Story of a friendship that bridges suffering during Afghan wars
By Peter Alexander March 6 at 11:48 p.m.
Seattle Opera has premiered a powerful and deeply affecting new opera by the composer Sheila Silver.
A Thousand Splendid Suns, which premiered at McCaw Hall Feb. 25, is based on the novel of the same name by Afghan-American writer Khaled Hosseini. It tells the story of Mariam and Leila, two Afghan women a generation apart who share the same abusive husband and forge a friendship that bridges deep suffering and personal sacrifice.
Hosseini’s novel has been skillfully adapted by librettist Stephen Kitsakos, keeping the major characters and focusing the emotional arc of the story. A tough read, the book vividly describes the suffering, especially of women, amidst the horrors of the Soviet-Afghan war and the takeover by the Taliban.
The opera portrays the same events, but Silver’s evocative music provides a sense of beauty that allays some of the brutality inherent in the plot. Silver—a composer previously unknown to me—studied Hindustani music in India for this opera and skillfully incorporates south Asian elements to evoke the setting.
The orchestra, enhanced by various hand drums, Tibetan bowls, bansuri flutes and sparkling percussion, creates moods convincingly. This is especially notable in the beautiful passages depicting nighttime, and at the end, when the otherwise bleak final scene is infused with a bright serenity and hope.
If the vocal lines are less memorable, they fit the text well and are imminently singable, with no treacherous leaps or jagged lines. Extreme registers are reserved for extreme emotions. Duets between Mariam and Laila are especially moving. This is an opera that communicates directly with the audience and should be accessible to most listeners.
Mariam, the older of the two women, carries the emotional weight of the opera, as she progresses from a spirited teenager, through disillusionment to seething resentment and a final moment of fury. Seattle Opera is fortunate to have mezzo-soprano Karin Mushegain for this crucial role. The night I attended (March 3), Mushegain not only carried the opera handily; she provided a vivid portrayal of Mariam at every stage, singing with conviction and strength. Hers is an impressive talent, vocally and dramatically.
Laila is a more conventional operatic part—a young girl overcome with a love that she holds onto and that gives her the courage to survive. Soprano Maureen McKay brought a lovely sound to this more limited role, singing brightly and sensitively. Her love interest, Tariq, has the most conventional music of all. Rafael Moras sang his ardent declarations of love with a soaring Italianate tenor that was not out of place. Laila’s and Tariq’s duets were among the highlights.
Another crucial role is Rasheed, the brutal husband of Mariam and Laila. He is the opera’s villain, treating both women with cruelty. John Moore used his baritone to convey Rasheed’s roughness, but moderated his sound to a more tender, lyrical style, first for Laila and then for his son, whom he favors above his wives and daughter. He so effectively conveyed the ugliness of Rasheed’s character that his death was the first I have seen applauded in an opera house.
Ashraf Sewailam, known to some readers here as a CU graduate and veteran of Central City Opera, portrayed one of the few likable male characters—Laila’s refined and progressive father, Hakim. He sang beautifully, using his resonant bass to create contrast with the violence that surrounds his family. The smaller parts were all filled effectively, raising the entire cast to a high level.
The production was stage directed by Roya Sadat, an Afghan film producer and director who was chosen for her insight into the culture and environment of Afghanistan. She made good use of the space provided by set designer Misha Kachman.
The realism of Kachman’s designs contributed to the impact of the opera, as they recalled photos we have seen of the violence in Afghanistan. Coincidentally, the opera appears just as Taliban control, apparently broken after the opera ends, has returned with renewed oppression of women. Thus A Thousand Splendid Suns is again as timely as ever.
The sets were at times minimal but always highly effective. One scene set in a neighborhood market was especially eye-catching. Deft touches included the turning of the wall of Rasheed’s house to show how the blank exterior conceals the troubled interior. A swing, hung from a disembodied tree branch, served to remind the audience that there were always children near the center of the action.
