Sunday, July 30, 2017
It is the Time of Troubles in Russia--the interregnum between the death of Ivan the Terrible and the establishment of the Romanov Dynasty--at the turn of the 17th c. One would never know this from the staging of Dvorak's nearly forgotten opera Dimitrij, taking place in the magnificent Fisher Center of Bard College, as part of the annual Bard Summerscape.
The singers sport contemporary attire and the only clue that we are in Russia is the writing on the rear wall of the set which, according to our best source, means "Victory Begins Here". But Director Anne Bogart (significantly, an alumna of Bard College) has written in her program notes that she was thinking of the unsettled time following the dismantling of the Berlin Wall. We would have greatly preferred to experience this story the way Dvorak and librettist Marie Cervinkova-Riegrova intended and to figure out the resonances on our own without being spoon fed. Frankly, art requires no explanation. If one needs program notes to explain your thinking, you have failed.
Fortunately, the musical values were exemplary and there was no failure on the part of the American Symphony Orchestra under the baton of Maestro Leon Botstein, who is famous for championing forgotten works.
To see one of Dvorak's ten operas, composed two decades before his famous Rusalka, was a rare opportunity, well worth the six plus hours on a bus. We were not so sure during the overture when the gorgeous music was not trusted but was accompanied by a child running around in circles. Nor were we terribly thrilled during the static first act which did offer some superb choral writing and served to introduce the characters and their supporters.
Dimitrij arrives with his Polish wife, the noblewoman Marina, and an occupying Polish army intent on getting him on the Russian throne. On the other side we have the boyar Shuisky and Basmanov, followers of Boris Godunov, the death of whom has left the country in a state of chaos. Godunov's daughter Xenia is under the protection of Shuisky. For Dimitrij to access the throne he must be accepted by the widow of Ivan the Terrible, the Tsarina Marfa.
It was not until the successive acts that we were able to appreciate the gifts of the singers. We were thrilled to hear some fine arias and duets that were well worth a second hearing.
As the eponymous Dimitrij, tenor Clay Hilley demonstrated a strong and clear tenor sound which appeared to be well suited to the heldentenor fach. His dramatic chops were equally sound and he generated sympathy for the character who, according to this version (playing fast and loose with history as opera often does) is unaware that he is not the son of Ivan the Terrible. Indeed, in this version, he is the son of a peasant who has been raised to believe he is who he claims to be. This makes it easy for us to sympathize with him.
Soprano Melissa Citro made a beautiful and hateful Marina. Her ample soprano has a steel core and her acting was convincing. She is sufficiently beautiful to convince us that she would capture Dimitrij's love whilst her portrayal of self-interest, arrogance, and jealous rage were so believable that we were happy to see her dispatched. She behaved in such a way as to alienate the Russian people by refusing to accept the Orthodox faith in favor of her native Catholicism. We hope to see this splendid soprano soon in one of her several Ring Cycles.
As Xenia, soprano Olga Tolkmit used her somewhat smaller but highly focused instrument to convey the ambivalence her character must feel when wooed by the new tsar, who has just turned away from his narcissistic wife. Her petite stature and vocal colors contributed to her vulnerability; her death, ordered by the vengeful Marina, was a terribly tragic moment.
Mezzo-soprano Nora Sourouzian made a marvelous Marfa. Her voice is rich and dense with coloration and she totally convinced us of her inner struggle. She knows that Dimitrij is not her son but she believes his ascension to the throne will be good for Russia and publicly recognizes him as her offspring. It is only at the end when the Patriarch (played by Peixin Chen with booming bass and imposing stature) asks her to swear on the cross that she collapses in fear of damnation.
We were completely satisfied as well with the performances of baritone Levi Hernandez as Shuisky and bass-baritone Joseph Barron as Basmanov. Under the direction of James Bagwell, the chorus was also fine. We could not have imagined better casting or a better realization of Dvorak's magnificent score. We believe this is the first time the opera has been performed fully staged in the United States.
We only wish the production team had given it a more Russian look and one that was authentic to the period. David Zinn's set was peculiar, looking like a recreation hall in a church. It had to serve as the gates of Moscow, the Kremlin, the tombs, Shuisky's house, and Dimitrij's lodging. The lackluster setting was helped by Brian H. Scott's evocative lighting.
As far as Constance Hoffman's costume design, if she had been told to create costumes of contemporary casual she succeeded, but it appeared as if the cast were told to rummage through their closet for any old thing. No praise there!
The men just wore suits and ties, making it difficult to tell one from the other without opera glasses. Only the Patriarch was appropriately costumed, looking just as one might have imagined. Marina's wedding costume went beyond casual contemporary but was neither flattering nor appropriate.
We were grateful that the opera was performed in Czech and loved the way the vocal lines parallelled the sound of the speech. Language coach was Veronique Firkusny. There will be a few additional performances and the opportunity to hear this opera is worth the trip.
