Category Archives: Reviews

Voices in ‘Siege’ Set Glimmerglass Stage Spinning

Operatoonity.com reviewThe Siege of Calais presented by Glimmerglass Festival
Live performance: Monday, July 24, 1:30 p.m.
Alice Busch Opera Theater, Cooperstown, New York
Music: Gaetano Donizetti
Libretto: Salvadore Cammarano
3.5 out of 5.0 stars

 

 

The Glimmerglass Festival’s 2017 production of the American premiere of Donizetti’s “The Siege of Calais.” Photo: Carrington Spires/The Glimmerglass Festival

This summer Glimmerglass Festival took on a seldom-seen Donizetti work, The Siege of Calais. To their credit, the production dramatically underscored the centuries’ old adage: “War is Hell,” famously attributed to General Sherman during the U.S. Civil War. How many times has that sentiment been uttered by not-so-famous conquerors and conquests alike? Many of us are thankfully spared the scope of war’s true horrors.

The Festival’s Calais reminds us the devastation caused by war is as real today as when that siege occurred on the port city on the Northern coast of France during 14th century. Director Francesca Zambello sought to connect the crisis in medieval Calais to war-torn Syria in this century. A blockade ordered by Edward III resulted in besieged civilians lived in abject agony with no fresh food or water–some of who resisted, many of whom had no hope. Her association was apt and the message received.

“The Siege of Calais” | Photo: Carrington Spires/The Glimmerglass Festival

The functionality of the spinning set mirrored the vicious cycle that ensnares those living in war-torn towns and cities, past and present. A towering ruin slowly whirled around to reveal the bombed-out shell of a building, just different faces of the structure depending on the degree of rotation. Each turn showed the audience facets of a town where no one would have chosen to live but who lived there just the same.

The leading roles in this work were both sung by women, soprano Leah Crocetto and mezzo Aleks Romano, with Romano singing a trouser role. During the show talk, the presenter said the Donizetti, who wrote many more operas besides the ones most people know, always wrote to the talent pool available and that no tenors impressed him at the time. For that reason, he made the male lead a mezzo. The show is also not a prima donna-centric work–no opening aria signalling, “Hey, operagoers. I’m the reason for attending this show. Here’s my opening aria.” That choice made it unpopular and almost uncastable.

So Calais did not follow the expected formula of the time to attract the most highly touted sopranos in Donizetti’s day, but this production certainly featured a classically talented prima donna in Crocetto.

Leah Crocetto as Eleanora in The Glimmerglass Festival’s 2017 production of the American premiere of Donizetti’s “The Siege of Calais.” Photo: Carrington Spires/The Glimmerglass Festival

The garbage-strewn stage stands at odds with a bel canto style opera. It is Crocetto’s powerful and pure soprano voice that ushers in the bel canto, the beautiful singing, the opera requires. Her performance was rich and nuanced. While evidencing genuine despair, frustration, loss, and other strong emotions, her technique never faltered.

Aleks Romano as Aurelio, Rock Lasky as Filippo, and Leah Crocetto as Eleonora in The Glimmerglass Festival’s 2017 production of the American premiere of Donizetti’s “The Siege of Calais.” Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival

Cast as wife and husband, together she and Romano sang beautifully and believably all the music Donizetti created for two complementary women’s voices.

Aleks Romano as Aurelio in The Glimmerglass Festival’s 2017 production of the American premiere of Donizetti’s “The Siege of Calais.” Photo: Carrington Spires/The Glimmerglass Festival

A trouser role in a dramatic opera is a devilishy difficult role to play just right. As Aurelio, Romano had the appropriate amount of swagger and male physicality to suspend our disbelief that these two characters deeply loved one another as man and wife. Her voice was a strong and facile instrument, which sounded at its most beautiful when paired with Crocetto’s.

Young Artist Adrian Timpau delivered an outstanding turn as Aurelio’s father, Eustachio de Saint Pierre, mayor of Calais. He sang the role with gravity and sensitivity, never losing his conviction, despite the odds of saving his town mounting with each day his war-torn city is under siege.

