Tag Archives: contemporary opera

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

Voices carry Phila’s ‘Carmelites’

Dialogues of the Carmelites Opera Phila

Opertoonity.com ReviewDialogues of the Carmelites
Live Performance
March 9, 2014
Presented by Curtis Opera Theatre, in association with Opera Philadelphia and Kimmel Center Presents
The Perelman Theater, Philadelphia

3-stars-out-of-5

 

Voices carry, the saying goes. But can they carry an entire production?

Several of the young voices representing the Curtis Opera Theatre program tasked to sing The Dialogues of the Carmelites at Philadelphia’s famed Kimmel Center were nothing of short of extraordinary. But expecting them to carry a show when the staging and other production elements lacked cohesiveness was asking too much.

The Curtis Symphony Orchestra led by conductor Corrado Rovaris played Francis Poulenc’s capstone opera heroically. Alas, even supremely talented musicians couldn’t rescue a flawed show.

That’s because theater is part of opera. It’s even in the company’s name—Curtis Opera Theatre. If staging, lights, sets, and costumes aren’t as strong as the voices and the orchestra, the whole production suffers.  Theatrical elements shouldn’t supersede the voices (and we’ve all seen those operas), but they must inform and lift up the integrity of the whole work.

Carmelites Curtis Opera Theater

There aren’t many choral numbers in “Dialogues of the Carmelites,” but this hymn by the sisters was transcendent | photo by Cory Weaver

The selection of Carmelites as the next offering at the Perelman Theater held all the promise for a stunning production. It was the right size show for the space—a 650-seat venue with a modern affect. Curtis Opera Theatre had august partners in Opera Philadelphia and Kimmel Center Presents. However, the devil is certainly in the details for a nuanced masterwork like Carmelites. Critical artistic choices on which the success of the show hinged handicapped this production.

The show lacked artistic coherence. The stage was annoyingly dark most of the time. To open the show, there were three large avant garde looking set pieces layered on the stage, which left little room for natural movement. Despite the modern design introduced, the first costumes seen were completely in period. Between acts, the big trendy set pieces were removed, leaving only one by the end of the show. In the middle of Act II, folding tables like those used at a flea market were hauled out for the scene featuring all the nuns working and singing, and turquoise-colored fiberglass chairs were set out, like those you might see in a local junior high school classroom. In the middle of this act, French soldiers stormed the convent to terrorize the sisters, but the soldiers wore modern dress, wielding hand guns, looking like a street gang from a rough Philly neighborhood. Why this choice was made—to mash up 18th Century French Revolution with 21st Century Street Gang—was hardly evident to this reviewer.

By casually slipping into the modern period midway through the second act, many in the audience were robbed of the power of story at its core: during the Reign of Terror, the Catholic Church was denounced as an enemy of the Revolution. The Church’s properties were confiscated to fill Revolutionary coffers, and women and men religious were branded as traitors. This included an order of devout Carmelite nuns who refused to renounce their faith and are guillotined in a breathtaking scene at the end of the opera.  A modern opera set during a brutal and tumultuous period in history past hardly needs updating to remain meaningful.

As the show progressed, clerics came onstage dressed conventionally and came back wearing modern street clothes. It was also never clear that Blanche returned home to find it ransacked, which informed her decision to choose martyrdom. The final pivotal scene in the opera– the execution of the sisters–was even diminished by its staging. The sisters were executed onstage while facing the audience while customary staging of this scene leaves something more to the imagination, yielding significantly greater dramatic impact.

Rachel Sterrenberg

Rachel Sterrenberg as Blanche | photo by Cory Weaver

To sum up, director Jordan Fein  (and by association, all the other creatives on the bill) simply missed the mark with this one.

Absent an integrated artistic interpretation, the Curtis students left to bring off the show shone like the future stars they surely will be, very nearly succeeding. Tenor Roy Hage who sang the Chevalier for the closing performance was a magical talent on stage. As Chevalier, his stage time is limited, but his ovation at curtain call was not. In character, he has a luminescent quality about him. His lush lyric tenor enraptured the audience.

Also commendable was soprano Rachel Sterrenberg as Blanche, Chevalier’s sister, who grows up in privilege but abandons it for a life of servitude with the Carmelites. She began a little stiffly in the first act. Once she shed the cumbersome period panniers for a simple nun’s habit, she warmed to her role, becoming a powerhouse by Act III.  This was despite some illogical staging that was highly distracting to audience members-yes, a fifth wall was introduced.

Show-stealing honors must go to soprano Sarah Shafer as Sister Constance.  Shafer is a gifted actress, and her voice was ideally suited to the role of the novitiate with a lighthearted, readily excitable manner.

Sarah Shafer

Sarah Shafer as Sister Constance | photo by Cory Weaver

As Mme. de Croissy, mezzo Shir Rozzen needed a bed for her death scene but was denied that simple set piece which would have helped tame her character who could only bust out all over the stage singing her dying aria.