A special word about lighting designer Jen Schriever: there were moments of mesmerizing beauty in her lighting plot, particularly in the portrayal of night and the colors of the sky. In the splendidly lit final scene, Mariam seemed both radiant and weightless.
Conductor Viswa Subbaraman held the disparate musical threads together well: singers, orchestra, south Asian instruments. Hearing an opera for the first time it is difficult to judge interpretation, but the momentum never flagged. Thanks to Silver’s effective scoring, the singers were largely audible, with heavy brass sounds reserved for moments of violence or threat. Sound designer Robertson Whitmer should be recognized for pulling the hand drums and the bansuri flutes, each in isolated spaces that were miked, into balance with the full orchestra.
Representatives of other opera companies attended Seattle’s performances. I hope they will take up A Thousand Splendid Suns in the coming seasons. A powerful telling of an ultimately beautiful story, it delves into the human tragedy that often accompanies the news. The Seattle audience’s response, whether applauding Rasheed’s death or gasping at the unexpected reappearance of a character, showed how deeply they were drawn into the story.
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A Thousand Splendid Suns by Sheila Silver Libretto by Stephen Kitsakos Seattle Opera Viswa Subbaraman, conductor Roya Sadat, stage director
Remaining performances: 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, March 8 TICKETS
Opera Colorado opened their new production of Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s Die tote Stadt under difficult circumstances Saturday (Feb. 26): last- minute vocal paralysis of the star soprano, Sara Gartland.
Her indisposition was capably overcome with the help of dramatic soprano Kara Shay Thomson and some artful directorial sleight-of-hand. Thomson, who didn’t have time to learn the staging but knew the music, sang from the pit while Gartland acted the role onstage.
Korngold wrote Die tote Stadt in 1920, when he was only 23, and later went on to write hugely successful Hollywood film scores, winning two Academy Awards. Unsurprisingly, the score of Tote Stadt has an expressive immediacy that connects with audiences.
The opera, too long neglected, soared in a beautifully designed and conceived production that featured a generally strong cast. Conductor Ari Pelto kept things well under control. He and the orchestra seemed comfortable with Korngold’s cinematic and emotionally descriptive style.
Robert Perdziola’s beautiful and evocative designs colorfully combined the interior of protagonist Paul’s apartment and a replica the O.L.V.-Kerk (Church of Our Lady) church tower in Bruges, Belgium, the symbolically “dead city” of the opera’s title. A large scrim at the back allowed for spectral appearances from his fantasies, including his beloved late wife Marie and a procession of nuns that appear during his fevered dreams.
This unit set served all three acts effectively, with plenty of room for the scene to shift from Paul’s artist’s studio to the canals of Bruges. A boat with dancers and commedia dell’arte characters and the procession of nuns parade in and out of the scene, as they do through Paul’s nightmares.
With a ringing sound and a secure top, tenor Jonathan Burton was effective in the long and difficult role of Jonathan, a young artist who suffers delusions that Marie has returned to life. His belief that the dancer Marietta is Marie reincarnated is the dramatic crux of the opera and places Paul at the emotional center. The Heldentenor demands of the part stressed his voice by the end, although the resigned reflection of his final scene came through affectingly.
He was a better singer than actor; the intensity of his role, as Paul spins into madness, came through more potently in his singing than his movements or posture. That may be why a moment that should be chilling—when a maddened Paul dreams that he has strangled Marietta and, imagining the corpse at his feet, sings “now she is exactly like Marie”—elicited out-of-place laughter from the audience.
Singing as Maria/Marietta, Kara Shay Thomson was at a disadvantage standing in a corner of the pit. Neither elevated above the orchestra nor singing out toward the audience, she was not always clearly audible. If the words were sometimes muffled, she sang the role with confidence and solid sound, ascending comfortably to the highest reaches of the part.
The vocally indisposed Sara Gartland was the very image of the dancer Marietta. She moved comfortably about the stage, and her emotions were often visible in her posture. It is difficult to maintain the intensity of a role when only mouthing the words, and she did not always succeed, but her dance scene in Act II was effective.
