Savannah Vamps Toward Opera, In Bite-Size Pieces

Mozart in Prague: Edward parks, from left, Micaela Oeste, and Chad Johnson perform the Act I trio from 'Le Nozze di figaro.'(Frank Stewart photo)

By Perry Tannenbaum

SAVANNAH — Until recently, operatic singing was rarely a component at the Savannah Music Festival. Vocalists from other sectors – including jazz, folk, Americana, and world music – were heard far more frequently at the festival. SMF executive and artistic director Rob Gibson had connections to these musical realms through his stellar associates: pianist-composer Marcus Roberts for jazz, violinist Daniel Hope for chamber music, and mandolinist-composer Mike Marshall for much of the remainder of the festival’s wide-ranging offerings.

During my first four seasons at this 17-day festival, which continues this year through April 9, only two classical singers graced the bill, Nicolle Cabell (2010) and Christine Brewer (2011). There was a wisp of opera at Brewer’s recital but none at all at Cabell’s. American musicals got even shorter shrift, represented only by Andrea Marcovicci and her tribute to Savannah icon Johnny Mercer in 2009.

MilnesThe pendulum began to swing – dramatically – toward opera in 2011, when renowned baritone Sherrill Milnes and his wife, soprano Maria Zouves, came into the picture. Operating their Milnes VOICExperience program, a series of workshops for promising artists, they were approached by one of their New York students, Rebecca Flaherty, who believed that this program would be perfect for her hometown of Savannah.

“We came to cultivate in 2011 to see whether there was a possibility of doing a program,” says Zouves, “and Rob Gibson was one of the first people that Rebecca called.” So the seeds for an eventual team-up between the operatic couple and SMF were planted early.

It became clear to Gibson that Milnes could fill the SMF’s opera void when VOICExperience took root with three programs in 2012, including one with the Savannah Philharmonic, giving rise to the Savannah VOICE Festival in August 2013, a two-week explosion of teaching and performing.

With the advent of the VOICE Festival, Savannah became the nerve center of the Milnes-Zouves enterprises, expanding even further when VOICE landed a prominent spot at last year’s Savannah Music Festival. Two-thirds of Puccini’s Il Trittico was staged at the Lucas Theatre, with Verónica Villarroel and Mark Delavan in the title roles of Suor Angelica and Gianni Schicchi, respectively. Gibson counts the production as one of the festival’s proudest moments during his 14-year tenure.

But neither of the performances at the Lucas sold out,and Angelica/Schicchi was fated to be a losing proposition even if they had. So there’s agreement on both sides of this SMF-SVF collaboration that cultivating an appreciation – and a following – for opera in Savannah remains a work in progress.

“Southerners are slow to grasp on to something,” says Milnes. “Fair enough. You’ve got to invest time. I think we’re perhaps showing them that there’s a difference between hamburger and filet mignon. If you don’t know the difference, and you love hamburger – you’ve never had a filet mignon – you don’t know that you’re missing something.”

In a sense, both of the programs devised for the 2016 festival were “filets” of opera, prime cuts of operatic repertoire served up invitingly. The first, “Arias & Encores” on March 31, was a freewheeling mix of operatic selections and Broadway fare. Two nights later came “Mozart in Prague,” distillations of The Marriage of Figaro and Don Giovanni.

The first ensemble of “Arias and Encores” genially telegraphed what we were in for. Lyrics of Sondheim’s “Comedy Tonight” were re-purposed for the occasion as “Opera Tonight” and peppered with familiar soundbites from Pagliacci, Carmen, and Lakmé. The ensuing potpourri included such staples as the “Sempre libera” from La traviata or the “Una voce poco fa” from The Barber of Seville, offset by novelties including “Canción del Arlequin” from Amadeo Vives’ La Generola or “Meine Lippen, sie küssen so heiß” from Lehár’s Giuditta.

Jessica Ann Best sang a number from 'Evita' in the 'Arias and Encores' program. (Elizabeth Leitzell)

Milnes hosted the concert while Zouves provided the stage direction at Christ Church Episcopal, moving the seven singers on and off the chancel, deploying them artfully down the center and side aisles of the sanctuary, extending the stage and lubricating the flow. In his pedagogy and programming, Milnes believes that American singers should be prepared to explore the best of Broadway’s musical theater. So opera novices and cognoscenti had the chance to savor songs from Evita, Les Misérables, Kismet, and South Pacific.

When my wife and I arrived for “Arias and Encores,” it was already packed to near capacity, consigning us to one of Episcopal’s side sections – and acoustic grief. Only two of the performers were impervious to the eroding effects of the overhanging balcony, which turned a couple of other voices into distant echoes.

The two mightiest, soprano Amy Shoremount-Obra and baritone Edward Parks, were fortuitously paired as John and Magda Sorel in “Now, O Lips, Say Goodbye” from Gian Carlo Menotti’s The Consul – for me, the meatiest discovery on this program. Standing well behind this husband and wife, mezzo-soprano Jessica Ann Best as John’s mother was virtually inaudible in this trio.

But Best harmonized exquisitely with Shoremount-Obra in “Mira, o Norma” from the Bellini opera and had some luminous moments in the Broadway bonbons, starting with “Don’t Cry for Me, Argentina.”  Best also teamed up with baritone Marco Nisticò on a three-tune sequence from South Pacific, starting with “Cock-Eyed Optimist.” Nisticò gamely tackled his half of “Twin Soliloquies,” and there was less than once-in-a-lifetime passion in his “Some Enchanted Evening.” Additional instrumentation beyond Dan Gettinger’s ardent piano might have helped.

