Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Two-Faced Puccini

Puccini’s Suor Angelica & Gianni Schicchi
Martina Arroyo Foundation’s Prelude to Performance
The Kaye Playhouse at Hunter College
July 7, 2017

Gianni Schicchi is Puccini at his deftest and best
Photo credit: Jen Joyce Davis
The Martina Arroyo Foundation this year brought us a pair of one-act operas from Puccini’s Trittico. Rather than opt for the more common pairing of Il Tabarro (the first in the trilogy) and Gianni Schicchi (the last of the three), the program included Suor Angelica, which is the one that is most frequently cut – a tradition dating back to its earliest revivals a century ago.

Angelica and her evil aunt
Photo credit: Jen Joyce Davis
It turns out that this tradition is not without reason, since we found Suor Angelica to be a real snore. It is the story of a mother whose extreme reaction to the news of the death of her child leads to suicide and finally the suggestion of religious redemption.

At its best it delivered a couple of moments of extreme beauty in which Puccini is at his most saccharine finest. At its worst it had a lot of pretty much useless fluff about nuns’ mundane activities in a convent courtyard. Not to mention the complete absence of a male voice to ground the whole work and mix things up a bit.

Soprano Michelle Johnson in the title role was competent but not outstanding. Too often it seemed like she was working too hard just to hit the notes. Too often she was simply drowned out by the orchestra. One of the few moments of real dramatic tension occurs during Angelica’s showdown with evil aunt, here depicted as a Goth princess by the uncompromising and stern Leah Marie de Gruyl.

Suor Angelica searches for her salvation
Photo credit: Jen Joyce Davis

How soon the dead are forgotten! The reading of the will
Photo credit: Jen Joyce Davis
When it came to Gianni Schicchi, however, we discovered a whole other side of the composer. Who knew Puccini could be so funny?

Despite famous arias like the immortal O mio babbino caro, this opera is essentially an ensemble piece. Based on a episode hinted at briefly in Dante’s Divine Comedy (Inferno, Canto XXX), Puccini’s fleshing out of the story comes across as something straight out of Boccaccio’s Decameron.

It's dog eat dog once the august patriarch has passed away
Photo credit: Jen Joyce Davis
Buoso Donati, of a noteworthy Florentine line, lies on his deathbed when the curtain rises. As long as the details of his last will and testament remains suspended, his nearest and dearest are short on grief and long on greed. A good deal of hand wringing ensues until they strike on a solution. Everybody wants the same piece of their ancestor’s pie: something to do with a prime plot of land and prized mule. In a move that is more Boccaccescan levity than Dantean solemnity, the outcome is laugh out-loud hilarious.

There were several stand-out performances in what was truly a group effort. And virtually every singer on stage had excellent Italian (essential to convey the hilarious lines of the libretto) and perfect comic timing. Steven Mo Hanan as Simone Donati, the next in line for the role of patriarch in the Donati clan, set the comic tone of the piece with his slightly clueless take on the character that never went completely over the top.

Anna Adrian Whiteway as Lauretta sang a naively ingenuous O mio babbino caro that virtually came out of nowhere. Amidst the rest of the comic mugging and other humorous shenanigans of the story, all of a sudden this incredibly recognizable and heartbreakingly beautiful tune catches you off guard.

Rinuccio has an idea and an agenda of his own
Photo credit: Jen Joyce Davis
Spencer Hamlin sang the role of Rinuccio, her beloved. He was youthfully boyish and bright in his affection for Lauretta as well as in his guileless introduction of the otherwise unwanted intervention of newcomer Gianni Schicchi, notorious trickster, into the family crisis.

And then there was the eponymous hero of the opera. Joshua DeVane leant his Gianni Schicchi a provincial air of an up-and-comer. The indictment of the nouveau riche in this respect falls right in line with both Boccaccio and Dante’s value system. The ways in which he is able to pull the wool over the eyes of everybody involved, from the notaio to Buoso’s heirs, when done right, as it was tonight, is a hysterical piece of comic theater. DeVane and company did it justice. Neither of us could suppress our laughter.

With Gianni Schicchi as their only hope!
Photo credit: Jen Joyce Davis
The comic timing is embedded in the score and fast paced story. Puccini’s Gianni Schicchi is funnier than anything I have ever experienced in the operatic canon. I haven’t had this much fun at the opera in a very long time, if ever. Just hope next time we see this gem of a Puccini it will be paired with Il Tabarro instead!

