Local Opera Performance Reviews


Santa Fe Opera, 2022

August 4.  Verdi:  Falstaff (redux)

This performance had slightly more sparkle than the earlier performance.  Quinn Kelsey and Elena Vallalon surpassed their already wonderful performances, and Alexandra LoBianco had more focus to her voice than in the earlier performance.  For the second time, I was aware of the smell of clean, sun-dried sheets as the half-dozen hung on the stage in Act II were first hung and then taken off the lines.  The orchestra, conducting, and stage direction remained top-notch.

August 2.  Bizet:  Carmen

I am choosing to NOT review this production because of the sets, costumes, and direction, even though Isabel Leonard,, Michael Fabiano, and Michael Samuel (Carmen, Don Jose, and Escamillo) sang wonderfully against a backdrop that defied suspension of disbeief.

August 1.  Rossini:  The Barber of Seville

Conductor Ivan Lopez-Reynoso led the orchestra in a beautifully modulated overture, very strictly differentiating piano and pianissimo.  The main set moved into place and received an ovation near the end of the overture.  

In the opening scene, the men’s chorus was an entire mariachi band to accompany Lindoro’s serenade, making the Piano, piano directions even funnier.  Tenor Jack Swanson was back for his second leading Rossini tenor role, with a nicely-phrased Ecco Ridente and Joshua Hopkins entered with helpers and half a dozen barber chairs.  The comedy broadened and stayed that way for the rest of the evening.  Emily Fons sang Una Voce Poco Fa with some new-to-me ornamentation, making three big ovations for the first three principals.  

Then Kevin Burdette entered as a slender, still-agile Dr. Bartolo.  It is my first time to see him in a full-length comic role, and the man is not only an excellent singer, but also a natural comedian.  If he was on stage, I could not take my eyes off his antics, from leading the conductor to falling asleep during the lesson scene and sliding out of his chair, tapping his foot in rhythm to other singers, and generally stealing the show.  Ryan Speedo Green sang Don Basilio, with the slander aria going as well as I have ever heard it.  Berta’s aria was transformed into her wildest dreams, including being presented with roses after her dance with three men in formal white tie and tails.  Even the officer, apprentice Allen Michael Jones, kept up with the comic timing. 

The finale included Almaviva’s aria, which was not performed for most of the twentieth century.  All in all, this was the funniest total performance of Barber that I can remember.

 

Saturday, July 30.  Hwang Ruo:  M. Butterfly, world premiere

This might have been titled A Performance for the Ages during a puzzling performance. The opera is based on the 1988 Tony Award-winning play which was based on a French trial for espionage in 1986.   The author, David Henry Hwang, had originally envisioned the play as a play with music, but introduced the play as a straight drama.  Thirty years later he and the composer have created a new work.

The action occurs mainly in flashback.  A French diplomat, Rene Gallimard, is in prison, convicted of treason when his lover, Song Liling, turns out to be a Chinese communist spy.  Gallimard has believed that he loved the perfect woman, but Song Liling is actually a male actor in cross-dress for the Peking Opera who has never let Gallimard see him completely naked.  This history was the basis of the original play.  The opera has brought more questions of gender fluidity, gender roles in East-West views, and domination in colonialism into the picture.

The musical scoring is complex with many motives arguing back and forth in the orchestra.  The first act is almost an orchestral score with added voices.  Only in the chorus work and the last half of Act II did I feel that the orchestration was designed to support the vocal music without the extra complexity.  Carolyn Kuan led the orchestra through the complexities as well as anyone could have done. 

In Kangmin Justin Kim, we have a voice that I could have thought was a new lyric soprano, a beautiful, feminine voice, until the end of the last act, when he proves his maleness on stage.  It is an incredible performance by an established but young countertenor, in a role created for him.  Mark Stone is Rene Gallimard, a French diplomat first in Beijing and then back in France, who falls for a fantasy in his love and in his view of China.  When the fantasies are exposed, he cannot live any longer, and commits suicide.  His vocal lines are very much not finding long melodies, living in a parlando style which approaches free speech but sung.  His superior in the Beijing embassy is Kevin Burdette, who has a long history with world premiere works, especially in Santa Fe and Dallas.  He takes the small roles of the ambassador and the judge in Act II and makes them pivotal in Gallimard’s loss of his two fantasies.  Hongni Wu shows the power of some women in the Maoist regime, blackmailing Song Liling into spying on Gallimard. These are powerful performances in a powerful drama.

