Category Archives: Opera

Torrid Times on Charleston Streets and Spoleto Stages

Reviews: Spoleto Festival USA

By Perry Tannenbaum

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What’s hot at Spoleto Festival USA this year? By far the hottest is the Charleston weather, stringing together multiple record-breaking 100℉ days, absolutely unprecedented for the month of May. Upstaged by the heat, the next hottest trend is theatre.

Hard to say why, but at this year’s Spoleto, the trend is toward more theatre presentations and less opera. Even the lone opera, Richard Strauss’s edgy Salome, has a theatrical flair. We hear German sung in a modernized production that transports us from King Herod’s biblical-era palace to a swank rooftop soiree at a luxury high-rise. Yet the libretto adheres faithfully to the original tragedy, so it’s like reading the Oscar Wilde text on supertitles while the action unfolds. More about the body heat later.

When all is done on June 9, six different companies will have presented eight different stage works at various venues across Charleston, including two world premieres and a US premiere. From what we could see, the expanded number of choices was spurring ticket sales rather than diluting them, for at Gaillard Center, Memminger Auditorium, Dock Street Theatre, the Emmett Robinson Theatre, and the Woolfe Street Playhouse, my wife Sue and I encountered sellout or near-capacity houses. Even during midweek.

That applies even more intensely to the one production we couldn’t see, Target Margin Theater’s Pay No Attention to the Girl. All six performances of that show were sold out weeks before it arrived.

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World premiere or not, 1927’s Roots was hardly a leap of faith, since Spoleto has featured writer Suzanne Andrade and her company’s work before, beginning with Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea in 2008 and more recently with The Animals and Children Took to the Streets in 2012 and Golem in 2016. If you’ve never seen Andrade and 1927 at work before, it will be helpful to know that silent film and Lemony Snicket are their creative lodestars.

If Andrade wanted you to know that, she would have titled her new show A Series of Unfortunate Folktales, Anecdotes, and Myths. She couldn’t be nearly as coy about her silent film inspiration, for Paul Barritt’s animations, projected onto the upstage wall at Emmett Robinson, were charmingly integrated into each of the 10 stories that Andrade told – using unseen storytellers’ voices rather than the silent actors we see onstage.

Blocking was very precise when Andrade and the other three actors stood in front of the upstage wall, synchronizing their actions with Barritt’s silent movie. Integration is easier when actors walk through doorways cut into the wall or peep through boxy little windows. The latter effect was probably most enjoyable in the opening tale of a Fat Cat who begins his cosmic rampage by eating a maid’s porridge in her absence – and goes on to bigger, badder things. While the feline’s body is Barritt’s domain, Andrade or the equally adorable Esme Appleton peeps through the wall to become its conspicuously unferocious face.

Both Andrade and Appleton don 1927’s customary whiteface, making it difficult to tell them apart. Neither of them has much use for facial expression, their silent style favoring Buster Keaton more than Charlie Chaplin.

Students of literature could recognize two of Andrade’s other tales, for the King and his pathologically loyal wife Griselda are clearly on loan from Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Clerk’s Tale. The tale of the two copulating snakes and their surprising effect on the person who observes them dates back to Greek myth and Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Andrade’s cover was blown on that source when a chamber music program over at Dock Street Theatre featured Doug Balliett’s Echo and Narcissus, where all was revealed about how Teiresias happened to become the world’s best judge of whether men or women enjoy sex more.

Andrade’s concluding tale could itself be called “Roots,” since what happens to two siblings plotting to escape grandma’s dominion is clearly a vegetative intervention. 1927 Doug Balliett’seems to take a wicked delight in showing us that fairy tales aren’t always fair or happily-ever-after. The straight-faced soulfulness of the company made that delight fatally and deliciously contagious.

Shakespeare’s Globe, long an outdoor theatre fixture on the London scene, made their Spoleto debut at Dock Street in 2015 with the most affecting Romeo and Juliet that I’ve ever seen. Sadly, none of the actors or directors involved in that triumph have returned. What’s most recognizably Globe is the feel of their eight-person troupe and their approach to the Bard. They aren’t merely actors, for before our plays begin, they prove to be reasonably capable musicians!

Eleven of the 20 performances are pre-ordained, divvied up between the three plays that Globe has brought to Dock Street this year – Twelfth Night, The Comedy of Errors, and Pericles. The other nine shows of Globe’s run are “Audience Choice,” with the troupe at the service of the ticketholders’ will, expressed in a voice vote. Like the London Globe, scenery doesn’t change much. But costumes definitely do.

As Pericles, the Prince of Tyre, moves from Antioch to Tarsus to Pentapolis to Ephesus and to Mytilene, costumes become very useful in keeping us informed on where we are, whether we’ve landed at someplace new, or we’ve circled back to a previous king and country. Pericles’ troubles and wanderings begin when he ventures to solve a riddle to win the hand of the King of Antioch’s daughter. Death is the stated penalty for failing to solve the riddle, and death would be equally inevitable if Pericles proclaimed the solution in public – revealing that King Antiochus is in an incestuous relationship with his daughter.

Since most people aren’t as familiar with Pericles as they are with Romeo and Juliet, when Pericles flees for his life from Antioch to Tyre, then sails on to Tarsus to elude Antiochus’s hired assassin, our hero may not only be leaving his pursuer in the dust but also newcomers to the story. Why does Prince Pericles flee from a country he himself rules after so clearly showing his bravery in Antioch? And why does he then leave Tarsus, and where does he think he’s going?

Pericles can be rough sailing during the Prince’s early travels, and players changing costumes and nationalities can further jostle perceptions. As fine as Colin Campbell is in the title role, even he pops up in different guises, once as a Pirate who kidnaps Pericles’ daughter. The one constant in the cast, Natasha Magigi as Gower, wasn’t as clear and relaxed as she could be as our narrator. Many among us had left at intermission before Magigi redeemed herself during the epic resolution of Pericles’ woes.

Much of the hurly-burly settles down after the chief catastrophes, when Pericles believes he has lost his daughter Marina and his wife Thaisa, the king’s daughter he won in Pentapolis. Silly man, they’re merely scattered across the seas, one of them revived in a coffin. Mogali Masuku has an imposing dignity as Thaisa before and after her coffin sojourn, and Evelyn Miller as Marina has a saintly luminosity, suffering every bit as much as her dad. Tears flowed during both of the long-delayed reunions for those of us who had persevered.

Apportioning multiple roles to most of your actors usually works better in Shakespeare’s comedies, so I expected to be better pleased with The Comedy of Errors. What surprised me here was director Brendan O’Hea’s unusually dramatic approach to the action. With Mark Deselbeck as Egeon and Masuku as the Duke of Ephesus, the agony of Egeon’s trials, seeking his long-lost son, and the severity of his oncoming punishment – death for merely visiting Ephesus – take on a little more weight.

While the two servile Dromios of the story, Beau Holland visiting from Syracuse and Eric Sirakian residing in Ephesus, are comical enough in their confounded confusion, the slapstick aspect of their repeated thrashings by their masters is conspicuously toned-down. O’Hea is taking the candy wrapping off the abuses meted out by the twin Antipholuses upon their obedient Dromios. Campbell, as the Antipholus from Syracuse, is the more benign of the identical twin masters, getting comical mileage out of his absurdly familiar reception throughout Syracuse, especially from his twin’s wife Adriana.

But he has no patience with his Dromio’s apparent misconduct, and the slaps and kicks he delivers to her might appear a bit Three Stooges at first, but only if we’re conditioned by Comedy of Errors productions we’ve seen before. We are soon disabused. This is a master objectionably mistreating his slave. Bigger point: Shakespeare’s Globe, apparently, is no longer the grand museum it once was, where you simply go to see how the Bard’s works were presented during the Elizabethan Era. Updates and reconsiderations are now possible.

