Unusual opera recording features CU graduate Ashraf Sewailam

Fairy-tale opera has influences from Star Wars and Disney

By Peter Alexander Sept. 9 at 10:10 p.m.

The Thirteenth Child, Danish composer Poul Ruders’ fifth opera, had its world stage premiere this past summer at the Santa Fe Opera.

81BovRD6EDL._SL1500_But even before the Santa Fe performances, you could hear the entire opera in a recording that was made on two continents, used two conductors, cast members who were never in the same room together, and featured a role sung by the voice of the Arabic Ursula the Sea Witch. The disc was released by Bridge Records June 1, and can be purchased here or here.

For all its quirks, the recording was a labor of love for David and Becky Starobin, who are both the owners of Bridge Records and the librettists of the opera. Because it is very expensive to assemble a cast all in one place for an operatic recording, the Starobins decided to take another path: the orchestra parts were recorded in Denmark by the Odense Symphony Orchestra; American cellist/conductor Benjamin Schwartz conducted the orchestra in the first act, and David Starobin, a professional musician as well as producer and librettist, conducted the orchestra in the second act.

With the orchestral parts recorded—no voices yet—Starobin moved his activities to a recording studio on the east coast of the U.S., where the singers came in one at a time for their recording sessions, singing their parts while Starobin conducted. Each in turn was mixed with the orchestral tracks. To keep everyone together, Starobin and the singers listened through headphones to both the orchestral recording and a click track that was customized for it.

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David and Becky Starobin

“I would not recommend [this] as a good way to spend one’s time because it took me two-and-a-half years to put the recording together,” Starobin says. “This is sort of pop studio style, and doing it for an opera is a completely different thing, because you need to look at much longer spans of time and tempo fluctuations.

“The one thing that all the singers and the instrumentalists had in common was that I was there. And either as producer or a conductor I was trying to realize Paul’s and my vision for what that opera was, interpretatively. And I have absolutely first-rate singers and orchestra and chorus, so the process in the end came out quite well.”

The process does have some advantages, Starobin says. “You actually get to perfect each line, and when you have all of the lines done, edited and in the kind of sound that you want, then you mix them together and it gives you a chance to balance in ways that you couldn’t possibly do in the live recordings of opera.”

But you are probably still wondering about Ursula.

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Ashraf Sewailam (l) in the 2018 Central City Opera production of The Magic Flute, with tenor Joseph Dennis.

That would be Egyptian bass Ashraf Sewailam, a graduate of the University of Colorado, Boulder, who has memorably performed with the CU Eklund Opera, Central City Opera, the Boulder Bach Festival, Pro Musica Chamber Orchestra, and other organizations in the area. A rising star of the operatic world, Sewailam has also appeared with New Zealand Opera, Austin (Tex.) Opera, Opera San Jose (Calif.) and San Diego Opera.

Sewailam voiced Urusla when he was working for the Disney company, as music director dubbing Disney films into Arabic. Incongruously, he also did the Arabic voice of Mickey Mouse, among others, and he got a lot of experience recording material alone that would later be combined with recordings by other actors.

“I learned so much from that job [with Disney] that went into my operatic practice,” he says. “Being the music director and responsible for a product that was highly quality controlled, I developed a really good diagnostic ear. I could hear anything that goes wrong with the voice.”

Sewailam got a role in Thirteenth Child because he knew the Starobins through Patrick Mason, his voice teacher at CU, and had made other recordings for them. Sewailam was the first singer that was hired for the recording, and he was given his choice of roles. He picked the role of Drokan, the villain of the opera—which seems fitting for the voice of Ursula, if not Mickey.

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Full cast listing on the CD back cover

The Thirteenth Child is loosely based on a Brothers Grimm fairy tale, so the villain is the evil in a good-vs-evil story. (Read the full synopsis here.) Others is the cast include Matt Boehler as King Hjarne, the victim of Drokan’s deception; Tamara Mumford, veteran of Metropolitan Opera Live in HD broadcasts, who sang Queen Gertrude on both the recording and in Santa Fe; and Sarah Shafer, whose wide-eyed, fairy-tale-princess photo as the title character appears on the album cover.

Sewailam says he worked on understanding Drokan so he could portray him as a rounded character. “He could very easily be two-dimensional, just evil through-and-through,” he says. “I always ask myself why someone is like that, and you always learn that the person is small and insecure. It’s all about compensating for feeling inadequate.

“The only way to portray how terrible he is, in a not two-dimensional way, is to develop sympathy for him. It becomes more troubling, being understanding of where all his evil comes from.” Even without appearing onstage, Sewailam aims give depth to Drokan through vocal coloring and nuances of vocal interpretation.

At only 80 minutes, the opera packs a lot of action in a small package. The music is genial, a change from Ruder’s earlier operas, written on dark subjects including Margaret Atwood’s dystopian novel The Handmaid’s Tale, Kafka’s The Trial and Lar von Trier’s grim melodramatic film Dancer in the Dark, all of which incorporated a dissonant, atonal style. The music is often full of menace and threatening growls from the orchestra.

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Danish composer Poul Ruders

The more friendly and consonant style of The Thirteenth Child is likely due in part to the libretto. “We had the music in mind when we were writing all of the words, and the kind of music that Poul might write,” David Starobin says. “There were some things where we really wanted him to express his full romantic voice, and he did,” Becky Starobin adds.

The Starobins admit to pop-culture influences in their libretto. “I see our background growing up watching Star Wars films, [and] there’s no way that Becky or I could get away with writing a fairy tale without having some Disney crop up,” David says.