From Song Liling’s aria, explaining his/her point of view, in the middle of Act II, the orchestra/vocal balance continues to the end in a traditional operatic style with the orchestra supporting the vocal lines, very different from the style of Act I. 

This was a very powerful evening in the theater, with one of the most incredible performances I have ever seen from Kangmin Justin Kim. 

 

July 29.  Verdi:  Falstaff

 Directed by Sir David McVicar, a unit set with stairs on both sides and a walkway across the top worked well for Acts I and II, but less so for Act III, since Hearne’s Oak had to be behind the set. The costumes were very period appropriate, and the costumes for the crowd of imps and goblins and fairies were inspired.

As I had expected, Quinn Kelsey was Falstaff, sung wonderfully and acted with all of his considerable skills.  His was a performance I had been wanting to see, and I was not disappointed.  Roland Wood’s Ford was appropriately jealous with a rougher voice than Falstaff.  Brian Frutiger’s Dr. Caius was a better-defined character than I have often seen.  Former apprentice Eric Ferring sang Fenton well, and Thomas Cilluffo and apprentice Scott Conner were quite funny as Bardolf and Pistol.  On the women’s side, Alexandra LoBianco and Megan Marino were Alice Ford and Meg Page, joined by mezzo Ann McMahon Quintero as Mistress Quickly and Elena Villalon as Nanetta.  Quintero’s “Reverenza” did not make the whole house vibrate as some older Quicklys have done, and Villalon’s aria in Act III as the fairy queen was absolutely enchanting. 

There are more performances for the next three weeks.

Wednesday, July 27.  Tristan und Isolde

As Tristan must, it opened with the overture, played with great attention to instrumental color details by the orchestra and conductor James Gaffigan, new to Santa Fe for this production.  The orchestra remained in tip-top form all night and was applauded vigorously, along with the conductor.

The minimalist unit set was functional for act I, really nice for Act II, and  little problematic for me in Act III.  The central alcove for Isolde on board the ship was perfectly claustrophobic for a cabin in an antique ship.  The balastraude and outdoor scene for the love duet worked very nicely.  I have always thought that Act III should occur outdoors in the sun, possibly on a rocky island beach with a climb to the castle behind, and this production set it in an interior of the castle.  That was my quibble with Act III; the set was used very well with the stage action.

The singing began with the sailor’s song that upsets Isolde and Brangaene, sung from the balcony of the house rather than from up a mast on the ship, by apprentice Jonah Hoskins, whose German diction was coached to perfection.  Tamara Wilson, our Isolde, sang well all night, never pushing the voice for extra volume.  She has learned some of the nuances of singing German intelligibly and was quite effective in the2 narrative and curse, and Jamie Barton as Brangaene was the perfect foil for her, also making the language live.  Nicholas Brownlee as Kurwenal was sufficiently loud and nasty in his answer to Isolde and really fine in the Act III opening scene with the dying Tristan.  I forsee more Wagnerian roles in his future.  I was really looking forward to hearing Simon O’Neill’s Tristan after hearing his recital in Dallas several years back.  It made me want to hear him open up the volume after the intimate recital with piano.  I was pleased with his performance.  He and Tamara Wilson brought out details I did not remember in the love duet, which was made more interesting with the orchestral details happening at the same time.  Eric Owens was in very good voice and very bad wig for his monologue at the end of Act II.  The apprentices who sang Melot, the shepherd, and the steersman all gave good performances.   

All in all, this is a Tristan performance worth attending.  Thanks to Santa Fe for bringing it off, a year late due to CoVID. 

 

Lyric Opera Kansas City, Explorations Series.  “…When there are nine.”  January 18, 2020 

            The centerpiece of this program was the world premiere of a new song cycle by composer Laura Karpman, with words from the letters of Susan B. Anthony and Elisabeth Cady Stanton as arranged by Kelley Rourke.  The six songs were performed with great truth and expression by mezzo-soprano Samantha Gossard, the Esterhazy Quartet, bass player Sam Copeland, and pianist John Livingston (not identified in the program as the pianist for the eening.)  The texts were well-chosen, with three of the songs including one quotation from Susan B. Anthony which tied the cycle together.  The accompaniments were performed with great sensitivity and musicality by the ensemble, with the center songs in which the strings were almost a pianissimo drone being a show-stopper.  Samantha Gossard, who stepped in to do the premiere ten days before the performance, differentiated the characters of Susan B. Anthony and Mrs. Stanton very well, nobly assisted by the composer’s writing, which used a slightly different style for the texts by each.  The event was to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the 19th amendment to the Constitution of the United States and the song cycle was commissioned especially for the event. 

