27 Jun 2012
St. Louis in Fine Festival Form
Forget about picking a desert island opera, I want Opera Theatre of St. Louis as my desert island opera company.
A fixation on death at San Francisco Opera. A 337 year-old woman gave it all up just now after only six years since she last gave it all up on the War Memorial stage.
Penny Woolcock's 2010 production of Bizet's The Pearl Fishers returned to English National Opera (ENO) for its second revival on 19 October 2018. Designed by Dick Bird (sets) and Kevin Pollard (costumes) the production remains as spectacular as ever, and ENO fielded a promising young cast with Claudia Boyle as Leila, Robert McPherson as Nadir and Jacques Imbrailo as Zurga, plus James Creswell as Nourabad, conducted by Roland Böer.
At the end of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Theseus delivers a speech which returns to the play’s central themes: illusion, art and the creative imagination. The sceptical king dismisses ‘The poet’s vision - his ‘eye, in a fine frenzy rolling’ - which ‘gives to airy nothing/ A local habitation and a name’; such art, and theatre, is a psychological deception brought about by an excessive, uncontrolled imagination.
Following the success of previous ‘mini-festivals’ at St John’s Smith Square devoted to Schubert and Schumann, last weekend pianist Anna Tilbrook curated a three-day exploration of the work of Ralph Vaughan Williams and his contemporaries. The music performed in these six concerts was chosen to reflect the changing contexts in which it was composed and to reveal the vast changes in society, politics and culture which occurred during Vaughan Williams’ long life-time (1872-1958) and which shaped his life and creative output.
Trying to work around Manon Lescaut’s episodic structure, this new production presents the plot as the dying protagonist’s feverish hallucinations. The result is a frosty retelling of what is arguably Puccini’s most hot-blooded opera. Musically, the performance also left much to be desired.
It is Herodotus who tells us that when Xerxes was marching through Asia to invade Greece, he passed through the town of Kallatebos and saw by the roadside a magnificent plane-tree which, struck by its great beauty, he adorned with golden ornaments, and ordered that a man should remain beside the tree as its eternal guardian.
Poor Puccini. He is far too often treated as a ‘box-office hit’ by our ‘major’ opera houses, at least in Anglophone countries. For so consummate a musical dramatist, that is something beyond a pity. Here in London, one is far better advised to go to Holland Park for interesting, intelligent productions, although ENO’s offerings have often had something to be said for them.
With only four singers and a short-story-like plot Don Pasquale is an ideal chamber opera. That chamber just now was the 3200 seat War Memorial Opera House where this not always charming opera buffa is an infrequent visitor (post WWII twice in the 1980’s after twice in the 40’s).
“Yang sementara tak akan menahan bintang hilang di bimasakti; Yang bergetar akan terhapus.” (“The transient cannot hold on to stars lost in the Milky Way; that which quivers will be erased.”) As soprano Tony Arnold sang these words of Tony Prabowo’s chamber opera Pastoral, with astonishingly crisp Indonesian diction, the first night of the second annual Momenta Festival approached its end.
Some operas seemed designed and destined to raise questions and debates - sometimes unanswerable and irresolvable, and often contentious. Termed a dramma giocoso, Mozart’s Don Giovanni has, historically, trodden a movable line between seria and buffa.
Péter Eötvös’ The Sirens Cycle received its world premiere at the Wigmore Hall, London, on Saturday night with Piia Komsi and the Calder Quartet. An exceptionally interesting new work, which even on first hearing intrigues: imagine studying the score! For The Sirens Cycle is elegantly structured, so intricate and so complex that it will no doubt reveal even greater riches the more familiar it becomes. It works so well because it combines the breadth of vision of an opera, yet is as concise as a chamber miniature. It's exquisite, and could take its place as one of Eötvös's finest works.
Manitoba Underground Opera took audiences on a journey — literally and figuratively — as it presented its latest installment of repertory opera between August 19–26.
