Sunday, June 19, 2016

Of Love, Madness and Massacres

Giovanni Pacini’s Malvina di Scozia
Vertical Player Repertory
Church of St. James
May 13, 2016

"The Death of Inês de Castro" (1834)
Karl Briullov
Unearthing forgotten operas from dusty libraries can be a hit-or-miss affair, since oftentimes certain works have been forgotten for good reason. But, every now and then, a true diamond comes to light and when that happens, it’s a most exciting thing. Vertical Player Repertory’s (VPR) unearthing of Giovanni Pacini’s 1851 Malvina di Scozia was one of those diamonds, and a particularly sparkling and awe-inspiring one.

Giovanni Pacini (1796-1867)
First things first, here’s a recap of the complicated plot: there’s a king (Malcom) who has a handsome and brave son (Arturo, our romantic hero) who wins wars left and right. The king wants to reward his son by arranging his marriage to an Irish princess (Morna), but the prince is really not interested as he has a secret lover (Malvina, our heroine) with whom he even already has kids (very Norma-esque of them). Our romantic hero decides to make his lover an honest woman and they get married. Enter the baddie of the opera (Wortimer, an advisor to the king) who holds a grudge against Malvina and won’t stop until he makes her life utterly miserable. He starts by kidnapping her kids when she’s not looking. As a result, she runs to the king’s castle to plead mercy and recover her children. Upon her arrival, however, havoc breaks loose because in the meantime the Irish princess has also arrived and is all excited about the prospect of marrying the prince. There’s clearly a diplomatic issue here that risks unleashing civil war between Scotland and Ireland, so our noble Malvina delivers herself to prison to quiet things down a bit. Our heroine faces either death or exile but she sings so beautifully about being a loving mother that everybody tears up and she’s freed from prison, reunited with her kids and welcomed into the royal family. In the middle of all that emotion, however, she faints and the baddie gets her a refreshing calice of some beverage to restore her forces. Fast forward, both Malvina’s kids and the king have been killed by the baddie who is really on a roll. Malvina goes insane and, if that was not enough, it also turns out that the calice she drank earlier had slow release poison and she dies. In utter despair for having lost his father, wife and kids, Arturo finally kills the baddie. Curtain.

A Pacini autograph
Sounds vaguely familiar? Not surprisingly as the libretto is by Salvatore Cammarano, who also authored Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor, with which it has many plot points in common. Malvina, however, is inspired by a true tragic love story between the noblewoman Ines de Castro and King Pedro I of Portugal in the 14th century and just happens to incorporate elements familiar from other Donizetti operas like Anna Bolena with its mad scene and Lucia with its last moment exit of the heroine to higher heavens. Think “Tu che a Dio spiegasti l’ali.” The royal Portuguese affair was such a scandal that the Bourbon censors demanded that the action be moved to Scotland if the opera were to be performed. Lots of drama on and off stage!

The tomb of Inês de Castro
(aka Malvina)
Malvina successfully premiered in Naples in December 1851, had a few revivals but had all but vanished from the repertoire by 1862. Fast forward to May 2016 when the tiny yet fierce indie company VPR manages to resuscitate Malvina. The performance was in a modest Upper West Side church, in a semi-staged recital form with a single pianist accompanying the singers. Even with such meager means, all of the artists involved did such an extraordinary job that the beautiful bel canto and the gripping drama came across with vivid and lasting power. Seriously, when we walked out of the venue we did not know what hit us. We sang highlights from the night to ourselves all the way home and they were all brand new tunes to us. It was just that captivating.

All you need is bel canto. Bel canto is all you need. Pacini’s music was stunning, sounding like a combination of Donizetti and early Verdi and with plenty of exhilarating bel canto ensembles including trios, quartets, a quintet and even a septet! The range and intensity of emotions portrayed by the soprano in the title role run the gamut, akin to the most heroic assoluta roles. Passionate lover, desperate mother, endearing friend, loving daughter, crazed broken soul are just a few of the colors expressed by this character. The other female lead is the Irish princess Morna, written for a contralto with great agility abilities. Interestingly, this opera features a baritone in the lead role of the romantic hero and a tenor in the place of the villain. Quite a reversal from usual conventions, which is apparently due to the fact that the Naples opera theater for which the piece was composed did not have a leading tenor under contract at the time but did happen to have available one of the hottest baritones of the time.

