Tag Archives: James Meena

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.

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.

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.

Stars of Opera Carolina’s Eugene Onegin Shine Brightest in Act 3 Showdown

Review: Opera Carolina’s Eugene Onegin

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By Perry Tannenbaum

Opera Carolina subscribers have never been as fervid about Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky as their Charlotte Ballet counterparts. On opening night of Opera Carolina’s Eugene Onegin, you could calculate the difference by gazing at the empty seats at Belk Theater. Artistic director James Meena, with a generous deployment of musicians from the Charlotte Symphony, gave an admirable account of the score. Scenic designer Peter Dean Beck engineered a setting that evoked the look and feel of the Metropolitan Opera’s Onegin, brimming with wintry birch tree trunks.

Still the new Opera Carolina production wasn’t quite engineered to change subscribers’ minds. In the early going, Alexy Lavrov’s performance as Onegin paled in comparison with what I experienced from the late Dmitri Hvorostovsky in New York. The baritone’s difficulties were compounded when the projected supertitles, wayward all evening long in tracking the action, failed altogether at the climactic moment when Onegin gave his polite and heartless answer to the passionate declaration of love that young Tatyana had written to him the night before. We lost some valuable nuances there.

Tchaikovsky and Alexander Pushkin, whose verse novel the composer adapted for his 1879 opera, no doubt expected us to like and empathize with the earnest young poet, Vladimir Lensky, more than with the best friend who suddenly became his mortal enemy. With tenor Sebastien Gueze as the pure-hearted poet, I also found Lensky more impressive, not only in his valedictory aria before the fatal duel with Onegin but also at the festive ball scene, where the poet’s jealousy over his friend’s advances to his fiancée Olga ruptures their friendship. After his moving performance of “Lenski’s Air,” I was doubly sorry to see Gueze go.

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Yet once the fatal duel had concluded Act 2, something almost magical occurred. After the pivotal gunshot and confirmation of Lensky’s death, Onegin hung around, without the curtain going down, as the scene changed from the countryside to six years later at Prince Gremin’s St. Petersburg palace. Meena and the orchestra kept pouring forth the forlorn music of the bosky pre-dawn duel scene, Lavrov was solemnly helped into a dinner jacket, and just as the opening Polonaise for Act 3 cued the entrance of the noble guests to the ballroom, the baritone exited to the wings. He returned in a fresh garish white-streaked wig, reminding me somehow of the mature Beethoven, and was magnificent from that moment onwards. The wig change had to happen quickly enough so that Onegin could take in the arrival of Gremin and Tatyana – transformed from a forgotten reject into a poised, polished, and radiant princess. For me, it was Lavrov who was more radically transformed. During this humbling soiree scene, he was the person I empathized with. He was the singer I couldn’t peel my eyes away from.

In her youthful scenes, soprano Melinda Whittington as Tatyana didn’t decisively outshine mezzo Leyla Martinucci as her younger sister Olga. Both roles offer a nice range of emotions and feelings. Initially quiet and bookish, Tatyana breaks into bloom upon encountering Onegin, giddily pouring out her love into her letter and impetuously dispatching it to him against her better judgment. In broad daylight, she endures the double agony of realizing the mistake of her impulsiveness and then having it underscored by Onegin’s dignified rebuff. Olga is the cheerful and playful sister, secure in Lensky’s adoration, just a little too prone to teasing Tatyana and goading Lensky’s jealousy until it’s too late. In a matter of seconds, complacency is swallowed by catastrophe. Martnucci brilliantly bridges her flashes of blithe jollity and the sudden onset of shock and disbelief. To a large extent, the impact of the breach between Lensky and Onegin depended on Martnucci’s devastated reaction.

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Whittington was more convincing for me in her quiet formal episodes with Onegin than she was in Tatyana’s great letter scene, singing it well enough but never living it with that intense mixture of terror and exhilaration that can only happen when you’re in free-fall, carried into the void by an overwhelming tide of love. She seemed to be following director Tom Diamond’s instructions station-to-station as she restlessly moved around Tatiana’s bedroom rather than infusing these movements with urgency and spontaneity. My confidence in Whittington’s dramatic capabilities remained shaken until the ultimate denouement, although she was majestic enough with her prince at the palace. When Onegin came begging for love and forgiveness, Whittington was fabulously conflicted, seemingly pleading for release and infuriated by Onegin’s temerity at the same time. As before, there was no restraint in Diamond’s direction, but Lavrov’s complete self-abasement and Whittington’s spasms of rage set the scene ablaze.

