Sunday, June 21, 2015

Singing as Olympic sport in Opera Theatre's "Richard the Lionheart"

Tim Meady
Photo: Ken Howard
If you're in the mood for an evening of singing so incredible that you'll wonder why it isn't an Olympic sport, then allow me to recommend Opera Theatre's production of the American premiere of Handel's "Richard the Lionheart" (original Italian title: "Riccardo primo, re d’Inghilterra"), final performances of which are this Wednesday at Friday at 8 at the Loretto-Hilton Center on the Webster University campus.

Written in London (where Handel's Italian-language historical operas were all the rage) for the Royal Academy of Music's 1726/27 season, "Richard" was intended, in part, as a celebratory work for the coronation of England's King George II. As a result it turns England's feckless Crusader king into an absurdly noble romantic figure and suffers (in my view) from an overdose of English Jingoism in its final act.

Yes, that’s right: an opera written in Italian by a German-born composer celebrates the English virtues of George II, a German-born King. It’s enough to make your head spin.

One other thing that might make your head spin if you're not an opera and/or classical music fan is that fact that the male leads in "Richard the Lionheart" (Richard and the Syrian prince Oronte) are sung not by tenors but by countertenors—men who sing in the mezzo-soprano or alto range. That's because in Handel's day it was fashionable for these parts to be sung by castrati—male singers who were castrated before puberty and whose voices, therefore, never dropped in pitch.

Handel had a couple of the great castrati of his era to work with in this opera, so Richard and Oronte's arias are flashy and absurdly difficult, filled with elaborate, rapid passages and florid ornamentation. Opera Theatre has, happily, two fine singers in the roles: Tim Mead as Richard and Tai Oney as Oronte. Mr. Mead is clearly the stronger of the two, with a powerful, wide-ranging voice and a convincingly forceful stage presence, although Mr. Oney is no slouch. Their respective calls to arms in the third act are a highlight.

The story of the opera is based on a real incident in 1191 in which Richard's fiancée, Berengaria of Navarre, was shipwrecked off the coast of Cyprus and held hostage by the island's ruler, Isaac Komnenos. Richard conquered the island and got her back. The opera changes Berengaria's name to Costanza and adds a subplot in which Isaac (Isacio in the opera) tries to pass off his daughter Pulcheria as Richard's intended, much to the distress of Pulcheria's lover Oronte.

L-R: Susannah Biller and Devon Guthrie
Photo: Ken Howard
It's silly stuff and stage director Lee Blakeley has tacked on an unconvincingly dark ending that flatly contradicts the text and the music, but nothing can detract from the fine singing and acting of this cast.

I've already praised Mr. Mead and Mr. Oney. Soprano Susannah Biller has a crystal-clear coloratura that navigates the music with ease, while soprano Devon Guthrie has an equally impressive but darker tone that works well for Pulcheria. Bass-baritone Brandon Cedel radiates menace as Isacio and bass Adam Lau is warmly sympathetic as Costanza's cousin Berardo. Both have formidable voices that project well.

Grant Llewellyn conducts the appropriately small orchestra with great flair and sensitivity. Their playing is perfection, with shout-outs to Laura Osterlund on sopranino recorder for her wonderful work on Costanza's "swallow" aria, and to Simon Martyn-Ellis, whose archlute adds a nice bite to the continuo part played by Damien Francoeur-Krzyzek on harpsichord and Melissa Brooks on 'cello.

For the full Opera Theatre experience, come early and have a picnic or a drink on a table on the lawn. For details on "Richard the Lionheart" and the other three operas this season, visit the company web site.

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

Friday, June 12, 2015

Opera Preview: An e-chat with James Robinson, director of "Emmeline" at Opera Theatre

James Robinson
Opera Theatre's fourth production of the season is the local premiere of Tobias Picker's 1996 "Emmeline," which has a book by poet J.D. McClatchy, based on the novel of the same name by Judith Rossner. I spoke with stage director James Robinson about the piece via email this week.

Chuck Lavazzi: "Emmeline" is the story of a young textile mill worker who is seduced by her employer's son-in-law, gets pregnant, and is forced to give up the baby. Two decades later she unwittingly meets and marries the young man who turns out to be her son. That kernel of story, it seems to me, resonates on both a deep psychological level with its overtones of Oedipus as well as on a political and social level. What aspects of the opera do you find most compelling and why?

