Opera: Los Angeles Opera’s “The Barber of Seville”

March 2, 2015

By Jane Rosenberg

With characterizations so vivid, musicianship so accomplished, and comedy so sublime that it raises the spirits, Los Angeles Opera’s The Barber of Seville is a triumph. The cast is splendid, from the smallest role to the knockout performance of Elizabeth DeShong’s Rosina.

At every turn, this Barber delivered. From the opening chords of Rossini’s bubbling score to the last note, we were held in thrall by the LA Opera Orchestra and Maestro James Conlon’s superb rendering of this beloved music.

Trevore Ross’ direction, after the original concept by Emilio Sagi for Teatro Real Madrid, was sensitive to every nuance of human behavior, so essential in achieving true comedy. Although Beaumarchais’ characters exist on a rarified plateau where the everyday turns into myth and Rossini’s opera buffa is revered, nevertheless it still takes a talented director and a great cast to bring the poetry of this work into hearts and minds.

In brief: Doctor Bartolo wants to marry his ward, Rosina, to get his hands on her dowry. Rosina is in love with Lindoro, who is Count Almaviva in disguise. Her old guardian keeps Rosina under lock and key, so Figaro must scheme to get Almaviva into the house. In classic fashion, Bartolo is duped and the lovers prevail.

“The Barber of Seville” Overture

The hilarity started with the overture as a horde of black suited Rossinis emerged from a trap door and began assembling the scenery. A classic Commedia dell’Arte street scene unfolded: a narrow avenue receding in the distance and flanked by buildings on both sides, covered in a wash of creamy carved stucco representing a simplified version of the architecture of Seville.

Everything in this production honored the opera’s roots in Commedia dell’Arte, the theatre of ordinary people, with its stock characters and insolent tricksters who outwit the masters and prevail. In glorious black and white, the costume designs of Renata Schussheim made reference to Harlequin-esque patterned suits, with graphic stripes, dots, and checkerboards. Humor was in every detail of the wardrobe, oozing into the personality and body language of the wearer. In fact, it was such a fully realized world on stage, with striking sets by Llorenç Corbella, that I had an overwhelming desire to jump in and join the fun.

Elizabeth DeShong as Rosina and Rodion Pogossov as Figaro.

And what fun! If the effervescence of Rodion Pogossov’s dapper Figaro could be bottled, no one would need Cava or Prosecco (we’re in Spain, after all, with music by an Italian). Honestly, this Russian baritone can move with the grace of Astaire and the charm of Chaplin. As wily as Figaro, Elizabeth DeShong’s Rosina was a gleaming presence – her feisty character bursting through with every note of her brilliant coloratura. Her disgust for Bartolo was palpable in every scene as was her girlish delight in Lindoro. René Barbera was convincing in his ardor as Lindoro/Count Almaviva, particularly touching in his first act aria, “Ecco ridente in cielo,” putting me in mind of the lyric tenor of Alfredo Kraus.

Alessandro Corbelli as Doctor Bartolo

The Doctor Bartolo of Alessandro Corbelli was every inch the greedy cuckold, from his round belly clothed in horizontal stripes to his delicate prancing feet. He gave us the intricate patter of Rossini’s score, huffing and sputtering as needed. The part of Don Basilio, the music teacher, is often overshadowed by the more prominent principals of the cast, but in this production, Don Basilio was given room to expand, literally. As he stood on a tabletop, singing to Bartolo that the best way to discredit Almaviva is through scandal (“La calunnia e un venticello”), the tablecloth literally unfurled like a parachute. It billowed and rolled, oozing across the stage like the poison of scandal.

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Kristinn Sigmundsson as Don Basilio

With unadulterated glee, the Icelandic bass, Kristinn Sigmundsson brought megawatt vocal power to the aria and looked like a drawing come to life from the Nineteenth century pen of Daumier or Granville.

