Tag Archives: Classic Opera

Opera Phila’s ‘Elixir’: Just What the Doctor Ordered

Operatoonity.com review: The Elixir of Love presented by Opera Philadelphia
Composer: Gaetano Donizetti with text by Felice Romani
Live performance: Sunday, May 8, 2016
The Academy of Music, Philadelphia


Opera Philadelphia closed its mainstage season with the potboiler The Elixir of Love. The show was rollocking good fun, and, a lot like the last professional Elixir I saw at New York City Opera in 2009, the production ushered a rising star into the opera firmament. In 2009, that star of the NYCO show was David Lomeli as the lovestruck Nemorino. In Opera Phila’s version, the luminous soprano Sarah Shafer, a Curtis Institute of Music graduate from State College, Pennsylvania, ensconced herself as a talent to remember:


Sarah Shafer as the petulant, flirty Adina was a standout in Opera Phila’s springtime show. Photos courtesy of Opera Philadelphia

In this version, Adina was a country schoolteacher in the 1940s after WWII, who opens the show by telling pupils and villagers all about Isolde falling for Tristan after he drinks the magic potion in the classic myth. Had she been asked to portray Adina as a fishwife, GI Jane, or a blood-soaked zombie, nothing could have diminished her impact on this production. The audience hung on Shafer’s every note, from her first appearance in Act I until her Act II aria “Prendi per me sei libero…,” a glorious version, easily sustaining the legato passages, and effortlessly reaching her top notes with the clarity and sweetness of a silver bell. She is a preeminent lyric soprano and poised for even greater roles and stages.


Tenor Dimitris Pittas sang the role of Nemorino

As the lovestruck Nemorino, New York tenor Dimitris Pittas showed off his stellar comic timing. He was a lovable, empathetic schlub for most of the show, which is most of what is required of the role. According to a press release dated April 21, Pittas stepped into the role only a week before the show opened because the previous tenor was stricken ill. Carrying the lead role on such short notice deserves recognition. However, this reviewer can only critique the show she saw. Pittas was handed the aria of a lifetime in “Una Furtiva Lagrima,” which was a fine vocal showcase for him but not the showstopper I had hoped for. Pittas absolutely did a serviceable job and after his noteable performance in Opera Phila’s Don Carlo, I hope to see him again soon, perhaps in the 2016-17 season.

Baritone Craig Verm as Belcore

Baritone Craig Verm as Belcore

If Donizetti handed Nemorino the aria of a lifetime, then he bestows the comic role of a lifetime on the opera singer who portrays Sergeant Belcore. Belcore is an over-the-top character. To perform the role with too much swagger is probably impossible. While baritone Craig Verm was amusing and well caricatured, I was *selfishly* hoping for a bigger overall performance to contrast with Nemorino’s ingrained schlubiness, like Brutus to Wimpy. Verm sang the role well and cut a handsome figure. Coming into the show, I came down with a bit of a fever, however, a fever for some beloved Elixirs of years gone by. The only prescription would have been more swagger from Belcore.

Kevin Burdette as Doctor Dulcamara

Kevin Burdette as Doctor Dulcamara

One of my favorite Phila Opera regulars is Kevin Burdette. I have seen him excel in a range of parts. He can be menacing (Dark Sisters) and he can also be knee-slappingly funny (The Barber of Seville). Lately he has been handed several funnyman roles in Opera Phila productions and never disappoints. His characterization while singing contrapuntal patter passages was praiseworthy. Burdette won’t sacrifice one bit of his character to achieve operatic heights and this reviewer deeply appreciates his total immersion into character.

The controlling concept–an Italian countryside tale post-WWII–lent itself to some clever set devices, including the quaint billboard on which numerous images revolved. Kudos to all the behind-the-scenes talent, all of whom were Opera Phila newcomers, who made this a successful show–Director Stephen Lawless, Set Designer & Costumer Ashley Martin-Davis, and Lighting Designer Pat Collins.

