was not an overall cohesive work.  Frankly, I missed having an overture; omitting the overture is a device that has drawn praise for being able to thrust the audience directly into the drama.  Well, Verdi seemed able to write overtures that enhanced a dramatic opera, and with Rossini I especially look forward to his overtures.  I also found the music to be more thrust and parry than developing flowing melodic themes.  I have criticized new operas for lacking melodies one goes home whistling, but the same is true of this opera.  I also found his heavy use of pizzicato to become noticeable and thus distracting; in general the opera’s structural elements began to feel repetitive.  That sounds more critical than I mean to be.  Keep in mind I would gladly attend this performance again with this cast and orchestra.  Also keep in mind that it is a treat to get to hear something that good for the first time; this was another gift of that kind from WCO to DC audiences.  I would not give up The Barber, but it is thrilling to have some variety and an average Rossini is pretty darn good, and a fine opportunity to show off some bel canto talent. 

The Fan Experience: As mentioned above, this was one opera where Peter Russell’s program notes and pre-opera talk an hour before the opera should have been required.  Zelmira was held on a Friday night; I’m guessing to get the singers desired.  WCO performances move back to Sunday with the new season.  I find Sundays much better for commuting and parking. Of note, Lisette Oropesa who will appear in next season’s program just won the prestigious Richard Tucker Award. 

Poster for WCO’s 2019-2020 season; photo by author.

Poster for WCO’s 2019-2020 season; photo by author.

Bel Canto, the Short Course – Exam on Friday

Ok, I got scooped.  I was working on a blog report to help newbies and myself get a better understanding of what the term “bel canto” means when I am checking the internet on Friday morning, and there is a great piece on the topic from the Washington Post’s Anne Midgette, reference below.  So, I decided to move in a different direction and develop a short guide for folks to brush-up on bel canto quickly AND to help spread the word on an excellent chance coming up Friday to hear bel canto in real life.  I can’t claim to have my head completely around the topic, but I hope this helps.  Here are seven lessons, the last being the most important:  

left: Vincenzo Bellini (1801-1835); middle: Gaetano Donizetti (1797-1848); right: Gioachino Rossini (1792-1868). All portraits as a young man. All images in the public domain, copied from Wikipedia. Somehow, I “feel” Donizetti’s seems more bel canto; would you agree?

1.     The Italian term “bel canto” means “beautiful singing” or “beautiful song”.  It could hardly be more confusing to new fans of opera – all operas have some beautiful singing.  I now find it more useful to think of the term as an active statement: “emphasize the voice and singing”.  The bel canto era flourished in the eighteenth century and lasted into the early nineteenth, though the term itself was not used until the latter part of the nineteenth.  The style remains very popular today – Philadelphia’s Academy of Vocal Arts holds the Giagiari Bel Canto Competition each Fall. 

2.     Bel canto refers to both a style of singing and a genre of opera, though they go together.  Bel canto singing places an emphasis on rules for singing beautifully and on great expressivity in singing. Bel canto opera places an emphasis on the singing within an opera as opposed to the music or the plot.

3.     In the popular opera canon, it is safest to think of operas by Rossini, Donizetti, and Bellini as bel canto operas and the arias within them as bel canto arias, though there are examples of bel canto arias in operas by other composers.

4.     Though nuanced and complicated, the important elements of bel canto singing are legato (moving smoothly between notes, aided by the open vowels of Italian) and using singing ornamentations such as trills in the higher registers, that demand skill and flexibility in the singer’s voice. Technically, this need for moving facilely and quickly pushes singers to use a lighter sound that they attain mainly by using their head voice, sometimes falsetto, as opposed to pushing more strongly from the bottom of their diaphragm to get more power. Extraordinary singers like Pavarotti could do both.

5.     Bel canto operas have distinctive structures of arias and music that places more emphasis on melodies, in particular long melodic lines that allow the singers to improvise and be as musically expressive as they can.  Directors of bel canto operas often have to pause the action for several minutes while the singer expresses an emotion in song.

6.     There is bel canto music and singing in operas of other periods, but the difference is where the composer places the emphasis overall.  So, for example, compare a Wagner opera where words and diction are emphasized in a heavier, more serious style, pushing the story and ideas forward, with a Bellini opera where focus is on conveying individual feelings through beautiful song causing you respond to the emotion and drama even if you don’t know the words.

7.     Finally, you don’t have to know any of this to enjoy bel canto singing and opera, but you do have to attend them, and on Friday, April 5 at 7 pm in Lisner Auditorium on the campus of George Washington University, Washington Concert Opera will present Gioachino Rossini’s bel canto opera, Zelmira (1822), in concert, and among the cast will be Lawrence Brownlee who is considered one of the leading bel canto tenors today.    

So, go, listen, and enjoy – work on your understanding of bel canto, or not.  The distinguishing feature of opera is the human voice, and bel canto opera makes the voice paramount.  As operatic styles changed, the bel canto style was characterized by detractors as “empty virtuosity and mere sensual pleasure”; I can agree with that if we remove “empty” and “mere”.  Maybe what bel canto really means is this – enjoy the beautiful singing!

For a slightly deeper dive, a few references that go into bel canto in more detail:

“Bel Canto: Audiences Love It, but What Is it? Anthony Tommasini, New York Times, November 28, 2008. Excellent overview, especially of historical placement and structure of bel canto libretto and singing.

Chapter 2: “The Beautiful Song of Italian Opera”; A Mad Love: An Introduction to Opera by Vivien Schweitzer, Basic Books, New York, 2018.  An easy read opera book for newbies, includes history and helpful definitions of common terms used in describing bel canto, such as cantabile and cabaletta; it has a good index.

Just appeared - “What exactly is bel canto? It’s a way of singing, and for some, an addiction”, Ann Midgette, Washington Post, March 29, 2019.   A beautifully written piece laced with nostalgia and containing links to helpful videos demonstrating key points.  Also check out the comments to the article for additional tidbits of information.

