Tag Archives: Opera Philadelphia

@OperaPhila’s ‘Skin’ a Frosty Chiller

Operatoonity.com review: Written on Skin presented by Opera Philadelphia
Live performance: Sunday, February 11, 2:30 p.m.
The Academy of Music, Philadelphia
Music: George Benjamin
Libretto: Martin Crimp
4.0 out of 5.0 stars

 

 

“Love’s not a picture; love is an act,” sings Agnès (soprano Lauren Snouffer) to the Boy (countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo) as she offers herself to him in Opera Philadelphia’s Written on Skin. | photo by Kelly and Massa for Opera Philadelphia

Of all the East Coast opera houses that have premiered contemporary operas, Opera Philadelphia has introduced more than a few compelling, arresting, and culturally and socially profound works and co-productions into today’s canon. I’ve reviewed numerous of those operas, some of the most unforgettable being Cold Mountain (2016), Ainadamar (2014), A Coffin in Egypt  (2014), Silent Night (2013), and Dark Sisters (2012).

Their latest premiere, Written on Skin, is brave. The production elements are exquisite, ingeniously designed with a richly beautiful palette of  deep blues and burnished golds. The voices are world-class. But unlike some @OperaPhila shows that got under my skin, this Skin left me cold.

The design palette for Written on Skin intrigued while the tonal palette alienated. | photo by Kelly and Massa for Opera Philadelphia

The tale at its heart, pun entirely intended, is chilling. A powerful and cruel medieval plunderer and pillager learns his wife (who is no more than goods and chattel to him) is having a consuming love affair. He cuts out her young lover’s heart and feeds it to her. She then throws herself to her death.

“See … how I pause her mid-fall,” sings the Boy (countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo) as Agnès (soprano Lauren Snouffer) jumps from the balcony. | photo by Kelly and Massa for Opera Philadelphia

It’s a grisly story that makes for good theater and potentially great opera. However, many operatic devices are hardwired into the opera to estrange the reader from fully engaging with it: dissonant, haunting music that is both atonal and arrhythmic; characters referring to themselves in the third person in the narrative to distance themselves and the viewers from the story; a sardonic libretto. Why? I can only assume it’s to make the work less accessible and more artful and to get the viewer to work harder to appreciate and understand it. In a Reader’s Guide written by Dr. Dan Darigan on the style of  author Martin Crimp, which @OperaPhila supplied to reviewers, Darigan says, “Written on Skin is an opera that continues to make me think…my appreciation for this opera was not something that set in right away.”

The performances and the production elements are certainly worthy of appreciation—no—hearty accolades. In her @OperaPhila debut as Agnès, soprano Lauren Snouffer was luminous. She sang with a clear shimmering and silvery tone and embracing her role as a dispassionate young wife who awakens into her own skin when she has an affair with the Boy.

Agnès (soprano Lauren Snouffer) visits the workshop to learn “how a book is made.” | photo by Kelly and Massa for Opera Philadelphia

Countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo sang the Angel and the Boy, who becomes sexually entangled with the Protector’s (wealthy landowner) wife when he is hired to illustrate the Protector’s family history. Roth Costanzo is gloriously talented, investing himself in every role I’ve seen him conquer and is surely one of the finest countertenors singing professionally today. My only issue with his role is one not of his own making. As the Boy, Roth Costanzo enters into a sexual liaison with a married woman. The character name Boy is totally off-putting in this “woke” age. This opera is less than 10 years old and premiered in the U.S. in the throes of the “Me, Too” movement. The implications of a Boy entering into an affair with a grown woman and then having his heart cut out by her murderous husband honestly made my skin crawl.

