Category Archives: Live opera performance

Voices Carry Droll ‘Sweeney’

Operatoonity.com review: Sweeney Todd presented by Glimmerglass Festival
Live performance: Saturday, July 9, 2016, 8:00 p.m.
Venue: Alice Busch Opera Theater, Cooperstown, NY
Music and Lyrics: Stephen Sondheim
Book: Hugh Wheeler
4.0 out of 5.0 stars

4-stars

 

Members of the ensemble in The Glimmerglass Festival's production of Stephen Sondheim's "Sweeney Todd." Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival

Members of the ensemble in The Glimmerglass Festival’s production of Stephen Sondheim’s “Sweeney Todd.” Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival

Each year, Glimmerglass Festival organizers solicit suggestions for upcoming seasons. I suggested Sweeney Todd several times in previous years. Granted, once I learned Sweeney Todd was on the 2016 bill, this reviewer’s expectations were off the chart. Imagine operatically trained voices handling a score that can prove daunting to strictly musical theater companies.

And the sublime voices in @GOpera’s new production of Stephen Sondheim’s dark and tragic opus Sweeney Todd absolutely thrilled and chilled.

According to the excellent show talk presented by Principal Coach and Accompanist Grant Wenaus prior to opening night of their new production, Sondheim sought to create a music thriller with his grisly Sweeney–something to terrify audiences. Wenaus detailed numerous instances where Sondheim used dissonance, repetition, and irony to create a heart-pounding show.

When I closed my eyes Friday night, the new production was absolutely terror-filled. The accomplished singers delivered many times over.

L to R: Emily Pogorelc as Johanna, Harry Greenleaf as Anthony Hope, Greer Grimsley in the title role, Peter Volpe as Judge Turpin and Bille Bruley as Beadle Bamford in The Glimmerglass Festival's production of Stephen Sondheim's "Sweeney Todd." Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival

L to R: Emily Pogorelc as Johanna, Harry Greenleaf as Anthony Hope, Greer Grimsley in the title role, Peter Volpe as Judge Turpin and Bille Bruley as Beadle Bamford in The Glimmerglass Festival’s production of Stephen Sondheim’s “Sweeney Todd.” Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival

The direction, however, did not.

Director Christopher Alden’s wryly amusing concept didn’t cut it for me. Where was the alarming atmosphere, the mounting panic, and the overwhelming dread Sondheim has so skillfully crafted into the score and the libretto? The audience should be clawing at the arms of their upholstered seats as the story freefalls into the deadliest and most chilling of downward spirals within the canon of contemporary musical theater.

As a bit of background, I am overall a fan of Alden’s work. The Così fan tutte he created for New York City Opera was a “sardonic stunner,” according to my 2012 review for Bachtrack. I also delighted in the Don Giovanni he directed in 2009 for the same company. Surely Don G. has been produced tens of thousands of times since its inception in 1787. Everyone knows the tale. So, a novel approach is welcome as long as it serves the story. I appreciated the wooden-chairs-against-the-bare-wall controlling concept in NYCO’s Don G:

Don Giovanni, directed by Christopher Alden, presented by New York City Opera, 2009.

Production photo from Don Giovanni, directed by Christopher Alden, presented by New York City Opera, 2009. | Photo by © Carol Rosegg

I was looking for–longing for–something fresh and evocative for Sweeney to well serve a contemporary musical not nearly as well known to operagoers as Don G. I expected Alden to bring his A-game. But he trotted out the wooden-chairs-against-the-bare-wall setting again, to the detriment of this production, which merited so much more than Alden’s cheeky minimalism.

Greer Grimsley in the title role Luretta Bybee as Mrs. Lovett in The Glimmerglass Festival's production of Stephen Sondheim's "Sweeney Todd." Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival

Greer Grimsley in the title role Luretta Bybee as Mrs. Lovett in The Glimmerglass Festival’s production of Stephen Sondheim’s “Sweeney Todd.” Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival

To its credit, the production starred the marvelous bass baritone Greer Grimsley as the Demon Barber of Fleet Street. He was everything Sweeney should be–a tormented, demented serial killer fueled by a bitter vengeance for having his modest world stolen from him. His operatic chops rose to the rafters of the opera house while raising the hairs on the arms of audience members. Greer’s interpretation, his immersion into character without sacrificing a whit of vocal integrity, was a tour de force, and one of the finest performances I’ve ever seen at Glimmerglass.