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Of course, it was up to bass baritone Jordan Bisch in his cameo as the aging Prince Gremin to justify Tatyana’s devotion and make Onegin’s presumption play like treachery. With a garrulous, avuncular stage presence, wig and makeup designer Martha Ruskai’s best work, and one beautiful heartfelt aria, Bisch did exactly that. It isn’t quite as easy to analyze why Triquet’s gaucherie works so well at the ball before fireworks erupt between Onegin and Lenski, but tenor Johnathan White’s foppery – and AT Jones’s costume design – set exactly the right tone. While I couldn’t explain why subscribers were shunning Tchaikovsky, I could predict an enjoyable Eugene Onegin experience if they gave it a chance, especially if Opera Carolina’s two stars can reach peak form before Act 3.

A Duke Has Fun, Safe from #MeToo Consequences, in Opera Carolina’s “Rigoletto”

Review: Rigoletto

By Perry Tannenbaum

When he wrote his 1832 play, La roi s’amuse, Victor Hugo lavished a good amount of research on 16th century French king François I and his illicit love for the daughter of his court jester, Triboulet. Giuseppe Verdi and librettist Francesco Maria Piave, who had previously teamed together in transforming Hugo’s Ernani into opera, plunged into La roi despite the fact that its depiction of depraved historical characters had run afoul of French censors. That was something of a miscalculation, for Italian censors were no more lenient.

Verdi and Piave were compelled to move their opera to nearby Mantua and demote Hugo’s king to a duke. Those shifts affect the interrelationships of all three main characters in Rigoletto. A duke’s womanizing is more presumptuous than a king’s, and a jester’s plot to strangle a duke is less of a high crime than assassinating a king. Most important, an Italian daughter’s desire to thwart her father’s vendetta against a duke who deflowered and betrayed her is far less comprehensible than a French daughter sacrificing herself for her king and protecting her family from the stain of regicide.

Adding to the discomfort that has always suffused Gilda’s sacrifice on behalf of the reprehensible Duke of Mantua is watching it in our current #MeToo climate. The notorious Metropolitan Opera production of 2010-11 made Gilda’s adulation toward the Duke more understandable by transporting the action to Las Vegas and turning Gilda’s seducer into a nightclub superstar crooner with ties to the mob. It would be interesting to see what Opera Carolina could do with a more traditional concept, a co-production by Boston Lyric Opera, Atlanta Opera, and Opera Omaha that has had its set design and costumes baked in since it premiered in Boston, under the direction of Tomer Zvulun, in 2014.

   

You couldn’t say that Opera Carolina was ignoring their #MeToo problem, because they brought Jordan Lee Braun aboard to stage direct the Charlotte edition of this production and hired Sara Jobin to prepare the Charlotte Symphony and conduct two of the three performances. It was the first such female tandem in the company’s history.

Most of the Rigoletto rehab was evident before intermission. Conducting the orchestra at the premiere performance, general director and principal conductor James Meena had the Charlotte Symphony attacking the first sforzandos of the prelude with more savagery than we usually hear foreshadowing the curse that falls on Rigoletto from the Count Monterone, leaving less ferocity for the orchestra to crescendo to afterwards. It’s bit more vulgar and in-your-face, which is what Raffaele Abete turns out to be in the opening scene as the Duke, throwing around Monterone’s daughter, his latest conquest, by the hair as if she were a ragdoll – cuing us that he has conquered this beauty with his power and privilege rather than his charm. The other “ladies” in this opening scene, many of them courtesans who entertain the Duke’s courtiers, have been excised from this production, concentrating all malice and decadence on the Duke – and his jester, Rigoletto. Our protagonist certainly earns the Count’s curse by suggesting to the Duke that he execute the nobleman to spare himself that dad’s righteous indignation.