Baritone Daniel Belcher has a bright, steely voice well suited to his part as Frank, Paul’s friend. He ably conveyed Frank’s stability and groundedness in dealing with Paul’s delusions. As Brigitte, Paul’s housekeeper, Elizabeth Bishop’s warm, plush voice helped shape her role as a caretaker. She had the best diction of the cast; otherwise you would have had difficulty relying on the German text to follow the story. Young tenor Jonathan Johnson made a solid impression as Viktorin, director of Marietta’s dance company.
Stage direction by Chas Rader-Shieber served the story. The large stage area never looked too wide as the singers interacted. Only when the singing Marietta was in the pit on one side of the stage while the acting Marietta was on the other was there any (unavoidable) awkwardness.
NOTE: In the second act, Marietta dances a scene with shrouded nuns that might not make sense to modern viewers. This scene comes from a French grand opera, Robert le diable (Robert the devil) by Giacomo Meyerbeer. In that original scene—a third-act ballet that would have been familiar to Korngold’s 1920s audiences—dead nuns rise from their graves to perform a scandalous dance celebrating drinking, gambling and lust. The choice of this scene to fuel Paul’s imagination of Marietta and her company is deliberately provocative and suggests Marietta’s debased character, Paul’s derangement, or both.
Before the curtain, Opera Colorado artistic director Greg Carpenter came onstage to thank the opera company’s board for agreeing to present his “favorite opera.” I join in his appreciation, for being able to see an opera that I had never before seen live, produced on a high professional level.
If you love opera, you should not miss the opportunity to see this engaging, late-Romantic work that is rarely performed in the United States. Three performances remain at Opera Colorado (Feb. 28, Match 3 and March 5; details and tickets HERE).
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Opera Colorado Die tote Stadt by Erich Wolfgang Korngold Libretto by Paul Schott (Erich and Julius Korngold) Ari Pelto, conductor; Chas Rader-Shieber, director
REMAINING PERFORMANCES: 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, Feb. 28, and Friday, March 3 2 p.m. Sunday, March 5
Ellie Caulkins Opera House, Denver Performing Arts Complex
Performances in tonight in Boulder, Denver Dec. 16–18
By Izzy Fincher Dec. 15 at 11:12 a.m.
A grand procession of extravagantly dressed kings moved through the church.
King Balthazar took the lead, dressed in a crimson robe and headdress covered with gold. Then, came King Kaspar, clad head-to-toe in gold and jewels, and finally King Melchior, with a silky, turquoise and plum colored cape and plumed warrior’s helmet. They each carried luxurious gifts intended for the baby Jesus, including gold, frankincense and myrrh.
This scene took place during Central City Opera’s performance of Amahl and the Night Visitors by Gian Carlo Menotti last night (Dec. 13) at Boulder’s First United Methodist Church. The performance, directed by Iliana Lucero Barron and conducted by John Baril, offered a heart-warming interpretation of the seasonal classic, filled with the magic of the holiday spirit.
Aside from the luxurious Magi’s costumes, the production took a minimalistic approach, letting Menotti’s masterfully written music shine through as the central storytelling element. The performance will be repeated in Boulder tonight before heading to Denver for three shows, Dec. 16–18.
Originally commissioned by NBC as the first opera for television in 1951, Menotti’s Amahl and the Night Visitors has since become a beloved Christmas tradition. It tells the story of Amahl, a poor shepherd boy with a disability who lives with his widowed mother. One fateful night, the three Magi stop at Amahl’s house to rest on their way to Bethlehem, leading to a miraculous encounter that changes the young boy’s life.
Over the past 70 years, the opera is said to have been performed more than 2,500 times—in a wide variety of settings from professional opera houses to amateur church and school performances. Over the years, the brief one-hour opera in English, originally intended for children, has proved accessible and enjoyable for diverse audiences of all ages.