As Almaviva’s servant, Fiorello, Jonathan Michie was notable. And as the snuff-snorting, sneezing maid Berta, Lucy Schaufer was a slapstick delight. The men’s chorus, whether clamoring across the stage as serenading townsfolk or stomping into Bartolo’s house in military regalia, were excellent. With the addition of peasant women dancing Flamenco style in the streets, Seville was brought to life, becoming a character in its own right. The clever choreography of Nuria Castejón was on display throughout the opera. Dancers, whether acting as townspeople or servants, became the silent audience for the antics of Bartolo’s household.

With the orchestral storm of Act Two, what was once a black and white world turned into a rain of color as confetti and lighting effects simulated a downpour. From that moment on, everyone’s costumes burst into delirious pinks, reds, greens, and yellows.

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The finale of “The Barber of Seville.”

No Rapunzel trapped helplessly in a tower, Rosina, at the end of the act, made ready to flee with the count. With Almaviva disclosing his true identity and Bartolo consoled with the offer of Rosina’s dowry, the lovers, amidst a riotous celebration of dance and song, ascended in a hot air balloon, waving to a grateful audience. I resisted the temptation to wave back. It was an infectiously joyful night at the opera.

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The LA Opera production of The Barber of Seville opened Feb. 28 and continues through March 22.

Cast:
Figaro: Rodion Pogossov
Rosina: Elizabeth DeShong
Count Almaviva: René Barbera
Doctor Bartolo: Alessandro Corbelli
Doctor Bartolo: (March 22) Philip Cokorinos
Don Basilio: Kristinn Sigmundsson
Berta: Lucy Schaufer
Fiorello: Jonathan Michie
Officer: Frederick Ballentine

Production:
Conductor: James Conlon
Production: Emilio Sagi
Director: Trevore Ross
Scenery Designer: Llorenç Corbella
Costume Designer: Renata Schussheim
Lighting Designer: Eduardo Bravo
Chorus Director: Grant Gershon
Choreographer: Nuria Castejón

Photos by Craig T. Mathew courtesy of L A Opera

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To read more opera, dance and music reviews 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 Children.   Jane is also the author and illustrator of  DANCE ME A STORY: Twelve Tales of the Classic Ballets.  

 


Opera: UCLA Opera’s “The Two Figaros” at Freud Playhouse

February 22, 2015

By Jane Rosenberg

Los Angeles is in the midst of a citywide celebration of all things Figaro. Courtesy of the LA Opera we have The Ghosts of Versailles, soon to be followed by The Barber of Seville and The Marriage of Figaro. Even LA Theaterworks jumped into the mix with a semi-staged production of The Guilty Mother, Beaumarchais’ lesser-known sequel to his two more famous creations. But the delightful surprise of this feast of Figaro is a little known opera by Saverio Mercadante, The Two Figaros (I due Figaro) as performed by the students and faculty of Opera UCLA and the UCLA Philharmonia.

Figaro, following in the scheming footsteps of Hermes, the trickster god and his protégé Harlequin, immediately became an iconic character. It’s no wonder that Mozart and Rossini tried their hands at Beaumarchais’ material. In fact, Figaro was so potent a creation that a French actor and author, Honoré Richard Martelly, penned a sequel to the plots set by Rossini and Mozart. The play was so full of mirth and cunning that it was ripe source material for yet another opera.

Saverio Mercadante took to the challenge, employing the talents of librettist, Felice Romani. Mercadante, who composed fifty-nine operas, was as highly regarded as his contemporaries, Donizetti, Bellini, and Verdi. Unfortunately his reputation plummeted after his death in 1870 and today his works are rarely performed. But there is plenty to admire in this opera buffo, which was composed in 1826 and premiered in 1835. Though some passages seem extracted directly from Rossini’s operas, there are a number of arias of bel canto beauty, fiery cabalettas, and thunderous ensembles, along with Spanish touches à la Boccherini, which lend charm.