As Rigoletto, baritone Anooshah Golesorkhi wasn’t the most malignant mocker I’ve seen, and though costume designer Victoria Tzykun outfits him with a sizable hump, Golesorkhi declined to stoop over and enlist himself among Hugo’s hunchbacks. So he wasn’t the most pitifully deformed of jesters, either. Humpbacked rather than hunchbacked, this Rigoletto struck me as a stronger, crueler father in his insistence on walling up Gilda against the outside world. We don’t get nearly as much to pity about Rigoletto’s possessiveness. It appears, then, that Braun has elected to make both Rigoletto and the Duke more cognizant of their abusive choices and more repellent. When Gilda hoped out loud that her secret love would be poor and simple, the Duke visibly overheard it, debunking any notion that he was romantically inspired when he masqueraded as the penniless Gualtier Maldè.

Yet after intermission, Abete pushed back against the notion that he was a purely vicious, self-gratifying rogue. In his fervent “Parmi veder le lagrime,” the tenor convinced me that the Duke was feeling the pangs of true love for the first time, and later, when his infidelity would soon be exposed to the worshipful Gilda, he sang the famous “La donna è mobile” with the joy of a world-class hedonist. Returning to Charlotte after a fine turn last fall as Roxane in David DiChiera’s Cyrano, soprano Magali Simard-Galdés wasn’t as impressive in Gilda’s signature aria. The notes of the beloved “Caro nome” were all there – including most of the trills – but the blushes and longing we could have heard, let alone the heavy aches that Maria Callas achieved, were nowhere to be found in a rendition that was hardly middling, and she earned no bravas from the audience.

Called upon to be more confessional and spirited in her subsequent arias, Simard-Galdés plumbed more deeply into Gilda’s soul. She was poignant after Gilda had been dismissed by the Duke at his palace. In the final act, after watching the Duke betray her love with nearly the exact sentiments he professed to her, Gilda is sent off to Verona where, disguised as a man, Rigoletto instructs her to wait for him while his hired assassin, Sparafucile, does his dirty work. This was where Simard-Galdés was at her best, reacting to the Duke’s betrayal as part of Verdi’s great quartet, and implausibly returning later on to take her beloved Duke’s place as Sparafucile’s victim. The soprano’s heartfelt little aria was heartbreaking – and like so many other moments in this opera, absolutely infuriating.

I sympathized most with Golesorkhi in the final two acts, when Rigoletto told Monterone that he would make sure to see that his curse on the Duke was fulfilled and when he empathized with Gilda at those moments she was seeing the Duke’s true character clearly. Sadly, Golesorkhi’s moping return to the palace, after Gilda was stolen from him, was relatively lackluster. But the volcano of rage welling up in Rigoletto; telling the courtiers that Gilda was his daughter, not his lover, and then cursing the lot of them; was magnificent.

For anyone who has felt that the closing tableau of Rigoletto was dramatically overlong, as Gilda slowly reaches her final breath in Rigoletto’s arms, Golesorkhi and Simard-Galdés were both helped by Opera Carolina’s staging. A nifty sleight-of-hand took place before Rigoletto, alerted by the sound of the Duke’s signature aria, realized that Gilda had been murdered instead of her seducer. Golesorkhi seemed to discover the dying Gilda and to cradle her in his arms, but she was a body double. Simard-Galdés emerged from behind a scrim, radiantly lit in Michael Baumgarten’s lighting design, a soul already in heaven as she sang. The alteration made sense, but I was ambivalent about it.

Unlike Tzykun’s costume designs or Martha Ruskai’s wig and makeup designs, I didn’t find John Conklin’s set design particularly worth preserving, scanty for its palace, lacking a façade for Sparafucile’s tavern, and utterly illogical for the courtship and abduction episodes. Courtiers actually looked down on the garden scene as Gilda sang the final notes of her rapturous “Caro nome,” moments before they climbed up a ladder to abduct her! But it’s utterly fanciful to say that the courtiers climbed anything, for there was nothing substantial for Rigoletto to lean a ladder against, except an invisible fourth wall facing us. That ladder was ridiculously small, and needless to say, no climbing was done.

Overall, the Opera Carolina components of this production were stronger than their borrowings. Ashraf Sawailam reminded us what a plum cameo Count Monterone’s role is with his stern denunciations, and bass baritone Matthew Curran had nearly all of Sparafucile’s sneering machismo, including the long low note he must hold departing from his first conspiratorial parley with Rigoletto. Paradoxically, it was Leyla Martinucci as Sparafucile’s sister and accomplice Maddalena, who best affirmed Gilda’s crazed devotion toward the Duke.