Greer Grimsley in the title role of The Glimmerglass Festival's production of Stephen Sondheim's "Sweeney Todd." Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival

Greer Grimsley in the title role of The Glimmerglass Festival’s production of Stephen Sondheim’s “Sweeney Todd.” Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival

If there is a more beloved role in contemporary musical theater than Mrs. Lovett, I’d be surprised. In spite of the fact that she turns Mr. T’s victims into meat pies, the audience wants to love her. Mezzo soprano (and real life wife of Grimsley) Luretta Bybee look and acted the role–some fetching costumes were conceived for her by Terese Wadden. Sadly, she was not vocally equipped to sing it. One either has to have an enormous chest range to surmount the break between the alto and soprano notes or a very hearty soprano. Bybee’s vocals got swallowed up between the two ranges and was barely heard over the orchestra numerous times, which was not the conductor’s fault.

Luretta Bybee as Mrs. Lovett in The Glimmerglass Festival production of Stephen Sondheim's "Sweeney Todd." Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival

Luretta Bybee as Mrs. Lovett in The Glimmerglass Festival production of Stephen Sondheim’s “Sweeney Todd.” Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival

The balance of the cast, to a person, was just outstanding. As Johanna Barker, Young Artist Emily Pogorelc’s rapturous soprano was perfectly suited to the sweetly virginal Johanna. I hung on her every note from the very first hearkening a caged nightengale in “Green Finch and Linnet Bird.”

Emily Pogorelc as Johanna in The Glimmerglass Festival's production of Stephen Sondheim's "Sweeney Todd." Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival

Emily Pogorelc as Johanna in The Glimmerglass Festival’s production of Stephen Sondheim’s “Sweeney Todd.” Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival

Another Young Artist Harry Greenleaf turned in a winsome and winning Anthony Hope. He possesses a rich ringing baritone. With his sandy-haired boyish good looks, he is every inch the ideal romantic lead.

Harry Greenleef as Anthony Hope in The Glimmerglass Festival's production of Stephen Sondheim's "Sweeney Todd." Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival

Harry Greenleef as Anthony Hope in The Glimmerglass Festival’s production of Stephen Sondheim’s “Sweeney Todd.” Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival

As the show’s unabashed baddies, bass Peter Volpe as Judge Turpin and tenor Bille Bruley, a Young Artist, as Beadle Bamford, delivered star turns. I’ve never seen or heard a more believably tortured or chilling Turpin than in Volpe’s “Johanna (Mea Culpa),” which was effectively if sparsely staged.

Peter Volpe as Judge Turpin in The Glimmerglass Festival’s production of Stephen Sondheim’s “Sweeney Todd.” Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival

Two other Young Artists deserve special mention. Tenor Christopher Bozeka as Senor Pirelli and Nicholas Nestorak as his attendant Tobias Ragg, that is until Pirelli’s throat is slit, both contributed immeasurably to the success of the show. Nestorak’s descent into madness as the meat grinder was chilling, despite the bare stage and lack of special effects.

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Nicholas Nestorak as Tobias Ragg in The Glimmerglass Festival’s production of Stephen Sondheim’s “Sweeney Todd.” Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival

Soprano and veteran performer Patricia Schuman earned an accolade of her own as the Beggar Woman. I last reviewed Schuman starring in Powder Her Face. From the Duchess of Argyll to a bag lady. What a versatile actress she is!

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Patricia Schuman as Beggar Woman in The Glimmerglass Festival’s production of Stephen Sondheim’s “Sweeney Todd.” Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival

One expects to see clever bits in an Alden show, and there are those, to be sure. However, there is plenty of comic value in the book, sans Alden’s campy touches. So, attend the tale for the voices. And plan to enjoy a glass of wine or two at intermission in case this Sweeney happens not to be your cup of tea.

