Category Archives: Best of Operatoonity

‘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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Filed under 20th Century Opera, Best of Operatoonity, Festival Opera, Heartstoppers, North American Opera

Turandot a triumph for @OperaPhila

Operatoonity.com review: Turandot presented by Opera Philadelphia
Live performance: Sunday, October 2,  2016, 2:30 p.m.
The Academy of Music, Philadelphia, PA
Music: Giacomo Puccini
Libretto:  Giuseppe Adami and Renato Simoni
5.0 out of 5.0 stars

five stars

 

 

turandot-007

Princess Turandot (soprano Christine Goerke) has vowed never to marry unless a man of noble birth can solve her three riddles. | Photo by Kelly and Massa for Opera Philadelphia

Some say Turandot, Giacomo Puccini’s final opera, unfinished when he died, is his tour de force. Puccini lovers including a number of Operatoonity.com readers cite its adventurous musical qualities. Lush orchestration with exotic Asian elements, both instrumental and compositional. Not to mention opera’s most famous tenor aria “Nessun Dorma.”

Puccini’s magnum opus may prove to be Opera Philadelphia’s tour de force this season. Their Turandot was nothing short of fearless and peerless spectacle, boldly embracing both the mystery and vibrancy of Asian culture on every level–sight, sound, movement, concept, staging, lighting, costume. It was the most mystical, moving mainstage production I’ve witnessed in five years.

 Princess Turandot (soprano Christine Goerke) has vowed never to marry unless a man of noble birth can solve her three riddles. | Photos by Kelly and Massa for Opera Philadelphia

Princess Turandot (soprano Christine Goerke) has vowed never to marry unless a man of noble birth can solve her three riddles. | Photos by Kelly and Massa for Opera Philadelphia

However, not because of the title character, sung in this production by dramatic soprano Christine Goerke. The storyline builds up Turandot’s first entrance so unrelentingly and thoroughly that the audience’s anticipation of their first glimpse and hearing of the frosty princess is palpable. Perhaps only ghosts of opera greats Sutherland and Tebaldi could satisfy this pent-up expectation for an imperiously icy Turandot who sings in unforgettable form.

Princess Turandot (soprano Christine Goerke) addresses Calaf, who has announced he will attempt to solve her deadly riddles. | ohotos by Kelly and Massa for Opera Philadelphia

Princess Turandot (soprano Christine Goerke) addresses Calaf, who has announced he will attempt to solve her deadly riddles. | photos by Kelly and Massa for Opera Philadelphia

Goerke sung a serviceable Turandot but not a great one. She was stronger in her third act duets with Prince Calaf than in the second, when she first appears. She screeched a few high notes in “In questa reggia,” the aria during which she explains that the obscure riddles are intended to avenge her ancestress, killed when an evil warlord conquered her kingdom.

“An evening never recovers from a cracked high note. It is exactly like a bullfight. You are not allowed one mistake.”  — Luciano Pavarotti (1935-2007) 

Granted, this may be the most difficult soprano role Puccini ever wrote, requiring the talents of a legendary soprano like Birgit Nilsson. However, Goerke sang the role at the Met last season. If she is considered one of the best of her contemporaries, that is not the Goerke I heard that afternoon.

 Liù (soprano Joyce El-Khoury) explains how she has stuck by her master, Timur, because his son, Calaf, once smiled at her.

Liù (soprano Joyce El-Khoury) explains how she has stuck by her master, Timur, because his son, Calaf, once smiled at her.

By contrast, from the first note of her first aria, soprano Joyce El-Khoury sang a meltingly lovely Liù that compelled listeners to lean in to capture every note.  The show may be entitled Turandot, but in this production, El-Khoury’s Liù captured the devotion of the audience and the heart of this critic.

Calaf (tenor Marco Berti) declares he will put his life on the line to win Princess Turandot’s heart. Photos by Kelly and Massa for Opera Philadelphia

Calaf (tenor Marco Berti) declares he will put his life on the line to win Princess Turandot’s heart. Photos by Kelly and Massa for Opera Philadelphia

As The Prince with No Name, tenor Marco Berti, faces a daunting professional challenge because “Nessun Dorma” is all but attached to the ubiquitous Pavarotti version. Berti’s take was beautiful and powerful, and the audience lauded him for his effort.  His overall performance was sturdy, if a little wooden, especially when Liù pours out her secret love for him. Based on his performance, the supertitle of his reaction to her heartfelt, heartbreaking confession should have been, “Meh.”

