Program features works by Adolphus Hailstork, György Kurtág, Alban Berg and Schumann.
By Izzy Fincher Nov. 22 at 9:15 a.m.
Alan Berg’s Lyric Suite from 1926 has been called “a latent opera.” The sweeping, programmatic, six-movement work, mostly built on a 12-tone row, certainly feels like one.
Through hidden musical devices and quotations, Berg depicts his passionate, yet doomed love affair with a married woman, Hanna Fuchs-Robettin. He even uses numerology to turn his and Hanna’s initials a motif of paired notes, A-Bb and B-F for H.B. and H.F. It’s the ultimate musical love letter.
This suite was the centerpiece of the Parker Quartet’s performance in Grusin Hall on Sunday (Nov. 21) as the guest artists for CU Presents’ Takács Quartet series. Despite their eclectic program, which ranged from contemporary works by Adolphus Hailstork, György Kurtág (one of the quartet’s early mentors) and Alban Berg to a string quartet by Schumann, the performance felt cohesive, tied together by themes of love and loss across the centuries.
Founded in 2002 at the New England Conservatory, the Parker Quartet has established itself as one of leading string quartets for traditional and contemporary repertoire in the U.S. Their 2011 album, Ligeti: String Quartets Nos. 1 & 2, received a Grammy Award for the Best Chamber Music Performance, and they have premiered works by leading contemporary composers, including Jeremy Gill, Augusta Read Thomas and Zosha di Castri. The quartet members are currently artists-in-residence at Harvard University.
The concert opened with the reflective Adagio from Hailstork’s String Quartet No. 1, based on a choral piece written for his Norfolk Unitarian church that is set to a text about being a generous, loving Christian man. Following this, the quartet’s charismatic violinist Daniel Chong introduced the theme of the program: love in its various forms. This would be continued in Kurtág’s Aus der Ferne V (From afar), a brief, mournful work dedicated to his late friend and publisher Alfred Schlee, who rescued many contemporary scores from the Nazis; Berg’s Lyric Suite; and Schumann’s String Quartet No. 3 in A major, a 23rd birthday present for his beloved wife, Clara.
In the evocative Aus der Ferne V, cellist Kee-Hyun Kim drove the piece forward with ominous pizzicato, reminiscent of a heartbeat, over the sustained lines on the violins and viola that exploded in short dissonant bursts before gradually fading away.
This three-minute vignette set the scene for the highlight of the program, Berg’s Lyric Suite, which Chong described as “the most expressive string quartet in the canon” in his introduction. In the suite, the Parker Quartet demonstrated their impressive ability to blend, while bringing different instruments out of the texture as needed, creating a dialogue out of the building and developing motifs. Through their expressive use of colors and dynamics, they also captured the contrasting moods Berg experiences as he falls madly in love and later descends into despair.
In the first movement, marked Allegretto gioviale, the Parker Quartet burst into joyful motion led by Chong’s lively opening gesture. This energy built through the next four movements, which all have expressive names: Andante amoroso, Allegro misterioso—Trio estatico, Adagio appassionato and Presto delirando—Tenebroso.
In the third movement, the hidden initials motif appears most frequently, amidst the combination of wandering pizzicato and warbly lines that sound more chaotically improvisatory than mysterious, an instability the Parker Quartet communicated very well before building to the agitated trio and the dynamic presto that ends with a climactic flourish. The final movement, Largo desolato, which includes the iconic Tristan motif associated with eternal love, demanded the most musical versatility from the musicians, as moments from earlier happier movements appear briefly before sinking into despair.
Following this depressing love story, the Parker Quartet shifted to a light-hearted work for the second half, Schumann’s String Quartet No. 3. After an hour of intense contemporary repertoire, this leap back into an earlier era felt a bit strange. Given the crowd’s excited chatter during intermission, however, a familiar work seemed to be a welcome respite after atonal explorations.
During his career, Schumann only wrote three quartets. They were written together as Op. 41, a birthday present to his wife that was composed in the span of five weeks in 1842. These quartets incorporate elements of Schumann’s influences from Mozart, Haydn, Beethoven, and his friend Mendelssohn, while still retaining his own personal, Romantic style and at times expanding it.
