LA Opera: “Florencia en el Amazonas” at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion

November 24, 2014

By Jane Rosenberg

Lush orchestration, fervent arias, soaring high notes: these are the hallmarks of Daniel Catán’s opera, Florencia en el Amazonas. Earnest in its desire to please and enlighten, what the score and libretto lack in conveying the wildness of the Amazon is compensated for by L A Opera‘s singers and musicians embracing the work’s shortcomings to ultimately produce a moving picture of love lost and regained.

Hailed as European style opera in the grand tradition sung in Spanish and written by a Mexican composer, one wished for less Puccini-esque high romance and more tropical fervor. Though the score weaves in the occasional beats of an African drum (the djembe), the hints of a steel drum, and the wooden sounds of the marimba, the jungle is mainly evoked by harp, strings, and woodwinds. Melodic lushness is prized over dark dissonance and so the result is a big and beautiful but somewhat homogenous sound. There is none of Manuel de Falla’s tragic intensity, rather we hear more Italian opera and the French Impressionism of Debussy and Ravel. It is a tantalizing blend but far from the themes of eros and death that might mark a trip down one of the world’s largest rivers replete with anacondas, caimans (related to alligators), and piranhas.

Conceived as an homage to the magic realism of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Florencia en el Amazonas is set on a riverboat sailing down the Amazon.

David Pittsinger as the Captain, Nancy Fabiola Herrera as Paula, Gordon Hawkins as Alvaro, Veronica Villaroel as Florencia and Lisette Oropaso as Rosalba.


Verónica Villarroel as Florencia Grimaldi

On board is a legendary prima donna, Florencia Grimaldi, voyaging to sing at the opera house in Manaus, Brazil, but secretly on a quest to find her long lost love, Cristóbal. Along with Florencia, the plot follows the fate of two couples – one in the first flush of romance, the other in the fading days of a troubled marriage.

Lisette Oropea as Rosalba and Arturo Chacón-Cruz as Arcadio

Lisette Oropea as Rosalba and Arturo Chacón-Cruz as Arcadio

Rosalba, a young writer longing to hear and interview the legendary Florencia in Manaus, meets Arcadio, the captain’s nephew and they fall in love. It’s a prim sort of love with a few chaste kisses. Why? We are in the hothouse environment of a riverboat on the steaming Amazon, but civilization meets us at every turn of the wheel. And yet, in confessional moments, Florencia (oddly unrecognized by her fellow travelers) sings of how Cristóbal, her heart’s desire, awakened her body to love. That body stands immobile, except for a swoon on hearing the news that Cristóbal, a butterfly hunter, has died in the jungle. No impact of sexual longing here, only the regret of leaving him behind to pursue her career. Director Francesca Zambello went so far as to visit the Colombian state of Amazonas (where the opera opens), trek through the jungle, and ride a riverboat. I found myself wishing she had taken more of the grit and heat of the journey and overlaid it on her directorial decisions.

Nancy Fabiola Herrera as Paula and Gordon Hawkins as Alvaro

Nancy Fabiola Herrera as Paula and Gordon Hawkins as Alvaro

The other couple, however, suffers less from the lack of sexuality in the production. Paula and Alvaro, long married and weary of each other, bicker and complain to frequently humorous and touching effect. There is a sad reality to their relationship yet in the end they realize that their love endures. Paula, sung by the mezzo, Nancy Fabiola Herrera, performs, with her passionate and nuanced voice, the most moving aria in the opera when she thinks Alvaro has been lost at sea. There is a truth, both musically and dramatically to her sudden awareness that pride has built the wall between them.

Florencia’s search for the man she left behind permeates the narrative. With her heart full of remorse, she is the lynchpin of the opera, and her voice needs to carry the poetry of the story. In the portrayal of this diva of renown, one longs to hear a voice of haunting beauty, a distillation of the mystery of the river and the regret of a life half lived. Chilean soprano, Verónica Villarroel, is not quite up to the task. Though she sings in bursts of insight (her most poignant aria is early in Act Two), her vocalization is erratic and at times unmodulated.

David Pittsinger as the Captain, Arturo Chacon Cruz as Arcadio and Lisette Oropaso as Rosalba

David Pittsinger as the Captain, Arturo Chacon Cruz as Arcadio and Lisette Oropaso as Rosalba

With architectural clarity, a handsome riverboat creates the setting for the journey. A pity then that projections of the surrounding jungle are depicted in faded pastel colors – more amateur landscape painting than the mystery and vividness of a painting by Henri Rousseau – though the flocks of birds and other tropical creatures who glide across the projections add a nice touch. But it is not only the backdropset that misses an opportunity.

