Dramatic Trovatore, strikingly original Magic Flute in Central City

Both operas run in repertory to the first week of August

By Peter Alexander July 17 at 4:05 p.m.

Central City Opera opened a powerful, dramatic production of Verdi’s Il Trovatore Saturday (July 14) in their intimate and historic opera house.

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Il Trovatore: Ashraf Sewailam (Ferrando), Lindsay Ammann (Azucena) and ensemble. Photo by Amanda Tipton.

Intimate is not just a descriptor; it is a significant reason for the production’s impact. With it’s rousing choruses, virtuoso arias, violent passions and gruesome deaths, Il Trovatore meets all the expectations of grand opera, fit for the grandest houses. And yet Central City proved that thoughtfully presented, it can thrive and land a powerful punch in a smaller house. In this space, the music is loud; occasionally I thought it could have been scaled back, but grand opera is meant to overwhelm the emotions. This is a Trovatore to remember.

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Il Trovatore: Jonathan Burton (Manico) and Lindsay Ammann (Azucena). Photo by Amanda Tipton.

Director Joachim Schamberger’s creative production design uses projections—he is also a video designer—to visually expand the limited space of the Central City stage, making a unit set serve effectively as gypsy camp, a palace garden, a gloomy dungeon. Scenes mimed on a bridge above the back of the stage helped fill out the action, much of which is described after the fact. These scenes were effective supplements to the narrations of past events, but at other times distractions from the singers on the main stage below.

Schamberger’s direction served the drama well. The convoluted story of switched babies, misfired revenge and long-nurtured hatreds can be confusing, but the direction, including some well calculated pieces of stage business, the mimed scenes, the acting of the cast, and texts that were projected between scenes all served to clarify the story.

The cast featured top-rank singer-actors. In the title role, tenor Jonathan Burton had a powerful Italianate sound, ideal for the role. From his plaintive offstage serenades to his violent fight scenes with his rival DiLuna, to his climactic cabaletta near the end he handled the vocal demands handily. He carried the lyrical lines effectively, and sang the climatic high notes with a strong, ringing sound. There is no genuine love duet in the opera, but his tenderness in the quieter moments with Leonora was expressive.

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Il Trovatore: Michael Mayes (DiLuna), Jonathan Burton (Manico), Alexandra Loutsion (Leonora) Photo by Amanda Tipton.

As Leonora, Alexandra Loutsion has the power from top to bottom to handle one of the most difficult soprano roles in the repertoire. Her sound was most beautiful in softer passages, but when pushed in volume or intensity she developed a wobbly vibrato that slightly muddied some lines. The fearsome coloratura was dispatched with surety and aplomb.

Baritone Michael Mayes warmed into the role of DiLuna vocally, but was dramatically a force of nature throughout. His characterization, both physically and vocally, conveyed DiLuna’s mad obsession with Leonora compellingly. His brooding anger gave depth to his character and to the drama. At times, the intensity of his passion was vocally over the top, and I thought the music would have been better served by a more modulated, lyrical handling of some phrases.

The character whose obsession drives the drama is the gypsy Azucena. In this searing role, mezzo-soprano Lindsay Amman rose to the big moments in her part, but was fitfully effective elsewhere. Her voice has the dark, smoky quality for the part, but transitions to the lowest notes were not always graceful. Azucena is, frankly, a monstrous character—she throws her own baby in the fire and raises the brother of the man she despises largely to seek revenge by seeing either of them kill the other—and a daunting challenge to any singer. Amman was carefully directed, and often conveyed Azucena’s fury, but at other times was not crazed enough next to the violent passions of the other characters.

Ashraf Sewailam, a CU graduate and well known to Boulder audiences, was a commanding Fernando, as he should be. From his sudden appearance at the very beginning, where he has one of the best scenes ever written for a secondary character, his deep bass sounded strongly. His well dramatized interactions with DiLuna strengthened both characters.

I should spare a word for the chorus, which was superb. As well as an opera for big voices, this is a choral opera, with the Anvil Chorus and the Soldiers’ Chorus of Act III only the two best known moments of many. I loved seeing the gypsy women pounding the anvils in the second act. I’m not sure that fits the medieval setting of the opera, but it was a great moment, and seemed to be relished by the actors.

Dana Tzvetkova’s neo-medieval costumes matched the production well, delineating the characters without any fussy affectations. John Baril led an effective performance, supporting the singers and keeping the performance moving at full tilt. Apprentice artists Michelle Siemens, Zachary Johnson and Fidel Angel Romero, and studio artist Griffen Hogan Tracy were all pleasing in their smaller roles.

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The summer’s other major production in the Central City Opera House is a radical and fascinating re-imagination of Mozart’s Magic Flute. This strikingly original interpretation deserves a careful response.

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Magic Flute: Katherine Manley (left, Pamina) and Joseph Dennis (right in tan suit, Tamino), with Kevin Langan (center, Sarastro) and ensemble. Photo by Amanda Tipton.

Director Alessandro Talevi conceives of the opera’s fairy-tale plot as seen through the eyes of children, specifically the three boys who serve as the opera’s spirit guides. In a pantomime during the overture, the three boys are shown in a Victorian-era bedroom dominated by a grim portrait of the boys’ mother—the Queen of the Night.

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Magic Flute: Two boys from the Colorado Children’s Chorale and the dollhouse theater. Photo by Amanda Tipton.