Antipholus of Ephesus was always a meaner piece of work, cheating on his wife Adriana and devaluing her virtues, but Anthony Gaučas takes this master’s unsavoriness further. There’s nothing comical about his reaction to being locked out of his own house, nothing comical about his resulting enmity toward Adriana, and we see a wildfire of jealousy break out when he learns that it was his twin brother who “dined” with her earlier in the day. Mistakenly taken into custody for an unpaid debt, Gaučas earns the presumptions from onlookers that he has gone insane. Nor does this Antipholus instantly reconcile with Adriana once all the mistaken identities have been cleared – and he has absolutely no welcome for his long-lost twin brother.

Amid all of these alterations – none of them violating Shakespeare’s text – Miller as Adriana emerges as the most admirable master or mistress that we see. She is clearly not a dainty pushover. Miller wears a larger cape than either of the identically clad Antipholuses, and she swishes it around in far more swashbuckling style. Hers is the noblest rage at this performance. Fully digesting the brothers’ origins and biographies on your ride home, you might find yourself realizing that Antipholus of Ephesus probably owes all of his fortune and property to this formidable, beautiful lady, making him an even more despicable heel.

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People still talk about the Salomé that directors Patrice Caurier and Moshe Leiser brought to Spoleto back in 1987, and it’s clear that the directing duo was bent on duplicating that éclat in their current reimagining of Strauss’s sizzling opera. They’ve succeeded – and you only have a couple of more chances to witness it on June 2 and 5.

The singing from the cast is rich and strong, allowing conductor Steven Sloane and the Spoleto Festival Orchestra to fill beautiful Gaillard Center with the sounds of Strauss’s score without drowning out the vocalists. Teaming up with set designer Christian Fenouillat and lighting designer Christophe Forey, Caurier and Leiser deliver a spectacular visual experience.

Looking out on night-time Jerusalem from a swank high-rise, we can’t expect the divine prophet Jokanaan to be imprisoned in a dingy dungeon. No, he’s confined in an apartment below. But after hearing Jokanaan’s powerful denunciations and imprecations from offstage during the opening scene, we first see baritone Erik Van Heyningen as the seer when his suite is lowered down from high above, far brighter than the surrounding night. Illumination and severe simplicity come with him.

What Caurier and Leiser bring to this holy sanctuary – and later, back at Herod’s rooftop – is wickedly, sensationally profane. They don’t merely ask soprano Melanie Henley Heyn to open her heart to Jokanaan in Salomé’s attempt to seduce the prophet. They also call upon her to bare her breasts in his bedroom. Nor was that necessarily the most shocking episode of the night, for when tenor Paul Groves as Herod prevailed upon Salomé to dance for him, he did more than join in. He dropped his pants, and Strauss’s famed “Dance of the Seven Veils” became the dance of the 10 thrusts. Or maybe that’s where I stopped counting.

Since Salomé knows she will be rewarded before her dance begins, you might say she isn’t abused here. But if she is, we feel uncomfortably supportive toward the horrific price she names – over and over, stretching the name of Jokanaan to seven syllables each time she demands his head. Even with all this salacious business, Heyn isn’t the most wanton or alluring Salomé that I’ve seen. The audacity of her overture to Jokanaan seems fueled by privilege more than vanity, so there’s enough youthful simplicity left in her to make Herod’s advances a stunning violation.

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Yet I’ve never heard more powerful demands for Jokanaan’s head, wickedly seconded by Edna Prochnik as the jealous and vengeful Herodias. Caurier and Leiser are somewhat remiss in not attempting to make an ultimate horror out of Salomé’s love song to the decapitated Jokanaan, but Heyn is also supreme in those moments. We expect the mighty righteousness of Van Heyningen lashing out at the “daughters of Babylon” who assail him, and Groves is a perfect fit for the powerful, conscience-stricken, and infatuated Herod. The most surprising vocal exploits came from tenor Zach Borichevsky as Narraboth, the captain of the guard who unwisely grants Salomé her visit with Jokanaan.

But it’s the production concept by Caurier and Leiser that will live longest in my memory – and Heyn’s performance that crowned it.

 

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Other highlights of Spoleto’s first week start with the jazz lineup – including Esperanza Spalding, the Dafnis Prieto Big Band, David Virelles, and an all-star tribute to Geri Allen from Terri Lyne Carrington, Craig Taborn, and Ravi Coltrane.

 

Meanwhile, the Chamber Music series hosted by Geoff Nuttall keeps getting edgier and wackier. Aside from Balliett’s hip refresh of Ovid, Stephen Prutsman’s new score for Buster Keaton’s old silent film, College, was smashing – when I was able to stop laughing at Keaton’s antics and pay attention to Prutsman’s.

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You have plenty of time – and multiple opportunities – to catch Mark Turner and Ethan Iverson (June 5-8) at the Simons Center Recital Hall, but jazz fanatics must hurry or they will miss Carla Bley Trio (May 31) at Cistern Yard. Six more programs and 18 performances remain in the BofA Chamber Music series, twice daily through June 9. After making a delightful surprise appearance earlier this week singing a piece by Henri Duparc, tenor Paul Groves returns for Program VIII, headlining Benjamin Britten’s Serenade for Tenor, Horn & Strings.

The range, power, and delight of the lunchtime concerts is best illustrated by the concluding Program XI, slated for next weekend. Members of the band warm up with an 18th century bassoon sonata by Georg Philipp Telemann, followed by a recent Disco-Toccata for clarinet and cello by Guillaume Connesson. Then a deep dive into Beethoven’s “Ghost” Piano Trio with Inon Barnatan at the keyboard, Joshua Roman behind the cello, and Karen Gomyo on violin. All of the musicians heard thus far – and more – gather for the finale, a merry chamber music reduction of Rossini’s “Overture from Barber of Seville,” arranged by clarinetist Todd Palmer.

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In the dance realm, the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Company’s five-day sojourn in Charleston concludes this Saturday with repeats of all three parts of their Analogy Trilogy. For more lavish spectacle, stand by for Caracalla Dance Theatre’s One Thousand and One Nights (June 7-9), as the Lebanese company fuses Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade and Ravel’s Bolero with traditional Arabic instruments, melodies, and costumes. Expect this hottie to be a tough ticket.

Plenty more excitement awaits theatergoers, headlined by two Israeli and two Palestinian actors onstage together in the multimedia world premiere of Letters to a Friend in Gaza (May 30-June 2) at the Emmett Robinson. Up at the Woolfe Street Playhouse, 600 Highwaymen brings on The Fever (June 4-9), exploring group dynamics with audience participation. Cora Bissett’s What Girls Are Made Of (June 4-8) keeps it just as real at Memminger Auditorium, with the rock star bringing her teen diaries to life. Backed by a live rock band, of course!

There’s more. Find out what Circa, I’m With Her, Music in Time, St. John Passion, Westminster Choir, and the Festival Finale are all about at spoletousa.org.

 

Stars of Opera Carolina’s Eugene Onegin Shine Brightest in Act 3 Showdown

Review: Opera Carolina’s Eugene Onegin

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By Perry Tannenbaum

Opera Carolina subscribers have never been as fervid about Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky as their Charlotte Ballet counterparts. On opening night of Opera Carolina’s Eugene Onegin, you could calculate the difference by gazing at the empty seats at Belk Theater. Artistic director James Meena, with a generous deployment of musicians from the Charlotte Symphony, gave an admirable account of the score. Scenic designer Peter Dean Beck engineered a setting that evoked the look and feel of the Metropolitan Opera’s Onegin, brimming with wintry birch tree trunks.