– Lui & Lei
All gather round to hear the moral of the tale
Photo credit: Jen Joyce Davis

Dressing up Meyerbeer for Fashion Week: A Case for Regietheater

Meyerbeer’s Margherita d’Anjou
Festival della Valle d’Itria
Palazzo Ducale di Martina Franca
August 2, 2017

Meyerbeer gets a Fashion Week make-over with a 17th Century themed collection
Photo credit: Festival della Valle d'Itria 
Lei: Among the myriad opera festivals available in Europe this summer, we ended up picking the Festival della Valle d’Itria, intrigued by their rediscovery of a rare Meyerbeer bel canto work and of course by the sheer beauty and abundant culinary pleasures offered by Puglia, one of Italy’s finest regions. Meyerbeer was not at all on our operatic map, but we decided to give him a try, confident that if worse came to worse at least we would be in the birthplace of burrata, stracciatella and bombette pugliesi.

The ducal palace in Martina Franca
Photo credit: Festival della Valle d'Itria 
Lui: The promise of a whole lot of beautiful music from 1820, which places the opera squarely in the height of the bel canto period in Italy, was enough to get us excited. As for the production, to be staged al fresco in the courtyard of the baroque ducal palace in Martina Franca, we did not know what to expect. For all we knew we were gearing up for a traditional evening of tights and late medieval cuirasses, given that the plot was set in 1300s England and the performance venue was pretty old school.

Lei: However, as soon as maestro Fabio Luisi launched into a full bodied but nuanced rendition of the magnificent military overture, we suddenly found ourselves behind the scenes at a contemporary fashion show, with naked models getting dressed and eccentric fashion types excitedly fussing around, all while the chorus members (as the “audience” of fashionistas) took their places along the catwalk. At that point the 1300s tights and armor were out of the question and we happily braced ourselves for a wild Regietheater ride.

Bel canto breakdancing meets mimed sword fighting
Photo credit: Festival della Valle d'Itria 
Lui: Director Alessandro Talevi took the ridiculously overwrought melodramma semiserio plot about intersecting love triangles and international power play as an opportunity to tell a quirky and imaginative story that transposed all of its familiar elements and kept the audience on its toes. From the moment a bunch of models began strutting across the stage on a cat walk before transitioning into a routine of breakdance sword fighting and mime armed warfare to early nineteenth-century bel canto melodies, the show had me perched on the edge of my seat in anticipation of what they would come up with next.

Lei: The original plot is kind of a mess, with several centers of dramatic tension and comic relief thrown in. We’re in the midst of the War of the Two Roses and its many battles and court intrigues. In one corner is the regal character of the powerful queen Margherita and her loyal posse. On the other, we have her rival the evil Glocester and his cruel posse, as well as her former general Carlo (also with his renegade posse) who fell out of her graces and is now a spy for Glocester. As for the love interests, enter the dashing tenor Lavarenne who is torn between the powerful Margherita (who benefits from his help in the war) and his own lovely wife Isaura (who suffers from his estrangement). Finally, for comic relief, there is Michele, a know-it-all doctor who is a cross between Donizetti’s Dulcamara, Rossini’s Figaro and Mozart’s Don Alfonso and is on a mission to help Isaura win back Lavarenne. After several dramatic and comic twists and turns, Lavarenne and Isaura get back together and Carlo turns his military loyalty back to Margherita, who ends up defeating Glocester.

The Queen is MDA, a fashion designer
Photo credit: Paolo Conserva
Lui: In a stroke of genius bordering folly, Talevi turned Margherita D’Anjou into a superstar English fashion designer (“MDA”), Glocester into her conservative media tycoon ex-husband (on a mission to discredit her and get custody of their son), Carlo into her ex-lead designer turned rogue (and punk), Lavarenne into a pop-star helping Margherita with her PR issues and Michele into a flamboyant reality TV personality specialized in reconciling estranged couples.

