Category Archives: Opera

Stunning and Grand, Opera Carolina Recreates the Original Designs of “Tosca”

Review: Opera Carolina Presents Puccini’s Tosca

By Perry Tannenbaum

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October 13, 2022, Charlotte, NC – Even in an Opera Carolina production with merely eight solo vocalists in the cast, it was easy enough to see what makes grand opera so grand. Most of the musicians on Charlotte Symphony’s payroll were in the orchestra pit when we entered Belk Theater, tuning up or rehearsing. The program booklets handed to us at the door had the size and stylishness of a glossy fashion magazine, and when the curtain rose on Giacomo Puccini’s Tosca, we saw the interior of a Roman cathedral, the first of Adolph Hohenstein’s three diverse set designs. By the end of the opening act, the stage was filled with clergy, a cardinal, and a throng of Opera Carolina choristers, all celebrating a mistaken report of a royalist victory over Napoleon’s invading army.

All of these blandishments – and extras – spell out expensive in big, bold capital letters. So it was particularly disappointing to see the Belk’s uppermost balcony completely empty and so many unclaimed seats below. If Hohenstein’s name rings a bell, we can multiply our disappointment, because he designed the sets, the costumes, the props, and the poster art for the original Milanese production of Tosca in January 1900. We can thank the New York City Opera for this meticulous recreation of Hohenstein’s handiwork – by heading out to the Belk Theater and seeing it.2022~Tosca-13

Opera Carolina lighting designer Michael Baumgarten certainly helps to capture the melodramatic spirit of Puccini’s deft adaptation of Victorien Sardou’s La Tosca, written for Sarah Bernhardt in 1887. But perhaps disheartened by all those empty seats, the opening night performance didn’t attain its full potboiler heat until late in Act 1 when bass baritone Steven Condy entered as Baron Scarpia, the cruel, lascivious, and unscrupulous chief of Rome’s city police. Until then, soprano Alyson Cambridge as opera diva Floria Tosca and tenor John Viscardi as principled painter Mario Cavaradossi hadn’t belittled the love, intrigue, jealousy, and playfulness of their relationship. Not at all. But against the backdrop of the Charlotte Symphony Orchestra, tempestuously conducted by OpCar artistic director James Meena from the opening bars onwards, both sounded somewhat underpowered, though they were clearly gifted as actors.2022~Tosca-10

Chasing after former Roman Republic consul Cesare Angelotti, who has escaped from prison and has already been secreted into hiding by Cavaradossi, Condy as Scarpia quickly injected menace and urgency into the drama. Then he cunningly worked on Tosca’s unfounded jealousy to freshen the trail to her paramour’s hideout before the curtain fell. In his tense confrontation with Tosca, Condy seemed to kindle some of the spark we would see unceasingly from Cambridge in the two acts that followed.

Stage director James Marvel takes full advantage of his principals’ gifts as the intricacies of Sardou’s plot come brutally to fruition in Act 2. Tosca has led Scarpia’s spies to Cavaradossi’s hideout, and soon the painter will be in custody while Angelotti has once again escaped. Scarpia dispatches his prisoner to a torture chamber adjoining his lavish apartment, hoping to extract information about Angelotti’s whereabouts. He and his thugs cannot break Cavaradossi, but they don’t have to. Tosca is with him, ruefully aware that her jealousy was baseless, and able to hear her beloved’s outcries as Scarpia’s men inflict their torture. Where the fiend has failed with Cavaradossi, he succeeds with Tosca, breaking her twice. In exchange for stopping the torture, Tosca gives up Angelotti, and to barter for Cavaradossi’s freedom, the price will be Tosca’s virtue.

2022~Tosca-16Beyond having doubted her true love’s fidelity, there was so much more for Tosca to regret now. In singing the famous “Vissi d’arte” aria before nodding her consent to Scarpia, Cambridge drew upon all the additional anguish Puccini had written for her. All of the art she had lived for, all of her passionate love, all her charitable deeds, and all her fervent prayers have been for naught in the face of this perverted monster. God has shortchanged her. With all the grim delight that Condy took in tormenting her in their crackling duets, it certainly seemed so. But Marvel was no less cold-blooded in staging “Tosca’s kiss,” where the diva settles all her debts with the Baron and appends a chilling religious ceremony.2022~Tosca-35

Courageous and bloodied in his brief appearances, Viscardi’s energy jumped nearly as much as Cambridge’s after the first intermission, but he didn’t reach his zenith until he staggered onto the rooftop battlements of the Sant’Angelo Castle in the pre-dawn light of Act 3, sentenced to face a firing squad. Maybe not quite as electrifying as Cambridge’s signature aria, Viscardi filled Cavaradossi’s “E lucevan le stelle” with sweet lyrical despair that soared upwards into the dawn appointed for his death. Alone for an extended conspiratorial duet, when both lovers grew joyous at the prospect of their coming bliss, Cambridge and Viscardi poignantly lit up the stage one last time before fate cruelly closed its fist on them. Stunning – and grand.

Black Lives Really Do Matter in Spoleto’s Stirring Counter-Crusade

Review: Opera, Chamber, and Orchestral Music @ Spoleto Festival USA

By Perry Tannenbaum

Dive In by Leigh Webber leighwebber.com

Recognition of the #BlackLivesMatter Movement and the We See You White American Theatre manifesto (issued by a coalition of BIPOC artists in 2020) were certainly on Nigel Redden’s mind when he decided that the 2021 Spoleto Festival USA would be his last as general director. White and long-tenured at the Charleston arts fest, Redden saw himself personifying what needed to be changed, not merely in American theatre but across the nation’s arts.

Yet that wasn’t to say that Spoleto was backward in infusing diversity into its programming or in embracing contemporary, cutting-edge work in its presentations of music, theatre, and dance – which made Redden’s swan song, at a Festival that constricted and hamstrung by Covid-19, all the more poignant. But all Redden’s work was not truly done, even after he officially stepped down last October, for there was one grand project of his that had yet to be completed. Spoleto’s commission of Omar, the much-anticipated new opera by Rhiannon Giddens and Michael Abels would at last be unveiled after being shelved for two years.Dive In by Leigh Webber leighwebber.com

Based on the slim autobiography of Omar Ibn Said, the only known narrative by an American slave written in Arabic, Giddens’ new work was appropriately co-commissioned by the University of North Carolina, for Omar’s servitude began in Charleston before he escaped to a more benign slaveholder up in Fayetteville, NC. Rather than letting this world premiere stand as an isolated testament to Redden’s legacy – or a belated rebuke targeting the infamous Muslim ban of 2017 – incoming general director Mena Mark Hanna has emphatically made Omar the tone-setting centerpiece of his first Spoleto.

Predictably enough, Giddens and Abels sat for a public interview with Martha Teichner on the afternoon following the premiere, just a few hours before she and her husband, Francesco Turrissi, appeared in an outdoor concert at Cistern Yard. Five days after the world premiere at Sottile Theatre, the principal singers from Omar and the choir resurfaced at Charleston Gaillard Center for a “Lift Every Voice” concert, further affirming Black Lives. But that theme, as well as Ibn Said’s African origins and Islamic faith, suffused the Festival’s programming more deeply than that.2022~Spoleto-142

In the jazz sector, for example, two African artists were featured with their ensembles at the Cistern on successive night after Giddens’ concert, Senegalese singer Youssou N’Dour and his orchestra followed by South African pianist Nduduzo Makhatini and his quartet. More importantly, saxophonist Ravi Coltrane, three years after participating in a Geri Allen tribute, paid homage to his distinguished mom, harpist/organist/composer Alice Coltrane and her 1971 Universal Consciousness album, a spiritual landmark that defined Indocentric jazz, laced with flavorings of Africa, India, Egypt, and the Holy Land.Dive In by Leigh Webber leighwebber.com

Unholy Wars was another Spoleto commission, with tenor Karim Sulayman as its lead creator, furthering the pro-Muslim thrust of the Festival’s opera lineup. Taking up Claudio Monteverdi’s Il combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda, the 1624 opera that extracted its tragic love story from Torquato Tasso’s epic Jerusalem Delivered, Sulayman boldly flipped the First Crusade narrative. Sulayman, a first-generation American born in Chicago to Lebanese immigrants, conceived a counter-Crusade, attempting to render vocal compositions by Monteverdi, Handel, and others through the perspective of those defamed and marginalized by the prevailing white Western narrative.Dive In by Leigh Webber leighwebber.com

Portraying the narrator, Sulayman chiefly championed the warrior woman Clorinda – who needed to be white-skinned and convert to Christianity for 17th century Europe to see her as worthy of Tancredi, the valiant Christian knight who mistakenly slayed his beloved in combat. Soprano Raha Mirzadegan as Clorinda outshone bass baritone John Taylor Ward’s portrayal of Tancredi, while dancer Coral Dolphin, devising her moves with choreographer Ebony Williams, upstaged them both. We could conclude, in stage director Kevin Newberry’s scheme of things, that Dolphin’s dancing silently represented the Black beauty that Clorinda was never allowed to be.

