Thursday, August 25, 2011

Hit or Miss, Part Tre

One would have to call the revival of Paul Curran’s production of La Bohème part hit and part miss. I recall enjoying the 2007 incarnation a lot more, possibly due to better casting or possibly to the freshness of the concept. In the past four years, I have seen several productions of this opera updated to the early 20th Century, and I can only ask myself WHY? Henri Murger wrote his autobiographical Scènes de la vie de Bohème in 1848 about his impoverished youth, and meant the story to occur in 1830. An updating by the New York City Opera used a WWI setting to illustrate a conception of the story as one of lost innocence; they had something new to say and said it rather well. In the case of the SFO production, updating the story adds nothing in terms of relevance. In this production, Musetta is dressed in Poiret (costume design by Kevin Knight) while Mimi is wearing drab attire from a prior period, thus illustrating Musetta’s success in social climbing and acquiring financial goodies from wealthy admirers.

The hit is, of course, Puccini’s music, conducted by Leonardo Vordoni with lots of “garlic”. The vocal interpretations were adequate but there were no goosebumps. The direction missed several opportunities to translate Puccini’s precious moments into stage business. Rodolfo (sung by David Lomeli) wipes Mimi’s face with a rag where Puccini’s music clearly indicates water splashing on her face. Puccini’s music tells us when the fire in the old stove blazes up momentarily and then dies; the stage direction and lighting (Rick Fisher) ignored this. In Act III the characters sing about the snow and the cold but no snowflakes were to be seen.

Mimi was sung by Ana Maria Martinez, Musetta by Heidi Stober, Marcello by Corey McKern. Even Colline’s fourth act elegy to his overcoat, sung by Christian Van Horn, failed to touch my heart. Markus Beam replaced Keith Phares as Schaunard. It should have been funnier when he tells his hilarious story about giving poisoned parsley (parsenic?) to his employer’s parrot while his starving roommates focused only on the food he has brought. I attribute the lack of excitement in this evening to a lack of good direction. Sorry to say this but our favorite “oldies but goodies “ require the same attention to detail as the glamorous new productions. Try harder Santa Fe!

© meche kroop for The Opera Insider

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Hit or Miss, Part deux

So Faust was a hit. What about the miss? I regret to report that Vivaldi’s “Griselda” was a disaster. Never fond of Peter Sellars’ bad boy approach to opera, I still had no trouble believing what I overheard--that he accepted this commission from SFO with a great deal of reluctance, having called it “the worst opera ever written”, and only because he wanted to spend the summer in Santa Fe. There is nothing wrong with Vivaldi’s music as conducted by Grant Gershon whose balletic hands were far more interesting than anything happening on stage. Sadly, the arias are very long and very repetitive and were only brought to life through the stellar singing of mezzo-soprano Isabel Leonard, soprano Amanda Majeski’s brilliant coloratura (in a pants role !), the superb counter-tenors David Daniels and Yuri Minenki (who did amazing things by way of fioratura) and some nice legato phrases by Paul Groves who sounded a bit frayed on top as he assayed a thankless role. Meredith Arwady has a huge contralto that thrills and an equally huge body that made the ardent love protestations of her suitor a laughing matter. As a matter of fact, so much that transpired onstage produced titters and giggles which seemed to provide the long-suffering audience some relief from tedium.

The source for Carlo Goldoni’s libretto was the final tale of Boccaccio’s “Decameron”; it may have excited the pilgrims escaping from plague-ridden Venice but it does nothing for a 21st c. audience, dealing as it does with the wife of Gualtiero, King of Tessaglia, who subjects his loyal wife to about 16 years of abuse and rejection before taking her back; I kept thinking of Shakespeare’s “The Winter’s Tale”. Why was this dead opera resurrected? Why was so much talent wasted? Just because it had not had a major production in the US? Just to allow the so-called artist Gronk the right to install his eye-assaulting gronky painted backdrops? The costume designer Dunya Ramicova saw fit to dress the beautiful Ms. Leonard like a third-world prom queen and the Queen’s unwelcome suitor as a hip-hopster in a pork-pie hat. Isabel’s suitor and his brother made appearances in suits of blueberry and kiwi hue.