            For those of you on the east coast, there will be performances in New York City and at the Glimmerglass Festival later this year. 

            Besides the commission, seven other soloists were involved with music about women arranged to present a full recital.  An a capella quartet (Kelly van Meter, Kelly Birch, Thomas Drew, and Robert H. Riordan, SSTB) performed five of the seven quartets from Lori Laitman’s Are Women People, commissioned in 2018 for the centennial of the women’s right to vote in New York.  These were new to me and the balance of the quartet was very good.  

Other selections included Aaron Copland’s setting of Emily Dickinson’s Why do they shut me out of Heaven?, Harold Arlen’s The Eagle and Me (sung by a Kansas City actor and jazz singer, Eboni Fondren), Jake Heggie’s song about Marian Anderson (Eleanor Roosevelt:  Marian Anderson’s Mink Coat, performed by Joseph Leppek) and his setting of Sister Helen Prejean’s Primary Colors, Laurie’s aria from Aaron Copland’s The Tender Land (the second solo by Morgan Balfour), America the Beautiful, and The finale, The Impossible Dream from Man of La Mancha. 

There was a short talk by the creative team after the performance with a question-and-answer period.  I hope that the recording that was done of the song cycle is released in the near future because I want to hear it again.

Back to the KUCO Opera page

March 5, 2020.  World Premiere of Marians’s Song, music by Darien Sneed, libretto by Deborah D. E. E. P. Mouton, directed by Dennis Whitehead Darling.

            This new chamber opera (about 50 minutes long) set out to do several things, focusing on Marian Anderson as one of the important people in the fight against racism in the twentieth century.  It includes scenes from her life and also looks at her legacy, centered on the role of Nevaeh Johnson, who led the fight against the destruction of the church where she learned to sing, Union Baptist Church in Philadelphia.

            The libretto for the singers was well-crafted.  I could not understand most of the spoken role of Nevaeh (I was sitting in the mezzanine), because her speaking voice did not carry over the orchestra.  On the other hand, the sung roles were all audible (the orchestration was handled skillfully for singers.)  Zoie Reams, as Marian Anderson, sang abbreviated versions of many of Miss Anderson’s standards as well as new music.  The aria including the repeated “a short step” which showed her goals is the perfect summation of the point of her life.  Nicholas Newton sang Billy King, her early accompanist in the US tours before she went to Europe, and his large baritone voice was a perfect foil for Ms. Reams in their scenes.  The small chorus was very effective, from singing spirituals as choir members at Union Baptist Church to audiences in the 1920’s American South, and another of other roles.

            I enjoyed the performance.  Will it travel well ?  The problem will be in finding singers to do the role of Marian Anderson. 

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Sebastian Duron: El imposible mayor en amor, le vence amor, billed as Love Conquers Impossible Love. Orchestra of New Spain performance, Moody Theater, Dallas, 21 February.

     This was billed as the US premiere of this 1710 baroque zarzuela, and it was a performance that made sense of the story. The cast included five singers, a chorus of seven, two pair of dancers, and nine actors, with spoken material in English (a new translation by Joseph R. Jones) and music in Spanish. The sets were done with painted drops and projections based on drawings of scenery which were lightly animated. The costumes were modern but very suggestive of the types of costumes seen in pictures of opera singers of the early 1700's. The choreographer, Jaime Puente, is a specialist in baroque dance and flamenco and used both effectively in the performance, dancing with the other three, in the foreground during orchestral interludes and in the background during some of the vocal numbers.

     The plot is based on the mythological story of Danae, a Phoenician princess whose beauty caused problems including the infatuation of Jupiter, King of the gods, and the jealousy of his wife, Juno (the Roman names are used in the zarzuela.) The librettist added the long-standing argument between Jupiter and Amor, the goddess of Love, as to which of the two was more powerful. The vocal highlight of the evening was the long scene for these two characters (Carla Lopez-Speziale as Jupiter and Julianna Emmanski as Amor) which alternated solo passages with duets. Ms Lopez-Speziale returned to the Orchestra of New Spain for her fourth role with the company, using her agile mezzo with good low notes and pretty tone in this difficult music. Ms. Emanski made her debut with the company with a very fine, light voice suited perfectly to the difficult music. Their blend in the duets was wonderful.