Aspects of the plot, as written by librettist Marcela Fuentes-Berain, undermine the conception. A cholera outbreak at the end of the opera, which prohibits the boat from docking at its destination and precipitates Florencia’s final aria of transfiguration, happens almost as an afterthought. Rosalba and Arcadio’s love remains largely undeveloped. Narrative transitions are too quick and clumsy; directorial decisions are too timid. Rather than sultry and sexy, we get English garden party. I imagine the sexiness was to have been provided by Eric Sean Fogel, who choreographs dancing river sprites to represent the magical waters of the Amazon, a clever idea. The dancers look sensual enough in their golden loincloths with their undulating bodies mimicking the ebb and flow of the river, but the choreography is a bit too predictable to have lasting impact.

As the young lovers, Lisette Oropesa as Rosalba and Arturo Chacón-Cruz as Arcadio are a charming pair. Oropesa’s soprano floated with a lithe and silvery line. Chacón-Cruz’s lyric tenor rewards, though at times he pushes harder than necessary both musically and dramatically, in his role as chronic malcontent. Rounding out the cast are Gordon Hawkins as the imposing and believable husband, Alvaro; David Pittsinger as a sympathetic and velvety voiced Captain; and José Carbó as Ríolobo. Described in the program as the spirit of the river, the character functions as narrator and deckhand, until the moment he dons golden feathers and flies onto the ship to sing about the river and its renewal of the earth – all done in a commanding and fluid baritone.

LA Opera’s highly regarded chorus master, Grant Gershon, directs the orchestra, bringing to the fore all the colors of Catán’s shimmering score. The LA Opera chorus triumphs in their brief appearances as the teeming populace on shore. All in all, it is an amiable night at the opera as we travel in grand European style through the Amazon.

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Photos by Craig T. Mathew courtesy of LA Opera.

To read more dance and music reviews by Jane Rosenberg click HERE.


Jane Rosenberg is the author and illustrator of  SING ME A STORY: The Metropolitan Opera’s Book of Opera Stories for Children.   Jane is also the author and illustrator of  DANCE ME A STORY: Twelve Tales of the Classic Ballets.  

On Opera: Director Barrie Kosky in Conversation with LA Opera’s Christopher Koelsch

October 19, 2014

 By Jane Rosenberg

Ebullient, outspoken, and intelligent, Barrie Kosky, artistic director of the Komische Oper Berlin, and stage director of LA Opera’s upcoming production of the double bill Dido and Aeneas/Bluebeard’s Castle presented his concept of this unusual opera pairing during a conversation with opera president, Christopher Koelsch at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion on Thursday. (This is the first in a series of live streaming conversations on the LA Opera’s website – a welcome addition to the Opera’s continuing efforts to offer insights into their productions as they do with their regular pre-performance talks).

Barrie Kosky

Barrie Kosky

If you were lucky enough to see the LA Opera’s production of The Magic Flute in November of last year, then you may know that Kosky, along with his collaborators Suzanne Andrade and Paul Barritt, were the team responsible for this clever and visually arresting re-imagining of The Magic Flute. If Kosky brings the same level of ingenuity to Dido and Aeneas/Bluebeard’s Castle then the audience is in for a remarkable evening.

Conductor Constantinos Carydis conceived of the unconventional pairing of the two operas and though Kosky acknowledged that the operas, written more than two hundred years apart, are from two entirely different sound worlds, there are narrative parallels and psychological truths common to them both. Both deal with obsessive love, loneliness, loss, and on a spiritual and intellectual level: the theme of arrival and departure. Aeneas arrives in Carthage, gains Dido’s love, only to leave again, unknowingly destroying the woman he loves and the empire she rules. Judith arrives at Bluebeard’s Castle, only to find herself trapped in a nightmare world of secrets and unable to leave.

Favoring Minimalist stagings to allow the emotional power of the music and the performances to provide maximum heft, Kosky, in one of his many moments of humor, called himself an “Opulent Minimalist.” Certainly, his production of The Magic Flute gave the audience a very crowded visual field, however, the structures supporting the video projections were simple. For him, and certainly visual artists would agree, Minimalism entails distilling things to their essence.

The essence of Bluebeard, in Kosky’s staging, is not about the architecture of the doors and walls in Bluebeard’s castle; but about the primacy of the performer and the human voice. In the narrative, Judith’s curiosity compels her to open door after door, looking for a way to let light into the enchanted, dark world of the castle. In this new production, set on a slowly revolving white circle, the doors and walls are replaced by bodies harboring those secrets, in a very clever and compelling piece of staging. Emotions are raw and exposed – a veritable Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf in Hungarian – as Kosky explained to his amused audience.

Robert Hayward as Bluebeard and Claudia Mahnke as Judith in a scene from "Bluebeard's Castle," presented in 2010 at the Frankfurt Opera

Robert Hayward as Bluebeard and Claudia Mahnke as Judith in a scene from “Bluebeard’s Castle,” presented in 2010 at the Frankfurt Opera

For Dido and Aeneas, fragility seems to be the essence of the unfolding tragedy for Kosky: the fragility of Purcell’s score, the fragility of life, and the condition that Dido finds herself in – trapped between the needs of her court and her love for Aeneas. Kosky jokingly urged everyone to bring a box of tissues to cope with the raw power and emotional catharsis of Dido’s final aria and ensuing death.

