Category Archives: Opera

Gaillard Grandeur and Dock Street Informality Shape a New Spoleto

Review: Spoleto Festival USA – 2017

By Perry Tannenbaum

For the past two years at Spoleto Festival USA, opera has been the bellwether of how this massive festiv

al of the performing arts – including theatre, jazz, dance, symphonic and chamber music – has been changing and evolving. In 2015, opera programming untethered itself from its customary balance of new works with outré offerings from recognized masters. The tandem of Paradise Interrupted in its world premiere and Veremonda in its American debut underscored the transformation of Spoleto into the world’s leading showcase for new and/or different classical music.

Last year, what seemed like a move toward more populist programming, with Porgy and Bess as the marquee opera and an increased presence of American jazz artists, did not affect a continuing drift toward more modernist music. What the Porgy and Bess celebration of the festival’s 40th season really signaled was that, with the radical facelift to the reopened Gaillard Center, truly grand productions of grand operas were now possible in Charleston, SC.

Even before the Gaillard closed down for its makeover after the 2012 season, it was clear that, from a technical standpoint, only lackluster stagings could be expected there. Gustave Charpentier’s Louise had been the last operatic attempt in 2009. During the renovations, you could be charmed by Spoleto’s productions of Kát’a Kabanová and Le Villi at Sottile Theatre, but you could hardly pretend they were on a grand scale.

With this year’s presentation of Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin, grand lyric opera was emphatically enthroned at the festival, although I suspect there were budgetary constraints in the wake of last year’s anniversary extravagances. Now that might not explain why there was no bed, no window, and no writing desk – all mentioned in the libretto – for Tatyana’s famed letter scene. Why would stage director Chen Shi-Zheng’s austerity extend to depriving the poor woman of pen and paper until after she has finished writing?

Suspicions came unbidden when, after a snowbound video of a Russian forest ran over the overture, spindly trunks of wintry trees descended from the fly lofts and haunted nearly the entire production. The concept didn’t jibe with arrival of the family estate’s peasants heralding their completion of the harvest. More puzzling, the lovely trees were whisked to the wings prior to the scene where they might make the most sense, the duel between Onegin and the hotheaded poet Lensky.

Projections that replaced the trees for the duel and for the ultimate denouement, where he receives his richly deserved rejection from Tatyana, were actually darkly effective. But the best use of set designer Christopher Barreca’s trees came when, half-lifted into the flies and colorfully illuminated, they simulated chandeliers at the regal ball in Prince Gremin’s palace, where Onegin is thunderstruck by the transformation of Tatyana into a poised and polished aristocrat.

Whatever toll austerity might have taken on the scenery, it was not a factor in the singing. Taxed with delivering the letter scene with no props except a chair (those lingering tree trunks did fill up momentarily with projections of Tatyana’s handwriting), soprano Natalia Pavolova glowed with youthful longing in her American debut. She was hardly less impressive as a mature princess, bearing herself imperially in the ballroom, and her creamy voice thickened pleasingly with emotion in the final tête-à-tête with Onegin. Lacking the hauteur I saw from Dmitri Hvorostovsky when I saw him in the role opposite Renee Fleming, baritone Franco Pomponi was less of a cold-hearted jerk when Onegin rejected Tatyana and killed Lensky – and more pitiable when he comprehended his mistakes.

Solid as he was vocally, Pomponi was thoroughly upstaged by tenor Jamez McCorkle as Lensky. The pride and pathos that McCorkle brought to Lensky’s final pre-duel meditations were shattering. Nearly as touching – and as vocally powerful – baritone Peter Volpe’s weighty, twilit confessions to Onegin as Prince Gremin were the perfect prelude to the cad’s comeuppance.

Acoustics at the new 1,800-seat facility helped to keep the front-liners relaxed, unless they had the misfortune of singing from the rear half of the stage, which introduced a noticeable echo effect. Clarity and presence improve markedly for the Spoleto Festival USA Orchestra when it ascends from the pit to the stage, where it is wrapped in a tall, wood-grained shell and covered by a sloped and sculpted acoustic ceiling.

With the addition of the Westminster Choir conducted by Joe Miller, the worthy heir to Joseph Flummerfelt, orchestral concerts have also grown grander in recent years. Ramping up to the return of the Gaillard, Miller and the Westminsters presented the St. Matthew Passion at the Sottile in 2015 before helping to break in the new hall last year with Beethoven’s Mass in C and his Choral Fantasy. Once again mixing the sacred with the secular at the Gaillard, Miller programmed Mozart’s unfinished “Great” Mass in C Minor, preceded by two Ralph Vaughan Williams settings, one for Psalm 90 (“Lord, Thou Hast Been Our Refuge” and the other from the moonlit Act 5 love scene that punctuates the hurly-burly of Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice (“Serenade to Music”).

Augmented by the Charleston Symphony Orchestra, the Westminster Choir sounded massive and sure, and the Festival Orchestra, culled from advanced conservatory students and young professionals through nationwide auditions, still strikes me as the best American orchestra of its kind. The bigger sound of the choir made the “Lord, Thou Hast Been Our Refuge” more soothing and cosmic, building to a majestic finish. An exquisite dialogue between orchestra and vocalists followed in the Shakespeare setting, as six of the Westminster choristers then came downstage and formed a mini-choir, joining the four guest artists who would sing in the Mozart.

It was gratifying to see McCorkle again after his fine Lensky, but once again, he didn’t draw a leading role in the Mass after shining briefly in the “Serenade.” Mozart began this liturgical piece as a showcase for his wife, Constanza, and soprano Sherezade Panthaki shone in much of the coloratura spotlight that he managed to finish, especially when powering the climax of the Credo. Soprano Clara Rottsolk ably complemented Panthaki in the Gloria, and bass André Courville rounded out the quartet of soloists in the concluding Benedictus.

Of course, there was nothing miniscule about the other orchestral concert, beginning with Anna Thorvaldsdottir’s icily atmospheric Dreaming and climaxing with Mahler’s Symphony No. 4. Following up brilliantly on her lustrous 2013 debut in the title role of Matsukaze, soprano Pureum Jo filled the folksy jollity of the Sehr behaglich (“Very comfortable”) finale with a heavenly purity.

Yet I found myself even more encouraged and excited by what’s happening in the chamber music sector of the festival. For the first time since taking over the reins of the daily chamber music series in 2010, violinist Geoff Nuttall had to acknowledge the absence of his mentor and predecessor, Charles Wadsworth, on the mend up in New York. As host and programmer of the lunchtime Dock Street Theatre concerts, Nuttall has come into his own, greatly increasing the amount of modern and contemporary music that is played while chipping away at the barrier that previously distinguished the genial, comical, and witty introductions to the music from the formality of the performances that followed.

There’s likely a connection between the two developments. When a percussionist provides the entire audience with pairs of rocks to bang together during a performance of new music, or a composer triggers video and sound cues with an iPhone, formality begins to break down. The effect spread to more antique music when countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo called attention to the kinship between a Vivaldi aria and Elvis Presley’s “Don’t Be Cruel.”

Performances have sprouted a jocular dimension here and there, thanks to the deployment of clarinetist Todd Palmer as comedian-in-chief. After Nuttall spoke vividly of Giovanni Bottesini’s virtuosic displays on double bass during operas that he conducted in the mid-1800’s, appearing mid-performance to dazzle with improvised fantasias on tunes from that evening’s opera, Palmer joined double bassist Anthony Manzo and pianist Gilles Vonsattel in Bottesini’s Duetto for Clarinet and Double Bass with Piano. Between two of the fantasias, Palmer did a riff of his own on the diva aspects of the spoken intro, flashing some leg and modeling a sock that was more flamboyant than any I’ve seen on even Nuttall’s feet.

There was more later as Nuttall and his St. Lawrence String Quartet joined Manzo, flutist Tara Helen O’Connor, and pianist Pedja Muzijevic in a cunning reduction of Symphony No. 100 by Haydn, our host’s favorite composer. As Nuttall explained how this “Military” Symphony came by its nickname, you had to wonder where the hellish percussive roar would come from when the second movement started. The answer came during the interval between the opening Adagio-Allegro and the signature Allegretto: emerging from the wings, Palmer marched onstage – literally marched, mind you – harnessed into a big bass marching drum and brandishing two mallets.