Known for directing such cutting-edge operas as Doubt, Fellow Travelers, and The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs, Newberry had no qualms about creating huge disconnects between his actors’ actions and the Italian they sang. Costume designer David C. Woolard was similarly liberated in attiring them, evoking Lawrence of Arabia more readily than Richard the Lion-Hearted. Water, sand, heavy rope, and four simple chairs supplanted onstage scenery at Dock Stage Theater, but Michael Commendatore’s steady stream of animated projection designs, coupled with the production’s supertitles, more than compensated for the sparseness onstage, keeping us awash in sensory overload. If you tried to keep pace with the supertitles on high, sometimes barely legible, you could easily be distracted from the action below.

Consulting your program booklet to determine what was being sung by which composer would only have compounded your confusion. Best to listen, look, and enjoy. For if this sensory-rich spectacle – laden with mysterious sand and water ceremony – strayed far from fulfilling Sulayman’s intentions, the music, the voices, and the dance yielded constant pleasure, wonder, and delight.Dive In by Leigh Webber leighwebber.com

More touted and deliciously marketable, Giddens’ Omar proved to be more treasurable and on-task, providing tenor Jamez McCorkle with a career-making opportunity in the title role. Directing this stunning world premiere, director Kaneza Schall is laser-focused on the most pivotal event in Said’s life in America when, imprisoned in Fayetteville, he is released from jail and purchased by a benign master because of he has – miraculously, in the eyes of local yokels – written in Arabic script on the walls of his cell.

Written and printed language, from the floor upwards to the Sottile’s fly loft, is everywhere in Schall’s concept: dominant in Amy Rubin’s set, Joshua Higgason’s video, even permeating the costumes by April Hickman and Micheline Russell-Brown. If you ever believed the libelous presumption that Africans were all brought to America bereft of any literacy, maintained in their pristine backwardness by their benevolent masters, Schall’s vision of Omar was here to brashly disabuse you.Dive In by Leigh Webber leighwebber.com

And if you were under the impression that Africans came ashore in Charleston without any coherent Abrahamic religion, their poor souls yearning to be redeemed by the beneficence of Christianity, Giddens labored lovingly to enlighten you, the beauty and spirituality of her score enhanced by Abels’ deft orchestrations. As a librettist, Giddens could have benefited from some discreet assistance – and the challenge of scoring somebody else’s text. Melodious and religious as it is, Omar could stand to be a more dramatic opera, and as a librettist, Giddens could have usefully been more detailed.

Stressing Said’s spirituality, Giddens neglects his intellect, never referencing the range of his studies or the full spectrum of his manuscripts. Nor is there a full fleshing-out of why Said was imprisoned in Fayetteville or how it could be that Major General James Owen could take him home without returning the fugitive slave to his previous master, described in The Autobiography as “a small, weak, and wicked man, called Johnson, a complete infidel, who had no fear of God at all.”Screenshot 2022-06-27 at 16-55-14 Spoleto Opera Honors An Extraordinary Slave Whose Life Mattered Classical Voice North America

The embellishments that Giddens gives us are all gorgeous. Owen’s daughter, Eliza, has a beautiful aria sung by Rebecca Jo Loeb, entreating her dignified dad to see the providence in Omar’s coming to their city. Further mentoring our hero, soprano Laquita Mitchell was Julie, a fellow slave in Fayetteville who will vividly remember her previous meeting with Omar at a Charleston slave auction. More majestically, mezzo-soprano Cheryse McLeod Lewis is a recurring presence as Omar’s mother, Fatima. Long after she is slain by the marauders who enslave Omar, she comes back to her son in a dream, warning him that Johnson is fast approaching to murder him. Mitchell and Lewis subsequently team up to urge Omar to write his story, a summit meeting with McCorkle that is the clear musical – and emotional – high point of the evening.

Plum roles also go to baritone Malcolm MacKenzie, who gets to sing both of Omar’s masters, the cruel and godless Johnson before intermission and the benign, bible-toting Owen afterwards. The question of whether Said sincerely converts from Islam to Christianity is pointedly left open. Notwithstanding his utter triumph, we probably have not seen the full magnificence that McCorkle can bring to Omar, for he was hobbled in the opening performances, wearing a therapeutic boot over his left ankle that I, for one, didn’t notice until he resurfaced as the highlight of the “Lift Every Voice” concert, bringing down the house with a powerful “His Eye is on the Sparrow.”Dive In by Leigh Webber leighwebber.com

Scanning the remainder of Spoleto’s classical offerings, I’m tempted to linger in the operatic realm, for Yuval Sharon’s upside-down reimagining of La bohème at Gaillard Center, despite its time-saving cuts to Act 2, completely overcame my misgivings about seeing Puccini’s four acts staged in reverse order. Yet there were more flooring innovations, debuts, and premieres elsewhere.52126095047_f231ab5e32_o

Program III of the chamber music series epitomized how the lunchtime concerts have evolved at Dock Street Theater under violinist and host Geoff Nuttall’s stewardship. Baritone saxophonist Steven Banks brought a composition of his, “As I Am,” for his debut, a winsome duet with pianist Pedja Muzijevic. Renowned composer Osvaldo Golijov, a longtime collaborator with Nuttall’s St. Lawrence Quartet, was on hand to introduce his Ever Yours octet, which neatly followed a performance of the work that inspired him, Franz Joseph Haydn’s String Quartet, op. 76 no. 2.

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Upstaging all of these guys was the smashing debut of recorder virtuoso Tabea Debus, playing three different instruments – often two simultaneously – on German composer Moritz Eggert’s Auer Atem for three recorders and one player. Equally outré and modernistic, More or Less for pre-recorded and live violin was a new composition by Mark Applebaum, customized for Livia Sohn (Nuttall’s spouse) while she was recuperating from a hand injury that only allowed her to play with two fingers on her left hand. If it weren’t bizarre enough to see Sohn on the Dock Street stage facing a mounted bookshelf speaker, the prankish Applebaum was on hand to drape the speaker in a loud yellow wig after the performance was done.

On the orchestral front, two works at different concerts wowed me. Capping a program at Gaillard which had featured works by György Ligeti and Edmund Thornton Jenkins, John Kennedy conducted Aiōn, an extraordinary three-movement work by Icelandic composer Anna Thorvaldsdottir. Hatching a soundworld that could be massively placid, deafeningly chaotic, weirdly unearthly, or awesome with oceanic majesty, Aiōn decisively quashed my urge to slip away to The Cistern for Coltrane and his luminous harpist, Brandee Younger. We were forced to arrive a full 30 minutes after that religious rite began.2022~Spoleto-260

My final event before saying goodbye to Spoleto 2022 treated me to sights I’d never seen before. On an all-Tyshawn Sorey program, Sorey ascended to the podium at Sottile Theatre and took us all to a pioneering borderland between composition and improvisation that he titled Autoschiadisms. Instead of a baton, Sorey brandished a sharpie beating time, sheets of typing paper with written prompts, or simply his bare hands making signals. Sometimes Sorey simply allowed the Spoleto Festival USA Orchestra (splendid as usual) to run on autopilot while he huddled over his score, writing new prompts with his sharpie on blank pages before holding them high.2022~Spoleto-273

And the music was as wonderful as it was exciting, clearly an advance upon the other compositions on the bill, For Roscoe Mitchell and For Marcos Balter, conducted respectively by Kennedy and Kellen Gray. In the surreal aftermath of his triumphant premiere, Sorey had reason to linger onstage during a good chunk of the intermission. Musicians from the Orchestra swarmed him, waiting patiently for Sorey to autograph the sheets of paper that the composer had just used to lead them. The ink was barely dry where the MacArthur Genius of 2017 was obliged to write some more.

