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@OperaPhila with the Fringe goes pop!

Operatoonity.com review: Andy: A Popera, an Opera Philadelphia Showcase presented by Opera Philadelphia and the Bearded Ladies Cabaret Troupe
Live performance: Saturday, September 20, 2015, 8:00 p.m.
Fringe Festival, 1526 North American Street, Philadelphia
Music: Heath Allen & Dan Visconti
Libretto: John Jarboe in development with Sean Lally & ensemble
4.5 out of 5.0 stars

4.5strslg

 

 

Andrei portrayed by Mary Tuomanen becomes Andy Warhol | photograph Dominic M. Mercier

Andrei portrayed by Mary Tuomanen becomes Andy Warhol | photograph Dominic M. Mercier

Who knew a great yoga class could do more than increase your strength and flexibility? Apparently, a particularly bone-crushing class inspired an artistic partnership between senior managers at Opera Philadelphia and The Bearded Ladies Cabaret Troupe. The end result? Andy: A Popera–an original and provocative exploration into the life of the godfather of pop art offered up for the 2015 Philly Fringe Festival.

The evening began in an art gallery adjacent to the warehouse performance space called Bahdeebahdu. Preshow festivities included dressing up as a Campbell’s Soup can (#iamasoupcan), enjoying the Bearded Ladies’ refreshing party punch, and eyeing hulking chandeliers crafted from found materials. The preshow was a window into what was to come–a hedonistic and provocative night of popera, full of surprises.

At the preshow, bohemian guests mingled with other audience members. These bohemians eventually became characters in the popera, which was totally fitting. Even as audience members, they possessed an I’m-extra-special quality that would  have attracted someone like Andy Warhol, who developed a love affair with celebrity culture.

The band wore boxes on their heads as the audience entered the warehouse littered with boxes. Young Andy crawled out of box to start the show, a box symbolizing his extreme introversion and his being sheltered due to a rare childhood disease called chorea.

Mary Tuomanen as Andrei and his over protective Slovakian mother Julia played by Malgorzata Kasprzycka

Mary Tuomanen as Andrei and his over protective Slovakian mother Julia played by Malgorzata Kasprzycka | photograph by Dominic M. Mercier

On page 11 of the program, the audience is explicitly warned about interactive nature of the show, that by the act of attending, one consents to being filmed and photographed. Several people in the audience got their 15 minutes of fame as the result of being filmed and broadcast on the large overhead screen or pulled onto stage.

While the popera unfurled itself in a warehouse converted to a theatre for the occasion, we were simultaneously introduced to many other Andy’s sung by the well-trained Opera Phila chorus members as well as the flamboyant “stars” of Warhol’s famous “Factory” productions.

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Andrei (Mary Tuomanen) creates several replicas of himself, known as Andy | photograph by Dominic M. Mercier

Composers Allen and Visconti created a vehicle which effectively showcased the cabaret voices of The Bearded Ladies as well as the glorious operatic tones of Opera Philadelphia singers. Part exploration, part clever homage, part burlesque, Andy: A Popera reminded me of the sensational contemporary opera Anna Nicole, which is also a biopic of a highly dysfunctional American blonde freak of nature. (Hint: Would LOVE to see Anna Nicole come to Philly, too.)

Superstar Edie (Kristen Bailey) and Andy (Mary Tuomanen)

Superstar Edie (Kristen Bailey) and Andy (Mary Tuomanen) | photograph by Dominic M. Mercier

Actor/playwright Mary Tuomanen was extraordinary as Andrei and later Andy. She conveyed a naturalness portraying and singing Andy that seemed to suggest Andy was born for the life he led–an authentic artist whose individuality couldn’t be dimmed by societal strictures. Tuomanen and Kristen Bailey as Superstar Edie had a superstar turn atop a hightop cardboard  box in Act 1.

Another highlight of Act I was the scene Marilyn’s Baptism by Paint, devoted to Warhol’s famous Marilyn Diptych of 50 photos showing Marilyn Monroe as not just sex symbol but as a person.

Warhol's Marilyn Diptych

Warhol’s Marilyn Diptych

While critics might claim that anyone can create pop art like the Marilyn Diptych, the point Andy: A Popera makes is that only one person did, and Warhol changed the landscape of art as a result. An homage to the work featured a musical rainbow of Marilyns singing and prancing about on the stage.

 Andy creates colorful replicas of Marilyn Monroe (Karina Sweeney, Jackson Williams, Katherine Mallon-Day, and Veronica Chapman-Smith)

Andy creates colorful replicas of Marilyn Monroe (Karina Sweeney, Jackson Williams, Katherine Mallon-Day, and Veronica Chapman-Smith) | Photograph by Dominic M. Mercier

Actor Sean Lally had his fifteen minutes of fame as Joseph the ecdysiast, who is outfitted with a banana costume as part of Andy’s entourage before he peels it all off. (And I do mean all.) While his physique and performance certainly inspired, he is also deserving of praise for his meaningful work as co-librettist with John Jarboe. What a richly textured and deeply-layered work from which one emerges with new or renewed understanding of Andy Warhol and the pop art revolution!