It was actually a military parade, since cellist Joshua Roman with a pair of cymbals and violinist Benjamin Bellman with a wee triangle marched in right behind Palmer. Earlier in the concert, right after the Bottesini, these two accomplices had given an absolutely delicious account of Ravel’s Sonata for Violin and Cello. If anything, the exit after Haydn’s second movement, led again by Palmer, was even more ceremonial. Yet there were more surprises to come. Violinist Daniel Phillips (flutist O’Connor’s husband) heralded the opening passages of the Presto finale from the balcony, and Palmer’s percussion trio resurfaced at the rear of the hall to pound, clang, and clink the final measures.

Musically, Palmer’s shining moments came three programs earlier when he played the Beethoven Clarinet Trio with Muzijevic and Roman, while the best of Nuttall came when he led an inspired performance of the Mendelssohn Octet. Some of the inspiration no doubt came from the meet-up between Nuttall’s St. Lawrence Quartet and his newest Spoleto recruits, the Rolston String Quartet. They won the Banff International String Quartet Competition 24 years after the elder Canadian quartet won the same prize in 1992. There were moments when Rolston cellist Jonathan Lo and violist Hezekiah Leung gazed upon Nuttall’s rapt antics – his back-and-forth swaying on the first chair and his spasmodic knee-lifts – with undisguised, wide-eyed wonder, apparently unaware that he played with the same abandon, eccentricity, and charisma when he first came to Spoleto in 1995. Except that his hair was longer then.

Effects of Nuttall’s stewardship now extend beyond the Dock Street Theatre. Two of the chamber music pianists had concerts booked at other venues. Muzijevic, who also traveled to Hamburg to select the new Steinway for the Dock Street series, fashioned a set of “Haydn Dialogues” at the Simons Center Recital Hall – four Papa pieces interspersed with works by Jonathan Berger, Morton Feldman, and (with an alternate prepared piano) John Cage. Stephen Prutsman put on his composing hat at Woolfe Street Playhouse, plucking a string quartet from the Festival Orchestra to score three silent films, “Suspense,” “The Cameraman’s Revenge,” and “Mighty Like a Moose.”

For the past two years, Nuttall has performed at Gaillard Center in chamber music segments of Spoleto Celebration Concerts, further extending his presence. He and his spouse, violinist spouse Livia Sohn formed half of a quartet, including Muzijevic and St. Lawrence cellist Christopher Costanza, in a reduced adaptation from Vivaldi’s L’estro armonico concertos. Until 2013, when oboist James Austin Smith joined his chamber music stable, Nuttall was no more likely to program Vivaldi’s music than Wadsworth was, let alone play it.

What really brought Vivaldi to centerstage at Spoleto was the sensation that countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo created last season in his first three programs at Dock Street. Costanzo didn’t sing Vivaldi then, ranging instead from Handel to Gershwin to Osvaldo Golijov, but it was obvious to he could sing the Red Priest’s rep with a vengeance. Having Costanzo on board to play the title role made it easy to green-light the American premiere of Vivaldi’s Farnace, the most popular of the composer’s operas during his lifetime.

You had to be able to accept the old-timey ethos of death before dishonor to the point of absurdity if you were to reach the end of Antonio Lucchini’s 1727 libretto without guffaws or derisive laughter. Dethroned from the kingdom of Pontus by invaders from Rome, Farnace orders his queen Tamiri to kill their son and herself to avoid the disgrace of captivity. Meanwhile Farnace and his captive sister Selinda separately plot to bring down their conquerors, Roman general Pompeo and his merciless ally, Queen Berenice of Cappadocia, a gargoyle who turns out to be Tamiri’s mom.

Somehow everything sorted out happily. More amazingly, Costanzo managed to bring down the house just before intermission – bemoaning the death of the angelic little son whom he himself condemned to death!

With Costanzo singing two additional Vivaldi arias at the lunchtime concerts and Smith fronting an oboe concerto, the Red Priest explosion was major theme in Spoleto’s 2017 classical music lineup. But the countertenor continued to show his wide range. What I most regretted about skipping the final weekend in Charleston was seeing Costanzo introduce and deliver Roy Orbison’s deathless “Crying!” An 11-piece ensemble, including Palmer and Nuttall, was weeping behind him. Or maybe not.

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Opera Carolina – and Six International Collaborators – Present a Top-Drawer La Fanciulla del West

Review: Charlotte Opera The Girl of the Golden West

By Perry Tannenbaum

When Opera Carolina general director and principal conductor James Meena walked out onto the Belk Theater stage to introduce the Charlotte premiere of Puccini’s La Fanciulla del West, he was appropriately sporting a black Western-style Stetson. That hat nearly grew old before our eyes as Meena delivered his curtain speech, for he had so much more to say than usual – even when he’s enumerating the generous sponsors of a production and capping off a season by announcing next year’s lineup. Not only was the New York City Opera a collaborator on this production (as they were for last season’s American premiere of Rachmaninoff’s Aleko), so were five new co-producing companies from Italy, including Teatro del Giglio in Lucca, Puccini’s hometown.

That was just the first leg of the extras from Meena. One of the sponsors, Wells Fargo, is actually represented in the opera – and in the David Belasco melodrama, The Girl of the Golden West, from which Puccini took his storyline – by Ashby, the Wells Fargo agent on the trail of Dick Johnson, our hero. So the storied San Francisco company has contributed some memorabilia to the design of this production, dating back to its iconic stagecoach days during the California Gold Rush. Finally, if there were some in the audience who weren’t already aware of it, tenor Marcello Giordani, who was about to sing the role of Johnson (alias the outlaw Ramerrez), has brought his international vocal competition to Charlotte. The four sessions of preliminary rounds, semifinals, and finals are interlaced with the three performances of La Fanciulla at Belk Theater. All in all, quite a week for Meena and Opera Carolina.

Although Sheriff Jack Rance broods among the miners at the Polka Saloon in the opening moments, impatiently awaiting the arrival of Minnie, La Fanciulla doesn’t zero in on its core story and characters as efficiently as Puccini’s Tosca, Butterfly, and Bohème. That’s not a problem if you have strong singers in the secondary roles carrying the early action. Most of the singers in minor roles gave first-rate performances. Jeff McEvoy as camp minstrel Jake Wallace gave a fine account of the homesick “Che faranno I vecchi miei” aria, justifiably launching an empathetic men’s chorus after him. Baritone Giovanni Guagliardo was such a powerful presence onstage that you could think he was one of the leading players until he was identified as Sonora, and bass-baritone Dan Boye slid ably from bravado to pathos as Sid when the card dealer was caught cheating. But all of the aspirants to Minnie’s regard didn’t sound as formidable as Sonora, and tenor Gianluca Bocchino was shockingly underpowered when he appeared as Nick, the Polka’s sly barkeep. Bocchino must have been pretty alarmed himself, for he sang much more effectively later on.

The poignant homesickness of the minstrel and the collection Sonora takes up on behalf of the disillusioned miner are well worth keeping in mind when Minnie pleads for Johnson’s life in Act 3. Similarly, the miners’ rage against Sid’s duplicity – and Rance’s authoritative intervention on behalf of the cardsharper, meting out punishment that is less than a noose – also foreshadows what we’ll see from them after intermission. While the overall design is artful, there was a welcome intensification of the drama when Minnie, Johnson, and the outlaw’s chief pursuer, Agent Ashby, showed up. As Sheriff Rance, baritone Aleksey Bogdanov is a powerful, menacing presence – Scarpia-like in his driving urges, with feelings and morals layered on. But until he was alone with Minnie, past the midpoint of Act 1, Rance could not reveal his soul. Singing the “Minnie, dalla mia casa son partito” aria, Bogdanov showed it to us, a wisp of tenderness mixed into his gruffness. Although they don’t come into play nearly as dramatically, Ashby also seems to have feelings for Minnie, and baritone Jason McKinney has a powerful presence that matches up well with the other lawman.

Stage director and production designer Ivan Stefanutti has responded well to the demands of this drama in casting and directing these two imposing baritones, but there is an extra measure of flamboyance to this pioneering spaghetti Western. Set in the foothills of the mighty Sierra Mountains, this Western emphatically separates itself from the Cactus League of the genre by including a massive blizzard at the climax of Act 2. So the men don’t merely sport boots, buckskins, vests, and a panoply of brimmed and furry hats. They also wear a variety of coats. In a wonderful array of costumes – including a turquoise suit for Rance – Steffanuti has gone with fur coats for both Rance and Johnson. Ashby’s rakish raincoat, on the other hand, is worthy of the Flying Dutchman.