Scaling Back on Brassy Pomp, OpCarolina Brings Us a More Classic and Elegant Aïda

Review: Opera Carolina Presents Aïda

By Perry Tannenbaum

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April 7, 2022, Charlotte, NC – Premiered in Egypt in late 1871 and brought home to Milan less than two months later, Giuseppe Verdi’s Aïda has become synonymous with all that’s grandiose and spectacular in grand opera. Opera Carolina has now produced this signature work nine times since its founding in 1948, only once allowing more than a decade to go by between productions. An eight-year interval is about the average in Charlotte, which we would have had if the current production has arrived, as originally scheduled, at the end of the 2020-21 season. The postponement seemed to benefit the design team responsible for the visuals; set designer Roberto Oswald, costumer Annibal Lapiz, and lighting designer Michael Baumgarten; all of whom collaborated on the 2013 production here at Belk Theater. A year further in the distance, deferred by the pandemic, this Aïda was perhaps fresher and certainly more welcome.2022~Aïda-14

With the exception of the Opera Carolina Chorus and baritone Mark Rucker reprising his Amonasro, the Ethiopian king, all of the faces onstage were new, especially tenor Arnold Rawls, substituting for the indisposed Gianluca Sciarpeletti as Radames on short notice. Infusing more freshness, almost upstaging the principals in the big scenes, were the elegant touches and classic symmetries of stage director Linda Brovsky and choreographer Gabriella Sevillano with dancers from Corta Jaca. Once again, Ancient Egypt was a no-twerking zone, graced with processions and tableaus that jibed with the times. Conducting his Verdi with customary panache, artistic director James Meena discreetly scaled back on the brassiness of the triumphal scene, recognizing that a parade of subdued Ethiopian prisoners, fettered in chains, isn’t the most glorious spectacle in 2022, when images of wartime destruction clutter our news media.2022~Aïda-07

Intertwined with the spectacle indoors and outdoors, in the blaze of day and the hush of night, was a poignant love triangle, heightened by the scintillating debut of mezzo-soprano Catherine Martin as Amneris, the cunning, jealous, amorous, and conflicted princess of Egypt. The smoothness of her arias, particularly the “Vieni amor mio” anticipating Radames’s arrival in Act 2, nicely chimed with her cool and confident manner, for once making the prospect of someday reigning with her over Egypt worth considering for the undeniably ambitious Radames. Conquering this princess’s heart was on a par with conquering Ethiopia. Also tilting the triangle, presumably because of a lack of rehearsal, was the slow-to-ignite chemistry between Rawls as Radames and Karen Slack, making her Charlotte debut as Aïda.

Launching his debut, Rawls didn’t show us all he can do vocally in his “Celeste Aïda,” and Slack similarly fell short on the self-reproachful “Ritorna vincitor!” – too nervous and melodramatic in realizing that a victory for her beloved Radames meant defeat for her native Ethiopia, and possibly death for her father, the king. More vulnerability and youthful confusion were needed here, and we never had a vivid impression that Aïda was observing even demure caution, let alone simulating deference, in keeping her royal identity from her mistress, Amneris.

2022~Aïda-21After intermission, both Slack and Rawls ascended to loftier levels, achieving parity with Martin. I was frankly surprised – and delighted – by how beautifully Slack sang the iconic “O patria mia” aria in the pivotal nocturnal scene in front of the Temple of Isis. The missing chemistry between Slack and Rawls then arrived with such a rush that it seemed like Aïda might forget to coax Radames into divulging his key military secret to the eavesdropping Amonasro. Martin and Rucker helped this denouement to crackle with tension, though Rucker wasn’t quite as imperious and intimidating as he was in 2013.2022~Aïda-23So the unique two-tiered finale played really well, with all three principals in top form. Rawls and Slack, buried alive as the lovers, consoled each other sweetly in their love duet as Aïda managed to sneak into the tomb and share Radames’s punishment for betraying his country. Meanwhile, Martin completed Amneris’s graceful arc above them, remorseful for triggering the downfalls of her beloved and her rival, wishing both of them peace.

Credit Brovsky and Sevillano for the stateliness and elegance of the public scenes, the one at the Temple of Vulcan, where the beneficence of Ptah is invoked, and the triumphal scene where Pharoah and Amneris preside. Song Zaikuan was a resplendent Pharoah, Jordan Bisch declaimed with stony certitude as Ramfis, the high priest, and Katherine Kuckelman was a sublime High Priestess – all in costumes to die for.

With both a matinee and an evening performance scheduled for Saturday, this review serves as a reliable guide to the upcoming evening encore. Only Bisch and Zaikuan will be on hand for the Saturday matinee – along with Meena’s sure hand with the score.

Originally published on 4/9 at CVNC.org

“The Falling and the Rising” Offers a Kaleidoscopic View of the Military Experience

Review: Opera Carolina Presents The Falling and the Rising

 By Perry Tannenbaum

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March 11, 2022, Charlotte, NC – Four men give their lives to save just one woman soldier, a woman so severely injured that she must be placed in an induced coma to give her any chance of continued survival or even partial recovery. The math and the logic may not seem to add up unless you’ve served in the military or you’ve witnessed The Falling and the Rising, a fairly new opera by Zach Redler and Jerre Dye that may impact Opera Carolina audiences more freshly today than when it premiered in 2018.

Before COVID and Ukraine, when the White House was occupied by a grifter who labeled people who signed up for battlefield duty as “suckers,” the mentality passionately advocated by The Soldier protagonist – that military service is not only a commitment to give your life for your country but also a commitment to give your life for your soldiering comrades – may have seemed rabid, over-the-top, or naively gung-ho. After witnessing the bravery of so many healthcare workers routinely facing the perils of a deadly transmissible disease for the past two years and, more recently, the inspiring popular resistance of so many outgunned Ukrainians, we can likely view that military mentality – and those four soldiers’ sacrifice – as making more sense.2022~Falling and Rising-07

This brash Opera Carolina production, conducted by Emily Jarrell Urbanek and stage directed by Sam Mungo, brings the company to a new venue, the Sandra Levine Theatre in the gorgeously renovated Sarah Belk Gambrell Center, while it brings subscribers a radically different experience. Once the female Soldier is comatose, we’re carried along with her for the bulk of the opera on a kaleidoscopic cavalcade of dream sequences, so the military experience is conveyed to us not only by soldiers in battle and trauma, but also by dedicated doctors and anxious family.

The immersion begins in the Gambrell lobby, where you can pick up info on the Montford Point Marine Association and the Blue Star Mothers of Charlotte. You can also peep in on artworks and obtain a comprehensive coffee table book produced by Bullets & Bandaids, a non-profit veteran and civilian art project. Immersion couples with education at the Gambrell, so it’s fitting that the complex is on the Queens University campus, for the world premiere of The Falling and the Rising was also on academic soil at Texas Christian University, one of seven organizations that commissioned the piece.

A new work set in wartime might trigger a couple of red flags for traditional opera lovers averse to chaos and cacophony. But you’ll find that Redler’s score is comfortably tonal and melodic when soprano Melinda Whittington begins singing a birthday video into a laptop computer for her daughter’s upcoming thirteenth, apologizing and commiserating because they will not be together to celebrate. In fact, when Redler has Whittington pivoting to a shuffle beat, you might briefly wonder whether the composer has crafted a score that’s too casual and accessible.

The roadside IED explosion, with a striking video montage by designer Michael Baumgarten (lights/scenery/video), puts that worry permanently to rest. After the hospital huddle of doctors and a ZOOM consultation where the induced coma is prescribed, the opera is largely a series of extended arias and duets until we reach a closing paean to the men and women who serve, joined by a pre-chosen brigade of vets parading up to the stage from the audience.2022~Falling and Rising-23

Sound at the Levine is noticeably more resonant than the Belk Theater and marginally warmer than Knight Theater, halls where we normally hear Opera Carolina and Charlotte Symphony. Although directors might be tempted to mic student plays and musicals in this 1000-seat space, all of the soloists projected quite easily on opening night to Row M, where we were seated. Redler’s orchestration for 11 musicians balanced well with the singers, and Urbanek had no difficulty in coaxing a hearty variety of colors from her band, which included a French horn, clarinet, guitar, piano, two percussionists, and strings. There is an orchestra pit at the Levine, but it doesn’t protrude far – or impinge on the bond between audience and performer. When baritone Kenneth Overton as the Homecoming Soldier concluded his church sermon, seated in a wheelchair in front of a large wooden crucifix, it didn’t feel like he was calling across a wide gulf when he asked us for an “Amen!”2022~Falling and Rising-11

Gathered from interviews at Fort Myer, Fort Meade, and the famed Walter Reade Military Medical Center, Dye’s libretto was suffused with authenticity and often riveting. Mezzo-soprano Audrey Babcock exuded intensity as Staff Sergeant First Class Toledo, steely and tough as her nickname, which figures into the boot camp segment of her aria. Dominic Armstrong took us to the skies with his heroic tenor voice as Jumper, a First Sergeant who mixes hard-nosed honesty with patriotism as he readies Soldier for her first parachute jump. Parting words: “Don’t forget to pull the string!” After that uplift, bass-baritone Peter Morgan brought us back down to earth as Colonel, seen in civvies in his living room, hoping that his military wife will survive.2022~Falling and Rising-17

Each of these monologues was substantial enough to give Whittington a chance to rest her voice before she joined in duet, a mercy when you consider the extra decibels she can pour out. The most brutally honest testimony in this cavalcade came from Overton in his wheelchair as the Homecoming Soldier, ideally placed by Dye at the juncture of his libretto between the last of personal testimonies and our protagonist’s emergence from her coma. Also artful were the spins that Dye put on his title, for we quickly learned that The Falling and the Rising wasn’t simply, as we expected, about the traumas and dramas of battlefield injury and recovery. We first encountered “The falling and the rising” in the Soldier’s memories of her daughter, back when she was an infant and Soldier was simply a mom watching her baby’s breathing as she slept. Later it was the impending leap from an airplane, with all of its danger and exhalation.