Sweeney Todd runs in repertory through Friday, August 26. Tickets available at the festival’s website.

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Shimmering ‘La bohème’ Opens Glimmerglass Festival

Operatoonity.com review: La bohème presented by Glimmerglass Festival
Live performance: Friday, July 8, 2016, 7:30 p.m.
Alice Busch Opera Theater
Music: Giacomo Puccini
Libretto: Luigi Illica & Giuseppe Giacosa
4.5 out of 5.0 stars

4.5strslg

The Glimmerglass Festival production of Puccini's "La bohème." Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival

The Glimmerglass Festival production of Puccini’s “La bohème.” Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival

Glimmerglass Festival mounted a memorable tribute to its founding with a new production of La bohème, the first show the company ever presented in 1975. Those visionaries who believed summertime opera performed in repertory could somehow matter in a New York town only known for baseball would have and most likely adored this season’s opening production.

Filled with spectacle, informed by careful attention to the real Parisian scene during La Belle Époque, the 2016 show succeeded on many levels—for those who desired to wrap themselves in Puccini’s beloved melodies to those with expectations for a beauty and symmetry that Puccini himself envisioned to those seeking abandon in the doomed relationship between destitute young lovers.

Raquel González as Mimì and Michael Brandenburg as Rodolfo in The Glimmerglass Festival's production of Puccini's "La bohème." Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival

Michael Brandenburg as Rodolfo and Raquel González as Mimì in The Glimmerglass Festival’s production of Puccini’s “La bohème.” Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival

Because this production was set in period, it is easier for the audience to accept the show’s many provincialities. Mimi is a seamstress who can only advance herself by foregoing true love and sleeping with a rich man. Musetta and the Bohemians take full advantage of an old coot’s weakness for a slender ankle and stick him with the check. Marcello and Rodolfo both bemoan the fact that women are somehow born to flirt.

Dale Travis as Alcindoro and Vanessa Becerra as Musetta in The Glimmerglass Festival's production of Puccini's "La bohème." Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival

Dale Travis as Alcindoro and Vanessa Becerra as Musetta in The Glimmerglass Festival’s production of Puccini’s “La bohème.” Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival

That being said, Director E. Loren Meeker has taken great care to render a La bohème that both suited the venue and that subtly acknowledged some of the most successful stagings of the show. Her vision for the opera invoked a transcendent experience while paying homage to the pageantry of the well-known Zeffirelli version currently in the Met’s classic repertoire.

The Latin Quarter on Christmas Eve | Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival

The Latin Quarter on Christmas Eve | Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival

While La bohème happens to be my least favorite of Puccini’s operas, Meeker and her production team elevated the show to an unmatched artistic level, and all deserve a hearty bravi. All operatic elements worked in tandem, most effectively during the Christmas Eve festival. The scene opened with a choral celebration, trumpeting the Bohemians arrival in the Latin quarter. The chorus under the skillful direction of Choral Master David Moody and Children’s Chorus Master Tracy Allen together with clever costumes by Erik Teague and choreography by Eric Sean Fogel transported us from a dingy garret to Gay Paree.

David Walton as Parpignol in The Glimmerglass Festival production of Puccini's "La bohème." Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival

David Walton as Parpignol in The Glimmerglass Festival production of Puccini’s “La bohème.” Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival

As the tragic heroine Mimi, soprano Raquel González was ideally suited to the role. She had a shimmering, youthful voice that never lost its sweet tone, even while filling the hall during her first aria “Sì, mi chiamano Mimì” when she introduces herself to Rodolfo in his grimy flat. It is important that the audience believe in Mimi as a modest young seamstress with inherent goodness or the role can come off cloying and insincere. She was such a believable Mimi, one sensed the despair Rodolfo must feel having lost her twice.

 "Sì, mi chiamano Mimì"

Raquel González sings “Sì, mi chiamano Mimì” in Act I.