James Robinson: I've always been drawn to stories about "the other" in a society. "Emmeline" is certainly about someone who through no fault of her own has become a pariah, an outcast. It's certainly a deeply psychological story that has strong ties to "Oedipus," but it's also the tale of a woman who is really looking and longing to be loved. Obviously, she is taken advantage of by McGuire, the employer's son-in-law who not just takes advantage of her and, to be blunt, he rapes her. McGuire knows that young Emmeline, who has just come to work in the mills, is lonely and he suggests that he can become a father figure to her (knowing that she desperately misses her father and family). What's masterful about the way McClatchy and Picker have approached this situation is that the audience is almost fooled into believing this is a traditional romantic situation — the text is like a love duet and the music is achingly romantic. Then you have to say, "Wait a minute, she's 14 and he's at least twice her age!" Of course, when she finally falls in love with Matthew we again are hoping that she finds true love. Again, it turns out very badly and both librettist and composer know how to deliver a real punch in the gut. So I think these elements are really interesting. In a sense, "Emmeline" with its taut libretto and stunning music is like an opera by Janacek. It follows that composer's masterworks like "Katya Kabanova" and "Jenufa".

I guess on another level, I love the fact that this is an American opera set in New England and it's rooted in a real time and place. Historically, the mills of Lowell, MA were fascinating in terms of the girls who were sent to work there and what it meant — both good and bad — to industry in the US. I also enjoy presenting operas that shed light on times and places that are not commonly familiar to most people.

Speaking of the music, in the New York Times review of the 1998 City Opera production, Bernard Holland (who liked the score quite a lot) wrote that the composer "has a true ear for lyrical run-on musical sentences. They ride gracefully and take interesting directions." I'm not entirely sure what he means by that. Now that you've spend so much time with the music, and you tell me what you think he was getting at there?

I would say that Picker has written some really wonderful lyrical passages that are not entirely predictable. "Emmeline" is a very tuneful score and the vocal writing plays off of a lot of solo writing in the orchestra. I would say it's one of the great strengths of the piece because you never really know where the lines are going. So in a sense it's very much like the way people speak or think — there's a great deal of spontaneity that keeps you wondering where things are heading. This as opposed to a more formulaic pattern of vocal writing.

It sounds like even though Picker studied with some aggressively "modernist" composers like Elliott Carter and Milton Babbitt, he has personally gone back to a more tonal style of composition. Is this something you see happening frequently in the contemporary opera world?

Interestingly, I have come across many composers who worked with some hardcore modernists over the years but who have opted to compose in a more lyrical even tonal style. There is a rigorous element to Picker's music that certainly reflects some of his earlier compositions but I think this has less to do with atonality and more to do with rhythm. "Emmeline" is, in fact, an extremely tonal score but there are some extremely complex rhythmic patterns used throughout.

Yes, I think something similar is happening in the concert world as well. I've been hearing a lot of "new music" lately that seems to recognize that the war against tonality that the serialists started has been lost. That's a positive development in my book.

I've seen the same thing. I'm not sure it's a complete rejection of brutal atonality as many of these newer/younger composers are employing certain techniques but in a more personal way and with music rooted in tonality. There's also a lot of fusion of styles that I think is very interesting. You hear influences of jazz, rock and international music. The real pros know how to bring these things together to create their own voices.

Last question: "Emmeline" is, as you say, a layered and complex piece. What are you hoping audiences will take away from it, emotionally and/or intellectually?

I'm hoping the audiences for "Emmeline" will find it a riveting story with really gorgeous music (and terrific performances). True, it's a dark story but it's also quite a moving story that resonates on so many levels. Someone I know saw a dress rehearsal (and she's not a huge opera fan) and wrote me the most incredible note about how the opera touched her deeply on levels of love, religion, passion, taking advantage of children, etc. Is the story too dark? I don't think so. After all, we know pretty early on that Cio Cio San, Mimi and Tosca are not going to have an easy time of it.

"Emmeline" opens Sunday, June 14, and runs through June 27. For more information, visit the Opera Theatre web site.

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Puccini's music and Opera Theatre's performers star in "La Rondine"

Act II quartet and chorus
Photo: Ken Howard
Puccini’s romantic drama "La Rondine" was something of a problem child for the composer. Opera Theatre's utterly splendid production of the original 1917 version (there are thee altogether) illustrates the issue: Giuseppe Adami's clunker of a libretto. As beautifully sung, impeccably acted, intelligently directed, and generally entertaining as this "La Rondine" is, there's just no getting around those words.

The opera's history was troubled from the beginning. The original request from Vienna's Carltheater in 1913 was for an operetta. Puccini asked for (and got) permission to instead write a genuine opera, but lighter in tone than his tragic masterpieces. When he offered the finished product to his publisher Tito Ricordi in 1916, Ricordi turned it down. Yet when it was published by Ricordi's rival Lorenzo Sonzogno, Ricordi (as stage director Michael Gieleta relates in his program notes) "spread bad word of mouth about 'La rondine'...with such zeal that even a century later, both experts and amateurs retains all sorts of 'opinions' on what 'La rondine' was and wasn't."