So there is music and drama in this latest Opera Carolina production – and poetry as well.

Originally published on 3/13 at CVNC.org

Opera Carolina Finds New Balance in Mozart’s “Don Giovanni”

Review: Don Giovanni at Belk Theater

 By Perry Tannenbaum

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February 3, 2022, Charlotte, NC – Among the lovable scoundrels of Western world literature, surely Don Juan has proven to be the most lovable – Molière, Goldoni, Lord Byron, Shaw, and Mozart are just a few of the notables who have sung the Spanish Don’s sins over the past 400 years. His tale can be seen as a series picaresque escapades and comical conquests, or as a grim and grisly revenge tragedy, or as a stern moral lesson. Armed with a wondrous libretto by Lorenzo da Ponte, Mozart disdained to choose among these alternatives, daring to make his Don Giovanni all of the above. With so much to see and emphasize, it’s no wonder that each of the six productions I’ve reviewed since 1991 has been so different from the others – including a Czech National Theatre production at the Estates Theater in Prague, the venue where Mozart’s masterwork premiered in 1787.220201_OPC_DON_053

In her Opera Carolina debut, stage director Eve Summer pays little attention to scenery, relying on props and Whitney Locher’s costume designs to modernize the action. Donna Anna’s home doesn’t have a façade in the opening scene, where Giovanni flees after raping the noblewoman and is compelled to murder her father before he can escape. Nor is there an exterior, let alone an upstairs, at Donna Elvira’s lodgings in Act 2, when Giovanni serenades milady’s maidservant while Leporello, the Don’s servant masquerading as his master, creates a cunning diversion. Three revolving pods help simulate the places where the swift action unfolds, and Michael Baumgarten’s lighting designs signal the transitions and enhance the drama – especially in the denouement, when the Commendatore, Donna Anna’s murdered father risen from the dead, implacably gets his revenge.220201_OPC_DON_426

Summer hasn’t totally surrendered to modernity in her vision of Giovanni, for she surely could have gone further than equipping Elvira with contemporary luggage as she pursues the Don and turning the pages of Leporello’s book chronicling the rogue’s romantic conquests into an iPad that he scrolls. Balancing these modern touches are the curved tops of the revolving pods, evoking ancient arches, and the presence of harpsichordist Emily Jarrell Urbanak, seated at stage right throughout the evening. In a way, the singers also straddled different eras, always immersing themselves in Mozart’s music, yet the diversity of the casting – and a few of the dance moves they busted at Giovanni’s soiree – returned us to the new millennium. Most anachronistic were Sequina DuBose as Elvira, lugging her rolling stack of suitcases up a couple of stairs and down a ramp, and Alex Soare as Leporello, discarding his sensationally grungy attire only when he impersonated Giovanni (though Locher’s design here may have also been inspired by the Ghost of Christmas Future).220201_OPC_DON_170

Dashing, cruel, and overflowing with conceit, bass-baritone Richard Ollarsaba made a stunning debut as Giovanni, even if the mod dress deprived him of the opportunity to unsheathe a sword. His overtures to Elvira, her maid, and the peasant girl Zerlina were all lusciously seductive. Encounters with Leporello and Masetto, Zerlina’s fiancé, crackled with scornful superiority, sometimes snarling and sometimes nonchalant. The old Commendatore seemed to draw the very best from Ollarsada, cavalierly deferential to his age in resisting his challenges to combat in the opening scene, defiant and fatally unrepentant when Giovanni’s fate was sealed. As rich and appealing as Ollarsaba was when he sang, Alex Soare was startlingly convincing as Leporello when the servant was called upon to masquerade as his master. To bring out the servant’s comic flavor, moments when Leporello was marveling at the gullibility of Giovanni’s victims were underscored more boldly than the disillusion, disgust, and abject fear that the Don’s escapades put him through. Nor was bass-baritone Ashraf Sewailam chiefly onstage as Masetto to clownishly portray the peasant’s malleability, showing us far more of the hothead than the usual hayseed. In the same spirit, tenor Johnathan Stafford White as Don Ottavio, Anna’s staunch and patient fiancé, is more of a noble champion than a feckless chump.27sQMG5Q

Perhaps even more than the men, the excellence of the three sopranos cemented my suspicion that this was the deepest Opera Carolina cast I’ve seen. While Summer didn’t allow Rachel Mills quite as much risqué latitude as I saw in Prague in consoling her battered Masetto, this Zerlina was no less irresistible in her “Vedrai carino,” applying the balm of love on his bruises. Although there were slight chinks in DuBose’s vocal armor, there were no losses in sweetness when there were dips in volume as Elvira sang her woes, and DuBose is such a fine performer that I had second thoughts each time I steered my attention elsewhere – so many of her reactions are worth watching. Most revelatory was Melinda Whittington as Donna Anna, a role I’ve often found annoying in her chaste righteousness. Whittington amped up the feeling of this grieving rape victim while tamping down her outraged fervor. Summer allowed her to wear a color to the Don’s soiree instead of shrouding her in mourning, and those dance moves further humanized her.220203_OPC_CON_1197

The joyous epilogue, celebrating the triumph of justice over wickedness, is scrapped in this new Opera Carolina production. Somehow that enhances the impact of bass Jordan Bisch as the avenging Commendatore. Both at the cemetery accepting Giovanni’s dinner invitation and later at the Don’s banquet hall, Bisch resounds thrillingly as the voice of doom. After blasting my eardrums just three weeks earlier from the Belk Theater stage with Mahler’s Ninth, a discreetly reduced Charlotte Symphony sounded comparatively wan as it wafted the Giovanni overture out of the orchestra pit. But Opera Carolina artistic director James Meena had the ensemble perfectly calibrated for the occasion, and when the curtain rose, the blend of singing and playing gave constant pleasure. As I stepped onto the elevator with another couple, hurrying to beat the Belk crowd out of the parking lot, the husband couldn’t help gushing, “This is the first classical opera we’ve seen!” If future productions are as good as this Giovanni, they will be coming back again and again.

Originally published on 2/5 at CVNC.org

Reboot of “I Dream” Reminds Us How True Heroes Fight for the Right

Review: I Dream from Opera Carolina

 By Perry Tannenbaum

I Dream.

After repeated efforts to capture the essence of Martin Luther King in his twice-revised I Dream, opera composer and librettist Douglas Tappin must keenly appreciate the biblical frustration of Moses on Mount Nebo – and of MLK behind a Memphis lectern on his final night. He has seen the Promised Land, but he cannot get there. For the life of this civil rights hero/icon/martyr is inextricably intertwined with his words, unforgettably spoken in Washington, in Memphis, from his Atlanta pulpit, and written from a Birmingham jail, yet hardly a trace of them can be found in Tappin’s script.

Opera Carolina’s latest remount of I Dream, which premiered in 2010 in Atlanta and reappeared in Toledo and Charlotte in 2018, newly revised for the 50th anniversary of MLK’s assassination, is a more strategically refined and focused dance around the rhetoric with new stage direction – and considerable dramaturgical input – by Tom Diamond. James Meena, now entering his twentieth season as Opera Carolina’s artistic director, once again directed the orchestra, arguably with more ardor than ever for Tappin’s score.

If the music brings Porgy and Bess to mind, your concept likely chimes with Meena’s, for two of his principals, Alyson Cambridge as Coretta Scott King and Victor Ryan Robertson as Hosea, figured prominently in the storied revival of George Gershwin’s opera at Spoleto Festival USA in 2016. Kenneth Overton as Ralph Abernathy and Lucia Bradford as MLK’s Grandma are also steeped in that Gershwin masterwork. Yet it’s equally apt to note the influence of Broadway-style musicals on Tappin, whether it’s the revolutionary fervor of Les Miz or Andrew Lloyd Weber’s notion of opera in his Phantom. Certainly, Tappin’s music disarms any fear of being assaulted by discordant recitative and parched in a desert where no melody or aria is to be heard. On the contrary, ticket holders should brace themselves for a superabundance of power ballads.

The musical climax of the show, in the Birmingham jail, is a duel of power ballads. Robertson challenges the whole non-violent ethos of King’s movement with a spirited, militant “No Victory by Love,” and Derrick Davis as MLK answers – still triumphantly, if audience reaction was any indication – with the anthemic title song. Davis and Tappin are at their best in showing us the visionary MLK and the staunch courage of his non-violent philosophy, but the libretto needlessly attempts to deepen our impression of King as a prophet. Repeatedly, Davis must dwell on a foreboding dream in which he sees the balcony of the Memphis motel where he will be shot.

