MISSION

We are here to encourage the development of gifted young singers and to stimulate the growth of New York City's invaluable chamber opera companies. But we will not neglect the Metropolitan Opera either. Get ready for bouquets and brickbats.

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

FINAL DISPATCH FROM SANTA FE

Kasia Borowiec and Jarrett Ott in a scene from Eugene Onegin
(photo by Bobby Gutierrez)

Our last night in Santa Fe was happily spent watching the apprentices show their stuff.  And what stuff they showed!  We were given to understand that the nine scenes were chosen to highlight the individual talents of the apprentices. We have nothing but plaudits for the singing, but we were not always in tune with the staging and costuming.

In the final scene from Tchaikovsky's masterpiece Eugene Onegin, Kasia Borowiec sang Tatiana with a fine tone and deep emotional involvement as she attempted to resist the blandishments of the eponymous Onegin, with whom she had been so infatuated a few years earlier.

Jarrett Ott took the role of the now lovesick Onegin in both hands and made it his own with his superb baritone and impassioned acting. The scene was directed by Jordan Fein. We could imagine no rationale for Nicole Grebb's dressing of Ms. Borowiec as a 1950's prom queen and robbing her of the 19th c. dignity that the role requires.

Similarly, the third act of Puccini's La Bohème was beautifully sung by Alexandra Razskazoff as the ill-fated Mimi and Jessica Jones as the fickle Musetta. We liked Benjamin Werley as Rodolfo and significant contributions were made by Nicholas Davis' Marcello. 

Kyle Lang directed in the manner of film noir-- with costumes of the 1930's designed by Maria Nieto--a period just as remote from today's audience as the time in which the story took place, but with uglier clothes and hairstyles. To what end we could not fathom. Nothing was added to our understanding of the four bohemians.

Beautiful period costuming was provided by Krista Intravanuovo for Cendrillon in which Alyssa Martin captured all the delicacy of Massenet's deliciously Gallic tunes, with her suitor, the pants role of Le Prince Charmant, portrayed finely by mezzo-soprano Pascale Spinney. The harmony of their voices was stirring and we felt squarely in the fairy tale epoch, thanks to Matthew Ozawa's direction.

Similarly, there was an authentic feel of time and place given to his direction of the scene from Donizetti's Lucia di Lammermoor--a confrontation between Lucia's lover Edgardo (tenor Derrek Stark) and her controlling brother Enrico (baritone Jared Bybee). The voices were well matched and the characterizations apt.  We believed every moment. Caleb Howell designed the wonderful clan costuming.

Where Mr. Ozawa lapsed was in his staging of Tannhäuser which struck us as unsuitable to piano accompaniment.  One could barely identify it as a work of Richard Wagner. The men were dressed in suits (Sharne van Ryneveld) and it felt like a corporate meeting.  That being said, we heard some fine singing, especially from tenor Tyson Miller's Walther and bass Önay Köse's Biterolf. Tenor Cooper Nolan did well in the title role with David Leigh as the Landgrave, Adrian Smith as Wolfram, Andrew Maughan as Schreiber, and Andrew Bogard as Reinmar. 

Kathleen Clawson directed a fine scene from Rossini's Guillaume Tell, another case in which the apposite costuming (Cheyenne Smith) added to the believability. Baritone Andrew  Paulson made a fine Swiss patriot, helped along by Andrew Simpson as Walther, in convincing the wayward Arnold to return to the cause.  This role was superbly sung by tenor Carlos Santelli. Everyone's French sounded just fine.

Ambroise Thomas' Mignon impressed us on all accounts.  Sarah Coit was effective and moving as the unfortunate heroine and sang with a lovely free soprano. Carlos Santelli's fine tenor was heard in the role of Wilhelm Meister with bass-baritone Alan Higgs as the kind minstrel Lothario and baritone Nicholas Davis as the gypsy who sells Mignon to Herr Meister.  The scene was directed by Kyle Lang with the perfect costumes by Tommy Cobau. It made us yearn to see the entire opera!

Bellini's Norma is one of our favorite operas and we were presented with two lovely harmonizing voices--the soprano of Tracy Cantin as the eponymous Druid priestess and the mezzo-soprano of Olivia Vote as her handmaiden Adalgisa. In this moving scene from Act II, Norma tries to persuade Adalgisa to look after her children. Why director Jordan Fein decided to set this gorgeous duet in the room of the children is a mystery and why they were in vaguely 20th c. costumes (Morgan Warner) is beyond me. It added nothing in terms of insight and detracted from the verisimilitude of the scene.  The presence of a pistol was just plain jarring.

There was also a scene from a contemporary opera--Joby Talbot's Everest which premiered last year at The Dallas Opera. In spite of fine singing by tenor Tyson Miller as the expedition leader Rob, with mezzo-soprano Corrie Stallings as his wife and Mr. Bybee as Doug--the scene left us as cold as the climate on Everest and we have no wish to see the rest of the opera. Call us a Philistine if you wish but so many contemporary operas lack memorable vocal lines.  Give us romance, give us passion, give us murder, give us suicide, give us arias!