Hired to help take the Duke off-guard, Martinucci simpers, flirts, and vamps with professional self-assurance, yet she also convinces us that Maddelena has fallen victim to his charms when she pleads with her cutthroat brother to save the rascal’s life. Martinucci is an apt subject for the Duke’s “Bella figlia dell’amore” aria, and the mezzo-soprano contributed beguilingly to the climactic quartet that blossomed from his endless appetite for self-gratification. Yes, the Duke was having fun as Hugo’s original title prescribed, but what remained horrifying was that woman after woman could mistake it for love.

DiChiera’s “Cyrano” Throbs With the Power of Love

Review: Cyrano

By Perry Tannenbaum

Since making his Charlotte debut at the end of 2001-02 season, directing a triumphant Barber of Seville, Bernard Uzan has been a key part of the Opera Carolina story for over 15 years. His artistic contributions to numerous productions – including The Marriage of Figaro, Così Fan Tutte, Faust, Roméo et Juliette, Carmen, Lucia, Nabucco, The Pearl Fishers, and last season’s reprise of his Barber – have been among the most memorable during principal conductor James Meena’s tenure as the company’s general director, which began one season earlier.

With the advantage of hindsight, it seems inevitable that when Meena cast about for an adventurous new piece to present, the first contemporary opera at Belk Theater since Margaret Garner in 2005, he would light upon David DiChiera’s Cyrano. Not only has Uzan directed this opera – twice – at Detroit’s Michigan Opera Theatre, where it premiered in 2007, he authored the libretto. Compounding that inevitability, DiChiera commissioned Margaret Garner for Michigan Opera, the company he founded and led.

Adding poignancy to the current Cyrano revival, DiChiera disclosed that he had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer this past April, about the same time that he announced his retirement. Yet the 82-year-old composer and impresario was observed sitting next to Uzan at the Student Night preview performance, still tweaking his legacy magnum opus.

Like Henri Cain’s libretto for Franco Alfano’s 1936 Cyrano de Bergerac, Uzan strives to retain Edmond Rostand’s original verse. Predictably, Uzan’s highlighter seems to have fallen upon many of the same passages, but his emphases are different. In the opening scene, where Christian and Roxane first become captivated with each other while Cyrano is dispatching assorted foes, both Uzan and Cain are taken by Cyrano’s enthused exclamations when invited by Roxane’s duenna to a rendezvous the following morning. Despite Cyrano’s preternaturally long nose, he might win Roxane’s love!

Cain and Alfano include the lines where Cyrano proclaims that he now has 10 hearts and 100 arms – where he feels too strong to combat dwarves, calling for giants instead – but Uzan and DiChiera revel in them, repeating them as they bring the scene to a close. Earlier when Cyrano is parrying swords and insults, there is an extended skirmish with a Marquis in the entourage of the wicked Comte de Guiche, who also fancies Roxane. Cain seized upon the unique action display in this altercation, where Cyrano composes an impromptu ballade while dueling the Marquis. Uzan emphasizes the witty preamble to the duel, when Cyrano responds to the Marquis’ feeble insult of his nose by improvising a bevy of insults he should have hurled – in various styles that include aggressive, friendly, kindly, thoughtful, dramatic, and enterprising barbs.

Although the scores were unveiled more than 70 years apart, DiChiera’s music fits into the era of Strauss and Puccini almost as comfortably as Alfano’s, though the newer opera leans more towards cavatina and less toward aria and cabaletta. There are no spiky outbreaks of dissonance or raucous percussion to daunt operagoers, for the orchestration by Mark Flint, newly revised by Steven Mercurio, is both lively and lovely. Better yet, Mercurio is in the pit conducting the Charlotte Symphony, the Opera Carolina Chorus, and the men of the Johnson C. Smith University Choir, giving the music his stamp of authenticity.

The man behind the nose is baritone John Viscardi, who impressed me more and more as the evening progressed. Cyrano’s flamboyant self-caricatures weren’t nearly as spectacular coming from Viscardi as those jubilant exclamations, and I exited the opening scene feeling that we hadn’t sufficiently explored the poet’s yearning for the beauteous Roxane or the critic’s self-loathing for what he finds in the mirror.