Sydney Mancasola and John McVeigh
Photo: Ken Howard
It was revised twice after its premiere (the final version was mounted by OTSL back in 1996), but no revision of it has ever achieved the popularity of "La Boheme" (which it somewhat resembles, at least in the second act) or Puccini's other operas. Until very recently it was still not uncommon to see it dismissed as "Puccini's operetta."

In both the first and third versions, the libretto of "La Rondine" is often so cryptic that it's nearly telegraphic. "We are given minimal background information concerning the characters," observed Mr. Gieleta in an interview with me during tech week, "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 is free to interpret the scarcely narrated facts in their own way." Unfortunately, it also makes some of the characters' decisions a bit baffling.

The story is basically “Traviata lite”. Magda, a “kept woman”, leaves her rich, middle-aged lover Rambaldo and her lush life in Paris to take up with Ruggero, a young hunk from the sticks. Unfortunately the young hunk is, as written, far too painfully naive to be sympathetic, and the rich lover little more than a cipher, which makes Magda's decision to leave them both seem more immature and petulant than tragic.

Corinne Winters
Photo: Ken Howard
That said, this is such an impressive production in every way that I mostly found myself able to suspend disbelief and revel in the many wonderful individual moments. The ecstatic "toast to love" in the second act, with the full chorus in full voice, is but one of many examples. One does not, in the final analysis, go to a Puccini opera for the intelligence of the libretto but for the emotional power of the music. And "La Rondine" has that in abundance.

This production also has bravura performances in abundance, led by soprano Corinne Winters as Magda. She has, in her lower register, the kind of richness I associate with mezzos or altos, while still retaining a crystal clear head voice. Her first big aria in Act I ("Chi il bel sogno di Doretta" in the original Italian) was a real show stopper, drawing enthusiastic applause from the opening night audience. Better yet, her acting is completely convincing, even in the drawn-out melodramatic renunciation of Ruggero in the third act.

As Magda's maid Lisette, whose expectations of music-hall stardom prove to be wildly unrealistic, soprano Sydney Mancasola also displays a wonderfully clear voice with great top notes, along with a sure comic sense. Tenor John McVeigh turns in an equally fine performance as the poet Prunier, Lisette's on again/off again lover, with yet another fine, strong voice and a convincingly sympathetic character.

Corinne Winters and Anthony Kalil
Photo: Ken Howard
In the role of Ruggero, tenor Anthony Kalil did not sound as vocally powerful to me as the rest of the principals, but otherwise turned in a respectable if somewhat monochromatic performance. There is, I think, a bit more variety to Ruggero's character than I saw, at least on opening night. Still, he certainly holds his own with Ms. Winters, Ms. Mancasola, and Mr. McVeigh in that rapturous quartet-and-chorus number in the second act.

Bass-baritone Matthew Burns isn't given much to do as Rambaldo, but even so he manages to suggest that there is more to his character than the libretto indicates, and does so with a robust and well-focused voice. Sopranos Ashley Milanese and Elizabeth Sutphen and mezzo Hannah Hagerty all provide well-sung cameos as Magda's friends Yvette, Bianca, and Suzy.

Mr. Gieleta direction is unfailingly sure-footed, creating powerful stage pictures, clarifying character, and generally serving the material remarkably well. Alexander Dodge's and Gregory Gale's costumes beautifully conjure up both Belle Époque Paris and the seaside resort to which Magda and Ruggero flee in the third act, assisted by Christopher Akerlind's dramatic lighting design. This is a "La Rondine" that looks as good as it sounds.

John McVeigh, Corinne Winters and ensemble
Photo: Ken Howard
Speaking of how it sounds, OTSL Music Director Stephen Lord conducts the orchestra with the assurance we have come to expect of him over the years, while the ensemble of (mostly) St. Louis Symphony musicians responds with powerful, impeccable playing. Puccini's entrancing score comes through in all its glory.

"La Rondine" may never get as much respect as Puccini's more famous works, but it deserves to be seen, if only because it's one of the few Puccini operas in which the heroine isn't either a hapless victim or clueless enabler of badly-behaved men. Say what you will about Magda, she ultimately chooses her own road, even if her reasons are not always clear. And when her story is told this well—to say nothing of this beautifully sung—it’s a reminder of why we love opera in the first place.

The Opera Theatre of St. Louis production of "La Rondine" continues through June 28 in rotating repertory with three other operas at the Loretto-Hilton Center on the Webster University campus. More information is available at the opera theatre web site.

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