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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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AVA’s Manon is playful, pretty, and purposeful

Operatoonity.com review: Manon presented by the Academy of Vocal Arts
Live performance: Wednesday, May 7, 2014
Centennial Hall, The Haverford School
4.5 stars

four and a half stars

 

 

Manon, AVA, 2014

Julia Dawson as Javotte and Anush Avetisyan as Poussette | Photo credit Paul Sirochman Photography

Pretty in pink. Playful and sensual. The Academy of Vocal Arts’ (AVA) new production of Manon by Charles Massenet was a sensual, floridly elegant success, owing to purposeful direction by Tito Capobianco and solid execution.

Surely the inspired set design by Peter Harrison, which paid homage to a scandalously famous rococo painting, and the stunning costumes by Val Starr made this the most beautiful production this reviewer has ever seen at the AVA.

Since a work of art suggestive in its time served as a muse for the production team, the show also had an earthy verismo quality to it. While the powdered wigs and brocade ensembles lent the show a Mozartian sensibility,  the passionate clutches and languishing sighs were all Puccini. Verismo Massenet? You had to see it to believe it.

Daniel Noyola Monsieur de Bretigny and Sydney Mancasola as Manon. Photo credit Paul Sirochman Photography

Daniel Noyola as Monsieur de Bretigny and Sydney Mancasola as Manon. Photo credit Paul Sirochman Photography

Manon is a classic “tart-with-a-heart” story that sets the title character on a life journey that is novel-worthy in scope and emotional depth. Her journey is exceedingly hard to capture, even in a five-act opera, though many companies have made an effort to do so. The AVA’s most recent production certainly made a game and valiant go of it.

Sydney Mancasola as Manon in Act I

Sydney Mancasola as Manon in Act I

As Manon, Sydney Mancasola was more believable and sympathetic as the virginal girl headed to a convent whose life is forever altered when she meets La Chevalier Des Grieux and finds love. Sometimes singers are swallowed up by the too-loud AVA orchestra and forced to push too much to be heard, but there was no danger of this happening to Mancasola. Can a singer be too loud? Yes, I believe at times she was. Though there was power and beauty in her singing, she needs to back off those pince-nez shattering high notes at times. She was, however, a delight in the much anticipated Gavotte scene–confident, charming, and vocally arresting.

Diego Silva as Des Grieux and Sydney Mancasola as Manon in the final act . Photo credit Paul Sirochman

Diego Silva as Des Grieux and Sydney Mancasola as Manon in the final act. Photo credit Paul Sirochman

As Chevalier Des Grieux, Mexican tenor Diego Silva turned in a worthy performance. He has an Italianate quality to his singing and also to his onstage affect. Singing this French opera was a bit beyond his reach though he had many shining moments that evening and a stage presence that is endearing. Des Grieux also makes a life-altering journey, from love at first sight, to hating Manon for her excess, and then loving her in spite of her shortcomings, which he conveyed with conviction, despite his tender years.

All the men in supporting roles were simply splendid–bass-baritone Daniel Noyola as the scheming Monsieur de Bretigny, baritone Michael Adams as Manon’s cousin Lescaut,  tenor AVA Alumnus Jeffrey Halili ’06 as the opportunistic Guillot Morfontaine, and bass-baritone Musa Ngqungwana as the manipulative Le Comte des Grieux. With all these men consipiring against her, Manon never had a chance for a truly happy life.

Armando Piña, Jessie Nguenang, Daniel Noyola, and Sydney Mancasola. Photo credit Paul Sirochman

Armando Piña, Jessie Nguenang, Daniel Noyola, and Sydney Mancasola. Photo credit Paul Sirochman

It also must be said that the women in the supporting and ensemble roles were delightful–beautiful to see and hear. Brava to Anush Avetisyan as Pousette, Julia Dawson as Javotte, and Alexandra Schenck as Rosette, whose talents and feminine wiles lured Manon to explore her innermost desires for love and luxury. Surely one of the advantages of seeing AVA productions is that the company members not singing leads in the current show comprise the ensemble. Every choral number is a treat.