In the background is the colorful period billboard promoting olive oil

In the background is the colorful, period billboard promoting olive oil

It seems like the orchestra and chorus always get mentioned in the last portion of my reviews. In the scoring of Elixir, Donizetti himself made his orchestra serve the singers rather than the other way around. In the production notes, conductor Corrado Rovaris says he sought to draw out all the emotional colors in this opera, including melancholy, which he readily accomplished. I have come to appreciate that Rovaris can conduct anything with aplomb and surrounds himself with talented, versatile musicians, coaxing many diverse sounds and styles from them, time and time again.

Overall, this was another winning production from a winning company featuring some new backstage blood and capitalizing on the talents of opera performers in Opera Phila’s growing stable of first-rate performers. I look forward to Opera Phila’s enterprising 2016-17 season, and hope to have the privilege to bring you more Operatoonity.com reviews next year.

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Filed under Classic Opera, Classical Composers, Live opera performance, North American Opera, Reviews, sopranos

Glimmerglass Festival is for lovers…

GPhoto FAI’d hoped to grab your attention with that headline. But it’s true. As I wrap up my vacation time in Cooperstown, New York,  home to the Glimmerglass Festival, I am reminded of what a rich and fulfilling experience I have there each year. And not just as a lover of opera, musical theater, and dance.

Did you know that Glimmerglass Festival also appeals to lovers of:

  • Picnics–you can have one before or after a show on the grounds
  • Ice cream–Hagen Dazs bars–yum!
  • Beer–they have delicious craft beers for sale at intermission
  • Wine–New York and California labels available, also at intermission
  • Strolling–roam the grounds during intermission
  • Hobnobbing–meet opera greats and near-greats after audience Q&A’s
  • People watching–nuff said
  • Scarves–they have dozens of lovely scarves and other items for sale. Kitschy stuff too if you fancy that.
  • Cabaret–during their “Meet Me at the Pavilion” series, you can see cabaret style entertainment and intimate talks.
The lovely pavilion at the Glimmerglass Festival for intimate and cabaret entertainment

The lovely pavilion at the Glimmerglass Festival for intimate and cabaret entertainment

It was “Gents Night Out” at the Pavilion on Monday, July 29. The leading men of the 2013 offered solos and duets–cabaret style. What a fun show. Highlights for me included Jason Hardy’s witty little ditty “And Her Mother Came, Too,”   a beautiful rendition of “Turnaround” by tenor Jay Hunter Morris who accompanied himself on acoustic guitar, and “Ive Got Rhythm,” a surprise song-and-dancer number by countertenor and aerialist Anthony Roth Costanzo.

If you’ve never been to Glimmerglass Festival, you really should give it a go. I love the show talks before every performance–I swear I have more convolutions in my brain as a result. I learn many new things each time I go, and most importantly, I can relax and have a little FUN.

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Filed under 21st Century Opera, Opera festivals, young artists programs

apparently it’s ‘Butterfly’ season

Israeli Opera's new production of 'Madame Butterfly'

Want to catch a Butterfly? It’s in season — everywhere around the world.

Who all mounted productions of Butterfly in 2011-12? Israeli Opera, Minnesota Opera, Nevada Opera, Seattle Opera, Intermountain Bozeman Opera, and English National Opera, just to name a few companies. (See specific production dates and casts below.)

Madame Butterfly, Madama Butterfly. No matter what you call it, the Puccini opera has been a perennial favorite in the U.S. and across the pond.

However, some opera lovers contend its popularity is greater than it has ever been.

There is some data to support this assertion. According to Backtrack founder David Karlin, there’s a slight increase in the number of performances worldwide of Butterfly per Bachtrack.com: 124 listings in 2011 versus 112 in 2010. (Here are all the listings for Butterfly on Bachtrack for the next five months.)

Karlin adds, “It’s been a top ten opera for as long as I can remember.”

The reasons for its popularity are obvious. Karlin credits “a fabulous score combined with an opportunity to go completely over the top on Asian or faux-Asian settings that must be irresistible to set and costume designers.”


Nevada Opera's Butterfly

And let’s not forget an authentic storyline that is genuinely moving. At a time when world events, even the pace of life, is soul-crushing or mind-numbing, because of the soaring music and evocative story, pieces like Butterfly are capable of restoring our humanity.

“Un bel di vedremo” startles us out of our life-inducing stupor and demands that we pay attention not only to Puccini’s work but also to the things that truly matter in life.

