Operas about love at Santa Fe

Reviews of Carmen, M. Butterfly and Tristan und Isolde

By Peter Alexander Aug. 8 at 10:38 p.m.

The 2022 summer season at the Santa Fe Opera features three very different operas about three very different experiences of love—Bizet’s Carmen, the word premiere of Huang Ruo’s M. Butterfly, and Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde—as well as two of the great operatic comedies, Rossini’s Barber of Seville and Verdi’s Falstaff. First the love stories, if that’s what they are; I will write about the comedies in a later post.

Michael Fabiano as Don José and Isabel Leonard as Carmen. Photo by Curtis Brown. All photos courtesy of the Santa Fe Opera.

Carmen (I saw the performance of Aug. 2) is about a soldier’s obsessive love for a free-spirited woman. Don José is subject to the most violent passions over which he has no control, while Carmen remains an independent women who makes her own decisions right to the end, though it cost her her life. The score contains some of the most memorable music opera can offer. In Santa Fe the music was mostly in evidence, but the production was a confounding mishmash.

Director Mariame Clément and designer Julia Hansen had lots of ideas, but they added up to confusion more than concept. All four scenes were placed on the grounds of an abandoned third-rate carnival, with remnants of a roller-coaster track framing the stage, a solitary bumper car downstage left, randomly placed ticket booths and other suggestions of a long-forgotten fairgrounds. The costumes were somewhere between the 1970s and the present day, with Micaela dressed in bib overalls and a backpack, Carmen in drab student outfits, the smugglers in undistinguished modern dress. The soldiers were dressed in bland pale-green.

Isla Burdette as the child on the set of Santa Fe Opera’s Carmen. Photo by Curtis Brown.

Most confounding was a solitary child dancer, unidentified in the program but actually the seven-year-old daughter of bass Kevin Burdette who appeared in two of the summer’s other productions. She appeared repeatedly, sometimes pantomiming the music as in the opening prelude, at other times engaging with the characters. She bravely did all that was asked of her and moved with winning grace, but came across as just another idea that had no obvious point.

There were other gratuitous ideas throughout—smugglers carrying their contraband in upscale shopping bags, jugglers and tumblers among the Roma band, unmotivated entrances and exits by the chorus—but the evening was redeemed by the musical performance. The standout was Michael Fabiano as an ardent, impulsive Don José. He sang with a strong, expressive voice that commanded attention.

Isabel Leonard’s Carmen did not quite match his interpretation. She has a smoky voice that suits Carmen well, but lacked fire in her scenes with José. Her best moments were the Act I habanera, which elicited a strong ovation in spite of some aimless direction, and the card scene in Act III. At other times the directors left her looking lost on stage.

Michael Sumuel as Escamillo. Photo by Curtis Brown.

Michael Sumuel has a strong, commanding voice as Escamillo. He conveys the swagger and self-assurance one wants in the toreador, although the staging did not always work in his favor. Sylvia D’Eramo sang with sweetness of tone and expression as Micaëla, but had to push to be heard. Her lovely Scene 3 aria was marred by having the chorus of Roma women crowd around her for what should be an introspective moment of courage and fear.

The other roles in the Roma band—Magdalena Ku´zma and Kathleen Felty as Frasquita and Mercédes, Luke Sutliff and Anthony León as Dancaïre and Remendado—were handled ably, with sparkling precision in the treacherous quintet. David Crawford was vocally strong as the arrogant Lt. Zuniga, bringing out his contempt for Don José and his officer’s sense of entitlement toward Carmen.

Sylvia D’Eramo as Micaëla. Photo by Curtis Brown.

Conductor Harry Bicket kept the pace well and held all the tricky ensemble numbers together, including the quintet, just. The orchestral preludes were played with beauty and expression by the orchestra, particularly the flute and harp duo before Act III. The Santa Fe Opera chorus lent their weight and outstanding voices to their scenes, particularly before the bullfight in the final scene.

A word about the version that is being performed: Santa Fe is using the dialog that was used at the first performance in Paris, rather than the recitatives composed later by Ernest Giraud. The spoken text gives some useful background that is missing in the later version. One significant cut has been made: the charming children’s chorus that accompanies the changing of the guard has been removed. Apart from he loss of music that Carmen fans will miss, the appearance of José onstage seems sudden and unexplained. 

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If Carmen is about love as obsession, Huang Ruo’s M. Butterfly (Aug. 3) is about love as deception. Based on David Henry Hwang’s Tony-winning play of the same name, M. Butterfly adapts the true story of a French diplomat in Beijing who carried on a multi-year love affair with a Chinese opera singer without ever knowing that “she” was in fact a man. They both were later arrested in Paris for espionage after the diplomat shared official documents with his lover.

Kangmin Justin Kim as Song Liling and Mark Stone as René Gallimard in Song’s Beijing apartment. Photo by Curtis Brown.

Ruo’s score skillfully keeps the voices prominent at all times, so that the text—thanks to the careful diction throughout by the excellent Santa Fe Opera cast—is always understandable.  Credit is especially due to baritone Mark Stone in the huge role as the French diplomat, named René Gallimard in the opera, and countertenor Kangmin Justin Kim as his lover, Song Liling in the opera. Both their dialog and their individual arias were clearly sung.

Ruo sets the text with expressive vocal lines that are supported emotionally and musically by the orchestra. The result is a score of eloquent melodic speech, effectively exploring the leading characters’ emotional journeys and Gallimard’s self-deception in fascinating depth. Choruses add drama, and arias by the two leading characters add emotional depth without lingering in the memory. 

There are missed opportunities in the score. For example, Song’s “I am your Butterfly” is an emotional turning point, and could be occasion for musical emphasis, but simply repeating the phrase is not enough to make the moment climactic. The pair of arias by the two lovers in the second act are memorable, but they are eloquent without reaching lyrical beauty. While Ruo does not shy away from atonality and dissonance, the music is always in service of the text, so that the opera remains “accessible” to all but the most hidebound conservatives.

Song Liling (Kangmin Justin Kim), revealed to be a man, confronts Gallimard (Mark Stone) in prison. Photo by Curtis Brown.

The powerful exploration of human interiority and capacity for self-deception make M. Butterfly an important new opera. The reveal of Song’s true gender is a shattering moment.  My one criticism of the score is that the musical texture is so unvaried that it approaches monotony. Individual voices move in heightened speech over well-crafted orchestra support; every chorus is set with all parts in rhythmic unison. While this aids intelligibility, it does not add variety to the texture.

The opera opens with a headline projected on the stage, “France Jails Two in Odd Case of Espionage” while the chorus, representing stunned Parisians at a cocktail party, mock Gallimard for his sexual gullibility. This virtuoso setting of gossip and laughter sets the stage for the following story and shows off the Santa Fe Opera chorus. The rest of the story is told in flashback, with Gallimard in prison recalling the course of his affair with Song. A series of connected scenes, effectively evoked by projections and moving panels, carry the story from Gallimard’s arrival in Beijing, to the Chinese Opera, to Song’s apartment and back to Paris and the courtroom where the lovers are convicted of espionage.

As the title suggests, both the story and the music contain references to Puccini’s Madame Butterfly, representing the history of Western objectification of all Asian women, regardless of nationality. Ranging from direct quotation of the familiar aria “Un bel di” to subtle evocations of harmony and texture integrated into Ruo’s contemporary style, these Puccinian “Easter eggs” can be found throughout the opera, all the way to the very end when Gallimard chooses self-delusion over reality and envisions himself as Butterfly. 

Kangmin Justin Kim as Song Liling sings Puccini at for Western diplomats in Bejing. Photo by Curtis Brown.

Various musical gestures recur through the score and help guide the listener through the labyrinth of emotions. Particularly striking was a nervous figure in the brass that appeared repeatedly as Gallimard fell into delusion, both as a lover and simultaneously as a diplomat trying to serve French interests in China. 