It is this raw power that interests the director who asserted that opera as an art form should take the audience out of its emotional comfort zone. Opera “fundamentalists,” as he called those who insist on productions that hark back to their originals, miss the point. Opera isn’t a fixed form, with only one viable approach, but rather, like all theatre, an interpretive art form always open to investigation.

As for his working methods, he said: it all starts with choosing the right piece of musical theatre, then “riding the surfboard on the wave” of the music. After assembling a first rate cast, anything becomes possible, because he trusts great performers to draw out character and present human truths. A director, with a musical education, Kosky first plays through the score on the piano to digest the music, then listens to as many CDs as he can. Ideas emerge from the process. The rehearsal period is a long one as he and the conductor grapple with how sound should convey the meaning of the words of the libretto. One of the joys of his profession, he said, is directing the chorus. Rather than leaving them as a static entity, he prefers to move them into the action to create a deeper level of performance.

And how do you see the future of opera? Christopher Koelsch asked Kosky in conclusion. The director felt that every hurdle faced by an opera house was unique to each house and its city. But the fundamental issue was accessibility. It’s all about the ticket prices, he explained. Because opera is subsidized in Germany, the lowest ticket price at the Komische Oper is eight Euros. Subsidies allow Kosky to reach a broad audience and at the same time maximize the productions with full orchestra, full chorus, and top performers. In his view, opera is here to stay. It is the only theatrical form that links us to the ancient Greeks – to Euripides, Aeschylus, and Sophocles; and because of that, we are linked to something primal… and one hopes, eternal.

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Photos courtesy of LA Opera.

Opera: LA Opera’s “A Streetcar Named Desire” at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion

May 19, 2014

By Jane Rosenberg

Los Angeles.  When Andre Previn asserted that A Streetcar Named Desire by Tennessee Williams was already an opera – just without the singing, he spoke to the essence of the play. With the life and death struggle of Blanche DuBois, we have a dramatic heroine as grand and iconic as any Carmen, Violetta, or Lucia. In bringing the play, Streetcar, to the opera house, Previn and his librettist, Philip Littell, have given us a gift – the chance to experience this masterpiece of American drama in another form. And to pile on the riches: we have Renée Fleming, for whom the opera was created, and a marvelous cast to bring the action to musical life in Los Angeles at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion.

With the orchestra assembled, not in the traditional pit, but onstage behind the singers, and with the singers’ entrances and exits through the orchestra, an immediacy and intimacy is created, which suits the material. New Orleans, a musical and uniquely American city seems to be represented by the presence of the onstage musicians, who become characters in the unfolding drama. Directed by Brad Dalton and described as a semi-staged version of the opera, this very minimal setting conceived by the Lyric Opera of Chicago is immensely effective. Chairs, a table, a bed, and a simple light bulb, functioning as a beacon for the action, seems more than enough to create the claustrophobic atmosphere of the two rooms of Stanley and Stella’s apartment. With the addition of sensitive lighting by Duane Schuler and costumes by Johann Stegmeir, we are transported into a universe not unlike that of Edward Hopper’s.

“A Street Car Named Desire”

Previn’s musical interpretation of Streetcar, while not ground breaking, weaves a spell with its echoes of bluesy romanticism. Though hints of Richard Strauss, Barber, Britten, and Gershwin are heard, Previn avoids the trap of clichéd Americana, creating an atmospheric poem of longing, lust, and existential despair. Beautifully conducted by Evan Rogister, the LA Opera Orchestra proves, once again, that they can sensitively deliver the dark and light shadings of any and all of the operatic repertory.

Famously creating the opera for soprano Renée Fleming, Previn’s music allows her to spin her particular brand of magic in her arias (“Soft people have got to shimmer and glow” and “I want magic”) – exquisite vocalizing in the upper range with an expressive pianissimo. In her final aria, “ I can smell the sea air,” the dreaminess works as a counterpoint to the impending disaster – the removal of Blanche to an institution. And though the song is taken nearly word for word from the play, the reference to the sea air pulled me out of the moment, as I pondered where Blanche was in her mind’s eye.

Blanche Dubois

Renee Fleming as Blanche Dubois

Onstage for nearly the entire production, Fleming creates her own brand of Blanche: fragile emotionally, but with an earthy presence. This Blanche has seen more reality than Stanley, Stella, or Mitch. And though she lives in a world of make-believe, we have no doubt that she has been hardened by her experiences. This is powerfully brought home in her first monologue, “I took the blows on my face.” Fleming’s singing here suggests that Blanche has hidden resources of strength, which allows her to carry on through one trauma after another.

