Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Opera Preview: OTSL's MIchael Gieleta on the modermism of Puccini's 'La Rondine'

Michael Gieleta
michaelgieleta.com
This Saturday, May 30th, Opera Theatre of St. Louis presents Puccini's rarely seen "lyrical comedy" "La Rondine" ("The Swallow") in the original 1917 version. The opera has only been seen once before on the OTSL stage—in 1996, when the company presented the American premiere of the third (1921) version. I interviewed stage director Michael Gieleta via email during the final week of rehearsals.

Chuck Lavazzi: Puccini famously left "La Rondine" in a bit of a mess when he died, with three different performing versions available. OTSL has decided on the original 1917 version, which seems to be a popular choice. What were the factors the led you and your collaborators to pick this one as opposed to the other two?

Michael Gieleta: I don't think Puccini's lateral takes on "La Rondine" are any different from his takes on "Madama Butterfly," or of many now-famous American musicals which, for different reasons, get written and rewritten before, during and after they reach Broadway/the West End. It's not untypical of the composers' creative process and of its response to the various kind of pressure from the publishers, producers and the initial press feedback. Lastly, there are the stars who demand an extra "number" (be it "Send in the Clowns" or "Una furtiva lagrima") before the final curtain. Does anyone ever perform the Berlin version of Ibsen's "Doll's House" at the end of which Nora decides to stay with the husband and the children in order to keep the family hearth alit?

OTSL considered the original, Monte Carlo-premiered version of "La Rondine" most immediate and straightforward and that was the version it was decided to go along with. It may mean that our male lead misses out on his "Parigi è una città dei desideri" Act One aria introduced in the later versions, but he more than makes up for it later in the opera!

"La Rondine" doesn't seem to get as much attention as Puccini's more famous operas. Why do you think that might be?

It's an interesting question that could be asked in reverse: why is it that "Tosca," "Butterfly," and "Bohème" have been more present in the repertoire than "Manon Lescaut," "The Girl of the Golden West," "Il Tabarro," "La Rondine" or even "Turandot"?

What makes "La Rondine"'s rare appearance in the rep even more particular is the fact that, unlike some of the titles above, "La Rondine" has a genuine "hit", "Qu'il bel sogno di Doretta". Furthermore, it is one of Puccini's most loved, performed and enduring arias. The biographical background of the premiere of the piece is an unusual one too; I've written about it at length in the programme note.

What is important is that some titles, some composers and some authors simply come in and out of fashion. It's up to each generation to find their sung or unsung heroes according to that generation's sensitivities towards beauty, drama and music. If you stand outside the famous Paris Opera House, you may as well ask what the busts of Spontini, Halévy, Meyerbeer and Auber are doing next to those of Mozart, Beethoven and Rossini.

As you write in your program note, "La Rondine" was often referred to (inaccurately and dismissively) as Puccini's "operetta," but that this is finally changing. Do you think the attitudes of the protagonist Magda might play a part in that? She seems a bit less inclined to play the victim than Puccini's more well-known heroines, which would make her more plausible to a contemporary audience.

As "La Rondine" is being reappreciated in the modern day, the contemporary audiences get a chance to directly experience this paradox: whatever monikers were applied to the opera in the past, they are not necessarily substantiated by the work itself.

Magda is no victim at all; she takes responsibility for her choices and she sticks to those choices. We are given minimal background information concerning the characters as if the piece was prompting the audience to figure the actual storyline out for themselves from the scraps of textual evidence. In that context, "La Rondine" is reminiscent of a good theatrical play in which the author renounces traditional omniscience and where the public free to interpret the scarcely narrated facts in their own way. To quote Puccini's contemporary playwright Luigi Pirandello: "it is so, (if you think so)". That's the spirit, I believe, in which Puccini and Adami were writing "La Rondine."

So it is, in some ways, a very modern work.

