@OperaPhila’s ‘Skin’ a Frosty Chiller

Operatoonity.com review: Written on Skin presented by Opera Philadelphia
Live performance: Sunday, February 11, 2:30 p.m.
The Academy of Music, Philadelphia
Music: George Benjamin
Libretto: Martin Crimp
4.0 out of 5.0 stars

 

 

“Love’s not a picture; love is an act,” sings Agnès (soprano Lauren Snouffer) to the Boy (countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo) as she offers herself to him in Opera Philadelphia’s Written on Skin. | photo by Kelly and Massa for Opera Philadelphia

Of all the East Coast opera houses that have premiered contemporary operas, Opera Philadelphia has introduced more than a few compelling, arresting, and culturally and socially profound works and co-productions into today’s canon. I’ve reviewed numerous of those operas, some of the most unforgettable being Cold Mountain (2016), Ainadamar (2014), A Coffin in Egypt  (2014), Silent Night (2013), and Dark Sisters (2012).

Their latest premiere, Written on Skin, is brave. The production elements are exquisite, ingeniously designed with a richly beautiful palette of  deep blues and burnished golds. The voices are world-class. But unlike some @OperaPhila shows that got under my skin, this Skin left me cold.

The design palette for Written on Skin intrigued while the tonal palette alienated. | photo by Kelly and Massa for Opera Philadelphia

The tale at its heart, pun entirely intended, is chilling. A powerful and cruel medieval plunderer and pillager learns his wife (who is no more than goods and chattel to him) is having a consuming love affair. He cuts out her young lover’s heart and feeds it to her. She then throws herself to her death.

“See … how I pause her mid-fall,” sings the Boy (countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo) as Agnès (soprano Lauren Snouffer) jumps from the balcony. | photo by Kelly and Massa for Opera Philadelphia

It’s a grisly story that makes for good theater and potentially great opera. However, many operatic devices are hardwired into the opera to estrange the reader from fully engaging with it: dissonant, haunting music that is both atonal and arrhythmic; characters referring to themselves in the third person in the narrative to distance themselves and the viewers from the story; a sardonic libretto. Why? I can only assume it’s to make the work less accessible and more artful and to get the viewer to work harder to appreciate and understand it. In a Reader’s Guide written by Dr. Dan Darigan on the style of  author Martin Crimp, which @OperaPhila supplied to reviewers, Darigan says, “Written on Skin is an opera that continues to make me think…my appreciation for this opera was not something that set in right away.”

The performances and the production elements are certainly worthy of appreciation—no—hearty accolades. In her @OperaPhila debut as Agnès, soprano Lauren Snouffer was luminous. She sang with a clear shimmering and silvery tone and embracing her role as a dispassionate young wife who awakens into her own skin when she has an affair with the Boy.

Agnès (soprano Lauren Snouffer) visits the workshop to learn “how a book is made.” | photo by Kelly and Massa for Opera Philadelphia

Countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo sang the Angel and the Boy, who becomes sexually entangled with the Protector’s (wealthy landowner) wife when he is hired to illustrate the Protector’s family history. Roth Costanzo is gloriously talented, investing himself in every role I’ve seen him conquer and is surely one of the finest countertenors singing professionally today. My only issue with his role is one not of his own making. As the Boy, Roth Costanzo enters into a sexual liaison with a married woman. The character name Boy is totally off-putting in this “woke” age. This opera is less than 10 years old and premiered in the U.S. in the throes of the “Me, Too” movement. The implications of a Boy entering into an affair with a grown woman and then having his heart cut out by her murderous husband honestly made my skin crawl.

The Boy (countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo) in Written on Skin | photo by Kelly and Massa for Opera Philadelphia

Naming a lead character the Protector is the greatest irony of this piece. The libretto reveals that the Protector is sacking villages, impaling babies, cutting the hearts out of young men. He places inhuman strictures on his wife as observed from lines such as “No pure woman asks for a kiss. No clean woman asks to be touched,” and then he tells his wife she is “a child.” A child he married and is made to eat her lover’s heart. Mark Stone has a serviceable and sturdy baritone which he pours into his alternately self-aggrandizing, menacing, and murderous character—the sheer embodiment of toxic masculinity. Overall an outstanding performance in a loathsome role.