Act Two is emotionally and dramatically the most satisfying of the opera. Alone in the apartment, Blanche discovers a young man at her door dressed in a white suit. She attempts to seduce the boy. Fleming hauntingly sings, “You make my mouth water,” which becomes a reenactment of the past and a window into Blanche’s troubled world. This is quickly followed by a scene with Mitch, the most civilized of Stanley’s poker buddies and a potential husband for Blanche. As performed with a bright and flexible tenor by the superb Anthony Dean Griffey, the pair sings of their hopes and sorrows to poignant effect. And when Fleming sings of her oppressive guilt over the suicide of her young husband – again enthralling us with her performance – I was put in mind of James Joyce’s tormented heroine in his story, The Dead, who grieves over her first love – another case of a tragic, early death.


Stacy Tappan as Stella

Playing Stella, the sister who ran away from the past into the arms of Stanley Kowalski, Stacy Tappan proves more than equal to the role – her glowing and expressive soprano embodying both youthful and womanly longing. She is wholly believable as Blanche’s younger sister and just as convincing as a prisoner of desire. Every bit as trapped as Blanche, they are both women without choice in a brutish, man’s world.

Ryan McKinny as Stanley

Ryan McKinny as Stanley

Bryan McKinny as Stanley not only looks the part but also conveys the twin qualities of menace and neediness so central to the role. Without benefit of an aria to bolster his performance, bass baritone McKinny sings with enough power and conviction to make his character soar as the perpetrator of disaster. Even when conveying rage, McKinny’s voice is never strident, but remains fluid and rich.

 as Stanley

Renee Fleming as Blanche and Ryan McKinny as Stanley

As for the rape scene, Previn wisely chooses to score an orchestral interlude – a kind of dark and menacing Gershwin-esque cityscape. Blocked from the audience’s view by seven actors dressed as seven Stanleys who look on at the violence, the magnitude of the crime is made all the more real by this illustration of what it means to be overpowered by brute force.

In the parts of Eunice, the upstairs neighbor, and the young paperboy who is nearly seduced by Blanche, Victoria Livengood and Cullen Gandy are flawless. Rounding out the cast is Joshua Guerrero as Steve Hubbell and two actors, Robert Shampain and Cynthia Marty as the medical personnel.  The doctor and nurse who take Blanche away are non-singing roles, creating a very clever divide between the world of our protagonists (in song) and the world outside.

“Whoever you are – I have always depended on the kindness of strangers,” says Blanche. Fleming then sings again and again: “whoever you are.” As this last phrase delicately floats on the air, the character of Blanche turns from substance to spirit remaining entrenched in our collective imaginations thanks to Williams and Previn.

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Photos by Robert Millard courtesy of LA Opera.

To read more dance and music reviews by Jane Rosenberg click HERE.


Jane Rosenberg is the author and illustrator of  SING ME A STORY: The Metropolitan Opera’s Book of Opera Stories for Children.   Jane is also the author and illustrator of  DANCE ME A STORY: Twelve Tales of the Classic Ballets.  





Opera: LA Opera’s “Billy Budd” at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion

February 24, 2014

By Jane Rosenberg

On Saturday night, at the LA Opera, evil was palpable, insinuating itself in every corner of the house; and though innocence was destroyed, Britten’s opera, Billy Budd, triumphed.

In the grandest of all his operas, Benjamin Britten and his librettists, E.M. Forster and Eric Crozier, created an opera of sweeping power and existential beauty. Isolated onboard the H.M.S. Indomitable, a ship rife with fear, the artists and chorus of the LA Opera navigated the dark world of Melville’s novella. With clarity, refinement, and power, Britten’s operatic seascape was brought to heart-wrenching life.

Like a Poseidon of the pit, conductor James Conlon conjured all the elements that make up Britten’s exacting score: myriad textures, recurring motifs, and haunting rhythms. The orchestra  became the voice of Melville, himself, commenting, seeking, and despairing. Conlon drew a delicate transparency from his excellent musicians, so crucial in contrasting the lower ranges of the male voices.

From the moment he stepped on board the Indomitable, baritone Liam Bonner was wholly believable as Billy Budd: enthusiastic, handsome, innocent, confused, loyal, unaware  of his own charisma and strength

Liam Bonner as Billy Budd

From the exuberance of his first act aria, “Billy Budd, king of the birds!” to his second act tender, “Look! Through the port comes the moonshine astray,” Bonner’s baritone was both robust and delicate, producing musical shadings that conveyed both the pathos and fervor of this tragic hero.

Richard Croft as Captain Vere

As the conflicted Captain Edward Fairfax Vere, tenor Richard Croft masterfully provided the vocal balance necessary for the opera, surrounded as the character is by baritones and bass-baritones. With his elegant and expressive voice, caressing each word of the text, Croft conveyed all the agonies and angst of a man who sacrifices his moral center to the letter of the law, ultimately condemning Billy to an unjust death. Vere’s character, so central to the unfolding drama, remains an enigma; and though his actions are perplexing, it is his conundrum that makes this drama linger in the mind and get under the skin.

Greer Grimsley as John Claggart and Liam Bonner as Billy Budd.

