Saturday, September 26, 2015

Hip Verdi Pills in Bushwick

Loft Opera Summer Session
Verdi Selections from Traviata, Luisa Miller, Trovatore and Aida
September 25, 2015
The Muse Circus School, Brooklyn

Viva Verdi!
Photo credit: Allegri con Fuoco
Lei: Loft Opera did it again, they managed to pack a full house with a young, artsy, hip audience and make them cheer for Verdi as if it was the coolest new thing in Bushwick. Whatever their secret is, it works and it’s electrifying and refreshing to be a part of it. This time the venue was The Muse, a circus school in very, very deep Brooklyn, right next to an auto repair shop and a number of shady looking vehicles just out of car accidents or worse. I had to tiptoe around a lot of shattered glass and who knows what else to get to the front door, but once we were in the scene was incredible. Mismatched chandeliers dangled next to trapezes, a red curtain with a VERDI light bulb sign framed the back of the space, a piano in the center, wood platforms at the four corners. 
The perilous venue.
Photo credit: Allegri con Fuoco
The incredible part was that the public was mostly under 30 and the seats, benches and banquettes scattered around were all full, with people saving seats for their friends, so much that we had to go to back of the house to get a couple of extra chairs to sit on. At some point I even saw a girl taking a selfie with the VERDI sign, it does not get more XXI century than this. Most of the time the average public at indie opera shows is on the geriatric end of the spectrum and definitely does not fill up a space this big or takes selfies for that matter. This time I was not the youngest in the public and had very mixed feelings about it.

The public in Bushwick.
Photo credit: Allegri con Fuoco
Lui: LoftOpera has the winning combination – the special sauce, as founder Brianna Maury puts it. Somehow she manages to make opera infinitely hip. A hundred-odd youngsters, hipsters, artists mingle with the old timers and the intellectuals. The product is always high quality. The singing strong. The concept sexy. In fact that is quite possibly the true beauty of it. In addition to staging full scale scores in all their full-blown diva-filled glory, LoftOpera manages to boil the operatic down into little bite-sized nuggets.

Lei: The formula was pretty simple: 4 singers – soprano, mezzo, baritone and tenor – performed 4 show-stopping duets from Verdi operas accompanied just by a piano played by maestro Sean Kelly. As the program notes put it: “That’s what our Verdi selections are all about: giving you a chance to hear Verdi’s music, truly Olympic-level singing, from just a few feet away. Letting you feel how it makes your stomach vibrate and your ears ring. Find a seat, get your tissues ready, and hold on to your butts.”

Suzanne Vinnick as the pleading Leonora.
Photo credit: Allegri con Fuoco
Lui: The lightness of touch of the piano accompaniment allowed the voices the maximum exposure. It was raw and almost visceral especially if the singers were singing in your general vicinity in the cavernous postindustrial space. The singers sounded loud and clear. Their voices resounding among the rafters often over the sound of unexplainable drilling going on outside or on the roof?!? Or else clambering for prominence over the sound of a passing L train.

Lei: The voices and raw emotions were definitely front and center here. It was interesting to experience Verdi duets in this setting and even more so to observe how the hipster public reacted to it. While there were supertitles, it was hard to see them (at least from where we were sitting) because of how the lighting was set up, however that did not matter. The public was so captivated by the singing and the music that it was not even following the supertitles, since the narrative framing of each vignette provided in the program notes was sufficient to give a general sense of what was being sung.

Joshua Jeremiah unleashes his Conte.
Photo credit: Allegri con Fuoco
Lui: Tonight, they performed four Verdi duets from Traviata, Trovatore, Luisa Miller and Aida, and they closed with one of his most famous drinking songs (there’s one in every Verdi opera by my reckoning). In each case they managed to get me to rethink some of the details and minor themes lurking beneath the surface of these familiar moments from such classic works. Experienced in isolation like this, the theme of last resort love, loss and the inexorable passing of time really came to the fore from Violetta’s scene with Germont in the first excerpt from La Traviata.

