Central City emphasizes intimate aspects of Britten’s Billy Budd

Emotionally powerful production has impact

By Peter Alexander July 19 at 1:30 p.m.

Benjamin Britten’s Billy Budd is a large-scale opera that usually receives a large-scale production.

Based on a novella by Herman Melville, it takes place on a British man-of-war in 1797, during England’s war with France. The cast is large, all male: officers, sailors, marines, midshipmen, powder monkeys. That often leads to a very large set, such as the massive 1978 Metropolitan Opera production—still in use—that revealed multiple levels and decks of the MHS Indomitable, shifted up and down by theatrical elevators.

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A portion of the large cast of Billy Budd fills Central City’s stage. Joshua Hopkins as Budd, center. Photo by Amanda Tipton, courtesy of Central City Opera.

It was all the more surprising then, when Central City Opera announced the Colorado premiere of Billy Budd in their intimate opera house. The production, now running at CCO though Aug. 2, reflects general/artistic director Pelham Pearce’s devotion to Britten’s operas.

Billy Budd offers perhaps the stiffest challenge of all of Britten’s operas for the company to mount on its small stage. The result is an emotionally powerful production, but one that has traded grandeur for a more intimate impact.

The scenic design by Takeshi Kata and David Martin Jacques is attractive, evoking a sailing ship from only ropes and tilted pieces of deck, and worked efficiently for all but the largest choral scenes. Projections by Sean Cawelti displayed on screens that doubled as ship’s sails were effective in enlarging the scope of the stage, and crisscrossing ropes became symbols of the naval regulations that confine everyone on board the ship.

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Intimate scene between Vere (Daniel Norman, left) and Billy (Joshua Hopkins). Photo by Amanda Tipton.

There are many scenes of distinct intimacy: the prologue and postlude by Edward Fairfax Vere, captain of the Indomitable; Vere with his fellow officers in his cabin; Budd with other sailors below decks; Budd with Vere and his subsequent trial; Budd in prison before his execution. In fact, the most important moments of the opera are moments of intimacy, and with the audience so close to the actors every glance and gesture had impact.

A notable aspect of the production was how powerfully it communicated the casual cruelty of an 18th-century naval ship. The flogging of a young novice sailor hit hardest, but there were many moments of routine brutality by officers toward the sailors, effectively revealing the crew’s suppressed emotions.

On the other side of the ledger, the small theater limits the range of musical dynamics and impact. Even moderately loud choral and orchestral sounds are felt viscerally in the tiny house, making distinctions among musical climaxes difficult; they’re all loud. Nonetheless, the big choral scene “This is our Moment,” when the Indomitable is chasing a French ship and the full cast comes onstage, is undeniably exciting.

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Full cast of Billy Budd singing “This is our Moment.” Photo by Amanda Tipton.

Negatively, it was so crowded that it was difficult to take in all the different parts of the crew. It was impossible to separate officers from men, for example, or to show the place onboard of the young midshipmen and the powder monkeys who bring powder to the guns. That scene turned the crew into a single mass, obscuring hierarchical nuances.

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Daniel Norman as Vere (center in officer’s uniform). Photo by Amanda Tipton.

In spite of the opera’s title, performances of Billy Budd depend most on the ambivalent character of Vere. Sympathetic to Billy, whom he knows to have been falsely accused, he is unable to free himself from routine and regulation in order to save him—a fact that haunts him to the end.

Daniel Norman brought a light, flexible, floating tenor to the part, capable of handling the meandering vocal lines eloquently. His transformation from old man (Prologue) to virile commander and back again (Postlude) was effective, in both staging and Norman’s physical appearance. His singing throughout was effective, with especially clear diction.

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Joshua Hopkins as Billy Budd. Photo by Amanda Tipton.

Joshua Hopkins was everything Budd needs to be: attractive, innocent, naive. In fact, he was so appropriately a blank slate that he registered less than other more strongly marked personalities in the cast. He portrayed Billy’s relationships with fellow sailors well. His singing was always direct and expressive. His ballad, “Billy in the Darbies”—with a text by Melville—was simple and heartfelt, if not quite beautiful.

The other major character, master-at-arms John Claggart, is one of the great villains of opera. He even has a solo number to rival Iago’s famous “Credo” from Verdi’s Othello, singing “O beauty, o handsomeness, goodness . . . I will destroy you.”

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Kevin Burdette (r) as Claggart; Joseph Gaines (l) as Squeak. Photo by Amanda Tipton.

Kevin Burdette seemed to relish this juicy role—and the boos that came with his curtain call. His voice took on a menacing edge, well conveying Claggart’s evil, but unremittingly so. He was effective in showing Claggart’s fundamental malignity, but the portrayal was one-dimensional. There was never the smooth, seductive sound that would have mitigated the vocal harshness and lent more depth to his cunning.

The many smaller roles surrounding these main characters were all ably handled by the cast. As Vere’s fellow offices Mr. Redburn and Mr. Flint, Dennis Jesse and Federico De Michelis were vocally solid and appropriately reserved and aloof. They brought a welcome moment of humor to their duet “Don’t like the French.”

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Joshua Hopkins as Billy Budd (front) with Matthew Burns as Dansker. Photo by Amanda Tipton.

Joseph Gaines was a tellingly whiny Squeak and Jonas Hacker suffered convincingly in the unhappy role of the Novice. Benjamin Werley (Red Whiskers), Jonathan Hayes (Donald), Sean Stanton (Bosun) and Brian Kontes (Lt. Ratcliffe) were all fine in their smaller roles. Matthew Burns brought warmth and sympathy as Billy’s truest friend, Dansker. Ethan Conklin made a good impression as the cabin boy, and the Midshipmen and Powder Monkeys were valuable to the success of the production.

Stage director Ken Cazan made creative use of the small stage, using levels and spaces to delineate differences of rank. There was never any doubt where every character stood in the moral hierarchy that lies at the heart of the story.

One negative note, for me: Vere’s apparent heart attack as he was singing his final words struck me as melodramatic and grotesque. It would be better to let the words speak of the approaching end without unnecessarily pounding the point home.