If the rendezvous with Roxane in the next scene at a poets’ bakery doesn’t offer ample opportunities for lyricizing while his beloved is revealing her adoration for Christian, the sinuous path of her confession does give Viscardi the opportunity to underscore the fact that Uzan demands real acting from his singers. There is real snap to the ensuing episode when Cyrano’s fellow cadets invade the bakery and our hero meets the newly-enlisted Christian for the first time. Even before he volunteers to write Christian’s love letters, his enthusiasm toward the man Roxane idolizes – despite the contempt he has just absorbed from him – testifies to his own idolatry of Roxane. When he does make his pact with Christian, a spark is lit that burns brightly for the rest of the opera.

Viscardi burns brightest in the moonlit balcony scene when Cyrano is forced to step in for the handsome Christian and woo Roxane under the cover of darkness. Here Cyrano’s improvisations are so ardent and beautiful that I feared Christian might realize, an act too soon, how much Cyrano adores Roxane and how fervidly she reciprocates. That realization does come on the battlefield after the second intermission, but Rostand compressed the timeline so cruelly there that neither Christian nor Cyrano could disclose the truth to Roxane before her newlywed husband perishes.

Both in his writing and directing, Uzan makes key mistakes in the closing convent scene that affect what Viscardi leaves us with as Cyrano. You would never know that Rostand titled his Act 5 “Cyrano’s Gazette,” for no mention of Cyrano’s gadfly writings remains in the libretto. Nor does Cyrano’s best friend Le Bret come to inform Roxane how Cyrano’s satires have led to his undoing. Yes, Cyrano will read the farewell letter he wrote to Roxane on Christian’s behalf one last time before he dies, but we don’t hear any tasty tidbits from his Gazette to remind us what a witty rogue he was.

Those who are introduced to Cyrano through this opera will need to remember his wit from the opening scene, but surely everyone should be given a firm grasp of the moment when Roxane realizes that Cyrano penned every one of Christian’s glorious letters – and risked death to deliver them. As director, Uzan needs to sharpen the business where Viscardi stops reading that farewell letter and Roxane sees, totally transfixed, that he’s reciting it. Hung over from past encounters with Cyrano de Bergerac, I’m always in tears at that moment, but I’d like to be sure newcomers experience it with the same power.

Aside from that sloppy denouement, soprano Magali Simard-Galdés brought perfect enchantment to Roxane. There was a growth curve to her performance that theatergoers and opera lovers alike will savor. Through her girlish confession to Cyrano, Simard-Galdés is somewhat superficial when she sings, bubbly like a Rossini heroine. But in the moonlight, where she comes to adore Cyrano’s soul through his voice, she is not merely transported. She begins to be transformed, and we hear it in her newly rich responses, when she honestly believes she’s hearing Christian’s true self for the first time.

I’d forgotten that Roxane, with bravery to match Cyrano’s, follows Christian on to the battlefield through enemy lines, drawn by the power of his letters. What a moment! John Pascoe’s original costume designs, lovingly preserved from the 2007 premiere, go a long way toward injecting the requisite glitter into the Parisian scenes, despite the rather generic (and wisely uncredited) set design. The magnificent dress she wears after the second intermission turns her entrance through the encamped cadets into a luminous sunburst, making this tableau reminiscent of those dark gloomy Rembrandts where light is concentrated onto just one shining sector.

Simard-Galdés’s vocals shine in that scene, too, with fresh maturity and warmth. What stands out so vividly here, perhaps more vividly than in conventional stagings of Rostand’s “Heroic Comedy,” is how significantly Cyrano ennobles both Roxane and Christian during the 1640 scenes. Sadly, when the curtain comes down in 1655, he still hasn’t realized what he has achieved with those two souls.

From the moment we first see him as Christian, the power and purity of Sébastien Guèze’s singing seem to flatten his growth curve vis-à-vis Roxane’s. The tenor certainly upstaged Viscardi for me when he first emerged, but he regressed nicely when Christian’s boyish confidence collided with the necessity of saying something impressive and gallant to Roxane in their first tête-à-tête.

