Tag Archives: Michael Baumgarten

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

Review: Charlotte Opera The Girl of the Golden West

By Perry Tannenbaum

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Opera Carolina Taps into a New Audience with Three Short Operas – Including a World Premiere

Reviews: “A Hand of Bridge,” “The Telephone,” and “Connection Lost (The Tinder Opera)”

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By Perry Tannenbaum

Just when you might have thought Opera Carolina was turning away from fruitful collaborations, they are diving back in with renewed vigor. Last month’s production of The Barber of Seville, kicking off their 2016-17 mainstage season, rose to the same high level of the previous Op Carolina production of Rossini’s comic gem directed by Bernard Uzan in 2002. Yet a noteworthy difference was the absence of Piedmont Opera as a co-producer, so after its Charlotte run ended on October 30, there was no second run in Winston-Salem as there had been 14 years earlier. Not to fear, new collaborators came into play within four days as Op Carolina forged new bonds with the D9 Brewing Company and the Warehouse Performing Arts Center. While these two Cornelius, NC, outfits are non-operatic, they fit in with the Charlotte company’s aim to remind us that all operas aren’t grand and that all opera audiences need not be elderly, strait-laced, and richly appareled. Everything about their world premiere of Scott Joiner’s “Connection Lost (The Tinder Opera)” was youthful, casual, and populist.

The free event was at D9, where a line of draught beer taps greeted me near the entrance, and a row of tall stainless steel brew tanks caught my eye as I made my way to my front row seat – on a folding chair. Joiner’s new opera would half-surround me, a string quartet and pianist/music director Emily Jarrell Urbanek slightly behind me and a cast of 14 in front of me in a far corner of the brewery that served as a stage. Two smaller chamber operas with librettos by Gian Carlo Menotti led up to the premiere. Music director Erin Palmer accompanied from the keyboard as the triptych opened with “A Hand of Bridge,” the 1959 score by Menotti’s life partner Samuel Barber, almost axiomatically a four-hander. Dr. Greg Thompson took over at the keyboard for “The Telephone,” a two-hander that Menotti wrote all by himself in 1947, when it premiered together with The Medium.

Clocking at around a scant 10 minutes, “A Hand of Bridge” is a bit long for its subject, problematical for singers and stage directors because Menotti frequently loses interest in the cardplaying once the bidding stage is over. It’s the characters who matter, except perhaps for Sally, whose thoughts don’t go beyond the depth of craving a peacock-feather hat, appropriately the dummy for this hand. The way she announces her passive status gives her husband Bill a spasm of anxiety: maybe she has discovered that he’s having an affair! Sally, sung with slightly more personality than a tape loop by Anna Harrevald, seems like sufficient reason for a husband to stray. Singing about his beloved Cymbeline, tenor Kyle Melton seemed less blissfully committed to his paramour than disaffected with his wife. Cymbeline seemed to have six or other men to choose from, rousing jealousy within Melton’s aria, but his roiling passions made for a comical contrast with Harrevald’s shrill shallowness when they sang together.

The other couple had a different disconnect that evoked a little more sympathy. Geraldine has suddenly realized that nobody loves her, not her stock-trading husband, her football son, or even Bill, whose days of playing footsie with her under the table are long gone. With her pure soprano, Lindsey Gallegos took advantage of her opportunity to turn in the most heartfelt singing of the evening, crossing over the edge of maudlin when Menotti’s lyrics took her to regrets over her breach with her dying mother, the only person alive whom she feels truly cares. Her husband, David, underscored Geraldine’s isolation in a more human fashion than I anticipated. As David, baritone David Clark could sing feelingly about his status as a downtrodden stock market underling, dreaming of the excesses he would indulge in if he were richer than his hateful boss Pritchett, until he realized that, even with fabulous wealth, he’d still be likely to spend humdrum bridge nights with Bill and Sally. So the materialistic David had a wider range of emotion than Clark to contrast with his wife. Altogether the closing quartet sketched the separate subterranean streams that run through the minds of people who have known each other a long time but don’t truly know each other at all. Perhaps the most timely aspect of this quartet happened when “A Hand of Bridge” dropped us off in our current world with its final exclamation: “Trump!”