Conductor John Baril, who is CCO’s music director, led the excellent orchestra with great sensitivity. He maintained a careful balance between pit and stage—with help from Britten’s expert orchestration—and kept the opera moving resolutely to its tragic end. He moved more resolutely than most through the sequence of 32 chords that represents Vere’s private conversation with Billy after his trial, a choice possibly shaped by the unusual staging that left Vere onstage throughout.

A special word must be said for the orchestra, who handled Britten’s score beautifully. Although Billy Budd calls for large orchestra, and it was heard with great force when needed, much of the scoring is delicate. There are many wind solos, by saxophone, by flute, by clarinet, by bassoon, and all were wonderfully played.

One final note about the summer’s pair of mainstage productions: Madama Butterfly and Billy Budd are both stories of innocence betrayed. It is fascinating to see this common theme explored in such different musical styles and contexts. This may be just a happy coincidence, but seeing both in one summer deepens the experience of each opera.

Billy Budd continues through Aug. 2 with both evening performances and matinees. Anyone who loves Britten or cares about opera should take the drive up to Central City to hear this relative rarity live.

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Central City Opera
Benjamin Britten: Billy Budd
Libretto by Eric Crozier and E.M. Forster
John Baril, conductor; Ken Cazan, director

CCO House by Ashraf Sewaiilam

Central City Opera House. Photo by Ashraf Sewailam

Remaining performances:

8 p.m. July 19 and 25
2:30 p.m. July 21, 23, 27, 31; Aug. 2

Central City Opera House

Full cast, credits and tickets at the CCO Web page.

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Clean and businesslike, Danzmayr leads CMF orchestra

Pianist Gabriella Montero plays Grieg Concerto and spectacular improvisation

By Peter Alexander July 19 at 12:30 a.m.

Guest conductor David Danzmayr teamed with an impressive Gabriela Montero last night (July 18) at the Colorado Music Festival for an utterly enjoyable Grieg Piano Concerto. Also on the program were Sideriusby Osvaldo Golijov and the Sixth Symphony (Pathétique) of Tchaikovsky.

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David Danzmayr

Danzmayr is a very clear, very business-like conductor. He does not emote on the podium, leaving the emotion largely to the players, which the CMF Festival Orchestra for the most part provided. Like his manner, his performances were distinctly business like—professional, very direct in their interpretation, but not always refined or carefully balanced. At times, he allowed the middle of the texture to become muddy, to the detriment of his interpretations.

The concert opened with Siderius, an eight-minute “Overture for Small Orchestra,” as the composer’s subtitle calls it. Starkly contrasting material—dark menacing chords from the brass and fluttering, repetitive passages in strings and woodwinds—were well delineated. The performance was clean and solid, if cut and dried in effect.

For Grieg, Danzmayr was an attentive accompanist, taking cues from Montero’s Romantic approach to the score. Throughout the first movement, she was at her best in the lyrical, more gentle passages. I heard lovely parts and pieces, but not a whole.

The slow movement opened with gorgeous string sounds and a lovely horn solo, preparing Montero’s delicate, sparkling piano entrance. Long passages of distilled Romantic dreaminess, effectively evoked by the soloist, dominated the movement, with a lively middle interruption.

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Gabriela Montero

In the dance-like finale, Danzmayr found the drama to support Montero’s energetic performance. Except for another lovely, dreamy interlude at the center of the movement, her playing was infectiously buoyant and bouncy, full of contained energy. Here it all added up, making for a delightful performance.

But for Montero, one suspects that the concerts are merely an excuse for what she most likes to do, which is to play improvised encores. Entirely on her own ground, she was spectacular, taking a suggestion from the audience to improvise on “Blue Moon.” After a delicate opening, where she was finding her footing and no doubt thinking of possibilities, she gave first an impressively contrapuntal Bach/Liszt version, followed by a raggy Scott Joplin variation that was breathtaking.

The second half of the concert was taken with the Tchaikovsky symphony. In the first movement, Danzmayr led the orchestra through the shifting sands of Tchaikovsky’s many contrasting musical episodes with a clear sense of the road map. From the beginning the orchestra pulsed with a nervous energy that paid off as the movement continued; many delicate moments were beautifully shaped. But once again a murky texture marred many passages.

The five-beat “waltz” of the second movement was workmanlike, elevated by moments of great grace and flow. The third movement march was brisk, with a lot of compelling forward motion but an absence of careful balance among sections. The movement built impressively to the climactic ending, with the usual result—a burst of applause from the audience.

The finale was rough-hewn but passionate. Danzmayr was attuned to the tragic impulses and suggestions in the music. With careful attention to the destination, Danzmayr let symphony end, as it must, fading mysteriously and fatally into silence.

The program will be repeated tonight (July 19) at 7:30 p.m. at the Chautauqua Auditorium—most likely with an all new, unique, one-time-only improvisation by Montero. Tickets are available though the Chautauqua Box Office.

Central City opens 2019 festival with a deeply moving Butterfly

In title role, Raquel Gonzáles leads a strong cast

By Peter Alexander July 8 at 2:45 p.m.

Central City Opera opened its 2019 festival season Saturday (July 6) with a powerful and dramatic Madama Butterfly.

The scene and costume design by Dany Lyne were first used in 2005, in a production directed by the soprano Catherine Malfitano. She has sung the role of Butterfly, and she appeared in her first operatic role at the CCO in 1972 so it was natural for her to return to Central City 33 years later for her directorial debut. The physical production was used again in 2010, and for this year’s production directed by Alison Moritz.

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Butterfly’s Entrance, Act I of Madama Butterfly. Photo by Amanda Tipton, courtesy of Central City Opera.

The scenery is minimal but lovely, and the open design allows for considerable flexibility in representing different spaces in Butterfly’s house, where all action takes place. The costumes are effective and appropriate throughout; those for Butterfly’s family in the first act are strikingly colorful, standing out beautifully against the set. Moritz made creative use of the limited space available on the Central City stage, giving the audience an effective and deeply moving interpretation.

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Raquel González as Butterfly

As Butterfly, Raquel González shone within a generally strong cast. Her beautiful voice was used to good effect for both musical and dramatic expression. To mention but a few details: she started softly and hesitantly, befitting a 15-year-old girl who has been sold into marriage. But once she and Pinkerton were alone, both her singing and Moritz’s sensitive direction revealed her growing passion.