From his very first note Rodolfo, tenor Michael Brandenburg exhibited a spinto quality with a brightness reminding me of Juan Diego Flórez. Brandenburg’s tenor needed to cut through the orchestra which occasionally overpowered the singers, a problem I never encountered at Glimmerglass in the last several years and hope I don’t encounter again. (One does come to hear the operatic voices first and foremost, Maestro Colaneri.) While González’s appearance affected a perfect Mimi, because of his scruffy beard and lackluster garb, Brandenburg looked more like Motel the Tailor than that of the romantic lead Mimi falls for instantly. He did a serviceable job as Rodolfo, and I would be intrigued to see him in a character role.

Michael Brandenburg as Rodolfo

Michael Brandenburg as Rodolfo

Rodolfo and his flat mates Marcello, Colline, and Schaunard en scene were another highlight of this production. Though there hijinks were somewhat corny, their vocals soared. Props to all the Bohemians for the lift their vocal and physical energies lent the show. Young Artist Brian Vu was so energetic and gifted his every appearance telegraphed, “I’d like a starring role, please.” A special nod to Hunter Enoch as Marcello, whose baritone could be rich and bright and dark and bristling as the role demanded.

L to R: Michael Brandenburg as Rodolfo, Hunter Enoch as Marcello, Brian Vu as Schaunard and Ryhs Lloyd Talbot as Colline in The Glimmerglass Festival production of Puccini's "La bohème." Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival

L to R: Michael Brandenburg as Rodolfo, Hunter Enoch as Marcello, Brian Vu as Schaunard and Ryhs Lloyd Talbot as Colline in The Glimmerglass Festival production of Puccini’s “La bohème.” Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival

Young Artist Vanessa Becerra rendered my favorite Musetta ever. Not merely a scene-stealing minx with a glorious soprano voice, Becerra was entirely believable at the end of the production, giving comfort to her dying friend. Brava, Ms. Becerra. You were delightful.

Vanessa Becerra as Musetta in The Glimmerglass Festival production of Puccini's "La bohème." Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival

Vanessa Becerra as Musetta in The Glimmerglass Festival production of Puccini’s “La bohème.” Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival

Though the Bohemians’ clothes are threadbare and the opera is done too frequently, the cast and crew of Glimmerglass’s 2016 La bohème have injected a freshness and a genuine affection into their version. It was as welcome and sweet as a frosty mug of birch beer on a warm summer’s eve.

La bohème runs through Saturday, August 27 in repertory with Sweeney Todd, The Thieving Magpie, and The Crucible. More information is available here.

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Opera Phila’s ‘Elixir’: Just What the Doctor Ordered

Operatoonity.com review: The Elixir of Love presented by Opera Philadelphia
Composer: Gaetano Donizetti with text by Felice Romani
Live performance: Sunday, May 8, 2016
The Academy of Music, Philadelphia
4-stars

 

Opera Philadelphia closed its mainstage season with the potboiler The Elixir of Love. The show was rollocking good fun, and, a lot like the last professional Elixir I saw at New York City Opera in 2009, the production ushered a rising star into the opera firmament. In 2009, that star of the NYCO show was David Lomeli as the lovestruck Nemorino. In Opera Phila’s version, the luminous soprano Sarah Shafer, a Curtis Institute of Music graduate from State College, Pennsylvania, ensconced herself as a talent to remember:

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Sarah Shafer as the petulant, flirty Adina was a standout in Opera Phila’s springtime show. Photos courtesy of Opera Philadelphia

In this version, Adina was a country schoolteacher in the 1940s after WWII, who opens the show by telling pupils and villagers all about Isolde falling for Tristan after he drinks the magic potion in the classic myth. Had she been asked to portray Adina as a fishwife, GI Jane, or a blood-soaked zombie, nothing could have diminished her impact on this production. The audience hung on Shafer’s every note, from her first appearance in Act I until her Act II aria “Prendi per me sei libero…,” a glorious version, easily sustaining the legato passages, and effortlessly reaching her top notes with the clarity and sweetness of a silver bell. She is a preeminent lyric soprano and poised for even greater roles and stages.

