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Opera Phila tells poignant tale of jazz in one word: Yardbird

Charlie Parker's Yardbird

The cast of Charlie Parker’s Yardbird presented by Opera Phila

Operatoonity.com review: Charlie Parker’s Yardbird, a world premiere co-commissioned and co-produced by Opera Philadelphia with Gotham Chamber Opera
Live performance: Sunday, June 14, 2015, 2:30 p.m.
The Perelman Theater, Philadelphia
Music: Daniel Schnyder
Libretto: Bridgette A. Wimberly
4.5 out of 5.0 stars

4.5strslg

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Tenor Lawrence Brownlee singing the title role Charlie Parker’s Yardbird | Photos courtesy of Opera Philadelphia

It is a rich and thrilling time in which to live when the world of opera boldly embraces the world of jazz. Virtuosos from one musical realm inspire virtuosity from another, specifically bebop or the style of jazz invented by Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie that employed lightning fast riffs and sophisticated chord structures.

Opera Philadelphia presented a moving homage to the legacy of Charlie Parker with a world premiere of the chamber opera Charlie Parker’s Yardbird. The premise intrigues. On the day of Parker’s death, March 12, 1955, he arrives at Birdland to write his final masterpiece. There he encounters significant figures from his past including his mother, his past wives, his heroin dealer, and even Dizzy Gillespie until his body is identified, and he passes over into the next realm.

In this reviewer’s humble opinion, this work represents where modern opera needs to go: embracing current and timely myths and legends rather than those tales that have been done and overdone by classical composers.

Though robust, Daniel Schnyder’s musical score didn’t embrace as many dimensions as Charlie Parker’s did. Yes, Parker defined bebop together with Dizzy Gillespie, but he also played standards better than any saxophonist of his generation. I was hoping for more diversity of sound, a bit more convention and less aberration, more light and dark throughout. However, Bridgette A. Wimberly’s libretto was poignant and honest–a stunning treatment.

In the scene called ” Calvary,” Parker’s mother Addie and first wife Rebecca sing a tender duet of loss, each echoing the other’s words:

Ain’t easy, it ain’t easy to be a mother, a wife to a strong black man
This land ain’t no place for a jazz bird, for a jazz bird
For a jazz bird like my man got dreams

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Tenor Lawrence Brownlee was ideally voiced for the role. Vocally, he’s a monster, to borrow a term from jazz referring to a musician with chops that simply don’t quit. While Charlie Parker became addicted to heroin through no fault of his own–he was recovering from a debilitating accident–he became a drug addict nonetheless. Brownlee is, well, somewhat of a boy scout. Or at least that’s how he comes off onstage. Perhaps he is wild and raucous offstage–who knows? Regardless, a heroin addict is a theatrical challenge for the wholesome-looking Brownlee to portray convincingly.

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Soprano Chrystal E. Williams as Charlie’s first wife Rebecca and soprano Angela Brown as Charlie’s mother Addie.

The women in this show were a tour de force. Malleable, versatile, and adaptive, they were more than believable in their roles as discarded women, ex-wives, and illicit lovers. Angela Brown was the loving, long-suffering mother, Addie Parker whose son’s downward spiral evoked audience empathy since that she tells him he has become mean, either from the drugs or the success. She knows she has a prodigy in Charlie and can only wring her hands at his self-destructive choices. She sang with beauty and despair at his wanton choices and was warmly rewarded for her performance at curtain call.

AVA grad Chrystal Williams has been delightful in every role I’ve been lucky enough to catch her in at AVA and Glimmerglass. She can take on any role with sensitivity and believability. She has a clear, powerful soprano voice and tremendous stage presence, and I can’t wait to see her in her next role.

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Soprano Angela Mortellaro as Parker’s third wife Doris.

All of Parker’s wives evidenced incomprehensible devotion to him, despite his rejection and infidelity. Angela Mortellaro as Doris Parker and Rachel Sterrenberg as his fourth wife Chan brightened the stage with each appearance. Each had soaring voices and loads of presence on stage. While they each must have loved Charlie for the same reasons, it was hard to believe he could have cheated on either of these desirable women if he’d been of sound mind.

