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The (opera) Houses of Capulet & Montague

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Romeo et Juliette, by Charles Gounod
Opera Company of Philadelphia
February 11, 13m, 16, 18, 20m, 2011
Academy of Music
Review of Feb. 13m, Airs on WRTI, 90.1 Fm. Feb. 16

Turning the rival families of Romeo et Juliette into fashion houses should work a lot better than it does in the Gounod opera at the Academy of Music., the Opera Company of Philadelphia’s collaboration with director Manfried Schweigkofler of Bolzano, Italy, needs clarity. And consistency if the conceit is going to stick.

If the production confuses, the musical values are very strong, Maestro Jacques Lacombe steering orchestra and chorus and Stephen Costello and Ailyn Perez as the star- crossed lovers, make this production finer than worthwhile. Some secondary roles are nicely sung –from the larger role of Taylor Stayton’s alert Tybalt to the smaller of Elena Belfiore’s energetic Stephano. Several of these are debuts, newcomers lost in the shuffle and blocking of designer Nora Veneri’s set, a design way too traditional for those accustomed to cable TV’s “Runway” feuds or fans of “The Devil Wears Prada.”

This Romeo et Juliette feels like switching channels from teen fashion to a 19th century opera the way Veneri sets the stage — for which I also blame this company’s production house, which made the set.

The design rotates a giant white stairway to imply Juliette’s bedroom, balcony, the Friar’s cell, the lovers’ tomb. It’s ugly. A hip apartment for these youth might have been suggested with or without projections. Since fashion is the concept it’s odd the stairs are never worked as runways for the designer-models parading the Houses of Capulet and Montague.

This update views Juliette as a celebrity model who wants out, Gertrude is her confidant. Paris (Siddhartha Misra) is a magazine mogul– but you’d hardly know who the poor fellow is the way he’s blocked.

Worse is the silliness that passes for wit. EG: the fight scenes: Death by hammer for Tybalt (Taylor Stayton) who wields street signs.

After the infamous sleeping potion, this production has supernumeraries race through the Academy of Music hawking newspapers with “Juliette’s suicide!”

“Newspapers! I’d prefer CNN,” the man next to me said.
I thought about “Entertainment Tonight.”

Costello and Perez (who in real life are wed, and two more of the Academy of Vocal Arts’ triumphs, convey great longing. Costello forced some high notes at the Sunday matinee but the beauty of his tenor is in the tone and nuance. Perez spun a firmly radiant soprano; all of their duets persuaded, the final love scene was heart-rending despite the ill-conceived tomb. It was steeply raked toward the stage rear: unkind to sight and projection.

The Opera Company has a well-honed chorus. Its commentaries were finely delivered. A deft touch was robing them to conceal the evening attire, varied with finesse hair to heels by costumer Richard St. Clair. Supernumeraries have not looked so good in seasons here. If only the set had not been so level – so horizontally dull – to the eye.

The students from three design schools at Drexel, Moore College, and the Philadelphia University contributed good work and modeled their fashions. Next production, the company might consider PAFA or another art school for help with the set.

Strong singing actors and musicians deserve an update that’s really up to date.

I’d like to see what Chas Rader- Scheiber could do with this concept.

——
This commentary was expanded from the two minute review for Temple Radio, WRTI. org.
http://www.wrti.org/criticatlarge

Photo Credits: Kelly and Massa Photography

Written by Lesley Valdes

February 16, 2011 at 6:53 pm

Macbeth: The Wilma’s first Shakespeare

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Macbeth
The Wilma
Oct. 7-Nov. 7, 2010

The Wilma‘s first foray into Shakespeare is Macbeth, The theatre has done itself proud with a production that features a handsome score by Czech composer Pavel Fjat (pronounce Fight) and sound design by Daniel Perelstein (it includes birds, street and battle noises.) There is aerial choreography Philly’s gifted Brian Sanders. Mimi Lien’s two-tier set evokes the menace and modernity that suits a monarchy edging toward its doom.

C.J. Wilson as Macbeth is convincing in his ambivalence; the warrior’s ambition at war with his morality and fear. As the play moves forward, the evil of his seductive spouse takes hold. I found Jacqueline Antaramian compelling as the self- centered Lady Macbeth, a character as determined in joy with evil – and sadly truer than even the wonderful Iago of Mark Delavan heard recently at the Opera Company’s Otello. These Macbeths are very modern. The interpretations are fascinating: the way the couple switch gears, his growing misdeeds give him power –and madness. Her evil dissolves into a lunatic despair.