(c) meche kroop


Friday, August 26, 2016

VIOLETTA AND HER SISTERS--by Dell'Arte Opera Ensemble



Sean Christensen as Des Grieux and Nick Webb as his father in Massenet's Manon
(photo by Mark Baker)




Bonnie Frauenthal as Violetta embraced by Jose Heredia as Alfredo in Verdi's La Traviata (photo by Mark Baker)
Scene from Leoncavallo's La Bohème (photo by Mark Baker)

Scene from Puccini's La Rondine (photo by Mark Baker)

Every August we hurry back from Santa Fe to enjoy Dell'Arte Opera Ensemble's season, which always offers fresh delights. The theme of this year's season was "Violetta and her Sisters", comprising a selection of operas, the heroines of which were members of the demimonde. A very fine program note by Director Victoria Crutchfield provided new insights into the subculture of these women. It is happily left to the audience to ponder whether such women exist in 21st c. America.

Dell'Arte Opera Ensemble serves young artists by bridging the gap between academic training and a successful career; participants receive coaching, master classes, and performance opportunities. They serve the opera loving public by providing low cost high quality performances. One gets to see the stars of tomorrow at the early stages of their careers.

Verdi's La Traviata was given a highly moving production, thanks to some wonderful performances. As Violetta, soprano Bonnie Frauenthal sang and acted as beautifully as one might wish; right from the "Sempre libera" of Act I, we knew she was right for the part.

As her young respectable lover, tenor Jose Heredia pulled his performance from a very deep place.  He seemed to live the role, rather than act it; his pure voice has a lovely tonal quality. We particularly enjoyed his "De', miei bollenti spiriti".

Mezzo-soprano Hillary Grobe was an impressive Flora and soprano Ileana Santamaria made a fine Annina.  Violetta's patron Barone Douphol was portrayed by the versatile baritone Nobuki Momma with Boris Teodoro as the Marchese d'Obigny and Kofi Hayford as the good Dottor Grenvil.

Christopher Lilley sang the role of Gastone who sets the plot moving by introducing Alfredo to Violetta. Jeremiah Johnson brought very little to the role of Giorgio Germont, Alfredo's father, delivering an unattractive sound and no variation of color.

Famous baritone Kyle Pfortmiller directed; we especially enjoyed his staging of the party scenes. John Spencer IV conducted the Dell'Arte Opera Ensemble Festival Orchestra in a fine reduction suitable for the score of musicians. We appreciated Mary Ellen Stebbins lighting design in the final act when imaginary drapes are opened and dawn lights up the set.

Violetta happens to be one of our favorite characters in opera and Manon is one of our least favorite. Violetta has character and dignity. Manon is just a selfish manipulative tramp who destroys those around her.  In this production, directed by Victoria Crutchfield, we see her as the materialistic slut she really is.

Even in Act I, as portrayed by soprano Olivia Betzen, she does not seem to be all that innocent. Apparently her family is shipping her off to a convent for some very good reasons.

Her admiration of the three  glamorous "kept women" and her flirtation with the arrogant Guillot Montfortaine (superbly portrayed by Andrew Surrena) plus her stealing of the coach give us ample indication of her lack of character. One can dislike the character and admire the performance, which we did, especially her "Adieu, notre petite table". 

As the foolish Des Grieux, Sean Christensen handed in a stellar performance. The tessitura is high but he rose to the challenge, singing with pure tone, lovely phrasing, and impeccable French diction. The sincerity of his acting had us feeling very sorry for the character.

Baritone Nick Webb was superb as his severe father who was just as critical of his involvement with the church as he was of his son's involvement with Manon.

We did not care for the Lescaut of baritone Stan Lacy whose harsh voice lacked variety of color. The versatile Mr. Momma made a slimy Brétigny who joined forces with Lescaut to pry the all-too-willing Manon from the arms of Des Grieux.

We very much enjoyed the performances of the three "actresses"--Kristina Malinauskaite as Poussette, Perri Sussman as Javotte, and Hillary Grobe as Rosette.

Chris Fecteau himself wielded the baton, guiding the Festival Orchestra through Massenet's gorgeous melodic score. Anyone possessing a pair of ears could not help but leave humming the several tunes that wove the score together.

A third evening paired Act I from Puccini's reasonably well known La Rondine with Act I and Act IV  of Leoncavallo's forgotten La Bohème.  Director Brittany Goodwin staged the Puccini work in the 1960's, which worked surprisingly well.

Soprano Rebecca Richardson sang the role of Magda, a woman supported in high style by the grumpy but generous Rambaldo (Mr. Momma again!) but eager for a new experience with the young Ruggero (Mr. Christensen again). We enjoyed her recapitulation of the aria "Chi il bel sogno di Doretta", introduced by the poet Prunier (Douglas Sabo).