The Odense Symphony offers a fine performance of Ruder’s complex and varied score, warming to the more consonant and lyrical moments, but also handling the dissonant and threatening passages very well. Both conductors seem to have kept things together well. David Starobin deserves extra credit for keeping singers and orchestra together in the studio as well.

The recording cast is, as he says, entirely first-rate. As King Hjarne, Matt Boehler has a wonderfully deep and resonant bass. He managed the very lowest notes, and the leaps into falsetto that signify his madness, with aplomb. Thanks to recording technology and the opportunity to achieve a ideal balance, every word of his part could be clearly heard—something that Santa Fe showed is not always possible in live performance.

Sewailam was in fine form as Drokan, his voice dripping a menace conveyed through vowel coloring and shaping of the voice. I would love to see him onstage in this role, which fits his strong voice very well

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Tamara Mumford (r) as Queen Gertrude in the Santa Fe Opera production of The Thirteenth Child, with David Leigh as King Hjarne. Photo by Ken Howard for the Santa Fe Opera.

Tamara Mumford sang with warmth and expression, showing why she was engaged for the Santa Fe production. She found the expression and shape in even the most disjoined vocal lines, and sang with a strong voice that connects well with the hearer.

As Lyra, the story’s princess who suitably for the 21st century needs finding but not rescuing, Sarah Shafer brought a shining soprano and a lyrical line to the performance, spinning her vocal lines eloquently, even across wide leaps.

Alasdair Kent was effective as the prince who finds Lyra and will, in the end, marry her to being peace to the kingdom of Frohagord. His bright, clear tenor was just as heroic as the part requires.

These are the individual singers, who did in fact sing separately. And in the completed recording, it was the individual moments by the leading characters that came across most effectively—reflective moments and arias. In other places, singers who should be interacting sounded slightly abstracted from the drama. In these moments you can see that the text implies a rising tension, but sense that the actors are not in fact reacting to one another.

The most memorable bits are King Hjarne’s aria “The Night Air Groans,” Lyra’s lament “Oh Dear Mother,” the duet scene when a ghostly Gertrude returns to explain the spell that Lyra has inadvertently cast on her brothers, and the comic scene of the hungry brothers, “We need beef, lamb, goose, duck!” Significantly, these stand out in part because they are contrasting—a comic moment breaking a sequence of increasingly dire developments, and moments of tonal lyricism among passages of atonal dissonance.

To those I would add Drokan’s dramatic scene in the second act, where his motivations are made clear and the depth of his betrayal is revealed, more for its dramatic impact and Sewailam’s performance than its purely musical qualities.

This disc is highly recommended. Anyone with an interest in contemporary opera should want to hear The Thirteenth Child. As a relatively short opera with a modest cast, it seems a likely choice for regional opera companies and university programs, while its setting makes it a candidate for the glittering productions that larger houses can offer. I look forward to seeing and hearing the next new production.

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Bridge Records 9257

The Thirteenth Child, an opera in two acts by Poul Ruders (music) and Becky and David Starobin (libretto). Odense Symphony Orchestra, Bridge Academy Singers, with Matt Boehler, Ashraf Sewailam, Tamara Mumford, and Sarah Shafer. David Starobin (vocal music and orchestra, Act 2) and Benjamin Schwartz (orchestra Act 1), conductors.

Available here and here.

Edited 9.10 to add recording details and sources for the CD.

 

 

Takacs Quartet starts the fall season with near perfect program, beautifully played.

Music by Mozart, Bartók and Dvořák will be repeated tonight

By Peter Alexander Sept. 9 at 1:05 a.m.

Last night (Sept. 8) the Takacs Quartet began the 2019–20 season of major classical music events in Boulder with a near-perfect program: three truly great pieces of music, of contrasting periods and styles, offering different demands to the performers.

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Takács Quartet. Photo by Amanda Tipton,

As mixed programs often do, it began with music from the classical period: Mozart’s String Quartet in C major K465, one of his greatest works. Known as the “Dissonance” Quartet from the chromatic harmonies of the slow introduction, it does not sound particularly dissonant to ears that have heard Wagner and Schoenberg—not to mention Berio and Boulez.

The Takacs took their cue for their interpretation from the cheerful and engaging music that comes after the slow introduction, which they played in a straightforward way. Where some performers prefer to wring all the drama and angst they can from the harmonies, the Takacs takes a more matter-of-fact approach that fits well with all the music that follows. This interpretation makes the quartet comfortably enjoyable, but it risks missing the real challenge that Mozart’s harmonies, extreme for their time, would have posed to his audiences.

Mozart was followed by the Fourth Quartet of Bartók, one of the great works of the early 20thcentury. So well does this work distill all of the core elements of Bartók’s style, it can (and has done) serve for a whole course on the composer. After a brief and witty spoken introduction by first violinist Ed Dusinberre, who outlined the key structural features of the quartet’s five movements, the Takacs players launched into a driven, compelling reading of the quartet.

This is music that requires great energy and rhythmic command, and the Takacs provided that in spades. Thematic relationships that bind the quartet and its symmetrical form together were clearly audible, not buried in the complex textures. The devilish fourth movement conveyed all the wit inherent in Bartók’s headlong, propulsive pizzicato, even if the players were momentarily revealed to be human, after all. The final movement delivered the wild party that Dusinberre promised, ending the quartet with a wonderful flourish straight out of the first movement.

The final piece on the program was Dvořák’s String Quartet in F major, op. 96, known as the “American” Quartet. Written during an idyllic summer in Spillville, Iowa, it one of the composer’s most delightful and perfect works. This is music that smiles.

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Spillville, Iowa, in 1893, the year of Dvořák’s visit.