The Boy (countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo) in Written on Skin | photo by Kelly and Massa for Opera Philadelphia

Naming a lead character the Protector is the greatest irony of this piece. The libretto reveals that the Protector is sacking villages, impaling babies, cutting the hearts out of young men. He places inhuman strictures on his wife as observed from lines such as “No pure woman asks for a kiss. No clean woman asks to be touched,” and then he tells his wife she is “a child.” A child he married and is made to eat her lover’s heart. Mark Stone has a serviceable and sturdy baritone which he pours into his alternately self-aggrandizing, menacing, and murderous character—the sheer embodiment of toxic masculinity. Overall an outstanding performance in a loathsome role.

The Protector (baritone Mark Stone) is “addicted to purity and violence.” | photo by Kelly and Massa for Opera Philadelphia

Only two other roles need mentioned: Mezzo-soprano Krisztina Szabó and tenor Alasdair Kent. Like Roth Costanzo, they each sang two roles, fluidly moving between the essential characters of Marie and John and the ironic Angels, who function like a Greek chorus, commenting on the action rather than advancing it. Each delivered striking turns and earning their wings, especially as the Angels, who were more demons than do-gooders.

John (tenor Alasdair Kent), Marie (mezzo-soprano Krisztina Szabó), and the Boy (countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo) in Written on Skin. | photo by Kelly and Massa

The production was beautifully conceived and executed as more futuristic than literal. At one point, the illuminated square pages of the book are writ large on  similarly shaped set pieces to suggest the Protector’s story has grown so large as to consume their lives—a pure dead brilliant device. The lighting, the set, the direction, the costumes yielded a seamless integration of effects to haunt and to terrorize.

Agnès (soprano Lauren Snouffer) confronts the Boy (countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo). | photo by Kelly and Massa for Opera Philadelphia

Before writing this review, I poured through a copy of the libretto, which is artfully crafted. It  dares and arrests and challenges in the way one expects from great works and improves upon more careful review. My issues are that the foundational elements have made it nearly impossible to enjoy and virtually inaccessible. By contrast, composer Stephen Schwartz created an opera based on another grisly tale Séance on a Wet Afternoon (my review here), which New York City Opera brought to the East Coast in 2011. The New York cognoscenti dismissed the production for its accessibility. Unlike this production, Séance  never tried so hard to be art and offered a much more fulfilling theatrical experience.

I am not “the woman” declares Agnès (soprano Lauren Snouffer) to the Boy (countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo). “My name is Agnès.

I applaud Opera Phila for their derring-do, to bring this kind of work to the mainstage and for an exquisite piece in terms of production values. It’s not a show, however, that made me comfortable in my own skin. They can and have produced works that aren’t merely droll and accessible nor dripping with alienation.

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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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Filed under Bel canto opera, Classic Opera, Reviews, seldom heard works, sopranos

Opera Phila’s ‘Cold Mountain’ a Scorching Success

Operatoonity.com review: presented by Opera Philadelphia (the sixth opera in their American Repertoire Program)
Live performance: Sunday, February 14, 2:30 p.m.
The Academy of Music, Philadelphia
Music: Jennifer Higdon
Libretto: Gene Scheer
5.0 out of 5.0 stars

five stars

 

 

Opera Phila's five-star production of "Cold Mountain"

Opera Phila’s five-star production of COLD MOUNTAIN

I am the luckiest reviewer in the world. I was privileged to experience an incredibly beautiful and poignant production of COLD MOUNTAIN, a new contemporary opera presented by Opera Philadelphia this past Valentine’s Day. How fitting. I left my heart in the Academy of Music that afternoon with tears staining my cheeks and my unabashed affection for this Pennsylvania company filling me with pride on my ride home to Lancaster.

Wait a minute. Aren’t critics supposed to criticize? The more critical it is, the better the review, right? My mission with Opera Philadelphia is different from many reviewers’, as I see it. It’s not to show how learned and accomplished I am. It’s not to display my facility with language. My task here is to use this digital bully pulpit to share with the world, and I do mean the world thanks to the Internet, the extraordinary arts opportunities Opera Philadelphia is bringing to the East Coast of the United States.