Emily Hughes shone in the role of Lisette, Magda's personal maid, who amusingly helps herself to Magda's attire. Her scene with the contemptuous Prunier criticizing her taste was amusing.

Magda's three friends, in full hippie regalia, were pure delight. Yvette was sung by Zoe Hart, Bianca by Taylor Kirk, and Suzy by Sophia Mortensen.

The surprise of the season was Leoncavallo's version of the same Henri Murger stories we know from the Puccini work. Leoncavallo wrote his own libretto whereas Puccini employed the services of Illica and Giacosa. Although the music is wonderful, the libretto may have been responsible for the failure of the Leoncavallo work to survive.

The characters are pretty much the same, although Marcello has been assigned the lead role in the tenor fach. In Act II, Marcello gets a wonderful aria "Io non ho che una povera stanzetta" which was recorded by Enrico Caruso but not heard on this particular night.

Jose Heredia made a fine Marcello with the lovely Magda Gartner as his girlfriend Musetta. Jay Chacon sang the baritone role of Rodolfo with soprano Ileana Santamaria singing beautifully as Mimi. Mr. Momma portrayed Schaunard who, in this version, has a clingy girlfriend Eufemia (mezzo-soprano Nicholle Bittlingmeyer) whom he treats dismissively. Colline was sung by Bert Boone.

Direction was by Joule Voelz. This is the first season for the Opera Leaders Mentorship Program in which young stage directors, designers, conductors and pianists get expert guidance on the job.

All participants in the program leave with something of value. The singers have at least one new role "under their belt" and many of them have several. This surely enhances their employability.

And members of the audience appear to be enjoying themselves enormously as evidenced by the standing ovations.  These were evenings well spent!

(c) meche kroop










Saturday, August 20, 2016

ALL HAIL THE DON AT SANTA FE OPERA

Leah Crocetto as Donna Anna in Mozart's Don Giovanni (photo by Ken Howard)



Nothing matches the thrill of opera when everything comes together.  Apt casting, effective conducting, great singing, respect for time and place, colorful costuming and sets that "stay out of the way".  Last night at the Santa Fe Opera, we saw and heard a Don Giovanni that will remain in our memory, thanks to all the above conditions being met.

Mozart's music is sublime from the portentous opening chords in D minor, leading to a stunningly melodic overture replete with upward and downward scale passages; this lets us know we are in for quite a ride.  Mozart even inserts a private joke toward the finale; the Don enjoys listening to the Count Almaviva's aria "Non piu andrai" from Mozart's own previously written opera Nozze di Figaro. And just listen to the party scene when we hear a sedate minuet for the aristocrats and a lively peasant dance simultaneously!

The opera premiered in Prague in 1787 toward the end of The Enlightenment. The social order was shifting and aristocrats were fair game.  Lorenzo Da Ponte's radical libretto included attempted rape, murder, licentious sexuality and freedom of expression. It also reflects upon an interesting aspect of Mozart's character; Mozart was quite a rebellious rascal himself and refused to repent his behavior, although a controlling father would have had him do so. 

The eponymous Don was portrayed by bass-baritone Daniel Okulitch who not only sang with gorgeous tone and phrasing, but who commanded the stage with great power and presence.  This Don seems to have some self-awareness and has a sense of humor, even when abusing his servant Leporello. We particularly enjoyed his "Champagne Aria" and his serenade "Deh vieni alla finestra"--in which he employed very different coloration.

Leporello was portrayed by bass-baritone Kyle Ketelsen. Mr. Ketelsen, making his debut with the Santa Fe Opera, was just as effective at drawing laughs from the audience as he was at singing. Does anyone not love the "Catalogue Aria"? He portrayed the character as easily bought and ultimately eager to find a less troubling master.

The role of Massetto was given an interesting twist by second-year apprentice Jarrett Ott. This young baritone has star quality written all over him. He not only has a steadfast tone but the ability to create a believable character.  Massetto is usually portrayed as a clumsy simpleton but Mr. Ott's peasant exhibited strength and will, leading to all kinds of interesting variations on the theme of his relationship with Zerlina. He could be a worthy rival to Don Giovanni and was only held back by the power of the aristocracy.

Lithuanian tenor Edgaras Montvidas is new to us and to the SFO as well. His tone has more texture to it than that we usually hear in the role of Don Ottavio, which made his duets with Donna Anna that much more interesting. He performed both of his arias with feeling--"Dalla sua pace" and "Il mio tesoro". The lavish applause was probably 90% for his lovely singing and 10% bonus for being completely unflappable when the heavens delivered a torrential downpour that swept through the partially open house.  Too bad the storm didn't wait for the scene when Don Giovanni gets dragged into hell!

As the Commendatore, Soloman Howard, also making his SFO debut, used his booming bass and stage presence to create a terrifying figure.