The exiled king Timur (bass Morris Robinson) discovers his slave girl, Liù, has sacrified herself for love. | photos by Kelly and Massa for Opera Philadelphia

The exiled king Timur (bass Morris Robinson) discovers his slave girl, Liù, has sacrified herself for love. | photos by Kelly and Massa for Opera Philadelphia

Bass Morris Robinson’s performance as King Timur was pitch perfect in every way. His voice was in excellent form and his sympathetic characterization of an exiled, broken ruler authentically and deeply felt.

While the opera company did not furnish a production photo of Ping, Pong, and Pang to share with Operatoonity.com readers, much to my chagrin, this reviewer would be remiss not to fete them as a highlight of this production. Daniel Belcher as Ping, Joseph Gaines as Pong, and Julius Ahn as Pang were frighteningly entertaining, at times barbaric, and also, in one shining number, highly sympathetic, as they recounted their previously happy lives in peaceful hometowns before being summoned into service for the Princess of Death.

Now that’s range!

Perhaps Opera Phila didn’t want to fuel any more complaints of ethnic stereotyping by providing pictorial evidence of these portrayals. However, just like the fictional kingdom in which they serve, these characters were a brilliant mash-up of more world cultures than a Kia Soul commercial and no genuine cause for concern–at least in this production.

The entire opera chorus from the littlest priest to all the villagers living under Turandot’s tyranny (the show’s Greek chorus) to the lithest dancer deserves kudos. So does conductor Corrado Rovaris and his versatile opera orchestra, whether playing gongs, indigenous instruments, or Western ones merely tuned to sound like they are native to the Far East.

Riddle me this, Operatoonity.com. If the performances weren’t five stars with every turn (except for El-Koury and Robinson), why the five-star rating? The direction, the orchestra, the spectacle, the high concept were out of this world.

Director and Choreographer Renaud Doucet staged an arresting, layered production that must be experienced. The stunning lighting, staging, and choreography of this show have already premiered at companies with whom Opera Philadelphia is co-producing this show including Minnesota Opera, Cincinnati Opera, Pittsburgh Opera, Utah Opera, and Seattle Opera, but (with any luck) not all.

A singularly original and richly satisfying opera. That’s what Opera Phila brought to the City of Brotherly Love. Turandot was a triumph. Simply put, Turandot is Opera Philadelphia.

 

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Filed under 21st Century Opera, Best of Operatoonity, Classic Opera, Heartstoppers, North American Opera, Opera festivals, Reviews

soprano’s memoir “Call Me Debbie” a 5-star read

Operatoonity.com Book Review: Call Me Debbie: True Confessions of a Down-to-Earth Diva
Author: Deborah Voigt with Natasha Stoynoff
Publisher: Harper, an imprint of HarperCollins
Genre: Memoir
ISBN: 9780062118271
ISBN 10: 0062118277
Publication Date: January 27, 2015
Binding: Softcover (Advance Review Copy)
Pages: 271
5.0 stars

five stars

book cover

One can only peer into those deep blue eyes staring out at you from the cover of Call Me Debbie and wonder how this talented American opera star with the Midwestern good looks could have ever written an engaging memoir? Even into her 50’s, she looks like someone whose life must have been a fairy tale. America’s sweetheart, right?

Memoirs need to be jawdroppingly honest, gritty, and maybe even a little dirty to capture my interest. What could possibly be dirty, gritty, or jawdropping in Deborah Voigt’s life with her gifts and star power? What indeed.

The book’s subtitle Confessions of a Down-t0-Earth Diva does a great disservice to Voigt’s gripping life story. It makes those confessions sound wholesome and entertaining. On the contrary, this book is gutsy and brave. It is startling and, at times, horrifying and deserves loads better than the cheesy subtitle the Harper team slapped on it to attract more readers or a wider reading audience.

Deborah Voigt has one helluva life story to tell and does so with incredible candor and self-effacement. It is a story of emotional abandonment, family-of-origin issues, addiction, size discrimination, self-destructive behavior, promiscuity, self-recrimination, recovery, and rebirth.

Her memoir is divided into three sections: Act I , Piccola; Act II, Accelerando; and Act III, Crescendo.