"Two Figaros"

“The Two Figaros (I due Figaro)”

The usual suspects are here: Count and Countess Almaviva, Figaro and his wife, Susanna, and the always lovesick, Cherubino. Rosina and her husband, the count, have a daughter, Inès. Figaro, in league with Don Alvaro, has persuaded the count to give Inès’ hand and dowry to Alvaro, who has promised to divide the spoils with Figaro. Inès, however, is in love with Cherubino, no longer a teenager and now a colonel. Cherubino sneaks into the household, presenting himself as a servant whose name he says is also Figaro – hence two Figaros.

 Joanna Lynn-Jacobs as Countess Almaviva, Annie Sherman as Inès, Terri Richter as Susanna

Joanna Lynn-Jacobs as Countess Almaviva, Annie Sherman as Inès, Terri Richter as Susanna

With the three women in the household plotting together to wed Inès to Cherubino, and Almaviva and Figaro favoring Alvaro, a battle of wits ensues. The outcome? After whispered conversations, characters hiding in closets, multiple disguises, feigned tears, and stolen kisses, Cherubino prevails. It turns out Alvaro is none other than Cherubino’s servant in disguise. With the ruse revealed, Count Almaviva relents and gives his blessing to the young couple, even forgiving the deceitful Figaro. With the addition of Plagio, a young playwright, to document the goings-on, we have all the ingredients of a satisfying opera-buffo.

On the stage of the intimate Freud Playhouse, a whimsical interpretation of Almaviva’s villa and courtyard outside Seville was prettily brought to life with tiled staircases, stuccoed walls, potted palms, floating clouds in a Mediterranean sky, and period costumes worthy of any grand opera house. The winning cast of students (and a handful of professionals) both on stage and in the pit, conducted by Joseph Colaneri, conveyed the exuberance of Mercadante’s score with surprising artistry. And under Peter Kazaras’ able direction, the comedic hi-jinks were delivered with spot-on timing.

Teri Richter was both piquant and imposing all at once, her character as the imperturbable Susanna sung with a bright and flexible coloratura. The count was superbly performed by LA Opera tenor, Arnold Geis, his supple voice able to navigate both highs and lows. In the second act, we moved into Donizetti territory and the duet sung by Geis and Richter shone with complexity both musically and dramatically and was, perhaps, the highlight of the evening.

As Figaro, Gregorio Gonzalez was a winning trickster, infectiously conspiratorial in his recitatives and robust in the cabalettas, though the lower end of his baritone was often overpowered by the orchestra. Annie Sherman as Inès was consistently adorable, funny, and musically adept at the intricacies of the soprano role. Meagan Martin’s Cherubino had all the necessary swagger and guile, but she had difficulty projecting in the lower registers. The Countess of Joanna Lynn-Jacobs sung her mezzo part with warmth and color. The part of Plagio, well sung by an endearing Ian Walker, had a guileless sincerity to it, making me wonder if someday he might make an engaging Papageno.

Take a group of young, talented, and enthusiastic musicians and singers, add a good director and a sensitive conductor, then set the opera on an intimate stage. It’s a recipe for a delightful evening well spent.

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Cast (for Feb.15 and 20, alternate cast Feb. 13 and 22)
Count Almaviva: Arnold Geis
Countess Almaviva: Joanna Lynn-Jacobs
Inès: Annie Sherman
Cherubino: Meagan Martin
Figaro: Gregorio Gonzalez
Susanna: Terri Richter
Don Alvaro: Gregory Sliskovich
Plagio: Ian Walker
Servo: Myron Aguilar

Production:
Composer: Saverio Mercadante
Librettist: Felice Romani
Conductor: Joseph Colaneri
Director: Peter Kazaras
Scenic Designer: Adam Alonso
Lighting Designer: Ginevra Lombardo
Choreographer: Kevin Williamson

Photos by Jeff Lorch courtesy of U.C.L.A. Opera.

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To read more opera, dance and music reviews 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 Children.   Jane is also the author and illustrator of  DANCE ME A STORY: Twelve Tales of the Classic Ballets.  