     The third singer was Pilar Tejero as Juno, who spends the evening mad at her husband Jupiter because he has fallen in love with Danae, without ever understanding that Amor has caused Jupiter's problem with one of Cupid's arrows. As a role, hers is the most difficult since her music is actually not as dramatic as modern composers would have made it. The staging made it clear when she was upset and why.

     The last two singers are Siringa and Selvajio, a country girl and boy who hang around the Phoenician court, sung by Jendi Tarde (who has sung often with the Orchestra of New Spain)and David Thompson. Their costumes were more like a wood nymph with antlers and a faun with a ram's horns, making it seem like the gods and demigods sing while the humans speak. Both were good singers and good at comic relief, their main role in the evening.

     The only actor who had regular interaction with the singers was Danae, played by Nicole Berastiqui, since it is her relationship with Jupiter and two human suitors which drives the action. All the actors were good in their roles.
I really enjoyed the chorus, basically performing as a madrigal group with seven lines, except when they are divided into two small groups. They are effectively a Greek chorus, commenting but not really involved in the action, and their music is quite lovely and done well. The small orchestra included a large continuo group, including the baroque triple harp, guitar, theorbo, double bass, cello, and harpsichord.

     I thoroughly enjoyed the evening, from the good singing to the imaginative costumes and the projections in the staging. Thanks to Dr. Wilkins and The Orchestra of New Spain for the performances.
--Lane A. Whitesell

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            Friday, January 21,   Painted Sky Opera presented the Oklahoma premiere of Tom Cipullo’s Glory Denied, a two-act opera based on the experiences of Captain Jim Thompson and his challenges, first as a POW in Vietnam for 9 years, and second as a returned POW trying to reintegrate into the US after the many changes that happened in the US between 1965 and 1974.  The opera itself is a study in two characters who change over the period of Jim’s captivity and the tragedy of those changes, using four characters on the stage, the Jim and Alice of 1963-5 and the Jim and Alice of 1974-5.            

Although Glory Denied is a short opera, it is also a very complex one, both in libretto and music.  Separating the two characters into their younger and older versions was an immense step toward showing the multiple layers of character for the husband and wife, each tortured in different ways by the uncertainty of the nine-year separation.  This multi-layering was brought out by the two pair of voices being similar but not the same.  André Chiang as the older Jim Thompson had a more authoritarian sound than Willie Casper, the Younger Jim Thompson, whose voice was slightly more lyrical and much less authoritarian, adding to the characterization.  Both were in very fine voice opening night, and each made sense of the characterization so that the audience could see how the younger man developed into the older man.  The chemistry between Saira Frank and Mary McDowell, the older and younger Alyce Thompson, was handled just as well, and the voices were also well-matched, allowing the belief that the younger woman could have developed into the later character.           The crux of the tragedy was Jim’s statement that he survived one day at a time and his inability to see that his wife had also survived one day at a time.           Musically, each of the women had moments of great beauty and pathos to sing.  The older Jim Thompson’s PTSD, exacerbated by alcohol, and his desire to return to his 1965 life after all the changes that happened in the US during his captivity, were portrayed accurately and heartbreakingly.  The aria in which he tells of the changes in American life was made more haunting with the images used in the background.  The final scene will haunt me for some time.           The small ensemble played this difficult score extremely well under Painted Sky’s music director Jan McDaniel.  The direction by Rob Glaubitz allowed interaction and observation of portions of the cast by the other members, using the double levels of the set.  The evening was a triumph for this difficult score.

The Thirteenth Child, opera in two acts.  Music by Poul Ruders, libretto by Becky and David Starobin.  World Premiere Performance, Santa Fe Opera, July 27, 2019

            This was an unusual world premiere performance, in that it was possible to be familiar with the music before the performance, since a complete recording was issued five weeks before the opening performance.  But since opera is a visual experience in addition to an aural experience, familiarity with the music did not negate a sense of wonder in the treatment of the action of the story in the theater.  The story is loosely based on The Twelve Princes, in the version of the Grimm brothers, with additions of characters and situations to bring the modern problems of dysfunctional families and mental illness into the picture.