On a recent weekend Lyric Opera of Chicago gave its annual concert at Millennium Park during which the coming season and its performers are variously showcased. Several of the performers, who were featured at this “Stars of Lyric Opera” event, are scheduled to make their debuts in Lyric Opera’s new production of Wagner’s Das Rheingold beginning on 1 October.
Desire and deception; Amor and artifice. In Jan Philipp Gloger’s new production of Così van tutte at the Royal Opera House, the artifice is of the theatrical, rather than the human, kind. And, an opera whose charm surely lies in its characters’ amiable artfulness seems more concerned to underline the depressing reality of our own deluded faith in human fidelity and integrity.
On September 22, 2016, Los Angeles Opera presented Darko Tresnjak’s production of Giuseppe Verdi’s opera Macbeth. Verdi and Francesco Maria Piave based their opera on Shakespeare’s play of the same name.
On September 18th, at a casual Sunday matinee, Pacific Opera Project presented a surprising choice for a small company. It was Igor Stravinsky’s 1951 three act opera, The Rake’s Progress. It’s a piece made for today's supertitles with its exquisitely worded libretto by W.H. Auden and Chester Kallman.
We are nearing the end of Classical Opera’s MOZART 250 sojourn through 1766, a year that the company’s artistic director Ian Page admits was ‘on face value a relatively fallow year’. I’m not so sure: Jommelli’s Il Vogoleso, performed at the Cadogan Hall in April, was a gem. But, then, I did find the repertoire that Classical Opera offered at the Wigmore Hall in January, ‘worthy rather than truly engaging’ (review). And, this programme of Haydn and his Czech contemporary Josef Mysliveček was stylishly executed but did not absolutely convince.
Globalization finds its way ever more to San Francisco Opera where Italian composer Marco Tutino’s La Ciociara saw the light of day in 2015 and now, 2016, Chinese composer Bright Sheng’s Dream of the Red Chamber has been created.
Renowned Polish tenor Piotr Beczala and well-known collaborative pianist Martin Katz opened the San Diego Opera 2016–2017 season with a recital at the Balboa Theater on Saturday, September 17th.
San Francisco Opera makes occasional excursions into the operatic big-time, such just now was Giordano’s blockbuster Andrea Chénier, last seen at the War Memorial 23 years ago (1992) and even then after a hiatus of 17 years (1975).
Forget about picking a desert island opera, I want Opera Theatre of St. Louis as my desert island opera company.
Each June this enterprising organization can be counted upon to reliably serve up a winning mix of re-imagined classics, world or national premiere productions, stellar musical comedies or operetta, and a roster of singers, conductors, and designers that should be the envy of many a major international house.
I know it can be a bore to hear someone say “well. . .I saw the original production.” (Indeed, that is seldom heard in opera circles, so bear with me.) As a matter of fact I did encounter the brilliant Hal Prince-directed Sweeney Todd when first on Broadway, red hot from its multiple Tony wins with two of musical theatre’s legendary performances from Angela Lansbury and Len Cariou. You might think it can’t get any better than that, right? Well, you would be wrong!
(L to R) Karen Ziemba as Mrs. Lovett and Rod Gilfry as Sweeney Todd
For OTSL has assembled as fine a cast for the Sondheim opus as is likely available today, and has placed them in a broodingly clever minimalist environs. Karen Ziemba is perfection as Mrs. Lovett, embodying the character with a truly unique sexiness, spunky child-like determination, and spot-on comic timing. Having admired Ms. Ziemba for years as a Broadway triple threat (Crazy for You, Curtains, Steel Pier) nothing in her past work could have prepared me for the depth, variety, and invention she brought to Nellie Lovett. Plus she has the chops to really sing the rangy part from the rolling chest voice to the fluty soprano flights that were written to Ms. Lansbury’s singular gifts. It is to her great credit that Karen emphatically makes the part her own, and along the way makes the demented, codependent love story and physical attraction really take flight.
