April 29, 2016

A Conversation with Sir Nicholas Jackson

Indeed, the ‘Fireside Pantomime’ indulges in fiancé-swapping and satirical scepticism about love and faithfulness which would not be out of place in Così fan tutte.

So, we should not be surprised that Sir Nicholas Jackson — composer, organist and harpsichord — has recognised in the text’s wit, burlesque, swift character-sketching and dramatic vignettes, the perfect ingredients for an opera. (In fact, Thackeray’s satire had previously caught the attention of the English pianist, conductor and composer Ethel Leginska, who conducted the premiere of her second opera, The Rose and the Ring (1932) in Los Angeles on 23 February 1957, though I could find no evidence of the work having been performed subsequently.) Sir Nicholas’s The Rose and the Ring will receive its first performance at the Drapers’ Hall in the City of London on 4th May.


In conversation, Sir Nicholas explained that the origins of the project lay in coincidental but fortunate happenstance. Sir Nicholas’s grandfather, the nineteenth-century architect Sir T.G. Jackson — responsible for landmarks such as the Bridge of Sighs in Oxford and Radley Chapel — had known Thackeray’s daughter, and when rummaging through some books that he had inherited, Sir Nicholas came upon a copy of The Rose and the Ring and was instantly struck by its irresistible charm. Having recently made an arrangement for wind quintet and harpsichord of a sonata by Domenico Scarlatti, it seemed to Sir Nicholas that the juxtaposition of the rhetoric of eighteenth-century musical virtuosity and nineteenth-century literary enchant would have piquant, invigorating results. So, he set about identifying sonatas by Scarlatti that might be appropriate for adaptation and orchestration.

As an internationally renowned harpsichordist, Sir Nicholas has had a long association with Scarlatti; he has performed and recorded about 40 of the composer’s 555 sonatas and is familiar with many more of Scarlatti’s works for keyboard. This suggests that selecting the specific sonatas apt for transformation would have been a straightforward task; but, Sir Nicholas explained that, although he initially had strong and clear views about which sonatas would ‘work’, he repeatedly found that his expectations were mistaken.

The prevailing binary form sonatas proved less suitable than some of the less well-known longer works and it took some time to determine those ripe for adaptation. One imagines that the compositional complexity of the works might also present problems, but listening to the afore-mentioned Sextet ( Nimbus NI6301) I found the conversational character of Sir Nicholas’s arrangement inherently dramatic, as the woodwind instruments first punctuated the cadences of the keyboard’s intricate lines, then nonchalantly ran away with the melodic threads, spinning their own elaborations — mimicking Scarlatti’s own unconventional voice-leading. The nasal quality of the deep bassoon offered a characterful bass, and I was reminded that despite the apparent simplicity and limitation of Scarlatti’s resources, the composer employed an extended compass and mined a variety of sonorities and textures. The Rose and the Ring will employ both woodwind and strings, arranged antiphonally, thereby enhancing the dialogic nature of the score.

The swiftness and athleticism of Scarlatti’s music would seem to endow it with inherent dramatic properties but a high proportion of Scarlatti sonatas are fast and Sir Nicholas explained that this presents the singers with several challenges, not least fitting in the text. In addition, the original keys have been preserved with the result that at times the vocal lines lie quite high. But, listening to the Sextet it seems to me that Scarlatti’s use of repetition and rhetorical pauses, allied with harmonic audacity and far-flung modulations will prove a perfect match for the ingenious twists and turns of Thackeray’s absurd plot.

Indeed, as Sir Nicholas recalled, the esteemed Scarlatti scholar Ralph Kirkpatrick remarked that ‘[Scarlatti] has captured the click of castanets, the strumming of guitars, the thud of muffled drums, the harsh bitter wail of gypsy lament, the overwhelming gaiety of the village band, and above all the wiry tension of the Spanish dance’, adding that the composer’s music ranges ‘the courtly to the savage, from an almost saccharine urbanity to an acrid violence. Its gaiety is all the more intense for an undertone of tragedy. Its moments of meditative melancholy are at times overwhelmed by a surge of extrovert operatic passion’.

In preparing the libretto, Sir Nicholas endeavoured to retain as much of Thackeray’s text as possible. To assist an audience possibly unfamiliar with the tale, Sir Nicholas’s wife has ‘coloured’ several of the drawings with which Thackeray — who had once intended a career as an illustrator and who contributed regularly to Punch — had himself illustrated his novel, and these will be projected during the performance. In addition, some of the 24 scenes will be linked by narration, delivered by the actor Tim Pigott-Smith.

The cast of exciting young singers comprises several graduates of the International Opera School at the Royal College of Music, including 2012 Kathleen Ferrier Award finalist soprano Robyn Parton —the current holder of the Helen Clarke Award from Garsington Opera, who in September 2015 made her main stage debut as Barbarina in the ROH’s Le nozze di Figaro; bass-baritone Edward Grint, a London Handel Competition finalist in 2014, and Scottish mezzo-soprano; and, Katie Coventry, who is currently training at the International Opera School with Tim Evan-Jones. They are joined by fellow RCM graduates tenors Peter Aisher and William Morgan (the latter is National Opera Studio young artist in 2015-16) and Scottish-Iranian bass-baritone Michael Mofidian, who is studying at the Royal Academy of Music.

The singers will be accompanied by Concertante of London, the baroque ensemble which is led by violinist Madeleine Easton and of which Sir Nicholas is director. Indeed, the instrumentalists (who will perform on modern instruments) form a body of players with considerable experience of performing Sir Nicholas’s reconstructions and arrangements, having previously presented his ‘completion’ of William Lawes’ masqueThe Triumph of Peace and his realisation of Bach’s Musical Offering for four players ( SOMMCD 077).

Following the Drapers’ Hall performance, The Rose and the Ring will receive a public performance on 5th May at The Charterhouse — and it will undoubtedly be a ‘merrier’ occasion than Thackeray’s own ‘first night’ at the school in 1822, when he encountered ‘hard bed, hard words, strange boys bullying, and laughing, and jarring you with their hateful merriment’. Following the Charterhouse performance, the proceeds of which are being donated to the Charterhouse Charity ( Suttons Hospital) , the cast will gather on 7th May to record the work for release later in the year.

The Rose and the Ring is not Sir Nicholas’s first opera. In 1995 The Reluctant Highwayman was performed at Broomhill; subsequently revised, the three-act work employs similar forces to The Ring and the Rose. Excerpts have been recorded ( Nimbus NI6301) and Sir Nicholas hopes that the opera might be recorded in its entirety in the future.

But, before that we have the premiere of The Rose and the Ring to look forward to, and I anticipate an entertaining and thought-provoking evening in which social short-comings and human vanity are set alongside the sorrows attendant on love, and presented in striking music which is both elegant lavish.

Claire Seymour

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Posted by Gary at 5:53 PM

Pacific Opera Project Recreates Mozart and Salieri Contest

The contest was part of the celebration of the marriage of the emperor’s sister, Christine Marie, to the Governor General of the Netherlands. After dinner with incidental music by Salieri, singers and instrumental musicians performed operas by unnamed composers. After the first show, the audience turned their chairs around to watch the second performance at the opposite end of the hall.

On April 17, 2016, Pacific Opera Project (POP) created the same atmosphere for its performance of the same operas, Mozart’s The Impressario (Der Schauspieldirektor) and Salieri’s Prima la Musica e Poi le Parole (First the Music and Then the Words) at the recital-sized hall of the South Pasadena Library. Since The Impressario’s original text contained jokes that were popular in the 1780s, POP presented it in English with an updated topical libretto by Josh and Kelsey Shaw. POP presented the Salieri work in the original Italian text by Giovanni Casti along with projected supertitles. For both operas, Maestro Stephen Karr led the chamber orchestra in an expert accompaniment that gave the singers the leeway they needed to sing their music with elegant phrasing while creating believable characters on the stage.

Baritone Andy Papas was a feisty Impressario whose acting set a high standard for the rest of the cast. As The Poet, Alex Boyd created a convincing character and intoned his topical material with a memorable baritone sound. The tenor voice and comedic talent of Christopher Anderson West added to the setting of the stage for the appearances of competing sopranos. Called Mesdames Herz and Silberklang in 1786, famous sopranos Caterina Cavalieri and the composer’s sister-in-law, Aloysia Weber, sang those roles in the Mozart entry. POP called the sopranos Everly Squills and Meryll Shrills. Karen Hogle-Brown sang Squills with the creamy tones of her smooth lyric soprano voice while Brooke deRosa sang Shrills with exquisite coloratura technique.

After a short intermission, members of the audience drank refreshments and turned their chairs around to see the second opera staged at the other end of the auditorium. As with the first presentation, Maggie Green designed the attractive and sometimes amusing costumes.

In Prima la Musica, Count Opizio contracted the composer and poet to write a new opera. When the curtain opens it has to be finished in four days. The composer has already written the score, but the poet has not been able to produce a useable text. Andy Papas was a credible composer who could not get his poet to produce a libretto. As The Poet, Alex Boyd made us understand his frustration as he sang with stentorian tones. Francesco Benucci created the role of The Poet for Salieri and, a few months later, the title role in The Marriage of Figaro for Mozart. I’d like to hear Boyd as Figaro, too.

Nancy Storace, the first Eleonora, was also the first Susanna in The Marriage of Figaro. In the POP performance, popular soprano Tracy Cox sang Eleonora, the prima donna hired by the Count. Cox is an artist who will probably be seen performing with larger companies in the near future and she was a perfect fit for this diva role. Her tones were full and round, her articulation clear and her technique unmarred by the slightest flaw. As Tonina, the comedic singer with whom The Poet had a relationship, Justine Aronson used a variety of expressive devices to create her character while singing with clarity of tone.

Pacific Opera Project always presents extraordinary new artists to savor and interesting musical works to contemplate. This was but one example of their presentation. After their summer hiatus, they will be doing Mozart’s The Abduction from the Seraglio and Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress. I, for one, don’t want to miss them.

Maria Nockin

image_description=Photo by Martha Benedict

product_title=Pacific Opera Project Recreates Mozart and Salieri Contest
product_by=A review by Maria Nockin
product_id=Above photo by Martha Benedict

Posted by maria_n at 12:10 PM

Powerful chemistry in La Cenerentola in Cologne

On the way back from a semi-staged production of Rossini’s La Cenerentola the driver told me it might not be until 2020 until the site is built. But with two auditoriums in the Staatenhaus, Oper Köln has a very lively production slate. You could easily spend several days here enjoying opera.

Alexander Soddy led the Gürzenich Orchester Köln with amicable enthusiasm. Among comedic timing from the woodwind instruments especially the bassoons popped. The conductor encouraged his strings into a sweeping momentum during Rossini’s frenzied passages. Most of the time he balanced his musicians, the men of the Chor Opera Köln, and soloists with great results. However, in several moments the stepsisters and even in a few instances Don Ramiro were barely audible.

Debuting in these roles and repulsive in full force, Judith Thielsen (Tisbe) and Dongmin Lee (Clorinde) perfectly irritated as the stepsisters: their voices deliberately unpleasant and annoying. They gave the audience plenty of reason to smirk at them. Add to that their nauseatingly pink and green gowns, and they convincingly filled their parts. Carlo Lepore as Don Magnifico belted out his passages with great indignation. Andrei Bondarenko charmed as Dandini, while he vocally impressed with his stamina and musicality in “Come un’ape ne’ giorni d’aprile”.

As he rolled in on a skateboard, sunglasses and all, Scala’s Don Ramiro was more charming than a Disney prince. His regal voice had moments of glory with his great range. Outside of his interactions with Angelina, his highpoint solo occurred in the second act in “Si, ritrovarla io giuro”, where he revealed the powerful reach and flexibility of his voice, as well as his softer side during the subdued passages.

His chemistry with Adriana Bastidas Gamboa could be felt deeply. Indeed they captivated with their duets. While she initially came across a bit stiff in her modesty as Angelina, she lit up in her interaction with Scala. Intense romance brewed between them, as the two looked each other in the eyes. So convincing, it almost felt a bit voyeuristic to watch. You just wanted to leave these two lovers!

While Bastidas Gamboa did not really persuade as Angelina in Act I, she enchanted in her elegant gown suggesting pure virtue in the second act. Was her singing meant to be so different before and after her metamorphosis? In any case, her passionate duets with Scala were the vocal highlights of the evening. Perhaps stimulated by her chemistry with Scala, but Bastidas Gamboa fearlessly produced Rossini’s vocal acrobatics in “Nacqui all’affanno ... Non piu mesta” and received quite the ovation.

There were some cleverly staged bits. The Staatenhaus’s unflattering stagehand uniforms foreshadow Angelina and Don Ramiro’s destiny when they meet in the first act. And the two singers still managed to look good in them. Later, the gowns added fairytale splendor to the scenes. The men in the choir actively made expressive faces in reaction to the minimal acting on stage. Their mimicry amplified the tone of each scene.

This La Cenerentola was a pleasing engagement with swooning romantic moments as well as laugh-at comedy from the stepsisters and stepfather. The audience enjoyed the evening with plenty of chuckles, encouraging with applause and intermittent bravas for the soloists. The sassy elderly dames next to me surprised me with their clear joy.

Green, purple, blue, and orange, Nicol Hungsberg’s atmospheric lighting with its rich colours complemented Rossini’s vibrant score. The enthusiastic audience response throughout also generated a very warm ambience. The encouragingly high number of young folks surprised and suggested the future of opera is far from dead.

While the Staatenhaus is far from inviting, even a bit chilling, this La Cenerentola in Köln certainly lit up the auditorium, especially for a mere concert.

David Pinedo

image=http://www.operatoday.com/Reunited.png image_description=Scene from La Cenerentola [Photo by Klaus Lefebvre] product=yes product_title=Powerful chemistry in La Cenerentola in Cologne product_by=A review by David Pinedo product_id=Above: Scene from La Cenerentola [Photo by Klaus Lefebvre]
Posted by Gary at 10:45 AM

April 28, 2016

Tannhäuser: Royal Opera House, London

True, Opera North will bring its concert Ring to the South Bank, but that is a somewhat different matter. Comparisons with serious houses, let alone serious cities, are not encouraging, especially if one widens the comparison to nineteenth-century Italian composers. Quite why is anyone’s guess; the composer is anything but unpopular. More to the point, Wagner and Mozart should stand at the heart of any opera house’s repertory. They can hardly do so if they are so rarely performed.

I mention that not only because it is very important in itself, but because it has serious implications for orchestras. What used to be Bernard Haitink’s orchestra has had a rougher time of things since his departure. Whilst a great conductor - Semyon Bychkov, for instance, in the first run of this production, or more recently, in Die Frau ohne Schatten - can still summon truly great things from the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House, its day-to-day experience of core German repertory is fading. Here, under Hartmut Haenchen, there were no particular upsets, but there were only hints at what the orchestra has been capable of, and still might be. Haenchen’s conducting had its moments, but it was the heavenly lengths, and how they might fit together, that were lacking. A penny-plain opening to the Overture suggested ‘authenticist’ tendencies, as if Haenchen would rather be conducting the Dresden Tannhäuser, albeit conducting it a little like ‘period’ Mendelssohn. When it came to the music written for Paris, he seemed to linger and to rush, somewhat arbitrarily. There is stylistic ‘incongruity’, yes, if we want to call it that, but should we not be making something of that, even making it into a virtue?

I suspect that Haenchen’s tempi were, on balance, considerably quicker than Bychkov’s; that was certainly not how it felt, especially in the Venusberg, whose pleasures seemed at times interminable (in the wrong sense). Indeed, the exchanges between Tannhäuser and Venus often sounded alarmingly perfunctory, robbed not only of orchestral ‘cushioning’, but of the direction that Wagner’s orchestra-as-Greek Chorus, even at this stage in his career, offers. Of Beethoven, at least as Wagner would have understood him, there was little: perhaps there was, however, of fashionable, ‘period’ Beethoven-cut-down-to-size. Compared to the most recent other Tannhäuser I had heard, superlatively conducted by Daniel Barenboim in Berlin, this was disappointing.

Disappointing in that very important respect, anyway. There was much more to savour vocally. Peter Seiffert gave a strange performance in the title role: it came and went, seemingly without reason, sometimes, especially in the first act, alarmingly out of tune, at other times spot on, always tireless, even when, understandably, his voice acquired something of an edge in parts of the Rome Narration (movingly despatched). Emma Bell was a wonderful Elisabeth; I do not think I have heard anything finer from her. Sincere but certainly not bland, this Elisabeth’s vocal qualities were subtle yet, where necessary (and it often is!), powerful. Sophie Koch’s Venus was ravishingly sung, words and music in excellent, dramatically productive, balance. Christian Gerhaher’s Wolfram is a known quantity to many of us, of course, but no less welcome was it for that. The startling, almost indecent, yet utterly sincere, beauty of Gerhaher’s delivery was once again something for all to remember. There was no need to force the performance; he could draw us in so as to hear a pin drop. Phrasing was just as exemplary. Ed Lyon’s sweetly-sung, dramatically-committed Walther was another pleasure; if only he had had more to sing. Thank goodness, at least, Walther’s solo, only cut from Paris because the tenor could not sing it, was restored. Stephen Milling's sonorous Landgrave was, quite rightly, especially acclaimed by the audience. Young Raphael Janssens acquitted himself well as the Shepherd Boy. So did the chorus (and extra chorus) of Renato Balsadonna, although I think there was greater precision, and perhaps greater weight, under Bychkov in 2010.

Tim Albery’s production does not seem to have changed very much. The Venusberg scene is strongest, the ballet well choreographed by Jasmin Vardimon. It might have been a little raunchier - Wagner’s music here is, after all, the supreme musical manifestation of desperately trying and failing to achieve sexual climax - but it works well enough. The sense of the Royal Opera House being on stage is interesting in this opera. In a work whose central event is a song contest, who is performing, and why? Alas, nothing is really followed through, so that one cannot even really tell whether such metatheatrical possibilities are intended. We end up with little more than a mild compendium of clichés. One bizarre exception is the appearance of cowbells - there is, frankly, little to see - when Tannhäuser first returns to ‘normality’. Their lack of coordination would have been irritating in Mahler, but here, in Tannhäuser? If I had been Haenchen, or the house, I should have put a stop to it. This was not some interesting musical recomposition; it was just a bit of a mess. The war-torn (Balkan?) setting of the second act I presume to have taken its cue from the Landgrave’s ‘Wenn unser Schwert in blutig ernstern Kämpfen stritt für des deutschen Reiches Majestät’. It would be a stretch, however, to say that post-war deprivation was what Tannhäuser might really be ‘about’, at least without some further work on the director’s part. Albery seems content to let Michael Levine’s set designs do the work for him, which of course they cannot. The third act carries on in much the same way. Very much worth hearing for most of the singing, then, but a restricted view would not penalise you unduly.

Mark Berry

Cast and production information:

Tannhäuser: Peter Seiffert; Elisabeth: Emma Bell; Venus: Sophie Koch; Wolfram von Eschenbach: Christian Gerhaher; Hermann, Landgrave of Thuringia - Stephen Milling; Biterolf: Michael Kraus; Walther von der Vogelweide: Ed Lyon; Heinrich der Schreiber: Samuel Sakker; Reimar von Zweter: Jeremy White; Shepherd Boy: Raphael Janssens; Elisabeth’s Attendants: Kiera Lyness, Deborah Peake-Jones, Louise Armit, Kate McCarney. Tim Albery (director); Jasmin Vardimon (choreography, Venusberg scene); Michael Levine (set designs); Jon Morrell (costumes); David Finn (lighting); Maxime Braham (movement). Royal Opera Chorus and Extra Chorus (chorus master: Renato Balsadonna); Orchestra of the Royal Opera House/Hartmut Haenchen (conductor). Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London, Tuesday 26 April 2016.

image_description=Tannhäuser by Tim Albery

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product_by=A review by Mark Berry
product_id=Above image by Tim Albery

Posted by iconoclast at 2:21 PM

April 25, 2016

The Golden Cockerel in Düsseldorf

In these times of political madness, the new production of Rimsky-Korsakov’s Golden Cockerel (zoloty petushok) by Oper am Rhein in Düsseldorf arrives as a refreshingly funny opera. Dmitry Bertman brings this political farce and sex comedy in a delightfully over-the-top staging that made for a highly entertaining and musically engaging production. If you happen to be in the area, it is definitely worth a trip to Düsseldorf, as it’s also scheduled for next season.

