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Opera Phila’s ‘Cold Mountain’ a Scorching Success

Operatoonity.com review: presented by Opera Philadelphia (the sixth opera in their American Repertoire Program)
Live performance: Sunday, February 14, 2:30 p.m.
The Academy of Music, Philadelphia
Music: Jennifer Higdon
Libretto: Gene Scheer
5.0 out of 5.0 stars

five stars

 

 

Opera Phila's five-star production of "Cold Mountain"

Opera Phila’s five-star production of COLD MOUNTAIN

I am the luckiest reviewer in the world. I was privileged to experience an incredibly beautiful and poignant production of COLD MOUNTAIN, a new contemporary opera presented by Opera Philadelphia this past Valentine’s Day. How fitting. I left my heart in the Academy of Music that afternoon with tears staining my cheeks and my unabashed affection for this Pennsylvania company filling me with pride on my ride home to Lancaster.

Wait a minute. Aren’t critics supposed to criticize? The more critical it is, the better the review, right? My mission with Opera Philadelphia is different from many reviewers’, as I see it. It’s not to show how learned and accomplished I am. It’s not to display my facility with language. My task here is to use this digital bully pulpit to share with the world, and I do mean the world thanks to the Internet, the extraordinary arts opportunities Opera Philadelphia is bringing to the East Coast of the United States.

Full disclosure: I adore Opera Philadelphia’s American Repertoire Program. I’ve seen every production since they launched this initiative in 2011, beginning with DARK SISTERS, simply an excellent chamber opera. The American Repertoire Program points to the future of opera in America–contemporary, original operas not simply silly regietheater representations of classic operas that some companies trot out for audiences.

COLD MOUNTAIN was spectacular. And my expectations were sky-high. Charles Frazier’s novel Cold Mountain is my favorite contemporary book. I snuffled and wept through an entire box of tissues devouring it. When Opera Philadelphia announced this production, I almost couldn’t wait for February. And who among us looks forward to February? Opera Phila offered a singularly rewarding opera experience. So good that I had to find new five-star art to post for this show.

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Jarrett Ott as Inman and Isabel Leonard as Ada in COLD MOUNTAIN

The stage was set was fully visible upon entering the theatre–ramshackle boards in such disarray I immediately conjured media images of the World Trade Center after 9-11. Foreboding, devastation, and senseless loss crept into this  viewer’s soul before the orchestra has struck a single note of Jennifer Higdon’s extraordinary work.

Higdon tackled a novel of depth and scope and successfully translated it into a contemporary opera. I was fortunate to receive a copy of the education program that Opera Phila shares with school students and reading it brought Higdon’s score alive anew. I was reminded of all the distinctive elements in her score to evoke time and place–fiddle music, knee-slapping percussionists, the sounds of twinkling stars made with knitting needles, and strains of mountain music throughout. The opera opens with the sinister leader of the Home Guard singing a folk tune from the era, and the effect was chilling.

Because I am such a fan of the novel, high expectations loomed for Gene Scheer’s libretto, too. The language Scheer put to the aria Metal Age will rip out your spleen:

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“Thousands and thousands in bright blue, shiny, factory made uniforms. We shot them and loaded. Shot them and loaded. For five hours, thousands and thousands of men…and there in the middle of it, a drummer boy crying, bleeding, dying…He shot me in the neck. The metal age has come.”
–Inman’s aria “The Metal Age.”

If you don’t know the story, it’s nearly a contemporary telling of Homer’s Odyssey with a little Les Miserables thrown in for more an extra heaping helping of pathos. W.P. Inman (Odysseus) is a Civil War deserter struggling to return home to Cold Mountain see Ada Monroe (Penelope), the remembrance of whom is the only thing keeping him alive despite severe privation and dogged persecution by Teague (Javert), the leader of the crew hunting down deserters like stray dogs.

As Inman, baritone Jarrett Ott, who stepped in for Nathan Gunn, effected the most thoroughly broken man without the affect of melodrama. Since I admit to having fangirled Gunn in previous reviews, I thought I’d  be disappointed with Ott, but was very happily surprised with his interpretation. He fully inhabited Inman’s character while singing the role with power and polish.

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Jarrett Ott as W.P. Inman

Mezzo-soprano Isabel Leonard was luminous as Ada. She is the consummate performer–a star in every aspect. Beautiful to hear and see, she made her Opera Phila debut in this show. I predict Philadelphia was treated to a performance of one whose star will quickly rise even higher very soon. Brava, Miss Leonard.  You were grace, elegance, talent, and depth personified in this production. Would she have shone so brightly opposite Gunn? One hardly cared after a point.

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W.P. Inman ( Jarrett Ott) recalls a happier time with Ada Monroe (Isabel Leonard) before the Civil War.