We must assume that Tappin believes this device cements King’s credentials as a prophet, though it actually undercuts them, for Davis must keep puzzling about the meaning of this dream – which is emphatically not the dream we associate with King – and Overton as Abernathy, instead of all the substantial issues and concerns he might be discussing, must waste his time (and ours) by counseling his leader to confide Tappin’s invention to his dear wife Coretta.

One might quibble over whether MLK really dedicated his career to his Grandma, but Bradford’s rendition of “Sunday Is the Day” was certainly powerful enough to inspire dedication. If Coretta is also a formative presence in MLK’s career, there’s a place for Cambridge to be singing “I Have Love to Give,” since it dovetails with her husband’s story and core beliefs, but “Midnight Moon” merely detains us in generic romance. While repeating a song with new meaning is a traditional Broadway device, it’s a bit problematical in Tappin’s hands. Late in the show when Cambridge sings “Queen Without a King,” she memorably expresses a steely determination to continue her martyred Martin’s work and assume a leadership role, a wisp of Evita that should take firmer root in Tappin’s score. Earlier, the song simply types Coretta as a weepy wife wishing her husband would stay home with family instead of pursuing a noble cause.

Sounding like a swaggering song that Crown might sing in Porgy, “No One’s Gonna Keep Us Down” took us deepest into Gershwin’s bluesy groove, and “Count to 10” worked surprisingly well in espousing MLK’s turn-the-other-cheek credo. “Top of the World,” a song of risqué celebration like “Masquerade” in Phantom, hinted at the danger of celebrity for King that could have made him vulnerable to the scheming of FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, who gets a sadly superficial airing that is also symptomatic of Broadway. He’s not an implacable Javert, that’s for sure.

If Martin’s womanizing or Hoover’s scandal mongering could have been shown as jeopardizing MLK’s greatest enterprises – the March on Washington, the march on Selma, or the Voting Rights Act – they would have rewarded deeper exploration. But in circling King’s greatest speeches, Tappin barely grazes what Memphis meant and almost completely ignores the March on Washington. That’s nothing short of astonishing vis-à-vis the expectations of an audience coming to see I Dream – until we consider that Tappin is skirting the actual quote, “I have a dream.” Gaping hole there as well.

To be fair, Tappin’s last two revisions were pre-pandemic, when the freshest take on King’s legacy was the Oscar-nominated Selma. No doubt about it, the march on Selma and its aftermath, in a presidential address by Lyndon B. Johnson, are the dramatic high points in Tappin’s revision, in Diamond’s staging, and Michael Baumgarten’s lighting and video design, climbing majestically on the shoulders of the Birmingham sequence. Meena was strong throughout the evening, all through the two hours and 18 minutes that Tappin’s music flowed through him, perhaps strongest when he was needed most, after Davis climbed the ramp to the Memphis motel balcony for the last time.

Before the pandemic, George Floyd, the 2020 landslide election, and January 6, I Dream was more on target than it is today. If he had rewritten his opera after last November, Tappin would likely have sharpened his libretto’s emphasis on the importance of voting rights. A revision after January 6 might have further prompted a reawakening to the significance of the August 28, 1963, March on Washington. For we do need reminding now what peaceful protest really is, how powerful and transformative non-violence can be, and how much more civil “I have a dream” and “We shall overcome” are as rallying cries than “fight like hell or you won’t have a country anymore.”

Sadly, we also need to be reminded that Martin Luther King hoped to move us toward “that day when all God’s children, Black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing.” The “you” that Donald J. Trump was addressing on January 6, 2021, belonged to only one of those groups, preferably those willing to march into the Capitol with a Confederate flag.

Hope in the Time of COVID Sees Sleeping Beauty Reawakening in December

Preview:  Performing Arts Return to Charlotte

By Perry Tannenbaum

The COVID collapse happened quickly on March 13. “We were hours away from the curtain rising on our all-new Fairy-Tailored Sleeping Beauty when we had to postpone the season,” says Hope Muir, Charlotte Ballet’s artistic director. On the morning before that, Charlotte Symphony’s new director of communications, Deirdre Roddin, met with me to discuss future concert coverage at this publication. But the upcoming Saint-Saëns Organ Concerto concert would soon be postponed, among the first performing arts dominoes to fall to the pandemic in the week that followed – along with an annual Women in Jazz fest at the Blumenthal Performing Arts Center, the annual Charlotte Jewish Playwriting Contest at the Levine JCC, a chamber music concert at the Bechtler Museum, and Theatre Charlotte’s production of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.

Tom Gabbard, president and CEO at Blumenthal Performing Arts, last attended a live show on March 11 – in the UK, before he and his wife Vickie returned home and tested positive for COVID-19. The Gabbards quarantined and recovered, but by the day after Ballet’s postponement, Gabbard had announced that all events at all Blumenthal venues were suspended through April 12. Complying with NC Governor Roy Cooper’s executive order suspending all public gatherings of 100 or more people, the Blumenthal directive took all decision making on the Saint-Saëns concert, scheduled for March 20, out of Symphony’s hands. Both of CSO’s primary venues, Belk Theater and Knight Theater, are managed by Blumenthal.

So far, Symphony has had to cancel 49 concerts. “That’s obviously a huge blow to the organization, both artistically and financially,” says Michelle Hamilton, CSO’s interim president and CEO. “The estimated financial impact of these concerts alone is in excess of $1.5 million. This does not include the impact of the pandemic on future concerts and attendance.”

On the revenue side, Opera Carolina wasn’t as seriously damaged as Symphony, losing just one event, an extensively revised version of Douglas Tappin’s I Dream. “The company received support through the Payroll Protection Plan [PPP],” says Opera artistic director, James Meena. “That has allowed us to maintain our staff and redirect funds to our new online series iStream, which has provided employment to our resident company.”

PPP funding has flowed to the most established arts organizations in Charlotte, including Theatre Charlotte, Children’s Theatre of Charlotte, Actor’s Theatre of Charlotte, Blumenthal Performing Arts, and Charlotte Symphony. “However,” Children’s Theatre artistic director Adam Burke points out, “the PPP was designed to help organizations through what Congress thought was going to be a short-term, 8-week issue.”

Blumenthal drew the largest PPP allotment, $1.7 million, that helped with payroll in May and June. “We avoided furloughs until July 5,” says Gabbard, “when three full-time and 114 part-time team members were furloughed – 105 full-time remain, mostly working from home, with some working in the venues on various maintenance projects. PPP made a big difference.”

What lies ahead for all Charlotte performing arts groups is very murky, subject to weekly health directives from city or state government officials loosening or tightening restrictions. “Opera is dealing with a multitude of challenges,” says Meena, “caused by COVID-19 and now the 43% reduction in ASC [Arts & Science Council] support for the 2020-2021 season. We are evaluating audience concerns for attending performances, and perhaps more dauntingly, health and safety concerns for our performing company.

“Singing is one of the most effective ways to spread the coronavirus. Many church choirs are rehearsing remotely, so imagine a 50-voice opera chorus, principal artists, extras and the more than 30 technicians who normally work on an opera production. Additionally, health and safety concerns for the orchestra musicians (imagine being confined – maybe consigned is a better word – to the orchestra pit where social distancing is all but impossible) are challenges to performing Grand Opera that we have never experienced before.”

All of the companies we’ve mentioned have pivoted to online programming, but all weren’t equally prepared to make the switch. Charlotte Ballet, the first company impacted by the COVID ban on public assembly, was quickest to steer a fresh course. “I had implemented a much more robust structure for archiving and curating digital content over the past three years,” says Muir, “not just performance footage but interviews with artists, designers, collaborators and behind-the-scenes rehearsal footage as well as the documentation of the Choreographic Lab. That commitment, I think, is why we were able to get out of the gate so quickly.”

Raiding their digitized vaults, Ballet was able to present Dispersal online, repackaging the company’s Innovative Works 2019 program with behind-the-scenes footage for a new kind of digital experience on March 27, just two weeks after Sleeping Beauty had been scheduled to premiere. Opera Carolina’s iStream series began in April and is archived on its YouTube channel, while Charlotte Symphony has logged an assortment of live Zoom and pre-recorded material online. For six straight Wednesday evenings, ending on July 29, they streamed a series of Al Fresco chamber music concerts recorded on video in the backyard of principal cellist Alan Black. It’s an avenue that will likely be revisited. Meanwhile, CSO has extensive recorded inventory to call upon, but unlike Charlotte Ballet’s, it is entirely audio, so their outlet of choice has been WDAV 89.9, where past concerts are aired on Friday evenings.

The mass exodus to streaming platforms has been global, creating a glut of available online events that don’t quite measure up to live performances. Charlotte Ballet has responded to this oversaturation by thinking outside the box. “I worked with choreographer Helen Pickett to discuss our options and this resulted in an opportunity for five of our dancers,” says Muir. “Charlotte Ballet joins artists from Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre and Dance Theater of Harlem for part III of a trilogy Helen developed titled Home Studies, which is entirely choreographed and rehearsed via Zoom.”