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Bird dies in the hotel suite of wealthy jazz patroness Pannonica de Koenigswarter or “Nica,” who endures life-shattering censure and scorn because a black man died in her segregated hotel suite. This lovely heiress, sung by Tamara Mumford with elegance and compassion, helped the audience better appreciate how much sheer appeal and charisma that Charlie Bird Parker possessed.

Tamara Mumford as Bird's patroness Nica.

Tamara Mumford as Bird’s patroness Nica.

From “Powder Her Nose” to “Silent Night” to “Dark Sisters,” it is vitally important to have a company with Opera Philadelphia’s resources and polish introducing contemporary works to today’s operagoers. Someone I greatly respect once said that if today’s opera could combine the melody of the classic works with the relevance of contemporary story, they’d have the ideal marriage of qualities to move opera forward to new audiences in the 21st century. Keep the new work and the chamber operas coming, Opera Phila. You are doing a tremendous service to the art form. Operagoers are indebted to you for your willingness to take chances and advance opera in the new millennium.

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Opera Phila’s ‘Don Carlo’ oddly satisfying

Operatoonity.com review: Don Carlo presented by Opera Philadelphia
Composer: Giuseppi Verdi; text by Joseph Méry and Camille du Locle
Live performance: Sunday, April 26, 2015
The Academy of Music, Philadelphia
4-stars

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Opera Philadelphia’s Don Carlo |photos courtesy of Opera Philadelphia

The afternoon’s performance began with an announcement that role of Princess Eboli would be sung by mezzo-soprano Ekaterina Gubenova, who would warble from the wings while Michele DeYoung who suffered from bronchitis would act out the role only, lipsyncing throughout. One had to divide one’s attention three ways whenever Princess Eboli appeared–between the raked stage, the wings, and the supertitles.

The unveiling of an incomprehensible design concept followed–an octagonal backdrop that left me scratching my head because I didn’t understand how it related to story of the King of Spain marrying his son’s fiancée, a French princess, to end the war between France and Spain. The idea that one of the most powerful leaders of the Western world pined that the woman he stole from his son didn’t really love him may be a commonly romanticized Verdi sensibility but seemed ludicrous based on the actions of world leaders today.

Finally, at the beginning of the second half, an announcement was made that bass baritone Eric Owens, the show’s most luminous performer, was not feeling well and asked for the audience’s forbearance in the event his powerhouse aria wasn’t at its best.

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Bass-baritone Eric Owens as King Philip II | courtesy of Opera Philadelphia

While none of those items individually are deal breakers, they did lend themselves to an unusual experience collectively. The human voice may be the frailest of instruments–we all know that. Nonetheless, the audience is disappointed when it fails the performers in the show they are so expectant to see.

Dimitri Pittas as Don Carlo and Troy Cook as Rodrigo.

(L-r) Dimitri Pittas as Don Carlo and Troy Cook as Rodrigo.

As the lovelorn Don Carlo, New York tenor Dimitri Pittas was simply a dream. He looked the role and sung with unrelenting power and fluid grace. Singing the role of his former fiancée Elisabeth was soprano Leah Crocetto, who sang sweetly and precisely but was not ideally suited for the role physically as Don Carlo’s lover, coveted by men.

Leah Crocetto as Elisabeth De Valois

Leah Crocetto as Elisabeth De Valois

Ekaterina Gubanova

Ekaterina Gubanova

While no one would wish bronchitis on any performer, DeYoung’s illness did offer a first-time opportunitiy to hear Gubanova sing Princess Eboli. She recently performed the role at the Metropolitan Opera and was in top voice. She sings with temerity and a sultry black swan quality. I will certainly be looking for opportunities to see her perform in the near future. She was mesmerizing–merely singing opera in concert.

