Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Immersive Opera That Works

Paisiello’s Il Barbiere di Siviglia
On Site Opera
June 12, 2015
Fabbri Mansion, New York

A damsel in distress: Lode al ciel.
Photo credit: Rebecca Fay
Lei: Setting Paisiello’s Il Barbiere di Siviglia at the elegant, slice-of-Florence-right-here-in-Manhattan Fabbri Mansion, On Site Opera made an extremely clever use of both the outdoor and the indoor space. On this pristine early summer evening in the city, adjacent to Central Park, the al fresco opening of the opera was a real treat. A light breeze stirred the branches of the trees, curious upper east siders passing by peeked in with their smartphones recording, birds were chirping, chiming in and blending with the orchestra.  

Almaviva and Figaro meet on the street.
Photo credit: Rebecca Fay
Lui: The courtyard where the show began just before dusk conveniently served as locale for Act One’s casual street encounters and surreptitious serenades. There was even a second-storey window from which Rosina could gaze down upon her mysterious suitor. In terms of set design, it does not get more real than this. Once we were moved inside for the following three acts, the grandiose neo-Renaissance library of the mansion was a perfect stand in for the interior of Don Bartolo’s home. I have seen other operas performed in this space, but never has it so perfectly suited the matter at hand. On Site Opera plucked up its audience and placed us in the world of its characters, full immersion.

When a man loves a woman.
Photo credit: Rebecca Fay
Lei: The evening’s spectacle even included just the right level of interaction with the public, very playful and engaging. When Figaro popped out all of sudden and started handing out tissues in the romantic climax of the opera when the Count and Rosina sing their recognition duet, he both evoked a laugh and brought a tear to the eye (a handful of audience members were game and used the tissues to blot imaginary tears). It was also pretty funny when Don Basilio stole the baton from the conductor during his Calunnia aria; or else when Almaviva in disguise addressed some of his Pace e gioia shenanigans to individual audience members as he shook their hands as if in the most Catholic of Sunday masses.

I found the opera itself to be very pleasant. While there are none of the show stopping arias that one finds in Rossini, Paisiello’s great airy and energetic score feels vaguely Mozartian (after all this opera was 4 years before Wolfie’s Nozze) and flows wonderfully. There is really not a dead moment to be found and the whole package is very crisp and tight.

Monica Yunus sings Rosina.
Photo credit: Rebecca Fay
Lui: Some differences in characterization from the Rossini version are striking. Rosina in particular is more mature, closer to Mozart’s Contessa and her Porgi amor than the fiery young maiden who sings Ma se mi toccano dov’e’ il mio debole / Una vipera sarò* in her Rossinian incarnation. Soprano Monica Yunus embodied her with composed verve and a touch of drama, her voice impressively strong particularly when singing from the second floor balcony into the courtyard.

A Figaro tried by life's vicissitudes.
Photo credit: Rebecca Fay
Figaro also seems a little less happy-go-lucky here, when compared to the Rossinian barber. He is not given anything on the order of the canonical Largo al factotum aria, but rather presented as someone with a sadder past, someone who has been through many ups and downs, variously tried by life in all its vicissitudes. After he finishes writing his encomium of wine, his introductory aria instead takes us on a whirlwind tour of all the places he has struggled to make ends meet as he wandered Spain, leaving virtually no corner untouched and no stone unturned.  

Figaro's travails.
Photo credit: On Site Opera
Lei: While I have not read the original Beaumarchais play, I have seen quite a lot of Rossini’s Barbieri and I was shocked by how similar the two operas are, not only plot wise but also in terms of specific lines in their respective librettos. That goes to show how closely they used the source material (or else Rossini cribbed a lot from Paisiello – will have to read Beaumarchais to know for sure).

Lui: Conductor Adam Kerry Boyles led the small chamber orchestra with brio. They played the hell out of Paisiello’s effervescent score both inside and out making up for the fact that neither space is necessarily conducive to concert performances. The library after all is not endowed with the acoustics of a music hall since it is intended for quiet contemplation and the silent internal life of the mind. Boyles had his team of strings and bassoon playing a few notches louder than normal in order to get the sound out to the furthest reaches of the courtyard and library, both of which are rectangular.

