Category Archives: Regional opera

fresh and frothy ‘Barber’ kicks off Opera Phila’s 40th season review: The Barber of Seville presented by Opera Philadelphia
Live performance: Sunday, September 28, 2014
The Academy of Music, Philadelphia, PA
Music: Gioachino Rossini
Text: Cesare Sterbini
4.5 stars




The principals in Opera Phila's season opener delivered a real crowd-pleaser of a show on September 28

The principals in Opera Phila’s season opener delivered a zany crowd-pleaser of a show at the Academy of Music on September 28, 2014

Bravo! Bravo! Bravissimo! The planets must have been aligned (as were all the creative forces in play) over the Academy of Music on September 28, 2014 for Opera Philadelphia’s 40th season opening production The Barber of Seville.

What a wonderful romp! From the brisk and beautiful opening overture–from conception to execution–this was a frothy, foamy, and wholly hilarious show that made opera buffa as relevant and entertaining today as it was when it was written.

Credit the over-the-top direction by Michael Shell for the show’s overwhelming success. He envisioned a production as eye-opening as the one audiences experienced in Rossini’s day. Hence, we see carnival performers to dancing chickens to the lead tenor masquerading as a hippie-dippy music teacher. His entire creative team, including the whimsical set design by Shoko Kambara, carried out Shell’s vision to a tee.

The flavor of this Barber was rollicking, fresh, and fun. Director Shell credits Pedro Almodóvar for inspiring his treatment for this show. I suppose I am late to the Almodóvar party, but I do know the work of Almodóvar’s muse–Blake Edwards–and I guarantee you will recognize and appreciate the same absurd qualities of this show if you are a fan of the Pink Panther movies. This marked Shell’s directorial debut with Opera Phila, and I certainly hope it won’t be his last effort with Philly’s premier company.

The entire company was emotionally invested in pulling off this wacky ‘Barber’ from the moment that Figaro sung by baritone Jonathan Beyer rolled onto stage in a bright blue frock coat on a bicycle.

Jonathan Beyer cut a dashing figure as Figaro.

Jonathan Beyer cut a dashing figure as Figaro.

Beyer faces some daunting expectations playing one of classic opera’s signature roles and singing one of the most beloved and also challenging arias to kick off the show. He played a sturdy Figaro, but it was not a mind-blowing performance.  Clearly, he is not a Rossini baritone. And while the end result was solid, he seemed to be laboring very hard to achieve his sound. Since Figaro gets the last bow, you want to feel as though you loved that character the best. But in this production, Figaro was simply outsung, outplayed,  outperformed by Dr. Bartolo.

Dr. Bartolo?

Bass Kevin Burdette stole the show as Dr. Bartolo.

Bass Kevin Burdette stole the show as Dr. Bartolo.

There were many fine performances in this version of Barber, but bass Kevin Burdette as the ludicrously evil Dr. Bartolo absolutely stole the show–hands down.  I hardly recognized Burdette from his earlier star turn with Opera Philadelphia singing the loathsome Prophet in their stunning 2012 production of Dark Sisters. What a versatile talent Burdette is–as convincing in great comedic roles as he is in great dramatic ones! He is also obviously a human rubber band with the ability to twist his body into more convolutions than an unbaked pretzel all while seamlessly carrying off his vocals to great effect. He simply put the audience in stitches with each appearance.

Taylor Stanton sang the lovelorn Count Almaviva.

Taylor Stanton sang the lovelorn Count Almaviva.

Tenor Taylor Stayton as Count Almaviva was a great boon to the show’s success. His singing was also strong but not as effortless as Burdette’s.  However, his comic timing was spot on, particularly impersonating the psychedelic substitute music teacher.

Jennifer Holloway sang the role of Rosina.

Jennifer Holloway sang the role of Rosina.