For this traveling production, Baron wanted to keep the props and sets to a minimum, to more easily adapt to different venues and offer creative flexibility to the performers. This approach resulted in a rather bare-bones aesthetic. Onstage, the main set piece for Amahl’s house consisted of a wooden door frame, surrounded by stacks of firewood and topped with a hanging sheet. Nearby, stood a few makeshift wooden chairs. This simple set left the stage looking almost too empty, though the church’s massive wooden overhanging cross and towering pipe organ filled out the space.
In the opening scene, Kason Nicholas, a boy soprano from the Colorado Children’s Chorale, established himself as a charming Amahl. Though he seemed a bit hesitant at first, his excitement and well-placed comedic timing soon proved endearing. With his light, clear voice, Nicholas required amplification in the large chapel, especially singing alongside the powerful mezzo-soprano Jennifer DeDominici as his mother. During their duets, their voices sounded well-balanced for the most part, though a few times Nicholas’ higher notes clipped slightly with the mic.
DeDominici delivered a convincing, nuanced interpretation of Amahl’s mother, realistically portraying her struggle as a single impoverished mother trying to care for a mischievous son with a disability. Her powerful, expressive voice projected through the chapel, commanding Amahl’s and the audience’s attention as her patience wore thin.
Yet, in brief moments, she showed glimpses of tender love for her son, such as in “Have You Seen a Child” when the three Magi’s descriptions of the holy Christ Child remind her of Amahl. In the final scene, DeDominici shined during one of the opera’s few deeper moments, as she grappled with her inner turmoil and feelings of desperation, love and greed before attempting theft for the sake of her son.
Accompanying these strong soloist performances, Baril’s orchestra, sprawled across the front section of the church pews, sounded wonderful. As the conductor, Baril took full advantage of Menotti’s adept score writing, exploring the different colors and personalities within the music for each character and perfectly timing the comedic musical interchanges with the singers’ lyrics and blocking. In addition, the shepherds chorus and the First United Methodist Church choir sang skillfully and with passion, aiding in the collaborative effort.
The three Magi, played by Paul Griggsby, Javier Abreu and Jonathan Hays, and their page, Jerome Síbulo, gave solid performances as well. In stark contrast to the humble lives of Amahl and his mother, the kings stood out as symbols of opulence, with their lavish costumes and props as the most eye-catching part of the show. They embodied the grace of nobility, singing clearly and powerfully with a beautiful blend as a cohesive unit. Throughout the opera, they played their crucial role well.
Despite bringing splendor into Amahl’s simple world, the Magi show him and his mother that the true meaning of the Christmas miracle lies not in wealth but in forgiveness, grace and love.
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Gian Carlo Menotti: Amahl and the Night Visitors Central City Opera, John Baril conductor and Iliana Lucero Barron, director
7:30 p.m. Wednesday, 14 First United Methodist Church, Boulder TICKETS
7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday, Dec. 17 and 18 2 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 18 Trinity Methodist Church, Denver TICKETS
Folkish new piece by UC grad Ben Morris, “utterly enjoyable” concerto by Florence Price
By Peter Alexander Nov. 20 at 12:15 a.m.
Last night (Nov. 19) conductor Cynthia Katsarelis and the Pro Musical Colorado Chamber Orchestra opened their 2022-23 concert season in the newly-renovated sanctuary of the Mountain View Methodist Church in Boulder.
Venue renovations often bring gains and losses, and this was no exception. This is worth noting, because the Mountain View church is being used more as a concert venue. It is a visually attractive space, and offers about the best parking of any venue in Boulder.
The carpet has been removed and replaced with a hard wood floor, and the pews have been replaced with reasonably comfortable chairs, which is all to the good. The sound is much more lively than before, and it may take performers a while to adjust to the new acoustic. Balance is problematic, as the strings had a hard time being heard over the boosted wind sounds. The wood floor certainly beefed up the bass, although not always in a helpful way. In time performers will likely adjust to the increased resonance.