Although he didn’t sound like he belonged on the same stage with Shoremount-Obra when he briefly peeped in on her bravura account of “Sempre libera,” tenor Chad Johnson was quite personable as Tonio in “Ah, mes amis, quel jour de fête” from Donizetti’s La fille du regiment, straining only slightly at the end. The most intense emotion came from soprano Elizabeth de Trejo in “Alerte! Alerte!” from Gounod’s Faust. But the space ravaged her voice more noticeably than anyone else’s, leaving the top of her range powerfully secure but making unpredictable inroads as she went down. It was the sustained coloratura at the end of the “Poco fa” that redeemed the bumpy ride to get there.

Micaela Oeste: seductive in songs of Vives and Lehar. (Elizabeth Leitzell)

Most enigmatic of the vocalists was soprano Micaëla Oeste, subtly seductive in the Vives and Lehár trinkets. Or was that merely the beauty and that red dress? After her unimpressive role in the “And This Is My Beloved” quartet from Kismet, I found myself asking that same questions I occasionally ask myself on the subject of Renée Fleming.

My concerns that Oeste was little more than a pretty songbird would be dispelled in the “Mozart in Prague” program at Trinity United Methodist Church by the enchantment of her Susanna in Le Nozze di Figaro. Since Milnes was the first American to play the title role of Don Giovanni at the same Prague theater where Mozart premiered it in 1787, the baritone’s fondness for the place clearly parallels the composer’s.

Milnes didn’t fritter away this unique advantage by taking his role as Narrator too literally. His words in this multimedia event were far less about the story lines of Figaro and Giovanni than about Mozart and Prague. A modicum of space in the projections shown behind the players was devoted to the supertitles, but what was otherwise visible on screen didn’t merely simulate the rooms and outdoor scenes where the operas unfold. Time after time, they  showed us Prague, taking up Milnes’ cues. When a close-up filled the screen, showing the plaque marking the spot where Mozart stood when he conducted the first performance of Giovanni, it obviously became personal for the 81-year-old baritone.

At Trinity, the relative strengths of the voices were still faintly evident, but the sound was smoother and more pleasant than it had been at Episcopal. There was also more polish to this production, which included projections, lighting changes, and co-stage director Andrew Bisantz conducting from the harpsichord, accompanying some of the recitative but more often cuing pianist Caren Levine.

Most importantly, there was more operatic immersion in the stage direction from Zouves and Bisantz, beginning with Nisticò as Figaro pacing off the measurements of the marriage bed he and Susanna will share perilously close to the lecherous Count Almaviva. We could luxuriate more extensively in Parks’ power and manliness in the farcical Act 1 trio in which  Almaviva discovers Cherubino hiding in a chair – and later in the evening when he returned as the wily and devilish Giovanni.

Johnson was more secure on this night as Don Basilio in Figaro and even better as the good-hearted Don Ottavio in Giovanni. De Trejo was also far better suited for Donna Elvira than she had been two nights earlier for Rossini’s Susanna, and she was nicely nettlesome as the elderly Marcellina opposite Oeste in the duettino with Mozart’s Susanna.

Marco Nistico's Figaro and Oeste as Susanna. (Frank Stewart)

Huddled in the chair as Cherubino, Best’s outing was comically pleasing but noticeably abbreviated, relegated to an impetuously delivered “Non so più cosa son.” The more familiar “Voi che sapete” remained on the proverbial cutting-room floor alongside Figaro’s delicious “Se vuol ballare.”

Nisticò’s performances as Figaro and Leporello were still the most revelatory of the evening, eclipsing all the mediocrity I’d heard from him before. He was absolutely commanding in his mocking military send-off to Cherubino, the familiar “Non più andrai farfallone amoroso” aria. Leporello suited his temperament even better. Borrowing the loose-leaf book from Milnes’ lectern, Nisticò went through Giovanni’s lengthy journal of conquests for Elvira, “Madamma, il catalogo è questo,” and his subsequent impersonation of Giovanni in the “Ah, taci, ingiusto core” was the comic highlight of the evening.

Oeste chimed in all too briefly as Zerlina in the Giovanni distillation, a charming and sensual “Là ci darem la mano” with Parks, but she had already been superb as Susanna. Bringing us the only snippet from the epic garden scene that closes Figaro so satisfyingly, Oeste was most characterful and impressive, teasing her unjustly jealous Figaro with the “Deh, vieni, non tardar”and demonstrating a fine strand of gravitas woven into her mischief – with some captivating pianissimos.

Milnes’ warmth toward Prague parallels his growing affection for Savannah. He feels the community’s love and has the rewarding sense of filling a void – and he sees the synergy between his other VOICExperience enterprises and his contributions to SMF. Unlike the efforts we’re reviewing here, with paid professionals, opera productions at the Savannah VOICE Festival are more of a showcase for Milnes’ and Zouves’ students.

“Our desire is that every singer we work with, we bump them up a notch or more, and they have a career,” says Milnes. “We want to keep doing professional dates with the singers who emerge and improve.” Clearly, the new operatic component at the Festival can serve as a platform for those aspirations.

And the Savannah Music Festival itself serves as a calling card for the upcoming Savannah VOICE Festival on August 7-21. Milnes promises to launch that festival with a two-hour-and-15-minute reduction of Roméo et Juliette that eliminates the choruses and preserves the sinew of Gounod’s opera, August 7 and 9. Operatic highlights also include a reprise of Michael Ching’s new Alice Ryley, a Savannah Ghost Story on August 16.

Gibson succinctly summarizes what Milnes and Zouves have brought to the arts here: “Really, they’re godsends for Savannah and for the festival.”

Photos by Frank Stewart, Dario Acosto, and Elizabeth Leitzell

 

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