Lei: As to the specific selections presented, the most successful was by far the Conte di Luna/Leonora duet from Act IV of Trovatore. Baritone Joshua Jeremiah and soprano Suzanne Vinnik not only sang their hearts out with passion and fire but also acted convincingly. Jeremiah embodied the evil Conte di Luna with a brutal rage so intense that it was scary, while Vinnik pleaded with him in desperation and offered her body with tragic sacrifice to save her beloved Manrico. The chemistry between the two singers was electrifying and goosebump-inducing. These two artists were good but not as sensational in their Violetta/Germont duet from Act II of Traviata, where, however, the soprano displayed a pretty impressive and powerful instrument, particularly in the higher register.

Dominick Rodriguez looks on.
Photo credit: Allegri con Fuoco
Lui: A profound intensity of emotion emerged from the duet from Trovatore. It was like jumping right to the juicy bits and made me hungry for our upcoming afternoon with Dmitri Horostovsky and Anna Netrebko in the same roles at the Met next week. It’s like seeing old friends with fresh eyes. In his second duet of the evening, baritone Joshua Jeremiah now singing the Conte di Luna had warmed up. He was suddenly much stronger, exuding an emotional intensity and belting out a rounder less tremulous sound out of his baritone voice. He sounded still green as Germont, but here he found his voice as a young and power hungry lover. Soprano Susanne Vinnik was a tortured soul in her own right. She let out her little yelps of resignation as she reciprocated with a tormented passion all her own.

Luscious sounding mezzo Karolina Pilou.
Photo credit: Allegri con Fuoco
Lei: The other duets were between tenor Dominick Rodriguez and mezzo Karolina Pilou, who sang selections from Luisa Miller and Aida. Pilou has a beautiful instrument with a lusciously plush sound and definitely a lot of power (so much that it often drowned her companion Rodriguez). Of the two duets they performed, the Aida one was most successful at displaying a more tangible tension between the characters portrayed. The finale of the show brought the four singers together in a light-hearted rendition of Libiamo nei lieti calici from Traviata, with LoftOpera general manager Brianna Maury handing out beers to the singers so that they could appropriately toast among themselves and with the public around them.

Lui: Tonight's program embodies a formula that can be infinitely reworked and repurposed with greater frequency. They can make little bel canto pills, tight baroque confections, miniature verismo morsels that have an even greater possibility of serving as a gateway drug to new opera fans. After all, there is an abundance of aspiring opera singers in this city, all of whom have at least a scene or two in the arsenal. LoftOpera could easily repackage and repurpose any of those pieces in any form they please. Especially if it has that pop. They could make opera cool and pertinent and now again. Sex it up. As they continue to prove. 

Lei: The non-traditional patrons went pretty wild and that was a testament to the genius of Verdi and the power of opera. One does not need to speak Italian or be a musicologist to be moved or appreciate extraordinary singing portraying powerful emotions and opera does not need to be stuffy or geriatric. Quite the contrary, when done in the right setting with a few beers around the place, opera can indeed be the next cool thing in Bushwick.

- Lei & Lui

Libiamo ne' lieti calici!
Photo credit: Allegri con Fuoco
che la bellezza infiora
Photo credit: Allegri con Fuoco
Hip young public lingering and raving about VERDI
Photo credit: Allegri con Fuoco

Friday, September 25, 2015

A Lackluster Season Opener

Verdi’s Otello
Met Season Opening Gala 2015
September 21, 2015

Desdemona puts up a fight against all odds.
Photo credit: Ken Howard
It was an unusual opening night. For a start there were no protesters picketing the Met (unlike the last couple of years). Then, the glamour level was relatively unimaginative. I was unable to spot any particularly spectacular gown or even a tiara, which is usually part of the fun at the gala. But more importantly the lack of fireworks and innovative ideas permeated the evening’s performance of Verdi’s Otello. While I am not crazy about this opera per se, I was looking forward to the start of the new season and was ready to be swept away by some clever and thought-provoking interpretation. Being a huge fan of two of the lead singers (Yoncheva and Lučić), I had pretty high expectations for this new production.