The Protector (baritone Mark Stone) is “addicted to purity and violence.” | photo by Kelly and Massa for Opera Philadelphia

Only two other roles need mentioned: Mezzo-soprano Krisztina Szabó and tenor Alasdair Kent. Like Roth Costanzo, they each sang two roles, fluidly moving between the essential characters of Marie and John and the ironic Angels, who function like a Greek chorus, commenting on the action rather than advancing it. Each delivered striking turns and earning their wings, especially as the Angels, who were more demons than do-gooders.

John (tenor Alasdair Kent), Marie (mezzo-soprano Krisztina Szabó), and the Boy (countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo) in Written on Skin. | photo by Kelly and Massa

The production was beautifully conceived and executed as more futuristic than literal. At one point, the illuminated square pages of the book are writ large on  similarly shaped set pieces to suggest the Protector’s story has grown so large as to consume their lives—a pure dead brilliant device. The lighting, the set, the direction, the costumes yielded a seamless integration of effects to haunt and to terrorize.

Agnès (soprano Lauren Snouffer) confronts the Boy (countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo). | photo by Kelly and Massa for Opera Philadelphia

Before writing this review, I poured through a copy of the libretto, which is artfully crafted. It  dares and arrests and challenges in the way one expects from great works and improves upon more careful review. My issues are that the foundational elements have made it nearly impossible to enjoy and virtually inaccessible. By contrast, composer Stephen Schwartz created an opera based on another grisly tale Séance on a Wet Afternoon (my review here), which New York City Opera brought to the East Coast in 2011. The New York cognoscenti dismissed the production for its accessibility. Unlike this production, Séance  never tried so hard to be art and offered a much more fulfilling theatrical experience.

I am not “the woman” declares Agnès (soprano Lauren Snouffer) to the Boy (countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo). “My name is Agnès.

I applaud Opera Phila for their derring-do, to bring this kind of work to the mainstage and for an exquisite piece in terms of production values. It’s not a show, however, that made me comfortable in my own skin. They can and have produced works that aren’t merely droll and accessible nor dripping with alienation.

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A Golden Operatoonity!


Do you know the story about Operatoonity.com?

This past weekend, I had a unique opportunity to tell it at the Pennsylvania Writers Conference. Seven years ago, in February of 2010, I founded this blog to build a platform for my opera-themed novel about a small-town opera guild struggling to mount Don Giovanni.

Two presenters during a Wilkes University Creative Writing Program residency suggested I take a semester’s worth of research I conducted for the novel and turn it into a blog.

What I thought was a pursuit secondary to fiction writing became much larger than I ever imagined. I’ve had so many unique and fulfilling experiences in the world of opera since I launched this blog.

I have met aspiring performers and singers at the top of their professions. I have witnessed unforgettable moments in the realm of live opera performance because of Operatoonity.com.

I am very thankful to all the people who helped me along the way to this blog being viewed more than 6 million times in the last seven years. I can tell you that the public relations directors at two major East Coast Companies, Frank Luzi at Opera Philadelphia and Brittany Lesavoy at Glimmerglass Festival, are two of the finest in the industry and have made reviewing shows for their organizations a total pleasure.

My presentation took the form of a PowerPoint called “Turning Research into a Blog.” If you’d like to view it, you can do so here. I am proud to tell you the photos used in this presentation were all from productions I reviewed since 2010.

Thanks to so many visitors, performers, and fellow aficionados in the operaverse! You have enriched my life in ways I simply can’t express. Here’s to seven more years, God willing.