Her strength and volume grew throughout the long love duet, symbolizing her growing confidence, swelling to her greatest volume on the very last note of the act. In the second act, her voice was aglow when she thought Pinkerton was returning, then lost all warmth and color when she realized that he was not coming back.

One final note: her death scene is hard to get right, but her hesitation when she heard Pinkerton’s voice, her resolve to go ahead with suicide, the staging of her ritual death were terribly realistic, avoiding the empty clichés that too many productions resort to. This amplifies the impact of the ending, which was reserved, tellingly, for just Pinkerton and Butterfly.

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Cody Austin as Pinkerton. Photo by Amanda Tipton, courtesy of Central City Opera.

Cody Austin’s Pinkerton was strong, direct, and touched with the swagger of a feckless young naval officer. His voice was powerful and well heard throughout, with a bright tenor sound that developed a harsher edge when pushed at the top. The thoughtless Pinkerton is not an ingratiating role, but Austin managed to make him both attractive enough in his casual manner to be a believable lover, and callous enough to heighten the pitch of Butterfly’s tragedy. This is a difficult and crucial line to observe, and both Moritz as director and Austin as actor/singer found a good balance.

Troy Cook was a forthright, steady presence, vocally and dramatically, as the American consul Sharpless. His part contains no vocal fireworks, since he suffers none of the violent passions, but his solid baritone was comfortingly smooth throughout. The conscience of the opera, he came across as sympathetic, frustrated, then angry with Pinkerton, in this respect standing in for the audience.

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Act II: Raquel González (l), Annie Rosen (r), and Isla Burdette (kneeling). Photo by Amanda Tipton, courtesy of Central City Opera.

Suzuki is an absolutely vital role that is too easy to take for granted. Annie Rosen was exemplary as Butterfly’s servant, her warm sound as comforting and reliable as Suzuki’s love and support for her mistress. In the context of Butterfly’s Japanese environment, she is the understanding common woman who observes Butterfly’s unwavering love for an American with sympathy and apprehension. She was in fact the ideal comprimario, as roles are called that are identified as being “with the primary” characters—musically supportive, solid as a duet partner, never outshining the star.

Joseph Gaines was just obsequious and servile enough as Goro the marriage broker. He sang clearly, with just a touch of the oily flatterer in his sound. Brian Kontes made a very strong impression as the Bonze. His denunciation of Butterfly’s conversion to Christianity was imperious, vocally the curse of a religious tyrant. Thaddeus Ennen sang well in the thankless role of Prince Yamadori, and Christina Pezzarossi was effective in the even more thankless role of Kate Pinkerton.

I should devote a few words to Isla Burdette, the child who played “Trouble,” Butterfly’s son. She had more to do than is often the case, and she carried it off like a pro—perhaps reflecting the fact that her father, Kevin Burdette, is an opera singer? (He will be heard later in the CCO production of Britten’s Billy Budd.) I cannot resist the emotional tug of children on stage, and she is one of the best I have seen.

Conductor Adam Turner had all of the flexibility, the push and pull of tempos and emotional turns of Puccini’s score well in hand. The orchestra played with sensitivity and great expression, especially in the tender moments of the score. The humming chorus and orchestra interlude in Act II were especially beautiful.

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Stage director Alison Moritz

But it is the stage direction and deeply human, emotive performances that carried the night. There were many small touches that brought the characters to life—the photographer who records the marriage party, so that Butterfly later has a framed photo on hand; the costumes that showed the westernization of Japan in the early years of the 20thcentury, thus highlighting the cultural clash that underlies the story.

For me, the most telling detail was Butterfly’s mother, clinging tearfully to her daughter when the family abandons her after the Bonze’s denunciation. This wrenching moment makes clear the totality of Butterfly’s isolation when Pinkerton leaves Japan. In comments before the performance, Moritz said that she wanted to make Madama Butterfly “a story about a family.” In this and other moments she succeeded, devastatingly.

Madama Butterfly continues at Central City Opera through Aug. 4 (see dates below). Tickets are available through the CCO Web page.

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CCO House by Ashraf Sewaiilam

Central City Opera House. Photo by Ashraf Sewialam

Giacomo Puccini: Madama Butterfly
Adam Tuner, conductor; Allison Moritz, director

Remaining performances:
8 p.m. 18, 26 and 30
2:30 p.m. July 10, 12, 14, 16, 20, 24, 28; Aug. 1 and 4
Central City Opera House

Full cast, credits, and tickets here.

 

Revised 7.10.19 to include production photos, courtesy of Central City Opera.

Colorado Music Festival gets off to a festive beginning

First concert has everything you could want for opening night

By Peter Alexander June 28 at 12:25 a.m.

The Colorado Music Festival got off to a genuinely festive start last night (June 27).

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CMF Festival Orchestra—photo by Michael Quam

The opening night concert, conducted by Peter Oundjian with pianist Natasha Paremski as soloist, had everything you could want for opening night: spectacular orchestral fireworks, a virtuosic concerto with a virtuoso soloist, and not one but two exciting overtures.

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CMF Music Director Peter Oundjian

To judge by the performance, Oundjian is not afraid to let loose the horses—meaning the impressively solid and forceful brass section of the CMF Festival Orchestra—when called for. More on that later, but the entire orchestra made a very strong impression. Let us hope that Oundjian has steadied the festival after several awkward transitions, and will carry CMF forward on a consistent and high artistic level.

The program, which will be repeated at 7:30 p.m. tonight (June 28) in the Chautauqua Auditorium, began with a clean, solid performance of Beethoven’s Overture to Egmont. Oundjian paced the performance well, bringing out the contrasts of dynamics and tempo leading to a powerful “Victory Symphony” to end the overture.

Egmont’s presence on the program reflects the summer’s theme, “Beethoven’s Path to the Future,” wherein many of the concerts will include a work by Beethoven, and then pieces that in some way reflect Beethoven’s foreshadowing of later musical developments.

The meaning of that theme was best described by Oundjian in his remarks at the concert. It’s not that Beethoven directly influenced every composer that came after him; rather, he said, “Beethoven gave license to future composers” to follow their inspiration in unexpected directions.

