Daily Archives: January 29, 2016

Opera Carolina’s “Roméo et Juliette” Conquers Adversity and Inhibition

The final duet.
 

By Perry Tannenbaum

January 28, 2016, Charlotte, NC – It’s obvious that James Meena has a special fondness for Charles Gounod’s Roméo et Juliette, since no other Opera Carolina maestro had ever presented the work before – and now Meena has brought the tragic Shakespeare adaptation back eight seasons later. Both productions have been somewhat star-crossed. When Meena introduced the opera in 2007, the soprano couldn’t quite scale the heights of the stave in Juliette’s arias and the tenor who adored her couldn’t take his eyes off Meena’s baton when he sang, a rather wooden Roméo. This time around, weather and illness have been the adversities that Opera Carolina has been forced to conquer.

Days ahead of the Sunday afternoon opening, forecasts of the superstorm that would cripple the city caused Opera Carolina to offer special discounts for intrepid ticket buyers willing to brave the elements. My driveway was still so encased in ice at curtain time that my wife Sue and I couldn’t reach the street at the top of the hill where we had parked our car. After rescheduling for Thursday, we had barely settled into our seats at Belk Theater when we learned from Meena that the soprano slated for the title role, Marie-Eve Munger, had come down with bronchitis, sounding less like Juliette than Friar Laurence when the conductor had spoken to her earlier in the day.

There was a positive twist to this adversity. Although I had missed Munger’s debut, I would catching the first performance by Sarah Joy Miller with the company. Slated to perform as Juliette when this co-production moves on to Grand Rapids in April and Baltimore in May, Miller not only appeared to be acclimated to the role and Bernard Uzan’s stage direction, she also appeared comfy in the clinches with Jonathan Boyd, who will be paired with Miller in those upcoming productions.

In contrast with the 2006 Spoleto Festival USA, which remodeled the two ancient warring Montagues and Capulets into families in the Godfather mold, both of the Opera Carolina productions have been refreshingly traditional. You might even say radically traditional, since the supertitles of the current production revert to the original Shakespeare whenever possible, even at the cost of mistranslating the French of librettists Jules Barbier and Michel Carré. Production design by Uzan and Michael Baumgarten is nearly as traditional, evoking Verona very much the way old-school Shakespearean productions do. Three sets of Romanesque arches, rearranged and dressed between scenes, serve admirably for the Capulet palace, Juliette’s balcony, Juliette’s bedroom, Friar Laurence’s chapel, and that gloomy vault where Roméo finds the sleeping Juliette on her tomb. Baumgarten’s lighting and his superb projection designs also help to differentiate the scenes.

While Gounod and his librettists will bring down the curtain when the two lovers perish, Uzan contrives to stage the aftermath – the grim reconciliation of the feuding families – as this production’s prologue, where Shakespeare originally had his chorus. While this necessitates an extra scene change, whisking away the tomb where the dead lovers lie and bringing the lights back up on the festive night when they first met, the alteration plays as if that’s what Gounod always intended, particularly since he wrote enough gorgeous music to cover the subterfuge and the Charlotte Symphony Orchestra plays it so lustily under Meena’s baton. Nor is it much of a stretch for the Opera Carolina Chorus to sound funereal in the hushed opening passages.

An adequately majestic staircase is placed centerstage at the Capulet palace for Juliette’s entrance, and the dazzling dress that Miller gets to wear throughout this giddy evening for her birthday party makes it count. Miller herself was not quite so dazzling when she soon reached Juliette’s signature “Je veux vivre dans ce rêve” aria, straining to reach the high notes, getting there but not comfortably. She began to settle down in the iconic first encounter with Roméo: the “Ange adorable” duet, staged chastely with Boyd in a pleasing palm-to-palm style as the lovebirds circled one another.

Boyd sang beautifully and securely all evening long, but the most transporting moment came when he sang Roméo’s great “Ah! lève-toi, soleil” to launch the balcony scene. Juliette’s nightgown is no less bright than her party dress, dramatically lit by Baumgarten as she makes her way into the moonlight, so there can be no mistaking what Shakespeare meant when he wrote, “It is the East, and Juliet is the sun!” It hits with seismic force here, and the “Ah, ne fuis pas encore!” duet that closes the scene is even more enchanting than the lovers’ first meeting.