Virginia Opera’s Madama Butterfly: Why We Love Opera

What happens when a long line of talented, creative, and dedicated people put their heads and hearts and talents together to help us understand why we humans act the way we do?  Today’s answer is Virginia Opera’s Madama Butterfly.  You want a love story? It’s got a love story.  You want a bad guy?  It’s got a bad guy.  You want a great set and staging?  It’s got that.  You want music of transcendent beauty?  It’s got Puccini.  You want to be touched at your very core?  Virginia Opera’s production of this opera will do that.  There is a reason why Madama Butterfly is still one of the most popular operas in the world after over a hundred years, more popular than the play it is based on and the short story that gave rise to the play.  That profound reason is the incorporation of incredibly beautiful music and human voices that bypass your defenses and speak directly to your heart, making a connection that the author’s and the playwright’s words cannot achieve alone.  That is opera’s power, and this is the opera production that I recommend to you if you want to understand why so many of us love opera.

left: Matthew Vickers as Pinkerton and Danielle Pastin as Cio-Cio-San. right: Levi Hernandez as Sharpless, Matthew Vickers as Pinkerton, and Julius Ahn as Goro. Photos by Ben Schill Photography; courtesy of Virginia Opera.

First in the line of creative people responsible for this production of Madama Butterfly (1904) is the incredibly talented composer Giacomo Puccini and librettists Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa. Just a word about teamwork – Illica and Giacosa were also the librettists for Puccini’s La Boheme and Tosca.  Illica layed out the plots and Giacosa largely wrote and refined the lyrics; then the three men argued until it was just right with the composer having the final say. The story and words are also important.  Next in line of key creative people is the artistic director of the opera company who must, working with other members of the company, select among all the operatic works which to bring to his audience, then pick a director and recruit singers for each production.  The directors select the format for the production and work not only with the conductor, the singers, but lighting and sound staff, the costume designer, and many, many people whose names don’t appear in the program but whose contributions are essential.  We may choose to focus credit on the composer, the conductor, or the singers who give special performances, but most of this work is highly interactive and collaborative and, in the end, it is a team effort in the truest sense, with everyone doing their best to get it right.  The entertainment and arts experience you have and take away with you is the result of a team of fellow humans reaching out to you.

Matthew Vickers as Pinkerton, Joseph Hubbard as the Imperial Commissioner performing the ceremony, Danielle Pastin as Cio-Cio-San, and Julius Ahn as Goro, the marraige broker. Photo by Ben Schill Photography; courtesy of Virginia Opera.

Matthew Vickers as Pinkerton, Joseph Hubbard as the Imperial Commissioner performing the ceremony, Danielle Pastin as Cio-Cio-San, and Julius Ahn as Goro, the marraige broker. Photo by Ben Schill Photography; courtesy of Virginia Opera.

In Madama Butterfly, Cio-Cio-San is a fifteen year-old Geisha from a dishonored family in Nagasaki in the early 1900s.  Through a marriage broker, Goro, she enters into a marriage with B. F. Pinkerton, an American Navy lieutenant stationed in Japan; by Japanese law this contract is for 999 years but can be cancelled with a month’s notice.  Cio-Cio-San, also known as Butterfly, places all her hopes in this marriage, even changing to her husband’s religion, but for Pinkerton, despite being warned by his friend, U.S. Consul Sharpless, it is a month to month dalliance before going home.  – spoiler alert – Pinkerton is recalled to the U.S. but tells Butterfly he will return but without any conviction to return to her; he leaves unaware she is carrying his child.  Now an outcast in her society, she waits for him against the advice of Goro, Sharpless, and Suzuki, her maid, who doubt his return and urge her to engage in another marraige.  After three years, Pinkerton returns with his new American wife and learning of the child, plan to take custody of the boy.  Butterfly only learns of the wife and their plans on Pinkerton’s arrival.  She is devastated but agrees to give up the boy if Pinkerton will come himself to claim him.  As he arrives, Butterfly commits suicide. 

left: Cio-Cio-San (Danielle Pastin) is denounced by the Bonze (Hidenori Inoue) for changing her religion, as Pinkerton (Matthew Vickers) rushes to her aid. right: Cio-Cio-San is consoled by Pinkerton (Matthew Vickers). Photos by Ben Schill Photography; courtesy of Virginia Opera.

Act I of Virginia Opera’s production is simply stunning, beginning with the set, the costumes, and the lighting.  A Japanese house set on a hill with a path leading up to it in the back and a view of the distant countryside as background provides an ambiance of beauty in balance.  The house serves as the set for both Acts of Butterfly, Act I outside the house and Act II inside.  The scene fills out with arrival of the major characters and then the townspeople in colorful costumes, accompanied by Puccini’s gorgeous music that utilizes Japanese folk melodies for this opera and a few bars of the “Star-Spangled Banner”; I was overwhelmed with sensations, as though it was the first time I had seen this opera.  Kudo’s to all involved, especially Director Richard Gammon, Lighting Designer Kaitlyn Breen, Scenic Designer Wally Coberg, Wig and Make-up Designer James P. McGough, and Costume Designer Candice Donnelly.

Cio-Cio-San (Danielle Pastin) and her maid Suzuki (Kristen Choi) listen as Consul Sharpless (Levi Hernandez) tries to warn Cio-Cio-San while Goro (Julius Ahn) listens in the background. Photo by Ben Schill Photography; courtesy of Virginia Opera.

Cio-Cio-San (Danielle Pastin) and her maid Suzuki (Kristen Choi) listen as Consul Sharpless (Levi Hernandez) tries to warn Cio-Cio-San while Goro (Julius Ahn) listens in the background. Photo by Ben Schill Photography; courtesy of Virginia Opera.

The story telling is traditional and straightforward, no shifts in era or abstractions to muse over.  The focus is maintained on the conflicts generating the tensions and the emotions, both expressed and remaining hidden, resulting from both personal struggles and the clash of cultures - Butterfly’s tenderness, vulnerability, and desperation, her family’s and society’s disapproval, Pinkerton’s fun-loving, but callous attitude followed by the pain of his actions, Sharpless’s and Suzuki’s stuggle to manage being both protective and honest with Butterfly. 

