Subscribe to
Opera Today

Receive articles and news via RSS feeds or email subscription.


facebook-icon.png


twitter_logo[1].gif



9780393088953.png

9780521746472.png

0810888688.gif

0810882728.gif

Recently in Performances

Daniel Michieletto's Cav and Pag returns to Covent Garden

It felt rather decadent to be sitting in an opera house at 12pm. Even more so given the passion-fuelled excesses of Pietro Mascagni’s Cavalleria Rusticana and Ruggero Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci, which might seem rather too sensual and savage for mid-day consumption.

Manitoba Opera: Madama Butterfly

Manitoba Opera opened its 45th season with Puccini’s Madama Butterfly proving that the aching heart as expressed through art knows no racial or cultural divide, with the Italian composer’s self-avowed favourite opera still able to spread its poetic wings across time and space since its Milan premiere in 1904.

Ian Bostridge and Julius Drake celebrate 25 years of music-making

In 1992, concert promoter Heinz Liebrecht introduced pianist Julius Drake to tenor Ian Bostridge and an acclaimed, inspiring musical partnership was born. On Wenlock Edge formed part of their first programme, at Holkham Hall in Norfolk; and, so, in this recital at Middle Temple Hall, celebrating their 25 years of music-making, the duo included Vaughan Williams’ Housman settings for tenor, piano and string quartet alongside works with a seventeenth-century origin or flavour.

Girls of the Golden West in San Francisco

Not many (maybe any) of the new operas presented by San Francisco Opera over the past 10 years would lure me to the War Memorial Opera House a second time around. But for Girls of the Golden West just now I would be there again tomorrow night and the next, and I am eagerly awaiting all future productions.

DiDonato is superb in Semiramide at Covent Garden

It’s taken a while for Rossini’s Semiramide to reach the Covent Garden stage. The last of the operas which Rossini composed for Italian theatres between 1810-1823, Semiramide has had only one outing at the Royal Opera House since 1887, and that was a concert version in 1986.

Philippe Jaroussky and Ensemble Artaserse at the Wigmore Hall

‘His master’s masterpiece, the work of heaven’: ‘a common fountain’ from which flow ‘pure silver drops’. At the risk of effulgent hyperbole, I’d suggest that Antonio’s image of the blessed governance and purifying power of the French court - in the opening scene of Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi - is also a perfect metaphor for the voice of French countertenor Philippe Jaroussky, as it slips through Handel’s roulades like a silken ribbon.

La Rondine Takes Flight in San Jose

Kudos to San Jose Opera for offering up a wholly winning, consistently captivating new production of Puccini’s seldom performed La Rondine.

Clonter Opera Gala

Clonter’s Opera Gala in the breath-taking beautiful ball-room at the Lansdowne Club in Mayfair was a glamorously glittering smattering of opera – which made me want to run out to every opera in town.  

A New Die Walküre at Lyric Opera of Chicago

From the start of Lyric Opera of Chicago’s splendid, new production of Richard Wagner’s Die Walküre conflict and resolution are portrayed throughout with moving intensity. The central character Brünnhilde is sung by Christine Goerke and her father Wotan by Eric Owens.

As One a Haunting Success in San Diego

San Diego Opera has mined solid gold with its mesmerizing and affecting production of As One, a part of their innovative ‘Detour Series.’

OLF: Songs by Tchaikovsky, Anton Rubinstein, Rachmaninov and Georgy Sviridov

Compared to the oft-explored world of German lieder and French chansons, the songs of Russia are unfairly neglected in recordings and in the concert hall. The raw emotion and expansive lyricism present in much of this repertoire was clearly in evidence at the Holywell Music Room for the penultimate day of the celebrated Oxford Lieder Festival.

Stockhausen’s STIMMUNG and COSMIC PULSES at the Barbican.

This concert was an event on several levels - marking a decade since the death of Stockhausen, the fortieth anniversary (almost to the day) since Singcircle first performed STIMMUNG (at the Round House), and their final public performance of the piece. It was also a rare opportunity to hear (and see) Stockhausen’s last completed purely electronic work, COSMIC PULSES - an overwhelming visual and aural experience that anyone who was at this concert will long remember.

Nico Muhly's Marnie at ENO

Winston Graham’s 1961 novel Marnie was bold for its time. Its themes of sexual repression, psychological suspense and criminality set within the dark social fabric of contemporary Britain are but outlier themes of the anti-heroine’s own narrative of deceit, guilt, multiple identities and blackmail.

TOSCA: A Dramatic Sing-Fest

On November 12, 2017, Arizona Opera presented Giacomo Puccini’s verismo opera, Tosca, in a dramatic production directed by Tara Faircloth. Her production utilized realistic scenery from Seattle Opera and detailed costumes from the New York City Opera. Gregory Allen Hirsch’s lighting made the set look like the church of St. Andrea as some of us may have remembered it from time gone by.

The Lighthouse: Shadwell Opera at Hackney Showroom

‘Only make the reader’s general vision of evil intense enough … and his own experience, his own imagination, his own sympathy … and horror … will supply him quite sufficiently with all the particulars. Make him think the evil, make him think it for himself, and you are released from weak specifications.’