The cast was solid across the board. Baritone Benjamin Bloomfield, singing the male lead role of Arturo, had a booming voice that waxed lyrical when necessary. As the besotted lover in the center of the story, pulled between his own personal passion and a dynastic arranged marriage, he sticks to his guns and remains with the woman he loves. Particularly moving was the aria in which he consoled his true love with the words: “Sei mia sposa, e il cielo lo sa.” It's big bel canto drama. Something that could have come straight out of the Lucia di Lammermoor playbook.

Arturo seeks revenge on the smarmy Wortimer
Photo credit: VPR
Soprano Angela Leson, singing the title role of Malvina was sweet yet commanding. She brought a tenderness to finding herself caught in the middle of a love triangle that humanized the story. In her initial duet with Arturo, “O figli innocenti,” Leson plaintively set the stage for her maternal plight. It was very hard not to sympathize with the pair that was already so in love. She really showed her chops, however, when it came to her mad scene late in the opera. She is suddenly a wounded mother who is forced to relive the murder of her children and waxes between sadness and memories of happier times. It was high drama and Leson ran with what she had to work with.

The arrival of mezzo soprano Karolina Pilou late in the first act took the evening to a whole other level. She has a chesty sound and an agility that are truly mesmerizing. Her wonderful instrument sounds like a velvety plum, with such an effortless purity and fluidity and the overall effect of enveloping the listener in an hypnotic liquid. Singing the role of Morna, the betrothed of the prince, she had enough to do over the course of the evening to keep me thoroughly plugged in. Her opening cavatina Fra lo splendore e i cantici, where Morna sings her love, joy and excitement of marrying Arturo, was one of the highlights of the evening. In the romanza Stella nemica e infausta Pilou displayed more heart wrenching dramatic colors. After having discovered her at a LoftOpera event last fall, it was a pleasure to hear her take on something even meatier. She is a singer to watch out for.

Tenor Aram Tchobanian as the smarmy Wortimer was convincingly despicable, counterintuitively singing the role of the bad guy, something you so rarely see a tenor do in the standard repertory. He bent the sound of his instrument into a grotesque snarl that made him both utterly detestable but also sucked you into his ultimately tragic fall. There are very few villains who fall into his category in the opera's that I know.

And then there is Pacini’s rather novel use of the chorus. It really felt like early Verdi works where the chorus starts to have a key narrative function to move the plot forward. Pacini has the chorus of royal courtiers comment on key narrative points, and in Act III the chorus really plays a central role by recounting the course of tragic events that transpired during the intermission (i.e. Mortimer killed Malvina’s kids, the King is about to die and Malvina goes mad). In VPR’s setting, the 21-member chorus was a particular treat as the venue was pretty small. There is definitely something special about experiencing a chorus of this size in full bel canto cry so up close.

The stellar cast
Photo credit: VPR
The amount of work, dedication and passion it takes to put together something of this value and quality are incredible and we cannot but commend VPR and all parties involved for it. The discovery of Giovanni Pacini’s Malvina di Scozia was truly a revelation. Things like this make us wonder how many other lost gems might be out there just waiting to be discovered by industrious young minds like the people at VPR. We cannot even begin to imagine how sensational it would be to have this opera staged with a full orchestra and sure hope that someone pulls together the funds to make it happen.

– Lei & Lui

A Dido and Aeneas for Paranoid Times

Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas
Heartbeat Opera Spring Festival
Opening Night Gala
Theatre at St. Clement’s
Hell’s Kitchen, New York City
March 12, 2016

Order in the kingdom but not for long
Photo credit: Russ Rowland
Louisa Proske’s production of Lucia di Lammermoor, the companion piece in this year’s Heartbeat Festival, is a tough act to follow. Nevertheless, Heartbeat Opera co-founder and co-visionaire Ethan Heard rose to the occasion with a striking and thoughtful new take on a Baroque favorite.

