Category Archives: opera milestones

Opera Phila’s ‘Cold Mountain’ a Scorching Success

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

five stars

 

 

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

Opera Phila’s five-star production of COLD MOUNTAIN

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Jarrett Ott as W.P. Inman

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

COT’s double-bill is ‘good to great’

Opertoonity.com Review“Two by Victor Herbert”
Live Performance
March 22, 2014
Presented by Concert Operetta Theater, Philadelphia, PA

4-stars

 

 

Composer Victor Herbert is perhaps best known (and only known?) for his two-act operetta Naughty Marietta.  As the Concert Operetta Theater of Philadelphia (COT) demonstrated this past weekend, they are keenly aware of dozens of other Herbert’s works–operettas, revues, musical comedies, and songplay because they have been presenting these pieces for years, most recently with their 2012 program Thine Alone! The Music of Victor Herbert.

The cast of "Two by Victor Herbert"

The cast of “Two by Victor Herbert”

So faithful patrons gathered at the Academy of Vocal Arts in downtown Philadelphia were primed for Two by Victor Herbert, ready for lush melodies and intricate harmonies and, dare I say, toe tappers?

And they most likely were startled to hear the first piece on the bill–Madeleine, a lyric opera in one act that had a very limited run of six performances at the Metropolitan Opera when it premiered in 1914. Definitely not a toe tapper.

The storyline, based on a French play, is droll: it recounts the disappointment of Madeleine Fleury, an opera prima donna who can’t persuade anyone who cares about her to dine with her on New Year’s Day. Yes, that sums up the plot. And yes, it is hard to take her chagrin seriously. If the opera is so dated as to be hard to appreciate, why not let it wither on the vine? Why resurrect it at all?

If Artistic and Executive Director Daniel Pantano can assemble a cast of talented singers and musicians like he did, well, why not resurrect it? Yes, this Herbert opera was panned in its time and cast off as a thinly-veiled Strauss for the excited and fragmentary manner in which it was written. But poor-man’s Strauss is not such a bad thing, is it? Some of the orchestration was sheerly lovely.

Jessica Lennick and Jonas Hacker

Jessica Lennick and Jonas Hacker

Also, Madeleine offered a splendid showcase for voices, particularly female voices. Soprano Jessica Lenick as Madeleine sang an inspired “O Perfect Day,” turning in a commendable performance overall, though she occasionally strained to hit some of the opera’s high notes. Soprano Christina Chenes was a delight from her first steps on the tiny stage. Chenes has a warm quality to her soprano that wraps around the listener like a velvet shawl. Jonas Hacker and Paul Corujo sang solidly as Francois Duc d’Esterre and Didier, respectively, earning accolades of their own.

But ultimately the show belongs to Madeleine and, at least in this performance, perhaps the musical director and pianist Tim Ribchester as well, who together with violinist Philip Kates, played the opera as if it had been lain across their hearts to render well. On the whole, Madeleine was a good effort.

Much more to my liking, and the rest of the audience’s apparently, was the second-half of the bill, a pocket opera called Cyrano de Bergerac, based, of course, on the famous French play by Rostand, never before performed in Philadelphia. When it premiered on Broadway in 1899, it was criticized as being nothing more than a burlesque of the original play, but 21st century audiences found it delightful. Here was the Victor Herbert we knew and loved for his lilting and stirring melodies bolstered by a clever new libretto by Alyce Mott of the Victor Herbert Source.

Number after number was delightful, from Roxanne’s lament “I Must Marry a Handsome Man” to Christian’s big number “The King’s Musketeer” to the utterly winning company number “Cyrano’s Nose.” The famous balcony scene when Cyrano feeds Christian with sweet nothings to woo Roxanne was so cleverly composed. And it wasn’t just novel composition on the page. It worked in performance, too.

Jonas Hacker and Brian Ming Chu

Jonas Hacker and Brian Ming Chu

Mezzo-soprano Evelyn Rossow sang beautifully as the impetuous Roxanne, distant cousin to Cyrano. She had the uncanny talent of appearing sweet and sultry at the same time.