Otello emerges victorious.
Photo credit: Ken Howard
The opening was sensational: animations of a dark and stormy sea were projected onto a translucent scrim that covered the whole stage, producing an exciting and almost terrifying counterpoint to Verdi’s tempestuous score. This is one of my favorite passages in the opera that I have always found gripping from the very first notes. In Otello, Verdi dispenses with an overture of any kind and he thrusts the audience, in medias res, straight into what is actually Act II of his Shakespearean source material. As the scrim lifted to reveal the chorus watching Otello’s vessel brave the tempest, the stormy projections coupled with stroboscopic lightning and an ominous fog continued until Otello emerged victorious and made his way through the crowd. These effects worked so well that I hoped director Bartlett Sher would continue to employ the talents of the lighting design team throughout the opera, but sadly this was not the case.

Drink, drink, drink with me!
Photo credit: Ken Howard
It turned out to be a very minimalist production, with sets comprised essentially of transparent double walls with some vaguely nineteenth-century faux-neo-classical architectural features that were pushed around in different formations, creating a public square, a palace interior, a maze of hallways and so on. These walls allowed for fluid scene changes and some cool effects such as showing characters lurking behind them (Otello spying on Cassio), towering from their tops (Iago orchestrating the Cassio-Desdemona encounter) or being trapped inside them (Otello as a defeated leone (lion) at the end of Act III). The use of lighting design was very minimal with the plastic walls changing color at some crucial moments (red, when Otello’s demise is made clear) and some constellation appearing in the sky at the end. Otherwise, however, the sets were dark and empty (aside from some extremely basic bedroom furniture in the final act) and really did not give the eye much to work with nor their predominant negative dark space was put to any good use.

A dark and stormy Otello.
Photo credit: Ken Howard
For most of the first couple of acts, an ominous projection of an enormous sea continued to roll its tempestuous waves in the background over, above and beyond the walls. The subtle impression was that of being on a small island buffeted by the wind and the ever-changing sea. The opening of Act III brought this reading home. While the orchestra intoned the first passages of the act, the scrim was back and on it we saw projected an animation of similar neo-classical palace walls slowly dissolve under the influence of the same stormy sea, as though they were made of sand. The world our Otello inhabits is a tenuous one and is being dissolved by dark forces. While the concept behind the walls was interesting, it was really not enough to carry the show and all-in-all felt incomplete, almost as if the production had run out of money in the middle of the process.

Did the stark simplicity of the production have something to do with the infamous negotiations with the Met unions? Interestingly, in a recent interview Mr. Gelb boasted of having cut corners right down to the buttons on the costumes in order to bring this new production in under budget. Whatever the reason, the costumes were by no means exciting or interesting. The idea was to move the action to the time the opera was composed, so late 1800s. This meant generic nineteenth-century garb with men in stark military suits and women in puffy gowns, with the only touch of color being Desdemona’s red dress in the third act. This blandness coupled with the dark and bare sets did not really help to keep the visuals engaging or add much to the overall interpretation. There was some fuss in the press about this Otello not wearing the traditional blackface make-up but to me that was the least of the issues. 

Iago manipulates Cassio.
Photo credit: Ken Howard
My favorite Verdian baritone Željko Lučić stole the show as Iago. His legato phrasings and his Italian articulation were as impressive as ever and he rendered the character with a diabolical mellifluousness that was hypnotizing and highly seductive. Lučić’s sound is handsome and melodic yet very manly and here displayed a spectrum of expressivity that truly blew me away. Most striking was how the Serbian baritone’s singing perfectly rendered the duality between the true Iago (violent, ambitious, manipulative) and the fake Iago (supportive, sensitive, loyal). The range of characterization displayed by Lučić in this role was most impressive and truly made him the undisputed star of the evening.