 


Opera: John Corigliano’s “The Ghosts of Versailles” at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion (through March 1)

February 9, 2015

By Jane Rosenberg

Los Angeles.  In an achingly beautiful LA Opera production, the ghosts of monarchies and revolutions past materialize before our eyes at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. We are enveloped in an exquisite postmodern version of Marie Antoinette’s little theatre at Versailles, awash in dusty blues and pearlescent greens. It is the world of John Corigliano’s opera, The Ghosts of Versailles.

The eerie chords of an illusive melody open the scene. Dancers in white courtly attire, their heads shrouded in black to suggest decapitation, glide across the stage. Singers dressed in eighteenth century black gowns and suits, their faces and hair ashen white, give voice to the “headless” figures. Aerial performers float by, balconies harbor spectral characters. Though we are two hundred years in the future, these aristocratic ghosts remain trapped in the horrific past, haunted by the guillotine.

The Ghosts of Versailles

Loosely based on The Guilty Mother (La Mère Coupable), Beaumarchais’ final play of The Figaro Trilogy, Corigliano and his librettist, William M. Hoffman, create a complex wraparound story involving the ghost of Beaumarchais along with the beheaded spirits of Marie Antoinette, Louis XVI, and their court. In order to cheer the sorrowful queen, whom Beaumarchais loves, the playwright produces an entertainment starring that irrepressible jack-of-all-trades, Figaro.

Beaumarchais (Christopher Maltman, in white) Marie Antoinette (Patricia Racette, far right), Cherubino and Rosina (Renee Rapier and Guanqun Yu, rear left)

The aristocracy sits attentively before the proscenium of Marie’s stage on which the play, The Guilty Mother, unfolds. Comments from the audience pepper the performance. The play within a play structure brings to mind the delightfully anarchistic Prokofiev opera, The Love for Three Oranges, where Tragedians, Comedians, Romanticists, and Empty Heads quibble over the plot. One wishes the similarities were more pronounced. Where Prokofiev’s structure involves watching a wacky fairytale unfold, Hoffman’s unfolding tale is so complicated that in attempting to understand the whys and wherefores, one is occasionally distracted from the music.

The Beaumarchais story, as it appears on Marie’s stage, goes like this: While Count Almaviva was in South America for three years, his wife, Rosina, slept with her former page, Cherubino. The result was a son, Léon. Almaviva, also unfaithful, had a daughter, Florestine. Of course the two children meet and fall in love. But Almaviva has promised a Tartuffe-like toady, Begearss, the hand of Florestine. Begearss is up to no good. He is a revolutionary with the heart of a greedy monster. Figaro and his wife, Susanna, must save the day.

Figaro (Lucas Meachem, center) Susanna (Lucy Schaufer, far left), Count Almaviva (Joshua Guerrero, far right) and Florestine (Stacey Tappan, second from right

So goes the outline of Beaumarchais’ plot, but this is no simple play within a play or opera within an opera. Another storyline involving Marie’s diamond necklace, which finds its way from the ghost world into the play world, becomes a pivotal element. Figaro rebels from the confines of the plot. Beaumarchais must enter the play to tame his characters. Marie, joining him, winds up being imprisoned again, and is rescued by Figaro and Beaumarchais.

Christopher Maltman as Beaumarchais

Nostalgic, melancholy, hilarious, tragic, and carnival-esque all at once, we appear to be in a postmodern universe, long on whimsy and likability but short on logic. Beaumarchais, calling himself a god, tells Marie he has the power to alter history – the power to save her from the guillotine and take her to America. Here we have the artist as god/creator. If we were in the throes of subtler storytelling, perhaps this notion would grow on us organically and would feel less like a contrivance.

The staging, directed by Darko Tresnjak, tries to avoid pitfalls by separating the world of the play from the ghost world. Beaumarchais’ characters live in a full-colored universe of bright costumes and vivid lighting. The proscenium of Marie’s little theatre becomes a jewel box and picture window onto this other dimension. Particularly effective are the various video projections (designed by Aaron Rhyne), which are framed by the proscenium: clouds rolling by, constellations in the night sky, a hot air balloon floating away.