The singers, beginning with soprano Danielle Pastin who played Cio-Cio-San are excellent at conveying the story.  I heard Ms. Pastin a couple of years ago when she played Liu in VA Opera’s Turandot and remarked that she was a singer to watch.  Her voice is lovely and she sings Butterfly wonderfully.  The pace of the opera was slow, to allow the audience to fully experience the emotions being transmitted.  Ms. Pastin showed remarkable poise and control sitting motionless through long musical interludes.  Tenor Matthew Vickers makes a fitting Pinkerton who drew boos as well as applause in his bows at the end, the boos of course directed at the character he played, the applause at him.  I thought at the end he was more convincing at accepting responsibility for his actions and being remorseful than many of the Pinkertons I have witnessed.  Several of the supporting cast had moments in the performance that made me take notice.  Baritone Levi Hernandez as Sharpless sang beautifully in an eye-opening performance; Julius Ahn as Goro showed a strong, clear baritone voice that made Goro a stronger participant in this production than I have seen in others, and Kristen Choi as Suzuki had standout arias filled with both power and emotion.  I expected this of Ms. Choi, but Mr. Hernandez and Mr. Ahn caught me by surprise; kudos to all three.  The other supporting players and chorus added immensely to the drama.  The Virginia Opera Orchestra, under Conductor Adam Turner’s sure hand played Puccini’s music in a manner that fully conveyed its beauty and magnificence, sometimes in breath taking fashion.

Suzuki (Kristen Choi) and Cio-Cio-San (Danielle Pastin) confronting the truth. Photo by Ben Schill Photography; courtesy of Virginia Opera.

Suzuki (Kristen Choi) and Cio-Cio-San (Danielle Pastin) confronting the truth. Photo by Ben Schill Photography; courtesy of Virginia Opera.

I cannot report that this was a perfect production.  Ms. Pastin’s mature demeanor did not convey a fifteen year-old’s vulnerability, but she did convey the subservience, desperation, and pain of her position.  Her vocals might have been a bit soft in a couple of spots.  Mr. Vickers competed with the orchestra to be heard on occassion, especially early on.  Maybe more of a fault of the opera itself, the long wait for Pinkerton to arrive began to seem like it really might last all night. And to be really picky, I thought, whereas Butterfly and Suzuki shaking plants to get falling flower petals was a neat effect, then having the flower petals flow from ceiling was an unnecessary concession to theatrics, a singular lapse for this production.  These are all minor concerns that can be overlooked for such an overall excellent performance.

For a soapbox minute - I loved this approach to storytelling with its emphasis on the story and not how to add effects.  I have seen other productions of Madama Butterfly that used different approaches intended to enhance the drama, with lighting or artistic coloration…in one case using a puppet as Butterfly’s son. (I forgot to give kudos to Brayden Livengood for a fine performance as the child in VA Opera’s production).  Audiences sometimes like and sometimes not these other approaches to story telling; same for me.  They can help enliven interest for an opera that folks have seen many times over like Madama Butterfly.  However, when the story is told successfully in a straightforward, classical way, without new theatrical trappings as enhancements, it can have powerful impact and be as gripping as the first time you saw it.  VA Opera made that happen Saturday night.

This opera gives us a valuable perspective on love, honor, respecting others, and sacrifice to think about.  Madama Butterfly does lack one thing.  It lacks a hero and thereby, it lacks a happy ending.  Or does it?  You came to hear this story and you cared.  Maybe you are the hero and the happy ending.

The Fan Experience: The final two performances of Madama Butterfly are coming up in Richmond on Friday evening, March 29, and Sunday afternoon, March 31.  

As always, I recommend the pre-opera talk 45 minutes before the opera by Dr. Glenn Winters, VA Opera’s Community Outreach and Musical Director, and note that it can be standing room only; so get there early.  I also recommend his blog reports on VA Opera’s next production typically issued just prior to the beginning of performances  This time, I will also add that the blog reports on Madama Butterfly are among the best that I have read of his, and I urge you to read for them for their insights into Japanese culture of the period, enhanced by his interactions with his sister who lived virtually all her life in Japan and his visits to her there.




Maryland Opera - Granddaughter of the Baltimore Opera Company: Second Event

Opera Event, April 7:

 You may not have heard of Maryland Opera; in fact, it’s new to me, but then, this is its inaugural season.  On Sunday, April 7, the newly formed company will offer its second opera event of its season: “Puccini at the Pendry” will take place on April 7 at the Sagamore Ballroom of the Pendry Hotel in Fells Point on Baltimore’s waterfront.  MO’s premiere performance took place at Stevenson College on February 3 and was called “Verdi in the Valley”.  These themed events, sort of a composer’s greatest hits live, can be excellent entertainment and artistic experiences (see my review of “An Evening of Mozart” performed in Bethesda by the Maryland Lyric Opera).

James Harp, the Artistic Director of Maryland Opera, says the second opera event will provide arias by composer Giacomo Puccini (my personal favorite), who composed four of the world’s most popular operas - La Boheme, Tosca, Madama Butterfly, and Turandot.  However, “Puccini at the Pendry” will not simply offer arias, it will provide staged and costumed excerpts from Puccini’s operas.  Mr. Harp on piano and a string quintet will provide the musical accompaniment.  An impressive cast of seasoned professionals have played many of these roles at major opera houses across the U.S. drawing rave reviews; the cast includes Cuban-American lyric soprano Elizabeth Caballero; Maryland native soprano Colleen Daly; verismo tenor Kirk Dougherty; emerging artist, baritone John Allen Nelson; and dramatic soprano Amy Shoremount-Obra. 