The opera is based on a poem by Pushkin, whom Rimsky-Korsakov greatly admired. Tsar Dodon convinces himself his neighboring country Shemakha will attack. He summons an Astrologer, who gives him a golden cockerel to advise him. The bird reveals the Tsarita of Shemakha desires expansion. The Tsar sends his two sons into battle, but they come out defeated. Although in the original libretto they die, Bertman keeps the opera light on drama and high on comedy, so the sons return at the end.


The second act takes place in Shemakha. To avoid conflict, the Tsarita seduces the Tsar and tricks him into marrying her. While Act III is a bit convoluted dramatically, Bertman directs it with a lighthearted approach. The Astrologer demands the bride during Dodon’s wedding to her, but the Tsar kills the him. Then the bird kills Dodon. In the epilogue, the Astrologer leaves the audience with the message that everyone on stage was unreal, except for the Tsarita and him. Make of that what you will.

Bertman’s Act I opens with Tsar Dodon, his two dunces of sons, and his general in a hottub. The buffoonery of the royals and the incapacitated state of General Polkan set the farcical tone for the rest of the evening. These rampant drunks mix beer and vodka, while brawling and flashing each other. Their behavior starts to make sense, once Tsar Dodon acts the most devious: he feeds the unconscious General milk from a baby bottle. Bertman included many of these suggestive moments that served as provocative comedy..

The highlights of the evening occurred in Act II. On a comical level, Bertman’s production made the audience laugh many times, and Antonina Vesina enchanted with her irresistible vocal acrobatics, especially in the “Hymn to the Sun”. She seemed to sustain her endless high notes without any effort. Her vocal prowess is enough reason to go see this production. The Tsarita’s knowing looks at the audience created some tongue-in-cheek moments.


In several highly rhythmic passages, in which the Russian male temperament seemed to echo, Statsenko kept up with the fast pace and demonstrated intense stamina. The Russian baritone truly impressed in Rimsky-Korsakov’s vocal demands, while delivering plenty of comedy during his seduction by the Tsarina.

In Act III, the Tsar and his entourage return from Shemakha--in this case with lots of tax free shopping from Paris. Bertman creates a vibrant tableaux vivant with the choir in high gear and a full parade. Renée Morloc demonstrated great comedic timing as Amelfa, the Tsar’s secretary. A rich voluptuous voice with a hint of mischief. With turbo blond hair on top of her head and a big caboose, she played off Stetsenko in highly comedic sexual innuendo. In act III, an exasperated Amelfa devours the now roasted cockerel; Morloc proved herself priceless in this scene.

As golden cockerel, Eva Bodorova dressed up in flashy golden costume that would easily seem at home in a Las Vegas show. The man behind me gasped “geil, a common German word to describe the titillating. Her golden tenue reflected light as she appeared from the sides of the balcony. With her commanding and crisp voice, she drew all the attention to her.

Unrecognisable in his wig and wizarding tenue (one of the imaginative and detailed costumes by Ene-Liss Semper), Cornel Frey offered a creepy, enigmatic air to the Astrologer's voice. Roman Hoza and Corby Welch sang decently. Their mere presence on stage as Tsar’s bumbling offspring added to the political commentary on royal heritage.

Conductor Alex Kober continued to propel the narrative forward in Act III through well paced momentum in the Dusseldorfer Symphoniker. Rimsky-Korsakov’s score consists of lots of exotic colours from the woodwinds. His Sheherazade often came to mind.

In great detail, the conductor punctuated Bertman’s comedy, amplifying the hilarity on stage. Kober effectively balanced the orchestra and the singer, while allowing the choir, prepared by Edward Kurig, to burst with invigorating energy. Although the Russian language was hard to discern.

With a surprising amount of laughs, flashy scenery, and some vocally breathtaking moments, Bertman’s Golden Cockerel comes highly recommended.

David Pinedo

image=http://www.operatoday.com/Der_goldene_Hahn_09_FOTO_HansJoergMichel.png image_description=Scene from The Golden Cockerel [Photo by Hans Jörg Michel] product=yes product_title=The Golden Cockerel in Düsseldorf product_by=A review by David Pinedo product_id=Above: Scene from The Golden Cockerel

Photo by Hans Jörg Michel
Posted by Gary at 3:33 PM

April 23, 2016

San Diego Opera Presents a Tragic Madama Butterfly

They added color and texture to the setting and placed the scene amid the beauty of a Japanese spring. Cio-Cio San’s red wedding kimono was a beautiful work of art, but many more of Anibal Lapiz’s costumes appeared in soft shades reminiscent of Japanese watercolor paintings. Even the usually flamboyant, swaggering Prince Yamadori wore muted colors.

Latonia Moore was a credible, poignant Butterfly who brought the geisha’s tragedy home. She has a creamy lyric voice that resounded with beauty of tone throughout the auditorium and her phrases were delivered with a quality of tone well suited to the expression of their meaning. Her acting was believable and her characterization of the abandoned young wife became totally convincing. Every woman in the audience could relate Butterfly’s plight to memories of waiting for the phone to ring.

Romanian tenor Teodor Ilincăi has a robust voice with pleasing qualities and the right amount of heft for Pinkerton. He was virile, charming, even ardent, but uncomprehending in the first act when the voices of tenor and soprano blended with great intensity. Later, he showed real horror at what his actions brought about. Baritone Anthony Clark Evans is completing his second year at the Lyric Opera of Chicago’s prestigious Ryan Opera Center. He was a dignified Sharpless who sang with burnished bronze sonorities.

jkwMButterfly_041316_297.pngJ'Nai Bridges is Suzuki, Anthony Clark Evans is Sharpless and Teodor Ilincai (background) is B.F. Pinkerton

As is usual with San Diego Opera, committed fine artists inhabited the smaller roles. J’Nai Bridges was a caring and compliant Suzuki. Joseph Hu was a thoroughly amusing Goro, Scott Sikon a frightening Bonze, and Bernardo Bermudez a pretentious Yamadori. As Pinkerton’s American wife, Kate, Katerzina Sadej, had no idea of the actual situation until she saw Butterfly. Charles Prestinari’s chorus added musical color to the scenes in which they sang. Because the second and third acts were joined, we heard some of the very beautiful music that Puccini wrote as part of the opera’s first version that depicts the night before Pinkerton returns to the home he kept for Cio-Cio San.

The San Diego Symphony Orchestra under the baton of Yves Abel performed Puccini’s score with impressive dramatic qualities. His tempi were sometimes a bit slow, but he brought out the immense pathos of Puccini’s score. This Butterfly left many patrons weeping tears of sympathy. I left the theater thinking of C. S. Lewis’s comment, "Tragedy is more important than love. Out of all human events, it is tragedy alone that brings people out of their own petty desires and into awareness of other humans' suffering.”

Maria Nockin

image_description=Latonia Moore is Cio-Cio San and Teodor Ilincai is B.F. Pinkerton. [Photo by J. Katarzyna Woronowicz]

product_title=San Diego Opera Presents a Tragic Madama Butterfly
product_by=A review by Maria Nockin
product_id=Above: Latonia Moore is Cio-Cio San and Teodor Ilincai is B.F. Pinkerton

Photos by J. Katarzyna Woronowicz

Posted by maria_n at 5:00 PM

Simon Rattle conducts Tristan und Isolde

In a letter to Mathilde Wesendonck, Richard Wagner writes about Tristan und Isolde: “I would call my art....the art of transformation. The masterful point in this work is certainly the great scene of the second act”. This sums up Mariusz Treliński’s technically mind blowing Tristan und Isolde. The stage in the first act transforms through highly complex engineering, while the second act was one of the most dazzling, Romantic opera settings I have witnessed. With Simon Rattle at the helm of his Berliner Philharmoniker, the performance resulted in a superlatively transformative experience; however much exhausting in Act III, you would not want to miss it for the world. And with the Herculean Eva-Maria Westbroek as Isolde, the performance in Baden-Baden became an unforgettable memory.

Act I staging.png

Video projections of a ship at sea during a storm complemented the Prelude in its metaphor for Tristan and Isolde’s tempestuous emotions. At the same time, that ship could have been Captain Rattle’s Berliner. From the opening, the BPO played with astounding intensity. I immediately realised I was in for a very privileged journey.

As Maestro Rattle unfolded Wagner’s luscious tapestry, he ceaselessly generated a resounding depth from his strings. Wagner’s swooning romance and erotic tension overflowed in full force. Dense in texture the leitmotifs resonated deeply. Sir Simon sustains such captivating suspense without interruption that as a listener it was impossible not to feel included in his musical universe. And one cannot forget the men of the Philharmonia Chorus Vienna, who from the pit jolted the piece with their generous energy. In addition, the Festspielhaus greatly amplified the level of musical detail and intensity with its transparent and enveloping acoustics.

Northern Lights in Act II.png

As the first act opens, we see a highly complex staging of a military naval vessel. Dark metallic colours dominate. What little light there is, reflects into the audience. The set by Boris Kudlička and Marc Heinz’s lighting impressed as through complex engineering the stage switched its focus: covering three floors, the deck, the stairwell, the Captain’s quarter’s below, and Isolde’s room at the centre.

The stage functioned like a comic book panel that was each time covered and lit from different angles. Through spy footage, Bartek Macias’s videos of Isolde from different angles projected her on the ever changing stage. Although it sounds like too much, this might be true in the end, but for now the energetic dynamics on stage enthralled.

From the bat Ms. Westbroek dazzled dominating the stage: her voice full of violent distrust, as Treliński makes his Isolde a femme fatale before she has fallen in love. The Dutch Diva convinced both in that capacity, as well later as the enamored Isolde later, when her vibrato conquered all.

Isolde's Liebestod Act III.png

In Act I, dressed in black, she smokes, drinks, and even slaps Melot, played deviously by Roman Sadnik. Sarah Connolly transformed for Braegene into a persuasive secretary (spectacles and all) highly involved, with a dark but affectionate tone that contrasted Ms. Westbroek in the best of ways. Together they created a sound to behold.

The second act was one of the most memorable opera moments I have had. On stage we see the ship‘s wheelhouse that throughout rotates as the action takes place, eventually establishing the setting for the love duet. But for the Northern Lights morphing around behind the two lovers, all is darkness. The flux of those green lights certainly symbolized the transformative nature of this experience and gave this production a feeling cosmic grandeur.

As Tristan and Isolde breathed in darkness with the Northern Lights in the background, the Berliner’s music gained the foreground and Skelton and Westbroek launched into a captivating “O sink hernieder, Nacht der Liebe”. While Mr Skelton never reached the voluminous vocal heights of Ms. Westbroek, he compensated with authentic sensitivity, including even some glass eyed moments. I imagine Wagner would have loved to witness such indulgent and thoughtfully atmospheric moods for his Gesamtkunstwerk.

Each excessively budgeted production reaches a tipping point. At some point it all becomes too much to absorb. Here it occurred in the final act, when everything turns strangely static. The glaring metallic reflections tortured the audience’s vista; as if trying to keep you awake, but with agitating results.

A sullen ambience emerged and a lone hospital bed made for Kurnewal and Tristan’s interaction. As a brotherly Kurnewal, Michael Nagy commanded the stage, even vocally upstaging Mr. Skelton. Still no matter the musical excellence, a nagging dread permeated the first part of the third act.

With the memory of young Tristan in a broken down home in a projection of a forest, Treliński’s applied psychology felt unnecessary and the video excessively taxed the experience of the third act. Perhaps he wanted to slow down the momentum before Isolde’s Liebestod, but the pause in momentum made it quickly clear how consuming the first two acts had already been.

When she returned, Eva-Maria impressively reignited the musical momentum. For “Das Wiedersehen” she stormed onto the stage creating such an impetus with her electrifying voice. Even more impressively, she brought back the preceding intoxication. Her “Liebestod” closed the evening with such persuasive power, leaving me exhausted, drained, but profoundly changed by the overall experience.

The audience responded with a mighty applause and bravas for Ms Westbroek and Sir Simon, while expected boos met Treliński and his team (this is Tristan und Isolde after all). The staging ended up a bit too extravagant with all its excessive sensory stimulation, but the rendition was superlative in its musical execution. This co-production with Shanghai and Warsaw opera houses, opens the Met’s new season in September...also with Simon Rattle at the helm.

David Pinedo

Cast and production information:

Eva-Maria Westbroek (Isolde); Stuart Skelton (Tristan); Sarah Connolly (Brangäne); Michael Nagy Bass (Kurwenal); Stephen Milling (König Marke); Thomas Ebenstein (Shepherd, Sailor); Roman Sadnik (Melot); Simon Stricker (Steersman). Rundfunkchor Berlin, Simon Halsey (Chorus Master). Berliner Philharmoniker, Sir Simon Rattle (Conductor).

image=http://www.operatoday.com/Femme%20Fatale%20Act%20I.png image_description=Scene from Act I [Photo by Monika Rittershaus] product=yes product_title=Simon Rattle conducts Tristan und Isolde product_by=A review by David Pinedo product_id=Above: Scene from Act I

Photos by Monika Rittershaus
Posted by Gary at 4:50 PM

April 20, 2016

San Jose’s Smooth Streetcar Ride

“Lavish” may not be quite the right word, for while Brad Dalton’s direction and scenery were mightily effective, they were daringly spare. The orchestra is placed upstage behind a simple platform that juts out toward the audience over the usual pit. This creates an immediacy that allows director Dalton to make every gesture connect. Every nuance of character relationship has a visceral impact.

On that playing space, designer Dalton has simply added a host of wooden straight back chairs, a kitchen table, a double bed, a trunk, and a few simple props. It is difficult, nay dangerous, to be this simple, but the risk paid off in spades. These homely set pieces were endlessly re-configured in all manner of interesting patterns by a mute “Greek chorus” of particularly attractive, buff and (many) shirtless young men.

This conceit was quite a brilliant theatrical effect. The young men represent Blanche’s multiple past partners, and they often accompany her, distract her, dog her, and define her. They are not omnipresent, but their appearances were very well-calculated, none more so than when they surrounded Blanche and Stanley as he raped her down center stage. Forming a semi-circular barricade with their backs to the audience, torsos bared, they pulsated down and up as one to suggest the mounting fervor of the sex act.

Streetcar8.pngMatthew Hansom (Stanley) and Ariana Strahl (Blanche)

The fluidity of the set piece placement also allowed for great variety in the blocking and the visual impact was heightened exponentially. It didn’t matter that the table was not always in the same place, or the bed, or the trunk, or the imagined doorways. The effect was as unsettled as Blanche’s emotional state. The usual two story set was deftly suggested by having Eunice simply stand on a chair and “yell down” from the second story when required. Mr. Dalton’s direction was a model of creativity and restraint.

The only final scenic element was a bare bulb hanging off right center. This is needed for the paper lantern to temporarily cover it, serving as a potent Tennessee Willams metaphor: hiding the truth under pretty trappings. Capitalizing on that basic “illumination,” David Lee Cuthbert conjured up a bewitching and moody lighting design that not only partnered beautifully with Mr. Dalton’s concept but also greatly magnified its impact. Mr. Cuthbert’s meticulous blending of area lighting, specials, gobo effects, and the judicious use of follow spots was really quite splendid.

Johann Stegmeir’s costume design was also well considered, especially for the men and secondary women. For Blanche, Mr. Stegmeir made her more glamorous than usual, in fact, was she too attractive? The “usual” design renditions of this classic script at least hint at decay, faded glory, and a slightly moldy New Orleans, its Old World allure fraying around the edges. With the minimalistic set elements, the one place this milieu might have been conjured was in the costumes. The attire was wonderfully constructed and carefully selected, but might have been more characterful.

In the pivotal role of Blanche DuBois, Ariana Strahl was a real star presence. This is arguably one of the most complex roles in the English language theatrical canon, and Ms. Strahl did not shrink from its mighty challenges. She sings it beautifully, with a ringing soprano possessed of considerable beauty, assured technique, even production throughout the range, and consummate musicianship. Every move she made was motivated by the drama, and ably conveyed the script as musicalized by Mr. Previn.

What Ariana does not embody just yet is the haunted quality that permeates her being, the barely suppressed emotional turmoil, and the encroaching dementia that informs her practiced deceptions. Yes, Blanche needs all of that, and then she must sing demanding music, too! Ms. Strahl is young, she is highly gifted and smart, attractive and empathetic, so there is no doubt she will grow into this part and fully discover its many facets. She deserves to have many more outings as Ms. DuBois.

Stacey Tappan was nigh unto perfection as Blanche’s simpler sister Stella Kowalski. Her silvery soprano was captivating and shimmering. Her easy delivery of the top register was matched by a well-focused tone, which found an exciting presence in the middle range where much of the ‘conversational’ vocal writing lives. She was wholly believable in her blind love and physical attraction to her husband Stanley.

While the two male leads sang powerfully and made impeccable vocal impressions, they were physically miscast. Opera San Jose has a wonderful roster of resident artists who serve effectively in a wide variety of roles all season long. However, this can result in the occasional odd match-up. The accomplished baritone Matthew Hanscomb has the perfect physique for the sympathetic role of Mitch, the lovable, slightly hangdog teddy bear. Unfortunately, Mitch is a tenor role. Stanley needs an animal allure, an effortless sexual appeal. While Mr. Hanscomb sang the part with power, insight, and flawless delivery, no matter how much he committed to suspending his own disbelief that he was a chick magnet, he couldn’t suspend mine.

Conversely, the rather lumpy good-boy Mitch was here impersonated by the handsome, trim, preppy tenor that is Kirk Dougherty. Again, a terrific vocalist, in total command of his considerable resources, showing off a total understanding of what he is singing, and pouring his heart out as he regales us with a honeyed, attractive lyric instrument. But when the script requires him to say he is out of shape, and that he weighs “190 pounds,” well Mr. Dougherty does not look as though he could tip that scale even soaking wet in several layers of winter clothing. Still, these two men are real company assets, and within their own physical realities, they give their all to the commendable ensemble effort.

Xavier Prado did double duty with a nicely sung Young Collector, and as a ghostly presence as Blanche’s young husband who killed himself. Cabiria Jacobsen was a brazen and appropriately shrewish Eunice Hubbell, and she clearly relished her bitchy pronouncements. Michael Boley was an amusing and firm-voiced Steve Hubbell, a perfect foil to Ms. Jacobsen’s domineering spouse. Teressa Foss was a fine presence as both the Old Relative and the stern Nurse. Silas Elash proved a solid Doctor and ably held his own in the crucial denouement.

In her poignant aria, Blanche urges “I want magic!” Conductor Ming Luke seemed to have answered her demand, and he made a significant case for Previn’s uneven score. Even at times it seems the writing is all effect and little substance, Maestro Ming paid that no never mind, and plumbed the score for all it was worth and occasionally, more. The absolute commitment to the idiomatic jazz licks is integral to the success of the sound and throughout, the accomplished orchestra responded with a reading of sensitive conviction and cumulative power. Exposed instrumental solos were exceptionally pleasing, especially the sinuous trombone phrases.

Ming Luke managed to make an unfamiliar piece accessible to a willing public, he forged a reading that had a logical dramatic/musical arc, and he commanded all his forces in a taught ensemble effort.

Opera San Jose’s impressive A Streetcar Named Desire should be required viewing for all who care about adventurous programming and first-class stagecraft.