As Rosina, apple of Count Almaviva’s eye, mezzo-soprano Jennifer Holloway was lovely to see and hear. In this zany production, Holloway reminded me of Marilyn in the old TV show The Munsters, in which everyone and everything around her is off-kilter, yet she has the grace and good looks to go with the flow and win everyone’s affection in the end. I would love to hear her in other roles. A very impressive performance!

Wayne Tigges turned in a hilarious Don Basilio.

Wayne Tigges turned in a hilarious Don Basilio.

As Rosina’s music teacher, bass-baritone Wayne Tigges delighted the audience with his rock-star aria delivered with bump, grind, and a fake microphone.  He proved a wonderful foil to soprano Katrina Thurman’s Berta, who took what might be considered a cameo or throwaway role and transformed it into a lustrous showcase of all her assets.

Katrina Thurman turned heads as the dishy Berta.

Katrina Thurman turned heads as the shapely Berta.

It was surprising to see how young many of the performers appeared in the program versus how they carried off older, more mature characters on stage with such aplomb. Credit must go to costume designer Amanda Seymour to wigs and make-up by David Zimmerman for the inspired platform they created for the performers to succeed.

Credit Opera Philadelphia conductor Corrado Rovaris for the glorious and controlled sound of the orchestra. The Barber of Seville is a long opera, and while the tempos were brisk, this is one opera that needs to keep moving.

In actuality, the production flew by. In no time at all, it seemed, everyone was on their feet at curtain call, rewarding the cast and conductor with a standing ovation for their efforts.

I am still hoping to see and hear a Figaro for the ages, which is why I gave this production 4.5 instead of 5 stars. But what a successful start to Opera Phila’s 40th season! I hope this augurs many more wonderful productions in 2014-15, for their 40th anniversary.

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Filed under anniversary, North American Opera, Opera and humor, opera and romance, Regional opera, Reviews

Opera Phila’s ‘Coffin’ a living dream review: A Coffin in Egypt, an East Coast Premiere presented by Opera Philadelphia
Live performance: Sunday, June 8, 2014
The Perelman Theater, Kimmel Center
5.0 stars

five stars

Frederica von Stade as Myrtle Bledsoe

Frederica von Stade as Myrtle Bledsoe

A triumph. A tour de force. A masterpiece.

A Coffin in Egypt presented by Opera Philadelphia merits all of these accolades and more. This chamber opera is a five-star production that constitutes the very future of opera and demands to be seen. More than melodrama. More than one style of music. More than great score and greater singing. Both visual and vocal, humorous and tragic, vivid and visionary, A Coffin in Egypt is an original contemporary opera based on the masterful play by Horton Foote that must be experienced. Because it is an operatic experience.

Opera Philadelphia deserves a tremendous amount of credit for bringing the show to Philadelphia audiences. Of late, they have made the intimate Perelman Theater a showcase for some of the most important new works in opera: Dark Sisters, Powder Her Face, and now, A Coffin in Egypt.

This show is a gleaming amalgam comprising a great book by Leonard Foglia, who directed this production and the original Foote play; a hauntingly beautiful score by composer Ricky Ian Gordon; and a vehicle for a world-class talent, Frederica von Stade as Myrtle Bledsoe.

As Myrtle Bledsoe, Frederica von Stade portrays a woman who has lived ninety years.

As Myrtle Bledsoe, Frederica von Stade portrays a woman who has lived ninety years.

In Coffin in Egypt, 90-year-old Myrtle Bledsoe, who has outlived her husband, her children, and other close relatives, looks back on her life, and relives all her hurts, regrets, and sorrows–coping with a philandering husband, losing her coveted looks, and settling for a secluded life on the lonely Texas prairie. Like many significantly old people, she repeats herself. Watching this opera is like putting a puzzle together. Pieces and themes introduced earlier drop in during remembered scenes in her life, which are played out for the audience.

