08 Aug 2014
Barber in the Beehive State
Utah Festival Opera and Musical Theatre has gifted opera enthusiasts with a thrilling Barber, and I don’t mean . . . of Seville.
Nixon in China is a three-act opera with a libretto by Alice Goodman and music by John Adams that was first seen at the Houston Grand Opera on October 22, 1987. It was the first of a notable line of operas by the composer.
It is thanks to Céline Ricci, mezzo-soprano and director of Ars Minerva, that we have been able to again hear Daniele Castrovillari’s exquisite melodies because she is the musician who has brought his 1662 opera La Cleopatra to life.
Lyric Opera of Chicago, in association with the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, has staged a production of Richard Wagner’s Tannhäuser with an estimable cast.
Puccini and his fellow verismo-ists are commonly associated with explosions of unbridled human passion and raw, violent pain, but in this revival (by Justin Way) of Moshe Leiser’s and Patrice Caurier’s 2003 production of Madame Butterfly, directorial understatement together with ravishing scenic beauty are shown to be more potent ways of enabling the sung voice to reveal the emotional depths of human tragedy.
Rarely, very rarely does a Tosca come around that you can get excited about. Sure, sometimes there is good singing, less often good conducting but rarely is there a mise en scène that goes beyond stock opera vocabulary.
The Nash Ensemble’s 50th Anniversary Celebrations at the Wigmore Hall were crowned by a recital that typifies the Nash’s visionary mission. Above, the dearly-loved founder, Amelia Freeman, a quietly revolutionary figure in her own way, who has immeasurably enriched the cultural life of this country.
On March 7, 2015, Arizona Opera presented Dan Rigazzi’s production of Die Zauberflöte in Tucson. Inspired by the works of René Magritte, designer John Pollard filled the stage with various sizes of picture frames, windows, and portals from which he leads us into Mozart and Schikaneder’s dream world.
There are some concert programmes which are not just wonderful in their execution but also delight and satisfy because of the ‘rightness’ of their composition. This Wigmore Hall recital by soprano Carolyn Sampson and three period-instrument experts of arias and instrumental pieces by Henry Purcell was one such occasion.
It has been a cold and gray winter in the south of France (where I live) made splendid by some really good opera, followed just now by splendid sunshine at Trafalgar Square and two exquisite productions at English National Opera.
At long last, Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny has come to the Royal Opera House. Kurt Weill’s teacher, Busoni, remains scandalously ignored, but a season which includes house firsts both of this opera and Szymanowsi’s King Roger, cannot be all bad.
RILM Abstracts of Music Literature is an international database for musicological and ethnomusicological research, providing abstracts and indexing for users all over the world. As such, RILM’s style guide (How to Write About Music: The RILM Manual of Style) differs fairly significantly from those of more generalized style guides such as MLA or APA.
Unsuk Chin’s Alice in Wonderland returned to the Barbican, London, shape-shifted like one of Alice’s adventures. The BBC Symphony Orchestra was assembled en masse, almost teetering off stage, creating a sense of tension. “Eat me, Drink me”. Was Lewis Carroll on hallucinogens or just good at channeling the crazy world of the subconscious?
Dominic Cooke’s 2005 staging of The Magic Flute and Richard Jones’s 1998 production of Hansel and Gretel have been brought together for Welsh National Opera’s spring tour under the unifying moniker, Spellbound.
Carolyn Sampson has long avoided the harsh glare of stardom but become a favourite singer for “those in the know” — and if you are not one of those it is about time you were.
Gaetano Donizetti and Malcolm Arnold might seem odd operatic bedfellows, but this double bill by the Guildhall School of Music and Drama offered a pair of works characterised by ‘madness, misunderstandings and mistaken identity’ which proved witty, sparkling and imaginatively realised.
Saturday, February 28, 2015, was the first night for Los Angeles Opera’s revival of its 2009 presentation of The Barber of Seville, a production by Emilio Sagi, which comes originally from Teatro Real in Madrid in cooperation with Lisbon’s Teatro San Carlos. Sagi and onsite director, Trevor Ross, made comedy the focus of their production and provided myriad sight gags which kept the audience laughing.
Commenting on her recent, highly acclaimed CD release of late-nineteenth-century song, Chansons Perpétuelles (Naive: V5355), Canadian contralto Marie-Nicole Lemieux remarked ‘it’s that intimate side that interests me I wanted to emphasise the genuinely embodied, physical side of the sensuality [in Fauré]’.
An evening of strange-bedfellow one-acts in high-concept stagings, mindbogglingly delightful.
On February 19, 2015, Pacific Symphony presented its annual performance of a semi-staged opera. This year’s presentation at the Segerstrom Center for the Arts in Costa Mesa, California, featured Georges Bizet’s Carmen. Director Dean Anthony used the front of the stage and a few solid set pieces by Scenic Designer Matt Scarpino to depict the opera’s various scenes.
Although the English National Opera has been decidedly sparing with its Wagner for quite some time now, its recent track record, leaving aside a disastrous Ring, has perhaps been better than that at Covent Garden.
Utah Festival Opera and Musical Theatre has gifted opera enthusiasts with a thrilling Barber, and I don’t mean . . . of Seville.
At a time when few companies risk devoting resources to lesser-known lyric theatre, this enterprising operation has gambled, and won, with a handsome new production of Samuel Barber’s Vanessa that was characterized by first-rate musical and theatrical values.
Conductor Barbara Day Turner wielded a commanding baton that made the (slightly reduced) orchestration pulse with character and vitality. The top-notch instrumentalists, assembled from near and far, played as one and the Maestra elicited many happy revelations from the rich orchestral writing. She unleashed every bit of passion from the rhapsodic moments, and discovered a beautiful balance with the more straightforward (and sometimes witty) conversational exchanges. Moreover, the conductor was a collegial partner with the singers who were coached to a fare-thee-well. Barbara Day Turner may have just achieved the most accomplished and inspired operatic conducting I have experienced in recent memory.
