25 Nov 2016
San Jose’s Beta-Carotene Rich Barber
You didn’t have to know the Bugs Bunny oeuvre to appreciate Opera San Jose’s enchanting Il barbiere di Sivigila, but it sure enhanced your experience if you did.
Classical Opera’s MOZART 250 project has reached the year 1767. Two years ago, the company embarked upon an epic, 27-year exploration of the music written by Mozart and his contemporaries exactly 250 years previously. The series will incorporate 250th anniversary performances of all Mozart’s important compositions and artistic director Ian Page tells us that as 1767 ‘was the year in which Mozart started to write more substantial works - opera, oratorio, concertos this will be the first year of MOZART 250 in which Mozart’s own music dominates the programme’.
‘[T]hey moderated or increased their voices, loud or soft, heavy or light according to the demands of the piece they were singing; now slowing, breaking of sometimes with a gentle sigh, now singing long passages legato or detached, now groups, now leaps, now with long trills, now with short, or again, with sweet running passages sung softly, to which one sometimes heard an echo answer unexpectedly. They accompanied the music and the sentiment with appropriate facial expressions, glances and gestures, with no awkward movements of the mouth or hands or body which might not express the feelings of the song. They made the words clear in such a way that one could hear even the last syllable of every word, which was never interrupted or suppressed by passages or other embellishments.’
An exceptional Wagner Der fliegende Holländer, so challenging that, at first, it seems shocking. But Kasper Holten's new production, currently at the Finnish National Opera, is also exceptionally intelligent.
A welcome addition to Lyric Opera of Chicago’s roster was its recent production of Jules Massenet’s Don Quichotte.
800 years ago, every book was a precious treasure - ‘written on skin’. In George Benjamin’s and Martin Crimp’s 2012 opera, Written on Skin, modern-day archivists search for one such artefact: a legendary 12th-century illustrated vanity project, commissioned by an unnamed Protector to record and celebrate his power.
It was like a “Date Night” at Staatsoper unter den Linden with its return of Eike Gramss’ 2012 production of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly. While I entered the Schiller Theater, the many young couples venturing to the opera together, and emerging afterwards all lovey-dovey and moved by Puccini’s melodramatic romance, encouraged me to think more positively about the future of opera.
For the Late Night concert after the Saturday series, fifteen Berliners backed up Barbara Hannigan in yet another adventurous collaboration on a modern rarity with Simon Rattle. I was completely unfamiliar with the French composer, but the performance tonight made me fall in love with Gérard Grisey’s sensually disintegrating soundscape Quatre chants pour franchir le seuil, or “Fours Songs to cross the Threshold”.
One of the things I love about the Philharmonie in Berlin, is the normalcy of musical excellence week after week. Very few venues can pull off with such illuminating star wattage. Michael Schade, Anne Schwanewilms, and Barbara Hannigan performed in two concerts with two larger-than-life conductors Thielemann and Rattle. We were taken on three thrilling adventures.
Lyric Opera of Chicago’s original and superbly cast production of Hector Berlioz’s Les Troyens has provided the musical public with a treasured opportunity to appreciate one of the great operatic achievements of the nineteenth century.
The Little Opera Company opened its 21st season by championing its own, as it presented the world premiere of Winnipeg composer Neil Weisensel’s Merry Christmas, Stephen Leacock.
Now in its 31st year, the 2016 Christmas Festival at St John’s Smith Square has offered sixteen concerts performed by diverse ensembles, among them: the choirs of King’s College, London and Merton College, Oxford; Christchurch Cathedral Choir, Oxford; The Gesualdo Six; The Cardinall’s Musick; The Tallis Scholars; the choirs of Trinity College and Clare College, Cambridge; Tenebrae; Polyphony and the Orchestra of the Age of the Enlightment.
As 2016 draws to a close, we stand on the cusp of a post-Europe, pre-Trump world. Perhaps we will look back on current times with the nostalgic romanticism of Richard Strauss’s 1911 paean to past glories, comforts and certainties: Der Rosenkavalier.
Ah, Loft Opera. It’s part of the experience to wander down many dark streets, confused and lost, in a part of Brooklyn you’ve never been. It is that exclusive—you can’t even find the performance!
Let’s start by getting a couple of gripes out of the way. First, the final act of Die Walküre does not constitute a full-length concert, even with a distinguished cast and orchestra, and with animated drawings fluttering on a giant screen.
When you combine two charismatic New York stage divas with the artistry of Los Angeles Opera, you have a mix that explodes into singing, dancing and an evening of superb entertainment.
Roderick Williams’ and Julius Drake’s English Winter Journey seems such a perfect concept that one wonders why no one had previously thought of compiling a sequence of 24 songs by English composers to mirror, complement and discourse with Schubert’s song-cycle of love and loss.
A historical afternoon at the NTR Saturday Matinee occurred with an epic concert version of Prokofiev’s Soviet Opera Semyon Kotko.
