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Some Enchanted Evening: MasterVoices’ “Dido and Aeneas” with Kelli O’Hara

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Kelli O’Hara and Elliot Madore

On just about every level of the Met, water fountains pay tribute to Ezio Pinza, a singer who not only triumphed in opera, but also saw great success in musical theatre as the first Emile de Becque in Rodgers’ and Hammerstein’s South Pacific. Pinza is the poster child for the seamless movement between opera and musical theatre, a tradition that, while not completely uncommon, has slowed considerably these days. So, you can imagine my initial reticence when it was announced that Broadway superstar Kelli O’Hara would be performing in Henry Purcell’s marvelously-adaptable English Baroque masque-opera Dido and Aeneas with MasterVoices. And you can also imagine my surprise when O’Hara’s cleanly-sung, introspective interpretation of the Carthaginian queen won the day at City Center last Friday.

Indeed, O’Hara’s Dido showed off a new side of this versatile artist. While a short sing like Dido may not be such a stretch for a singer who’s made her bones with well-defined, lyrical Rodgers and Hammerstein heroines, she acquitted herself with ease. Her satisfying soprano, smooth and creamy on the bottom and lilting on top, ably tackled the role’s demands, including a lick of coloratura singing that was impressive for a non-opera singer, and floated through the melancholy role. She moved elegantly across the stage in a series of beautiful gowns provided by Christian Siriano and her “When I am Laid in Earth,” Dido’s famed lament, was both lyrically and sincerely sung.

O’Hara wasn’t the only Broadway veteran onstage; her Light in the Piazza costar and dependable leading lady in her own right Victoria Clark sang the part of the Sorceress that drives Dido and Aeneas apart, Purcell’s most significant deviation from the source material, Book IV of Virgil’s Aeneid. Clark’s refined, warm characterizations have impressed on the musical theatre stage, but her transfer to the Sorceress was not quite as seamless. The mezzo role saw Clark bring an unexpectedly pinched soprano voice that lacked the vocal colorings and shadings of her opera-singer co-stars. One only need hear her in “Losing my Mind” from Stephen Sondheim’s Follies (see below) to see what an expressive singer she can be, but such expressivity was sorely missing here. What she lacked in command of the vocals she more than compensated for in a committed and choreographically-intense physical interpretation.

Anna Christy’s Belinda/First Witch was sung with a winning combination of a bright, sweet voice, assured stage presence, and a golden smile. Sarah Mesko brought a delightfully dry, dusky mezzo to the part of the second lady-in-waiting/Second Witch. Elliot Madore’s rather wooden Aeneas was capably and cleanly sung with a covered sound but increased clarity in the upper register. In the small role of the drunken sailor, MasterVoices member Nathaniel Dolquist sounded appropriately unrefined.

Doug Varone’s direction was straightforward and his choreography, which fit well in the score’s orchestral interludes but became pervasive in other parts of the opera, was evocative if not sometimes a bit disorganized-looking in the limited space on the stage. The Doug Varone Dancers all performed well.

Ted Sperling, O’Hara’s oft collaborator, lead the strong Orchestra of St. Luke’s with (understandably) a lot of deference to the singers in a reading that was, though wholly non-revolutionary, pretty solid.

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Victoria Clark

MasterVoices, formerly The Collegiate Chorale, sang with distinction across all sectors and crystalline diction. They were most distinguished in the choral passages of The Daughters of Necessity, a new prologue by Broadway’s Michael John LaChiusa. A  needless conversation between the Three Fates, Necessity featured pleasant music but unremarkable words.

MasterVoices’ Dido and Aeneas turned out to be an unexpected delight and makes a strong argument for blurring the lines between musical theatre and opera.

What opera role do you think Kelli O’Hara should take on next? Who are some other musical theatre or opera singers you would like to see cross over and in what roles? Let me know in the comments!

Photos by Erin Baiano

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Separated by a Sea: “Die Entfürung aus dem Serail” and a New Production of “Elektra” at the Met

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Ryan, Kim, Shagimuratova, and Appleby

There’s something in the water over in the Mediterranean. From the sunny shores of Turkey (as seen in Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s Die Entfürung aus dem Serail, The Abduction from the Seraglio, that opened on Friday) to the bleak, devastating palace in Mycenae (where Richard StraussElektra unfolds in a radically innovative new production that opened last week and I took in last night), laudable music and taut theatrics are the common denominator between two very disparate pieces both seeing strong presentations at the Met. Continue Reading »

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An Interview with Lyric Opera of Chicago’s General Director, Anthony Freud

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Anthony Freud (red tie) amidst members and staff members of the Ryan Opera Center

You will be hard-pressed to find an opera company more invested in its city that the Lyric Opera of Chicago. Under the hand of General Director Anthony Freud (now in his fourth year with the company), the Lyric has seen itself grow to make opera accessible to a big city and become a champion of new and old works. I spoke with Mr. Freud back in February about what it’s like to run a major opera company, his personal musical preferences, and what it takes to bring an opera company into the 21st Century. His answers follow. Continue Reading »