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Tenor Dimitris Pittas sang the role of Nemorino

As the lovestruck Nemorino, New York tenor Dimitris Pittas showed off his stellar comic timing. He was a lovable, empathetic schlub for most of the show, which is most of what is required of the role. According to a press release dated April 21, Pittas stepped into the role only a week before the show opened because the previous tenor was stricken ill. Carrying the lead role on such short notice deserves recognition. However, this reviewer can only critique the show she saw. Pittas was handed the aria of a lifetime in “Una Furtiva Lagrima,” which was a fine vocal showcase for him but not the showstopper I had hoped for. Pittas absolutely did a serviceable job and after his noteable performance in Opera Phila’s Don Carlo, I hope to see him again soon, perhaps in the 2016-17 season.

Baritone Craig Verm as Belcore

Baritone Craig Verm as Belcore

If Donizetti handed Nemorino the aria of a lifetime, then he bestows the comic role of a lifetime on the opera singer who portrays Sergeant Belcore. Belcore is an over-the-top character. To perform the role with too much swagger is probably impossible. While baritone Craig Verm was amusing and well caricatured, I was *selfishly* hoping for a bigger overall performance to contrast with Nemorino’s ingrained schlubiness, like Brutus to Wimpy. Verm sang the role well and cut a handsome figure. Coming into the show, I came down with a bit of a fever, however, a fever for some beloved Elixirs of years gone by. The only prescription would have been more swagger from Belcore.

Kevin Burdette as Doctor Dulcamara

Kevin Burdette as Doctor Dulcamara

One of my favorite Phila Opera regulars is Kevin Burdette. I have seen him excel in a range of parts. He can be menacing (Dark Sisters) and he can also be knee-slappingly funny (The Barber of Seville). Lately he has been handed several funnyman roles in Opera Phila productions and never disappoints. His characterization while singing contrapuntal patter passages was praiseworthy. Burdette won’t sacrifice one bit of his character to achieve operatic heights and this reviewer deeply appreciates his total immersion into character.

The controlling concept–an Italian countryside tale post-WWII–lent itself to some clever set devices, including the quaint billboard on which numerous images revolved. Kudos to all the behind-the-scenes talent, all of whom were Opera Phila newcomers, who made this a successful show–Director Stephen Lawless, Set Designer & Costumer Ashley Martin-Davis, and Lighting Designer Pat Collins.

In the background is the colorful period billboard promoting olive oil

In the background is the colorful, period billboard promoting olive oil

It seems like the orchestra and chorus always get mentioned in the last portion of my reviews. In the scoring of Elixir, Donizetti himself made his orchestra serve the singers rather than the other way around. In the production notes, conductor Corrado Rovaris says he sought to draw out all the emotional colors in this opera, including melancholy, which he readily accomplished. I have come to appreciate that Rovaris can conduct anything with aplomb and surrounds himself with talented, versatile musicians, coaxing many diverse sounds and styles from them, time and time again.

Overall, this was another winning production from a winning company featuring some new backstage blood and capitalizing on the talents of opera performers in Opera Phila’s growing stable of first-rate performers. I look forward to Opera Phila’s enterprising 2016-17 season, and hope to have the privilege to bring you more Operatoonity.com reviews next year.

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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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Opera Phila tells poignant tale of jazz in one word: Yardbird

Charlie Parker's Yardbird

The cast of Charlie Parker’s Yardbird presented by Opera Phila

Operatoonity.com review: Charlie Parker’s Yardbird, a world premiere co-commissioned and co-produced by Opera Philadelphia with Gotham Chamber Opera
Live performance: Sunday, June 14, 2015, 2:30 p.m.
The Perelman Theater, Philadelphia
Music: Daniel Schnyder
Libretto: Bridgette A. Wimberly
4.5 out of 5.0 stars

4.5strslg

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Tenor Lawrence Brownlee singing the title role Charlie Parker’s Yardbird | Photos courtesy of Opera Philadelphia

It is a rich and thrilling time in which to live when the world of opera boldly embraces the world of jazz. Virtuosos from one musical realm inspire virtuosity from another, specifically bebop or the style of jazz invented by Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie that employed lightning fast riffs and sophisticated chord structures.