James Sohre

Cast and production information:

Young Collector: Xavier Prado; Blanche DuBois: Ariana Strahl; Eunice Hubbell: Cabiria Jacobsen; Stella Kowalski: Stacey Tappan; Old Relative: Teressa Foss; Stanley Kowalski: Matthew Hanscom; Harold “Mitch” Mitchell: Kirk Dougherty; Steve Hubbell: Michael Boley; Nurse: Teressa Foss; Doctor: Silas Elash; Conductor: Ming Luke; Director: Brad Dalton; Set Design: Brad Dalton; Costume Design: Johann Stegmeir; Lighting Design: David Lee Cuthbert; Wig and Make-up Design: Vicky Martinez.

image=http://www.operatoday.com/Streetcar5.png image_description=Stacey Tappan as Stella Kowalski product=yes product_title=San Jose’s Smooth Streetcar Ride product_by=A review by James Sohre product_id=Above: Stacey Tappan as Stella Kowalski
Posted by james_s at 1:36 PM

April 18, 2016

Roméo et Juliette: Dutch National Opera and Ballet seal merger with leaden Berlioz

To mark their recent merger, the Dutch National Opera and Ballet companies are collaborating as equal partners for the first time. Last season, DNO presented Sasha Waltz's choreographed opera L’Orfeo, which was favourably received. But while her Monteverdi was dramatically lucid and moving, this Roméo et Juliette, which premiered in 2007 at the Opéra Bastille, is inchoate and emotionally hollow. The music, rich in thematic tracery, willingly lends itself to Tanztheater’s fusion of dance, movement and drama. The plot lacks linearity and only one of the three vocal soloists plays a character, Friar Laurence. He only appears in the final cantata, to harangue the warring Capulets and Montagues, a double chorus, into a peace treaty. The orchestra takes on the main roles. Rather than retelling Shakespeare, Berlioz tried to capture his genius in music that is both wonderfully descriptive and wrenchingly evocative. There is the clink and glint of clashing rapiers in the opening fugue, and profound longing in Roméo seul, which contains the seed of Wagner’s Tristan chord. The great love scene is achingly beautiful and Mercutio’s Queen Mab speech is transliterated into the flitting filigree of the Scherzo.

Romeo2.pngIgone de Jongh as Juliette and James Stout as Romeo

Choreography could have fleshed out the plot and complemented the orchestral characterization. This staging, however, is vague, emotionally dormant and at times utterly wrong-headed. It is very handsome visually, thanks to Bernd Skodzig’s black and cream costumes, which understatedly reference the Isreali-Palestinian conflict. Specific characters are assigned, but it was difficult to tell who was who. Romeo’s lovingly teasing friends, Mercutio and Benvolio (Bastiaan Stoop and Peter Leung), were the most clearly drawn individuals. Dancing barefoot, the cast deftly executed the jerky, twitchy steps, linking their bodies into sinuous chains. At first they were confined to an inclined platform, one of two white surfaces forming what could be taken for a book. The reduced space precluded runs and spectacular jumps and some of the sequences became repetitious. Attempts at humour fell flat. The Capulets scoffed their banquet like hogs at a trough and the dances at the ball were irritating nervous tics. The drunken guests walked tortuously home like puppet zombies. None of this was funny. Once the ramp was hoisted up, opening the book, the choreography became more spacious. But then, puzzlingly, the music paused. Romeo danced his desperation unaccompanied, trying to scale a smooth wall.

At least James Stout, moving in short, energetic bursts, got a chance to give Romeo an emotional profile, as opposed to Igone de Jongh as Juliet. She is a slender dancer who moves in long, fluids line, but, limited to sudden jumps and propeller arms, she was all elbows and other angles. During the balcony scene there was no hint of chemistry between the lovers. They kept gingerly running away from each other and then colliding amicably. Juliet was directed as a worldly-wise girl for whom the secret meeting is mildly rebellious fun — hardly the state of mind that would motivate elopement, feigned death and suicide. Ironically, Ms De Jongh was most graceful and tender as a sleeping corpse, when the mourners gently lifted and swung Juliet at her funeral.


Failing to compensate for the theatrical aridness, the Netherlands Philharmonic Orchestra under Kazushi Ono sounded under-rehearsed in a grey, matted performance. The usually excellent woodwinds lacked expression and the brass skidded in harshly over and over again. After a tentative Introduction, a leaden Prologue was somewhat relieved by Alisa Kolosova’s full-bodied mezzo-soprano — a thing of beauty, despite undifferentiated diction and a vibrato that widens slightly on the top notes. Tenor Benjamin Bernheim then delivered a snappy, bright-toned Scherzetto. After that, dullness had the upper hand until the poignant funeral dirge by the Dutch National Opera Chorus. Even they, affected by the general malaise, were no more than efficiently competent most of the time. Diffuse orchestral phrasing marred Romeo’s melancholy pages and the enthralling love scene was, just like the pas de deux, devoid of lyricism. The Mab music buzzed aimlessly like a fly trapped in a jar. Applauding politely, the audience only cheered for bass-baritone Paul Gay, maybe because he shook it from its torpor with his resounding “Silence!”. It was a slight shock when he came out in a black sarong, belatedly revealing that the athletic Vito Mazzeo, in identical garb, was, in fact, his dancing counterpart. Mr. Gay sang persuasively, with a firmly anchored lower range, and he and the chorus provided a confident, if not exactly rousing, finale. Here’s hoping that the next joint venture by the National Opera and Ballet will be more fortunate that this one.

Jenny Camilleri

Casts and production information:

Singers Mezzo-soprano: Alisa Kolosova; Tenor: Benjamin Bernheim; Friar Laurence (bass-baritone): Paul Gay. Dancers Roméo: James Stout; Juliette: Igone de Jongh; Friar Laurence: Vito Mazzeo. Dutch National Opera Choir, Netherlands Philharmonic Orchestra. Conductor: Kazushi Ono; Director and Choreographer: Sasha Waltz; Set Designers: Pia Maier Schriever, Thomas Schenk, Sasha Waltz; Costume Designer: Bernd Skodzig: Lighting Designer: David Finn. Dutch National Opera & Ballet, Amsterdam, Friday, 15th April 2016.


product_title=Roméo et Juliette in Amsterdam
product_by=A review by Jenny Camilleri
product_id=Above: Dancers Igone de Jongh as Juliette and James Stout as Roméo [All photos copyright Monika Rittershaus, courtesy Dutch National Opera and Ballet]

Posted by michael_m at 8:44 AM

April 14, 2016

Donizetti : Lucia di Lammermoor, Royal Opera House

And, perhaps he was wise to be wary as the graphic sex, sadism and barbarism of director Katie Mitchell’s recent production of Sarah Kane’s Cleansed at the National Theatre reportedly caused some audience-members to faint with revulsion and others to flounce out in disgust. Having now seen Mitchell’s Lucia, I wouldn’t be surprised if Holten’s cautionary announcement was not simply designed to generate some interest - for the production itself offers little, though the cast is uniformly impressive.

As the eponymous heroine, Diana Damrau deserves credit for her committed engagement with the physical and psychological extremes of Mitchell’s devising while successfully negotiating Donizetti’s high-wire vocal lines. She didn’t have much plushness or power at the top, but Damrau sang with precision, observing all the details in the mad scene’s disintegrating roulades and spiky staccatos, and holding nothing back in conveying Lucia’s distress - it was good to hear the glass-harmonica’s uncanny whistles too. Earlier in the opera, Damrau had delivered an eerily coloured entrance aria, and she convincingly portrayed the anger and resentment felt by Mitchell’s protagonist - who is more feisty than feminine. But, she didn’t have the strength or warmth to make her presence felt in the sextet.

Charles Castronovo was an ardent, lyrical Edgardo; the American-Italian tenor’s phrasing was refined and he displayed both fullness in the middle range and clarity up high. Castronovo also has a handsome stage presence and was fittingly heroic. Some of the best singing of the night came from Ludovic Tézier as Enrico; his baritone is strong but he uses it with subtlety. The Wolf’s-Crag confrontation between the two enemies was exciting and vigorously sung. Rachael Lloyd, as Alisa, and Taylor Stayton, in the thankless role of Arturo, made a solid contribution.

‘A pure and magnificent tragic romance’ was the critical response of Blackwood’s Magazine to Walter Scott’s novel when it was published in 1819. The novel overflows with the immoderations of Gothic romance - witches, madwomen, Byronic heroes, star-crossed lovers, derelict castles, public disgrace, financial ruin and ominous prophecies - and, burdened by familial, political and psychological fractures, its over-emotional heroine submits to insanity and goes on a murderous rampage. Donizetti and his librettist Salvadore Cammarano were not ones to miss an opportunity for violent contrasts and tragic excess and give us a veritable bel canto soap opera.

Katie Mitchell is not that interested in either Scott’s Bride of Lammermoor or Donizetti’s opera, though. She has a different story to tell, a ‘feminist take’ (‘My focus is 100% on the female characters’) set in the 1830s (updated from the novel’s early-17th-century setting), the decade in which Donizetti’s opera was first seen in Naples and as Mitchell notes, the decade which was ‘a very important period for feminism with the Brontës and all those amazing women like Mary Anning who were early feminists, fossil-hunters and scientists’.

Mitchell’s Lucia is a frustrated proto-feminist, trapped in an oppressive male world, whose refusal to endure a life of passive self-denial and duty results in her cruel and bloody demise. This is not such a radical reading. The mad-scene has been variously interpreted, sometimes as the beautiful but futile expression of female passivity and entrapment, elsewhere as a convention-breaking proclamation of self-determination.

However, while it’s true that in the 19th century, madness, both ‘real’ and ‘operatic’, was stereotypically a ‘female ­malady’, I feel that Mitchell goes too far in her assertion of the work’s ‘cultural meaning’. And, in her endeavour to fill in all the ‘gaps’ and provide us with an unambiguous account of ‘what Lucia does while the male characters are singing about her’, she loads the action with extraneous imagined action.

So, as the guests gather to celebrate the nuptial union of the two families, on the other side of the stage we see Lucia and her maid murder Lucia’s husband of just a few minutes. And, they take an awful long time to do so, for he’s a disobliging victim who survives attempted suffocation, prolonged stabbing and a hatchet to the head and ekes out his death-shakes as long as possible - completely distracting one’s attention from the ‘scripted’ plot being presented alongside.

Then, as if murdering one’s husband would not be enough to send one crazy, Mitchell invents a further reason for Lucia’s insanity: a miscarriage - or self-induced abortion? - which causes Lucia to lose enough blood to drown the entire Ashton and Ravenswood clans. It is disconcerting and uncomfortable to watch, but mental breakdown is disturbing too and Donizetti’s depiction of it is sufficient to stir our disquiet.

As for the reported erotic excesses of the production, the characters did seem to be eternally engaged in taking off their clothes, though they exposed little flesh and the nocturnal assignation of Edgardo and Lucia (fully clothed in men’s attire) in the Lammermoor gardens involved an excruciatingly clichéd ‘sex-scene’ of cartoonish gaucheness. Presumably it was more potent than it looked for in the following scene Lucia rushed to the water closet apparently in the throes of morning sickness, which raised a chuckle in the stalls.

Vicky Mortimer’s set divides the ROH stage into two, fairly shallow rooms. Centre-stage is given, literally and figuratively, to a partition wall. Bedchamber is juxtaposed with bathroom, boudoir with billiard room. The eye doesn’t really know where to settle, and as much of the business occurs towards the far edges of the stage, there’s a danger that ‘crucial’ action is missed.

Lucia’s mental wanderings are almost outdone for grimness by an itinerant interloper - the portentous ghost whom Lucia sees of a girl killed by a jealous Ravenswood ancestor - whom Mitchell introduces in almost every scene. And, the set - admittedly detailed and sumptuous, and naturalistically lit by Jon Clark - is small and cluttered. In Act 2, in the billiard room there is almost no room for ROH Chorus to stand, let alone move.

It’s a rare evening when the ROH Orchestra receive a lukewarm reception, but conductor Daniel Oren’s stately tempos and unresponsive, rigid beat didn’t lift the performances from the pit above the work-a-day.
Thank goodness for Castronovo’s terrific performance in the final scene, where despite the visual distraction of Lucia slitting her wrists in the bathtub next door, Castronovo sang with truly affecting tenderness. Despite Mitchell’s assertion that the focus of this production ‘is 100% on the female characters’ it was Sir Edgardo di Ravenswood who stole the show.

Claire Seymour

Donizetti: Lucia di Lammermoor
Lucia - Diana Damrau, Enrico Ashton - Ludovic Tézier, Egardo - Charles Castronovo, Normando - Peter Hoare, Alisa - Rachael Lloyd, Raimondo Bidebent - Kwangchul Youn, Arturo Bucklaw - Taylor Stayton; Director - Katie Mitchell, Designer - Vicki Mortimer, Lighting Designer - Jon Clark, Movement Director and Associate Director - Joseph Alford, Fight Directors - Rachel Bown-Williams and Ruth Cooper-Brown.
Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London
Monday 11th April 2016


product=yesD F
product_by= Donizetti :Lucia di Lammermoor, Royal Opera House, London 11th April 2016. A review by Claire Seymour

Posted by iconoclast at 9:39 AM

April 12, 2016

Five Reviews of Regina at Maryland Opera Studio

For as long as Marc Blitzstein had been writing music, he was determined to create socially conscious art that was accessible to a broad audience. Much of his early career was devoted to writing workers’ songs for the American Communist Party. When he started composing musical theater works Blitzstein stayed true to his leftist politics, setting texts that focused on working-class Americans and confronted issues such as capitalism, minority politics, and labor rights. His earliest works had limited, if any, success. In 1929 he began work on The Travelling Salesman, a “colloquial” opera that follows an everyman on his journey to become President of the United States, but Blitzstein abandoned the project not two years later. His 1937 pro-union musical The Cradle Will Rock made headlines only because of its bizarre premiere. The work was ready to be staged on Broadway, but at the last minute the federal government pulled the rug out from under the production, prohibiting venues from hosting the musical for fear of its overtly Communist message. In defiance, Blitzstein performed the musical anyway at a smaller theater, playing a piano reduction alone onstage while cast members sang their lines from seats in the audience.

Then in 1946, in the wake of his successful Airborne Symphony, Blitzstein received a commission to write a musical theater work to be performed by the Boston Symphony at Tanglewood. Here at last was an opportunity to write a large-scale, genuinely American work for a high-profile institution; the first step was to find a suitable libretto. Discussing ideas with his then-lover Bill Hewitt, Blitzstein broached the possibility of adapting the work of a friend and playwright, Lillian Hellman. The two had collaborated in the past, and Blitzstein was currently providing incidental music for her play, Another Part of the Forest. When Hewitt suggested adapting the play’s sequel, The Little Foxes, for the operatic stage, Blitzstein was immediately enthusiastic and enlisted Hellman for the project.

Set in postbellum Alabama, Another Part of the Forest follows the corruption of a working-class family who cheat their way into fortune, but succumb to lies, greed, and emotional abuse. Unbeknownst to most of his family, Marcus Hubbard, the family patriarch, acquires money by exploiting his fellow townspeople during the Civil War. He abuses his wife and his three children, Ben, Oscar, and Regina. Regina wishes to escape the small town with her wealthy lover, John Bagtry, but is prevented from doing so by her father. Ben, the eldest son, learns of his father’s lewd wartime dealings and uses the information to blackmail him, effectively dethroning him, and asserts control over the family. He arranges for both of his siblings to marry into money: Regina to banker Horace Giddens, and Oscar to John Bagtry’s sister, Birdie (and to her family’s valuable land.) Ben remains single and presides over the family property, monitoring the activities of Ben and Regina.

The Little Foxes finds the Hubbards twenty years later in the same Alabama town, now involved in their own questionable business practices. Regina and her brothers are visited by Mr. Marshall, an entrepreneur from Chicago who is looking to invest in the family’s plantation. Ben and Oscar have their share of the deal ready; Regina must first convince her sick husband, Horace, to agree and—if she can—manipulate her brothers into allotting to her a larger share of the profit. Regina is the operatic setting of their story: at once intriguing and repulsive, and in Blitzstein’s words, full of “greed and glamor.”

Regina2.pngHorace (Daren Jackson) greeting his brother-in-law

Nick Olcott’s staging of Regina with the Maryland Opera Studio at the University of Maryland, College Park is true to the original setting, including period-appropriate costumes and an exaggerated drawl that places us undoubtedly in the Deep South. An especially challenging aspect of this opera is its inclusion of sung text, spoken words over music, and plain speech. The cast handles this with apparent ease, alternating seamlessly between speech and song without interrupting the flow of dialogue. Conductor Craig Kier expertly navigates through the opera’s wide variety of musical styles, ranging from ragtime to waltzes, and gives a convincing musical performance despite the orchestra’s frequent struggles with intonation.

Regina’s title character is ruthless and heartless from the very first scene, when she stamps out the joyful singing and dancing of her daughter, Zan, and her servants, Cal and Addie, while an onstage band plays ragtime music. Regina was sung by mezzo-soprano Louisa Waycott on Thursday, April 7 and Nicole Levesque on Sunday, April 10. Waycott portrays a reserved but calculating Regina, showing brief moments of vulnerability that remind us of her character’s humanity. This occasional softness, however, is balanced aurally by her appropriately steely tone, and an upper register that cuts through the orchestral texture like a knife. Levesque sings with dramatic intensity that matches her delightfully cold-blooded, haughty Regina. Here is a character who takes great pleasure in her own cruelty, sneering at her daughter and delivering her nastiest lines with an ingratiating smile. Her smoky middle register accents Regina’s insatiable lust for money, power, and “things.” Each singer inspires a slightly different reaction from her fellow cast members, yielding two unique but equally provocative performances.

Soprano Laynee Dell Woodward breathes life into the dismal household by imbuing the long-suffering Birdie with a complex inner life. She calls attention to Birdie’s relationships with Zan and Horace, her nostalgia for her childhood home, and her love for music, resulting in one of the most interesting characters in the opera. Woodward’s tone is sweet and effortless, and her shimmering high register is showcased in her Act I vocalise, which she modifies from the original score to incorporate a stunning high F6.

Bass-baritone Daren Jackson is a commanding presence in the role of Horace Giddens from the moment he appears onstage. His physical poise and is mirrored by his rich timbre and the natural ease with which he projects in his low register. He joins Birdie, Zan, and Addie at the opening of Act III for a charming performance of the lighthearted “Rain Quartet,” the only silver lining to the dark final act. In this quartet, Horace stands up from his wheelchair and proclaims, “Some people eat all the earth, some people stand around and watch while they eat.” Jackson delivers this line, a biblical allusion, with authority and stateliness, and there is no doubt that his words embody the true spirit of Regina.

Baritones Anthony Eversole and Mark Wanich play against one another brilliantly in their respective roles as Oscar and Ben Hubbard. Eversole exaggerates Oscar’s volatility; he is temperamental, abusive toward Birdie, and bitter about his longstanding subservience to his brother. Wanich plays Ben with humor and irreverence, often providing his scenes with much-needed comic relief.

Soprano Chelsea Davidson convincingly portrays Zan’s loss of childlike innocence as she is slowly exposed to the horrors of her family’s legacy. Davidson sings with a silvery tone that highlights Zan’s youth; at the same time she is able to consistently project to the back of the hall, reminding us that although Zan is young, she is far from powerless.

Through no fault of the directors or cast, certain scenes in the opera are simply too busy, musically and visually. One such instance is the end of Act II when the Hubbards, gathered on a balcony, have a heated argument while a raucous party carries on in the parlor below. For all the singers’ efforts, it is virtually impossible to hear the conversation over the din of singing, dancing, stomping party guests; were it not for the surtitles, the audience would miss a great deal of important dialogue. Olcott’s solution of visually separating the family from their guests is a creative one, but in reality the dancing is distracting and the Hubbards appear distant and out of focus.

There is a fruitful discussion to be had regarding Regina’s themes of unadulterated greed and inhumanity in light of America’s shifting social milieu. At the time of the work’s premiere in the mid-twentieth century, Regina’s actions were meant to be shocking, callous, and evil; in fact, the opera’s working title was A Bitch in the House. Today’s audience, however, might look back at Regina as a product of her environment. Perhaps the reason that she lies, cheats, and steals is not due to pure selfishness and malice; perhaps she is a woman who has been controlled by male relatives her entire life, and is ready to escape her arranged marriage by any means necessary.

However one chooses to interpret Regina, the Maryland Opera Studio puts on an entertaining and engaging production that initiates dialogue about power and materialism. Through it, we may observe how far America has come, and just how far it has to go. The production closes on Saturday, April 16th.

Rachel Ace

On Friday, April 8th, 2016, the Maryland Opera Studio debuted Marc Blitzstein’s Regina at the Kay Theatre of The Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center (University of Maryland, College Park). Set in the early twentieth-century rural South, the show centers around Regina Hubbard Giddens and her conniving brothers’ plot to secure a business deal at the expense of their community. The family drama explores the abuse, manipulation, and betrayal within the Hubbard clan in their effort to maximize their family fortune. By presenting this lesser-known title that condemns capitalism and greed while exposing both individual and institutionalized racism, director Nick Olcott and conductor Craig Kier make a strong statement on our current political climate regarding class and racial inequality and prove that student opera need not be toothless or apolitical.