However, my favorites in this half of the bill were Brian Ming Chu as the homely Cyrano and Jonas Hacker as the handsome Christian.

Ming Chu, a baritone, was appropriately cheeky and debonair and sang with resonance and power. The operetta is not as broadly comic as other more contemporary versions of the story, and he brought just the right sensibility to the Cyrano needed in this production.

Hacker, a first-year resident artist at the Academy of Vocal Arts, was simply a marvel. His strong tenor–a spinto–carried to the rafters. He has stage presence in spades.

All three leads blended to splendid effect throughout. Robert Finkenaur was appropriately oily as Comte de Guiche. Melissa Dunphy guided the audience through a great deal of exposition for a pocket opera with style and class.

COT’s interpretation of Cyrano de Bergerac was a great effort, from the first notes of the overture played by a gifted quintet under the baton of Tim Ribchester to the curtain call that everyone clapped along to.

Philly is chock full of musical talent–vocalists and musicians, a magnet for seasoned professionals and exceptional students alike. How wonderful that Concert Operetta Theater provides another showcase to appreciate all their gifts.

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COT’s 2014 season continues next on May 17 & 18 with  My Vienna, the music of Emmerich Kálmán and Franz Lehár, sung in English and German. More information is available at 215-389-0648.

 

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Filed under Concert Opera, Concerts, North American Opera, opera firsts, opera milestones, operetta, Reviews, seldom heard works, Uncategorized

San Fran chamber opera offers contemporary double bill this weekend

OP-logo-siteHave you heard of Opera Parallèle? It is a young San Francisco company bringing high level performances of contemporary operas to the Bay Area (at great prices, nonetheless).

According to their website, Opera Parallèle is a professional, nonprofit organization that develops and performs contemporary chamber operas that are internationally acclaimed but rarely performed in the region.

In recent years, the company has expanded, even in a down-turned economy, receiving fabulous reviews such as this notice for their 2011 production of Philip Glass’s Opera, Orphée. The San Francisco Chronicle had this to say about Opera Parallèle:

“a San Francisco company devoted to contemporary chamber opera, scored a full-on triumph over the weekend…ravishing and delicate, haunting and playful, somber and romantic, the production fused story, music and stagecraft into an engrossing evening of music theater.”

Its upcoming double bill performance of Bernstein’s Trouble in Tahiti (see trailer below) and Barber’s A Hand of Bridge will be performed in San Francisco this weekend: April 26-28.

Here to introduce Operatoonity readers to the couple that runs the artistic direction of the company are Artistic Director Nicole Paiement and her husband, Concept Designer/Stage Director Brian Staufenbiel.

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Artistic Director Nicole Paiement

Welcome to Operatoonity, Nicole and BrianHow intimate is your venue?  We generally perform at YBCA, which has approximately 700 seats. However, for our upcoming Bernstein/Barber production this weekend, we are excited to be at ZSpace, which only holds around 225. This will bring the audience that much closer to the stage and the performers. The intimate story of both “Trouble in Tahiti” and “A Hand of Bridge” make this the perfect venue.

What excites you about contemporary chamber opera?  The subject matters of most chamber opera will have more of an intimate and direct story line. I am a curious conductor who enjoys the challenges of mounting new works that are either rarely done or even have never been performed. I love the idea of bringing opera into the 21st century and helping redefine the form.

So many things excite us. First, because the orchestration is not as large, singers can sing with an even wider spectrum of colors, without worrying about being heard. You can truly hear pianissimo moments.

A smaller orchestra greatly widens the venue possibility – thus bringing opera to a variety of spaces and audiences to many more venues to see contemporary chamber opera.

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BRIAN STAUFENBIEL
Resident Stage Director, Production Designer

How did you two find each other and decide to found Opera Parallèle? (Okay, that might be two questions.)  I met Brian the first year I moved to California. He sang in some of my performances as a tenor. We quickly realized that we had a similar positive energy and artistic dreams.  I first founded Ensemble Parallèle – which was a broader organization. We focused on contemporary music and collaborative work.