There’s considerably more chemistry between Boyd and Miller in this production than there was when Gaston Rivero and Sari Gruber sang the title roles in 2007, and Uzan pushes it in the bedroom scene, where the lovers’ awakening is nearly as sensual as the opening scene of Sondheim’s Passion. For anyone who thinks that opera is pathologically stiff and glum, this Opera Carolina effort will be an eye-opener. Miller caught fire when we needed it most, carrying us over the climactic aria where Juliette chooses between stabbing herself and drinking Friar Laurence’s sleep potion.

Supporting roles are wonderfully cast and sung, mostly by newcomers. Imposing enough to be Shakespeare’s Capulet, Ashraf Sewailam was the most impressive of the baritones, expansive in his geniality as party host yet more than sufficiently authoritative as the family patriarch. Efrain Solis obtained maximum mileage from Mercutio’s “Queen Mab” ballad, more effective as a satirical cut-up than he was subsequently as a tragic calumniating victim.

Remember Romeo’s page, Stephano? Of course not. Gounod added her – it’s a soprano pants role – to spark the strife between Tybalt and Mercutio before the fatally pacific Roméo arrives and intervenes. Kim Sagioka makes a startling debut in this odd cameo. Among the old hands, bass Kevin Langan has all the dignity and warmth we want in the helpful Friar, and tenor Brian Arreola is perfectly pugnacious as Tybalt – actually so dashing in his wig and costume that I wished that the Capulets and the Montagues had switched uniforms so that Roméo could look more cavalier.

There’s a whole mini-ballet in Gounod’s score, 18 minutes long on the EMI Classics recording, that nearly all companies skip, but to me, cutting the next two scenes is a bit like tossing away the baby with the bathwater. After justifiably axing the choreography expense and the dancer payroll, I’d love to see the wedding scene where Juliette drops dead just as Paris is putting the ring on her finger. Soap opera and grand opera unite!

We save on having a Friar John in the cast (if the Duke of Verona doesn’t double) when we omit the next scene where Friar Laurence learns that Roméo never got the sleep potion memo, but why not leave it in for the few folks who may be coming to the story for the first time? Eric Loftin would certainly approve of restoring the wedding, since the tenor gets too little opportunity to show his mettle in his Opera Carolina debut as Paris.

Quibbles aside, this is one outstanding production that has it all: merriment, chaste romance, spectacle, sensual passion, a touch of comedy, and the ultimate tragedy. All the members of this sterling cast and chorus were as much into the drama as they were into the music, and the singers and musicians were constantly feeding off one another. As a result, the three hours joyously flew by.

Copyright © 2016 CVNC

Goings and Bearden Double-Team Black History in The Children of Children Keep Coming

Adapter-director Quentin Talley (top center) stands with his fine cast for “The Children of Children Keep Coming.”

By Perry Tannenbaum

January 27, 2016, Charlotte, NC – Suffering, persistence, and indomitable creativity are the threads that Russell L. Goings has used to weave The Children of Children Keep Coming, an incantatory and poetic account of the Afro-American journey. Quentin Talley, the artistic director of On Q Productions, has adapted and directed Goings’ “Epic GriotSong” for the stage, adding chants, work songs, blues, jazz, gospel, dance, hand clapping, foot stomping, ceremonial movement, and a cast of characters who all moonlight as members of a Greek-style chorus. The drawings that appear in the hardcover book by Romare Bearden are incorporated into Jeremy Cartee’s video design, losing a little of their impact in the transition from the page to the Duke Energy stage at Spirit Square, but quotes from Frederick Douglass, Marcus Garvey, Paul Laurence Dunbar, Langston Hughes, Adam Clayton Powell, and Martin Luther King are sprinkled into the script to take up the slack. With varying degrees of success in the singing impersonations, we also had cameos from Ma Rainey, Marian Anderson, Mahalia Jackson, and Sarah Vaughan.

Theatrical history isn’t littered with successful adaptations of epic poetry, so the task that Talley has undertaken would be difficult even if Goings’ poem came equipped with affecting character development and a graceful narrative arc. Aside from a generic Grandmother and Grandfather, none of the characters actually converse, and after we’ve been immersed in the slavery experience, the road – or train – to freedom is more of a cyclonic swirl than a straight or winding path. We go back and forth to various historical landmarks. Reaching Rosa Parks is no guarantee that won’t be doubling back abruptly to revisit the roots of jazz or even the Civil War – or that we won’t return to Rosa afterwards, still refusing to move to the back of the bus.

