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.

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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.

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

Glimmerglass Festival offers greenery, melody—magic

Glimmerglass Festival

The 2014 Glimmerglass Festival Season kicks off on July 11 with my favorite opera Madame Butterfly

Tucked into the rolling hills of Central New York State, edged into the western tip of Lake Otsego, lies an opera experience—the Glimmerglass Festival—pairing artistry and aspiration, elegance and enterprise, greenery and gravitas.

Nathan Gunn as Sir Lancelot

Nathan Gunn sang Sir Lancelot in last season’s “Camelot”

Like swallows to Capistrano, happy patrons return to Glimmerglass season after season to enjoy professional opera, informative talks and lectures, and a growing roster of programs both educational and entertaining in relaxed, comfortable surroundings.

The Glimmerglass Festival has the humblest of origins. It began in 1975 as the Glimmerglass Opera Theater housed in a local high school auditorium. In the intervening years, it has amassed an impressive number of supporters and abundant resources—capital and artistic. Within one generation it transformed itself into a summertime destination where opera lovers can enjoy the most sophisticated of art forms in an atmosphere of pastoral beauty. In 1988, they added a Young Artists program providing performance experience and advanced training for dozens of emerging singers. That’s in addition to gainful employment for hundreds of professionals who make their living in the performing and classical arts.

Abby speaks with Cat Hennessy, a draper forThe Music Man | Photo: William M. Brown/The Glimmerglass Festival

Glimmerglass’s Abby Rodd speaks with Cat Hennessy, a draper for ‘The Music Man’ | Photo: William M. Brown/The Glimmerglass Festival

Glimmerglass is nestled into 26 acres of farmland. The grounds are dotted with a half dozen or more outbuildings including performance spaces, a scene shop, costume barn, wardrobe trailers, and an administrative pavilion. The physical layout of the campus all around you serves as a tangible reminder that it takes a village to produce opera, something we tend to forget whenever we filter our opera experience solely through selected principals’ performances, i.e., whether the tenor hits all his top C’s.

The costume shop wall at Glimmerglass--an organizer's dream

The costume shop wall at Glimmerglass–an organizer’s dream

The centerpiece of the Glimmerglass experience is the Alice Busch Opera Theater, towering stories over the landscape’s rolling hills, with barnlike lines and neutral colors complementing rather than clashing with the natural setting. Inside, however, is housed an acoustically engineered, state-of-the-art theater designed expressly for opera performance that rivals and (in some cases) betters big city venues. The 914-seat theater, which opened in 1987, is the first built specifically for opera performance since the Metropolitan Opera Theater in Lincoln Center was completed in 1966.

Despite the fact that the theater is one-quarter the size of the Met, you still might want to bring along opera glasses if you enjoy seeing close-ups of the performers. The audience seating is generously raked, providing great sightlines and ample legroom but ultimately more distance between the house and the stage. Also, the theater isn’t climate controlled. They use fans to cool things down and blankets to warm you up. It can get unseasonably cold and rainy in Central New York during any summer month, so you might want to bring a wrap or dress in layers.

Before performances and during intermission, festival concessions are available and include hearty salads and wraps (even vegan items), snacks, and ice cream, just outside the theater. Beverages include a range of wines and beers, including local brews and varietals worth sampling. New York State wines are often compared favorably to those grown in the German Rhine. Festival goers may enjoy picnicking on the grounds before evening shows and after matinees. And in the event you forgot your picnic basket, one local restaurant delivers. Whether you buy a meal there or bring it in, you can avail yourself of the plentiful spaces set aside for al fresco dining—from café tables to benches to picnic tables situated under a large canvas tent.

Last season's Gents Night Out at Meet Me at the Pavilion was a tremendous showcase--memorable and fun.

Last season’s Gents Night Out at Meet Me at the Pavilion was a tremendous showcase–memorable and fun.

If you are considering a trip to Glimmerglass, a name derived from James Fenimore Cooper’s description of Lake Otsego in Leatherstocking Tales, plan to spend several days in Central New York. You need at least three to four days to take in all the productions Glimmerglass offers in repertory (for exactly that purpose). Fleshing out this year’s mainstage schedule are a growing number of informative opera events and recitals including “Showtalks” on and around the festival grounds and a new “Meet Me at the Pavilion” series of special performances showcasing this year’s Artist in Residence Deborah Voigt as well as other guest artists. There’s also a world-class museum in nearby Cooperstown—the Baseball Hall of Fame (which includes the American history of cricket)—as well as boutiques, baseball-kitsch shopping, and café- and fine-dining in and around the museum.

