fresh and frothy ‘Barber’ kicks off Opera Phila’s 40th season

Operatoonity.com review: The Barber of Seville presented by Opera Philadelphia
Live performance: Sunday, September 28, 2014
The Academy of Music, Philadelphia, PA
Music: Gioachino Rossini
Text: Cesare Sterbini
4.5 stars

4.5strslg

 

 

The principals in Opera Phila's season opener delivered a real crowd-pleaser of a show on September 28

The principals in Opera Phila’s season opener delivered a zany crowd-pleaser of a show at the Academy of Music on September 28, 2014

Bravo! Bravo! Bravissimo! The planets must have been aligned (as were all the creative forces in play) over the Academy of Music on September 28, 2014 for Opera Philadelphia’s 40th season opening production The Barber of Seville.

What a wonderful romp! From the brisk and beautiful opening overture–from conception to execution–this was a frothy, foamy, and wholly hilarious show that made opera buffa as relevant and entertaining today as it was when it was written.

Credit the over-the-top direction by Michael Shell for the show’s overwhelming success. He envisioned a production as eye-opening as the one audiences experienced in Rossini’s day. Hence, we see carnival performers to dancing chickens to the lead tenor masquerading as a hippie-dippy music teacher. His entire creative team, including the whimsical set design by Shoko Kambara, carried out Shell’s vision to a tee.

The flavor of this Barber was rollicking, fresh, and fun. Director Shell credits Pedro Almodóvar for inspiring his treatment for this show. I suppose I am late to the Almodóvar party, but I do know the work of Almodóvar’s muse–Blake Edwards–and I guarantee you will recognize and appreciate the same absurd qualities of this show if you are a fan of the Pink Panther movies. This marked Shell’s directorial debut with Opera Phila, and I certainly hope it won’t be his last effort with Philly’s premier company.

The entire company was emotionally invested in pulling off this wacky ‘Barber’ from the moment that Figaro sung by baritone Jonathan Beyer rolled onto stage in a bright blue frock coat on a bicycle.

Jonathan Beyer cut a dashing figure as Figaro.

Jonathan Beyer cut a dashing figure as Figaro.

Beyer faces some daunting expectations playing one of classic opera’s signature roles and singing one of the most beloved and also challenging arias to kick off the show. He played a sturdy Figaro, but it was not a mind-blowing performance.  Clearly, he is not a Rossini baritone. And while the end result was solid, he seemed to be laboring very hard to achieve his sound. Since Figaro gets the last bow, you want to feel as though you loved that character the best. But in this production, Figaro was simply outsung, outplayed,  outperformed by Dr. Bartolo.

Dr. Bartolo?

Bass Kevin Burdette stole the show as Dr. Bartolo.

Bass Kevin Burdette stole the show as Dr. Bartolo.

There were many fine performances in this version of Barber, but bass Kevin Burdette as the ludicrously evil Dr. Bartolo absolutely stole the show–hands down.  I hardly recognized Burdette from his earlier star turn with Opera Philadelphia singing the loathsome Prophet in their stunning 2012 production of Dark Sisters. What a versatile talent Burdette is–as convincing in great comedic roles as he is in great dramatic ones! He is also obviously a human rubber band with the ability to twist his body into more convolutions than an unbaked pretzel all while seamlessly carrying off his vocals to great effect. He simply put the audience in stitches with each appearance.

Taylor Stanton sang the lovelorn Count Almaviva.

Taylor Stanton sang the lovelorn Count Almaviva.

Tenor Taylor Stayton as Count Almaviva was a great boon to the show’s success. His singing was also strong but not as effortless as Burdette’s.  However, his comic timing was spot on, particularly impersonating the psychedelic substitute music teacher.

Jennifer Holloway sang the role of Rosina.

Jennifer Holloway sang the role of Rosina.

As Rosina, apple of Count Almaviva’s eye, mezzo-soprano Jennifer Holloway was lovely to see and hear. In this zany production, Holloway reminded me of Marilyn in the old TV show The Munsters, in which everyone and everything around her is off-kilter, yet she has the grace and good looks to go with the flow and win everyone’s affection in the end. I would love to hear her in other roles. A very impressive performance!

Wayne Tigges turned in a hilarious Don Basilio.

Wayne Tigges turned in a hilarious Don Basilio.