Full disclosure: I adore Opera Philadelphia’s American Repertoire Program. I’ve seen every production since they launched this initiative in 2011, beginning with DARK SISTERS, simply an excellent chamber opera. The American Repertoire Program points to the future of opera in America–contemporary, original operas not simply silly regietheater representations of classic operas that some companies trot out for audiences.

COLD MOUNTAIN was spectacular. And my expectations were sky-high. Charles Frazier’s novel Cold Mountain is my favorite contemporary book. I snuffled and wept through an entire box of tissues devouring it. When Opera Philadelphia announced this production, I almost couldn’t wait for February. And who among us looks forward to February? Opera Phila offered a singularly rewarding opera experience. So good that I had to find new five-star art to post for this show.

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Jarrett Ott as Inman and Isabel Leonard as Ada in COLD MOUNTAIN

The stage was set was fully visible upon entering the theatre–ramshackle boards in such disarray I immediately conjured media images of the World Trade Center after 9-11. Foreboding, devastation, and senseless loss crept into this  viewer’s soul before the orchestra has struck a single note of Jennifer Higdon’s extraordinary work.

Higdon tackled a novel of depth and scope and successfully translated it into a contemporary opera. I was fortunate to receive a copy of the education program that Opera Phila shares with school students and reading it brought Higdon’s score alive anew. I was reminded of all the distinctive elements in her score to evoke time and place–fiddle music, knee-slapping percussionists, the sounds of twinkling stars made with knitting needles, and strains of mountain music throughout. The opera opens with the sinister leader of the Home Guard singing a folk tune from the era, and the effect was chilling.

Because I am such a fan of the novel, high expectations loomed for Gene Scheer’s libretto, too. The language Scheer put to the aria Metal Age will rip out your spleen:

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“Thousands and thousands in bright blue, shiny, factory made uniforms. We shot them and loaded. Shot them and loaded. For five hours, thousands and thousands of men…and there in the middle of it, a drummer boy crying, bleeding, dying…He shot me in the neck. The metal age has come.”
–Inman’s aria “The Metal Age.”

If you don’t know the story, it’s nearly a contemporary telling of Homer’s Odyssey with a little Les Miserables thrown in for more an extra heaping helping of pathos. W.P. Inman (Odysseus) is a Civil War deserter struggling to return home to Cold Mountain see Ada Monroe (Penelope), the remembrance of whom is the only thing keeping him alive despite severe privation and dogged persecution by Teague (Javert), the leader of the crew hunting down deserters like stray dogs.

As Inman, baritone Jarrett Ott, who stepped in for Nathan Gunn, effected the most thoroughly broken man without the affect of melodrama. Since I admit to having fangirled Gunn in previous reviews, I thought I’d  be disappointed with Ott, but was very happily surprised with his interpretation. He fully inhabited Inman’s character while singing the role with power and polish.

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Jarrett Ott as W.P. Inman

Mezzo-soprano Isabel Leonard was luminous as Ada. She is the consummate performer–a star in every aspect. Beautiful to hear and see, she made her Opera Phila debut in this show. I predict Philadelphia was treated to a performance of one whose star will quickly rise even higher very soon. Brava, Miss Leonard.  You were grace, elegance, talent, and depth personified in this production. Would she have shone so brightly opposite Gunn? One hardly cared after a point.

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W.P. Inman ( Jarrett Ott) recalls a happier time with Ada Monroe (Isabel Leonard) before the Civil War.

Ruby Thewes, Ada’s friend and partner, is a delicious role in the novel but a difficult one to score and to sing. Ruby is as down-home and prickly as Ada is refined and noble. Mezzo-soprano Cecelia Hall did a serviceable job in the role. Ruby’s character can be likened to nails scraping a chalkboard. While grit makes for an interesting spoken role, it can be overwhelming for a performer to convey in song and for the audience to hear. By necessity, Ruby lost some of pluck going from the page to a musical score, which is the show’s only real shortcoming.