Opening night at the Metropolitan is a gleeful occasion even when the composer is long gone, but December 1st was an opening for a living composer who has been making waves around the world and is, gasp, a woman — the second woman composer ever to have an opera presented at the Met.
For an opera that has never quite made it over the threshold into the ‘canonical’, the adolescent Mozart’s La finta giardiniera has not done badly of late for productions in the UK. In 2014, Glyndebourne presented Frederic Wake-Walker’s take on the eighteen-year-old’s dramma giocoso. Wake-Walker turned the romantic shenanigans and skirmishes into a debate on the nature of reality, in which the director tore off layers of theatrical artifice in order to answer Auden’s rhetorical question, ‘O tell me the truth about love’.
As the German language describes so beautifully, a “Schrei aus tiefstem Herzen” was felt as Evelyn Herlitzius channelled an Elektra from the depths of her soul.
You didn’t have to know the Bugs Bunny oeuvre to appreciate Opera San Jose’s enchanting Il barbiere di Sivigila, but it sure enhanced your experience if you did.
Inventive stage director Layna Chianakas cleverly started the homage to The Rabbit of Seville early on and carried the hijinks throughout the performance. As the orchestra launched into the jaunty up-tempo repeated chords of the overture, suddenly a silhouette of an enormous carrot appeared as a projection on the grand curtain, traveled across the front of it, and disappeared. Before you wondered if you could believe your eyes, another one appeared from the opposite side and did the same.
By then, we got it. The laughter and applause as we recognized the reference nearly drowned out the merry music-making in the pit (a taut, idiomatic reading led by Andrew Whitfield). The overture was “staged” with carrots dancing, parading and moving into positions suggesting the crossed swords of a family crest. With this cheeky beginning, the tone was set for a no holds barred romp.
The Count and Rosina
Babatunde Akinboboye put his polished baritone on ample display as a winning Fiorello, serving immediate notice that the standard of the afternoon’s singing would match the ingenuity of the staging, and then some. Maestro Whitfield is also the Chorus Master and the men’s ensemble belied their disparate and ragtag look by offering meticulous harmonizing. We are all waiting Figaro’s signature entrance, of course, to experience one of the most familiar arias in all of operadom.
Brian James Myer delivered a true star turn in the title role. Factotum is too puny a word to describe Mr. Myer’s (dare I say ‘definitive’?) performance. I cannot recall encountering anyone in my many years of seeing this piece who exhibited anywhere near such a total command of the role, the style, the joyous abandon. His arsenal included an effortless stage demeanor, a thoroughly considered subtext, flawless comic timing, and a tirelessly wiry presence.
Brian’s evenly produced, appealing baritone may not be in the burly Milnes or Mattei vein, but it has plenty of ping and sass, with a warmly ingratiating tone that fills the house. Figaro is Brian James Myer’s first role assumption as a Resident Artist, and Opera San Jose can be very proud of their superlative choice in adding such a fine young talent to their roster. Nor was he alone in his accomplishments.
Kirk Dougherty (Almaviva) flirts with Renée Rapier (Rosina) in the Lesson Scene
The OSJ talent roster has a deep bench and the remarkably versatile tenor Kirk Dougherty turned in another treasurable performance as Count Almaviva. Mr. Dougherty once again regales us with a honeyed voice that is pliable, beautifully produced, and consistently responsive. His forays into the upper reaches of the role are as comfortably negotiated as the characterful melismas.
The Count has several comic guises in this piece to be sure, and Kirk keeps his tone freely produced even as he colors it to suggest less aristocratic denizens of Seville. His beautifully delivered serenade benefitted from his skill at providing his own guitar accompaniment, a singular feat. Like his titular costar, he established his comic credentials early on, and the expository Figaro-Almaviva duet crackled with witty Rossinian interplay.
The radiant mezzo Renée Rapier immediately engaged our ears with a plush, ripe tonal beauty that announced her as a major discovery. In short order, she also captured our hearts with an especially assured Una voce poco fa. Her fresh, spontaneous reading of this thrice-familiar piece immediately established her credentials as a first tier Rosina. Ms. Rapier’s rich lower register was wedded to a solid middle and brilliant top, giving off coloratura sparks as demanded, and coy romantic heat when appropriate.
Brian James Myer as Opera San Jose's dynamic Barber of Seville
She, too, proved to be a well-rounded, richly complicated personality, and she found a variety of meaningful expression in her impersonation. Her comic sensibilities were a formidable component in the day’s success, and she clearly relished interacting and conspiring with her Figaro and Lindoro. Even though I knew it was coming, her spot on revelation that she has already written the love note that Figaro is prompting her to compose was so “right” that I barked a surprised laugh out loud. This cast was treating the audience to Barbiere as if for the first time, and we relished their sense of discovery.
The oily Music Master Basilio was well-served by the wonderfully suave basso voice of another Young Artist, Colin Ramsey. Allowing him to be honestly, unabashedly youthful was an inspired choice, and no comedy was lost by showcasing Mr. Ramsey’s gorgeously rolling tones, with their vibrant young sheen. A solidly delivered La calunnia has rarely been as pleasingly voiced, yet with all the necessary sinuous underpinnings.