Adrian Timpau as Eustachio de Saint-Pierre in The Glimmerglass Festival’s 2017 production of the American premiere of Donizetti’s “The Siege of Calais.” Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass

Under Maestro Joseph Colaneri’s baton, the orchestra is in fine and varied form–brassy and militaristic, and at other times, pensive and atmospheric, matching the emotions on stage.

In this piece, Donizetti opted for more ensemble numbers than arias, and all rang gloriously throughout the house. After all, resistance makes for impassioned singing and captivating choruses.

In sum, directorial vision was sound, the staging and lighting were arresting, and the voices soared. So, why 3.5 out of 5.0 stars? Sometimes, pieces fade in the repertoire because they should fade, because they are flawed. They lack excitement, memorable music, and sufficient onstage action.

A convention hailing back to the Ancient Greeks of never showing audience violence onstage, but rather, speaking of it once the deadly deed has been done, handicaps theatrical works presented in the 21st century. It may have been a convention honored by Donizetti, but it is far less appreciated by today’s audiences, sorry to say.

When the piece premiered in 1836, it included a lengthy ballet–a device Donizetti hoped would provide its entré to the Paris Opera. Thankfully Glimmerglass jetéd his ballet scene. If this opera tended to be dull without a ballet, imagine the piece with one!

It was a noble intention to breathe new life into this rarely done work. Sometimes good intentions just aren’t enough.

* * *

Plenty of Glimmerglass Festival remains through August 22. See the Festival Calendar for all the events that remain this season.

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Filed under Bel canto opera, Festival Opera, Italian opera, North American Opera, Regional opera, Reviews, seldom heard works, sopranos, young artists programs

Women make the ‘Marriage’ in Philadelphia

Operatoonity.com review: The Marriage of Figaro presented by Opera Philadelphia, a co-production with Lyric Opera of Kansas City, San Diego Opera, and Palm Beach Opera
Live performance: Sunday, April 20, 2:30 p.m.
The Academy of Music
Music: W.A. Mozart
Libretto: Lorenzo da Ponte
4.5 out of 5.0 stars

4.5strslg

 

 

 Susanna (soprano Ying Fang) and the Countess (soprano Layla Claire)

The stellar performances of Susanna (soprano Ying Fang) and the Countess (soprano Layla Claire) made for a happy ‘Marriage’ at Opera Phila. | All photographs by Kelly & Massa for Opera Philadelphia

Art imitates life, it has been said. If women are the glue that holds many marriages together, surely the women performing in Opera Philadelphia’s spring production made for a happier Marriage of Figaro. Soprano Ying Fang, soprano Layla Claire, and mezzo-soprano Cecelia Hall reminded us over and over in their arias (and they have many arias in this l-o-n-g show) why we love Mozart. And how much Mozart must have loved women to give them so many glorious opportunities to be the glittering stars in his operatic firmament.

(mezzo-soprano Cecelia Hall)

Mezzo-soprano Cecelia Hall was delightful in her trouser role as Cherubino, who is smitten with all women.

Perhaps because the show runs long, conductor Corrado Rovaris chose a presto (molto!) tempo for the most beloved overture in operatic music, a tempo to make Mozart-loving hearts race. The Kentucky Derby should only run as briskly. The music and the performance of it by the orchestra and by the principal singers, eclipsed every other aspect in this production–the silly story, the heavy and cumbersome stage units, the occasional nonsensical set decor (what was living room furniture doing in a garden scene?), the confusing costuming. So allow me to vent some minor annoyances with this production so I can turn my attention what made this show really work.

Lamentation #1: This production premiered on May 1 in 1786. The merry month of May is Mother Nature’s gift to the Western Hemisphere. May is typically a fusillade of pink and white apple and dogwood blossoms, tidy and trim tulips, fragrant lilacs, and lush peonies. It’s when the earth comes alive again and reminds us why life is beautiful. So why the dark, heavy, colorless, lumbering set pieces in this show? Even the garden set looked more like a sepulcher–like the gloomy cemetery scene from Don Giovanni–than a garden full of romance.