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Ruby (Cecelia Hall) encounters her estranged father Stobrod Thewes (Kevin Burdette), who has also deserted the war

Tenor Jay Hunter Morris’ star power crackled as the evil leader of the Home Guard Teague, the Javert-inspired character. Yes, in this opera, the tenor is the bad guy, and the the baritone gets the girl. Hunter Morris was so masterfully evil, so convincing as the consummate Confederate baddie that he was soundly booed at curtain call. I smiled inwardly remembering this “baddie”performing a darling lullaby in cabaret at the Glimmerglass Festival’s Gentleman’s Night Out only a summer ago, accompanying himself on his guitar. He was the picture of haunting perfection in this production.

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Teague ( Jay Hunter Morris) uses Javert-like tactics in hunting down Confederate deserters.

I am such a fan of bass Kevin Burdette, who is a chameleon of a performer and an extraordinary opera singer (and I don’t really like basses–truth be told.) I have seen him be hilarious and also gut-wrenchingly despicable, depending on the role. I wanted his part to be larger as Ruby’s father Stobrod. But the opera is the proper length at two and a half hours with one intermission, so that is merely self-indulgent desire on my part.

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Stobrod Thewes (Kevin Burdette) and Ada Monroe (Isabel Leonard)

This tale of Inman–a quiet, private hero who has witnessed a depth of brutality no decent person should ever experience, who is redeemed only by Ada’s love–was a heroic effort for which all involved deserve highest praise. The orchestra under Corrado Rovaris,  the sweeping direction of Leonard Foglia, the ingenious completely functional dysfunctional set design by Robert Brill, lighting design by Brian Nason, and, of course, all the talented performers in the Opera Philadelphia Chorus turning in stunning cameos also made this production the shimmering, albeit soul-scorching, production it was.

I am deeply grateful for your artistic endeavors, Opera Philadelphia. I tried to choke back my tears during curtain call but they would not stop. The City of Brotherly Love has a treasure in this company.

A special Operatoonity.com shout-out to my press contact Frank Luzi, always a pleasure to work with, whose children were darling in the show.

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Filed under 21st Century Opera, contemporary opera, favorites, Live opera performance, Modern opera, North American Opera, opera and fiction, opera firsts, opera milestones, PA, Premieres, Regional opera

Viva, Verdi! Viva, Violetta!

Operatoonity.com review: La traviata presented by Opera Philadelphia
Live performance: Sunday, October 4, 2015, 2:30 p.m.
The Academy of Music, Philadelphia
Music: Giuseppi Verdi
Libretto: Francesco Maria Piave
4.5 out of 5.0 stars

4.5strslg

 

 

Opera Phila's La Traviata

Violetta (Lisette Oropesa) sings the Brindisi in Act I of Verdi’s La traviata |Photos by Kelly & Massa

While La traviata is consistently one of the most performed operas in the world, it is also universally ranked as one of the greatest operas ever written. The story may be sheer melodrama, but the clarity of the storyline compared to other Verdi operas is refreshingly linear. The music is refined and elegant throughout. Opera Philadelphia deserves an ovation for offering a refreshing production of La traviata with a level of refinement and elegance to complement the virtues of Verdi’s beloved score.

Credit must go to Director Paul Curran for the show’s winning sensibility. He chose to set the opera in Paris during the 1950s, a thoughtful choice that he and his team executed with class and precision, from the glorious set featuring a sweeping staircase to the beautiful costuming and technical direction. In a Q&A, Curran says that the moral climate of the 1950s, when sex scandals actually mattered, hearkens back to the era in which La traviata premiered. Curran’s resetting worked so well and was so meticulously rendered that even traditionalists hoping to see a recreation of the 18th century could not have objected. The 1950s were characterized by a preoccupation with propriety regarding appearance and appearances that it was common to be disingenuous at one’s core. For instance, even the tuxedos couldn’t mask the proclivities which drew these well-clad Parisian men to a party in the home of a high-class prostitute.