The direction was, in every instance, embarrassing. Ms. Leonard was made to grovel on the floor with no motivation; indeed, none of the stage business was motivated by the dialogue or situation or even the music. Automatic weapons, pistols and microphones were ubiquitous. One could almost believe that Mr. Sellars wanted to express his disdain for this “worst of all operas” by trashing it. Enough of Regietheater already! It’s time to respect music and story.

I hope that Mr. Mackay has chosen better for the 2012 season. There are so many deserving and underproduced operas from the past 300 years that could be given thoughtful productions and thereby win friends instead of enemies for the world of opera. At the final moment of the opera, poor Meredith Arwady, dressed like a janitor and pushing a broom, having learned that her husband is taking her back, stands there with a puzzled expression on her face. I saw the same expression on the faces of the departing audience.
© meche kroop for The Opera Insider

Hit or Miss

The most desirable opera-going venue in the U.S. --thanks to the fragrant mountain air and cool breezes--sometimes gets things right and sometimes wrong. What could be better than an imaginative production of Faust by Stephen Lawless, conducted by Frederic Chaslin with true Gallic spirit and thrillingly sung by a young attractive cast? This French retelling of the German myth, based on a play “Faust et Marguerite” by Michel Carre which was in turn based on Goethe’s “Faust”, deals with issues to which we, as a modern audience, can still relate: the issues of desire versus morality, the corruption of innocence, cynicism toward religion, the despair of an unfulfilling llife and obsession with the road not taken. For this libretto by Carre and Jules Barbier, Faust composed melodies of incomparable beauty. Indeed, I found myself humming them even after attending several more operas!

A completely committed performance of the role of Marguerite was given by young soprano Ailyn Perez, a 2006 George London Award winner who will be giving a recital at the Morgan Library on October 16th (afficionados take note); her bright clear soprano fulfilled every vocal demand of the role and her acting was so convincing that she seemed not to be acting at all. Dimitri Pittas did justice to the role of Faust and was especially convincing as the elderly doctor railing against god in Act I. Mark S. Doss made a most charming and rascally Mephistopheles. Valentin was sung by Christopher Magiera and Siebel by Jennifer Holloway. Jamie Barton sang at her customary skillful level but was poorly directed as Marthe. There was just something wrong about her stealing Marguerite’s jewels and her scenes with Mephistopheles were made tasteless by his very visible show of disgust at romancing her.

There were other directorial excesses. Updating the story to the late 19th c. was not a problem and afforded ample opportunities for creative expression. The Kermesse scene was a carnival with townspeople (dressed very much like Lucia de Lammermoor at the Met) enjoying circus performers , a side show, and an onstage ferris wheel. The Walpurgisnacht ballet was performed by a sextet of opera heroines (Salome, Helen of Troy, Manon, Carmen, Cleopatra, and Delilah) emerging from tableaux vivant to dance Gounod’s gorgeous melodies. However, Mephistopheles restoring Faust’s youth with a giant hypodermic needle and a face transplant seemed over the top, as did Faust giving Marguerite an entire bijouterie in place of a cask of jewels, especially when the clumsy bijouterie kept getting stuck while being wheeled onstage. Mephistopheles’ appearance causes townspeople to go into spasms on the ground. It is only the strength of Gounod’s melodies that prevent these unnecessary flourishes from overwhelming the music.

So the creativity props given to Stephen Lawless’ direction, and Benoit Dugardyn’s sets are somewhat undermined by their not knowing when to stop. Costume design by Sue Wilmington was apt and colorful. On the whole, this was a splendid night at the opera and can be considered a true hit. Viva Gounod!
© meche kroop for The Opera Insider

Monday, August 22, 2011

The Art of Dell'Arte

It is a difficult task for young opera singers to make the transition to the professional stage and I heartily applaud Dell’Arte Opera Ensemble for giving them intensive coaching in stagecraft, body movement, languages, diction and mime and then giving them the opportunity to perform in fully staged productions. Scenery and costumes are kept to a minimum to focus attention on the performers themselves. For the past two weekends, New Yorkers were privileged to hear and see two excellent productions in an intimate setting, with four performances of each. This means that four different casts were trained, collectively and individually.