Driving the tragedy of “Billy Budd,” we have the monstrous, John Claggart, Master- at-Arms, and the embodiment of evil. Conveying the dark shadings of Claggart’s character through his potent bass-baritone, Greer Grimsley’s performance was at its best when in concert with his victims. Feeding off the helplessness of the weak, he was convincing enough; but in his Act One, Scene Three credo, when he sang of his depravity (“O beauty, a handsomeness, goodness would that I never encountered you…”), he appeared overly conflicted. After all, this is a predator, and sexual repression aside, he is unscrupulous in his desire to destroy. I longed for a little more reserve – more Dracula perhaps, less Freudian unease.

Originally staged by Francesca Zambello in 1995 at the Royal Opera House in London, and later performed in 2000 here in Los Angeles, the current production was directed by Julia Pevzner, who met all the challenges of the opera’s demanding logistics. The sets, designed by Alison Chitty, were handsome in their minimalist approach, but had certain defects.

Trapezoidal panels covered in what looked like navy-blue striped wallpaper, meant to evoke the sea, unfortunately overtook the sides of the stage, blocking views for a large portion of the audience. I longed for a hint of water and sky, for a glimpse of the infinite sea and starry firmament. More successful was the double tiered deck, which, when lowered, created the upper deck, but when raised, revealed the ship’s interior.

The crew of the Indomitable prepares for battle.

Particularly thrilling was the conversion of the ship at rest to battle-ready mode. The movement of the men as they mounted their battle stations, then began firing on the French ship, was a tour de force and a tableau vivant worthy of Delacroix or Gericault. Under Grant Gershon’s superb direction, the men of the LA Opera chorus delivered a rousing battle scene. The audience was enveloped in the experience of sound, drama, and art coming together to create an undeniable spectacle.

The crew of the Indomitable

Elsewhere, the chorus exhibited mastery, from the sailors’ shanty, “O heave! O heave away, heave,” to their terrifying cries of disgust after Billy’s hanging. As officers Redburn and Flint, Anthony Michaels-Moore and Daniel Sumegi were notable, not only offering comic relief in their duet condemning the French; but also in their mounting anxiety over the potential for mutiny. Michaels-Moore gave a stirring account of his character’s experience on the Nore, an English ship that, in reality, suffered a mutiny in 1797. In fact, the historical mutinies at Spithead and on the Nore create the background atmosphere of dread that permeates the entire opera.

James Creswell was a sympathetic Dansker, who offers advice and comfort to Billy.  With his rich and luminous bass, Creswell gave a gratifying portrayal of the wise and world-weary old sailor. And as the stricken and fearful Novice, Keith Jameson, with his cowered body language and agile tenor, embodied the unwilling instrument of Claggart’s scheme to compromise Billy.

Liam Bonner as Billy Budd sings his farewells.

The sacrifice of the beautiful Billy, too naïve and trusting for the rough world, reaches its emotional apex in the quietest of all the scenes in the opera. Alone, shackled, and awaiting his execution, he sings his farewells to his shipmates, the sea, and the grandeur of life. As Bonner sang his last aria and our hearts contracted (and I confess, my tears flowed), we were held spellbound in this poetic evocation of a life half lived.

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Photos by Robert Millard courtesy of  L.A. Opera

To read more dance and music reviews by Jane Rosenberg click HERE.


Jane Rosenberg is the author and illustrator of  SING ME A STORY: The Metropolitan Opera’s Book of Opera Stories for Children.   Jane is also the author and illustrator of  DANCE ME A STORY: Twelve Tales of the Classic Ballets.  


Opera: Rossini’s “La Cenerentola” (“Cinderella”) at the Los Angeles Opera

March 25, 2013

By Jane Rosenberg

From dancing rats to pink and yellow bewigged stepsisters to wine soaked courtiers, Rossini’s Cinderella (La Cenerentola), as performed by the LA Opera, is a musical, visual, and comedic delight.  And if Rossini’s sparkling music isn’t enough to induce you to spend an evening at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion with arguably the most beloved heroine of fairy-tale fame, then let me assure you there isn’t a moment that doesn’t entertain in this magical production.

Gioachino Rossini and his librettist, Jacopo Ferretti, conceived a more naturalistic version of the fairytale, convinced that audiences would prefer a more adult approach.  Though a pair of matching bracelets has replaced the glass slipper and there are no chimes at midnight, there are more than enough fanciful touches to captivate the youngest of children.  And as a writer and illustrator of opera stories for children, I urge you to bring your kids.  You might just develop in them a lifelong love of opera.

“La Cenerentola” (“Cinderella”)

Created as a co-production of the Houston Grand Opera, the Gran Teatre del Liceu, and two other companies, Joan Guillén’s inventive set and costumes are visual poetry.  Mr. Guillén gives us a Commedia dell’Arte universe of brilliant colors and exaggerated shapes – contemporary in execution but with baroque references.  His designs are aided and abetted by a crisp palette of lighting designed by Albert Faura.  Under the direction of Joan Font, this is a deeply considered and intelligent rendering of Rossini’s classic, gathering together human truths, hilarious acting, bel canto ardor, and subtle yet pitch perfect choreography by Xevi Dorca.  An ensemble of six rats prance and tumble through the scenes, adding another dimension to the unfolding action.  In an exceptional choreographic passage, Dorca created hand and arm movements for the famous Act II sextet, which enhanced the chaotic emotions of the ensemble as they remark on their mounting confusion.