Lest you think that the men carried the show, let us reassure you that the three female parts were brilliantly sung and played. As Donna Anna, soprano Leah Crocetto, first heard at SFO in Maometto II six years ago, was a revelation. Her tone is substantial in size but creamy in texture. Her "Non mi dir" in Act II was deeply affecting.

Keri Alkema's Donna Elvira was equally compelling; her soprano was variously colored as she went from loving feelings to angry ones. We especially enjoyed her aria "Mi tradi quell'alma ingrato".

The role of Zerlina is a great one and Welsh soprano Rhian Lois was absolutely adorable. This role is her American debut and it was an auspicious one. She has one of those sweet light instruments that falls pleasantly on the ear.  She excelled in both arias--"Batti, batti, o bel Massetto" and "Vedrai carino". Her duet with Mr. Okulitch, the famous "La ci darem la mano" was pure delight.

If you surmised that the ensembles came across marvelously well, you would be as right as the rain that doused the house.

Mozart's magnificent score was well played by the orchestra, under the baton of John Nelson. Apprentices graced the stage as liveried servants and (strangely) nuns.

Thankfully, director Ron Daniels did not try to impose any weird concepts on this work, which is firmly rooted in the late 18th c. It is indeed a dramma giocoso and the direction milked every ounce of humor from the libretto. This served to make the final horror even more powerful as the Commendatore dragged the Don to a fiery hell, in which the stagecraft worked quite well.

This is not to fault Mr. Daniels but no director has ever made clear why a woman would pursue a man who tried to rape her. In this production, the Don is not wearing a mask so it became confusing when it took so long for her to recognize him as her father's killer.

The costume design by Emily Rebholz added much to the visual impact. Costumes seemed to be modern interpretations of 19th c. styles and were uniformly flattering.

Scenic design by Riccardo Hernandez was spare--just a few sconces on the wall and a huge sculpture of a head which occupied a substantial amount of onstage real estate. It was supposed to suggest a death mask but we didn't perceive it as adding anything to the otherwise perfect production.

However, Marcus Doshi's lighting design compensated for the lack of sets. In the party scene, the lighting was warm, as if the room had been lit by thousands of candles.

(c) meche kroop



RICHARD STRAUSS' CAPRICCIO AT SANTA FE OPERA

Amanda Majeski and Ben Bliss (photo by Ken Howard)



Richard Strauss' last opera Capriccio premiered in 1942 in Munich and received its professional debut right here at the Santa Fe Opera in 1958 (although the Juilliard School had presented it four years earlier).  Strauss has always been important at the Santa Fe Opera and last night's performance yielded numerous delights, although it will never be our favorite Strauss opera. That place belongs to Der Rosenkavalier!

Capriccio has been called "A Conversation Piece for Music" and it does indeed involve a great deal of conversation.  One might call it "talky". The libretto was written predominantly by Clemens Krauss with likely a great deal of input from Strauss himself. It comprises an exploration of the relative importance of literature and music.  After hearing the opera, we have decided for ourselves--Music 10, words 2!

We personally do not care for operas about ideas, politics, or philosophy.  We prefer operas about human relationships.  In this case, it is the relationship between the characters that held our interest. The philosophical argument has been dramatized as a decision to be made by the Countess Madeleine regarding her two suitors--the composer Flamand and the poet Olivier.

Soprano Amanda Majeski portrayed the countess elegantly and had her finest moment at the end of the opera when, alone onstage, she sings the same aria that Flamand had composed for her and sung in the first act. The exceptional young tenor Ben Bliss, whose singing has blissed us out for a few years now, perfectly personified an ardent young composer, confident in his talent.  The character likely represents Strauss himself; the string sextet which opens the opera, played by onstage musicians, amounts to a statement of the beauty of music without words.

But Flamand's song, which we heard sung first by tenor and later by soprano, is the most gorgeous piece in the opera and is a  setting of a love sonnet written by Olivier to woo the Countess. The role of Olivier was excellently handled by baritone Joshua Hopkins. Olivier accuses Flamand of ruining his text but we, and the audience, know better. The music has animated the text and brought it closer to our hearts.

Bass-baritone David Govertsen gave a marvelous performance as La Roche, the theater director, who gets to hold the stage for a considerable period of time in a rant about the performing arts. He is a guest at the home of the Countess along with Flamand and Olivier. Also present is Clairon, a famous actress, stylishly enacted by mezzo-soprano Susan Graham. 

It is the tiny touches that create a believable character and Ms. Graham's finest dramatic moment occurred when she opened the script for a reading, stretched out her arms to hold the book as far away as possible, and finally dived into her bag for her glasses. The gesture is common in those over 40, but the expression on her face was uniquely hers.  It was a moment! Obviously she was hiding her presbyopia from the Count, Madeleine's brother, with whom she was having a flirtation. 