Opera Philadelphia presented a moving homage to the legacy of Charlie Parker with a world premiere of the chamber opera Charlie Parker’s Yardbird. The premise intrigues. On the day of Parker’s death, March 12, 1955, he arrives at Birdland to write his final masterpiece. There he encounters significant figures from his past including his mother, his past wives, his heroin dealer, and even Dizzy Gillespie until his body is identified, and he passes over into the next realm.

In this reviewer’s humble opinion, this work represents where modern opera needs to go: embracing current and timely myths and legends rather than those tales that have been done and overdone by classical composers.

Though robust, Daniel Schnyder’s musical score didn’t embrace as many dimensions as Charlie Parker’s did. Yes, Parker defined bebop together with Dizzy Gillespie, but he also played standards better than any saxophonist of his generation. I was hoping for more diversity of sound, a bit more convention and less aberration, more light and dark throughout. However, Bridgette A. Wimberly’s libretto was poignant and honest–a stunning treatment.

In the scene called ” Calvary,” Parker’s mother Addie and first wife Rebecca sing a tender duet of loss, each echoing the other’s words:

Ain’t easy, it ain’t easy to be a mother, a wife to a strong black man
This land ain’t no place for a jazz bird, for a jazz bird
For a jazz bird like my man got dreams

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Tenor Lawrence Brownlee was ideally voiced for the role. Vocally, he’s a monster, to borrow a term from jazz referring to a musician with chops that simply don’t quit. While Charlie Parker became addicted to heroin through no fault of his own–he was recovering from a debilitating accident–he became a drug addict nonetheless. Brownlee is, well, somewhat of a boy scout. Or at least that’s how he comes off onstage. Perhaps he is wild and raucous offstage–who knows? Regardless, a heroin addict is a theatrical challenge for the wholesome-looking Brownlee to portray convincingly.

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Soprano Chrystal E. Williams as Charlie’s first wife Rebecca and soprano Angela Brown as Charlie’s mother Addie.

The women in this show were a tour de force. Malleable, versatile, and adaptive, they were more than believable in their roles as discarded women, ex-wives, and illicit lovers. Angela Brown was the loving, long-suffering mother, Addie Parker whose son’s downward spiral evoked audience empathy since that she tells him he has become mean, either from the drugs or the success. She knows she has a prodigy in Charlie and can only wring her hands at his self-destructive choices. She sang with beauty and despair at his wanton choices and was warmly rewarded for her performance at curtain call.

AVA grad Chrystal Williams has been delightful in every role I’ve been lucky enough to catch her in at AVA and Glimmerglass. She can take on any role with sensitivity and believability. She has a clear, powerful soprano voice and tremendous stage presence, and I can’t wait to see her in her next role.

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Soprano Angela Mortellaro as Parker’s third wife Doris.

All of Parker’s wives evidenced incomprehensible devotion to him, despite his rejection and infidelity. Angela Mortellaro as Doris Parker and Rachel Sterrenberg as his fourth wife Chan brightened the stage with each appearance. Each had soaring voices and loads of presence on stage. While they each must have loved Charlie for the same reasons, it was hard to believe he could have cheated on either of these desirable women if he’d been of sound mind.

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Bird dies in the hotel suite of wealthy jazz patroness Pannonica de Koenigswarter or “Nica,” who endures life-shattering censure and scorn because a black man died in her segregated hotel suite. This lovely heiress, sung by Tamara Mumford with elegance and compassion, helped the audience better appreciate how much sheer appeal and charisma that Charlie Bird Parker possessed.

Tamara Mumford as Bird's patroness Nica.

Tamara Mumford as Bird’s patroness Nica.

From “Powder Her Nose” to “Silent Night” to “Dark Sisters,” it is vitally important to have a company with Opera Philadelphia’s resources and polish introducing contemporary works to today’s operagoers. Someone I greatly respect once said that if today’s opera could combine the melody of the classic works with the relevance of contemporary story, they’d have the ideal marriage of qualities to move opera forward to new audiences in the 21st century. Keep the new work and the chamber operas coming, Opera Phila. You are doing a tremendous service to the art form. Operagoers are indebted to you for your willingness to take chances and advance opera in the new millennium.

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Filed under 21st Century Opera, chamber opera, Live opera performance, North American Opera, opera star power, Previews, Regional opera