Alexandra Schenck, Daniel Noyola, Julia Dawson, Anush Avetisyan, and Jeffrey Halili (AVA '06). Photo credit Paul Sirochman Photography

Alexandra Schenck, Daniel Noyola, Julia Dawson, Anush Avetisyan, and Jeffrey Halili (AVA ’06). Photo credit Paul Sirochman Photography

Massenet’s duets are also masterful, but I still miss the precision and impact of Mozart and Verdi in his quartets and quintets, which seem to spill out like unruly, leggy blossoms at the end of the growing season. Perhaps the small group numbers are harder to sing but those parts of the show seemed to be the weakest.

As for Christofer Macatsoris’ conducting, the tempi were perfect–critical in a long work that the score not drag. A little less volume might have helped the singers to rein in their occasional vocal “shouting.”

Overall, a winning production of a beautiful opera in the repertoire, and worthy of the generous ovation accorded them all at the evening’s end.

 

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Love Mozart? Go see Branagh’s ‘Magic Flute’ Sunday, America!

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Branagh’s ‘The Magic Flute’ will be shown in 1,500 theaters in the US this Sunday.

The stateside premiere of  legendary actor and director Kenneth Branagh’s version of The Magic Flute hits 1,500 theaters across the U.S. this Sunday, June 9, with selected encore presentations Tuesday, June 11. (Click here for the theater nearest you.)

The music is resplendent (of course), the voices soar, and the cinematography is worth writing home about if you have a Technicolor-loving sweetheart or know anyone else who likes bright, shiny movies.

While The Magic Flute has always been a showcase for some of Mozart’s most beloved music, this filmed rendition of the opera actually makes sense for a change–most of the time. You know how The Magic Flute always seems to be outside the realm of logic and possibility, even for someone with an imagination? Well, it is still that but to a much lesser degree in this version. So much so that I relaxed into the opera for the first time–ever, immersing myself in Mozart’s glorious music, the complete performances, and Branagh’s inventive retelling.

Silly, sexy, stirring–stunning. It’s a winner!

It’s also not a production for children–and that’s a blessed change as far as I’m concerned. Not everyone needs their opera Disney-ized and Disney-sized with giant, lumbering animal puppets.

Kenneth Branagh headshot

Kenneth Branagh, director ‘The Magic Flute’ | photo by Blake Gardner

While watching a review copy from the film’s LA distributor earlier this week, I couldn’t help think that Kenneth Branagh must have been intimately familiar with Mozart’s most sprightly opera, perhaps listening to it on end as a child after numerous readings of the poem  “In Flanders Fields”.

The film unfolds as though seeing the singspiel that Branagh may have conceived of in a dream state because of the colors, the surrealistic elements, the fantastical bits.  Striking azure blue uniforms give way to a battalion of violin players to a trio of buxom and besmitten ladies. Not to mention a powerful scene where Pamina’s mumsy-dearest ties her to a flaming windmill. Really.

Unlike another 2013 Academy-Award nominated big-screen musical in which only three or four cast members had the chops to actually sing the thing,  a flick which will remain nameless, the voices in this version are extraordinary.

Yes, Branagh knows how to cast a movie version of an opera! Joseph Kaiser as Tamino, Lyubov Petrova as the Queen of the Night, and René Pape as Sarastro were my particular favorites, followed by a spectacular showing by the three ladies: Teuta Koco, Louise Callinan, and Kim-Marie Woodhouse. You can see all the cast members here. Each one was first-rate vocally and very well directed–with love and care.

scene from Magic Flute

Papagena’s competition

I confess that I’m not the Magic Flute lover that many are, yet I adored this version. Fresh, fun, classy, artistically significant. Setting the musical during World War I worked. Blending realistic and fantasy elements in the same scene worked, too.