As pure music it is thoroughly enjoyable, but for those who know the Spillville legends, the evocation of the open, empty spaces of the American prairie—which Dvořák found to be “sad unto despair”—in the second movement, the quotation of the Scarlet Tanager’s song in the third, and the sound of the organ that Dvořák played in church every morning during the summer in the third movement, the deep nostalgia of the music becomes all the more meaningful.

Once again the Takacs shifted gears to capture the melded American/Bohemian qualities of Dvořák’s most American work, a piece that revels in the countryside and displaced Bohemians Dvořák found in Iowa as well as his love for the countryside and people of his homeland. Written in the open air of the prairie, the music came from deep within Dvořák’s soul. The Takacs’ performance was exemplary.

In fact, it was a joy to hear the whole concert, from first note to last. The Takacs revealed the individuality and character of all three works.

The program will be repeated tonight at 7:30 p.m. in Grusin Music Hall. Limited tickets are available here.

Two fall concerts, three in spring for Takács Quartet

Fall programs include music by Bartók, Beethoven, Mozart

By Peter Alexander Sept. 6 at 11:54 a.m.

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Takacs Quartet. Photo by Amanda Tipton.

The University of Colorado’s Takacs String Quartet, one of Boulder’s musical treasures, will play a program of music by Mozart, Bartók and Dvořák Sunday and Monday, Sept. 7 and 8.

A second program featuring Bartók again, plus Beethoven and Mendelssohn, will be performed Oct. 27–28. The two fall concerts are part of five Sunday–Monday pairs that the Takacs will play on campus during the year. Programs have not yet been announced for the three spring concerts.

Tickets are available for a subscription series that includes concerts by the Tesla Quartet Nov. 10-11. For ticket information, contact the box office at 303-492-8008.

Read more in Boulder Weekly.

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Takacs Quartet
2019 Fall Concerts

4 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 8 and 7:30 p.m. Monday, Sept. 9

Mozart: String Quartet No. in C Major, K465 (“Dissonance”)
Bartók: String Quartet No. 4
Dvořák: String Quartet F Major, Op. 96 (“American”)

4 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 27 and 7:30 p.m. Monday, Oct. 28

Beethoven: String Quartet No. 3 in D Major, op. 18 no. 3
Bartók: String Quartet No. 2
Mendelssohn: String Quartet No. 2

All Performances in Grusin Music Hall

Tickets

Santa Fe Opera: Così fan tutte is a mixed bag, Jenůfa a triumph

There’s still time to see the SFO productions

By Peter Alexander Aug. 8 at 9:20 p.m.

The Santa Fe Opera’s current production of Mozart’s Così fan tutte is a very mixed bag.

Musically, the performance I saw was superior. The cast is excellent from top to bottom, and Harry Bicket’s direction captured the Mozartian spirit well. Dramatically, however, the production is relentlessly sententious, sometimes baffling and, for long stretches, visually uninteresting.

First, the musical details: The small orchestra played beautifully, especially the wind solos, of which there are many by clarinets, flutes and horns. One or two tempos I thought were on the slow side, but the sublime beauty of Mozart’s score always shone through.

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The five main principals of Così fan tutte: Fiordiligi (Amanda Majeski), Guglielmo (Jarett Ott), Don Alfonso (Rod Gilfry), Ferrando (Ben Bliss) and Dorabella (Emily D’Angelo). Photo by Ken Howard for the Santa Fe Opera.

The singers playing the four lovers around whom Mozart’s artificial world turns—Ben Bliss as Ferrando, Jarrett Ott as Guglielmo, Amanda Majeski as Fiordiligi and Emily D’Angelo as Dorabella—are appropriately young and attractive and vocally outstanding. Their ensembles were beautifully sung and well balanced. The magical trio “Suoave sia il vento,” with Majeski, D’Angleo and Rod Gilfry as Don Alfonso, was especially memorable.

In Dorabella’s first-act aria “Smanie implacabili,” D’Angelo exploited a big, rich voice, singing with great control in spite of stage directions that had her on her back and rolling across the stage. Majeski sang Fiordiligi’s arias with a bright, strong voice, managing the formidable leaps handily.

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Jarrett Ott and Ben Bliss as the frat-boy lovers Guglielmo and Ferrando, with Ron Gilfry as the cowboy Don Alfonso. Photo by Ken Howard.

Bliss brought a light, flexible tenor to his role as Ferrando. Ott sang Guglielmo with a strong, resonant baritone. Rod Gilfry was occasionally a little rough as Don Alfonso, but his portrayal perfectly matched the production’s concept of Alfonso as a cowboy. Tracy Dahl avoided all the traditional flirty-cutesy clichés for Despina, casting the character as a darker sidekick for Alfonso. As such, she was very effective. Her singing was expressive, if underpowered in the lowest range.

The eternal problem with Così fan tutte is that the story of two men donning disguises to woo each others’ fiancées, if taken literally, is distasteful at best. The betrayal of the women they claim to love is shocking, especially at the moment when the women learn that they have been betrayed and humiliated for the sake of a bet.

Even treated as an allegory, that no one is perfect and we all have to accept the imperfections of our partners, Così can be discomfiting. To avoid that trap, the Santa Fe production jettisoned the period decorations and literal presentation of the plot, paring it down to the barest psychological core. Everything beyond the emotional journey of the six main characters has been eliminated, and that single focus has been insistently pounded home.Some will find that illuminating, but others will be frustrated by the lack of theatrical qualities.

The set by Paul Tate Depoo III places the action inside a stark white box that narrows to the rear and, once all the singers are onstage, closes so that they are trapped inside. Depoo’s blank walls are not enlivened with color, with only the barest of lighting effects to distinguish one area from another. There is no furniture and few props. Only the six principal characters are present. The chorus, singing from offstage, is heard but not seen.