The concert opened with the world premiere of The Hill of Three Wishes by Ben Morris, winner of the 2021 CU composition Competition. Reflecting the legend of Helgafell , a magical hill in Iceland that grants three wishes to anyone who can walk to the top without looking back, the score has an attractive folkish quality. It is written in a modal style that avoids harsh dissonance and welcomes listeners.
Morris makes great use of instrumental sounds to create a mythic quality that Katsarelis compared to The Lord of the Rings. Opening brass gestures establish the setting. An ancient Icelandic folk song adds a sense of timelessness, and at the end the music drifts atmospherically into silence. From the score I couldn’t tell if Morris was granted his wishes—did he, like Orpheus, submit to the temptation to look back?—but the hike is clearly a pleasant one. The brief score should find willing performers and audience enjoyment.
Another rare adventure was provided by the Piano Concerto in One Movement by Florence Price, whose music from the early 20th century was once forgotten but is being rediscovered. The first African American woman to have her music performed by a major orchestra when her First Symphony was premiered by the Chicago Symphony in 1933, Price was a skilled and accomplished composer. The concerto is symbolic of her fate: the full orchestral setting was lost and only rediscovered in 2019. Pro Musica is among the first to perform it as originally written.
The concerto is, however, misnamed as it is not truly in one movement. There is a clear cadence and break between the first and second movements, and the dramatic transition from the slow movement to the lively finale parallels many classical concertos. Like many of Price’s works, the score draws on her African American heritage, from the bluesy trumpet and trombone riffs at the outset, to the slow movement that channels dozens of great spirituals, and the juba dance finale that could easily be mistaken for a Joplinesque rag. This is a unique and valuable part of our country’s musical history.
Pianist Jennifer Hayghe gamely tackled the difficult solo part—Price herself was a virtuoso pianist—but while she started with a resounding first entrance, at other times balance issues prevented her playing from being clearly heard. Moments of lighter orchestration, with the piano against one or two winds, worked best. As well as I could hear, Hayghe carried off the solo part handily. Special notice should go to flutist Michelle Stanley, oboist Miriam Kapner and cellist Carole Whitney (if the program is to be trusted) for their solos in the second movement.
The finale had compelling energy, but as performed it was essentially an orchestral dance movement with the piano playing along. This is an utterly enjoyable movement, whether it shows off the pianist to full advantage or not. Katsarelis, Hayghe and the Pro Musica deserve our gratitude for bringing a valuable but rarely heard piece to the Boulder audience. Now that the original score has been reassembled, others should take up this concerto.
The concert concluded with a spirited reading of Beethoven’s powerful, popular Seventh Symphony. Audiences are used to hearing it played by larger ensembles, but a smaller orchestra like Pro Musica can bring a welcome muscularity and clarity to this and other classical scores. Once again, however, the lively acoustic was sometimes problematic. The fast rhythmic figures of the first movement and rapid passages in the strings were sometimes obscured by the punctuating chords or lost in the general resonance of the space.
Katsarelis followed all the road signs of Beethoven’s score, outlining both the structure and the drama of the piece. While some dynamic differences were swallowed in the overall resonance, she kept the tempo and maintained the thrust all the way to the end. That’s just what Beethoven calls for, and it provided a rousing culmination for the concert.
The Boulder Philharmonic opened their 2022-23 season last night with a carefully curated and varied program that brought Colorado Governor Jared Polis to Macky Auditorium.
Speaking from the stage before the concert, Governor Polis honored the orchestra for its 65th anniversary season and thanked the players for their artistry during the COVID pandemic. Polis was there with Jonathan Koehn, Boulder’s chief sustainability and resilience officer, also to recognize the concert’s environmental theme, “Hymn to the Earth.”