The musical success was made complete by a highly accomplished cast of singers. In the demanding title role (written for Callas but passed down to Steber), Beverly O’Regan Thiele exuded glamour and elegance, physically and vocally. Hers is an alluring sound and she possesses sound technical ability. She convincingly makes the transition from desperate longing to almost girlish fulfillment. She seems to have a found a rich subtext to Vanessa, and her multi-layered portrayal is fascinating, coupled as it is with well-judged vocal effects. If I had one wish, it would be that she commanded a bit more weight in the lower middle when up against a few moments of thick orchestral texture. But happily, she doesn’t force her beautiful tone beyond its limits and the overall achievement was thoroughly captivating.
Amanda Tarver (Baroness), Andrew Bidlack (Anatol) and Alice-Anne M. Ligh (Erika)
As the opportunistic Anatol, Andrew Bidlack was almost too good to be true. His honeyed tenor was capable of unctuous sweetness, but also had ample reserves for the more spinto romantic urgings. The high soaring phrases held absolutely no terror for him. In addition to his persuasive vocalizing, Mr. Bidlack is handsome as all get-out, and he looks instantly believable as the cad that is young enough to be Vanessa’s former lover’s son. He communicated a calculated electricity with his conquests and one could accept that he might prompt an object of his attention to act against her own best interests.
Alice-Anne M. Light displayed a sumptuous mezzo as Erika, and she won us over early on with a delectably intoned Must the winter come so soon. With a beautifully even tone, a very wide range, and a sound technique already in her arsenal, Ms. Light might loosen up a mite and inject more dramatic color in key phrases. Erika is after all, the most complex occupant here in Dysfunction Junction. And, the most potentially sympathetic. She has all the right qualities and at the end of the day, there is always that splendid instrument. Still, I would hope that future outings will allow her to engage the audience with a deeper embodiment of the girl’s concealed pain. Richard Zuch brought Wotan-like power and Donizettian charm to the character of the Doctor. The only thing he occasionally forgot to bring was consonants. But with a bronze baritone this solid and generous, and a stage demeanor this appealing, Mr. Zuch easily won the audience over. His spinning in a drunken circle to plop on the settee while sustaining a high F-sharp was nothing short of amazing.
Kevin Nakatani made a fine impression as the servant Nicholas, and he wrung every laugh out of his moment of adoration of a guest’s fur coat. The Maids Madolynn Eileen Pressin and Elizabeth Tait had real personalities and executed specific stage business with skill. I especially liked the suggestion that one of them had also been a willing recipient of Anatol’s attention. Amanda Tarver is arguably way too young for the old Baroness, but her physicality was commendable, and it was a treat to hear the role sung with such a fresh, substantial and robust delivery. Ms. Tarver might have been assisted had her age make-up been a little more pronounced and her wig a little grayer.
Beverly O’Regan Thiele (Vanessa), Andrew Bidlack (Anatol), Alice-Anne M. Light (Erika), Richard Zuch (Doctor)
That is not to impugn the overall achievement of the commendable hair and make-up design contributed by Susan Sittko Schaefer. The elaborate costumes created by Wes Jenkins were richly detailed, beautiful to behold, and helped in defining the characters. Jack Shouse designed an imposing mansion’s great room dominated by a massive staircase and balcony. Everything about the look and the accessories conveyed “Old World money.” Christopher Wood’s sensitive lighting was notable for its effective isolated areas, subtle shifting moods, and astonishing accuracy. All evening, the follow-spot contributions were very, very well-executed (did I say “very”?).
If I had to single out a highpoint in an evening plump full of them, it would have to be the final quintet. The placement of the soloists, the fluidity of the illumination, the excellence of the musical writing, the perfection of the singing, the gradual build-up of tension and volume, and then when you thought it couldn’t possibly get any better, the almost unbearably powerful climax with Mr. Zuch cresting the full ensemble’s fortissimo passage with a tremendous outpouring of gorgeous baritone sound.
Daniel Helfgot staged the piece with a sure hand. He used the space and the levels very well indeed, and created believable character relationships with well-motivated movement. I liked the focal point of the landing, midway up the staircase, although initially it did seem to relegate Vanessa to a disadvantageous upstage positioning at curtain rise. Mr. Helfgot knew how to point the dramatic tension, and also injected a good deal of humor into the proceedings. One minor reservation:
Having the front doors burst open to frame Anatol’s initial appearance, backlit and with snow falling was a stunning effect to set up Do not utter a word. But when he subsequently crossed into the shadowy room during the aria, could he have not closed the doors? I mean, it is the frozen tundra out there! It remained a distraction until well after the aria when Nicholas finally rolled his eyes and shut out the cold. This same thing happened when the duo returned from ice-skating. In an evening that was consistently marked by great attention to detail and realism, these two choices seemed out of character.
That minor observation aside, this accomplished Vanessa was a cause for substantial jubilation.
Cast and production information:
Vanessa: Beverly O’Regan Thiele; Erika: Alice-Anne M. Light; Anatol: Andrew Bidlack; Baroness: Amanda Tarver; Doctor: Richard Zuch; Nicholas: Kevin Nakatani; Maids: Madolynn Eileen Pressin, Elizabeth Tait; Pastor: Jon Jurgens; Conductor: Barbara Day Turner; Director: Daniel Helfgot; Set Design: Jack Shouse; Costume Design: Wes Jenkins; Wig and Make-up Design: Susan Sittko Schaefer; Lighting Design: Christopher Wood; Chorus Master: Stephen Carey