Still the new Opera Carolina production wasn’t quite engineered to change subscribers’ minds. In the early going, Alexy Lavrov’s performance as Onegin paled in comparison with what I experienced from the late Dmitri Hvorostovsky in New York. The baritone’s difficulties were compounded when the projected supertitles, wayward all evening long in tracking the action, failed altogether at the climactic moment when Onegin gave his polite and heartless answer to the passionate declaration of love that young Tatyana had written to him the night before. We lost some valuable nuances there.

Tchaikovsky and Alexander Pushkin, whose verse novel the composer adapted for his 1879 opera, no doubt expected us to like and empathize with the earnest young poet, Vladimir Lensky, more than with the best friend who suddenly became his mortal enemy. With tenor Sebastien Gueze as the pure-hearted poet, I also found Lensky more impressive, not only in his valedictory aria before the fatal duel with Onegin but also at the festive ball scene, where the poet’s jealousy over his friend’s advances to his fiancée Olga ruptures their friendship. After his moving performance of “Lenski’s Air,” I was doubly sorry to see Gueze go.

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Yet once the fatal duel had concluded Act 2, something almost magical occurred. After the pivotal gunshot and confirmation of Lensky’s death, Onegin hung around, without the curtain going down, as the scene changed from the countryside to six years later at Prince Gremin’s St. Petersburg palace. Meena and the orchestra kept pouring forth the forlorn music of the bosky pre-dawn duel scene, Lavrov was solemnly helped into a dinner jacket, and just as the opening Polonaise for Act 3 cued the entrance of the noble guests to the ballroom, the baritone exited to the wings. He returned in a fresh garish white-streaked wig, reminding me somehow of the mature Beethoven, and was magnificent from that moment onwards. The wig change had to happen quickly enough so that Onegin could take in the arrival of Gremin and Tatyana – transformed from a forgotten reject into a poised, polished, and radiant princess. For me, it was Lavrov who was more radically transformed. During this humbling soiree scene, he was the person I empathized with. He was the singer I couldn’t peel my eyes away from.

In her youthful scenes, soprano Melinda Whittington as Tatyana didn’t decisively outshine mezzo Leyla Martinucci as her younger sister Olga. Both roles offer a nice range of emotions and feelings. Initially quiet and bookish, Tatyana breaks into bloom upon encountering Onegin, giddily pouring out her love into her letter and impetuously dispatching it to him against her better judgment. In broad daylight, she endures the double agony of realizing the mistake of her impulsiveness and then having it underscored by Onegin’s dignified rebuff. Olga is the cheerful and playful sister, secure in Lensky’s adoration, just a little too prone to teasing Tatyana and goading Lensky’s jealousy until it’s too late. In a matter of seconds, complacency is swallowed by catastrophe. Martnucci brilliantly bridges her flashes of blithe jollity and the sudden onset of shock and disbelief. To a large extent, the impact of the breach between Lensky and Onegin depended on Martnucci’s devastated reaction.

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Whittington was more convincing for me in her quiet formal episodes with Onegin than she was in Tatyana’s great letter scene, singing it well enough but never living it with that intense mixture of terror and exhilaration that can only happen when you’re in free-fall, carried into the void by an overwhelming tide of love. She seemed to be following director Tom Diamond’s instructions station-to-station as she restlessly moved around Tatiana’s bedroom rather than infusing these movements with urgency and spontaneity. My confidence in Whittington’s dramatic capabilities remained shaken until the ultimate denouement, although she was majestic enough with her prince at the palace. When Onegin came begging for love and forgiveness, Whittington was fabulously conflicted, seemingly pleading for release and infuriated by Onegin’s temerity at the same time. As before, there was no restraint in Diamond’s direction, but Lavrov’s complete self-abasement and Whittington’s spasms of rage set the scene ablaze.

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Of course, it was up to bass baritone Jordan Bisch in his cameo as the aging Prince Gremin to justify Tatyana’s devotion and make Onegin’s presumption play like treachery. With a garrulous, avuncular stage presence, wig and makeup designer Martha Ruskai’s best work, and one beautiful heartfelt aria, Bisch did exactly that. It isn’t quite as easy to analyze why Triquet’s gaucherie works so well at the ball before fireworks erupt between Onegin and Lenski, but tenor Johnathan White’s foppery – and AT Jones’s costume design – set exactly the right tone. While I couldn’t explain why subscribers were shunning Tchaikovsky, I could predict an enjoyable Eugene Onegin experience if they gave it a chance, especially if Opera Carolina’s two stars can reach peak form before Act 3.

Opera Carolina Takes Aim at the Funny Bone With Donizetti’s “Daughter of the Regiment”

Review: The Daughter of the Regiment

By Perry Tannenbaum

Late in his prolific career, including nearly 30 operas composed between 1822 and 1830, Gaetano Donizetti did something he had never attempted before. After briefly becoming the pride of Naples – until the King censored his Poliuto in 1838 – Donizetti moved to Paris, premiered his banned opera in a translated revision, and set out to write a new work, La Fille du Régiment, to a French libretto by Jules-Henry Vernoy de Saint-George and Jean-François Bayard. Disdaining the subsequent La Figlia version in Italian, Opera Carolina amply justified changing the title to The Daughter of the Regiment, bringing in American soprano Sarah Coburn to sing the lead in her Charlotte debut and translating all spoken dialogue into English. Directed by Alain Gauthier, the new production sported scenery by Brian Perchaluk that was quite conventional and Tyrolean, but the flavor of the comedy was a bit saltier and bawdier than others I’ve seen, both at the Met in HD performance in 2008 and at the previous Belk Theater staging of Donizetti’s Daughter in 1996.

Somber and forlorn, the opening bars of the overture didn’t seem to be heralding any comedy at all until the score took a hairpin alpine turn and became quite bubbly and Rossinian, no challenge at all for the Charlotte Symphony Orchestra under the baton of Stephano Romani in his Opera Carolina debut. We then turned back to mournfulness as the chorus of hapless Tyroleans hoped and prayed that the invading French would be repelled. Marie, a foundling who has been brought up by the triumphant 21st Regiment since she was a babe in her cradle, entered with her surrogate father, Sergeant Sulpice – in a decidedly sunnier mood. Yet amid her conquering exhilaration, Marie was mooning over her shy, newfound Tyrolean love, whom she hadn’t seen since he heroically risked his life to save hers.

Almost on cue, Marie’s dreamboat arrived, clad in unmistakably Tyrolean overalls, a prisoner captured by the rest of the regiment. Of course, the ostensibly civilized Frenchmen want to execute Tonio instantly as a spy. Otherwise, how could Donizetti have his Marie pleading lyrically for her beloved’s life? Tonio’s impending doom was one of three readily apparent obstacles to the lovebirds’ bliss. Marie and Tonio haven’t actually declared their love for one another yet, and Sulpice reminds her that she is duty-bound to marry one of the grenadiers from the 21st. Sweeping the first complication aside drew forth Sulpice’s paternal love and his soldiers’ soft-heartedness, leaving Marie and Tonio alone to make their declarations in a rather adorable duet.

Tonio seemed to have solved the final complication before intermission, enlisting in the regiment and qualifying for Marie’s hand. But his timing was disastrous. The Marquise of Berkenfeld, in seeking safe passage to her chalet from the Napoleonic conquerors, has discovered that Marie is actually her daughter – although she tells Sulpice that she’s her niece when he discloses the proof, a letter he has saved from Marie’s long-discarded cradle. Just as he makes his first entrance in his new uniform, proud of his ingenuity, Tonio finds out that Marie is nobility, to be whisked away to her hereditary chalet. This time, Tonio couldn’t follow his beloved. Nope, he has just taken on the obligations of enlisted man, occasioning Marie’s heartbroken aria of farewell, crying out “Il faut partir!” so many times that I lost count.