We will close with an interesting tidbit reminiscent of the "flap of a butterfly's wing" theory. The terrible famine in Russia in the early 17th c. which added so greatly to the country's turmoil, was attributed to a climate change wrought by the eruption of a volcano in Peru!
(c) meche kroop
Wednesday, July 26, 2017
Thursday, July 13, 2017
Tuesday, July 11, 2017
Monday, July 10, 2017
|Hyungjoo Eom, Sigal Chen, Roselin Osser, Alyson Sheehan, Aaron Halevy, Christian Kas, Rocky Sellers, Cassie Machamer, Matias Moncada, and Lisa Parente|
Last night's iteration was presented by Manhattan Opera Studio which we were introduced to last summer in a performance of Hansel und Gretl (review archived and found through the search function). This summer training program for young artists has grown rapidly from performing at Scorca Hall to the much larger and more comfortable theater that was formerly occupied by DiCapo Opera. The small orchestra which was squeezed into Scorca Hall now numbers 19 and occupies a proper pit, giving conductor Keith Chambers plenty of room to conduct an orchestra comprising many instrumentalists that play under his baton at New Amsterdam Opera.
Once upon a time we asked a famous symphony conductor where was the best place to sit. He replied, "As close to the conductor as possible". So it was that we decided to sit just behind Maestro Chambers on the front row, getting a first rate view of him and the musicians in the pit. This provided new revelations of just how marvelous Mozart's orchestration is and just how effective Maestro Chambers' conducting is. His style is restrained and not at all theatrical and there is a terrific rapport with the instrumentalists.
Kudos to Leesa Dahl for the harpsichord accompaniment to the recitativi.
The singing was excellent and gave evidence of some fine coaching. The acting revealed the fine hand of Stage Director Walker Lewis. We always appreciate the bits of stage business that make the characters seem like people we know personally rather than caricatures.
Pride of place goes to the eponymous Figaro, brought to vivid life by Matias Moncada. His characterization was so astute that we almost neglected to note his fine singing. His fine rich sound was differentially colored since Figaro has different feelings for his bride Susanna than he does for his arrogant boss. Just listen to how the color changes when Marcellina is known to be his mother and not an unwelcome creditor!
As Susanna, Lisa Parente created a sweet spunky character, smart enough to help her Figaro to foil those who would block their marriage. With blond braids and a petite figure, she looked absolutely perfect for the part. Her voice is a bit on the smallish side, but Maestro Chambers kept the orchestra down and her Act IV aria "Deh vieni, non tardar" was well done.
As Count Almaviva, Hyungjoo Eom made a fine foil, an arrogant and entitled aristocrat with designs on Susanna. He gets baffled and outwitted a lot. Mr. Eom used dynamic variation and vocal coloration to express his many moods. His arrogance and lechery made us think of Trump; this self-induced connection was far more valuable than if the director had placed him in a red wig! We object when directors try to spoon feed us!
As the neglected Countess, Sigal Chen sang with a rich full soprano that was notable for some impressive legato and beautiful phrasing. For most of the opera she is either depressed or disgusted with her husband's philandering and her two major arias ("Porgi amor" and "Dove sono") were appropriately colored. It was lovely to hear her voice change at the end when she forgives her wayward husband.
Mozart ensured that each major character got at least two arias and so we heard Roselin Osser as Cherubino perform "Non so piu" and "Voi che sapete". The acting she did with her body truly amplified the character but we wish she had not mugged quite that much.
We enjoyed the Marcellina of Cassie Machamer and were absolutely thrilled to hear her Act IV aria "Il capro e la capretta" which is very rarely included these days. This would make a fine stand-alone audition piece for her.
Rocky Sellers' Bartolo made a fine impression and he created a character not as stuffy as he is usually made out to be. He too has an Act IV aria that is rarely heard and we were glad for the opportunity to appreciate his fine voice. He showed special skills in the patter singing.
Aaron Halevy made good use of his tenor and mobile body to create a Don Basilio that was more colorful and humorous than loathsome in his gossiping. We barely recognized him in the role of the sober notary Don Curzio.
Alyson Sheehan made a sweet Barbarina and Christian Kas was very funny in the role of the bibulous gardener Antonio who unwittingly nearly foils the elaborate plot of Figaro, Susanna, and the Countess.
The singers performed exceptionally well in the ensembles, particularly the quartet in Act II. Ms. Chen and Ms. Parente sounded exquisite together with their two very different timbres.
The singing and acting were so impressive that we scarcely missed the lavish sets that are generally employed. A few packing cartons indicated the room Figaro was measuring for the marital bed (and, in a cute directorial touch, measuring Susanna). The Countess' room needed only a desk and a chair for Cherubino to hide behind. The garden was represented by some tall poles standing in for trees.