The short overture was followed by a very long break while the piano was brought on stage and chairs repositioned for Paremski and the Rachmaninoff Second Piano Concerto. The break was too long; however awkward it might look, I would prefer to have the piano onstage during the overture, with the lid down, than to have so much dead time between pieces.

As a great and much-loved Romantic concerto, the Rachmaninoff Second fit this program’s theme, “Beethoven’s Path to Romanticism.” Paremski played with an appropriately big sound without crossing into an abrasive tone quality, and from the very beginning was in total command of the score. Oundjian brought out the surging orchestral climaxes, although there were moments when the pianist’s efforts were more seen than heard.

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Natasha Paremski

Best of all was the second movement, especially the chamber-like passages, including some lovely woodwind solos that are essentially accompanied by rippling arpeggios in the piano. All the shifting moods of the Romantic palette were effectively expressed in this movement, and Paremski’s fleet passagework and sparkling trills were the icing on a very fine cake.

The finale was impressive from pianist and orchestra, fast, exciting and well controlled. Once again the CMF horses came blazing out of the corral, this time without obscuring the soloist, and the brilliant ending garnered the expected ovation.

After intermission, the orchestra returned for the Overture to Verdi’s melodramatic opera La forza del destino (The force of destiny). Oundjian steered the orchestra successfully through the overture’s many shifting moods. All the drama, pathos and nervous energy of the highly episodic piece were present and well expressed. This overture is not often heard in the concert hall, so it was a real pleasure to hear it so well performed by Oundjian and the CMF players.

Respighi’s Pines of Rome, which ended the concert, is the perfect piece to show off the Festival Orchestra’s strengths. The scintillating first movement (Pines of the Villa Borghese) was a brilliant explosion of orchestral colors. The second and third movements (portraying pines near a catacomb and on the Janiculum, respectively) featured beautiful solo wind playing—a haunting, lyrical trumpet in the second, a delicate and utterly exposed clarinet, along with flute, and oboe plus a solo cello in the third.

But it is the final movement, the grand and forceful crescendo of the Pines of the Appian Way, portraying the inexorable advance of a Roman Legion, that everyone remembers from Respighi’s colorful score. Here it was relentless and loud and utterly exciting—just what is wanted to start a season. You have one more chance to hear this program: don’t miss it.

Tickets to tonight’s concert are available through the Chautauqua Box Office.

 

The serious and the comic: John Adams and Rossini in Santa Fe

Dr. Atomic and L’Italiana in Algeri both influenced by the weather

By Peter Alexander Aug. 7 at 10:40 p.m.

There are a few American composers whose operas are important events, and John Adams is one. When you combine Adams with the sensational stage director Peter Sellars, you have an event of international importance.

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Dr. Atomic: Ryan McKinny (Robert Oppenheimer) and the Santa Fe Opera Chorus. Photo by Ken Howard for Santa Fe Opera.

That’s the case this summer at the Santa Fe Opera, where Adams’ 2005 opera Dr. Atomic, with a libretto assembled by Sellars, is presented in a powerful, searing production that Sellars directed. It is not to be missed.

Nominally a historical opera that takes place in 1945 and dramatizes events surrounding the world’s first nuclear test, the opera features recognizable historical characters. But here Dr. Atomic has been transformed by Sellars into an aspirationally universal piece about humanity and nuclear weapons, apart from time. Thus everyone is generically costumed, J. Robert Oppenheimer has been stripped of his characteristic hat and cigarette, and the atomic bomb is represented by a large, shiny silver ball rather than a replica of the first bomb.

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Peter Sellars. Photo by Peter Alexander.

In a pre-performance conversation, Sellars explained: “There are no 1945 references (in the production) because nuclear history did not end in 1945.” Instead, he wants the audience to recognize that the nuclear tests are still with us, in the air, the water, the soil, and our bodies. Thus the generic bomb dominates every scene, its mirrored surface reflecting the audience to remind us of the nuclear issues in our own lives, from the fallout that devastated so many of the “downwinders”—people who lived downwind from the tests and who are plagued by cancer to this day—to the never-ending threat of global nuclear war.

Performing the opera within sight of Los Alamos, where the research for the bomb was carried out and the first scenes of the opera take place, Sellars wanted to face larger questions of history. Thus, there are downwinders who carry radiation-linked cancers in their bodies standing on stage as silent witnesses to several scenes. Their presence deepens the opera’s meaning in a wrenchingly human way.

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Downwinders with Ryan McKinny (Oppenheimer), Daniel Okulitch (General Groves) and ensemble. Photo by Ken Howard for Santa Fe Opera.

I found the effort to universalize the opera understandable, at times affecting, But I could never disconnect the characters and events that I recognize from the time and place where they happened. Others, for whom those events loom less large in the memory, may react differently.

Also incorporated into the production are native dancers from three pueblos in the Los Alamos/Santa Fe area, presenting a sacred corn dance before the performance and later onstage during the opera. The Corn Dance added a spiritual perspective to the evening from of the people who lived on these lands first, but their later presence on stage was a distraction from the central story.

I described the libretto as having been assembled by Sellars. In fact, every word comes from documentary history, including wiretaps of phone conversations, or from poetry that Oppenheimer knew. This has a distancing effect in many scenes, since the words often do not sound like real conversations. It does provide authenticity, but binds the opera more closely to the events of 1945.

The night I attended the performance, a massive thunderstorm rolled over the theater just after the start of the first act. The wind-blown downpour could be seen whipping horizontally across the stage. Black-clad stage hands mopped the floor between scenes. The storm lasted into the night, but subsided into a more gentle rain before the end of Act I.

This corresponded in an eerie way with the subject of the opera. A critical dramatic element is a thunderstorm that threatened the 1945 test, and at one point in the opera General Groves orders the Army meteorologist to deliver the forecast he wants, “or I will hang you.” There were several moments of unintentional hilarity, as when Groves entered the stage at the height of the actual storm and demanded, in his very first line, “What the Hell’s wrong with the weather?”

Less humorously, conductor Matthew Aucoin reported that “many of the string players during Act I were compelled to stop playing for parts of the performance in order to avoid water damage to their instruments.” The music remained mostly effective, but when singers and players are being drenched, it is difficult to offer a fair appraisal of the performance.

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Julia Bullock (Kitty Oppenheimer). Photo by Ken Howard for Santa Fe Opera.

