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Pairing Whitacre’s “Deep Field” Tone Poem With New “Deep Field” Film, Symphony Presents a Semi-World Premiere

Review:  The Planets and Deep Field 

By Perry Tannenbaum

 

Charlotte Symphony hasfared well with Gustav Holst’s The Planets in the past, programming itno fewer than five times over the last 13 seasons in the orchestra’s Classics, KnightSounds, and LolliPops series. But it didn’t become a hot ticket until Christopher Warren-Green took over the reins as Symphony’s musical director. Back in the fall of 2010, Warren-Green inaugurated the KnightSounds Series with a “Planets!” extravaganza that included NASA animations projected over the musicians at Knight Theater as they played and narrative from a local TV meteorologist between movements. A mini planetarium was set up at the Bechtler Museum next door before the concert, and telescopes stationed outdoors, focused on Jupiter and other wonders in the sky, awaited concertgoers’ gazes afterwards. Every available seat was sold for that performance, so it was hardly a surprise that the next time Symphony offered Holst’s signature work in 2013, it led off the season.

At Belk Theater, Warren-Green could field the large orchestra prescribed in the composer’s subtitle, and the fortified corps benefited from enhanced acoustics – since the maiden concert at Knight Theater predated the installation there of a sorely needed acoustic shell. If the Knight Theater performance was distinguished by superior showmanship, the Belk Theater sequence excelled in authenticity and sonic brilliance. For the 2018 encore, the showmanship has returned! Most of it was lavished upon the first piece in the program, Eric Whitacre’s Deep Field.The Nevada native’s work premiered in 2015 but it was presented for the first time with a new film, Deep Field: The Impossible Magnitude of Our Universe,and a dedicated Deep Field smartphone app, to be activated by audience members when maestro Warren-Green gave his cue. Contributors to the film include scientists and visualizers from the Space Telescope Science Institute and Virtual Choir 5, which includes more than 8,000 voices, aged 4-87, from 120 countries around the globe. Source material for the film – and inspiration for the music – was the landmark “deep field” image produced by NASA’s  Hubble Telescope in 1995, when it was trained on a seemingly blank and minuscule area of space for an epic 10 days and 342 time-exposures, revealing more than 1,500 galaxies that had never been seen before.

Extra lagniappe was added to the showmanship when trombonist Thomas Burge, who moonlighted for eight years as a WDAV weekend host until this past summer, came out to deliver the evening’s introductory remarks dressed up in a NASA spacesuit. Many if not most of the audience members with smartphones hadn’t acted on emails sent by Symphony earlier in the week urging them to download the Deep Field app, so that and logging in to the Blumenthal Performing Arts’ wi-fi network further ballooned the prefatory segment of the program. Adding to the fun, Warren-Green not only showed us what his silent cue would look like but also pantomimed what his reaction would be if we messed up.

Facing away from us until he gave us his cue, Warren-Green was the only musician onstage with a view of the screen. Synchronizing the ensemble with the film seemed to be a very complex task for him, looking down at his score and directing his players while sneaking peeks at the film. The film adds a whole new layer onto Whitacre’s composition. It was amazing how precise the synchronization appeared to be. Imprecision seemed permissible at the start, when Whitacre’s score merely proved how apt the use of a soft minimalist style was for simulating a journey through space. The power of the Deep Field film asserted itself as soon as it began, transforming Whitacre’s music into an unobtrusive film score. Yet the film ultimately proved to be a potent accompaniment for the film, for the entrance of the French horns was pivotal as the brass section and the first violins joined in the orchestral swell while the density of stars increased onscreen and colorful galaxies blossomed.

Whitacre had a bigger musical build to follow with snare drums and timpani, and the onset of our smartphones was yet to come, with the Charlotte Symphony Chorus standing by-behind the instrumentalists. Techies among our readers will be glad to hear that the Deep Field app was designed to play even when your smartphone is set on mute, thus preventing the interference of other alerts and the sounds you’ve chosen to signal email and message arrivals. No rude surprises there, and the differing reaction times to Warren-Green’s cue only enhanced the floating, white-noise, Star Trek flavor of the app’s sound. The video also had a surprise or two at this juncture, superimposing photos of people onto the galactic panorama. At first, the gallery of portraits evoked a choir for me, but perhaps because the filmmakers wished to avoid a sharp contrast with the black void of space, the black-and-white photos ultimately reminded me of the anteroom of the Holocaust Museum in DC, surely not the intended effect. More colorful, less ghostly images would help.

