Tag Archives: Melinda Whittington

“The Falling and the Rising” Offers a Kaleidoscopic View of the Military Experience

Review: Opera Carolina Presents The Falling and the Rising

 By Perry Tannenbaum

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March 11, 2022, Charlotte, NC – Four men give their lives to save just one woman soldier, a woman so severely injured that she must be placed in an induced coma to give her any chance of continued survival or even partial recovery. The math and the logic may not seem to add up unless you’ve served in the military or you’ve witnessed The Falling and the Rising, a fairly new opera by Zach Redler and Jerre Dye that may impact Opera Carolina audiences more freshly today than when it premiered in 2018.

Before COVID and Ukraine, when the White House was occupied by a grifter who labeled people who signed up for battlefield duty as “suckers,” the mentality passionately advocated by The Soldier protagonist – that military service is not only a commitment to give your life for your country but also a commitment to give your life for your soldiering comrades – may have seemed rabid, over-the-top, or naively gung-ho. After witnessing the bravery of so many healthcare workers routinely facing the perils of a deadly transmissible disease for the past two years and, more recently, the inspiring popular resistance of so many outgunned Ukrainians, we can likely view that military mentality – and those four soldiers’ sacrifice – as making more sense.2022~Falling and Rising-07

This brash Opera Carolina production, conducted by Emily Jarrell Urbanek and stage directed by Sam Mungo, brings the company to a new venue, the Sandra Levine Theatre in the gorgeously renovated Sarah Belk Gambrell Center, while it brings subscribers a radically different experience. Once the female Soldier is comatose, we’re carried along with her for the bulk of the opera on a kaleidoscopic cavalcade of dream sequences, so the military experience is conveyed to us not only by soldiers in battle and trauma, but also by dedicated doctors and anxious family.

The immersion begins in the Gambrell lobby, where you can pick up info on the Montford Point Marine Association and the Blue Star Mothers of Charlotte. You can also peep in on artworks and obtain a comprehensive coffee table book produced by Bullets & Bandaids, a non-profit veteran and civilian art project. Immersion couples with education at the Gambrell, so it’s fitting that the complex is on the Queens University campus, for the world premiere of The Falling and the Rising was also on academic soil at Texas Christian University, one of seven organizations that commissioned the piece.

A new work set in wartime might trigger a couple of red flags for traditional opera lovers averse to chaos and cacophony. But you’ll find that Redler’s score is comfortably tonal and melodic when soprano Melinda Whittington begins singing a birthday video into a laptop computer for her daughter’s upcoming thirteenth, apologizing and commiserating because they will not be together to celebrate. In fact, when Redler has Whittington pivoting to a shuffle beat, you might briefly wonder whether the composer has crafted a score that’s too casual and accessible.

The roadside IED explosion, with a striking video montage by designer Michael Baumgarten (lights/scenery/video), puts that worry permanently to rest. After the hospital huddle of doctors and a ZOOM consultation where the induced coma is prescribed, the opera is largely a series of extended arias and duets until we reach a closing paean to the men and women who serve, joined by a pre-chosen brigade of vets parading up to the stage from the audience.2022~Falling and Rising-23

Sound at the Levine is noticeably more resonant than the Belk Theater and marginally warmer than Knight Theater, halls where we normally hear Opera Carolina and Charlotte Symphony. Although directors might be tempted to mic student plays and musicals in this 1000-seat space, all of the soloists projected quite easily on opening night to Row M, where we were seated. Redler’s orchestration for 11 musicians balanced well with the singers, and Urbanek had no difficulty in coaxing a hearty variety of colors from her band, which included a French horn, clarinet, guitar, piano, two percussionists, and strings. There is an orchestra pit at the Levine, but it doesn’t protrude far – or impinge on the bond between audience and performer. When baritone Kenneth Overton as the Homecoming Soldier concluded his church sermon, seated in a wheelchair in front of a large wooden crucifix, it didn’t feel like he was calling across a wide gulf when he asked us for an “Amen!”2022~Falling and Rising-11