Otello succumbs to Iago.
Photo credit: Ken Howard
I also find the character of the villain the most complex and nuanced as rendered in this opera as he is ultimately its evil propelling force. Verdi and his librettist Boito truly gave Iago some spectacular lines and music – think of the chilling and terrifying manifesto Credo in un Dio crudel, where Iago fully acknowledges and embraces his deviousness as ingrained in being human, mocking the righteous man as un istrion beffardo (a mocking actor) while his truth is sono scellerato perche’ son uomo / e sento il fango originario in me (I am a wretch because I am a man, / and I feel within me the primeval slime.)  

Another favorite singer of ours, the rising Bulgarian soprano Sonya Yoncheva did not deceive and indeed rose to the challenge of being the leading lady on the Met’s opening night. Who knew that subbing for Kurzak in Rigoletto two years ago would have led her here so quickly and so brilliantly? Yoncheva embodied the most lyrical and unblemished Desdemona. Her sound is just gorgeously plush and unbelievably pure and her dramatic acting convincing. Every single note uttered by Yoncheva exuded an accurate and emotionally charged interpretation: she was the young bride reminiscing how she fell in love; the earnest friend advocating on Cassio’s behalf; the confused and wronged victim when Otello unleashes his jealous rage; and finally, tragically aware of her imminent death, the pious and strong woman accepting her fate when her husband murders her.

Desdemona shines, Otello lacks luster.
Photo credit: Ken Howard
Latvian tenor Aleksandrs Antonenko as Otello was an expected disappointment. I’ve heard him before in Norma and Carmen and was never a fan of his. Though technically accurate and powerful enough, Antonenko’s voice just lacks warmth, it’s not particularly handsome or full and I find it just plain unpleasant to the ear in the higher register, when it sounds borderline strident. Acting-wise his Otello did not have much nuance and his maximum expression of desperation was often to just throw himself on the ground and lay there while other singers fussed around him. Probably the fault of Sher and his empty sets but still it was odd to watch. In the last act, Antonenko worked better, probably because Otello’s singing there is mostly in the lower register and there was some actual furniture around for him to work with. Beyond poor production choices, however, when the tenor in the title role is so disappointing the perception of the whole opera is just irreparably tainted.

An ominous sky over a foreboding sea.
Photo credit: Ken Howard
The Met orchestra sounded amazing under the baton of young and energetic conductor Yannick Nézet-Séguin. Rarely I have felt the score to be the real protagonist of an opera as tonight. My favorite moments of the performance (after Lučić) were several purely orchestral passages that really emphasized narrative shifts. Notwithstanding some peaks of musical excellence, though, all-in-all this was an underwhelming opening night that left me lukewarm. Here’s hoping that the season can only improve from here on in.

– Lei & Lui

Otello forces his love into submission.
Photo credit: Ken Howard

Thursday, September 3, 2015

Dell'Arte's Rosina Trilogy

Dell’Arte Opera Ensemble
Summer 2015 Beaumarchais Trilogy
Baruch Performing Arts Center

Dell'Arte Opera Ensemble presents the Rosina saga.
Dell’Arte Opera Ensemble is back and more ambitious than ever. Artistic director Christopher Fecteau and his team have grown the company and brought us the most extensive summer festival to date, featuring three fully staged productions, two of which are relative rarities, and a Beaumarchais-themed concert. This time around they tackled one of the trajectories of the Figaro trilogy, or, in this case, what they’re calling the Rosina trilogy.

Rosina and her count unite.
Photo credit: Mark Baker
Il barbiere di Siviglia (1782)
Music by Giovanni Paisiello
Libretto by Giuseppe Petrosellini
August 15, 2015

Rather than start with Rossini’s more canonically performed version of Il barbiere di Siviglia, the first installment of the trilogy, Dell’Arte opted for the lesser known but no less delightful version of the same story by Giovanni Paisiello. And thank goodness, because really Rossini’s take gets overplayed. 

Of the three shows in the run, this one, sadly, was the weakest link. The production was overwrought with crazy costuming and elaborate makeup decisions that distracted from both the music and the story. Several of the singers seemed to have more of a background in musical theater than extensive exposure to operatic singing, and this showed. 

