Sunday, July 31, 2016

Burtonesque Birdlike Bel Canto

Rossini’s La gazza ladra
Alice Busch Opera Theater
Glimmerglass Festival
July 29, 2016

The magpie flies the coop
Photo credit: Karli Cadel
There is nothing like beating the summer heat in the big city with an upstate escape to the quaint little opera house on the banks of Otsego Lake, home to the Glimmerglass Opera Festival. Not only is it a dozen degrees cooler up here but it is also breathtakingly beautiful and oh so very peaceful. First up on our dance card this year at the festival is Rossini’s semi-seria curiosity, La gazza ladra (or The Thieving Magpie) best known for its concert-worthy overture. After Caramoor a few weeks ago, it is beginning to feel like a Rossini summer and thank goodness for that. There are far worse things a summer could turn out to be.

A very Gorey stage design by Myung Hee Cho
Photo credit: Karli Cadel
Peter Kazaras’ direction of the opera adhered to a light-hearted, slightly spooky and always surreal, “dark fairytale” look and feel. The sets, designed by Myung Hee Cho, featured simple stylized cutouts that framed the stage with dark interlocking patterns of branches that were lit along their edges with running lights that periodically changed colors. The production’s most distinctive visual touches were the Edward Gorey-inspired avian costumes with their many feathery flourishes, which were also designed by Cho.

A flock of birds take center stage
Photo credit: Karli Cadel
All of the characters from the chorus to the leading ladies and gentlemen were linked to a corresponding winged creature according to their various archetypes, from cockatiels and crows to hawks and vultures. It was a veritable kingdom of birds. Ninetta and Giannetto were done up as a doves, the latter was dressed a lot like the Artist Formerly Known As Prince. Hair and makeup were the handiwork of J. Jared Janas and Dave Bova, which likewise situated us squarely in the realm of Tim Burton, one of Gorey’s great creative kindred spirits. Needless to say, the show looked great.

A crow-like street vendor
Photo credit: Karli Cadel
The opera opened with what was perhaps the most memorable moment of the night – a dumb show choreographed by Meg Gillentine over the famous overture. During which the backstory is brilliantly told all in perfect step with the various movements of Rossini’s sparkling score. The poor servant girl Ninetta falls from the graces of her padrona when a single piece of silverware goes missing. We see the thieving magpie at work, which sets up for the deus ex machina finale.

Gillentine’s choreography was really wonderful. It was certainly one of the highlights of the night. I personally always feel like dancing to Rossini, so seeing the physical potential of his very tuneful score exploited in this way was very satisfying. The overture is so much fun, complex and captivating, kinetic, and, for once, authentic to this opera (i.e. not recycled from a prior one).

However, other passages sounded conspicuously familiar. Giannetto’s big proposal aria in Act I is almost identical to one of prince charming’s big enthusiastic arias in La Cenerentola. We’ve been seeing quite a lot of Rossini lately and it is kind of fun to play the recognition game, or “spot the recycled bits!”

What could have happened to that pesky fork?
Photo credit: Karli Cadel
The opera has tragic and comic elements mixed together. Notwithstanding the perky music combined with the funky interpretation adopted by this particular production, themes of class warfare, unjust accusations, the death penalty, and sexual blackmail are powerfully present. Sure, not unlike other Rossini operas, there is also, a coup de théâtre at the eleventh hour that suddenly solves all everybody’s problems and brings about an easy and very happy ending for one and all, but the opera’s abiding concerns remain nevertheless serious.

Mind your spoons and forks!
Photo credit: Karli Cadel
The personification of the magpie in the form of the infectious dancer Meg Gillentine, who also did the choreography, was one of the most effective and genius ideas of the production. Not only was the magpie a phenomenal and highly entertaining dancer and actress, she helped tell the story big time. Sure, the plot is a tad absurd; after all it’s based on the unfair theft accusation of a lovely young lady when really it was a thieving magpie’s fault all along. So, it kind of makes sense to emphasize the magpie character as part of the connective tissue of the opera pushing the absurdity of it rather than minimizing it. Hence the birdlike features of the rest of the cast maybe suggests that in this psychedelic fairytale there are several types of birds more or less humanized (and humans more or less bird-ized) all playing a role in the unfolding of the central tensions of the plot.