Last question: the last opera you directed here in St. Louis was Smetana's "The Kiss" back in 2013. At the time, I couldn't help noticing that the heroine, Vendulka, was a refreshingly independent-minded woman with attitudes toward the opposite sex and marriage that sounded very modern, given that the opera premiered in 1876. As a director, are you drawn to libretti that (unlike so much of 19th century opera) feature strong-willed heroines? Or am I just reading too much into this?

I'm very flattered, Chuck, that you have noticed the parallel. I see myself as a storyteller and an interpreter of the material left over by the composer and the librettist. It's Smetana and Puccini (and countless others) who put strong-willed women at the centre of their works. "La Rondine" is quite unusual in Puccini's cannon as it does not have a pre-existing literary source. But that gives both the artists and the audience a wider scope for unbiased interpretation. There's much less play-like realism in "La Rondine" (as opposed to such intricately crafted theatrical set-ups as those found in "Tosca" or "Butterfly," based respectively on plays by Sardou and Belasco); such absence of narrative certainties makes my job all the more demanding, it enriches the rehearsal process and prompts us all in the rehearsal room to stretch our imagination beyond the factual succinctness of the stage directions in the score.

Ticket information for "La Rondine," the season's other operas, and information on the entire OTSL experience (including picnic suppers on the lawn before the shows) is available at Opera Theatre of Saint Louis.

This article originally appeared at 88.1 KDHX, where Chuck Lavazzi is the senior performing arts critic.

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Dr. Bartolo on the verge of a nervous breakdown: a review of Opera Theatre's "Barber of Seville"

Jonathan Beyer as Figaro
Photo: Ken Howard
Stage director Michael Shell, conductor Ryan McAdams, and the cast of Opera Theatre of Saint Louis' "Barber of Seville" can all congratulate themselves on a job well done. Kelley Rourke's translation/adaptation of the original libretto and Mr. Shell's visual concepts take a few liberties as they move the action up to (roughly) the mid-1960s, but I felt that none of them violated the intentions of either the original opera or, for that matter, the Beaumarchais play that started it all. The result it a loopy, slightly surreal, and highly engaging take this comic opera classic.

Emily Fons as Rosina and
Dale Travis as Dr. Bartolo
Photo: Ken Howard
In an email interview with me prior to the opening, Mr. Shell—who originally created this production for Opera Philadelphia last fall—said that he set out to create a "Barber" that was "vibrant, energetic, and very Spanish". He took as his point of departure the animated and colorful films of Spanish director Pedro Almodóvar, which, as he writes in his director's notes in the program, "have all the elements of a Rossini opera. Almodóvar is brilliant at walking the line between dramatic comedy and melodramatic absurdity. His films, rich with a vintage feel, are also deeply embedded in Spain and Spanish culture."

The updated bits are always funny and sometimes inspired. When, for example, Almaviva enters Bartolo's house in Act II disguised as a singing teacher so he can flirt with Rosina, he does so with a sitar and Yoga poses. Rosina's music master Don Basiliso becomes a smarmy nightclub singer, complete with a mic and an absurd Salvador Dali mustache. And the officer of the watch and guards who enter at the height of the comic chaos at the end of Act I are nothing short of living Warner Brothers cartoons, with wacky choreography courtesy of the ever-reliable Seán Curran.

And then there's the thunderstorm sequence in Act II that Rossini inserted to imply the passage of time between the scene in which Rosina, Figaro, and Almaviva plot Rosina's escape and the actual escape itself. Usually, the stage is bare. In this case, it's filled with the nightmare Bartolo has after downing one too many drinks from his bar. Dancing roosters figure prominently.

Shoko Kambara's candy-colored sets and Amanda Seymour's gaudy costumes add to the vivid cinematic imagery.