In Marie’s staunch and unquestioning devotion to duty, I couldn’t help seeing a parallel to Frederic, the long-indentured “Slave of Duty” in Gilbert & Sullivan’s Pirates of Penzance. There were also times when Sulpice and his invading soldiers reminded me of the Pirate King and his unexpectedly patriotic marauders. Although Coburn didn’t march across the stage with drumsticks, a facet of the infectious “Rataplan, Rataplan” regimental song in many early productions, she was definitely primed for Gauthier’s comical garnishments. There was a Shirley Temple flavor to Coburn’s military bearing in Act I when she was in uniform, and a nicely calibrated awkwardness in Act II when Marie must dress up like a lady. Coburn pouted and moped as winningly as she flirted and exulted. If she didn’t quite hit all of her notes with the same authority and effortlessness, there was almost always a beautifully pure quality to her voice and admirable control of her trills and vibrato. Coburn warbled rather than wobbled and possessed impressive power when she tapped into it.

As Tonio, tenor David Walton had the opportunity to upstage his leading lady. Although conspicuously of peasant stock, in the reprise of his famed “Ah, mes amis, quel jour de fête” aria, Tonio must scale no less than nine high C’s in the space of just over a minute, entitling the fortunate few tenors who can reach those heights to be called “King of the High C’s,” as Luciano Pavarotti was. Walton did reach that summit more effortlessly than Coburn in her most stratospheric flights, and his “Ah, mes amis” came off as an aria rather than an athletic feat. But this Tonio was never nearly as characterful as his beloved, and he couldn’t match the thrilling power of her voice. Until he can muscle up vocally and develop some acting chops, I’d rank Walton as a duke, perhaps a prince.

There’s no villainy in Daughter, and hardly as much greed, pretension, and pettifoggery as we find in The Barber of Seville. Thus it’s hardly surprising that bass-baritone Matthew Burns as Sulpice and mezzo Maariana Vikse as the Marquise came off as rather pallid in barring our protagonists’ road to happiness. Burns was able to show some avuncular charm toward Marie, and Vikse had the opportunity to sashay across the stage in A.T. Jones’ most splendiferous costume designs. Small wonder that Gauthier has added more color to them both at the end by inserting some mutual attraction.

Even more comical delights emanated from cast members who sang less. On the strength of last fall’s fopperies in Cyrano de Bergerac, bass-baritone Carl DuPont certainly deserved an Opera Carolina encore as Hortensius, the Marquise’s officious manservant, and he did not disappoint. After her Charlotte debut in The Marriage of Figaro last spring, soprano Diane Schoff returned to comedy on the Belk stage even more speedily, making a splash each time she entered as The Duchess of Krakenthorp, decked out in a black-and-gold Jones creation that evoked the Chrysler Building.

Marvelous to relate, Ruth Bader Ginsburg made her operatic debut in Washington as the Duchess almost exactly two years before last Saturday evening’s performance in Charlotte. Obviously, Gauthier is telling quite a different story in his version, with plenty of comic style of his own. Comic detailing extended deep into the chorus of soldiers in Gauthier’s first directorial outing with Opera Carolina. Those guys were having as much fun onstage as the subscribers out in the audience, and when the word spreads, there just might be sell-outs to the final performances ahead.

Tappin Music Carries the Night – at the Knight – in Opera Carolina’s I Dream

Review:  I Dream

By Perry Tannenbaum

Douglas Tappin has composed approximately half of a very fine rhythm-and-blues opera, an extensively revamped I Dream that originally premiered in 2010, honoring Rev. Martin Luther King in his hometown of Atlanta. The two-act work has now been revived serendipitously to coincide with the 50th anniversary of Dr. King’s assassination, premiering in Toledo at 7:01pm on April 4, the exact minute of the crime a half century earlier, and getting a reprise in Charlotte in an Opera Carolina production at Knight Theater.

Showcasing Tappin’s music, Opera Carolina is presenting its first fully-staged production at Knight Theater, a venue they have only used previously for special concert events.

The unfortunate thing is that Tappin also wrote the lyrics and the libretto for I DREAM. We’re saddled with a script that slinks its way circuitously through MLK’s last 36 hours, guided by a dubious premise and punctuated by flashbacks that aren’t always dramatic. This civil rights icon doesn’t merely have a premonition that longevity isn’t to be his; he has recurring dreams about the balcony where he will be shot.

In a bizarre twist, these specious dreams become the dream of Tappin’s title, because all of King’s famed oratory – his “I Have a Dream” speech and his “Mountaintop” prophecy – are never spoken. You better know who Ralph and Hosea are, too, for in steering far away from any copyright recriminations from King’s heirs, Tappin omits their full names. Coretta and Martin aren’t blessed with their last names on the cast listings, either.

And who are Martin’s historic adversaries in his heroic struggle for civil rights? Never anyone more important than an anonymous cop wielding a billy club.

Instead of DC or Memphis, Tappin takes us to Montgomery, Birmingham, and Selma. Prudent choices if we’re seeking action rather than copyrighted oratory, but Tappin’s libretto also takes us to Boston, where he met Coretta during his student days, and to a hospital bed, where a duet is sung over his recumbent form. Perhaps in a previous draft of the libretto, King was stabbed in the chest with a letter opener as he actually was at a 1958 book signing. Not anymore: here he simply collapses.

A better playwright would have tiptoed more skillfully through the copyright minefields and woven a more dramatic and compelling narrative. Tappin’s great strength is in his music. If Andrew Lloyd Webber learned profitably from the great operatic masters, I’d say that Tappin has learned profitably how to create a propulsive non-classical score from Lloyd Webber.

When we finally get to Birmingham and Selma in Act 2, the lunch counter arrest and the time in jail signal a melodic climb to King’s victory in Selma that is truly majestic and inspiring. Tappin sustains this momentum through the rendezvous with fate on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel and afterwards, when Coretta leads Martin’s people in mourning.

Although the steeply raked set design by Kevin Depinet, in placing the fatal balcony dead center, reminds me of a TV test pattern, stage director Daniel Goldstein keeps the action between scenes moving fluidly, and the singers have been more than sufficiently rehearsed to move surefootedly on the sloped surface. Musical director and orchestrator Carl Marsh seems to favor Broadway over the Metropolitan Opera in his instrumentation, including an electric guitar and electronic keyboards in the mix, but there is plenty classical heft in the 35-person ensemble with 13 musicians from Charlotte Symphony.

Opera Carolina’s frontline cast also straddles the realms of musical theatre and opera in their impressive résumés. Derrick Davis has sung an admirable range of baritone roles on Broadway and on tour, from Mufasa in Lion King to the title role in Phantom of the Opera, and his OC debut as MLK has moments of peacemaking mellowness and warrior ferocity.

Although the roles of Ralph Abernathy and Hosea Williams aren’t noteworthy for their historical accuracy or even their individuality, the voices we hear, both returning OC artists, bring the heat. Baritone Kenneth Overton as Ralph seems to be the voice of prudence and pragmatism, yet solid and formidable. As Hosea, Victor Ryan Robertson is the voice of passionate principle, his wild tenor bridling against the discipline of non-violence. The bi-play between Robertson and Davis in the jail scene is simply riveting.

Victimized by the static scenes in Boston and at the hospital, Laquita Mitchell is further disadvantaged by her divine soprano voice. I wouldn’t blame Jeremy J. Lee’s sound design or even Tappin’s libretto here, but to be understood, Mitchell needs supertitles more than anyone else onstage. As a result, mezzo Lucia Bradford upstages Coretta as Grandma in her Charlotte debut. Her maxim, movingly sung to Young Martin (Byas Yasan Monroe), ultimately becomes the most effective frame for King’s sequence of flashbacks.