The Count was enamored of her and had theatrical aspirations as her "scene partner". Baritone Craig Verm also succeeded in creating a believable character, one who was not particularly musically inclined. There was some gentle humor in the way he and his sister teased one another about their romantic interests.

Tenor Galeano Salas and soprano Shelley Jackson, both apprentices, made a fine appearance as the Italian Singers and drew laughs from the audience. While the artists were debating the worth of the various arts, this couple was off to the side devouring the cake and port.

Further humor was provided by the servants who had a great scene at the end in which they gave their opinions on the arts and on the behavior of the now-departed artists.  All were sung by apprentices: Thaddeus Ennen, Andrew Maughan, Andrew Paulson, Benjamin Werley, James Harrington, Nicholas Davis, John Matthew Myers, and Peter Scott Drackley.

Tenor Allan Glassman was quite funny as Monsieur Taupe the prompter who told the Major Domo (Apprentice bass-baritone Adrian Smith) that he was the most important individual at the opera.  Without him the show would not go on!

There were also giggles to be had when the artists discussed their opinions about opera, several of which corresponded to our opinions of the opera we were hearing in real time.

Conductor Leo Hussain seemed to have a special feeling for Strauss and brought out the textural subtleties. The vocal ensembles were particularly fine.

Director Tim Albery prevented this wordy opera from being static. However, we did not understand why the story, which was supposed to take place in the latter part of the 18th c., was updated to Strauss' own time of 1942. There was much discussion among the characters of Gluck's modernization of opera which seemed to make no sense.  

We are puzzled by all the recent updatings of operas to the 1940's and 50's--a period when costumes and hairstyles were particularly unflattering. We don't think Capriccio was horribly damaged by the updating; it just seemed pointless.

Costume and Set Design were by Tobias Hoheisel. Strangely, the Countess' drawing room, where all the action takes place, was in fine 18th c. design as would have been appropriate if the opera were staged as it was meant to be.  But the side rooms were furnished in unattractive mid 20th c. style.  In one moment, which delighted us, the Countess has a servant remove a boring piece of modern art from the wall and replace it with a classical oil painting.  

(c) meche kroop












Friday, August 19, 2016

SANTA FE OPERA DOES VANESSA

VANESSA by Samuel Barber at the Santa Fe Opera (photo by Ken Howard)

Samuel Barber's opera premiered at The Metropolitan Opera in 1958 after a long and difficult gestation.  Ultimately, Barber's partner Gian-Carlo Menotti completed the libretto, inspired by the atmosphere of Isak Dinesen's Seven Gothic Tales. Last night the Santa Fe Opera presented this opera with an all-star cast that did justice to Barber's score.  We rarely experience such perfect casting with nary a weak link.

As the eponymous Vanessa, Canadian soprano Erin Wall, whom we have greatly enjoyed as Strauss heroines right here at the Santa Fe Opera, performed the role with total commitment, employing her lustrous soprano to convey a complex character, a woman of single-minded hopefulness but blind to reality. Her voice soared with passion.

No less wonderful in the role of her niece Erika was French mezzo-soprano Virginie Verrez, who not only created a believable character but mastered the difficult task of making the English language comprehensible. This role is her Santa Fe Opera debut and we were thrilled to see her onstage here after enjoying her many performances in New York City. Her delivery of the most famous aria of the opera "Must the Winter Come So Soon" was perfection.

As the mysterious Anatol, Zach Borichevsky utilized his terrific tenor and dramatic skills to create another fascinating character--a glib fellow who has no use for depth of character--an opportunistic rascal courting aunt and niece simultaneously.

As the Doctor, bass-baritone James Morris commanded the stage as he usually does with his marvelous instrument and presence.  With all those complex characters, the story needed one who was straight-forward. A heavy story like this one also needs some moments of lightness, and a score light on memorable melody needed those precious moments when the Doctor attempts to teach Anatol to dance to a beautiful folk tune "Under the Willow Tree". His scene during the New Year's Ball in which he inebriatedly  contrasts his experience with women as patients and women as dancing partners was memorable. His elegiac aria about time and memory was riveting. It tickles us to learn that Mr. Morris was an apprentice here in 1969!

Mezzo-soprano Helene Schneiderman had little singing to do but her onstage concentration as the silent Baroness was compelling. As a very funny Major-Domo apprentice tenor Andrew Bogard demonstrated a winning manner as he coveted the furs of the wealthy guests. Apprentice bass-baritone Andrew Simpson made a fine footman.

For those who do not know the story, we see it as a character study--one of three generations of women insulated from the outside world and cosseted by servants. They live isolated and locked into Vanessa's illusory hope that the man she loved twenty years earlier would return at any time. In what amounts to a folie a deux, her niece Erika plays along, ordering special dishes for dinner and laying a place for him. Clearly, she worships her aunt and supports her.