Program for “Puccini at the Pendry” –

La Boheme:  Act I Finale; complete Act III…

Cast - Elizabeth Caballero as Mimi, Kirk Dougherty as Rodolfo, Colleen Daly as Musetta, and John Allen Nelson as Marcello

Tosca:  Act I aria “Recondita armonia” and duet “Mario, Mario”; Act II aria “Vissi d’arte”; Act III Finale…

Cast - Amy Shoremount-Obra as Tosca, Kirk Dougherty as Cavaradossi, and John Allen Nelson as Angelotti

Edgar:  aria “Questo amor”…

Cast: John Allen Nelson as Frank

Turandot: aria “In questa reggia; aria “Nessun dorma”…

Cast: Amy Shoremount-Obra as Turandot and John Allen Nelson as Calaf

James Harp, Artistic Director of the Maryland Opera. Photo courtesy of Maryland Opera.

James Harp, Artistic Director of the Maryland Opera. Photo courtesy of Maryland Opera.

The Birth of Maryland Opera:

I first became aware of James Harp from his work with the Baltimore Concert Opera, most recently their excellent production of Richard Wagner’s The Flying Dutchman.  Mr. Harp has worked with BCO throughout its ten-year history as pianist and chorus master, but his involvement in opera in Baltimore goes back thirty years.  He worked for twenty years as Arts Administrator and Chorus Master for the late, great Baltimore Opera Company before its demise in 2009, a company that once held a respected place for Baltimore on the world’s opera map.  The Lyric Foundation of the Patricia and Arthur Modell Performing Arts Center sought to rebound fully-staged opera in Baltimore by establishing Lyric Opera Baltimore whose inaugural season was in 2011.  Dwindling audiences and financial resources led to the closing of LOB in 2017.  To recap, Baltimore Opera Company spawned Lyric Opera Baltimore which has now led to the birth of the completely independent Maryland Opera.  The continuing presence in these efforts was Mr. Harp who still maintains a strong drive to give Baltimore access to fully-staged opera.  Maryland Opera also continues an impressive program of educational and outreach activities inherited from Lyric Opera Baltimore.

Mr. Harp says audiences and the opera scene have changed in Baltimore and for opera in general.  He is planning to hold opera events, including fully-staged operas, in smaller venues that may change for each event and to do so statewide in order to reach new audiences for opera.  A significant part of MO’s mission is to provide training and job opportunities for regional opera talent - singers, choruses, and orchestras - that he believes are plentiful in the mid-Atlantic.  He plans on building Maryland Opera slowly to the point of fully-staged opera performances within a year or two.  Starting a new opera company means starting small and building on success.  He reports that MO’s initial event, “Verdi in the Valley” was a success.  Ultimately, whether Maryland Opera can rise out of the ashes of Baltimore Opera Company and Lyric Opera Baltimore will depend on the public’s and supporter’s responses to these initial events.  Mr. Harp is not only committed to opera in Baltimore, he is a romantic.  One of the last things he said to me was that he was determined that “we will always have Boheme.” Bogart couldn’t have said it better.

Come on Baltimore!  I’m rooting for Maryland Opera.  I live in the DC suburbs in northern Virginia and have a number of terrific options for opera, but I would love to have an option for fully-staged opera in Baltimore.  I frequent Baltimore Concert Opera as it is, and occasionally I drive to Philadelphia and Pittsburgh to attend fully-staged opera performances; those cities have terrific operas.  I’d love putting Baltimore on that list and have Maryland become known as ‘the new hot spot’ for opera. 

The Fan Experience: Tickets for “Puccini at the Pendry” are $50.  In addition to metered on-street parking, the Sagamore Pendry Hotel is offering a special event price of $15 for valet parking.  The performances will be in Italian, but projected English subtitles will be used.  It’s been a couple of years since I visited Fells Point, but I remember it as a fun locale with lots of good restaurants.  I trust that hasn’t changed.


WNO’s Faust: The Devil Made Me Like It

Yeah, I have a few criticisms, but the bottom line is that Washington National Opera production of Faust (1859) is a good show and in total a better than average opera.  If you love traditional opera, it might just be what you have been waiting for.  The selling point for the opera is composer Charles Gounod’s pleasing music and the individual scenes, and the selling point for this production of Faust is the staging, including some fabulous sets.  If you read my blog report on Eugene Onegin, WNO’s other ongoing production, you know I was unhappy with the sets and staging.  Faust’s staging swings in the other direction, bolstering the performance.

Bass Raymond Aceto as Satan - you’re gonna love him…until the charm wears off. Photo by Scott Suchman; courtesy of Washington National Opera.

Bass Raymond Aceto as Satan - you’re gonna love him…until the charm wears off. Photo by Scott Suchman; courtesy of Washington National Opera.

Basic premise of Faust – an old man sells his soul to Satan to restore his youth, but in the opera that is just the beginning.  The term “Faustian bargain” is often used in discussions of politics and finance, and as WNO dramaturg Kelly O’Rourke alludes to in her program notes, it fits our approach today to the environment and climate change.  Indeed, the universality of the theme of sacrificing long-term gain for short-term profit is a staple of plays, movies, and life.  The librettists for Faust, Jules Barbier and Michel Carré based the opera, with changes, on Part I of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s monumental two-part play by the same name.  – Spoiler Alert - In the opera’s case, the bargain Faust makes is to regain his youth and the devil’s services on earth by agreeing that later he will do the devil’s bidding in Hell.  (FDA warning label – this is a bad bargain; I repeat, a bad, bad bargain!)  What Faust wants most are the pleasures that the world can afford, especially young women, and Satan closes the deal by showing him a vision of the beautiful young maiden Marguerite, who is also innocent and pure, and thus, a delicious target for the devil himself.  If Faust can make her his conquest, he will unwittingly also be making her Satan’s conquest.  Faust succeeds in seducing her only to abandon her, carrying his child, causing  Marguerite to become a social outcast.  Her brother Valentin who had adored her, returns from war, and outraged, challenges Faust to a duel that he loses due to the devil’s intervention; before dying he curses his sister.  Marguerite, realizing Satan’s involvement, kills her child and is cast into prison.  Faust visits her in prison, but she rejects him and prays for forgiveness; she is taken into heaven.  Satan, angry about losing Marguerite, takes Faust to hell.  When the opera began, I thought Faust was to be the central character, but at the end it seemed more about Marguerite; it was almost bait and switch, and left me wondering what the librettists were trying to convey.  German opera companies tend to give their productions the title of Margarethe for that reason and to distance the opera from their beloved Goethe.  Gounod made several changes to the opera over time such as replacing speaking sections with recitative.  The WNO production is sans the ballet that Gounod later added to the beginning of Act V; the WNO production still runs over three hours.