The birdification of this production also worked brilliantly with all the bel canto fireworks, particularly when coming from the soprano Rachele Gilmore in the role of Ninetta. Gilmore has a pure, highly melodic, virtuosic sound and, particularly in the coloratura bits, sounded like the most lyrical of birds, which was duly noted by the magpie.

The Artist Formerly Known As Prince makes a cameo
Photo credit: Karli Cadel
Gilmore’s Act I duet with Giannetto, sung by the smooth-voiced tenor Michele Angelini, was a high point of the evening’s vocal experience. Angelini has a full, high sound in the upper register, and lord knows he needs it for singing roles like this in the bel canto repertoire, but he is really more at home in the mid to lower registers where his masculine chesty voice is round, soothing and seductive. The meager moments he has in this opera left me wanting to hear more from him.

An avian friendship duet
Photo credit: Karli Cadel
One of the highlights from Act II was the harrowing friendship duet between Ninetta, who was basically on stage the entire evening, and the loyal Pippo, a pants role sung by a playful Allegra De Vita. They so beautifully fused their voices together in this emotional low point that occurs after poor Ninetta has been imprisoned over the fork and the spoon. De Vita has a heart-wrenching delicacy to her sound and she pushed Gilmore to new heights of expressivity. It was such a touching moment that it hardly seemed at home in the context of the rest of this opera, at least in this treatment of it.    

Comedy blends with tragedy
Photo credi: Karli Cadel
Several comic parts stood out as well. Later in that same sequence, I particularly enjoyed the trio when Ninetta and Giannetto are saying their goodbyes in prison. The warden is urging them to wrap it up quickly because the mayor is on his way. And just when it seemed like they were done with their duet, they start up with another round of amorous tergiversification, all to the warden’s desperation. Everyone knows that lovey dovey bel canto duets are never short, so the comic timing worked well here.

Ninetta, Giannetto and Pippo were all very strongly acted and sung. The rest of the cast was passable, with some lows, particularly when it came to Italian diction, none more so than in the recitatifs. Many of them could have seriously been speaking Cantonese and I would not have been able to tell the difference. The Italian was really badly butchered in many instances.

All in all, it was solid bel canto fun, not least of all because it is always a thrill to discover a new rarely performed Rossini, particularly under the baton of maestro Joseph Colaneri. Entertaining and very pleasant.

– Lui & Lei

Mascagni's "Iris": Purity vs. Lust, Greed & Evil

Mascagni’s Iris
Bard Summerscape
Fisher Center for the Performing Arts
July 22, 2016

Purity lives in a garden of constant euphoria
Photo credit: Bard Summerscape
Lui: The Bard College campus in the Hudson River Valley with its monumental Frank Gehry concert hall provided a bucolic yet sophisticated backdrop for a few of our favorite things: a picnic on the lawn, the opening night of a long forgotten Mascagni opera at Bard Summerscape, and some post-show raucous dancing in the Spiegeltent (with idiosyncratic art nouveau signs over the entryway: “Magic Crystal – The Ultimate Art of Entertainment”). Mascagni’s Iris is another one of those all but forgotten gems. And when gems like these fall into oblivion, it always begs the repertoire question. No matter the reason for its neglect, Iris proved to be an eye-opening, mind-altering discovery.

The Spiegeltent at Bard
Photo credit: Allegri con fuoco
Lei: The opera itself was enchanting, dreamy and powerful – a cross between Cavalleria Rusticana (several recognizable ideas between them), Pelléas et Mélisande (lots of symbolism) and a touch of Madama Butterfly (scattered orientalism), which it actually precedes. I personally liked it so much more than Butterfly though. Its dreamy sweeping score with outbursts of dramatic emotion and, more importantly, its symbolist narrative are so much more compelling than Butterfly’s (an opera I personally never cared much for).