Ruby Thewes, Ada’s friend and partner, is a delicious role in the novel but a difficult one to score and to sing. Ruby is as down-home and prickly as Ada is refined and noble. Mezzo-soprano Cecelia Hall did a serviceable job in the role. Ruby’s character can be likened to nails scraping a chalkboard. While grit makes for an interesting spoken role, it can be overwhelming for a performer to convey in song and for the audience to hear. By necessity, Ruby lost some of pluck going from the page to a musical score, which is the show’s only real shortcoming.

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Ruby (Cecelia Hall) encounters her estranged father Stobrod Thewes (Kevin Burdette), who has also deserted the war

Tenor Jay Hunter Morris’ star power crackled as the evil leader of the Home Guard Teague, the Javert-inspired character. Yes, in this opera, the tenor is the bad guy, and the the baritone gets the girl. Hunter Morris was so masterfully evil, so convincing as the consummate Confederate baddie that he was soundly booed at curtain call. I smiled inwardly remembering this “baddie”performing a darling lullaby in cabaret at the Glimmerglass Festival’s Gentleman’s Night Out only a summer ago, accompanying himself on his guitar. He was the picture of haunting perfection in this production.

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Teague ( Jay Hunter Morris) uses Javert-like tactics in hunting down Confederate deserters.

I am such a fan of bass Kevin Burdette, who is a chameleon of a performer and an extraordinary opera singer (and I don’t really like basses–truth be told.) I have seen him be hilarious and also gut-wrenchingly despicable, depending on the role. I wanted his part to be larger as Ruby’s father Stobrod. But the opera is the proper length at two and a half hours with one intermission, so that is merely self-indulgent desire on my part.

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Stobrod Thewes (Kevin Burdette) and Ada Monroe (Isabel Leonard)

This tale of Inman–a quiet, private hero who has witnessed a depth of brutality no decent person should ever experience, who is redeemed only by Ada’s love–was a heroic effort for which all involved deserve highest praise. The orchestra under Corrado Rovaris,  the sweeping direction of Leonard Foglia, the ingenious completely functional dysfunctional set design by Robert Brill, lighting design by Brian Nason, and, of course, all the talented performers in the Opera Philadelphia Chorus turning in stunning cameos also made this production the shimmering, albeit soul-scorching, production it was.

I am deeply grateful for your artistic endeavors, Opera Philadelphia. I tried to choke back my tears during curtain call but they would not stop. The City of Brotherly Love has a treasure in this company.

A special Operatoonity.com shout-out to my press contact Frank Luzi, always a pleasure to work with, whose children were darling in the show.

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Filed under 21st Century Opera, contemporary opera, favorites, Live opera performance, Modern opera, North American Opera, opera and fiction, opera firsts, opera milestones, PA, Premieres, Regional opera

The Importance of Opera Philadelphia: ‘Oscar’ Review

Operatoonity.com review: Oscar presented by Opera Philadelphia; a co-commission and co-production with The Sante Fe Opera
Live performance: Sunday, February 15, 2015
The Academy of Music, Philadelphia, PA
Music: Theodore Morrison
Text: John Cox and Theodore Morrison
Photos: Courtesy of Opera Philadelphia

4.0 stars

And the Oscar goes to . . . Opera Philadelphia!

It may be Oscar Weekend across the globe, but for the last two weekends, Opera Philadelphia, the City of Brotherly Love’s preeminent opera company, deserves an Oscar for offering the East Coast premiere of a new American opera of the same name, co-commissioned and co-produced with The Sante Fe Opera.

Oscar’s production values were exquisite. Philadelphia audiences were treated to a world-class performance by arguably the world’s most outstanding and in-demand countertenor David Daniels. But most importantly, a new American production was ushered into the repertoire–one with heft, musical beauty, and promise for a fresh new future for opera, one that isn’t reliant on tasteless regietheatre-style regurgitations of classic operas or endless reproductions of La Traviata.

Countertenor David Daniels played the title role of Oscar Wilde in a role written for him. Photo | Opera Philadelphia.

As a new production, as new productions are wont to be, the show itself had some imperfections, which is why I gave it four stars. While it was a noble choice to paint Wilde as a tragic hero, the parts of Wilde’s life highlighted in Oscar combine to recreate a sort of grim limbo.  From time immemorial, “new” productions have been refined or reworked based on audience and or critics’ reactions. While Theodore Morrison’s music was resonantly and refreshingly melodic, the overall tone of the show itself needed a little polishing and more seamless integration, as if Morrison and Cox couldn’t decide what kind of show it was supposed to be. Oscar is alternately a despairing commentary on insufferably rigid Victorian mores and occasionally broadly satirical while very rarely bright. Agreed, dehumanization and imprisonment of human beings because of their sexual preferences aren’t the stuff of uplifting subject matter.