Adams’ wind and percussion-dominated orchestral music is compelling, even without a full compliment of strings, and powerfully conveys the drama of the scientists and military personnel who were entering an entirely unknown realm in 1945, under punishing pressure from military and political events. His vocal music I find less successful: sometimes dramatic, occasionally lyrical, rarely memorable in itself.

The cast of Santa Fe’s Dr. Atomic delivered a performance to remember, overcoming conditions in the first act, unencumbered in the second. Soprano Julia Bullock was outstanding as Kitty Oppenheimer, the deeply troubled alcoholic wife of the title character. She managed all of the extreme vocal leaps that Adams requires, and even at the height of the storm sang with tender lyricism for her Act I duet with Oppenheimer. In her portrayal Kitty is a fascinating and multi-layered character.

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Ryan McKinny (Robert Oppenheimer) and Daniel Okulitch (General Groves). Photo by Ken Howard for Santa Fe Opera.

Ryan McKinney was more generic as Oppenheimer. So much of the operatic role is reactive—to pressures from General Groves and to issues raised by other scientists—that Oppenheimer on stage never seems to cause anything to happen. This perception is not helped by his one big scene, the aria from John Donne “Batter my heart, three person’d God,” which is a cry of despair in the face of overwhelming events.

McKinney sang solidly and with commitment, and with real power in “Batter My Heart,” but his expression seemed not to change. The one exception was his quiet conversation about diet with General Groves, a much needed moment of relaxation and comic relief. Once the storm subsided in the second act, his performance seemed more nuanced.

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Dancers, Meredith Arwady (Pasqualita), Ben Bliss (Robert Wilson), and Tim Mix (Frank Hubbard). Photo by Ken Howard for Santa Fe Opera.

Daniel Okulitch also faced a challenge as Groves. So much of his role, as recorded in the documents, is military bluster that he can easily become one-dimensional. For Groves too, the scene with Oppenheimer gives humanity to the character. Okulitch sang with full voiced authority, even if he lacks the physical bulk to carry off the notion that he is struggling with his weight.

Meredith Arwady was a brooding presence as the Oppenheimers’ Native-American housekeeper Pasqualita. Her full-voiced contralto was magnificently deep and imposing in the lowest reaches of a low-lying part, only occasionally strained at the top.

The generic costuming makes it hard to tell one from another among the scientists and military. Mackenzie Gotcher created a warm and sympathetic character for the medical officer James Nolen, and Tim Mix was solid as the much maligned meteorologist Frank Hubbard. Andrew Harris as the renegade Edward Teller and Benjamin Bliss as the conscience-stricken Robert Wilson filled out the cast capably.

The performance includes four dancers choregraphed by Emily Johnson. Their movements sometimes reflected the music eloquently, sometimes seemed odd. Aucoin never let the tension subside, managing the orchestral swerves from storm-driven ferocity to rare moments of gentleness. Under his direction, the Santa Fe orchestra played Adams’s score with power and precision.

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The skies were clear for Rossini’s L’Italiana in Algeri (The Italian Girl in Algiers), performed the night after the Dr. Atomic downpour, but that storm had an impact nonetheless.

The performance ended up being delayed about 20 minutes, apparently due to problems with the lighting system resulting from the downpour. But once it got underway, L’Italiana—a revival of a production first performed at SFO in 2002, with Shawna Lucey as a new stage director—provided non-stop Rossinian high spirits and fun.

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L’Italiana in Algeri: Cast and chorus in designer Robert Innes Hopkins’ pop-up palace. Photo by Ken Howard for Santa Fe Opera.

The production steps out of time, with the Italian girl arriving by early 20th-century biplane, looking very much like Amelia Earhart (with her “uncle” Taddeo as Fred Noonan, one supposes) and the other female aviators of the 1930s, and Bey Mustafà in a Gaddafi-style uniform from the 1980s or ‘90s. It is all very colorful, with costume excess of all kinds, and designer Robert Innes Hopkins’s set itself adds to the humor with a pop-up palace out of Arabian Nights.

There could be no better conclusion to a week of high-desert opera in Santa Fe.

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Daniela Mack (Isabella) arrives by biplane. Photo by Ken Howard for Santa Fe Opera.

L’Italiana in Algeri was Rossini’s first great success, written over 27 days in 1813, when he was just 21. And if you want to know why he became the rage of Europe almost overnight, all you have to do is watch the Act I finale (“Confusi e stupidi”), which ends with sheer operatic madness, the assembled cast singing “Caw, Caw, Caw,” “Ding, Ding, Ding,” “Ta, Ta, Ta,” and “Boom, Boom, Boom,” all at an impossible and hilarious pace. No finale—and Rossini wrote several more great ones—ever surpassed that.

Isabella’s entrance as aviator immediately establishes her as person to be reckoned with, while Taddeo—the admirer who is traveling as her “uncle”—is immediately shown as a bit of a buffoon, which makes him a great comic character if not a role model.

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Patrick Carfizzi (Taddeo, aka the Grand Kaimakan). Photo by Ken Howard for Santa Fe Opera.

Both were portrayed to comic perfection. Daniela Mack was a superb Isabella, singing with clarity and solidity of voice in one of the great contralto roles in opera. A lot of her stage directions were stock comic material, but always carried off with verve and style, and always rewarded with laughter from the audience. No one could have tied the men in knots better—something that was funny in one way in 1813, but is both funny and satisfying today.

Patrick Carfizzi was an ideal Taddeo, bringing a solid voice and a great comic manner to his performance. Taddeo’s cluelessness, his bafflement, and his obstinacy when Mustafà wants him to exit the scene were delightful. He was funny every time he was on stage, particularly in the ridiculous getup as the Bey’s “Grand Kaimakan.”

Jack Swanson was a satisfying Lindoro, light and agile of voice. His ability in the fast-paced patter numbers was impressive, and he warmed up through the evening with his rapid passagework. Scott Conner was a blustering Mustafà, comically delicious if not as fleet-footed with the patter. Other roles—Stacy Geyer as Elvira, Suzanne Hendrix as Zulma, Craig Verm as Haly—all fit very well into the excellent cast.