The elderly Baroness has stopped speaking to her daughter and actually doesn't even speak with the Doctor, only with her niece. Erika confides in her grandmother but has a guilty secret that she cannot share with Vanessa.  This guilty secret is that she had intimate relations with Anatol the night he arrived at their country home after Vanessa had fled from him.  You see, this is not the Anatol that abandoned Vanessa 20 years earlier!  It is that man's son who has heard a great deal about Vanessa from his recently deceased father. He has come to take his father's place. It is likely that he is a gold digger.

Erika's character is just as uncompromising as her grandmother's. Anatol is interested in marrying her, perhaps out of guilt but also for financial reasons.  But Erika, who has fallen wildly in love with him, knows that he doesn't love her sufficiently and rejects him. She does this in spite of her grandmother's urging her to marry him and preserve her honor.

Meanwhile the scoundrel is also courting Vanessa who, lost in her own joy, fails to notice what is happening with her niece. When, after Erika's failed suicide attempt (and miscarriage), she confronts Anatol asking him to reveal all, he gives her the reassurance she has hoped for.  And so does Erika. They all collude to support Vanessa's illusion and Vanessa departs for Paris with Anatol, whom she has wed.  Erika is left behind to care for the aging Baroness and to inherit the lavish manse. 

Her isolation is one of disappointment and despair, whereas Vanessa's was one of hope.  But both women covered the mirrors as a denial of the passage of time.

The story has been set at the turn of the 20th c. in a Scandinavian country manse. Director James Robinson has updated the tale to about 1940 to no major disadvantage (or major benefit for that matter). He told the story well in a manner that held our interest throughout.  When we think of opera we think first of the Italians of the 19th c. and then of German and French composers. Contemporary operas in English generally strike us as "plays with music". So let it be noted that this worked extremely well as theater!

But what about Barber's music? He certainly knew how to write melodic vocal lines but eschewed them here with the exception of Erika's aria and the Doctor's. The final quintet however was magnificent. Barber used the orchestra to reflect the various moods of the piece and we have no complaint on that count. Leonard Slatkin's conducting captured the many moods.

Allen Moyer's scenic design was perfect.  The white and grey set reflected the coldness of the clime and the chill atmosphere of the manse.  As part of the design, a huge cracked mirror was revealed when the drapes were opened. A mirror reflects not quite perfectly but a cracked mirror reflects the distorted understanding of the characters.

James Schuette's costumes were appropriate to the period.  Although we would have preferred seeing the fashions of the original time period we were satisfied that the costumes established congruency with the intended updating.

Including this work in their season was a courageous move by The Santa Fe Opera and a wise one. It was an evening in which every element worked together to provide artistry and entertainment both. We have rarely enjoyed a 20th c. opera as much.

(c) meche kroop


Wednesday, August 17, 2016

GOUNOD'S ROMEO ET JULIETTE AT SANTA FE OPERA

Stephen Costello and Ailyn Perez (photo by Ken Howard)

Last night's performance of Charles Gounod's Romeo et Juliette soared with stunning singing and some mighty marvelous musicianship. The chorus (directed by the incomparable Susanne Sheston) sang with such fine French diction that not a word was missed.  The orchestra, under the baton of Harry Bicket, captured all of Gounod's nuance.  This was a co-production with the Fundacio del Gran Teatre del Liceu in Barcelona. The opera was making its first appearance at The Santa Fe Opera.

Gounod's success with Faust some 8 years earlier was arguably matched by this adaptation of the play by William Shakespeare by the same librettists who adapted Goethe's masterpiece--Jules Barbier and Michel Carre. Gounod was a master melodist and both operas leave one humming--a very good sign in our estimation.

The opera hews rather closely to the Shakespeare play with a few minor changes and a few deleted characters. To suit the operatic mentality, the librettists chose to focus on the romance between the two young lovers. Nonetheless, in our day and age, with gun control and belligerence on the front page every day, we cannot fail to miss the major point that meaningless hostility between any two groups--be they religious, political, or cultural--leads to irreparable loss to all concerned. We got the message when, at the conclusion of the opera, the opposing parties lay down their swords. Would that all mankind would get the message!

Returning to the issue of melody, the opera includes a breathtaking aria in waltz time for Juliette--"Je veux vivre"; one of our favorite sopranos Ailyn Perez performed this aria with technical mastery equalled only by the sparkle of youthful high spirits. During the course of the opera, Juliette must convey emotional growth from these adolescent high spirits to the solemn lifetime commitment to Romeo,  through the panic of risk-taking to the ultimate grief of loss. These emotional changes were nicely negotiated by Ms. Perez whose instrument has a lovely silvery tone. Her phrasing is impeccable and her French, perfect.

The opera has four duets occurring at different stages of the relationship between the two young lovers. Tenor Stephen Costello, whom we always enjoy, was at the top of his form, allowing his fine sound to soar with freedom of expression. Their two voices blended harmoniously in just the way we want a soprano and tenor to blend.  His "Ah! leve-toi, soleil" was brilliant.. Mr. Costello is appearing at The Santa Fe Opera for the first time. We hope he will return.