Don Basilio's rapturous entrance.
Photo credit: Rebecca Fay
During the second half of the show we were sitting right next to the orchestra and there were moments, especially during Don Basilio’s tempestuous opening aria, his panegyric to calumny, in which I felt as though we had been swept up in a tempest ourselves considering the forcefulness of the orchestra. Kudos to baritone Isaiah Musik-Ayala whose singing, in the role Don Basilio, also contributed to this effect. Musik-Ayala really put all of himself into this most arousing of comic arias and he had all of the orchestra right there at his back. This was one of the moments that for me time stopped during the opera. His voice rode up and back down the waves of music like a boat in a storm-tossed sea as he boomed lam-peg-gian-do with loud heavy-handed, hard-hitting syllables and then in a whisper, like a sea spray, hissed cazzate, cazzate at us under his breath.** A very clever off-script embellishment that went perfect with the content of the number.

Lei: Musik-Ayala’s stage presence was also exquisitely dandified for the role that he played with poise and comic verve as he rocked from side to side in the stormy sea of the dispute over the hand of Rosina. He had it all.

The world cannot contain Figaro.
Photo credit: Rebecca Fay
Lui: Another striking element of the orchestration was the decision to substitute the harpsichord with a classical guitar, which added a little extra Spanish flair to the soundscape, as well as further compliment those moments when Figaro picked up a guitar of his own to grandstand either for the Count or for anyone else who might lend him an ear (even for himself for that matter). This of course led to certain excesses, as Figaro launched on two occasions into mini-guitar solos as he accompanied the Count in his amorous escapades. All of which was justified as part of his eccentric character.

Andrew Wilkowske (baritone) as Figaro especially shined in moments like these: where he could let his barber breathe. He is obviously a natural performer, one of those people who eats up the spotlight. His baritone sound is loud and round and playful. He can push it from the sarcastic to the serious and back to the feigned serious with aplomb and pizzazz. Wilkowske is also a pleasure to watch.

The love triangle builds flawlessly.
Photo credit: Rebecca Fay
Lei: In fact, the cast had no weak links, with solid singing across the board, good Italian diction overall and truly great acting. Tenor David Blalock as Count Almaviva projected a clear, clean sound and was particularly enjoyable in his embodiment of the Count’s many disguises (poor student, drunk soldier, flaming music teacher, etc.). Bass-baritone Rod Nelman as the jealous and possessive Dr. Bartolo displayed great acting chops, managing to sing expressively all while running around and throwing fits left and right, his dynamic duets with Rosina were among the vocal highlights of the evening.

Double vision: Basilio and the Count in disguise.
Photo credit: Rebecca Fay
Lui: Director Eric Einhorn had several flashes of genius in his vision. Particularly memorable was the moment when Don Basilio and the Conte in disguise as the substitute music teacher were identically dressed and mirrored each other’s actions as they played out one of the many folly-filled scenes that unfold over the course of the undermining of Don Bartolo at the hands of the Count and his merry prankster.

The costumes by Candida K. Nicholas were most impressive. There was an obvious attempt to set the piece not in the lead up to the French Revolution, but to update it to either the late Victorian period or vaguely around the turn of the century, perhaps even as late at the 1920s, considering the straw boater hat the Count donned in Act One. The attention to detail was striking, especially in the outfits worn by the men. Don Basilio’s spats were a particularly classy touch. Everybody looked great though and their couture seemed truly tailor made. Lighting design by Shawn Kaufman was also carefully curated in the library scenes as the night went on. It’s amazing what a little mood lighting can do.

The lighting intensified as the plot thickened.
Photo credit: Rebecca Fay
Lei: On Site Opera’s production of Paisiello’s Il barbiere di Siviglia is their best work to date. They really outdid themselves and put up a show that was perfectly delightful and pleasant from start to finish. Their ambitions really came together and met their means in all the right ways. It seems like On Site Opera’s team is growing into its skin as a well-rounded company. Opera after all has so many moving parts, and location is just one of them. We’ll look forward to the next chapters of their “Figaro Project” with the North American premiere of Marcos Portugal’s The Marriage of Figaro (Summer 2016), followed by the U.S. premiere of Darius Milhaud’s The Guilty Mother (Summer 2017).

The substitute teacher seduces his student.
Photo credit: Rebecca Fay
Lui: Beaumarchais was apparently all the rage in and around the years of the French Revolution. Paisiello, Mozart, Rossini all based memorable operas on his famous Figaro trilogy, and these are just the ones that we still remember today. There are apparently several forgotten works also based on these plays, from roughly that same period (and much later). On Site Opera over the next few years (and Dell’Arte Opera Ensemble later this summer) are going to bring them back to light for us. 

