Tag Archives: Johnson C. Smith University Choir

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.

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Classics Collide at Spoleto

Reviews: Porgy and Bess and The Importance of Being Earnest

Spoleto~Porgy and Bess2

By Perry Tannenbaum

They’re not just reviving Porgy and Bess at Spoleto Festival USA. They’ve designated “Porgy Houses” in Historic Charleston, set up Porgy tours to better acquaint you with the opera’s characters and Charleston landmarks – as well as the story’s author, Charlestonian DuBose Heyward – and there are Porgy exhibits at the libraries, museums, and galleries around town.

And they’re not merely celebrating Charleston and its indigenous black and Gullah cultures in this Porgy and Bess revival – with vibrant stage scenery and costumes by Charleston visual artist Jonathan Green. They’re celebrating the rebirth of Gaillard Center, the preeminent performance site at Spoleto, and they’re celebrating the festival’s 40th anniversary.

If the combination of Spoleto Festival artistry, authentic Charleston flavor, and an impressive new performing arts palace sounds like the perfect recipe for an incomparable Porgy and Bess, it almost is. The big letdown on opening night probably resulted from director David Herskovits, conductor Stefan Asbury, and the principal players not spending sufficient rehearsal time in the new hall – or with the Gaillard’s sound crew and engineer.

My first full week listening to Spoleto performances at the Gaillard convinced me that the hall’s acoustics aren’t weak. With new speaker towers flanking the stage, performances by jazz diva René Marie on the first Sunday of Spoleto and by the Randy Weston African Rhythms Sextet on the following Thursday were as sonically rich as they were artistically satisfying. But the size of the hall took its toll on the unamplified voices of the solo vocalists on opera night.

Spoleto~Porgy and Bess

This was the most beautifully sung Porgy that I’ve heard in live performance – but the least intelligible. You get all the great music from Lester Lynch as Porgy, Alyson Cambridge as Bess, Courtney Johnson as Clara, Sidney Outlaw as Jake, Victor Ryan Robertson as Sportin’ Life, Indra Thomas as Serena, and Eric Greene as Crown. Ah, but when we cross over to the lyrics and dialogue, we might call this production Porgy and Crown, for Lynch and Greene bring the most fully arresting portrayals onstage.

Lynch as Porgy is the best I’ve heard live or on recordings, overturning the notion that the hero of this drama is a weak pathetic cripple. Here Porgy returns from his police examination on the humble sledge we often associate with him, but in this production, we have long since become accustomed to seeing him with a cane or in a quite respectable wheelchair. A couple of those wheelchairs, including the one that’s outfitted for his trip to New York at the triumphant conclusion, are fit for a tribal king.

Green’s scenic and costume designs similarly overturn the perception that the people of Catfish Row are poor, oppressed, ignorant, and uncultured. Green and Herskovits have both asserted that African-American culture is the soul of Charleston – and that it has been for nearly 400 years. Part of Porgy’s strength and confidence becomes manifest, Herskovits has noted, when he allows Bess to join the townspeople at the fateful excursion to Kittiwah Island.

The other parts are evident in Lynch’s voice. Not a word is changed here, but we gradually realize that the pity we have felt for Porgy in the past has been fashioned by actors who have portrayed him, by their pitying co-stars and directors, and by our conditioned responses. A descendant of one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence, Heyward discreetly hid a withered arm throughout his life, so his sympathies – as well as the original title of his novel – are definitely with Porgy.

Torn between three men, Bess’s apparent strength gradually vanishes in a haze of submissiveness, fatalism, and happy dust. While Cambridge fully captures Bess’s inner turmoil and anguish in her voice, her vowels migrate into Sopranoland, where the love of her life is transformed into “Pogah” and she neither talks the talk nor walks the walk. I’m really not sure Cambridge had a clue what was going on when she tossed Crown her “look at what arms you got” line. But when she pleads with Porgy that “it’s gonna feel like dyin’” if Crown takes her away, the urgency is primal.

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What still comes through in the end, vividly and freshly, is that Bess needs Porgy at least as much as he needs her. This impression is actually enhanced by the colorful portraits that we see of Crown and Sportin’ Life. Bringing chaos and bloodshed to a dice game or singing “A Red Headed Woman,” Greene is far more dangerous as Crown than ribald or desirable. Bess’s other stalker doesn’t amount to much, either. Tempting Bess with his happy dust, Robertson is the sly city slickster version of Sportin’ Life, cracking wise rather than satirically in his signature “It Ain’t Necessarily So,” where I grieved for the missing Methuselah stanza.