Aeneas woos poor Dido
Photo credit: Russ Rowland
Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas is a fantasia on the classic story of Dido the Queen of Carthage’s tragic fall that is very loosely based on the canonical version of the story found in Book IV of Virgil’s Aeneid. Not only does Jove intervene, as is the case in the Virgilian source material, but a chorus of witches does as well, just to ensure with extra certainty that Dido meets the demise she is fated. It becomes a double fate. An unnecessary addition to the already tragic plot becomes a sadistic experiment in inevitability. There is hardly a sadder heroine to be found in the history of western literature and dear old Purcell and his librettist double down on her hardship. It would be despicable if the end product weren't so absolutely delectable.

Director Ethan Heard follows suit and playfully doubles down. In a brilliant move he double-cast members of Dido’s coterie as the witches. The uncanny was to be found all around her. It was unsettling really. The opera opens in a sort of gala reception to welcome the arrival of Aeneas and his men in Carthage. A foreboding joy permeates the scene. The evil that lurks beneath the surface, however, only emerges once the party dissolves. Dido retires to her chamber that prominently features a bear claw footed bathtub where an extended seduction scene takes place between the otherwise independent Carthaginian queen and her soon to be Trojan paramour.

The witches reveal themselves
Photo credit: Russ Rowland
The suspicion that members of her coterie seem to be in on it is confirmed when the scene shifts imperceptibly and her entourage shift with it. Slowly and writhingly undressing the men and women in waiting reveal themselves to be supernatural creatures with dark powers and even darker designs on the unsuspecting queen. It was a stroke of genius on the director's part to intuit such insidious presences in the banalities of courtly day-to-day. I found it spot on and a unique take in terms of my experience of this opera. It really worked. The only thing I found a bit amateurish was the extent to which the witches descended into gratuitous debauchery. The main male witch was a knock out in drag but it really didn't seem necessary to have him hump the bathtub so extensively.

The witches humping anything in sight
Photo credit: Russ Rowland
The challenge of setting this Baroque court entertainment is what to do with all of the extended musical interludes besides stage them as pure pageantry. Good portions of this opera consists of frolicking choral passages that are largely out of step with any kind of contemporary musical taste and are a far cry from the kinds of avant-garde musical virtuosity Heard and his collaborators gave us last time. Nevertheless, they struck on solutions. Some were more successful than others. Among my favorite moments were those in which members of the small chamber orchestra left their perch at the rear of the stage and strolled as though in a sort of demonic processional around the proscenium. As per his usual, Heartbeat Opera co-musical director and violinist Jacob Ashworth struck a dashing stage presence as he led the revelry with violin tucked under his chin.

"When I am laid in earth..."
Photo credit: Russ Rowland
Ask anybody and the answer will be unanimous. The highlights of the opera are undoubtedly the two primary arias of the poor victim of the story. Carla Jablonski’s Dido was a stately dame with the instrument of a mature singer cut out for stages much grander than this one, which made it a pleasure to hear her in such an intimate setting. Her “Thy hand, Belinda” was emotional. It is a track that is often on steady rotation in my Baroque Lamentations playlist and tingle every time I hear it. Jablonski did more than do it justice, particularly in the context of Heard’s dramatic setting of the piece. The whole tone of the evening focused in on the poor heroine who was about to breathe her last. We end up with Dido in the bathtub beneath a lone light bulb dangling from a cord. And everything closes in on her. Darkness surrounds.
Dido laments her fate, and we with her
Photo credit: Russ Rowland
But I have to admit that in Heard’s hands more than just Dido’s two showpiece arias emerged as the the evening’s takeaways. The last ten minutes of the show were utterly sublime. As Dido gives up the ghost and her sister Belinda looks on in amazement something truly remarkable starts happening. A chorus of newcomer singers to evening’s show suddenly began to come out of the woodwork. As it turns out this extended chorus had been dispersed throughout the audience from the beginning, unbeknownst to any of us. Slowly they stood up one by one as the final hair raising choral passage send shivers down our collective spine since it was sung from all around us. Magic. I had goosebumps all over my body. The implications were intense. The suggestion is that like Dido we too could be surrounded in our daily lives by ordinary people whose bodies have been snatched by evil spirits who are plotting our demise like poor Dido. It was aesthetic pleasure with a kick: real reflection went into this.