Maybe a couple of words should be said about the projections designed by Op Carolina’s Michael Baumgarten. Setting the scene in the Sierras, the animated views of the mountain are tastefully dark and monochromatic, maybe a little too aggressively varied for their purpose. The animated backdrops, when the Polka interior becomes established, also changed a little too busily for my taste, but the emphasis on the Ramerrez wanted poster pointed up a prime advantage of animation. One second, the poster can be many times lifesize; the next moment, it can diminish to insignificance. In Act 2, as we reached the pivotal poker game between Minnie and Rance – with Ramerrez’s life as the stakes – the backdrop filled with supersized playing cards. But do they really need to crazily flip around like we’re in a living slot machine? Again the background changes at Minnie’s cabin were too busy, at one point seeming to suggest that Minnie lives inside a tree, and later implying that either Ramerrez’s gang or the Sheriff’s posse was outside guarding the cabin. Mercifully, Baumgarten was more restrained in Act 3, and the dawn of Ramerrez’s redemption came with more subtlety.

Giordani measures up well physically against his imposing antagonists, but the tenor has a noticeably gentler demeanor as Johnson, more convincing as an ardent lover than as a cunning and ruthless bandit on the run. Since he’s tracked down, shot, and strung up, banditry wasn’t a particularly strong aptitude for Ramerrez, so a name change followed by a career change would be sensible directions that he could see for himself in Act 2. Puccini’s music certainly pulls Johnson toward romance, redemption, and domesticity, and Giordani responds best in the heartfelt “Io non ti lascio più” duet in Act 2, before his past dalliances with a certain Nina are confirmed. Listening to Giordani deliver the “Ch’ella mi creda” in Act 3 when the jig is up, I really did feel like this was a penitent and reformed Ramerrez.

Making her Opera Carolina debut, soprano Kristin Sampson brings a stocky presence to Minnie that seemed, upon a few minutes of reflection, to be as right as Ethel Merman singing the gun-toting Annie Oakley. While I’d be leery of seeing Sampson as the fragile Mimi in Bohème, there was Tosca-like power for her to work with here as she made her dynamic entrance with a good-sized firearm holstered on her hip. She decisively resisted Rance and did not melt easily when Johnson started wooing, so her half of the Act 2 love duet came with a delicious onrush of amorous passion we hadn’t heard before. Yet she far surpassed herself in Act 3, pleading for Ramerrez’s life – one miner at a time – in Minnie’s “Non vi fu mai chi disse ‘Basta!’” The plaint built powerfully in its conviction, and as the miners gradually joined in, became a chorus of communal forgiveness and kindness that I found unexpectedly moving. Never having seen La Fanciulla performed live before, I hoped I’d be seeing a first-rate production of second-rate Puccini. Leaving Belk Theater, I had the distinct feeling that this opera deserves top-drawer status. I suspect many other longtime Opera Carolina subscribers felt the same.

Opera Carolina Taps into a New Audience with Three Short Operas – Including a World Premiere

Reviews: “A Hand of Bridge,” “The Telephone,” and “Connection Lost (The Tinder Opera)”

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By Perry Tannenbaum

Just when you might have thought Opera Carolina was turning away from fruitful collaborations, they are diving back in with renewed vigor. Last month’s production of The Barber of Seville, kicking off their 2016-17 mainstage season, rose to the same high level of the previous Op Carolina production of Rossini’s comic gem directed by Bernard Uzan in 2002. Yet a noteworthy difference was the absence of Piedmont Opera as a co-producer, so after its Charlotte run ended on October 30, there was no second run in Winston-Salem as there had been 14 years earlier. Not to fear, new collaborators came into play within four days as Op Carolina forged new bonds with the D9 Brewing Company and the Warehouse Performing Arts Center. While these two Cornelius, NC, outfits are non-operatic, they fit in with the Charlotte company’s aim to remind us that all operas aren’t grand and that all opera audiences need not be elderly, strait-laced, and richly appareled. Everything about their world premiere of Scott Joiner’s “Connection Lost (The Tinder Opera)” was youthful, casual, and populist.

The free event was at D9, where a line of draught beer taps greeted me near the entrance, and a row of tall stainless steel brew tanks caught my eye as I made my way to my front row seat – on a folding chair. Joiner’s new opera would half-surround me, a string quartet and pianist/music director Emily Jarrell Urbanek slightly behind me and a cast of 14 in front of me in a far corner of the brewery that served as a stage. Two smaller chamber operas with librettos by Gian Carlo Menotti led up to the premiere. Music director Erin Palmer accompanied from the keyboard as the triptych opened with “A Hand of Bridge,” the 1959 score by Menotti’s life partner Samuel Barber, almost axiomatically a four-hander. Dr. Greg Thompson took over at the keyboard for “The Telephone,” a two-hander that Menotti wrote all by himself in 1947, when it premiered together with The Medium.

Clocking at around a scant 10 minutes, “A Hand of Bridge” is a bit long for its subject, problematical for singers and stage directors because Menotti frequently loses interest in the cardplaying once the bidding stage is over. It’s the characters who matter, except perhaps for Sally, whose thoughts don’t go beyond the depth of craving a peacock-feather hat, appropriately the dummy for this hand. The way she announces her passive status gives her husband Bill a spasm of anxiety: maybe she has discovered that he’s having an affair! Sally, sung with slightly more personality than a tape loop by Anna Harrevald, seems like sufficient reason for a husband to stray. Singing about his beloved Cymbeline, tenor Kyle Melton seemed less blissfully committed to his paramour than disaffected with his wife. Cymbeline seemed to have six or other men to choose from, rousing jealousy within Melton’s aria, but his roiling passions made for a comical contrast with Harrevald’s shrill shallowness when they sang together.

The other couple had a different disconnect that evoked a little more sympathy. Geraldine has suddenly realized that nobody loves her, not her stock-trading husband, her football son, or even Bill, whose days of playing footsie with her under the table are long gone. With her pure soprano, Lindsey Gallegos took advantage of her opportunity to turn in the most heartfelt singing of the evening, crossing over the edge of maudlin when Menotti’s lyrics took her to regrets over her breach with her dying mother, the only person alive whom she feels truly cares. Her husband, David, underscored Geraldine’s isolation in a more human fashion than I anticipated. As David, baritone David Clark could sing feelingly about his status as a downtrodden stock market underling, dreaming of the excesses he would indulge in if he were richer than his hateful boss Pritchett, until he realized that, even with fabulous wealth, he’d still be likely to spend humdrum bridge nights with Bill and Sally. So the materialistic David had a wider range of emotion than Clark to contrast with his wife. Altogether the closing quartet sketched the separate subterranean streams that run through the minds of people who have known each other a long time but don’t truly know each other at all. Perhaps the most timely aspect of this quartet happened when “A Hand of Bridge” dropped us off in our current world with its final exclamation: “Trump!”

“The Telephone” was clearly the fulcrum of the program, linked to the “Bridge” miniature by its librettist and the world premiere to follow with its comical use of the phone. Separated by 79 years, those phones ought to look radically different, but stage director Jessica Zingher opted for an update, equipping both Ben and Lucy with cellphones. Poor Ben. He hopes to propose to Lucy before he must leave on a business trip, but the woman can’t be torn loose from her phone. I believe soprano Kate Edahl handled five phone calls while Ben attempted to present her with an engagement ring and pop the question, over 15 minutes of delays, exacerbated by some fine coloratura filigree. Three of the calls – chattering to Margaret, fielding a wrong number, and inquiring about the time – were frustrating for their triviality. Another two were connected: after getting a furious call from George, she had to tell Pamela about the false accusation. Unlike Ben, I found myself thankful for the follow-up call, because Edahl was mostly unintelligible responding to George’s unheard verbal assault.

