Opposite poles attract success at Central City Opera

Dead Man Walking and Marriage of Figaro are worth the trip into the mountains.

By Peter Alexander

Central City Opera House. Photo by Mark Kiryluk.

Central City Opera House. Photo by Mark Kiryluk.

The two productions currently running at the Central City Opera (CCO) are not so much contrasting shades of opera as opposite poles.

At the dark end of spectrum is Jake Heggie’s Dead Man Walking, a setting of playwright Terence McNally’s powerful libretto, based on the book by Sister Helen Prejean. The true story of a nun’s efforts to reach out to a brutal death row convict, the book also inspired the 1995 film starring Susan Sarandon and Sean Penn. This seems unlikely material for operatic treatment—the drama is largely psychological and very little happens in the conventional sense—but Heggie and McNally have created a gripping work of musical theater that keeps the audience riveted, even as they know the inevitable outcome.

The opposite pole is represented by Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro, one of the greatest and most luminescent operatic explorations of human emotions ever created. A politically and socially dangerous work written on the eve of the French Revolution, it cloaks its subversive message with the light of compassion and humor in Mozart’s transcendent setting of a masterful libretto by Lorenzo da Ponte.

As different as they are, these works are given wholly satisfying and powerfully moving productions by the Central City Opera company. With strong casts, well conceived productions and thoughtful direction, both operas are well worth the drive into the mountains—even if you don’t need an excuse to drive into the mountains.

In his notes for Dead Man Walking, director Ken Cazan observes that the opera “doesn’t tell the viewer what to think and feel. . . . [It] poses questions, not answers.” Indeed, one of the most remarkable things about the work is how well it conveys understanding and sympathy for all of the characters, even the murderer Joseph De Rocher.

Dead Man Walking execution scene. Photo by Mark Kiryluk.

Dead Man Walking execution scene. Photo by Mark Kiryluk.

If the work has a flaw, it is the sustained intensity of its emotional expression. Though unavoidable considering the subject matter, the unrelenting high tension of the music leaves no scope for the shattering musical climax we might expect. As a result, the ending, when De Rocher finally faces his execution, provides a dramatic resolution but not a musical one. The final scene, where Sister Helen returns to the tender hymn that opened the opera, “He Will Gather Us Around,” rounds out the opera on a quiet note that feels inconclusive.

But perhaps that reflects the reality that the questions faced by the opera’s characters—questions of guilt, of punishment, of retribution and redemption—remain unanswered for the characters and for us, as they must always be.

As the murderer De Rocher, Michael Mayes gave a committed and muscular performance—even singing while doing pushups in one scene. His voice conveyed menace and danger from his very first entrance, only softening in the second act when he sang of being “Down by the river with your woman.” The transformation from the threatening figure of Act I to someone who could admit his fear and his guilt and tell Sister Helen “I love you” at the end is an accomplishment of both vocal and dramatic artistry.

Jennifer Rivera ably filled the role of Sister Helen, who is onstage for most of the opera. The throbbing orchestral accompaniment, the range and contours of her part push her into an intensity of expression that make vocal control difficult. Fortunately, she was able to convey small contrasting moments of humor and tenderness as well as the overarching spiritual struggle that defines her role.

Of the many supporting roles, several stand out: Maria Zifchak as De Rocher’s mother was especially moving in the final scenes when she has to face her son’s death; and Robert Orth as Owen Hart commanded attention as an angry father whose daughter died at De Rocher’s hands, but who manages to move toward acceptance by the end.

Other, more one-dimensional supporting roles are well handled: Thomas Hammons as the warden; Jason Baldwin as the unsympathetic Father Grenville; Karina Brazas, Claire Shackleton and Joseph Gaines as mourning parents. Jeanine De Bique was on target but vocally strained as Sister Rose. John David Nevergall added a light touch as the Motorcycle Cop.

Dead Man Walking: Michael Mayes as Joseph De Rocher and Jennifer Rivera as Sister Helen Prejean. Photo by Mark Kiryluk.

Dead Man Walking: Michael Mayes as Joseph De Rocher and Jennifer Rivera as Sister Helen Prejean. Photo by Mark Kiryluk.

The coloring of vowels by the singers to suggest the Louisiana locale of the story was only intermittently successful, and considering the universality of the questions we are asked to ponder, I am not sure that it is necessary.

