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Turandot a triumph for @OperaPhila

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

five stars

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Now that’s range!

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

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

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

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

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

 

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‘Butterfly’ soars at Glimmerglass

Operatoonity.com review: Madame Butterflypresented by Glimmerglass Festival
Live performance: Tuesday, July 29, 2014
The Alice Busch Opera Theater, Cooperstown, NY
5.0 stars

five stars

The Glimmerglass Festival's 2014 production of Puccini's "Madame Butterfly." Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival.

The Glimmerglass Festival’s 2014 production of Puccini’s “Madame Butterfly.” Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival.

Exceedingly beautiful, tender, and elegiac, well executed in every aspect. The new production of Madame Butterfly at the Glimmerglass Festival in Cooperstown is an elegant, extraordinary show that delivers on all the weighty expectations placed on a beloved Puccini work.

It featured an evocative and versatile set and special effects including a shower of pale pink rose petals …

Yunah Lee as Cio-Cio-San in The Glimmerglass Festival's 2014 production of Puccini's "Madame Butterfly." Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival.

Yunah Lee as Cio-Cio-San in The Glimmerglass Festival’s 2014 production of Puccini’s “Madame Butterfly.” Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival.

. . . and, later,  a billowing curtain of blood.

Yunah Lee as Cio-Cio-San and Dinyar Vania as Lieutenant B.F. Pinkerton in The Glimmerglass Festival's 2014 production of Puccini's "Madame Butterfly." Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival.

Yunah Lee as Cio-Cio-San and Dinyar Vania as Lieutenant B.F. Pinkerton in The Glimmerglass Festival’s 2014 production of Puccini’s “Madame Butterfly.” Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival.

It was a consummate theatrical production under the directorial aegis of the Festival’s Artistic and General Director Francesca Zambello, offering a sweeping saga of the powerful tensions between traditional Eastern and imperialistic Western values and culture as distilled through the single act of abandonment of a sympathetic heroine by a blundering American naval officer that drove many audience members to tears as early as the first act and storming to their feet a standing ovation by curtain call.

Amidst hours of artistry, stunning music, and many spectacular voices, it takes some kind of  special performer portraying Butterfly to soar higher than all others and all the other elements, elevating a production to a transformative operatic experience. As Cio-Cio-San, Korean soprano Yunah Lee sang a Butterfly for the ages, worthy of elegy. Lee conveyed power, beauty, and grace in every note, in every gesture, in every facial expression–a living, breathing symbol of that lovely butterfly whose wings are pinned down by Westerners seeking to preserve and enjoy them by killing them.

Yunah Lee as Cio-Cio-San with members of the ensemble in The Glimmerglass Festival's 2014 production of Puccini's "Madame Butterfly." Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival.

Yunah Lee as Cio-Cio-San with members of the ensemble in The Glimmerglass Festival’s 2014 production of Puccini’s “Madame Butterfly.” Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival.

Everything Lee sang was perfection, from the famous Act I love duet with Pinkerton played impressively by American tenor Dinyar Vanya beginning with Bimba, Bimba, non piangere…

Dinyar Vania as Lieutenant B.F. Pinkerton and Yunah Lee as Cio-Cio-San in The Glimmerglass Festival's 2014 production of "Madame Butterfly." Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival.

Dinyar Vania as Lieutenant B.F. Pinkerton and Yunah Lee as Cio-Cio-San in The Glimmerglass Festival’s 2014 production of “Madame Butterfly.” Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival.

…to the opera’s most famous aria Un bel dì, delivered flawlessly. Though the audience knows through Suzuki’s reactions that Pinkerton is not coming back to live with her, somehow Lee has made us believe through her powerful rendition that there’s a glimmer of chance of a happy reunion–even if we’ve seen the show before, numerous times.

Kristen Choi as Suzuki and Yunah Lee as Cio-CIo-San in The Glimmerglass Festival's 2014 production of "Madame Butterfly." Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival.

Kristen Choi as Suzuki and Yunah Lee as Cio-CIo-San in The Glimmerglass Festival’s 2014 production of “Madame Butterfly.” Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival.

As Suzuki, American mezzo and Young Artists Kristen Choi was first-rate, turning in a nuanced and polished performance beyond her years, totally believable as Butterfly’s loyal maid, who is, if not older, considerably more worldly wise.

And the list of impressive performances continues. As Sharpless, Ukrainian tenor Aleksey Bogdanov sang the role with uncommon depth and sensitivity.  In addition to substantial artistry, Bogdanov has enormous stage presence and intelligence. Each of his warnings to Pinkerton, “Didn’t I tell you to be careful?” rings more urgent than the last because this Sharpless understands the consequences of Pinkerton’s actions even though Pinkerton himself remains clueless until the final scene of the show.

Kristen Choi as Suzuki and Aleksey Bogdanov as Sharpless in The Glimmerglass Festival's 2014 production of Puccini's "Madame Butterfly." Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival.

Kristen Choi as Suzuki and Aleksey Bogdanov as Sharpless in The Glimmerglass Festival’s 2014 production of Puccini’s “Madame Butterfly.” Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival.

Tenor Dinyar Vanya was ideally cast as Pinkerton. He has a clear, spinto quality to his voice that one expects of a leading man in a Puccini opera. His infatuation with Butterfly was so believable rendered and his love duet with her to end the first act so beautifully sung, it brought this reviewer to tears.

Dinyar Vania as Lieutenant B.F. Pinkerton in The Glimmerglass Festival's 2014 production of "Madame Butterfly." Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival.

Dinyar Vania as Lieutenant B.F. Pinkerton in The Glimmerglass Festival’s 2014 production of “Madame Butterfly.” Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival.

Though not a singing role, special mention must go to little Louis McKinny, as Sorrow, Butterfly and Pinkerton’s three-year-old son. Somehow, this adorable child understood how critical his role is to the success of the production. He executed his stage directions perfectly, comforting his stricken mother, even remembering to innocently play with the toy boat as he marched offstage, just as he was instructed to do.

Yunah Lee as Cio-Cio-San and Louis McKinny as Sorrow in The Glimmerglass Festival's 2014 production of Puccini's "Madame Butterfly." Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival.

Yunah Lee as Cio-Cio-San and Louis McKinny as Sorrow in The Glimmerglass Festival’s 2014 production of Puccini’s “Madame Butterfly.” Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival.

The show was conducted by the Festival’s new music director Joseph Calaneri. During the smaller more intimate moments of the show, he conducted his capable musicians as if they were gloved on his hand. But in the initial numbers of the first act, it seemed like both Vania and Bogdanov had to compete with the orchestra to be heard and both have huge voices.

Those who have seen ‘Butterfly’ before might be surprised by the directorial choices in this production. Scenes that have been traditionally set in Cio-Cio San’s village are set in the American Consulate instead. Personally, I found this to be an effective choice in driving home the themes central to the piece, including the intrusion of American military power and influence abroad without an adequate respect for and understanding of foreign peoples and cultures.

Set design was by Michael Yergen and lighting by Robert Wierzel.

Set design was by Michael Yergen and lighting by Robert Wierzel.

So yes, this production offers a different artistic approach, but a winning one, and the work of all involved from the sometimes ethereal-as-butterfly-wings scrims and fly pieces designed by Michael Yeargan to the period costumes by Anna Yavich to the lighting by Robert Wierzel all combined synergistically to splendid effect.

It is an original version and yet one that lifts up the music and conventions of Madame Butterfly painstakingly inserted by the composer and the original librettists that begs to be seen.  There are six more performances of Madame Butterfly at Glimmerglass Festival through August 23. Don’t miss it.

* * *

Every mainstage performance is preceded by a Show Talk beginning one hour before curtain. The Show Talk for Butterfly was given by Director Francesca Zambella and is a wonderful add-on that will enrich your Glimmerglass Festival experience.

 

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Glimmerglass Festival is for lovers…

GPhoto FAI’d hoped to grab your attention with that headline. But it’s true. As I wrap up my vacation time in Cooperstown, New York,  home to the Glimmerglass Festival, I am reminded of what a rich and fulfilling experience I have there each year. And not just as a lover of opera, musical theater, and dance.

Did you know that Glimmerglass Festival also appeals to lovers of:

  • Picnics–you can have one before or after a show on the grounds
  • Ice cream–Hagen Dazs bars–yum!
  • Beer–they have delicious craft beers for sale at intermission
  • Wine–New York and California labels available, also at intermission
  • Strolling–roam the grounds during intermission
  • Hobnobbing–meet opera greats and near-greats after audience Q&A’s
  • People watching–nuff said
  • Scarves–they have dozens of lovely scarves and other items for sale. Kitschy stuff too if you fancy that.
  • Cabaret–during their “Meet Me at the Pavilion” series, you can see cabaret style entertainment and intimate talks.
The lovely pavilion at the Glimmerglass Festival for intimate and cabaret entertainment

The lovely pavilion at the Glimmerglass Festival for intimate and cabaret entertainment

It was “Gents Night Out” at the Pavilion on Monday, July 29. The leading men of the 2013 offered solos and duets–cabaret style. What a fun show. Highlights for me included Jason Hardy’s witty little ditty “And Her Mother Came, Too,”   a beautiful rendition of “Turnaround” by tenor Jay Hunter Morris who accompanied himself on acoustic guitar, and “Ive Got Rhythm,” a surprise song-and-dancer number by countertenor and aerialist Anthony Roth Costanzo.

If you’ve never been to Glimmerglass Festival, you really should give it a go. I love the show talks before every performance–I swear I have more convolutions in my brain as a result. I learn many new things each time I go, and most importantly, I can relax and have a little FUN.

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