Category Archives: music and humor

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.

KarliCadel-Sweeney-StageOrch-9601-XL

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!

KarliCadel-Sweeney-GenDress-5207-XL

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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LIVING ON LOVE is Laugh-Out-Loud Funny

Operatoonity.com review: Living on Love, a new Broadway comedy in association with the Williamstown Theatre Festival
Live performance: Saturday, April 25, 2015; 2 p.m.
The Longacre Theatre, 220 West 48th Street, NYC
Written by: Joe DiPietro
Based on the play: “Peccadillo” by Garson Kanin
Director: Kathleen Marshall
4.5 out of 5.0 stars

4.5strslg

 

 

Fleming and Sills in Living On Love, a new Broadway show

Fleming and Sills in #LivingonLove, a new Broadway show, with canine co-star Puccini

Maestro Vito De Angelis is a fiery egomaniac of a conductor with a wandering eye. Raquel De Angelis is a cunning operatic soprano who craves the limelight. The diminishing fortunes of this aging professional couple have reduced them to the prospect of living on love rather than basking in the wealth and fan adoration they enjoyed in their prime. The De Angelises’ marriage is in dire trouble—and the audience loves every second of their suffering.

Opera fans will adore Living on Love. However, even the opera-uninitiated will also have a rollicking-good time, perhaps without fully understanding all the inside jokes: the La Boheme-inspired doorbell chime; the Tweedledum and Tweedledee-style butlers who like Patty and Cathy Lane (of Patty Duke show fame) laugh alike and talk alike, and even walk alike while warbling operatic snippets from opera war horses such as The Barber of Seville; Raquel’s pet Pomeranian named “Puccini,” who dons an over-the-top Aida headdress while lolling in the arms of her doting mistress.

Living on Love is one solidly clever comedy, full of endearing running gags and brimming with crack shot comic performances.

Soprano Renée Fleming as fading diva Raquel De Angelis

V Soprano Renée Fleming is utterly charming as fading diva Raquel De Angelis

The show is set in New York in 1957, during a time when Leonard Bernstein is becoming a household name, much to the consternation of the Maestro played with hilarious pomposity by Douglas Sills, whose once-shiny star is dimming with each accolade of rising supernova Bernstein. The play opens with a recording of Maestro’s recollections slated for his memoir, including his confession that he made love to the entire humming chorus in Madame Butterfly though he has promised his wife, fading but still attractive enough to appeal to younger men, that his Don Juan days are over.

Douglas Sills as the Maestro

Douglas Sills as the Maestro, who claims to have made love to the entire humming chorus of Mme. Butterfly.

Maestro’s resigned to writing his life story, sucked in by the prospect of a hefty advance more than anything, but his temperamental ways and indulgent lifestyle caused him to burn through a half dozen of the publisher’s best ghost writers. As our story opens, Maestro’s tormenting the next ghost writer Little Brown sent over, Robert Samson, played with masterful spinelessness by veteran actor Jerry O’Connell. When diva Raquel played by opera great Renée Fleming returns home early because her international tour is cut short, and because money is in short supply, she decides to write a memoir, too.

Douglas Sills and Jerry O'Connell

Douglas Sills and Jerry O’Connell

Let the games begin.

Living on Love Longacre Theatre

Jerry O’Connell and Anna Chlumsky

Raquel stages the seduction of O’Connell’s gutless author for the sole purpose of enraging her philandering husband, who has laser-focused his libido on his new ghost writer, a spunky junior editor played with moxie by My Girl and Veep star Anna Chlumsky.

The legendary Fleming, America’s reigning soprano, looked absolutely scrumptious whether adorned in Carmen’s scarlet flounces or Kitty-Carlisle apricot chiffon, and endeared the audience by poking fun at her and her notoriously tempestuous ilk. The audience savored every note of the tiny bit of operatic singing she did during what is essentially a straight play that is merely music infused.

Renée Fleming, set to seduce, with Anna Chlumsky looking on

Renée Fleming, poised for seduction, with Anna Chlumsky

Fleming moves with elegance and grace–her presence fills a room. Her comic timing was surprisingly effective considering that she reigns the domain of operatic song. However, the actors cast around her were so stellar—pitch perfect delivery and expert comic timing at every turn—that she was at times outschooled by the Broadway veterans.

In this production, the men absolutely stole the show, from Douglas Sills’ side-splitting running gags (“shiny boy”) to his goofy hairstyles—whether coifed by maple syrup or inspired by Beethoven’s 5th—to Jerry O’Connell (aka “shiny boy” himself), who gave an unforgettable performance as the tortured ho-hum American novelist.  How anyone can be so attractive bear-chested as O’Connell and still be painfully  insecure can only be a testament to his extraordinary acting skills.

"Makin' Whoopee"

Scott Robertson and Blake Hammond (l-to-r) whooping it up while the bosses are preoccupied & “Makin’ Whoopee”

Last but certainly not least was the comic duo of Blake Hammond and Scott Robertson as the stiff-upper-lip butlers who let loose when the master and mistress of the Manhattan pied-à-terre were otherwise occupied. Their “Making Whoopee” vocal and piano duet brought down the house. And there’s nothing anyone can do about it.

All of the production values one expects to see in a Broadway comedy were in abundance—superior set design and décor, elegant costumes, inspired sound effects, foolproof jokes. Credit director Kathleen Marshall for instilling a winning esprit de corps among her troupe and mining comic touches and sight gags at every possible turn.

Living on Love Longacre TheatreThis is a charming show that succeeds without sequined roller skaters, creepy phantoms, or jaw-dropping sets flying in from the wings at warp speed. When it comes to Broadway, in this reviewer’s humble opinion, superior comedic writing, solid directing, and great acting still trump spectacle.

Tickets are available at the show’s website. You can also follow the show on FacebookTwitter, and Instagram. Find out more about the show by googling #livingonlove.

 

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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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for opera lovers who also enjoy reading …The Fussy Librarian is here!

Fussy Librarian is a new free ebook matching service that comes right to your email inbox.

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don’t quote me . . .

Pierre Monteux (1875-1964)


I started my career as a violinist. When that became too difficult, I became a viola player. When that became too difficult, I became a conductor. And when I can no longer do anything, I will become a critic.  

–Pierre Monteux  

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