Iris cares for her heartless father
Photo credit: Bard Summerscape
Lui: After a grandiose choral hymn to the Sun, Light and Love, the translucent scrim raises on a peaceful country scene. The magnificent, huge chorus (I counted over 50 singers) appears on a bridge that crosses the entirety of the stage. They look on while Iris and her blind father, Il Cieco, seem to be waking up and begin to splash water from the spring on their faces. The chorus showers them with dreamy leaves and golden rose petals from above. Iris is an innocent young maiden who is rather provincial in her naïveté. A bit like Rigoletto’s Gilda, her father has kept her out of the fray. Despite her sheltered life, Iris complains of having had a bad dream about a series of dangers befalling her doll – portent of the evils to come.

Lei: James Darrah's direction perfectly rendered the dense but often banal symbolism of the piece through a series of well-executed stage ideas. The scenic design by Emily Anne MacDonald and Cameron Jaye Mock was simple but highly effective. With broad minimalist brush strokes they were able to conjure a symbolic all white landscape that was flooded with the light of the sun and enlivened by a constant shower of leaves that fell from all of the onlookers in the chorus positioned on the bridge. Though there was little that was explicitly Japanese about the design, they went for a fantasyland that was more explicitly allegorical. Interestingly, the universe created for Iris by director Darrah is a highly polarized – sets and costumes are either black or white in a very a-temporal and abstract fashion.

The apple of every man's eye
Photo credit Bard Summerscape
Lui: Before we know it Osaka, the spoiled rich prince and physical embodiment of lust, and Kyoto, the brothel owner and symbol of greed, arrive. Osaka is immediately smitten with Iris’s beauty and innocence. He has to have her. Kyoto comes up with a scheme to kidnap and add her to his bevy of prostitutes. He sees profit. The plan includes a deceptive play within the play by which they brainwash and abscond with her. Next thing she knows she's in Kyoto’s brothel, that is so different than her idyllic grounds that she thinks she’s in Paradise. Must be all those half naked ladies strutting around amid glass see-thorough huts with red lights… Iris may not be the sharpest tool in the shed, but ultimately she is really too innocent for her own good. When Osaka attempts to seduce her, she claims to only want to go home to her father, back to her little house and beautiful garden. Like a Japanese Dafne, daddy’s little girl is desperate for an escape route from this Apollo in pursuit.

Osaka barges in on the pimp and his new recruit
Photo credit: Bard Summerscape
Lei: Tenor Gerard Schneider stole the show. In the role of Osaka, this young Australian artist was the most impressive singer on the stage. From the moment he opened his mouth I was truly transfixed and besotted with the sheer beauty, power and virile sweetness of his singing. His is a soaring heart-wrenching tenor, an Italianate tenore spinto of the true romantic hero type. Osaka’s character is controversial and complex. In a way he reminded me of Rigoletto’s Duca, as he sings so beautifully that even if he is a crass seducer trying to get into the panties of a naive young woman, one kind of cannot help falling for him. His music is so romantic and he sounds so genuine that there must be something true in his declarations of “love,” at least when the character is in Schneider’s able hands.

Iris holds strong
Photo credit: Bard Summerscape 
Lui: The only catch is that here – unlike Gilda, Butterfly or Santuzza – the girl does not fall for her seducer, no matter how lovely and ardent he sounds, no matter how many jewels nor how much luxury he throws at her. Which makes Iris so much more interesting and powerful, despite her undeniable status as victim. From a narrative perspective, Iris’ innocence and naïveté are even more enhanced by her resisting Osaka’s attempts at seduction. Aside from being enchanted and lured by the play within a play in Act I, the heroine here does not falter and does not really fall for the evil, lusty, decadent and greedy men who surround her. Her purity remains unblemished. For what it's worth, Iris remains intransigently true to herself – a character study in integrity. As a result, the symbolism of feminine innocence spoiled by a corrupt male world comes across in an utterly powerful way.