Soprano Erin Wall as Marguerite and tenor Marcelo Puente as the young Faust in one of the fairytale sets. Photo by Scott Suchman; courtesy of Washington National Opera.

Soprano Erin Wall as Marguerite and tenor Marcelo Puente as the young Faust in one of the fairytale sets. Photo by Scott Suchman; courtesy of Washington National Opera.

Satan, sung by bass Raymond Aceto, who was also in WNO’s Ring, carried the momentum forward.  Mr. Aceto has a fine bass voice and acquitted himself well.  He does an aria where he literally “prays” that nothing goes wrong with his plans that is remarkable.  Throughout the evening, he effectively switches from being charming and then quickly diabolical; I liked him and then felt a quick chill that reminded me he was the devil and not an anti-hero.  The movies and television have conditioned us to like the bad guys (the anti-hero, a bad guy who takes on bad guys who are even worse) because they carry the action forward, and we love the action.  Faust is the weak link in the story, and unfortunately on Saturday night, as sung by tenor Marcello Puente, he was the least impressive singer; I anticipated more from Mr. Puente; maybe it was an off night, though his transformation from old man to young stud was neat.  Marguerite represents the challenge, both for Faust and Satan, and as played by soprano Erin Wall, she was up to the challenge; she sang and acted beautifully, especially in the Jewel Song where the devil made the right call to sweeten her path to destruction.  The singers in the supporting roles turned in admirable performances, especially mezzo-soprano Allegra De Vita, now a WNO regular, who sang with power and emotion playing Marguerite’s secret admirer Siébel with touching effectiveness.   Baritone Joshua Hopkins surprised me with the strength of his voice and portrayal - kudos.  Probably the singer with the most compelling stage presence was Deborah Nansteel who has an attractive, powerful mezzo-soprano voice.  She played a neighbor who unwittingly aided Marguerite’s seduction but failed in her own comic attempt to seduce the devil.

The townspeople celebration scene; another of the charming sets. Photo by Scott Suchman; courtesy of Washington National Opera.

The townspeople celebration scene; another of the charming sets. Photo by Scott Suchman; courtesy of Washington National Opera.

The sets and staging were impressive in color and design, adding as advertised, a fairytale flavor. Kudos to Earle V. Staley for the set and costume design.  This production was originated by the Houston Grand Opera.  See if you can find the faces in the curtain as you maneuver to your seat.  The opening act was very well done, ending with a theatrical flash of light and the appearance of the young Faust.  There were more theatrics – the devil made wine flow from a fountain, and he broke Valentin’s sword.  These generally worked effectively.  Act IV with Valentin’s return and death seemed the most effective as serious dramatic opera; his death scene with the crowd urging his forgiveness of Marguerite was gripping.  The last set was breathtaking.  Director Garnett Bruce does a fine job, though the staging misfires in a couple of ways.  The play within in a play going on at the country celebration can’t compete with the devil’s antics and is mostly wasted, though the irony isn’t.  I also admit I had difficulty following what was transpiring at in Act IV’s church scene where Marguerite goes to repent and is confronted by a demonic choir and Satan.  Finally, we learned of the baby’s death from Faust when he visited her in prison; that’s a pretty powerful event to just say, oh and by the way, how could you have killed your kid?  In all, the plot fails to develop a central theme sufficiently to fully engage us in the drama, especially in passing over too quickly the personal tragedy of Faust’s decision.  The focus is its impact on others which divides attention.  Each scene has its own interest and the combination works overall, but to me, it comes across as a variety show, though a good variety show.

left: Baritone Joshua Hopkins as Valentin. right: Mezzo-soprano Deborah Nansteel as Dame Marthe, Marguerite’s neighbor, and bass Raymond Aceto as Satan. Photo by Scott Suchman; courtesy of Washington National Opera.

Gounod’s music is beautiful and worth attending the opera to hear.  Even if you haven’t heard it before, I suspect some of the melodies will be familiar to you.  The orchestra under Conductor Keri-Lynn Wilson played well I thought.  While fully supporting the action on stage, the music nevertheless drew my attention because of its beauty on several occasions.  At the first intermission, my wife said to me, “I am grooving on the conductor’s long, bouncing ponytail. Hope we see more females.”  Though I was pleased that there was a female conductor when I first saw Faust announced, I had not thought about it to that point in the performance.  Though Maestro Wilson got the job due to her qualifications and is rightfully judged by her performances, the paucity of opportunities given to female conductors is well known.  It was gratifying to see some gender-neutral hiring being done; kudos to WNO, and yes, that did make me feel more warmly toward this production.  The WNO chorus as usual under Steven Gathman’s direction performed beautifully.

The Fan ExperienceWashington National Opera has three more performances of Faust scheduled, March 22, 24, and 27. Unless you have a strict rule about not wanting to know the story ahead of time, I strongly recommend reading a detailed synopsis of Faust before attending to really stay up with the drama in the last Act.  Pick one online before the performance; the one in the Program handed out at the performance is too brief. 

I took the subway to Saturday’s performance and should have checked Metro’s status and alerts page.  They were doing single tracking from Ballston to Rosslyn.  I had to change from the Silver to the Orange Line in Ballston, causing a 25-minute delay that resulted in me missing the first half of the pre-opera talk, which was given by the amiable Ken Weiss, Principal Coach of the Domingo-Caftitz Young Artists, and was focused on the opera’s musical elements in the half of the talk that I heard.