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Voices in ‘Siege’ Set Glimmerglass Stage Spinning

Operatoonity.com reviewThe Siege of Calais presented by Glimmerglass Festival
Live performance: Monday, July 24, 1:30 p.m.
Alice Busch Opera Theater, Cooperstown, New York
Music: Gaetano Donizetti
Libretto: Salvadore Cammarano
3.5 out of 5.0 stars

 

 

The Glimmerglass Festival’s 2017 production of the American premiere of Donizetti’s “The Siege of Calais.” Photo: Carrington Spires/The Glimmerglass Festival

This summer Glimmerglass Festival took on a seldom-seen Donizetti work, The Siege of Calais. To their credit, the production dramatically underscored the centuries’ old adage: “War is Hell,” famously attributed to General Sherman during the U.S. Civil War. How many times has that sentiment been uttered by not-so-famous conquerors and conquests alike? Many of us are thankfully spared the scope of war’s true horrors.

The Festival’s Calais reminds us the devastation caused by war is as real today as when that siege occurred on the port city on the Northern coast of France during 14th century. Director Francesca Zambello sought to connect the crisis in medieval Calais to war-torn Syria in this century. A blockade ordered by Edward III resulted in besieged civilians lived in abject agony with no fresh food or water–some of who resisted, many of whom had no hope. Her association was apt and the message received.

“The Siege of Calais” | Photo: Carrington Spires/The Glimmerglass Festival

The functionality of the spinning set mirrored the vicious cycle that ensnares those living in war-torn towns and cities, past and present. A towering ruin slowly whirled around to reveal the bombed-out shell of a building, just different faces of the structure depending on the degree of rotation. Each turn showed the audience facets of a town where no one would have chosen to live but who lived there just the same.

The leading roles in this work were both sung by women, soprano Leah Crocetto and mezzo Aleks Romano, with Romano singing a trouser role. During the show talk, the presenter said the Donizetti, who wrote many more operas besides the ones most people know, always wrote to the talent pool available and that no tenors impressed him at the time. For that reason, he made the male lead a mezzo. The show is also not a prima donna-centric work–no opening aria signalling, “Hey, operagoers. I’m the reason for attending this show. Here’s my opening aria.” That choice made it unpopular and almost uncastable.

So Calais did not follow the expected formula of the time to attract the most highly touted sopranos in Donizetti’s day, but this production certainly featured a classically talented prima donna in Crocetto.

Leah Crocetto as Eleanora in The Glimmerglass Festival’s 2017 production of the American premiere of Donizetti’s “The Siege of Calais.” Photo: Carrington Spires/The Glimmerglass Festival

The garbage-strewn stage stands at odds with a bel canto style opera. It is Crocetto’s powerful and pure soprano voice that ushers in the bel canto, the beautiful singing, the opera requires. Her performance was rich and nuanced. While evidencing genuine despair, frustration, loss, and other strong emotions, her technique never faltered.

Aleks Romano as Aurelio, Rock Lasky as Filippo, and Leah Crocetto as Eleonora in The Glimmerglass Festival’s 2017 production of the American premiere of Donizetti’s “The Siege of Calais.” Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival

Cast as wife and husband, together she and Romano sang beautifully and believably all the music Donizetti created for two complementary women’s voices.

Aleks Romano as Aurelio in The Glimmerglass Festival’s 2017 production of the American premiere of Donizetti’s “The Siege of Calais.” Photo: Carrington Spires/The Glimmerglass Festival

A trouser role in a dramatic opera is a devilishy difficult role to play just right. As Aurelio, Romano had the appropriate amount of swagger and male physicality to suspend our disbelief that these two characters deeply loved one another as man and wife. Her voice was a strong and facile instrument, which sounded at its most beautiful when paired with Crocetto’s.

Young Artist Adrian Timpau delivered an outstanding turn as Aurelio’s father, Eustachio de Saint Pierre, mayor of Calais. He sang the role with gravity and sensitivity, never losing his conviction, despite the odds of saving his town mounting with each day his war-torn city is under siege.