Lavarenne is now a pop star willing to lend his fame to redeem her name
Photo credit: Paolo Conserva
Lei: As absurd as this all sounds, on the whole this modern take kind of worked. Without getting too caught up in all the minute details, I would say that most of the lines and plot points actually translated well into the new context. At the end of the day, the themes of the original plot revolve around pretty universal power plays and love triangles (with a heavy dusting of comic relief) and were all perfectly conveyed by the bold and highly imaginative setting created by Talevi.

The quack doctor Michele (far left) is now a reality TV star and narcissist
Photo credit: Festival della Valle d'Itria 
Lui: After all, this opera is really just an excuse for a whole lot of beautiful music from 1820 at the height of bel canto in Italy. And when the plot is as absurd as it already is, the Regietheater approach adds an extra layer to the experience of the engaged audience member. When it’s an opera that is as unknown and unfamiliar to most as this one, it kind of makes it a whole other game for everyone involved too (and is less dangerous than modernizing Traviata for that matter). Also, this is what festivals should do: unearth forgotten gems and go crazy!  

All hail MDA!
Photo credit: Paolo Conserva
Lei: I am a Regie convert! Who knew?!? It kind of adds a whole new level of complexity and freshness and, when done right, keeps the work relevant and contemporary in exciting avant-garde ways. Frankly who cares about an absurd plot set in the War of the Two Roses? Now, who can get into an eye candy show set in London’s fashion week? As long as the original libretto and music remain untouched, the emotional core is conveyed, the ideas are thought provoking and the execution is top notch, I say bring it on! We don’t get enough of this kind of bold and daring productions in the scene in New York. This whole Regie revelation is enticing me to some opera travel in Berlin (though don’t think I’m ready yet for a cast of giant rats playing the Ring Cycle).

Lui: It also helps to have an excellent cast of singing actors. Soprano Giulia De Blasis as Margherita d’Anjou, the widow of Henry VI of England, had a strong bright sound. In the ensembles her soprano soared effortlessly out over the rest, shimmering with hope and despair. A commanding confident presence, she was an exciting singer to watch.

Lavarenne comes out singing (and swinging)
Photo credit: Mario Ricci
Lavarenne, sung by tenor Anton Rositskiy had some of the most challenging Juan Diego Flores-style tenor arias. While Rositskiy is no JDF, he did give it an honest try with his bright youthful sound that was most successful in its mid-range. His Italian was top notch and his characterization as a superstar pop singer torn between two love interests was convincing.

The Queen goes punk in a fight for survival
Photo credit: Mario Ricci
Vocally, it was really mezzo-soprano Gaia Petrone’s night. She leant her buttery mezzo to the partial trouser role of Isaura, the estranged wife of Lavarenne. Her warm sound and crystal clear articulation of every syllable of her bel canto fireworks made for thrilling listening and fiery emotions.

Isaura reveals the partial nature of her "pants" role
Photo credit: Festival della Valle d'Itria 
Lei: One of the things this opera is known for is its unique bass trio, showcasing three different degrees of manliness intertwined with each other, here all perfectly cast. Carlo Belmonte, the general banished by the queen and currently employed by her archrival Glocester, was sung by bass Laurence Meikle. He was cast as a Scottish street punk with an extreme neon orange mohawk that seemed to glow in the dark. He wore a plaid kilt and carried himself with the swagger of someone who just didn’t care. His performance was a real hoot. And he had the vocal goods to back it up too, boasting a bold midrange bass tinted with youthful baritonal colors. He’s not one of those guttural basses who makes the ground shake but one that exudes an edgy street smart manliness.

The story remains a tug-of-war over custody of their son
Photo credit: Festival della Valle d'Itria 
Bass Bastian Thomas Kohl sang the role of Riccardo, the Duke of Glocester, a hunk of a blond hulk with the sound of a giant. His lower register grounded the remarkable terzetto of basses that punctuates the second half of Act II. Kohl’s portrayal of a golf-playing, right wing overbearing bully was crucial in conveying Talevi’s vision, making the conflict between him and Margherita a credible one.

Michele Gamautte holds court with pizzazz and spunk
Photo credit: Festival della Valle d'Itria 
Lui: To the basso buffo role of the freewheeling French physician Michele Gamautte, Marco Filippo Romano brought his sense of comic timing and flaming flair. It is an understatement to say that he stole the show every time he was on stage. Decked out in patent white platform boots and an array of flamboyant suits and kilts, not to mention his bouffant wave of neon green hair (matching his beard), he was quite a sight.