Baritone Troy Cook from Quakertown, Pennsylvania was ideally cast as the passionate Rodrigo who convinces Carlo to ask his father for governorship of Flanders, becomes King Philip’s pawn, and loses his life. He has a compelling presence on stage with a lyric baritone that is beautiful and powerful.

The biggest name on the bill was Metropolitan Opera star Eric Owens as King Philip. Despite the disclaimer that he wasn’t feeling well, his second-half aria where he laments that fact that Elisabeth never loved him was a showstopper. I have seen Owens perform several times, and if he could have sung that aria better than he did that afternoon, it would have been an operatic miracle. That being said, it does detract from one’s willing suspension of disbelief to be notified that he was ill. I was half expecting him to collapse on stage throughout because the aria is so physically and emotionally taxing.

As evil and selfish as he is, somehow King Philip doesn’t emerge from this story as the Numero Uno Baddie. That would be the The Grand Inquisitor sung with chilling menace by bass Morris Robinson.

Eric Owens as King Philip II and Morris Robinson as the Grand Inquistor

(L-r) Eric Owens as King Philip II and Morris Robinson as the Grand Inquistor

Yes, this opera does remind the audience that the reign of the Spanish Inquisition was one of the darkest periods in Western history. Not an easy feat. Consider all the other major contenders. However, did the production have to look so dark? The costumes varied from black to jet black, the set was dark and enigmatic throughout with dark atmospheric lighting, the storyline is relentlessly dark, and the overall effect was, well, oppressive. Sometimes dark becomes darker with the occasional infusion of light and lightness.

One such reprieve very early on was the Women’s Chorus singing as Elisabeth’s attendants. They were lovely to hear and see. Remarkable that the most oppressed sound and look light and airy in this opera and the oppressors dark and heavy.

Many elements made the show oddly satisfying, the Opera Philadelphia Orchestra notwithstanding. Conducted by Corrado Rovaris, the orchestra delivered one of the most consistently striking and admirable performances of the show.

This was an ambitious show, even for Opera Philadelphia. Often in partnership with other companies, in this case WNO and Minnesota Opera, they continue to offer important and challenging works and not just those that commonly appear in the repertoire. They deserve kudos for performing complex operas that aren’t always easy to enjoy. They are making their mark in the opera firmament by being brave and often upstart, demonstrating there’s room for more than one premier company on the East Coast.

 

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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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fresh and frothy ‘Barber’ kicks off Opera Phila’s 40th season

Operatoonity.com review: The Barber of Seville presented by Opera Philadelphia
Live performance: Sunday, September 28, 2014
The Academy of Music, Philadelphia, PA
Music: Gioachino Rossini
Text: Cesare Sterbini
4.5 stars

4.5strslg

 

 

The principals in Opera Phila's season opener delivered a real crowd-pleaser of a show on September 28

The principals in Opera Phila’s season opener delivered a zany crowd-pleaser of a show at the Academy of Music on September 28, 2014

Bravo! Bravo! Bravissimo! The planets must have been aligned (as were all the creative forces in play) over the Academy of Music on September 28, 2014 for Opera Philadelphia’s 40th season opening production The Barber of Seville.

What a wonderful romp! From the brisk and beautiful opening overture–from conception to execution–this was a frothy, foamy, and wholly hilarious show that made opera buffa as relevant and entertaining today as it was when it was written.

Credit the over-the-top direction by Michael Shell for the show’s overwhelming success. He envisioned a production as eye-opening as the one audiences experienced in Rossini’s day. Hence, we see carnival performers to dancing chickens to the lead tenor masquerading as a hippie-dippy music teacher. His entire creative team, including the whimsical set design by Shoko Kambara, carried out Shell’s vision to a tee.

The flavor of this Barber was rollicking, fresh, and fun. Director Shell credits Pedro Almodóvar for inspiring his treatment for this show. I suppose I am late to the Almodóvar party, but I do know the work of Almodóvar’s muse–Blake Edwards–and I guarantee you will recognize and appreciate the same absurd qualities of this show if you are a fan of the Pink Panther movies. This marked Shell’s directorial debut with Opera Phila, and I certainly hope it won’t be his last effort with Philly’s premier company.