At the two couple’s first entrance into the colorless set, they are dressed in all white—the women in tennis outfits, the men in t-shirts and shorts. In their actions, they are recognizable contemporary types, the women silly sorority girls, the men macho frat boys. Fair enough; they are supposed to be callow and superficial.

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Rod Gilfry portrays Don Alfonso as an iconic Cowboy, Photo by Ken Howard.

Don Alfonso makes the first entrance, ahead of the white-clad lovers, costumed as a rough-hewn cowboy. In director’s R.B. Schlather’s interpretation, he exerts magical control over the other characters, who stagger back from his voice and are unable to resist his machinations. He oversees virtually everything that happens onstage, sometimes crouching against the outside wall and observing.

From this reduction of the opera to essentials, the characters loose obvious differentiation. The men’s “disguise” is identical blue denim and cowboy hats. The careful distinctions that Mozart and librettist Lorenzo Da Ponte made has to be conveyed through singing and acting.

Schlather and Depoo’s distillation of the opera enhances the impact of the emotions, particularly the betrayal and humiliation that is imposed on the women at the end. That was more viscerally felt than in any production I have seen. But the flip side of the psychological purification is that the opera became correspondingly less visually interesting.

Some portions became a concert performance in costume, with the characters standing in symmetrical configurations, singing in place. At such points, interest wanes. And throughout there were touches that were simply baffling. Why does Despina put on multiple aprons, then engage in comic business with them, distracting from the other singers onstage? Why does she as the magnetic “doctor” continuously fire off sparklers when once would make the point?

And why does the opera end with all four lovers seated across the front of the stage, immobile, during the final scenes, with no action whatever—no evidence of a wedding, no entrances and exits that are in the text, no visual discovery of the women’s betrayal—while Alfonso pours water over each of their heads? If your audience has to puzzle about such things, the point may get missed.

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Jenůfa, Leoš Janáček’s breakthrough opera composed in 1903, is one of the great works of the 20th century. It is probably Janáček’s highly individual style, based deeply in Czech language and culture, that has kept it from being performed outside its homeland.

The Santa Fe performances, using a production originally created by the English National Opera, is a welcome opportunity to see this great work, and it is in every way a triumph, something that every Janáček fan and every lover of 20th-century opera should see. Jenůfa has only one more performance, Aug. 15.

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Alexander Lewis as Laca cowers outside the Soviet-era mill of designer Charles Edwards. Photo by Ken Howard.

The scenic design of Charles Edwards, costumes by Jon Morrell and direction by David Alden place Jenůfa firmly in the Soviet era. The mill of the first act has dingy corrugated metal walls, and the room where the rest of the opera takes place is authentically shabby. The clothes mark the class of every character, from the mill workers to the mayor, and just like Soviet times, none are fashionable.

To my eyes and ears, this setting fits the story of rural jealousy and violence as well as the original, and deepens the conflicts of social status inherent in the story. Alden’s direction was well attuned to the emotional drama, especially between Jenůfa andLaca, the suitor whose love turns out to be genuine.

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Patricia Racette as Kostelnička (right) with Laura Wilde as Jenůfa and Alexander Lewis as Laca. Photo by Ken Howard.

The excellent cast was led by the powerful Kostelnička of Patricia Racette, a role debut. Racette, who has appeared at Santa Fe for more than 20 years, has previously sung the title role in the same production in Houston and Washington.

Her performance was thrilling, portraying the crucial character of Kostelnička as a whole person. She sang with fire and dramatic passion, particularly in the first-act narration of her unhappy past. Equally memorable was her transformation from the dominating, self-righteous conscience of the village in the first act to the repentant, suffering figure at the end.

Laura Wilde was a sympathetic Jenůfa, someone who is trying to elevate both herself and her village by marrying up and teaching reading to her neighbors. She is visibly reluctant to enter into the drunken celebrations in Act I, and her distaste for her fiancé’s swaggering arrogance was both visible and audible. She used her warm, vibrant sound well.

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Laura Wilde as Jenůfa and Richard Trey Smagur as Števa. Photo by Ken Howard.

As the fiancé, Števa, Richard Trey Smagur was just the kind of thuggish bully the role requires, but does not always get. His shallow attraction to Jenůfa’s beauty and his smug expectation to be admired—qualities portrayed in action and voice—made him repulsive from his very first entrance. His performance strengthened the psychological sinews of the drama and set up his shameful refusal to marry Jenůfa after she had been disfigured.

Laca, Števa’s half brother who attacks Jenůfa in the first act in spite of his genuine love for her, is a tricky role for any singer. It is an exposed balancing act—he has to be angry enough to do violence, but then believable as a repentant lover.

In this regard, I thought the first act was overplayed. Alexander Lewis’s Laca was beyond anger, essentially nasty and uncontrolled, and later he seemed more cowed than supportive to Jenůfa; perhaps this was Alden’s intent. His voice was thin and brittle, neither forceful enough at the outset nor warm enough at the end.

In the smaller roles, veteran Suzanne Mentzer was pleasing as the Grandmother, successful both vocally and in getting a chuckle with her feistiness in the final act. Will Liverman successfully portrayed the mill foreman as a Soviet-era stereotype—a supervisor who seems not to actually do anything. Alan Higgs and Kathleen Reveille had just the right superciliousness as the floridly dressed mayor and his wife.

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L to R: Susanne Mentzer (Grandmother), Kathleen Reveille (Mayor’s Wife), Laura Wilde (Jenůfa), Gina Perregrino (Herdswoman), Alan Higgs (Mayor) and Patricia Racette (Kostelnička). Photo by Ken Howard.