While Oscar effectively showcased the stain of intolerance on humanity, it rarely conveyed Wilde’s bright and often biting wit. Wilde himself used humor to lampoon societal values during Queen Victoria’s time. Yet, there are only glimmers of his comedic genius in the libretto, lines such as, “Absinthe makes the heart grow fonder.” The broad satire of Wilde’s trial to close Act I was nothing short of a tour de force:

The satirical representation of Wilde’s trial for indecency was a stellar scene in Oscar but also sadly creepy. Photo | Opera Philadelphia

However, irony might have also served this production. Generations of theatregoers derived intense pleasure and entertainment from a beloved playwright’s public genius but reveled in the condemnation of the same man’s private proclivities.  With such an unrelentingly dark treatment, more brightness would have made the dark scenes that more impactful. One broadly satirical scene does not an eye-popping production make.

Baritone Dwayne Croft sings the role of the ghost of Walt Whitman. Photo | Opera Philadelphia

One of the show’s welcome devices was making a narrator out of the ghost of American poet Walt Whitman, who sets the scene for the drama. Whitman met Oscar Wilde during his 1882 American tour but had passed away by the time Wilde reached the height of his fame. This from-the-grave commentary intrigued. Whitman ellipses the time between the premiere of  Wilde’s Lady Windermere’s Fan and his prosecution for “gross indecency.” Again, a bit more of Wilde’s life as the toast of London would have made his fall from grace that more deeply felt.

Baritone Dwayne Croft was perfect in the role of Whitman, which required an immortal grace, and he was equal to the task in voice and presence.

Without equivocation, the writers drove home Wilde’s obsession with his young lover Bosie. Making Oscar Wilde’s young lover a non-speaking balletic role was an inspired device, lending the production a welcome elegance and beauty.

As Bosie, Reed Luplau, a dancer from Western Australia, made a stunning Opera Philadelphia debut. Seán Curran’s choreography fit Luplau like a kid glove as Luplau dipped and glided into Wilde’s reverie, evoking the Irish-born playwright’s tortured longing for a sheerly lovely young man, whose father, the Marquess of Queensbury, was committed to Wilde’s downfall. 

Australian dancer Reed Luplau as “Bosie” was the essence of sensual elegance. Photo | Opera Philadelphia

The roles of Ada Leverson and Frank Harris were expertly sung by soprano Heidi Stober and tenor William Burden, a standout from last season’s Silent Night. Both performers valiantly endeavored to make their mark but were unfortunately burdened (pun wholly intended) by three very slow-moving scenes. While it is a time-honored operatic technique to comment on action that has occurred earlier, such as Frank’s infamous luncheon parties in the old days or Whitman’s devolution into poverty at his end, it’s not necessarily the most dramatically punchy technique.

Soprano Heidi Stober and tenor William Burden sang the roles of Wilde’s loyal friends. Photo | Opera Philadelphia

So, the show overall is flawed, but Opera Philadelphia’s execution was just about flawless. One can’t underestimate the value of their partnership with The Sante Fe Opera on this endeavor. These co-productions turn out to be much greater than the sum of their resources. Ingenious sets; world-class performances; inspired direction, lighting, and costumes are just a few values that one can expect when companies cooperate rather than compete. A very capable Opera Philadelphia orchestra conducted by Evan Rogister in his Opera Philadelphia debut showcased the compelling musical voices Morrison has created to tell the story, without overwhelming the singers.

The privations of jail led to Wilde’s deteriorating health and early death. Photo | Opera Philadelphia

Opera Philadelphia is taking on important work and more than a little risk with works like Oscar. They are informing and shaping the landscape of new American opera and will continue to do so with this season’s Charlie Parker’s YARDBIRD and next season with another East Coast premiere of Cold Mountain by Jennifer Higdon and Gene Scheer.  And the entire opera firmament is better and stronger for their daring to reach beyond what is known and comfortable.

 

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Filed under 21st Century Opera, Collaborative opera, contemporary opera, favorites, Interdisciplinary arts, Live opera performance, memoir, North American Opera, opera challenges, opera firsts, Reviews, Uncategorized

the best and worst of the operasphere in 2012

This year was one for the books, so to speak. My 2012 marked many new and challenging review opportunities–thirteen in all, ranging from Philadelphia to New York.

You can read all my reviews on Bachtrack at this link.

Melodic contemporary operas, classic operas done in outlandish contemporary style, never before seen operas, and even opera/musical theatre mash-ups. I saw some pretty good productions with some singularly splendid moments. I watched some not so good productions with several redeeming moments.

Rarely did a see a wonderful opera replete with splendid moments. But it happened at least twice this past year.