The women who play the three weird sisters – or witches – are riveting. Some silly supernatural masks could go in the boil- and- bubble scene; the Sixties’ references in London seems unnecessary whimsy. But the handling of the ghost of Banquo is well done and Macbeth’s hallucinations; also the battle in the Burnham forest.

Least successful is the inconsistent delivery of the iambic pentameter: A challenge for the ensemble unpracticed in Shakespeare. The Bard must not be stilted or sound like poetry. Still: more lines and characters work than don’t: MacDuff, Banquo and Duncan also held my interest.

The beauty of this production is its momentum; the dramatic thrust. Director Blanka Zizka has made a good and oddly suitable operatic start with her first Shakespeare. The Wilma’s Macbeth until Nov. 7.

Written by Lesley Valdes

October 11, 2010 at 3:42 am

Otello

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Verdi’s Otello
Opera Company of Philadelphia
Sept. 30-Oct. 2010

Bad guys are the most fun when they sing like Mark Delavan, the Iago in the Opera Company of Philadelphia’s new production of Otello. Iago’s menace comes from the pleasure of revenge; the power of enjoying another’s weakness. Delavan understands and doesn’t rely on stereotype. He has a gorgeous baritone. He sets the snares for his love- torn employer. He spits out jealous asides. Opening night, Iago rolled onstage at the Academy of Music in a wheelchair because of a newly repaired meniscus. Knee pain or not, Delavan’s ran rings around everyone else in the excellent production. He was the schemer who believes life is mired in mud but enjoys playing in it.

If only Clifton Forbis’s Otello had been as persusasive. Forbis is one of two tenors (the other is Alan Glassman) to share the company’s assignment. The acting was sensitive and aptly contradictory in its emotional range. But the vocalism did not match up; nor hold the attention until the Moor’s pent-up jealousy began to rage in the later acts. Norah Amsellem’s soprano as Desdemona manages in power what it lacks in tonal beauty. Her acting somewhat compensates but the couple’s chemistry did not persuade. Margaret Mazecappa was the stoniest Emilia observed in some time, until that is she accused Otello of his crime. Cassio looked the part of a good soldier but the voice did not project.

Elizabeth Braden’s chorus was a giant success, resonant and thrilling. Maestro Corrado Rovaris’ drew from the pit most of Verdi’s demands and refinements.

The creative team worked theatrical magic; Otello’s set and production values had a splendor matched by this Iago’s pleasure in evil.

Written by Lesley Valdes

October 11, 2010 at 12:38 am

Posted in Opera, Shakespeare

Yannick’s visit: Corrado’s Orfee

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Orfee et Eurydice
Opera Company of Philadelphia
/Curtis Opera collaboration
Corrado Rovaris, conducting
June 17-25, 2010
Perelman Theater

Good news energizes: Yannick Nezet -Seguin’s appointment as the Philadelphia Orchestra’s music director elect has put the city in a good mood. The French Canadian’s visit to the Kimmel and to Citizens Park on Friday brought in 200 hundred new subscribers according to a marketing rep for the orchestra. While Yannick was working the neighborhoods, Opera Company music director Corrado Rovaris was steering a fine Orfee et Eurydice at the Perelman. The Gluck is the Opera Company’s anticipated and usually sold out chamber opera collaboration with Curtis Opera Theater. This season’s production was changed from the planned three to five performances.

Designer Phillipe Amand strips the stage to sensuous color (teal/sky blue) and projected light. The underworld has a way of appearing and disappearing that is fabulous. There are only three principals: Mezzo-soprano Ruxandra Dunose as Orfee, soprano Elizabeth Reiter as Amor and Maureen Mckay as the doomed Eurydice. Dunose has a triple challenges in her first time out in the arduous role, she’s nearly always singing on an empty stage and the blocking doesn’t cut her any slack. One end of the stage to the other (or prone midcenter). the distinguished mezzo can’t always be heard. The grief and pain; the burnish of her art does comes through. Gluck’s timeless arias grow stronger, deeper as Orfee finally finds Eurydice and the lovers prepare to gain or lose each other – again. Mckay as the doomed wife shows many facets of Eurydice’s character in a soprano that is brilliant and can soar.