Guèze’s best moments come in DiChiera’s Act 3 when Christian has his epiphany after absorbing two earthshaking revelations. First, he learns how bravely, diligently, and devotedly Cyrano has acted in writing to Roxane twice daily. Then he learns that Roxane now loves him for the letters she thinks he has written and not for his physical allure. Guèze lets us see and hear that Christian gets it. Not only that, but realizing what an incredible friend Cyrano has been to him, he reciprocates as best he can, renouncing Roxane and urging Cyrano to claim her. Truly cavalier and very touching.

Worldliness gradually melts away from this story, but while it holds a grip, bass baritone Kyle Albertson as Comte de Guiche is its most malignant force, unctuous in his unwanted attentions toward Roxane and dangerous in his power over the cadets. On the lighter side, tenor Eric Johnston is the jovial baker poet Raguneau, so jolly that he escorts Roxane to the battlefield, momentarily turning the cadets’ grim situation into a block party.

Johnston comes by his enthusiasm naturally, for he played the same role in the same costume at the premiere of Cyrano a decade ago. He, Uzan, Mercurio, and DiChiera are all affirmations that this work is still alive, well, and continuing to evolve. This emotionally satisfying Opera Carolina production affirms that DiChiera’s Cyrano is well worthy of more life and wider exposure.

Best of Charlotte, 2017

Best of Charlotte, 2017

By Perry Tannenbaum

                                           Best ActorJeremy DeCarlos

 

Among local performers, there are strong candidacies from Brian Logsdon (Pride and Prejudice and Ragtime), Jonavan Adams (Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom and The Christians), Scott A. Miller (Stupid F@#%ing Bird and The Submission), Jermaine Gamble (A Raisin in the Sun and Jitney) and Tyler Smith (Ragtime and Memphis). All of them sparkled on multiple occasions. But the runaway victory goes to Jeremy DeCarlos, who laps the field – in range and productivity – with four scintillating outings. Draped in a braided Hussar jacket, DeCarlos just finished channeling his inner Jimi Hendrix as the devilish St. Jimmy in American Idiot. That was the last of his Actor’s Theatre gems over the past year, including some cross-dressing preaching in Bootycandy, his insouciant devotion in Stupid F@#%ing Bird, and his amazing transformation – from Jerry Lewis nerd to Incredible Hulk-ish monster – in The Toxic Avenger.

Best Actress – Shar Marlin

The field of contenders is larger among the ladies, but the roles were more thinly distributed, eliminating productivity as a decisive criterion. But which other benchmark should override all others? If it’s flesh-crawling menace, Sarah Woldum gets the edge, bringing Sheridan LeFanu’s Carmilla to life in She Who Watches. Leslie Giles was the funniest as the blind librarian in The Toxic Avenger, Lucia Stetson the most revelatory as Mother in Ragtime, and Allison Snow Rhinehart was better than her Broadway counterpart as Mama in Memphis. And how can I forget the sizzling dominatrix arrogance of Nonye Obichere as Whatsername in American Idiot? I’m turning instead to Shar Marlin for her sheer power and imperial dominance in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, a dramatic stunner that also showed Shar’s blues singing chops. Dignity in the face of exploitation and discrimination. Diva!

Best Comedy – Women Playing Hamlet

 

Theatre Charlotte’s You Can’t Take It With You and the Citizens of the Universe farewell, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, were arguably the zaniest productions of the 2016-17, while the Chekhov knockoff from Actor’s Theatre, Stupid F@#%ing Bird, was surely the most poignant. And what about OnQ Productions’ A Brown Tale from James T. Alfred, maybe the funniest one-man show I’ve ever seen? All were worthy candidates, but I’m going to let Chickspeare split this prize with Donna Scott Productions for their joint production of Women Playing Hamlet. Glynnis O’Donoghue starred as the soap queen saddled with the lead role in the Mona Lisa of tragedies, and the galaxy of comediennes – all in multiple roles – offering her questionable advice included Tania Kelly, Andrea King, Vivian T Howell, and Sheila Snow Proctor.

