Category Archives: Italian opera

Opera Phila’s ‘Don Carlo’ oddly satisfying

Operatoonity.com review: Don Carlo presented by Opera Philadelphia
Composer: Giuseppi Verdi; text by Joseph Méry and Camille du Locle
Live performance: Sunday, April 26, 2015
The Academy of Music, Philadelphia
4-stars

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Opera Philadelphia’s Don Carlo |photos courtesy of Opera Philadelphia

The afternoon’s performance began with an announcement that role of Princess Eboli would be sung by mezzo-soprano Ekaterina Gubenova, who would warble from the wings while Michele DeYoung who suffered from bronchitis would act out the role only, lipsyncing throughout. One had to divide one’s attention three ways whenever Princess Eboli appeared–between the raked stage, the wings, and the supertitles.

The unveiling of an incomprehensible design concept followed–an octagonal backdrop that left me scratching my head because I didn’t understand how it related to story of the King of Spain marrying his son’s fiancée, a French princess, to end the war between France and Spain. The idea that one of the most powerful leaders of the Western world pined that the woman he stole from his son didn’t really love him may be a commonly romanticized Verdi sensibility but seemed ludicrous based on the actions of world leaders today.

Finally, at the beginning of the second half, an announcement was made that bass baritone Eric Owens, the show’s most luminous performer, was not feeling well and asked for the audience’s forbearance in the event his powerhouse aria wasn’t at its best.

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Bass-baritone Eric Owens as King Philip II | courtesy of Opera Philadelphia

While none of those items individually are deal breakers, they did lend themselves to an unusual experience collectively. The human voice may be the frailest of instruments–we all know that. Nonetheless, the audience is disappointed when it fails the performers in the show they are so expectant to see.

Dimitri Pittas as Don Carlo and Troy Cook as Rodrigo.

(L-r) Dimitri Pittas as Don Carlo and Troy Cook as Rodrigo.

As the lovelorn Don Carlo, New York tenor Dimitri Pittas was simply a dream. He looked the role and sung with unrelenting power and fluid grace. Singing the role of his former fiancée Elisabeth was soprano Leah Crocetto, who sang sweetly and precisely but was not ideally suited for the role physically as Don Carlo’s lover, coveted by men.

Leah Crocetto as Elisabeth De Valois

Leah Crocetto as Elisabeth De Valois

Ekaterina Gubanova

Ekaterina Gubanova

While no one would wish bronchitis on any performer, DeYoung’s illness did offer a first-time opportunitiy to hear Gubanova sing Princess Eboli. She recently performed the role at the Metropolitan Opera and was in top voice. She sings with temerity and a sultry black swan quality. I will certainly be looking for opportunities to see her perform in the near future. She was mesmerizing–merely singing opera in concert.

Baritone Troy Cook from Quakertown, Pennsylvania was ideally cast as the passionate Rodrigo who convinces Carlo to ask his father for governorship of Flanders, becomes King Philip’s pawn, and loses his life. He has a compelling presence on stage with a lyric baritone that is beautiful and powerful.

The biggest name on the bill was Metropolitan Opera star Eric Owens as King Philip. Despite the disclaimer that he wasn’t feeling well, his second-half aria where he laments that fact that Elisabeth never loved him was a showstopper. I have seen Owens perform several times, and if he could have sung that aria better than he did that afternoon, it would have been an operatic miracle. That being said, it does detract from one’s willing suspension of disbelief to be notified that he was ill. I was half expecting him to collapse on stage throughout because the aria is so physically and emotionally taxing.

As evil and selfish as he is, somehow King Philip doesn’t emerge from this story as the Numero Uno Baddie. That would be the The Grand Inquisitor sung with chilling menace by bass Morris Robinson.

Eric Owens as King Philip II and Morris Robinson as the Grand Inquistor

(L-r) Eric Owens as King Philip II and Morris Robinson as the Grand Inquistor

Yes, this opera does remind the audience that the reign of the Spanish Inquisition was one of the darkest periods in Western history. Not an easy feat. Consider all the other major contenders. However, did the production have to look so dark? The costumes varied from black to jet black, the set was dark and enigmatic throughout with dark atmospheric lighting, the storyline is relentlessly dark, and the overall effect was, well, oppressive. Sometimes dark becomes darker with the occasional infusion of light and lightness.

