Thursday, October 15, 2015

Fall Opera Season is Full of Action!

Our 40th Anniversary season really takes off this October, and this coming weekend alone is packed with operatic action. Saturday, October 17th, Virginia Western Community College hosts the Met "Live in HD" broadcast of Verdi's great Otello. Click here to see a clip from the Met's acclaimed new production. The curtain goes up at 12:55, but come to the Whitman Auditorium at 12:30 for my "opera insights" introduction to Otello, the new production, the Met HD season AND Opera Roanoke's "Ruby" Anniversary.

After catching the first act of Otello, I'll be dashing over to the Taubman Museum of Art for the first of this season's "Listening to Paintings" programs, where I pair music and poetry with some of the art on exhibit in the Taubman's galleries.

We're in the middle of Sweeney Todd rehearsals for our super cool new production.

Our new production of Sweeney Todd originated at Theatre Zone in Naples, FL. Our long-time lighting designer, Tlaloc Lopez-Watermann told me about this production and its director, Mark Danni. The concept of having a minimalist set and creatively using a few props immediately appealed to me. The main prop is a coffin, which first appears in the guise of a boat, carrying Sweeney Todd and Anthony up the Thames to London. It also serves as the Judge's podium, as Mrs Lovett's kitchen table, and Sweeney's platform. The production is further stylized by the elimination of mimed deaths, fake blood, etc. One of our ensemble members will act as an "angel of death" and appear with a red scarf to give to each of Todd's victims. I wanted to further stylize this production by having Tlaloc create projections which will appear on the upstage wall of the set, adding atmosphere to what is already a moody show. The "goth / steam-punk" look Mark has chosen for the costumes and make-up is a great fit for the pared-down production. The look will also "read" very well for our Halloween weekend performances of Sondheim's great "musical thriller." I couldn't be more excited about bringing this production to our audiences. In addition to being a little spooked, I know they'll be entertained and ultimately moved by the tragic tale and its effect on Sondheim's characters.

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

The Progress of the Rake - Stravinsky triumphs at the MET

4.V.15 | NYC – Stravinsky: The Rake’s Progress at the Met
Levine: Appleby, Claire, Finley, Blythe, Sherratt, Lattimore, Stevenson, Corona

Monday night's performance of The Rake’s Progress may well have been the best the 65-year-old work has ever had. Having heard both incarnations of the Met’s previous outings (which account for the majority of the opera’s two-dozen some performances there), this surpassed its predecessors musically and dramatically at every turn. The two male principals, Rakewell and Shadow in particular, were as perfect a pair of singing actors as you could wish for the title character and his Mephistophelian foil. Paul Appleby and Gerald Finley defined their roles and set a new standard in the process. Layla Claire was a beautiful Anne: I have never been so moved to tears by this opera I count among my favorites; its emotional depths were plumbed with gorgeous tone and affecting color in each of her scenes. Stephanie Blythe, who sang Baba in the Met’s most recent remount in 2003 was even better, like a super Tuscan that’s deepened without mellowing but has, instead, sharpened its focus. Maggie Lattimore made one wish Mother Goose had more to her cameo appearance; she earned her droigte de Madame in her pivotal scene as Nick’s accomplice. When do you leave this opera wishing Father Trulove had an aria? I know I'm not the only one who wants to hear more of Brindley Sherratt "this side the pond."