The direction of James Robinson and designs by Allen Moyer (scenery) and James Schultz (costumes) kept the various locations and the plot line clear and supported the emotional arc. Dancers under choreographer Seán Curran made outstanding contributions to the opera both as Chinese cultural revolutionaries and dressers assisting Gallimard in his opera-ending transformation into Puccini’s Butterfly. 

Conductor Carolyn Kuan managed the difficult task of evoking strength and power from the players where needed while keeping the orchestra subordinate to the voices. She maintained tight ensemble and evoked a rich orchestral sound while maintaining momentum to the very final chords. 

Stone has by far the largest part. This is a major role for any baritone, not to be undertaken lightly. Singing with a resonant sound and conviction he made Gallimard a sympathetic character. Kim negotiated the countertenor register with both beauty of sound and enough strength to match Stone’s sound. His “Un bel di” announces his skill in the soprano register from the outset, and he never flags to the very final bars.

Kevin Burdette as the French Ambassador and Mark Stone as Gallimard. Photo by Curtis Brown.

Kevin Burdette sang with an edgy sound that underscored the French ambassador’s distrust of Gallimard, equally appropriate when he appears later as the judge in Gallimard’s trial. Joshua Dennis made an effective brief appearance as Gallimard’s disdainful childhood friend, Marc, in a scene that illuminates Gallimard’s insecurity. Hung Wu struck the right tone of arrogant command as the communist party cadre Shu Fang.

There can be a special magic in the Santa Fe Opera’s open-air theater when music, drama and the capricious high desert weather work together. During the two lovers’ first night together, Song declaims “Ah, beautiful night.” And it was.

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Richard Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde (Aug. 5) is not really an opera about romantic love. The subject that inspired the composer and inhabits the opera from beginning to end is Arthur Schopenhauer’s philosophical notion of physical love as a yearning for oblivion—the “love death” with which the opera ends—and the corollaries of night as the realm of love and day as the realm of shallow reality. That was the opera’s underlying subject, but that said, there is enough action to provide a dramatic framework on which Wagner hung his lengthy monologues about day, night, love and death.

The Santa Fe Opera has long wanted to produce Tristan, a goal finally reached this summer. The only previous Wagner opera at Santa Fe was Flying Dutchman in the 1970s and ‘80s. Continuing this trend, the company has announced Dutchman again for the 2023 season.

Santa Fe’s abstract set for Tristan und Isolde, made of folding panels, with Tamara Wilson (Isolde) and Simon O’Neill (Tristan) Photo by Curtis Brown.

Most Tristan productions today, including Santa Fe’s, feature abstract sets—no ship, no sails, no rocky cliffs. This lack of specific place helps bring the deeper subject to the surface, serving Wagner’s underlying purpose. Here the well-engineered set by Charlap Hyman & Herrero comprised large panels that fold, shift, and open to create the spaces in which the action takes place. 

So far so good, but abstract sets can create dramatic problems. In the first act, Tristan sings “If I left the helm, who would guide us to King Marke’s shore?”—while strolling across an empty stage with no helm in view. Other scenes that seem to contradict the text occur during the opera’s 4 1/2 hours. 

John Torres’s powerful lighting in Tristan und Isolde. Photo by Curtis Brown.

A critical element of the production was John Torres’s lighting design that reinforced the text’s emphasis on light and dark, effectively tying libretto and set together. Most dramatically, as day breaks in the second act while Tristan and Isolde remain in the raptures of love, they remain enveloped in a penumbra of shadow while the dawn, threatening their imminent discovery, gradually fills the rest of the set.

Santa Fe has assembled an exceptionally strong cast. The three largest roles, Tristan, Isolde and Brangäne—all in their Santa Fe Opera debuts—were uniformly strong and well matched. Tamara Wilson brought a soaring, powerful voice to the role of Isolde. Her vocal expression ranged from palpable anger and fierce hatred at the outset to intense passion and her crucial transformation to ecstasy. 

Simon O’Neill (Tristan) and Tamara Wilson (Isolde)/ Photo by Curtis Brown.

Simon O’Neill is a true heldentenor, with just the heft and edge to cut through the orchestra. The love duets with Isolde rose to the heights of passion. He sang expressively throughout, although his onstage presence tended to be wooden. His best moments were in his lengthy monologue as he faces the coming of night and death in the final act; ironically, he was more alive in his death scene than in the earlier acts.

Jamie Barton was outstanding in the crucial role of Isolde’s maid Brangäne. Whether resisting Isolde’s despair, warning of betrayal, or embracing her own despair at having disobeyed her mistress, she was dramatically solid and vocally splendid. 

Eric Owens as King Marke. Photo by Curtis Brown.

Nicholas Brownlee, a former SFO apprentice who sang Mozart’s Figaro here in 2021, filled the role of Kurwenal. Solid, imposing, he rarely sang below forte. While this reveals the character’s strength, more nuance would be welcome. Eric Owens brought dignity to the betrayed and forgiving King Marke. He was somber and rich-voiced in his Act II monologue, but sometimes blurry in pitch.

Tristan provides a real challenge for stage directors: the pacing is not theatrical. In fact, the score is often more like a tone poem with voices, as action that only needs a moment is stretched into long reflective musical passages, virtual whole movements on betrayal, passion, or death. In that respect, it resembles Berlioz’s Roméo et Juliette (which Wagner knew well, and from which he borrowed several ideas including the music for the consumption of the love potion) more than any previous opera.

One good example is King Marke’s lengthy monologue when he discovers Tristan and Isolde’s betrayal. This passage is an eloquent reflection of his emotional state, but all he really says (to Tristan) is “I raised you from childhood, and yet you betrayed me!” The musical expression is powerful, but dramatically nothing happens for ten whole minutes.

Nicholas Brownlee (Kurwenal, above) and Simon O’Neill (Tristan) in Tristan’s death scene. Photo by Curtis Brown.

Limited by the pace of Wagner’s score, the stage direction by Zack Winokur and Lisenka Heijboer Castañón was necessarily more stately than dramatic. Nonetheless, they kept the focus on the important characters and made the action clear.

James Gaffigan led the Santa Fe orchestra with a welcome sense of direction. The music never lagged, and the orchestral sound was as exciting as Wagner requires. Two members of the orchestra deserve special notice: Michael Taylor Eiffert played the numerous bass clarinet solos with surprising delicacy (disclosure: as a clarinetist I was especially enthralled by his playing); and Julia DeRosa played the extensive Act III English horn solos with flowing beauty. 

The moment that everyone awaits—those hardy enough to stay to the end—is of course the Liebestod when Isolde undergoes transformation by grief and ecstasy. Wilson sailed through the carefully paced scene, ending as she should on the crest of the wave before literally disappearing into the night and Wagner’s metaphoric oblivion.

NOTE: Remaining dates for the 2022 season at the Santa Fe Opera can be found on the SFO Web page.

CORRECTION (8/10): As originally posted, the article gave the title of Huang Ruo’s opera incorrectly as M Butterfly. There should a period after the M: M. Butterfly.

Violist Richard O’Neill gives stunning performance with Boulder Phil

All-English program features Walton Viola Concerto, works by Elgar and Anna Clyne

By Peter Alexander May 15 at 12:10 a.m.

The Boulder Philharmonic finished the 2021–22 classical concert series with sound and fury last night (May 14).

Conductor Michael Butterman and the Boulder Philharmonic in Macky Auditorium. Photo by Glenn Ross.

No, that is not a criticism. The first piece listed on the program was Anna Clyne’s Sound and Fury, inspired in part by Macbeth’s soliloquy featuring that phrase. In practice, though, Clyne was preceded by an “off-menu special,” in the words of conductor Michael Butterman: Elgar’s familiar “Pomp and Circumstance” March No. 1, in honor of the region’s recent graduates.