Considering that Valerian Ruminski was undertaking the challenging part of Bartolo for the first time, he revealed much in his depiction of the devious curmudgeon. Mr. Ruminski has a smooth, orotund baritone, perhaps a bit too smooth for this volatile character. His was not (yet?) in the tradition of bloviating, blustering practitioners, but is a little (too?) smooth around the edges. His difficult rapid-fire patter was not always as precise as it may become. Still, his persona and physical stature are ideal for the role and he proved a competent player in the twisting plot. His outlandishly comic, brazenly mis-tuned aria in the Lesson Scene was alone worth the price of admission.
It would be hard to imagine a more committed and scene-stealing Berta than that embodied by the vivacious Teressa Foss. Too often this can be a throw-away part, but Ms. Foss played a deliciously willing accomplice in Rosina’s detention, with an apparent girly fixation on carrying stuffed animals, which increased in obsessive number as the show progressed. Teressa is also possessed of a laser-focused whiz-bang of a soprano voice, and her effortless flights above the staff were as admirable as they were totally unexpected. In the small role of the Sergeant, Sidney Ragland made every phrase count with a secure delivery
Valerian Ruminski's role debut as Bartolo
The physical production was all that could be wished. Matthew Antaky designed an unfussy, practical, attractive set that afforded plenty of opportunities for varied blocking, effective levels, and even a few surprises. The colorful exterior for the opening was wonderfully dressed with palm trees, profusions of flowers, Mediterranean tiles and a fountain. That gave way to a two-level interior with enough doors for a decent Feydeau farce.
Alyssa Oania is credited as being costume coordinator, which may mean she carefully selected the good-looking attire from stock. But Rosina’s well-styled burgundy dress and Spanish shawl seemed far too fetching not to have been created specifically for her, and Basilio’s accessories (including eyewear resembling designer goggles, prissy white hanky, fuschia jabot and matching striped socks) were brilliant touches. And were brilliantly copied for Almaviva’s phony teacher in Act Two.
A highly effective wig and make-up design complemented the dress, with Christina Martin providing excellent support. The gag of having Figaro distractedly tease Bartolo’s wig, not having realized the good Doctor has vacated it, was a memorable visual. And Basilio’s heavily made up doe eyes and high cheekbones made him look eerily like Lily Tomlin in drag. The bobbling, wobbling mustache for Almaviva’s drunken soldier was also a comic plus.
Kent Dorsey achieved a good deal with his diverse lighting design. In addition to even area washes and atmospheric gobos, Mr. Dorsey programmed a number of specialty spots that were helpful in creating a rhythm to the look and flow of the show. He alternated blackouts with spotlighting Figaro during his entrance aria, contributing to the cartoon-like sensibility that permeated the concept. Only the colored disco light effect at the end seemed slightly out of sync.
Teressa Foss's Berta loves animals
With all the key casting and technical positions filled with consummate professionals, it was arguably Maestro Whitfield and Director Chianakas who were the icing on the cake. Or the maple glaze on the carrots. Whitfield helmed a talented collective of solid strings, colorful winds, and punctuating brass that unified into an effective Rossinian arc. And Ms. Chianakas drew out richly detailed interplay onstage that was chockfull of revelatory ideas.
The uninhibited clowning by the choristers at the top, including some balletic goofs, was infectious and conveyed an expectation of what would follow. This included a dizzy moment with the Count and the Barber freezing as “statues” in the fountain to avoid detection by Bartolo, who is exiting his house. The removal of the ladder by some unseen force in the climactic scene was perfectly timed. I am not sure that Mr. Myer’s masterful Figaro needed help putting across his aria by the addition of three chorus girls extras sporting huge wigs studded with salon accouterments, but I appreciate the thought.
A far better thought was turning the storm into a psychological tempest, in which a dreaming Rosina presents a love letter to each of the other principals, then thinks better of it and tears the missives up one by one before returning to her sleep on the settee. A well-considered, serious moment in all the jollity.
But it was not long before those danged carrots were back with us, as a running gag that paid good dividends. Whether being played as musical instruments, tossed about the stage, or God knows what else, those orange veggies always brought us back to the source of this production’s comic inspiration.
So, what’s up Doc? A witty, slapstick celebration of an in-joke that was always characterized by well-calculated physical and intellectual humor, and married to an admirably first tier musical execution. In short, another solid achievement by the resourceful Opera San Jose.
Cast and production information:
Fiorello: Babatunde Akinboboye; Almaviva: Kirk Dougherty; Figaro: Brian James Myer; Bartolo: Valerian Ruminski; Rosina: Renée Rapier; Berta: Teressa Foss; Basilio: Colin Ramsey; Sergeant Sidney Ragland; Conductor/Chorus Master: Andrew Whitfield; Director: Layna Chianakas; Set Design: Matthew Antaky; Costume Coordinator: Alyssa Oania; Lighting Design: Kent Dorsey; Wig and Make-up Design: Christina Martin