            Musically, Mr. Ruders has become a master of saying a lot with a small number of instrumentalists when the principals were singing.  He never has his orchestra overpower the singers, something that is not always the case in modern opera.  He also uses simple melodies to represent universal themes like a mother’s love or love of country.  But when he has a moment for the orchestra alone and brings in the full strings along with the winds, he can also write a moment that could have been in a move score by Max Steiner or Elmer Bernstein. 

            This is an unusual opera in that there is very little repetition of text, a few words here and there instead of repeating text over and over (think of baroque arias and Mozart’s repetition of text in many of his best-known arias.)  This makes for a number of very short solos rather than the longer arias and duets from seventeenth- through nineteenth-century opera, especially for the men of the cast.  This also works to show the fragmentation of King Hjarne’s mind as he turns against his sons.  The two principal women have more words and deeper thoughts than the men.

             The vocal ranges are unusual, beginning with the first singer in the opera.  King Hjarne’s music may be the lowest major role for a bass in all of opera.  David Leigh had the notes, but the very lowest ones sometimes had a projection problem.  The role is written with high falsetto notes which occur when he begins doubting himself and his sons, doubts which are reinformced with the phrase “Drokan has warned me.”  Drokan (is this name a play on Drakon, or dragon?) is King Hjarne’s cousin and one of the three boyhood friends who swore eternal brotherhood.  The third was the king of the neighboring kingdom and has died.  Drokan is the regent for Prince Fredric.  By the end of the act we find out that Drokan wants the power of a throne and also wants Hjarne’s wife Gertrude.  In this role, Bradley Garvin sings the villain’s pain of not having what his cousins have, an enduring family legacy. 

            Hjarne’s wife Gertrude is sung by mezzo Tamara Mumford.  This is a role which focuses on the lower part of her range.  She understands the importance of the red lilies of Frohagord to the health of the kingdom and her sons, but does not understand what is happening to her husband, who eventually strikes her as she tries to support her children and her current pregnancy against his paranoia.  He makes the decision to kill his twelve sons and make his daughter his heir.

            Eighteen years later, at Hjarne’s funeral, Frederic tells of the thirteen children who have disappeared from Frohagord.   Joshua Dennis as Frederic sees Lyra for the first time and is attracted to her.  He also expresses his frustration with Drokan’s rule with his pretty tenor voice.  Lyra offers to help her mother, who is dying.  The last scene of the act is Gertrude’s death, but she tells Lyra about her brothers and how they are hiding in the forest, unseen for the last 18 years after she warned them to leave Frohagord with the lily bulbs before their father could kill them.  Jessica E. Jones’ lighter voice contrasts well with Tamara Mumford’s darker one.  She begins the second act in the forest, searching for her brothers.  She finds the lilies in bloom and a man who is her brother Benjamin, sung by Bille Bruley.  When she meets her brothers, they decide to celebrate.  She cuts the lilies to decorate the table, and her brothers become ravens.  Gertrude’s ghost (Tamara Mumford with an electronically-changed voice) tells Lyra that to bring her brothers back, she will have to remain mute for seven years, until the lilies bloom that year.

            Seven years later, Frederic tells of finding Lyra, and prepares to marry her.  Drokan, now elderly, determines to kill Frederic and become king of both kingdoms.  Benjamin, now partly human and partly raven, attacks Drokan, who stabs him in the back.  In the fight, Drokan is stabbed and falls into the bonfire where he was attempting to burn Lyra.  Although Benjamin dies, the lilies have bloomed, Lyra and Frederic are to be married, and there is general rejoicing for the future of the united kingdoms.

            The stage action was natural.  The projections were incredible, bringing three-dimen-sional images on the walls of the unit set.  The swirling patterns while Hjarne is being influenced by Drokan’s warning were wonderful, as were the snakes slithering over the walls as the madness became worse.  The orchestra was led by Paul Daniel in his Santa Fe conducting debut.  The production team deserved their ovations, as did the cast. 

            My overall impressions of this new opera were positive.  It had nice roles, music that was basically tonal and melodic, a story that was recognizable.  The production was interesting and the voices were nice.  But I left wanting a little more.  More what ?  I’m not sure.  I hope to see this again this week and maybe come up with an answer.

Verdi:  La Traviata.  Wichita Grand Opera, 7 April 2018

     While I was on the road to Wichita, Maestro Nezet-Seguin was speaking during a Metropolitan Opera intermission, saying that breathing wtih the singers and being in the moment with them and the orchestra was the most important thing about conducting opera. Tonight's performance at WGO showed how a conductor who wants to rush his singers even a little can turn what might have been a top-notch performance into a merely enjoyable one. Verdi was still writing in a style based on the fast-slow cavatina-cabaletta style, and if you start too fast you cannot speed up sensibly.