Downstage right, and onstage throughout the opera, is a dollhouse theater with cutout characters the boys are playing with. Sent to bed by three stern servants—who become the three ladies who serve the Queen of the Night—they sneak back to the theater for after-hours play. Everything that happens from that point until just before the end comes from their imaginations, as symbolized by characters coming in and out through the bedroom fireplace.

This conception accomplishes several things. For one, it makes the magical aspects of the story seem natural as the product of boys’ imaginations. This solves, for example, the problem of how to portray the later trials by fire and water. Usually rather lame—sweet music played by the flute while two singers walk in front of colored projections—this is here shown as the boys playing in their theater. For modern viewers, this scene makes more sense as a child’s game than as reality.

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Magic Flute: Will Liverman (Papageno) with Tascha Koontz, Kira Dills-DeSurra and Melanie Ashkar (three ladies). Photo by Amanda Tipton.

Talevi’s interpretation also makes more palatable the misogynistic aspects of the text. Pre-adolescent boys would naturally expect a hero to have women fawning over him and a chosen mate who needed his guidance. In other boyish innovations, Tamino’s sidekick Papageno rides an ostrich and Sarastro, the philosopher king of Mozart’s and librettist Emanuel Schickaneder’s Masonic-inspired plot, becomes the father the boys wish they had—the ringmaster of a wondrous carnival.

Talevi also aims to explain the supposed confusion in the original story, that the Queen of the Night starts as a good character and Sarastro evil; then they switch places, with the Queen becoming evil and Sarastro good. This reversal has never bothered me, since the libretto makes it clear that part of Tamino’s quest is learning to see the truth about both characters.

For Talevi, the subject of The Magic Flute is growing up. Tamino symbolically, and the boys more literally, reject their punishing mother and grow into adults over the course of the opera. This change is made manifest in the production, and Talevi’s sense of theater makes it especially touching at the end

As written, there is a great deal of silliness in The Magic Flute. This production adds silliness on top of silliness, which may not be to everyone’s taste, but which the Central City audience clearly relished Sunday afternoon (July 15). The silliness does have one drawback: it detracts from the moments that Mozart and Shickaneder took more seriously. Particularly discomfiting were the two arias sung by Sarastro; the texts are those of a philosopher, not a ringmaster.

Obscured in the reinvention is the fact that The Magic Flute was part of a long Viennese operatic tradition of questing heroes and comic sidekicks. Mozart and Schickaneder simply superimposed Masonic ideals on that template. They were both Masons, as were many of Vienna’s leading citizens, and there is every reason to believe that their audiences took the opera more seriously in 1791 than we are likely to in 2018. Sarastro’s texts were not bland bromides at a time when the Enlightenment ideals underlying our Declaration of Independence were still fresh.

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Jeni Houser (Queen of the Night) and Katherine Manley (Pamina) Photo by Amanda Tipton.

But whatever the strengths and weaknesses of the production, Talevi is to be applauded for taking a fresh look at the opera and pursing his conception to its logical conclusion. Ultimately, he has taken the opera’s message seriously, and given us a serious new way of looking at it. If you go, don’t be afraid to think!

The cast is generally strong. As Tamino, Joseph Dennis has a pleasant voice that was sometimes pinched in the upper register, particularly earlier in the evening. Pamina was portrayed by Katherine Manley, who expressed her character’s fluctuating emotions—melancholy, love at first sight, joy, despair—very effectively.

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Fidel Angel Romero (Monastotos) and Katherine Manley (Pamina) Photo by Amanda Tipton.

Jeni Houser’s Queen of the Night commanded all the heights and leaps of her notorious part. Will Liverman was especially outstanding as Papageno, vocally solid and funny. Ashraf Sewailam was an imposing Speaker of the Temple, full voiced and effective. Apprentice artist Fidel Angel Romero provided all the villainy required for the role of Monastatos.

Disclosure: When Kevin Langan sang his very first Sarastro 40 years ago, I was in the audience and reviewed his performance. I am certainly not objective, but I enjoyed his continuing command of the role and his adaptation, after so many years, to the unfamiliar notion of Sarastro-as-ringmaster. For the record, this is his 20th  production as Sarastro.

Apprentice artists Tasha Koontz, Kira Dills-DeSurra and Melanie Ashkar were pleasing in every way as the Three Ladies. Studio artist Véronique Filloux was cheerful and bright-voiced in the tiny role of Papagena.

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Joseph Dennis (Tamino) with three boys from the Colorado Children’s Chorale. Photo by Amanda Tipton.

The boys from the Colorado Children’s Chorale were onstage more than any other singers, and they carried off their parts with enthusiasm and energy. One of my favorite moments is when they appear alongside Tamino, costumed as a Victorian explorer, in the uniforms of Boy Guides, map in hand, but they were delightfully in tune with both music and concept throughout. Conductor André de Ridder lead the very solid orchestra with finesse and style.

Both Il Trovatore and The Magic Flute continue in repertory in the Central City Opera House  through Aug. 3 and Aug. 5 respectively. Tickets may be purchased through the CCO Website.

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Central City Opera House interior

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2 thoughts on “Dramatic Trovatore, strikingly original Magic Flute in Central City

  1. Pingback: Bass Kevin Langan brings 40 years of Sarastro to Central City | Sharps & Flatirons
  2. Pingback: DRAMATIC "TROVATORE," STRIKINGLY ORIGINAL "MAGIC FLUTE" IN CENTRAL CITY. Review By Peter Alexander - Central City Opera

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