Osaka continues to pine for his Iris
Photo credit: Bard Summerscape
Lei: The slimy Osaka very quickly gets bored of Iris’ prudery. He lets her go and encourages Kyoto to send her home, but the world is a big, scary, self-interested place and she's not going to get off that easy. If she will not cooperate with brothel house rules, Kyoto threatens to punish her by throwing her into the sewer. Bass-baritone Douglas Williams in the role of the brothel’s pimp sported a very un-Japanese long platinum blonde wig over a plunging low-cut dark tunic that abundantly exposed his chest and embodied the hideous villain with steely yet thundering disdain and outbursts of violence. The other villain in the story is Il Cieco (The Blind One), Iris’ father here played by bass Matthew Boehler with an almost repulsive yet magnetic force. When he arrives to the brothel and finds his daughter in it with any angry mob that is fighting for deflowering rights, he throws a fit of rage and disowns her. Her father’s scorn is what really pushes poor Iris over the edge and, unable to bear it all, she throws herself into the sewer.

The red light district in "Tokyo"
Photo credit: Bard Summerscape
Lui: In one of the most visually stunning moments of the production, during the musical interlude that introduces Act III, Iris can be seen behind the translucent scrim falling imperceptibly slow through the fog from the ceiling of the stage to the floor. It was incredibly dreamy and surreal. She falls in slow motion for five solid minutes through the mists of the sewer air. This is where she officially ends up in her deepest darkest cave. Act III then opens with the sewer urchins, who represent the quasi-disembodied vices of her prior pursuers, complaining of their lot in life though they somehow carry on in their lives still in the apparent pursuit of hope. Like their brothel frequenting counterparts above ground, these low-lifes are constantly on the lookout for treasure amidst the gloom and the grime. Iris regains consciousness after her fall and now thinks she is in Hell (finally she starts to figure it all out), where she grovels for a while until at the very moment she is about to give up the ghost she has a sun-filled epiphany and is suddenly and gloriously apotheosized in a blaze of solar splendor. Cue the hymn to the Sun from the opening of Act I and you have an incredibly powerful finale that somehow manages to lift you up in just the moment when you thought you had reached rock bottom.  

Iris on the verge of dropping into the sewers of the city
Photo credit: Bard Summerscape
Lei: The last sequence truly had the stature of grand opera: the orchestra explodes in an outburst of powerful, inspiring music, matched by the chorus in full cry, with a ray of sun making its way through the dark cave and embracing Iris, who dies in ecstasy and almost ascends to heaven in a saintly or martyr-like fashion. In a way, it reminded me of Verdi’s Giovanna D’Arco’s finale.

Lui: Iris is truly one of those demanding tour de force characters requiring the singer to really expressively ride a massive orchestration. Soprano Talise Trevigne rose to the challenge and embodied beautifully the naïveté, purity and strength of the title role. True, the character is highly symbolic and at times almost coo-koo and always very clueless, but, if one gets into the whole symbolism and allegory of it all, Iris is truly the sweetest and more compelling of heroines. Ms. Trevigne played Iris with childlike enchanting grace and was particularly memorable in her doomsday dream arias and the final apotheosis.

The apotheosis of Iris
Photo credit: Bard Summerscape
Lei: A resounding thank you to maestro Leon Botstein for unearthing this Mascagni gem and leading with force and nuance the solid cast and American Symphony Orchestra. Hopefully this brilliant rediscovery of Iris will inspire other opera houses to produce it too. Looks like it was also just revived in Montpellier with Sonya Yoncheva in the title role, so, who knows, there may be more Irises on their way in the future!