One such reprieve very early on was the Women’s Chorus singing as Elisabeth’s attendants. They were lovely to hear and see. Remarkable that the most oppressed sound and look light and airy in this opera and the oppressors dark and heavy.

Many elements made the show oddly satisfying, the Opera Philadelphia Orchestra notwithstanding. Conducted by Corrado Rovaris, the orchestra delivered one of the most consistently striking and admirable performances of the show.

This was an ambitious show, even for Opera Philadelphia. Often in partnership with other companies, in this case WNO and Minnesota Opera, they continue to offer important and challenging works and not just those that commonly appear in the repertoire. They deserve kudos for performing complex operas that aren’t always easy to enjoy. They are making their mark in the opera firmament by being brave and often upstart, demonstrating there’s room for more than one premier company on the East Coast.

 

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Filed under Classic Opera, Italian opera, opera star power, Regional opera, Reviews

AVA’s L’italiana sails despite evening’s perfect storm of challenges

Operatoonity.com reviewL’italiana In Algeri presented by the Academy of Vocal Arts
Composer: Gioachino Rossini; libretto: Angelo Anelli based on his earlier text set by Luigi Mosca
Live performance: Tuesday, November 18, 2014
Goodhart Hall: Bryn Mawr College, Bryn Mawr, PA

The Academy of Vocal Arts (AVA), Philadelphia’s premiere opera training academy, routinely transports nearly every production to the Greater Philadelphia suburbs including the Centennial Hall at The Haverford School. This is a much heralded tradition that operagoers appreciate. It’s a lovely hall and very convenient for suburban opera lovers.

The AVA can’t be faulted that the day the company was scheduled to offer L’italiana In Algeri in Haverford was  frigidly cold for November in Pennsylvania–below freezing all day. They discovered their venue’s heating system was inoperable and had to quickly relocate nearby for that evening’s show.

The cast of L’italiana in Algeri, presented by the Academy of Vocal Arts, 2014

Though the venue was toasty warm, Goodhart Hall at Bryn Mawr College had no orchestra pit, so the entire orchestra had to pile onto the stage for the performance, which left only the proscenium available for performers. Nor could the set from Centennial Hall be readily installed at Goodhart. Lastly, the facility could not accommodate supertitles, so none were offered, at least to those audience members sitting in the balcony, such as this reviewer.

Despite all these challenges, the performers were there to put on a show and perform they did. They seemed unfazed by the musicians behind them, the lack of set around them, and  in the absence of supertitles, every audience member laser-focused on their performances, trying to extract meaning from every note, every gesture, and every facial expression.

I suppose the company had a bit of fortune that all this occurred during a Rossini dramma giocoso. The storyline is a happy marriage of nefarious plotting against a pair of deserving and attractive lovers, which is foiled, of course, so the evening can be all wrapped up in a happy-ending bow.

The Turkish Bey Mustafà is bored with his harem, wants an Italian girl, and, lo and behold, a made-to-order beauty, Isabella, washes up on shore with a band of pirates:

Isabella and the band of shipwrecked pirates

As the much-admired L’italiana, mezzo-soprano Hanna Ludwig delivered a sturdy performance. The role was written for a contralto, and at times, it seemed the lowest notes required fell outside of this mezzo’s comfort range.

Mezzo-soprano Hannah Ludwig as Isabella

She did have a great sense of comic timing, especially with the band of shipwrecked pirates.

As the Italian slave Lindoro, Australian tenor Alasdair Kent had that all important Rossini tenor ping to his voice. His lovelorn affect was endearing. His voice cracked a few times throughout the night,  but his acting and onstage presence were solid.