What Dell'Arte has always done well is keep to the basics and build from their strengths (musical excellence and effective direction), which has always allowed them to cover up any hint of amateurishness. Unfortunately, this maiden voyage in the trilogy just wasn't entirely the case. 

The Count and his hoodwinking schemes.
Photo credit: Mark Baker
Rosina (1980)
Music by Hiram Titus
Libretto by Barbara Field
August 28, 2015

Hiram Titus’s Rosina, which we saw second though it technically comes third in the trilogy, was the most exciting discovery of the series, and it was thought-provoking as a foray into “modern” opera. It turns out that it is not inspired by Beaumarchais’ original third installment at all and instead is the brainchild of the composer and his librettist, the playwright Barbara Field. And it is in many ways a product of its time.

Cherubino sings of times gone by.
Photo credit: Mark Baker
The setting is Madrid just a few years after the conclusion of Le nozze di Figaro, though Figaro and Susanna are nowhere to be found. Cherubino is an artist now, trying to make ends meet, and the Countess, Rosina, has abandoned her husband and run off with Cherubino whose child she has recently born. The opera opens in their humble garret as Cherubino puts the finishing touches on his latest painting, a Madonna and child portrait of Rosina and their infant son. It is Beaumarchais meets Puccini’s La boheme, in all its effects.

The whole opening section is mostly sung through, a nod to verismo, and punctuated by an exposition-heavy aria, in which Cherubino recounts some of their well-known backstory, which then evolves into a love duet between the artist and his lover Rosina. But the composer gives us hints early on that something isn’t quite right. Their duet features a plaintive, slightly off kilter oboe accompaniment that clues the audience in to the fact that the Countess isn’t in the right place. This is not where she belongs. Which is in fact precisely where the opera will eventually end up at the end of Act II a couple of hours later.

The libretto often borrows from the tradition of musical theater, even though Titus’s score is largely classically inspired. The whole package was far less modern and dissonant than I would have expected from a piece composed in the late 1970s and had it’s debut in 1980. Musically many moments resonate with echoes of Rossini and Mozart, especially in terms of its basic compositional form, which covers all of the classic bases from arias and duets to quartets. The end of Act I even climaxed in a sextet finale. It doesn't get much more classic than that. 

Cherubino and Rosina in love.
Photo credit: Karen Rich
The story may not fit squarely into the original Beaumarchais trilogy, but the message is perhaps just as counterculture as its revolutionary source material. The bourgeois individualist spirit in Beaumarchais is countered with an anti-establishment, anti-patriarchal energy that is of the independent feminist ilk in Barbara Field’s libretto. “From now on choices shall be pragmatic,” Rosina sings in the final finale at the end of Act II. When she agrees to return to the fold with the Count, she does so on the condition that she remain free of useless vows and will be free to reconsider her commitment at anytime. Call it a post-nup, or a pre-re-nup. Excellent soprano Marie Masters played this modern lady and carried the show. We discovered this singer in Dell’Arte’s production of Salieri’s Falstaff last year where Ms. Masters was a feisty force of nature as Ms. Ford. It was impressive to see her acting range in such a different and more mature character as Titus’s Rosina, all while confirming her vocal talents as a very promising bright soprano.  

In short, the Countess is done slumming it with a starving young artist no matter how charming he is. It’s time for a return to pragmatism, which is strangely prescient of Regan-era bourgeois values coupled with a renewed sense of her worth as an independent woman that bespeaks the Equal Rights Amendment movement of the time too. She is ready to return to the comforts of her life with the Count. The vie bohemienne just wasn’t doing it for her: schlepping water up to the garret, living on next to nothing, never able to afford the rent, constantly bothered by an unkempt and mustachioed landlady requesting payment, and a million other minor torments. She opts for her old life back. Though, she insists, now a worldly wise and independent willed woman, that she will go back to the Count only if he agrees to take her back with her bastard child and without the false vows of matrimony, no claims of eternal love, no promises that nobody can keep. Theirs will be a relationship of convenience that they are equally and independently engaged in. She even goes so far as to pass off her ruby ring, a memento from her initial wedding day, to the count’s ex-courtesan lover who has fallen in love with Cherubino and who will stay on with him (a nod to the Mozartian/DaPontian trick of switching couples?).