Talley gives a remarkable, evangelistic performance as our Narrator, but his work directing his fellow actors – and extra chorus members from the West Mecklenburg High School Drama – struck me as his most astonishing feat. Every one of the actors has numerous quick lines that don’t really respond to the line just spoken. Most of the lines throughout 110-minute show simply follow a cue line. Unless we see an actor moving toward a spot on the stage – or an actress making an onstage costume change while the Narrator is speaking about her character – we usually don’t know who will speak next. That means we need to amp up our concentration level as The Children of Children careens unpredictably from one speaker to another and fromone historical subject to another. The core cast of eight performers face an even more daunting task, keeping the ping-pong of the choreopoem format moving along briskly while executing the intricate patterns of the ensemble’s physical movement.

Even when you’re delivering your line on cue, one further level of concentration often comes into play. From his spot upstage, Talley might be saying the same line slightly ahead or after you. Or the chorus may be saying something else in unison altogether. Remarkably, this rapid-fire choral presentation only sputtered occasionally – and then only slightly – as this unique show sustained its impressive momentum. Helping to maintain order, Talley has strewn three mobile reading stands across the upstage. These stands not only help him to overlap without memorizing all those additional lines and cues, it helps with the daunting multitasking he must pull off as star and director of a fairly massive production.

We can also view this setup as an intermediate stage in the development of this On Q property. When the company unveiled the new script, first at Johnson C. Smith University in 2012 and in 2013 at Duke Energy Theater, it was as a reading stage production. Now with the entire chorus virtually off-book – and one glaring technical shortcoming – we can categorize the 2016 edition as a workshop production. Talley may have been partially aware of the technical gap still remaining in this project, since the program booklet still doesn’t list a lighting designer. Amid all of his multitasking (and the absence of an assistant director to be his eyes when he’s onstage), Talley has missed how sorely a lighting designer is needed. Time after time when he was declaiming from his spot behind the central reading stand, a thick, disconcerting bar of shadow covered him from head to toe, separating him from the light surrounding him.

Yet the energy continued to pour out from him, largely because the pace and the gusto of his cast bounced the energy right back to him. All of the major singing voices are new to this remount. Shar Marlin has become On Q’s go-to vocalist over the past two years, portraying Bessie Smith on multiple occasions, so it figures that she would get the nod when it came time to trot out Ma Rainey, Mahalia, and Lawdy Miss Clawdy. Andrea Michele, on the other hand, has only appeared on my radar previously as the tomboyish lead in Pauline Cleage’s Flyin’ West when Davidson Community Players produced it nearly two years ago. Michele’s singing voice as Evalina turns out to be very fine. Kenya Templeton is even more impressive in the more central role of Calli of the Valley, and she sang purely and sweetly as Marian Anderson, though she missed the famed contralto’s distinctive timbre by a wide margin. Most memorable is how Templeton’s scat singing Ella-vates the bebop segment and makes it a celebratory highlight.

The familiarity of the recorded legacy put Omar El-Amin on shaky ground when we reached MLK, but the efforts at elongating his syllables did not obliterate the goodwill El-Amin had built up in his evocations of Douglass, all of those seeming to come from the heights of Sinai or Rushmore. Few members of most audiences are familiar with the barking Caribbean patois of Marcus Garvey, Jr., so Shiduan Campbell wasn’t saddled with the objective of duplicating the notorious revolutionary in his Charlotte debut. There was also some promising versatility in his more genial stints as Grandfather and Banjo Pete, though the latter role didn’t come equipped with either an instrument or a vocal solo. Playing opposite Campbell as Grandmother, Soumayah Consuela Nanji also didn’t have a vocal solo in her debut, and she frankly mystifyied me a little. She was a fine Grandma and Rosa Parks at first blush, but between her two stints as Rosa, she was nearly inaudible when called upon to address us from the upstage platform. The ensuing rendezvous with Rosa was equally underpowered, as if she had lost her voice in the middle of the performance.

Yet Nanji’s vitality was undimmed when she danced with Campbell each time the grandfolk grew frisky. I wouldn’t be surprised if Talley had his eye on her for choreographic chores in future On Q presentations, including the full production of The Children of Children. Other things to think about as this project enters its next step, besides establishing a more linear scenario, is being more informative about the cavalcade of notables mentioned during the course of the evening. They enrich the experience for the initiated, but they’re likely to be nothing more than dropped names for youngsters or people who may be dipping into the sea of Afro American culture for the first time. The hardcover edition of Goings’ epic is followed by a 38-page glossary, a useful tool if you’ve never heard of Ben Webster, Claude McKay, or James Meredith before. I’m hopeful that Talley’s stage version, so rich in the music and the essence of the Afro-American experience, will evolve into something more than a handsome gateway to the book on sale in the lobby. Already the living performance is showing the potential of transcending the poem.

Copyright © 2016 CVNC