     The cast was quite good.  Larisa Martinez (Violetta), Kansas native Cody Austin (Alfredo Germont), and Michael Nansel (Germont) were new to me.  Each sang well and interacted well with each other and the rest of the cast, but I felt like they were rushed (just slightly behind a very fast conductor) as often as not.  She had everything going for her: accuracy, high notes, and physical beauty, including the small waist necessary to carry off the hoop skirts in the two party scenes.  Mr. Austin had a totally focused voice, making even his mezzo piano seem louder than the the others because of his projection.  He, too, looked good on stage, a tall, slender tenor.  Mr. Nansel chose to begin as a blustering father who thought to bully Violetta, but ended as a much more sympathetic character.  

     The rest of the cast included Samuel and Lindsey Ramey as Baron Douphol and Flora, more of the Kansas and Wichita locals (he is Distinguished Professor of Opera at Wichita State University.)  Monica Schmidt as Annina and Andrew Hernandez as Dr. Grenville and the other smaller roles were sung well and their stage direction worked well.  

     I look forward to seeing these principals in other roles.

University of Oklahoma Opera Theater:  Lucia di Lammermoor, 5 April 2018

            Last night was opening night of the O production of Lucia di Lammermoor, and it ranks with the finest productions of this opera I have seen in almost 50 years of attending opera.  As with many student productions it held some surprises.

            The unit set was more believable in the outdoor scenes, but was used well in the large indoor scenes; it was at its weakest in the scene in Enrico’s office.  Costuming was period, of Scotland at the time of the death of King William and the inheritance of the throne by Queen Anne.  Directorially, the Anglican (former Roman Catholic) versus (Calvinist) Presbyterian feuding of the period was brought out more than in most productions, and the legend of the ghost of the fountain was brought to the forefront by having it become a danced role, a very effective piece of theater. 

            Musically it was quite a night.  The assistant conductor, graduate student HyunKyung Jang, conducted Act I and Jonathan Shames led the second and third acts.  One scene was cut (the scene for Enrico and Edgardo at the beginning of Act III), but the entire part of Raimondo, the Presbyterian minister, was opened up, giving him an aria seldom heard.  The chorus was excellent.  The singers were accurate and well-coached in their stage movements.

            The surprise of the night was Skye Singleton, a masters student who has just been accepted into the doctoral program.  Her singing and acting of the title role was magnificent, rivaling several professional performances I have seen.  She was directed into fast mood swings throughout the evening.  She was the only cast member able to see and interact with the dancing ghost, and this interplay occurred in all of her scenes, making the staging memorable.  Her runs were accurate, the trill is developing nicely, and the top opens up for high D’s that topped the ensemble in the sextet and the following ensemble.  The mad scene was staged convincingly; I might have been scared to be a chorus member last night. 

                GO SEE THIS PRODUCTION IF YOU CAN!

 

Temperley:  Souvenir.  Painted Sky Opera opening night, February 23

            This production of the two-actor play about Florence Foster Jenkins seemed to be a labor of love.  If  “What matters most is the music you hear in your head” was Madame Foster Jenkins’ watchword, the play captures this as well as the circumstances which brought an accompanist into her life.  From 1932 to 1944, when she was 62 until her death at age 74, the play is a series of flashbacks from the point of view of Cosme McMoon, the accompanist, played by Joey Harbert.  McMoon was 29 when he met Madame Florence.   Harbert is in his early 20’s, but his youthful stage presence works in this production.  He is a good pianist and light-voiced tenor, making the choice of the play a good decision for Painted Sky.

            Molly Cason Johnson is actually a very accomplished soprano and voice instructor at UCO.  Commenting about the role, she said “At the end of the day, I think it has to do with her extraordinary love of and devotion to the music and wanting to really serve the music.”  She also stressed how difficult it was to sing badly (without damaging her own voice) which she managed brilliantly. 

            At the end of the evening I knew I had attended a good play about two flawed people, who complemented each other, with two performances which would be hard to better.  There are more performances at City Space Theater (downstairs in Civic Center Music Hall) at 8 p.m. February 24, March 2, and 3, and at 3 p.m. on February 25 and March 4.