The performance was led by an honorary guest conductor, Boulder’s outstanding arts patron Gordon Gamm. Looking dapper in a fedora, Gamm did a creditable job of getting things started and holding the orchestra together. Indeed, the only audible error—one out-of-place note—cannot be laid to the conductor. 

Butterman preceded Clyne’s Sound and Fury with a helpful music-appreciation style introduction, with an explanation of it’s connection to “The Scottish Play” and illustrations from a Haydn symphony quoted in the score. The performance was strongly profiled, with contrasting sections nicely characterized and distinguished, lacking only the precision necessary for clarity in the skittering string parts and the full depth of sound that a larger orchestra could provide. 

The recorded voice speaking the “Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow” soliloquy near the end was not always intelligible, but it did show how those words fit into the scheme of the piece. This is a new piece (2019) that is definitely comprehensible and enjoyable for the classical audience, and I would welcome hearing it again.

Violist Richard O’Neill

A friend told me about this concert, “The Walton Concerto won’t sell any tickets.” If that’s right, I’m sorry for anyone who was not sold a ticket because they don’t know Walton’s music. They missed a fun piece, and a stunning performance by violist Richard O’Neill, the newest member of the Takács Quartet. Where is their sense of fun, of adventure, interest in new things? This is not difficult music.

Composed in 1929, the Viola Concerto shows the composer’s quirky style to good advantage. At times lush, at times shifting, surging and dying away, its kaleidoscopic episodes and unexpected turns provide an ideal palette for an instrumental soloist of O’Neill’s qualities.

His performance was glittery (and no, I don’t mean his shoes) and perfectly assured. Visibly reacting to every twist and turn of the orchestra part, he showed in both gesture and musical interpretation his connection with the players. Utterly at ease playing all the virtuoso material the concerto throws at the soloist, O’Neil gave a solo performance of the highest caliber. 

Here the issues were of balance, both within the orchestra and (from where I was sitting) with the soloist. The boisterous second movement was my favorite, but the more gentle moments were equally well played. Two profound tributes to O’Neil: he held the audience in silence for at least 20 second at the end of the concerto, and it was the orchestra, stamping their feet, that brought him back for his final curtain call. 

Again channeling his inner Leonard Bernstein, Butterman gave an insightful introduction to Elgar’s “Enigma” Variations, showing how the variations brought their subjects—the composer’s friends—to life. This to me is a better preparation for the audience than program notes about “the return of the subsidiary theme” or “remote tonalities.”

Elgar’s “Enigma,” one of the greatest sets of orchestral variations of the Romantic or any period, received the best orchestral performance of the evening—maybe because it is a piece well known to all orchestral pros. Rehearsal time then can be devoted to details of interpretation, of unity, of sound. Butterman found the telling elements in each variation and brought out their individual characters. 

As one hopes and expects, the familiar “Nimrod” variation swelled calmly from shimmering pianissimo strings to a rich, full orchestral climax before falling back. Other variations had the sparkle, or the weight, to communicate character and meaning. This is a fun piece for brass, who enjoyed their moments of grandeur, and for the timpanist, who brought both visual and aural flash to the performance. 

Finally, this program had many of the ingredients of a successful concert: some exploration, a dazzling soloist, a great piece of music. I happily note the inclusion of a living female composer in the stew. It’s a recipe musical organizations should follow.

LSO Premieres percussion showpiece

Longmont resident Michael Udow’s Ancient Echoes inspired by archaeological finds

 By Peter Alexander April 24 at 12:15 a.m.

NOTE: I usually do not review ensembles that are not fully professional. This performance by the semi-pro Longmont Symphony rates an exception because it includes a world premiere, which always deserve media attention.

Last night (April 23) the Longmont Symphony Orchestra (LSO) gave the first performance of a piece that was inspired by archaeological discoveries in the state of Colorado. Michael Udow’s  Ancient Echoes makes use of four stones discovered in Great Sand Dunes National Park and elsewhere in the San Luis Valley that archeologist Marilyn Mortorano discovered to be ancient lithophones, or musical instruments made of stone. (Read the full story here.)

Great Sand Dunes NP and the San Luis Valley. Photo by Peter Alexander

Under conductor Elliot Moore, the LSO gave a careful reading of Udow’s atmospheric score. Soloist Anthony Di Sanza, once Udow’s percussion student at the University of Michigan, was all over the front of the stage, switching among four different percussion setups that included the four ancient stones, a modern mallet instrument with tuned granite bars—Udow’s personal creation for this one piece—a vibraphone, drums from North Africa and Japan, German cowbells and temple gongs, among other instruments.

There can be no doubt that Udow knows the percussion instruments intimately that he writes for. They were all used effectively, and Di Sanza gave a virtuosic performance on all of them. It was clearly as much fun for him running from one setup to another, as it was for the audience watching and listening. 

Percussion soloist Anthony Di Sanza

The score opens with a dreamy, evocative passage that made good use of the quiet plinking sounds of the ancient stones. From there the score moves from one set of instruments to another, each representing a different culture or part of the world. The score is highly episodic, as each set of instruments brings forth its own musical style and mood. 

Udow used the orchestra well, but did not resist falling into Hollywood-style Orientalist cliches to support some of the instruments, and I am not sure that his series of musical vignettes adds up to more than the sum of its highly individual parts. But the result is certainly a showpiece for the soloist, and one that may prove irresistible to other percussionists in the future. 

Michael Udow with his granite lithophone, created for his score Ancient Echoes. Photo by Peter Alexander.

Udow’s modern granite lithophone is bound for a percussion collection in Indianapolis, where it will be available for Di Sanza and other professional percussionists who wish to perform Udow’s score. With it containing so many fun licks, I would not dare to guess where we will hear it next.

Following a standing ovation, Di Sanza and his former teacher Udow gave an energetic handclapping encore that was great fun, if perhaps a minute too long.

For the rest of the concert, Moore led the LSO in first Stravinsky’s Firebird Suite, and later to close the program Brahms’s Symphony No. 1. The Firebird performance had a strong expressive profile, capturing well the essence of each scene. There were some especially nice solos in the woodwinds, if a few issues of balance overall.

The Brahms was the least satisfying of the three pieces, needing better balance—again—and more rhythmic precision, especially within the string sections. In a modern concert hall and with modern winds, Brahms really needs a larger string section than most small-budget orchestras can provide, and that was the case here. But it should be noted that the LSO has grown in quality over Moore’e five years in Longmont, and Moore brought the symphony to an energetic conclusion. It was greeted warmly by the audience.

Boulder Phil and Rachel Barton Pine present premiere

Guest conductor Gary Lewis steps in at last minute to hold things together

By Peter Alexander Feb. 13 at 12:10 a.m.

Billy Childs, versatile jazz pianist and composer of concert music, finally saw the premiere of his Second Violin Concerto in Macky Auditorium last night (Feb. 12), courtesy of violinist Rachel Barton Pine and the Boulder Philharmonic.

Guest conductor Gary Lewis stepped in at the last minute for the Phil’s music director, Michael Butterman, who was unable to travel due to COVID restrictions. But that was not the only impact COVID had on the concerto. Two earlier planned premieres at the Grant Park Festival in Chicago—Pine’s hometown—were postponed, making Boulder’s the very first performance.

Like Butterman, I was unable to attend the performance, having been exposed to someone who tested positive for COVID last weekend in St. Paul, Minn. (See my reviews from that trip here.) I’m fine, but I was only able to experience the Boulder Phil concert by live stream. My impressions are necessarily limited by the quality of the sound through the speaker attached to my desktop computer. Normally I would not write a review under those circumstances; for a world premiere, some kind of report is appropriate.

As finally presented last night, the concerto fittingly evokes the mood of the last two years during the COVID pandemic. That was in fact, the strongest impression made by the concerto—a sequence of moods, from consoling, to elegiac, to nervous and jittery. In creating these moods the piece is effective, but beyond that there were no themes nor specific musical gestures that remained in the memory.