And what a pleasure it was to hear baritone Elliot Madore in the role of Romeo's friend Mercutio. His "Queen Mab" aria was delivered with vocal excellence and dramatic validity.  It is too bad that Mercutio gets killed off so early! We would have to say that Mr. Madore owns this role and, if you miss him here in Santa Fe, you can hear him sing the role at The Metropolitan Opera in New York.

As the young page Stephano, mezzo-soprano Emily Fons impressed us as favorably as she did when she performed the role of Cherubino three years ago.  But we didn't know she could dance!

Bass Raymond Aceto whom we enjoyed as Wells Fargo agent Ashby in Fanciulla del West, demonstrated his versatility in the role of Frere Laurent.

Mezzo-soprano Deborah Nansteel portrayed Juliette's nurse Gertrude and portrayed her successfully.

The role of Tybalt was well-sung by apprentice Cooper Nolan whose versatile tenor was enjoyed Sunday night in the role of Stiffelio in the Apprentice Recital.

As Juliette's father Count Capulet, baritone Tim Mix used his substantial instrument and stage presence to create a formidable character.

In contrast with the superlative musical values, the production values were disappointing. Director Stephen Lawless chose to remove the story from its natural time and place--Renaissance Verona--and set it in Gounod's own period.  Instead of civil unrest we had two opposing armies, one dressed in red, the other in blue. (Had they been blue and grey we might have been thinking of the American Civil War). In place of a monk in a monastery, we had a doctor in an army field hospital who took off his (bloodied) white coat and joined Romeo and Juliet in marriage right there in the hospital!

Perhaps Mr. Lawless meant to create an abstract symbol for all such internecine wars.  But in our opinion, it works better to stick to the specifics of time and place and allow the audience to generalize to their own situations.

The costumes by Ashley Martin-Davis were gorgeous and we loved the way the chorus stripped away their mourning black to reveal white ball gowns.  However, the 1860's fashions seemed terribly incongruent with the story and Ms. Perez' gown seemed quite inappropriate for an adolescent.  As a matter of fact the voluminous fabric seemed to swallow her up.

We were equally dismayed by Ms. Martin-Davis' set design.  We seemed to be in some kind of mausoleum which might have worked for the final tomb scene but which did not work well for Juliette's residence. The walls were divided into squares, each bearing a name. Watching the opera from the 8th row, we could make out the names which was distracting. They were mostly British names. Did this mean we were in England?  In America? Was there a body entombed behind each plaque? In truth, it looked like a morgue and we half expected the doctor to slide one open.

But that didn't happen.  What did happen was that doors opened and closed with singers entering and exiting. It made neither dramatic sense nor spatial sense.

So once again we have reveled in the musical artistry and despaired over "concept".  We will take our opera "neat", thank you, without the concept.

(c) meche kroop


Tuesday, August 16, 2016

APPRENTICE SCENES FROM SANTA FE OPERA

Mary-Hollis Hundley and Jacquelyn Stucker in a scene from Mozart's Nozze di Figaro  (photo by Bobby Gutierrez)

One of the best musical events taking place in Santa Fe in August takes place right in the gorgeous opera house a short drive north of the center of town.  We are speaking of the Apprentice Scenes, of which there are two evenings.  The first one took place on August 14th and the second one will take place on August 21st.  We always organize our visits to The City Different to include both evenings. It is our chance to hear the stars of tomorrow and we wouldn’t miss it for the world

Under the direction of David Holloway, the Apprentice Program carefully selects emerging talents whose stars are on the rise in the operatic firmament. Many of them are invited back for a second year of training and some of them will appear in subsequent summers in one or more of the five main operas.

The first of the two evenings provided many delights along with exposure to young artists, some of whom are new to us and others whose careers we have been following for the past few years. Some we know from competitions, some from their schools, and some from other programs.

These young artists also serve as members of the chorus or in small roles in the five operas presented over the summer.  But in the Apprentice Scenes, we get to see them in starring roles—as exciting for us as it is for them.  And not just for us, but for the crowd that packs in for the same reason as we do.  As an added bonus, the tickets are incredibly reasonable for such fine entertainment.

Most entertaining of the eight scenes presented was the final one on the program, which left the audience smiling. We long ago lost count of how many times we have seen Mozart’s Nozze di Figaro without ever losing our appreciation and enthusiasm for this divine comedy. In this case, the entire cast sang and acted in such a manner that brought out all of librettist Da Ponte’s humor. 

The scene chosen was the one in which the angry jealous Count and the anxious Countess return to the Countess’ boudoir to expose the hidden Cherubino.  The two sopranos were equally superb with Jacquelyn Stucker portraying the spunky Susanna and Mary Hollis-Hundley creating a lovely and dignified Countess.  As the furious Count, Jorge Espino went from rage to embarrassment to puzzlement. 