As Rosina’s music teacher, bass-baritone Wayne Tigges delighted the audience with his rock-star aria delivered with bump, grind, and a fake microphone.  He proved a wonderful foil to soprano Katrina Thurman’s Berta, who took what might be considered a cameo or throwaway role and transformed it into a lustrous showcase of all her assets.

Katrina Thurman turned heads as the dishy Berta.

Katrina Thurman turned heads as the shapely Berta.

It was surprising to see how young many of the performers appeared in the program versus how they carried off older, more mature characters on stage with such aplomb. Credit must go to costume designer Amanda Seymour to wigs and make-up by David Zimmerman for the inspired platform they created for the performers to succeed.

Credit Opera Philadelphia conductor Corrado Rovaris for the glorious and controlled sound of the orchestra. The Barber of Seville is a long opera, and while the tempos were brisk, this is one opera that needs to keep moving.

In actually, the production flew by. In no time at all, it seemed, everyone was on their feet at curtain call, rewarding the cast and conductor with a standing ovation for their efforts.

I am still hoping to see and hear a Figaro for the ages, which is why I gave this production 4.5 instead of 5 stars. But what a successful start to Opera Phila’s 40th season! I hope this augurs many more wonderful productions in 2014-15, for their 40th anniversary season.

Leave a Comment

Filed under anniversary, North American Opera, Opera and humor, opera and romance, Regional opera, Reviews

‘Butterfly’ soars at Glimmerglass

Operatoonity.com review: Madame Butterflypresented by Glimmerglass Festival
Live performance: Tuesday, July 29, 2014
The Alice Busch Opera Theater, Cooperstown, NY
5.0 stars

five stars

The Glimmerglass Festival's 2014 production of Puccini's "Madame Butterfly." Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival.

The Glimmerglass Festival’s 2014 production of Puccini’s “Madame Butterfly.” Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival.

Exceedingly beautiful, tender, and elegiac, well executed in every aspect. The new production of Madame Butterfly at the Glimmerglass Festival in Cooperstown is an elegant, extraordinary show that delivers on all the weighty expectations placed on a beloved Puccini work.

It featured an evocative and versatile set and special effects including a shower of pale pink rose petals …

Yunah Lee as Cio-Cio-San in The Glimmerglass Festival's 2014 production of Puccini's "Madame Butterfly." Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival.

Yunah Lee as Cio-Cio-San in The Glimmerglass Festival’s 2014 production of Puccini’s “Madame Butterfly.” Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival.

. . . and, later,  a billowing curtain of blood.

Yunah Lee as Cio-Cio-San and Dinyar Vania as Lieutenant B.F. Pinkerton in The Glimmerglass Festival's 2014 production of Puccini's "Madame Butterfly." Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival.

Yunah Lee as Cio-Cio-San and Dinyar Vania as Lieutenant B.F. Pinkerton in The Glimmerglass Festival’s 2014 production of Puccini’s “Madame Butterfly.” Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival.

It was a consummate theatrical production under the directorial aegis of the Festival’s Artistic and General Director Francesca Zambello, offering a sweeping saga of the powerful tensions between traditional Eastern and imperialistic Western values and culture as distilled through the single act of abandonment of a sympathetic heroine by a blundering American naval officer that drove many audience members to tears as early as the first act and storming to their feet a standing ovation by curtain call.

Amidst hours of artistry, stunning music, and many spectacular voices, it takes some kind of  special performer portraying Butterfly to soar higher than all others and all the other elements, elevating a production to a transformative operatic experience. As Cio-Cio-San, Korean soprano Yunah Lee sang a Butterfly for the ages, worthy of elegy. Lee conveyed power, beauty, and grace in every note, in every gesture, in every facial expression–a living, breathing symbol of that lovely butterfly whose wings are pinned down by Westerners seeking to preserve and enjoy them by killing them.

Yunah Lee as Cio-Cio-San with members of the ensemble in The Glimmerglass Festival's 2014 production of Puccini's "Madame Butterfly." Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival.

Yunah Lee as Cio-Cio-San with members of the ensemble in The Glimmerglass Festival’s 2014 production of Puccini’s “Madame Butterfly.” Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival.

Everything Lee sang was perfection, from the famous Act I love duet with Pinkerton played impressively by American tenor Dinyar Vanya beginning with Bimba, Bimba, non piangere…

Dinyar Vania as Lieutenant B.F. Pinkerton and Yunah Lee as Cio-Cio-San in The Glimmerglass Festival's 2014 production of "Madame Butterfly." Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival.