Michael Butterman then led the orchestra through a program designed to consider climate change as a challenge and a result of hubris and heedlessness. That message was most conspicuous in the world premiere of Ozymandias: To Sell a Planet by composer Drew Hemenger. Identified as an “environmental oratorio,” the score calls for orchestra, chorus and tenor soloist. The music encompasses a wide range of moods, so that the transition from one movement to the next is often dramatic.
In five movements it traverses an arc from coexistence with nature to the damage done by the industrial revolution, to a portrait of a society on the verge of collapse, the current state of the environment and finally, a warning of a potential apocalypse to come. The first movement, “Spring is Come,” uses a text from Chief Sitting Bull. This movement essentially an environmental anthem, declaring that “our animal neighbors [have] the same right as ourselves to inhabit the land.” This movement could easily stand alone as an effective choral/orchestral piece with a benign environmental message.
This jaunty and affirming movement is followed by a setting of Wordsworth’s “The World is Too Much With Us,” an impassioned plea to recognize that “we are out of tune” with the natural world, written at the outset of the industrial revolution. Here tenor Matthew Plenk made a strong impression, managing well transitions from intense anguish to quiet despair. His voice has a penetrating quality that gets edgy when pushed too far, but is otherwise effective.
I had to step out for a moment and so missed the rhythmically charged third movement for orchestra alone, but caught the rest of the oratorio. The third movement incorporates a pedantic UN panel report on the environment (“Oceanic uptake of CO2 has resulted in acidification”), spoken by the chorus. This academic verbiage is effectively combined with words from environmental activist Greta Thunberg and saddened words from Chief Tecumseh.
Alas, this movement cannot avoid pounding away at the moral, and it casts a didactic shadow over the rest of the piece. The final movement, a setting of Shelley’s darkly prophetic sonnet, Ozymandias, is again very emphatic.
Hemenger employs a loosely tonal/modal style that speaks directly to the audience with no difficulty. He translates the message of the text directly into musical expression, but the preachy message will not be to everyone’s taste. A few people walked out during the fourth movement and at the end, but whether it was a political or aesthetic protest is uncertain. A handful in the audience stood at the end, and their numbers grew with each curtain call by Butterman and Plenk.
On the whole I judge Ozymandias to be a skillful score that accomplishes just what it aims at. The message will be welcome in some venues, but whether the piece as a whole will go on to more extensive familiarity remains to be seen. It was played well by the Phil and sung with conviction by the newly formed Boulder Philharmonic Chorus.
The concert had begun with Global Warming by Michael Abels, a piece infused with folkish-tunes and intricate rhythms. The solos in the wind section and percussion were notable, and the opening and ending exchanges between concertmaster Charles Wetherbee and assistant principal cellist Ethan Blake were played with elan. This is a pleasing, short piece that made an ideal opening for the program.
The second half of the concert began with an aptly dark reading of the Overture to Mozart’s Don Giovanni, the first of two pieces that expressed the dangerous heedlessness of the legendary Don Juan figure. The performance was a little muddy where lightness and clarity are called for, leaving some of the inner voices unclear.
Next up was Siegfried’s Trauermusic (Funeral march) from Wagner’s music drama Götterdämmerung. Here the Philharmonic’s brass section shone, playing with great depth and darkness of tone. The Phil does not have the number of strings to match the weight of the brass, but this was a well paced and pleasing performance.
Butterman saved the best for last with Richard Strauss’ orchestral tone poem Don Juan. The outstanding quality of the performance showed that the Phil’s wind players will rise to the challenges of a virtuoso orchestral score. Individual solos were outstanding, and the horn section clearly relished playing the soaring theme that portrays Don Juan’s charismatic presence—a ringing tune all horn players know from student days and truly love to perform, just as audiences love to hear it.
For the most part, Butterman’s construction of the program worked well. His pacing and control of each piece seemed convincing. Nevertheless, the extreme variety of styles on the program was double-edged: the wide range of moods was always interesting, but it created a slightly fractured effect overall.
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.
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.
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 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.
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’sM. 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.
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.
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.
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 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’sTristan 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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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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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.
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.
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.
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.
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.