Both of the modifications required by the update fell to baritone Eric Lofton to execute. Back in 1947, Ben attempted to disable Lucy’s phone by cutting the cord with a scissors while she was momentarily out of the room. Here he flipped a pair of scissors over and attempted the bludgeon her cell with the butt end, arguably improving the comedy effect. Lofton carried all of this off with a nice mixture of ardent devotion and helpless frustration, though the vocal lines afforded to Edahl were more flattering. And to tell the truth, the tech update applied to “The Telephone” leaves Ben looking a little less bright. Lucy occupies herself so long in phone chatter that Ben must leave on his business trip before he can propose. In 1947, he found a handy phone booth along the way, but in Opera Carolina’s revival, he simply pulls a cellphone out of his pocket – a stratagem he could have resorted to earlier instead of wielding those scissors. With all of Edahl’s giddiness and all of Loftin’s dogged earnestness, I found myself in a forgiving mood as the couple reached their happy ending, but what Thompson had provided from the keyboard to simulate the ringing of Lucy’s cell definitely needed a reboot.

Keeping those production shortfalls in mind, I was very happy to see the technical polish lavished upon “Connection Lost (The Tinder Opera).” If you haven’t heard of Tinder, I can tell you that it’s a smartphone app that facilitates getting acquainted with strangers through photos and texting. Getting information about the app and installing it are impressively easy. On my iPhone’s app store, I simply entered t in the search box and Tinder appeared instantly on the top of the list of choices, lending credence to their claim that they have made 10 billion matches worldwide. Joiner’s opera, extolling the joy, the excitement, and the pain of prospecting for a date with Tinder, explains the key difference between the free and paid versions of the app, shows us the app in action, and ends in delicious mock tragedy.

Besides the extra instrumental artillery of a string quartet, Michael Baumgarten completely covered the fevered Tinder activity of our protagonist, Graham, with a set of projection designs that were superbly synchronized to the texting/singing. Color-coded text balloons, white for Graham and blue for the parade of his dating prospects, were sequenced on opposite sides of brewery’s white wall behind the players, scrolling upwards as the sound and text conversations moved along. Glued to his smaller screen, Johnny Harmon was the young man fervently looking for love – within the constraints of the free app. In the only non-telephone conversation, Graham and a Waiter (Tim Laurio) concur that the monthly rate for the premium version of the app is way too high. Among the dozen prospects who texted with Graham, my favorites were Amber (Xela Pinkerton), Sakura (Sarah Musick), and – for obvious reasons – the dolled-up Dennis (David Clark). Sakura’s answers were in disconcerting Asian characters, and when Graham asked Amber whether she was free that night, she insisted she would only take cash.

Graham finally appeared to find a soulmate in Katie, wholesomely sung by Corey Lovelace. What clinched Katie’s attraction for Graham was her revelation that she liked opera, all the proof we needed that both Katie and Graham were people of genuine substance. But that was precisely the moment when tragedy struck. Dropped connection? Battery drain? Unlike his title, Joiner’s libretto offered the production team a choice, and Baumgarter chose the latter for his final screen shot. Graham’s expression of devastated anguish was worthy of Verdi’s Rigoletto. Instead of crying out “la maledizione!” (“the curse!”) as the inconsolable jester always does, Harmon let out a single word – “Tinder!” – with all the might of an overstressed lumberjack. A memorable ending to a fun hour of opera that absolutely delighted the standing-room-only crowd. Of course, the craft beer didn’t hurt, either. D9’s other collaboration with Opera Carolina is a West Coast IPA “boasting grapefruit and tropical fruit flavors.” If you haven’t guessed the name, it’s HOpera Carolina. I hope that more of these collaborations are on tap for the future.

Opera Carolina’s “Barber of Seville” Sharpens the Comedy

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Review : The Barber of Seville

By Perry Tannenbaum

Poor Beaumarchais. A crucial friend of the American Revolution, French playwright Pierre Beaumarchais’s great Figaro comedies have been both favored and scorned by history. Just two years after The Marriage of Figaro premiered in Paris, Mozart’s 1786 adaptation eclipsed the theater version, remaining one of opera’s supreme masterworks to this day. And the Rossini version of the first Figaro play, The Barber of Seville, has a been an operagoer’s favorite ever since its Rome premiere in 1816.

Hardly a month goes by without one of these operas being produced somewhere around the globe. The original Beaumarchais comedies? Not so much. They endure through the operas they inspired.

Rossini was the fifth or sixth composer to adapt The Barber, and undoubtedly the best, for the profusion of memorable melodies in this score has hardly been equaled by any other opera. But popularity can pay a price. Two hundred years after Barber’s triumphant premiere, there are indications that both producers and audiences are wearying of the longtime favorite.

Up in New York, director Bartlett Sher had the opera and the libretto by Cesare Sterbini sliced, diced, and freshly translated for a new family-friendly version at the Metropolitan Opera during the holidays last season. Obviously, the calculus included the notion that the hit parade packaged in a compressed Barber could serve as a gateway to other operas and/or Rossini, for the composer’s Lady of the Lake was among the other operas that I found in the Met’s rotation last December.

Yet there seemed to be some uneasiness from Sher about presenting the classic in the usual way. As a result, baritone Elliot Madore was more of an action hero as Figaro than a razor-stropping conniver, and tenor David Portillo was almost a purely romantic hero as the barber’s co-conspirator, Count Almaviva, further draining the comedy from the evening.

No such trimming, miscalculating, uneasiness, or distortion occurs in Opera Carolina’s current production at Belk Theater. Stage director Bernard Uzan, who directed a delicious Opera Carolina-Piedmont Opera co-production of Barber in 2002, both in Charlotte and Winston-Salem, helps the singers to wed Rossini’s music with Beaumarchais’s comedy even more delightfully this time around.

You can bet that OC general director James Meena, conducting the Charlotte Symphony, is also in on the comedy conspiracy, for his alertness with dynamics and tempo consistently sharpens Rossini’s musical joking. From the orchestra pit up to the stage, with its pitch-perfect scenery and costuming, everybody seems jazzed by the concept of this revival.

No, all the Rossini fatigue in Charlotte seems to be out in the hall, where empty seats gradually dominated the rear of the orchestra section on opening night. At intermission, I looked up at the top balcony, shocked to find that none of the seats up yonder had been sold. Ushers up there enjoying the show could have any seat they wished. Three performances shouldn’t satisfy audience hunger for an outstanding production like this, but unfortunately, hundreds have already missed out on the fun.unspecified

It starts with tenor Victor Ryan Robertson, who was so slick and rascally as Sportin’ Life earlier this year in Charleston at Spoleto Festival USA’s production of Porgy and Bess. Disguised as the student Lindoro, Robertson torches Count Almaviva’s lovesick “Ecco ridente in cielo” serenade in the opening scene. The strength of Robertson’s singing promises that he will be as noble and ardent as Portillo was in New York.

But to spirit his sweetheart Rosina away from the decrepit and perverted fingers of her guardian, Dr. Bartolo, Count Almaviva dons two disguises within his Lindoro disguise, first a drunken soldier to be quartered in Bartolo’s home and later a singing teacher to tutor Rosina. Aided by the zany handiwork of wig-and-makeup designer Martha Ruskai, Roberston’s comic stints far excel what I witnessed at the Met, actually upstaging our clever Figaro. In particular, the nasal whine of the tutor, compounded by the dopey look of his coke-bottle eyeglasses, is magnificent overkill if their intent is to calm the rabid jealousies of the vigilant Bartolo.

Of course, it’s Figaro who upstages Almaviva in the opening scene, and Hyung Yun registers a resounding triumph with the most familiar patter song in all opera, the “Largo al factotum.” Yun was not only up to the increasing speed of the aria, he refused to hide behind the language barrier, sounding like he was saying something rather than zipping through an advertising jingle. Sher’s impulse to turn the title character into an action hero was understandable given the tendency for him to devolve into a lovable clown, but Yun’s Figaro remains a clever and resourceful rogue.

No, Figaro doesn’t have to beg like a silly slave when Almaviva and Rosina delay their escape from Bartolo’s home late in Act 2, nor does he need to counsel haste and quiet to the lovers like a sensible big brother. Yun takes a neat middle way, preserving the comedy that Gilbert and Sullivan must have cherished (see the denouement in The Pirates of Penzance). I also appreciated how Yun held up his end of the “Fortunati affeti mei” duet with Rosina in Act 1, Scene 2, earnestly expressing his admiration for women’s aptitude for deceit without becoming – as we usually hear – a mere background drone.

With her crazy Queen of the Night range, soprano Kathryn Lewek was certainly worthy of all the admiration that came her way as Rosina, topping her own Op Carolina debut as Lucia di Lammermoor 18 months ago and topping what I saw and heard from mezzo Isabel Leonard in New York last December. In some respects, she even surpassed the scintillating work of mezzo Vivica Genaux when she sang Rosina here in 2002.