Janáček’s characteristic small orchestral motifs and expressive accompaniments, created so individually and effectively to underline the emotional shifts of the plot, were well managed by conductor Johannes Debus. The orchestra played well, with nicely blended brass and woodwinds.

Sometimes, nature and good luck conspire to enhance performances in Santa Fe. The night I attended, the beautiful sunset above the distant hills behind the theater helped establish the rural setting, and a brief rainstorm later could be taken as symbolic of the emotional storm onstage. Of course, I cannot promise that you will experience the same enhancements Aug. 15, but for every other virtue of the production it is well worth the trip to Santa Fe.

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Santa Fe Opera house. Photo by Robert Goodwin.

Così fan tutte continues through Aug. 22, Jenůfa through Aug. 15.Tickets for the remaining performances in Santa Fe can be purchased through the calendar on the Santa Fe Opera Web page.

 

 

 

Santa Fe Opera: the familiar, the unfamiliar, and a world premiere

Poul Ruder’s Thirteenth Child is “an opera of expressive breadth and depth”

By Peter Alexander Aug. 4 at 11:45 p.m.

Santa Fe Opera has five operas in production this summer, continuing through Aug. 24. Reviews of three of those productions—Puccini’s La bohème, Bizet’s Pearl Fishers and the world premiere of The Thirteenth Child by Poul Ruders—are below. Reviews of the remaining two productions will appear in a later blog post.

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Soloman Howard (Colline), Zachary Nelson (Marcello), Dale Travis (Benoit), Will Liverman (Schaunard), supernumerary, and Mario Chang (Rodolfo) in La Bohème. Photo by Ken Howard for the Santa Fe Opera.

La bohème, the most familiar of the operas on Santa Fe’s 2019 schedule, is certainly enjoyable. The firmly realistic set and production are mostly serviceable, if not spectacular, and the singers range from reliable to impressive. Conductor Jader Bignamini knows when to stretch the tempo and when to push ahead. If he sometimes took the faster bits a little too fast, the excellent orchestra stayed with him, responding well to every push and pull. Their performance was thoroughly idiomatic, always giving the lyric moments time to blossom.

My one criticism of Bignamini’s work is that he was not careful enough to maintain a good balance between stage and pit. He has conducted in Santa Fe before—Rigoletto in 2015—so he should know the theater’s acoustics, but he sometimes allowed the voices to be swallowed by the orchestra.

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Eliot Page as Parpignol with the Santa Fe Opera Chorus and Children’s Chorus. Photo by Ken Howard.

Scenic designer Grace Laubacher had mixed success adapting to the Santa Fe stage. Her garret, a stand-alone piece that was pushed on for the first act and that visibly cracked apart at Mimi’s death in the third act (symbolizing the emotional shattering of the remaining characters?), was effectively evocative of 19th-century Paris. The second act, using movable pieces that were miniature buildings from one side and flat semi-reflective surfaces on the other, were an uncomfortable solution for the streets outside the Café Momus, with the toymaker Parpignol popping above a multi-story building like Godzilla in Tokyo.

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Mario Chang (Rudolfo), Gabriella Reyes (Musetta), Vanesssa Vasques (Mimi) and Zachary Nelson (Marceloo) in Act III of La Bohème. Photo by Ken Howard.

Most successful was the third act. The minimal set pieces—the outside of the cafe, the city gate and a snow-covered tree—were all that was needed. The spare set contributed to the bleakness of the winter scene.

Mary Birnbaum’s direction was ideal for the highjnks of the four artists sharing the garret, capturing their camaraderie well. At other times, however, her ideas got in the way of the story. Having the characters pass downstage of the garret to reach its door proved distracting. Characters did not always seem to interact.

The visual pun of having Musetta enter on inline skates, suggesting how she glides through life and the streets of Paris, might work if the Musetta were comfortable on the skates, but soprano Gabriella Reyes seemed not to be as she careened from light post to light post, sometimes supported by waiters and street people. This was a gimmick too far, both wildly anachronistic and painful to watch.

I have still not puzzled out what was symbolized by having both Mimi and Musetta wander through the garret before their actual entrances in Act IV—perhaps that they are always with Rudolfo and Marcelo even when they aren’t?—nor Musetta’s obvious pregnancy in the same act.

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Vanessa Vasquez (Mimi) and Mario Chang (Rodolfo). Photo by Ken Howard.

As Mimi, soprano Vanessa Vasquez was a standout, bringing radiance and beauty to her voice in the early acts, and great expression when she is dying. If her coughing attacks seemed pasted into her interpretation, one cannot fault her vocal expression in the most poignant scenes. Her substantial voice soared easily, bloomed into striking moments of beauty, and became well controlled as she warmed into the role.

Mario Chang had some lovely, ringing high notes as Rodolfo. His voice shone in his duets with Mimi, but he was not consistent. Some entrances were a little rough, the occasional note hit too hard. Nevertheless, he was affecting throughout, and particularly through the Act III reconciliation duet with Mimi.

Zachary Nelson’s Marcello lacked passion. He sang pleasingly but seemed only intermittently engaged in the Act II and III quarrels with Musetta. The other Bohemians—Soloman Howard as Colline and Will Liverman as Schaunard—were solid and effective. Howard’s strong, robust voice could be more consistently controlled, but was used expressively for his “Overcoat” aria in Act IV. Schaunard’s jolly entrance in Act I, bearing money and food for his cold, starving garret-mates, was outstanding, bringing vocal warmth and good cheer to the stage.

I suggested earlier that Reyes as Musetta did not seem comfortable on skates. This must have affected her singing, which was a little cautious in Act II, but much stronger and more expressive in her fight with Marcello in Act III, and even when pregnant in Act IV. She was a solid Musetta who would be better without the skates.