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Jack Swanson (Lindoro), Daniela Mack (Isabella), Scott Conner (Mustafa), Stacey Geyer (Elvira), Suzanne Hendrix (Zulma), and Patrick Carfizzi (Taddeo). Photo by Ken Howard for Santa Fe Opera.

The wait for the start may have take a toll on the orchestra, which started the famous overture with slightly fuzzy intonation and balance that were soon set aright. Conductor Corrado Rovaris set some blistering tempos, which kept the comedy on the boil throughout.

It is hard to go astray with Rossinian comedy, and the Santa Fe production and cast do not. If you need an excuse to make the drive to New Mexico—no more than seven hours from Boulder—you cannot go wrong with L’Italiana in Algeri.

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Finally, if you don’t have time to get to Santa Fe before the 2018 season ends, the SFO has announced its 2019 season. Running from June 28 to Aug. 24, there will be five productions, including one world premiere:

The Thirteenth Child by Poul Rudders (world premiere; based on a little-known tale from the Brothers Grimm)
La Bohème by Puccini
The Pearl Fishers by Bizet
Così fan tutte by Mozart
Jenůfa by Janáček

There will also be a one-night-only performance by Renée Fleming Aug. 10. Subscription renewals are currently available; single tickets go on sale to the general public in January, 2019.

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John Crosby Theater at the Santa Fe Opera. Photo by Kate Russell.

Not only is attending opera in Santa Fe Opera’s beautiful John Crosby theater an extraordinary experience, the high desert air is healthy and the food in Santa Fe is incomparable. If you need recommendations, let me know.

EDITED 8/8 for clarity and to correct typos

Santa Fe Opera I: Three well imagined and beautifully rendered productions

Madama Butterfly, Candide and Ariadne auf Naxos 

By Peter Alexander Aug. 5 at 4:50 p.m.

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Santa Fe Opera Theater with Jemez Mountains. Photo by Robert Godwin.

A highlight of the Santa Fe Opera’s 2018 season is a beautiful and well-conceived production of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly.  

The design features a simple and utilitarian unit set, with a rotating cube to which sliding walls are attached to create the house. The New Mexico landscape behind the stage provides a backdrop from which Butterfly and her family climb up to the house in the first act. The night I was there nature outdid any lighting man could design, as the stage gradually darkened into twilight, ending with real stars in the sky as Pinkerton and Butterfly sang their ecstatic love duet.

No greater magic could be created.

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Butterfly’s house, Acts II and III. Ana María Martínez as Butterfly. Photo by Ken Howard for Santa Fe Opera.

The production is firmly placed in the time the opera was written, the early years of the 20th century. One of the themes is the passage of time between Acts I and II. In those three years, industrialization is taking place in Japan, represented by the replacement of the garden outside Butterfly’s house by light poles and telephone wires. The neighborhood is going downhill and the house itself is visibly getting shabby.

Butterfly is dressed in simple western clothes in the final acts—a blouse and straight skirt—representing her claim to be an American. Suzuki looks more frail and care-worn. Pinkerton, when he enters at the end of the opera, is in a grander uniform than in the first act, suggesting promotion in the past three years. This kind of attention to detail is reflected in many other touches that add meaning and deepen characterization.

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Ana María Martínez (Butterfly) and Joshua Guerrero (Pinkerton). Photo by Ken Howard  for Santa Fe Opera.

Ana María Martínez (replacing Kelly Kaduce, who took the role June 30 and July 20) was a stunning Butterfly, especially in the second and third acts when she showed more maturity and resolve than the first-act child bride that we are familiar with. She floated her high notes flawlessly, especially in the quintessential “Un bel dì,” and was moving throughout.

Joshua Guerrero’s Pinkerton negotiated the tricky but essential line between the callow and thoughtless cad who uses Butterfly for his pleasure and the Romantic lover who sings one of opera’s great duets at the end of Act I. In this he was helped by director Matthew Ozawa, who gave Pinkerton two silent buddies with whom he could play the average joe before Butterfly’s entrance, at which point he spruced up his dress and his manners. In this context his tenderness toward Butterfly seemed neither insincere nor affected, but rather the normal behavior of a heedless young naval officer.

Guerrero (another replacement, for A.J. Glueckert who performed earlier) made these different aspects of Pinkerton believable. His voice was solid, soaring when needed, earnest and expressive throughout.

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Megan Marino as Suzuki. Ken Howard for Santa Fe Opera

In an affecting performance, Lyons resident Megan Marino brought some real individuality to Suzuki, both wise and caring. During Butterfly’s vigil for Pinkerton’s return, she stayed apart, observing Butterfly and her son, rather than taking part herself. Later, a moment apart with Kate Pinkerton showed that she was more than a bystander. She sang with deep expression, making her a crucial element of the story.

Nicholas Pallesen was a sympathetic Sharpless, compassionate but helpless to prevent the tragedy that he so clearly foresees. His solid voice supported the characterization well. Matthew DiBattista was appropriately obsequious in voice and manner as Goro the marriage broker. Kenneth Stavert was effective as the besotted Prince Yamadori, and Soloman Howard brought vocal heft and menace to the Bonze. The orchestra under John Fiore played with flexibility and style.

Two other decisions need comment. For some reason, the performance returns to the text of the very first performance in using the name F.B. Pinkerton, announced by the Imperial Commissioner as the utterly non-American “Sir Francis Blummy Pinkerton.” Today, we usually hear “Benjamin Franklin Pinkerton,” which was introduced for the opera’s successful second run. Authenticity is fine, but Puccini accepted Benjamin Franklin Pinkerton, which is more familiar, and sounds better as well.

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Paulino Rivera-Torres (Trouble), Ana María Martínez (Butterfly), and Joshua Guerrero (Pinkerton). Photo by Ken Howard for Santa Fe Opera.

And at the very end, when Pinkerton rushes in to find the lifeless Butterfly, their son (“Trouble” in the cast list, called “Sorrow” in the performance) picks up the knife that she has just used for her suicide and points it toward his father. This is unlikely, perhaps, from a child who according to the timeline is only two, but it reminds us that he does not know his father, and the reunion may not have a happy outcome for the traumatized child. We can imagine that his life may have both trouble and sorrow

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Leonard Bernstein’s Candide has a difficult history, and it remains a difficult work to bring off. The Santa Fe Opera is presenting what they identify as the “Scottish Opera—Old Vic Version,” and they credit no fewer than seven authors, “after Voltaire.” The original Broadway production in 1956 was considered a flop, and since then there have been many attempts to revise and fix the show, up through this version from 1988, leading to the multiple credited authors.