Doctor Grenville (Andrew Bogard), the Marchese (Jarrett Ott) and Flora (Katherine Pracht) in the Act I party scene from Verdi’s La traviata

Doctor Grenville (Andrew Bogard), the Marchese (Jarrett Ott) and Flora (Katherine Pracht) in the Act I party scene from Verdi’s La traviata

However, even a La traviata, however lovely, can’t succeed without the ideal Violetta.

Seeing La traviata with the perfect Violetta has not been a common experience for me. Viva, Opera Philadelphia, for casting American soprano Lisette Oropesa to portray the most renowned fallen woman in the contemporary opera repertoire. What a triumph she was! Oropesa was as refined and elegant as the opera she was tasked to sing. Violetta is, after all, a courtesan–not a vestal virgin. So the sensuality Oropesa brought to “The Brindisi” and to the character throughout Act I was spot on. Alfredo falls in love with her at first sight, so Violetta must be lovely but also a little wild, not merely coquettish.

Lisette Oropesa was a tour de force as Violetta

Lisette Oropesa was a tour de force as Violetta

Yet, she can’t just be a fine actress. She must be a coloratura soprano whose vocal gifts can effortlessly push the limits of any soprano’s range. Oropesa took a well-deserved solo bow for a tour de force performance at the conclusion of the opera that brought the audience to its feet. Viva, Violetta.

At Flora’s ball, Violetta (Lisette Oropesa) is back on the arm of the Baron (Daniel Mobbs)

At Flora’s ball, Violetta (Lisette Oropesa) is back on the arm of the Baron (Daniel Mobbs)

Vocally, Oropesa was a star but not the only star. As Germont, Pennsylvania baritone Stephen Powell was, in a word, extraordinary. He, too, received a wildly enthusiastic ovation at curtain call. Germont might be easy to dislike because he destroys the relationship between Alfredo and Violetta, but Powell’s Di Provenza il mar was heartfelt and beautiful.

Alfredo’s father, Giorgio Germont (Stephen Powell) pleads with Violetta (Lisette Oropesa) to end her relationship with Alfredo for the good of his family.

Alfredo’s father, Giorgio Germont (Stephen Powell) pleads with Violetta (Lisette Oropesa) to end her relationship with Alfredo for the good of his family.

We nearly forgot the hypocrisy Germont displays showing up as a guest Flora’s “raunchy” ball. Only a gifted performer can convince the audience that Germont is genuinely remorseful for separating Violetta from his son after learning Violetta is dying. Powell is that consummate performer.

Regrettably, tenor Alex Shrader’s Alfredo was overshadowed by these two supernovas. Though he did a servicable job with role, he didn’t have much stage presence compared to Oropesa and Powell. His voice seemed taxed and muddy. He even cracked a few times rather than reaching the rafters.

Alek Shrader stars as Alfredo Germont in Opera Philadelphia new production of Verdi’s La traviata

Alek Shrader stars as Alfredo Germont in Opera Philadelphia new production of Verdi’s La traviata

The Philadephia Opera Orchestra conducted by Corrado Rovaris and the Chorus under chorus master Elizabeth Braden sounded the best I’ve ever heard them in the last several years. Rovaris clearly loved the score and conveyed that adoration to his musicians. And though the Philadelphia Opera Chorus didn’t take a bow because the set contracted as Violetta’s world became smaller and there was simply no room to accommodate more than the principals for curtain call, they deserved a bow.

Alfredo (Alek Shrader) returns to the bedside of Violetta (Lisette Oropesa) as she is dying of consumption

Alfredo (Alek Shrader) returns to the bedside of Violetta (Lisette Oropesa) as she is dying of consumption

This reviewer never thought she would be grateful to Opera Philadelphia for staging (yet) another production of La Traviata.  I stand corrected. Never say never.

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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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