Maryland Lyric Opera’s “An Evening of Mozart”: How Opera Might Have Been

Magically, you are transported back to December 5, 1801.  Mayor of Vienna Josef Georg Hörl has invited you to a church concert in honor of the tenth anniversary of the death of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.  You are grateful for the opportunity to attend a concert.  You are weary from local political battles and the wars plaguing Europe, and there is a new threat from the rise of Napoleon Bonaparte in Paris.  You need this respite, a chance to enjoy the glorious music of this great composer.  Excerpts from three of his operas, all written in the last five years of his life, with librettos by that rascal Lorenzo Da Ponte are to be performed by seven rising opera stars, accompanied by a small orchestra of Vienna’s best players.  And importantly, it’s a chance for everyone to come together and be of one mind for this one evening when civility will reign as Mr. Mozart and Mr. Da Ponte provide lessons on the nature of love. 

That could have been you on Friday night or on Saturday night, in spirit if not in fact, at the Maryland Lyric Opera Institute’s concert, “An Evening of Mozart” performed at Bethesda United Methodist Church - except for that part about the mayor of Vienna.  If you imagine that the performers were in 18th century garb, this is how opera might have been in Vienna two-hundred years ago.  That is how I experienced it from the moment that Maestro Louis Salemno, with short white hair and beard, dressed in black shirt and trousers, strode to the podium and with gravelly voice began to set the stage for the audience as to what was taking place in the scenes from The Marriage of Figaro, Don Giovanni, and Cosi fan tutte that we were to witness. 

left: Soprano Mary Feminear. right: Soprano Youna Hartgraves. Photos by Sam Trotman; courtesy of Maryland Lyric Opera.

Individually, in pairs, and in groups, seven singers stepped up to demonstrate new mastery of their craft gained through recent intensive training with the MDLO Institute.  These singers are already accomplished artists with degrees, honors in competitions, and a performance record under their belts, but intent on rising to yet a higher level of competence in what I call the struggle for beauty.  Entertaining us and sharing the beauty of their voices and singing were bass-baritone Adam Cioffari, soprano Mary Feminear, tenor Joseph Michael Brent, soprano Nanyoung Song, mezzo-soprano Caroline Hewitt, baritone José Sacin, and soprano Youna Hartgraves.  I am a lover of voices, and I can tell you now - all of these are keepers.

left: Soprano Nanyoung Song and bass-baritone Adam Cioffari. right: Baritone José Sacin. Photos by Sam Trotman; courtesy of Maryland Lyric Opera.

First up were excerpts from The Marriage of Figaro beginning with Adam Cioffari as Figaro.  With his  shining baritone laced with anger, he delivered the message that the Count has picked the wrong man’s wife to dally with.  Next, mezzo-soprano Caroline Hewitt sang Cherubino’s love aria, simply and beautifully, perhaps only needing a little more confidence to bring Cherubino’s character more to the front.  One of the dramatic highlights of the evening was soprano Youna Hartgraves as the Countess singing the aria mourning the loss of sweetness and pleasure once provided by her unfaithful husband, expressing both pain and jealousy.  Let me amend that; it was sung by Assistant Professor, Dr. Youna J. Hartgraves – I told you these singers were already accomplished.  José Sacin, a singer in mid-career, who has performed with Washington National Opera and houses across Europe sang as the Count of his unrequited passion for Susanna with a clear, strong baritone voice.  A thrilling dramatic moment for the audience was a duet by Ms. Hartgraves as the Countess and soprano Mary Feminear as Susanna, singing “Che soave zeffiretto”.  If you saw the Shawshank Redemption, this was the aria played over the prison loudspeakers that caused all the prisoners to pause and listen, while Morgan Freeman added in voiceover that those ladies were singing something too beautiful to be expressed in words.  Indeed, their voices were beautiful individually, but entwined, they were rapturous.  Not only that – they strolled partway down the center aisle while singing to within a few feet of me; being so close to the singers will definitely immerse you in the experience!

left: Mezzo-soprano Caroline Hewitt and soprano Youna Hartgraves. right: tenor Joseph Michael Brent. Photos by Sam Trotman; courtesy of Maryland Lyric Opera.

Tenor Joseph Michael Brent (who also holds a doctoral degree) and soprano Nanyoung Song made their appearances in the Don Giovanni excerpts.  Mr. Brent delivered Don Ottavio’s aria of adoration of Donna Anna with sonorous brilliance.  I though Mr. Brent was good when first I heard him a year ago.  He is now even better, a career worth following.  Kudos to him and to the MDLO team. Ms. Song was featured as Zerlina in a delightful duet with Mr. Ciofarri as Giovanni in what might be called the seduction aria. This section ended with a stirring singing of Mozart’s brilliant Giovanni sextet, “sola sola in buio loco” that clearly was an audience favorite.  As well as excellent singing, the group hammed it up a bit with the excerpts from Cosi fan tutte, and they were fun.  In all, I am unable to name one aria or performance during the evening that I did not really enjoy, due both to the selection of excerpts and these amazing artists.

A comedic moment of  Cosi fan tutte ; soprano Nanyoung Song as Despina in disguise holds the magic cure for the passed out boys and, Conductor Louis Salemno holds the baton in the background. Photo by Sam Trotman; courtesy of Maryland Lyric Opera.

A comedic moment of Cosi fan tutte; soprano Nanyoung Song as Despina in disguise holds the magic cure for the passed out boys and, Conductor Louis Salemno holds the baton in the background. Photo by Sam Trotman; courtesy of Maryland Lyric Opera.