Gathered from interviews at Fort Myer, Fort Meade, and the famed Walter Reade Military Medical Center, Dye’s libretto was suffused with authenticity and often riveting. Mezzo-soprano Audrey Babcock exuded intensity as Staff Sergeant First Class Toledo, steely and tough as her nickname, which figures into the boot camp segment of her aria. Dominic Armstrong took us to the skies with his heroic tenor voice as Jumper, a First Sergeant who mixes hard-nosed honesty with patriotism as he readies Soldier for her first parachute jump. Parting words: “Don’t forget to pull the string!” After that uplift, bass-baritone Peter Morgan brought us back down to earth as Colonel, seen in civvies in his living room, hoping that his military wife will survive.2022~Falling and Rising-17

Each of these monologues was substantial enough to give Whittington a chance to rest her voice before she joined in duet, a mercy when you consider the extra decibels she can pour out. The most brutally honest testimony in this cavalcade came from Overton in his wheelchair as the Homecoming Soldier, ideally placed by Dye at the juncture of his libretto between the last of personal testimonies and our protagonist’s emergence from her coma. Also artful were the spins that Dye put on his title, for we quickly learned that The Falling and the Rising wasn’t simply, as we expected, about the traumas and dramas of battlefield injury and recovery. We first encountered “The falling and the rising” in the Soldier’s memories of her daughter, back when she was an infant and Soldier was simply a mom watching her baby’s breathing as she slept. Later it was the impending leap from an airplane, with all of its danger and exhalation.

So there is music and drama in this latest Opera Carolina production – and poetry as well.

Originally published on 3/13 at CVNC.org

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.

Originally published on 2/5 at CVNC.org

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.

Charlotte Symphony Spotlights the Balcony in “Romeo and Juliet” Tribute

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By Perry Tannenbaum

May 20, 2016, Charlotte, NC – A distinguished scholar who taught my undergrad Shakespeare course once told us that a precious folio edition of the Bard’s plays was on display at one of England’s most prestigious libraries, available to all to peruse, and that the most well-worn page in the whole book – by far – was the balcony scene from Romeo and Juliet. “Rightly so,” she added after a brief pause, defusing my presumption that she was about to sneer at popular taste. Charlotte Symphony Orchestra musical director Christopher Warren-Green might very well agree with my professor’s sentiments, for at the latest KnightSounds concert, he programmed that scene twice in succession, underscoring the fact that we still haven’t tired of that balcony 400 years after Shakespeare’s death.

Helping the demonstration at Knight Theater were emissaries from UNC Charlotte’s Theatre Department and Charlotte Ballet. Charlotte-based soprano Melinda Whittington helped to similarly double-underline the appeal of two other prime Juliet moments. So in the space of a mere 70 minutes, 50 less than the “two hours’ traffic of our stage” promised in the tragedy’s prologue, we not only had orchestral and operatic works inspired by Shakespeare’s first great tragedy, we had the lovers themselves speaking the lines of their most memorable scenes.

Tchaikovsky, Gounod, Prokofiev, and Nino Rota all took their cues from the blank verse and rhymed couplets in different ways. Of course, Tchaikovsky’s famed Fantasy-Overture wasn’t written for any specific production of Romeo and Juliet. With three fully developed themes for Friar Lawrence, the Montague-Capulet strife, and the R&J romance, the flavor of the piece is more like a Liszt tone poem than a true overture. About half the size of a Tchaikovsky symphony, the KnightSounds performance quickly offered us opportunities to savor the work of the clarinets, the double basses, the violins, the French horns, the cellos, the flutes, and harpist Andrea Mumm.

At the same time, the performance was streamed outdoors to the plaza at the nearby plaza on the Levine Avenue of Arts, and the screen hovering above the Knight Theater stage gave us the pleasure of seeing what the outdoor audience saw with the added thrill of the live sound. There were more than enough cameras deftly at work to prove that this video production had been nearly as meticulously rehearsed as the music. We didn’t cut to the French horns or the cellos in the early going, and the cameras later settled on the second violins too late and missed English hornist Terry Maskin entirely. Yet overall, direction was quite polished.