Not only did Lewek reach higher notes in her coloratura flights, she also conspired to deliver more comedy. From the moment she launched into the famed “Una voce poco fa,” proclaiming Rosina’s devilish tendencies, it was obvious the Lewek was capable of meeting the pyrotechnical demands of this showpiece. Uzan was clearly her accomplice in taking Rosina’s coloratura beyond showmanship.

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Early on, we get indications from Lewek of what would become deliciously explicit later on – when she and Lindoro, disguised as her tutor, are carrying on in the same room where the hoodwinked Bartolo is getting ready for his shave. Those coloratura flights aren’t merely the showy warblings of a songbird, they are manifestations of uncontrollable sensual delight, triggered each time Almaviva caresses Rosina’s arm. Lewek delivers these passages with sudden surges in volume to enhance the effect. Sensational and comically seductive at the same time.

Stephen Condy as Dr. Bartolo and Kevin Langan as Don Basilio turn in fine performances as the dupes of all this connivance. Bartolo is the dopier dupe, more often in the spotlight, but bass Langan upstages him musically with Basilio’s “La calumnia,” urging a vicious campaign of rumor to drive Almaviva out of town. Condy, a baritone of imposing pomposity, listens stolidly as Langan’s fulminations rise to a stormy peak. Then he responds with a simple no, rounding off a polished comedy gem.

Uzan sprinkles the staging with other comedy nuggets, making sure Basilio’s endless exit is milked as thoroughly in the middle of Act 2 as the lovers’ aborted escape is afterwards. More singular is the slow motion and stop motion that gets layered onto the chaotic ensemble that ends Act 1, built up to pandemonium from a hushed staccato. The same shtick worked well in the 2002 production that Uzan directed here in 2002, so why not bring it back?

After attending a Charlotte Symphony concert just eight days earlier, when I sat up in the grand tier, I found the orchestral sound comparatively muffled as Meena struck up the overture down in the pit. I’d already acclimated to the altered dynamics by the time the curtain rose on pre-dawn Seville. When Meena summoned the music that covers the transition from afternoon to midnight at Bartholo’s home midway into Act 2, it really carried the shocking snap and crackle of an unforeseen lightning storm.

Sure enough, Beaumarchais called for the sound of a terrible storm in the interval between Acts 3 and 4 of his original playscript, sparking more than two centuries of conjecture that he intended his work to be an opera all along. With its exceptional singing and mirth-making, I’d say the current Opera Carolina production of The Barber of Seville fulfills Rossini’s and Beaumarchais’s intentions in equal measure.

Opera Carolina Welcomes “Aleko” to America in Fine Professional Style

Reviews: Aleko and Pagliacci

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By Perry Tannenbaum

January 28, 2016, Charlotte, NC – Although Sergei Rachmaninov wrote some formidable vocal, choral, and orchestral music, his opera inventory was rather paltry compared with his gifts. Recent recorded sets of his complete operatic output – Aleko, Francesca de Rimini, and The Miserly Knight – are comfortably contained on three CDs. So it was surprising for me to discover that Rachmaninov’s first opera, Aleko, had never been given a fully professional production in the US with its original score. It must have surprised James Meena as well when he saw a reorchestrated version up at the Boston Early Music Festival in 2013, for Opera Carolina’s general director and principal conductor has rectified the oversight with admirable haste, truly championing the neglected work.

The US premiere at Belk Theater hasn’t merely introduced new repertoire to Opera Carolina subscribers. Members of the Charlotte Symphony Orchestra might have known some of the dance music at most; members of the Opera Carolina Chorus – total strangers to Russian except for the 2011 production of Eugene Onegin – certainly hadn’t set eyes on their parts before. It’s also likely that none of the far-flung featured players assembled for this production had ever sung these roles before. Paired with this unfamiliar fare is an old favorite with Charlotte operavores, Ruggero Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci, presented for the fifth time in the company’s history – with three of the same featured vocalists who learned Aleko for us.

The two operas, presented in one-act format (Pagliacci was composed in two), have numerous similarities. Both protagonists are jealous husbands who kill their adulterous wives and their illicit lovers – “Double feature. Double murders,” say the PR flyers. More intriguingly, these double murders are ghoulish alterations of stories we already know. In Canio’s case, it’s the commedia story he and his wife Nedda do on their vagabond tour, where she as Columbina meets with Harlequin and outwits Pagliaccio, the clown-face role Canio plays. But in the more rugged setting that Rachmaninov and librettist Vladimir Nemirovich-Danchenko take from The Gypsies, an Alexander Pushkin poem, the parallel story is told by Aleko’s father-in-law. By the nocturnal firelight, The Old Gypsy recalls how his true love, Mariula , deserted him for another, leaving behind their daughter, Zemfira, whom he has raised. Aleko is furious that the Old Man did not pursue his treacherous wife and take vengeance upon her and the man she had chosen.

Already tired of her husband – and attracted to a Young Gypsy – Zemfira has uncomfortable forebodings when she sees Aleko’s reaction to her father’s story. Both Aleko and Canio have unenlightened ideas about their prerogatives as wronged husbands, but they’re matched with wives who are not resigned to the notion of being diffident doormats. Zemfira forthrightly defies Aleko and his threats, a true spitfire, while Nedda’s defiance lasts until she receives her mortal wound, keeping Silvio’s name a secret until she involuntarily cries out to him in her agony.

With Aleko clocking in at 51 minutes and Pagliacci at 71, the main difference between the two pieces is the relative lack of plot and character development in Aleko. Nedda, you may remember, is pursued by the loathsome Tonio, who salves the wound of his rejection by bringing in Canio to watch his wife’s intimacy with Silvio. Two jealous guys figure in that scenario. Beyond expressing his torment in the famed “Vesti la giubba,” Canio also gives us the backstory of his relationship with Nedda in the tense moments before he kills her, adding to the clown’s complexity even if it doesn’t mitigate his crime. We had a representative Italian male point of view for 1892 – and long afterwards in the Opera Carolina version – but the conversation that needed to begin might be sparked by Pagliacci.

While the brevity of the libretto helped make it it possible for Rachmaninov to complete his Aleko score in 17 days (for a competition at the Moscow Conservatory), its thinness prevented the opera from remaining truly airborne. But what an exemplary beginning! Meena and the Charlotte Symphony gave the orchestral introduction a brooding propulsion as projections of snowy mountain ridges and forests fade-dissolved across the full expanse of the stage. The music softened as the scrim lifted on the Gypsy chorus, greeting us blithely as they sweetly extolled their freedom in harmonies that reminded me of Borodin’s “Polovtsian Dances.” Making a hairpin turn as the men supplanted the women as the dominant voice, they reignited the agitated turbulence we had heard in the orchestral intro. Then the beauty of the chorus trailed away for the vocal highlight of the Opera Carolina premiere, “The Old Gypsy’s Tale,” performed by Kevin Thompson in a magnificent Charlotte debut. Thompson’s rich bass conveyed the melancholy, the peasant nobility, and the sheer passionate broken-heartedness of the Old Gypsy more richly and beautifully than either the Chandos or the Deutsche Grammophon recordings I’ve referenced.

From there, the passions and drama of the younger trio replicating this bygone love triangle of their elders barely rise to that same level. In fact, they frequently dip below. Baritone Alexey Lavrov can’t be faulted for the power shortage. As Aleko, his disgusted reaction to the Old Gypsy’s passivity had plenty of snap. After absorbing Zemfira’s defiant mockery, there was gravitas aplenty in Aleko’s lonely midnight meditation at the sleeping Gypsy camp – but no tragic power. In her Charlotte debut, soprano Elizabeth Caballero didn’t seek sympathy as Zemfira, almost spitting her spite as she mocked her husband, not giving ground when Aleko found her on the verge of making her getaway with her new lover.

More than Aleko, the Young Gypsy seems to be caught in the cogs of a recurring cycle, and James Karn barely makes an impression in the role, though it’s a good one. In the wake of all the bloodshed, there is a reckoning. Once again, Thompson as the Old Gypsy is mysteriously powerful in these final sobering moments, more potent and resolute than Aleko had realized, his leadership affirmed by the Gypsy chorus.