Dinyar Vania as Lieutenant B.F. Pinkerton and Yunah Lee as Cio-Cio-San in The Glimmerglass Festival’s 2014 production of “Madame Butterfly.” Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival.

…to the opera’s most famous aria Un bel dì, delivered flawlessly. Though the audience knows through Suzuki’s reactions that Pinkerton is not coming back to live with her, somehow Lee has made us believe through her powerful rendition that there’s a glimmer of chance of a happy reunion–even if we’ve seen the show before, numerous times.

Kristen Choi as Suzuki and Yunah Lee as Cio-CIo-San in The Glimmerglass Festival's 2014 production of "Madame Butterfly." Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival.

Kristen Choi as Suzuki and Yunah Lee as Cio-CIo-San in The Glimmerglass Festival’s 2014 production of “Madame Butterfly.” Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival.

As Suzuki, American mezzo and Young Artists Kristen Choi was first-rate, turning in a nuanced and polished performance beyond her years, totally believable as Butterfly’s loyal maid, who is, if not older, considerably more worldly wise.

And the list of impressive performances continues. As Sharpless, Ukrainian tenor Aleksey Bogdanov sang the role with uncommon depth and sensitivity.  In addition to substantial artistry, Bogdanov has enormous stage presence and intelligence. Each of his warnings to Pinkerton, “Didn’t I tell you to be careful?” rings more urgent than the last because this Sharpless understands the consequences of Pinkerton’s actions even though Pinkerton himself remains clueless until the final scene of the show.

Kristen Choi as Suzuki and Aleksey Bogdanov as Sharpless in The Glimmerglass Festival's 2014 production of Puccini's "Madame Butterfly." Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival.

Kristen Choi as Suzuki and Aleksey Bogdanov as Sharpless in The Glimmerglass Festival’s 2014 production of Puccini’s “Madame Butterfly.” Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival.

Tenor Dinyar Vanya was ideally cast as Pinkerton. He has a clear, spinto quality to his voice that one expects of a leading man in a Puccini opera. His infatuation with Butterfly was so believable rendered and his love duet with her to end the first act so beautifully sung, it brought this reviewer to tears.

Dinyar Vania as Lieutenant B.F. Pinkerton in The Glimmerglass Festival's 2014 production of "Madame Butterfly." Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival.

Dinyar Vania as Lieutenant B.F. Pinkerton in The Glimmerglass Festival’s 2014 production of “Madame Butterfly.” Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival.

Though not a singing role, special mention must go to little Louis McKinny, as Sorrow, Butterfly and Pinkerton’s three-year-old son. Somehow, this adorable child understood how critical his role is to the success of the production. He executed his stage directions perfectly, comforting his stricken mother, even remembering to innocently play with the toy boat as he marched offstage, just as he was instructed to do.

Yunah Lee as Cio-Cio-San and Louis McKinny as Sorrow in The Glimmerglass Festival's 2014 production of Puccini's "Madame Butterfly." Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival.

Yunah Lee as Cio-Cio-San and Louis McKinny as Sorrow in The Glimmerglass Festival’s 2014 production of Puccini’s “Madame Butterfly.” Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival.

The show was conducted by the Festival’s new music director Joseph Calaneri. During the smaller more intimate moments of the show, he conducted his capable musicians as if they were gloved on his hand. But in the initial numbers of the first act, it seemed like both Vania and Bogdanov had to compete with the orchestra to be heard and both have huge voices.

Those who have seen ‘Butterfly’ before might be surprised by the directorial choices in this production. Scenes that have been traditionally set in Cio-Cio San’s village are set in the American Consulate instead. Personally, I found this to be an effective choice in driving home the themes central to the piece, including the intrusion of American military power and influence abroad without an adequate respect for and understanding of foreign peoples and cultures.

Set design was by Michael Yergen and lighting by Robert Wierzel.

Set design was by Michael Yergen and lighting by Robert Wierzel.

So yes, this production offers a different artistic approach, but a winning one, and the work of all involved from the sometimes ethereal-as-butterfly-wings scrims and fly pieces designed by Michael Yeargan to the period costumes by Anna Yavich to the lighting by Robert Wierzel all combined synergistically to splendid effect.

It is an original version and yet one that lifts up the music and conventions of Madame Butterfly painstakingly inserted by the composer and the original librettists that begs to be seen.  There are six more performances of Madame Butterfly at Glimmerglass Festival through August 23. Don’t miss it.