Did the careless direction detract from Poulenc’s masterful score? Unfortunately it did, which might be the single worst shortcoming of this production, that it lacked a proper showcase for a seminal work.

Kudos to all the performers and musicians–you tried valiantly to carry this production. But in a perfect opera world, you shouldn’t have to do all the heavy lifting.

by Gale Martin

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Filed under 21st Century Opera, Collaborative opera, contemporary opera, Reviews, young artists programs

San Fran chamber opera offers contemporary double bill this weekend

OP-logo-siteHave you heard of Opera Parallèle? It is a young San Francisco company bringing high level performances of contemporary operas to the Bay Area (at great prices, nonetheless).

According to their website, Opera Parallèle is a professional, nonprofit organization that develops and performs contemporary chamber operas that are internationally acclaimed but rarely performed in the region.

In recent years, the company has expanded, even in a down-turned economy, receiving fabulous reviews such as this notice for their 2011 production of Philip Glass’s Opera, Orphée. The San Francisco Chronicle had this to say about Opera Parallèle:

“a San Francisco company devoted to contemporary chamber opera, scored a full-on triumph over the weekend…ravishing and delicate, haunting and playful, somber and romantic, the production fused story, music and stagecraft into an engrossing evening of music theater.”

Its upcoming double bill performance of Bernstein’s Trouble in Tahiti (see trailer below) and Barber’s A Hand of Bridge will be performed in San Francisco this weekend: April 26-28.

Here to introduce Operatoonity readers to the couple that runs the artistic direction of the company are Artistic Director Nicole Paiement and her husband, Concept Designer/Stage Director Brian Staufenbiel.

photo of Nicole Paiement

Artistic Director Nicole Paiement

Welcome to Operatoonity, Nicole and BrianHow intimate is your venue?  We generally perform at YBCA, which has approximately 700 seats. However, for our upcoming Bernstein/Barber production this weekend, we are excited to be at ZSpace, which only holds around 225. This will bring the audience that much closer to the stage and the performers. The intimate story of both “Trouble in Tahiti” and “A Hand of Bridge” make this the perfect venue.

What excites you about contemporary chamber opera?  The subject matters of most chamber opera will have more of an intimate and direct story line. I am a curious conductor who enjoys the challenges of mounting new works that are either rarely done or even have never been performed. I love the idea of bringing opera into the 21st century and helping redefine the form.

So many things excite us. First, because the orchestration is not as large, singers can sing with an even wider spectrum of colors, without worrying about being heard. You can truly hear pianissimo moments.

A smaller orchestra greatly widens the venue possibility – thus bringing opera to a variety of spaces and audiences to many more venues to see contemporary chamber opera.

photo of brian stauffenbiel

BRIAN STAUFENBIEL
Resident Stage Director, Production Designer

How did you two find each other and decide to found Opera Parallèle? (Okay, that might be two questions.)  I met Brian the first year I moved to California. He sang in some of my performances as a tenor. We quickly realized that we had a similar positive energy and artistic dreams.  I first founded Ensemble Parallèle – which was a broader organization. We focused on contemporary music and collaborative work.

After a few years, I realized that we needed to focus on one area and that contemporary opera was the most attractive form. It combines contemporary music with the narrative form, an important aspect in today’s film and television society and also has endless collaborative possibilities with other art forms.

How do you decide what productions to present? How long is that process, and what does it entail?  We are constantly working on repertoire and have a five year plan that keeps being revised as needed. Repertoire is a key element to a successful company. As we look at scores, we think of many things. Certainly, the quality of the piece is crucial. We also try to diversify our musical selection to enlarge our audience base. This is why we will have ranged from Berg to Glass; Harbison to Golijov.

We think of collaborative possibilities in an opera. With the Golijov this year, we were able to collaborate with the SF Girl’s chorus and Flamenco dancers including choreographer La Tania.

We consider the venue. Many works are venue specific.

We also try to balance between new works and masterworks. Wozzeck in the new chamber reorchestration brought back to life a great masterpiece of the 20th century. Same for Harbison (we commissioned that reorchestration). Golijov is a more recent work and our commission of Gesualdo, Prince of Madness, which will receive a workshop reading this June, brings new work in the repertoire.

We think of American versus works from other countries and try to present a variety of composers. Next year we will do a French opera and an English opera.

We try to bring “premieres” to the area, since SF is such a curious city. Once we identify works, we have some many things to consider before finalizing the choices. Cost is certainly an important one. Number of musicians needed in the pit since there are few venues with sizable pits.

a photo from Harbison's Great Gatsby

Opera Parallèle presented John Harbison’s The Great Gatsby in 2012 | Photo by Rapt

What is the difference between contemporary opera and modern opera?  I think everyone has their own definition of this and I am not sure of the answer.  Contemporary comes from the latin root tempor – tempus, meaning something “of our time”–thus opera of “our time.”

Modern can have the sense that it departs from a more traditional style. Not all contemporary operas are modern, if you think of it this way. There are “modern” operas that are not necessarily contemporary. Wozzeck is a good example.