Marc Blitzstein, Regina’s composer and librettist, was no stranger to controversy and politics. An outspoken leftist and homosexual, the composer aligned himself philosophically and politically with German artists Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill. Blitzstein first successful theatrical work, 1937 The Cradle Will Rock, was a product of their influence: its allegorical plot promotes steelworkers unions and attacks American corporate corruption. Even more successful was Blitzstein’s English-language adaptation of Weill and Brecht’s The Threepenny Opera, which also offers a progressive political critique of society. Due to his leftist art and politics, Blitzstein was subpoenaed by the House Committee on Un-American Activities in 1950s to testify about his affiliation with the Communist Party; the composer was ultimately blacklisted.

Blitzstein’s Regina has been problematic since its conception. The composer based his opera on Lillian Hellman’s sophisticated 1939 drama, The Little Foxes. Hellman, known for being difficult and possessive about her work, was an influential force in the compositional process and often angled for changes in Blitzstein’s drafts. Her notes consistently repudiated the composer's interpretations of Southern culture and her characters. Additionally, the playwright often sent conflicting critiques to Blitzstein about adhering too close to the original text or drifting too far away from it. As a result, Regina was plagued by constant revisions up until its opening week in 1949. Thereafter Blitzstein and others continued to make changes for subsequent revivals; most recent mountings of the opera often cut the score to omit problematic racial stereotypes. Consequently, a standard, definitive version of the opera does not exist in score or recording.

This season, the Maryland Opera Studio provides its own unique version of Regina by presenting the opera’s racial subtext through “alternative” casting, where originally black characters are played by white actors and vice versa. This manifests most prominently with the casting of Daren Jackson, a black bass, as Horace, the sympathetic white patriarch, and Alexandra Christoforakis, a white mezzo-soprano, as Addie, the black mammy. Both singers give stunning performances that capture the emotional essence of these characters. And, despite this alternative casting in its ensemble and chorus, the production continues to engage with the racial prejudices of the time period depicted in the opera. Student productions often confront limited options with respect to race-conscious casting, and MSO’s tactful approach and awareness of its implication, complete with a public roundtable on the topic of race and art, offers a model for other student studios and professional companies.

As with the casting, Diana Chun’s set design presents an alternative concept of Regina’s home and world. The gilded Southern mansion’s strong slanted angles, floating golden picture frames, and grand serpentine staircase suggest opulence, while highlighting something sinister about the Hubbard family. This abstract set design is well-balanced with both realist lighting and period costumes. Lighting designer Max Doolittle’s ability to simulate an evening sky or a rainy afternoon through the center-stage “mega-window” is breathtaking. Tyler Gunther’s costuming is best represented during the party scene in Act II. The pale pastels of the chorus’s evening gowns offer an intriguing contrast to the black and gold color scheme of the set. Taken together, I was pleased with the unique and well executed design elements that enhanced the story without becoming a distraction.

Unfortunately, Craig Kier’s pit orchestra cannot claim the same success, as at times its dominating sound obstructed vocal performances and story-driving dialog. This is not to say their performance was anything less than stellar. The transitional music was captivating, and the chorus of Act II and ensemble performances throughout were clear and well balanced. Regrettably, however, many scenes of spoken dialog and occasional arias were muffled beneath the orchestra.

The members of the opera chorus were skilled in both singing and acting. The party scene at the end of Act II offered comic relief, as various members of the chorus expressed about their catty distrust of the Hubbard-Giddens family while being uncontrollably transfixed by the decadence of Regina’s party. Though, much like the pit orchestra, their wild dancing during the gallop chorus distracted from the action during a pivotal moment in the story.

The opening-night student cast was mostly strong and near-professional. Mezzo-soprano Louisa Waycott led as the dangerous titular character Regina. Though consistently good throughout, her best moments were in the first half of the show, particularly in the scene leading up to the aria “The Best Thing of All.” Additionally, her monotone orders to Cal, the house servant, as Regina prepares for her party at the beginning of Act II showcased Waycott’s lighter comic abilities. Unfortunately, the mezzo-soprano’s acting never truly expressed the hues of Regina’s darker side. This was especially evident in the cold scenes between her and Horace; Regina’s commanding and distasteful lines such as “I’ll be waiting [for you to die]” and “I’ll be lucky again [when you die]” lacked the authentic toxicity I was expecting from a femme fatale.

Bass Daren Jackson, playing Regina’s compassionate and moral husband Horace, gave a fabulous vocal and acting performance, providing the audience with a sincere character arch in a fraction of stage time compared to other characters. His solo “Consider the Rain” in the spectacular Rain Quartet at the beginning of Act III delicately articulated the ethical dimension of the plot withheld up until that point.

Chelsea Davidson showcased her lovely soprano voice as Zane, the young naive daughter of Regina and Horace, yet it was often covered by the pit orchestra. Her acting favored the lighter aspects of her character, while her fraught confrontations with Regina, especially at the end, seemed slightly stilted.

As for Regina’s deceitful brothers, baritone Anthony Eversole was commanding in the role of Oscar, whereas Mark Wanich was less convincing as the older and wiser Ben. Their two acting styles were nearly identical, brutish and loud, which unfortunately made for a stale drama in many of their scenes.

The strongest and most consistently natural performance was that of soprano Laynee Dell Woodward’s Birdie, Regina’s sad, endearing alcoholic sister-in-law. On a technical level, Woodward was stunning: her coloratura arpeggios in Act I were spot-on, and her descant in Act II added a favorable light aura to “Addie’s Blues”. Both her recitative and arias were fabulous and enrapturing, starting within the first ten minutes of the opera with her entrance scene and aria “Music, Music, Music.” In almost every scene involving Birdie, Woodward’s acting captured the audience's undivided attention with meticulously chosen gestures and vulnerable expressions that carried an intense gravitational pull. A high point of the entire opera was “Birdie’s Aria” in Act III, in which the character declares: “I drink!” Due to Woodward's commanding presence, this seemingly sideline moment presented much more drama than Regina’s climactic high C “I’ll be waiting!” in the finale of Act II, despite the efforts of staging and intense lighting for the latter. This may be a coloratura-soprano bias, but just as Woodward’s notes soared above the others’ in the ensemble, so did her enchanting performance as Birdie.

Overall, director Nick Olcott and conductor Craig Kier presented a winning production of this out-of-the-canon opera. Both cast and crew rose to the occasion to present a show that is both thought-provoking and entertaining. Issues of race and class are at the forefront of this production, and MSO’s team takes on these themes in respectful and innovative ways. Though there are still some areas to improve, particularly the balance of the pit orchestra with the ensemble, I highly suggest seeing MSO’s Regina, as this period piece allows its audience to reflect on the timely themes of greed and injustice while imagining the bright futures for its strong student performers and designers. The production closes on Saturday, April 16th.

William Gonzales

When Maryland Opera Studio (MOS) announced that it would be doing Marc Blitzstein’s opera Regina, many people, myself included, were unfamiliar with the piece. The fact is that this work is rarely staged due to its high production cost, challenging music, and the herculean task of trying to make sense of the many different versions of the score. According to director Nick Olcott, the MOS production features a “franken-version,” an amalgamation of features from five main variant currently in existence.

Regina’s lack of a definitive score is largely due to its performance history. A disappointing initial run on Broadway in 1949 forced Blitzstein to adapt the piece for New York City Opera, and prompted a confession that his vision for Regina was always more operatic. Although this revival was more successful, the piece didn’t find a safe haven on the operatic stage either. A proposal to perform Regina at La Scala was rejected due to its incompatibility with a traditional idea of opera. Ultimately, the piece didn’t make it into the canonic repertoire, and was destined to continue to be revised again and again.

And yet, there is something significant about Regina. Leonard Bernstein would agree: he was a huge advocate for the work, both after its Broadway cancellation and during the campaign for its production at La Scala, where Bernstein himself was to conduct it. What La Scala missed and Bernstein caught was the power of Blitzstein’s message that reflected the social atmosphere of his time: a privileged white family profiting at the expense of the black community in their town; the voice of social justice communicated through ragtime, spirituals, jazz and blues; and, most prominently, the destructive nature of greed. And let’s face it: we haven’t outgrown these themes. Regina is as important a work today as it has ever been.

Based on the play The Little Foxes by Lillian Hellman, who collaborated with Blitzstein on this project, Regina is set in sleepy Alabama during the 1900s. It tells the story of the Hubbard siblings, Ben, Oscar and Regina, whose greed causes them to turn away from their conscience and against one another. The story also depicts the plight of their victims: Oscar’s long-suffering wife Birdie, Regina’s husband Horace and their daughter, Alexandra or Zan for short. We also see Oscar and Birdie’s son Leo take after his father, much to his mother’s dismay. Servants Addie and Cal struggle to keep up with the Hubbards’ demands, while protecting Zan, Birdie and Horace as much as they can. The main storyline revolves around a business scheme the Hubbards concoct with William Marshall, a rich banker from Chicago, whom they go to great lengths to impress.

I am compelled to start the review by celebrating the chorus. Largely thanks to the enchanting choreography by Adriane Fang, the chorus rivaled the main cast for attention, particularly during the party scene (Act 2 Scene 2). Throughout the production, the chorus members provided an impressive sound, coupled with entertaining facial expressions and clear diction. The chorus is also a driving force for the narrative, thanks to the efforts of the stage director Nick Olcott.

Olcott provides a glimpse into the relationship the Hubbard family has with the town, particularly in the opening scene where we witness the racial tensions that the family reinforces. In general, Olcott misses no chance to provide the audience with more of the story, whether by giving Regina an opportunity to drop her façade when her face isn’t visible to other characters on stage, or by having Birdie flit around, desperately communicating her wishes, only to have her power swatted away by the Hubbard siblings.

One of the few qualms I had about the production concerned the issue of balance between the singers and the orchestra, particularly at the beginning where the brass tended to overpower the singers, although Blitzstein’s heavy scoring is partially to blame. That aside, the instrumental sections were impressive, with the onstage jazz band especially charming. Conductor Craig Kier kept everyone together, for the most part, and the orchestra offered some unique character insights, particularly during Regina’s disturbing conversation with Horace at his homecoming (Act 2 Scene 1).

The casting of Horace and Addie in this production has sparked a debate about non-traditional (or color-blind) casting: Horace, an affluent Southern man, is depicted by a black man, and Addie, a traditional black mammy, by a white woman. Yet Daren Jackson with his mature, booming bass commands the stage so powerfully as Horace, while Addie is portrayed by Alexandra Christoforkanis with such nurturing warmth and humor that any questions of color casting are forgotten.

Addie’s counterpart, the overworked Cal, is played by Tshegofatso Moeng, who gives a charming performance. Chelsea Davidson depicts the hopeful Zan with a dazzling voice and convincing youthfulness of manner. Her aunt and ally, Birdie is played by Laynee Dell Woodward, whose flawless coloratura and relentless stage energy makes it easy to see into the heart of this heartbreaking, elderberry-wine-coveting character. Birdie’s relationship with her abusive husband Oscar Hubbard is expertly depicted: all it takes is one dominant hand on her shoulder, and we understand what is going on behind closed doors. Anthony Eversole’s depiction of Oscar highlights all the insecurities and frustrations of the character, primarily induced by his brother Ben, the head of the family. Mark Wanich skillfully brings out the most interesting aspects of Ben: his unnerving ability to find amusement in the darkest of circumstance, his willingness to step on anyone for the sake of the scheme, and the unexpected glimmer of respect for his sister. Between them, Wanich and Eversole also showed the most impressive grasp of the southern dialect among the cast.

I had the pleasure of witnessing the production with both casts (the characters of Regina, Leo, and Mr. Marshall are all double casted). On April 8th, Louisa Waycott subtly let a few of Regina’s loose threads show, in contrast with the terrifyingly harsh depiction of the title role by Nicole Levesque at the April 10th performance. Both mezzos’ timbres proved impressive throughout the extremely challenging and stylistically eclectic material Blitzstein provides them. Tenors Matt Hill and Alec Feiss swapped roles, each offering a convincingly blundering Leo, and a charming Mr. Marshall. Hill in particular was most consistent at projecting during the dialogue sections.

One of the most impressive aspects of this production is that all its visual aspects were designed by graduate students. Tyler Gunther created costumes well suited to each character, with Regina’s, Zan’s and Birdie’s party dresses particularly stunning. Max Doolittle’s lighting design brought out the warmth in the “good” characters, and the twisted aspects of the Hubbards, and provided a lot of nuance in the shading of the window and the hallway of the set. The set, designed by Diana Chun, was anxiety-inducing in the best way. The staircase in particular was instrumental in establishing the tension, while the red-black-and-gold color scheme was a clear reflection of the storyline and the characters.

Regina runs through April 16th, 2016.

Anna Mendham

Regina: Music and Drama

There’s this perennial problem in the music world today about whether certain dramatic works are more correctly categorized as operas or musicals. It’s a problem that is ostensibly solved on a case by case basis and often involves an implicit sort of spectrum with opera at one end, musical theater at the other, and all but a few works falling near one or the other of these two extremes. Porgy and Bess, Candide, Light in the Piazza, and Sweeney Todd, for instance, can all arguably be labeled as one of these two genres, but the extent to which they also function effectively within the other always seems to problematize the classification. Of course, Sweeney Todd is a musical, but even Sondheim admits that it’s an opera when performed by an opera company. The determining factor is then where and for whom a work is performed. This brings us to Marc Blitzstein’s Regina. To which genre does it rightly belong? The simple answer is that it’s an opera. We have the composer’s words on the subject to guide us, but even his own conception of the work perhaps oversimplifies the situation to some extent. The work had its beginnings on the Broadway stage, opening in 1949 and directed by Bobby Lewis. It also features a number of hallmarks of the Broadway musical, such as a heavy reliance on spoken dialogue. Over the course of its many revisions, however, Blitzstein did progressively remove more and more of the spoken dialogue in favor of sung material, in an effort to make the work more operatic.

Regina is based on Lillian Hellman’s play The Little Foxes that tells the story of the Hubbards, a wealthy Alabama family around the turn of the 20th century and their power struggle in an effort to profit from a potential business deal with a wealthy Northern businessman. The eponymous “queen,” Regina, and her two brothers, Ben and Oscar, position their loved ones like pawns in a very lucrative chess match. As they exploit the poor and the black community in their town, they also exploit the powerless members of their family. Oscar’s wife Birdie has been driven to drink after her husband’s family acquired her ancestral plantation, Lionnet, a recurring symbol of hope, escape, and melancholic nostalgia for a purer bygone time. The Hubbards’ personal avarice clearly stands here for a large-scale capitalist greed, and we are made to see that both are cyclical. Just as the family has ruined Birdie’s life, they are poised to do the same to Alexandra, Regina’s daughter and Birdie’s niece.

Friday’s production with the Maryland Opera Studio presented an amalgam of Blitzstein’s various revisions, taking key elements from each in order to present a whole that was both coherent and accommodating to modern sensibilities and attention spans, clocking in at around 3 hours (inclusive of two intermissions). Some elements were cut from the production for practical reasons. Though the original play deals directly with the topic of race, and though Blitzstein attempted to address race within the sphere of the music itself, including an all-black onstage jazz band and a white onstage piano trio, MOS has done away with the portrayal of race altogether, in order to accommodate the ethnicities of the available cast. Horace, Regina’s husband and father to Alexandra, is portrayed by a black man, while Regina and “Zan” are both white, a logistical impossibility for the time period, to put it politely. Likewise, Addie, the housekeeper, a black character, is portrayed by a white singer. Neither of these casting decisions feels out of place, though, as the chorus and onstage musicians features a healthy mix of black, white, Asian, and other faces in all sorts of roles, giving the work an ethereal, otherworldly quality in which race isn’t the driving force of oppression, but rather personal capitalistic greed is.

The exception is a scene at the very opening of the prologue where stage action portrays a racially tinged dispute erupting between black and white hired hands over the day’s wages. This is an unfortunate inclusion, both because it muddles the multi-racial presentation of the show, but also, and more importantly, because the stage business is too busy; it distracts from plot clarity and strong, visual tableaux that serve as character introductions. Although the show recovers handily enough from this initial misstep, it would have been much better served by drawing attention from the start to the beautiful artifice of the drama about to unfold. The truly spectacular designs by graduate students Tyler Gunther (costumes), Max Doolittle (lighting), and Diana Chun (set) accomplished this easily. Chun’s set, modern and surreal in atmosphere, was centered on a gigantic, nigh gaudy window and a staircase, both lit with tremendous sensitivity by Doolittle. Gunther’s costumes featured anachronistic bold prints that blended into the aesthetic of Chun’s set adeptly, contributing to the production’s overall surreal and otherworldly affect. Together, these elements would from time to time create immensely powerful and striking tableaux, one of the greatest strengths of the production.

On the musical front, the vocal performances were quite strong as well. Louisa Waycott’s Regina was generally powerful, yet sweet enough when it suited the character’s needs; Daren Jackson sang Horace with a tremendous gravitas and strength, Mark Wanich and Anthony Eversole lent an appropriate vocal richness to Ben and Oscar, respectively; while Chelsea Davidson (Alexandra) and Laynee Dell Woodward (Birdie)’s beautiful sopranos underscored their characters’ innocence and purity. Some of the voices sounded tired from time to time, but a university production so near the end of the semester could fare much worse. The orchestra under Maestro Craig Kier provided a lush, boisterous, or somber backdrop against which the drama on stage unfolded. Musically the production was a success. Where the show faltered was in its dramatic elements. Almost all of the requisite ingredients for a fully successful show were present, and on the whole, the opera really was quite effective, but a few key dramatic shortcomings stymied an otherwise powerful presentation.

The most glaring deficiency was the various levels of acting ability among the cast. Regina is not an 18th century opera. The plot and characters are complex and demanding in a way that much of the older operatic canon is not. Regina was played with little specificity as to motivation, and a general through-line in her actions was often not present. This problem, with Regina and some other characters as well, was highlighted by the fact that the show is in English, in addition to the supertitles that helped the audience follow the text easily. Quite often, though, the titles served as an indictment of poorly acted moments. Zan in particular suffered from poorly motivated actions, most importantly at the end, when her anger and discontent with her mother and the family felt hollow and lacking a true emotional foundation. The most unfortunate instance of this problem was the tremendous disparity of dramatic ability between Oscar and Birdie. Their interaction acts as a microcosm for the family in the show’s plot, which in turn mirrors the society in general. Sadly, though Oscar sang with one of the richer voices in the show, his acting showed little skill or awareness, particularly of his own body, while Birdie’s character, on the other hand, shone brighter than any other on stage. It drained much of the weight and tension from their relationship to have the strongest actor play opposite the weakest.

Having said all this, let’s return to the initial discussion of categorizing operas and musicals. If I’ve been at all harsh in my examination of this production, it may not be the fault of the company, but rather of the genre of the work. It’s quite possible that, despite Blitzstein’s own opinion that the work is an opera, Regina has been miscategorized. Perhaps it is neither opera nor musical, but something else entirely. If we allow ourselves to define a piece’s genre not by where it is performed, but rather by who would best perform it, then Regina is neither. The vocal demands of the show are too high for a singer without solid classical training, but likewise, the characters, plot, and the general drama of the show are tremendously complex and require powerful and convincing actors. No company, opera or musical theater, has the capability of putting on such a show, because such performers simply don’t exist. But perhaps they should. Perhaps this is not an aberration, but an emerging trend in the 20th century. Regina, along with Sweeney Todd, Light in the Piazza, Candide, and similar works are all part of a new genre, a halfway point between the opera of yesterday and the musical of today. Perhaps this is the future of American opera, a form that is equally focused on musical and dramatic integrity. The works exist. Now all that is left is to start performing them—really and truly performing them.

Matthew Samson

Think opera, and the United States is not one of the first countries that come to mind. Sure, there are a few older classics such as George Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess, as well as some newer works by Philip Glass and John Adams that will soon earn their place in the canon if they have not already done so. Compared to countries such as Italy and Germany, pickings of American opera, even for a willing director, are rather slim. After all, The United States is the home of the Great White Way, and the birthplace of the musical. But along with the abundance of musicals, there are operas; and then there are the pieces in-between, such as Marc Blitzstein’s Regina. Premiered on Broadway in 1949 and staged by the New York City Opera four years later, this relatively unknown work falls in the grey area between opera and musical, not only because of the location of its premiere but also because of Blitzstein’s treatment of the music. He utilizes traditional operatic styles, but also pulls from newer, and more distinctly American genres, including musical, ragtime, and gospel.