Christopher Tiesi as Almavivia, Emily Fons as
Rosina, and Jonathan Beyer as Figaro
Photo: Ken Howard
So, yes, there's plenty of action in this "Barber." And while some of it is only tangentially connected to the story, it's never allowed to draw attention from the singers and it always serves the comedy well. Even when, as in the Act I finale, there's a lot of movement going on, it's kept mostly upstage, so it's easy to keep the focus on the principals. This is a production that respects the intelligence of its audience and doesn't assume that we need to be constantly distracted in order to be entertained.

With the exception of bass-baritone Dale Travis as Bartolo, this cast is entirely new to Opera Theatre. It's always a pleasure to see some new faces on the stage, especially when they're this good.

Baritone Jonathan Beyer is Figaro, the versatile fixer who can arrange an assignation as easily as he can shave your beard. Mr. Beyer created this role in the Opera Philadelphia production, and he clearly couldn't be more comfortable in it. He's a tall, commanding comic presence on the stage with a versatile voice that's more than up to Rossini's demands. His "Largo al factotum" was gracefully done, and without the excessive ornamentation that some singers are prone to give it.

Christopher Tiesi as Almavivia
Jonathan Beyer as Figaro
Photo: Ken Howard
Christopher Tiesi is the lovelorn Almaviva, with a ringing tenor and a feel for comedy that makes him an ideal foil for Mr. Beyer's Figaro. The fact that he's so much shorter than Figaro also creates some amusing "Mutt and Jeff" images in their scenes together.

Mr. Travis is another big actor with an equally large voice, and it serves him well as the comically pompous Bartolo. He delvers Rossini's rapid patter songs with ease and impressively precise diction. South Korean bass-baritone Jeongcheol Cha rounds out the principal male cast as the wily (if ineffectual) Basilio. His "gossip" aria "La calunnia è un venticello" was a first-act highlight.

Mezzo-soprano Emily Fons is Rosina. The role was originally written for a contralto, but sopranos and mezzos have done well with it over the years, and Ms. Fons sounded entirely comfortable with it, giving us an "Una voce poco fa" in Act I that was both beautifully sung and hilariously in character. Soprano Eliza Johnson only has one short aria ("l vecchiotto cerca moglie" in Act II) as the maid Berta, but she makes it a charming little character bit.

There are fine performances as well from baritone Benjamin Taylor as Almaviva's friend Fiorello, baritone Jonathan McCullough as the increasingly rattled Officer at the end of Act I, tenor Todd Barnhill as the Notary, and tenor Geoffrey Agpalo as the servant Ambrogio.

Christoper Tiesi as Almaviva
Emily Fons as Rosina, and
Jonathan Beyer as Figaro
Photo: Ken Howard
Down in the orchestra pit, conductor Ryan McAdams does well by Rossini's infectious score, beginning with a performance of the overture that was both rousing and nuanced. There were a few moments on opening night when the orchestra and the singers sounded not entirely in synch, but on the whole it all came together splendidly.

The projected English text was a bit spotty on opening night, but given how clearly everyone in this cast enunciates I didn't find that to be an issue. The bottom line is that the things that really matter all work very well in this production, making it a lively and enjoyable opener for OTSL's 40th anniversary season.

The Opera Theatre of St. Louis production of Rossini's "Barber of Seville" continues through June 27 in rotating repertory with three other operas at the Loretto-Hilton Center on the Webster University campus. The opera is sung in English with projected English text. For ticket information: experienceopera.org.

This review originally appeared at 88.1 KDHX, where Chuck Lavazzi is the senior performing arts critic.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

A conversation with Michael Shell, stage director for Opera Theatre's "The Barber of Seville"

Michael Shell
michaelshelldirector.com
Opera Theatre of St. Louis opens its 2015 festival season with Rossini's popular comic opera "The Barber of Seville" on Saturday, May 23rd. The production, which will run through June 27th, will alternate with three other operas on the main stage of the Loretto-Hilton Center on the Webster University campus.

This will be OTSL's sixth production of the opera. In an email interview, I asked stage director Michael Shell (who directed Mozart's "Cosi fan Tutte" for OTSL back in 2012) what to expect in this latest version of the Rossini classic.