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Dogeball: “I Due Foscari” at Teatro Alla Scala

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Francesco Meli, Luca Salsi, Anna Pirozzi, and Chiara Isotton

It is far from unheard of for a specific singer to champion a forgotten piece and bring it back into the performance circuit. Maria Callas, for example, brought Anna Bolena into the 20th century. In recent times, Joyce DiDonato has given particular prominence to Rossini’s La Donna Del Lago and Placido Domingo, the raison d’être for a well-executed and stirring revival recently seen at Milan’s Teatro Alla Scala, has resurrected Giuseppe Verdi’s musically-and-dramatically fulfilling I Due Foscari from semi-obscurity to reveal an exciting opera with ample potential for singers and stagings. Continue Reading »

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The Sound and the Furies: Handel’s “Orlando” at Carnegie Hall

Between the limits of historically-informed performance, period instrumentation, and the viability of an intimate chamber opera in a house the size of the Met or La Scala, there exists a stigma against Baroque opera that it cannot hold dramatic weight. On one hand, one could argue that the stories are too esoteric and the music and words seldom come together to form a sublime or affecting musico-dramatic moment, and to some degree that is correct. But on the other hand, though, is The English Concert’s thrilling performance of George Frideric Handel’s Orlando at Carnegie Hall this past Sunday. Intelligent, confident music making at Sunday’s performance made a sterling case for Baroque opera as a genuinely exciting, engrossing form of theater. Continue Reading »

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Magic Virtues: “Don Pasquale” at the Metropolitan Opera

There’s a lot of Gaetano Donizetti being seen at the Metropolitan Opera this season. There’s the Tudor Queen cycle (Anna Bolena, Maria Stuarda, and Roberto Devereux, all starring Sondra Radvanovsky), the sappy L’Elisir D’Amore, and, most likely to be overlooked because of its mere 5 performances, Don Pasquale, which opened at the Met on Friday.

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Maestri and Buratto in Don Pasquale

Donizetti’s delightful 1843 opera buffa, originally written to showcase Luigi Lablache, Antonio Tamburini, Giovanni Mario, and Giulia Grisi, considered the finest singers of their day, is an endearing, old-fashioned “morality” tale in which an aging bachelor, Don Pasquale, is taught a harsh lesson about marriage when he decides to take a much younger wife that is, consequently, his nephew’s true love. After an evening of scheming and trickery, the whole affair ends in a cheerful quartet.

Only seeing its third outing in ten years, Otto Schenk‘s production is, like Don Pasquale himself, frustratingly mindless. Though Rolf Langenfass’ sets and costumes are impressive and really do bring sun-drenched Rome to the stage of the Met, Schenk’s park-n-bark (or, alternatively, park-n-throw-plants) production provides no insights about an opera that delivers a complex message and is more layered than the screwball comedy it is wont to be taken for.

Ambrogio Maestri, a baritone singing the titular bass part, was forced to rely on his talents as a comic actor when the low-lying tessitura of the title role shrunk his sound. While Maestri’s big, comic presence would seem a perfect fit for the part and his concise, sonorous voice is ideal for most of the parts he sings, his Don Pasquale was uncharacteristically lacking in vocal charisma and he struggled to strike a balance with conductor Maurizio Benini, whose efficient tempi and dramatic reading of the score made Donizetti’s ebullient opera sound near-Wagnerian at points.

As Dottore Malatesta, Pasquale’s physician that sets the whole ruse in motion, Levente Molnár boasts a resonant baritone with a pleasing snarl, but seemed, similarly to Maestri, somewhat out of his element with the part.

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Buratto and Camarena in Don Pasquale

Of all the artists I’ve seen at the Met, tenor Javier Camarena, as Pasquale’s nephew Ernesto, has always gotten the most applause. Whether it’s his endearing stage presence, clean, honeyed high-tenor, stellar high notes that ring throughout the house but are produced with just enough effort so that you know that he is really involved in what he is singing, or a combination of the three, Camarena is a superb singer and an indispensable asset to the production. Most impressive was his sensitively-phrased “Com’è gentil,” sung from offstage. And while the Met has cultivated him well over the years (He has sung Almaviva in Barbiere, Ramiro in Cenerentola, Elvino in La Sonnambula at the house, and will sing Arturo in I Puritani next season), Camarena is ready and deserving of even more high-profile assignments. If a new Semiramide production is rumored to be coming down the pike at the Met, then maybe Camarena as Idreno? One can hope…

The most unexpectedly excellent performance came from Met debutante Eleonora Buratto as Norina, the young widow with whom Ernesto is in love. With supreme, exacting control, Buratto wields an ample voice that is dark in the lower register, beautiful and plush in the middle, and with shimmering metallic high notes at the top that filled the house with ease. She was up to all of the production’s physical comedy (including an impressively-executed somersault onto a deck chair) and, obviously deeply invested in the material and her performance, threw herself into the part. Her “Quel Guardo il Cavaliere… So Anch’io la Virtù Magica” really told a story and her voice blended exquisitely with Camarena in their final “Tornami a dir” duet. The world may have finally found its next Italian soprano.