James Conlon and the LA Opera orchestra presented all the intricacies of Rossini’s overture, from its impish bombast to its transparent delicacy.  And though there were one or two occasions in the evening involving a momentary disconnect between the orchestra and the ensemble singing, this was quickly repaired and will most likely resolve itself during the run of the production.  All in all, the orchestra propelled us through the ups and downs of the dazzling score with dexterity and quicksilver sound.

Kate Lindsey as Cinderella

Kate Lindsey as Cinderella

As the beleaguered and abused Cinderella, and the most naturalistic character in the piece, the American mezzo, Kate Lindsey, alternates with the Georgian mezzo, Ketevan Kemoklidze. Rossini wrote the role for coloratura contralto and the part requires the astonishing agility and vocal power of a Cecilia Bartoli or Joyce DiDonato. With her sweet, agile voice, Lindsey was overshadowed in the ensembles but fared better in her solo portions – her strength seeming to lie in the higher registers.  It wasn’t until the second act finale that she conquered the house and opened up with all the power and articulation one could wish for in this most demanding of roles.

René Barbera as Prince Ramiro made his LA Opera debut.  His warm tenor soared, navigating Rossini’s highs and lows with bravura coloratura technique, a firm legato line, and reaching the back of the hall without a hint of strain, as if the house were an intimate toy theater.

Rene Barbera as Prince Ramiro, Vito Priante as Dandini

In the plum part of the Prince’s valet, Dandini, who is disguised as the Prince for most of the opera, Vito Priante was as foppishly hilarious as he was musically adept.  Articulating every phrase, singing with sprightly vigor, he embodied the swaggering Captain of Commedia dell’Arte fame crossed with the willfulness of a cagey Harlequin.

The Italian baritone, Alessandro Corbelli, has made a prominent career in the bel canto repertory worldwide.  A seasoned performer, his Don Magnifico, Cinderella’s stepfather, struck the right notes of humor and malevolence.   One of the pleasures of Rossini’s version is the substitution of a stepfather, which lends more coherence to the story and allows for one of the most delightful moments in the opera (and there are dozens): the Don’s drunken display atop a wine barrel with the wonderful LAO men’s chorus accompanying him.

Cinderella’s step sisters

As portrayed by Stacey Tappan and Ronnita Nicole Miller, the stepsisters, Clorinda and Tisbe, were an adorable duo.  From the moment they appeared in their overstuffed underwear and bright wigs, through every resonant note sung, they inhabited their characters with divine silliness.  Soprano Tappan vocalized with agile grace; and Miller, recently heard as the Nurse in LAO’s Flying Dutchman, has a powerful and versatile voice, singing both bel canto and Wagnerian roles successfully.

Bass Nicola Ulivieri was an imposing Alidoro, the Prince’s tutor and Rossini’s stand-in for the fairy godmother.  Rich and commanding of voice, his tutor was the character who sets the events in motion and allows the Prince to make the wise choice of a bride in Cinderella.

In the ensemble singing, which is at the core of Rossini’s brilliance, the cast and orchestra conveyed the composer’s staccato phrasing and verbal pyrotechnics. As we approached the apex of the opera, a storm raged and we saw a miniature royal coach collapse outside Don Magnifico’s house.  The Prince and Dandini entered, soon to be followed by the climactic E flat ensemble (Questo è un nodo avviluppato).  With its rolling Italian r’s, it’s one of Rossini’s spellbinding achievements.  One by one, each singer broke away to sing of their bewilderment at the turn of events.  Last night’s rendition was satisfying, if a bit light on the fluttering r’s.

The grand finale takes place at the wedding banquet.  Having induced the Prince to forgive the cruelties of her insufferable family, Cinderella rejoiced. We experienced the final enchantment of the evening, as silver confetti rained down like mirrored snow.  If only we could revisit this fairytale world every year – make it a holiday institution like Balanchine’s Nutcracker.  One can dream.

Photos by Robert Millard.  Stepsister drawing by Jane Rosenberg.

To read more reviews and posts by Jane Rosenberg click HERE.

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Jane Rosenberg is the author and illustrator of  SING ME A STORY: The Metropolitan Opera’s Book of Opera Stories for ChildrenJane is also the author and illustrator of DANCE ME A STORY: Twelve Tales of the Classic Ballets.