Back in the day, Beaumarchais’ irreverent humor portended major social upheaval. I wonder if the sudden surge in interest in his operatic incarnations portends anything similar. Cataclysms of class, societal shifts, revolution. Doubtful but while we enjoy these long overdue revivals one can certainly hope, at least in the operatic world. 

Whatever the case, we're off to a good start!

- Lui & Lei

An immersive Figaro that really works.
Photo credit: On Site Opera

But if they touch my weak spot, I will be a viper
** Cazzate, cazzate = Bullshit, bullshit

Saturday, June 13, 2015

Venetian Ghosts from the Baroque Past

Francesco Cavalli’s Veremonda, L’Amazzone di Aragona
Dock Street Theater – May 30, 2015
Spoleto Festival USA

Amazon warriors in formation.
Photo credit: Spoleto Festival
It was a warm early summer night in old Charleston as we took our seats in the balcony of the historic (1736) and exquisitely charming Dock Street Theater. As the lights went down, a thick fog engulfed the stage, two spectral figures wearing Venetian carnival masks emerged from it and baroque music erupted from the pit. And so began the modern-day premiere of Cavalli’s Veremonda, l’Amazzone di Aragona, exhumed from a decrepit manuscript at the Biblioteca Nazionale Marciana in Venice on a Spoleto Festival commission. The intrepid Aaron Carpenè (conductor) and Stefano Virzioli (director) conjured the ghosts of this baroque opera straight from the seventeenth century (by way of this initial spectral fog), giving us the thrill of experiencing for the first time a work that has not been performed since 1653.

The historic Dock Street Theater.
Photo credit: Opera News
Saying that the plot is complex is an understatement. We’re in Gibraltar, during the Spanish siege of the Moorish fort of Calpe, which is taking quite a long time, basically because the general leading the Spanish army (Delio) has a secret love affair with the Moorish queen (Zelemina). The Spanish queen (Veremonda) is quite upset with the ineptitude of her general, not to mention with her husband, a king who is more interested in astronomy studies than in war (or even his wife). Veremonda decides to take matters into her own hands and puts together a contingent of “amazons” (her ladies-in-waiting repurposed in shiny sexy armor) and, after many convoluted adventures and sidebars, she successfully leads them to victory and ends the war (without ever really needing to fight). The Moorish queen converts, marries Delio and everybody’s happy.

Veremonda battagliera.
Photo credit: Spoleto Festival
All this would be linear enough, if it was not for Delio having an old grudge against Veremonda but also being very aroused by her and trying to rape her in the woods (which leads her to pretend to fall in love with him in order to escape his advances). Or for Zelemina also being wildly attracted to Veremonda (disguised as a soldier) and then immediately throwing a jealous fit thinking that Delio is cheating on her with the amazon queen. Or the subplot of Delio’s servant having a crush now on Zelemina’s nurse (Zaida), now on one of the amazons (Vespina). Or the inexplicable non-sequitur of the “dance of the bulls” at Zelemina’s court...

While I was initially taken a bit aback from the absurdity of the plot, once I stopped trying to make coherent sense out of it and just rolled with whatever was thrown at us, I really started to have a lot of fun.  At the end of the day, this opera was composed to entertain the paying Venetian public during Carnevale and that’s exactly what it does, one crazy transgressive plot twist after the other. Cavalli and his librettist Giulio Strozzi set the stage for this semi-serious work from the opening scene. In the prologue, Twilight exhorts the audience to enjoy the evening's entertainment, while the setting Sun warns the ladies that their own splendor is destined to fade.

The astronomer king girds himself for war.
Photo credit: Julia Lynn
Director Stefano Virzioli was very successful in bringing the story to life with the right dose of lightness and humor, using commedia dell’arte styles for the comic relief bits and only rarely falling into slapstick (even when characters deliver saucy lines such as “E’ quello che fanno le donne d’oggi dí / e come si suol dir, disse di sí’”*). Virzioli fully embraced the entertaining spirit of the piece with sass. Think of the astronomer king becoming pompously belligerent and exiting the stage on a wooden ramping white horse. Or the hilarious war training of the “amazons” who struggle to even lift a sword. The idea of having the characters emerge from the fog in the prologue and disappear into it in the finale was also a very poetic touch.

Zelemina in her bath.
Photo credit: Amadeus Online
The sets were hyper-colorful and stylized panels and screens created by visual artist Ugo Nespolo. I conceptually liked the two-dimensional approach to the sets as that was how scenes were done back in the 1600’s, the execution though was hit or miss. While I enjoyed the “forest” and “Moorish bathhouse” scenes for their multiple layers that filled the depth of the stage, I was not too engaged by the “war” and “astronomy” scenes, which felt a bit too flat and abstract. While I am usually not too crazy about ballet intermezzos in operas, the choreographies by Pierluigi Vanelli were extremely enjoyable crowd-pleasers, from the amazon’s training gymnastics to the inexplicable “dance of the bulls.”