Rachel Barton Pine played the premiere of Billy Childs’s Second VIolin Concerto with the Boulder Phil. Photo by Lisa-Marie Mazzucco.

Childs’s classically-based music—as opposed to his jazz work—is as he has said, “in the style of the mid-20th-century composers.” He has given Ravel and Barber as models, but his orchestra lacks the brilliance of those examples. Today the style seems like something out of the past, and as such it sounds derivative, imitative rather than strongly individual in any way.

It should be stated, however, that this relatively weak impression cannot be laid at the feet of the soloist. Pine played with a passion and commitment that came through the live feed loud and clear. The technical passages were played with extraordinary precision and clarity, while the lyrical passages were all rendered with beautiful tone and deep expression. Pine is an exceptional artist, and it was  a pleasure to hear her perform.

She concluded the first half of the concert with a lovingly played movement from a Bach Sonata for solo violin. This is of course music of great depth, and far more than the concerto it revealed the artistry of the performer.

The second half of the concert was taken by Beethoven’s ever-popular Symphony No. 7. Lewis led a performance that seemed safe, straightforward, but lacking the excitement and the textural clarity the symphony wants. This may be a reflection of limited rehearsal time having been given to a piece that is, after all, familiar to most of the musicians. 

But here’s where the quality of the live stream becomes an issue. What came through my speakers sounded cautious, murky, sometimes plodding. The themes and gestures were under-characterized, and the tempo dragged in spots, particularly in the highly energized, onrushing third movement. Only in the finale did the orchestra start to generate real excitement, but from what I heard, a lack of precision and control got in the way of clarity.

But Beethoven wins in the end. The finale provided the conclusion that everyone wanted for the program. Lewis deserves thanks and credit for holding the concert together under challenging conditions. 

Out of the Ordinary at the Ordway

St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, Minnesota Opera explore unusual repertoire

By Peter Alexander Feb. 7 at 9:35 p.m.

A weekend in St. Paul, Minn., provided the opportunity to hear some musical works that were completely new to me, and to most in the audience. On Friday (Feb. 4) the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra played music by Thomas Adès, Karl Amadeus Hartmann and some Austrian named Joseph Haydn. And Saturday (Feb. 5) Minnesota Opera presented the company premiere of The Anonymous Lover by Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges.

The Ordway Concert Hall before the SPCO concert. Photo by Peter Alexander.

Adès is a Grammy-winning British composer best known in this country for his operas The Tempest and The Exterminating Angel, both presented by the Metropolitan Opera (2012 and 2017, respectively). The SPCO opened their COVID-impacted, intermissionless, limited-capacity concert in the Ordway concert hall with “O Albion” from his Arcadiana for string quartet, one of his gentlest, most audience-friendly if not quite conventional movements. 

Thomas Adès

First performed at the 1994 Cambridge Elgar Festival, the brief piece recalls in mood and gesture the “Nimrod” variation from Elgar’s Enigma Variations. Played with warmth and expression by four players from the SPCO, this was a quiet and genial beginning to the program.

Hartmann deserves to be better known, for both musical and political reasons. Born in Munich, Germany, in 1905, he survived the Second World War in spite of his profound but largely silent opposition to the Nazi regime. During the war he withdrew from public life and declined to have any of his music performed as long as the Nazis remained in power, a position sometimes described as “internal emigration.”

His music mostly conforms to the modernist aesthetic of the 1930s. He is remembered chiefly as the composer of eight well structured symphonies. The work chosen by the SPCO was Hartmann’s Chamber Concerto for the unusual combination of clarinet, string quartet and string orchestra. The clarinet, here played by SPCO principal Sang Yoon Kim, is the virtuoso star of the work. 

Inspired by and written in honor of Zoltán Kodály, the Chamber Concerto is permeated by Hungarian idioms. A central set of variations is framed by melancholy, reflective movements that allowed Kim to show his dynamic control and beautiful tone in the softest passages. Following the yearning mood of the opening, the variations erupt in propulsive folk dance rhythms and a series of virtuoso variations that Kim carried off with impressive technique. The final Fantasie movement returns to the quiet character of the opening, with the clarinet and string quartet players fading in and out as their parts intertwine. At the end they all vanish in silence.

This is an attractive piece that I would love to hear again, especially performed with such commitment and polish. Anyone in Boulder willing to take up this unfamiliar gem?

SPCO concertmaster Steven Copes

Like the rest of the concert, Haydn’s Symphony No. 43 in E-flat was ably led from the concertmaster’s chair by violinist Steven Copes. Sometimes called the “Mercury” Symphony for reasons unknown, it was written in 1771—early in the development of the symphony. It comprises four relatively short movements.

Playing on modern instruments, the SPCO gave a spirited reading of the symphony. They brought out all the drama of the first movement, with attention to the expressive potential of every motive and gesture. They made the most of the relatively routine slow movement, which is not the strongest part of the work.

The modern stringed instruments created a robust sound, especially for the repeated chords that mark the minuet. Other than slight smudges getting started, the finale was clean and precise, characterized by great energy and strong contrasts in dynamics. The winds—pairs of oboes, bassoons and horns—are limited to harmonic support in the symphony, and in that role they played with admirable restraint.

This is an ideal program: attractive newer pieces deserving of attention combined with lesser known works by familiar composers. Such a program can expand the horizons of audiences in both directions. I would love to hear more concerts built on this model, in place of the usual repetitions of well-trod repertoire with only the occasional unfamiliar piece thrown in. 

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Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Sanit-Georges

The son of a French aristocrat and a teenaged Afro-Caribbean slave, Bolonge was born  in Guadeloupe in 1745 and spent most of his life in Paris, where he was renowned as a swordsman. As a violinist he rose to the position of concertmaster and conductor of a popular concert series,  Le Concert des Amateurs, in the 1770s. He composed at least six operas, of which only The Anonymous Lover (1780) has survived complete.

Bologne has received long overdue attention over the past two years, as both the COVID hiatus in performing schedules and political events have stimulated explorations of music by composers of color. His Violin Concerto in G major was performed by Harumi Rhodes with the Colorado Pro Musica Chamber Orchestra in October, and others of his works have been presented from Bangor, Maine, to Los Angeles and overseas. The Anonymous Lover has received several productions, both staged and virtual.

The Minnesota Opera production took full advantage of Bologne’s background, placing the events in 18th-century Guadaloupe. With that Caribbean inspiration, the unit set was filled with dazzling colors and flooded with tropical sunlight for the daytime—a welcome sight in subfreezing St. Paul!—and romantic moonlight for night. The choreography and some stage direction were inspired by Latin dance, with exuberant festivity on stage sometimes covering the music. 

Cast and set for the Minnesota Opera production of The Anonymous Lover. Production photos by Cory Weaver.

There were several other innovations for this production. Bologne is portrayed onstage by a dancer, who overlooks the proceedings from a balcony while pretending to be an immobile piece of decoration when noticed by the operatic characters below. This just too-clever device sometimes upstaged the main action and detracted from the singing, but served to remind the audience of the composer’s position as a mixed-race man legally defined as a slave.

There were other hints of Bologne’s life as well: some adroit fencing moves in the opera’s first duet, a violin candenza inserted into the Overture. In other modifications, two songs by Bologne have been added to the score for Dorothèe, otherwise a purely spoken role.

Leading cast members of The Anonymous Lover: Zoie Reams (Dorothèe), Symone Harcum (Lèontine) , Carlos Enrique Santelli (Valcour), and Aaron Kenney (Ophémon).

Any pedantic reservations aside, the production is endlessly fun, bright and gorgeous to see, and filled with action. Stage director Maria Todaro has created a highly entertaining and appealing version of an opera that is otherwise improbable in its action and often shallow in its emotions. Sometimes her endless imagination got in the way of the larger picture—as with the figure of Bologne, or the characters who kept hiding from one another, until all the ducking in and out of alcoves became tedious. Nevertheless, the opening night audience was delighted.