This show was written as a vehicle for Frederica von Stade, and within moments of her first appearance on stage, it is apparent why. She creates a sensitive, soul-searing portrait of a nonagenarian who traded love and adulation for duty and permanence. And the audience is enraptured as von Stade splays open Myrtle’s soul, sharing why she feels cheated, betrayed, and full of remorse for the choices she made, when she might have been a great actress or someone’s treasured soul mate. While exiting the theater, another audience member commented on what a great actress von Stade was. She is better than great. She is a transcendent performer, with vocal gifts so pliant that she scales emotional heights and depths in song and words for which many reputable stage actors have only words.

And she is exquisitely directed by Foglia, who pushes her to the edge of melodrama, then shoves her off the cliff to obtain an authentic portrait of a flawed, Southern woman who keeps on living only to recount torturous memories.

One of the most evocative elements in the show are the gospel hymns sung by a quartet of “Negroes,” as Myrtle Bledsoe calls them, dressed in church attire, juxtaposed against Myrtle’s reflections.  The composer’s production notes explain that the show was to be a one-woman vehicle originally and that the gospel music was only going to be recorded and overlaid with sounds of the prairie. It was a stroke of genius to add the gospel-singing churchgoers singing live in the onstage production. The gospel tunes, idyllically harmonized by Veronica Chapman-Smith, Julie-Ann Green, Taiwan Norris, and Frank Mitchell, added a rich and highly original texture to the show. Their singing started out as sheerly beautiful music but evolved to become Myrtle’s tormenter as she recounted the story of her husband’s emotional abandonment when he fell for a mixed-race woman.


All of the elements that should work in tandem in a production did just that. A symbolic yet powerful and often luminous set by Riccardo Hernandez, lighting by Brain Nason, and the Opera Philadelphia Orchestra conducted by Timothy Myers were critical success factors in the artistic quality and production values this show offered.

There are two more performances of A Coffin in Egypt, on June 13 and 15. I implore you to go. Or die trying.

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Filed under 21st Century Opera, contemporary opera, opera firsts, Regional opera, Reviews, Uncategorized

Don G. in Philly gets a “B” review: Don Giovanni presented by Opera Philadelphia
Live performance: April 27, 2014
Academy of Music, Philadelphia, PA


Elliot Madore as Don Giovanni and Michelle Johnson as Donna Anna in DON  GIOVANNI at the Academy of Music | Photo by Kelly and Massa

Elliot Madore as Don Giovanni and Michelle Johnson as Donna Anna in DON
GIOVANNI at the Academy of Music | Photo by Kelly and Massa

During Opera Philadelphia’s new production of Don Giovanni, the performers made the grade. Unfortunately, the artistic direction pulled down the class average. Performers = A.  Direction = C. Final grade = B.

An opera is without a doubt music and is nothing when the music is wrong. At the same time, opera must be more than music. Though the period costumes shone and the lighting proved atmospheric, the direction was, well, sloppy. It lacked a clear vision, almost as if it didn’t know what kind of production it wanted to be or why.

I’m not anti-regie, not in the least. I’ve seen an experimental version of Don Giovanni directed by Christopher Alden at New York City Opera and adored it. It was twisted and irreverent but exceedingly carefully and consistent in its execution. Though there were bright and beautiful moments in this production, Nicholas Muni’s direction lapsed into the nonsensical at times, particularly in Act II, when the storytelling needs to be crisp and powerful enough to drive the audience to accept Don Giovanni’s horrific demise. For instance, instead of embarking on a manhunt for Don Giovanni, the characters plumbed their innermost feelings. Then the infamous banquet scene took place in a crypt. Since there were numerous details well attended in Act I, the failure to remove the Commendatore’s mausoleum from the stage for the finale simply confounded this reviewer.

Don Giovanni is a great opera that merits greatness. Producing it is a grave responsibility (pun wholly intended). Seriously folks, doing Don G. nearly warrants the creation of a contract with the audience that a company will do no harm. I was quite disturbed through the first scene of Act I because the overture was too leisurely and almost plodding as it lumbered into Leporello’s first stage appearance. If the tortured pace of the overture weren’t enough to dampen expectations, most of the singers struggled to be heard over a too-loud orchestra initially. Though there were rich voices onstage, they were not particularly big ones except for tenor David Portillo, who possessed plenty of ping.

– David Portillo as Don Ottavio and Amanda Majeski as Donna Elvira in DON  GIOVANNI at the Academy of Music | photo by Kelly and Massa

– David Portillo as Don Ottavio and Amanda Majeski as Donna Elvira in DON
GIOVANNI at the Academy of Music | photo by Kelly and Massa

Usually Don Ottavio is sung by a guy my age, well past his prime, with a *very* mature sound and a milquetoast presence. It was, therefore, such a pleasure seeing a young man sing Don Ottavio for a change, one who is believable when he expresses his deeply felt frustration from being denied love and intimacy with his beloved Donna Anna and whose long-suffering adoration is palpable. Portillo’s voice was strong and beautiful and more nuanced than any Don Ottavio I’ve ever heard, earning him an A+ in my book.

Another A+ performance was turned in by lyric soprano Amanda Majeski as Donna Elvira. Her voice has been tauted as possessing a silvery beauty, and indeed it does. The power and beauty of her tone found ample expression as the scorned Elvira and soared above the occasionally too-loud orchestra and lasered itself directly into the audience’s heart. I hope to see her again very soon.

As Donna Anna, soprano Michelle Johnson was warmly received by Philly audiences who have loved her for past performances at Opera Phila and the Academy of Vocal Arts (AVA). Sadly, she almost seemed overwhelmed by the singing required in the role of the woman Don Giovanni seeks to ravage. Johnson lacked the requisite intonation and technique to sing Mozart, seeming way out of her element, despite evocative acting skills.

Nicholas Masters as the ghost of the Commendatore and Elliot Madore as Don  Giovanni in DON GIOVANNI at the Academy of Music

Nicholas Masters as the ghost of the Commendatore and Elliot Madore as Don
Giovanni in DON GIOVANNI at the Academy of Music | photo by Kelly and Massa

As the rake himself, baritone Elliot Madore’s performance brought the audience to its feet at curtain call. That might have been because he was tasked to play a Giovanni beyond redemption, one whose need is nearly pathological, a need that forces him to couple with old women, fat women, and even smelly homeless women. Madore had exceptional acting skills and plenty of swagger. However, his voice lacked sufficient power to be heard over the too-boisterous orchestra at times. That being said, through the delivery of Giovanni’s “Champagne Aria,” Madore proved himself a  master of precision. I would love to see Madore perform with stronger direction and a real chance to sing with a controlled orchestra. (Try Glimmerglass Festival, Elliot!)

Wes Mason as Masetto and Cecilia Hall as Zerlina in DON GIOVANNI at the  Academy of Music |photo by Kelly and Massa

Wes Mason as Masetto and Cecilia Hall as Zerlina in DON GIOVANNI at the Academy of Music |photo by Kelly and Massa

The roles of Zerlina and Masetto were performed and sung well, with Wes Mason as Masetto edging out Cecelia Hall’s performance as Zerlina. Mason was ideal as the tortured groom, outclassed and outfoxed by a conniving, sociopathic cavalier. Mason was funny and charismatic as the wounded  hours-old husband of a nearly faithless bride. Hall sang beautifully but lacked an essential sensuality as Zerlina. It’s understandable when a country girl  becomes conflicted and is tempted to stray when seduced by a gentleman. I wanted Hall to succumb to either her boorish husband or her manipulative seducer with abandon, but much to my chagrin, neither happened.

Joseph Barron was a sturdy and entertaining Leporello. But the role gets loads of show-stealing assistance from both the score and the libretto. All Leporellos take advantage of this largesse though Barron, unfortunately, didn’t seize the opportunity to be a Leporello for the ages.