Delio gets his way.
Photo credit: Spoleto Festival
The real hero of the night was maestro Aaron Carpenè for the herculean archeological efforts that went into transforming a messy 1652 manuscript into a fully orchestrated score. The challenges of this task were not only the lack of specification of the instruments used but also the very skeletal representation of what would have been actually played, based on the assumption that musicians of the time usually riffed on themes as they went (how very jazzy of them). Carpenè spiced things up by adding castanets to the percussion section, highlighting the exotic flair of the opera, and the ensemble New York Baroque Incorporated sounded both airy and fiery at the same time, bringing to life the resuscitated score in the most pleasurable way for the 2015 audience.

Veremonda in the midst of her transformation.
Photo credit: Julia Lynn
Baroque specialist mezzo Vivica Genaux in the title role was the superstar in the cast and I was very much looking forward to seeing her live. Ms. Genaux has incredibly charismatic stage presence, equally at ease (and truly fabulous looking) in frilly fairy-tale queen gowns and sexy leather leggings, silver boots and amazon armor. Her acting was very specific as she embodied the strong-willed queen turned Amazon warrior, however, the Veremonda role did not give Ms. Genaux much to work with vocally, other than a lot of baroque recitatives and a small handful of arias, none of which were particularly show-stopping. Knowing what Vivica is capable of when it comes to baroque pyrotechnics, I was a bit disappointed that as Veremonda she really did not get a chance to unleash her signature fiery vocal agility. Don’t get me wrong, she sounded and looked amazing and her performance was definitely masterful, but her talents felt way under-utilized here. Still, I do get the ticket selling power of Vivica Genaux for the premiere of a baroque rarity (worked on me!).

Delio and his prey.
Photo credit: Julia Lynn
Despite the fluidity with which Veremonda is able to transgress normative gender roles, she does not really come across as the most prominent or dramatically complex character. Rather, Delio (the double-faced lusty army general) seems to play a more central role both plot-wise and vocally, with a far more dynamic musical stage presence and flashier arias than the title role. Interestingly, this opera was originally supposed to be named “Delio,” but Cavalli and his librettist Strozzi decided against it because it would have sounded too much like “Celio,” an opera of 1646 by Cicognini on which Veremonda’s libretto is largely based. So, it is not surprising that the juiciest role is that of Delio, in this production played by countertenor Raffaele Pe, who to me really was the vocal star of the opera.

Gran tormento è l'esser bello.
Photo credit: Spoleto Festival
Mr. Pe is a rambunctious, little countertenor who exuded all the self-important narcissism that an international playboy ought to possess (one of his major arias is “Gran tormento è l’esser bello”**). Vocally he really embodied all the melismatic fireworks demanded of him by the score, which can be a rarity in the castrati deprived world in which we live. Somehow he managed to be both manly and musically composed in the upper register of his countertenor voice. He was a pleasure to listen to, never dragging as he sang his long baroque lines and always forceful whether he was attempting to force himself on the Amazon queen in the forest or trying to seduce the Arab queen through the wall of her palatial, if cartoonish, bathing complex, his duets with the two women really being the musical highlights of the evening.

Zelemina flees her predator.
Photo credit: Spoleto Festival
Right up there with Pe was soprano Francesca Lombardi Mazzulli, who sang the role of the Moorish queen Zelemina with stirring passion. She belted out her arias of love and longing with crisp, clean lines and a sound that pierced the air in the intimate theater. Ms. Lombardi Mazzulli was definitely one of the highlights of the show. She sang with an intensity that seemed to stop time anytime she was in the spotlight, she so commanded the attention of the audience, particularly in her final aria “Invitta Veremonda.”*** Also noteworthy was mezzo Céline Ricci as the “Amazon” Vespina, who had great comic stage presence and showcased some very agile coloratura.

Gently down the stream.
Photo credit: Spoleto Festival
The rest of the cast had smaller roles in the very complicated plot and all in all delivered a solid performance as an ensemble and team effort (as it’s typical for 17th century opera): bass Joseph Barron (Roldano), baritones Jason Budd (Giacutte) and Steven Cole (Don Buscone), tenor Brian Downen (Zeffiro / Crepuscolo), countertenors Michael Maniaci (Zaida) and Anrey Nemzer (Re Alfonso / Sole) and soprano Danielle Talamantes (Sergente).