Tenor Alasdair Kent sang the role of the lovesick Lindoro

Best performance of the evening honors must go to bass-bariton André Courville as the Turkish Bey Mustafà. His powerful voice and spot-on characterization never wavered. He was imperious and comical at the same time. As Mustafà, he appeared completely unfazed by the change of venue, lack of meaningful set, orchestra playing behind him, and clambered onto and off his makeshift throne with aplomb. His scenes with Michael Adams as Isabella’s would-be lover Taddeo were magical. Bravo, Mr. Courville.

From left to right: baritone Michael Adams as Taddeo and bass-baritone André Courville as Mustafà.

Because the ensemble exchanges roles throughout the run of the show–the principals are typically double-cast–the AVA chorus is perpetually excellent and a highlight of any AVA show. And even though the role was smaller, Anush Avetisyan as the discarded wife Elvira and her clear soprano with its bell-like timbre brightened the stage with each entrance.

Alasdair Kent as Lindoro and Anush Avetisyan as Elvira

Costumes by Val Starr were lush and lovely–a sparkling cut above. While the turquoise palette used to represent Algier was so appealing, the portable blocks which seemed to be configured and reconfigured incessantly and nonsensically became distracting. Credit director Dorothy Danner for instilling in her cast a “show-must-go-on” ethos, or perhaps that credit is shared with the AVA faculty.

I was expecting the AVA orchestra to overpower the singers–the number of pieces alone (31!) was foreboding–but was pleasantly surprised by the control that conductor Richard A. Raub exerted over his musicians–their contributions were balanced and beautiful.

Not every company could’ve salvaged a show following a perfect storm of trouble, but they all deserve credit for weathering the unexpected woes. The cast was richly rewarded with applause and cheers at curtain call.

And  should this ever happen again, to the behind-the-scenes folks who did a heroic job notifying subscribers regarding the change of venue, don’t forget that those reviewing the show need to know this information in a timely fashion, too.  No reviewer likes to get a parking ticket just because she tried to make curtain at a dark and unfamiliar venue.

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Filed under Classic Opera, Italian opera, music and humor, Opera and humor, Regional opera, Reviews

Tenor James Valenti returns to Met Opera stage in April

James Valenti

American tenor James Valenti will sing the role of Pinkerton in Met Opera’s ‘Madama Butterfly’ | photo by Dario Acosta

When Operatoonity.com last spoke with American tenor James Valenti, he was learning the tango for The Dream of Valentino, a new production for Minnesota Opera.

James Valenti as Valentino, courtesy of Minnesota Opera | photo 2014 © Michal Daniel

James Valenti as Valentino, courtesy of Minnesota Opera | photo 2014 © Michal Daniel

Now, fresh from portraying the silent film star and marquee idol Rudolph Valentino, James enthusiastically reports that he has mastered the dance that Argentina put on the map. (Let’s hope Valentino comes east soon, so that we, too, can witness his ballroom dancing prowess. If like me, curiosity has gotten the better of you, you can watch James tangoing in this YouTube clip.)

In less than two weeks, he opens in the Metropolitan Opera’s production of Madama Butterfly, which seemed like an ideal opportunity to catch up with him.

Welcome back to Operatoonity.com, James. You’re back in NYC to prepare for singing Lt. Pinkerton for four productions on April 4, 9. 12 & 15.
It’s always exciting being close to home. I get to see a lot of my old friends–my high school friends–and of course my family.

How are you preparing for your imminent Met appearance?
I’ve seen the Minghella production, and I just sang the role for Lyric Opera in Chicago this past fall. In fact I’ve sung the role many times. Of course, every theater has a different way they operate. Sometimes withe European companies, you don’t even get an orchestra rehearsal. I feel as though I have sufficient preparation time prior to that April 4 opening at the Met.

James Valenti in Madama Butterfly, courtesy of Lyric Opera of Chicago | photo by Dan Rest

James Valenti in Madama Butterfly, courtesy of Lyric Opera of Chicago | photo by Dan Rest

How are you different from the young artist who sang Pinkerton in 2008, when you won New York City Opera’s Debut Artist of the Year award?
I certainly feel differently. I have been working on a new dramatic repertoire, singing more lyric-spinto. My voice now takes on new colors. I got to sing Don Carlo and Valentino–Valentino was a milestone in my career, and I really grew a lot. So I am excited to bring my new technique to the role. I have a new way of singing, and I hope that I have a huge success and get invited back for the next ten years.