One innovation for which Todaro claims credit is that the leading female character Léontine overhears the supposedly anonymous lover, so that she knowns the truth throughout. A welcome interpolation in a typically male-centric operatic story, this serves to even the score: since she knows throughout who the anonymous admirer really is, she is manipulating him as much as the other way around.

The dancers Brian Bose as Bologne and his partner Jennifer Mack as Madame de Genlis were decorous and graceful. It’s not their fault they sometimes distracted from the rest of the performance. Individual musical numbers are separated by extensive passages of spoken dialog, but conductor Christopher Franklin kept the music moving at a suitably brisk pace. 

Symone Harcum (Lèontine)

A standout member of the cast was Symone Harcum as Léontine, the woman who is receiving the attention of the anonymous lover. Her strong, commanding voice rang out well in the 1900 seat Music Theater, and she found satisfying expressive content in her music. Her minor-key entrances, with suggestions of anxiety and frustration, are the strongest arias in the opera, and they were strongly presented.

As Valcour, the lover himself, Carols Enrique Santelli was challenged by the top of the range, where his bright tenor developed a hard edge, but was otherwise a sympathetic character. As his co-conspirator in anonymity, Ophémon, Aaron Keeney acted his part well and sang with confidence. Though dry in sound, his baritone blended well in the ensembles that are the largest part of his role.

Leah Brzyski (Jeanette) and Joseph Leppek (Colin)

As Dorothèe, Zoie Reams milked her interpolated arias for all they were worth musically and dramatically. Some stagey business with a handkerchief, reprised for curtain calls, turned hers into a memorable role. As the young lovers Jeanette and Colin—a sort of Caribbean Zerlina and Masetto—Leah Brzyski and Joseph Leppek were every bit as charming as they were meant to be. With her bright soprano and gift for perkiness, Brzyski has a future in the so-called “-ina” roles, should she want them.

Todaro and Harrison David Rivers are credited with the translations of the dialog, which were as natural as one dared hope for. In fact, The Anonymous Lover is an entirely artificial 18th-century comedy. The action is implausible and superficial, but Bologne’s music is polished and never less than enjoyable, even if it does not rise to the Mozartian level of transcending its material. Minnesota Opera and their capable cast have made Bologne’s previously overlooked opera into a treat well worth a trip to St. Paul for the remaining performances next weekend (Feb. 10, 12 and 13).

At 90 minutes, The Anonymous Lover is ideal for performance during a pandemic, as it can easily be played without intermission. The not-quite sold out Ordway audience remained safely masked during the performance.

Boulder Phil and Marcus Roberts Trio celebrate the return to live performances

“Gershwin Celebration” at Macky hits the right notes for a festive event

By Peter Alexander Jan. 23 at 12:20 a.m.

The Boulder Philharmonic and the Marcus Roberts Trio both returned to a live stage last night (Jan. 22) for the first time in two years, to present “A Gershwin Celebration” in Macky Auditorium. And it was a celebration for certain.

Two works by Gershwin were on the program: An American in Paris, and the Piano Concerto in F with the trio—Marcus Roberts, piano, Jason Marsalis, drums, and Rodney Jordan, bass—as a solo ensemble with the orchestra. The interpretation of Gershwin’s concerto, which Roberts first did with conductor Seiji Ozawa nearly 20 years ago, has become something of a specialty for the trio. They did it with the Boulder Phil once before, in conductor Michael Butterman’s first season with the orchestra 15 years ago.

We should be grateful that Butterman decided to return to that experience. The program, and especially the performance with the trio, hit all the right notes for a festive event. It was brilliantly creative, it was fun, it was musical art on a very high level.

Mar us Roberts Trio rehearsing with the Boulder Phil. Photo by Peter Alexander.

The performance was live-streamed from Macky to anyone who had bought a ticket. I had the privilege of first attending the rehearsal yesterday morning, so that I could hear how the trio put their interpretation and interpolated solos together with the orchestra, and watching the live stream in the evening to hear how it all fit together.

One advantage of “attending” the concert by live stream is that you can see things that are not easily seen from seats in the hall—the very busy percussionists, for example, and who is playing the solos. That is very much a worthwhile pleasure. Since COVID, streaming is common, since it allows people to take in a concert without being in a crowd. Let’s hope streaming becomes normal, as it gives access to people who otherwise would not be able to attend. 

And it give us all the opportunity to hear performances from around the world, building a larger, shared musical culture.

The program opened with An American in Paris, which has earned a place in the orchestral repertoire—and in American audience’s hearts. It’s not fair to “review” a streamed performance because as a listener I am at the mercy of the sound engineers and the speakers on my desktop. But Butterman and the Boulder Phil clearly gave a fluid, polished performance.

For the Concerto, the orchestra played almost entirely what Gershwin wrote. When playing with the orchestra, Roberts observed, if he did not exactly reproduce, what Gershwin wrote in the piano part. At times he spun off from Gershwin’s line—but Gershwin did the same.

The Marcus Roberts Trio

There were also “breaks” for the jazz trio when the orchestra sat out and turned the performance over to the trio. These moments were, for me, the most joyous parts of the concert, because all three members of the trio are just so darned good. It was delightful to hear Roberts work bits of Gershwin into the multi-hued fabric of his improvisations, and to witness the exchanges among three musicians who know each other so well. Like any tight jazz group, whatever direction Roberts went, the others were with him.

Hearing both the rehearsal and the concert, it was not hard to find the essence of both classical and jazz styles. “We want to make sure that [audiences] understand the grandeur and beauty and structural logic that classical music has,” Roberts told me earlier, “and the freedom of improvisation and the spontaneity of jazz.”

Both were evident in Macky. The “grandeur of classical music” was present in the full orchestral passages of the concerto, which frame and culminate the solo passages. Of course those grandiose passages were the same in the morning and in the evening; that’s classical music. 

The improvised, jazz passages, however, were not the same; in their exuberant unpredictability they showed the “spontaneity of jazz”—and therein lies is the true greatness of the art form. The true greatness of Roberts’s performance of the Concerto in F is in bringing the two together.

As an encore, the trio alone played their version of another Gershwin staple, “I Got Rhythm,” which is both a nod to the composer’s variations for piano and orchestra on “I Got Rhythm” and recognition of the place the tune’s chord progression has taken in jazz history. Here the trio was playful, trading riffs at the beginning and the end, and giving a welcome chance for Marsalis on drums and Jordan on bass to have their own solos.

They all killed it. It was a dazzling demonstration of what we have missed for the past two years, and an exhilarating end to the celebration.

# # # # #

The Boulder Phil and the Marcus Roberts Trio will repeat their performance of “A Gershwin Celebration” this afternoon, at 1:30 p.m. Sunday, Jan. 23, at the Lone Tree Arts Center. You may purchase tickets for that live performance here.

The Parker Quartet: Love Letters across the Centuries

Program features works by Adolphus Hailstork, György Kurtág, Alban Berg and Schumann. 

By Izzy Fincher Nov. 22 at 9:15 a.m.

Alan Berg’s Lyric Suite from 1926 has been called “a latent opera.” The sweeping, programmatic, six-movement work, mostly built on a 12-tone row, certainly feels like one. 

Through hidden musical devices and quotations, Berg depicts his passionate, yet doomed love affair with a married woman, Hanna Fuchs-Robettin. He even uses numerology to turn his and Hanna’s initials a motif of paired notes, A-Bb and B-F for H.B. and H.F. It’s the ultimate musical love letter. 

This suite was the centerpiece of the Parker Quartet’s performance in Grusin Hall on Sunday (Nov. 21) as the guest artists for CU Presents’ Takács Quartet series. Despite their eclectic program, which ranged from contemporary works by Adolphus Hailstork, György Kurtág (one of the quartet’s early mentors) and Alban Berg to a string quartet by Schumann, the performance felt cohesive, tied together by themes of love and loss across the centuries.  