Despite this reviewer’s perceptions of its artistic limitations. the matinee audience gave the show a standing ovation–well deserved by the performers but an unearned gratuity for the director.

Don Giovanni continues through May 4 at the Academy of Music.

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Filed under Classic Opera, Mozart, North American Opera, Regional opera, Reviews

the best and worst of the operasphere in 2012

This year was one for the books, so to speak. My 2012 marked many new and challenging review opportunities–thirteen in all, ranging from Philadelphia to New York.

You can read all my reviews on Bachtrack at this link.

Melodic contemporary operas, classic operas done in outlandish contemporary style, never before seen operas, and even opera/musical theatre mash-ups. I saw some pretty good productions with some singularly splendid moments. I watched some not so good productions with several redeeming moments.

Rarely did a see a wonderful opera replete with splendid moments. But it happened at least twice this past year.

Herewith are my best and worst moments of the 2012 season, occurring both on and offstage.

The Best of 2012

For me, the best single production was a tie between Nico Muhly’s Dark Sisters presented by the Opera Company of Philadelphia and Glimmerglass Festival’s Lost in the Stars.

Dark Sisters: The wives of The Prophet, left to right sung by Margaret Lattimore, Eve Gigliotti, Jennifer Zetlan, Caitlin Lynch, and Jennifer Check, appear on a news show to appeal for the return of their children. TV personality “King” is sung by Kevin Burdette.| c. of Opera Company of Philadelphia | Kelly and Massa Photography

I was enthralled by Dark Sisters, a contemporary opera about the plight of women trapped in plural marriage—one husband with multiple wives. You can read the full review here, but suffice it to say that it was a moving, beautifully sung, and technologically stunning production.

Met star Eric Owens (center) in “Lost in the Stars”

Likewise, the Glimmerglass Festival’s Lost in the Stars, an opera/musical mash-up written by Kurt Weill adapted from the novel Cry, the Beloved Country by Alan Paton was a first-rate show.  It was a co-production with Cape Town Opera where it first played with performers who themselves experienced apartheid. Interestingly, Weill wrote this show  as a way to “deepen the American musical theater experience.” Lost in the Stars actually deepened and broadened my opera-going experience.  The full review is available here.

The Worst of 2012

I don’t really want to denigrate any single production or performer–that’s not what Operatoonity is about.  I prefer civility first.

However, I will say that having no #Operaplot Contest this year was a huge personal disappointment.

I can scarcely begin to describe how much I enjoyed participating and reading other entries. I’m sure it is a bear to organize and judge, but that doesn’t diminish the fact that mounting no annual contest was one (of  precious few ) Twitter campaigns sorely missed.

The other disappointment I grappled with was being emailed by a young performer after I didn’t include his name in a review. Yes, he was a lead performer, and he was understandably disappointed not to have been mentioned. However, since he was a young artist, I took the high road and excluded him rather than write an unfavorable review. I asked him if I could interview him on this blog about the challenges of preparing for a professional career singing opera, kind of as a makey-up, and he  declined to participate, another major disappointment.

To all stage performers out there, I need to remind you that reviewer is more than likely a working person who does opera reviewing in his or her spare time. She is overworked, tired, traveled a distance to get there, and endeavors to write an honest review. Therefore, if you don’t intend to bring everything you have to your performance, your overworked, overstimulated, and simultaneously exhausted reviewer (who has seen more than 35 full-length operas and recitals in venues from D.C. to the Met in the last 28 months) is likely to notice.

That’s it for Operatoonity’s birds-eye view of the best and worst of 2012.

Here’s to happy opera viewing and greener musical pastures in 2013.


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Filed under Best of Operatoonity, favorites, Festival Opera, Performers, Rant, Regional opera, Reviews

gearing up for Glimmerglass Festival opening

Glimmerglass Festival Technical Director Jake Josef and Director of Production Abby Rodd | Photo: William M. Brown/The Glimmerglass Festival.