With this powerhouse lineup of singers armed with Tappin’s consistently lively music, we easily weathered the lulls and inexplicable blind alleys of the composer’s script. The opening night audience for I Dream entered with plenty of enthusiasm for the legacy of Martin Luther King, the rhythm-and-blues idiom of Tappin’s opera, and Opera Carolina’s audacity in taking subscribers to new places – including Knight Theater for a refreshing change. From the buzz in the Knight lobby afterwards, I’d say the performance had clearly sustained the audience’s enthusiasm in all respects.

A Duke Has Fun, Safe from #MeToo Consequences, in Opera Carolina’s “Rigoletto”

Review: Rigoletto

By Perry Tannenbaum

When he wrote his 1832 play, La roi s’amuse, Victor Hugo lavished a good amount of research on 16th century French king François I and his illicit love for the daughter of his court jester, Triboulet. Giuseppe Verdi and librettist Francesco Maria Piave, who had previously teamed together in transforming Hugo’s Ernani into opera, plunged into La roi despite the fact that its depiction of depraved historical characters had run afoul of French censors. That was something of a miscalculation, for Italian censors were no more lenient.

Verdi and Piave were compelled to move their opera to nearby Mantua and demote Hugo’s king to a duke. Those shifts affect the interrelationships of all three main characters in Rigoletto. A duke’s womanizing is more presumptuous than a king’s, and a jester’s plot to strangle a duke is less of a high crime than assassinating a king. Most important, an Italian daughter’s desire to thwart her father’s vendetta against a duke who deflowered and betrayed her is far less comprehensible than a French daughter sacrificing herself for her king and protecting her family from the stain of regicide.

Adding to the discomfort that has always suffused Gilda’s sacrifice on behalf of the reprehensible Duke of Mantua is watching it in our current #MeToo climate. The notorious Metropolitan Opera production of 2010-11 made Gilda’s adulation toward the Duke more understandable by transporting the action to Las Vegas and turning Gilda’s seducer into a nightclub superstar crooner with ties to the mob. It would be interesting to see what Opera Carolina could do with a more traditional concept, a co-production by Boston Lyric Opera, Atlanta Opera, and Opera Omaha that has had its set design and costumes baked in since it premiered in Boston, under the direction of Tomer Zvulun, in 2014.

   

You couldn’t say that Opera Carolina was ignoring their #MeToo problem, because they brought Jordan Lee Braun aboard to stage direct the Charlotte edition of this production and hired Sara Jobin to prepare the Charlotte Symphony and conduct two of the three performances. It was the first such female tandem in the company’s history.

Most of the Rigoletto rehab was evident before intermission. Conducting the orchestra at the premiere performance, general director and principal conductor James Meena had the Charlotte Symphony attacking the first sforzandos of the prelude with more savagery than we usually hear foreshadowing the curse that falls on Rigoletto from the Count Monterone, leaving less ferocity for the orchestra to crescendo to afterwards. It’s bit more vulgar and in-your-face, which is what Raffaele Abete turns out to be in the opening scene as the Duke, throwing around Monterone’s daughter, his latest conquest, by the hair as if she were a ragdoll – cuing us that he has conquered this beauty with his power and privilege rather than his charm. The other “ladies” in this opening scene, many of them courtesans who entertain the Duke’s courtiers, have been excised from this production, concentrating all malice and decadence on the Duke – and his jester, Rigoletto. Our protagonist certainly earns the Count’s curse by suggesting to the Duke that he execute the nobleman to spare himself that dad’s righteous indignation.

As Rigoletto, baritone Anooshah Golesorkhi wasn’t the most malignant mocker I’ve seen, and though costume designer Victoria Tzykun outfits him with a sizable hump, Golesorkhi declined to stoop over and enlist himself among Hugo’s hunchbacks. So he wasn’t the most pitifully deformed of jesters, either. Humpbacked rather than hunchbacked, this Rigoletto struck me as a stronger, crueler father in his insistence on walling up Gilda against the outside world. We don’t get nearly as much to pity about Rigoletto’s possessiveness. It appears, then, that Braun has elected to make both Rigoletto and the Duke more cognizant of their abusive choices and more repellent. When Gilda hoped out loud that her secret love would be poor and simple, the Duke visibly overheard it, debunking any notion that he was romantically inspired when he masqueraded as the penniless Gualtier Maldè.

Yet after intermission, Abete pushed back against the notion that he was a purely vicious, self-gratifying rogue. In his fervent “Parmi veder le lagrime,” the tenor convinced me that the Duke was feeling the pangs of true love for the first time, and later, when his infidelity would soon be exposed to the worshipful Gilda, he sang the famous “La donna è mobile” with the joy of a world-class hedonist. Returning to Charlotte after a fine turn last fall as Roxane in David DiChiera’s Cyrano, soprano Magali Simard-Galdés wasn’t as impressive in Gilda’s signature aria. The notes of the beloved “Caro nome” were all there – including most of the trills – but the blushes and longing we could have heard, let alone the heavy aches that Maria Callas achieved, were nowhere to be found in a rendition that was hardly middling, and she earned no bravas from the audience.

Called upon to be more confessional and spirited in her subsequent arias, Simard-Galdés plumbed more deeply into Gilda’s soul. She was poignant after Gilda had been dismissed by the Duke at his palace. In the final act, after watching the Duke betray her love with nearly the exact sentiments he professed to her, Gilda is sent off to Verona where, disguised as a man, Rigoletto instructs her to wait for him while his hired assassin, Sparafucile, does his dirty work. This was where Simard-Galdés was at her best, reacting to the Duke’s betrayal as part of Verdi’s great quartet, and implausibly returning later on to take her beloved Duke’s place as Sparafucile’s victim. The soprano’s heartfelt little aria was heartbreaking – and like so many other moments in this opera, absolutely infuriating.

I sympathized most with Golesorkhi in the final two acts, when Rigoletto told Monterone that he would make sure to see that his curse on the Duke was fulfilled and when he empathized with Gilda at those moments she was seeing the Duke’s true character clearly. Sadly, Golesorkhi’s moping return to the palace, after Gilda was stolen from him, was relatively lackluster. But the volcano of rage welling up in Rigoletto; telling the courtiers that Gilda was his daughter, not his lover, and then cursing the lot of them; was magnificent.

For anyone who has felt that the closing tableau of Rigoletto was dramatically overlong, as Gilda slowly reaches her final breath in Rigoletto’s arms, Golesorkhi and Simard-Galdés were both helped by Opera Carolina’s staging. A nifty sleight-of-hand took place before Rigoletto, alerted by the sound of the Duke’s signature aria, realized that Gilda had been murdered instead of her seducer. Golesorkhi seemed to discover the dying Gilda and to cradle her in his arms, but she was a body double. Simard-Galdés emerged from behind a scrim, radiantly lit in Michael Baumgarten’s lighting design, a soul already in heaven as she sang. The alteration made sense, but I was ambivalent about it.

Unlike Tzykun’s costume designs or Martha Ruskai’s wig and makeup designs, I didn’t find John Conklin’s set design particularly worth preserving, scanty for its palace, lacking a façade for Sparafucile’s tavern, and utterly illogical for the courtship and abduction episodes. Courtiers actually looked down on the garden scene as Gilda sang the final notes of her rapturous “Caro nome,” moments before they climbed up a ladder to abduct her! But it’s utterly fanciful to say that the courtiers climbed anything, for there was nothing substantial for Rigoletto to lean a ladder against, except an invisible fourth wall facing us. That ladder was ridiculously small, and needless to say, no climbing was done.

Overall, the Opera Carolina components of this production were stronger than their borrowings. Ashraf Sawailam reminded us what a plum cameo Count Monterone’s role is with his stern denunciations, and bass baritone Matthew Curran had nearly all of Sparafucile’s sneering machismo, including the long low note he must hold departing from his first conspiratorial parley with Rigoletto. Paradoxically, it was Leyla Martinucci as Sparafucile’s sister and accomplice Maddalena, who best affirmed Gilda’s crazed devotion toward the Duke.