Parker Quartet (L-R: Jessica Bodner, Daniel Chong, Ken Hamao, Kee-Hyun Kim). Photo by Luke Ratray.

Founded in 2002 at the New England Conservatory, the Parker Quartet has established itself as one of leading string quartets for traditional and contemporary repertoire in the U.S. Their 2011 album, Ligeti: String Quartets Nos. 1 & 2, received a Grammy Award for the Best Chamber Music Performance, and they have premiered works by leading contemporary composers, including Jeremy Gill, Augusta Read Thomas and Zosha di Castri. The quartet members are currently artists-in-residence at Harvard University.

The concert opened with the reflective Adagio from Hailstork’s String Quartet No. 1, based on a choral piece written for his Norfolk Unitarian church that is set to a text about being a generous, loving Christian man. Following this, the quartet’s charismatic violinist Daniel Chong introduced the theme of the program: love in its various forms. This would be continued in Kurtág’s Aus der Ferne V (From afar), a brief, mournful work dedicated to his late friend and publisher Alfred Schlee, who rescued many contemporary scores from the Nazis; Berg’s Lyric Suite; and Schumann’s String Quartet No. 3 in A major, a 23rd birthday present for his beloved wife, Clara. 

In the evocative Aus der Ferne V, cellist Kee-Hyun Kim drove the piece forward with ominous pizzicato, reminiscent of a heartbeat, over the sustained lines on the violins and viola that exploded in short dissonant bursts before gradually fading away. 

This three-minute vignette set the scene for the highlight of the program, Berg’s Lyric Suite, which Chong described as “the most expressive string quartet in the canon” in his introduction. In the suite, the Parker Quartet demonstrated their impressive ability to blend, while bringing different instruments out of the texture as needed, creating a dialogue out of the building and developing motifs. Through their expressive use of colors and dynamics, they also captured the contrasting moods Berg experiences as he falls madly in love and later descends into despair. 

In the first movement, marked Allegretto gioviale, the Parker Quartet burst into joyful motion led by Chong’s lively opening gesture. This energy built through the next four movements, which all have expressive names: Andante amoroso, Allegro misterioso—Trio estatico, Adagio appassionato and Presto delirando—Tenebroso. 

In the third movement, the hidden initials motif appears most frequently, amidst the combination of wandering pizzicato and warbly lines that sound more chaotically improvisatory than mysterious, an instability the Parker Quartet communicated very well before building to the agitated trio and the dynamic presto that ends with a climactic flourish. The final movement, Largo desolato, which includes the iconic Tristan motif associated with eternal love, demanded the most musical versatility from the musicians, as moments from earlier happier movements appear briefly before sinking into despair. 

Following this depressing love story, the Parker Quartet shifted to a light-hearted work for the second half, Schumann’s String Quartet No. 3. After an hour of intense contemporary repertoire, this leap back into an earlier era felt a bit strange. Given the crowd’s excited chatter during intermission, however, a familiar work seemed to be a welcome respite after atonal explorations. 

During his career, Schumann only wrote three quartets. They were written together as Op. 41, a birthday present to his wife that was composed in the span of five weeks in 1842. These quartets incorporate elements of Schumann’s influences from Mozart, Haydn, Beethoven, and his friend Mendelssohn, while still retaining his own personal, Romantic style and at times expanding it. 

In their animated interpretation of No. 3, the Parker Quartet exhibited their impeccable synchronicity, bow strokes moving as one. With clear, strong downbeats, Kim on cello led this, though perhaps a bit too forcefully in the calmer Adagio molto movement. With the last movement, a showy crowd pleaser marked molto vivace, the quartet ended the performance on an uplifting note, a reminder of the excitement and joy of young love.  

The program will be repeated at 7:30 p.m. tonight, Nov. 22, in Grusin Hall. Tickets are available here.

Longmont and Boulder orchestras return to live performances for grateful audiences

Abbreviated concerts featured careful COVID protocols, no intermissions

By Peter Alexander Oct. 3 at 11:30 p.m.

For a short time this past weekend, you could have believed that concert life in Longmont and Boulder had returned to normal.

Of course, no one knows what tomorrow will bring. But both the Longmont Symphony and the Boulder Philharmonic presented their first in-person concerts in nearly two years, and sitting in the audience hearing live music was a welcome return to near-normal.

Longmont Symphony Saturday (Oct. 2) with soloist Hsing-ay Hsu and conductor Elliot Moore in Vance Brand Auditorium

Both concerts—the LSO at Vance Brand Auditorium at 7 p.m. Saturday, and the Boulder Phil at Mountain View Methodist Church at 4 p.m. Sunday—had restrictions that for now we might consider the “new normal.” In both cases, patrons were met outside by orchestra representatives checking proof of vaccination and ID, masks were required at all times, and seating was limited to less than full capacity of the respective venues. Conductors and orchestral string players wore masks for the performances as well. Both concerts were presented without intermission, so that the audience did not have the chance to mix and mingle. 

Both conductors, Elliot Moore with the LSO and Michael Butterman with the Boulder Phil, commented on how good it felt to be back, and both were greeted with enthusiasm. I would add that both concerts received standing ovations, but that has long since become normal, so it is not really anything new.

The Longmont Symphony began with a rousing performance of Brahms’s Academic Festival Overture. In his introduction, Moore noted that in spite of its name, the overture is not really academic in nature, because it is actually based on student drinking songs of Brahms’s era. As Moore intended, it started the post-pandemic musical scene with infectious energy. 

Brahms was followed by Mozart’s Piano Concerto in A major, K414, featuring soloist Hsing-ay Hsu. She introduced the concerto with heartfelt remarks about the opportunity to perform again before an audience, and played with solid confidence and sensitivity. The concert of orchestral repertory standards ended with Robert Schumann’s Symphony No. 4 in D minor. Any minor lapses of intonation or ensemble were easily forgiven for musicians who had not played together for so many months. Shouts of “Bravo” were heard through the standing ovation.

Michael Butterman leads the Boulder Philharmonic in Haydn’s Symphony No. 1 at Mountain View Methodist Church

Butterman chose much less standard works for the Boulder Phil’s return to the stage. Two works by Haydn were featured, none of them among the composer’s better known symphonies or concertos. In fact, the concert started at the very beginning, one could say, with Haydn’s Symphony No. 1 of 1759. A three-movement work of about 12 minutes in length, it has the tunefulness and energy, if not the sophistication, of Haydn’s larger late Symphonies. “If you liked that piece,” Butterman quipped, “there are 100 more like it!” (For the record, current research has identified 108 symphonies by Haydn.)

The symphony was paired with Haydn’s Sinfonia Concertante written for London in 1792, a larger and more mature work that features violin, oboe, cello and bassoon soloists with orchestra. The principal players from the orchestra played the solo parts with elan and polish. Using modern instruments, and heard in a church that has only a cement floor due to ongoing renovations, the orchestral sound struck me as a little on the thick side, not as transparent as Haydn would have expected.

Butterman’s final work for the program is one that he particularly loves, the Petite symphonie concertante by the 20th-century Swiss composer Frank Martin. It was a treat to hear this genuine rarity live in concert. It is scored for a double string orchestra with harpsichord, piano and harp soloists, creating an utterly unique sound world. Although written using 12-tone techniques, the music is often consonant, always enjoyable, and unlike any other piece I know. 

Butterman led the orchestra with obvious relish. The size and full-bodied sound of the Phil’s strings was ideal for a 20th-century work. In his analytical introduction to the score, Butterman said that he hoped that the audience would enjoy the Petite symphonie concertante as much as he does. I can’t speak for the rest of the audience, but hearing a committed live performance of an intriguing rarity was the weekend’s highlight for me. 

Like both audiences, I was thrilled to hear live music again, and to be back in the hall with musicians who love what they are doing. More, please!

NOTE: Minor typos and editing errors corrected Monday, 10/4.