Not that it is hard to imagine being physically attracted to Rod Gilfry’s barber, since he cuts a fine figure, even as he is revealed to be housing an intensely coiled, vengeful spirit. This is arguably the finest performance I have seen from Mr. Gilfry to date. His compact baritone managed to encompass the punishing demands of even St. Stephen’s most challenging writing, and while I have often heard him sing more suavely, never have I heard him sing more purposefully. Not once did he revert to flashing his generic, killer, Brad Pitt smile that seemed to define (and limit) his whole performance as last summer’s Glimmerglass Frank Butler. On this occasion he was nuanced, detailed, and frighteningly focused on his mission.
Arguably, the star vocal honors belonged to Nathaniel Hackmann’s superbly sung Anthony. The rich and ringing tone he brought to his paean to Joanna, the impassioned youthful spirits, the beautiful control on the hushed declarations of love, Mr. Hackmann regaled us with ravishing vocalism of the top tier. Add to the mix the fact that he is boyishly appealing, and you have, well, a definitive performance of the plucky lad (pace, Victor Garber). His accomplishment was ably matched by the enchanting chirping from his Joanna, Deanna Breiwick, who deployed her fluty, well schooled soprano to fine effect in Green Finch and Linnet Bird.
In a bit of luxury casting, acclaimed mezzo Susanne Mentzer made the most of her vibrant upper register and solid low tones to create an exceptionally wiry, aggressive Beggar Woman. Her physical abandon in defining the schizophrenic street person, combined with her vivid singing made this a memorable role assumption. Veteran Timothy Nolen struck just the right balance as the malevolent Judge Turpin, offering an understated model of control at one moment, and erupting with abusive authority the next. His compact baritone was put to good effect in the problematic Deliver Me, a rambling masochistic titillation which plays only marginally better in the opera house than on Broadway (where it was cut before the show opened).
(L to R) Deanna Breiwick as Johanna and Nathaniel Hackmann as Anthony Hope
Scott Ramsay sang a wondrously secure Beadle Bamford. He was a good physical type to boot, if a bit too young for the character’s history. But the trade-off is that there is a freshness, clarity and bloom in Mr. Ramsay’s tenor that are enormously pleasing. The repeated falsetto’d “Ding Dong’s” in his parlor duet with Mrs. Lovett caused a ripple of delight in the audience.
Anthony Webb was also a mite too young to have fully lived the checkered past of Signor Pirelli, however, his skillful comic “Italian” accent and gleaming high notes gave much pleasure. Last but not least, Kyle Erdos-Knapp gave the kind of masterful performance as Tobias against which all future interpretations should be measured. After good duty with the (too) lengthy introduction for Pirelli, and then the sprightly contributions to God, That’s Good, Mr. Erdos-Knapp came into his own with a fully-realized rendition of Not While I’m Around. Here his attractive, confident lyric tenor proved a perfect match for the arching lines and soaring heights of the score’s best tune. We scarcely dared breathe as Kyle spun out ‘pianissimo’ musings of aching beauty. And he acts, too!
With Stephen Lord holding the baton, the Sondheim score (and Jonathan Tunick’s brilliant orchestrations) has never sounded better. However, since the decision was made to mike the singers, I do wish they had gone all the (Broad)way and done the same for the orchestra so the music shared the same ‘presence’ in the house. Final musical kudos go to the always commendable Gerdine Young Artists who formed the chorus and so effectively communicated the many tricky solo lines in the ensemble writing.
Without getting ahead of myself (but not wishing to repeat myself over four different productions), lighting designer Christopher Akerlind is a company treasure. His work on Sweeney was nothing short of brilliant (pun intended). The moody, menacing washes; the accurate tight specials; the roving spots; the uses of silhouette and back-lighting; the skill in keeping the soloists’ faces illuminated; the apt selection of color filters and gobos; this was a Masters’ Class in Excellence in Stage Lighting. And he repeated his complete success in all the other three productions this season. Bravo, Mr. Akerlind.
Rod Gilfry as Sweeney Todd and Susanne Mentzer as the Beggar Woman
The entire physical production provided an artistically gritty environment, a visual realization of the de-humanizing effects of the Industrial Revolution, and disturbing parallel to the blackness of men’s souls. Riccardo Hernandez’s unit of corroding factory walls, dotted with bleak industrial lights, formed the basic playing space. With the addition of carefully chosen, highly specific set pieces, every locale was aptly suggested with great economy. Especially effective was the mid-stage, textured plastic curtain, edged with splotches of ‘blood,’ that was backlit. This imparted a surreal chiaroscuro scrim effect to such enactments as Lucy’s rape at the ball, and Joanna’s rescue from the asylum, among others.