Chuck Lavazzi (CL): When this production made its first appearance with Opera Philadelphia last October, the reviewer for PhillyNow praised its "modernist set design and colorful costumes". How would you describe the look of this new "Barber"?

Michael Shell (MS): I would describe the look of new production as vibrant, energetic and very Spanish. The music is vibrant and energetic/rhythmic. I wanted the look and feel of this production and the way we tell the story to match the vibrant rhythmic quality of the music. This is not Beaumarchais's "Barber of Seville." This is very much a Rossini comedy in the best sense. It walks the line between reality and absurdity and I wanted an environment that could sustain and allow for both. The updating of the piece, using the films of Pedro Almodovar as a jumping off point, helped give us a different way to look at the whole. Not to ignore any aspect of what was there, but allow us to go to a variety of different places.

CL: How does that vision of "Barber" influence the way you direct your singers? Is there a particular acting style you're going for that might be different from a more traditional production?

MS: I always come from a place of what does the character want and how do they get it. That is the most important thing. What changes because of this take on the show, is the how. How they go about achieving their goals becomes just as important as what the goals or objectives are. How does Bertha, for example, who I feel really loves Bartolo, go about getting him to notice her. The Count's disguise as Don Alonso allows the meaning of his words at the top of Act II "Peace and joy and understanding" to go to a different place in order to trick Bartolo.

CL: Yes. Actors can never go wrong asking "what's my objective in this scene?" regardless of whether there's music behind them or not.

MS: Absolutely!! I agree completely. Tends to not be the first thing that opera singers ask, but I am fortunate that this cast was very interested in discussing and working towards that so that we could make interesting choices on how to go about achieving their objectives.

Shell's "Cosi fan Tutte" at OTSL, 2012
experienceopera.org
CL: The notion of what's funny varies among cultures and often changes over time. Directors of Shakespeare's comedies, for example, often find themselves faced with a real challenge in keeping the shows funny for a modern audience when the references for so many of the jokes have been lost over the centuries. Do you find a similar challenge in 18th and 19th century comic operas? How do you deal with it, if so?

MS: In terms of comedies, the good comedic operas by Mozart or Rossini for example, have tapped into something that is universal and still relevant to us today. So while my choice of setting for this production is updated, and it certainly allows us to be somewhat anachronistic at times, the whole point was to tap into that universal humor that is intrinsic in the piece. And perhaps by putting it in a setting that is distant but still closer to our time than the original period, it may be more humorous to some people who might not be enticed by a traditional telling. The new touches that make it perhaps more humorous are only able to work because we have found situations that match the ones in the piece. For example - In discussion the characters with my team, we decided that because Bartolo is so blind to not only the fact that Rosina could never love him, but somewhat oblivious to everything that is going on around him, that he should be an eye doctor. And in our efforts to keep the character of Rosina from being just this bored, sometimes petulant girl, in this production, we thought that Bartolo would make her be his medical assistant / secretary in order to keep an eye on her. So in his aria near the end of Act I, we introduce a patient into the mix while Bartolo is fuming with anger at Rosina. So he is having to deal with this patient and Rosina at the same time. The exam gets out of control as he loses his cool with Rosina.

This is in no way saying that a traditional telling of this piece is equally as funny. But I figured that it might be interesting to explore a new side of this piece to do what you said about keeping it funny for a modern audience.

CL: One last question: OperaBase shows "Barber" as the eighth most performed opera in the world right now and the third most performed comedy, right behind Mozart's "Marriage of Figaro." What do you think is behind that continuing popularity?

MS: To answer your question - I think I can sum that up with one word : JOY. There is so much joy in the spirit of the piece that I think that is why it has stood the test of time. There is joy in the story, in the characters and especially Rossini's music. It is just a lot of fun to be in this world. And what I hope our production has done has created a world, that may be different than the normal one, but a world that the audience wants to be in and be a part of.