* * *

Every mainstage performance is preceded by a Show Talk beginning one hour before curtain. The Show Talk for Butterfly was given by Director Francesca Zambella and is a wonderful add-on that will enrich your Glimmerglass Festival experience.

 

Leave a Comment

Filed under 20th Century Opera, Classic Opera, Favorite arias, Festival Opera, North American Opera, Opera festivals, Reviews

odd duck ‘Ariadne’ is oddly satisfying at Glimmerglass

Operatoonity.com reviewAriadne in Naxos presented by Glimmerglass Festival
Live performance: Monday, July 28, 2014
Alice Busch Opera Theater; Cooperstown, NY
4-stars

 

Ariadne in Naxos presented by Glimmerglass Festival, 2014 | photo by Jessica Kray

Ariadne in Naxos presented by Glimmerglass Festival, 2014 | photo by Jessica Kray

To put it plainly, Ariadne in Naxos is an odd show. It’s a mashup of German slapstick that is not nearly as funny to Americans as Germans think it is and obscure if not obsolete homage to Greco-Roman mythology. So, why not do something completely unexpected and set the show smack in the middle of the Great State of New York? On a farm. Did I mention in a barn…with live goats and chickens?

The Glimmerglass Festival's 2014 production of Strauss' "Ariadne in Naxos." Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival.

The Glimmerglass Festival’s 2014 production of Strauss’ “Ariadne in Naxos.” Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival.

Glimmerglass Festival’s new production of ‘Ariadne’ (music by Richard Strauss) employed an English adaptation of von Hofmannsthal’s original libretto by Kelly Rourke for most of the show–the second half “real” opera scenes were sung in German. Again, another interesting twist that worked.

The premise is silly. Two different classes of performers have been invited to this New York farmstead to perform both an opera and a burlesque. After arguing over which portion of the entertainment will go first, at the last-minute they are told that they have to combine both styles in one show, which comprises the second act.

Director Francesca Zambello made other signature choices that stamped this new production as hers besides the barnyard setting and English/German libretto: the diva played by Christine Goerke was riotously comic as the Prima Donna in the first act, mugging unabashedly for the audience:

Christine Goerke as Prima Donna in The Glimmerglass Festival's 2014 production of Strauss' "Ariadne in Naxos." Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival.

Christine Goerke as Prima Donna in The Glimmerglass Festival’s 2014 production of Strauss’ “Ariadne in Naxos.” Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival.

The burlesque troupe was attired and comported themselves like a hip hop gang:

L to R: Gerard Michael D'Emilio as Truffaldino, Carlton Ford as Harlequin, Rachele Gilmore as Zerbinetta, Christine Goerke as Ariadne, Andrew Penning as Scaramuccio and Brian Ross Yeakley as Brighella in The Glimmerglass Festival's 2014 production of Strauss' "Ariadne in Naxos." Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival.

L to R: Gerard Michael D’Emilio as Truffaldino, Carlton Ford as Harlequin, Rachele Gilmore as Zerbinetta, Christine Goerke as Ariadne, Andrew Penning as Scaramuccio and Brian Ross Yeakley as Brighella in The Glimmerglass Festival’s 2014 production of Strauss’ “Ariadne in Naxos.” Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival.

The temperamental Composer sung by Catherine Martin was in trousers, but it was no trouser role. Nor did she play it “straight” since she winds up in a girl-on-girl relationship with Zerbinetta played by Rachele Gilmore.

Rachele Gilmore as Zerbinetta and Catherine Martin as Composer in The Glimmerglass Festival's 2014 production of Strauss' "Ariadne in Naxos." Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival.

Rachele Gilmore as Zerbinetta and Catherine Martin as Composer in The Glimmerglass Festival’s 2014 production of Strauss’ “Ariadne in Naxos.” Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival.

It was also the most sexualized version of  ‘Ariadne’ I’ve ever seen, with the burlesque troupe doing more twerking than you’ll likely find in a Rihanna video and Zerbinetta strutting her stuff in skin-tight leggings held up by  a garter belt, while fanning herself with black ostrich feathers.

Rachele Gilmore as Zerbinetta in The Glimmerglass Festival's 2014 production of Strauss' "Ariadne in Naxos." Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival.

Rachele Gilmore as Zerbinetta in The Glimmerglass Festival’s 2014 production of Strauss’ “Ariadne in Naxos.” Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival.

