Nicholas Newton, Amanda Lynn Bottoms, Lucy Evans, Ben Brady, Magdalena Kuzma, and Justin Burgess in a scene from L'Italiana in Algeri
What a delightful evening we spent watching and listening as this year's crop of apprentices showed their stuff. And what stuff they showed! Nothing thrills us more than discovering new major talents and witnessing the ascendancy of their stardom. Last night, all of the apprentices sounded great but a few stood out, perhaps because they were given the right role to suit their unique gifts.
We chose the above photo of a scene from Rossini's L'Italiana in Algeri because of its superlative ensemble work. Of course, Rossini is known not only for his comedic genius but also for his ability to combine several vocal lines into a tapestry of sound, almost always composed to bring an act to a rollicking climax. If anyone starts complaining that this opera is not politically correct, we will gladly stare you down!
In this case, marvelous mezzo Amanda Lynn Bottoms created a character with wondrous spunk; her Isabella used all her ingenuity to beguile bass-baritone Ben Brady's Mustafa. No one could doubt that she would secure the release of her lover Lindoro (tenor Andrew Turner) whom Mustafa had convinced to marry his cast-off wife Elvira (soprano Magdalena Kuzma). Rounding out the well-matched ensemble were mezzo-soprano Lucy Evans as the servant Zulma, bass-baritone Nicholas Newton as Taddeo, and baritone Justin Burgess as Haly. James Robinson's astute direction created sense out of all the confusion.
Another charming ensemble piece, directed by Cristal Manich, was a scene from Strauss' Ariadne auf Naxos. We cannot recall enjoying this scene as much as we did last night. Soprano Amber Norelai created a flirtatious Zerbinetta who teases all the members of her troupe (tenors Thomas Cilluffo and Jordan Loyd, and bass-baritone Peter Barber) before running off with the patiently waiting Harlekin of baritone Luke Sutliff. Once again we marveled at the superb vocalism and acting skills of the entire cast.
On a more serious note, we were impressed by the ensemble work of the cast of Verdi's Don Carlos as they performed, in the original French, the scene in which Elisabeth de Valois (soprano Murrella Parton) confronts her husband Phillippe II (bass Griffen Hogan Tracy) about her missing jewel box. He in turn confronts her about his suspicions of her adultery. Never mind that he has been committing adultery with the Princess Eboli whose entrance on the scene leads to her guilty confession of betraying her beloved Queen out of jealousy. And here, we get to the meat of the scene in which the Princess sings the famous aria "O don fatale". It was exciting to hear these fine artists being given the rare opportunity to tackle Verdi and, under the direction of Kathleen Clawson, to succeed so admirably. Mezzo-soprano Sarah Saturnino's Eboli was heart wrenching as she summoned a panoply of emotions and accepted responsibility for her misdeed. This is one voice we will definitely watch for future greatness!
Another serious ensemble piece was equally filled with confrontation. Donizetti's Lucia di Lammermoor is one of our favorite operas, filled with glorious bel canto singing, luscious melodies, and a gripping story. No, we did not get Lucia's mad scene; rather we saw a scene of confrontations. Poor Lucia (Ms. Kuzma) has been forced by her desperate brother Enrico (baritone Sejin Park) to sign a marriage contract with the politically useful Arturo Bucklaw (tenor Tianchi Zhang). Her beloved Edgardo of Ravenswood (tenor Kevin Punnackal) arrives on the scene and confronts the victimized Lucia. Enrico challenges Edgardo and only the intervention of the family minister Raimondo (Mr. Newton) forestalls bloodshed. But we know that no one gets out alive. Lucia will murder Arturo and die of madness, Enrico's fate is not a good one, nor is Edgardo's. Everyone handled the bel canto lines with grace and accuracy. Ken Cazan's direction brought everything together.
Ken Cazan's direction of the scene from Mozart's Cosi fan tutte was somewhat less successful in that it tried too hard and wound up appearing excessive to the point of losing the humor. We thought it was a mistake to set the scene in what appeared to be the 1950's, as remote to us as da Ponte's time. (What's with the recent popularity of that unattractive period????) Nonetheless, we enjoyed the singing of soprano Emily Richter as Fiordiligi, mezzo Sophia Maekawa as Dorabella, tenor Anthony León as Ferrando, baritone Kyle Miller as Guglielmo, Mr. Brady as Don Alfonso, and the Despina of soprano Amanda Olea. Conductor Robert Tweten brought the voices together into a satisfying whole.
Regular readers will recall our fondness for zarzuela and will understand how pleased we were to see a scene from Torroba's Luisa Fernanda on last night's program.The selection was brief but affecting with Ms. Oleo portraying the eponymous heroine and Mr. León filling the role of Javier Moreno. What gorgeous vocal lines! And Spanish sings so beautifully!
Another duet was staged by Ms. Clawson--the confrontation between the eponymous heroine of Puccini's Suor Angelica and her cold aristocratic aunt, the Principessa, in a stunning performance by contralto Lauren Decker, another artist marked for stardom by virtue of the unique timbre of her voice and intense delivery. We couldn't help thinking about the mores of Puccini's time and the rigid morality of Italy's declining aristocracy. Poor Angelica (affecting soprano Ardeen Pierre), having given birth without benefit of marriage, had been sent to a convent, presumably to lessen the impact of social opprobrium. For years she has longed for contact with her family. Finally her aunt visits but only to get her to sign away her inheritance. The ultimate insult to her mental state was learning that the son she bore had died. Ms. Pierre sang movingly and was as convincing as a victim as Ms. Decker was as a rigid unfeeling tyrant.
The only contemporary scene on the program left us as cold as the Principessa. Next to all the passion and confrontation of 18th and 19th c. opera (and even into the 20th c.) Gregory Spears' Fellow Traveler lacked the intensity and melodic interest of the other seven scenes on the program. Nonetheless, the performances of Mr. Sutliff as State Department official Hawkins Fuller and tenor Jonah Hoskins as a milk-drinking young reporter were believable and vocally excellent. We just want to hear these excellent voices performing something less "conversational".
In sum, it was a stellar evening with plenty of variety. We enjoyed the piano accompaniment and never missed the orchestra. We are sure the young artists enjoyed performing with professional staging, direction, and costuming--all of which were of the highest order.
© meche kroop