Three performances of Deep Field and The Planets are scheduled, an obvious indication that Symphony is aware of how hot this ticket is. Looking around the hall on Friday night, I didn’t see any patches of unsold seats, a testament to Charlotte’s undimmed affection for Holst’s astrological explorations. If you’re worried that repetition has dulled Warren-Green’s zest for the planetary suite, that concern was dispelled in the opening movement, “Mars, the Bringer of War,” where the musical director was as animated as I’ve seen him this season, prodding the orchestra to a full roar. It was interesting to see how Holst leaned as heavily on the celesta to depict outer space as Whitacre would lean on minimalism, using its distinctive timbre to sprinkle serenity on the “Venus, the Bringer of Peace” movement and to augment the Tinkerbell playfulness of the ensuing “Mercury, the Winged Messenger.”

“Jupiter, the Bringer of Jollity” seemed to be the most British of the movements with Warren-Green wielding the baton, a countryman of the composer, and his account of “Saturn, the Bringer of Old Age” had as much gravitas as ever. The lugubrious opening built to an anguish tinged with timpani and tubular bells before twin harps emerged over a haze of double basses. “Uranus, the Magician” retained the Sorcerer’s Apprentice flavoring that I’d noted in previous Symphony renditions and, with the Symphony Chorus softly chiming in from offstage, “Neptune, the Mystic” had a heavenliness that can only be experienced in live performance.

While I might have pointed to the thinness cruelly exposed in the opening of Deep Field, I was at a loss to point out any flaws in Symphony’s presentation until a concertgoer sitting nearby piped up. He thought a larger screen in a darkened hall would have made Deep Field a more immersive experience. I’ve been informed that Symphony actually uses three different screens at Belk Theater, and the one deployed for Deep Field was larger than the one it uses when it presents an overhead view of guest pianists’ hands traversing the keyboard. But it wasn’t the largest screen in the arsenal, the one that hovers over Movie in Concert performances, such as the just-concluded Home Alone showings, where Symphony plays the film scores live and in-sync with the films. Maybe the midsize screen wasn’t the best choice for the Whitacre semi-premiere.

 

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

Review: The Daughter of the Regiment

By Perry Tannenbaum

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Charlotte Ballet’s Flatter Slim-Fast “Nutcracker” Still Dazzles With Scenic Splendor and Scintillating Dance

Review : Nutcracker

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By Perry Tannenbaum

When I first heard that Charlotte Ballet would be trotting out its newish Nutcracker down in Charleston before bringing it back to the Belk Theater for its customary two-week run, it struck me as a good thing – spreading the word to South Carolina at the gloriously revamped Gaillard Municipal Center. But I hadn’t considered how the economies of putting the show on the road might affect the product at home. Musicians from the Charlotte Symphony Orchestra have been reduced this year from 60 to 35, according to Jean-Pierre Bonnefoux, the Nutcracker choreographer and past Charlotte Ballet artistic director. Furthermore, the mini-chorus that always sang from the orchestra pit in the “Waltz of the Snowflakes” at the end of Act 1 is gone. At least one orchestra member I’ve heard from isn’t pleased by the various transpositions required when you ditch the bass clarinet and are no longer tripling the flutes.

This slimmed-down score comes on the heels of last year’s million-dollar redesign of sets and costumes, austerity following ballyhooed largesse. The new sets sparkle with bright colors at the Stahlbaums’ holiday party in Act 1 and in the Land of the Sweets after intermission. The snow scenes literally glitter in both acts – and the cute little Angels float on a bed of clouds created by nicely tamed fog machines. Yet there was a two-dimensional quality to many of the new props introduced last year that, er, fell flat for me. It began, amusingly enough, with a lifesize cardboard housemaid that was wheeled out to the Stahlbaums’ anteroom and collected all the guests’ hats, coats, and scarves before wheeling back to the wings. But the two-dimensional motif didn’t end there, for the toy soldier that Herr Drosselmeyer brings for Fritz, the creatures that file off into the wings when the clock strikes midnight, the reindeer that peep into the Land of Snow, and Mother Ginger’s house are all pancake flat.

All this flattening muted bustle of the holiday party, which was deprived of the formerly grand arrivals of the Toy Doll and the Toy Soldier in cabinets, caskets, or palanquins. Mark Diamond’s shtick as Herr Drosselmeyer was radically hamstrung, stripped of his former hocus-pocus emceeing for the gift reveals, and while his leave-taking compensates a little for his no-longer-baroque-and-fussy entrance, most of the physical comedy is either gone or has lost its patina. Even the wrench Drosselmeyer used to fix Clara’s broken nutcracker seemed a shadow of its former absurdity. Where the flatness meshes with the new scenic design by Alain Vaës, the result is notably spectacular when the Christmas tree chez Stahlbaum grows to fill the entire upstage. The enchantment doesn’t stop there, for new scenery emerges behind it. Most spectacular, exceeding even Clara’s departure from the Land of Snow (escorted by the victorious Nutcracker), is Clara’s landing in the Land of Sweets below the clouds where the cute little Angels glide.