Most of all, this evening was about the excitement of discovering a fully staged opera that has not been performed for over 350 years as if it were a brand new piece and actually having a lot of fun with it. Thank you Spoleto Festival USA for the bravery in commissioning its resurrection.

- Lei & Lui

Ugo Nespolo's surreal sets.
Photo credit: Julia Lynn
Amazons ready themselves for battle.
Photo credit: Julia Lynn 
Delio can't keep his hands to himself.
Photo credit: Post and Courier
Feigned romance.
Photo credit: Post and Courier
Commedia dell'arte touches abound.
Photo credit: Post and Courier
Fading back into the mists of time.
Photo credit: Post and Courier

* That’s what women do today / as the say goes, she “said yes”
** Being handsome is such a big torment
*** Undefeated Veremonda

An Exotic Lucid Dream

Paradise Interrupted
Spoleto Festival USA, Charleston, South Carolina
Memminger Auditorium - May 29, 2015

The woman immersed in her phantasmagoria.
Photo credit: Spoleto Festival
As we took our seats for Huang Ruo’s new opera Paradise Interrupted in a completely sold out auditorium in the middle of old town Charleston, I don’t think either of us had any idea that we were in for the impressionistically stunning evening of modern operatic art theater that ensued.

Against a canvas of possibility.
Photo credit: Spoleto Festival
The stage was a stark white canvas that somehow seemed ripe with possibility. From the moment the orchestra rattled out the first notes, I fell under its spell. It was unlike anything I’ve ever experienced on the stage.

The libretto (a joint effort by Ji Chao, the composer, the director and the lead singer) was abstract and profoundly poetic. If one neglected to read up on the story ahead of time, the supertitles would do little to keep the audience abreast the impressionistic storyline of the piece. And the equally abstract staging, no matter how stunning it was, also did little to explicate the plot on its own.

Director Jennifer Wen Ma and company put together some of the most captivating art installation style sets that transformed the relatively ordinary auditorium into an otherworldly place.

Basing one’s assessment purely on the propositional aesthetic content of the piece (music, staging, singers), it was first and foremost a woman’s story, refreshingly told from the female perspective. Second, it was profoundly allegorical. Lastly, it was exotic, not just because oriental and eastern, but also because it was so fantastic, imaginative and poetic to the point of sounding extraterrestrial.

The woman and her tree (once it acquires foliage).
Photo credit: Spoleto Festival
The stark white canvas of a stage is now suddenly dressed with the exotic flourishes of the orchestra that sounds more oriental than occidental despite being predominantly composed of western orchestral instruments. Out into this void of white glides the most majestic young woman in floor-length traditional Chinese gowns. She moves as though floating, her feet defy the effort of motion. Her song is like a lullaby, slow and dreamy and she maintains it for most of the next intermission-less eighty minutes. And like her song she seems to be dreaming, since she suddenly discovers that she can mold and model her dream world through the power of her song. She conjures Mother Nature and a tree rises dreamily from white ground, leafless and twiggy. The effects were simple but effective. The tree is made up of an interlocking set of black strings and streamers that are pulled out of the stage and seem to hang suspended from the ceiling. The contrast of the black trunk and branches is stark against the otherwise blindingly white stage.

Fireflies come hither.
Photo credit: Spoleto Festival
The woman is thrilled by the prospect of her newfound ability to make her own world. Her vision of nature becomes more florid and a series of black hedges are pulled out onto the stage like life size paper pop-up book art. She is suddenly ensconced in a natural world of her own creation and, as an erratic cloud of fireflies begin to congregate in her fantasy land, she begins to long for someone with whom to share it all.

A woman-eating flower.
Photo credit: Spoleto Festival
Her desire shifts and she conjures a man, or rather the illusion of one. Consisting of little more than an outline of fireflies, the apparition of the man appears long enough to sing a duet with the woman and then he disappears. The woman then finds herself distraught at the sudden loss...

She is then caught most dramatically in a flower, the pollen pistils of the plant seems to have her in manacles, until she comes to the realization that she has been too tied down by her desires. She must free herself from those desires, like her desire to have a man, or her desire to seek satisfaction from such transitory pleasures as gardens, even the garden of her black and white imagination that she could conjure out of thin air, before she is able to emanicipate her mind. And the climax of that realization is simply stunning. Though the opera paradoxically ends reasserting the silence of the voice she is ultimately forging for herself. The soundlessness of ink. The silence of literary and artistic expression. Or is it?