Designing costumes for Serena and Jake, Green brings out their special characteristics, Serena’s upright dignity and Jake’s wholesome determination. Thomas pours out Serena’s grief in “My Man’s Gone Now,” and Outlaw struts Jake’s infectious energy in “It Takes a Long Pull.” The Johnson C. Smith University Choir, decked out in a wonderful array of colors and styles, makes a bustling community out of Catfish Row and reminds us of the beauties that Gershwin packed into the ensembles.

The cherry on top of it all is the luxuriant presentation of the street vendors’ cries: Shanta L. Johnson as the Strawberry Woman, Tamar Green as the Crabman, and Walter J. Jackson as Peter the Honeyman. All in all, squalor is nearly banished from this reimagined Catfish Row. What remains is truly honey in the comb.

If you’re going to serve up something as popular and inviting as Porgy and Bess as the centerpiece of your festival, it makes sense to keep people around town with a companion theatre piece that is equally welcoming. So they’ve not only brought in their most frequent theatrical visitors, Gate Theatre from Dublin, they have them presenting the most popular and familiar comedy they’ve ever exported to Charleston in all of their 11 appearances, Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest.

Now I admit that this struck me as pandering to the masses until intermission, when my wife Sue and I listened to the couple behind us desperately wrestling with the complications of Wilde’s plot as if they were rocket science. My guess is that the fog lifted after intermission, when the action moved from Algernon Moncrief’s London apartment to Jack Worthing’s country manor.

Surprise follows surprise, unexpected intrusion follows unexpected intrusion as the men’s fiancées, daffy Gwendolen Fairfax from the city and peculiarly naïve Cecily Cardew on the manor, unravel both their beaus’ double lives – with nifty misunderstandings and reversals along the way. It’s an elegantly crafted comedy machine with a steady stream of wickedly witty dialogue along the way.

My only worry, after recent Gate efforts at the Dock Street Theatre, was whether the Dubliners would bring enough energy – and decibels – to their task to bring out Wilde’s brilliance. Underpowered Alex Felton as Algy and Aoibhin Garrihy as Gwen in Act 1 didn’t exactly soothe my fears. But when Michael Ford-Fitzgerald as Ernest/Jack came wooing Gwen, there was comfort, and when Deidre Donnelly sailed in as Lady Bracknell to forbid the union, there was hilarity.

As it turns out after intermission, in Acts 2 and 3, it’s Wilde’s energy that kindles the Dubliners’ energies as all four lovebirds are increasingly surprised and distressed. Thwarted in the city, Ford-FitzGerald becomes more animated, physical, and funny as Uncle Jack when Algy suddenly appears, pretending to be Jack’s fictional brother Ernest – whom Jack fictionally killed off just moments earlier. Algy has been drawn into the country by the prospect of meeting Jack’s ward, Cecily Cardew, and falls for her at first sight.

Spoleto~Importance of Being Earnest

Not to be outdone, Cecily has already fallen in love with her fictional uncle Ernest, with fanciful diary entries and love notes from the rascal vouching for their burning romance. Making all of this up out of whole cloth doesn’t faze Cecily at all, and Lorna Quinn blesses her with the most insouciant caprice. Most of all, she’s enchanted by Ernest’s name. If you didn’t know, there’s a lot of that going around.

All of this nonsensical fantasy, compounded by Jack’s opposition and Algy’s raging hormones, help to boost Felton’s energies to the point where we can hear him. Similarly, when Gwen discovers – or misunderstands – that both she and Cecily are engaged to Ernest, there’s enough spontaneous indignation for Garrihy to parlay into audibility. When Lady Bracknell suddenly appears, implacably pursuing her disobedient ward, we get a seemingly insoluble stalemate of guardians’ matrimonial prohibitions.

This is where director Patrick Mason’s concept shines brightest, for he and Ford-FitzGerald whip Jack up to a frenzy of desperation that I’d never suspected lurked in this script – while Donnelly as Lady Bracknell retains her signature sangfroid. They all somehow become one big magically dysfunctional family at the end, and we couldn’t be happier for them. Even if you’ve seen this classic over and over, this Earnest is worth seeing again.