Romeo & Juliet 'Plazacast' Closes KnightSounds Sitting toward the front of the orchestra, I found that the cameras consistently revealed who was playing upstage when the musicians in front of them blocked my sightline. My fears of being overwhelmed by the sheer loudness of the orchestra were also allayed: the acoustic shell that graces the Knight stage gathers in the orchestral sound while still allowing it to breathe. This was different from the old school presentation that the CSO brought us of the Fantasy-Overture at Belk Theater in 2011, and while there was little to prefer musically at either performance, I have to say that the camera work lifted the current experience above the one I praised five years ago, enriching what I saw and heard then with occasional close-ups of Warren-Green’s expressions.

I had little hopes for the UNC Charlotte segments of the evening, with Jennifer Huddleston appearing as Juliet and Sammy Hajmahmoud as Romeo. When their stage director, Professor Andrew Hartley, appeared onstage to recite Shakespeare’s prologue, he didn’t exactly fire up my hopes. Nor was I initially impressed with Hajmahmoud when he initially came onstage to launch the party scene where the masked Romeo first meets Juliet. But Huddleston was pure luminosity as Juliet, instantly proving the advantage of casting the role as youthfully as possible. The glow of her performance magically turned Hajmahmoud’s halting awkwardnesses into virtues and he gradually relaxed into Romeo, further igniting their chemistry. Together they grew irresistibly charming, somewhat upstaging their elders when they followed.

13263907_1718667768397005_7712306438347482717_nAfter Huddleston, Whittington seemed woefully mature as Juliette singing the bubbly “Je veux vivre” from Gounod’s opera. The costume she wore was comparatively formal and neither the suppleness of her coloratura nor the lightness of her tone matched what we hear from elite sopranos in this showpiece. But she returned later in the concert and absolutely scorched Juliette’s “Potion Aria,” demonstrating the power that opera can add to turbulent moments of indecision. Huddleston and Hajmahmoud do all the potions and suicides as well, but their most glorious moments – and Hartley’s as well – come when they do the balcony scene.

Romeo initiates the scene onstage, but a spotlight cues us to the likelihood that Juliet will appear in the box seat section of the Knight’s balcony. It’s absolutely sublime when she does. Part of the magic is sculptural, after all, for the moonlit Juliet is not only more divine at a height, Romeo is more ardent and worshipful below her with his upward gaze. Hartley played around with the usual blocking and Romeo’s climbing up and down, but somehow he contrived to have Juliet down at the orchestra level and onstage for the latter half of the scene and its exquisite farewells.

The “Balcony Scene Pas de Deux” from Prokofiev’s ballet score had to follow this sublimity, and the presence of two eminent Charlotte Ballet principals, Josh Hall and Alexandra Ball, helped to ease the descent. Hall and Ball were so impressive, in fact, that I fairly well ignored Prokofiev’s music and the excellence of the orchestra. But as majestic as the lifts were – Ball’s hands as she rises have a musicality that most ballerinas can only envy – the sculptural advantages of the theatrical staging we had just seen were surrendered, along with Hajmahmoud’s touching awkwardness and Huddleston’s youth. An impossibly acrobatic final kiss partially compensated for those missing elements

After the stunning sequence of balcony scenes and potion scenes, the concert grew more somber with Rota’s “Romeo and Juliet: A Renaissance Timepiece” and Hartley’s pronouncement of the tragedy’s concluding lines. Until I heard CSO’s performance, I’d assumed that the Rota melody most familiar to me was his “Theme from The Godfather.” As often as I’ve heard that tune over the years, I wouldn’t be surprised if I’d heard Rota’s Romeo and Juliet melody even more often. The familiar melody nestles nicely in a composition that has more to offer, with some gorgeous work from Mumm, oboist Hollis Ulaky, and flutists Amy Orsinger Whitehead and Erica Cice.

An evening that I expected to be pleasantly light and superficial turned out to be rich and deeply satisfying. Programs were in the funky style that usually characterizes the KnightSounds series, but they are augmented by the Charlotte Symphony app that can be downloaded to your smartphone. You can get bios of the featured professionals from this app as you ease into your seat – it’s general admission, so early arrival can be recommended. While I couldn’t confirm my suspicion that Charlotte Ballet artistic director Jean-Pierre Bonnefoux was the choreographer, the app did supply translations of the Gounod arias.