Hired to help take the Duke off-guard, Martinucci simpers, flirts, and vamps with professional self-assurance, yet she also convinces us that Maddelena has fallen victim to his charms when she pleads with her cutthroat brother to save the rascal’s life. Martinucci is an apt subject for the Duke’s “Bella figlia dell’amore” aria, and the mezzo-soprano contributed beguilingly to the climactic quartet that blossomed from his endless appetite for self-gratification. Yes, the Duke was having fun as Hugo’s original title prescribed, but what remained horrifying was that woman after woman could mistake it for love.

Operatic Abuse Yields to #MeToo? Yeah, Right.

Preview: Rigoletto

By Perry Tannenbaum

Poor Gilda. In Giuseppe Verdi’s masterful Rigoletto, the teenager is so jealously guarded by her overprotective father that, except for churchgoing, she is totally isolated from the outside world. The evil Duke of Mantua, who poaches on other men’s wives, has noticed Gilda at Mass, finds out where she lives, and poses as an impoverished student to seduce her. Seeking to satisfy their ruler’s lusts and avenge themselves on Rigoletto, a hunchbacked jester in the Duke’s court, courtiers hoodwink Rigoletto and kidnap Gilda, the widowed hunchback’s precious daughter.

All these degradations merely take us through Act 1! After a night of lovemaking, the Duke tosses Gilda aside as if she were a common slut, spurring Rigoletto to murderous revenge. So what does Gilda do to thwart her father? When Rigoletto’s hired assassin comes calling, Gilda manages to take the Duke’s place as the murder victim.

 

While the Duke is bedding his third different woman in this opera, famously singing that women are fickle, Rigoletto is discovering that the ever-steadfast Gilda has thrown away her life for his boss.

Verdi borrowed his toxic misogynistic plot from Victor Hugo, knowing a hit when he saw one. Back in 1851, the only major change his librettist, Francesco Maria Piave, had to make to satisfy the censors was to change Hugo’s king to a duke.

Flash forward to this coming Sunday, when Opera Carolina presents Rigoletto for the seventh time since 1959. Is it still possible to shamelessly present this unsettling melodrama – this cavalcade of abuse, rape, and teen suicide – in the age of Harvey Weinstein, presidential pussy grabbing, and #MeToo?

Well, sorta. But times have changed, even within the lifetime of this oncoming Op Carolina production, which was conceived in 2011 as an Atlanta-Boston-Omaha co-production and premiered in Boston under the direction of Tomer Zvulun in 2014. Like mighty ocean liners, it takes awhile to turn a grand opera production around.

Yet it’s still significant that, for the Opera Carolina version, Jordan Lee Braun has taken over as stage director while Sara Jobin has been named to conduct – the first such female tandem in company history.

Neither of these women seemed to be particularly comfortable dwelling on this historic landmark, perhaps because neither was comfortable with Rigoletto and Gilda.

Jobin, whose experience of Rigoletto was compounded recently when she conducted a performance in Toledo on the day Dr. Larry Nassar was sentenced to up to 175 years in prison for sexual abuse, doesn’t hold back.

“What went through my head as I watched the performances in Toledo,” she says, “including what is my life for, why am I here, what are we doing, a phrase came to me: ‘hospicing patriarchy.’ I am so sick of seeing women being abused, raped, and killed onstage. And yes, that is the tragic story of the last 5200 years. Traditional opera plots –and movies, sci-fi thrillers and everything else – are full of it.”

Jobin and Braun agree that the antidote to the cesspool of misogynistic old opera plots should lie in new contemporary operas that portray strong women who fight back and win. Braun, however, sees value in presenting the oldies unvarnished, despite their horrors.

“What is striking about Rigoletto is how much of the story is still relevant, uncomfortable as it is,” Braun says. “On the topic of [Rigoletto’s] own sexism, that too is pervasive today. How many politicians, Hollywood A-listers, and others have made us think ‘how can you have a daughter and still be so degrading to women?’ As artists, we have the opportunity to spark important discussions, causing audiences to ask questions of themselves and others. Opera is designed to bash you over the head with the emotion, drama, gorgeous visuals, and fantastic music. This production of Rigoletto certainly does that, and I believe that has value – today as much as ever.”

After a fine Charlotte debut this past fall as Roxane in David DiChiera’s Cyrano, soprano Magali Simard-Galdés will sing Gilda, making the transition from a woman who is serially worshipped to a woman who is serially degraded. She’s also fully on-board with presenting Gilda exactly as she has always been, even when she tosses her life away in the final act for the reprehensible Duke.

“If Act 3 doesn’t make you gnash your teeth,” she states, “I think I will have failed at my job.”

Braun cites Lori Laitman’s The Scarlet Letter and Hilary Blecher’s Frida as contemporary operas with “girl power,” and she points to As One, a chamber opera by Laura Kaminsky with a transgender woman protagonist, that was the 14th most produced opera in the US and Canada in the 2016-2017 season. Early in the evolution of Opera Carolina’s Rigoletto, the decision was made to eliminate the courtesans from the opening scene at the Duke’s palace. Enough with the mistreatment of women!

But not much else has been done to dilute the original, even in the age of The Donald and #MeToo.

“Having said that,” Braun remarks, “I’ve definitely noticed that the behavior of both men and women in rehearsal rooms has changed since the #MeToo movement – we are more specific in our intention of looking after one another, regardless of gender. Perhaps having a woman at the helm does make the cast and crew think and talk about the piece in a different way than they might otherwise, and that’s a good thing. We talk about making sure everyone is comfortable with the physical action, which any director will do, but maybe it is different somehow with a female-led team?”

The problems of dealing with the Carmens, the Butterflys, and the Gildas in classic operas will linger well into the future, but there are contemporary directors who take a less passive approach to Piave’s libretto. At about the same time that Opera Carolina’s production was still in concept stage, the Metropolitan Opera in New York transported Rigoletto from 19th century Mantua to 21st century Las Vegas, changing the predatory Duke into a superstar nightclub singer with ties to the mob.

That actually made Gilda’s inextinguishable adulation for her promiscuous seducer more understandable. Returning to Verdi’s original idea – remember Hugo’s play was titled Le Roi s’amuse – might also help, for killing a king is a far more cosmic crime than merely offing a duke.

A new version that opened last month in London evidently restored all the buxom courtesans to the Duke’s court – and doubled down on the blood. It all had one London critic shaking his head and wondering how an opera dad can take his 14-year-old daughter to such a hedonistic, misogynistic bloodbath.

We posed a similar question to Braun, Simard-Galdés, and Jobin. What does an opera mom say to her daughter about Rigoletto and Gilda? Jobin probably had the most erudite answer:

“If I were a mom and my daughter was watching the opera with me, I would say, ‘Honey, this is a really old fashioned opera plot and illustrates the Italian word rapir which means to steal. They steal the woman, and the word rape actually originally meant to steal someone else’s property. We don’t think that way anymore . . . but some people still do. I hope that you will write an opera where the girl fights back because she has a black belt in judo, and puts everybody in the hospital, and then goes on to become President or whatever it is she wants to do, because it’s about time.’”

Yes, it is.

DiChiera’s “Cyrano” Throbs With the Power of Love

Review: Cyrano

By Perry Tannenbaum

Since making his Charlotte debut at the end of 2001-02 season, directing a triumphant Barber of Seville, Bernard Uzan has been a key part of the Opera Carolina story for over 15 years. His artistic contributions to numerous productions – including The Marriage of Figaro, Così Fan Tutte, Faust, Roméo et Juliette, Carmen, Lucia, Nabucco, The Pearl Fishers, and last season’s reprise of his Barber – have been among the most memorable during principal conductor James Meena’s tenure as the company’s general director, which began one season earlier.