If you favor lakeside lodging, hotels and motels line the shore of Lake Otsego, roughly nine miles long from tip to tip. Some lovely restaurants operate lakeside, too, affording scenic views of the lake while dining. Numerous B&B’s in the region are worth investigating. Many are an easy commute to the festival grounds while possessing more charm and actually costing less than more popular chain motels.

Cooperstown, New York, is a charming place to shop or even window shop

Cooperstown, New York, is a charming place to shop or even window shop

Walking shoes are a must for Cooperstown where’s there’s limited parking within city limits but good public trolley service. You may also be more comfortable wearing your Keds  to the opera, too, especially if you’ve trekked to the middle of a shady grove for your pre-performance picnic. Since there’s no dress code at Glimmerglass, people don everything from walking shorts and sandals to shifts and high-heels. However, if you get caught in a midsummer cloudburst, it’s a hike from the parking areas across the front lawn to the theater entrance, so you might want to pack a pair of boots. For those who can’t make such a trek (elderly or handicapped patrons), they offer golf cart shuttle services between the theater and the parking areas.

From the moment you pull into one of the gravel parking lots until the last note the orchestra sounds, literally hundreds of people have worked long and hard, months before you arrive, to deliver the entertainment experience at Glimmerglass. Since they’re all professionals or devoted volunteers, you’re not likely to see them sweat. Unless, of course, you take the free backstage tour. You’ll be amazed at the hours of artistry, the pluck, the pure perspiration that must be invested for every second on stage.

 

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AVA’s Manon is playful, pretty, and purposeful

Operatoonity.com review: Manon presented by the Academy of Vocal Arts
Live performance: Wednesday, May 7, 2014
Centennial Hall, The Haverford School
4.5 stars

four and a half stars

 

 

Manon, AVA, 2014

Julia Dawson as Javotte and Anush Avetisyan as Poussette | Photo credit Paul Sirochman Photography

Pretty in pink. Playful and sensual. The Academy of Vocal Arts’ (AVA) new production of Manon by Charles Massenet was a sensual, floridly elegant success, owing to purposeful direction by Tito Capobianco and solid execution.

Surely the inspired set design by Peter Harrison, which paid homage to a scandalously famous rococo painting, and the stunning costumes by Val Starr made this the most beautiful production this reviewer has ever seen at the AVA.

Since a work of art suggestive in its time served as a muse for the production team, the show also had an earthy verismo quality to it. While the powdered wigs and brocade ensembles lent the show a Mozartian sensibility,  the passionate clutches and languishing sighs were all Puccini. Verismo Massenet? You had to see it to believe it.

Daniel Noyola Monsieur de Bretigny and Sydney Mancasola as Manon. Photo credit Paul Sirochman Photography

Daniel Noyola as Monsieur de Bretigny and Sydney Mancasola as Manon. Photo credit Paul Sirochman Photography

Manon is a classic “tart-with-a-heart” story that sets the title character on a life journey that is novel-worthy in scope and emotional depth. Her journey is exceedingly hard to capture, even in a five-act opera, though many companies have made an effort to do so. The AVA’s most recent production certainly made a game and valiant go of it.

Sydney Mancasola as Manon in Act I

Sydney Mancasola as Manon in Act I

As Manon, Sydney Mancasola was more believable and sympathetic as the virginal girl headed to a convent whose life is forever altered when she meets La Chevalier Des Grieux and finds love. Sometimes singers are swallowed up by the too-loud AVA orchestra and forced to push too much to be heard, but there was no danger of this happening to Mancasola. Can a singer be too loud? Yes, I believe at times she was. Though there was power and beauty in her singing, she needs to back off those pince-nez shattering high notes at times. She was, however, a delight in the much anticipated Gavotte scene–confident, charming, and vocally arresting.