Worse than the absence of the bass clarinet for the “Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy” (a bassoon doesn’t do) or the three flutes for the “Dance of the Reed Pipes” (barely noticeable) were the strings subbing for the mini-chorus. No matter how well they’re played, violins can’t say “Ah!” Under the baton of assistant conductor Christopher James Lees – and under the Belk stage – the Charlotte Symphony filled the hall rather nicely. With Sarah Lapointe and James Kopecky among the most elegant who have danced Sugar Plum and Cavalier, the climax of the grand “Pas de deux,” still sounded very powerful. But a subsequent listening session at home with a couple of reference recordings disclosed a shrieking piccolo that was probably missing from Tchaikovsky’s clangor at Belk Theater.

Charlotte Ballet’s dancers lifted the production high above any quibbles about props or orchestral instrumentation. The main corps and the satellite Charlotte Ballet II dancers maintained the high standard of past years while the work from apprentices, trainees, and students from the company’s academy and conservatory continues to ascend to new heights. Bonnefoux rehearsed the show in his first year away from the daily operations of the company, a great way for him to reconnect – and maybe a great burden lifted from anybody else who ventured to take on the complexities of Nutcracker casting. I was discreetly funneled into the Saturday evening performance so that I would be reviewing Cast A, the dancers who appear in all the publicity shots. An amazing 121 roles are double cast, so you can definitely say there is a Cast B. Yet there are also 21 roles that are triple cast, eight quadruples, and three – major roles – that rotate among five dancers. So on just one given night, over 150 splendid Holly Hynes costumes are in play backstage, and Bonnefoux is making sure that the cast du jour – no matter what the permutation – is in step. You can bet that he appreciates the expertise of Anita Pacylowski-Justo and Laszlo Berdo in staging and rehearsing all the student dancers.

It’s Clara and Fritz who must carry the action until Drosselmeyer dominates, so the Charlotte Ballet students aren’t merely background ornaments. Ava Gray Bobbit and Pierce Gallagher were the Stahlbaum sibs on opening night with Cast A, Gallagher one of two Fritzes and Bobbit one of four Claras. Though Gallagher absolutely reveled in Fritz’s energy and mischief making, Bobbit especially impressed me with her supple line, her perfectly calibrated childishness, and the utter ease and confidence she brought to every step. Only when Giselle MacDonald danced the Toy Doll did we ascend to the level of Charlotte Ballet II and when Maurice Mouzon Jr. followed as the Toy Soldier, we had our first brief sighting of the main company. Diamond has danced Drosselmeyer forever – yes, he gets a chunk of “Grandfather’s Dance” to strut his stuff – but he’s director of Charlotte Ballet II, not a company dancer. Even the rival rulers of the great Nutcracker war, Evan Ambrose as the Mouse King and Michael Manghini as the Nutcracker, were second-string members of Diamond’s company. Cast B digs even deeper, with company apprentices leading the Mice and the Nutcracker brigade into battle.

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Obviously, Bonnefoux has bequeathed a very deep bench to Hope Muir, his successor as artistic director. Aside from the athleticism of Mouzon, the varsity never trod the early earthbound scenes of this resplendent Nutcracker. Only when Sarah Lapointe and James Kopecky greeted us – and the dreaming Clara – in the Land of Snow, were we finally favored with the grace of the top-tier dancers. Lapointe and Kopecky were one of four couples who will perform these rites. Each of them will rotate in some of the upcoming shows into the higher empyrean as Sugar Plum Fairy and Cavalier, welcoming Clara to the Land of Sweets. Alessandra Ball James and Josh Hall took on these starring roles at the Saturday night opening, and Ball even surpassed herself. Her line and fearlessness now nearly match her peerless musicality. No less than five different couples get to excel in Tchaikovsky’s grand “Pas de deux” during the Nutcracker run.

The new Hynes costumes against the Vaës backdrops really do make the divertissements seem even more spectacular than before, showcasing the fine men in the company. Ryo Suzuki scintillated in his first year with the troupe, so his exploits now in third year fronting the “Gopak” weren’t revelatory. On the other hand, Juwan Alston brought amazing hangtime to his leaps in “Candy Cane,” even if he did teeter a bit on his final landing, and Humberto Ramazzina from Ballet II had an eye-popping precision in the “Chinese Tea.” Amelia Sturt-Dilley and Ben Ingel weren’t the most exotic purveyors of the Arabian “Coffee” duet that I’ve seen over the years, but they radiated sizzling sensual heat.

You almost wished that Charlotte Ballet could have trotted out an overhead camera or mirror when the last of the company’s great ballerinas, Sarah Hayes Harkins, made her decorous appearance as Rose at the center of the gorgeous “Waltz of the Flowers.” At the florid beginning and ending of the piece, Harkins was encircled by a dozen Flowers – petals, really, in Bonnefoux’s imagery – her height vis-à-vis the student dancers beautifully highlighted. Nothing less than the climactic “Pas de deux” could follow such pure, innocent beauty.