Best Musical – Ragtime

Ragtime Promo Photos

Folks who confine their diet of musicals in Charlotte to touring productions at the PAC are missing out bigtime on the locally-produced blockbusters playing out at smaller venues around town. Actor’s Theatre scrambled to produce a marvelous Toxic Avenger at a storefront church because this city doesn’t have the vision to see the arts flourish on Freedom Drive without a needless morass of red tape. Still in exile, they just brought the noise of American Idiot to Queens University for a face-melting month. After reminding us how finely they can produce A Year With Frog and Toad, Children’s Theatre astonished with the world premiere of The Best Christmas Pageant Ever: The Musical. With more than one Broadway-level performance, Theatre showed us their mettle with Memphis, and CPCC re-emphasized that their musical excellence isn’t confined to summer anymore. Maybe it was sheer luck, but CP’s wintertime production of Ragtime was the most timely of the year, underscoring the sad fact that institutional racism, police brutality, and prejudice against immigrants aren’t quaint relics of the Jazz Age. As the martyred Coalhouse Walker, Tyler Smith’s impassioned “We are all Coalhouse!” reverberated through a city in turmoil.

Best Drama – Jitney

Early last season, PaperHouse Theatre proved that The Frock Shop on Central Avenue was the perfect site for a creepshow with a dazzling She Who Watches, and early this season, a legend made a comeback when Steve Umberger and his Playworks Group brought a sterling production of The Christians to Booth Playhouse. In between, as Charlotte was fully wakening to how badly we have neglected and mistreated our underclass, theatergoers may have finally been zonked by the realization that our city is exceptionally rife with African American acting and directing talent. Kim Parati made an auspicious directorial debut at Theatre Charlotte with a freshened-up Raisin in the Sun, but this was a vintage year for August Wilson – in two dramas directed by Corlis Hayes, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom at CPCC and Brand New Sheriff’s Jitney at Spirit Square. Hayes brought out the best in John W. Price and Jermaine Gamble as the father-son antagonists in Jitney, with Gerard Hazelton adding a mix of comedy and poignancy as the gypsy cab company’s resident lush. Move over OnQ Productions, there really is a brand new black company in town – our second! – producing professional-grade work.

Best Night @ Symphony – Mahler’s “Resurrection”

While a well-played Beethoven symphony, a Rossini overture, a Strauss tone poem, or a Mozart concerto might be the secret sauce to get newcomers to become Charlotte Symphony subscribers, longtime concertgoers like me wish to dismount the warhorses and hear something off the beaten trail. There’s plenty out there that will please both camps: big, unfamiliar orchestral works that will instantly grab you by the lapels even if Symphony hasn’t reprised them within the last decade. Armed with an audacious orchestra and choir, plus two soloists who have sung with Opera Carolina, Davidson College showed the way with a rousing performance of Ralph Vaughan Williams’ A Sea Symphony, set to poetry by Walt Whitman. That’s the sort of daring we hope for from Charlotte Symphony’s British maestro, Christopher Warren-Green. We did get a British Isles-themed evening when pieces by Edward Elgar and Peter Maxwell Davies, spiced up with a bagpiper, were served with Mendelssohn’s “Scottish.” Utilizing the Symphony Chorus and distinguished guest vocalists, Warren-Green turned up the power with a pair of Bruckner chorales last November and Mendelssohn’s Elijah last March. If you wanted to sample the full capabilities of Symphony, their chorus, and the guest vocalists Warren-Green can summon to Belk Theater, you had to hear them introducing the wonders of Mahler’s “Resurrection” Symphony No. 2 to an astounded audience.

Best Night @ the Opera – The Girl of the West

Under maestro James Meena, Opera Carolina does the oldies better than ever, as their uproarious Barber of Seville and their vivacious, ultimately anguished La Traviata amply proved. There was even some audacity in the 2016-17 programming as OpCar partnered with Warehouse Performing Arts Center and the D9 Brewing Company to produce an evening of three short operas – including the world premiere of Scott Joiner’s “Connection Lost (The Tinder Opera)” – at the brewery in Cornelius. Yes, a world premiere on Treynorth Drive! But most exciting was the Charlotte premiere of Puccini’s The Girl of the West, as Meena collaborated with six other international companies, including New York City Opera and Teatro del Giglio in Lucca, Puccini’s hometown. Singing was exemplary, persuading me that this second-tier Puccini opera was actually a first-rate work, and staging was anything but stodgy or conservative: much of the scenery was animated and bold, with authentic relics evoking the Wild West supplied by our own dearly beloved Wells Fargo. An appreciable, if infinitesimal, atonement for all the bank’s Wild West chicanery.