Elisabeth Kulman sings Mahler's Rückert-Lieder with Sir Mark Elder and the Britten Sinfonia

Austrian singer Elisabeth Kulman has had an interesting career trajectory. She began her singing life as a soprano but later shifted to mezzo-soprano/contralto territory. Esteemed on the operatic stage, she relinquished the theatre for the concert platform in 2015, following an accident while rehearsing Tristan.

Tremendous revival of Katie Mitchell's Lucia at the ROH

The morning sickness, miscarriage and maundering wraiths are still present, but Katie Mitchell’s Lucia di Lammermoor, receiving its first revival at the ROH, seems less ‘hysterical’ this time round - and all the more harrowing for it.

Manon in San Francisco

Nothing but a wall and a floor (and an enormous battery of unseen lighting instruments) and two perfectly matched artists, the Manon of soprano Ellie Dehn and the des Grieux of tenor Michael Fabiano, the centerpiece of Paris’ operatic Belle Époque found vibrant presence on the War Memorial stage.

A beguiling Il barbiere di Siviglia from GTO

I had mixed feelings about Annabel Arden’s production of Il barbiere di Siviglia when it was first seen at Glyndebourne in 2016. Now reprised (revival director, Sinéad O’Neill) for the autumn 2017 tour, the designs remain a vibrant mosaic of rich hues and Moorish motifs, the supernumeraries - commedia stereotypes cum comic interlopers - infiltrate and interact even more piquantly, and the harpsichords are still flying in, unfathomably, from all angles. But, the drama is a little less hyperactive, the characterisation less larger-than-life. And, this Saturday evening performance went down a treat with the Canterbury crowd on the final night of GTO’s brief residency at the Marlowe Theatre.

Brett Dean's Hamlet: GTO in Canterbury

‘There is no such thing as Hamlet,’ says Matthew Jocelyn in an interview printed in the 2017 Glyndebourne programme book. The librettist of Australian composer Brett Dean’s opera based on the Bard’s most oft-performed tragedy, which was premiered to acclaim in June this year, was noting the variants between the extant sources for the play - the First, or ‘Bad’, Quarto of 1603, which contains just over half of the text of the Second Quarto which published the following year, and the First Folio of 1623 - no one of which can reliably be guaranteed superiority over the other.

OPERA TODAY ARCHIVES »

Performances

Duane Moody (Young Joe), Madeline Miskie (Beauty #1), Amanda Opuszynski (Beauty #3) and Amelia Davis (Beauty #2) [Photo by Mike Ciesielski courtesy of University of Maryland -- College Park]
24 Apr 2010

Shadowboxer’s Left Jab

This month, the Maryland Opera Studio (MOS) at the University of Maryland, College Park, marked its spot in opera history with the world premiere of Shadowboxer, a jazz-infused opera based on the life of iconic American boxer Joe Louis.

Shadowboxer: Music by Frank Proto to a libretto by John Chenault

Joe Louis: Jarrod Lee; Young Joe: Duane Moody; Marva Trotter: Adrienne Webster; Max Schmelling: Peter Burroughs; Lillie Brooks: Carmen Balthrop; Jack Blackburn: VaShawn McIlwain; Julian Black: Robert King; John Roxborough: Benjamin Moore; Ring Announcer: David Blalock; Beauty #1: Madeline Miskie; Beauty #2: Amelia Davis; Beauty #3: Amanda Opuszynski; Reporter #1: Andrew Owens; Reporter #2: Andrew McLaughlin; Reporter #3: Colin Michael Brush; Joe the Boxer: Nickolas Vaughn; Joe’s Opponents: Craig Lawrence. Leon Major, director. Timothy Long, conductor. Clarice Smith Center, University of Maryland — College Park.

Above: Duane Moody (Young Joe), Madeline Miskie (Beauty #1), Amanda Opuszynski (Beauty #3) and Amelia Davis (Beauty #2) [Photo by Mike Ciesielski courtesy of University of Maryland -- College Park]

 

With music by Frank Proto and libretto by John Chenault, Shadowboxer culminated a twenty-five year old dream of MOS director Leon Major to bring Louis’s rags-to-riches-to-rags story to the opera house.

Longtime collaborators Proto and Chenault have written a challenging, provocative, and somewhat problematic work. It was skillfully produced, despite some writing flaws: Major and his MOS forces pulled out all the stops, with many saving effects that supported the sagging score. Chenault devised his libretto as a series of flashbacks the older Louis has after a heart attack. The main confusion arose with having three Joes onstage, often simultaneously. Older Louis watched as Young Joe (played by tenor Duane Moody) re-enacted his various flashbacks. Young Joe stood alongside older Joe during many scenes, mirroring his actions or even relating to him, and would blend in and out of the crowd. Two actors, playing Joe the Boxer (Nickolas Vaughn) and Joe’s Opponents (Craig Lawrence), mimed several of the famous boxing matches. The boxing actors brought to the stage the needed raw energy and passion raised during a fight. One wished for a single person to play Young Joe, who could also act the boxing scenes, or even one singer-actor throughout the show, rather than three. Luckily, Major imaginatively guided the interaction of the three Joes, so the confusion was less apparent.