Herewith are my best and worst moments of the 2012 season, occurring both on and offstage.

The Best of 2012

For me, the best single production was a tie between Nico Muhly’s Dark Sisters presented by the Opera Company of Philadelphia and Glimmerglass Festival’s Lost in the Stars.

Dark Sisters: The wives of The Prophet, left to right sung by Margaret Lattimore, Eve Gigliotti, Jennifer Zetlan, Caitlin Lynch, and Jennifer Check, appear on a news show to appeal for the return of their children. TV personality “King” is sung by Kevin Burdette.| c. of Opera Company of Philadelphia | Kelly and Massa Photography

I was enthralled by Dark Sisters, a contemporary opera about the plight of women trapped in plural marriage—one husband with multiple wives. You can read the full review here, but suffice it to say that it was a moving, beautifully sung, and technologically stunning production.

Met star Eric Owens (center) in “Lost in the Stars”

Likewise, the Glimmerglass Festival’s Lost in the Stars, an opera/musical mash-up written by Kurt Weill adapted from the novel Cry, the Beloved Country by Alan Paton was a first-rate show.  It was a co-production with Cape Town Opera where it first played with performers who themselves experienced apartheid. Interestingly, Weill wrote this show  as a way to “deepen the American musical theater experience.” Lost in the Stars actually deepened and broadened my opera-going experience.  The full review is available here.

The Worst of 2012

I don’t really want to denigrate any single production or performer–that’s not what Operatoonity is about.  I prefer civility first.

However, I will say that having no #Operaplot Contest this year was a huge personal disappointment.

I can scarcely begin to describe how much I enjoyed participating and reading other entries. I’m sure it is a bear to organize and judge, but that doesn’t diminish the fact that mounting no annual contest was one (of  precious few ) Twitter campaigns sorely missed.

The other disappointment I grappled with was being emailed by a young performer after I didn’t include his name in a review. Yes, he was a lead performer, and he was understandably disappointed not to have been mentioned. However, since he was a young artist, I took the high road and excluded him rather than write an unfavorable review. I asked him if I could interview him on this blog about the challenges of preparing for a professional career singing opera, kind of as a makey-up, and he  declined to participate, another major disappointment.

To all stage performers out there, I need to remind you that reviewer is more than likely a working person who does opera reviewing in his or her spare time. She is overworked, tired, traveled a distance to get there, and endeavors to write an honest review. Therefore, if you don’t intend to bring everything you have to your performance, your overworked, overstimulated, and simultaneously exhausted reviewer (who has seen more than 35 full-length operas and recitals in venues from D.C. to the Met in the last 28 months) is likely to notice.

That’s it for Operatoonity’s birds-eye view of the best and worst of 2012.

Here’s to happy opera viewing and greener musical pastures in 2013.

 

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Filed under Best of Operatoonity, favorites, Festival Opera, Performers, Rant, Regional opera, Reviews

Wordle I do without you, my opera Tweeps?

Thanks to TweetStats, I was able to create a Tweet Cloud representing my sphere of influence on Twitter. This was all done scientifically, of course, and not through anything I controlled. I merely added my Twitter address, and TweetStats calculated this cloud for me.

What’s amazing to me is that I’d never known anyone who appears in this cloud before 2010. I’ve met every single one of them through Twitter. Every opera company, every non-profit associated with the operasphere, every performer, or opera buff in this cloud, I never knew existed before I began Tweeting. 

Now, thanks to Twitter, I’ve met so many new, interesting and accomplished people and made dozens more contacts within the world of opera.

In the spirit of the season, I want to wish you all a wonderful holiday and let you know how grateful I am to have found you all on Twitter.

Maybe Twitter is really the bluebird of happiness!

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Filed under 21st Century Opera, favorites, Holidays, Opera and social media

favorite December opera, anyone?

Winter Solstice

Every December, I expect to see less daylight but more white twinkle lights during my evening commute and hear musical selections I don’t hear the other eleven months of the year. Whether you’re celebrating Christmas, Hanukkah, or Winter Solstice, holiday music is imbued with certain qualities–that includes classical music.    

Thanks to Western religions, December has a certain musical sensibility about it. Consider the  following selection of operas. Many of them–Hänsel and Gretel (Humperdinck), Lucrezia Borgia (Donizetti) and Norma (Bellini) –actually premiered in December. Some of them have a certain lightness to them–Daughter of the Regiment, La Cenerentola–that warms you like wrapping a woolen mitten around your heart. Others like La bohème have a cold, snowy, Little-Match-Girl affect to them.    

Which is your favorite? All write-ins welcome in the comments section. If you’re curious to see what’s playing in the month of December around the world, you can see all the listings of many major houses at Bachtrack.

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Filed under Audience participation, Classic Opera, favorites, Holidays, Poll