Dale Travis hit all the conventional comic notes, first as the landlord Benoit in Act I and then as the hapless Alcindoro in Act II. Elliot Page was a clear-voiced Parpignol, offering his toys from above the doll houses of the miniature Paris.

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Loved by opera aficionados but little known to the broader public, Bizet’s Pearl Fishers is a worthy work by any standards. Written several years before the composer’s final work, Carmen, it is filled with glorious melodies, striking choruses and instrumental numbers that point ahead to that masterpiece.

Santa Fe Opera’s Pearl Fishers, a revival of a production first seen in 2012, brought all of those the musical strengths to the fore. Conductor Timothy Myers elicited beautiful playing from the orchestra while finding all the dramatic high points in the score. The woodwinds in particular were noteworthy, with extraordinary solos from clarinet, flutes and horns.

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Ilker Arcayürek (Nadir), Corinne Winters (Leila, veiled), Anthony Clark Evans (Zurga) with the Santa Fe Opera Chorus. Photo by Ken Howard for the Santa Fe Opera.

The choral scenes represent some of Bizet’s best music, anticipating the greats choruses of Carmen.They were powerfully sung, outlining the drama that sets the community of fisherfolk against the forbidden love between Leila, a priestess of Brahma, and Nadir, a hunter. Their liaison that interrupts Leila’s prayer vigil brings disaster on the village and leads to the opera’s dramatic, if unlikely, conclusion.

Pearl Fishers is one of those Romantic operas, along with such better known works as Madama Butterfly, Turandot  and Aida, whose treatment of “exotic” subjects is problematic today. Pearl Fishers is supposedly set in Ceylon, although the locale was originally Mexico and the opera belongs authentically to neither locale.

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Ceylon viewed through the frame of 19th-century Paris: Ilker Arcayürek (Nadir), Corinne Winters (Leila) and the Santa Fe Opera Chorus. Photo by Ken Howard.

Jean-Marc Puissant’s scenic design for the SFO stage deals with issues of cultural voyeurism in a creative way: the set features a massive picture frame, with everything beyond the frame representing a kind of generic “other” of stone temples and ruins, and everything in front representing the more specific milieu of 19th-century France. In other words, we see the setting through the frame of Bizet’s own time and place.

The stage direction of Shawna Lucey served the plot well. There were distancing elements of ritual that sometimes kept the chorus in front the frame, distracting from action farther upstage, but not to the point of interfering with the singers. She used the spaces onstage well, particularly in the scene when Leila and Nadir are discovered together inside the temple.

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Corinne Winteres (Leila). Photo by Ken Howard.

Soprano Corinne Winters was a radiant Leila, her singing secure and bright, carrying easily over the orchestra in all of her biggest moments. Her Act III duet with Anthony Clark Evans’s Zurga, the leader of the fishers who is Nadir’s rival for her love, is one of the high points of the opera and the season. The rising arc of dramatic intensity is perfectly controlled, leading to a shattering climax. Equally memorable was her Act I aria and prayer at the beginning of her vigil.

Ilker Arcayürek has a light and delicate high tenor voice that is ideal for Nadir, but he struggled with the highest notes, easing into them or reaching for the tops of phrases. He was ardent in his declarations of love and expressive in the most dramatic moments of the opera.

Evans was a solid and forthright Zurga who occupied his critical role well. The best known piece from the opera, his Act I duet with Nadir, “Au fond de temple saint,” was as rousing as called for. In other scenes he was a convincing village leader whose jealousy of Nadir momentarily overcomes his love for Leila and affection for Nadir.

As Nourabad the high priest, Robert Pomakov used his powerful bass voice to dominate the scenes where he denounces Leila and Nadir, and calls for their execution. Elsewhere the character is a cipher, although Pomakov was reliably able in the role.

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Danish composer Poul Ruders has written several operas on dark subjects—Kafka’s Trial, Margaret Atwood’s Handmaid’s Tale and and Lars von Trier’s film Dancer in the Dark—but he wanted something different for his fifth opera. He turned to fairy tales, finding a little known story that fit his aim.

The Thirteenth Child, receiving its world premiere production at Santa Fe this summer, is based on a story by the brothers Grimm, and it takes Ruders in a different direction than those earlier works. The combination of fairy-tale magic, lightly comic moments and a happy ending have elicited a score marked with lyric elements, glowing, consonant orchestral interludes, generally light textures and one delightfully humorous male ensemble for the 12 older brothers of the title character.

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David Leigh (King Hjarne) and Tamara Mumford (Queen Gertrude). Photo by Ken Howard.

Ruders was able to draw on a reservoir of dark and threatening orchestral music when needed, but that vein, so evident in his earlier work, is leavened by the lyrical writing. As presented in Santa Fe, The Thirteenth Child is an accomplished and entertaining work, a fitting achievement for a composer who describes opera as “an emotional affair wrapped in show biz.”

Not all the vocal music is graceful, however. The jagged lines, wide leaps and extreme ranges characteristic of many newer operas are used for emotive passages. Hjarne, the King of Frohagord, is one of the lowest bass roles in the repertoire, and the part of Drokan, the fairy tale’s requisite evil element of the plot, also lies very low, with sudden leaps into falsetto—executed with varying success—to symbolize madness.

I thought the best music in Thirteenth Child surrounded the moments of fairy-tale magic, and the orchestral interludes that set the emotional temperature for the ups and downs of the plot. Human emotions, so often the heart of opera, struck me as less effectively conveyed, particularly the intense moments when Ruders resorted to wide-leaping vocal lines that are hard to distinguish one from another.