After a few years, I realized that we needed to focus on one area and that contemporary opera was the most attractive form. It combines contemporary music with the narrative form, an important aspect in today’s film and television society and also has endless collaborative possibilities with other art forms.

How do you decide what productions to present? How long is that process, and what does it entail?  We are constantly working on repertoire and have a five year plan that keeps being revised as needed. Repertoire is a key element to a successful company. As we look at scores, we think of many things. Certainly, the quality of the piece is crucial. We also try to diversify our musical selection to enlarge our audience base. This is why we will have ranged from Berg to Glass; Harbison to Golijov.

We think of collaborative possibilities in an opera. With the Golijov this year, we were able to collaborate with the SF Girl’s chorus and Flamenco dancers including choreographer La Tania.

We consider the venue. Many works are venue specific.

We also try to balance between new works and masterworks. Wozzeck in the new chamber reorchestration brought back to life a great masterpiece of the 20th century. Same for Harbison (we commissioned that reorchestration). Golijov is a more recent work and our commission of Gesualdo, Prince of Madness, which will receive a workshop reading this June, brings new work in the repertoire.

We think of American versus works from other countries and try to present a variety of composers. Next year we will do a French opera and an English opera.

We try to bring “premieres” to the area, since SF is such a curious city. Once we identify works, we have some many things to consider before finalizing the choices. Cost is certainly an important one. Number of musicians needed in the pit since there are few venues with sizable pits.

a photo from Harbison's Great Gatsby

Opera Parallèle presented John Harbison’s The Great Gatsby in 2012 | Photo by Rapt

What is the difference between contemporary opera and modern opera?  I think everyone has their own definition of this and I am not sure of the answer.  Contemporary comes from the latin root tempor – tempus, meaning something “of our time”–thus opera of “our time.”

Modern can have the sense that it departs from a more traditional style. Not all contemporary operas are modern, if you think of it this way. There are “modern” operas that are not necessarily contemporary. Wozzeck is a good example.

For me, contemporary opera has a broader possibility of embracing a variety of styles.

Are those who worship classic opera disposed to appreciate the contemporary works produced by Opera Parallèle?  Definitely. Contemporary opera is in many ways a continuation of classic opera. It was not created in a vacuum. Our productions serve the music and the artform as a whole and I think any lover of the arts would enjoy our production.

How did you select “Trouble in Tahiti”? Does it exude the same kind of middle-class dysfunctional ennui as Revolutionary Road? There are definitely similarities between Yates’ novel and Bernstein’s opera. Both speak of the hopeless emptiness of their repetitive lifestyle in suburbia. However, in the opera, there is a feeling of redemption at the end that we certainly do not get in Yates’ book.

We were looking for an opera that would balance our opera in February, Golijov’s Ainadamar.  We wanted something American that would embrace a completely different style that would work well at Z Space.

How did you discover “A Hand of Bridge”? What made you pair it with “Trouble in Tahiti”?  In Barber’s opera, two couples play a hand of bridge, during which each character has a short aria in which he or she expresses their dissatisfaction with life. They are obviously also not happily married. We have cast one of the couple as being Dinah and Sam of “Trouble in Tahiti.” So in this way, Barber’s opera becomes the prologue to a Hand of Bridge – and the epilogue since we will repeat it in the lobby at the end of the evening. The 10 minute opera is brilliantly composed on a libretto by Menotti.  All these wonderful artists from the mid-1950’s come together in one program.

You can definitely hear that the work is a precursor to “West Side Story”? What is it about the score that creates that aha moment with the more familiar work?  When Dinah sings her first aria – “I was standing in a garden,” we hear the great lyricism that Bernstein will later write in West Side Story.  The “train” music when Sam leaves the house to get to his office,  we recognize the great syncopated rhythmic style of Bernstein – so unique and powerful.

As promised, here is the promo video for “Trouble in Tahiti”:

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Stay In Touch with Opera Parallèle!

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Filed under 21st Century Opera, chamber opera, contemporary opera, Interviews, North American Opera, opera milestones, Q&A

ENO makes BIG splash with mini comp

If writing for opera sounds like something you’ve always wanted to try, but you never dreamed you’d have a chance to try it, you need to know about English National Opera’s (ENO) new Mini-Opera writing competition.