Emily Rebholz contributed an array of appropriate costumes, from the raggedy street people, to the fading finery of the working middle class, to the richly appointed upper crust. For the Pirelli gathering as well as the asylum inmates, she has crafted giddily bizarre suggestions of an Edward Gorey fashion plate.
Ron Daniels‘ direction revealed meaningful character relationships through layered subtext and well-motivated blocking. His pointed use of the (Greek) chorus was blessedly unfussy. Perhaps his greatest success was in mining every last bit of humor from the grim tale and for creating a real physical relationship between his two protagonists. It has taken over thirty years, but for me here at last was a “Sweeney Todd” not only equaling the original, but in many ways surpassing it.
Lightening struck again the next night with the very best production of Cosi fan Tutte I have ever seen. Yes, ever. I will effuse momentarily about the uniformly splendid cast but first, the over-riding triumph here was the flawless direction from Michael Shell.
Mr. Shell not only found fresh ways to make the ‘usual’ schtick land (read: Despina’s and the boys’ disguises) but infused the first act with so many delightful comic surprises that the piece actually seemed new again. Have you ever laughed out loud at the soprano’s comic touches during Come scoglio? Ever? I certainly hadn’t. Yet there was Miss Miffed Thing, using the music’s scored dynamics to calculate over-reacting outbursts which make us giggle at, well, just how silly it really all is.
Similarly, Dorabella mined a wealth of giddy girlish faux protestations as she contemplated, and then munched, a cookie through half of Smania implacabile. (Despair? Maybe. . .oh-wait-there’s-food. . .) No clichéd oversize magnet for Dr. Despina in this version, nope, but rather a copper saucepan that she “rang” with a spoon like at a shivaree.
This interpretation also contained unambiguous sexual interplay with no doubt that the disguised suitors were out for instant gratification. One of the best (low) laughs of the night occurred when the guests first arrived and proffered “gifts” to the maidens. Held just below waist level, cloths that were covering the presents were whisked away in unison to reveal matching potted plants, each with a big pink cone-like flower protrusion just at the right ‘anatomical position.’ Mozart would have loved this. (And if he didn’t, to hell with him.)
Mr. Shell did let things settle down in Act II of course, and the seriousness and despair that set in were all the more profound for the romping fun that preceded it. Ditsy Dorabella goes with the flow but Fiordiligi cannot relinquish her feelings of betrayal, and at the finale she ultimately breaks from her ‘assigned’ lover to isolate herself center stage, confused and indecisive, an ingenious, plausible, and thought-provoking twist to the usual pat ending.
(L to R) David Portillo as Ferrando, Rachel Willis-Sørensen as Fiordiligi, James Maddalena as Don Alfonso, Liam Bonner as Guglielmo, Kathryn Leemhuis as Dorabella, and Jennifer Aylmer as Despina
James Schuette has designed sumptuous period gowns for the two female lovers, eye-catching uniforms and exuberant ‘disguises’ for the two men, and elegantly functional period dress for everyone else. Doing double duty, Schuette’s handsome unit set becomes a multi-purpose drawing room, tavern, and garden as required, simply accessorized with chandeliers, plants, tables, and/or settees. The handsome wigs and lovely make-up were by Ashley Ryan.
Rachel Willis-Sørensen proved a radiant Fiordiligi, blond and imposing in stature, with an ideal Mozartean musical sensibility. Her heavy lyric voice has spinto leanings and the thrilling intensity in her top notes was matched by an even, creamy legato that encompassed the role’s considerable range. Ms. Willis-Sørensen‘s coloratura work was sprightly and accurate, her floated piano singing limpid and affecting, her dramatic outbursts focused and controlled. As an actress, Rachel took us on a complicated journey from defiant girlish loyalty, through weakening resolve, to profound doubt, to the depths of passion, to the end point of astonished betrayal. Quite a profound arc for a three hour opera!