For a mid- to low-range bass Romano was remarkably agile in his melismatic bel canto acrobatics. His stage presence was consistently hilarious, as he portrayed Michele as an egocentric, resourceful, selfie-taking type, tooting his own horn for his personal cameraman and always rooting and scheming for a happy ending. He brought levity and ease to this rare breed of character, one that appears but infrequently in operas of the period with such a dynamic array of both musical and narrative characteristics.

The cast and chorus came out in bathrobes during the scene of bucolic retreat
Photo credit: Festival della Valle d'Itria 
Lei: The massive chorus of the Teatro Municipale di Piacenza led by Corrado Casati was also beyond impressive both vocally and acting-wise. They had to (literally) wear many hats throughout the opera: the crowd of fashionistas and reporters, Margherita’s fashionable loyalists, the mohawk-sporting punk followers of Carlo, the thuggish posse of Gloucester and, last but not least, a mountain-spa crowd (don’t ask) in white bathrobes and slippers. Scenes and costumes by Madeleine Boyd were all around bold and carefully crafted to the last detail (including Margherita’s staff wearing “MDA” t-shirts).

Lui: Talevi also had many brilliant staging ideas, as when the lead tenor or soprano have arias where they’re supposedly alone on stage pouring their tormented hearts out, in this production the singer delivers his or her aria on a couch, to a silent shrink who just nods and takes fervent notes. The suggestion that certain opera characters would benefit from an analyst is just hilarious and added to the sheer entertainment of Talevi’s take.

Everybody goes rogue punk
Photo credit: Festival della Valle d'Itria 
This only goes to show the scrupulous attention to detail and level of commitment of the cast and production team. I do hope that they filmed this show and that they’re shopping this production around, since it’s just too good to be performed for only four nights in Martina Franca. Also because I want to see it again! I have a feeling we’ll be back for more Festival della Valle d’Itria opera in the future.

The charms of Martina Franca
Photo credit: Festival della Valle d'Itria 
Lei: Hell yes! I was very sad to leave Martina Franca having experienced only one of this festival’s many offerings. We missed Verdi’s Un giorno di regno, Vivaldi’s Orlando furioso, Piccinni’s Le donne vendicate and Puccini’s Gianni Schicchi, not to mention concerts and recitals in other baroque churches and courtyards. If, as I suspect, the level of the rest of the festival was as top notch as this Meyerbeer, next summer we’re moving here for two weeks.

– Lei & Lui

The models gear up for the catwalk during the overture
Photo credit: Festival della Valle d'Itria 
The show was full of juicy details: the punk party out in the highlands
Photo credit: Festival della Valle d'Itria 

Tartuffe Strikes Again

Darius Milhaud’s La Mère Coupable
On Site Opera
The Garage
June 23, 2017

A mother and her guilt
Photo credit: On Site Opera
I have to hand it to On Site Opera. When it comes to taking risks, they have an incredible penchant for simply putting their heads down and going for it. As the crown jewel in their ambitious three year long Figaro Project, they brought us an unspeakably difficult evening of music. It was both challenging to execute on all levels, for the singers and musicians alike, and challenging, to say the least for the listener.

A product of his late, one would almost say, “over-composed” style, Darius Milhaud’s 1966 outlier, La Mère Coupable (The Guilty Mother), accumulates melody on top of melody and often incorporates a countermelody so that a singer is often moving in musical directions that have little to no grounding in what the orchestral accompaniment is playing. Hats off to music director Geoffrey McDonald and the International Contemporary Ensemble for taking on Milhaud’s complex tapestry of a score with such professionalism and refined musicianship.

Beaumarchais' "The Other Tartuffe"
Title Page 1794
The opera opens with dissonance which, no matter how unpleasant it is to listen to, is a fitting introduction to current state of affairs in the all too familiar Almaviva household.

Twenty years after we last left them, Figaro, Susanna and company have aged. Cherubino may have long given up the ghost, but a new ramble rouser has lodged himself into the marital bliss between man and wife. His name may be Bégearss, but he owes the essence of his character’s existence to the avariciously malicious Tartuffe from Molière’s famous play. There is something derivative about many of its plot points. With such a pronounced debt to his fellow countryman, Beaumarchais seems to have lost some of his creative originality in this third installment of his otherwise very famous and quite ingenious Figaro trilogy, which this twentieth-century libretto is based.