Other companies are pushing the envelope by reimagining live performance under COVID restrictions. Rehearsing with masks and performing unmasked live at their dance studio, Caroline Calouche & Co. presented two online showings of A Love Show on July 25, charging admission for a ticket link. Theatre Charlotte is trying a more audacious outdoor model, presenting Grand Nights for Singing: The Parking Lot Performances on Friday nights outside their building, limiting audience size to 25, and charging $10 per ticket. Each of two performing singers wields a separate mic, there are no duets, and the audience is expected to provide their own chairs, snacks, and beverages.

“We are most likely not going to be able to perform for an audience in TC until at least December and maybe beyond,” says Ron Law, who was scheduled to retire June 30 but has extended for another season as Theatre Charlotte artistic director – and as President of the Board of the North Carolina Theatre Conference. “We have purchased appropriate video equipment so we can livestream productions. At this time, we are planning on doing performances of What I Did Last Summer by A.R. Gurney that will be livestreamed, with a per household ticket charge, on three dates in September.’

Waiting until June 11 to announce their 2020-21 season, Theatre Charlotte has prudently delayed their musical productions, The Sound of Music and Pippin, until spring 2021 – with understandable contingency plans. For their fall plays, they are tentatively offering their audience the options of live performances or streaming. Children’s Theatre have allowed themselves less wiggle room for 2020-21, eliminating musicals entirely from their slate. Yet their company, with video production a longtime component of their educational offerings, is probably the most adept we have in Charlotte when it comes to hybrid, live-or-streamed presentation skills.

While closing down all public performances at their two ImaginOn theaters, Children’s Theatre was at the tail-end of a 20-week School of Theatre Training programs, which culminates in four fully-produced OnStage presentations, two plays and two musicals. “We decided to move all four productions to a virtual format,” says Burke. “We’ve made other adjustments as well. We started some online educational programming and shifted our June summer camps to virtual experiences. In July we offered students the choice of virtual or in-person camps. We’ve kept close watch on all CDC, state and federal guidelines and have invested in some technologies that help us to maintain safety.”

Like Charlotte Ballet, Children’s has plenty of past performance video on file. They’ve edited these multi-camera shoots and served them up on a series of “Watch Party” webcasts. The new work keeps coming, further underscoring CTC’s technical prowess. “We’ve continued to move forward, as best we can, with the works that are in development including a collaboration with 37 children’s theatres across the country to adapt, as a virtual performance, the book A Kids Book About Racism.” That new piece launched into cyberspace on August 1. Other projects in the pipeline are Tropical Secrets: Holocaust Refugees in Cuba, and a stage adaptation of the award-winning The Night Diary.

On March 12, the day before performing arts in Charlotte abruptly shut down, the town was abuzz in anticipation of Mecklenburg County announcing its first case of COVID-19. A surreal five months later – without any improvement, to be sure – announcements for the 2020-21 season, sensibly stalled in March, are beginning to flow amid a chaotic atmosphere in anticipation of the fall. Once again, Charlotte Ballet is at the vanguard, announcing that the long-delayed premiere of Sleeping Beauty: A Fairy-Tailored Classic will open at Belk Theater on December 10 – replacing the traditional Yuletide presentation of Nutcracker. Makes sense: the trimmed-down Tchaikovsky ballet remains family-friendly with a helpful narrator to keep us abreast of the storyline. Unlike Nutcracker, the Tailored Sleeping Beauty doesn’t consign the Charlotte Symphony to the orchestra pit, and it doesn’t recruit 150 sacrificial lambs for children’s roles, including the ever-lovable Clara.

Iffier but on the schedule is Charlotte Ballet’s 50th Anniversary Celebration, scheduled for April 22-24. Muir is “holding onto a beacon of hope” that CSO will be able to collaborate with Symphony on that auspicious event, booked at Belk Theater. Opera Carolina maestro Meena has seen his own commitments scuttled in Italy, where he had planned to conduct Andrea Chenier, Manon Lescaut and Turandot. He doesn’t expect opera to resume in Italy until December, so he isn’t counting on Opera Carolina collaborating with CSO before 2021. Meanwhile, expect the unexpected as OpCarolina fires up a new chamber music series, reviving their iStream Online concerts the week of September 11, returning every two weeks through November 16.

Keeping his eyes open for online options and live opportunities, Actor’s Theatre artistic director Chip Decker isn’t counting on returning to live performance at Queens University before July 2021. Tom Hollis, theatre program director at Central Piedmont Community College, retired on August 1. But he didn’t go out directing a final season of CPCC Summer Theatre as he had planned, so he’s expecting to reprise the complete 2020 slate in the spring or summer of 2021. Sense and Sensibility, originally set for this past April, may also figure in the mix.

Gabbard, the first to respond to our questionnaire on July 14, said that over 300 performances had already been cancelled at Blumenthal’s multiple facilities and wasn’t expecting national tours – their bread and butter – to resume “until at least late fall, and perhaps early 2021.” Even outdoor stopgaps that Gabbard might stage in Charlotte’s Uptown must remain on the back burner until public gatherings of 100 or more are approved.

On the lookout for best practices and inspiration, Gabbard is looking globally, “including Seoul, Korea, where big musicals like Phantom have played throughout the pandemic. I was asked to join the COVID-19 Theater Think Tank in New York, where we are speaking with academics and thought leaders in a search not only for short-term solutions, but also ways to improve our venues and hygiene practices long-term.”

Bach Akademie Charlotte artistic director Scott Allen Jarrett slowly realized last spring that there was no way to mobilize the musicians, patrons, and audience that would be necessary to make the third annual Charlotte Bach Festival happen last June. Hurriedly, he pulled together a four-day virtual festival that streamed on Facebook, YouTube, and Zoom. Much like Actor’s Theatre and CPCC Summer Theatre, Jarrett is hoping that the June 2020 event will happen in June 2021.

The experience shook him. “The recognition that I hadn’t made music with another human being in a month hit me hard on Easter Sunday morning,” Jarrett recalls, “and I grieved deeply for several weeks. Gradually, the shared recognition of all that we were losing with one another affirmed a shared value for communal music making. Those conversations continue to sustain me.”

Jarrett is busy, busy, busy these days up in Boston, working as artistic director with the Back Bay Chorale on their new Zoom curriculum and as director of music at Boston University’s Marsh Chapel – and expecting to stay healthy. BU has taken the plunge, plowing millions of dollars into testing in an attempt to bring their student body back to campus, aiming to test all faculty weekly and all students twice weekly. Plans for the 2021 Charlotte Bach Festival are on hold, says Jarrett, until a proven vaccine delivers true COVID immunity.

Yet he’s clearly upbeat, even if he’s forced to deliver the 2021 Bach Experience via Zoom. Describing her own company’s trials, Charlotte Ballet’s Muir offers the best explanation for this paradox: “Once we realized this virus was not going anywhere quickly, we had to pivot and focus on new ways to keep the team motivated and creative. And this is where artists thrive! At our core, we are shape-shifters and it’s exhilarating to think of new ways to communicate and engage with one another.”

A Fine Old-Timey “La Bohème” Comes Sprinkled With Youthful Energy and Fun

Review: La Bohème

By Perry Tannenbaum

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Whether it’s tuberculosis or AIDS, Paris or Greenwich Village, La Bohème or Rent, 1896 or 1996, death and disease are intertwined in our imaginations with the struggling, impoverished lifestyles of Bohemian artists and intellectuals. What lifts these shivering, starving folk from seediness and squalor to the nobility of poetry, never upgrading their threadbare garments, is the music of Giacomo Puccini and his rock apostle, Jonathan Larson. Come to Belk Theater and the Opera Carolina production of Puccini’s seminal work and you may get an inkling of how inseparable the two composers’ works can become.

Scenic designer Peter Dean Beck has not updated the loft where we first meet the poet/playwright Rodolfo, his painter chum Marcello, musician Schaunard, and philosopher Colline. The boulevard bustle of the Latin Quarter and Café Momus is not on the awesome Franco Zefferelli scale of the beloved Metropolitan Opera production, but the spirit and colorfulness of Act 2 are also faithfully captured, where temptress Musetta and toyseller Parpignol highlight the broadened palette. Down in the pit, maestro James Meena and the Opera Carolina Orchestra are no less devoted to the shifting moods of the score, whether lovers are pining or Christmas-crazed children are running wild.

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No, it’s director Aldo Tarabella in his Opera Carolina debut who bridges the gap between the 1830s, the actual setting specified in the Giuseppe Giacosa-Luigi Illica libretto, and the AIDs-plagued 1990s. From the outset through the intermission between Acts 2 and 3, Tarabella dispenses with subtlety in accenting the comedy of the first two scenes – the cavalier badinage between Rodolfo and Marcello as they cope with the cold, the successful conspiracy of the four tenants at the loft to thwart their landlord Benoit’s attempt to collect the rent, and the hoodwinking of Alcindoro, Musetta’s wealthy old sponsor, at Café Momus. There’s a certain amount of incorruptible idealism that infuses the Bohemians’ high spirits and deceptions, but with four performers making Charlotte debuts in this production, Tarabella also underscores the youthfulness of the Bohemians’ camaraderie and pranks.