Well, what about the music?  From the opening chords of the overture of Figaro, I wanted to take the MDLO Orchestra home with me.  The overture was thrilling, and Maestro Salemno taught me another lesson; see my comments on MDLO’s La Fanciulla del West for the first.  I have wailed about how opera houses need larger orchestras and need to get them out of the pit so we get the full impact of the music.  There is another option – put the orchestra you have in a smaller concert hall.  The twenty-five players dressed in white jackets under Salemno’s direction provided plenty of sound.  Playing your stereo at home this loud would result in visits from irate neighbors.  Honestly, a seventy-piece orchestra in the pit of the large opera houses provides no better quality sound.  But, it wasn’t just the wonderful volume – the playing was wonderful and the sound was simply beautiful.  Kudos to Conductor Salemno and the MDLO orchestra. I could imagine Mozart smiling down from heaven, tapping his fingers.  What a marvelous opportunity for the MDLO Institute artists to perform with such great support.

I often muse about how it might have been to hear Mozart’s or Rosssini’s or Verdi’s music in their day when there were no recordings, videos, or music streaming services.  Attending an MDLO Institute concert is as close as it comes to experiencing opera as it might have been, close enough that I will add this one to my list of transcendent experiences.  In Mozart’s day, all music was live.  Folks, there still is live music today, at least for the present, and the future if we support it.  Come, join your neighbors; leave the world’s troubles behind and experience an evening of beauty and civility.

“Culture – the way we express ourselves and understand each other – can bind us together as one world.”  Yo Yo Ma   

The Fan Experience:  “An Evening of Mozart” was only performed twice, Friday and Saturday evenings.  A reception was held following the performances with pastries, coffee, and tea provided and the chance to mingle with the singers, orchestra members, and MDLO staff.

Want to be transported to nineteenth century Italy? You can do so in College Park. MDLO has scheduled two more “Evening” events this season to feature MDLO Institute artists: “An Evening of Verdi:, May 18 and 19; and “An Evening of Puccini” on June 7 and 9.  The “Evening” events on May 19 and June 9 will be matinees. Both will be held at The Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center  Tickets are not yet available.


WNO’s Eugene Onegin: Opera in a Box

I’ve got a problem with this one.  I wanted drama; I feel like I got theater. The set threw me off at the very beginning.  I liked the new stagings of Aida, Madame Butterfly, and La Traviata that Washington National Opera has brought to DC in recent years.  However, the part of me that likes innovative stagings of classic operas and the part of me that likes traditional stagings of classic operas agree on the staging for WNO’s production of Pyotr Illyich Tchaikovsky’s Eugne Onegin (Yevgeny Onegin, 1879): We don’t like it, the staging that is, primarily the set…but then, as the saying goes, who are we to disagree with millions of others.  I can point you to a number of reviews of this production over the years and of Saturday night’s performance (see the side bar) that praise the staging. 

Two views of the letter-writing scene with Anna Nechaeva as Tatiana. Photo by Scott Suchman; courtesy of Washington National Opera.

I love the opera itself; I like the individual performances, the music, the singing, the acting (mostly), the perfect mid-nineteenth century costumes.  I like that the Russian headliners live up to advance notice and that there are some other standout performances.  However, the scenes are mostly centered in a large box, three blank walls - two sides and a back, lavishly painted with colored light and sometimes seen through a scrim.  The staging is creative and artsy, and what happens in the each scene is well directed, presenting the story in a straightforward manner.  The intended effect is to focus attention on the unfolding relationships. Putting the scene in a box will do that for puppet shows at home, but we have different expectations of a stage.  Video directors use close ups to focus attention.  However, with closeups you only see the closeup.  In the Opera House what you see is a small grouping in the middle of a very large box, bathed in light.  The box is pretty, but it is still a box. One can make the argument that the lights add to the romantic lyricism, but only if you can avoid thinking about it. The minimalist staging intends an intimacy that I feel is lost beyond perhaps the first few rows, and most importantly, the staging itself draws attention away from the drama.  For example, the new staging I liked best was using a scrim for the duel scene imparting a hazy blue, early morning appearance to the scene; however, my attention was split between marveling at the novel appearance and being drawn into the emotional tension unfolding.  This production was created by the Canadian Opera Company and has been used by the Metropolitan Opera, beginning in 1997.  One famous Met opera using this production was in 2007, starring Renée Fleming and Dimitri Hvorostovsky.  It drew glowing reviews, but hey, it starred Fleming and Hvorostovsky.  (You can compare the two stagings at home.  Take a look at the 2007 video, available for streaming from Met Opera On Demand for about $15, and notice the use of close ups.  Also take a look at the 2017 Met Onegin, a production with different staging, starring Anna Netrebko and Mariusz Kwiecień.  Which do you prefer?  They are no substitute for a live performance, but they will give you the idea). 

The duel scene in  Eugene Onegin . Photo by Scott Suchman; courtesy of Washington National Opera.

The duel scene in Eugene Onegin. Photo by Scott Suchman; courtesy of Washington National Opera.

I love the story of Eugene Onegin.  Unlike a lot of the classical repetoire, I can connect with its emotionality. The opera is taken, sometimes verbatim, from Alexander Pushkin’s novel of the same name written in verse and published in serial form between 1825 and 1832.  In its time it was the most beloved work of literature by the Russian people and is still treasured; Pushkin is considered the Russian Shakespeare.  Tchaikovsky showed courage in using this novel for his opera, a lot to live up to. -Spoiler alert- A young Russian country girl, Tatiana, falls in love with an aristocratic neighbor, Onegin, introduced to her by her sister Olga’s fiancé, Lensky.  Overcome by her passion, Tatiana sends a letter to Onegin declaring her feelings.  Onegin rejects her advance, keeping with his nature by acting honorably but also in a condescending manner; Tatiana is crushed.  At a party, Onegin starts paying attention to Olga and she responds to his flirtation.  He only wants to distance himself from Tatiana and to irk Lensky, but he takes it too far.  Lensky, inflamed by jealousy, challenges him to a duel and is killed.  Onegin is distraught and wanders aimlessly for five years until he accidentally encounters Tatiana at a ball in St. Petersburg; she is now a sophisticate married to a Prince.  Onegin realizes he is in love with her and pleads his case.  She questions whether his interest is due to her new status. She finally admits she still loves him, but she declares that she will remain faithful to her husband, leaving Onegin alone and disconsolate. 