More information about the production is available at the Emerging Pictures website.

Here is the official movie trailer, which might whet your appetite for catching the movie in the theater this weekend. As a  special treat at selected theaters, a live Q&A with Kenneth Branagh via webcast will follow the showing. Yours to enjoy, America!

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sneak preview of “Who Are You New York,” songs of Rufus Wainwright

Rufus Wainwright, November 17, Rose Theater

Rufus Wainwright has established himself as one of the great male vocalists, songwriters, and composers of his generation, carving out his own singular sound in the worlds of rock, opera, theater, dance, and film.

To celebrate the U.S. premiere of his first opera Prima Donna, Wainwright offers a unique glimpse into his eclectic songbook for one night only. A talented line-up of opera singers will interpret his song cycle All Days Are Nights: Songs for Lulu for the first time in its entirety in New York, followed by an intimate performance by the songwriter of compositions from his catalogue as well as other songs he has performed throughout his career.

The program features these artists:  Corinne Winters, Liza Forrester, Andrew Garland, and Joshua Jeremiah.

Here’s a link to a YouTube clip to whet your appetite for this special event:


When: Thursday, November 17 at 8:00 pm
Where: Rose Theater, Broadway at 60th Street.
Tickets range from $40-$150.
For more information visit http://www.nycopera.com

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Opera Atelier ‘Handels’ silver anniversary season!

OA's Acis and Galatea

 

Opera Atelier (OA) is a Toronto-based baroque opera company that interprets opera, ballet, and theatre from the 17th and 18th centuries. OA opens its 25th Anniversary Season with the company’s first fully-staged production of Handel’s pastorale Acis and Galatea.  Single tickets are now on sale for performances on  October 30, November 2, 3, 5, 6 and 7, 2010.   

Opera Atelier holds a unique place in the North American theatre community. Their productions draw upon the aesthetics and ideals of the period, featuring soloists of international acclaim, period ballet, original instruments, elaborate stage decor, exquisite costumes and an imaginative energy setting Opera Atelier apart from other houses.

According to Opera Atelier, they are not  in the business of “reconstruction.” Each production is a new creative effort and takes its own place in history. Opera Atelier strives to create productions that would have been recognized and respected in their own time while providing a thrilling theatrical experience for modern audiences. Critics have recognized Opera Atelier for its signature approach to stage deportment, which is dance-based. Operagoers can’t help but  “bathe” vicariously in the essential physicality of Acis and Galatea as they drench themselves in the fountain scene depicted above.   

Based on Ovid’s tale of the water nymph Galatea and her doomed love for the Arcadian shepherd Acis, Acis and Galatea is one of Handel’s most popular creations.  Though Handel is best known for orchestral works and oratorios such as Messiah, until his mid-fifties, his career actually centered on opera. Acis and Galatea was most likely acted in private performances but was never presented as anything but a serenata during Handel’s lifetime. Many, many accomplished singers have attested to the challenge of singing operas by Handel.   

Ready to scale these vocal summits are tenor Thomas Macleay, who thrilled Toronto audiences with his performance in last season’s Iphigénie en Tauride. He is singing the title role of Acis, together with Canadian soprano Mireille Asselin, in her company debut as Galatea.  They are joined by bass João Fernandes who appears as the giant Polyphemus and tenor Lawrence Wiliford as the spirit Damon.  Acis will also feature Artists of Atelier Ballet, and Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra and Chamber Choir under the baton of David Fallis.    

This production is directed by Marshall Pynkoski and choreographed by Jeannette Lajeunesse Zingg, OA’s co-artistic directors.  Both sets and costumes will be designed by Gerard Gauci – a first for OA! The production will be lit by Kevin Fraser.  Acis and Galatea will be sung in English with English SURTITLESTM.   

Subscriptions for Opera Atelier’s 2010/11 season start at $55 and are on sale now by calling 416-703-3767 ext. 22. For more information visit www.operaatelier.com.

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