Conductor Paul Daniel had the orchestra well in hand, shaping dynamics carefully to reflect the moments of tension and create an effective emotional profile. All of Ruders’s shifting moods, in response to the twists of the plot, were well delineated.

Alexander Dodge’s interesting unit set serves the opera well. The blank walls are used for engaging projections by Aaron Rhyme, including snakes when Drokan is plotting, ravens when the 12 brothers are turned to birds, and red flowers for the magical lilies that protect the kingdom of Frohagord. Other, less specific projections add sparkling beauty to several scenes.

The costumes by Rita Ryack are cinematic medieval on steroids—too much had the opera been realistic but just colorful and flamboyant enough for a fairy tale. My favorite visual effect was Hjarne’s funeral, with black-robed characters—nuns and monks?—with white collars and bright red spears held vertically. This is the best kind of spectacle.

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Bradley Galvin (Drokan) with elaborate projections. Photo by Ken Howard.

As Hjarne, David Leigh has the shortest time on stage—just the first scene—but his deep bass, clearly heard except for the very lowest notes, was solid and effective. He managed his leaps into falsetto and madness well, providing motivation for all that follows.

Hjarne is driven to obsession by Drokan, the truly evil element of the plot. As portrayed by Bradley Garvin, Drokan was the personification of scheming villainy, hoping to overturn Hjarne’s family, marry his daughter—the thirteenth child of the title—and rule Frohagord. He conveyed Drokan’s dark role in the plot through vocal timbre, ranging from subtle suggestions of evil to overt threat. So effective was he in the role that there was a smattering of applause at his demise.

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Jessica Jones (Lyra). Photo by Ken Howard.

Tamara Mumford lent her rich, warm mezzo-soprano sound to Queen Gertrude, who is a guiding spirit to the story before and after her death. Critical to the first half of the opera, she was a steady presence dramatically and vocally outstanding. The spectral echoes and playback loops of her singing as a spirit are pretty conventional film and TV ghost effects, but reasonably effective in context.

As Lyra, the thirteenth child and heir of Hjarne, Jessica E. Jones was everything  a fairy tale asks a princess to be: winsome, lovely and brave. Her bright and clear voice only complemented the portrayal.

Joshua Dennis as Frederic, who searched for Lyra for seven long years, successfully negotiated the leaps and twists of his challenging part, especially in his lengthy narration of his search. Apprentice artist Bille Bruley was appropriately sympathetic as Benjamin, the youngest of the 12 brothers. His voice was strong, and his diction unusually clear.

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Jessica Jones (Lyra) and Bille Bruley (the dying Benjamin). Photo by Ken Howard.

Benjamin’s heroic death is the only real tragedy of the fairy tale, but it sets up the moral that is told at the end: “No joy without sorrow. . . . Dark days always come, in love we find the light.” This message has inspired Ruders to write an opera of expressive breadth and depth, one that I look forward to seeing and hearing again.

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Santa Fe Opera. Photo by Robert Goodwin.

Tickets for the remaining performances in Santa Fe can be purchased through the calendar on the Santa Fe Opera Web page.

NOTE: This story was corrected 8.7.19. The Thirteenth Child is Poul Ruder’s fifth opera, not his sixth.

CMF ends 2019 with spectacular performance

Sold out Chautauqua Auditorium cheers orchestra, conductor, choirs and soloist

By Peter Alexander Aug. 4 at 12:23 a.m.

The Colorado Music Festival ended its 2019 season in spectacular fashion last night (Aug. 3).

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Peter Oundjian

Music Director Peter Oundjian led the Festival Orchestra in a wonderful performance of a wonderful symphony, Mahler’s Symphony No. 3 for large orchestra, alto soloist, women’s chorus and children’s chorus. At the end of this very long work—about 100 minutes of music—the sold-out Chautauqua Auditorium was cheering, and no doubt already looking forward to Oundjian’s next season with the festival.

Many factors made this a splendid performance, but two in particular should be mentioned. The first was Oundjian’s management of the sprawling work. His control of sound and dynamics across long stretches of music gave impact to every climax of orchestral sound—and there are many. The performance was more than a series of splendid moments—though it could also be heard that way. More than that, it was a whole, each phrase driving to a destination and the whole driving to the end.

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Peter Oundjian. Photo by Sian Richards.

In particular, Oundjian and the players maintained near perfect balance among the parts across long crescendos, so that the orchestra swelled and subsided, bloomed and retracted as one. This is a specially great achievement since so many phrases started from near silence, with remarkably controlled pianissimo phrases that grew over long, long spans of time.

Particularly in the final movement, a long slow movement, he kept careful control as the sound grew to a high point, then fell back to near silence, ascended to an even higher point and fell back again, all with the goal of making the final cadence, with timpani pounding and brass sustaining almost to the point of collapse, the true destination and end point of the entire symphony.

Oundjian exercised a similar control of dynamics and tempo in the other movements, with their many moods from a dawn-like awakening, to a jubilant march, to a pastoral delicacy, The fourth movement’s portent of doom and the fifth movement’s simple joys were equally well achieved.

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Concertmaster Calin Lupanu

The second factor is the quality of the individual players in the orchestra, not only to play individual solos beautifully, but to give and take with others in chamber music fashion, and then to play in a section with unanimity of pitch and phrasing and dynamics. There were many wonderful solos, by trombone, by horn, by clarinet and piccolo and on through the wind sections, and including the concertmaster, Calin Lupanu.

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CMF Principal Trumpet Jeffrey Work

One solo needs special notice, the long offstage posthorn solo that lends a note of nostalgia and melancholy to the third movement. Principal trumpet Jeffrey Work floated the high notes beautifully, while shaping the individual phrases with exquisite control.