This is powerful stuff and deserving of a focus on the feelings.  The letter writing scene, Tatiana’s humiliation by Onegin, Lensky’s reflections before the duel, and Onegin’s final pleas are some of the most emotionally charged scenes in all of opera.  There is a back story here as well.  While working on the opera, Tchaikovsky got a letter from a fan declaring her love for him.  He married the fan, but the marriage quickly fell apart, probably because Tchaikovsky was gay and had married her to dispel talk about his sexuality.  He went abroad and finished the opera.  The opera was a new style for Russian opera at the time, transitioning from romanticism to realism.  I have read that Pushkin wanted to emphasize the cultural clash between country provincials and city sophisticates, whereas Tchaikovsky wanted to focus on the emotional devastation caused by this class conflict, perhaps spurred on by the abuse he suffered from being gay.  Tchaikovsky feared that opera houses would make the performances too theatrical, obscuring his focus on feelings.  In fact, he called the work “lyrical scenes”, not opera, and tried out an early version using students rather than professional opera singers.  It is to this production’s credit that its goal was to support the composer’s vision; I just think it misses the mark.

left: Lindsay Ammann as Olga and Alexy Dolgov as Lensky. middle: Victoria Livengood as Filippyevna and Elena Zaremba as Madame Larina. right: Igor Golovatenko as Onegin and Eric Halfvarson as Gremin. Photos by Scott Suchman; courtesy of Washington National Opera.

Okay – what did I like?  Just about everything else, and if you like or don’t mind the staging, I think you will find this one quite satisfying overall.  WNO brought in two singers from the Bolshoi for this production, known in Europe, but making their debut in the U.S.  Let’s start with Anna Nechaeva, the Russian soprano who plays Tatiana; she has a lovely, strong soprano voice, and sings and acts marvelously.  Her letter scene was touching, as it should be.  I know someone who will only go to Eugene Onegin performances when the main roles are sung by Russians because of the language challenges.  I have no doubt he is pleased with Ms. Nechaeva; I was.  WNO should get her name on another contract quickly.  Russian baritone Igor Golovatenko was also excellent as Onegin.  His acting early on is a little too stoic, but the man has a voice – wow!  He first came alive with his acting at the party where he regretted having pushed Lensky too far.  Tenor Alexy Dolgov, also from Russia though performing in the U.S. for many years, gave me the surprise of the night.  At first, I thought his voice and singing were just okay, but when he sang the aria asking where his youth had gone just before the duel, I was enraptured, a perfect combination of voice and emotion, maybe the best single aria of the night.  Mezzo-soprano Lindsay Ammann, who has appeared in other WNO productions, gave us a light and flirtatious Olga.

The supporting cast was also excellent; four I will mention.  Mezzo-soprano Elena Zaremba who played the girls’ mother, Madame Larina and mezzo-soprano Victoria Livengood who played Tatiana’s nurse were both pleasures; Ms. Livengood especially stood out.  Tenor Joshua Blue, a Domingo-Cafritz young artist, gave us an amusing Monsieur Triquet who composed and sang couplets at Tatiana’s party.  Base Eric Halfvarson who previously appeared in WNO’s Ring played Prince Gremin.  His aria about Tatiana and love later in life was touching and could have been the basis for the sequel if Tchaikovsky had been so inclined.

The closing scene of Eugene Onegin as Tatiana played by Anna Nechaeva refuses Onegin as played by Igor Golovatenko. Photo by Scott Suchman; courtesy of Washington National Opera.

The closing scene of Eugene Onegin as Tatiana played by Anna Nechaeva refuses Onegin as played by Igor Golovatenko. Photo by Scott Suchman; courtesy of Washington National Opera.

Tchaikovsky’s music is melodic, lush, and glorius.  I have had Tatiana’s theme stuck in my head since first I heard it years ago.  The orchestra under Conductor Robert Trevino brings the score to life in able support of the singers and drama, only a little uneven at times.  The chorus under Chorus Master Steven Gathman sounded fine.  I will say though that for the first time at an opera I thought the chorus and supernumeraries might have been excessive in number.  As an aside, I don’t usually hear music in one work that reminds me of another composer, but I thought I detected Mozart in Olga and Tatiana’s opening duet and detected Verdi in the opening of the last act.

Let me add one more comment in closing.  The productions of this opera seems to be driven by star power. I’d love to see a performance by the Domingo-Cafritz Young Artists (unfortunately one is not scheduled), but in a smaller venue and do away with the box, just surround the scene at play with darkness.  I think a more intimate setting, maybe the Terrace Theater, might be a better venue to get the full emotional impact of Pushkin/Tchaikovsky’s work.  I wish Tchaikovsky could speak.

The Billington Rose I received as an audience member at the opening performance of WNO’s  Eugene   Onegin . Photo by author.

The Billington Rose I received as an audience member at the opening performance of WNO’s Eugene Onegin. Photo by author.

The Fan Experience: Adding to the romanticism of the evening was a rose given to each audience member of the opening performance by the Billington family as we departed in honor of the legacy of Dr. James Billington who was the Librarian of Congress from 1987-2015.  The Billington Rose is the National Flower.  I especially appreciated the acknowledgement on the tag for Dr. and Mrs. Billington, supporters of WNO, that speaks of their “commitment to the beauty of greater cultural understanding.” Let us all be committed to that.

WNO has five more performances of Eugene Onegin scheduled, March 17, 20, 23, 25, and 29.  I enjoyed the informative pre-opera talk by Administrator in Artistic Planning Colin Brush and recommend it. Also note that performances of Faust begin on Saturday, March 16.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Each subsequent scene with the orchestra the music sounds better.

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

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

Finish with the singers and orchestra playing the piece together.

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo by blog post author.

Photo by blog post author.

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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