For me, contemporary opera has a broader possibility of embracing a variety of styles.

Are those who worship classic opera disposed to appreciate the contemporary works produced by Opera Parallèle?  Definitely. Contemporary opera is in many ways a continuation of classic opera. It was not created in a vacuum. Our productions serve the music and the artform as a whole and I think any lover of the arts would enjoy our production.

How did you select “Trouble in Tahiti”? Does it exude the same kind of middle-class dysfunctional ennui as Revolutionary Road? There are definitely similarities between Yates’ novel and Bernstein’s opera. Both speak of the hopeless emptiness of their repetitive lifestyle in suburbia. However, in the opera, there is a feeling of redemption at the end that we certainly do not get in Yates’ book.

We were looking for an opera that would balance our opera in February, Golijov’s Ainadamar.  We wanted something American that would embrace a completely different style that would work well at Z Space.

How did you discover “A Hand of Bridge”? What made you pair it with “Trouble in Tahiti”?  In Barber’s opera, two couples play a hand of bridge, during which each character has a short aria in which he or she expresses their dissatisfaction with life. They are obviously also not happily married. We have cast one of the couple as being Dinah and Sam of “Trouble in Tahiti.” So in this way, Barber’s opera becomes the prologue to a Hand of Bridge – and the epilogue since we will repeat it in the lobby at the end of the evening. The 10 minute opera is brilliantly composed on a libretto by Menotti.  All these wonderful artists from the mid-1950’s come together in one program.

You can definitely hear that the work is a precursor to “West Side Story”? What is it about the score that creates that aha moment with the more familiar work?  When Dinah sings her first aria – “I was standing in a garden,” we hear the great lyricism that Bernstein will later write in West Side Story.  The “train” music when Sam leaves the house to get to his office,  we recognize the great syncopated rhythmic style of Bernstein – so unique and powerful.

As promised, here is the promo video for “Trouble in Tahiti”:

YouTube Preview Image

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Filed under 21st Century Opera, chamber opera, contemporary opera, Interviews, North American Opera, opera milestones, Q&A

top ten posts on ‘operatoonity’ in 2012

Operatoonity's Top TenWhy did viewers stop in on this blog in 2012? What posts did they read most in the past year?

Would it surprise you to know of the nearly 111,000 visitors to this blog in 2012, that, far and away, most were seeking a definitive list of top classical singers in the world today? Divas, then divos?

Frankly, I am not in the least bit startled by this news.

There are so few definitive “talent” lists around. And I should know. I searched feverishly for such a list not too long ago. That’s why I compiled  mine –I couldn’t find any good/current list of opera singers myself.

Not surprisingly, people continue to chime in on who should and shouldn’t have made these lists.  I knew each was an imperfect instrument when I compiled it, and I honestly think it’s time to upgrade each one, since the best talents in the operasphere can change or fade in a matter of only years. We are talking about the most delicate and sometimes most frail of instruments–the human voice–after all.

Other top topics were top tenors, best operas, and the beloved composers Puccini and Mozart.

Here then, according to my site stats, are the titles of the most-viewed posts and their visit numbers in 2012:

Title Views
best opera singers in the world today – female 29,375
best opera singers in the world today – male 22,212
today’s top tenors 9,829
get with it, NYC, says M.C. Hammer-bee 1,469
on Carmen’s anniversary, we celebrate its arias 726
100 greatest operas . . . really? 686
don’t quote me . . . 650
Puccini’s best opera? 524
what makes a great tenor? 514
Mozart, the ultimate cross-trainer 464
contemporary opera? modern opera? define, please 464

 

How about you? Why did you stop in on “Operatoonity”? Did you find what you were looking for this year?

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Filed under 21st Century Opera, Baritones, Best of Operatoonity, blog stats, Classic Opera, Classical Composers, Modern opera, Mozart, opera lists, Opera Stats, sopranos, tenors

Jane Austen and opera

Jane Austen!

Now that I have your attention, let’s talk opera. I woke up in the middle of the night, asking myself whether anyone had written an opera based on one of Jane Austen’s books. Because I hadn’t heard of any while researching the opera world, I comforted myself that a Jane Austen opera was virgin territory and went back to sleep. Once I had my morning coffee in me and the fog of sleep lifted, I Googled Jane Austen opera…and guess what?

You guessed it.

Of course, there have been operas written about Jane Austen books, Pride and Prejudice mostly. A few years ago, a contemporary composer presented the first act of his opera Pride and Prejudice at the North Carolina School of the Arts.

Without much clicking, I found a chamber opera in Australia based on Pride and Prejudice. (In the  musical world, chamber always implies small and intimate. This opera had two characters in it.)

What started out as a bald-faced attempt to drive Internet traffic to my blog turned out to be  a legitimate post on Jane Austen and opera.

Of course, Mark Twain loathed both Jane Austen (he detested her characters without reserve) and opera (he’d prefer to be skinned–alive–presumably).

Maybe opera and Jane Austen have more in common than I ever imagined.

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Filed under 21st Century Opera, Terminology