The Met Orchestra and Chorus did their usually-impressive job with special props going to trumpet player whose solo at the beginning of Act III would have brought a tear to Ennio Morricone’s eye.

There are still four more chances to catch Don Pasquale this season at the Met, and you’d be well-advised to see Camarena and Buratto in action. Tickets are available here.

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Camarena, Buratto, and Maestri in Don Pasquale

All photos by Marty Sohl/Metropolitan Opera

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The Producer: A Conversation with Broadway’s David Stone

David Stone keeps busy. Between his work as a producer – among his Broadway credits are Wicked, The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, Next to Normal, and If/Then – and his career as a lecturer – he has lectured at Juilliard, Yale University, and Columbia University, among other places -, Mr. Stone has used his extensive experience in the industry to foster engaging theatrical experiences on an international level. I recently sat down with him to discuss how he came to producing, his opinions on bootleg recordings, and the phenomenon of cross-pollination between the worlds of opera and Broadway. Read our conversation below:

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David Stone and Idina Menzel

So, how did you come to producing?
As a kid, I went to the French Woods camp where I had the chance to perform and direct. I later ended up going into communications, like TV, film, and advertisements. From there, I was pulled into theatre. I got an internship at Jujamcyn Theaters, where I was introduced to people like Barry and Fran Weissler. I started producing when I was 26, and it just worked out.

What makes for good theatre vs. what makes a hit? Where do the two intersect?
Good theatre is subjective. What makes good theatre for someone might not make good theatre for someone else. But you can’t be cynical about it. In Broadway, there’s always cynicism about what will make money when it comes to jukebox musicals, for example. Good theatre comes as a result of the passion of the people who put a show together. It has nothing to do with whether or not it is a hit. And good shows aren’t always successful and vice-versa, and even good shows might not work at some degree. For example, Next to Normal, which I produced, was a rock opera and it was very good. It was a success, yes, but it wasn’t a huge hit. The two aren’t necessarily connected, and you can’t set out to do both. When both happen – good theatre that becomes a hit – it’s not intentional.

What is your favorite part of putting a show onstage?
I love the process. What I don’t love are opening nights and being there with the audience. I love is the development of a show, the previews, during which we listen to the audience to help us fix a show, and tech. Once a show is done, it becomes a job, and that’s not the part I’m crazy about.

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David Stone at the Launch of Wicked’s “Friendship Garden” in 2007

What is your opinion on the bootleg recording debate?
I hate it, but I think it’s a good marketing tool because audience members know that if they’re only seeing something on YouTube, it makes them more excited about the material. A bootleg recording might whet your appetite for a show, and audiences are smart enough to realize that a bootleg recording is just an approximation of what is happening onstage.

What is your personal taste in theatre?
I love Sondheim. I tend to be interested in plays and musicals that reflect how I see the world. Shows with human beings with human problems. For that reason, musical comedy usually doesn’t do it for me. And so much of Broadway is just presentational. That’s not my style.

What is the best show you’ve ever seen?
Gosh, I don’t know. For musicals, definitely the original Broadway productions of Dreamgirls and Sweeney Todd. I think West Side Story is the greatest musical ever written, though I wasn’t around for the original production of that! For plays, I think Angels in America. I know it’s cliché, but it was like nothing nobody had ever seen at the time.

In which direction, do you think, is Broadway headed?
Broadway is in the midst of another Golden Age. In the last 15 years, we’ve had at least 2-3 enduring shows every year, many of which work commercially. And there are so many people who want to do theatre. I credit RENT with opening people up to theatre. And Disney has trained new audiences. I think Broadway is healthy. Ticket prices are definitely too high, even though dynamic pricing works, but overall, now is a good time.

What would you say to somebody going into your field?
Don’t rush. Though it worked out for me, I was probably too young. Make sure to learn business, apprentice with somebody in the business, and watch how shows are put together. Remember that commercial off-Broadway exists, too. I was lucky enough to initially do small-scale shows. And to anybody going into the arts: Only do it if you think “If I don’t do this, I’ll die.”

Any final thoughts?
There’s actually quite a bit of cross-pollination between opera and theatre. Many theatre people actually write and direct opera. Jonathan Kent, whom opera fans should know, actually did Man of La Mancha with me. Joe Mantello, who directed Wicked, has done Dead Man Walking. Stephen Schwartz even had a good experience in opera. He did Seance on a Wet Afternoon at New York city Opera. Cross-pollination is more common than you’d think.

Photos: Bruce Glikas, Jason A. Specland

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