The Maryland Opera Studio’s production of Blitzstein’s Regina is successful in showcasing the vocal talent at the school and bringing this little-known American work back into the public eye. The composition, based on Lillian Hellman’s play The Little Foxes, follows the title character and her two brothers plotting and conspiring their way to fortune in turn-of-the-century Alabama. Premiered during the second Red Scare, Regina is a brash condemnation of American capitalism and the greed that it creates. Over the course of its production history, Blitzstein and others have revised the work, leaving Regina without a definitive version. That, plus Blitzstein’s clunky adaptation of Hellman’s play leave little question as to why the work is rarely performed. MOS chose to use primarily the 1991 Scottish Opera version and has been able to work around most of its problems to present an entertaining production of Regina.

The plot of Regina focuses on the Hubbard siblings, Regina, Ben, and Oscar, trying to get rich by convincing a Chicago businessman, Mr. Marshall, to build a cotton mill near their plantation. Regina schemes throughout, manipulating everyone in order to get her way. She uses her daughter Alexandra (Zan for short) to lure her ailing husband Horace back from the hospital so he can invest in the business deal. The deal happens, but without Regina, after Ben, Oscar, and Oscar’s son Leo steal a fortune in bonds from Horace’s safety deposit box. Regina wants to blackmail her brothers but Horace refuses, also threatening to disinherit her as payback for her neglect. Fortunately for Regina, he then suffers a massive heart attack. She watches idly as he pleads in vain for his medication. Horace dies shortly thereafter; with his threats put to rest, Regina successfully blackmails her brothers into giving her a 75% share in the family company. Zan, reflecting on the words of her now deceased father, realizes how materialistic her mother is and ends up leaving her. Regina is left with money, and nothing else.

The title role is double cast and portrayed by Nicole Levesque and Louisa Waycott. Each brings a different dimension to the character, and both certainly have the voice to take on such a commanding role. Ms Levesque’s Regina is sinfully fun to watch, allowing the audience to indulge in her insatiable desire for money and her love of “things” throughout the whole performance. Pure rage is felt when at the end of the act II party scene she shrieks at Horace over the whirlwind of a dance below her: “I hope you die…I’ll be waiting!”

Ms Waycott’s interpretation of Regina is a more nuanced one. In her first scene entertaining Mr. Marshall, Regina is a proper Southern lady, with all the charm and grace one would expect. Once Mr. Marshall leaves, however, Regina’s true intentions and her obsession with money are revealed. Even in the scenes where Regina is at her most conniving, Ms Waycott emphasizes the Southern setting of the work by still carrying a layer of sweetness about her character, even though the sweetness is merely a ploy to get what she wants. She delivers Regina’s manifesto “The Best Thing of All” powerfully, making it clear that Regina knows what she wants and how to get it.

For the most part, the downfall of Regina is the fault of Blitzstein and not the MOS. The work begins with a prologue that Blitzstein added to Hellman’s play against the writer’s wishes. In the prologue, the head servants of Regina’s household, Addie and Cal, calm the deliverymen after a fight breaks out over wages by singing a hymn. Alexandra Christoforakis who plays Addie does a wonderful job, saving this otherwise tiresome scene that does not align with the action to follow. The first act also suffers greatly from Blitzstein’s lack of clarity on who is the main character in the story. While the work is titled Regina, act 1 could have been titled Birdie. Birdie, played by Laynee Dell Woodward, is the alcoholic wife of Oscar Hubbard. Ms Woodward’s portrayal of Birdie skews young, instead of depicting the older woman nostalgic for her youth, as in her opening number “Music,” a reminiscence of her family’s trips to Europe when she was younger, and her love of music. Ms Woodward has a lovely voice, which is shown off to its full extent here. However, the text has very little relation to the rest of the opera, and what it does in terms of characterization is accomplished elsewhere. The preeminent placement of “Music” focuses much of the attention on Birdie in the first act, at the expense of Regina. In addition, Birdie is present through almost the entire act (Regina is not), and dominates the closing scene, warning Zan about the plans to have her marry her cousin (and Birdie’s son) Leo. Because of this Oscar ends up striking her, making the audience sympathetic to Birdie. The lack of focus on who is indeed the main character in the first act is compounded by production choices. Birdie is in a vibrant green dress while Regina wears a dark red one that blends into the primarily black, gold, and red palette of the set. There are also numerous staging choices that make Birdie the focal point, rather than Regina, such as when the three siblings sitting down fantasizing about their potential new wealth while Birdie runs around behind them. All in all, one is left wondering at the close of the act which character the work is actually about. Thankfully, Blitzstein uses the following two acts to refocuses on Regina.

The second act allows for the introduction of two welcomed additions to the work: Regina’s sick husband Horace, played by bass Daren Jackson, and the chorus in the party scene. Mr. Jackson is unquestionably the star of the final two acts. He commands attention not only due to his stage presence and acting ability but also his absolutely astounding voice. The production greatly benefits from his talent. The chorus of the party guests in the second act is quite amusing, bemoaning how Regina’s family has ruined their lives, gossiping about their fellow partiers, all the while offering theirs hosts the praise that the Southern etiquette requires.

Other roles of notes include Ben and Oscar Hubbard, performed convincingly by the baritones Mark Wanich and Anthony Eversole, respectively. They play off each other well, leaving the audience in no doubt that they are siblings. This is highlighted in the first-act number “Big Rich.” Chelsea Davidson as Zan is a delight to listen to, though unfortunately her strong talent is perhaps a bit wasted on the cliché, uninteresting role and the music Blitzstein wrote for her character. Matthew Hill, double casted on alternative days as Mr. Marshall and Leo, makes all that he can of both roles. His clear, strident tenor voice is used perfectly to portray the flashy, but empty-minded Leo.

The Maryland Opera Studio has made Blitzstein’s work Regina enjoyable to watch, despite its somewhat unavoidable issues. The cast includes many gifted voices, which is reason enough to go see it. The company should also be commended for choosing to produce a lesser-known work, although I am not convinced that Regina should be placed in the canon of American opera. That being said, the production was a satisfying one and should be considered an accomplishment by the Maryland Opera Studio. Regina runs through Saturday April 16th.

Anne Stickley


product_title=Marc Blitzstein's Regina at the University of Maryland
product_by=Five reviews by students at the University of Maryland
product_id=Above: Louisa Waycott as Regina, James Smidt as John Bagtree [all photos copyright Ashley Polland, courtesy of the University of Maryland]

Posted by michael_m at 4:44 PM

April 10, 2016

Three Cheers for the English Touring Opera

The historical origins of this tale of the gentile donna senese of Maremma legend are murky, but the fate of this 13th-century innocent - unjustly charged with infidelity and sentenced to death by her powerful husband - perfectly fit the tragedia lirica bill. Salvadore Cammarano’s libretto is an emotionally charged affair which equals Othello for violent, jealous-fuelled vengeance, with a dash of Romeo and Juliet and Patient Griselda thrown into the mix.

After its terrific productions of The Siege of Calais and The Wild Man of the West Indies in 2015 review 2015 , English Touring Opera deserves credit for pursuing its exploration of lesser-known operas by Donizetti with this dramatic production of Pia de’ Tolomei (seen at Snape Maltings Concert Hall) in which an outstanding central quartet lift the work to the heights. The opera may be a slighter sibling of Lucia di Lammermoor but its impassioned coloratura is deeply expressive, it has soaring bel canto melodies worthy of Bellini at his best, and Donizetti’s inventive formal integration - of soloists and chorus, and of musical units within larger structures - looks ahead to Verdi.

The opera was premiered in Venice in February 1837 but after a lukewarm reception it was subsequently amended by Donizetti, resulting in the existence of several act-finales from which a director may choose. Opera Rara’s 2004 concert performance at the Royal Festival Hall (subsequently recorded: Opera Rara) incorporated all the revisions Donizetti made for later performances in Venice (1837), Senigallia (1837) and Naples (1838), including the concertato movement before the final Act 1 stretta and the censor-imposed, Neapolitan happy ending, but ETO’s staging, the first in the UK, goes back to roots and gives us the original Venetian version.

The action takes place in Florence, around 1260, during the war between two great clans: the Ghibellines and Guelphs. Pia de’ Tolomei, a Guelph, is married to a Ghibelline, Nello della Pietra. The war rages on but their love survives the hostilities; that is, until Ghino, who lusts after his sister-in-law, retaliates when she rebuffs him by telling his brother that Pia has been unfaithful. She has indeed received a nocturnal visitor but he is her brother, the fugitive Roderigo, who has been sentenced to death by the Ghibellines. Nello’s heart is poisoned by Ghino’s malicious lies; he imprisons Pia in the Maremma swamplands and commands her death. Touched by Pia’s true goodness, the fatally wounded Ghino later confesses his deception but when the distraught Nello rushes to the swampland prison where Pia is detained, he is, inevitably, too late to prevent Pia from drinking the deadly toxin. She dies, but not before she is at last able to broker peace, by bringing her husband and brother together through her sacrificial forgiveness.

Director James Conway and his designer, Loren Elstein, elect for an abstract set of towering, precipitously angled, grey panels and scaffolding - in fact the reversed set of one of the other three works on tour, Don Giovanni. But, economy proves efficient too, and the dimly lit edifices function as well as for castle ramparts as they do for battle camps. Moreover, the set does not draw attention to itself, with two positive results. First, Guy Hoare’s chiaroscuro shines lightning blades into the darkness, pinpointing the emotional hotspots; second, the raked triangle bordered by monochrome panels becomes a claustrophobic arena for a human drama which outweighs the annals of history.

There is plenty of visual interest despite the monochrome visual design, whether it’s the dramatic floodlighting of the dungeon where Roderigo languishes, the splashes of green silk provided by the costumes of Pia and Nello, the Guelphs’ medieval banner in the oath-swearing scene, Ghino’s flashy brocade, or the gilded graffiti which is revealed when Ubaldo opens Pia’s tower of imprisonment, which spells out the purgatorial declaration which lies at the heart of the opera’s conception: ‘Ricorditi di me, che son la Pia; Siena mi fé, disfecemi Maremma.’

There may be no space on stage for grand-standing action sequences but chorus and principals are choreographed effectively: shadowy movement in the upper echelons of the scaffolding can suggest secret movements in hermit caves; the casting aside of hoods and whips can turn self-flagellating refugees to war-mongering soldiers in the blink of an eye.

Tenor Luciano Botelho demonstrates strength and a fine tone as Ghino. His bright ring and vocal stamina, allied with an ability to really sing through a line, even at the top and at the quietest dynamic, make his evil swagger disconcertingly enchanting; at times it seems as if he believes his own lies - like Iago his villainy is greater because he has prodigious charm. Botelho rose to the demands of his Act 1 opener, ‘Mi volesti sventurato’, his high-lying phrases pulsing with the energy of grievance; yet, in his duets with Nello and, in Act 2, Pia he revealed a softer tone, suggesting genuine sentiment. Even Ghino’s death scene was convincingly sincere; for once, too, there were no protracted ‘resurrections’ and his demise was all the more affecting for its swiftness. This was an admirable vocal portrayal of an intensely drawn reprobate, who was certainly no cardboard villain.

As Nello della Pietra, Grant Doyle presented a convincing and sympathetic portrait of jealousy and repentance. His aria, ‘Lei perduta in core ascondo’, rocked with doubts and self-doubt. Doyle had great presence, due in no small part to his substantial, agile baritone; but he also moved commandingly around the small stage area.

As Pia, Elena Xanthoudakis had lustre and layers, and a remarkable range with no weak points - she let out a cry of anguish in Act 2 which was both marvellous and chilling. The soprano’s recent roles have included Violetta, Maria Stuarda and Lucia di Lammermoor. On this occasion she was spared illness and insanity, and endowed instead with powers of redemptive transfiguration. A former Gilda and Pamina too, she combined great sweetness with superb projection. In Act 1 Xanthoudakis had a tendency to indulge in swoop and swoon, and occasionally took a little while to reach and settle into a true pitch, but her silkiness was accompanied by greater precision in Act 2. In any case, her Act 1 cavatina ‘O tu che desti il fulmine’ exhibited a depth of feeling which only intensified with each subsequent number, culminating in a final aria - as the doors of the tower were swept back by Ubaldo to reveal the clammy interior - in which her dying words were assuaged by the production’s only thrust of warm light which picked up the red wood of the Malting’s interior and spread a glow of goodness and consolation over the prostrate Pia.

Xanthoudakis enjoyed three terrific duets too, including an exchange with Ghino of astonishing emotional range from desperation to resignation, and a legato episode in the Act 1 Finale, ‘Fra queste braccia’, with Catherine Carby’s Roderigo which was one of the highlights of the evening, as the lustrous soprano and honeyed mezzo entwined. In Carby’s own aria (a further aria for this travesti role was cut), ‘Mille volte sul campo d’onor’, her dark, suave tone was equally beguiling, in spite of rather than because of the merits of the text.

In the minor roles, John-Colyn Gyeantey demonstrated a soft-grained, warm tenor as Ubaldo, achieving musical delineation of character in the role’s short solo episodes. Gyeantey takes over as Ghino in two performances later in the run. Susanna Fairburn, as Pia’s servant Bice, was firm of voice and insistent of purpose, while Craig Smith, as the retainer of the Tolomei, Lamberto, was a bit one-dimensional but firmly focused.

Conductor John Andrews encouraged his players, and especially the Chorus, with vigorous but unshowy gestures. At times in Act 1 I would have liked a little more momentum through the longer numbers, but Andrews built to climaxes in both Acts very effectively, and picked out the more astringent harmonic moments of the score. His players were on good form; there was some fine playing from the two horns, in particular, and the strings took as much care with the repetitive pizzicato accompaniments as they did with the moments of impassioned lyricism.

The Chorus of male and female singers was in tremendous voice; unfortunately they suffered from the only ‘wrong note’ in Conway’s direction - a rather feeble episode of self-flagellation in the hermit scene which only got back on track when Piotr Lempa, stripped to the waist as the chief hermit, issued forth his visionary apotheosis in striking fashion. Elsewhere, it was not hard to imagine that Donizetti’s choruses rang in Verdi’s ears when he penned ‘Va pensiero’.


As the bustling overture of Mozart’s dramma giocoso began, it initially appeared that we were back in the gloomy ‘somewhere’ of Pia de’ Tolomei, but as Hoare’s follow-spot roved gently across the stage, it illuminated designer Anna Fleischle’s grimy industrial burrows, picking out in turn, in a sort of ‘light-mime’, first a mezzanine adorned with Klimt-like murals, then a wall-ladder to the tunnels, and finally a huge fire-escape stage-right.

Director Lloyd Wood - prompted, so the programme tells us, by a recent guided tour of ‘the underworld of Vienna’ - has reimagined Don Giovanni as a tale of social rather than sexual exploitation. Nothing unusual there, one might feel: ‘Viva la libertà!’, as flung out by the angry masqueraders, has always seemed one of the most telling lines of the opera, with more

‘revolutionary’ resonance than da Ponte’s libretto for Figaro. But, Wood goes further and asks us to imagine that Zerlina and Masetto are members of the strotten who dwelled in the subterranean passageways beneath the gilded streets of the city above (as documented by social activist Max Winter) in the early years of the twentieth century, and that Don Giovanni and the other aristos are exploitative industrialists.

This gave us the opportunity to enjoy a dash of rococo Art Nouveau via the stylish Secession frocks and hats sported by Donnas Anna and Elvira, the voluptuous shapes and decorative motifs of which celebrated the ‘beautiful life’ and alleviated the general misery.

There were some threads in this concept that didn’t tie up, though. The Secessionists believed that they could rescue society from the moral decay caused by industrialization; but that’s not why the three masked aristocrats gate-crash Giovanni’s ball. Similarly, Wood argues that it is not women but his masculine identity that concerns Giovanni: ‘his antagonism towards women stems from wanting to victimise the men around him.’ Plausible; but why, then, does this Don spend all his time among the under-class? Surely this undermines Wood’s message? And, Masetto and his gang cannot be that much of a threat?

In the event, the non sequiturs don’t matter as the music creates its own narrative, and in Michael Rosewell’s hands things swing along smoothly and swiftly (some of the recitative has been excised), with the ETO orchestra producing a grand, stylish sound. There was always something going on to catch the eye: Giovanni made a swashbuckling entrance by ladder; he and Leporello raced up and down the iron staircase in pursuit of, or fleeing from, a litany of agitated females. Zerlina presumes that the secret assignation offered by Giovanni in ‘La ci darem’ will be just that, clandestine - ‘no one need know!’ - but a courting couple stroll across the back-stage, relishing the bride’s impropriety.

The principals were uniformly strong and well-characterised. Welsh soprano Camilla Roberts began well as Donna Anna, but while she had vocal power, she didn’t quite have the stamina to sustain it through Anna’s more hysterical agitations. Roberts had a good stab at ‘Non mi dir’ but towards the end the phrasing was increasingly strained and truncated. She did, however, make Anna a credible figure - ambiguous motives and all.

As Elvira, Ania Jeruc produced a beautiful, soft-edged tone, and delivered the seria pastiche of ‘Ah! chi mi dice mai’ and ‘Ah, fuggi il traditor’ with vibrancy, accuracy but without stridency. Jeruc’s voice is velvety and supple, and she used it to act expressively; this Elvira won our hearts even if she could not win Giovanni’s. If Anna and Elvira was rather undirected, then Lucy Hall’s Zerlina was perky and vivacious. The scarlet red of her wedding-day frock and Masetto’s natty waistcoat were a welcome splash of colour amid the sub-pavement dreariness. If this Zerlina proved out of her depth with Giovanni, she fought him off feistily; and, Masetto was putty in her hands. ‘Batti, batti’ was openly flirtatious but Hall made what might seem an un-PC advertisement for sexual violence, earthily erotic and charming.

Bradley Travis’s down-at-heel, down-trodden and down-at-heart Masetto was excellent. Travis’s diction was particularly impressive and he captured Masetto’s conflicting feelings of puppyish adoration and pained resentment. Don Ottavio’s Act 2 Prague-original ‘Il mio tesoro’ was preferred over the Act 1 ‘Dalla sua pace’, which replaced it in the Viennese premiere, and Robyn Lyn Evans’s account was sensitive yet authoritative and firm of line, suggesting that he is not quite the wimp that Don Giovanni supposes.

Matthew Stiff, as Leporello, gave a more nuanced role than is often the case, both vocally and in terms of his relationship with his abusive master. The catalogue aria’s laughs came mainly from Sams’s text but Stiff knew how to deliver it: ‘it doesn’t matter if they’re fatter’ reflects Leporello nonchalantly, ruefully dangling an out-size pair of lacy crimson briefs. I admired Stiff’s vocal expressivity and dramatic perceptiveness when I heard him at St John’s Smith Square last autumn (as the eponymous magician in Bampton Classical Opera’s production of Salieri’s La grotta di Trofonio: review), and here his beautifully smooth bass once again made an impact - and contrasted markedly with his master’s less appealing bluster.

In the title role, George van Bergen was forceful of voice and handsome of physique, but Bergen had a tendency to huff and puff, seldom settling directly on pitch; a more sure and suave vocal line might have convinced us of Giovanni’s seductive allure. Wood’s reading seemed clear: this Don Giovanni had little to redeem him. A bully, sadist and egoist rolled in one, he starved Leporello, intimidated Masetto and showed nothing but contempt for all the women.

Rosewell launched into a precipitously fast Champagne aria, and Bergen struggled to get through the notes in the brief window available, let alone do anything musical with them; this was a shame as, apart from the fruitless serenade, this is the Don’s only aria, but we had scarcely had a blink of an eye in which to catch a glimpse of the ‘real man’. Perhaps that’s Wood’s point: Giovanni is an empty vessel, lacking self-knowledge and identity. Certainly in this production he was increasingly alone and alienated. Abandoned by his servant, he suffered humiliation as his seductive serenade went unheeded, and he slumped in despondent incomprehension against the grotty fire-escape.

Giovanni hosted his banquet in a sewage tunnel, and it was a lonely, dreary, damp squib of a feast; the gramophone which Leporello transported down to the culverts to provide some gaiety - a symbol of the democratisation of musical life, perhaps? - was as important as the Don’s defiance would prove. Robbed of a victim to persecute, Giovanni resorted to flinging chicken bones around the catacombs with growing petulance and pessimism.