I have seen the dazzling production of Ariadne auf Naxos at the Met and I have seen the modest one presented at the East Thirteenth Street Theatre; the latter, surprisingly, was more delightful. The accomplished conducting by Christopher Fecteau of his own orchestration brought out every nuance in the Strauss score. There were interesting melodies and unusual harmonies that had gone unnoticed until then, so distracted was I at the Met by directorial and costuming excess. Maestro Fecteau’s orchestration included violin, viola, cello, bass, keyboard, French horn, trumpet, clarinet, oboe, bassoon and flute. And what a full, rich sound they made, without a trace of muddiness.
The singers all did justice to their roles and acted them convincingly; the strong directorial hand of Benjamin Spierman was evident. The libretto by Hugo von Hoffmansthal equally skewers inflated artistic egos and benighted bourgeois taste, as evidenced by the bizarre demand of the (probably parvenu) host who wants to combine the high art of opera with the low art of musical comedy in order to get the fireworks started on time. Everyone thinks only of his/herself. The stars of the opera serie have tantrums that are recognizable and therefore hilarious.The shenanigans of the musical comedy troupe are endearing to everyone but the stars of the opera serie who are wildly insulted. The young composer is crushed by the trashing of his work, but mollified by the attentions of the too-seductive-by-half soubrette of the comedy troupe.

Lovely harmonies were sung by Naiad, Dryade and Echo. The Major Domo, a speaking role performed by Eric Kramer drew major laughs with his over-the-top German rigidity. I will decline to single out any of the singers since I only saw one cast. Suffice it to say that there was a true ensemble feel which can only be created by a long period of rehearsal and much labor.

Dell’Arte also presented Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte on alternate nights. Maestro Fecteau again did the orchestration, this time without violin and viola but with paired horns and clarinets; this suited the work perfectly. For this work, the conductor was Samuel McCoy and the stage director was Susan Gonzalez who kept the action moving along with some clever English dialogue which she herself wrote. It managed to walk a fine line--never archaic and never egregiously hip. Again, fine harmonizing was heard by the Three Ladies who fought over the unconscious Prince Tamino and by the Three Boys (sung by women) who show up to prevent Pamina from stabbing herself and to prevent Papageno from hanging himself. Emanuel Schikaneder certainly emphasized the numeral three! The work was composed as a Singspiel and clearly relates to Mozart’s and Schikaneder’s interest in Masonic rituals.

At times, the story tends to drag and can be insulting to women. Several lines state that a woman without a man should not be a ruler, that a woman needs to rely on a man, that women’s speech will lead a man astray, and so forth. We are free to tune out that dated nonsense and to glory in Mozart’s magical music.

© meche kroop for The Opera Insider

Wednesday, August 17, 2011


All great meals begin with an amuse-bouche; and, so I decided, a week of opera in Santa Fe should begin with an amuse-oreille, perhaps an afternoon vocal recital. I miscalculated. The planned amuse-oreille was a recital by the brilliant bass-baritone Eric Owens presented by the Santa Fe Concert Association which has been delighting natives and visitors to Santa Fe with glorious concerts for 75 years. This was their first summer series of vocal recitals and it was a huge hit. The recital was an entire meal for this musical gourmet and wound up being the highlight of my ten-day musical sojourn in The City Different.

Mr. Owens is a highly skilled performer, known to New Yorkers for his stunning performance of the role of Alberich in the new Ring Cycle at the Metropolitan Opera. But here one had the opportunity to enjoy his deliciously deep and rapturously resonant voice in an intimate house, the Scottish Rite Center. Maestro Joseph Illick, Executive and Artistic Director of the SFCA as well as conductor of the SFCA Orchestra and Chorus, made the perfect piano partner.

The pair began with Mozart’s “Mentre ti lascio” which showed off Mr. Owen’s vocal agility and moved right along to some of Schubert’s more serious songs--”Prometheus”, “Fahrt zum Hades” and “Gruppe aus dem Tartarus” which showed off his vocal power. Next he performed two songs by Henri Duparc--the well-known “L’invitation au voyage” and the lesser-known but no less lovely “Elegy” and “La vague et la cloche”; these songs enabled Mr. Owens to show a lighter and more charming aspect of his voice.
In all of these well-chosen songs, Mr. Owens “acted with his voice”; he is a very centered and unfussy performer. During the final set however, Ravel’s delightful songs “Don Quichotte a Dulcinee” were performed with ample and appropriate gestures that delighted the audience. Just another side of this versatile performer! Two stunning encores followed that revealed still more. King Phillip’s poignant aria from “Don Carlo”--”Ella giammai m’ami”-- when sung with such pathos can make us feel sympathy for the hateful King. The second encore opened an entirely new door. Generally sung by counter-tenors, Purcell’s “Music for Awhile” brought out Mr. Owens’ soft and delicate side and brought the audience to their collective feet.
What an outstanding afternoon! I only felt sad that I had missed the prior two recitals presented by the Santa Fe Concert Association--one by mezzo-soprano Isabel Leonard (a personal favorite) and another by bass-baritone Daniel Okulitch. It is with great anticipation that I look forward to next summer’s offerings. And if I had remained longer in Santa Fe, I would have been lining up for tickets to the August 28th Gala Opening Concert. If you live in the Southwest, don’t pass it up!

© meche kroop for The Opera Insider

Friday, August 5, 2011

Prelude to Performance

There are many reasons one has for going to the opera. Sometimes it’s to hear that famous tenor hit all the high C’s, or maybe an opportunity to catch someone’s debut in a role. Sometimes it’s to “give a chance” to a new opera. But best of all circumstances is when one goes to the opera knowing one is going to be royally entertained.

After dozens of Don Giovanni’s, what is left to be said? What could one possibly add to all the stellar performances one has seen? Just ask much-honored Maestra Martina Arroyo and her dedicated and gifted faculty whose total commitment to performance skills enabled such a winning production to take place at the Kaye Playhouse of Hunter College. Nothing could compare to the joy of experiencing this opera with an ensemble of perfectly coached young singers who threw themselves into their roles with complete abandon.

No elaborate sets were necessary--a few pillars, a bench. However, appropriately period costumes by Charles Caine contributed much to the telling of the tale. And tell the tale they did! The ensemble work was most impressive to the extent that I would not venture to “name names” lest I shortchange the members of the casts that I did NOT hear. But I will make special mention of Laura Alley who directed her young Mozarteans with both style and substance. No action was unmotivated and stage business always supported the music. Don Giovanni is a long opera but not once did the action flag nor did the attention of the audience sag. Robert Lyall conducted with skill and gusto.

Could such a success be repeated with another opera? Need you ask? Although La Rondine would seems to be a piece of fluff next to Don G. the opera rose to the same heights on the shoulders of the talented singers who were utterly convincing in their dramatic interpretations. This one also had two casts and I have every reason to believe that the cast I did not see was just as accomplished as the one I did see. Again, the charming costumes were designed by Charles Caine but this time, Nicholas Fox conducted in true Puccinian style and Joseph Bascetta directed. In both cases the impeccable makeup and wigs were by Steve Horak.

I understand that these 40 gifted young singers, all in the early stages of their careers, were selected by audition from a pool of four hundred by the very same faculty who would coach them in every aspect of performance other than vocal production. Master classes were given (and open to the public) by Stephanie Blythe, Cori Ellison, Ken Benson and Ben Vereen. The valuable evidence of the superiority of this coaching was the performances themselves. Most impressive is the fact that the selected students pay no tuition for this valuable training. This year marked the seventh consecutive year of operatic delights presented by the Martina Arroyo Foundations’s “Prelude to Performance”. We wish them seven times seven more.

© meche kroop for The Opera Insider