No less detailed was the feckless, fickle Dorabella presented by Kathryn Leemhuis. I greatly admired Ms. Leemhuis‘s cheeky Zerlina in last summers Giovanni and she brought an even greater comic sensibility and emotional spontaneity to Cosi. As she reveled in her indecision, and demurely blew off the consequences of her actions, she also sang the part with utter confidence and a velvety mezzo that blended perfectly with her “sister.” The numerous melismatic passages sung in thirds by the duo were consistently, sinuously bewitching.
Jennifer Aylmer proved to be an unusually ripe-voiced Despina. Not merely a sassy, piping coquette, she; but rather a seasoned party girl with a vibrant, forthcoming, rock solid soprano. Ms. Aylmer‘s affected voices for the doctor (mock Yiddish) and the lawyer (sinus sufferer) were both well sustained and well considered, especially as she married them to the execution of some inspired, goofy physicality.
David Portillo and Liam Bonner were ideally cast as Ferrando and Guglielmo. The short/cute Mr. Petrillo and the lanky/dashing Mr. Bonner were an 18th Century Mutt and Jeff, making for many good contrasts and humorous interactions. David is possessed of a meltingly attractive lyric tenor, fresh, youthful, and pliant. The beautiful repose of his crystalline Un’ aura amorosa was one of the evening’s highlights, in a night that was crowded with musical excellence. Liam married a peacock’s vanity to a rooster’s strut, and conquered the part with a virile, responsive baritone of considerable power and thrust. His egocentric take on the soldier drove the action (and reactions) to good effect.
In the key role of Don Alfonso, it was a pleasure to once again encounter veteran James Maddalena, who has happily been a constant presence on the opera scene for over thirty-five years. His intelligent music-making and well-considerd acting were always in evidence. While I can’t report that his sturdy baritone is as fresh and responsive as it was thirty-five years ago, at this point in his career the instrument has compensated by assuming a warm, pleasingly grainy patina. As Cosi’s puppet master, he brings an assured and commanding presence to Alfonso’s machinations.
Kendall Gladen as Carmen
Jean-Marie Zeitouni not only led a taut, stylistically sound reading in the pit, but presided over a meticulously paced performance that never once allowed ser pieces to descend into self-pity or bathos. Never have I experienced a Cosi that unfolded so inevitably. This is not to suggest that the Maestro was all impetuosity and rushed dramatic gestures. The overall intensity of the forward motion was relaxed as merited to relish introspective watershed moments, that were made all the more effective for the change of pace.
OTSL’s other “standard fare” was the evergreen “bread and butter” favorite, Carmen. Director Stephen Barlow has re-imaged the classic as a ‘film noire’ and much of the concept reaped good dividends. Having a black and white old-time film projection of production credits during the prelude was a clever touch, and following it with a flash-forward of Jose getting arrested as Carmen’s body is carried away on a stretcher (leaving a white chalk outline on the ground) really established the genre (with a wink to Sunset Boulevard). So far so good.
But the plot points began to unravel quite quickly when there were no soldiers, but rather only a handful of policemen in a vacant lot in 1940’s Seville, backed by a cyclone fence upstage, in front of which was an indeterminate platform affixed with a billboard bearing an image of Carmen. Making José a police sergeant doesn’t quite work, and having the ragamuffin boys’ chorus be turned into Catholic schoolgirls playing hopscotch just doesn’t mesh with their singing of “playing soldier.”
I was bowled over by Paul Edwards’ stunning black and white period costumes. The scope, diversity, and sheer numbers of different looks created a movie-glamorous version of Spanish life. Would that his scenery had been as thorough or as imaginative. Lillas Pastia’s tavern made use of the same up center platform as Act One, with the addition of an upright piano and a beaded doorway stage left, a scattering of some tables and chairs, and a massive collage hanging up left center fronted by a neon “Pastia’s” sign.