Piccola is about her growing up in a too-strict household infused with Southern Baptist values, one that saddled her with self-esteem issues that would plague her throughout her adult life. It’s about her natural gifts bubbling to the surface despite her parents’ marital issues and emotional abandonment–the spankings, the jibes, the senseless strictures.

But the memoir really takes off during Act II, per this reviewer, when the reader takes the road with Debbie, vicariously experiencing the intense pressure and the scrutiny of reviewers, audiences, and professional colleagues, while battling the ever-present loneliness that comes with being an international opera star who must travel extensively to work.

While Voigt’s reputation grows because there is no denying her extraordinary gift, so does her size. At one point in the memoir when she is at her heaviest,  she comments that “it’s always open season on fat women.” Listen to this performance of Voigt singing “Dich, Teure halle” from Tannhauser with James Levine conducting, and tell me why it matters in the least what size she is:

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In the opening pages of the memoir, she reveals that she heard God tell her that she was on the earth to sing. After listening to that soaring aria, can any hearing person dispute that God spoke to her like she believes?

Throughout the memoir, Voigt does “kiss and tell”, which makes for occasionally juicy reading, but she also does the equivalent of opening a vein and bleeding out her “sins” and scandalous double-life of binge eating and drinking and one-night stands with men not nearly good enough or decent enough for her.

The hardcover version comes with an 8-page color insert, which sounds ideal. In the Advance Review Copy (ARC) I read which was softcover with no insert, I found myself going to the Internet to see photos of Voigt throughout her professional journey and listening to clips of her arias on YouTube. So, I would recommend the hardcover because of its compelling photographic insert.

Deborah Voigt

Deborah Voigt, before and after her gastric bypass surgery.

As a rule, I don’t read memoir.  It’s extraordinarily hard to write memoir well because you must reveal unflattering things about yourself and your loved ones. Not everyone can do it believably. Most people can’t be that honest and self-effacing.

Besides dropping half her size, if shedding the weight of the double life she was leading (acclaimed artist by day; drunk out of her mind and sleeping around on her days off) led to her recovery, than toi, toi, toi, Ms. Voigt. There are many, many people cheering you on and wishing health, happiness and peace, besides this fan. Please never forget that.

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book coverSpecial Operatoonity Giveaway:
If you’d like to win your own softcover copy of “Call Me Debbie,” leave a comment on this blog below. One winner will be selected by April 15.

Disclaimer: A copy of Call Me Debbie was supplied by Harper in exchange for an honest review.

 

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Filed under 21st Century Opera, artists, Best of Operatoonity, Book reviews, Heartstoppers, North American Opera, Richard Tucker prize winners, sopranos

most popular posts on Operatoonity…

What posts have people come to Operatoonity.com to read most? Since Operatoonity.com just passed its four-year anniversary, I thought it was time to trot out some sexy stats for y’all.

In the last four years, I’ve created 388 posts and logged more than 3.4 million visitors on this site! Not too shabby, eh?

Since I use WordPress, I can also corroborate the most popular posts using my analytics plugin and a nifty report that WordPress sends me each year.

One of the world's best tenors

Roberto Alagna, one of the world’s best tenors

#1 best opera singers in the world today – male persuasion 42 COMMENTS
#2 best opera singers in the world today – female persuasion 45 COMMENTS
#3 today’s top tenors 48 COMMENTS
#4 100 greatest operas . . . really? 7 COMMENTS
#5 Puccini’s best opera? 21 COMMENTS

(Funny thing about the “Best Opera Singers” lists. I created them because I couldn’t find any up-to-date lists online to blog about.)

A goal for 2015 is to update some of my “Best Singers” lists, taking into account all the suggestions in readers’ comments. A lot can change in five years, even in the opera world though I can say, categorically, Roberto Alagna belonged on my original list.

Not convinced? Then you need to watch this aria:

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Filed under artists, Baritones, Best of Operatoonity, blog stats, Favorite arias, lists, opera star power, Performers, sopranos, tenors

Sunday Best with Stephanie Blythe: America’s Mezzo Meets Operatoonity

album art

Stephanie Blythe recorded a new album of the American songbook, ‘As Long As There Are Songs’

If the United States had an order of chivalry like our friends across the pond, surely mezzo-soprano Stephanie Blythe would be our Dame Stephanie.