Arriving on the scene later were a quartet of characters, each with a different agenda but joined in a delightful dance. Bass-baritone Andrew Simpson made a very funny Antonio. Tenor Stephen Carroll portrayed the slimy Don Basilio; mezzo-soprano Nadia Farad enacted Marcellina with bass James Harrington as Don Bartolo.  

Kyle Long’s direction was delightful, eliciting every ounce of humor from the crazy situation. Maria Noel Nieto’s costumes were beautiful and accurately representative of Mozart’s period.

Similarly superb was the scene from Modest Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov, effectively directed by Matthew Ozawa, in which Grigori (tenor Andrew Marks Maughn) arrives at an inn close to the Lithuanian border. He is traveling in the company of two monks—Misael (tenor Stephen Martin) and the hilariously drunken Variaan, perfectly portrayed by bass David Leigh. 

Thanks to Russian opera we get great roles for brilliant basses!  We loved the brilliant bass Onay Kose in the role of Nikitch, the illiterate police officer. In a serious work like Boris Godunov, it is particularly welcome to have some comic relief; here, the monks took turns translating the arrest warrant to point the finger of suspicion toward the other.  Mezzo-soprano Mariya Kaganskaya made a fine Innkeeper with a lovely voice and stage presence. Nicole Grebb’s costumes were perfect.

Kathleen Clawson directed the scene from Giuseppi Verdi’s Stiffelio in which the hero confronts his unfaithful wife. We were so pleased to see tenor Cooper Nolan—well remembered from his starring roles at The Manhattan School of Music some years ago—as the enraged eponymous minister.  As his cheating wife, soprano Rebecca Krynski Cox, also remembered from MSM, went through several emotional phases without compromising her fine vocal technique. We liked Phoebe Miller’s authentic costume design  which, along with the wonderful singing, created a fine opener for the evening.

We enjoyed a wonderful trio of tenors in Gioachino Rossini’s Armida—the scene in which the knight Rinaldo (Peter Scott Drackley) must be rescued from the spell of the sorceress of the title. Benjamin Werley sang Ubaldo and the role of Carlo was taken by Adam Bonanni, whose crystal instrument soared. The three voices in harmony created a unique sound. Kyle Lang directed effectively and Jeni O’Malley’s costumes were splendid with Rinaldo lounging in linen and the two rescuers storming in wearing impressive armor.

The sorceress Armida is not present in this scene but in a scene from G. F. Handel’s Alcina, the eponymous sorceress is very much present.  Personified by the beautiful soprano Jacquelyn Stucker, Alcina is a force to be reckoned with as she uses every trick in the book to win the knight Ruggiero away from his beloved Bradamante.  The two mezzo-sopranos were excellent with Kirsten Choi as Bradamante and Briana Hunter giving an equally fine performance as Ruggiero. Director Jordan Fein staged the romantic triangle quite cleverly making use of a swiveling chaise longue.

So we were rather puzzled by Mr. Fein’s clumsy staging of Verdi’s La Traviata. Jailene Torres’ costumes disappointed equally. Violetta (Rebecca Nathanson) is supposed to be in her sickbed at dawn with Annina sitting vigil at her bedside.  But NO!  Violetta enters in a contemporary ball gown with Annina in street clothes.  The undressing made no sense and the collapsing and rising from the floor was not congruent with the libretto or the music.

The scene was abruptly truncated at an awkward place, but not until Alfredo was lying on the floor on top of the dying Violetta!  The staging was so disruptive that it interfered with our appreciation of the singing, although the entrance of Alfredo brought in the arrestingly pure tenor of Galeano Salas, almost making us forget the sins of direction.  We want to hear more of mezzo-soprano Evanna Chiew who sang the role of Annina and sang it well under adverse circumstances.

Those who favor contemporary opera probably enjoyed Matthew Ozawa’s staging of John Adams’ Nixon in China. We didn’t enjoy the opera some years back at the Metropolitan Opera, and didn’t enjoy it any more upon second hearing. Although the instrumental music, reminiscent of Philip Glass’, is interesting, the vocal lines are not. The singers are asked to deal with the difficult diphthongs of English at the very worst part of their range. Furthermore, intellectual sparring does not strike us as the right topic for an opera.  We most enjoyed the trio of Chinese secretaries—Evanna Chiew, Kristen Choi, and Nadia Farad.  If one can have three tenors, why not three mezzos!

The scene from Kismet struck us as silly.  Although we adore Alexander Borodin’s music, the work belongs on the Broadway stage— even with the finely trained operatic voices of Chelsea Davidson, Stephen Carroll, Jorge Espino, and James Harrington. We generally love to hear Broadway musicals performed in an opera house with trained voices, but the libretto here is just not worth Borodin’s music.

(c) meche kroop