Live Opera: “The Flying Dutchman”

March 11, 2013

by Jane Rosenberg

A cursed sea captain doomed to sail the world without rest, an ill-fated Norwegian girl lost in her obsessive desire to become his means of salvation.  Add to this already explosive mix a father willing to sell his daughter for the captain’s riches and a faithful hunter trying desperately to hold on to his deluded love, and you have a fantastic scenario of German Romanticism, as potent as Goethe’s Faust or one of E.T.A. Hoffmann’s macabre tales.  With Richard Wagner’s deeply melodic and moving score, evoking the watery wanderings of a soul in torment, one would think little more is needed for a successful production than a top-tier orchestra, great Wagnerian voices, and a gorgeous set.  Much of this was accomplished on Saturday evening when Los Angeles Opera’s The Flying Dutchman opened at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in a shared production with The Lyric Opera of Chicago and The San Francisco Opera.

Matthew Plenk and members of the Los Angeles Opera Chorus

Matthew Plenk and members of the Los Angeles Opera Chorus

The Los Angeles Opera Orchestra, conducted by Maestro James Conlon with his usual sensitivity and intelligence, beautifully conveyed the drama’s sublime immersion in music.  From the overture, which contains all the leitmotifs and embodies the entire score, to the final, closing chords, the orchestra delivered the turbulence and subtle shadings of Wagner’s music.

The drama unfolded within Raimund Bauer’s effective minimalist set, which conjured the inner workings of a ship.  Unfortunately, here is where the confusion set in.  The production, conceived by Nikolaus Lehnhoff, created a conflicting array of dramatic and visual allusions.  Inventive though they were, the costumes of Andrea Schmidt-Futterer did little to advance the narrative – more often they confused and impeded the drama.  Were the sailors of Act I samurai astronauts from the future?  Was Captain Daland, with hair like a hedgerow and round spectacles, a comic book mutant from outer space?  And the Dutchman?  He appeared out of the mists like Nosferatu in a German Expressionist film.

Tomas Tommasson

Tomas Tomasson

The dramatic tension in “Dutchman” has a lot to do with the juxtaposition of the real and the unreal, the material and immaterial, the rational and irrational: Erik, the hunter, Mary, the nurse who raised Senta, and Captain Daland with his greed for gold, represent the rational, material world.  Their costumes should be rooted in their characters.  The Dutchman, his ghostly crew, and Senta represent the metaphysical and uncanny. When the distinctions blurred, the audience, unable to evaluate the nature of the characters, was lost in confusion.

Even with his unfortunate costume and make-up, James Creswell as Daland sang with a sumptuous tone and effortless grace.  As directed by Daniel Dooner, he played the greedy Sea Captain with an odd comic touch, subverting the tragedy of a father who, unthinking, offers his daughter for a pot of gold.  Matthew Plenk, the Steersman, rendered his very human song of Act I, with warmth and nuance. Tómas Tómasson, as the satanically cursed Dutchman, arrived on shore with a steely dignity.  Tentative at first, his voice seemed to grow and blossom as the evening wore on, particularly in his duets with Daland and Senta.

Julie Makerov

Julie Makerov

The surprise of the evening was the last minute appearance of Los Angeles native Julie Makarov, substituting for an ailing Elisabete Matos. Fortunately for the audience, she flooded the hall with her powerful soprano.  After the joyful spinning song of Act II, adroitly performed by the women’s chorus, garishly dressed in what looked like steel hoops over black taffeta, and grooming themselves like a pack of flying monkeys from “The Wizard of Oz,” Senta sang her ballad.  With its howls and halloings, the song delivers us more forcibly into the drama and Senta’s obsession with the Dutchman.  No neurotic schoolgirl, Makarov’s Senta is a woman accepting her fate – to break Satan’s curse and conduct the Dutchman to everlasting peace.  Also of note, Ronnita Nicole Miller’s portrayal of Mary, Senta’s nurse, beautifully sung and well acted.  More problematic was Corey Bix in the role of Erik.  Stiff and plodding, both in voice and mien, one wished he had delivered a more lyrical rendition of Erik’s plight and pain.

Throughout the acts a scrim was lowered at the front of the stage, unfortunately distancing us from the action.  If used sparingly it could have been effective, as in Act II when it displayed the Dutchman’s massive silhouette.  While Senta stared, hypnotized by his portrait, we saw her gazing upward, as the shadow hung over her, a constant reminder of his mythic presence in her life both past, present, and future.

Act III was rife with visual confusion.  Sailors who looked more dead than alive swarmed the stage.  It was difficult to keep in mind that they were the living crew of Daland’s ship, not the ghostly riders of the Dutchman’s vessel.  Their taunting song was robustly performed, however, driving us towards the disembodied answer of the Phantom Song by the Dutchman’s crew and propelling us towards the awaited end: the Dutchman’s departure and Senta’s self-sacrifice.

Yet, in spite of the mixed metaphors and failed symbolism, this “Dutchman” lingers in the mind.  At two hours and twenty minutes and without intermissions, the curious production entertained, leaving an appreciative audience in its wake.

To read more reviews and posts by Jane Rosenberg click HERE.