Nor does Tarabella hold back when the mood shifts from mirth to tenderness, anguish, and heartbreak. When Alcindoro receives the bill at Café Momus after the Bohemian scamps have absconded, the old coot literally falls over backwards as the curtain comes down, and at the sad climax of Act 4, when Mimi has coughed her last, the impact on British tenor Adam Smith literally brings him to his knees as Rodolfo. In both instances, the direction is so flamboyant that we might feel like we’re watching a silent movie. Neither played like an overreach to the capacity crowd on opening night.

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If Tarabella seemed to be persuaded by Rent of the efficacy of emphasizing the youthfulness of Puccini’s opera, then the singers onstage must certainly have exerted a persuasive power over youths in the Belk audience who were experiencing the source of Rent for the first time. Smith in particular didn’t merely touch your heart when he sang the famed “Che gelida manina (Your tiny hand is frozen)” to Mimi as he responded to her plea for him to light her candle. When Smith ascended to the blazing summit of this aria, his rich, full-bodied tenor sent a bloody stake through your heart. It would be an understatement to say that Smith equaled the Rodolfo of tenor Ramón Vargas when I reviewed him at the 1205th performance of Bohème at the Metropolitan Opera in December 2008. Vargas was past his 48th birthday when I saw him, and he could no more match Smith’s sheer vocal power than he could match his youth and freshness.

Smith’s singing ought to be sufficient incentive for snapping up what few tickets might be available for the remaining three performances of this Bohème, but he also delivered the frivolity and nerdiness of Rodolfo when needed. The other Charlotte debuts had more to recommend them than merely their youth. Italian soprano Stefanna Kybalova, though not ideally suited to the exquisite fragility of Mimi, poignantly delivered the seamstress’s consumptive weakness. Kybalova was more effective as a soloist in Acts 3 and 4, during Mimi’s final decline and when she repeated her signature “Mi chiamano Mimi (They call me Mimi)” theme, but the duets with Smith were always gorgeous, including the two fadeouts which seem to crystallize the whole opera.

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Sicilian baritone Giovanni Guagliardo is considerably mellowed as Marcello compared with his previous Opera Carolina appearances as Tonio in Pagliacci and Sonora in La Fanciulla del West, joking and commiserating with Rodolfo in the loft scenes and sympathizing with the forlorn Mimi in the Act 3 snow scene. Yet he also flashed some fire dealing with the flirtatious, manipulative Musetta. The heat of their quarreling formed an effective counterpoint to Rodolfo and Mimi’s snowy reconciliation in the quartet that took us to the second intermission. For her part, soprano Corey Lovelace had all the sultry fire you could wish for in her Charlotte debut as Musetta, giving Guagliardo as much as he gave her in the fire department. She also had sufficient arrogant majesty to captivate us and dominate a stage full of people in front of Café Momus delivering “Musetta’s Waltz,” though Tarabella didn’t ask for Carmen-grade vamping from her.

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Outside of the two main couples, I didn’t much notice bass baritone Peter Morgan’s debut as Colline – or, for that matter, Keith Harris’s return as Schaunard – until Act 4. But to help clear the stage for Mimi and Rodolfo’s last deathbed tête-à-tête, Puccini masterfully has Colline sing a tender valedictory to his coat, which he resolves to pawn in order to provide food and medicine for the invalid. Morgan gave the aria a near-Russian solemnity, yet the eccentricity of this episode still resonated with the more blithe and high-spirited action of the opening act, when Rodolfo made a similar sacrifice, feeding his playscript to the stove to keep the Bohemians warm. Not so comical after all, despite the jibes of his companions.

Before Meena took his place in the orchestra, there was a filmed fundraising appeal aimed at boosting contributions from 23 to 30 percent of the company’s budget. Explicitly occasioned by the failure of the Charlotte sales referendum on behalf of arts and parks last November, just two days before a poorly attended opening of Verdi’s Macbeth, the appeal was aptly timed. The production that followed, in front of a packed house, affirmed what Opera Carolina is capable of when it gets the robust support it deserves.

Op Carolina Animates “Macbeth” in “Game of Thrones” Style

Review: Verdi’s Macbeth

By Perry Tannenbaum

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Witches, ghosts, Scottish clans, regicide, guilty sleepwalking, and Shakespeare’s most famous despairing rhetoric have kept Macbeth among the Bard’s most-produced tragedies. Onstage, we’ve seen such spinoffs as Tiny Ninja Macbeth and Kabuki Macbeth in Charlotte conjuring up the one Shakespeare title that theatre veterans dread to say aloud. I suspect that, in opera as in theatre, only Romeo and Juliet has inspired more adaptations and spinoffs.

Further riffs on Macbeth have been applied by opera directors. Perhaps the most notorious were the costumes and scenic design of Mark Thompson at the Metropolitan Opera in 2008, where the Thane of Cawdor, prior to meeting the witches’ coven in post-WW2 Scotland, came riding onto the battlefield in an army Jeep. Trading on the popularity of Game of Thrones, stage director Ivan Stefanutti – adding his own costume and scenic designs to his new brew at Opera Carolina – has been quite content to return the action to 11th century Scotland, where King Duncan was murdered in 1040.

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Undoubtably trusting Op Carolina artistic director James Meena, who directed the company’s premiere of Macbeth in 2004, Stefanutti brings baritone Mark Rucker back to Belk Theater to headline his high-concept production in the title role. Rucker conquered vocally as convincingly as before, though his tendency to waddle across the stage rather than striding confidently has become more noticeable during his 15-year hiatus. Stefanutti limits Macbeth’s mobility in his staging to the point that he is often upstaged by the Witches and Lady Macbeth.

Yet it must be said that Rucker’s hulking lack of grace chimes well with the Game of Thrones design concept, emphasizing the barbaric elements of the bloodthirsty king. It was probably a worse decision for Stefanutti not to delegate the animated backdrop of his production to a different artist. As executed with Michael Baumgarten, Stefanutti’s animations are way too busy, too much like a low-budget video game, and occasionally over-the-top, especially when the ghost of Banquo appears.

For some reason, there were stretches when the animations strove to simulate traditional set pieces and backdrops. Scrolling through a series of these stage-filling line drawings while the stage was vacant, Baumgarten made it look like Macbeth’s throne was riding an elevator from one hall to another! In a far, far niftier stroke, color begins to seep into the design concept when Macduff launches his vengeful rebellion against Macbeth, escalating further when Lady M has her sleepwalking scene.

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Thrones fans will likely adore the Witches’ costumes with their piercing LED eyes and floor-length beards, but their singing is equally triumphant. Outfitted in less outré gear, the men’s half of the Op Carolina Chorus is vocally as outstanding as the women’s. Obviously, the entire ensemble drew plenty of attention from Meena in rehearsals – and plenty of blocking from Stefanutti.

The youngbloods making their Charlotte debuts all do well under Meena’s baton. Bass baritone Song Zaikuan excels as Banquo even when that ridiculously large ghost animation looms behind him. Tenor Gianluca Sciarpeletti sings purely, but he struck me as too youthful to have lost a gaggle of children, which may account for his shortage of gravitas. In the other tenor role, Johnathan Kaufman’s similarly pure voice and manner are more of what we expect of Prince Malcolm, who assumes the Scottish crown after the showdown between the Macs.

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Biggest disappointment of the night was soprano Othalie Graham as Lady Macbeth. On opening night, she seemed to have lost the bloom that I found in her voice when she made her Op Carolina debut in 2013 as Aïda. Reading Macbeth’s letter, plotting Duncan’s death, and even singing gaily at the haunted banquet, Graham had me wincing each time she prepared to sing an upward interval. Couldn’t be sure she would land on precisely the right note. Yet she still cuts a charismatic figure onstage, with genuine diva acting chops. Lady M’s white gowns by Stefanutti enhance Graham’s royal glow, setting her apart from her gloomy surroundings.

Warmed up and relaxed, Graham was at her best in her valedictory sleepwalking scene. From that highlight onwards, action from singers other than the Witches picked up, Meena continued to draw spirited work from the Op Carolina Orchestra, and those mammoth animations didn’t distract during the climactic battle.

All in all, Op Carolina seems to have created a stylized Macbeth that would spark mass appeal. After all the toil and trouble that Meena, Stefanutti, and Rucker put into this spectacle – with more LED-eyed Witches than I could count – I was shocked that more people weren’t at Belk Theater to soak up all the fun, spookiness, and Game of Thrones cachet.