Lui & Lei
For Iris life is but a dream
Photo credit: Bard Summerscape

Thursday, July 21, 2016

Rossini Legends: The Birth of Bel Canto

Rossini’s Aureliano in Palmira
Bel Canto at Caramoor
July 16, 2016

Se tu m'ami, o Regina
Photo credit: Gabe Palacio
Lui: An annual appointment with Bel Canto at Caramoor has quickly become a much-anticipated staple on our summer operatic calendar. The offerings in the bower of bliss that is the Caramoor Center for Music and the Arts in northern Westchester County have been consistently extraordinary. This year was no exception. Our encounter with Aureliano in Palmira was full of surprises and the thrill of discovery. As it turns out, this early Rossini gem served as a testing ground for many of the musical ideas that the composer would go on to recycle in dozens of other more immediately recognizable operas over the next several years. The experience was something akin to that of our recent brush with Giovanna d’Arco, in which the young Verdi introduced musical ideas that he would later go on to develop in his more memorable or canonical works.

Lei: Well, Rossini definitely practiced more straight “cut and paste” compared to Verdi who seemed to be a bit more nuanced. The overtures of Aureliano and Barbiere are identical. Same goes for Il Turco in Italia and Otello. Apparently Rossini liked to “rescue the best parts of his fiascos” or else just quote himself very often.

A portrait of the young Rossini
Lui: Rossini was hardly twenty-two years old in 1813 when he began working on Aureliano in Palmira, which is based on a rather insipid story that had already been set to music in 1789. It was his twelfth dramatic work to date and his second commission for La Scala in Milan, but more importantly it afforded him the opportunity to write for a castrato for the first and only time. And not just any castrato, mind you. The unique and innovative vocalist in question was Giovanni Battista Velluti, the last great castrato in the history of opera.

Lei: Aureliano’s  plot is indeed a bit all over the place. Roughly can be summarized in a couple of love triangles dramatized by Roman colonialism: Arsace (hot Persian prince) and Zenobia (Palmyra’s warrior queen) are in love and fight against the invading Roman army. Aureliano (powerful Roman emperor) is in love with Zenobia and tries to convince both her and Arsace to end their relationship so he can get the queen. Publia (sweet Roman girl) is in love with Arsace and tries to convince Aureliano not to kill the Persian prince. In the midst of all that, sieges, battles and imprisonments, escapes from imprisonments, parlays, death threats and blackmailings are thrown in. At the end of the day, though, Aureliano is an enlightened ruler and lets the loving couple live and rule together, as long as they pledge their fidelity to the Roman Empire. And everybody is happy in a very Clemenza-like fashion.

Stage setting from Act I of the original 1813 La Scala production
Lui: But the music and singing are particularly glorious. According to the story as it was very eloquently presented to us during one of the pre-show talks by the brilliant scholar and conductor, Will Crutchfield, Rossini’s encounter with Velluti, who was an extraordinary singer and musician, proved to be a decisive one both in the development of the composer’s later work and bel canto in general. The role of the Persian prince, Arsace, was written for Velluti and so it is fittingly adorned with many virtuosic embellishments. As legend has it, the music Rossini had initially written for Velluti was so changed by the vocalist’s idiosyncratic treatment of it in iteration after iteration during rehearsals that Rossini no longer recognized the slightest trace of the original skeleton he had composed. This is probably an exaggeration and an overstatement. However, philological evidence seems to suggest that Rossini himself incorporated some of Velluti’s idiosyncratic musical sensibility into his own later reappropriations of the Aureliano material. Maestro Crutchfield demonstrated that by having three mezzos sing the same melody (1) as originally written by Rossini; (2) as embellished by Velluti and (3) as repurposed in later Rossini works. Interestingly, melody #3 sounded extremely similar to #2. And we learned that the trick is all in the copious use of appoggiatura by castrati who used to basically free style and riff on a basic melodies by adding this type of embellishments.

Giovanni Battista Velluti
Lei: I always had a keen interest in the castrati as operatic rock stars of their times. After hearing the amazing Will Crutchfield demonstrate how castrati-typical embellishments truly propelled the bel canto style I love so much, I am even more of a fan. It was so mind blowing: Crutchfield played relatively plain and unrecognizable tunes, then played them again adding appoggiaturas and pouf! We had Casta Diva, Sempre libera and Una furtiva lagrima. We learned how composers from Donizetti to Verdi to Chopin all followed in those very same footsteps, adopting a similar distinctive use of appoggiatura to develop romantic melodies. I could listen to Crutchfield for hours, he is such a passionate, encyclopedic yet approachable bel canto master. And if nothing else, our encounter with this rare early Rossini gem with a mediocre plot was fruitful for this reason. It was like watching bel canto being born before our very eyes. But this is the kind of discovery we have to expect from our little jaunts up to the bucolic idylls of Katonah. Crutchfield is that good.

