Sunday, July 16, 2017

Rockin' the Opera: A Traviata Memory

During the summer of 1996, I attended a performance of Verdi's La Traviata at Wolf Trap. I went because Traviata is a favorite opera of mine, and I'd previously seen this New York City Opera production, beautifully designed by Thierry Bosquet and sensitively directed by Renata Scotto. I was not expecting to be as moved by the experience as I was by Verdi's classic tear jerker and it became one of the most moving participatory experiences of my life to date.

The audience was the most non-traditional I'd ever been a part of . . . even for Wolf Trap. Hundreds of multi-colored, broadly knit skull caps, clothing made from hemp, men and women in swirled, tie-dyed cotton skirts over bare legs and feet, ponytails on the men (including moi), boys and girls with unkempt dreadlocks. The scent of weed and patchouli filled the air more than Channel No. 5. I half expected Jerry Garcia to make an appearance, and in some ways, he did by the sheer number of Deadheads present.

Also large in number which made my blood pumper swell with pride; a strong presence of headbangers donned in black on black, Metallica and Slayer tee-shirts, ripped up jeans, combat boots. I stood up and looked around, taking it all in and could not suppress an enormous shit eating grin. Scattered liberally throughout were plenty of older folk, comfortably sipping wine in their lawn chairs, and while some appeared a little nervous, most didn't seem to mind or notice. This was an audience I had dreamed of.

At intermission I excused myself from my friends, moved up the hill to speak with one a young man wearing a Metallica-shirt, but whose girlfriend was more "appropriately" attired for the opera. These young 20-somethings told me that though they often attended and listened to Wagner (his favorite was Tristan, hers, Lohengrin), they came for an opera "fix" and were being won over by the charm and potential heartbreak of this, their first Italian opera.

We ended up talking for a bit about Tristan and then the topic of the tee shirt came up: "Metallica" and all shared a good laugh about what could be, until recently, deemed an implausible situation: discussing heavy metal during the intermission of an Italian opera. He stated he always wears his Metallica tee to the opera, putting up with glares and stares, because usually "
someone finds me and strikes up a conversation" but at Wolf Trap don't feel out of place, and had already met quite a few interesting people before the opera even began. Tres cool.

Seconds after Violetta expired, as the house lights came up, the row of Deadheads in front of us rose immediately to their feet. My friend Kathy poked me in the arm pointed at them, smiling, all these kids were in tears, standing and cheering long before anyone else rose or a single curtain call had begun. Normally I'm loathed to stand (unless it's truly warranted) but Kathy and I stood in solidarity, nodding our heads, and smiling could taste my own salty tears. When the Violetta came (a then young, quite remarkable soprano from Ukraine) there was a roar more typical to a rock concert. I wouldn't have been surprised to see the gentle blaze of
cigarette lighters extended skywards. I was as moved by the reaction of this youthful mass as I was by the wonderful Violetta.

They may have been metalheads, punks and hippies, but they came because they wanted to experience real opera. That's exactly what they got.

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Saturday, June 3, 2017

Pelleas et Melisande: An Obsession

Saturday, February 18, 2017

Ercolo su'l Termodonte: Vivaldi Tackles Hercules

Despite some misgivings, I very much enjoyed getting to know Vivaldi's infrequently performed opera, but couldn't help but wish for a bit more in all areas of this production, musically, and dramatically. Sadly, a good bit of the singing was sub-par which is particularly disappointing when getting acquainted with a new score.

Zachary Stains meets with some pretty rough vocalism in his first bravura aria - the voice getting coarse and reedy in some of the lower passages and with some really smudgy coloratura to boot. I recently listened to Stains in the Christie led "Ulisse" - where he sounds not only beautiful, but like a different singer altogether.

To his credit in what can't have been an easy task, Stains appears more natural and comfortable than I've ever encountered requied to be naked for more than a split second. As most are by now aware, Stains is, save for a cape and a lion skin slung over his shoulder, completely nude for almost the entire opera. Physically, the kid has nothing to be ashamed of, great abs, strong legs and arms and physically, he makes a convincing Hercules.

Fortunately, his later arias are dispatched with far more attractive tone, with an unusual beauty to the upper mid range and higher notes, even though the role doesn't offer much opportunity for showy high notes). Similarly, the fierce coloratura he tackles in Act III poses less of a problem for him. Chalk it to warming up. He's a smart singer and knows how to make the most out of the recitatives and, along with his athletic physicality, brings an almost cardboard character very strongly to life presenting a most likable Hercules.

The most beautiful singing of the evening comes from Randall Scotting who doesn't (physically at least) resemble your "average" countertenor: big and beefy, it makes some of his early physical gestures come of a wee bit fey for such a strong character, particularly when coming from such a big feller. Once alone onstage, however, he projects an easy, assured masculinity and his two big arias are absolutely swoon inducing, particularly given his timbre, which more closely resembles a female mezzo than most in vocal category. Smooth and rich he moves through some of Vivaldi's more virtuoso writing with ease while exhibiting a genuine joy of singing. I look forward to hearing a lot more from this guy!