The 2012 season at Glimmerglass Festival in Cooperstown, New York, an internationally renowned summer opera festival featuring four innovative new productions annually, kicks off Saturday with Verdi’s Aida.

With preparations building to a fever pitch, I thought it would interest readers to learn how they prepare for their season. Here to talk with readers is Abby Rodd, Glimmerglass’s Director of Production, who has been with the festival for 21 years in various roles but always behind the scenes.

Welcome to, Abby. Thanks for taking the time to talk with us. What departments or functions are under your supervision?
Scenery, Costumes, Props, Lighting, A/V, Stage Management, Wardrobe, Rigging, Stage Operations, Hair & Makeup, Wardrobe

What’s your typical day like in June, the month before the Festival opens?
We are in technical rehearsals by mid-June.  So, in the morning (9a.m.-1 p.m.) we are working on the notes we received the evening before from the artistic team on stage and in all of the various shops. We have a tech rehearsal from 2-5 p.m. and another tech rehearsal from 7-10 p.m. During the break we receive more notes, which we work on onstage, and we catch a dinner break when we can. After the rehearsal comes down at 10 p.m. we have a production meeting and go through the events of the day to work out any issues that came up – perhaps a door isn’t shutting properly or a hem needs to be raised. I find that during this time in the season, I am spending most of my time sharing information with as many people as possible and getting everyone on the same page.

Abby and Jake in the scene shop | Photo: William M. Brown/The Glimmerglass Festival

What is the most taxing part of your job?
Winter is too long.  It is difficult to be in a creative job but only be actively creating something for a few months out of the year.

Any particular challenges this year in view of the season? (Oh, I don’t know–corralling elephants? Obtaining archaic horns?)
The reason that I do this job is for the challenges.  There is something new every day.  I have a department of 97 artisans and technicians that are ready to take on any challenge we can throw at them.

Anything you are particularly excited about regarding the upcoming season?
The beginning of every summer season is an exciting time for us.  To go from 20 or so people in the off-season to 300+ in the summer is a pretty staggering difference.

One of the most interesting things to witness, in my opinion, is the interns and how much they grow over the course of the summer.  Many of them have never worked on an opera before – much less four of them in repertory. I get a lot of satisfaction out of knowing that they have had an amazing experience here and they can go back to their university and show off their stuff.

How do you keep your cool (on long, hot days)? What do you do to blow off steam?
Well, there’s not much time for extra-curricular activities when we are in season.  But, if I need to escape, I have a kayak behind the office and we are right on the water so I can just paddle into the middle of the lake.  That can usually get me back on track.

Abby speaks with Cat Hennessy, a draper for The Music Man | Photo: William M. Brown/The Glimmerglass Festival

Pretend this interview is a bullhorn. What is something you wish you could tell every member of the Glimmerglass Festival audience?

You’ve been with Glimmerglass a long time. What surprises you most when you consider all the changes you’ve experienced in the intervening years?
I guess what surprises me most is that I’m still here.  It started out as a summer job after high school.  I had no idea that you could actually get a degree in technical theater or that you could turn it into a career.

I have seen  a lot of changes here over the years and I hope that we will continue to change or evolve.  That is what keeps it fresh.

Were you an opera fan when you started? Are you one now?
I wasn’t a fan specifically of opera – unless Bugs Bunny counts, and I think it should.  But, I did grow up with a lot of classical music and theater.  These days, when we are rehearsing a show in the theater I will sometimes allow myself (if the rehearsal is going really well) to shut my eyes and just listen.  It can be very relaxing and I am grateful for those brief moments.

* * *

You can fan Glimmerglass on Facebook, follow them on Twitter at @GOpera, and read their blog. For more about the upcoming Glimmerglass season, click here. Here’s a great little video on what it takes to put the Glimmerglass Festival together:

YouTube Preview Image

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Filed under 21st Century Opera, Festival Opera, Interviews, North American Opera, Regional opera