“The Telephone” was clearly the fulcrum of the program, linked to the “Bridge” miniature by its librettist and the world premiere to follow with its comical use of the phone. Separated by 79 years, those phones ought to look radically different, but stage director Jessica Zingher opted for an update, equipping both Ben and Lucy with cellphones. Poor Ben. He hopes to propose to Lucy before he must leave on a business trip, but the woman can’t be torn loose from her phone. I believe soprano Kate Edahl handled five phone calls while Ben attempted to present her with an engagement ring and pop the question, over 15 minutes of delays, exacerbated by some fine coloratura filigree. Three of the calls – chattering to Margaret, fielding a wrong number, and inquiring about the time – were frustrating for their triviality. Another two were connected: after getting a furious call from George, she had to tell Pamela about the false accusation. Unlike Ben, I found myself thankful for the follow-up call, because Edahl was mostly unintelligible responding to George’s unheard verbal assault.

Both of the modifications required by the update fell to baritone Eric Lofton to execute. Back in 1947, Ben attempted to disable Lucy’s phone by cutting the cord with a scissors while she was momentarily out of the room. Here he flipped a pair of scissors over and attempted the bludgeon her cell with the butt end, arguably improving the comedy effect. Lofton carried all of this off with a nice mixture of ardent devotion and helpless frustration, though the vocal lines afforded to Edahl were more flattering. And to tell the truth, the tech update applied to “The Telephone” leaves Ben looking a little less bright. Lucy occupies herself so long in phone chatter that Ben must leave on his business trip before he can propose. In 1947, he found a handy phone booth along the way, but in Opera Carolina’s revival, he simply pulls a cellphone out of his pocket – a stratagem he could have resorted to earlier instead of wielding those scissors. With all of Edahl’s giddiness and all of Loftin’s dogged earnestness, I found myself in a forgiving mood as the couple reached their happy ending, but what Thompson had provided from the keyboard to simulate the ringing of Lucy’s cell definitely needed a reboot.

Keeping those production shortfalls in mind, I was very happy to see the technical polish lavished upon “Connection Lost (The Tinder Opera).” If you haven’t heard of Tinder, I can tell you that it’s a smartphone app that facilitates getting acquainted with strangers through photos and texting. Getting information about the app and installing it are impressively easy. On my iPhone’s app store, I simply entered t in the search box and Tinder appeared instantly on the top of the list of choices, lending credence to their claim that they have made 10 billion matches worldwide. Joiner’s opera, extolling the joy, the excitement, and the pain of prospecting for a date with Tinder, explains the key difference between the free and paid versions of the app, shows us the app in action, and ends in delicious mock tragedy.

Besides the extra instrumental artillery of a string quartet, Michael Baumgarten completely covered the fevered Tinder activity of our protagonist, Graham, with a set of projection designs that were superbly synchronized to the texting/singing. Color-coded text balloons, white for Graham and blue for the parade of his dating prospects, were sequenced on opposite sides of brewery’s white wall behind the players, scrolling upwards as the sound and text conversations moved along. Glued to his smaller screen, Johnny Harmon was the young man fervently looking for love – within the constraints of the free app. In the only non-telephone conversation, Graham and a Waiter (Tim Laurio) concur that the monthly rate for the premium version of the app is way too high. Among the dozen prospects who texted with Graham, my favorites were Amber (Xela Pinkerton), Sakura (Sarah Musick), and – for obvious reasons – the dolled-up Dennis (David Clark). Sakura’s answers were in disconcerting Asian characters, and when Graham asked Amber whether she was free that night, she insisted she would only take cash.

Graham finally appeared to find a soulmate in Katie, wholesomely sung by Corey Lovelace. What clinched Katie’s attraction for Graham was her revelation that she liked opera, all the proof we needed that both Katie and Graham were people of genuine substance. But that was precisely the moment when tragedy struck. Dropped connection? Battery drain? Unlike his title, Joiner’s libretto offered the production team a choice, and Baumgarter chose the latter for his final screen shot. Graham’s expression of devastated anguish was worthy of Verdi’s Rigoletto. Instead of crying out “la maledizione!” (“the curse!”) as the inconsolable jester always does, Harmon let out a single word – “Tinder!” – with all the might of an overstressed lumberjack. A memorable ending to a fun hour of opera that absolutely delighted the standing-room-only crowd. Of course, the craft beer didn’t hurt, either. D9’s other collaboration with Opera Carolina is a West Coast IPA “boasting grapefruit and tropical fruit flavors.” If you haven’t guessed the name, it’s HOpera Carolina. I hope that more of these collaborations are on tap for the future.