There is no question that the show contains some brilliant music, at least half a dozen numbers as good as anything Bernstein ever wrote. It’s the rest of the show that is the problem, leading to endless choices of what to include and what to leave out, and how to get from one scene to the next in the episodic plot line.

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Alek Shrader (Candide), Brenda Rae (Cunegonde) and Kevin Burdette (Voltaire/Pangloss). Photo by Ken Howard for Santa Fe Opera

Not only is the plot episodic, the characters are cardboard cutouts serving a satirical purpose, in both the original Voltaire novella and the Broadway show. They are always amusing, with many laughs in the text, but they are not real people that we can identify with as they bounce from Westphalia to Portugal to Paris to South America to Constantinople to Venice.

At Santa Fe I heard all the music that I expected to hear, and quite a bit I had never heard before. Some of the material new to me is first-rate, but some is only serviceable. In the end, the show could be trimmed by 20 or 30 minutes and not lose any impact.

That said, Santa Fe Opera’s Candide is pure entertainment. Conductor Harry Bicket keeps it all moving at a Broadway pace that never flags. The production hits the right satirical tone, and the cast is uniformly very good. Not all the jokes are in good taste, but neither was Voltaire in his day. In that way, the script honors its source.

The set designed by Chantal Thomas uses oversized books and sheaves of paper as screnes for vivid projections. Director Laurent Pelly’s costumes are over-the-top 18th-century, turning the beautiful Cunegonde and her supercilious brother Maximillian into a pair of Dresden figurines. The Baron and Baroness were hilariously costumed as their own singing portraits. Voltaire/Pangloss, the narrator that fills in gaps in the story, changes costumes so often he is hard to keep up with, but all to comic effect—every time he takes off his wig you know something new and more outrageous is coming.

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Helene Schneiderman (Old Lady) and the Santa Fe Opera chorus. Photo by Ken Howard for Santa Fe Opera.

Cunegonde is even more crucial to the success of Candide than the title character, and Brenda Rae has the brilliant high range and boundless energy to illuminate the part. Her “Glitter and Be Gay” was scintillating. Alek Shrader was a fine Candide, making the transition from utter naïveté at the outset to the wisest person onstage by the end, when he launches the well known resolution, that everyone should chill and “Make Our Garden Grow.”

Kevin Burdette I found a trifle mannered as Voltaire, perhaps to differentiate the French satirist from the other half of his role as the foolish Dr. Pangloss, whose philosophy of optimism was Voltaire’s target. Jarrett Ott was every bit as ridiculous as he needed to be as Maximilian. Helene Schneiderman was delightful in the wonderful character role of The Old Lady who has only one buttock. The jokes write themselves, but she delivered them with comic aplomb and sang her signature piece, “I am Easily Assimilated,” with earthy relish. Gina Perregrino was deliciously flirty as Paquette. The rest of the cast, many of them filling multiple roles, were all first-rate Broadway-style singer/actors.

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“Make our Garden Grow”: The Cast of Candide and SFO Chorus. Photo by Ken Howard for Santa Fe Opera.

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Another opera with a complicated history is Richard Strauss’ Ariadne Auf Naxosoriginally written as a companion to Molière’s satirical comedy Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme. In this form a full performance required both stage actors and opera singers, and it never found an audience. Eventually Strauss’ Ariadne was turned into a standalone opera by the addition of a prologue that takes place backstage before a performance of the original opera.

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Set for Act II of Ariadne auk Naxos: Samantha Gossard (Dryade), Meryl Dominguez (Najade), Sarah Tucker (Echo), and Amanda Echalaz (Prima Donna/Ariadne). Photo by Ken Howard for Santa Fe Opera.

That version is still challenging, because the two parts are so utterly different. First is the backstage prologue, featuring a young composer and an assortment of theatrical characters—the music master, opera singers, a wig maker, members of a commedia dell’arte troop, and servants in the home of “the richest man in Vienna” where the fictional young composer’s opera is to be performed. The backstage story is followed by a performance of the opera within the opera, also titled Ariadne auf Naxos, incongruously interrupted by the commedia players.

Like Candide, this hybrid comes out of 18th-century satire. Molière’s play skewered the smug self-satisfaction of the uncultured nouveau riche. As reimagined by Strauss and librettist Hugo von Hofmannsthal, the very wealthy but tasteless patron capriciously demands that the high-art opera he commissioned be performed simultaneously with the low comedy of the commedia players.

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Liv Redpath as Zerbinetta and Amanda Majeski as the Composer. Photo by
Ken Howard for Santa Fe Opera

This dramatic stew contains two major ingredients stirred together with plentiful spice from libretto and music. One ingredient, the characters in the backstage drama—especially the composer and the comic actress Zerbinetta—are real enough, but the operatic characters, based on Greek mythology, are no more than abstract philosophical propositions in human form.

In Santa Fe’s production, directed by Tim Albery, various means are used to distinguish the ingredients. The real-world prologue is performed in English, whereas the music of the opera proper is sung in German. To maintain the distinction between real and operatic worlds, the commedia dell’arte intrusions into the opera are mostly sung in English. But things get a bit confused, since Zerbinetta’s fantastic coloratura set piece in the middle of the second act (“Grossmächtige Prinzessin”) and other interruptions by the commedia players (Harlequin’s “Lieben, Hassen”) are sung in the original German, possibly because these numbers are both well known.

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The Backstage Prologue, Ariadne auf Naxos ensemble. Photo by Ken Howard for Santa Fe Opera.

The distinction between real world and opera is also brought out by the set and costume designs of Tobias Hoheisel. The backstage set is literal, slightly grubby like backstages everywhere, whereas the second act opera set is as abstract as the characters, starting as shapes of white and gray, then illuminated in different colors.

The generally strong cast made the performance a pleasure. Liv Redpath was flirty and fetching in the critical role of Zerbinetta. Her seduction of the self-important composer was utterly believable, and she negotiated her daunting coloratura comfortably—even when asked to walk backwards, up a narrow and steepening ramp, in high heels, while singing! (Don’t try this at home!)