For Act Three’s mountain pass, after a considerable pause to “change the set,” we were still in the same setting minus the piano and a few tables and chairs, and with the neon sign turned off but still discernible. Hmmm. For the street procession outside Act Four’s bull ring, we were back to the exact same setting as Act One, where the cigarette factory had been established as off up right. So. . .where was the bull ring? I guess, off left? With the entire visual effect quite meticulously contrived to be black and white, why choose to have Carmen’s Jimmy Choo’s be red? And why the red neon sign? And the red flower? Nothing in Act Four was red. The inconsistency and choices of these few uses of this one primary color was puzzling.
The floor plan also contributed to some blocking oddities. After the cigarette girls all entered up right behind the fence and established a traffic pattern around the full length of the fence to wind around it up left and spill into the main playing space, Carmen appears with them, and then enters on the platform, sidling around from behind the billboard. Is there a fence or not? And if not, why don’t some of the girls take a shorter path to the square?
(L to R) Corinne Winters as Micaëla and Adam Diegel as Don José
Okay, Mr. Barlow is trying to give her a star entrance, but it should make sense. He has created a number of nice stage pictures but has not always bothered to motivate movement. Why have Micaëla and José suddenly part down center only to re-position the girl right of the platform and him center of it just so she can cross back to him? Why have our Diva start Les tringles des sistres tintaient lounging atop the piano and work her way center, only to return her afterwards to her perch at the weakest visual position on the stage?
Other ideas scored big, like having Carmen and Escamillo driven on at the end of the parade seated atop a convertible, amidst a shower of glittering confetti from the flies. And, having José brutally and abruptly kill Zuniga, a premonition of his calculated execution of Carmen, shooting her even as he kisses and caresses her. And, devising real sexual menace in Micaëla’s first encounter with the townsmen. There is no question Mr. Barlow has manufactured some potent moments, even though has not yet knit all of his ideas into a unified whole.
Barlow is also credited with having created “new dialogues” to supplant Amanda Holden’s English translation. I am not sure the dramatic intent is well-served by intermittent insertion of Spanish words. As the tenor utters self-conscious phrases like “Tell me about mi madre” it seems like we are experiencing Berlitz-for-the-Clinically-Bewildered. Perhaps the overall stilted delivery of spoken lines was intended to evoke a film style but it must be said that the performers almost seemed to lose character when they stopped singing and started speaking.
Adam Diegel’s otherwise admirable José was perhaps most handicapped by his script. Having enjoyed Mr. Diegel in the past, it is a pleasure to note how much he has grown as an artist, even since last summer’s Glimmerglass Carmen. The tenor still commands an impressive ping on the full-voiced top notes, but has since begun to really explore more nuance and dramatic colorings throughout his range. His vocal embodiment of the obsessed soldier was now far more complete, with shadings and refinements that were wonderful to observe.
Like with most other tenors in this role, I do wish he could find a way to finesse the penultimate phrase in the Flower Song into a spun head voice, but since he chose to “Sing Out, Louise” I can report that he nailed it with controlled power. Adam has also learned to relax a bit more on stage, and there were moments of engaging, boyish charm between him and Micaëla. He could improve his impression in this opera even more by surrendering to a more passionate, sex-propelled hunger for the Bad Girl. Once this aspect of his interpretation is mined further, he will truly be a talent to be reckoned with in the part. Corinne Winters proved a memorable Micaëla. Every inch the darling “girl back home” (but did she need the bookish eyeglasses?) Ms. Winters created the tale’s most sympathetic creature and sang with a refined, glistening soprano that was especially luminous above the staff. The palette of vocal colors in her arsenal greatly enhanced communication and projection, especially the hint of round darkness in the lower range. Aleksey Bogdanov had all the moxie needed to voice a preening, pompous Escamillo. His tightly focused, riveting baritone made short work of the Toreador Song as well as the Act Three confrontation. He was marginally less successful with the gentler assertions of love in his final scene, for which his sizable instrument proved a mite clumsy. Bradley Smoak made more of an impression as Zuniga than I thought possible by affecting an authoritative presence, and singing powerfully with a straight-forward, burnished baritone of considerable beauty.