Unfortunately, Chenault‘s solo lines for older Louis, which are certainly intended to be introspective, came across as rambling, and told rather than revealed the character’s thoughts. Proto’s angular musical lines did not aid these solo sections, but rather showed an accomplished instrumental composer struggling to set philosophical words. The result had too many moments of the older Louis singing challenging intervals, rather than well-crafted vocal lines setting a succinct script. Fortunately, Jarrod Lee (playing Old Joe) made music and drama out of the disjointed lines. What a relief near the end of Act II to hear Lee sing a real tune about life being beautiful!

Proto’s highly complex music includes a full pit orchestra, a 15-member singing cast and a choral ensemble, as well as the unique feature of an onstage jazz band. The jazz band adds the sound element of the era, not so much as period music, but as its musical descendant. Timothy Long expertly conducted the difficult score, and seemed quite at home directing the club-influenced method of throwing the tune back and forth between the band and the orchestra. Both ensembles played sensitively, and seemed at ease with the harmonic and rhythmic language of the score. When the full company was in action--reliving the fights or relating to each other--the entire production gleamed with energy.

_MG_3068.png

Often wearing faceless, half-skull masks, the choral ensemble acted as a Greek chorus, singing Proto’s Swingle-Singer-influenced harmonies with confidence, and often, chilling beauty. They gave voice to Louis’s memories of the moment. Each singer sat or stood near a black chair, symbolically lifting it up, turning it on its side, or switching it to another angle to move in or out of the action. Some of the best music, and the most notable performances, came from three sets of trios surrounding Louis. (Need we mention the recurring jazz trio, or even trinity, theme pervading the script?) VaShawn Savoy McIlwain gave a strong, earthy, no-nonsense performance as trainer Jack Blackburn. Along with McIlwain, Robert King (Julian Black) and Benjamin Moore (John Roxborough) rounded out this strong trio of men guiding Louis’s career. The Three Reporters, representing the press (Andrew Owens, Andrew McLaughlin, and Colin Michael Brush), offered solid vocal harmonies and acted with appropriate slime as they either kept their racism in check or pounced on Louis when he lost. The Three Beauties, depicting the wide variety of Louis’s female companions and sung by Madeline Miskie, Amelia Davis, and Amanda Opuszynski, melted over both young and old Joe. Their supple voices blended well, often using a straight vocal tone more akin to musical theatre or jazz.

Strong lead performances were given by professor Carmen Balthrop, who portrayed Louis’s mother, Lillie Brooks, with inner dignity, and deep, maternal emotion; Adrienne Webster (Louis’s wife Marva Trotter), who gave herself completely to the role with powerful, emotional singing; and Peter Burroughs, who generated the necessary bravado for German boxer Max Schmeling. Jarrod Lee gave an outstanding performance as he embodied the aged and broken Louis. He sang nearly ninety-five percent of the opera wheeling around in a wheel chair. The logistics and energy of continuing that for two hours was a feat unto itself. Exhibiting excellent musicianship, he sang the difficult, angular vocal lines with a commanding, emotional baritone throughout the opera. Lee is certainly a singer to watch in the future.

Set designer Erhard Rom brought ringside flavor to his stage with an open floor, the moveable black chairs, and three angular screens suspended from the ceiling, hugging the up, left and right stage perimeter. Lighting, hung from crisscrossed girders, added to the angularity of the stage, the screens, and the musical lines. Spotlights were often boxing-ring square, rather than the customary round spots. Projection designers Kirby Malone and Gail Scott White chose images, such as boxing ring corners, old radios, and fight scenes, to enhance the subtext of the libretto. A memorable effect occurs in Act I: as the older Louis reminisces about various boxers, each boxer’s individual picture appears to fade in and out of a swirling fog on the left or right screens. Kirby and Malone added a moving-picture element several times when a photo would appear on each screen in sequence, as if it were a film. Often the cast sang against the actual film footage of scenes from World War II and boxing matches. This did not distract, but rather enhanced the words and mood with more of a background visual effect. Fight sound clips were also interspersed periodically. Near the end of Act II, Louis hears the voices of boxers Jack Johnson and Muhammad Ali speak to him through an onstage solo sax and trumpet. Their words flash on the screen as the instrumental voices “talk.” A tighter conversational script for Joe would have given the audience a better chance to imagine the other boxers’ words. As it was, the instrumentalists appearing onstage weakened the dramatic effect.

The life of boxer Joe Louis inspires sober reflection upon the realities of living in a racist society, then and now. Chenault featured this topic prominently, and appropriately, throughout the opera. Proto, Chenault and the entire MOS team have certainly fulfilled Major’s dream to show the life of “a man who boxed for a living.” They have launched another complex hero for the opera world to celebrate, and to contemplate.

Deborah Thurlow
University of Maryland

Send to a friend

Send a link to this article to a friend with an optional message.

Friend's Email Address: (required)

Your Email Address: (required)

Message (optional):