Adrian Timpau as Eustachio de Saint-Pierre in The Glimmerglass Festival’s 2017 production of the American premiere of Donizetti’s “The Siege of Calais.” Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass

Under Maestro Joseph Colaneri’s baton, the orchestra is in fine and varied form–brassy and militaristic, and at other times, pensive and atmospheric, matching the emotions on stage.

In this piece, Donizetti opted for more ensemble numbers than arias, and all rang gloriously throughout the house. After all, resistance makes for impassioned singing and captivating choruses.

In sum, directorial vision was sound, the staging and lighting were arresting, and the voices soared. So, why 3.5 out of 5.0 stars? Sometimes, pieces fade in the repertoire because they should fade, because they are flawed. They lack excitement, memorable music, and sufficient onstage action.

A convention hailing back to the Ancient Greeks of never showing audience violence onstage, but rather, speaking of it once the deadly deed has been done, handicaps theatrical works presented in the 21st century. It may have been a convention honored by Donizetti, but it is far less appreciated by today’s audiences, sorry to say.

When the piece premiered in 1836, it included a lengthy ballet–a device Donizetti hoped would provide its entré to the Paris Opera. Thankfully Glimmerglass jetéd his ballet scene. If this opera tended to be dull without a ballet, imagine the piece with one!

It was a noble intention to breathe new life into this rarely done work. Sometimes good intentions just aren’t enough.

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Plenty of Glimmerglass Festival remains through August 22. See the Festival Calendar for all the events that remain this season.

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‘Porgy and Bess’ Rises up Singing at Glimmerglass

Operatoonity.com review: The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess presented by Glimmerglass Festival
Live performance: Saturday, July 22, 1:30 p.m.
Alice Busch Opera Theater, Cooperstown, New York
Music: George Gershwin
Libretto: DuBose Heyward & Ira Gershwin
5.0 out of 5.0 stars

The 2017 Glimmerglass Festival production of The Gershwins’ “Porgy and Bess.” Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival

Glimmerglass Festival’s production of The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess, the quintessential American folk opera, had plenty 0′ everything: splendid singing and dancing, dramatic staging and lighting, stirring and electrifying individual performances.  In totality, it was the finest show I’ve seen at the Alice Busch Opera Theater in the last six years.

Artistic and General Director Francesca Zambello will often direct one or more productions during each Festival season, and she adapted her Porgy and Bess, conceived for the show’s 75th anniversary in 2010, for the Glimmerglass stage. It was an inspired, masterly effort–her best directorial effort to date at Glimmerglass. While I can’t say the opera’s book is the strongest I’ve ever experienced–the show itself is like a string of musical sketches set in Catfish Row, a shanty town along the coast of South Carolina, rather than a deeply developed story–the music is the undisputed soul of this work.

Early tableau from Glimmerglass Festival’s The Gershwins’ “Porgy and Bess.” featuring Musa Ngqungwana as Porgy | photo by Karli Cadel

The music is filled with leitmotifs drawn from all annals of American music (spirituals, Tin Pan Alley, folk music), threading the sketches and the characters together. We all can tick off the hit parade of songs from Porgy and Bess:  “Summertime,” “Bess, You Is My Woman Now,” “I Got Plenty o’ Nuttin,’” and “It Ain’t Necessarily So,” a completely satisfying exercise and one of the reasons why the show is sold out for the rest of the season. Since Gershwin’s music drives the show, I’ll let it drive this review as well.

Only moments in, the audience is treated to the signature aria “Summertime,” a lullaby capably sung by Clara, portrayed by soprano Meroë Khalia Adeeb. What I liked most about Adeeb’s interpretation was that it sounded like a lullaby, not an operatic aria sung with a prop baby in her arms. She delivered a total performance as Clara–sympathetic and nuanced.

