Tag Archives: Poulenc

Haunting #TheCell Hits Philly for Nat’l Opera Week; Opera Upper West Not Phoning It In

the-cell

A special seasonal prediction from the all-knowing and all-seeing Mme. Operatoonity:

Listen to me, darlings. Your favorite haunts for Halloween weekend are going to be the Ruba Club in downtown Philly and the Kevin D. Marlo Little Theatre at Harcum College in Bryn Mawr because of a powerful double bill of immersive opera theatre, courtesy of Opera Upper West.

The New York based company announces three Philly-area performances of #TheCell, a contemporary pairing of Menotti’s The Telephone and Poulenc’s La voix humaine in celebration of National Opera Week.

Thematically, the work combines two amazingly complementary sides of dramatically different pieces featuring young lovers whose passions are obscured in the technology that binds them–the dreaded cell phone–in one clever and often haunting masterwork. Though both pieces revolve around a mobile device, I promise you that this talented and spirited young company is definitely not phoning it in.

The chamber opera runs Friday, October 28 at 8pm at the Ruba Club (416 Green Street, Philadelphia 19123) and on Saturday, October 29, and Sunday, October 30 at the Kevin D. Marlo Little Theatre at Harcum College (750 Montgomery Avenue, Bryn Mawr, PA 19010).

The production stars Rachel Sigman as Elle, Meghan Mae Curry as Lucy, and Matthew Lulofs as Ben and is directed by Alexandra Fees, artistic director of Opera Upper West, who promises that operagoers will never hear their phones ring the same again after experiencing this work.

Rachel Sigman sings Elle in Poulenc's La voix humaine

Rachel Sigman sings Elle in Poulenc’s La voix humaine

The New York Times has lauded the work as a “A captivating experience…almost voyeuristic,” and by New York Classical Review as “beautifully crafted, and troubling to watch.”

Meghan Mae Curry as Lucy and Matthew Lulofs as Ben in Menotti's The Telephone

Meghan Mae Curry as Lucy and Matthew Lulofs as
Ben in Menotti’s The Telephone

I stopped in on a run-through yesterday at Harcum College. #TheCell augurs to be perfect Halloween weekend fare because its powerful themes, shared in such an intimate setting, will haunt you–that’s the trick part. The performances will delight you–and that’s the treat.

Alexandra Fees took time out of her busy schedule to answer a few questions about #TheCell for Operatoonity readers.

How did you decide to combine these two pieces in a single bill?
The Telephone and La voix humaine feature strong female leads obsessively immersed in their phones to gain connections that have already been lost. The two operas of 30 minutes each are musically and dramatically opposite: The Telephone (Menotti) is a fresh and hilarious farce, revealing a snapshot of modern relationships as Ben tries to propose to Lucy who can’t stop texting. La voix humaine (Poulenc) is an exposed and sensual drama in which a woman is stuck in a murderous room on the phone with her ex-lover. Thematically, however, these two pieces intertwine as young lovers attempt to bypass the technology that isolates them.

As Isaac Mizrahi, honorary chairman of National Opera Week, said of social media: “The greatest parts of our civilization are being tested.” Our cell phones simultaneously connect and isolate us. Rachel Sigman, starring in La voix humaine, calls phones our “modern monsters”: Phones carry our secrets. Phones are with us at all times. Phones create intense anxiety at the thought of their death. Phones, as in #TheCell, create multiple levels of truth at any moment, separating the voice from the body — what is said from what is meant. A person can be anywhere and convince you they are somewhere else.

The compositions of Menotti and Poulenc, at one time dramatized, now seem eerily prophetic and on target in today’s world.  This work is especially appropriate at Halloween, where we come face-to-face with our monsters that are typically overlooked.

Where did this show premiere and when?
This show premiered this summer at Cafe Tallulah’s underground cocktail lounge for the inaugural NY Opera Fest hosted by NY Opera Alliance, a consortium of independent opera companies in New York.

How did you choose Philadelphia for a location for this production?
At the production’s conception, we were looking to give more opportunities to emerging singers, especially women, by performing the chamber opera with several different casts and observing how the show would change based upon the actors in each role.  The Philadelphia cast features Rachel Sigman as Elle, Meghan Mae Curry as Lucy, Matthew Lulofs as Ben, and is accompanied by Kat Bowman.

We are thrilled to be hosted by two great venues: Ruba Club (Oct 28) is a historic Russian Club in downtown Philadelphia with a vintage cabaret space and cocktail bar. At Friday night’s kickoff, we will have an after party with drinks, dancing and billiards! The Kevin D. Marlo Little Theatre (Oct 29-30) at Harcum College is an intimate space in the heart of Bryn Mawr. Holding a rich history of experimental theatre, the facility was recently restored in honor of Kevin D. Marlo, a passionate actor who was killed during the September 11th attack on the World Trade Center.

How was Opera Upper West founded?
Opera Upper West was founded by myself (Alexandra Fees) and Aine Hakamatsuka, two New York based singers, to explore immersive opera as authentic drama rooted in the human experience. The first season featured The Marriage of Figaro as a real-time wedding in which audience members were the guests, complete with champagne toast, wedding cake, and throwing of the bouquet.

Can you characterize Opera Upper West’s niche?
Opera Upper West draws people who are looking for unique entertainment and social experiences, who want to explore something new, and who are interested in experiencing music theatre (opera) for the first time. For those who are seasoned operaphiles, our events are an opportunity to breathe in the musical drama from up close.

What are your future plans for the company? Short-term? Long-term?
Opera Upper West invests in educating emerging singers in a new approach to acting in opera, beginning with understanding the human experience and applying that understanding to the roles we play onstage. In the future, we would love to set up sister-boutique companies throughout the United States so that Americans have the opportunity to feel ownership over the art form and can look forward to experiencing chamber opera theatre as a social event.

Is there a role for chamber opera (a more intimate opera experience) the way to attract more millennial operagoers?
Creating a social event within a chamber opera, especially one concerning technology and its ironic ability to break down lines of connection, is a riveting experience for anyone involved in these digital platforms. We guarantee that you will never hear your phone ring the same way again.

Anything else you want to tell me about this show or yourselves?
Tickets are $35 General Admission and $45 VIP Premium Seating and can be reserved at www.OperaUpperWest.Eventbrite.com. Cash Bar available at Ruba Club, and Halloween after-party included every night.

For more information, please contact
Alexandra Fees, Artistic Director
operaupperwest@gmail.com
(256) 682-9912

 

 

 

 

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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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