Pilar, Mendoza, Amparo, Cherubino and Rosina weather the storm.
Photo credit: Karen Rich
Rosina may be stronger now, but what happened to the grudge between Cherubino and the Conte. It has vanished here. If this was conceived as a sequel to The Marriage of Figaro, the second installment of the original trilogy, it blatantly disregards the premise of Beaumarchais’s third play (The Guilty Mother) that is supposed to take place about twenty years after The Marriage of Figaro and so about seventeen years after Titus and Field’s installment in the Figaro saga. One of the plot points that they do take up though is that Cherubino and the Countess end up having a love tryst, the result of which is in fact the love child at the center of The Guilty Mother. But, in the Beaumarchais, it was an affair that lasted only a night while the Count was away for business. They never ran away together and Cherubino never becomes a starving artist La Boheme-style. In fact, their son, Leon, is raised as the Count’s lawful progeny, even if the Count doubts his legitimacy. None of this would square up with the premise of this opera. The big reveal that Leon is in fact the love child of Cherubino and Rosina is at the center of the dramatic reconciliation of the Beaumarchais play, a twist that is rendered impossible by the fact that the Count is already accepting his wife and her bastard child back into his palace by the end of Field’s Rosina.

Elizabeth Bouk as Amparo.
Photo credit: Mark Baker
Barbara Field’s libretto demonstrates a solid grounding in classic drama conventions. Two of the main plot lines revolve around getting the girl back and getting the ring back. For Cherubino (here played with passion by tenor Christopher Lilley) the task at hand, the objective of his “master plan,” is to retrieve the ring he wasn’t supposed to pawn and return it to its rightful owner without her knowing that it’s gone. And, for the Count (Min Gu Yeo, a beautiful sounding baritone) the action revolves around getting his wife back.

Characters like Señor Mendoza (Korland Simmons) and the landlady Pilar (Kerry Gotschall) are walking archetypes to be employed to comic ends. The landlady’s susceptibility to flattery is one of the plot devices and the source of one of its funniest moments that was convincingly played. Simmons has a deft, happy-go-lucky sense of comic timing and an all around pleasing demeanor on stage that made him fun to watch. As he is prodded to lavish many ornate declarations of love on Gotschall’s mustachioed Pilar by being blindfolded, he gushes forth a profusion of flowery language thinking he was simply alone with his beloved Rosina. The blindfold only comes off once the set piece has gone too far. It is basic slapstick humor very gracefully executed.

Titus’s score is obviously in dialogue with his Mozartian and Rossinian forebears. His musical vocabulary rarely features the alienating dissonance of much modern music. Beautiful moments abound like the line in the contrabasso when Amparo the courtesan (Elizabeth Bouk) steps up to tell her life story in all frankness. But it kind of came out of nowhere, relying on an awkward transition to get there.

Amparo opens up about her sordid past.
Photo credit: Karen Rich
The narrative and dramatic vocabulary of the libretto, on the other hand, is less fluent and frequently lacks tact. Characters often state too much: the scourge of modern opera. Thinking of Mozart and the perfection of Da Ponte’s poetry makes much of the language here that the music is meant to serve seem baggy or trite. “The rent is spent,” was a particularly uninspired turn of phrase – one of the zingers of the evening. The count also has an aria where he repeats “hilarious” over and over and I kept wondering: What is so hilarious? Why was it hilarious? The hilarity of the finding your wife living with another younger man escaped me. It may have been many things, but hilarious doesn’t seem to me among them. Then there were all of these pithy exclamations that packed the message of a proverb but were too wordy to be considered folk wisdom let alone to be sung. At one point we hear: “Diplomacy is the art of making your enemies face off against each other so you don’t get injured” (or something to this effect). What a mouthful! It was awfully wordy! Proverbs and folk wisdom tend to pack a slightly more succinct punch.