The entire company was emotionally invested in pulling off this wacky ‘Barber’ from the moment that Figaro sung by baritone Jonathan Beyer rolled onto stage in a bright blue frock coat on a bicycle.

Jonathan Beyer cut a dashing figure as Figaro.

Jonathan Beyer cut a dashing figure as Figaro.

Beyer faces some daunting expectations playing one of classic opera’s signature roles and singing one of the most beloved and also challenging arias to kick off the show. He played a sturdy Figaro, but it was not a mind-blowing performance.  Clearly, he is not a Rossini baritone. And while the end result was solid, he seemed to be laboring very hard to achieve his sound. Since Figaro gets the last bow, you want to feel as though you loved that character the best. But in this production, Figaro was simply outsung, outplayed,  outperformed by Dr. Bartolo.

Dr. Bartolo?

Bass Kevin Burdette stole the show as Dr. Bartolo.

Bass Kevin Burdette stole the show as Dr. Bartolo.

There were many fine performances in this version of Barber, but bass Kevin Burdette as the ludicrously evil Dr. Bartolo absolutely stole the show–hands down.  I hardly recognized Burdette from his earlier star turn with Opera Philadelphia singing the loathsome Prophet in their stunning 2012 production of Dark Sisters. What a versatile talent Burdette is–as convincing in great comedic roles as he is in great dramatic ones! He is also obviously a human rubber band with the ability to twist his body into more convolutions than an unbaked pretzel all while seamlessly carrying off his vocals to great effect. He simply put the audience in stitches with each appearance.

Taylor Stanton sang the lovelorn Count Almaviva.

Taylor Stanton sang the lovelorn Count Almaviva.

Tenor Taylor Stayton as Count Almaviva was a great boon to the show’s success. His singing was also strong but not as effortless as Burdette’s.  However, his comic timing was spot on, particularly impersonating the psychedelic substitute music teacher.

Jennifer Holloway sang the role of Rosina.

Jennifer Holloway sang the role of Rosina.

As Rosina, apple of Count Almaviva’s eye, mezzo-soprano Jennifer Holloway was lovely to see and hear. In this zany production, Holloway reminded me of Marilyn in the old TV show The Munsters, in which everyone and everything around her is off-kilter, yet she has the grace and good looks to go with the flow and win everyone’s affection in the end. I would love to hear her in other roles. A very impressive performance!

Wayne Tigges turned in a hilarious Don Basilio.

Wayne Tigges turned in a hilarious Don Basilio.

As Rosina’s music teacher, bass-baritone Wayne Tigges delighted the audience with his rock-star aria delivered with bump, grind, and a fake microphone.  He proved a wonderful foil to soprano Katrina Thurman’s Berta, who took what might be considered a cameo or throwaway role and transformed it into a lustrous showcase of all her assets.

Katrina Thurman turned heads as the dishy Berta.

Katrina Thurman turned heads as the shapely Berta.

It was surprising to see how young many of the performers appeared in the program versus how they carried off older, more mature characters on stage with such aplomb. Credit must go to costume designer Amanda Seymour to wigs and make-up by David Zimmerman for the inspired platform they created for the performers to succeed.

Credit Opera Philadelphia conductor Corrado Rovaris for the glorious and controlled sound of the orchestra. The Barber of Seville is a long opera, and while the tempos were brisk, this is one opera that needs to keep moving.

In actuality, the production flew by. In no time at all, it seemed, everyone was on their feet at curtain call, rewarding the cast and conductor with a standing ovation for their efforts.

I am still hoping to see and hear a Figaro for the ages, which is why I gave this production 4.5 instead of 5 stars. But what a successful start to Opera Phila’s 40th season! I hope this augurs many more wonderful productions in 2014-15, for their 40th anniversary.

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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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