With the advantage of hindsight, it seems inevitable that when Meena cast about for an adventurous new piece to present, the first contemporary opera at Belk Theater since Margaret Garner in 2005, he would light upon David DiChiera’s Cyrano. Not only has Uzan directed this opera – twice – at Detroit’s Michigan Opera Theatre, where it premiered in 2007, he authored the libretto. Compounding that inevitability, DiChiera commissioned Margaret Garner for Michigan Opera, the company he founded and led.

Adding poignancy to the current Cyrano revival, DiChiera disclosed that he had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer this past April, about the same time that he announced his retirement. Yet the 82-year-old composer and impresario was observed sitting next to Uzan at the Student Night preview performance, still tweaking his legacy magnum opus.

Like Henri Cain’s libretto for Franco Alfano’s 1936 Cyrano de Bergerac, Uzan strives to retain Edmond Rostand’s original verse. Predictably, Uzan’s highlighter seems to have fallen upon many of the same passages, but his emphases are different. In the opening scene, where Christian and Roxane first become captivated with each other while Cyrano is dispatching assorted foes, both Uzan and Cain are taken by Cyrano’s enthused exclamations when invited by Roxane’s duenna to a rendezvous the following morning. Despite Cyrano’s preternaturally long nose, he might win Roxane’s love!

Cain and Alfano include the lines where Cyrano proclaims that he now has 10 hearts and 100 arms – where he feels too strong to combat dwarves, calling for giants instead – but Uzan and DiChiera revel in them, repeating them as they bring the scene to a close. Earlier when Cyrano is parrying swords and insults, there is an extended skirmish with a Marquis in the entourage of the wicked Comte de Guiche, who also fancies Roxane. Cain seized upon the unique action display in this altercation, where Cyrano composes an impromptu ballade while dueling the Marquis. Uzan emphasizes the witty preamble to the duel, when Cyrano responds to the Marquis’ feeble insult of his nose by improvising a bevy of insults he should have hurled – in various styles that include aggressive, friendly, kindly, thoughtful, dramatic, and enterprising barbs.

Although the scores were unveiled more than 70 years apart, DiChiera’s music fits into the era of Strauss and Puccini almost as comfortably as Alfano’s, though the newer opera leans more towards cavatina and less toward aria and cabaletta. There are no spiky outbreaks of dissonance or raucous percussion to daunt operagoers, for the orchestration by Mark Flint, newly revised by Steven Mercurio, is both lively and lovely. Better yet, Mercurio is in the pit conducting the Charlotte Symphony, the Opera Carolina Chorus, and the men of the Johnson C. Smith University Choir, giving the music his stamp of authenticity.

The man behind the nose is baritone John Viscardi, who impressed me more and more as the evening progressed. Cyrano’s flamboyant self-caricatures weren’t nearly as spectacular coming from Viscardi as those jubilant exclamations, and I exited the opening scene feeling that we hadn’t sufficiently explored the poet’s yearning for the beauteous Roxane or the critic’s self-loathing for what he finds in the mirror.

If the rendezvous with Roxane in the next scene at a poets’ bakery doesn’t offer ample opportunities for lyricizing while his beloved is revealing her adoration for Christian, the sinuous path of her confession does give Viscardi the opportunity to underscore the fact that Uzan demands real acting from his singers. There is real snap to the ensuing episode when Cyrano’s fellow cadets invade the bakery and our hero meets the newly-enlisted Christian for the first time. Even before he volunteers to write Christian’s love letters, his enthusiasm toward the man Roxane idolizes – despite the contempt he has just absorbed from him – testifies to his own idolatry of Roxane. When he does make his pact with Christian, a spark is lit that burns brightly for the rest of the opera.

Viscardi burns brightest in the moonlit balcony scene when Cyrano is forced to step in for the handsome Christian and woo Roxane under the cover of darkness. Here Cyrano’s improvisations are so ardent and beautiful that I feared Christian might realize, an act too soon, how much Cyrano adores Roxane and how fervidly she reciprocates. That realization does come on the battlefield after the second intermission, but Rostand compressed the timeline so cruelly there that neither Christian nor Cyrano could disclose the truth to Roxane before her newlywed husband perishes.

Both in his writing and directing, Uzan makes key mistakes in the closing convent scene that affect what Viscardi leaves us with as Cyrano. You would never know that Rostand titled his Act 5 “Cyrano’s Gazette,” for no mention of Cyrano’s gadfly writings remains in the libretto. Nor does Cyrano’s best friend Le Bret come to inform Roxane how Cyrano’s satires have led to his undoing. Yes, Cyrano will read the farewell letter he wrote to Roxane on Christian’s behalf one last time before he dies, but we don’t hear any tasty tidbits from his Gazette to remind us what a witty rogue he was.

Those who are introduced to Cyrano through this opera will need to remember his wit from the opening scene, but surely everyone should be given a firm grasp of the moment when Roxane realizes that Cyrano penned every one of Christian’s glorious letters – and risked death to deliver them. As director, Uzan needs to sharpen the business where Viscardi stops reading that farewell letter and Roxane sees, totally transfixed, that he’s reciting it. Hung over from past encounters with Cyrano de Bergerac, I’m always in tears at that moment, but I’d like to be sure newcomers experience it with the same power.

Aside from that sloppy denouement, soprano Magali Simard-Galdés brought perfect enchantment to Roxane. There was a growth curve to her performance that theatergoers and opera lovers alike will savor. Through her girlish confession to Cyrano, Simard-Galdés is somewhat superficial when she sings, bubbly like a Rossini heroine. But in the moonlight, where she comes to adore Cyrano’s soul through his voice, she is not merely transported. She begins to be transformed, and we hear it in her newly rich responses, when she honestly believes she’s hearing Christian’s true self for the first time.

I’d forgotten that Roxane, with bravery to match Cyrano’s, follows Christian on to the battlefield through enemy lines, drawn by the power of his letters. What a moment! John Pascoe’s original costume designs, lovingly preserved from the 2007 premiere, go a long way toward injecting the requisite glitter into the Parisian scenes, despite the rather generic (and wisely uncredited) set design. The magnificent dress she wears after the second intermission turns her entrance through the encamped cadets into a luminous sunburst, making this tableau reminiscent of those dark gloomy Rembrandts where light is concentrated onto just one shining sector.

Simard-Galdés’s vocals shine in that scene, too, with fresh maturity and warmth. What stands out so vividly here, perhaps more vividly than in conventional stagings of Rostand’s “Heroic Comedy,” is how significantly Cyrano ennobles both Roxane and Christian during the 1640 scenes. Sadly, when the curtain comes down in 1655, he still hasn’t realized what he has achieved with those two souls.

From the moment we first see him as Christian, the power and purity of Sébastien Guèze’s singing seem to flatten his growth curve vis-à-vis Roxane’s. The tenor certainly upstaged Viscardi for me when he first emerged, but he regressed nicely when Christian’s boyish confidence collided with the necessity of saying something impressive and gallant to Roxane in their first tête-à-tête.

Guèze’s best moments come in DiChiera’s Act 3 when Christian has his epiphany after absorbing two earthshaking revelations. First, he learns how bravely, diligently, and devotedly Cyrano has acted in writing to Roxane twice daily. Then he learns that Roxane now loves him for the letters she thinks he has written and not for his physical allure. Guèze lets us see and hear that Christian gets it. Not only that, but realizing what an incredible friend Cyrano has been to him, he reciprocates as best he can, renouncing Roxane and urging Cyrano to claim her. Truly cavalier and very touching.

Worldliness gradually melts away from this story, but while it holds a grip, bass baritone Kyle Albertson as Comte de Guiche is its most malignant force, unctuous in his unwanted attentions toward Roxane and dangerous in his power over the cadets. On the lighter side, tenor Eric Johnston is the jovial baker poet Raguneau, so jolly that he escorts Roxane to the battlefield, momentarily turning the cadets’ grim situation into a block party.