Le nozze di Figaro (1786)
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart 
Libretto by Lorenzo Da Ponte
August 29, 2015

Rosina croons Porgi amor.
Photo credit: Dell'Arte Opera
Le nozze di Figaro was definitely the highlight of the festival. While it’s true that it’s hard for other composers and librettists to live up to the genius of the Mozart/Da Ponte combo, Dell’Arte’s rendition of Nozze was fresh and delicious, thanks to a solid cast of singers and wise direction choices.

Soprano Jennifer Townshend was an extremely compelling Countess. From the first notes of her Act II opener, Porgi amor, she had me hooked, and her Dove sono i bei momenti, in Act III, was incredibly moving and had me shedding copious tears. Dell’Arte clearly saved their hottest talent for Mozart. Olivia Betzen was a perfectly fiery Susanna who definitely helped carry the ensembles with her soaring soprano. In her duets with Townshend’s Countess, she also held her own and really gave her something to sing off and sing into. They had good chemistry as the knowing women who are able to outsmart their men since this time Figaro is out of the loop and more powerless than he was in the prequel though he is no less cocky about his quick-wittedness. 

Susanna crossdresses poor Cherubino.
Photo credit: Brian Long 
Baritone Rodolfo Nieto in the role of Figaro had a captivating stage presence and, notwithstanding some pronunciation missteps from time to time, was vocally solid throughout, particularly impressive how he managed to wrap his mouth around Figaro’s most challenging rapid fire lines particularly in Aprite un po’ gli occhi. Mezzo Heather Jones as Cherubino had excellent Italian and great acting chops, delivering the paggio’s showstopping arias with a mischievous freshness and enthusiasm that are the essence of this character. Baritone John Callison successfully played the Count as entitled arrogant and lust. His rendition of Vedrò mentre io sospiro among the highlights of the evening. Bass-baritone Michael Spaziani as Don Bartolo delivered an excellent and thundering La vendetta. After thoroughly enjoying her in Monteverdi’s L’incoronazione di Poppea two years ago, mezzo Alison Cheeseman didn’t have as much to work with here as she did in the role of Nero back then but she was a terrific Marcellina, both vocally and acting-wise. It is truly exciting to watch talented singers like her grow. 

As to the production and direction, the sets were essential but functional and the blocking was pretty traditional for a Nozze, doing justice to the theatrical twists and turns of the plot. In the costume department, Figaro and Susanna make their entrance in ordinary contemporary street clothes suggesting a modern take. Still, there was not much class distinction made between the upper and lower crusts as all in all the cast seemed dressed more for a rehearsal than for closing day of the run. Only the countess seems to exude an elegance pertaining to her status and class. It was also a nice touch to have her most of the time pouring herself and downing full calices of wine, so as to drown her sorrows. The casual vibe of the costumes, however, did not distract from Wolfie’s brilliant music, which the cast and Metamorphosis Orchestra embodied at a very high level. 

Rosina reunites with a repentant husband.
Photo credit: Brian Long
The nine-year-old girl sitting behind us, who was dressed in her cutest going-out-on-the-town dress, was quite thoroughly entertained. At the end of the show we overheard her saying: “Best night ever!” Not once did her attention fade as she was glued to the action all night. And so were we. The cast brought life to this masterpiece of a score with great pacing and verve. 

– Lei & Lui

Happy endings for one and all.
Photo credit: Dell'Arte Opera

Dell'Arte Opera's Artistic Director, Christopher Fecteau

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Modern Words, Modern Music

Written on Skin (U.S. Stage Premiere)
Music by George Benjamin
Text by Martin Crimp
August 13, 2015
Mostly Mozart Festival, Lincoln Center

Forbidden love.
Photo credit: Pascal Victor/Artcomart
The critically acclaimed contemporary composer George Benjamin’s Written on Skin received its stage premiere at this year’s Mostly Mozart Festival to great fanfare. Benjamin’s stab at modern opera has a lot going for it. The singing is largely very beautiful and the orchestra, conducted with tact and nuance by Alan Gilbert, chimes in throughout with dramatic color that ranges from the sublime to the haunting. The score was rarely intentionally strange for the sake of being strange the way so much modern music can be, though it constantly walks the line.