Amanda Majeski was equally impressive in the trousers role of the composer, one of many such roles that Strauss’ favored with gorgeous music, singing the soaring, lyrical lines with power and beauty of sound. Her demeanor was perfectly that of the aloof artist, deeply impressed with his own role in “The Holy Art of Song.” She made his youthful pretensions both slightly preposterous and touching.

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Amanda Echalaz (Ariadne), perched in her bowl. Photo by Ken Howard for Santa Fe Opera

The Prima Donna/Ariadne role was ably filled by Amanda Echalaz. In the opera, she spent most of her time almost immobile in a steep-walled bowl, representing Ariadne’s cave, which cannot be comfortable. When her moments came to sing, she demonstrated a rich dark sound in the lower parts of her range and sang smoothly in lyrical passages, but tended to surge to the edge of control in higher registers. Her closing duet with Bacchus was especially strong.

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The commedia players with Ariadne (Amanda Echalaz). Photo by Ken Howard for Santa Fe Opera.

Bruce Sledge brought a ringing heldentenor sound to the role of The Tenor/Bacchus, standing and singing effectively enough but too often physically static. The male quartet of commedia players sang and acted with comic panache. Baritone Jarrett Ott sang strongly as Harlequin and bass Anthony Robin Schneider was impressive as Truffaldino, alongside praiseworthy tenors Matthew DiBattista and Terrence Chin-Loy as Scaramuccio and Brighella. The trio of Meryl Dominguez, Samantha Gossard and Sarah Tucker managed their parts well as Najade, Dryade and Echo.

Appearing only in the prologue, Brenton Ryan was a stylish and pleasing dancing master. Rod Gilfry was effectively commanding as the music master, and Kevin Burdette was appropriately condescending in the spoken role of the Major-Domo.

The orchestra under conductor James Gaffigan was outstanding. The intricate woodwind solos that provide color and buoyancy to the score were wonderfully played, and the sound was well controlled, rich but never overbearing.

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Photo by Kate Russell for Santa Fe Opera

The Santa Fe Opera season continues through August 25, with performances of all of the season’s operas in repertory (see full calendar). Reviews of the summer’s other operas—John Adams’s Dr. Atomic and Rossini’s Italian Girl in Algiers—will appear here soon.

Michelle DeYoung in an intimate voice-and-piano recital at CMF

World premiere of songs by Timothy Collins a highlight of the program

By Peter Alexander July 29 at 12:20 a.m.

Mezzo-soprano Michelle DeYoung, the 2018 SeiSolo artist-in-residence at the Colorado Music Festival, lent her impressive voice to an intimate song recital, last night (July 28) in the Chautauqua Auditorium. Performing with her was pianist Cody Garrison.

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Michelle DeYoung

The highlight of the recital was the world premiere of a cycle of songs written for DeYoung by Australian composer Timothy Collins. Earlier in the residency, DeYoung had given the world premiere of an orchestral song cycle by Collins, Buch des Sängers (The singer’s book), also composed for DeYoung.

Collins, himself a singer, clearly knows DeYoung’s voice. The four songs of the new cycle, Love’s Crusade, fit her strengths very well. Just as clearly, DeYoung also knows that; these were the most relaxed, the most natural performances of the evening.

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Timothy Collins

The texts of the four songs are taken from four very different sources: one a translation of a poem by German poet Friedrich Rückert; one a setting from Shakespeare; and two texts newly written by Collins. Of the four, the Rückert song (“If you love me”) was by far the sweetest, the most gently affecting. DeYoung sang with great conviction and unforced expression.

The final song, with Collins’ text, was inspired by DeYoung’s Wagnerian credentials. The composer introduced it by observing that she is “the ideal Brunnhilde.” Titled “Warrior Queen,” it is a Viking-like call to arms by a queen who defends her husband’s realm. I found the text rather conventional for this genre (“Lift your hearts, we ride together! . . . . For country! For the King!”). Dramatic as it is, this is the least interesting music of the cycle, static and declamatory. But unquestionably, DeYoung has the voice and the demeanor for this song, and the final cries “For the King!” rang clear and full throughout the large Chautauqua Auditorium.

The two central songs of the set—“Fear No More” on Shakespeare, and Collins’ “Kentucky Coffee Tree”—set the texts sensitively, and elicited expressive performances from DeYoung. The cycle as a whole is nicely varied, and received a warm response from the audience.

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Michelle DeYoung

Earlier on the program, DeYoung had presented sets of songs by Brahms, Strauss and Samuel Barber. The “ideal Brunnhilde” is not a natural lieder (art song) singer, and at times she was audibly restraining the power in her voice, as though her dramatic force might overflow at any moment. She was at her best in the more dramatic songs, where she could open up more.

The majority of the songs she selected were moderate to slow in tempo and melancholic in temperament. The darkness and natural richness of her voice fits these moods well, giving weight to the music. Nevertheless, the emotional sameness made the exceptions all the more enjoyable: Brahms’ “Mein Liebe ist grün” (My love is green) and Barber’s “Green Lowland of Pianos,” on a witty text by the Polish poet Czesław Miłosz.

After the premiere of the Collins cycle, DeYoung returned to sing as an encore an arrangement of another song written for her by Collins, one of the songs from Buch des Sängers. Completely at ease with music written to suit her individual voice, she sang comfortably and with expression. She was rewarded with cheers from the audience and the obligatory standing ovation.

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Pianist Cody Garrison

A multi-talented artist, Cody Garrison is staff accompanist at Metropolitan State University in Denver and the Boulder Symphony, and the principal collaborative pianist for the Boulder Music Institute, in addition to maintaining a dental practice in Denver. His performance with DeYoung was ever discreet and restrained. While attentive to the leading lines in his part, he never brought out more than necessary or pushed the soloist in any way.

DeYoung will perform one more time at CMF this summer, when she sings the “Abschied” movement from Mahler’s Lied von der Erde (Song of the earth) with conductor Peter Oundjian and the CMF orchestra tonight. Her recording of this deeply moving, elegiac piece is one of the best I have ever heard. Tickets are still available at the Chautauqua box office.