The austere staging clearly inspires director Bob Driver but perhaps to match the minimalism of the modernism, he keeps gestures at a minimum nor are there are any helpful props. Nary a flower for the grave, no instrument for the musician Orfee, any of which could have been projected but I am sure the idea was to avoid sentiment. (Instead the dancing veered toward sentiment.) Most confusing are Orfee’s trials: though we have the supertitles to remind that husband must not look at his wife as he takes her from the Underworld they are staged so near each other singing it feels ridiculous to have them pretending they do not see each other each other at all. Some productions use a blindfold which has its merits.

Reiter, a standout as Amina in Curtis Opera’s Sleepwalker not so long ago, is terrific in the feisty role of Love. Her costume makes her look like a punk hellion, the main wit in the opera. Richard St. Clair clearly had fun with the get up.

Amanda Miller’s choreography has a lot to recommend it particularly during the Elysian Fields panorama. Miller (of Miro Dance Theatre) ’s dances take up 50 of the opera’s entire 90 -minutes but there is some mannerism to the choreographic effort that detracts. Melding the chorus into the dance is a good idea that doesn’t quite work. Using an aerialist for Orfee’s descent is a brilliant stroke.

Maestro Rovaris, who has achieved so much for the professional company, doesn’t push too hard; his band usually aims for and achieves the subtle. It would have been nice to have a drier, more detached style of string playing to suit the period of Christoph Willibald Gluck instead of the fatter legato achieved. Still, such ardor to Orfee and Eurydice’s music – humanity here, real beauty. Rare opportunity to hear this version Berlioz arranged from Gluck’s two earlier French versions.

The poet Louise Glueck writes: “Everyone wants to be Orpheus.” True enough, since he gets the adulation and the best parts.But Eurydice’s part, though smaller, is pretty amazing too.

The last performance at the Perelman is June 25.

Written by Lesley Valdes

June 22, 2010 at 11:34 pm

La Traviata a la Twenties

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Verdi’s La Traviata
Opera Company of Philadelphia
Academy of Music
May 7-16, 2010M
Airs May 10

A silver mirror dominates the Robert Driver, Paul Shortt staging of La Traviata being revived at the Academy of Music through Sunday (5/16). The Opera company of Philadelphia’s La Traviata has a twist: this season the Verdi is bumped up to the 1920s. Richard St. Clair’s costumes have more Deco than flapper glamour and the principals making their debut in this cast wear them very well. Leah Patridge is Violetta. Charles Castronovo, her Alfredo. (Baritone Mark Stone makes a superb Girgio Germont).

I prefer the tenor voice, which is warm and expressive to the soprano’s, which is cooler. Both singers act well. Patridge has the ringing top notes; the coloratura isn’t always secure of pitch as it consistently sturdy. Her stamina is remarkable. Violetta may be consumptive but those high notes are torpedos.

The good thing about this staging: La Traviata is concise, no clutter, a problem of Driver’s in the past. The men are directed with sensitivity. Alfredo’s interactions with Violetta early and late are beautiful; so are the interactions between the father and son Germonts. Alfredo’s first toast is handled like a real toast and the character also shows more remorse than we usually witness after the card scene. This is good direction.

Dancers from the Miro Company show their stuff at Flora’s too.

For the death scene, the mirror looks a loft out of Baz Luhrmann – have we’ve wandered into La Boheme ?– but not to quibble – the set works.

Nice change, no coughs from this Violetta, the audience supplied them.

Music Director Corrado Rovaris keeps the pit band flowing without intruding on the singers while allowing the mystique. La Traviata at the Academy of Music until May 16.

Poetry Month: Dunbar Opera at Clef Club

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Lyrics of Sunshine and Shadows:
An Opera Based on the Life and Love of
Paul Laurence Dunbar & Alice Ruth Moore
Steven M. Allen, composer and libretto,
Opera North, Inc.
April 11, 2010
The Philadelphia Clef Club
Broad & Fitzwater Streets

Paul Dunbar fell in love with Alice Ruth Moore from a photo: like Tamina looking at Pamina. The moment is caught in Allen Stevens opera about the Dunbars: Lyrics of Sunshine and Shadows, whose first act was presented at the Clef Club Sunday. Opera North presented with a cast drawn largely from here and the D.C.. April is poetry month. Allen wrote the music and the libretto working from the pioneering black poet’s biography and the letters Dunbar wrote to Moore, the writer who would become his wife, then leave him. Dunbar and Moore corresponded for two years before meeting. Her mother was against the marriage. Dunbar may have been famous but he was three shades darker than Moore’s family – who had pretensions and their own prejudice and more money. Dunbar worked his way up in Dayton, Ohio where he was the only black man in high school class of the Wright Brothers. He worked as an elevator operator when his second book of poems, Major & Minor, came out, the one that drew mainstream accolades from Wm. Dean Howells, although Howells chose to single out only the poems in dialect, not the poems (In Major) written in standard English. This stung Dunbar and rightly so.

Allen’s score is classical with a tinge of nostalgia, built into the fine writing for voice, clarinet and flutes. It’s good if at times a bit too look at me I’m in earnest. (The composer is working on a doctorate at Catholic University.) The libretto is convoluted: too many words. Without supertitles, the English sung by this cast is sometimes hard to make out. Lisa Edwards-Burrs as Alice Moore and Gregory J. Watkins as Dunbar were excellent choices, so was Syvlia Twine as Matilda Dunbar. A boy soprano and countertenor also were good news; Brandie Sutton was convincing as Moore’s sister; Jessie Baden-Campbell an imperious naysaying mother. Iris Fairfax took the role of the glamorous Victoria Matthews at the 11th hour when the scheduled singer was indisposed.
Allen conducted a chamber octet of strings, winds, keyboard. His arrangements for acoustic piano alone with the voice sometimes sound clunky, better the work with flute, oboe, bass clarinet. There are fine love duets in the third section which, includes Dunbar’s famous poem to Alice. Also a trio for baritone and boy sopranos, well, one boy soprano and a counter-tenor.

(I couldn’t tell if there were other Dunbar poems in this libretto: the diction was not always clear enough. But this is only one act – more will follow.) The pioneering poet –“We wear the Mask,” “Dreams,” “The Debt” lived only 33 prolific, achieving years. The love story was tumultous.
Allen’s libretto may need to cut back on the exposition to play up the drama. Though it’s important. having Dunbar’s agent sing of William Dean Howell’s glowing if backhanded review of Dunbar’s second book, Majors & Minors is labored. Dunbar had reason to loathe that mainstream review: The critic singled out the poems in dialect, ignoring the ones in standard English.
Lyrics of Sunshine and Shadows have operatic conflicts in the Moore daughters’ scenes with their negative mother but they are presented so statically the scenes lose a bit in the telling. The audience caught the sly comedy.
Projections are used with a simple staging and lighting. More images, please.
Opera North does a lot of its work behind the scenes, in schools and the community. It employs fine singers. Leslie Burrs is the artistic director.

Written by Lesley Valdes

April 12, 2010 at 3:04 am

Age cannot wither (Curtis Opera’s Antony & Cleo)

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file0452Samuel Barber’s
Antony & Cleopatra
The Curtis Opera Theatre (in association with Opera Company of Philadelphia & the Kimmel Center)
Perelman Theatre
March 17, 19, 21

Samuel Barber’s alma mater has done him proud. Curtis Opera Theatre’s sold out Antony & Cleopatra at the Perelman is arresting: Fine singing, yes. A design that takes the breath. Light simplifies us, Derek Woolcott says. Opera’s funny that way. The clearer you see, better you hear. The simplicity of Lenore Doxee’s light summons the Nile without a barge or pyramid. Chas Rader Shieber’ and David Zinn’s staging reflects sea and sun onto walls that look like stainless steel. The Opera Company of Philadelphia, who co-produces should borrow this team, pronto.
The Kimmel Center is also a sponsor.

Allison Sanders opens her mouth and a geyser pours up and out. The high notes have ping. Cleopatra’s high-wire challenges were ravishing. The soprano’s Mark Antony was bass baritone Brendon Cedel, big voice, lots of emotion. Both young singers are still awkward actors, give them time. Not so, baritone Evan Boyer’s whose grasp of Enobarbus – the loyalties, the conflicts – is near ideal. The voice is splendid. The mixed choir alert, on pitch, sing this tricky English very well. The supernumeraries look terrific in Jacob Climer’s costumes: grey suits that fit, witty sock caps. The Senators wear silver ear laurels.

Samuel Barber was hard on himself. After the world premiere when Franco Zeferelli’s design pretty much toppled the thing he cut and fret. Curtis puts the shorter, 1974 version at the Perelman. Some of us still crave the edginess, the longer version with the time to delve the back story. These days, who knows their Rome and Egypt? New York maestro George Manahan also likes the long version restored. The New York City Opera music director was brilliant leading the Curtis singers and band, coaxing a subtle flute or cello, focusing the intensity. The Pew Center for Arts & Heritage paid for Antony & Cleopatra.

Written by Lesley Valdes

March 22, 2010 at 12:10 am

Posted in 1, Drama, Music, Opera

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