Pagliacci offered a glimpse of what Aleko could have become if 20 minutes of muscle – and a hit tune – had been added to its bones. Stage director Michael Capasso was even more decisive here than he was with Rachmaninov, transporting the action to 1951 and decreeing a boxcar concept. The colorful logotype spanning the scrim during the lively, folksy overture was curved across a drawing of a brick-colored freight car, and when the scrim rose on the opening scene, a smaller version of that railroad car was already upstage. Eventually, that car opens up to become the stage where Columbina cheats on her Pagliaccio one last time. After considerable heraldry, Canio and Nedda arrive in a compact vehicle that might be described as a covered wagon tricycle, with hand lettering on the side of the canvas. Yes, it makes a comical barnstorming impression.

A somewhat heightened verismo seems to be what Capasso and Meena are after, and tenor Jeff Gwaltney, singing the title role, effectively obliged in his Opera Carolina debut. The moderation in the staging of the climactic “Vesti la giubba” typified the approach. Lights didn’t dim melodramatically, Canio didn’t drop down to one knee as if he were Al Jolson singing a showstopper to his mammy, and the broken-hearted clown’s sobs weren’t potted up to fortissimo. On the other hand, Gwaltney didn’t simply remain self-absorbed with his mirror and his makeup. He gradually made his way from a modest, makeshift dressing table off to stage left, winding up face down and sobbing in the centerstage area. Along the way, Gwaltney was at least as committed to Canio’s words as he was to the big tune.

He’s a strapping lad, to be sure, so Caballero isn’t straining credulity at all to be afraid of him as Nedda. The whole surprise of the commedia suddenly turning into a husband’s deadly vendetta gets beautiful play from the soprano, easily her best work of the night as she mixes terror and insolence into her final moments. Helping to make Nedda even more sympathetic is baritone Giovanni Guagliardo, easily the most chilling and repellent Tonio that I’ve ever seen.

© 2016 CVNC

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

 

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

Lincoln Center Does the Holidays

By Perry Tannenbaum

The three square blocks where the Metropolitan Opera House presides is actually the hub of Lincoln Center, with five different indoor performance venues, a film center, and a handy park that hosts open-air concerts in summertime and tented events in winter. So while parts of the place are turned over to holiday events when December rolls in, other parts can go on with culture as usual. Across West 65th Street, there are frequent concerts at Alice Tully Hall, and down at 59th Street, overlooking Columbus Circle, there’s Jazz at Lincoln Center, another hub of activity at multiple venues.

The four musical presentations in this year’s roundup represent less than half of what was available around the main plaza during our 16-day stay. Four other operas were in rep at the Met, one other Philharmonic program, the Big Apple Circus pitched its tent in the park, the acclaimed King and I revival continued its run at the Vivian Beaumont, and the New York City Ballet presented something called The Nutcracker at the David H. Koch Theater. Ample choices whether or not you wished to revel in the holiday spirit.

Here’s what we saw:

Photo by Ken Howard

Lulu (***3/4 out of 4) – Germanic expressionism, Parisian wantonness, and London squalor all take their turns in fleshing out the decadence of Alban Berg’s last unfinished opera, based on two Frank Wedekind plays. With the soon-to-close revival of Spring Awakening drawing accolades on Broadway, musical adaptations of Wedekind works written more than a century ago are making the playwright newly notorious in New York.

Both pieces are preoccupied with sex. While the tragic teens in Spring Awakening are the consequences of 19th Century sexual repression, the title vamp of Lulu is a poster girl for calculated promiscuity, though the Animal Tamer of Berg’s prologue wants us to think of her worldliness in far more ferocious, elemental, and bestial ways. By the end of Act 2, the body count – and husband count – of men smitten by Lulu is three.

Yet Lulu is not a cold-blooded murderess at all. Her first husband, The Physician, has a heart attack when he discovers his wife being ravished by The Painter doing her portrait. The Painter, after swooping in and marrying Lulu, partly for the fortune that has fallen into her hands via The Physician, slits his own throat upon learning the truth of Lulu’s past, delivered by the man Lulu would really like to marry, newspaper publisher Dr. Schön.

And what is a girl to do when husband #3, Schön, who knows you for what you are, grows maniacally jealous and demands that you kill yourself with his gun on account of your infidelities? Sure enough, Lulu takes advantage of a distraction and pumps five slugs into her tormentor’s back.

Even after Lulu is convicted of murder, men are still standing in line for her favors when she escapes from imprisonment – and so is a lesbian countess. The line only comes to an end in London when Lulu, in her first night out on the streets as a prostitute, has the misfortune of picking up Jack the Ripper.

Lulu and her men seem to always be playing with dynamite in this new Met production. There’s a cluttered, disheveled look to each of Sabine Theunissen’s set designs, but the restlessness of William Kentridge’s production concept is compounded by Catherine Meyburgh’s projection designs. Woodcuts, lithographs, animated front pages of newspapers are frequently creeping across the upstage walls, sinister and dim, sometimes surreal. The nervous edge of what see is magnified by what we hear: 12-tone composition that goes crazy when it isn’t merely neurotic.

Marlis Peterson brings delicacy and vivacity to Lulu, often belying the harshness of what she sings. Just as often the softer elements of Peterson’s personality fuse with the edgy music to become a desperate angst imbued with beautiful melancholy. Adding luster to Lulu are the men who love her. Aside from her husbands, there’s a prince, an acrobat, and Schön’s son, Alwa, who is a composer and poet. Schön plucked Lulu off the street years ago when she was peddling flowers, and the broken-down Schigolch, who is either her father or her first benefactor, repeatedly drops by for handouts. So Lulu is ultimately a woman of mystery – tawdry mystery.

All of the husbands take on new roles in Act 3, parading in as her clientele on the night of her ultimate demise. Especially good are tenor Paul Groves as The Painter, though he’s not as credulous and vulnerable as I’d like, and bass-baritone Johan Reuer as Dr. Schön, whose gruffness is the essence of Berg – I’d love to see him as Wozzeck. Susan Graham was sweetly underpowered as The Merry Widow when I last saw her at the Met in 2003, and the hall swallowed her up again as Countess Gerschwitz this time around. More to my liking was tenor Daniel Breena in his Met debut as Alwa, in some ways, Lulu’s most ardent lover. It would be interesting if Breena and Groves swapped roles.

Left unfinished when Berg died in 1935 and completed by Friedrich Cerha in 1977, Lulu sounds as edgy, angry, and anguished as Spring Awakening did when I first heard it on Broadway over nine years ago. All in all, Lulu has been performed 44 times at the Met, eight of them this season, with Peterson retiring the title role at the performance we attended. Before then, the music and imagery sizzled on a Live in HD performance beamed to local cinemas. Surely it will sizzle again on Blu-Ray and in rebroadcasts.

Free Lulu for the masses? I fear it’s too hot for ETV to handle.

New York Philharmonic
Photo by Chris Lee

Messiah (***1/2) – Maybe it was nostalgia for my alma mater, Queens College, where I was first enchanted by Handel’s masterpiece. Or maybe it was the prospect of scoring an off-season fix of Charleston’s Spoleto Festival USA, where I’m annually uplifted by the voices of the Westminster Choir directed by Joe Miller. Could have been both, because as I drove toward Manhattan and my rendezvous with the New York Philharmonic, I had a glimpse of the QC campus and Colden Auditorium, where I saw multiple Messiahs, from the westbound lanes of the Long Island Expressway.

David Geffen Hall is slated for a massive overhaul in the coming years, a just verdict on its acoustics for symphonic concerts, but they do Messiah with all strings until they bring on a modest trumpet corps – and timpani – after intermission. Even the strings seemed thinned-out compared with the all-Nielsen concert I reviewed last January, so the sound of the hall was never a problem.

The hall also disabused me of the notion that the purity of the Westminster sound had something to do with always hearing the choir’s concerts in church settings. Now I realize that the richer, less pure sound of the Charlotte Symphony Choir (I still want to call them the Oratorio Singers) has to do with diversity of its membership compared with the Westminsters, who are all college-aged or in that neighborhood. Sounding more like a community, our choir strikes me as more human. The Westminster College voices (from Rider University in Princeton, NJ) are uncannily uniform, more angelic.

