Local Opera Performance Reviews

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. 



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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