You sing a great deal of classic opera. Do you prefer more traditional versions or lean toward experimental interpretations?
Definitely more of a traditionalist. However, Anthony Minghella’s production is rather modern, and it works. The little boy character is actually a puppet. Puppeteers wearing black will be onstage manipulating him. This choice was controversial when Minghella first introduced it. But I have to say, it’s a stunning interpretation.

Will you have much down time while you’re in New York?
Certainly, I’ll have enough time to see other performances at the Met when I am not rehearsing or performing. I definitely want to see Werther and Andrea Chénier.

Any other fun things you plan on doing while you’re in the Big Apple?
There’s so much going on here. Great restaurants. I’ll do things in Central Park once it gets a little warmer. I love going to those nice hotel spas. I like to let loose a little, too.

James Valenti casualBesides a good tango, how do you kick up your heels?
My high school friends and I  head to Koreatown for a little karaoke. I like singing stuff from the 80s, like “Living on a Prayer” by Bon Jovi and a lot of Journey hits like “Don’t Stop Believing.” I sing a lot of Billy Joel, too. I love all his music, dating back to his earliest album Cold Spring Harbor.

According to the the performance schedule on your website, you are getting a little break this summer. Any special plans?
I’m taking  a little time off to record my first CD. All Italian and French music that will probably be available around August 1. You’ll definitely be hearing more about that project. But this is the beauty of my life. I’m not married. I don’t have children. I don’t have anything tying me down that keeps me from picking up and going to Europe. I still get to fly by the seat of my pants.

(And, to conclude, an Operatoonity Q&A staple) The Lightning Round

Cheesesteak or Cheesecake? Cheesecake (with ricotta, the Italian way)
Jeans or khakis? Jeans
Sweater or sweatshirt? Sweater
Dogs or cats? Dogs
Spaghetti or lasagne? Lasagne
House of Pizza or House of Cards? House of Cards

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You can  follow James on Twitter @James_Valenti or become his Facebook fan at https://www.facebook.com/jamesvalentitenor, where he regularly posts content and photos from around the world.

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Filed under Golden Operatoonity, Heartstoppers, Interviews, Italian opera, Q&A, tenors

God, I love ‘Tosca’! Reason one: the arias

Even the libretto cover is lovely, no?

Even the libretto cover is lovely, no?

Editor’s note: This post marks the first of a Tosca week celebration on Operatoonity.com, in homage to the 114th anniversary of the work.

So, Tuesday the 14th of January marks the premiere of Puccini’s Tosca, written that date in 1900.

I want to shout it from the roof of my modest bilevel home that needs new siding: I LOVE TOSCA!

Why? The music, of course. Whenever I am listening to Opera Music Broadcast during the work day (and I almost always am live streaming it) and an aria from Tosca plays, I stop what I am doing, and take it in-completely–into every pour of my body.

Even though Cavaradossi is nearly drowning in his melancholy thinking of Tosca during the transcendently lovely”E lucevan le stelle,” I am transported to another plane of existence while he sings. Completely alive. Taking every note of the song into every pore.

But it’s not just the music. It’s the sentiment behind the music. The man is unequivocal, unapologetic, and consumed by his love for Tosca. That kind of devotion to a woman seems so unfashionable today, in this era of non-commitment. Perhaps that’s why I find his devotion so arresting and transformative.

Heavenly day, who wouldn’t want to be wholly loved like that! by a man like Cavaradossi!