The Protector and his little lamb.
Photo credit: Pascal Victor/Artcomart
Unfortunately, I remain ambivalent about operatic singing in English. Martin Crimp’s highly poetic and rather unconventional libretto did little to assuage my ambivalence. There are certain things that simply do not need to be sung, like, for instance, compound Latinate words such as “international airport” (as in “cancel all the flights”) or expressions like “erase the Saturday car-park.” It just doesn’t work. I know it’s meant to be jarring and to emphasize the modern/medieval time contrast but it doesn’t lend compelling musicality to the whole. And what is with having them sing meta-narrative descriptors, like “He said” and “She said”? At one point Agnés sings a baffling description of a minor detail of her character’s experience. She sings: “What is it she feels between her bare feet and the wood floor? Grit.” How’s that for a non-sequitur? On the one hand it’s vaguely sensual, but on the other it’s just weird.

Bare feet, wood floor, grit.
Photo credit: Pascal Victor/Artcomart
Crimp and Benjamin are obviously pushing boundaries by having singers sing things that otherwise would neither be sung, nor spoken on your average stage. If Wagner dismantled the traditional aria, depriving his operas of heightened moments of musical narrative climax and emotional outpouring, Benjamin and his librettist give us meta-narrative descriptive details that, though surreal, hardly fit into narrative music, let alone into any other traditional storytelling mode. Crimp’s characters sing the unsingable. They are made to put to music the unnecessary, the superfluous.

The Protector unleashes his wrath.
Photo credit: Pascal Victor/Artcomart
While there are moments in which ordinary phrases enter the musical texture of the piece, more often than not big non-colloquial lines are pronounced. The Protector, sung by an imposing Christopher Purves, often talks in the abstract of big vague and apparently unrelated concepts like “purity and violence.” When asked about how his wife is doing he answers: “Sweet and clean.” Is this not the strangest answer to this simple throwaway everyday query you’ve ever heard? Later he will say straightforward things like, “Make him cry blood,” but also more convoluted thing like, “Expel him from joy / with a lacerating whip,” that sounds more awkward than a schoolboy’s mechanical rendering of an ablative absolute in his homework for Latin class. Crimp certainly has a knack for the uncanny turn of phrase.

Girl meets scribe who writes on skin.
Photo credit: Pascal Victor/Artcomart
At the same time, the composer also layers many musical conceits and colors onto the absurdly poetic libretto. Some of which come straight out of the classic book of compositional techniques that continue to work. When Agnés, sung by soprano Barbara Hannigan, and the Boy, sung by the angelic voiced countertenor Tim Mead, sing the line “Too close” together in amorous rapture their voices intertwine and trill like love birds.

Slow motion up the stairs.
Photo credit: Pascal Victor/Artcomart
There were many unique elements to this piece and its staged premiere performance. Like the ending with its slow motion chase across the stage and up the stairs. The production values were high and the set design was intricately ornate for such a short run. The compartmentalized way the stage was broken up vertically into a series of rooms as in a dollhouse contained under the same roof: a two story sort of modern backstage dressing room and design studio stand adjacent to the stark Medieval space of the Protector’s home in which a grove of trees has grown. This staging effectively and cleverly collapsed indoor and outdoor space, the contemporary with the antique. It’s rare to get such an elaborate set at the Met these days and it was a pleasure to look at and try to dissect its sense.

I want to have my faith in contemporary opera restored, and I still have high hopes for the art form. So much of it depends on the right synergy between music and text. Benjamin and Crimp are not entirely off the mark. By the end, I was clapping because at just an hour and forty minutes, I felt like the composer let us off the hook very judiciously and I wanted to thank him for that.

Lui & Lei

Medieval meets modern in the compartmentalized stage.
Photo credit: Pascal Victor/Artcomart
A woman alone.
Photo credit: Pascal Victor/Artcomart