Thursday, November 5, 2015

"Oh misery me": The problems of "Yeomen of the Guard" are unsolved by Winter Opera

Contemporary Yeomen in period costume at the Tower of London
Gilbert and Sullivan operettas follow a fairly predictable format—so much so that Anna Russell once made it the basis for a sixteen-minute comedy routine on "How to Write Your Own Gilbert and Sullivan Opera." The one oddball in the G&S canon is "Yeomen of the Guard," a somewhat indifferent production of which opened Winter Opera's current season the weekend of October 30th.

"Yeomen" comes at a time in Gilbert and Sullivan's partnership when Sir Arthur Sullivan was beginning to see himself as a victim of his own success. Like his literary contemporary Arthur Conan Doyle, Sullivan felt that his popular works were overshadowing his more serious efforts. As Doyle would come to resent Sherlock Holmes, Sullivan was beginning to resent his comic collaborations with Gilbert. So when Gilbert proposed a more serious libretto, Sullivan jumped at the chance.

First performed in 1888, "Yeomen" wasn't a total departure from the familiar formula. There are disguises, complex plot reversals, and a fair amount of comedy. But the satirical jabs at British institutions are absent and the ending is, if not really tragic, at least unhappy. The result is an uneven mix of Gilbertian absurdity and unconvincing drama that never really works as either comedy or tragedy. Its appeal has always escaped me.

Set in the Tower of London in the 16th century, the story of "Yeomen" revolves around Colonel Fairfax, who is about to executed for sorcery on the basis of false testimony from an evil cousin who plans to inherit Fairfax's fortune if Fairfax dies unmarried. Fairfax offers 100 crowns to any woman who will marry him, sight unseen, and so cheat his cousin of his ill-gotten gains. Elsie Maynard, a young singer more or less betrothed to the jester Jack Point, takes him up on the offer in order to buy medicine for her ailing mother.

Unknown to Fairfax, his old friend Sergeant Meryll and daughter Phoebe have hatched a plot to save his life by disguising him as Meryll's son Leonard, newly arrived to take a position as one of the Tower guards (the "Yeomen" of the title). Once sprung from prison, Fairfax woos Phoebe and then, still disguised as Leonard, seduces Elsie while pretending to be helping Jack Point woo her.

By the end of the opera both Phoebe and her father are trapped in dreary marriages to (respectively) the loutish jailer Wilfred Shadbolt and the bloodthirsty Tower housekeeper Dame Carruthers as the price for keeping their plot secret. Fairfax claims Elsie and poor Jack Point falls senseless to the stage.

In short, no good deed goes unpunished and Fairfax, an ingrate if ever there was one, goes on his merry way.

The inadequacies of the libretto aside, Sullivan produced some wonderful music for "Yeomen," including an artfully constructed overture which was, alas, cut in half for this production. Most of the other optional cuts were apparently made as well, bringing the show in at under two and one-half hours, including intermission. Unfortunately, the slow pacing and static staging by director John Stephens made it feel longer.

As is often the case with Winter Opera, there were some truly fine voices in this cast, with mezzo Amy Maude Helfer leading the pack as a completely engaging Phoebe. She displayed a fluid, smooth voice and impressive acting skills. Soprano Eileen Vanessa Rodriguez was an excellent Elsie and bass James Harrington brought a welcome touch of dry humor to the role of Sergeant Meryll.

As Jack Point, baritone Andy Papas had the kind of rich, powerful voice that one doesn't often hear in the "principal actor" roles in Gilbert and Sullivan. He did well by Point's patter numbers, although he made the character a bit more querulous than I would have liked.

There were vocally strong performances as well from tenor Clark Sturdevant as Fairfax, contralto Sharmay Musacchio as a rather young-looking Dame Carruthers, and bass-baritone Adrian Rosas as the one historically based character, Tower Lieutenant Sir Richard Cholmondeley. Baritone Gary Moss sang well as Shadbolt and had some nice comic business, but insisted on delivering all his lines facing downstage, even when interacting with other characters, which simply looked bizarre.

The chorus was small but mighty; credit Chorus Master Nancy Mayo for that.

Scott Schoonover did his usual polished job conducting the orchestra, which generally did quite well by Sullivan's music, that annoying cut in the overture not withstanding. The fact that the Viragh Center has an actual orchestra pit also eliminated some of the balance problems you sometimes encounter in performance spaces that weren’t designed with musical theatre in mind.

Scott Loebl's set gave a nice sense of the Tower's imposing presence while still leaving lots of playing space available and JC Krajicek's costumes evoked the period quite effectively.

If "Yeomen of the Guard" was not, on the whole, one of Winter Opera's better efforts, the bulk of the blame must fall to Mr. Gilbert for producing a libretto that was neither fish nor fowl. "Yeomen of the Guard" is a problematic work, and this production didn't solve it.

