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Butterfly, Fly Away: Mascagni’s “Iris” at Bard SummerScape

iris2056If the bellwether of a story is how worthy it is of being told, then Iris doesn’t deserve very high marks; Pietro Mascagni’s grim opera about a stultifyingly naïve girl who is kidnapped from her blind father by a lecherous young man and then sold into prostitution in legendary Japan seems unnecessarily nauseating and indeed, it sometimes feels that way. But sordid stories often yield stunning operas (Salome, anyone?), and Iris, now seeing the light of the sun (Ha!) in a rare revival as part of Bard College’s 2016 SummerScape festival, is everything verismo – the movement towards realism in opera kickstarted by Mascagni – should be: Devastating, provocative, and direct. Continue Reading »

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General Angst: “Aureliano in Palmira” Arrives at Caramoor

Aureliano in Palmira by Gioachino Rossini at Caramoor

Andrew Owens, Georgia Jarman, and Tamara Mumford

pixelAs it generally goes with car insurance, when one older car is exchanged for another, the valuation of the old car is determined by the parts that remain in the car and how usable they will be when repurposed. By that logic, then, Gioachino Rossini’s 1813 Aureliano in Palmira, which was heard for the first time on this side of the Atlantic in its complete, original form at Caramoor on Saturday, should be an absolute gem – the overture as well as themes for “Ecco Ridente in Cielo” and “Io Sono Docile” were all taken from Aureliano and incorporated into the much better-known Il Barbiere di Siviglia. The opera that arrived at the Venetian Theater, though not a perfect piece (the “showpiece” arias aren’t particularly compelling across the board and the plot, which is adequately compelling, hardly requires all the music given to it), does, in fact, contain some gorgeous vocal writing (especially the duets for queen Zenobia and her prince Arsace) and rousing ensembles. Clocking in at nearly four hours and receiving a uniformly committed and capable presentation from the Bel Canto at Caramoor forces, this Rossini rarity is a fine example of the young composer’s music that would only tighten, both musically and dramatically, as his career progressed. Continue Reading »

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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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