Matthew Stiff, as Leporello, gave a more nuanced role than is often the case, both vocally and in terms of his relationship with his abusive master. The catalogue aria’s laughs came mainly from Sams’s text but Stiff knew how to deliver it: ‘it doesn’t matter if they’re fatter’ reflects Leporello nonchalantly, ruefully dangling an out-size pair of lacy crimson briefs. I admired Stiff’s vocal expressivity and dramatic perceptiveness when I heard him at St John’s Smith Square last autumn (as the eponymous magician in Bampton Classical Opera’s production of Salieri’s La grotta di Trofonio: review), and here his beautifully smooth bass once again made an impact - and contrasted markedly with his master’s less appealing bluster.

Rosewell launched into a precipitously fast Champagne aria, and Bergen struggled to get through the notes in the brief window available, let alone do anything musical with them; this was a shame as, apart from the fruitless serenade, this is the Don’s only aria, but we had scarcely had a blink of an eye in which to catch a glimpse of the ‘real man’. Perhaps that’s Wood’s point: Giovanni is an empty vessel, lacking self-knowledge and identity. Certainly in this production he was increasingly alone and alienated. Abandoned by his servant, he suffered humiliation as his seductive serenade went unheeded, and he slumped in despondent incomprehension against the grotty fire-escape.

Don Giovanni hosted his banquet in a sewage tunnel, and it was a lonely, dreary, damp squib of a feast; the gramophone which Leporello transported down to the culverts to provide some gaiety - a symbol of the democratisation of musical life, perhaps? - was as important as the Don’s defiance would prove. Robbed of a victim to persecute, Giovanni resorted to flinging chicken bones around the catacombs with growing petulance and pessimism.

When the Commendatore emerged from the shrine erected in his memory by Anna and Ottavio - an abstract sculpture recalling the shimmering canvases, parallel linear motifs and gold leaf of Klimt’s The Kiss - sporting debonair top hat and tails, I wondered if Giovanni was to be a candidate for the Freudian couch. Piotr Lempa was characteristically stentorian of voice but unfortunately just a millisecond ahead of Rosewell’s beat which unsettled this climactic scene, and Bergen’s own entries. Through the obscurity of the smoky stage, flames sprung through a man-hole cover (I thought we were already underground?), but in the event the unrepentant Don was carried off aloft. This was a moment when a pause for breath might have been welcome but Rosewell whipped things straight on; the final moralistic sextet, delivered from the balcony above, seemed jovially trite and jarring distant from the action that we had witnessed in the below.

That said, this was one of the most enjoyable productions of Don Giovanni that I’ve seen in a long time. It told the reprobate’s tale without undue conceptual reorientation, and through fine vocal and instrumental performances.


Following the tragedia lirica and myth of the previous two evenings, English Touring Opera’s third offering at Snape Maltings combined both genres and added a dose of ‘reform’. Gluck’s Iphigénie en Tauride presents Euripedes’ saga of that prototype dysfunctional family, the Agamemnons, in a form freely adapted by librettist Nicolas-Francois Guillard from a French play.

The Agamemnons siblings’ unstable home-life is the opera’s backstory. On the way to attack Troy the Greek forces are told by the goddess Diane that the wind will only be revived to spur them on their way if the twelve-year-old Iphigénie is sacrificed by her father. Just as Agamemnon wields the knife, Diane suddenly descends and whisks the girl to the safety of her own temple on the island of Tauris. But, Iphigénie’s supposed death provides Clytemnestra and her lover with an excuse to murder Agamemnon, her husband; and for Orestes to exact retribution by killing his mother. Pursued by the Furies, Orestes then sets out with his friend, Pylades, to steal Diane’s statue from the temple and end the heresy of human sacrifice.

At the start of the opera, two strangers are swept onto the shores of Tauride following a vicious storm. Iphigénie is ordered by the Scythian King, Thoas, to sacrifice them. She is unaware that one of the strangers is her brother, Orestes, but instinctive sympathy moves her to spare him. Pylades and Orestes each plead to be the sacrificial victim in order to save the other. Things go badly and Iphigénie is ordered to kill her brother but Diana intervenes and the Greeks are allowed to return home.

Anna Fleischle gives us another murky, grey set and grungy costumes. The design is all slate-grey flats, right-angles, platforms, ramps and stairways, making for a pretty static acting space; but a floor-to-‘flies’ aperture behind the raised central platform provides a gash of colour, as Guy Hoare’s complementary aquamarines and apricots shimmer through. In the centre of the orifice hangs a huge triangular pendant of white, sword-like shards which, though occasionally shrouded in mist, signal the fragility of existence. Fleische’s design is a ‘back-drop’ rather a set through which the action is deliver, but it creates a satisfactory ambience for the blood-shedding and guilt-mongering which ensues.

And the blood-curdling violence starts straight away, with just the slightest of simple minuets preceding a ferocious storm which lashes both the temple and Iphigénie’s mind, invoking a nightmare which raises spectres from her as-yet-unknown family history.

Director James Conway spares no time in boldly leaping into the mayhem and massacre. The captive Priestesses of the Temple, under Thoas’s orders, butcher a man for human sacrifice with vicious hatchet-strokes, and within minutes both the stage and they are gorily blood-splattered. Catherine Carby’s Iphigénie then launches into her dream narration, deepening the oppressive weight. The arioso line seemed to lie a little too high for Carby, though (the role was written for a soprano, but it seldom ventures beyond high A, and has been performed by several mezzos), and she pushed rather hard.

The ambience was over-wrought and, indeed, Act 1 was unrelenting. The confused and terrified Thoas’s arrival tightened the screw further. With the blustering, fragmented arioso of Craig Smith, it seemed as if the pressure cooker might explode; the throbbing string and sostenuto wind accompaniment was entirely over-shadowed. I admired Smith’s performances in ETO’s Donizetti productions last year but on this occasion less would most definitely have been more. The tessitura produced strain and the French was almost entirely lost in the bluster - although idiomatic French was not a characteristic of any of the cast. Thoas’s road-kill body-warmer did not help to create dramatic sincerity. Then, the strangers were subjected to some knife-gang violence during one of Gluck’s poised instrumental numbers.

Fortunately, things got markedly better from here onwards. A more measured pace was adopted, and this was particularly effective at moments of collective expression, as in the lamenting chorus of the Priestesses at the end of Act 2. And, there several telling moments of ritualistic sobriety to appease the gods and Furies, often coinciding with passages of great musical impact, such as the preparation of the burial, in which a twisted white sheet was raised like an embodied form which then slumped fatalistically to the ground.

With the opening narration behind her, Catherine Carby settled into the role and presented us with a proud and arresting Iphigénie whose loathing of the tasks that duty compels her to fulfil was palpable. Carby’s dynamic level may have been unwaveringly forceful and the vibrato and colour uniform, but the expressive phrasing and pulsing throb in the voice were deeply affecting. Gluck’s trademark lament, ‘O malheureuse Iphigénie’, ached with pathos.

As her mentally unstable and distraught sibling, Grant Doyle sang with power and, at times, nuance. The baritone had warmth and power, with steady weight complemented by varied colour, and if he tried too hard occasionally then episodes such as when Orestes awaits death, in Act 2, were sensitively delivered.

We had an engaging Pylades from John-Colyn Gyeantey, ardent and richly expressive, with a real feel for Gluck’s lyricism. But, as on previous occasions, I found Gyeantey’s voice lacking in sufficient fullness, and pressured when the tenor tried to project at moments of intensity, especially at the top. At the final cadence of his Act 2 aria, Pylades and Orestes shared a passionate kiss; a not inapt dash of Greek homo-eroticism, but one which was (fortunately) not excessively milked - leading one to wonder if it was necessary at all?

As on the previous evenings, the minor roles were confidently and more than competently filled. Simon Gfeller was engaging as a Scythian guard and as a Minister of the Sanctuary Bradley Travis was characterful - Travis certainly knows how to work the drama.

The direction of the male chorus was not ideal, however; confined to a restrictive platform stage-left, they were not served well by Bernadette Iglich’s choreography. In contrast, the female Priestesses were one of the highlights of the production, joining with Iphigénie to comment and advise during her tortured reflections. Such was the poise and beauty of their singing, that they retained our sympathy even when encouraging her to fulfil her duty and sacrifice her brother in Act 4. The Priestesses’ prayers also had a formality which made for a striking contrast with Iphigénie’s introspection.

Gluck relates the story in sweeping musical units, in which dramatic recitative, elegant arioso and grandiose or pathetic arias fuse to create urgent dramatic discourse. Conductor Martin André kept things thrusting along, but was not particularly sensitive to the shadows and nuances which underlie Gluck’s simplicity. Moreover, there were times when he pressed on regardless of his singers’ evident which for space and breadth. I admired the unsentimental nature of André’s reading but regretted the loss of vivid contrast and shades.

But, my principal bugbear was the replacement of a dea ex machina, or human or disembodied equivalent, with a prepubescent in white wellies as the goddess, Diane, who descends from Olympus, proclaims peace and ends the fatalistic cycle. The young Tabitha Tizzard may have sung accurately and looked a picture of innocence - a refreshing relief after the angst and terror we had witnessed - but Olympus needs a more compelling voice and presence. Here bathos upstaged pathos.

It seems a pity to end on this note, though. For this was a terrific trio from English Touring Opera. In combining ambition, adventurousness, invention, accomplishment and vision, the company seems unrivalled at present.

Claire Seymour

Donzietti: Pia de’ Tolomei
Ghino degli Armieri - Luciano Botelho, Nello della Pietra - Grant Doyle, Pia - Elena Xanthoudakis, Roderigo de’ Tolomei, Ubaldo - John-Colyn Gyeantey, Bice - Susanna Fairburn, Lamberto - Craig Smith, Piero - Piotr Lempa; Director - James Conway, Conductor - John Andrews, Designer - Loren Elstein, Lighting Designer - Guy Hoare, Orchestra and Chorus of English Touring Opera.
Thursday 7th April 2016

Mozart: Don Giovanni
Don Giovanni - George von Bergen, Leporello - Matthew Stiff, Donna Anna - Camilla Roberts, Don Ottavio - Robyn Lyn Evans, Donna Elvira - Ania Jeruc, Zerlina - Lucy Hall, Masetto - Bradley Travis; Director - Lloyd Wood, Conductor - Michael Rosewell, Designer - Anna Fleischle , Lighting Designer - Guy Hoare, Assistant Director - Laura Attridge, Dramaturg Gretl Satorius, Movement Director - Jo Meredith, Orchestra and Chorus of English Touring Opera.
Friday 8th April 2016

Gluck: Iphigénie en Tauride
Iphigenia - Catherine Carby, Orestes - Grant Doyle, Pylades - John-Colyn Gyeantey, Thoas King of the Scythians - Craig Smith, Scythian Guard - Simon Gfeller, Ministers of the Sanctuary - Ashley Mercer and Bradley Travis, Priestess of Diana - Susanna Fairbairn and Samantha Hay; Director - James Conway, Conductor - Martin André, Designer - Anna Fleischle, Lighting Designer - Guy Hoare, Choreographer - Bernadette Iglich; Chorus and Orchestra of English Touring Opera.
Saturday 9th April 2016


product=yesD F
product_by= Donizetti : Pia de'Tolomei, Mozart : Don Giovanni, Gluck : Iphigénie en Tauride. English Touring Opera. A review by Claire |Seymour

Posted by iconoclast at 3:05 PM

Andriessen's De Materie at the Park Avenue Armory

The opera, composed in 1985-1988, received its North American stage première in March 2016 at the Park Avenue Armory. Indeed, there were moments of the music that were stereotypically unbeautiful, particularly during the hammered clangor of the first movement. This opera does not make for "easy listening". But these moments, challenging the ear and mind of the listener, are beautiful, at least in the Marxist sense of the word, illustrating the rhythms and realism of human existence as they jolt us out of futile reveries and delusions of myth. This production of De Materie, directed brilliantly by Heiner Goebbels, was surprising in many respects (and, yes, I'll get to the sheep). Yet it was Andriessen's music, performed in all its miraculous starkness by the International Contemporary Ensemble, that elevated the performance to what will surely be remembered as one of the top cultural events of the year.


The first movement, intended as an evocation of the Dutch seventeenth-century ship-building industry, opens with the same brutally loud, metallic chord repeated 144 times in the brass and percussion. In De Materie Andriessen turns minimalism on its head in the same vein of his 1975 Workers' Union, which is scored for "any loud-sounding group of instruments"; repetition and process music get melted down into something more earthy and dissonant. The sounds were made even more elemental and unexpected by their sources' location; the musicians were partially obscured from the audience but must have been steered with precision by conductor Peter Rundel. The brash bangs and clangs contrasted bitingly with the human voices interspersed as Chorwerk Ruhr began singing from a balcony. These sounds were juxtaposed with the elegant visuals of Florence von Gerkan's costumes and Klaus Grünberg's stage and lighting design: glowing tents arranged like a checkerboard along the enormous black stage of the Park Avenue Armory; likewise glowing blimps floated languidly overhead. Occasionally the text of the vocals would appear in wavering font along the side of a tent or blimp. However, this wasn't a narrative meant to be followed linearly but rather glimpsed in momentary bursts, through the cacophony and confusion.

Throughout the second, third, and fourth movements, sharply defined musical moods were likewise paired with abstract, sleek visuals and Goebbels' continually startling direction. During the second movement, a stunning 25-minute long aria was sung by soprano Evgeniya Sotnikova in the role of 13th-century mystic poetess Hadewych. As she sang, her face frequently obscured by her dark robe, a procession of rectangular-costumed figures bowed and posed and held their bodies in contorted positions, scattered throughout a checkerboard of pews. Occasionally their positions would change; at one point a burbling bassoon interrupted the legato vocals and strings. The next movement—a scherzo to the second movement's adagio—featured a team of dancers choreographed by Florian Bilbao, including boogie-woogie soloists Gauthier Dedieu and Niklas Taffner. Jazzy, pointillistic music was here paired with a Mondrianesque acrobat show, visually centered around a pendulum and the color blocks (red, yellow, blue, black, white) associated with the early twentieth-century visual art movement De Stijl. The frenzied dancing continued; the musicians' platform rotated across the stage; and finally, 100 Pennsylvanian sheep made their way onto the stage.


The fourth movement was a bit anti-climactic; I had heard about the sheep but couldn't discern their purpose, other than to make the final 25 minutes of the opera somewhat awkward and smelly. Audience members coughed and buried their noses in their sleeves; I don't envy whoever's job it was to clear the stage of sheep excrement in between performances. As the sheep followed each other around the stage, occasionally eliciting a humorous "baa!", the final portrait began. Dancer Catherine Milliken read out Marie Curie's regretful reminiscences, first accompanied by simple, repeated chords from the percussion and then by silence. She continued reading aloud, both from Curie's diaries and from her Nobel Prize acceptance speech, as a group of silent men filed into the performance space, in a visual echo of the sheep. Eventually, the percussion crescendoed on a recurring metallic tone; the opera, quite suddenly, was over. I thought surely I had missed something. What were the sheep there for—as a further commentary on the state of humanity? Another tile in the mosaic of Dutch culture and history? The entire fourth movement felt contrived, not to mention confusing. And yet, it seemed so far from reality as to negatively illustrate reality, bringing about what Goebbels laid out as his goal in the program note: "art, and theater too, should not imitate reality nor represent it, but it should insist on the difference to empirical reality." Andriessen's opera—and Goebbels's production of it—is extraordinary in its illumination of the chasm between art and reality, the instability of matter and of spirit, and the beauty of ugliness.

Rebecca Lentjes


product_title=De Materie in Manhattan
product_by=A review by Rebecca Lentjes
product_id=All photos copyright Stephanie Berger, courtesy of the Park Avenue Armory

Posted by michael_m at 8:56 AM

April 7, 2016

Falstaff Makes a Big Splash in Phoenix

On April 1, 2016, Arizona Opera presented Falstaff by Giuseppe Verdi (1813-1901) and Arrigo Boito (1842-1918) in Phoenix. It was General Director Ryan Taylor’s farewell production because he is moving on to head Minnesota Opera. During his time in Arizona, Taylor helped to ensure the company’s financial security and brought an appreciation of new works to Arizona’s audiences.

Although Boito based most of his Falstaff libretto on Shakespeare’s The Merry Wives of Windsor, he used material from Henry IV as well. Verdi wrote the music when he was close to the age of eighty. He was concerned about his ability at that advanced age, but he was immensely pleased with Boito’s libretto and decided to compose his second comedy despite the fact that his first, Un giorno di regno, had not been successful. On February 9, 1893, the Teatro alla Scala premiered Falstaff, the last of the composer’s twenty-eight operas.

Falstaff’s contrapuntal, harmonic, and rhythmic textures make this opera one of the all time great pieces of musical theater. Verdi’s ebullient musical farce gives a perfect description of the shenanigans in which Shakespeare's oversized and overconfident knight engages. Making his Arizona Opera debut at this performance, conductor Eric Melear wove a web of intricate sound with his baton while remaining sensitive to the needs of the singers and paying close attention to musical and dramatic nuances.

Director Chuck Hudson effectively depicted the action according to Verdi’s libretto and the story could easily be understood without reference to the supertitles. His production gave the twenty-first century audience the illusion of sitting in Shakespeare’s Globe Theater. Douglas Provost and Peter Nolle’s set resembled the Bard’s theater. It seated a few members of the audience on the stage and placed a few more in balconies above.

Falstaff2_Nocklin.pngDana Beth Miller as Dame Quickly, Alyssa Martin as Meg Page, Karen Slack as Alice Ford, Heather Phillips as Nanetta

Cece Sickler’s costumes were attractive, colorful and absolutely correct for the period. Falstaff, his girth maximized by huge pillows, dressed for his assignation with Alice in an orange and green outfit accompanied by a bright red codpiece. Selected on-stage audience members participated in the comedy at various points and cast members skillfully guided their participation. Two notable examples were the well deserved dumping of Falstaff into the River Thames, and the concluding masquerade into the woods beneath Herne’s Oak.

Bass-baritone Craig Colclough sang with excellent diction and a skillfully controlled voice all evening. He interpreted his role visually with exquisite comic timing and aurally with a wide range of dynamics and luminous bronzed vocal tones. His was a moving and sympathetic, but broadly drawn, portrayal of the fat knight. As Alice, Karen Slack sang with poise and radiant sound. Slack’s amply blooming high notes were especially brilliant. She and Heather Phillips, who sang Nanetta, stole the show as far as the women were concerned. Phillips did her best singing above the staff. These two women produced some of the sweetest notes and most finely shaped phrases of the evening.

As Ford, David Adam Moore sang an impressive monolog and created a realistic portrayal of the willful husband and father who capitulated when he realized his daughter was truly in love. Kevin Newell sang Ford’s choice for Nanetta’s groom, Dr. Caius, with burnished tones. Visually, Javier Abreu was a fine Fenton but his sound was a bit dry.

As Dame Quickly, Dana Beth Miller sang a resonant “Reverenza” that was a perfect response to Falstaff’s invitations. Alyssa Martin was an enticing Meg Page who sang with well-placed higher tones. Andrew Penning and Calvin Griffin, created the spirited characters of Bardolfo and Pistola with vocal charm and plenty of hijinks. Falstaff was a fun evening and a fine send-off for Ryan Taylor.

Maria Nockin

Casts and production information:

Falstaff: Craig Colclough; Ford, David Adam Moore; Alice Ford, Karen Slack; Fenton, Javier Abreu; Nanetta, Heather Phillips; Dame Quickly, Dana Beth Miller; Meg Page, Alyssa Martin; Bardolfo, Andrew Penning; Pistola, Calvin Griffin; Dr. Caius, Kevin Newell; Inkeeper/Stage Manager, Ian Christiansen; Page, Brady Fiscus; Conductor, Eric Melear; Director, Chuck Hudson; Lighting, Douglas Provost; Scenic Design, Douglas Provost and Peter Nolle; Costume Design, CeCe Sickler; Chorus Master, Henri Venanzi.


product_title=Falstaff at Arizona Opera
product_by=A review by Maria Nockin
product_id=Above: Craig Colclough as Falstaff [Photos by Tim Trumble, courtesy of Arizona Opera]

Posted by maria_n at 11:53 PM

April 6, 2016

Svadba in San Francisco

The Atrium Theater is a huge square room with overwhelming neoclassical architectural elements, said to seat 300. It sits atop the Veterans Memorial just next door to the War Memorial Opera House. The theater is a daunting space, posing enormous challenges to producers. Its possibilities are exciting and limitless. May the new management of San Francisco Opera rise to the occasion!

Obviously it is an impossible space for a natural acoustic to exist or to be consistent. Thus the room has been acoustically engineered to the ‘nth degree with all sorts of advanced technologies. Based on this performance of Svadba the sound was entirely satisfactory, if manufactured.

Svadba_SF3.pngThe Dianne and Tad Taube Atrium Theater in theater configuration

Svadba (2013) is a brief (55 minutes) opera by Serbian composer Ana Sokolovic (b. 1968). She lives in Canada. "Svadba" means marriage in Serbian, a slavic language, thus for these performances at the SF Opera Lab the title became Svadba-Wedding.

There are apparently marriage customs that straddle slavic cultures, one of which is the preparation of the bride’s hair for the marriage day, like Konstantin Makovsky’s enormous “The Russian Bride’s Attire” (1889) that hangs in San Francisco’s Palace of the Legion of Honor. This is simply that. That Svadba is an opera is a question in itself. It may be more of a painting as there is little if any dramatic development. Mainly there is exposition of subject, like your eye following the story told in the fixed images — a painting.

The subject matter of Svadba is of far less importance than the delight you find in the way the story is told. Composer Ana Sokolovic created its seven moments with the six female voices, but they are not always a cappella. There were strategic dings of a bell, plus noises the six singers created with the few props as well as stomping, clapping and tongue clicking.

The sound world was enormous using the tones of trained voices that mostly moved in soundscapes of close intervals, though of course there was much rhythmic invention of syllables that were both nonsense and Serbian. To our Western ears the formulated voice sounds were all abstract (the sounds were so involving that we ignored the sparse supertitles). When there were melodic moments they were in the modal scales of slavic folk music, and this alone created a long ago and far away atmosphere.

There were two strategic and quite beautiful moments when the voices collided on the first inversion of a triad chord, and the grandiose final moment when the voices resolutely landed on a perfect fifth! It was good music. The six singers were superb musicians with beautiful voices.

The subject matter is essentially folkloric though its relevance surely has long disappeared. The metteur en scène, perhaps the composer herself chose to update the imagery to contemporary dress and action. I found this disconcerting given my assumption of dated subject matter, though maybe there currently are some strange customs among Serbian women who live in Canada. However all this female maneuvering was a long haul for the guys sitting at my table (we sat on rented banquet chairs, like at a wedding celebration). We will have our male moment next month when we are offered a gang rape by stage director Calixto Bieito (Carmen, Act I).

The SF Opera Lab did not entrust the staging to a sophisticated stage director who might explore contemporary staging theories and conceptual practices, rather it was realized by Winnipeg, Canada stage director Michael Cavanagh (SF Opera productions of Susannah and Lucia di Lammermoor). Mr. Cavanagh’s concept was that we all were at the wedding resulting from the preparation of the bride’s hair.

Svadba_SF2.pngPreparing the bridal gown and audience at tables

The opera began on a platform in the middle of the room, then the action moved counterclockwise to a corner of the room, then a second corner, then the third, along the back wall, finally the fourth corner and then back to the center for the ending. It was tiresome, plodding organization.

All movement was abstract choreography in imitation of the music, often breaking natural movement into tiny bits of movement, like the fragmentary quality of the music. The lighting was sometimes fragmentary as well in flashes of pastel color. This music does not need, want or tolerate illustration, it merely requires focus and this we sorely lacked.

The magic of this splendid score was largely lost in this staging attempt. Note that the concept included champagne and wedding cake for everyone.

Michael Milenski


product_title=Svadba in San Francisco
product_by=A review by Michael Milenski
product_id=Above: The bride prepared for the marriage [all photos copyright Stefan Cohen / San Francisco Opera}

Posted by michael_m at 8:02 PM

April 5, 2016

Benvenuto Cellini in Rome

This is the one where the young sculptor Cellini must cast a statue of Perseus (the Greek hero who killed Medusa) commissioned (only in the opera) by Pope Clement VII, the high renaissance Medici pope. A true Renaissance man Cellini was a sculptor, soldier, flute player (like Berlioz), rogue, lover and author — his famous autobiography self-celebrates his considerable exploits in all these fields.

Hector Berlioz and Benvenuto Cellini were kindred spirits. They both thought big, very big, and imagined grandiose accomplishment. Both had absolute certainty of their genius and never doubted their abilities. This got Cellini into quite a lot of trouble. While Berlioz steered clear of the law he heroically schemed to effect the politics or raise the money to realize huge symphonic and operatic projects. Case in point Benvenuto Cellini — four horns, four trumpets, three trombones plus tuba, winds, two harps, seven percussion players, fifty-eight strings [the count in Rome], seven principal singers and the trappings of grand opera (huge choruses and lots of fire) to tell this far-larger-than-life exploit of a far-larger-than-life personage.

So you must think big if you want to attempt Berlioz’ Cellini opera. It is not said if film director Terry Gilliam (Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas among many more films and many Oscar nominations) initiated the idea to exploit this opera, or if English National Opera seized the opportunity to exploit the resources and processes of big time film making to create something really big.

Cellini_Rome2.pngThe commedia dell'arte performance in Act I

Mr. Gilliam’s team for this 2014 ENO production included scenographer Aaron Marsden (the film Moulin Rouge!), choreographer Leah Hausmann, costumer Katrina Lindsay and lighting designer Paule Constable (recipient of many Oliver and Tony awards), and videographer Finn Ross. The result is a huge and spectacularly cinematic production. Along with Cellini’s struggles to cast his statue in bronze and Berlioz’ struggles to conceive, compose and get his opera produced, you viscerally felt the tremendous creative energy and talent expounded by Mr. Gilliam’s team. It propelled this opera to an ultimate theatrical level.

Every note of Berlioz’ sprawling, elaborate, generally manic, often naive score was taken into consideration and turned into big time, let us say manic theater. It sat splendidly in the Teatro Costanzi, filling the proscenium width with wide screen presence, equalling in scope the enormous sound and color emanating from the expanded pit.

Conductor Roberto Abbado offered breadth and sympathy to the Berlioz score, underscoring its out-of-left-field musicality. Mo. Abbado allowed what seem to be illogical musical ideas to flow straight-on, avoiding compromise to ears (like the Parisian public of the 1830’s) that are (and were) accustomed to classic French grand operas like La Juive (1835) and to Roberto Devereux (Paris, 1838), operas that I had seen/heard only days before. Benvenuto Cellini was not a success in 1838. Even now musically it was a strange, long haul that profited greatly from expansive production values.

After its London premiere the production traveled to Amsterdam in 2015 where American tenor John Osborne took on the role of Benvenuto Cellini with solid success, a success repeated just now in Rome. Mr. Osborn is a very physical performer, a real actor and a beautifully voiced singer. Vocally he is a more lyric Bellini tenor than an heroic tenor, but this allows him to soar through the role’s high tessitura with ease. At the end when we expected and maybe wanted a physically exhausted Cellini Mr. Osborn sounded like he could take it from the top all over again.

Cellini_Rome3.png Mariangela Sicilia as Teresa, Nicola Ulivieri as Balducci

Teresa, the daughter of the pope’s banker and betrothed to Cellini’s untalented rival Fieramosca, was Mariangela Sicilia, again from the Amsterdam cast. This young Italian soprano brought spunk, sassiness and brilliant high notes galore to seduce Cellini, as well as several moments of pitch and vocal uncertainty. Ascanio, Cellini’s apprentice/sidekick was Armenian mezzo soprano Varduhi Abrahamyan, new to the production. A confident, strong voiced singer she perhaps too soberly anchored this trouser role character as the sole voice of good sense amongst a field of buffo males (let us include Cellini among these guys).

The three lively buffo baritone/bass roles, Fieramosca, Balducci, Pope Clement were entrusted here in Rome to Italians who simply did what the Italians alone can do best — buffo!

Michael Milenski

Casts and production information:

Ascanio: Varduhi Abrahamyan; Benvenuto Cellini: John Osborn; Fieramosca: Alessandro Luongo; Giacomo Balkducci: Nicola Ulivieri; Pope Clement: Marco Spotti; Pompeo: Andrea Giovannini; Teresa: Mariangela Sicilia; Francesco: Matteo Falcier; Le Cabaretier: Vladimir Reutov; Bernardino: Graziano Dallavalle. Chorus and Orchestra of the Opera di Roma. Conductor: Roberto Abbado; Stage Director: Terry Gilliam; Co-director and Choreography: Leah Hausman; Set Design: Terry Gilliam and Aaron Marsden, originally conceived by Rae Smith; Costume Design: Katrina Lindsay; Lighting: Paule Constable; Video: Finn Ross. Teatro Costanzi, Rome, Italy, March 29, 2016.


product_title=Benvenuto Cellini in Rome
product_by=A review by Michael Milenski
product_id=Benvenuto Cellini (John Osborn) disguised as a monk [all photos copyright Yasuko Kageayama / TOR courtesy of the Opera di Roma]

Posted by michael_m at 9:08 AM

April 2, 2016

New from Opera Rara : Gounod La Colombe and Donizetti Le Duc d'Albe

Charles Gounod: La Colombe
Sylvie - Erin Morley, Horace - Javier Camarena, Mazet - Michèle Losier, Maître Jean - Laurent Naouri; conductor - Sir Mark Elder, Hallé.
Opera Rara ORC53 [2 CDs, 40:48, 39:11]

Gaetano Donizetti: Le Duc d’Albe
Henri de Bruges - Michael Spyres, Hélène d’Egmont - Angela Meade, Le Duc d’Albe - Laurent Naouri, Daniel Brauer - Gianluca Buratto, Sandoval - David Stout, Carlos - Trystan Llŷr Griffiths, Balbuena - Robin Tritschler, Un Tavernier - Dawid Kimberg; Soldiers, Sailors, Flemings, Spaniards, People - Opera Rara Chorus; conductor - Sir Mark Elder, Hallé.
Opera Rara ORC54 [2 CDs, 44:58, 48:40]

With its latest two recordings, Opera Rara, with Sir Mark Elder and the Hallé, continues to excel in fulfilling its ambition to bring back forgotten operatic repertoire of the 19th-century. They resurrect operatic works from the margins: whether that’s the work of undeservedly overlooked composers, or undeservedly neglected work by the renowned, Opera Rara invariably make a convincing case.

With La Colombe (The Dove), released in October 2015, Opera Rara made their first foray into the work of Charles Gonoud. This opéra comique - premiered in a one-act version at the Theater der Stadt in Baden-Baden in 1860 and subsequently presented in an expanded two acts at the Salle Favart in Paris in 1866 - sets a libretto by Jules Barbier and Michel Carré based on the poem ‘Le Faucon’ by Jean de la Fontaine.

The plot is fairly slim: the wealthy Countess Sylvia wishes to buy a dove from her penniless admirer, Horace, for she desires a bird to rival the talking parrot of her social adversary. The smitten Horace refuses to sell his avian favourite, but when the hard-up ‘hero’ invites his beloved to dinner, he has to contemplate sacrificing his pet dove to provide a fitting supper for the Countess. Sylvia is initially horrified to learn that her dinner has comprised the longed-for dove, but she is placated when she discovers that it was in fact the loathed parrot that provided le repas.

It’s a neat four-hander, and mezzo-soprano Michèle Losier, in the trouser-role of the manservant Mazet, is the pick of the quartet - though there are certainly no weak links. Losier has a full, dark mezzo through which she is able to communicate feeling and character. Her opening aria, an ode to the eponymous dove, ‘Apaisez blanche colombe’, is notable for its rich timbre, controlled vibrato and composed phrasing - and Mark Elder ensures that the contributions of clarinet and flute are able to make their mark too. Mazet’s frustrated diatribe against women, later in the Act, is a tour de force of fantastically rolled ‘r’s, cackles and luscious, lyrical outbursts, above swirling chromatic strings and pounding timpani - genuine melodrama!

As the haughty Sylvie, soprano Erin Morley is a little strident in the spoken dialogue but more than makes up for this with the lovely clarity and fullness of tone, and impressive control, that she exhibits in Sylvie’s not insubstantial arias. Her voice feels youthful and fresh, and we can forgive her presumptions and foibles. In her lengthy Act 1 aria, ‘Je veux interroger’, in which she uses her charm to beguile the hapless Horace, Morley is untroubled by the demands of the coloratura: she hits the top C#s and D#s spot on, and slithers with precision through the roulades. Elder keeps things swirling along and again makes space for the woodwind solos. In the sincerely fond-hearted Act 2 Romance, ‘Que de rêves’, Morley’s focused, gleaming tone is again complemented by fine woodwind playing.

Mexican tenor Javier Camarena is a sympathetic Horace. Camarena sings with openness and directness, and his relaxed tenderness conveys sincerity in both the Act 1 Romance, ‘J’aimais jadis’, in which he reflects upon how the sweet dove reminds him of his beloved Sylvie, and the terzetto ‘O vision enchanteresse’. But, he finds ardency too, particularly in the quartet which concludes Act 1, ‘O douce joie’; and is Act 2 duet with Mazet, ‘Il faut d’abord dresser la table’, during which the pair set the table and decide to kill the dove, is utterly compelling - one as a real and vivid sense of how this scene might play out on stage. Camarena’s Act 2 Madrigal ‘Cet attraits’ - an ode to Sylvie’s beauty and grace - is exquisitely tender; the tenor is wonderfully relaxed above the stave, both sweet and ardent.

Maître Jean, the Countess’s major-domo, is played by French bass-baritone Laurent Naouri - and this is luxury casting. There is warmth of feeling in his Act 1 ariette, ‘Le amoureux’, but also a sense that Naouri is containing the sound - which means that he and Elder can take liberties, and indulge in some almost Straussian insouciance. In Act 2, Mister Jean volunteers to prepare the amatory feast, and Naouri’s aria, ‘Le grand art de cuisine’ combines honesty with swagger - how can he possibly cook without food!? - amid some Rossinian orchestral commentary. When Naouri does release his full vocal powers, the tone is gloriously faux-heroic - a dash of Falstaff, perhaps?

Overall, this is charmingly refined, genteel farce - which an occasional dash of piquancy; the comedy is swathed in Romantic indulgence and Elder does not rein in his players’ emotive utterances unnecessarily, though he does not allow for self-indulgence; similarly, the truncated dialogue trips along with just the right splash of nonchalant blitheness.

The score is light-weight but evocative, and Elder does his best to overcome the four-square nature of some of the melodic writing and the rather uninventive orchestration: he injects urgency and as required and encourages orchestral delicacies- such as the overture’s lovely cello solo, and the fine horn playing - including a fantastic sustained trill - that complements it. Elder appreciates the score’s harmonic sentiments and admits an appropriate degree of romantic schmaltz, while keeping things waltzing along in a manner sensitive to the singers’ needs. The sound engineers ensure that all is cleanly delivered.

The French language coach, Nicole Tibbels, has done a good job; and it must help to have several native speakers in the cast. Moreover, we are provided with a comprehensive booklet, containing a French-English libretto along generous commentary by Hugh Macdonald, and colour production images.

With their February 2016 release of Donizetti’s unfinished Le duc d’Albe of 1839, Opera Rara return to their roots, and to a composer whose unfamiliar treasures they have oft mined and brought to light.

The history of the Le duc d’Albe is one of truncated contracts, lost scores, reconstructions, translations and conjecture. Commissioned by the Paris Opéra in 1839, to a libretto by Eugène Scribe and Charles Duveyrier, the opera was subsequently shelved. Some, such as the Donizetti scholar William Ashbrook, have suggested that the appointment of new director was instrumental, for ‘Rosine Stoltz, the director’s mistress, disliked her intended role of Hélène and Donizetti put the work aside when it was half completed’. Others argue that there is little evidence that this was the case, and that Donizetti’s letters suggest that he thought the role well-suited to Stoltz. Whatever the reason, Le duc d’Albe bit the dust and by the time the Opéra again expressed an interest Donizetti was ill; he died three years later, with the manuscript still incomplete.

In 1881, Donizetti’s autograph score was sold to the Milanese publisher Lucca - after having been refused, in respect of the composer’s memory, by Ricordi - and a group of experts from the Milan Conservatory commissioned by the ambitious head of the firm, Giovannina Lucca, concluded that a revival was possible. Matteo Salvi, for a brief time a pupil of Donizetti, was entrusted with the task of providing the necessary additions. The text was translated into Italian by Angelo Zanardini and the completed opera received its first performance (as Il Duca d’Alba) at the Teatro Apollo in Rome on 22 March 1882. After a few revivals in the 1880s, Il Duca d’Alba enjoyed various revivals in the 1880s, but then disappeared once more.

Then, in late 1951/early 1952, the conductor Fernando Previtali discovered a copy of Salvi’s completion in a flea market book stall, and organised an Italian Radio broadcast. Since then, the Italian Il Duca has been revived and recorded several times. With such a fragmentary documentary history, the opera offers various routes to those wishing to present a new production and in an extensive liner-note article, scholar Roger Parker explains Opera Rara’s decision and intent:

‘We decided, as did those first juries in the 19th century, that the final two acts of the opera are simply too fragmentary to warrant revival as a ‘Donizetti’ opera. While, as mentioned, many of the vocal lines are intact in these last acts, the complete absence of orchestration (not to mention the large gaps in numbers at the start of Act 3 and at the end of Act 4), left - we thought - too much of a gap: reconstruction would not be possible, wholesale recomposition (in the manner of Vlaamse Opera with Battistelli) would have been the only option. On the other hand, the first two acts are almost completely by Donizetti, and we thought that the few missing sections could well be completed in a manner that stayed much closer to Donizetti’s idiom than did Salvi. To this end, we decided to limit this recording to those first two acts, and we commissioned Martin Fitzpatrick to complete the few parts of the score that were left unfinished.’

The plot of Le duc d’Albe is familiar as it was later reworked by Eugène Scribe for Verdi’s Les vêpres siciliennes of 1855, in which the action was transferred to 13th-century Sicily. Donizetti’s opera takes place in Brussels in 1573 and concerns an uprising against Spanish oppression in Flanders led by the daughter of the recently executed Count Egmont, Hélène, and her lover, Henri de Bruges. When Henri publicly condemns the Spanish, the Duke surprises all by questioning Henri in private about his parentage and inviting him to join the Spanish army. Henri remains defiant, but to his amazement he is released by the Duke. Despite participating in a foiled assassination attempt, Henri is spared, and is angrily confused at the reasons behind the Duke’s advocacy (he is the Duke’s son).

One of the joys of this recording is the performance of tenor Michael Spyres as Henri de Bruges. Spyres has strength, stamina, courage and sweetness of tone, and he calls upon all these qualities in a commanding performance. In his Act 1 duet with the Duke, Spyres conveys all of Henri’s disbelief, anxiety and vehemence when he finds himself released from imprisonment, feelings that are enhanced by the urgency present in the orchestral textures and interjections. Asked his name by the Duke, Spyres flings out ‘Henri!’ with real zeal and boldness; when questionned about his father - who was exiled and ‘died far from us’ - sadness tinges his insubordination, and there is a veritable explosion of passion when he sings of his mother, ‘Je vais la retrouver!’ (One day I shall see her again!)

Challenging the Duke to punish his alacrity, Spyres has the stamina to sustain and control the demanding line, to dip the dynamic and then turn up the throttle. The top of his voice is easy and appealing: when Henri is told that he is pardoned but that he must serve in the Spanish army, Spyres leaps up the octave with spring and vigour, ‘Moi? Moi? Servir nos bourreaux!’ (Me? Me? Serve our murderers?), exuding incredulity, defiance and integrity.