Winter Opera's season continues with Mozart's "Cosi fan Tutte" January 22 and 24 and concludes with Verdi's "Il Trovatore" March 4 and 6. There's also a festive "Holidays on the Hill" concert December 8 and 9 and Dominic's on the Hill. For more information:

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

Monday, August 3, 2015

A dark, driven "Rigoletto" at Union Avenue Opera

Jordan Shanahan and Lacy Sauter
Photo: John Lamb
Union Avenue Opera is following up on its highly praised "Don Giovanni" with an impressive production of Verdi's 1851 tragedy, "Rigoletto." From the ominous brass fanfares that open the prelude to Rigoletto's final despairing howl of "La maledizione" ("the curse"), Tim Ocel's knowing direction drives this "Rigoletto" to its tragic conclusion with the relentless energy of a runaway train.

Implacably dark and menacing, this tale of men behaving incredibly badly is dominated by low voices—basses, baritones, contraltos, and mezzos. The prevalence of those darker and richer sounds is a characteristically smart theatrical decision by Verdi; it lends a sense of inescapable weight to the story of a revenge plot gone horribly wrong.

Jordan Shanahan and James Callon
Photo: John Lamb
That only works, of course, if you have strong singers for those roles. Happily Union Avenue has them in abundance here, with pride of place going to baritone Jordan Shanahan in the title role. If you've seen UAO's "Rheingold," "Siegfried," or "Dead Man Walking," you already now that Mr. Shanahan boasts both a big, wide-ranging voice (with solid bottom notes that sound more like the work of a bass-baritone) and an approach to acting that allows him to completely inhabit his characters. His horror movie makeup is so obviously artificial that it's a bit distracting, but the fierce commitment of his performance makes that a minor issue.

As the feckless (if not downright sociopathic) Duke who callously seduces, assaults, and then abandons Rigoletto's daughter Gilda, tenor James Callon is just as smugly repellent as he should be. He had a couple of rough notes in the second and third acts on opening night, but otherwise sang with admirable clarity garnering the expected applause with popular arias like "La donna è mobile".

James Callon and Mark Freiman
Photo: John Lamb
Soprano Lacy Sauter, who was such a heartbreaking Blanche in "Streetcar Named Desire" last season, returns to UAO as Gilda, whose absurdly self-sacrificing nature leads to the opera's tragic conclusion. The very implausibility of the character is, in my view, a real obstacle for any actress, but Ms. Sauter manages to pull it off with a convincing characterization and a voice that easily navigates the coloratura passages in the famous "Caro nome" aria in Act I.

Bass-baritone Patrick Blackwell is the doomed Count Monterone, whose dying curse falls heavily on Rigoletto and bass Mark Freiman is the ironically principled assassin Sparafucile. They're both compelling actors, with big, powerful voices that fill the UAO space. There's fine singing as well by Mezzo Kristee Haney, darkly seductive as Sparafucile's sister and partner in crime Maddalena.

This is, in short, a very strong cast, right down to the smallest walk-ons. That includes Debby Lennon as Gilda's nurse Giovanna, Andy Papas as the put-upon Count Ceprano, Anthony Heinemann the sneering courtier Borsa, and Robert Garner as Marullo, whose momentary attack of conscience, while not explicitly called out in the libretto, nevertheless makes good dramatic sense.

Patrick Blackwell
Photo: John Lamb
Union Avenue's chorus sings with impressive power and clarity. Under Scott Schoonover's usual expert direction the orchestra sounds impressive despite its small size and the vocal/instrumental balance is quite good.

Tim Ocel has demonstrated on more than one occasion that he knows how to handle the unique demands of the operatic stage—most recently in UAO's stunning "La Traviata" last season. He has done it again with this "Rigoletto," maintaining a sense of tragic inevitability while still allowing the big musical moments to breathe.

Kristee Haney and Mark Freiman
Photo: John Lamb
Kyra Bishop's deliberately shabby set with its peeling plaster and exposed lathe and Teresa Doggett's intentionally drab costumes (only Rigoletto has any real color) are presumably intended to underline the moral decay that pervades Francesco Maria Piave's libretto. If so, they do the job admirably. Paige Seber's lighting, however, is so dim that faces are sometimes lost. I'm not sure that the darkness of "Rigoletto" needs to be that visible.

Union Avenue Opera's admirable "Rigoletto" runs through August 9th at the Union Avenue Christian Church, 733 Union at Enright in the Central West End. The opera is sing in Italian with projected English text. Performances are Friday and Saturday at 8, although given that parking on the lot is at a premium, you'll want to get there by 7:30 if possible. For more information, visit the company's web site.

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

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.

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

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

Michael Gieleta
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:

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
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
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):

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 / 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
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
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, 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
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:

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
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
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: