Category Archives: Opera

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.

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

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


By Perry Tannenbaum

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Review : The Barber of Seville

By Perry Tannenbaum

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

Reviews: Aleko and Pagliacci


By Perry Tannenbaum

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

© 2016 CVNC

Savannah Vamps Toward Opera, In Bite-Size Pieces

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

By Perry Tannenbaum

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photos by Frank Stewart, Dario Acosto, and Elizabeth Leitzell