I should also mention the wonderful CMF percussion section, who were in my direct line of sight. Parts of the symphony were a masterclass in soft percussion playing. Everyone noticed the loud climaxes, but who knew that a bass drum could be heard at such a soft level, and make such a delicate musical effect?

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Janice Chamdler-Eteme

The outstanding vocal soloist for the fourth and fifth movements, Janice Chandler-Eteme, is generally billed as a lyric soprano, even though Maher asks for an alto. Clearly the lower range is no obstacle. She found the right sound and expressive palette for both movements, bringing an ominously dark tone to the fourth movement, appropriate for a text that begins “O Man! Take Heed!” And then her sound was enjoyably bright and more forward for the cheerful fifth movement.

The women of the St. Martin’s Festival Singers were solid in their small part, and the Boulder Children’s Chorale rang out bravely with their “Bimm Bamm” imitations of church bells.

But it is the final movement that is the key to the symphony. Under the title “What Love Tells Me,” it is one of Mahler’s longest and most beloved slow movements. Oundjian and the CMF orchestra achieved what everyone aims for, a long arc of sheer beauty leading to an overwhelming finish.

After that, what can we expect next year? You will have to wait for the announcement of the CMF 2020 season after the first of the year to answer that question. In the meantime, there are many fine musical groups in Boulder who would welcome your support.

Oundjian returns to CMF for memorable concert

Pieces by Shostakovich and Berlioz are not to be missed

By Peter Alexander July 26 at 12:30 a.m.

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Peter Oundjian with the CMF Orchestra. Photo by Michael Quam.

Music Director Peter Oundjian has been absent from the Colorado Music Festival podium for the past two weeks, but last night (July 25) he returned for a memorable concert with music by Shostakovich (Cello Concerto No. 1 with soloist Kian Soltani) and Berlioz (Symphonie Fantastique).

The concert will be repeated tonight. If you love those composers as I do, you will not want to miss it.

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Vivan Fung

The program began with a little known piece by Vivian Fung, a Canadian composer of mixed heritage who combines western and various Asian and other folk musical idioms. Dust Devils begins with bright, whirling sounds built from fragments and outbursts of sound that do indeed recall a progression of dust devils. A central section of static chords, marked by slowly changing colors and eerie wails rises to a clouded culmination in the brass.

This entertainingly descriptive piece was played with verve and energy by the Colorado Music Festival Orchestra, who were all smiles at the end. So were many in the audience.

Born in Austria to a family of Persian musicians, Soltani has recently risen to prominence as a soloist with Daniel Barenboim’s West Eastern Divan Orchestra. I had not heard him before, but Oundjian has described him as “an extraordinary talent and a very intense player,” which was evident in his performance of the Shostakovich Concerto.

One of the most demanding pieces in the cello repertoire, the concerto is far more powerful when heard live. The spatial element, separating the voices and putting the cellist full view of the audience, makes both the musical textures and the virtuoso demands of the concerto visible.

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Kian Zoltani. Photo by Juventino Mateo.

Soltani attacked the Concerto with confidence and élan from the very first solo introduction. His playing was full of fire when it needed to be, particularly throughout the intense first movement.

For the second movement Soltani, Oundjian and the orchestra slipped into an entirely different world—one of calm and beauty, with meditative moments bordering on melancholy. The warmth of the cello sound and the delicacy of Soltani’s phrasing made this a high point—at least until the written out cadenza of the third movement, where Soltani’s perfect sense of drama kept the audience rapt. Here the most delicate pianissimos drew the audience in, lest they miss a single nuance.

The finale went off in a burst of energy, ending with an almost shocking series of timpani strokes followed by silence. Soltani’s mastery of the Concerto’s demands was unmistakable throughout, and earned a standing ovation that for once seemed more than routine.

Parts of the Concerto, particularly in the first movement, are virtually a double concerto for cello and horn. Special mention should be made of the orchestra’s outstanding principal horn Catherine Turner, whose clarion calls rang out repeatedly. With no place to hide, she was splendid.

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Hector Berlioz

In introducing Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique, Oundjian noted that it was written only three years after Beethoven’s death. What orchestra players in 1830 could have made of Berlioz’s psychedelic masterpiece with its revolutionary instrumental colors, its unprecedented demands on the players, its startling syncopations, the sheer buildup of orchestral sound, its fantastic story of love, death and insanity—much less how they could have played it—is hard to imagine.

The list of innovation in the score is long—violins using the wood of the bow, multiple timpani, two harps, enlarged wind sections, use of the piercing E-flat clarinet—and a testament to Berlioz’s unconstrained imagination. This is a work of staggering originality when it was premiered.

Whatever the players thought then, the Symphonie Fantastique is well within players’ experience and ability today, and I can only believe that Berlioz would have been thrilled with last night’s performance. To mention only a few high points, the introduction was beautifully dreamy and delicate, with Oundjian finding all the momentary outbursts of intensity that needed emphasis.

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Conductor Peter Oundjian

Once the movement got moving, the rhythmic momentum became irresistible, carrying everyone with it. Oundjian perfectly managed the flow and pauses of the second movement waltz. The solo oboe and English Horn of the third movement (“Scene in the country,” the movement with the most obvious precedents in its time) were played beautifully. Throughout the movement, the quietest and most delicate moments were carefully balanced and nuanced.

From the beginning of the “March to the Scaffold” through the following “Dream of a Witches’ Sabbath” the momentum grew inexorably to the final chord. Oundjian carefully controlled both volume and tempo, so that the final, culminating crescendo never became distorted and the final accelerando was achieved without loss of clarity or precision.

The program will be repeated tonight (July 26) at 7:30 p.m. at the Chautauqua Auditorium. Tickets are available though the Chautauqua Box Office.