The ascension from the ink well of her imagination.
Photo credit: Spoleto Festival
Paradise Interrupted is one woman’s empowering search for meaning in her life as a fleshful being who is capable of great desire, but also able to transcend the tyranny of those desires and by the end she is primed to sublimate herself and her desires and her abilities to some greater purpose, presumably to the end of artistic expression. In my mind, it is the dreamy allegory of the artist as told in the feminine. And beautifully so.

The closest thing that comes to mind is Maya Deren’s Meshes of the Afternoon.

Seeing beyond the flower of her desire.
Photo credit: Spoleto Festival
Ultimately the dream of love is a trap and she must find her strength within herself. According to this reading, the triumphant fist she seems to be lifting in the show’s final image would then be a symbol of her self-reliant self-discovery, of her intransigent quest for individual selfhood no matter how alone she finds herself through all this while all of the men who also represent the elements, the winds, the universal life force go flitting transiently about. No matter the fact that she seems to be stuck in that symbolically laden final image, trapped in a puddle of ink, or maybe it’s not that is she held so motionless. She seems to be simultaneously sinking as though into quicksand but also at the same time ascending slowly into the sky. In any case her gesture is an elegant index finger and pinkie extended from a hand clenched into a fist held triumphantly, majestically and almost defiantly into the air. As though to say it’s all me against the world, against the void, against the emptiness of life. Somehow when the light fades to black you come away thinking that with her fantasy, no matter how stark, she will be ok. She’ll find her way through.

The captivating Qian Yi.
Photo credit: Spoleto Festival
Though the orchestra was mainly comprised of European instruments (11 piece chamber orchestra), the three oriental instruments in the ensemble (sheng, dizi and pipa) created all the mood. It was dreamy from start to finish. A lucid poetic dream. The music simply washed over you. Bringing you in an out of consciousness, with the profound symbolism of the piece. A unique opera where the allegorical story predominates. Surprisingly very beautiful and trip-inducing at the same time.

The singing was phenomenal, starting with kunqu singer Qian Yi, who was obviously the star of the show that she really carried at every moment. Her singing was beautiful and impressionistic yet also expressive throughout. She was the perfect embodiment of the unnamed character, simply referred to as the Woman. It was oneiric the way she seemed to float across the stage, the way she would walk in short swift steps that were completely concealed by her kimono costume. Her most beautiful moment came at the end where she suddenly finds herself ensconced in a pool of ink. She seems to either be sinking into it as the ink seeps into more and more of her dress, or else she is rising up above it, her apotheosis, her ascension. She is either stuck in the mire of her artistic imaginative powers or else she is about to take off as she spreads her artistic wings, about to soar up, up and away, using the imaginative powers she has finally taken the reins of, as she slowly and majestically raises her right arm toward the sky like an empowered revolutionary so full of hope, so full of life. And fade to black. Such a thrilling final note to end on.

The four elements.
Photo credit: Spoleto Festival
The rest of the cast was comprised of countertenor John Holiday, baritone Ao Li, tenor Joseph Dennis and baritone Joo Won Kang, who played the four elements, the four directions, Firefly, Lover, Wolf and Light. Don’t ask who played what though as it was pretty hard to tell, not only were these gentlemen all dressed alike in different shades of grey pope-looking outfits, but also we don’t speak Cantonese so trying to follow the supertitles of a highly impressionistic libretto and matching the words up to the role and then to the singer was not an easy task. The overall effect though was beautiful as these singers provided both the framing for, and counterparts interacting with The Woman.

The most striking among the male cast was countertenor John Holiday who stole the show any time he opened his mouth. He really has a beautiful, beautiful voice. His strident and strong countertenor voice was buoyed up by the other three male voices who often accompanied each other chorus-like. Holiday’s was always expressive and clear. His voice projected so effortlessly and sounded so angelic that I had to pinch myself to realize that he was singing and not the female lead. It was a real treat to hear him in action, live, after all of his recent success at Operalia, not to mention all the other buzz that has accumulated around this rising countertenor. I can’t wait to hear him sing one of his signature baroque roles. He would make a phenomenal Giulio Cesare. Give us John Holiday! And give him to us baroque style! We’ll look forward to catch him in Glimmerglass’ new Catone in Utica in August. 

But for now, suffice it say: Huang Ruo, what you do to me I want to have done to me forever!

– Lui & Lei

The woman surrounded by the four elements.
Photo credits: Spoleto Festival