Corigliano’s music is like a fragrant bouquet: Wisps of Neoclassical, ethereal melodies interspersed with Modernist dissonances, hints of Mozart and Rossini mingled with Richard Strauss. Layered and complex, the score is yet approachable and moving. Corigliano even conjures Gilbert and Sullivan in Figaro’s Act One aria, hilariously rendered by the lyric baritone of Lucas Meachem, who delights at every turn.

Perhaps the most hauntingly beautiful melody in the opera is Act One’s “Come Now, My Darling.” The song begins with Cherubino, expands into a luxurious duet with Rosina, then as the music subtly unwinds into ghostly echoes, Beaumarchais adds his voice. We regain the melody only to have Marie’s suffering cries come to the foreground. Beaumarchais reprises the theme and the four sing a spellbinding quartet.

Corig Marie antoniette

Patricia Racette as Marie Antoinette

With his fluid and commanding baritone, Christopher Maltman as Beaumarchais is every inch the impresario/author. As Rosina, Guanqun Yu delights the eye and ear with her lustrous soprano. She is courted by the impish Cherubino of mezzo Renée Rapier. Patricia Racette, singing Marie Antoinette, brings a tragic dignity to her role, especially heartbreaking in her aria “Once There Was A Golden Bird.”

The Count Almaviva of Joshua Guerrero is suitably grouchy for most of the opera but lacking in the charm that caught Rosina’s attention in the first place. As the conniving Begearss, Robert Brubaker is deliciously Dickensian, reveling in his “Aria of the Worm.” Figaro’s wife, Susanna, is winningly sung by mezzo-soprano, Lucy Schaufer.

The always luminous Stacey Tappan as Florestine and Brenton Ryan as an earnest Léon make a delightful pair of star crossed lovers. Ironic and irresistible, Kristinn Sigmundsson as Louis XVI brings a booming bass and great comedic timing to his curmudgeonly king.

Patti LuPone as Samira

The comedic prize of the evening, however, goes to Patti LuPone as Samira the Entertainer. It’s an eight minute cameo of memorable proportions as LuPone is carried in on a giant pink elephant to sing, mug, wiggle, and cavort across the stage to Philip Cokorinos Pasha. Inspired by Rossini’s The Italian Girl in Algiers, the role originated at the Met with the great mezzo Marilyn Horne. Though LuPone, unlike Horne, needs amplification, her skills more than compensate for the intrusion.

This West coast premiere of The Ghosts of Versailles is a coup for LA Opera, which has put together a production team of unparalleled skill and originality. It was Maestro James Conlon’s long held hope to bring this shimmering work, first commissioned by the Met, back to life in all its splendor. With his impeccable musicians, Conlon has once again added to the prestige of LA Opera.

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Cast:
Marie Antoinette: Patricia Racette
Samira: Patti LuPone
Beaumarchais: Christopher Maltman
Begearss: Robert Brubaker
Figaro: Lucas Meachem
Susanna: Lucy Schaufer
Count Almaviva: Joshua Guerrero
Rosina (Countess Almaviva): Guanqun Yu
Florestine: Stacey Tappan
Léon: Brenton Ryan
Louis XVI: Kristinn Sigmundsson
Marquis: Scott Scully
Wilhelm: Joel Sorensen
Cherubino: Renée Rapier
Woman in a Hat: Victoria Livengood
Suleyman Pasha: Philip Cokorinos
English Ambassador: Museop Kim

Production:
Composer: John Corigliano
Librettist: William M. Hoffman
Conductor: James Conlon
Director: Darko Tresnjak
Scenery Designer: Alexander Dodge
Costume Designer: Linda Cho
Lighting Designer: York Kennedy
Projection Designer: Aaron Rhyne
Chorus Director: Grant Gershon
Choreographer: Peggy Hickey

Photos courtesy of LA Opera.

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

Jane Rosenberg Dance Book cover.

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

 

 


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.

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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 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.

Stella

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.

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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 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.

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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 Children.   Jane is also the author and illustrator of  DANCE ME A STORY: Twelve Tales of the Classic Ballets.  

 


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