Thank you, Heartbeat Opera, for all of the thrills. There is something special happening here: boiling opera down to its most fleshful and life affirming essence, not to mention delivery copious surprises along the way.

– Lui

The landscape isn't what it seems
Photo credi: Russ Rowland

Witches lurk in the most unexpected places. Look around you.
Photo credit: Russ Rowland

Dido buffeted by forces greater than herself
Photo credit: Russ Rowland

Saturday, June 18, 2016

Figaro Redivivus

Marcos Portugal’s The Marriage of Figaro (1799)
(La pazza giornata, ovvero Il matrimonio di Figaro)
On Site Opera
632 on Hudson
June 17, 2016

Cinque, dieci, ventisei: Figaro measures where it counts
Photo credit: Pavel Antonov
Lui: The second installment of On Site Opera’s Figaro Project. After last year’s extraordinarily well executed unearthing of Paisiello’s Barbiere di Siviglia, this time around they’re dusting off an utterly neglected version of part two in the Beaumarchais trilogy set to music by Marco Portugal just some fifteen years after the Da Ponte-Mozart masterpiece based on the same material.

The venue of the wedding
Lei: The venue, 632 on Hudson is a unique hidden gem located in the transitional area between the western edge of the West Village and the Meatpacking district. A 19th century building, former sausage factory converted into eccentric exquisitely decorated villa. We happen to know the space and were intrigued by how it would get used as it is a triplex with a rooftop garden and the most delicious speakeasy bar in the basement. While they could have gone the whole immersive route á laSleep No More,” i.e. there’s always something happening and the public is free to roam and stop where it pleases (be it the main action or some minor detail), this production had the scenes set in three rooms of the venue (kitchen, living room and atrium), each time with rows of chairs for the 50 patrons occupying most of each used room so that the public sat in an orderly fashion and moved with each scene change. The idea seemed to be vaguely that the opera’s public played the part of the invitees to Susanna and Figaro’s wedding, which worked perfectly well in the actual wedding scene, where we even got sweet treats and a shot of Madeira! All in all Eric Einhorn’s “stage” direction was clever as he put the space of the villa to good use. It would have been amazing if they managed to use the planted rooftop garden for the final scene but I guess the logistics of it were too challenging.

Non più andrai farfallone amoroso (just kidding!)
Photo credit: Pavel Antonov
Lui: As we arrived everyone was already in character. Cherubino was out on the sidewalk, grease flying while eating a piece of pizza decked out like a modern day millennial with a hoodie and his headphones around his neck. As we entered a very dapper Count Almaviva welcomed us on the stairs. Susanna was bickering with Bartolo about her voice lesson. Antonio was already drinking from a flask. And Figaro was running around doing busy butler-like stuff. Talk was already in the air of the day’s wedding festivities and it truly felt like stepping into somebody’s beautiful home in the middle of a busy day.

The layers are palpable like reflections of reflections
Photo credit: Pavel Antonov
Lei: On Site Opera’s production of Portugal’s work went through a double layer of adaptations. First, the original Italian libretto was translated into English, with arias translated by Gilly French and Jeremy Gray and dialogue translated and adapted by Joan Holden. I always cringe when this happens since if something was composed to Italian words, it will always sound much worse in English no matter how clever and careful the translation. While I get the challenge of projecting supertitles when the opera is a movable feast around a mansion, still there can be ways to deal with it. As a compromise, one could do recitatifs in English and keep the arias in the original Italian, which could be awkward, yes, but not less than hearing an opera that seems quasi bel canto sung in English.