Somebody’s going to win BIG with something mini, and it might as well be you.

Who should enter this competition? The better question is who shouldn’t enter this competition. No one, that’s who. If you can write, compose, create with film, there are no barriers to trying your hand at writing opera.

But you better get on it–the script-writing portion is already underway.

See, the ENO is seeking the next generation of opera talent–librettists and writers, composers, and filmmakers–and has devised a brilliant way to engage up-and-coming artists.

And if you win the competition, you have a chance to be mentored for a year by some of the  most talented and successful creatives working in opera today: Jeremy Sams, Nico Muhly or Leo Warner.

ENO’s Mini-Operas has three parts:

  • Script Competition (March 26 to May 21)
  • Soundtrack Competition (June 4 to July 23)
  • Filmmaking  Competition (August 6 to September 24)

ENO has made the whole competition timeline available here.

Since every great opera starts with a libretto, that’s where this competition begins.

For starters, some wonderfully inspiring writers — Will Self, A.L. Kennedy and Neil Gaiman — have each generated seed stories. Those interested in entering the script competition must read the seed stories and pick one that inspires them to write a script for a 5-7 minute opera based on that story. In terms of inspiration, anything goes: a single word, title, a mood or even a character name, as the guidelines suggest. All scripts must be in English.

In May, ENO will pick 10 scripts going through to the next round.  Those scripts will become the seeds that people will compose soundtracks for in the next leg of the competition.  Remember that the script will be set to music by someone else and that words can take a lot longer to sing than to read, so “less is definitely more.”

Writers have until May 21 to write their scripts and enter them using ENO’s online form.

For those who might benefit from some extra coaching in the script-writing department, ENO’s  resident author Tamsin Collison has written examples for each story.  They plan to add more expert help to the site before the May 21 deadline, so do check back at the Mini-Operas site for more tips.

What do have to lose? Your mini-opera could be a BIG winner!

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Filed under 21st Century Opera, Classical Arts marketing, Classical Music, Collaborative opera, creative promotions, opera competitions, opera milestones

happy, happy anniversary, Don G., you splendiferous thing!

How about that Mozart, stepping out with Don G., two days before Halloween! How fitting.

Yes, Don Giovanni premiered in Prague 224 years ago today, which means it’s a day to celebrate.

I love everything about Don Giovanni–the music, the gothic elements, the comedy, the drama–so much so, that I wrote a novel, DON JUAN IN HANKEY, PA, inspired by the it. It’s amazing, everything you have to learn to write a book with an opera backdrop. Even more amazing is that you don’t have to know opera to enjoy my book (but you will get all the inside jokes if you do.)

When an opera endures for more than two centuries (while so many others have faded from the repertoire), every company’s done the show in every conceivable way. Here then are a handful of scenes in a variety of treatments–from traditional to very modern interpretations:

Here’s a real “old school” version with superb singing even though the staging is a bit uninspired:

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Here’s the same scene from the wonderful movie Amadeus, with some of Salieri’s interpretation of what we are actually seeing. I love the way the Commendatore bursts through the wall in this version:

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Another clip, circa 1994, from the Holland Festival, done as chamber opera (opera in the round?), which might have been engaging for the audience to have the Commendatore storming through them:

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Here is a version many YouTube watchers criticized. Generally I don’t write off an opera because it’s been contemporized. I look at production values first. Does the whole thing work? Is the vision for the show consistent? You be the judge:

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This version, I’m sure, is like nothing you’ve ever seen and may never want to see again. Poor Leporello is missing a hand:

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I saw Christopher Alden’s Don G. at New York City opera in 2009, and loved it. No, it was hardly traditional, but it was vital and interesting. I’m sure I would love a traditional production, too, as long as it had a lot of vitality. This was an ironic, erotic, and darkly funny version. Here’s the preview produced by NYC Opera:

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So, celebrate with me today, opera fans. Where did you see your favorite Don G. and who sang it?



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Filed under anniversary, Classic Opera, Classical Composers, Don Giovanni, Festival Opera, Mozart, opera milestones, opera news