All distinctive choices that, strangely enough, all made this show succeed in a unique way.

The production values were to be savored. A  charming, original, and functional set by Troy Hourie, inspired costumes by Erik Teague, atmospheric lighting by Mark McCullough, fun and funny hair & makeup by Anne Ford-Coates, and comedic choreography by Eric Sean Fogel all combined seamlessly to carry out Zambello’s distinctive vision for the production.

Of course, what would classic opera be without voices of exceptional character? It would be nothing, which is why opera is so very challenging, perhaps the most challenging of all art forms to pull off.

The singers in ‘Ariadne’ were all extraordinary. Christine Goerke exhibited tremendous vocal power and control. Her comic timing as the Prima Donna was so glorious that I missed her Divine-Miss-M spark in the second act while singing the character Ariadne in the legit opera. Jen Houser, Beth Lytwynec, and Jacqueline Echols were a sheer delight as the vocal trio Naiad, Dryad, and Echo, showcasing some of Strauss’s most beautiful and soaring composition abilities in Act II.

L to R: Jeni Houser as Naiad, Beth Lytwynec as Dryad and Jacqueline Echols as Echo in The Glimmerglass Festival's 2014 production of Strauss' "Ariadne in Naxos." Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival.

L to R: Jeni Houser as Naiad, Beth Lytwynec as Dryad and Jacqueline Echols as Echo in The Glimmerglass Festival’s 2014 production of Strauss’ “Ariadne in Naxos.” Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival.

Despite their twerking or perhaps because of it, the Back-Street-Boys-Meets-Sweeney-Todd comedy troupe of Gerard Michael D’Emilio as Truffaldino, Carlton Ford as Harlequin, Andrew Penning as Scaramuccio, and Brian Ross Yeakley as Brighella were sheerly delightful and outrageously costumed. All happened to be talented singers and actors and captured focus every time they appeared on stage.

Clockwise from top: Brian Ross Yeakley as Brighella, Christine Goerke as Ariadne, Gerard Michael D'Emilio as Truffaldino, Andrew Penning as Scaramuccio and Carlton Ford as Harlequin in The Glimmerglass Festival's 2014 production of Strauss' "Ariadne in Naxos." Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival.

Clockwise from top: Brian Ross Yeakley as Brighella, Christine Goerke as Ariadne, Gerard Michael D’Emilio as Truffaldino, Andrew Penning as Scaramuccio and Carlton Ford as Harlequin in The Glimmerglass Festival’s 2014 production of Strauss’ “Ariadne in Naxos.” Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival.

But this show really belonged to Zerbinetta. And it is supposed to the way it is written, despite its being titled Ariadne in Naxos. It is Zerbinetta who has the biggest transformation amidst an 18-minute aria in Act II. Yes, an 18-minute aria, which Rachele Gilmore sung as if she was born to do it. I was stunned to read other critics’ reviews of this show that lacked significant mention of Ms. Gilmore because she makes this show at Glimmerglass. Yes, she is very shapely and attractive and works every single feminine wile God has endowed her with, which, by the way, does not diminish her talent, not one iota. She also has tremendous operatic chops and deserves highest praise for her performance. So, why such stingy reviews for this performer, compadres?

Conductor Kathleen Kelly has a graceful, fluid conducting form on the podium. While ‘Ariadne’ did not constitute the most ideal balance between orchestra and performers that I’ve encountered at Glimmerglass, the singers were overall capably supported. I did notice a few times that singers were struggling to be heard. Some such as Catherine Martin even lost notes, and the conductor needs to be mindful not to overpower the performers and leave them “stranded” during difficult passages.

Several break-out performances and super-solid production values make this an ‘Ariadne’ worth seeing. And I can almost assuredly guarantee, you’ve never seen an Ariadne like this one. Ariadne in Naxos continues through August 23.

Leave a Comment

Filed under 20th Century Opera, North American Opera, Opera and humor, Reviews

Opera Phila’s ‘Coffin’ a living dream

Operatoonity.com review: A Coffin in Egypt, an East Coast Premiere presented by Opera Philadelphia
Live performance: Sunday, June 8, 2014
The Perelman Theater, Kimmel Center
5.0 stars

five stars

Frederica von Stade as Myrtle Bledsoe

Frederica von Stade as Myrtle Bledsoe

A triumph. A tour de force. A masterpiece.

A Coffin in Egypt presented by Opera Philadelphia merits all of these accolades and more. This chamber opera is a five-star production that constitutes the very future of opera and demands to be seen. More than melodrama. More than one style of music. More than great score and greater singing. Both visual and vocal, humorous and tragic, vivid and visionary, A Coffin in Egypt is an original contemporary opera based on the masterful play by Horton Foote that must be experienced. Because it is an operatic experience.

Opera Philadelphia deserves a tremendous amount of credit for bringing the show to Philadelphia audiences. Of late, they have made the intimate Perelman Theater a showcase for some of the most important new works in opera: Dark Sisters, Powder Her Face, and now, A Coffin in Egypt.

This show is a gleaming amalgam comprising a great book by Leonard Foglia, who directed this production and the original Foote play; a hauntingly beautiful score by composer Ricky Ian Gordon; and a vehicle for a world-class talent, Frederica von Stade as Myrtle Bledsoe.

As Myrtle Bledsoe, Frederica von Stade portrays a woman who has lived ninety years.

As Myrtle Bledsoe, Frederica von Stade portrays a woman who has lived ninety years.

In Coffin in Egypt, 90-year-old Myrtle Bledsoe, who has outlived her husband, her children, and other close relatives, looks back on her life, and relives all her hurts, regrets, and sorrows–coping with a philandering husband, losing her coveted looks, and settling for a secluded life on the lonely Texas prairie. Like many significantly old people, she repeats herself. Watching this opera is like putting a puzzle together. Pieces and themes introduced earlier drop in during remembered scenes in her life, which are played out for the audience.

This show was written as a vehicle for Frederica von Stade, and within moments of her first appearance on stage, it is apparent why. She creates a sensitive, soul-searing portrait of a nonagenarian who traded love and adulation for duty and permanence. And the audience is enraptured as von Stade splays open Myrtle’s soul, sharing why she feels cheated, betrayed, and full of remorse for the choices she made, when she might have been a great actress or someone’s treasured soul mate. While exiting the theater, another audience member commented on what a great actress von Stade was. She is better than great. She is a transcendent performer, with vocal gifts so pliant that she scales emotional heights and depths in song and words for which many reputable stage actors have only words.

And she is exquisitely directed by Foglia, who pushes her to the edge of melodrama, then shoves her off the cliff to obtain an authentic portrait of a flawed, Southern woman who keeps on living only to recount torturous memories.

One of the most evocative elements in the show are the gospel hymns sung by a quartet of “Negroes,” as Myrtle Bledsoe calls them, dressed in church attire, juxtaposed against Myrtle’s reflections.  The composer’s production notes explain that the show was to be a one-woman vehicle originally and that the gospel music was only going to be recorded and overlaid with sounds of the prairie. It was a stroke of genius to add the gospel-singing churchgoers singing live in the onstage production. The gospel tunes, idyllically harmonized by Veronica Chapman-Smith, Julie-Ann Green, Taiwan Norris, and Frank Mitchell, added a rich and highly original texture to the show. Their singing started out as sheerly beautiful music but evolved to become Myrtle’s tormenter as she recounted the story of her husband’s emotional abandonment when he fell for a mixed-race woman.

016 A COFFIN IN EGYPT

All of the elements that should work in tandem in a production did just that. A symbolic yet powerful and often luminous set by Riccardo Hernandez, lighting by Brain Nason, and the Opera Philadelphia Orchestra conducted by Timothy Myers were critical success factors in the artistic quality and production values this show offered.

There are two more performances of A Coffin in Egypt, on June 13 and 15. I implore you to go. Or die trying.

Leave a Comment

Filed under 21st Century Opera, contemporary opera, opera firsts, Regional opera, Reviews, Uncategorized

Jessye Norman’s ‘Stand Up Straight and Sing!’ {book review}

Operatoonity.com book review: Stand Up Straight and Sing!
A memoir by Soprano Jessye Norman
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (2014)
316 pages with index
4.5 stars

four and a half stars

 

 

Stand up Straight and Sing
Author Event/National Author Tour: The Free Library of Philadelphia
; Tuesday, May 27; 7:30 pm

From the publisher: Born and raised in Augusta, Georgia, a descendant of many generations of hardworking slave and free ancestors, she grew up amid the challenges of Jim Crow racism with the civil rights movement just beginning to awaken. Nurtured by a close family and tight-knit community centered on the local church, Jessye sang songs and spirituals constantly, never dreaming that it might lead to a career. Only when she watched a documentary about the legendary Marian Anderson did she first realize that singing could be a profession. Decades later, after a meteoric rise at the Berlin Opera, a long-delayed debut at the Metropolitan Opera, and forays into spirituals, blues, jazz, and other roots music, she has become one of America’s cultural treasures. Stand Up Straight and Sing! is an inspiring woman’s account of an astonishing life.

My review:
If human beings can be born to greatness, then Jessye Norman was, without a doubt, born to be a great person. Despite growing up in the Deep South in the 1950s, when African Americans were judged by the color of their skin and not by the content of their character, Norman would not allow racial prejudice (or any other type of discrimination) deter her from her ambition to let her God-given gifts carry her as far as they would take her.

She grew up in a loving, well-ordered family with parents who were neither too strict nor indulgent. They were devoted servants to their church and their community, and Norman witnessed the example of selfless service the entire time she was growing up, which undoubtedly informs the person she is today. The name of her memoir is taken from her mother’s admonition to “Stand Up Straight” whenever she performed in public, and because Norman knew she wanted to make more out of her life, even from a very early age, she seized every chance she could to let her light shine.

If you have seen Jessye Norman perform on stage, you might expect that her writing would be grand and gracious, and it is. She writes with elegance and care, whether she is describing being cheated out of a deserving wage as a young woman performing in Europe or being discriminated against in a Bavarian Radio International Music Competition, presumably because she was a black woman trying to make her mark in a field during a time where the performers were predominantly white.

She tells a few tales out of school, like when she was insulted by a hotel security guard only a few years ago, who saw her swimming in the hotel pool and demanded to know if she was a registered guest. That tale is from a chapter aptly entitled “Racism as It Lives and Breathes.”

But this is no gritty expose of the hardships and injustices she *surely* suffered en route to a glittering career as an international opera star.  But make no mistake, she has suffered almost as much as she has been feted. For instance, perhaps because of her heritage, she has been asked to sing “Amazing Grace,” many times and at some very high profile events, even though, she explains, the song was written by a British man who made his fortune in the slave trade, who might even have lifted the tune from the African slaves packed into the hull of his ship.

Stand Up Straight and Sing! is equal parts reflection and inspiration, as if to say, I have made something of myself in a world replete with flaws but also one that is laden with opportunity, and surely you can, too. Besides, how many of us will be fortunate enough to have an introduction written by Metropolitan Opera conductor of renown James Levine, who is so full of praise and adoration for Norman that he uses more exclamation points than most family holiday letters do.

Throughout the book, Norman does drop a number of names. She’s sung at Jackie Onassis’s funeral, and also at Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall’s. Yet, she’s earned that privilege. She endured oppression as a person of color and another level of discrimination which she herself realized she’d been forced to suffer again as a woman striving for independence.

Sexism is still very much a part of our culture, to say nothing of sexual and domestic violence against women and the current backlash against long-fought-for and hard-won civil liberties for women. Oh, yes, a great deal has been accomplished, but much work remains.” –Jessye Norman, Stand Up Straight and Sing!

As a rule, I am not a great fan of memoir because it’s remarkably difficult to strip your life bare and be completely candid as the one chronicling your own story.  While Norman’s life experiences and talents have accorded her some fantastic experiences, this memoir suffers a bit from the overarching feeling that everything is just a bit too rosy all the time. Perhaps I have misinterpreted her uncanny ability to detach herself from some very painful episodes or perhaps it is that selfsame ability to detach that has enabled her to endure and persevere in a demanding profession.

Also, organization is a challenge in memoir too. Though the organization is somewhat chronological, it is not purely so. While that may be realistic, i.e., while you are remembering your childhood, your mind drifts to a performance at one of the world’s greatest and most prestigious venues, it does contribute to a less than seamless quality to the writing.

Jessye Norman need not have written her memoir in order to take her rightful place in the pantheon of opera greats. Just listen to her singing “Ave Maria,” in German, a language she also speaks (because she doesn’t sing in any language she can’t speak):

YouTube Preview Image

And yet, she somehow looms even greater for writing and daring to share her own story. You can almost hear her parents saying, ” Well, Jessye, if you can write this book, then you should write it. Do everything you are able to do.”

Brave, Jessye Norman. You are a marvelous writer, a remarkable singer, and a truly great human being.

Editor’s note: A copy of this memoir was given to me by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

2 Comments

Filed under memoir, Performers, Reviews, Singer Sunday, sopranos