Meroë Khalia Adeeb singing “Summertime” as Clara | Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival

The talented ensemble, also the strongest I can remember at the Festival, introduces the tensions and issues facing the coastal tenement through one blockbuster number after another. “Roll them Bones” sung by the men of Catfish Row featuring Frederick Ballentine as Sporting Life and “A Woman is a Sometime Thing” sung by Clara’s husband Jake played by Justin Austin were expertly sung and performed, to a person, in each note and through cleverly choreographed movement.

Frederick Ballentine as Sportin’ Life (right) with members of the ensemble | Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival

I sincerely wish I had a photo to share from “A Woman is a Sometime Thing,” but there was none available. If you want to enjoy a fraction of the quality and flavor of that sensational number, you can watch a comparable version on YouTube from Zambello’s WNO production from 2010:

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Porgy was evocatively and powerfully sung and acted by South African bass-baritone Musa Ngqungwana. Because Porgy is crippled, the townsfolk are protective of him, yet he never takes advantage of their sympathy. I have seen Ngqungwana perform in his more formative days at the Academy of Vocal Arts in Philadelphia, where he received arguably the finest operatic training in the world. He imbued the role of Porgy with the same qualities he became known for years ago with AVA: sincerity, strength, and vulnerability. It was a tour de force performance for him. From “I Got Plenty o’ Nuttin,’” to “Bess, You Is My Woman Now,” he gave each the perfect tone from playful to deeply passionate. Bravo, Musa! And grazie, Glimmerglass, for giving his gifts such a stellar, comprehensive platform.

Musa Ngqungwana as Porgy | Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival

We are introduced to Bess sung by soprano Talise Trevigne in the number “Happy Dust.” Bess may be a once in a lifetime role within the common opera repertory. Not even Violetta or Manon has so many highs and lows, has so many facets to her character. Trevigne is exotic and untamed as Bess, without Porgy in her life. The audience sincerely believes her transformation to a loved and lovable decent woman and her beautifully rendered “I Loves You, Porgy” because Porgy loves her unconditionally.

Talise Trevigne as Bess | Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival

The show was filled to the fly space with standout performers. As Serena the widow, Young Artist Simone Z. Paulwell’s soprano pipes blew the rafters off the theater in “My Man’s Gone Now”.  What a sparkling future this young woman has!

Simone Z. Paulwell as Serena, the widow | Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival

Illinois Baritone Norman Garrett inhabited the role of Crown, a larger-than-life villain, a character so evil you love to hate him. And in this show he gives the audience so many opportunities to revile him. Can’t be an easy role to play with overdoing it, but Garrett was sheerly and sincerely menacing.

Norman Garrett as Crown | Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival

Even smaller roles such as Peter sung by Edward Graves and cameo roles such as Strawberry Woman sung by  Jasmin White  and Crab Man sung by Chaz’men Williams-Aliwere glittering, no, expert turns in this show–all performed by Young Artists.

L to R: Piers Shannon as Scipio and Edward Graves as Peter

The best individual performance–hands down–goes to Frederick Ballantine as the devilishly sexy, almost otherwordly sinister Sportin’ Life, an alumnus of the Young Artists Program at Glimmerglass. He can sing, he can dance, and he commands the stage. I hope you give this young man a lead in an upcoming production (thinking Pippin here, Ms. Zambello). There were so many outstanding performances in this show, and Ballantine topped them all. “It Ain’t Necessarily So” brought the house down.

Frederick Ballentine as Sportin’ Life with members of the ensemble | Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival

Last but certainly not least, the ensemble in this show is the rocket fuel that propels the show’s plot and energy, coralled the audience’s enthusiasm, and made this the strongest production ever, in scene after scene after scene. Bravi to all.

The fabulous ensemble | Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival

 

A picnic on Kittiwah Island showcased the talented ensemble | Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival

During one of the many ancillary events–a set talk–one of the lead technicians mentioned that the performers need monitors to hear the orchestra. I am certain it is to the conductor’s credit that musical numbers involving the entire ensemble were the blockbusters. But one note to Maestro John DeMain. The orchestra was too loud during Porgy and Bess’s famous duet, “Bess, You Is My Woman Now”. The only disappointing moment in this production. Even the world’s best singers can’t outsing an orchestra during a love ballad.