Rather than the Count’s wife Rosina, the object of Cherubino’s eye in the previous installment, Bégearss has his sights set on the Count’s already grown daughter, Florestine. However, unlike Cherubino, this trouble maker is all fuoco e ghiaccio not so much for her regal flesh as for the money that would come along with it. But Florestine is in love with another. She has already given her heart to her step-brother Léon.

Rosina seeks to cheer the frustrated lovers
Photo credit: On Site Opera
You see, in the years that have transpired since we were last with the Almavivas, both the mister and the missus have engaged in extramarital affairs, which resulted in love children on both accounts. All of this only comes clearly into focus over the course of the opera as the family attempts to liberate themselves from the pesky parasite who is trying to pursue his own agenda at their expense.

It takes a village
Photo credit: On Site Opera
In the end, they manage to come together as a family. But the concluding bars of the piece are almost as cacophonous as the opening and so we are led to believe that this dysfunctional family is too screwed up and incesty for its own good and it will probably have future issues to face on down the road. Nevertheless, after their big septet final number in which, as in the good old days of opera, the whole cast stepped to the front of the stage to address the audience directly and extra-diegetically with the moral of the story, director Eric Einhorn plops them back down at the dinner table where peaceful resolution feels tenuous at best.

No matter how hard to listen to the score is, the cast was on the whole top notch. Unfortunately the excellent young tenor Andrew Owens, whom I was looking forward to hearing, had a cold and lost his voice. As a result of how difficult and rare this opera is, they were unable to replace him at the last minute and so he mimed his part and silently mouthed his lines in a performance that was something like lip syncing without any words at all to sync to, just the music. And so there was a considerable lacuna in this aspect of the score and its narrative.

The fresh-faced Florestine
Photo credit: On Site Opera
Soprano Amy Owens was resplendently fresh-voiced and buoyant as the lovely Florestine, desperately aching for the return of her betrothed.

Bass-baritone Matthew Burns, in the role of the slimy Bégearss, was strong and full-bodied in terms of his deep sound and he also struck a sufficiently creepy stage presence as the self-absorbed, opportunist Tartuffe nouveau.

Rosina has a life after Porgi Amor
Photo credit: On Site Opera
Soprano Jennifer Black delivered a moving, matronly Rosina, the Countess of Almaviva, and mezzo-soprano Marie Lenormand sang Figaro’s wife Susanne as a woman who had grown wary of the world after all the time that has passed. She managed to communicate some of the pain and suffering that the character must have experienced considering her martial and professional situation. The whole first half of the opera is not characterized by its levity of tone or content, whereas the second half found its narrative pace, hitting plot points with a much defter touch.

As their male counterparts baritones Adam Cannedy, as the Count of Almaviva, and Marcus DeLoach, as Figaro, grounded the opera with a bumbling sense of humor as well as with their broad resounding sound.

Begearss (right) thinks he has Almaviva right where he wants him
Photo credit: On Site Opera
The ultimate question that remains is really was it really worth all the fuss? On Site Opera rarely spares any expense and this production was no exception. They staged it at The Garage, a prime Midtown West multiuse warehouse, with the action unfolding on two different sides of the vast space. The first half of the evening found us along the far wall that was dressed to represent a variety of living quarters, albeit in a state of transition. Things were either being boxed up or unpacked for a move. From our seats the acoustics were a mixed bag during most of this portion of the performance.

After the intermission, the scene moved to an impromptu dining alcove in the corner adjacent to the main entrance, where for our money the acoustics were superior and we had a better, more direct view of the subtitles. It was really during this second half of the show that it started to come together for me. The pace of the narrative picked up and the musical integrity of the score helped guide the story along in ways that I found lacking in the first part.

The half siblings find love
Photo credit: On Site Opera
While I was very happy to have caught the show and to have put Milhaud on my map and I have On Site to thank for their extraordinary efforts and erudition, I also can’t help but wonder if there could have been a better use of all those resources: do something more pleasant – whether more mainstream or more rare. In this case, one time through this tangle of an opera was enough. What else can you show me?

– Lei & Lui