Not convinced? Listen to Alagna singing the act three aria ‘E lucevan le stella.” Oh, and here is a translation of the lyrics:

“E lucevan le stella”

The stars seemed to shimmer
The sweet scents of the garden,
The creaking gate seemed to whisper,
And a footstep skimmed over the sand.
Then she came in, so fragrant,
And fell into my arms!
Oh! sweet kisses, oh, languorous caresses,
While I, trembling, was searching
For her features, concealed by her mantle.
My dream of love faded away, for good!
Everything’s gone now.
I’m dying hopeless, desperate!
And never before have I loved life like this!
And never before have I loved life like this!
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Filed under 20th Century Opera, anniversary, Classic Opera, Italian opera, verismo opera

up close and personal with American tenor James Valenti

James Valenti, American tenor

James Valenti opens in ‘Madama Butterfly’ at Lyric Opera in Chicago on October 15 | photo by Dario Acosta

He loves ballroom dancing. He’s a talented athlete in multiple sports. He was a lifeguard, a chorister, and even a baritone at the very start of his musical journey.

He’s learning to tango. He wants to learn to ride a horse so that he can play polo.

He’s East Coast. He’s Chicago. He’s Palm Beach. He’s Milan. He’s Sydney. He’s Zurich and Munich.

His Tweets often include snippets of his worldview from his (well) considered vantage point, condensed within 140 characters: “If your dreams don’t scare you, they aren’t big enough,” he tweeted on October 4. And once he’s befriended you, it seems you’re his friend for life.

Who is this multi-talented, multi-faceted, loyal, hardworking, world-traveling, philosophical, lifelong-learning, all-American, Type-A, 6’5″ Jersey boy who also happens to be an internationally acclaimed tenor?

None other than the opera star James Valenti. And he’s opening in a new-to-Chicago production of Madama Butterfly on October 15, a coproduction of Lyric Opera of Chicago, Houston Grand Opera, and Grand Théâtre de Genève.

I spoke with James on a sunny afternoon during a bit of free time from rehearsing the role of Lieutenant Pinkerton. I asked him every question I could think of, all of which he graciously answered for your edification, dear readers.

Welcome to Operatoonity, James! It’s a pleasure to talk with you today. You’re a tenor, but your voice has the resonance of a baritone’s. Can you describe your voice for my readers?
It has a warm, Italianate color–sonorous, it’s been called. It sounds like a full baritonal voice in the lower and middle registers. I call myself a lyric spinto tenor. It’s not really something I cultivated in my voice. It has always leant itself to being like that. When I started formally studying at 18 or 19, I actually sang baritone. It takes time for all the muscles, used properly, to develop. Sometime in my early twenties, I found my tenor register.

Franco Corelli headshot

The late great Franco Corelli, the Prince of Tenors, is someone Valenti’s often compared to because he also cuts a tall, handsome figure on the stage.

You’ve been compared to Franco Corelli. Yes, not just because of the voice. Also, the height and the looks.

Now that we’ve stumbled onto the topic of your appearance, how do you process all the attention that’s paid to your looks? A recent review in the Chicago Reader called you a ‘heartthrob.’  I’d be foolish to not sort of use what I’ve been given. I look nice. I work hard to look nice. It makes my performances more believable. I look the way a leading man is supposed to look. That being said, I don’t want people just to focus on the looks. I don’t want people to be distracted by that. I want them to hear me. If you go to my website–I have a new website–before you even see what I look like, you hear me singing.

How do you mentally prepare to sing a role like Pinkerton?  In some ways, Pinkerton is a man of his time. Do you bring a modern sensibility to the role? I’ve sung the role many times–I like to say I’ve been booed all over the world. I try to get into his head. He’s a young guy in a strange culture. He doesn’t really understand the significance of what he does to Butterfly. When he returns to Japan with his new family, he does feel genuine remorse once he realizes what he’s done. He does care for Butterly. I try to convey that.

James Valenti as Pinkerton

James Valenti starring in City Opera’s ‘Madama Butterfly’

You sang this role for New York City Opera in 2008 and won City Opera’s Debut Artist of the Year. How do you feel about their current woes and likely demise?  They were a great company that offered a great platform for debut artists. They had such a wonderful reputation. In fact, I just saw Anna Nicole–fantastic production. It makes me sad to think about it.