Prague Is the Coolest Place for the Classics in September

Reviews: The Classics in the Czech Republic’s Capital City

By Perry Tannenbaum

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The Czech national river, Vltava, flows through the Republic’s capital city of Prague, crossed by no fewer than 18 city bridges and most famously memorialized in Bedřich Smetana’s Ma Vlast (My Country) – where the river usually goes under its German name, “The Moldau.” A rich vein of classical music also flows through Prague, as you might expect in the heart of Bohemia. The gorgeous city not only nurtured Smetana and Antonín Dvořák, it was a friendly haven for Mozart, who premiered Don Giovanni and La Clemenza di Tito at the Estates Theatre.

Classics still pulse through the city. Daily. At the Church of Nicholas in the Old Town, posters proclaim two concerts every day. The Czech Philharmonic, the Prague Symphony, and the National Theatre Opera all have their own venues, and they don’t seem to fret over performing on the same nights as the others. In mid-September, when we visited, the Prague scene was conspicuously intense, diverting us from Vienna and Budapest, where the new seasons had not quite begun.

The National was offering the last performance in its 2019 run of Don Giovanni – at the Estates Theatre! – and Prague Symphony was opening its season with guest shots by Pinchas Zukerman and Amanda Forsyth. Two festivals were in full swing when we arrived, the Young Prague International and the star-studded Dvořák Prague International. By star-studded, we’re talking Gil Shaham, Nicola Benedetti, Ivo Pogorelich, Gautier and Renaud Capuçon, and Boris Giltburg among this year’s virtuosi; Zubin Mehta, Neeme Järvi, Christoph Eschenbach, Semyon Bychkov, and Emmanuel Villaume among the conductors; and the Israel Phil, the Estonian National, the Prague Radio Symphony, the Essen Phil and the Italian National Radio and TV Symphony among the orchestras.

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We could have concentrated on the Dvořák Prague Festival, which offered five concerts during our five-night stay, but we opted for a broader survey of the local companies and venues. The National’s Don Giovanni was obviously a more Prague-infused choice than its La Traviata, so we pounced on that opportunity. Nor were we passing up the Zukerman opener, offered on the same evening as the Verdi. Our dance card was rounded out by the all-Tchaikovsky concert featuring Gautier Capuçon, my one chance to sample the Czech Phil in action.

To our surprise, National Opera was nearly as excited about our coverage of their Don Giovanni as we were about seeing it in the same hall where Mozart conducted it for the first time on October 29, 1787 – and where Czech director Miloš Forman insisted on filming his Oscar-winning Amadeus. National’s stock of production photos evidently didn’t replicate the cast that we would see on September 15, so they committed to providing us with photos from that performance!

The offer certainly didn’t stem from a desperate need for audience or publicity. Notwithstanding the fact that the Dvořák Festival was offering two concerts that evening – one featuring Shaham and the other showcasing Mehta’s Israelis performing Mahler’s Third – the Estates with its five tiers of boxes and balconies was packed to capacity. We were given aisle seats, to be sure, but it was necessary for management to bring in chairs to make that happen.

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Musicians of the State Opera Orchestra, under the baton of Richard Hein, likely numbered less than 30, even with a fortepiano and a mandolinist on hand, a prudent size for Mozart’s music. The Ouvertura probably would have sounded firmer and more sinewy from one of those mid-level boxes, if my experience at the similarly cylindrical La Scala can serve as a guide. But the hall seemed to warmly embrace operatic voices whether you were seated at ground level or up in the rafters.

A statue of the Commendatore lurks outside of the Estates, indicative of the dark hues often attributed to Giovanni and reinforced by Amadeus. But if you delight in seeing a brighter balance of comedy and drama in Lorenzo Da Ponte’s libretto, this cast directed by Jiří Nekvasil (reviving the 1969 production conceived by Václav Kašlík) was ready to deliver heartily. As the Don, baritone Martin Bárta was more than sufficiently virile and predatory, but there was a smoothness in his serenading that underscored his legendary charm. Bass-baritone František Zahradníček maintained a pragmatic ambivalence toward his master as Leporello, and his quick tongue on his most familiar arias proved that he was Rossini-ready.

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Giovanni’s lady conquests were wonderfully differentiated by the sopranos who sang them and in the sumptuous costume designs by Theodor Pištěk, who took home an Oscar for his work on Amadeus. Veronika Hajnová was elegant, wanton, and insatiable as the love-blinded Donna Elvira, and Petra Alvarez Šimková was so starchy and pure as the grieving Donna Anna that she actually drew laughs when she put off Don Ottavio yet again after Giovanni had gotten his comeuppance. Upstaging both of these nobles was Lenka Pavlovič as Zerlina, deliciously vamping her Masetto in two of her arias.

Utilizing the side aisles and a couple of the audience’s side exits, Nekvasil heightened the comical flow of the action and the sense that Giovanni was constantly pursued by Donna Anna and Donna Elvira. From our ground-level vantage point, it seemed doubtful that folks seated in some of those side boxes and balconies could see all of the offstage action at the sides of the hall, but they were better situated for the Czech and English supertitles, which were projected high above the stage near the proscenium.

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There were no such tradeoffs between ground level and the balconies at the Smetana Hall in the Municipal House, where Zukerman and Forsyth teamed up on the Brahms Double Concerto for Violin and Cello. To see them or hear them, ground level was best. Elsewhere in the art nouveau Smetana, you will feel a little exiled from conductor Pietari Inkinen and his Prague Symphony, though the hall’s design spares ticketholders below from any overhangs.

The opening night program was deftly crafted so Zukerman fans wouldn’t feel cheated by his sharing the spotlight in the Brahms. Both Zukerman and his wife of 15 years had individual turns in the spotlight at the start of the evening when they presented two Dvořák gems, the Romance for Violin and Orchestra followed by a showcase for Forsyth, Silent Woods. When we reached the Brahms, it was Forsyth’s cello that was most favored by the hall’s acoustics in the dreamy Andante middle movement, but the couple’s musical chemistry crested in the closing Vivace non troppo.

Slated to conduct a new Wagner Ring next summer at Bayreuth, Inkinen also holds chief conductorships at the Japan Philharmonic and Deutsche Radio Philharmonie. In a cute encore after the Brahms, he picked up his violin and traded pizzicatos with Forsyth, radiating genuine charm. Then after intermission, the 39-year-old Finn displayed his affinity with Jean Sibelius in a majestic rendition of the Symphony No. 5. By evening’s end, the Smetana’s quirky acoustics were no longer a worry.web_DP19_1709_ČF_Bychkov_Capucon_photo_Martin_Divisek_15

No acoustic blemishes marred the all-Tchaikovsky concert at the Rudolfinum’s glorious Dvořák Hall, where we heard a transcendent account of the Variations on a Rococo Theme from Capuçon. The gorgeous, impactful Symphony No. 5 from Bychkov and the Czech Phil was not at all anticlimactic, with splendid playing from the principal French horn, bravura from the timpanist, and tack-sharp section work from the brass. But the shape, control, and opulence that the orchestra brought to the Serenade for Strings in C to start the evening – plus the Viennese lilt to the Valse movement – demonstrated that the Czechs’ excellence encompasses sensitivity and finesse as well as brilliance and power.

Capuçon was amazing, the enduring pinnacle of the evening. I’ve heard Alban Gerhardt, Lynn Harrell, Mischa Maisky, Daniel Müller-Schott, Pieter Wispelwey, Alisa Weilerstein, Zuill Bailey, Joshua Roman, and Steven Isserlis in live performance. None of them surpassed the exquisite pianissimos, the gleaming harmonics, or the stunning virtuosity I heard from Capuçon as he possessed the Rococo Theme and each of its eight variations.

Ah, but I’ve never heard any of those other cellists at the beautiful Neo-Renaissance Rudolfinum! Capuçon himself seemed inspired by the sounds that reverberated back to him from the Dvořák Hall. It wasn’t surprising at all that so many orchestras from near and far were converging on the Dvořák Prague International: the sonics at the Rudolfinum have that kind of ravishing, Siren appeal.web_DP19_1709_ČF_Bychkov_Capucon_photo_Martin_Divisek_23So does the September weather in Prague. High temperatures ranged between 58° and 75°F during our five-day stay, ideal for strolling through this walkable and photogenic city, and nighttime lows dipped down to 48°F, justifying my choice of a long-sleeve dress shirt under my blazer for our after-concert walks back to our hotel – along the rim of the Vltava when we attended the Festival.

Preceded on the Prague cultural calendar by the now-defunct Prague Autumn International Music Festival, the Dvořák Prague Festival website yields no hints of kinship to – or rebranding of – the event it replaced. Yet it remains locally and internationally in the shadow of the older and broader Prague Spring International Music Festival, which begins annually on May 12, the anniversary of Smetana’s death.

The Dvořák event has plenty in its favor. Prague’s weather isn’t quite as unique in May, which is why classical music is especially cool here in September.