Lamentation #2: The costume choices, especially for Figaro, were also an annoyance. In order to get this show past the censor, the creators played up the comedy and played down the political satire. Why confuse the audience any further by dressing Figaro like every other servant or valet? It’s an overly silly story and production companies shouldn’t rely on the arrival of any of the many popular arias in this show to clarify just who is who?

Lamentation #3: Lastly why was this production so dark? I longed for lightness, brightness, and flowers. Finally, the bright green gardener shows up to blow Cherubino’s cover, but it is too little greenery too late.

 Susanna (soprano Ying Fang) pretends to sing her love for the Count, as Figaro listens on.

Susanna (soprano Ying Fang) pretends to sing her love for the Count, as Figaro listens on, a very humorous conceit. But the garden looks more like a mausoleum hit by a tornado than a setting for romantic intrigues.

But, enough about some of this reviewer’s minor disappointments. If the voices are expected to thrill in this production, then thrill they did.

As Susanna, Figaro’s intended, Chinese Soprano Ying Fang was a sheer delight in every scene, in every way. In voice, carriage, appearance, Fang, who New York critics called “a star in the making,” was the ideal soubrette. She has a sweet clear soprano voice like a silver bell, eager to make a favorable impression. The audience hung on every note of the renowned Sull’aria, perfectly sung with Canadian soprano Layla Claire. It was one of those treasured opera moments that would have been perfect to capture and then replay on a gloomy day to make your soul feel light and bright again.

 Susanna (soprano Ying Fang) overhears Marcellina loudly declaring Figaro will only marry her for money

In this scene, Susanna (soprano Ying Fang) overhears Marcellina loudly declaring Figaro will only marry her for money.

American soprano Cecelia Hall deftly delivered another jewel from Mozart’s ‘Marriage’ hit parade in her song of love “Voi che sapete.” Simply splendid in tone, pitch, and voicing! And expectations loomed high for this and all the beloved pieces from this well-known opera. In her trouser role, Hall turned in a charming overall performance and later in the show, she tossed in a few strains of “Finch’han dal vino,”  replete with boyish charm and hubris as a bit of stage business. Your cleverness was not lost on this Don G. fan, Ms. Hall.

 Cherubino (mezzo-soprano Cecelia Hall) serenades Countess Almaviva (soprano Layla Claire) with a song.

Cherubino (mezzo-soprano Cecelia Hall) serenades Countess Almaviva (soprano Layla Claire) with a song.

Cast as the lovelorn wife whose husband has a roving eye, Layla Claire sang and acted the role with sensitivity and believability–not always easy to do in an opera with an over-the-top storyline. She was brought to Philadelphia for her “virtuosic singing,” and her Broad Street debut didn’t disappoint. While the Countess doesn’t have the pluck Susanna does, she isn’t without contrivances, having agreed to exchange outfits with Susanna for the gloomy garden scene in order to trick her philandering husband. And of course she forgives him (but, without getting too political), isn’t it entertaining when women don’t let their men off the hook for the indiscretions? Politicians’ wives, take a note.

The men’s cavatinas and arias were sturdily sung by Pennsylvania’s own bass-baritone Brandon Cedel as Figaro and German baritone John Chest as Count Almaviva. Cedel’s comic timing was at its best during the scene when he learns that Marcellina is his mother and Bartolo his father.

The propensity for infidelity is hardly the most attractive quality in any man, but truth be told Chest made himself hard to resist in this scene because of his leading man qualities in voice and stature. (But resist she does because she loves Figaro.)

 The Count (baritone John Chest) thinks he has seduced Susanna (soprano Ying Fang); all the while, Susanna plans to reveal his infidelity.

The Count (baritone John Chest) thinks he has seduced Susanna (soprano Ying Fang); all the while, Susanna plans to reveal his infidelity.