That the costumes were contemporary streetwear was disjunctive since aristocracy and the custom of droit de seigneur belonged to the 18th c. We can understand the decision made for budgetary reasons and overlook the issue. It would appear that the singers chose clothes from their own closets that would best express their character's station in life.
Susanna's simple white blouse and skirt were a good choice. The Count's suit and tie seemed right, with Figaro's more casual attire illustrating the difference in their station. Bartolo's outfit fell in the middle but we couldn't understand what was intended by the white lines painted under his eyes and across his scalp.
Basilio's get-up was sufficiently "rainbow" and Antonio's garb was perfect for a working man. Cherubino's outfit just seemed wrong with a particularly unflattering hat. And we wished that the Countess' cocktail dress had been more on the elegant side. No big deal, just sayin'.
The Italian was so well sung and the acting so effective that the lack of titles was not at all distressing, although we imagine that some people in the audience felt the absence.
All in all, it was a terrific evening; we would have been happy to see it once again the weekend of August 11th, along with The Magic Flute, which will alternate. But we will be reviewing opera in Santa Fe.
If you love Mozart, put it on your calendar!
(c) meche kroop
Sunday, July 9, 2017
The glorious farewell piece was Vincenzo Bellini's third opera Il Pirata. Inspired by Mozart and admired by Wagner, Donizetti, and Chopin, Bellini was a child prodigy trained at the conservatory in Naples. He came from a family of musicians and attended by virtue of a scholarship.
The head of the school gave him a valuable lesson that we wish the composers of today would heed. To paraphrase, if you don't master melody, you will wind up as a church organist in some small town. This must have stung since that pretty much described Bellini's family!
Fortunately, young Vincenzo heeded the advice and became known for his melodic gifts. It seems to us that he spun out long silken melodies like a silkworm whereas Rossini's melodies tumble out helter skelter. If his brilliant fioritura is reserved for moments of heightened passion, it permits long lyric lines to unspool at leisure.
So it was with Il Pirata, so magnificently performed by some major stars with Maestro Crutchfield conducting the Orchestra of St. Luke's. Soprano Angela Meade, about whom we have written before, needs no introduction. She is a confirmed superstar with a luxurious sound that sets the air to vibrating and a generous palette of vocal colors. Her coloratura in the final mad scene drove the audience wild with appreciation.
On the other hand, Argentinean tenor Santiago Ballerini just appeared on our event horizon but we recognize a star when we hear one. His physical stature is on the slight side but his vocal stature towers over most of the tenors we have recently heard. Not yet thirty years old, he has created a sensation in South America and is just achieving recognition in the United States.
The timbre of his voice is hugely appealing and he does not push or oversing. He possesses a stunning messa di voce and manages to float the high notes without apparent effort. We consider ourself a fan.
The opera itself does not have the most interesting libretto but Felice Romani worked exceptionally well with Bellini and the poetry of the text is outstanding, especially as married to Bellini's gorgeous melodies.
The story concerns two rivals for political supremacy and for the love of a woman. Gualtiero, the Count of Montalto (Mr. Ballerini) had been defeated by Ernesto, the Duke of Caldora (bass Harold Wilson) and lost everything except for his love for Imogene (Ms. Meade) who was obliged to wed Caldora to save her father's life. That's the backstory.
When the opera opens, Gualtiero is a pirate and he is losing his ship. This is recounted by the superb chorus, comprising the Bel Canto Young Artists who performed magnificently throughout the opera.
In the subsequent two acts he and Imogene recognize one another and realize that their love will never be consummated. The two men duel. The Duke dies. The Count turns himself in and is executed. Imogene goes mad.
Not much of a story but this was only 1827 and the beginning of the Romantic period of opera. Since the opera was semi-staged there was no ship and no shipwreck, just a lot of fantastic singing--not only arias but some impressive duets, trios, and ensembles.
We were particularly happy to hear tenor Sean Christensen, one of Caramoor's Young Artists in the substantial role of Itulbo, Gualtiero's lieutenant. We have been writing about Mr. Christensen's pleasing tenor for some time now and admired his growth as an artist.
As Goffredo, Gualtiero's former tutor, bass-baritone Joseph Beutel (well remembered from Santa Fe Opera) made a fine showing as well. And soprano Robyn Marie Lamp excelled in the role of Adele, Imogene's companion, a more generous role than that usually given to companions.
It was a splendid evening and a genuine pleasure to hear such grand voices all onstage together. As Caramoor's operatic interest will expand to include different orchestras and conductors and Teatro Nuovo will continue to present bel canto masterpieces, there will be a strong impetus to pull this city girl upcountry! Caramoor's 2018 offering will be Handel's Atalanta.
We wish both programs well as we reflect on all the wonderful singing we have heard at Caramoor and all the special artists to whom we have been introduced.
(c) meche kroop