That communal sound of collective humanity has been very persuasive in “For unto us a child is born,” “All we like sheep,” and the celebratory “Hallelujah!” chorus. But in the early prophetic choruses, “And the glory of the Lord shall be revealed” and the ensuing “He shall purify the sons of Levi,” that angelic sound was revelatory.

Guest conductor Jane Glover, in her New York Phil debut, elicited crisp and alert work from the orchestra. The lithe precision of her approach allowed for gently accelerated tempos. The freshened “All we like sheep” sounded sheepish rather than puerile, but there was no lack of punch – or magnificence – moments earlier when the chorus gravely followed a countertenor air with “Surely, He hath borne our griefs.”

Trumpets and timpani fortified the climactic “Hallelujah!” Although a sidebar in the program booklet dissected the standing tradition, nearly all of the audience stood up – perhaps not for religious reasons, since they applauded lustily afterwards before sitting down. Thanks to baritone Roderick Williams and the solo trumpeter, we did not have to endure an anticlimax afterwards in Part 3.

It’s always interesting to see how the solo chores are doled out. Tenor Paul Appleby, countertenor Tim Mead, and soprano Heidi Stober were in the lineup with Williams – and each had at least one shining moment. Stober’s came when she warbled the “Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion” and when she brought a creamier texture to “I know that my Redeemer liveth.” Mead seemed a little jittery in his “Who may abide the day of His coming,” but he rivaled Stober in vitality singing “O thou that tellest good tidings to Zion” and in suppleness when he reached the “He was despised and rejected” lament, adorning it with trills.

Early and late, Appleby was sleekly impressive. He was beautifully mellow and controlled in the first of so many snatches from the prophet Isaiah, “Comfort ye, my people,” and he truly did make the rough places plain in “Ev’ry valley shall be exalted.” Yet there was anger and steel near the end of Part 2 in his “Thou shalt break them with a rod of iron.”

Nobody was going to upstage Williams, whose “I will shake” recitative was easily as striking as Appleby’s “Comfort ye.” The richness of his baritone didn’t quite match Bryn Terfel’s in the “Why do the nations so furiously rage” air, where the bite from the orchestra came to Williams’ aid, but the comparative lightness of his voice became a winning asset at the end of the evening in his “Behold, I tell you a mystery” recitative.

Fortified by the bravura of the solo trumpet, Williams’ “The trumpet shall sound” was mighty and thrilling. And who was that intrepid trumpeter? None other than Karin Bliznik, former principal of the Charlotte Symphony, whom I’d last seen in Messiah five Decembers earlier at Belk Theater. There was enough glory and jubilation in the Williams-Bliznik volleying for the Westminsters’ “Amen” to sound, if not peaceful, like a satisfying ceasefire.

Photo by Marty Sohl

La Donna del Lago (***1/4) – After watching this production in a Live in HD broadcast last March, I was eager to see soprano Joyce DiDonato repeat her stupendous performance at closer range. Even if she didn’t sing quite as well, the sound of her voice would be more rousing coming from her throat at the Met rather than from an array of loudspeakers at the Stonecrest 22 multiplex.

There was at least one factor I hadn’t counted on, because of the deftness of the Met’s video production – and because I didn’t pay close attention to the credits. What we have here is a co-production with the Santa Fe Opera, where DiDonato has been a mainstay for over 20 years. Among regional companies, a co-production usually promises a pooling of resources and a more opulent product than any of the participants can budget individually.

At the Met, it simply means that the production directed by Paul Curran and designed by Driscoll Otto at Santa Fe during the summer of 2013 was co-opted for presentation at Lincoln Center the following winter. Or you can look at it another way: the limitations of the Santa Fe’s glorious outdoor stage impose some limits upon what a co-production can have in common.

Scenery is very spare and compromised. A projection at the Met fills in for a New Mexico sunset in the opening lakeside scene, where King James V of Scotland, disguised as a huntsman, meets the captivating Lady of the Lake, Elena. Scenes at Elena’s cottage and the king’s throne room are not sorely compromised, though they can’t be confused with more lavish Met efforts such as La Bohème or Lucia di Lammermoor.

But the intervening scenes are stupefyingly spare and unvarying, as if the entire military conflict between James and the Scottish rebels occurs on the same grassy slope where Elena and James first met. The opening scenes of Act 2, which are supposed to unfold in a thick wood near the mouth of a cave and then in the cave, are on the same slope that we left when the Act 1 curtain came down.

A few members of the chorus differentiated the setting by impaling a row of spears up the slope and removing them at the end of the scene. If you’ve never seen a production at the Met with a community theatre tang, this was your chance.

There are similarities between this story, adapted by Rossini from a Walter Scott poem, and Lucia, adapted by Donizetti from a Scott novel. Multiple men love both heroines, and the man who has captured each of their hearts is not Daddy’s choice. But while the title roles are both famed for their vocal challenges, the peak moments are very different indeed. Lucia’s mad scene in the final act is deranged despair, while Elena’s is unbridled happiness, coming on the unexpected heels of her rebellious dad’s redemption and the family’s reconciliation with the king, who also yields up his beloved so she can marry hers.

If there was anything anticlimactic for me in DiDonato’s performance the second time around, it was probably because the elements of shock and surprise had vanished, not because the mezzo-soprano’s excellence had dimmed. There was a palpable diminution, however, in the grandeur of Giacomo V with tenor Lawrence Brownlee replacing Juan Diego Flórez on the throne. Brownlee is more than adequate as a romantic lead, imbuing his pleadings and his arias with admirable verve, reaching the high notes with only minimal signs of strain. Flórez was simply more dashing, confident, and regal, and his voice is arguably the best and most recognizable of this era.

Listening to a slightly lesser king inevitably makes Elena’s favorite more appealing, a favor to the lumbering mezzo-soprano Daniela Barcellona, who returned from last season’s cast. Here the absence of shock and surprise were helpful whenever Barcellona swaggered in from the wings, eternally outcast and resentful until the denouement, for she sings beautifully.

A couple of crusty voices rounded out the cast, bass Oren Gradus as Elena’s noble father and tenor John Osborn as Rodrigo (Roderick), the conceited Highland chieftain she’s been promised to. I wouldn’t want either one to sound any different.

Photo by Karen Almond

The Barber of Seville (**3/4) – In past seasons, the confectioner’s sugar served up during the holidays ranged from Hansel and Gretel to celebrate Christmas and Die Fledermaus for Auld Lang Syne. Met general manager Peter Gelb has shaken things up since he took over, mounting new productions of the old standbys and adding a fantastical Magic Flute to the rotation in a family-friendly version that gets trimmed for the holiday season and upsized to run just for the adults.

By subjecting The Barber to a similar trim, the Met can offer a conveniently sized sampling of one of opera’s most tuneful creations, suitable for parents who would like to introduce their kids to the art form as a holiday treat. Running it concurrently with La Donna del Lago might also serve as a pathway to more Rossini for young adults and professionals making their first encounters with opera. Or it could serve as a bridge to and from Die Fledermaus, a dazzling production that is being reprised after its triumph last season.

The Bartlett Sher Barber was first trimmed in 2012, six years after he originally directed, so it’s appropriate to give credit to Kathleen Smith Belcher as the stage director of this speedy effervescence. All the familiar tunes are here, but they play second fiddle to the double-layered comedy. While the pert Rosina is hoodwinking her aging – and lecherous – guardian, Dr. Bartolo, the young and handsome student she loves is deceiving her. That student is actually Count Almaviva. The wily Figaro helps the aristocrat in gaining opportunities to woo Rosina and in eluding the increasingly watchful, jealous, and domineering Bartolo.

Originally crafted by Beaumarchais in 1775 (minus a few provocative speeches that he eventually snuck into The Marriage of Figaro), the Barber plot doesn’t lend itself easily to the fast-forward button, particularly in the helter-skelter that ends Act 1. Yet Belcher gets fine comedy performances from the entire cast, beginning with mezzo-soprano Isabel Leonard, who has done Rosina in this Sher version before, and Elliot Madore and David Portillo as her dashing conspirators, both newcomers.

For these three confidantes, it helps that the 200-year-old libretto is freshly translated by J.D. McClatchy into English, their native tongue. First-timers in the audience can get a lot of Leonard’s sauciness as Rosina without the aid of supertitles, along with Portillo’s noble ardor as Almaviva and Madore’s hearty worldliness as Figaro – and there are still supertitles to help in grasping the rest. Those already familiar with The Barber have a rough go of it in certain spots, beyond the compressed overture and arias. Figaro, usually such a déclassé rascal, is something of an action hero in Sher’s concept, almost as dashing as the Count and more roguish.