34th MahlerFest ends with splendid Festival Finale concert

Fifth symphonies by Philip Sawyers and Gustav Mahler provide fitting climax

By Peter Alexander Aug. 29 at 12:35 a.m.

The Colorado MahlerFest wrapped up its 34th festival season last night at Macky Auditorium (Aug. 28) with a splendid Festival Finale concert under the direction of festival artistic director and conductor Kenneth Woods.

After the planned 2020 festival was cancelled and the 2021 festival postponed from its usual May time slot, this was good news for ardent Mahler fans and other classical music lovers. The program consisted of two fifth symphonies—Mahler’s, and the world premiere of the Fifth by English composer Philip Sawyers. 

Sawyers was selected to pair with Mahler’s Fifth in part because of his affinity with Mahler’s works. He writes large, multi-movement symphonies that cover a wide emotional spectrum, and he makes each work a journey that leads to a definite conclusion. The emotional content is perceptible on the surface. There are distinct, recognizable themes and familiar textural gestures, all making his music welcoming to the audience.

Kenneth Woods and MahlerFest Orchestra receive a standing ovation for their performance of Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 5. (Photo by Peter Alexander)

Not that Sawyer’s Fifth Symphony sounds like Mahler as such. He has his own contemporary style and harmonic palette. The influence of Mahler is more evident in the wide expressive profile of the symphony as a whole, and in his use of chamber-like moments in the winds. Like Mahler, he makes extensive use of march-like patterns, and the brass plays an important role.

Of the five movements, the Scherzo fourth movement is the most conventional, with scurrying strings and fluttering woodwind flourishes. A central brass chorale interrupts the rushing sense of movement and creates a brief oasis of calm before the rushing music begins anew in a varied form.

The finale is the most Mahler-esque of the five movement. Like many dramatic movements in Mahler’s symphonies, it begins in media res as it were, in the middle of musical and emotional turmoil. It is a complex, wandering movement, working out the issues suggested by the opening outburst and leading to a satisfyingly tonal ending disturbed only by the slightest suggestion of instability.

Parts of the symphony put me more in mind of Sibelius than Mahler, perhaps because of the lack of anguish in the expressive gestures. Among the hallmarks of his style, Sawyers often works in short sections than swerve rapidly from one mood to another. Weighty unison brass proclamations often interrupt other ideas, becoming almost a cliché of the composer’s style. 

Not that it is anything less than an attractive, intriguing symphony, well worth hearing again. The performance was delivered with attention and affection for the music. Woods and the orchestra made every expressive gesture clear and impactful, providing the full dynamic range that Sawyers call for.

With Mahler’s sprawling and powerful Symphony No. 5, Woods delivered just about the best performance I have heard at MahlerFest. With the exception of some iffy intonation in the brass—but who can blame them at the end of a very long concert?—and some smudged counterpoint in the finale, the orchestra was in top form from beginning to end.

Mahler famously said that the symphony “must be like the world” and the “embrace everything,” and that is almost true of just the first movement of the Fifth. It covers a dizzying array of musical topics, from ceremonial march to sentimental dance. It is this variety that makes Mahler’s symphonies such a challenge to a conductor, who has to maneuver an orchestra through all of Mahler’s minefields of shifting tempos and surging emotional fluctuations.

Woods handled this like the veteran Mahlerian he is. There was never a sense of tentativeness about tempo, any hesitation around entrances, or anything less than full commitment to the extremes of emotional expression. Especially impressive was the third movement Scherzo, a tour-de-force of high-paced peasant dances interrupted by a moment of pure schmaltz, and then a grotesque moment of pizzicato strings, each effective in its turn.

The consoling, gentle Adagietto movement was if anything less convincing than the more overwrought portions of the symphony. It was nevertheless the welcome calm after the clamor of the earlier movements and the ideal foil for the brash, jubilant finale. This was the Mahler that his most passionate fans expect, delivered with confidence and assurance. 

In short, this was a fitting climax to the long delayed festival. 

NOTE: Colorado MahlerFest has announced that the 35th festival will return to its usual time slot next year, with performances May 17–22, 2022, featuring Mahler’s Symphony No. 3 in D minor and the opera Bluebeard’s Castleby Béla Bartók.

John Corigliano’s Lord of Cries receives “stunning” world premiere at Santa Fe

“Music of our time” makes a rewarding evening, as does SFO’s Eugene Onegin

By Peter Alexander Aug. 10 at 10:45 p.m.

Anthony Roth Costanzo. Photo by Curtis Brown.

The Santa Fe Opera’s stunning world premiere production of John Corigliano’s Lord of Cries provided a fascinating and rewarding evening in the theater. The composer has total command of his materials and especially the orchestra, which creates a unique and powerful sound world for this loose adaptation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula.

This is music of our time, but mood and color are so manifest and so managed that the opera is easily appreciated and followed from beginning to end. There are moments of sheer loveliness, especially from the strings. To use a favored cliché of contemporary music criticism, The Lord of Cries is eminently accessible.

True, there are few memorable melodies—a lullaby and the ersatz children’s song “To do right is to be good” are exceptions—but the voice parts are nonetheless lyrical and singable, always complimentary to the voice. The vocal lines follow the words carefully, so that it never sounds tortured. In spite of moments of distress, passion and tumult from the orchestra, the texture is carefully managed to make the words understandable. This is music that communicates.

Conductor Johannes Debus managed the complex score with aplomb. He supported the singers well, keeping the orchestra under careful control when necessary, but he also built momentum in the climactic scenes, particularly the storm and the dramatic act endings. The perfectly natural stage direction by James Darrah worked so effortlessly as to be almost imperceptible.

Jarrett Ott (Dr. Seward); Leah Brzyski, Megan Moore and Rachel Blaustein (Three weird Sisters). Photo by Curtis Brown.

Adam Riggs’s unit set comprises peach-colored walls and 19th-century lampposts, which projections enhance to suggest specific locations or reflect the drama. The projections by Adam Larsen are mostly abstract patterns or, in one case, a storm at sea that becomes part of the drama. 

The walls and lampposts are shifted for the second act. This is minimalist stage design at its best, open enough for anything to happen, only minimally burdened with symbolic weight—carcasses at the end representing the consumption of flesh by the vampire and his victims/accomplices, for example.

The libretto is presented as a mashup of Dracula with Euripides’s Bacchae, with the diabolical protagonist both Dracula and Dionysus (both names are used in the text). This reflects similarities of plot, but Lord of Cries is anything but a straight setting of either story. The characters have the same names as in Stoker’s Victorian-era novel, but they are mixed up and transformed to create a new story with similar characters, standing on its own without dependence on literary sources.

Dracula is the reincarnation of Dionysus, come to Victorian London; Dr. Seward, a follower and student of Van Helsing in the original novel, becomes the de-facto regent of London, bending everyone to his commands; Van Helsing, the learned prosecutor of vampires in the original, is largely Seward’s factotum in the opera; and Lucy becomes the wife of a deeply disturbed Jonathan Harker rather than the fiancée of Arthur Holmwood. Other characters from the novel are missing entirely, except for a rare oblique reference. Fans of the novel may find it confusing, but in the context of the opera it is all clear and well laid out.

Kathryn Henry (Lucy Harker), Jarrett Ott (John Seward), David Portillo (Jonathan Harker) and Matt Boehler (Van Helsing). Photo by Curtis Brown.

In fact, one of the strengths of the opera is that Mark Adamo’s excellent libretto is so well laid out that it requires no prior preparation. This is in contrast to Corigliano’s one previous, overstuffed opera, Ghosts of Versailles, premiered 30 years ago at the Metropolitan Opera. The clarity and directness of The Lord of Cries makes one wish that Corigliano had not taken so long to find the right subject for his second opera.

