Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Candidely Charming

To pursue yesterday’s line of thought about the importance of chamber opera companies on the New York opera scene, much credit must be given to Coopera: POM as in “Project Opera of Manhattan” (or, as the case may be, “Pom Wonderful”). Last weekend’s production of the 1973 one-act version of Candide, credited to Harold Prince, was wildly entertaining, cast with uniformly talented young professionals and supported by a fine orchestra conducted with panache by the equally talented Jorge Parodi.

Discussions of whether Candide is an opera or musical theatre are pointless. According to Anthony Tommasini’s criteria, it is both an opera because it is musically-driven and it is musical theatre because it is dialogue driven. One might consider the music to be one of Leonard Bernstein’s finest creations while the lyics by Richard Wilbur are extraordinarily witty and clever. I suspect that much or perhaps most of the wit was provided as “additional lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and John La Touche”. The Sondheim contribution is most evident. The story is loosely based on Voltaire’s “Candide”. The master himself was played by John Martello who stepped easily into the role of Dr. Pangloss.

Evan McCormack has a meltingly beautiful tenor and played the title role to innocent benighted perfection. Soprano Rosa Betancourt certainly has the high notes and portrayed Cunegonde most winningly. Their duet about marriage was charming. Sophia Benedetti was a very frisky Paquette while velvet-voiced Jorell Williams had a great deal of fun portraying the vain self-involved Maximilian. Laura Virella (cofounder and artistic director of the company) used her rich mezzo to great advantage in the hilarious role of “The Old Lady” who gets by with one buttock. The audience went wild for her big aria “I Am Easily Assimilated”.

The final choral number integrated their voices with those of Aaron Mor, Scott Power Elliot, Dorian Balis, Gregory M. Spock, Gerad O’Shea, Tricia Ostermann, Meagan Amelia Brus, Monica Hershenson Thuris and Christine Price who all had assumed various roles in the production. There wasn’t a single disappointing voice in the cast.

Coopera has a mutually beneficial relationship with the Players Club, a lovely venue for chamber opera with a large flexible room that permits a variety of seating and staging options. In this case the stage was a slightly raised platform in front of the 13-member orchestra. There were only minimal costumes and virtually no scenery to compete with the music and acting and one quickly forgot about the lack. The New York City Opera presented the work in 2005 and 2008 and I distinctly recall the cast comprising both Broadway people and opera people. Sadly, it was amplified. Yes, the sets and costumes were lavish but I prefer the intimate production I just saw. Never mind that NYCO called itself “the people’s opera”. I would say that Coopera is REALLY opera for the people!

© meche kroop for The Opera Insider

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Off-Broadway Opera

Opera lovers wanting an alternative experience to the Metropolitan Opera will be pleased to hear about some exciting options. Chamber opera is alive and well here in Manhattan. Just as one doesn’t need to compare apples to oranges, one doesn’t need to measure the works of these small companies to that of the Met. In place of famous singers, lavish sets, huge orchestras and ground-breaking (but not always cherished) productions one is offered an intimate experience with talented young singers, conductors and musicians without the distraction of binoculars and dubious cinematic production values.

Literally one block from Broadway the Calhoun School offered an 1812 Rossini opera never produced commercially in New York, a delightful farce entitled “L’Occasione Fa Il Ladro” that would make a perfect companion piece for “Gianni Schicchi”. The Calhoun School supports this company calling themselves Gotham Bel Canto and one certainly heard some uniformly excellent bel canto singing from the cast of 6. No programs were provided but the FB page identified the tenor lead as Nicholas Simpson, the baritone as Diego Matamoros, and the very funny bass as Pablo Provencio. The soprano roles were beautifully sung by Stacey Stofferahn and Sharee Seal. Brian Joyce also did justice to his tenor role. The director was Giovanni Pucci who missed no opportunity for “funny business”.

What pulled this entire collaborative enterprise together was the astute conducting of Ms. Ü Lee who accompanied the recitativi from the keyboard and drew a fine reading from her 18 musicians. Attacks were precise where they should be and equally gentle in appropriate places. The balance among the sections was perfect. One could detect a great deal of effort that went into making the music sound so effortless and effervescent. Some of the musicians came from the Calhoun School, as did the director and Mr. Provencio. Others knew each other from Manhattan School of Music.