Diego Silva as Des Grieux and Sydney Mancasola as Manon in the final act . Photo credit Paul Sirochman

Diego Silva as Des Grieux and Sydney Mancasola as Manon in the final act. Photo credit Paul Sirochman

As Chevalier Des Grieux, Mexican tenor Diego Silva turned in a worthy performance. He has an Italianate quality to his singing and also to his onstage affect. Singing this French opera was a bit beyond his reach though he had many shining moments that evening and a stage presence that is endearing. Des Grieux also makes a life-altering journey, from love at first sight, to hating Manon for her excess, and then loving her in spite of her shortcomings, which he conveyed with conviction, despite his tender years.

All the men in supporting roles were simply splendid–bass-baritone Daniel Noyola as the scheming Monsieur de Bretigny, baritone Michael Adams as Manon’s cousin Lescaut,  tenor AVA Alumnus Jeffrey Halili ’06 as the opportunistic Guillot Morfontaine, and bass-baritone Musa Ngqungwana as the manipulative Le Comte des Grieux. With all these men consipiring against her, Manon never had a chance for a truly happy life.

Armando Piña, Jessie Nguenang, Daniel Noyola, and Sydney Mancasola. Photo credit Paul Sirochman

Armando Piña, Jessie Nguenang, Daniel Noyola, and Sydney Mancasola. Photo credit Paul Sirochman

It also must be said that the women in the supporting and ensemble roles were delightful–beautiful to see and hear. Brava to Anush Avetisyan as Pousette, Julia Dawson as Javotte, and Alexandra Schenck as Rosette, whose talents and feminine wiles lured Manon to explore her innermost desires for love and luxury. Surely one of the advantages of seeing AVA productions is that the company members not singing leads in the current show comprise the ensemble. Every choral number is a treat.

Alexandra Schenck, Daniel Noyola, Julia Dawson, Anush Avetisyan, and Jeffrey Halili (AVA '06). Photo credit Paul Sirochman Photography

Alexandra Schenck, Daniel Noyola, Julia Dawson, Anush Avetisyan, and Jeffrey Halili (AVA ’06). Photo credit Paul Sirochman Photography

Massenet’s duets are also masterful, but I still miss the precision and impact of Mozart and Verdi in his quartets and quintets, which seem to spill out like unruly, leggy blossoms at the end of the growing season. Perhaps the small group numbers are harder to sing but those parts of the show seemed to be the weakest.

As for Christofer Macatsoris’ conducting, the tempi were perfect–critical in a long work that the score not drag. A little less volume might have helped the singers to rein in their occasional vocal “shouting.”

Overall, a winning production of a beautiful opera in the repertoire, and worthy of the generous ovation accorded them all at the evening’s end.

 

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why is Don Giovanni so hard to do well?

According to a list I found called 100 Greatest Operas, Don Giovanni is listed as #3. According to OperaBase tables, it is also the 10th most frequently performed opera in the world.

While I am not doubting these rankings–the opera certainly pops up in my Fave Five–it is a great curiosity to me why so few companies, well-resourced ones at that–can manage a bang-up presentation of the famous dramma giocoso.

If one takes stock in Michael White’s 2014 review of  the Royal Opera House’s Don Giovanni at Covent Garden, he contends it is within the nature of the production itself that makes it hard to pull off.  It is many things such as comedy, tragedy, sexual assault, murder, masquerade, chase, supernatural interaction. As such, the opera constitutes an “invitation to excess”  for less-disciplined directors.

Confounding the greatest of expectations, the Met’s “new” production (2011) was considered lackluster and underdone by a number of critics, including Tommasini. A quick Google show points to numerous companies who didn’t hit the mark with arguably Mozart’s greatest opera.

Don Giovanni at New York City Opera, 2009 (Christopher Alden, director)

Don Giovanni at New York City Opera, 2009 (Christopher Alden, director)

In my recent review of Opera Phila’s Don Giovanni, I mentioned how much I liked Christopher Alden’s production at New York City Opera in 2009. The New York Times reviewer said Alden revitalized a masterpiece, and I concur.

What I wouldn’t give to see a Don Giovanni like that again! Although, in the interest of full disclosure, during intermission, people complained about the Alden version, that it was too regie. Honestly, I thought it was pure-dead brilliant.

Lacking a truly great performance to attend, in the interim, there are many fine recorded performances to listen to. And I’ll keep hoping to see another Don Giovanni for the ages before I shuffle off my mortal coil. Fingers crossed.

How about you, dear readers? Where have you seen a Don G. for the ages?

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