One character has been added to help tell the story: a Correspondent for London’s Westminster Gazette, a speaking part who reads newspaper reports of the frightening events taking place. Kevin Burdette, a bass who sings Peter Quince in Midsummer Night’s Dream, proclaims his part with sometimes overloaded enunciation. It may seem exaggerated, but even with the orchestra at full cry you will not miss a word of his essential narration.

Apprentice Kathryn Henry took the crucial role of Lucy as a late substitute. This is a huge role, and as the only individual female character, she carries a large portion of the opera on her shoulders. Henry triumphed in the part. Her lovely lyric voice met every expressive demand, from her plaintive moments of deep emotion in Act I to the tense, dramatic encounter with Dionysus/Dracula in Act II. “Hush, Darling, hush,” her lullaby to her tortured husband Jonathan in the second act, was especially moving.

Tenor David Portillo sang the part of Jonathan Harker, a man beyond the edge of madness. He negotiated the vocal leaps, near screams and whimpers of the most extreme part in the opera. His strong dramatic voice is ideal for the expression and style Harker requires. With excellent diction and plenty of power he made every word tell.

Anthony Roth Costanzo (Dionysus) and Kathryn Henry (Lucy Harker) in their final, fatal confrontation. Photo by Curtis Brown.

The part of asylum director and near-dictator of London Jon Seward runs from tenderness to wild outbursts, often in the same number. Baritone Jarrett Ott negotiated all of that and more as Seward descends into his own madness at the end. Both the rigid moralist and the mad convert to Dionysus’s cult were convincingly portrayed.

Matt Boehler brought a deep, resonant voice to Van Helsing. For much of the opera, he has little to do but respond to Seward’s commands, but Boehler also contributed a sepulchral presence and a brief moment of drama. In the other fully human role, the captain of the ship that runs aground with Dracula on board, Robert Stahley was a sturdy and booming presence as he calls out entries from the ship’s log.

But it is the un-dead that create the drama. The “Three weird Sisters,” attendants of Dionysus, were sung by apprentice artists Leah Brzyski, Rachel Blaustein and Megan Moore, who gave a class in ensemble singing such than no one could be judged individually. The trio span the full range of the female voice, with extreme highs and growling lows used strategically by Corigliano and sung with fierce intensity by the young artists.

But it is the role of Dionysus/Dracula by which this opera stands or falls. Santa Fe was lucky to have countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo for this role. His unique voice and widely-seen performance in the title role of Philip Glass’ Akhnaten at the Met have justifiably made him a superstar, and his performance as Dionysus was stunning.

As Dionysus he invests every phrase with meaning through phrasing, diction and movement. His remarkably beautiful voice is well controlled in all registers,. He is equally powerful dramatically, making his showdown with Lucy, where he breaks down her resistance and dooms her to a tragic end, the dramatic highpoint it must be.

Stoker’s Dracula is steeped in the respectable religiosity of Victorian England, but the opera incorporates Dionysus’s reply. From beginning to end, we see that Dr. Seward’s conventional pieties have no effect. The god’s appeals to inner desires overcome restraint again and again. This is the message that The Bacchae and Dracula have in common: you dare not deny “The Lord of Cries.” He will have his place.

Dionysus triumphs: Leah Brzyski, Megan Moore and Rachel Blaustein (Three weird Sisters), Jarrett Ott (John Seward) and Anthony Roth Costanzo (Dionysus). Photo by Curtis Brown.

Or in the words of the libretto, “You may assuage the priest without, but not the beast within.”

# # # # #

For lovers of Romantic opera, Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin is as rewarding as anything the SFO presented this summer. Completely Romantic in style and deeply Russian in character, it is doubtless one of the great operas of the 19th century.

The production opens on the veranda of the Larin estate in the Russian countryside. Gary McCann’s largely traditional scenic design makes use of the SFO’s location, with rural fields in the set opening to a vista of the northern New Mexico landscape. McCann’s costumes are mostly in period style, 19th-century informal dress for the country, glittery and formal for St. Petersburg.

Sara Jakubiak as Tatyana, on the veranda of the Larin country home, Jemez Mountains in the distance. Photo by Curtis Brown.

There are some unexpected twists added to this traditional conception: due to COVID, the chorus is seated just outside the theater facing the stage, and their place onstage is taken by dancers who wear elaborate headdresses and (symbolic?) fencing masks. Some of the headdresses suggest Native American design, others recall Dia de los Muertos imagery. The elaborate ball gowns in Act III are topped by sparkly human and animal skulls.

But the dancers, including members of the Wise Fool New Mexico company, do more than take the place of the traditional chorus onstage. As choreographed by Athol Farmer, they come and go on a logic all their own, sometimes surrounding the singers, at other times leaving them alone on stage. 

Lucas Meachem (Onegin) and Sara Jakubiak (Tatyana). Photo by Curtis Brown.

Confusingly, they were onstage when Onegin met Tatyana for their very private conversation about her letter. But for Lensky’s violent disruption of Tatyana’s name-day celebration and his rash dueling challenge to Onegin—a scene that is all the more shocking because it takes place before the assembled guests—the dancers are absent, leaving only the two disputants on stage. This baffling reversal of settings works against the sense of the story.

Dancers aside, Alessandro Talevi’s stage direction served the Pushkin/Tchaikovsky story well. The characters were well delineated, the blocking was efficient and clear, and the drama moved powerfully to its inevitable conclusion: resolute for Tatyana, crushing for Onegin.

Conductor Nicholas Carter led the orchestra in a performance of heart-on-the-sleeve passion and great flexibility. This was Russian Romanticism at its most evocative, from gentle lyricism to full orchestral climaxes. The production was greatly enhanced by the lighting design of Matt Haskins, particularly the lovely sunrise following Tatyana’s night of letter writing.

The opera is as much Tatyana’s as Onegin’s. In this central role, Sara Jakubiak—a returning 2007 apprentice making her SFO debut—was compelling. She projected a lovely sound in her gentle moments but did not always keep her strong voice under control. Her critical letter-writing scene—in which very little writing takes places as she shares her racing thoughts aloud—was performed with deep and true expression. Her transformation to a dignified princess in the final scene was convincingly portrayed in voice and posture.

Dovlet Nurgeldiyev (Lensky). Photo by Curtis Brown.

Lucas Meachem lent a slight edge to his attractive baritone to express Onegin’s coldness and empty heart. His transformation from the superficial society dandy in the first acts to the suffering but still self-absorbed antihero of the final act was total. He and Jakubiak worked ably together to complete the reversal of positions, as she delivers a sermon even more devastating, and more deserved, than his in the first act.

Turkmenistani tenor Dovlet Nurgeldiyev brought a light, lyrical voice to the role of Lensky, ardent as the young poet must be, able to soar smoothly into his top range. His solo scene before his fatal duel with Onegin was a highlight, Lensky’s longing and his ultimate despair evident in his voice.

As Olga, Avery Amereau sang with a rich alto, projecting well into her lowest register. She captured well the flighty manner of Tatyana’s less mature younger sister. Deborah Nansteel sang the role of Filipyevna, Tatyana’s aging nurse, with a well supported voice and sympathetic nature. She paired well with a solid and dignified Katharine Goeldner as Mme. Larina.

Matthew DiBattista sang Triquet’s couplets with elegance. James Creswell’s rich voice and smooth phrasing made Prince Gremin’s third act aria on the gift of love another vocal high point. The full-voiced chorus added punch to both ball scenes.

Lucas Meachem (Onegin), James Creswell (Gremin), Sara Jakubiak (Tatyana, in white gown) with dancers and Wise Fool New Mexico. Photo by Curtis Brown.

This beautifully rendered Romantic opera was the perfect conclusion to my week at the Santa Fe Opera. From Mozart’s Figaro to Corigliano’s Lord of Cries, it is a season of dazzling variety and great accomplishment. The season runs to Aug. 27, with performances of all four operas still to come.

NOTE: Corrected Aug. 11 to include recognition of Matt Haskins’s lighting design in Eugene Onegin, inadvertently omitted in the original version of this story.