Stage setting from Act II of the original 1813 La Scala production
Lui: Here the castrato role of Arsace was sung by the excellent mezzo-soprano Tamara Mumford. After having heard about all of the musical and artistic vicissitudes surrounding Arsace and its genesis, I was intrigued to hear what Mumford would do with it. She did justice to it and then some. She is one of those singers who never just goes through the motions. She was fierce and sexy in Arsace’s pants role, strutting around in military fashion, lovingly protecting Zenobia and disdainfully rejecting Aureliano’s proposals. Mumford is just such a pleasure to watch. While she didn’t seem to take Velluti’s lead in introducing a decadent overabundance of embellishment to her vocal lines, she embodied them with poise and grace and feeling. The very first moment we meet her Arsace, she is delivering one of the opera’s most famous duets, Se tu m’ami, o Regina and it was one of those time-stopping moments. Mumford truly is an exciting singer, with intense electricity in her voice and acting chops to match that, even in a semi-staged production as this one.

Lovers reunited
Photo credit: Gabe Palacio
Soprano Georgia Jarman in the role of the intrepid Syrian queen was right in sync with Mumford from this duet on. Many of the high points of the night came from the vocal fireworks these two produced every time they were in one another’s presence. In Se tu m’ami, they embodied love and longing in brilliant flights of fancy that brought a tear to my eye and sent a tingle down my spine. It was quite a first showing from both of these singers. And they maintained that emotional pitch right up to their final ecstatic love duet in which the two separated lovers are brought back together through the clemency of the great Roman ruler Aureliano. Jarman also sounded great by herself, her bright coloratura soprano was truly a pleasure to hear.  

Andrew Owens brought his bel canto trained tenor to the role of Aureliano, whom he played with a headstrong and haughty imperial air. He may not have the most exciting tenor sound but his light, bright instrument had all the agility required of a Rossinian tenor. He was more than competent, but not terribly exciting, though to be fair that is not necessarily the nature of the character. It may be the title role, but the emotional core of the opera lies in the thwarted love between the lionhearted Arsace and the bold but lovely Zenobia. Owens is a proud product of the Caramoor workshop and he seemed triumphantly at home on the stage of the Venetian Theater.

Aureliano's imperial air
Photo credit: Gabe Palacio
Mezzo-soprano Chrystal E. Williams was heart wrenching as Publia, admittedly a minor role. In her ultimate game-changing plea to Aureliano for clemency, forgiveness and love, Williams poured out her soul with plush and melodic tones. She pulled at both his and our heartstrings in her confession of affection for the poor imprisoned Arsace. Yes, it was an awkwardly structured story of a love triangle that featured a nod perhaps to Mozart’s La clemenza di Tito, with its eleventh hour deus ex machina reconciliatory climax. Nevertheless, Williams brought emotional depth to her peripheral role in shaping the conclusion of the story. This is definitely a singer to watch out for. 

Baritone Ziaomeng Zhang in the role of Licinio was also remarkable. His low sound was warm and smooth and surprisingly deep and powerful for a singer of his size. He commanded the respect and attention of the cast and the public. Caramoor Bel Canto Young Artist baritone Thomas Lynch as the high priest of Palmyra delivered a chilling, thundering and threatening opening of the opera with confidence and perfect diction.

Lei: Next year Bel Canto at Caramoor will present Bellini’s Il Pirata and Rossini’s Stabat Mater. We will, of course, run there with our picnic basket, ready as always to be enchanted and blown away by Will Crutchfield and his team.

– Lui & Lei

Maestro Crutchfield at work
Photo credit: Gabe Palacio