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Joe (Sean Lally) is a Warhol Superstar who dresses as a banana | photograph by Dominic M. Mercier

Top performance honors must be awarded to Scott McPheeters portraying the drag queen Candy. Sometimes Candy sang her own numbers and sometimes she was voiced by Opera Phila sopranos. Every moment McPheeters was on stage was electrified by his presence.

Candy (Scott McPheeters) performs her big Death Scene

Candy (Scott McPheeters) performs her big Death Scene | photograph by Dominic M. Mercier

Candy’s Death Scene was a tour de force. Bravo, McPheeters. Brava, Candy.

One of the opera’s most grating characters was Valerie Solanas played by Kate Raines. Valerie was a radical feminist who published the SCUM MANIFESTO, and who shot and nearly killed Andy for misplacing one of the scripts in 1968. Raines played her as a paranoid schizophrenic without apology, which resulted in the audience growing tired of her, as perhaps Warhol and his entourage did. No song stylist, her numbers were difficult to listen to, becoming more strident as her paranoia increased. Her second act departure was welcomed.

Val (Kate Raines) hijacks the Popera to perform her own opera

Val (Kate Raines) hijacks the Popera to perform her own opera | Photograph by Dominic M. Mercier

Sadly even Andy’s mother Julia Warhola eventually demands her fifteen minutes of fame in Act II, while Andy recovers from the shooting, a la Mama Rose in Gypsy.

The popera ellipsed Andy’s career a bit too aggressively in the 70s, quickly advancing to his death in the 80s. The program notes that the two companies collaborated on the show for two years, releasing it in bits and pieces. While the show ran long, the second act was underdeveloped compared to the first. Perhaps more Act II and less Act I would give the show more dramatic balance.

Andy: A Popera forced Opera Phila and The Bearded Ladies to create art together in a new way. The Philly Fringe and the arts landscape is richer for this spirited collaboration. While social media, it seems, can cough up 15 minutes of fame for almost anyone, this show reminds us that Andy Warhol did it a time well before our current intoxication with celebrity culture.

I raise a Dixie cup of vodka, cranberry juice, and Tang to Andy: A Popera. It’s not every day that the audience gets to wear a soup can, process through a giant vagina, or witness full frontal nudity in the name of opera. Bring on Anna Nicole.

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The Importance of Opera Philadelphia: ‘Oscar’ Review

Operatoonity.com review: Oscar presented by Opera Philadelphia; a co-commission and co-production with The Sante Fe Opera
Live performance: Sunday, February 15, 2015
The Academy of Music, Philadelphia, PA
Music: Theodore Morrison
Text: John Cox and Theodore Morrison
Photos: Courtesy of Opera Philadelphia

4.0 stars

And the Oscar goes to . . . Opera Philadelphia!

It may be Oscar Weekend across the globe, but for the last two weekends, Opera Philadelphia, the City of Brotherly Love’s preeminent opera company, deserves an Oscar for offering the East Coast premiere of a new American opera of the same name, co-commissioned and co-produced with The Sante Fe Opera.

Oscar’s production values were exquisite. Philadelphia audiences were treated to a world-class performance by arguably the world’s most outstanding and in-demand countertenor David Daniels. But most importantly, a new American production was ushered into the repertoire–one with heft, musical beauty, and promise for a fresh new future for opera, one that isn’t reliant on tasteless regietheatre-style regurgitations of classic operas or endless reproductions of La Traviata.

Countertenor David Daniels played the title role of Oscar Wilde in a role written for him. Photo | Opera Philadelphia.

As a new production, as new productions are wont to be, the show itself had some imperfections, which is why I gave it four stars. While it was a noble choice to paint Wilde as a tragic hero, the parts of Wilde’s life highlighted in Oscar combine to recreate a sort of grim limbo.  From time immemorial, “new” productions have been refined or reworked based on audience and or critics’ reactions. While Theodore Morrison’s music was resonantly and refreshingly melodic, the overall tone of the show itself needed a little polishing and more seamless integration, as if Morrison and Cox couldn’t decide what kind of show it was supposed to be. Oscar is alternately a despairing commentary on insufferably rigid Victorian mores and occasionally broadly satirical while very rarely bright. Agreed, dehumanization and imprisonment of human beings because of their sexual preferences aren’t the stuff of uplifting subject matter.