For ticket information on "The Barber of Seville," the season's other operas, and information on the entire OTSL experience (including picnic suppers on the lawn before the shows): experienceopera.org.

This article originally appeared at 88.1 KDHX, where Chuck Lavazzi is the senior performing arts critic.

Sunday, May 10, 2015

Review of 'Aida" in concert with The St. Louis Symphony Orchestra and Chorus

"Aida" at Powell Hall
stlsymphony.org / Eddie Silva
In the hands of a lesser composer, "Aida" might have been a classic potboiler—cheap yard goods written on commission and quickly forgotten. But Verdi was a thoroughgoing man of the theatre with a keen sense of what worked on stage. Moreover, by the time he wrote "Aida" in 1870 he was a mature artist with a string of hits to his credit. The result is a work, in the words of British opera scholar Julian Budden, "in which the various elements—grandeur, exotic pictorialism, and intimate poetry—are held in perfect equilibrium and from which not a single note can be cut."

If you want to see for yourself just how right Mr. Budden was, hie yourself down to Powell Hall this weekend to see and hear the remarkable concert version of "Aida" being presented by the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra and Chorus under the impeccable direction of David Robertson. Distinguished by virtuoso performances from the orchestra and Amy Kaiser's splendid chorus and an international cast of strong singers—most of whom are also respectable actors—this is an "Aida" that demonstrates that great opera is also great musical theatre.

"Aida," as Mr. Budden says, has it all: romance, treachery, tragedy, and a stunning Act II finale complete with offstage brass, ballet music, and what Shakespeare's Othello (in his famous "farewell to arms" speech) called the "[p]ride, pomp, and circumstance of glorious war." The final scene—in which the doomed lovers Aida and Radamès slowly expire in a sealed tomb while Amneris bitterly regrets her part in their destruction and the offstage chorus sings a hymn to "immenso Ftha"—is a brilliantly conceived coup de theatre, calculated to bring a lump to the most stoic of throats.

Antonello Polombi
liricopera.com
Well, it did to mine, anyway.

The cast for this production is headed by soprano Lucrecia García and tenor Antonello Palombi as the doomed lovers Aida and Radamès. Mr. Palombi was clearly the most intensely focused actor in this cast, completely in character as soon as he walked on stage. You could see his concentration in little things, like the way he stayed "in the moment" for a beat or two after he cut off that high A at the end of "Celeste Aida," or the way he reacted to what other characters were doing even when he wasn't in focus.

He also displayed that rich, powerful voice that has gotten him rave reviews elsewhere in the past. Reviewing his Manrico in Seattle back in 2010, for example, the Opera Warhorses blog praised the "strength and beauty" of his voice, dubbing him "a true tenore di forza" (the "dramatic tenor" Verdi said was required for his leading roles). I'd have to agree. Even in the overly reverberant acoustic fog of Powell Hall's upper reaches, he came through loud and clear.

Lucrecia Garcia
imgartists.com
Ms. Garcia's Aida was more dramatically restrained but still entirely compelling. Her "Ritorna vincitor" was right on the dramatic money and her death scene with Mr. Palombi, as noted, was truly moving. She, too, has the kind of precision and gravity-defying vocal power needed to fill a big hall. Reviewing her Odabella in the Teater an der Wien's production of Verdi's Attila back in 2013 for bachtrack.com, Chanda VanderHart accurately described her as having "a color and metal to her tone reminiscent of a young Leontyne Price"—a telling comparison, given that Ms. Price (who retired from the stage in 1985) was one of the great Aidas of her time.

Russian mezzo Ekaterina Semenchuk also turned in an exciting performance as Amneris, whose insane jealousy destroys the lives of everyone—hers included. Like Mr. Palombi, she is always in character and always credible. She has a powerhouse of a voice, with an appropriately rich and dark bottom and solid top notes.

