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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.

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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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


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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

Mauckingbird’s “Dream”

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file0580Midsummer Night’s Dream
Mauckingbird Theatre Company
Aug. 20-Sept. 12, 2010
Randall Theater at Temple University

Mauckingbird Theatre Company views the classics through “a queer lens,” says co-founder and artistic director Peter Reynolds, who is (among other titles) also assistant chair of Temple’s theatre department. Mauckingbird, usually at the Adrienne, has new endeavors underway at Temple, including Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream. Temple professor Lynne Innerst joins Reynolds as co-director. One pleasure of this large scale but intimate production is casting Temple students as the mechanicals and fairies. Danielle Pinnock has a key role as Nick Bottom and Pyramis in the play within the play.

The staging also benefits from Mike Long’s video design and Chris Colucci’s invigorating sound track. The story’s been updated to Athens Academy where everyone’s texting. The Duke about to get married is a headmaster; a patron wants his daughter Hermia to marry Demetrius. But Hermia has eyes only for Lysander, who in this production is a girl. And unlike the original, Helena, is a boy, which at first is unsettling. However, actor Patrick Joyce does so well with the role he overcomes even the confusing name. Times have changed! Mauckingbird’s mission with a few surgical incisions to the script makes it easy to see Shakespeare’s jousting love struck couples in the magic forest as two girls and two guys together and why not.

The play runs without intermission.

Unfortunately, the fairy queen and king are not so well matched as their attractive statures. Charles Illingworth’s Oberon exudes authority and compassion. Not so, Sean Thompson’s Titania who starts with a snippy attitude that ultimately undercuts the persuasion (and magic) of his better lines during Titania’s extraordinary dream scene with Bottom.

Pinnock’s Bottom overplays the comedy; the girl has promise; we’ll be seeing her again. She lights the black box.
Shakespeare’s Dream foreshadows The Tempest. He’s juggling imagination, the highs and lows of love, life, art. Bravo to Emily Letts and Erin Mulgrew; Brent Knobloch who plays Puck. Lauren Perigard’s costumes enhance the nonsense.

Written by Lesley Valdes

August 30, 2010 at 3:06 am

Henry V on Sansom Street

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Henry The Fifth
Philadelphia Shakespeare Theatre
Classical Academy
August 4-15, 2010

The English are better at their history than we are. They have Shakespeare to thank for making leaders human. If you have trouble keeping the Henry Plays Straight, you may want to try Henry Fifth at the Philadelphia Shakespeare Theatre through Sunday. The Classical Academy run by the Theatre is doing a nice job with a complicated play. The academy is summer session for emerging theatre professionals. The performances at 21st and Sansom are free; best to call ahead for tickets or email.

Director Aaron Cromie uses the conceit of a classroom and it works. A teacher takes the role of Chorus. Fazeeh Fazeehpour’s simple classroom design becomes tavern, battlefield, and court. It is hard to keep the nine actors straight, in their school uniforms and backpacks since most of the cast takes multiple characters.

Fortunately Michael Gregory takes only the role of King Harry, or Henry the Fifth, who learns to battle royal insults from France before his ultimate great victory at Agincourt.

Gregory, who trained at the Hartt School, in Hartford, brings many colors to the role, he is at his strongest showing the pulls upon the crown; the qualms that rarely mean a good night’s sleep in a soliloquy that’s quite persuasive.
Nick Martorelli functions as the chorus.

Victoria Bonito is an engaging Lord Exeter, amusing Lady Katherine’s maid. Bethany Ditnes distinguishes her roles as Katherine and Montjoy. Amanda Bernhardt, Meredith Mitchell, Eric Wunsch, B.K Elam, Shaun Fury, complete assignments both serious and comic.

The confusions as to whom plays whom will not be unraveled until the conclusion of the second half but the Classical Acting Academy’s delivery of Shakespeare’s iambic pentameter is well done. Henry V on Sansom Street is not as much theater to watch as theater to listen to. Bravo to text coaches J. J. Van Name and John Peakes; bravo Aaron Cromie. The spoken lines are not self-conscious but they don’t lose the poetry or the music.

Written by Lesley Valdes

August 9, 2010 at 3:07 am