 

Dallas Opera, February 9, 2018.  Korngold:  Violin Concerto and The Ring of Polykrates

            Last night the Dallas Opera performed an evening of Erich Wolfgang Korngold, a double bill consisting of his post-Hollywood Violin Concerto and his first opera, premiered forty years earlier when he was still a teenager.  The two works made for an interesting contrast, but underlined the fact that his mastery of orchestral writing made few changes over his lifetime.  Augustin Dumay was the violinist, and Emmanuel Villaume conducted the concerto without a baton.  Dumay looked rather frail when coming onstage, but played with all the energy he has always had.  Watching his face as he played was quite interesting.  He occasionally gave a small smile, as if he was pleased with the way a phrase had come out, or at his own tone color.  More often, he looked as if he were concentrating very hard on what was coming next.  It made for an interesting take on the performance.  The orchestra gave a good rendering of this colorful score.

            It took a 25-minute intermission to clear the stage of the orchestra and mount the set, the interior of a large apartment.  There was a timelessness in the set and the costumes, more representative of Korngold’s Vienna than the libretto’s 1793.  The opera was an attempt to renew the German comic opera and was a huge hit in 1916, paired with Korngold’s second opera, Violanta, a tragedy.  (I left the theater wondering if Puccini’s Gianni Schicchi was put last in Il Trittico because of the Korngold pairing, tragedy first and comedy last.)  The libretto was adapted from a play about a lucky man and a jealous unlucky man who uses the excuse of the story from Schiller’s Ballad of Polykrates to break up the lucky man’s happy marriage, and fails.

            The cast has two pair of lovers and the unlucky man.  The lucky man, Wilhelm Arndt, has just been named the Court composer.  He has daughter “in the cradle.”  Tenor Paul Groves was fresh from singing Count Danilo in The Merry Widow at the Metropolitan Opera, and has successfully added another character to his list of over 100 roles.  It was obvious he was enjoying himself on the stage.  As his wife, Laura Arndt, we heard Laura Wilde, this year’s McCasland Young Artist with the Dallas Opera, sang a role which has Korngold’s first serious opera aria, sometimes called the diary aria.  Her approach to the music suggests to me that she may be a major Strauss singer in the next few years.

            The second pair of lovers is Florian Doeblinger, the composer’s assistant, copyist, and timpanist, sung by Brenton Ryan (Spoletta in the recent Metropolitan Opera production of Tosca), and Susannah Biller as Lieschen, Laura’s maid.  Both sang their music well.  If Florian wants too much to copy his master’s life, Lieschen is much more down to earth.  Their blooming romance set off the more settled marriage of the Arndts.  Baritone Craig Colclough rounded out the cast as the jealous trouble-maker and comic character Peter Vogel, singing and acting the short role well.

            The orchestra played the youthful score well, with Maestro Villaume using a baton for the second half.  All in all, I would rate this as an enjoyable performance of a historically-important work which was quite deserving of being performed. 

             

 

Nadine Sierra recital, Dallas, January 28

            Nadine Sierra gave the finest vocal recital I have attended in the last twenty years with her long-time college friend Bryan Wagorn at the piano.  She opened with five Richard Strauss songs in which her long association with the pianist was quite amazing.  By her second line she was floating notes in Zueignung, and I knew it was going to be an incredibly well-sung recital.  Zueignung contined with a slightly slower third stanza, which drove home the final Habe Dank.  The two played off each other in Allerseelen and their diminuendi in Staendchen (his to show off hers) impressed me.  Caecelie continued the mood, and the final section of Morgen, taken slower and softer than I am used to, brought the audience to thunderous applause, to which she said, “It’s not me – it’s Strauss.”

            After a short break, they came back for Schubert’s Du bist di Ruh with more diminuendi to pianissimo, and Schumann’s Widmung. 

            The finale of the first half of the recital was Samuel Barber’s Hermit Songs.  In these, not only was the musical language right, but the body language matched.  I particularly remember Church Bell at night, St. Ita’s Vision, Crucifixion, and Promiscuity For total communication, talking with her hands as well as her voice, and The Praises of God and The Desire for Hermitage finished the song cycle with true communication with the audience.