Basses Alexander Vinogradov and Soloman Howard bring impressive gravitas to the roles of the High Priest Ramfis and the Pharaoh, respectively. Soprano Sarah Price makes a strong impression as the High Priestess and tenor Dennis Wilhoit, while not quite in the same vocal league as the rest of the cast, is nevertheless and excellent Messenger.

As Aida's father Amonsasro, King of Ethiopia, baritone Gordon Hawkins is vocally impressive, with an opulent voice that projects well, but (at least of Thursday night) seemed not to be acting the part at all. Even in the Act III duet "Rivedrai le foreste imbalsamente," where he's excoriating Aida and reminding her of the horrors inflicted on Ethiopia by the Egyptians, his only emotional setting appeared to be "stolid."

Amy Kaiser
stlsymphony.org
Amy Kaiser's chorus displayed that mix of power, finesse, and precise diction that I have come to expect of them over the years. Their singing in the big triumphal scene that concludes Verdi's Act II was thrilling, of course, but their offstage work in the final moments of the last act was equally impressive.

The musicians of the SLSO performed heroically here. With intermission, "Aida" runs just over three hours, so it requires a lot of stamina as well as skill. It got both on Thursday night, along with some fine work by individual players to whom Verdi has given some notable solos. That included (among others) Principal Harp Allegra Lilly at various points in the first act; Principal Flute Mark Sparks and fellow flautists Jennifer Nichtman and Ann Choomack in the dance of the priestesses from I,2; and Tzuying Huang on bass clarinet during Amneris' aria at the top of Act IV. The offstage brass during Act II were also very effective.

Mr. Robertson pulls all this together in a wonderfully nuanced interpretation, with generally quite good balances between the orchestra and vocalists. If the latter were at times overwhelmed, it was more a matter of Powell Hall's acoustics than anything else. His tempi for some of the ballet sequences would probably have been too brisk for live dancers, but in a concert setting like this one they worked just fine and were exciting to hear.

S. Katy Tucker's video projections on the back and sides of the stage were a major asset when creating virtual scenery like the stunning Temple of Vulcan in I,2 (complete with remarkably realistic flaming torches) or the exterior of the royal palace in II, 2. They also provided nicely synchronized animation to accompany those ballet sequences.

They were, however, more of a detriment when they pulled focus from the singers—which they did far too often. When Radamès is singing about wanting to build Aida a throne next to the sun ("un trono vicino al sol"), we really don't need to see animated sunbeams any more than we need to see blooming flowers when, in II,2, the women of the chorus sing of crowning Radamès' brow with lotus and laurel. And we certainly don't need an animated eye looking back and forth between singers. Less gilding of the visual lily would have been more effective.

The St. Louis Symphony's celestial "Aida" brought the regular concert season to a splendid close. For ticket information on other SLSO events: stlsymphony.org.

This review originally appeared at 88.1 KDHX, where Chuck Lavazzi is the senior performing arts critic.

Thursday, May 7, 2015

Preview of "Aida" in concert at the St. Louis Symphony, May 7 and 9, 2015

Soprano Lucrecia Garcia
imgartists.com
The on-line version of the Oxford Dictionary defines a "potboiler" as a "book, painting, or recording produced merely to make the writer or artist a living by catering to popular taste." Verdi's 1871 opera "Aida," a concert version of which closes the St. Louis Symphony season this weekend, probably meets that definition to some extent since it started out as a purely commercial endeavor. But Verdi quickly became enthusiastic about the project, and "Aida" transcended its origins.

Verdi conducting "Aida" in Paris, 1881
en.wikipedia.org
Commissioned by Isma'il Pasha, Khedive of Egypt from 1863 to 1879, "Aida" had its premiere on Christmas Eve 1871 at the Khedive's new 850-seat grand opera house in Cairo. As befitted the occasion, it was a massive, eye-popping spectacle—a "grand opera" in the tradition of Meyerbeer with elaborate (and historically accurate) sets and costumes by French Egyptologist Auguste Ferdinand Mariette who had written the story that was the basis for Antonio Ghislanzoni's libretto. Verdi was reportedly annoyed that the Cairo audience was strictly limited to critics and dignitaries, though, and is said to have regarded the opera's first non-Egyptian performance—in Milan at La Scala in 1872—as the work's "real" premiere.