Johnston comes by his enthusiasm naturally, for he played the same role in the same costume at the premiere of Cyrano a decade ago. He, Uzan, Mercurio, and DiChiera are all affirmations that this work is still alive, well, and continuing to evolve. This emotionally satisfying Opera Carolina production affirms that DiChiera’s Cyrano is well worthy of more life and wider exposure.

Best of Charlotte, 2017

Best of Charlotte, 2017

By Perry Tannenbaum

                                           Best ActorJeremy DeCarlos

 

Among local performers, there are strong candidacies from Brian Logsdon (Pride and Prejudice and Ragtime), Jonavan Adams (Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom and The Christians), Scott A. Miller (Stupid F@#%ing Bird and The Submission), Jermaine Gamble (A Raisin in the Sun and Jitney) and Tyler Smith (Ragtime and Memphis). All of them sparkled on multiple occasions. But the runaway victory goes to Jeremy DeCarlos, who laps the field – in range and productivity – with four scintillating outings. Draped in a braided Hussar jacket, DeCarlos just finished channeling his inner Jimi Hendrix as the devilish St. Jimmy in American Idiot. That was the last of his Actor’s Theatre gems over the past year, including some cross-dressing preaching in Bootycandy, his insouciant devotion in Stupid F@#%ing Bird, and his amazing transformation – from Jerry Lewis nerd to Incredible Hulk-ish monster – in The Toxic Avenger.

Best Actress – Shar Marlin

The field of contenders is larger among the ladies, but the roles were more thinly distributed, eliminating productivity as a decisive criterion. But which other benchmark should override all others? If it’s flesh-crawling menace, Sarah Woldum gets the edge, bringing Sheridan LeFanu’s Carmilla to life in She Who Watches. Leslie Giles was the funniest as the blind librarian in The Toxic Avenger, Lucia Stetson the most revelatory as Mother in Ragtime, and Allison Snow Rhinehart was better than her Broadway counterpart as Mama in Memphis. And how can I forget the sizzling dominatrix arrogance of Nonye Obichere as Whatsername in American Idiot? I’m turning instead to Shar Marlin for her sheer power and imperial dominance in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, a dramatic stunner that also showed Shar’s blues singing chops. Dignity in the face of exploitation and discrimination. Diva!

Best Comedy – Women Playing Hamlet

 

Theatre Charlotte’s You Can’t Take It With You and the Citizens of the Universe farewell, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, were arguably the zaniest productions of the 2016-17, while the Chekhov knockoff from Actor’s Theatre, Stupid F@#%ing Bird, was surely the most poignant. And what about OnQ Productions’ A Brown Tale from James T. Alfred, maybe the funniest one-man show I’ve ever seen? All were worthy candidates, but I’m going to let Chickspeare split this prize with Donna Scott Productions for their joint production of Women Playing Hamlet. Glynnis O’Donoghue starred as the soap queen saddled with the lead role in the Mona Lisa of tragedies, and the galaxy of comediennes – all in multiple roles – offering her questionable advice included Tania Kelly, Andrea King, Vivian T Howell, and Sheila Snow Proctor.

Best Musical – Ragtime

Ragtime Promo Photos

Folks who confine their diet of musicals in Charlotte to touring productions at the PAC are missing out bigtime on the locally-produced blockbusters playing out at smaller venues around town. Actor’s Theatre scrambled to produce a marvelous Toxic Avenger at a storefront church because this city doesn’t have the vision to see the arts flourish on Freedom Drive without a needless morass of red tape. Still in exile, they just brought the noise of American Idiot to Queens University for a face-melting month. After reminding us how finely they can produce A Year With Frog and Toad, Children’s Theatre astonished with the world premiere of The Best Christmas Pageant Ever: The Musical. With more than one Broadway-level performance, Theatre showed us their mettle with Memphis, and CPCC re-emphasized that their musical excellence isn’t confined to summer anymore. Maybe it was sheer luck, but CP’s wintertime production of Ragtime was the most timely of the year, underscoring the sad fact that institutional racism, police brutality, and prejudice against immigrants aren’t quaint relics of the Jazz Age. As the martyred Coalhouse Walker, Tyler Smith’s impassioned “We are all Coalhouse!” reverberated through a city in turmoil.

Best Drama – Jitney

Early last season, PaperHouse Theatre proved that The Frock Shop on Central Avenue was the perfect site for a creepshow with a dazzling She Who Watches, and early this season, a legend made a comeback when Steve Umberger and his Playworks Group brought a sterling production of The Christians to Booth Playhouse. In between, as Charlotte was fully wakening to how badly we have neglected and mistreated our underclass, theatergoers may have finally been zonked by the realization that our city is exceptionally rife with African American acting and directing talent. Kim Parati made an auspicious directorial debut at Theatre Charlotte with a freshened-up Raisin in the Sun, but this was a vintage year for August Wilson – in two dramas directed by Corlis Hayes, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom at CPCC and Brand New Sheriff’s Jitney at Spirit Square. Hayes brought out the best in John W. Price and Jermaine Gamble as the father-son antagonists in Jitney, with Gerard Hazelton adding a mix of comedy and poignancy as the gypsy cab company’s resident lush. Move over OnQ Productions, there really is a brand new black company in town – our second! – producing professional-grade work.

Best Night @ Symphony – Mahler’s “Resurrection”

While a well-played Beethoven symphony, a Rossini overture, a Strauss tone poem, or a Mozart concerto might be the secret sauce to get newcomers to become Charlotte Symphony subscribers, longtime concertgoers like me wish to dismount the warhorses and hear something off the beaten trail. There’s plenty out there that will please both camps: big, unfamiliar orchestral works that will instantly grab you by the lapels even if Symphony hasn’t reprised them within the last decade. Armed with an audacious orchestra and choir, plus two soloists who have sung with Opera Carolina, Davidson College showed the way with a rousing performance of Ralph Vaughan Williams’ A Sea Symphony, set to poetry by Walt Whitman. That’s the sort of daring we hope for from Charlotte Symphony’s British maestro, Christopher Warren-Green. We did get a British Isles-themed evening when pieces by Edward Elgar and Peter Maxwell Davies, spiced up with a bagpiper, were served with Mendelssohn’s “Scottish.” Utilizing the Symphony Chorus and distinguished guest vocalists, Warren-Green turned up the power with a pair of Bruckner chorales last November and Mendelssohn’s Elijah last March. If you wanted to sample the full capabilities of Symphony, their chorus, and the guest vocalists Warren-Green can summon to Belk Theater, you had to hear them introducing the wonders of Mahler’s “Resurrection” Symphony No. 2 to an astounded audience.

Best Night @ the Opera – The Girl of the West

Under maestro James Meena, Opera Carolina does the oldies better than ever, as their uproarious Barber of Seville and their vivacious, ultimately anguished La Traviata amply proved. There was even some audacity in the 2016-17 programming as OpCar partnered with Warehouse Performing Arts Center and the D9 Brewing Company to produce an evening of three short operas – including the world premiere of Scott Joiner’s “Connection Lost (The Tinder Opera)” – at the brewery in Cornelius. Yes, a world premiere on Treynorth Drive! But most exciting was the Charlotte premiere of Puccini’s The Girl of the West, as Meena collaborated with six other international companies, including New York City Opera and Teatro del Giglio in Lucca, Puccini’s hometown. Singing was exemplary, persuading me that this second-tier Puccini opera was actually a first-rate work, and staging was anything but stodgy or conservative: much of the scenery was animated and bold, with authentic relics evoking the Wild West supplied by our own dearly beloved Wells Fargo. An appreciable, if infinitesimal, atonement for all the bank’s Wild West chicanery.

 

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.

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.