            After intermission, she switched to Spanish songs, Joaquin Turina’s Homenaje a Lope de Vega, with Al val de Fuente Ovejuna especially effective.  She then spoke for a few minutes about her Portuguese heritage and sang Braga’s Engehno nova, a Brazilian tongue-twister folk song, and Villa Lobos’s Melodia Sentimental.  After a short break, she returned with Leonard Bernstein’s A Julia de Burgos, new repertory for me, a text about a free spirit singing to another woman who has bought into the mores of society, and expressed it with true passion.

            She performed three encores, introducing each.  She dedicated Stephen Foster’s Beautiful Dreamer to Marilyn Horne (and sang it beautifully).  She then stated that it was only appropriate that a singer of mainly opera should sing some opera for the audience.  She dedicated Puccini’s O Mio Babbino Caro to her father, who always loved her to sing it, and ended with Caro Nome from Verdi’s Rigoletto.            For such a young singer, Nadine Sierra has truly learned to communicate with her audience and to give herself in the music.

 

Handel’s Alcina in Texas

            Last weekend the University of North Texas presented a very fine performance of Handel’s Alcina, using a very small ensemble of period instruments:  three violins, viola, two cellos, bass, and two oboes doubling briefly with recorders, and two harpsichords.  The performances had originally been announced as concert performances, but the graduate students who were singing suggested to the rest of the cast that they put together some costumes and some staging, which was quite successful.

            The stars of the opening performance were the two senior mezzo-sopranos, singing Bradamante and Ruggiero, and the bass singing the short but pivotal role of Melisso.  Their singing and acting were all top-notch, with Bradamante disguised as a knight to try to reclaim her fiancée from Alcina, and Ruggiero finally breaking out of an enchantment and breaking with Alcina.  Alcina was sung by a doctoral student and her sister Morgana by another graduate student.  Both were very good singers; their respective seductions of the mezzos were a little over the top.

            The nice thing about this performance is that it gave me great expectations for the next Alcina performance in March by the newly-founded American Baroque Opera company.  The orchestra for UNT’s performance included several UNT graduates, one of whom is the founder of the American Baroque and their principal cellist.  If they play as well for the professional cast as they did for the student cast, it will be a performance not to miss.

            The weekend of March second through fourth will be a busy one for me, with Painted Sky Opera presenting the second weekend of the play Souvenir, about Florence Foster Jenkins, and the Oklahoma city University’s production of Smetana’s comedy The Bartered Bride, as well as the next performances of Alcina in Texas. 

___________________

 

Engelbert Humperdinck:  Hansel and Gretel,

University of Oklahoma, Nov. 30, 2017

 

 Humperdinck’s Hansel and Gretel proved its worthiness to be included in the operatic canon again at OU.  The story of simple Lutheran faith in God to protect children can get lost in modern production values, but Thursday night proved that success does not necessarily depend on the depiction of 14 angels coming down from Heaven. 

 The OU orchestra played the overture as well as I have ever heard the overture done.  Keeping four horns together and in tune is a minor miracle in itself, and this section deserves a round of applause themselves.  Jonathan Shames kept the large ensemble together throughout the performance and under tight control to leave room in the sound for the singers to be heard.  The other two large orchestral sections, the witches’ ride and the pantomime, allowed the orchestra to shine by itself more than many operas do, and the performance of these was top-notch.

 The English translation used has been slightly updated from some of the very dated lyrics I remember from 50 years ago.  The production was traditional but cleverly done.  

 The cast I saw was quite fine.  Everyone’s delivery of the English text was understandable, even to the children in the audience.  As Gretel and Hansel, Maggie Armand and Maddie Breedlove were the older, slightly bossy sister and her younger brother, misbehaving but contrite at the same time, and trying to protect each other from the world.  Melissa Delgado was their mother, with her hands full, close to losing her faith from poverty and hunger.  As her husband, Stephen Jones was able to express his joy in the reward of a good day’s work and to comfort his wife while passing on the latest news about the inhabitants of the nearby woods.

 In the woods, Miranda Brugman as the Sandman sang very clearly of protecting the children.  Amber Cox as the Dew Fairy needed a few more consonants to make her song intelligible.  Nina Estelle Whyte showed both sides of the Witch, drawing the children in with sweet food and words while planning their destruction.  The Baker’s dozen Children’s Chorus in the final scene were well-trained.

 The pantomime which ends Act II is the director’s challenge in this opera.  This production combined several sets of good-versus-evil myths which were recognizable to the youngest children in the audience and worked well.  This was a child-friendly evening.

 There are two more performances, tonight at 8 p.m. and tomorrow at 3.  Take your children!



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