"Aida" is more than just spectacle, of course. The story, as Julian Budden writes in the 1989 edition of Stanley Sadie's "History of Opera," "is unusually simple, presenting the time-honored conflict of love versus duty in time of war...set forth in a score in which the various elements—grandeur, exotic pictorialism, and intimate poetry—are held in perfect equilibrium and from which not a single note can be cut."

Not surprisingly, then, popular and critical acclaim followed hard upon the Milan opening. As Paul Schiavo writes in his SLSO program notes, "subsequent productions...quickly placed Aida in the forefront of the operatic repertory. It has never relinquished its position there, and seems unlikely ever to do so."

Much of this is due to the fact that Verdi was a thoroughgoing man of the theatre with a keen sense of what would and would not work in performance. "At all stages of the formation of the libretto," wrote Gordon Stewart in his notes for the classic 1962 recording of "Aida" with Leontyne Price, "Verdi altered, suggested, removed. He was always a bully where librettists were concerned, but he had never indulged himself as much as he did in 'Aida'. Not only was the general shape of the opera, the interplay of the human relationships, his concern, but the details of the words—the rhythms of the verse and even whole lines—owe something to him."

Album cover of the 1962 "Aida"
You can see that in the detailed 92-page production book (disposizione scenica) for "Aida" which, as Roger Savage and Will Crutchfield observe (in Sadie, op. cit.) "is virtually a moment-by-moment dramatic analysis" that is "essentially the work of Verdi himself." The book includes "the most detailed directions for the exact composition of processions and scenes of pageantry...with stage movement and interpretive directions running right through the solo arias (even including the number of steps to be taken)." You can see a sample page at the web site of Verdi's publisher, Ricordi. Verdi never went as far as Wagner, with his concept of the Gesamtkunstwerk (roughly, "total work of art") in which the composer was responsible for every aspect of the work, but he certainly came close.

You don't get all that in a concert performance, of course, but the SLSO isn't going to ask you to rely entirely on your mind's eye. According to the SLSO web site, the concerts will be "enhanced by innovative lighting projection by designer S. Katy Tucker...a renowned artist known for her design work at Carnegie Hall, the San Francisco Opera, Sydney Symphony and more." In a promotional video, SLSO music director David Robertson says that as a result "Powell Hall will be transformed into this incredible sort of temple of music and evocation of the magic landscape that Verdi created."

Given that none of our local opera companies have the stage facilities for something as grandiose as "Aida," this is probably the closest we're likely to get to a full production in St. Louis without hopping into Dr. Who's TARDIS and traveling back to 1917, when the opera was presented at the Municipal Theatre (now The Muny) in Forest Park.

The Essentials: David Robertson conducts the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra and Chorus, soprano Lucrecia Garcia, and an international roster of soloists in a complete concert performance of Verdi's "Aida" Thursday and Saturday at 8 p.m., May 7 and 9. The concerts take place at Powell Symphony Hall, 718 North Grand in Grand Center and the Saturday performance will be broadcast on St. Louis Public Radio. For more information: stlsymphony.org.

Friday, August 22, 2014

Anna Russell Explains The Ring Cycle

Think you'll be confused by the plot of Siegfried without having seen Das Rheingold and Die Walküre first? Fear not! Let British humorist Anna Russell get you up to speed with her succinct, hilarious  analysis of Wagner's Ring Cycle:


(The above embedded video is a playlist of three videos.)