Mary-Ellen Nesi's Antiope wins top female honors, offering thrilling, hair raising singing and never letting her intensity flag for a moment, ending with her big aria before the curtain and bathed entirely in the blood red light of hell, giving us one of the best moments in the entire show.

A bit thin toned for my taste, Laura Cerchi's Martesia nonetheless hits all the comic aspects of the character just right.

As Alceste, Luca Dordello's singing was vocally inconsistent from start to finish; sometimes producing a lovely tone and other times pure, ear splitting acid. Inaccuracies abounded in the passagework making me believe coloratura is neither friend nor forte.

I liked the Italian countertenor Filippo Mineccia's Telemone. Not a big role, but makes something fun out of it, which is harder than it sounds.

Marina Bartoli had me at first, but then the voice sounded tired, offering up even more smudged fioriture and high notes of acid tone. She is lovely to look at, however, and she and Scotting make an attractive pair of lovers.

I've liked much of his work in the past, but John Pascoe's production and direction seems to have taken a "nymphs and shepherds" approach to something that needed more blood and gore, notwithstanding what is likely a record number of severed phalluse on any stage. In an interview, Pascoe admits to taking a lighter approach stating this is the closest thing to opera buffa Vivaldi composed. I think that approach was a mistake and it shows. The battle scenes lack any real sense of danger and the female's costumes had me wondering what if Star Trek of the 70's had mounted Walküre?

From the pit, Alan Curtis ignites a mostly sparking performance from th 20 or so members of Il Complesso Barocco, though it must be said, some tempi seemed a bit brusque, likely contributing to some of the sloppy singing during the opera's more bravura moments.

Overall, it's a worthwhile watch and listen and a nice break from the overly familiar.


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Monday, November 7, 2016

A Chilling Bluebeard's Castle from the PSO

The Portland Symphony celebrated All Saints Day/Dia de los Muertos with two works seemingly at odds, the Bach Concerto for Two Violins in d minor, and Bartok's short, powerful opera, Bluebeard's Castle.

With a paired down chamber ensemble playing period style, the Bach glittered sparkled and reminded one of this composer's enormous genius never feeling academic but instead almost dance like. Maestro Moody gave the outer movements a brisk, almost breathlessly athletic pace, while in its gooey center movement he revealed Bach's genius at writing long, exquisite melodies, as the two violins wrapped around each other's lines in an embrace that makes it one of Bach's most beloved works.

Keeping it within the family, the soloists were PSO violinists Amy Sims and Sasha Callahan, each playing with beautiful baroque style and stunning virtuosity. They were rewarded with a glowing ovation from their hometown audience . . . all of us feeling the love.

Following intermission came the Bartok. I've loved this difficult (in many ways) opera since my teens, have enjoyed several live performances and most available recordings, but here, in a stripped down concert staging, it worked in a way few staged performances are capable of. Having Bartok's massive orchestra onstage allowed it to become an even greater part of the drama than from a recessed pit.

Once Moody took the podium, the house and stage lights went out, plunging the hall into darkness. Though no lighting designer or stage director was credited, one sensed immediately both lights and "action" would be part of the show. In the dark, a sounding narrator welcomed us with the Prologue of the Bard (spoken in English) as the haunting opening strains began. Dim light allowed us to see Bluebeard, Alan Held and his new bride Judith, Michelle DeYoung, enter his castle. The pair played superbly off of each other, DeYoung's Judith an enchanted young bride, reassuring her dark-souled husband of her love, while Held's Bluebeard tested her loyalty, offering her opportunities to return to her former life. Both singers were in superb voice, deftly projecting over Bartok’s dense, lush scoring even when Moody had the orchestra pulling out all the stops, including those of the mighty Kotzschmar Organ

The meat of the opera is comprised of seven closed door, each hiding a secret of Bluebeard is unwilling to reveal, until Judith demands them be opened. Bartok's tonal palette and gift of orchestration gives each of the rooms a unique sound spectrum, beginning with the first, a torture chamber. This production also had a recorded, piped in, most unsettling groan/sigh that chills both Judith and the audience. The theatrical highlight for many, including me, is the opening of the Fifth Door which reveals the vastness of Bluebeard's kingdom the organ and orchestra letting loose at fortissimo as Judith belts out a high C. The effect was heightened as from near darkness, the lights flashed on bathing the entire house in a sea of white as Ms. DeYoung, arms raised in awe, capped everything with as great a high C as I've heard, producing gasps from many in the audience. Brilliant.

At the final door, we meet Bartok's three, still very much alive former wives, representing morning, afternoon and twilight, Judith - who is midnight - must now join, leaving Bluebeard,. as he has been most of his life, alone in the dark.

I'm happy to see and hear Bartok's gem being programmed more than in years past (the nearby Boston Symphony also performed it last week), particularly when so ravishingly played as it was here. It was a highlight of Maestro's tenure so far with this organization, and a night that will not soon be forgotten, or bettered.

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