There was also some magic present. The audience was more than half children, many of whom could not read the titles, but the wriggle quotient was nearly zero and the young faces were rapt. The story of the opera is one of misplaced suitcases and mistaken identity. If anyone asks how to deal with the aging of the audience for opera, we now have the answer. We must introduce our children at an early age to tuneful music and a story with lots of physical humor. They will “get” it even if they don’t speak the language which is sung.

© meche kroop for The Opera Insider

Friday, September 23, 2011


Opera Lyra Ottawa Presented Cavelleria Rusticana and Pagliacci at the National Arts Centre Southam Hall in Ottawa on Saturday, September 10 at 8 p.m. with additional performances on Monday, Wednesday and Saturday, September 17

There were more empty seats than the producers probably hoped for at the opening of Opera Lyra Ottawa's twin-bill production of Mascagni's Cavalleria Rusticana and Leoncavallo's Pagliacci. Although an evening of “Cav and Pag” used to be one of the staples of nearly every opera company, but in recent decades its star has fallen.

Why is that?

Perhaps it's because both operas have essentially the same plot. Cav and Pag tell of sordid yet plausible events, but how much adultery and bloody revenge do we need in an evening? Opera audiences are becoming more sophisticated bit by bit.

Cavalleria is widely, perhaps unfairly, considered the weaker of the two and opera companies tend to expend more of their usually finite resources on Pagliacci. So it was with this production.

There were many good things about the Cavalliera, chiefly the singing and acting. Richard Crawley was especially fine as Turiddu as was his opposite number, Lisa Daltirus, who sang Santuzza. The other principals were nearly as good, particularly Gae(aigu)tan Laperrie(grave)re who sang an Alfio not to be messed with.

The staging was a little wooden and the deployment of the chorus alternated between over-busy to virtually static. The costumes were not bad except for the one Wallis Giunta wore as Lola. In contrast to the black and other somber colours the other women were wearing, and would have worn in real life, she was dressed in bright colours and frequently had her shoulders bare. She is a slut of course, but it's inconceivable that she would advertise it like that.

Richard Buckley's musical direction was flaccid in Cavalleria, but more pointed and muscular in Pagliacci. In the latter, Michael Cavanagh's staging was effective, including the movements of the chorus.

Richard Leech was a superb Canio/Pagliccio, never hamming things up, never holding the high notes to show of the considerable beauty and power of his voice. And he did not shout or bellow the famous last words, “La commedia e(grave) finita.” He delivered them in a sinister whisper. Yannick-Muriel Noah was convincing as his wife, Nedda.

Gae(aigu)tan Laperrie(grave)re, the only principal to sing in both operas, played the combined role of the Prologue and the black-hearted Tonio. He was sinister and repulsive as the latter, but suitably animated and persuasive as the former.

Among the lesser roles, Jonathan Estabrooks' Silvio was particularly well sung and acted.

It was a shame that Cavalleria was not as well done as it should have been. A fair comparison between the merits of the two operas was scarcely possible. It's true that Pagliacci is more cleverly crafted, but Leoncavallo's musical language is very similar to Puccini's without having quite the same stamp of genius. Mascagni's melodies are more original and are endlessly beautiful.

Richard Todd for The Opera Insider

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Si si to HD

Has it been only a year since I wrote about reluctantly trying opera in HD? This summer I attended all eight with a great deal of enthusiasm and mourned the cancellation of the first two due to hurricane Irene. It is evident by now that the combination of the operatic arts and the cinematic arts is of great value. Many people in the audience let me know that they had never seen an opera live and only came because it was free and there was nothing better to do in the waning days of summer. In every case they manifested a high level of enjoyment and indicated a willingness to shell out some real dough for a live performance. So, in terms of audience building, the Metropolitan Opera’s offering, supported by a generous grant from The Neubauer Family Foundation and corporate sponsorship by Bloomberg (a big thank you to both!), is an unqualified success.

The 3000 groundlings who crowded the Lincoln Center Plaza were treated to an unending cascade of delights to the eye and ear; we saw more than the trust-fund babies saw, sitting in prime orchestra seating during the season. Many details of staging that were missed during live performances, details that helped make sense of the stories, were not only visible but highlighted by the respective HD Directors.

Barbara Willis Sweete, who impressed me last year with her “Carmen”, continued to do excellent work with Gluck’s “Iphigenie en Tauride”. Now the Prologue, indicating Iphigenie’s rescue by the goddess Diane, was gloriously visible as were the memories and fantasies of the unhappy siblings. Likewise Sweete’s direction of “Fanciulla del West” allowed us to see Minnie’s hiding of the cards in her sock so she could win the poker game with the Rance. Her “Lucia” was equally impressive and permitted us to understand the ghost in the fountain. I recall the live performances in both cases when I wondered what was going on.

Gary Halvorson who had a hit and a miss with last summer’s offerings was right on the money with this summer’s productions. For example, in his “Don Carlo”, he was wise enough to give us a close-up of the photo of DC that King Philip finds in his wife’s jewel box so we would have no doubts as to why the King was so angry.
Brian Large’s “La Rondine” gave us great views of the details of Magda’s opulent quarters and costumes so we would know just how privileged and irresistible was her life as a “kept woman”. In his Boris Godunov he chose to focus on the Holy Fool in the opening and closing scenes, giving this character the significance he deserves. We see the faces of the suffering in the crowd instead of a massed chorus.
The one “miss” of the festival was Peter Sellars’ “Nixon in China”. His HD direction of his own production could not do anything to make this musically boring and dramatically inert opera worth watching or hearing. It was the only night that people fled in droves. His HD direction only compounded his felony by offering the audience a close-up of Chairman Mao forcing one of his acolytes to masturbate him. This was matched in offensiveness only by the scene of Scarpia being fellated in last year’s Tosca. The Bad Boy of Opera just cannot resist his puerile impulses. Well, thankfully, the one rotten apple did not spoil the barrel of delights on the other seven nights.

With such fine direction by Sweete, Large and Halvorson I am willing to allow the HD director to guide my gaze. Relieved of the burden of shifting from opera glasses to full stage to titles, we become free to follow the story and enjoy the music. During the overture, if nothing is happening onstage we are treated to close-ups of the musicians. In sum, HD has taken opera to an entirely new level. This is to be celebrated!

(c)meche kroop for The Opera Insider

Thursday, September 1, 2011

The final installment...

My musical sojourn in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains was brought to a most satisfying conclusion by the annual Apprentice Scene Program, at which the apprentices at the Santa Fe Opera get to strut their stuff. The program was begun by John Crosby to give young singers and technicians opportunities for advanced training and professional experience. The vocal apprentices appear in small roles and in the chorus of the five summer operas. But on this night they get to star. Tickets are inexpensive and the house is always packed, everyone looking for the next star.

All the apprentices performed well in their chosen scenes from Janacek’s “The Cunning Little Vixen”, Hoiby’s “Summer and Smoke”, Corigliano’s “The Ghost of Versailles” and Handel’s “Semele”. But it was not until the second half of the program that I heard some young singers who not only entertained the ear but also the eye with convincing performances. Will Liverman, a recipient of a grant from New York’s own Opera Index put in a totally committed and believable performance as Porgy in Gershwin’s opera “Porgy and Bess”. (Yes, Virginia, it is music-driven and it is an opera, in spite of whatever cockamamie interpretation is coming to NY this season). Stephanie Washington sang Bess with real feeling, although she hadn’t swept me off my feet in Part I. Michael Dailey made a splendidly seductive Sportin’ Life.

Alissa Anderson was notable as Carmen, with the roles of Frasquita and Mercedes being sung respectively by Rebecca Nathanson and Emma Char. Maria Lindsey made a winsome Semele with Randall Bills impressive as Jupiter trying to distract her from her plans for immortality.

The Apprentice Program is a great addition to the SFO scene and well worth your while if you enjoy discovering new talent.

© meche kroop for The Opera Insider