Tag Archives: James Meena

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.

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

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Review : The Barber of Seville

By Perry Tannenbaum

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reviews: Aleko and Pagliacci

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By Perry Tannenbaum

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

© 2016 CVNC