Siegfried opens August 22 and runs August 23, 29 and 30 at Union Avenue Opera, 733 N. Union Blvd. Performances begin at 8:00pm. Production sung in German with projected English supertitles. Tickets may be purchased online at www.unionavenueopera.org or by calling 314-361-2881.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

"Siegfried" Opens Tomorrow at Union Avenue Opera

Clay Hilley
Photo © Ron Lindsey, 2014
All Rights Reserved
Union Avenue Opera's four-year journey through Richard Wagner's Ring Cycle continues after the critically lauded Die Walküre from last season with the third opera in the cycle: Siegfried.

Swords are re-forged, dragons slain, a sleeping maiden awakened, treasures reclaimed, and justice dispensed as the power of the gods continues to dwindle. The fearless hero Siegfried, grandson of Wotan, is destined for greatness as he faces a multitude of challenges, including winning the love of Brünnhilde. Siegfried is a wonderful fairytale with the requisite happy ending ... for the moment at least. Siegfried is reduced and adapted by English composer Jonathan Dove. His masterful cuts condense the opera in length to under three hours and will be enhanced by video projections befitting the magnificent grandeur of the Ring Cycle.

Jordan Shanahan and David Dillard
Photo © John Lamb, 2014
All Rights Reserved
THE CAST

Tenor Clay Hilley makes his UAO debut in the title role. He comes to us after engagements as Father Grenville in Dead Man Walking and Radames in Aida. Soprano Alexandra LoBianco, joins him onstage, making her return to the role of Brünnhilde. Last seen as Goro in last season's Madama Butterfly, Tenor Marc Schapman sings the role of Mime, a dwarf that raises the story's hero. Also returning from the Butterfly cast, Baritone David Dillard portrays The Wanderer--the head god Wotan in disguise. Bass Nathan Whitson, Hunding in last season's Die Walküre, returns in the role of the giant-turned-dragon Fafner. Two artists return to roles previously sung in 2012's Das Rheingold: Mezzo Soprano Cecelia Stearman as Erda and Baritone Jordan Shanahan as Alberich. Soprano Kate Reimann sings the role of the Forest Bird.

Cecelia Stearman
Photo © Teresa Doggett, 2014 | All Rights Reserved
THE CREW

UAO Artistic Director and Conductor Scott Schoonover leads the orchestra. Stage Director Karen Coe Miller returns after Das Rheingold and Die Walküre to continue her work on the reduced Ring Cycle. Allyson Ditchey serves as Stage Manager. The design team includes Set and Lighting Designer Patrick Huber, Video Projection Designer Michael Perkins, Costume Designer Teresa Doggett and Production Manager Sean Savoie. Pianist Nancy Mayo serves as repetiteur.


Alexandra LoBianco
Photo © Teresa Doggett, 2014 | All Rights Reserved
FRIDAY NIGHT
LECTURE SERIES

Glen Bauer, Ph.D., Associate Chair of the Webster University Music Department, will give a lecture one hour before each Friday performance (August 1st and 8th at 7:00pm) in the Fellowship Gallery of Union Avenue Christian Church. Lectures are free and open to the general public; no ticket to the performance required. 

Marc Schapman and Clay Hilley
Photo © John Lamb, 2014
All Rights Reserved
OPENING NIGHT RECEPTION

Want a chance to eat, drink and schmooze with cast and crew of Siegfried on Opening Night? UAO hosts an Opening Night Reception on Friday, August 22nd after the performance at Tavern of Fine Arts. Click here for more information.

"SIEGFRIED" IN THE MEDIA

Sarah Bryan Miller of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch covers the production, interviewing Clay Hilley.

Gerry Kowarsky and Marc Bretz of Two on the Aisle sit down with Karen Coe Miller and Alexandra LoBianco to discuss Siegfried and the Ring Cycle.
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Siegfried opens tomorrow, August 22nd, and runs August 23, 29 and 30 at Union Avenue Opera, 733 N. Union Blvd. Performances begin at 8:00pm. Production sung in German with projected English supertitles. Tickets may be purchased online at www.unionavenueopera.org or by calling 314-361-2881.