One of the pleasures of opera at Central City is seeing the creative ways the company makes use of its limited stage and wing space. Alan E. Muraoka’s minimalist stage designs were highly effective, using angled fences to convey the enclosed space of the prison as well as the emotionally closed world of the convicts. In other scenes, pieces of furniture—two chairs, a table and a chair—or the execution gurney that De Rocher is strapped to, Christ-like, at the end, were sufficient to set the changing scenes and illuminate the changing relationships.

Ken Cazan’s direction was efficient and effective, especially in making use of the limited space to convey relationships among the principal characters. John Baril lead Central City’s fine orchestra with a firm hand.

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CCO’s production of The Marriage of Figaro has been updated from the 18th century to Spain in the 1920s. Director Alessandro Talevi justifies this through the political situation of the time. “Spain . . . .was deeply conservative and religious in conflict with dynamic progressive movement of secularism,” he writes, establishing a parallel with the pre-revolutionary Europe of Mozart’s time.

Act II Finale, Marriage of Figaro. Photo by Mark Kiryluk

Act II Finale, Marriage of Figaro. Photo by Mark Kiryluk

I am not sure the intellectual justification is necessary, or even helps for that matter.

For the most part the setting and costumes were successful, the 1920s being long enough ago that audiences readily accept the social hierarchies and conflicts of the plot. That said, I do have one reservation, in that British costume dramas are now so familiar to American audiences that many must have thought of Downton Abbey, and the Count reminded me inescapably of John Cleese in Fawlty Towers. These resonances do not enhance Mozart’s masterpiece.

The one essential of any production of the opera is a Figaro who can command the stage. CCO is fortunate to have a vocally secure Figaro in Michael Sumuel, whose genial presence was always welcome onstage. He sang expressively, handling Figaro’s wide range of emotions with aplomb.

Michael Sumuel as Figaro and Anna Christy as Susanna. Photo by Mark Kiryluk.

Michael Sumuel as Figaro and Anna Christy as Susanna. Photo by Mark Kiryluk.

As Figaro’s intended bride Susanna, Anna Christy was a secure vocal partner in her many duets and ensembles with the other cast members. It is her relationship to each of the other principal characters that drives the plot, and Christy was a solid anchor for the drama. In spite of an occasionally nasal sound, her expressive phrasing brought her character warmly to life.

Another critical role is Cherubino, a “pants” role taken by a female mezzo as an adolescent boy who is in love with every woman he sees, from the young Barbarina and Susanna to his godmother the Countess. Tamara Gura was excellent from her first entrance, moving with all the awkwardness of a teenager. I found her unusually convincing throughout, and her aria “Voi che sapete” was especially charming.

As the Count, Edward Parks was perhaps too measured at the outset, neither commanding enough nor bombastic enough in the first two acts. He grew into the role, however, and by the end his confession and plea for forgiveness brought the opera to an effective end.

Anna Christy as Susanna and Sinéad Mulhern as the Countess. Photo by Mark Kiryluk.

Anna Christy as Susanna and Sinéad Mulhern as the Countess. Photo by Mark Kiryluk.

Sinéad Mulhern played the countess with grace and delicacy. Her lovely voice lost quality when pushed, but otherwise her portrayal was pleasing.

Madeleine Boyd’s flexible sets made effective use of the limited stage, even if they recalled an English country house. Talevi’s direction captured the comic qualities of the libretto perfectly, with one exception: the unnecessary comic business during the Count’s Act III aria badly upstaged the singer and undermined the emotion of the scene.

Conductor Adrian Kelly led the performance ably, setting solid tempos and supporting the singers well for most of the opera. The opening overture was full of energy but occasionally smudged, a minor flaw that recurred during the opera as well.

Unfortunately, Central City does not have a genuine harpsichord at its disposal—perhaps due to limited space in the pit or the difficult of caring for a natural instrument at 8,500 ft.—and has to resort to a Kawai electronic keyboard. This is unfortunate whatever the reason. The sound may be adequate for amateur keyboard players who fancy 18th-century music, but it is not suitable for a truly professional performance.

But make no mistake: All reservations aside, this is a sparkling production, full of comic energy and good spirits. The stark contrast between this Figaro and the darkly impressing Dead Man Walking only enhances them both.


Central City Opera

The Marriage of Figaro by Mozart
2:30 pm July 15, 16, 20, 22, 26
8:00 pm July 10, 12, 18
Central City Opera House
For tickets, click here

Dead Man Walking by Jake Heggie
2:30 pm July 13, 19, 23, 25
8:00 pm July 11, 17
Central City Opera House
For tickets, click here  

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