Tag Archives: Dan Boye

Davidson Armada Captures the Grandeur and the American Voice of Vaughn Williams’ Sea Symphony

Review: A Sea Symphony

By Perry Tannenbaum

Unlike the beauteous and quiescent beginning of Ralph Vaughn Williams’ “The Lark Ascending” that we hear more often in live performance, A Sea Symphony is rousing, massive, commanding, and majestic soon after its opening measures, with the pomp and arrogance of empire pulsing through its exclamatory choral armada. The audience at the Duke Family Performance Hall may have been startled by the onslaught of this opening movement, but with three Davidson College choruses, two vocal soloists, and the Davidson College Pro Arte Orchestra arrayed before them, they couldn’t have been completely surprised. A glance at the first line, “Behold, the sea itself,” of the Walt Whitman text tipped us off to the imperative tone that was coming, and the three teeming pages of text that followed in the program booklet were a clear indication that it would not be long delayed.

The juxtaposition of America’s signature poet with this British composer’s first symphony becomes more natural when you realize that the lives of Whitman (1819-92) and Vaughan Williams (1872-1958) overlapped a full 20 years and that the composer began the piece just eleven years after the Good Gray Poet’s death. Two of the five poems that form the text were actually published during the composer’s lifetime and two others were first unveiled just a year before he was born. The exuberance of a composer reaching his prime blends powerfully with the confidence of a poet who had already become his nation’s voice. Similarly, the commercial aspects of Whitman’s “Song of the Exposition,” written and read at the invitation of the American Institute at the opening of 40th Annual Exhibition in New York (1871), blend perfectly with the sea-spectacle of ocean vessels that Vaughan Williams paints with his chorale.

While this concert was staged at the Knobloch Campus Center at Davidson College, it quickly became apparent that I might construe the “Pro” component of Davidson Pro Arte in a couple of ways. Most of the musicians, 68 percent of the 40-piece ensemble, were indeed professionals, recognizable as members of the Charlotte Symphony, including four of its principals. Nor did I need to worry about the maturity of the solo vocalists. Bass-baritone Dan Boye and soprano Jacquelyn Culpepper have sung with the Charlotte and North Carolina Symphonies as well as appearing in numerous Opera Carolina productions. With all that local professionalism on hand, it might be useful to step back and appreciate how special this event was. Vaughan Williams’ Sea Symphony isn’t merely outside the core repertoire that most American orchestras perform; the only American recording I can find of this grand work came from the Atlanta Symphony on the Telarc label in 2006.

No, American singers do not often take on this quintessentially American text, and everybody on hand seemed buoyed by the occasion, including Pro Arte director Christopher Gilliam. And why not? The brass section, the three choruses, and timpanist Justin Bunting were all called into action before the strings. Once this éclat is exuberantly played out, the piece becomes more interesting as the text shifts from its brief “Exposition” excerpt to a judiciously trimmed version of “Song for All Seas, All Ships.” In a piece headed toward the mystic universality of Whitman’s visionary “Passage to India,” these invocations of all nations’ flags, all captains, all sailors on all seas serve as a bustling, worldly foreshadowing. To give us this bustling sensation, Vaughan Williams stirred in all his forces.

Boye took up most of the opening stanza alone, beginning with “Today a rude recitative,” but after the baritone invoked the sea’s “dashing spray,” the choruses – with another thump of timpani – whooshed in with the sudden onset of “the winds piping and blowing.” We stayed on a fairly even keel when the focus shifted from the elements to the captains and sailors. It was only when Culpepper launched the final stanza, “Flaunt out O sea your separate flags,” with a flourish of the brass behind her, that the full grandeur and variety of the opening Moderato maestoso movement was reached, fueled by the soprano’s most forceful and memorable work. Like Boye, she interacted with the chorus, but before fading into sublimity, Culpepper gave way to mighty entrances from Boye and the chorus in the penultimate line, “A pennant universal,” as her entrance – and her high notes – sealed the kinship between this first movement of Vaughan Williams’ symphonic output and Beethoven’s last.

To contrast with this sunny, majestic opening, Vaughan Williams chose “On the Beach at Night, Alone” for his Largo sostenuto. Boye was sterner than necessary, sterner than the gentle women’s voices behind him, in the meditative opening lines before the music and the text rose up to the cosmic “All souls, all living bodies.” Like the opening “Song for all Seas,” the second movement circled back to its opening line, but here the cellos and Erica Cice’s oboe increased the darkling solemnity. For his other middle movement, a Scherzo, the composer chose even more brilliantly, since “After the Sea-Ship” gave him a chance for a stylistic excursion into overtly programmatic music, most of it feasted upon by the choruses, though it was Bunting’s timpani that cued up the oceanic turbulence. The singing grew almost anthemic in the penultimate line that began with “A motley procession,” and the four-time repetition of the final word, “following,” sounded like a volley of amens in sacred music, except that the crashing of cymbals by Tara Villa Keith convinced me that it was a joyous plunge, over and over, into the waves.

A triumphal ending like this in a section Vaughan Williams titled “The Waves” might have seemed excessive if his outer movements hadn’t ended in sublimity. The beginning of the final “Explorers” movement, with text culled from three of the nine sections of “Passage to India,” offered a different kind of contrast. Orchestra and chorus grew so soft, delicate, and slow that we seemed to be floating in a mist, perfectly complementing the first line of Whitman’s section 5, “O vast Rondure, swimming in space.” The chorus built to an affirmation nearly as mighty as the waves’ when we reached the description of a poet, “The true son of God,” who shall come after scientists and engineers have done their work. But this concluding movement was not yet half done. Vaughan Williams re-launched his finale from total silence, setting the last two sections of Whitman’s “Passage” and bringing the solo voices back into his grand scheme.

After the largely devotional section 8, we set sail jubilantly as Culpepper, Boye, and the chorus took turns proclaiming “Away O soul!” Timpani and cymbals piled on shortly afterwards in the “Sail forth” stanza of section 9, punctuating a piercing high note from Culpepper. Softer at the end and fading away, Culpepper and Boye were at their sweetest, truly sailing away into the horizon – and because it was to India, eastward into a gleaming sunrise. Only the strings remained with the basses in the wake of the departed voices, reminding me of the primal quality that underpins creation in the opening bars of Wagner’s Ring cycle. It’s so soft and low that neither of the recordings I have – or a couple more I referenced on Spotify – comes close to replicating the special benediction the contrabasses bestowed on the ending. That’s another reason why this live Sea Symphony was so rare and treasurable.

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

Review: Charlotte Opera The Girl of the Golden West

By Perry Tannenbaum

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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