Cross-dressing the young soldier
Photo credit: Pavel Antonov
In addition, the score was re-arranged for a band comprised of orchestral instruments (violin, cello, oboe, and clarinet) alongside instruments found in a traditional Portuguese fado ensemble (accordion, guitar, and the Portuguese guitarra). The idea seems to be to “honor the composer’s elegance of musical phrase and crisp comic timing while, at the same time, evoking his heritage.” Without having any recordings of the original, it’s hard to tell how much this arrangement kept of Portugal’s work and how much it departed from it. While I found the re-arranged music pleasant, it was not particularly impressive or memorable. And the special local flavors of Portuguese fado did not really come through (at least from where we were sitting).

Lui: I just don’t see the point in bastardizing an already bastardized copy of a brilliant original. The whole experience left me wondering to what extent what we heard tonight was the lackluster product of Marcos Portugal’s second-rate copy or the result of the unnecessary dumbing of it down into a working English translation. The Petrarchan nuances of Cherubino’s paradoxical icy fire lovesickness was gone. On whom was this classical trope lost: Portugal’s first-rate librettist? Or the translators of the present production? It is unlikely that it was Gaetano Rossi, a librettist who collaborated with Rossini and Donizetti in works such as Semiramide and Linda di Chamonix.

Figaro owned his environment
Photo credit: Rebecca Fey
Lei: What the singers had to perform, they performed beautifully. It’s just unfortunate they didn’t have more to work with. The acting was exceptional and the singing was highly competent. The level of engagement and professionalism of these artists was impressive, particularly as they had to basically learn their roles from scratch and with no recordings. The English in and of itself, though not ideal, in their capable hands it was much more pleasant than expected.

Jesse Blumberg’s Figaro was playful and present. He had good comic timing and composure and never took it over the top. He was a booming baritone whose mood ran the gamut from the chuckle to the bellyful laugh.

Almaviva's acting chops on display
Photo credit: Pavel Antonov
Lui: Tenor David Blalock was the only cast member who was back for more, reprising his role as Count Almaviva, this time acting as the lone umbilical cord character in this sequel. Everyone else was new to the trilogy. Blalock’s acting was so impressive that I initially thought he was another singer, maybe his brother (David Blalock, also a tenor) as in last year’s Barbiere he was youthful, goofy and lovey dovey. Here Blalock looked more mature, sure of himself, entitled and slightly threatening, really a sensational actor. His imposing brow and commanding gaze made him an intimidating padrone. Unlike in the Mozart, where the Count becomes a baritone after having been written as a tenor in both Paisiello’s and Rossini’s take on part one in the trilogy, Portugal keeps him as a tenor. Blalock grounds his bright instrument in a deeper sound. Bright on the edges, but brash and manly when he has to be.

Lei: It seems like Portugal wrote the most challenging and showy arias for Susanna as he had a particularly exceptional soprano available for the role. Jeni Houser was indeed the singer with the flashiest arias, from quick fire coloratura in Act I to more ecstatic and dramatic contemplation in Act III (the equivalent of Mozart’s “Deh vieni, non tardar”). Houser, who has a bright lively instrument, portrayed Susanna with fiery petulant flair and was particularly impressive in the ensembles that she helped carry and sustain.

Susanna holds forth in disguise
Photo credit: Michelle Agins / New York Times
Lui: Soprano Melissa Wimbish as Cherubino was perhaps the most effervescent of all. She was a pleasure to watch as she flitted about leaving a mess in her wake as she fell in love with anything of the feminine sex with a pulse. With her tuft of curly hair and her big eyes taking the world in around her, Wimbish charismatically embodied everybody’s favorite pageboy with joyful pizzazz. Her soprano also moved effortlessly from the spoken dialogue to passages of extreme lyrical beauty.