Gerdine Artist, Hernan Berisso impressed with his solidly sung Morales, his clean baritone and youthful demeanor making a substantial contribution. As Frasquita and Mercédès, Jennifer Caraluzzi displayed a polished, soaring soprano and Shirin Eskandani showed off a pleasing, pliant mezzo. Baritone Thomas Gunther (Dancaȉro) and tenor Michael Kuhn (Remendado) sang stylishly and securely. These four young artists made the most of their showcase in the famous quintet, although their scrubbed good lucks and well-tailored, sparkling costumes did momentarily suggest cast members of “Glee” as they might performGuys and Dolls. Never you mind, the success of these budding performers (and let’s throw in Nikolas Wenzel’s animated Lillas Pastia) demonstrates once again the importance and success of OTSL’s dynamic Gerdine Young Artists training program.
If any further proof is needed, Kendall Gladen as Carmen is a joyous “Local Girl Makes Good” story. Having been a former Gerdine Artist, the native St. Louisian has returned home in triumph. Ms. Gladen has an uncommonly rich, sonorous mezzo. Whether rising to the heights with ringing abandon, or descending into a searing chest register, she not only thrills us with the money notes but expertly blends her resources together for quite a seamless traversal of one of opera’s most famous heroines. Kendall has also captured the role’s (and I use the technical term here) Va-Va-Voom-Factor. She is statuesque, alluring, womanly, and stage savvy to boot.
And she has a sense of humor about Miss Carmen that is often in short supply, like when she calculatedly fluffs up her ta-ta’s in anticipation of the bullfighter’s Act Three arrival. With this performance, Kendall Gladen proved to be a beautiful, charismatic, vocally assured, musically gifted singer who has served emphatic notice that she is more than ready to become the world’s next “Carmen of Choice.”
Aleksey Bogdanov as Escamillo
Maestro Carlos Izcaray kept everything moving along pleasantly in the pit, proving to be a collegial partner to his talented cast. Here, as in the other three works, Robert Ainsley’s well-tutored choral forces performed tightly, responsively, and intelligibly.
OTSL is to be roundly cheered for being such a consistent champion of new works. This summer brought the American premiere of Unsuk Chin’s Alice in Wonderland to a libretto by David Henry Hwang (in collaboration with the composer). As admirable as is this dedication to fostering new creations, it also brings with it considerable risk. And I am sorry to report, that in this case, the risk did not quite pay off.
First, the good news. Make that “great” news. The physical production could not be bettered. This was OTSL at the top of its game. Set Designer Allen Moyer has crafted a marvelous collection of rolling, oversized furniture that twists, turns, opens and closes to create all manner of magical transformations. James Schuette’s fanciful costumes include some of his finest creations, and as already mentioned, Mr. Akerlind’s superb lighting was at its most complex and most effective here. He was ably abetted by Greg Emetaz’s strikingly imaginative video projections that advanced the story and engaged our eye. Ms. Ryan went into overdrive and produced outlandish wigs and a make-up design that were beyond ‘sensational.’ And James Robinson tied it all up with a bow, directing a fantasy of incomparable invention with meticulous management of the assembled forces.
In the title role, petite Ashley Emerson was everything you imagined Alice should be, unleashing her slender, reliable soprano with aplomb. Tracy Dahl was a lovable Cheshire Cat, and her coloratura flights of fancy were awesomely accurate. In the dual roles of the White Rabbit and the March Hare, David Trudgen displayed an impressive counter-tenor of true distinction. Jenni Bank’s sturdy, characterful mezzo was well suited to the cheeky Duchess, and Julie Makerov’s stentorian, steely soprano was a good match for the domineering Queen of Hearts, while Bradley Smoak gave the night’s most varied performance as the King. Matthew diBattista was lovably effective as the dozing Dormouse. Perhaps the very finest vocal performance was given by Aubrey Allicock as the Mad Hatter, his spirited bass-baritone ringing out with gusto. There are far too many characters and fine accomplishments to mention but they were all first rate. So what is the “Bad News,” you may wonder?