All the buffo or stock characters–mezzo-soprano Lucy Schaufer as Marcellina, bass-baritone Patrick Carfizzi as Bartolo, and tenor Jason Ferrante as Don Curzio–delivered scene-stealing comic turns.

Figaro (bass-baritone Brandon Cedel) comes to grips with the news that Marcellina (mezzo-soprano Lucy Schaufer) is, in fact, his mother and Bartolo is his father.

Figaro (bass-baritone Brandon Cedel) comes to grips with the news that Marcellina (mezzo-soprano Lucy Schaufer) is, in fact, his mother and Bartolo is his father.

However, all the men were stellar when singing in company with the women in every Mozartian ensemble piece (and there are so many powerful ones in this show): the glorious 20-minute finale of (the traditional) Act II, the sextet in Act III , and the music and singing featured in the opera’s explosive conclusion, perfectly timed for a standing ovation.

Bartolo (bass-baritone Patrick Carfizzi), Marcellina (mezzo-soprano Lucy Schaufer), Figaro (bass-baritone Brandon Cedel) and Susanna (soprano Ying Fang) rejoice over their newfound happiness.

Bartolo (bass-baritone Patrick Carfizzi), Marcellina (mezzo-soprano Lucy Schaufer), Figaro (bass-baritone Brandon Cedel) and Susanna (soprano Ying Fang) rejoice over their newfound happiness.

The applause for the ladies of the ensemble was the most generous at curtain call, and deservedly so. However all the performances were strong in this show, with many virtuosic moments. I just wish that the design elements worked in tandem with the essential springtime spirit of the show to lift the soul as much as Mozart’s well performed music.

***

Opera Philadelphia opens their 2017-18 season with a blockbuster festival, Festival O17. More details available here.

 

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All About Brenda: Wisconsin coloratura captures Phila’s heart

Operatoonity.com review: Tancredi presented by Opera Philadelphia
Live performance: Friday, February 10, 2017, 8:00 p.m.
Venue: The Academy of Music, Philadelphia
Music’: Gioachini Rossini
Libretto:
Gaetano Rossi
4.0 out of 5.0 stars

4-stars

 

 

 Tancredi opened February 10 with Stephanie Blythe in the title role.

Tancredi opened February 10 with Stephanie Blythe in the title role (but another woman stole the show). | Kelly & Massa for Opera Philadelphia

What could have been sleepy homage to opera seria was instead transformed into a moving, vital production at the Academy of Music last Friday evening. Tancredi captured loads of advance media attention and cachet for Opera Phila, who attracted Metropolitan Opera star Stephanie Blythe to the City of Brotherly Love. Ultimately, Opera Phila’s reproduction will remembered for the virtuoso vocal performance of coloratura soprano Brenda Rae as the lovelorn Amenaide.

Yes, seeing Blythe on the Academy of Music stage was a gift to me and all assembled. Yes, the directorial execution, both beautiful and controlled, by Emilio Sagi was impressive. Yes, Corrado Rovaris, who can conduct anything, has extraordinary facility with the bel canto canon.

But simply put, once the stage fog settled, this production of Tancredi was all about Brenda.

Brenda Rae delivers a show-stealing turn in Opera Phila's Tancredi

Brenda Rae delivers a show-stealing turn in Opera Phila’s Tancredi. | Kelly & Massa for Opera Philadelphia | Kelly & Massa for Opera Philadelphia

Tancredi is hardly the most dynamic of operas and is admittedly flawed–mostly static and plodding in pace. It can’t be the opera on which Rossini wanted to hang his Bombetta–too simple in plot, too staid in tone. The storyline proves barely palatable to progressive women and men in our modern era. Tancredi is a tale extracted from the Middle ages, when the Byzantine Empire was under constant threat of attack from the Saracens. Amenaide is wrongly condemned to death as a traitor without any process, let alone due process. Though her honor is defended by her secret suitor Tancredi, essentially she had no voice, no rights, and no recourse, having been stripped of her stature and dignity without any proof of her treason. Scary? You betcha. Laughably archaic tenets? Don’t we wish!