While Oscar effectively showcased the stain of intolerance on humanity, it rarely conveyed Wilde’s bright and often biting wit. Wilde himself used humor to lampoon societal values during Queen Victoria’s time. Yet, there are only glimmers of his comedic genius in the libretto, lines such as, “Absinthe makes the heart grow fonder.” The broad satire of Wilde’s trial to close Act I was nothing short of a tour de force:

The satirical representation of Wilde’s trial for indecency was a stellar scene in Oscar but also sadly creepy. Photo | Opera Philadelphia

However, irony might have also served this production. Generations of theatregoers derived intense pleasure and entertainment from a beloved playwright’s public genius but reveled in the condemnation of the same man’s private proclivities.  With such an unrelentingly dark treatment, more brightness would have made the dark scenes that more impactful. One broadly satirical scene does not an eye-popping production make.

Baritone Dwayne Croft sings the role of the ghost of Walt Whitman. Photo | Opera Philadelphia

One of the show’s welcome devices was making a narrator out of the ghost of American poet Walt Whitman, who sets the scene for the drama. Whitman met Oscar Wilde during his 1882 American tour but had passed away by the time Wilde reached the height of his fame. This from-the-grave commentary intrigued. Whitman ellipses the time between the premiere of  Wilde’s Lady Windermere’s Fan and his prosecution for “gross indecency.” Again, a bit more of Wilde’s life as the toast of London would have made his fall from grace that more deeply felt.

Baritone Dwayne Croft was perfect in the role of Whitman, which required an immortal grace, and he was equal to the task in voice and presence.

Without equivocation, the writers drove home Wilde’s obsession with his young lover Bosie. Making Oscar Wilde’s young lover a non-speaking balletic role was an inspired device, lending the production a welcome elegance and beauty.

As Bosie, Reed Luplau, a dancer from Western Australia, made a stunning Opera Philadelphia debut. Seán Curran’s choreography fit Luplau like a kid glove as Luplau dipped and glided into Wilde’s reverie, evoking the Irish-born playwright’s tortured longing for a sheerly lovely young man, whose father, the Marquess of Queensbury, was committed to Wilde’s downfall. 

Australian dancer Reed Luplau as “Bosie” was the essence of sensual elegance. Photo | Opera Philadelphia

The roles of Ada Leverson and Frank Harris were expertly sung by soprano Heidi Stober and tenor William Burden, a standout from last season’s Silent Night. Both performers valiantly endeavored to make their mark but were unfortunately burdened (pun wholly intended) by three very slow-moving scenes. While it is a time-honored operatic technique to comment on action that has occurred earlier, such as Frank’s infamous luncheon parties in the old days or Whitman’s devolution into poverty at his end, it’s not necessarily the most dramatically punchy technique.

Soprano Heidi Stober and tenor William Burden sang the roles of Wilde’s loyal friends. Photo | Opera Philadelphia

So, the show overall is flawed, but Opera Philadelphia’s execution was just about flawless. One can’t underestimate the value of their partnership with The Sante Fe Opera on this endeavor. These co-productions turn out to be much greater than the sum of their resources. Ingenious sets; world-class performances; inspired direction, lighting, and costumes are just a few values that one can expect when companies cooperate rather than compete. A very capable Opera Philadelphia orchestra conducted by Evan Rogister in his Opera Philadelphia debut showcased the compelling musical voices Morrison has created to tell the story, without overwhelming the singers.

The privations of jail led to Wilde’s deteriorating health and early death. Photo | Opera Philadelphia

Opera Philadelphia is taking on important work and more than a little risk with works like Oscar. They are informing and shaping the landscape of new American opera and will continue to do so with this season’s Charlie Parker’s YARDBIRD and next season with another East Coast premiere of Cold Mountain by Jennifer Higdon and Gene Scheer.  And the entire opera firmament is better and stronger for their daring to reach beyond what is known and comfortable.

 

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Opera Phila’s ‘Coffin’ a living dream

Operatoonity.com 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.

016 A COFFIN IN EGYPT

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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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.

* * *

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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A night divine with James Valenti

James Valenti

James Valenti is a soloist at tonight’s Midnight Mass at St. Patrick’s Cathedral

Hey, New Yorkers, the world-renowned tenor James Valenti will be performing during Midnight Mass tonight, Christmas Eve, at New York City’s St. Patrick’s Cathedral located on Fifth Avenue in the heart of Manhattan.

Valenti will sing the traditional Christmas carol “O Holy Night.”

St. Patrick's cathedral

The world famous St. Patrick’s cathedral

If you don’t already have a ticket to Midnight Mass at St. Patrick’s, and you live in the tri-State area, Channel 11 will transport you there because there are simply no more tickets available.

Have a blessed holiday, Operatoonity readers, and those of you who live in New York/New Jersey, don’t forget to tune in to PBS tonight to hear one of America’s most celebrated young tenors sing a holiday favorite.

Yes, the fact that New Yorkers get to hear James Valenti sing tonight and I don’t proves that New York is the center of the universe!

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