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Jane Rosenberg is the author and illustrator of  SING ME A STORY: The Metropolitan Opera’s Book of Opera Stories for ChildrenJane is also the author and illustrator of DANCE ME A STORY: Twelve Tales of the Classic Ballets.


Live Opera in Concert: Rigoletto at the Hollywood Bowl

August 14, 2012

By Jane Rosenberg

A tranquil Sunday summer night in the cradle of the Hollywood Bowl could hardly have been more antithetical to the musical selection of the evening: a concert performance of Verdi’s Rigoletto – a grand tragedy of a father’s failure to protect his innocent daughter from rape and ultimate death.

Giuseppi Verdi

Among the most beautiful of Verdi operas, replete with impassioned melodies, tender duets, and memorable tunes, Rigoletto is not only musically stunning but also Shakespearean in scope.  To be sure, the Los Angeles Philharmonic, under the direction of Gustavo Dudamel, captured the magnificence of the score; and though much of the singing was satisfying, the dramatic necessity of this most heartrending of all operas was lost in the staging.

As in most concert versions of operas, the soloists shared the stage with the orchestra and chorus. Positioned apart, squarely facing the audience at all times, the main principals, Zeljko Lucic as Rigoletto, David Lomeli as the Duke, and Irina Lungu as Gilda, along with the rest of the cast, sang enthusiastically but without much in the way of human interaction.  An occasional glance at one another was the extent of their contact. And though one could argue that the drama is sustainable by the vivid music alone; opera, after all, is more than music – it’s an all involving, all encompassing experience, bringing together music, drama, visual art, even, at times, dance.

Zeljko Lucic

Of the singers, Lucic, alone, sang with the conviction of his character, persuading us, both musically and dramatically, of his vengefulness on the one hand and his tender love for his daughter on the other.  His rich and pliant baritone, combined with his experience performing the title role of the hunchbacked jester at the world’s leading opera houses, offered the audience a glimpse into the depths of Rigoletto’s character – a character of near mythic quality, first penned by Victor Hugo in Le Roi S’Amuse and then reimagined in the Verdi opera.

David Lomeli, whose bright and graceful tenor rang out as the Duke of Mantua, pleased the ear, but nowhere was there dramatic evidence of his duplicitous character as the amoral Duke.  Irony is in abundance in Verdi’s and the librettist, Piave’s, masterpiece.  When the Duke sings in the final act “La donna e mobile: Qual piume al vento.” (Women are frequently fickle: he who trusts them is mad), there is a frightening undercurrent: the Duke is singing, not about women, but about his own detestable behavior – compromising innocent daughters for his own pleasure, leading inevitably to tragedy.  Standing alone, this aria seems lighthearted; however within the context of the opera, it should convey layers of meaning.

As Gilda, the Russian soprano, Irina Lungu, was off to a thin and tepid start, but her voice gained in expressiveness as the evening wore on.  Unfortunately, her performance suffered from a lack of dramatic conviction: no display of a daughter’s deep devotion, no rapturous love for her seducer in evidence.

Gustavo Dudamel

Drama, however, exuded from the Los Angeles Master Chorale, the orchestra, and its conductor.  None of the performers, with the exception of Lucic, matched the intensity of Dudamel’s conducting, whose face and gestures were more expressive than the soloists.  From the first haunting chords of the opera to its tragic end, the orchestra played as a potently convincing whole.  The Master Chorale, seated behind them at the back of the stage, provided a wall of glorious sound; and Dudamel achieved a satisfying balance of soloists, chorus, and instrumentalists.  In the atmospheric storm music of Act Three, Verdi simulates the sound of the rising wind by the humming of off-stage voices.  One of the thrills of the evening was to hear the men of the Master Chorale, onstage, embody the wind as it traveled the length and breadth of the chorus, rising and falling with eerie precision.

In the role of the tragic Count Monterone, whose curse sets the entire opera in motion, Ryan McKinny displayed an elegant, if too understated, bass-baritone.  In the role of Sparafucile the innkeeper/assassin, Alexander Tsymbalyuk offered a lustrous bass, and as his sister Maddalena, Nancy Fabiola Herrera, with her earthy mezzo-soprano, had presence but was difficult to hear in the iconic final act quartet.

With his commitment to opera in full swing, from Mozart to Bizet to Puccini, and now Verdi, Dudamel has enriched the operatic life of the city, already blessed with the Los Angeles Opera.  Whether we sit in the sonorous Disney Hall and listen to the LA Phil’s upcoming Le Nozze di Figaro in 2013, or picnic at the Hollywood Bowl to the strains of Rigoletto, how lucky we are as Los Angelenos to share a Summer night under the stars and a glass of wine with friends, while listening to the ravishing music of Verdi.


Jane Rosenberg is the author and illustrator of  SING ME A STORY: The Metropolitan Opera’s Book of Opera Stories for ChildrenJane is also the author and illustrator of DANCE ME A STORY: Twelve Tales of the Classic Ballets.

To read more iRoM reviews by Jane Rosenberg click HERE.


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