As I mentioned earlier, this production is sold out. But you can enjoy the talented performers in other shows and venues this summer such as the Stars Night out events in the pavilion.

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Plenty of Glimmerglass Festival remains through the end of August. See the Festival Calendar for more details.

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Well, hello, Glimmerglass Festival! So nice to be back…

The Glimmerglass Festival Alice Busch Opera Theater. Designed by Hugh Hardy, the theater features unique sliding walls that open prior to performances and at intermission. Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival.

Tucked away in a corner of verdant Otsego County along Lake Otsego, is a vibrant summer-only homage to opera and music called the Glimmerglass Festival. With each year I return, I try new and different things and take part in more of what Glimmerglass has to offer. For people like me who love musical theater and opera, it is “my corner of the sky.”

Yesterday afternoon, I had the privilege of taking in one of their ancillary events, and it was a privilege, believe me The event was billed “An afternoon with STEPHEN SCHWARTZ.” Schwartz is the award-winning composer-lyricist of GodspellPippin, Wicked, and the full-length contemporary opera Séance on a Wet Afternoon. For about an hour, he held court on the Main Stage of the Alice Busch Opera Theater, sharing introductions to his songs, mostly performed by members of the Young Artists Program.

Godspell and Pippin both hold special places in my heart. I performed in both and have directed a junior version of Godspell as an educator. They also presented material I hadn’t seen performed before from The Baker’s Wife and The Children of Eden.

Schwartz talked about how musical and theater and opera used to be parallel tracks for separate trains–my metaphor, not his. But how many young artists today can crossover to musical theater style singing. Case in point. Leah Crocetto, whom I last saw in Opera Philadelphia’s Don Carlo. She is a wonderfully gifted soprano, who belted out several terrifice musical theater numbers during this performance. Yes, this woman has a chest range, and she’s not afraid to use it. (Believe me, I appreciate that chest range isn’t the dirty word it used to be. I mean, no serious student of vocal performance was encouraged to sing in their chest range.)

The Young Artists presented two numbers from Séance on a Wet Afternoon, an opera I reviewed for Bachtrack in 2011, which I absolutely adored.

Séance on a Wet Afternoon is a two-act contemporary opera with music and libretto by American composer Stephen Schwartz

Even considering the numbers from Séance, the most enthralling portion of the program was when Schwartz sat down at the piano and sang a ballad from Wicked. This was a lifetime opportunity for the founder of Operatoonity.com, and I couldn’t stop tears from streaming down my face. Simply, a bucket list experience.

Tomorrow, I am seeing Porgy and Bess, featuring a very talented bass-baritone I first saw perform at the Academy of Vocal Arts in Philadelphia, where he was a student: Musa Ngqungwana.

Porgy will be sung by Musa Ngqungwana and Bess by Talise Trevigne | photo by Karli Cadel

I plan to attend the Porgy show talk which takes place an hour before curtain, and I’ve even roped my daughter and her boyfriend into attending as well. Monday, its The Seige of Calais followed by Stars Night Out in the Pavilion, a thoroughly enjoyable little cabaret, when the festival stars let their hair down and sing their favorite pieces–not necessarily arias either.

The beautiful grounds, the picnicking and outdoor cafe seating options, the opportunity to enjoy a glass of wine or beer at the festival, the acoustics of the theater in which every seat is a great seat are all reasons that keep bringing me back to Glimmerglass, year after year.

Glimmerglass Festival offers more than 40 performances of four operas each July and August. Productions have been presented in repertory since 1990.

You can fangirl/boy Glimmerglass on Facebook, follow them on Twitter at @GOpera, and read their blog. For more about the Glimmerglass season, click here.

Here’s a great little video on what it takes to put the Glimmerglass Festival together:

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