Her Wagner, Verdi, and Handel have been heralded the world around. She is our Olympic Gold Medalist in the international sphere of opera, a champion we celebrate with each new success, and one reason why her newest album As Long as There Are Songs is so exciting.

It is sung entirely in English. A classically trained American artist sings a 19th century American songbook featuring beloved tunes by Ira Gershwin, Harold Arlen, Johnny Mercer, and Irving Berlin that builds on the success of her Live from Lincoln Center — Celebration: Stephanie Blythe Meets Kate, a concert of works made famous by Kate Smith that was broadcast on PBS in 2013.

As Miss Blythe explains in a video about making the album, As Long As There Are Songs connects her to her audience in an immediate way unlike singing French songs or German lieder.

What’s also brave and striking about this album is the way it was recorded. Some highly sophisticated technology afforded a sound so personal and intimate, it’s like Miss Blythe is serenading you and you alone in your living room.

The sound is so honest and real and organic, and is a reflection of how we made this disk. The sound of the disk is the perfect reflection of what we we experienced in the moment in the room. ” –Stephanie Blythe, As Long as There Are Songs

A very warm welcome to Operatoonity.com, Miss Blythe. What were your initial thoughts when you learned you wouldn’t have to use close-field microphones or headphones to record this album?
I was thrilled!  As a opera singer who rarely deals with microphones of any kind, the idea of having the recorded sound captured purely from the room acoustic was intriguing and very exciting.  I have trained for many years to project my voice into the theater, so I don’t believe that close-field mics really capture my voice adequately.  This is the very question that opened my first conversation with John Meyer about recording the voice.

Listening to ‘AS LONG AS THERE ARE SONGS” absolutely felt like being in a concert hall with you. Accompanied by piano only, you laid your voice naked on this CD. Did that feel more comfortable, more like what you are used to in performance?
I have been singing recitals with piano for many years, and have sung these songs with Craig Terry for many audiences across the country.  It is always fun and always comes with the feeling that anything could happen in terms of interpretation.  The intimacy of voice and piano is something that has always made me feel very comfortable, and I was really happy that our first recording with the Meyers was voice and piano.

Your voice is in tip-top shape. It’s strong, supple–sterling! You even belt! You switch from head to chest range seamlessly. How did you prepare to sing an album of songs that demanded so much of your instrument?
This style of singing has always come very easily to me- there is something there that I connected to when I was quite young.  It probably has something to do with being the child of a jazz musician and with having taken part in so many musicals growing up.  I have always had a fairly well developed chest voice, which is helpful in the belting department, but the style is something that has always spoken to me.  I am just so thankful to finally have a platform for performing these songs!

How did you choose the songs for the album? Were many of them already in your repertoire?
Several of the songs come from our Kate Smith Show, a tribute that Craig and I have toured around the country.  Many of the other songs were new to both of us, and some were sitting in my dream vault for a long time.  “The Man That Got Away” in particular. I have always loved that song, and I am very grateful to have this opportunity to program it — I will sing for as many years as I have to sing.  It is just that kind of song.  As far as how we chose the songs — they are all pieces for which Craig and I have enormous admiration for their musical construction and for their lyrics.  They all have that timeless quality that is the hallmark of a great work.

Do you have a favorite track? If so, which one(s) and why?
I think that “How Deep Is The Ocean” a particular favorite because I really took a point of view of the song when we first rehearsed it in my home.  My husband and I had just adopted our Boston Terrier, June, and she was about two months old when Craig came to the house to work with me for a few days.  She was very weepy that afternoon, and I just picked her up and sang that song to her, and she calmed right down — singing to that beautiful little face ensured it will always be June’s song to me.

Are there any contemporary songwriters whose hits you’d like to take on in your next album?
There are far too many to name, but I would like to sing some of BIlly Joel’s work — a dream is to do a song recording with him.  He is one of the most important American voices of this or any generation.

Learn more about how they recorded this album:

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Learn more about “as long as there are songs:”
http://meyersound.com/news/2013/steph…

Purchase the album:
http://www.innova.mu/artist/stephanie…
http://www.amazon.com/As-Long-There-A…

Stephanie Blythe:
http://www.opus3artists.com/artists/s…

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Filed under artists, Best of Operatoonity, Golden Operatoonity, Heartstoppers, Interviews, opera and technology, Performers, Recording, Richard Tucker prize winners