When did you know you wanted to do this? I started singing in high school. I did show choir and musical theater. When I went to hear The Three Tenors, something flipped a switch. It was incredible. It really affected me. So I began listening to a lot more opera. I also have to say how important my teachers were in encouraging me, in high school and college. I’m still close to my high school teachers–they are responsible for helping me become what I am. I do know that had I not had their encouragement, had I not seen The Three Tenors perform, I would have found this life, eventually. This is my calling.

Do you have a favorite house to sing in? Coming back to the Met is always a joy. My family actually gets to see me sing when I’m in New York. They can’t come hear me when I’m performing in Europe. But there’s a lot of pressure that comes with singing at the Met, too. I like the slightly smaller companies like Minnesota Opera and Palm Beach Opera (where I live). I feel as though I do great work there because I am more relaxed.

James Valenti

James Valenti was born in Summit, New Jersey and comes from a “big, amazing Italian family.” He’s a graduate of the Academy of Vocal Arts in Philadelphia | photo by Dario Acosta

Now that you’ve mentioned Minnesota Opera, tell us about The Dream of Valentino, the new opera based on Rudolph Valentino, opening in March of next year. Valentino had a very tragic life. He died at age 29. He was the first really big victim of Hollywood. Discovered and destroyed by Hollywood. [Valentino was a dancer in a Broadway dance palace at the start of his career.] I’m taking tango lessons, and I love it. I have a good instructor who said I’m a natural.

James, learning the tango  for Dream of Valentino

James, learning the tango for ‘The Dream of Valentino,’ in which he’s playing the title role

So you like trying new things? There’s a big polo equestrian scene in Palm Beach where I live. I have a friend who’s really into it. I’m going to learn how to ride a horse, so I can play.

How do you like the itinerant life? It has its advantages. Wherever I go, I actually do try to make the most of what this lifestyle has to offer. If  I am performing in a strange city for two months, I really try to get plugged into it, to get a feel for that city. Of course, I always worry about getting enough rest, but there is something great about having the opportunity to share my talent with the world.

How do you stay healthy? It’s hard to have a routine when you travel as much as I do–two-thirds of the year I’m traveling. But I stay active. I do yoga. If the hotel has a pool, I swim. I play beach volleyball when I’m at home. Here in Chicago, I’m going bike riding on Lake Shore Drive. The day of the show I lay low; I sleep in. I suck on raw ginger which is good for the immune system. I guess it boils down to hydration and sleep. I have to get enough of both of those to perform.

When one visits your website, you can’t help noticing that you are devoting a significant amount of your life energy to charities you believe in.  I became a sponsor for Children International back in 2006 and am now an ambassador. I’m happy to be part of it and really passionate about it. I’m in a point in my career where I can get more involved. I’m anxious to give my time as I can, and through my career and my travels, I want to raise awareness of what they do.

James Valenti

James Valenti won the Richard Tucker Prize in 2010, awarded annually to an American singer poised on the edge of a major national and international career.

Ready for the lightning round of questions? I’ll give you a prompt and you answer in a couple words, okay?

Favorite opera: La bohème; Werther
Favorite role: Don Carlos (recently); Rodolfo
Favorite leading lady(ies):  Angela Gheorghiu and Anna Netrebko
Dream role: Andrea Chénier
Massenet or Mozart: Massenet
Beef or chicken: Beef
Mountains or beach: Beach
Guilty pleasure: Swiss chocolate, dark chocolate; hazelnut and pistachio gelato
Bacon or tofu: Bacon
Football or basketball: Basketball (though there’s a lot of big football fans in my family)
London or Paris: Paris

* * *

If you are an East Coaster like me, you’ll be delighted to know that James is singing Madama Butterfly at the Met on April 4, 9, 12, 15, 2014. You can also follow James on Twitter @James_Valenti or become his Facebook fan at https://www.facebook.com/jamesvalentitenor, where he regularly posts content and photos from around the world.

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Filed under 21st Century Opera, artists, Classic Opera, Italian opera, North American Opera, Richard Tucker prize winners, tenors