Cherubino as a young millennial with his bride
Photo credit: Pavel Antonov
Lei: Though her initial “Porgi amor” aria had been replaced with something more along the lines of her later “Dove sono i bei momenti” piece, Portugal’s countess is just as lovelorn and lonely as her Mozartian counterpart. Soprano Camille Zamora sang her with great melancholic feeling and embodied beautifully the Countess’ elegance and heartache.

Maestro Geoffrey McDonald used his 7-piece ensemble sparingly. His approach seemed to be that of using the instrumentalists as a form of support for the singers. The musicians never overwhelmed the vocalists. In fact, it hardly ever even called explicit attention to itself. Despite the exotic local southern Spanish flair of some of the instrumentation, these little touches and colors never distracted from the main flow of the action.

Situation comedy though never slapstick
Photo credit: Pavel Antonov
Lui: Maybe because of the English translation, but this often came across like the sit-com version of a great opera. The whole thing followed so closely the plot points of the Da Ponte-Mozart masterpiece (and their shared source material in Beaumarchais) that it left you longing for the superior version. On our way home, rather than singing what we heard, we found ourselves singing the timeless melodies, duets and arias that were missing. The ones that make Mozart the genius he is. The story was virtually the same from moment to moment with really just a few inversions and cuts. So when it came to classic moments in the Mozart score, I found myself rising expectantly to see what Portugal would do for example with Figaro’s big misogynist aria at the end of what was here Act III. But nothing of the sort came about. Either On Site’s adaptation gave us a politically correct version or else Portugal censored himself. It is such an unknown work that I can’t say with any certainty.

The same went for Almaviva’s classic class warfare aria. When it came time for him to switch gears into suspecting that his servants might be putting one over on him, I was gearing up to hear something along the lines of the fiery righteous aristocratic rage that comes out in “Vedrò mentr’io sospiro / felice un servo mio,” but nothing of the sort came about. All of the class rage had been cut out.

The huge Act II finale
Photo credit: Pavel Antonov
There was just one exception to this general diminishing of Mozart as a model. The big Act II finale was an octet here, upping the ante on Mozart’s famous finale. I have to hand it to everyone involved in this scene from the musicians to all eight of the singers. This was a very impressive piece of layered operatic theater. It amounted to one moment in which the copy matched its illustrious forebears.

Lei: I just don’t get the point of this little exercise. Why not just do the Mozart in the original language but in a chamber site specific setting and call it a day. It would still be novel and unique and I guarantee the public would be mesmerized. It is a masterpiece after all and not without good reason. Portugal’s opera, again unclear whether as originally written or as adapted for this show, sadly just did not seem that good. While I totally get the academic interest of unearthing forgotten jewels from the past, Portugal’s opera is just not a jewel and it’s way too close to one of the greatest operas of all times to come out alive. It is unfortunate because On Site Opera clearly has access to plenty of resources and excellent artists that could all be put to better use.

Opera in your lap
Photo credit: Pavel Antonov
Lui: This truly was opera in your lap though. It was noble in its intention and mostly great in its execution but ultimately a wasted effort. Sorry to say. We caught the final performance of the run and the second one of the night, which did not allow for time to roam around the venue before the beginning of the show, unfortunately. The prospect seemed promising when we arrived. Everyone had a big smile plastered on their faces as the 6:30 show filed out onto the twilit West Village street. Something must have been working at least for them.

The whole experience tonight gave me a greater appreciation of the truly noble and noteworthy effort of the Vertical Player Repertory’s highly laudable excavation in their initiative to unearth Pacini’s all but forgotten bel canto masterpiece Malvina di Scozia. Now that was a worthwhile venture into the dusty annals of oblivion. To bring a discovery like Malvina to light is truly something to get excited about. While Portugal’s Marriage of Figaro was indeed good fun and the cast was truly top notch, this little excursion with On Site Opera left much to be desired. Nevertheless, we’re optimistic about the third installment in the Beaumarchais trilogy slated for production sometime next year.

Lei & Lui

Art deco lounge doubles as Rosina's boudoir
Photo credit: 632 on Hudson
Propitious stars over the nuptial couple
Photo credit: 632 on Hudson