Michael Yeargan’s set design is winsome, circling the orchestra and bringing the action nearer to the audience. Costumes by Catherine Zuber aim straight for the funny bone, from Figaro’s striped pantaloons in his famed “Largo al factotum” entrance near the top of Act 1 to Almaviva’s absurd disguise in Act 2 impersonating a music tutor.

Most laughable are the old farts who think they can outflank the young blades. Valeriano Lanchas, in an auspicious debut, brings a supreme Charles Laughton ugliness to Bartolo, giving rise to laughter as soon as we consider the prospect of his marrying Rosina, and Robert Pomakov as his disloyal best friend – and Rosina’s music tutor – adds a scruffy sleaziness to the household that entitles us to think that Almaviva is rescuing rather than stealing the unfortunate orphan.

Ich Bin ein Beethoven! 

Opera Carolina’s Fidelio Upstages Children’s Theatre’s Creepy Coraline

By Perry Tannenbaum

The advantages for relying on readily recognized plays, novels, myths, or historical events for operatic storylines become quickly apparent in conventional productions of Beethoven’s Fidelio. When the title character appears in a prison courtyard, we already know that the jailer’s young daughter, Marzelline, is dizzily in love with Fidelio, having rejected Jaquino, the jailer’s assistant, as emphatically as she knows how. So why is Marzelline’s dreamboat, heartily endorsed by her dad, a soprano?

It’s tempting to presume that the difficulties in grasping what’s going on in Fidelio have multiplied since Beethoven’s day. Ludwig’s only opera, initially premiered during the French occupation of Vienna in 1805, was set at a fortress in Seville during the previous century, though its political aspirations were intended to resonate with the French Revolution.

True enough, the work was originally named Leonore after the masquerading Fidelio’s true name, but that name wasn’t spoken until the third and final act. Subsequent revisions trimmed the work to its current two-act format. Rocco doesn’t even know the name of the prisoner he’s starving in his deepest dungeon – the husband Leonore secretly seeks though he’s presumed to be dead. So the name of the dissident Florestan isn’t spoken until his nemesis, Don Pizarro, arrives on the scene.

In that dim light, the radical changes in Opera Carolina’s new production, under the stage direction of Tom Diamond, only do favors for Beethoven’s opera that the re-revised libretto by Joseph Sonnleithner and Georg Friedrich Treitschke cries out for. While maestro James Meena conducts the Charlotte Symphony Orchestra in the stirring overture, we’re getting some very important information on the transparent scrim as the Belk Theater curtain rises.

Maria Katzarava first appears in her starring role with long hair under a stage right spotlight and “Leonore” flashes onto the scrim in front of her. Then with the aid of her friends, acting with revolutionary purposefulness, she undergoes a strategic makeover. By the time the overture has ended, she has emerged with short hair. Putting on a man’s military jacket, she stands under a stage left spotlight as her undercover name flashes onto the scrim.

More context comes our way in a title projected onto the gray cinderblock wall of Dejan Miladinovich’s parsimonious set design. We’re in East Germany on November 8, 1989, a day before the fall of the infamous Berlin Wall. A recorded excerpt from JFK’s “Ich bin ein Berliner” speech gives us more Cold War flavoring – surely a more spot-on echo of Beethoven’s spirit than some obscure intrigue in 18th century Seville – and you can bet on hearing Reagan’s challenge to Gorbachev before the night is done.

Names of key characters have also been changed to enhance the East German ambiance. The implacable governor who spitefully imprisons Florestan, Don Pizarro, has become the East German head of state, Walter Ulbricht, the man who prevailed upon the Soviets to build the wall. Florestan is now listed in the program booklet as Kurt Wismach, a laborer who famously heckled Ulbricht, calling for free elections. His ultimate liberator, the beneficent Don Fernando, is reincarnated as Walter Momper, the first mayor of reunified Berlin.

Historical accuracy may be tossed out the window by linking Momper with the others, but the additions fill in some gaping narrative holes, giving Katzarava something to sing about in Act 1 as she drops hints about her motives. The soprano sings powerfully and beautifully but without sufficient urgency in Act 1, so the strange Fidelio-Marzelline-Jaquino triangle matters a little more than it should. What ignites Katzarava – and indeed this entire production – is Andrew Richards’ soulful portrayal of Florestan.

From Florestan’s first famished outcry as we behold the shackled prisoner for the first time, we ascend to a loftier level, even if Richards’ highest notes aren’t completely secure. Katzarava rises to the occasion with him. This is a man who has lived purely, idealistically, and after trifling with Mazellina and Rocco, Leonore is purified in his presence.

After an auspicious outing earlier this month at Opera Carolina’s Art • Poetry • Music over in CPCC’s Halton Theater, Raquel Suarez Groen was underpowered in the larger Belk hall as Marzellina, barely audible over the orchestra at times, and drowned out in the Act 1 vocal ensembles. What we did hear from the soprano was quite sweet, and her fainting spell in the final scene, upon learning the truth about her fiancé, was the comic highlight of the evening.

Otherwise, the supporting cast was strong and satisfying. Andrew Funk gives a rich account of the obedient, good-hearted Rocco, his copper-colored suit an island of color amid the drab costume designs of the opening act. Kyle Pfortmiller strikes terror from the moment he enters as the imperious Ulbricht, sporting a spiky bass that the notoriously squeaky voiced real-life Ulbricht could only dream of. Funk is suitably shaken when the despot first appears, but Pfortmiller’s confrontation with Florestan and Leonore in the denouement is even more electric.

Along with the robust Opera Carolina chorus, two locals round out the cast. Earnestly courting Marzelline, tenor Brian Arreola as Jaquino gives Leonore ample reason to feel guilty over her deceptions, and baritone Dan Boye is warmly authoritative meting out justice as Momper in the final scene. The conclusion is often cited as a harbinger of the “Ode to Joy” that ends Beethoven’s Choral Symphony with unmatched exhilaration. But having seen the public acclamation of Hans Sachs earlier this year at the Metropolitan Opera, I’d say that the praise showered upon the brave Leonore also prefigures the wondrous final scene of Die Meistersinger by Richard Wagner.

Beethoven takes about three hours less to reach his happy ending, an achievement that should endear him to Opera Carolina’s abstemious subscribers.

Coraline ON SALE NOW!

No doubt about it, the current Children’s Theatre production of Coraline at ImaginOn is the thinking family’s alternative to the purely visceral Scarowinds – and the insanely long lines of traffic to get there. The surreal scenic design by Tom Burch, with its gnarled tree and outsized moon, is nicely calibrated to the strange creepshow adapted by David Greenspan from Neil Gaiman’s novel. Costumes and puppets by Magda Guichard, ranging from zombie paleness to nightmarishly over-colorful clownishness, will have you wondering whether your toddler can keep it together.

And perhaps eeriest of all, the music! – delivered by a ghostly trio at electric keyboards and guitar, directed by Mike Wilkins. Also conspiring in the creepiness are sound designer Benjamin Stickels and Moving Poets choreographer Till Schmidt-Rimpler.

So I probably would have enjoyed Coraline if I’d been able to hear more than 70 percent of it. Stonefaced Parker Mullet was often inaudible as Coraline, but she was clarity itself compared to the three ghost children who help our hero find her true parents and escape the clutches of her evil Other Mother – in the parallel twisted universe beyond her closet door. Why Coraline was collecting marbles was far clearer to the kids around me who knew the book or saw the movie than it was to me.

Even the adults onstage could be difficult to understand when they weren’t singing alone, so I was often equally mystified about the lyrics Stephin Merritt had written to complement his music. But Nicia Carla and Grant Watkins are superb as the button-eyed Other Parents, proving there can be different paths to scariness, and before we reach their spectral domain, Devin Clark is a delight as the Cat.

Directing this colorful spookfest, Mark Sutton only lets us down by not ensuring that we hear it. I strongly suspect he would have achieved far more satisfying results moving the show from the Wells Fargo to the larger McColl Theatre. All the actors could have been outfitted with mics there, lighting designer Eric Winkenwerder and his cohorts could have unleashed a more powerful barrage of tech artillery, and when Carla made her grand exit, a trapdoor could have whisked her to the infinite void.