In Act 2, the directness of his appeal to Daniel’s workers to join his assassination plot reveals Henri to be a master of rhetorical persuasion, while his avowal of love to Helene in Act 2 is sophisticated and graceful, the smoothness of his melody anticipated by the warm woodwind prelude, the ardour of feeling embodied in the full and lyrical expansion that Donizetti intermittently grants the strings
Throughout Spyres copes readily with the relentless tessitura, as in this concluding exchanges with Duke in Act 1. Their voices blend thrillingly in the climactic, stratospheric curse, ‘Malheur à toi!’ (Woe on you!) Laurent Naouri’s Duke is a man of steely haughtiness, but also nobility and genuine feeling. Naouri makes him a three-dimensional figure, both an oppressive tyrant and an empathetic father. Defying Sandoval’s insistence that he should order Henri’s death, the Duke urges the latter to show prudence and keep away from the brewery (where Hélène is in hiding) and there is a mix of love and foreboding in his terrible warning, ‘De ce logis ne franchis pas le seuil, Je le défends ... moi Le Duc d’Albe!’ (Do not cross the threshold of that place, I forbid you... I, the Duke of Alba!)

Angela Meade exhibits temerity and technical prowess in tackling the demanding role of Hélène. From the first the line rises high above the stave and Meade is dauntless in expressing Hélène’s all-consuming desire for vengeance. Initially, her fast vibrato sometimes adds a slight shrillness - as when she first learns of her father’s execution, ‘O mon père! Je vengerai ta mort! ... Je t’en fais le serment!’ (O my father! I shall avenge your death! ... I swear it!) - but as the Act proceeds her soprano gains in richness and fullness.

Meade shows impressive strength across the whole range in ‘Au sein des mers et battu par l’orage, Voyez, ce beau vaisseau prêt à faire naufrage!’ (In the middle of the sea and prey to a storm, look, a fine ship is about to be wrecked!), building with astonishing power through the steadily climbing long-breathed lines, and the vitality of her exclamations to the crew to show courage would surely be inspiring to those in peril. She holds nothing back: no wonder the people fanatically revere her, ‘Quels accents! Quel langage!’ (What ardour! What words!). To complement such fervour, Hélène’s innate nobility of bearing and heart is made apparent in her Act 2 declaration of love for Henri; supported by a poised harp accompaniment, Meade produces a beautifully shaped line but makes intelligent use of vibrato and colour to suggest both the intensity and the fragility of the moment.

Baritone David Stout is excellent as the Duke’s henchman, Sandovel. The garrison captain is full of smug self-importance at the start of Act 1 when gloats and taunts the innkeeper, ‘Par Saint-Jacques, messieurs, on ne boit qu’à Bruxelles’ (By Saint-Jacques, sirs, only in Brussels do we drink). Espying Hélène he intones softly, ‘Voyez donc cette belle qui sort de sa maison! … Si c’est sa fille, amis, Je lui pardonne! ... Mais pour elle!’ (Look at the beautiful lady coming out of his house! ... If it’s his daughter, friends, I pardon him! ... but only for her sake!), but the string tremolo tells us all we need to know about his intent, while clarinet’s introspective lyricism conveys a daughter’s grief.
When Sandovel confronts the conspirators in Act 2, he is a tightly wound coil of frustrated viciousness; Stout’s tone is bronzed and menacing, the words clipped and tight - the rolled ‘r’s rip through the tense air, as when he orders his soldiers to break the barrel where the conspirators’’ weapons are secreted: ‘Brisez-les!’

The supporting roles are well cast and attractively sung too. As Daniel, the brewer, Gianluca Buratto demonstrates a secure, well-centred baritone which expresses real earnestness when he explains to Sandovel that Hélène is his ward, a truth of feeling that swells into protective anger in the light of the captain’s impudence, ‘Ah! C’est trop d’audace!’ (Ah! He is too bold!) When Daniels utters his shock at the Duke’s tyranny, ‘Quelle horreur m’environne, De fureur je frissonne’ (What horror invades me, I tremble with fury!) the tremor just evident within the intense line really does seem to suggest that, as Daniel avows, his blood is boiling.

Tenor Trystan Llŷr Griffiths displays tonal warmth and vigour as Carlos while baritone Dawid Kimberg is engaging as the Tavernier. Robin Tritschler’s drunken soldier, Balbuena, finds a nice balance between snide nasality and ampleness of tone during his vulgar taunting of Hélène in Act 1.

Sir Mark Elder injects Donizetti’s score with a revolutionary fervour worthy of Verdi. He shows masterly appreciation of the theatrical sweep, building effectively through the long sequence for Henri and the Duke that ends Act 1 and towards the close of the second Act, but he does not neglect a single detail or point of colour in any individual scene or number. The pizzicatos that underpin Henri’s assertion that he wants no mercy from the Duke ping with defiance, while the horns’ militaristic rat-a-tat at close of Act 1 is dry and ambiguous. Elder is alert to every nuance by which Donizetti conveys the rapid emotional fluctuations as Helene assures Henri of her love and urges him to avenge her father in Act 2. There is both tenderness and fear of what will come in their Act 2 duet, and Elder makes the most of the subdued orchestral colours: details such as snarling chromatic descent, or anxious fragmented conversation in the pianissimo strings communicate the instability of the moment. In this way, the darkness and violence in Donizetti’s score attain an unstoppable momentum.

The Opera Rara Chorus are in resplendent voice: in the opening scenes the feisty fury of the Chorus of Spaniards’ bragging cries, ‘Vive l’Espagne! Vive son roi!’ is counter-posed by the soft insistence of the Flemings’ bitter ‘Mort à l’Espagne! Mort à son roi!’, thereby initiating the irresolvable discord which powers the drama. The Spaniards’ subsequent eulogy of their Duke sweeps aside the tentative march-steps of the instrumental introduction with thunderous power. Similarly, in Act 2 the fervent excitement of the Chorus of Conspirators as they prepare to follow Henri is matched by the unflagging sense of duty exhibited by the Duke’s soldiers.

As always, Opera Rara provide a detailed accompanying booklet which includes Roger Parker’s extensive and informative liner notes, an English-French libretto and production images. This is a gripping performance which certainly does not, in a single regard, leave one feeling it is ‘incomplete’.

Claire Seymour


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product_by= Opera Rara : Gounod La Colombe, Donizetti : Le Duc d'Albe. A review by Claire |Seymour

Posted by iconoclast at 11:42 AM

Handel : Elpidia - Opera Settecento

The secco recitative, it is presumed, is by Handel (who may also have contributed two accompanied recitatives, a duet and part of the Sinfonia). Imagine such an announcement, for an opera ‘by’ Handel which includes almost no music by him, but which predominantly presents music by a composer who never wrote an opera called Elpidia.

In the eighteenth century, opera was often a sort of ‘cut-and-paste’ affair, continually tailored to suit new casts - who often insisted on importing their own ‘show-stopper’ arias. Scores were rarely published; indeed the ‘score’ barely existed in the form of the ‘Work’ as we know it. Star singers such as castrato Farinelli or the mezzo-soprano Faustini Bordini ruled the roost - and earned considerably more than even the most successful composers; the arias were written for them and they thus assumed ‘ownership’.

In need of a sure-fire hit, a company which found itself without a resident composer, or waiting for a new opera to be delivered, or faced with the egotistical demands of star singers, might commission a composer-arranger to assemble a work from a recipe comprising an existing libretto, some of the latest Italian arias, an English poet’s translation of the text and a few new recitatives. Consequently, what became known as pasticcio-opera was a Chinese menu of re-cooked dishes. Though it initially served a pragmatic function, later, in the hands of the likes of Handel, Vivaldi and Gluck, the pasticcio achieved artistic integrity and during the heyday of opera seria became a genre in its own right.

The quality, inevitably, often varied. During his 36 years in London, as a composer, theatre manager and impresario, Handel produced 42 operas, so it’s not surprising that he resorted to his own, and others’, back catalogues at times. Ever the opportunist, he was also the consummate man of the theatre, and his pasticcio operas demonstrate Handel’s dexterity in crafting disparate numbers into at least the semblance of a creditable narrative. In Elpidia, thought to be Handel’s first Royal Academy pasticcio, the composer skilfully re-worked Zeno’s libretto (probably with the assistance of Nicola Haym) retaining just a skeleton of the existing text and dropping one character, Alarico, entirely.

The printed libretto for the first London performance on 11 May 1725 at the King’s Theatre gave Zeno as the author (his Rivali Generosi had been seen in Venice in 1697 with music by Ziani) and announced that the music was by ‘Signor Leonardo Vinci, except some few songs by Signor Giuseppe Orlandini’; musicologist Reinhard Strohm deduced that most of the arias came from the three operas (which themselves made copious use of ‘borrowing’) of the Carnival Season 1724/25 at the Teatro San Giovanni Grisostomo in Venice: Vinci’s Ifigenia in Tauride (seven arias and final chorus) and La Rosmira Fedele (six arias), and Orlandini’s Berenice (three arias). Handel’s singers - Cuzzoni, Senesino, Francesco Borosini and others - presumably had some say in the selection, several of these arias being already in their repertories.

Elpidia seems to have met with moderate success: it had received eleven performances by the end of the season and opened the next season, on 30 November 1725 - albeit with a modified cast and, inevitably, a few new numbers. It was seen a further five times between then and 14 December, but since then, Elpidia has been little more than a musicologist’s conundrum. So, this performance by Opera Settecento at the London Handel Festival provided a welcome opportunity to hear a terrific parade of thrilling arias by Vinci and others.

The seria plot is, characteristically, an amorous tug-of-war, the love knot at the heart of which is only disentangled after much confusion, angst, self-sacrifice and magnanimity. It is the sixth century and the Byzantine Emperor has sent his general Belisario to besiege the Ostrogothic capital, Ravenna. Two Greek princes, Olindo and Ormonte, are fighting by his side. They are rivals for the love of Elpidia, Princess of Apulia, who is also loved by the defeated tyrant Vitiges. Although she is enamoured of Olindo, Elpidia explains that she will marry the one who is the bravest in battle.
Much kidnapping, hostage-taking and rescuing ensue: Vitiges captures Elpidia, while Ormonte takes Vitige’s daughter, Rosmilda, prisoner - who, of course, immediately falls in love with him. Olindo first rescues the imprisoned Belisario, then sacrifices himself to Vitiges to secure Elpidia’s release; but Ormonte then saves Olindo, and so the rivals contend who has done most to win Elpidia’s hand. If one loses the plot it’s a relief when, after much misery and misfortune, Belisaro exercises generosity, frees Vitiges and decides that Olindo should get the girl, while Ormonte can be consoled with Rosmilda. To which all agree.
In the late-eighteenth century Charles Burney (in A General History of Music: from the Earliest Ages to the Present Period II) lauded Vinci’s talents:
‘Vinci seems to have been the first opera composer who ..., without degrading his art, rendered it the friend, though not the slave to poetry, by simplifying and polishing melody, and calling the attention of the audience chiefly to the voice-part, by disentangling it from fugue, complication, and laboured contrivance.’
This performance inclined one to concur with Burney’s praise. The balanced melodic structures, simple diatonicism - with delicate appoggiaturas providing affecting harmonic nuance - and transparent instrumental textures drew attention to the vocal lines which, with several esteemed Handelians in the cast, enabled us to enjoy some wonderful singing.

The polish and elegance of Vinci’s melodies was most evident in the masterly, poised singing of soprano Erica Eloff, winner of the 2008 Handel Singing Competition, in the role of the eponymous princess. Eloff’s voice is ripe with colour and texture; ornaments are delivered with pin-point precision and phrasing is exquisitely controlled. She is not afraid to dare the slightest of piano’s, as in the tender aria ‘D’alme luci savillate’ (from Vinci’s Ifigenia) which expresses her despair when imprisoned by Vitiges, but can also use her not inconsiderable power to striking effect, as when rejecting the cruel tyrant (‘Amante, Tuo constante’, Rosmira). The extensive melodic arcs of Elpidia’s substantial Act Two aria, ‘Dolce orror, che vezzeggiando’ (Ifigenia), were gracefully imploring, and vibrato was judiciously applied; this aria was further enlivened by expressive elaborations of the theorbo (Eligio Luis Quinteiro) in the instrumental inter-phrases. Eloff also brought considerable animation to the preceding recitative, colouring the text persuasively.

I was impressed, too, by the relaxed demeanour and ease of voice demonstrated by tenor Rupert Charlesworth as Vitiges. Charlesworth won both the Jury and Audience prizes at the 2013 Handel Singing Competition, and his appealing, even tone and well-mannered execution bore out these accolades. Charlesworth showed attentiveness to the instrumental lines, too, in the Act 1 aria, ‘Per serbati e regno e onore’ (from Orlandini’s Berenice), shaping his phrases sympathetically. The subsequent Orlandini import, ‘Amor deh lasciami’ (Lucio Papirio), was notable for the suppleness of the long melismatic developments. Charlesworth built tension through the accompanied recitative which precedes Vitiges’ Act 2 aria, ‘Al mio tesoro’ (Vinci, Rosmira), and the latter was particularly moving - indeed, the tyrant hopes that Elpidia will be touched by his suffering - as Charlesworth exploited Vinci’s appoggiaturas and suspensions to create variety and balance.

At the lower end of the vocal spectrum, bass Chris Jacklin as Belisario despatched Lotti’s two arias with appropriate bluster and heft, and while there was some occasional aspiration in ‘Dopo il vento e il turbe irato’, the second aria from Teofane, ‘Di quell crudel gl’inganni’ was more focused and warm-toned.

But, it’s the two countertenors who have the lion’s share of the work. Rupert Enticknap (Olindo) and Joe Bolger (Ormonte) have very different voices and they did not form a comfortable blend in their opening duet (ascribed to Vinci); both struggled to settle the intonation and to achieve an even line. Subsequently, Enticknap eased into his role with aplomb, showing agility and strength in Act 1’s closing aria, ‘Un vento lusinghier’ (ascribed to Sarri, Merope); he made sense of the long, rather directionless phrases and employed a beautiful chest voice with a soft timbre. The asymmetrical lines of ‘Parto bel idol mio’ (anon.) were similarly well-crafted, as were the somewhat fragmented melodies of Orlandini’s ‘Addio dille’ (Berenice). The score’s more florid gestures were executed with measured accuracy and sweet tone.

Bolger has a strong voice across the range, but didn’t always use it prudently, exhibiting a tendency to indulge, or to push too hard, at phrase endings; intonation wavered a bit too, and the text was not always clear. But, Bolger made an effective dramatic impact and worked hard to convey character.

Russian Maria Ostroukhova - who came second with the Michael Oliver Prize in the 2015 Handel Singing Competition - was confident in Rosmilda’s two arias, with Act 3’s ‘Gia sente il Core’ (Vinci, Ifigenia) particularly show-casing her plush, dark-toned mezzo.
There was much excellent music and music-making on display, and - after a messy and unsteady start - the orchestra of Opera Settecento provided eloquent support. But, it felt like a long evening, and this was not solely because of the orthopaedic challenges presented by the pews of St George’s. Musical director Leo Duarte showed care and sensitivity in shaping individual numbers, but did not create an effective dramatic continuity between them. Tempi erred on the slow side, and the recitatives did not build into the arias; indeed, the singers were given free rein in the secco recitatives and they took their time, with elaborate interjections from harpsichordist Chris Kelly and theorbist Quinteiro providing expressive colour but little impetus.

This was a pity as Elpidia, despite its dramatic convolutions, is no less or coherent or compelling than many of Handel’s original operas. In staging pasticcio-operas, Handel offered his London audiences the opportunity to taste the latest operatic flavours from Italy; we should be grateful to Opera Settecento that we were able to do likewise.

Claire Seymour

Handel: Elpidia (L’Elpidia overo li rivali generosi)
Opera Settecento: musical director - Leo Duarte, Belisario - Chris Jacklin, Olindo - Rupert Enticknap, Ormonte - Joe Bolger, Elpidia - Erica Eloff, Vitiges - Rupert Charlesworth, Rosmilda - Maria Ostroukhova, Orchestra of Opera Settecento.
St. George’s, Hanover Square, London.
Thursday 31st March 2016


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Posted by iconoclast at 11:30 AM

Roberto Devereux in Genova

The productions are said to be shared with Venice's La Fenice and Parma's Teatro Regio. Unknown, at least unannounced is if these additional cities will have the splendid Elizabeth of now 68 year old Mariella Devia.

This incomparable diva sang Liu in Genova at age 64, followed the next year by her debut as Norma in Bologna. Her first Roberto Devereaux Elizabeth occurred in 2014 at Carnegie Hall, a performance that is nearly legendary.

Donizetti begins his opera by exposing the abilities and vulnerabilities of his queen as she threatens a terrible vengeance upon her rival for young Devereux's love in the vocally daunting "A te svelai tutto il mio core." Donizetti ends his opera with the emotionally exhausted old queen wreaking her vengeance in "Alma rea! Spietato core!" Finally, at her greatest anguish she abandons her throne to enter her tomb on a sustained high C. You knew it was coming, you gripped your arm rests, and with this great queen you triumphed. Well, maybe the C was a bit truncated. But it was powerful and real.

Mariella Devia's voice is not ripe, nor is it warm. It is steely and technically sure, and fully subject to the mature musical intellect of a formidable stylist and, yes, it is the voice of a queen. These attributes determined the tenor of the performance. However it remained an opera about an over-aged singer more than an opera about an older queen inappropriately in love with a much younger man. But make no mistake, it was splendid way to spend a bel canto evening.

Devereaux2.pngSonia Ganassi as Sara, Stefan Pop as Roberto Devereux

Elizabeth's rival is Sara, to whom she has confided her love of the traitor, Robert Devereux. Young Sara also loves Devereux and he loves her though Elizabeth has forced Sara to marry Nottingham who is Devereux's best friend. You see that there is a lot to sing about. Sara was sung by esteemed lyric mezzo Sonia Ganassi, like la Devia a highly accomplished mature artist. The condemned Devereux was sung by Romanian tenor Stefan Pop who mostly confused singing with shouting, though he did offer a soft, sensitive and very beautiful "Ed ancor la tremenda porta non si dischiude?" Nottingham was sung by Korean baritone Mansoo Kim whose well applauded performance exhibited mastery of Italian style and technique in a beautiful, wooden, darkly colored tone. 

Devereaux3.pngPrincipals on stage, Cecil and Gualtiero far left and far right in skirts

Cecil and Gualtiero are characters in the opera who facilitate some dreadful circumstances. They were confusing presences because they wore grand skirts but sang in baritonal voices. A primer on court dress of the 1600's would have been helpful so we could have understood and maybe appreciated the self conscious exaggerations of the costumes, victims of intensely colored synthetic fabrics, outsized and distorted collar shapes, and naive gender bending. The men of the chorus were costumed in dresses as well.

The stage was minimal, only a platform on which the principals did their thing aided by six mime assistants (the chorus costumed in all black was deployed on the floor around the stage). A huge bird cage descended to be the prison in which Roberto sang his lament (bel canto like a bird singing [groan]). There were two trendy crooked trusses alluding to, surely wishing to reinforce the fact that the agonies were, after all, only theater to be lighted.

Stage director Alfonso Antoniozzi provided lots of swish. To the accompaniment of the overture's play on “God Save the Queen” Antoniozzi dressed his queen in a huge golden imperial mantle that she would prosaically divest in the final scene, ninja acolytes raising the train to reveal a map of Europe. A singer himself Antoniozzi does in fact understand how to stage arias and numbers knowing that we do not need a lot of meaningless action to get us through ten or twenty minutes of powerful music. 

The pit was in the hands of young Italian conductor Francesco Lancillotto who could not find the breath and phrase of Donizetti's bel canto, nor a solid, expressive ground for his accompaniments.

Michael Milenski

Casts and production information:

Queen Elisabetta I: Mariella Devia; Sara: Sonia Ganassi; Roberto Devereux: Stefan Pop; Nottingham: Mansoo Kim; Lord Cecil: Alessandro Fantoni; Gualtiero Raleigh: Claudio Ottino; A page: Matteo Armanino; Nottingham’s friend: Loris Purpura. Orchestra and Chorus of the Teatro Carlo Felice. Conductor: Francesco Lanzillotta; Stage Director: Alfonso Antoniozzi; Scenery: Monica Manganelli; Costumes: Gianluca Falaschi; Lighting: Luciano Novelli. Teatro Carlo Felice, Genova, March 24, 2016.


product_title=Roberto Devereaux in Genova
product_by=A review by Michael Milenski
product_id=Above: Mariella Devia as Elizabeth 1 [All photos copyright Marcello Orselli courtesy of Teatro Carlo Felice]

Posted by michael_m at 11:10 AM