 At their wedding, Orbazzano (Daniel Mobbs) accuses Amenaide (Brenda Rae) of being a traitor.

At their wedding, Orbazzano (Daniel Mobbs) accuses Amenaide (Brenda Rae) of being a traitor. | Kelly & Massa for Opera Philadelphia

So, the feudal-era mores undergirding the story are tough to stomach despite the setting being updated to the 20th century. In spite of the inherent shortcomings in the work, Tancredi succeeds on the Academy of Music stage as a showcase for superb vocal artistry from a winning cast and chorus: tenor Michele Angelini as Argirio, bass-baritone Daniel Mobbs as Orbazzano, mezzo-soprano Stephanie Blythe singing the title role, and the powerful and versatile Opera Phila Chorus.

But most especially because of Brenda Rae, whose meltingly lovely tone, stunning vocal range, and vocal agility spurred the audience to dozens of “bravas” after aria, each more taxing than the last. Bring this talented performer back to Opera Phila in a stronger show, pretty please.

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Amenaide (Brenda Rae) is released from her chains after Tancredi comes to her defense. | Kelly & Massa for Opera Philadelphia

In the title role of Tancredi, the power of Blythe’s voice sent it right up to the rafters. However, her vocal runs were not as easily accomplished especially when compared to Rae’s facility with Rossini. While it may have been Blythe’s wish fulfillment to play a trouser role with such heft and dimension to it, and it was commendable for Opera Phila to give her the chance to realize the title role in a fully staged production, the reality of singing Tancredi proved a less than perfect picture. Certainly, the voicings in Rae and Blythe’s duetti succeeded, with Rossini pairing soprano and mezzo for optimum effect. But this could not have been the versatile Blythe’s finest turn on stage of late. A solid turn, but not a stellar one.

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Tancredi (Stephanie Blythe) and his family have been stripped of their estates and inheritances and banished from their homeland. | Kelly & Massa for Opera Philadelphia

The patriarchs, despite their provinciality and geopolitical shortcomings, were both a vocal triumph. Both Angelini and Mobbs came to their roles vocally well-equipped for the demands of bel canto. However, the fact that two men were deciding the fate of a powerless woman was not lost on the audience.  One couple at intermission couldn’t help but compare Amenaide’s tribunal to a much-publicized political tableau of six white men deciding women’s reproductive rights. (Though likely an unintended consequence, perhaps thanks are due to Opera Phila for reminding us how deadly the world can be when women have no voice.) More to the point of this exercise, their pairings with Blythe and Rae made for rich and complex trios and quartets.

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Orbazzano (Daniel Mobbs) negotiates a truce with his rival Argirio (Michele Angelini), with whom he has been at war for many years. | Kelly & Massa for Opera Philadelphia

While the director chose not to set the work in the medieval period, citing cost-savings, his choice turned out to be an aesthetically rich. The set combined grandeur with enough flexibility to create the various change in stage sets to support the plot, sweeping and subtly turning back and forth to create fresh staging areas. Sagi and his design principals’ (sets by Daniel Bianco and lighting by Eduardo Bravo) seamless mastery made the reproduction as successful as it could be.

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Tancredi (Stephanie Blythe) dies in the arms of Amenaide (Brenda Rae). | Kelly & Massa for Opera Philadelphia

It may be unfair to have enormous expectations of an opera star like Blythe and few of an up-and-coming soprano like Rae by comparison, and to allow those expectations to guide this review. But that is the beauty and the treachery evident in live performance and reviews by sentimental human critics.

In the final analysis, Tancredi is a solid presentation of a seldom-seen show and deserves to be seen for Rae’s breakout performance, everyone’s vocal calisthenics, beautifully controlled conducting, and clean and sexy staging. The show continues through February 19. More information is available at the Opera Phila website.

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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

 

 

turandot-007

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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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.

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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!

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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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