Any other reasons why everyone seems to be presenting Butterfly?

While its subject matter directly concerns the United States–which makes it unusual for a European opera, the portrait it paints of America and by association Americans is hardly a flattering one.

If we are viewed as imperialistic bullies by those entering the opera house, Butterfly will hardly convince them otherwise by the end of Act III.

To its credit, however, U.S. citizens in 2012 are not only willing  to be seen as Ugly Americans but also accepting of the moniker.

If you’ll permit me, compare America’s self-acceptance and self-loathing to another G-7 nation, Japan, the setting for Butterfly, who in 2012 won’t even permit the sale of one of my friend’s books, THE PEARL DIVER by Jeff Talarigo, because it offers an unflinchingly honest but unflattering portrait of  the island nation though the book takes place more than 40 years ago, not the Japan of the postmodern age.

Clearly, some Americans are actually willing to look critically at themselves for several hours parsed into three acts, along with the rest of the world. That doesn’t mean Americans shouldn’t continue to do some intense soul-searching. U.S. women believed that we were a protected class in the United States, that we were accorded certain protections by virtue of our gender that are seemingly under attack. “The War on Women” it’s being called, as legislators–men and women (shockingly)–propose laws to erode our rights and human dignity. A piece like Madame Butterfly is a powerful reminder of  why women need and deserve protection in the first place.

But what about continuing Puccini’s popularity as a composer. What might account for that?

A recent NPR article reported that Puccini said his success came from putting “great sorrows in little souls.” Is there any cultural evidence the United States–the world–is intrigued by little souls?

I think so.

While we certainly go for our kingly/queenly/deity stories occasionally, currently America is having an affair with the little man and the regular guy. With Joe Sixpack and Joe the Plumber. With Everyman. Look how many reality shows have infiltrated public consciousness and cable TV in the States and perhaps around the world. The mundane, the everyday is now primo as well as primetime entertainment.

WNO's 'Butterfly in 2010-11

Not that Puccini is mundane–not in the least. But the fact that he writes about people who are neither glamorous nor glamorized dovetails with the contemporary reality show craze.

And why is it Madame Butterfly used more frequently than Madama Butterfly these days? It could be a subconscious or a conscious attempt to make opera sound more accessible, more everyman, less the art form of an elite class? That’s the best rationale I can conceive.

I love Butterfly. (You can read my review of WNO’s 2011 Butterfly here.) Madama or Madame — it matters not. If using Madame as opposed to Madama in the marketing collateral brings in more patrons, then I’m all for it.

Here then are some of those 2011-12 productions of Butterfly mentioned earlier in this piece:

Israeli Opera  | April 11 – 27, 2012, with mimes. April 19 simulcast. Director Mariusz Trelinkski, conducted by Luciano di Martino. Starring Ira Bertman/Wioletta Chodowicz, Zoran Todorovich/Sergey Semishkur, Vladimir Braun/    Noah Briger, Monika-Evelin Liiv/Ayala Zimbler, Yosef Aridan, Alexi Kanunikoff, and Noah Briger/Reich Oded.

Seattle Opera's 'Butterfly' | © Elise Bakketun

Minnesota Opera | April 14-22 – traditional concept, ‘nationally acclaimed production, called “magnificent” by Star Tribune and “a rare, beautiful ‘Butterfly'” by Pioneer Press’. Directed by E. Reed Fisher, conducted by Michael Christie, cast Kelly Kaduce (previously sang the title roles in Minnesota Opera’s Madame Butterfly under Colin Graham’s direction in 2004 and Rusalka in 2009) Soprano Yunah Lee (Turandot, and 108th performance of Butterfly’s title role). Tenors Arturo Chacón-Cruz (debut) and Brian Jagde (debut) alternate in the role of Pinkerton. The American Consul Sharpless is sung by baritones Levi Hernandez (debut) and Andrew Wilkowske (Silent Night). Mezzo-soprano Mika Shigematsu (The Barber of Seville) alternates the role of Suzuki with Minnesota Opera Resident Artist Victoria Vargas(Lucia di Lammermoor). In both casts, Angela Mortellaro is Kate Pinkerton, John Robert Lindsey is the marriage broker Goro, Gabriel Preisser is Butterfly’s Japanese suitor Yamadori and the Imperial Commissioner, Joseph Beutel is the Bonze and A. J. Glueckert is the Official Registrar.