If the work has had a finer chorus and auctioneer than the Met and Tony Stevenson, I’d be dumbfounded to hear them. The chorus – is there a better opera chorus in the world these days? – under Donald Polumbo has made considerable gains where details of tone color, articulation, and balance are concerned, without losing any of the visceral force for which it is known. It takes a sophisticated and versatile technique, and an incomparable level of professionalism to accomplish what these musicians do from day to day, throughout the 40-some weeks of the Met’s season. In this, they are equaled only by the Met orchestra, which under James Levine, has become not only the best opera orchestra on the planet, but one of the great orchestras, period. And Maestro Levine was in top form last night. Sitting with my BFF, Steven White, Levine’s assistant conductor for this show, I was aware of the pivotal role he played in preparing for this run, leading staging rehearsals, and jumping into orchestra rehearsals as needed. Having sung under Maestro Levine (in the Verbier festival chorus), it was not hard to imagine the details clarified during the orchestra in the 3 reads they had prior to last Friday’s opening night (this was the 2nd or 3 performances this season). The emotional depth surrounding Anne’s music owed as much to the orchestra and its conductor as to its exceptional young soprano. I’ve never heard Stravinsky’s opera, nor a comparable 20th century companion, played with such range of color. The performance was fleet and incisive, had weight and depth of texture and timbre, but never lacked a chamber music transparency when necessary. Levine let the score breathe in between episodes of great dramatic impetus and momentum. One heard its connection to not only 18th-century baroque and classical models, but also to the grandeur of 19th century tragedy. It was elegant without ever being pompous, moving but never maudlin.

(One of William Hogarth's "Rake's" engravings; the musician to the left is thought to be a caricature of Handel)

In addition to appreciating the details of the score and simply enjoying the vocal excellence on display, the production resonated with me in a way it hadn’t before. To cite one instance, the 3rd and final scene in Act III features the chorus in the asylum with Tom. This choice has obvious musico-dramatic purposes, as it gives “Mad” Tom - who believes he’s Adonis, with Anne as his Venus - a Greek chorus to accompany the haunting, heart-breaking final scene. The Jonathan Miller production uses the same set for Bedlam it had for Mother Goose’s brothel. A central upstage corridor, which served as a hallway leading to several rooms of ill-repute in the Brothel – Mother Goose was leading Tom to one as the curtain came down on it – is now separated from the main room of the stage by prison bars, and the closed-door chambers are solitary confinement cells. By using the entire chorus, Stravinsky and his brilliant librettists, Auden and Kallman have added layers of musical and dramatic depth, while heightening our participation in this morality tale. The entire community is implicated in the wages of sin, otherwise known as the human condition. Like Don Giovanni, one of its primary precursors, the epilogue’s ebullient tone and 4th-wall-breaking function can’t ameliorate the tragedy we’ve experienced, however much its élan may tempt a leavening of the mood.

(Hogarth's "In the Madhouse" - the final image in his series)

To crown this "festival of May," I can’t recall ever experiencing an audience so enthusiastically responsive to a post-WWII-era opera. Bravi tutti! In the meantime, if you don't have tickets to the Saturday matinee, tune in to your local NPR station at 1 pm for the final radio broadcast of the season.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

The Triumph of Rossini

“So many things must be done right for an opera to turn out well that its amazing any of them succeed at all… Once their [composer's and librettist's] initial job is done, the creation then gets handed over to a whole other set of people who can mess it up… The list of pitfalls goes on… It’s endless, and daunting.” – Wendy Lesser (on opera in The Threepenny Review)

Wendy Lesser's observation on the "daunting" challenges of producing opera are, if I may be so bold to say, being met this month here in Roanoke. And like any overwhelming challenge, success is its own reward. That our audience turnout looks to be the highest since our production of The Pirates of Penzance two seasons ago only heightens our anticipation as we approach opening night.

Here's a preview of the program note I wrote for our production of La Cenerentola (Cinderella) running this weekend.

Never before had music been known to bombard the listener with so rich, so glittering, so spontaneous, so original a succession of new and tantalizing sensations.

Marie-Henri Beyle (better known by his pen-name, Stendhal) wrote his monograph, The Life of Rossini, in 1823, when the composer was at the height of his considerable fame, and it is full of florid accolades like the above epigram. Indeed, the craze for Italian opera across continental Europe was so great that the generation of Bel Canto composers (Rossini, Donizetti and Bellini) entirely over-shadowed efforts by German-language contemporaries as eminent as Beethoven, Weber and Schubert. While Beethoven’s Fidelio (OR, 2008) and Weber’s Die Freischütz hold their own in the repertoire, Schubert’s aspirations were so frustrated he was forced to live vicariously through his Lieder (Art-songs). They include a famous send-up of a bel canto “rage” aria, mocking one of Rossini’s most influential impresarios, Barbaja.

Like Mozart, Rossini possessed an apparently inherent gift for felicitous melody. And like Mozart, Rossini was prodigious from an early age: he completed a dozen opera by his 21st year. (Cenerentola was the 20th of some 40). Yet the comparisons between the two geniuses were not all favorable. One of Rossini’s nicknames, Il Tedeschino (“the Little German”), was derogatively applied to his use of so-called “Germanic” harmony. To be fair, his Mediterranean contemporaries had already criticized Mozart for the same “obstruction” of melody with harmony too “rich and strange” for the stage. Audiences and academics alike have since corrected that misperception over the intervening centuries, as neither Mozart’s nor Rossini’s operas have ever fallen out of favor.

And Rossini’s fame has never been greater than it is today. While Il Barbiere di Siviglia is a perennial “Top Ten” on opera’s most-performed list, Rossini’s other masterworks have been slow to appear on certain stages. The Metropolitan Opera did not present La Cenerentola until 1997 (just two years before OR’s most recent production in 1999). The MET’s premiere production of La Donna del Lago (The Lady of the Lake) joined their repertory just last month; recent seasons have seen highly anticipated and acclaimed MET premieres of Armida and Le Comte Ory.

What accounts for Rossini’s enduring popularity? Along with an unerring sense of melody, Rossini’s gifts as a master of musical theatre include a harmonic language perfectly balanced to his characters and their dramatic situations. Like Mozart, Rossini excels at the musical ensemble – a form original to the operatic stage – and the brilliant deployment of various combinations expertly serve the theatrical pace. Rossini’s knack for form and musical architecture is especially apparent in La Cenerentola. As Stendhal puts it, in one of his colorful bon mots:
he knows how to husband his listener’s attention, shielding it lovingly against the danger of vain distractions, only to hurl it with greater impetus upon the traces of what is really essential.

Rossini’s overtures maintain a special place in the concert repertory of orchestras even outside the opera house, and La Cenerentola’s Sinfonia is an exemplary model. Adumbrating themes we will recognize within the drama, it contains the first of several notable instances of the so-called “Rossini crescendo.” Deceptively simple in appearance, both on the page and to the ear, this device involves a series of repetitions: each phrase builds momentum as it grows in dynamic range from the softest piano to a thrilling fortissimo. Like a force of nature, this irrepressible surge of energy is no less impressive for the predictability of its outcome. Examples abound in the score, with particularly effective episodes in the first act quintet and finale, and the second act sextet. While the vocal fireworks and buffo antics distinguish the individual characters’ solo arias, it is in the ensembles in which Rossini shows himself Mozart’s operatic successor. The duet between Dandini and Don Magnifico near the top of Act 2 is another unerring example of Rossini’s synthesis of musical comedy with dramatic verisimilitude.

What distinguishes Rossini’s Cinderella from the countless variations of the fairy tale is found in its subtitle: La Cenerentola ossia La bontà in trionfa. Cinderella, or Goodness Triumphant. Eschewing the supernatural elements of Fairy Godmother, transforming pumpkins, and the like, Rossini and his librettist Jacopo Ferretti have given us a masterpiece of humanity, with all its warts, foibles, and enduring virtues. Cinderella does not need to be “the fairest of them all,” because she has goodness in abundance. She sings her acts of mercy, and like a benevolent diva, maintains a spirit of humility. Through Rossini’s incomparable dramma giocoso, this “once upon a time / in a land far-away” story comes to life for us like no other version of the immortal tale can: through the power of its music.