Unfortunately, Ms. Chin has composed a score that just does not “sing.” To give her some due, there are many admirable orchestral colors, layers of sound, and attempted pastiches or recollections of different styles (Baroque, Bel Canto, Rap, etc.) but the writing sprawls and individual scenes wear out their welcome by churning on long after we have gotten the point. Characters are not adequately differentiated vocally, and there is not a ‘tune’ to be found. Conductor Michael Christie works tirelessly, and the assembled forces give it their all but. . .the closest thing to a successful moment is Alice’s brief lullaby to the baby pig. That is because all at once the arioso seems to want to please our ear rather than engage our intellect, and the brevity of the scene focuses our attention. Sadly, that was one oasis in an overlong evening of rambling aural inaccessibility.
I have seen too many Euro-trash productions to count, and at most of them I wish I could (and sometimes do) just close my eyes and listen to the music. In a turnabout, with Alice in Wonderland I wish I could have just watched the lavish spectacle and turned off the sound. For all Alice’s aspiration, hard work and promise, in the end we came out humming the scenery.
Sweeney Todd: Rod Gilfry; Anthony: Nathaniel Hackmann; Beggar Woman: Susanne Mentzer; Mrs. Lovett: Karen Ziemba; Beadle Bamford: Scott Ramsay; Joanna: Deanna Breiwick; Judge Turpin: Timothy Nolen; Tobias: Kyle Erdos-Knapp; Signor Pirelli: Anthony Webb; Fogg: Marco Stefani; Conductor: Stephen Lord; Director: Ron Daniels; Set Design: Riccardo Hernandez; Costume Design: Emily Rebholz; Sound Design: Michael Hooker; Lighting Design: Christopher Akerlind; Wig and Makeup Design: Ashley Ryan; Choreographer: Seán Curran; Chorus Master: Robert Ainsley
Cosi fan Tutte
Ferrando: David Portillo; Guglielmo: Liam Bonner; Don Alfonso: James Maddalena; Fiordiligi: Rachel Willis-Sørensen; Dorabella: Kathryn Leemhuis; Despina: Jennifer Aylmer; Conductor: Jean-Marie Zeitouni; Director: Michael Shell; Set and Costume Design: James Schuette; Lighting Design: Christopher Akerlind; Wig and Makeup Design: Ashley Ryan; Choreographer: Seán Curran; Chorus Master: Robert Ainsley; Continuo: Fortepiano, Damien Francoeur-Krzyzek and Violincello, Melisse Brooks
Morales: Hernan Berisso; Micaëla: Corinne Winters; Zuniga: Bradley Smoak; Don José: Adam Diegel; Carmen: Kendall Gladen; Mercédès: Shirin Eskandani; Frasquita: Jennifer Caraluzzi; Lillas Pastia: Nikolas Wenzel; Escamillo: Aleksey Bogdanov; Dancaȉro: Thomas Gunther; Remendado: Michael Kuhn; Conductor: Carlos Iscaray; Director: Stephen Barlow; Set and Costume Design: Paul Edwards; Lighting Design: Christopher Akerlind; Wig and Makeup Design: Ashley Ryan; Chorus Master: Robert Ainsley
Alice in Wonderland
Alice: Ashley Emerson; Young Boy: Trevor Scott; White Rabbit/March Hare: David Trudgen; Duck/Mad Hatter: Aubrey Allicock; Mouse/Dormouse/Invisible Man: Matthew diBattista; Caterpillar: James Meyer, clarinetist and Seán Curran, dancer; Duchess: Jenni Bank; Cook: Ashley Logan; Cheshire Cat: Tracy Dahl; Queen of Hearts: Julie Makerov; King of Hearts: Bradley Smoak; Conductor: Michael Christie; Director: James Robinson; Set Design: Allen Moyer; Costume Design: James Schuette; Video Design: Greg Emetaz; Lighting Design: Christopher Akerlind; Wig and Makeup Design: Ashley Ryan; Choreographer: Seán Curran; Chorus Master: Robert Ainsley