Nevada Opera | May 4 & 6 – anime-style concept. Directed & conceived by Monica Harte, conductor not credited, starring Veronica Mitina [Opera Theater North – Mimì/La Bohème, Intimate Opera Chicago – Violetta/La Traviata], Patrick Miller [Lyric Opera of Chicago – Arturo/Lucia di Lammermoor], Chris Trakas [Metropolitan Opera – Harlekin/Ariade auf Naxos], Sarah Heltzel [Seattle Opera – Siegrune and Flosshilde/Der Ring des Nibelungen, and Edwin Vega Appearance [English National Opera – Molqi/John Adams’ Death of Klinghoffer].

Seattle Opera | May 5-22 – opening night was company’s first-ever simulcast.  Directed by Peter Kazaras, Artistic Director of Seattle Opera’s Young Artists Program, conducted by Julian Kovatchev (debut). Starring soprano Patricia Racette in Seattle Opera debut, alternates performances with Lithuanian soprano Ausrine Stundyte. Both casts feature Canadian baritone Brett Polegato as Sharpless, and 2011/12 Young Artist Sarah Larsen as Cio-Cio-San’s servant, Suzuki. Tenor Doug Jones (Goro), baritone and 2011/12 Young Artist David Krohn (Yamadori), and bass Michael Devlin (the Bonze).

Intermountain Opera Bozeman | May 16-20. Directed by Steven Daigle, conducted by Ari Pelto, Starring Cynthia Clayton (New York City Opera credits include the roles of both “Mimi” and “Musetta” in La Boheme, the Countess in Le nozze di Figaro, and the title role in Madama Butterfly), Brian Jagde (Minnesota Opera, 2012 Santa Fe debut in Arabella) as Pinkerton and Levi Hernandez as Sharpless (Houston Grand Opera debut as Sharpless next to Ana Maria Martinez and Joseph Calleja, SF Opera debut in Il Trittico), Layna Chianakas as Suzuki (Santuzza in Cavalleria Rusticana with Opera Santa Barbara), Tyler Oliphant (Bonze), David Cody (Goro), Margaret Kohler (Kate Pinkerton), and BJ Otey (Yamadori).

English National Opera | May 8-June 2. Anthony Minghella’s Olivier Award-winning production, once hailed by the Sunday Telegraph as ‘the most beautiful show of the year in operatic London.’ Directed by Sarah Tipple, conducted by Oleg Caetani. Starring Mary Plazas, Gwyn Hughes Jones, John Fanning, Pamela Helen Stephen, Michael Colvin, Mark Richardson, and Jonathan McGovern.

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Filed under 21st Century Opera, Classic Opera, North American Opera, Opera Marketing, verismo opera

if it’s Tuesday, ask Richard…

Dr. Richard Rohrer is the reigning expert regarding classic opera in the Rust Belt town of Hankey, Pennsylvania, the fictional setting for my comic novel, DEVILED BY DON. Since Tuesday is “Ask Richard” day on opera-toonity, we offer the following musical question for your operatic edification.      

Dear Richard,       

Which classical opera composer was the most prolific? Verdi? Puccini? Wagner?      

Curious in Coyville, Kansas      

Dear Curious,      

Verdi and Puccini are both marvelous guesses. But not correct. According to my sources, Verdi wrote nine operas, Puccini wrote ten, and Wagner wrote eleven, even if you count each work in The Ring of the Nibelung separately. The correct answer to your question is . . . (waiting for drumroll) . . .  French composer Massenet!  Jules Émile Frédéric Massenet (May 12, 1842 – August 13, 1912) wrote thirteen operas, the best known being Manon and Werther.      


Dr. Richard Rohrer        


Manon, Scottish Opera, 2009


P.S.  Of course, I can name all thirteen of Massenet’s operas. I’m that smart. But if you know others besides Manon and Werther, why don’t you leave those titles in the comments?      

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Filed under Character from DEVILED BY DON, Classic Opera, Classical Composers, DEVILED BY DON