In their animated interpretation of No. 3, the Parker Quartet exhibited their impeccable synchronicity, bow strokes moving as one. With clear, strong downbeats, Kim on cello led this, though perhaps a bit too forcefully in the calmer Adagio molto movement. With the last movement, a showy crowd pleaser marked molto vivace, the quartet ended the performance on an uplifting note, a reminder of the excitement and joy of young love.
The program will be repeated at 7:30 p.m. tonight, Nov. 22, in Grusin Hall. Tickets are available here.
Abbreviated concerts featured careful COVID protocols, no intermissions
By Peter Alexander Oct. 3 at 11:30 p.m.
For a short time this past weekend, you could have believed that concert life in Longmont and Boulder had returned to normal.
Of course, no one knows what tomorrow will bring. But both the Longmont Symphony and the Boulder Philharmonic presented their first in-person concerts in nearly two years, and sitting in the audience hearing live music was a welcome return to near-normal.
Both concerts—the LSO at Vance Brand Auditorium at 7 p.m. Saturday, and the Boulder Phil at Mountain View Methodist Church at 4 p.m. Sunday—had restrictions that for now we might consider the “new normal.” In both cases, patrons were met outside by orchestra representatives checking proof of vaccination and ID, masks were required at all times, and seating was limited to less than full capacity of the respective venues. Conductors and orchestral string players wore masks for the performances as well. Both concerts were presented without intermission, so that the audience did not have the chance to mix and mingle.
Both conductors, Elliot Moore with the LSO and Michael Butterman with the Boulder Phil, commented on how good it felt to be back, and both were greeted with enthusiasm. I would add that both concerts received standing ovations, but that has long since become normal, so it is not really anything new.
The Longmont Symphony began with a rousing performance of Brahms’s Academic Festival Overture. In his introduction, Moore noted that in spite of its name, the overture is not really academic in nature, because it is actually based on student drinking songs of Brahms’s era. As Moore intended, it started the post-pandemic musical scene with infectious energy.
Brahms was followed by Mozart’s Piano Concerto in A major, K414, featuring soloist Hsing-ay Hsu. She introduced the concerto with heartfelt remarks about the opportunity to perform again before an audience, and played with solid confidence and sensitivity. The concert of orchestral repertory standards ended with Robert Schumann’s Symphony No. 4 in D minor. Any minor lapses of intonation or ensemble were easily forgiven for musicians who had not played together for so many months. Shouts of “Bravo” were heard through the standing ovation.
Butterman chose much less standard works for the Boulder Phil’s return to the stage. Two works by Haydn were featured, none of them among the composer’s better known symphonies or concertos. In fact, the concert started at the very beginning, one could say, with Haydn’s Symphony No. 1 of 1759. A three-movement work of about 12 minutes in length, it has the tunefulness and energy, if not the sophistication, of Haydn’s larger late Symphonies. “If you liked that piece,” Butterman quipped, “there are 100 more like it!” (For the record, current research has identified 108 symphonies by Haydn.)
The symphony was paired with Haydn’s Sinfonia Concertante written for London in 1792, a larger and more mature work that features violin, oboe, cello and bassoon soloists with orchestra. The principal players from the orchestra played the solo parts with elan and polish. Using modern instruments, and heard in a church that has only a cement floor due to ongoing renovations, the orchestral sound struck me as a little on the thick side, not as transparent as Haydn would have expected.
Butterman’s final work for the program is one that he particularly loves, the Petite symphonie concertante by the 20th-century Swiss composer Frank Martin. It was a treat to hear this genuine rarity live in concert. It is scored for a double string orchestra with harpsichord, piano and harp soloists, creating an utterly unique sound world. Although written using 12-tone techniques, the music is often consonant, always enjoyable, and unlike any other piece I know.
Butterman led the orchestra with obvious relish. The size and full-bodied sound of the Phil’s strings was ideal for a 20th-century work. In his analytical introduction to the score, Butterman said that he hoped that the audience would enjoy the Petite symphonie concertante as much as he does. I can’t speak for the rest of the audience, but hearing a committed live performance of an intriguing rarity was the weekend’s highlight for me.
Like both audiences, I was thrilled to hear live music again, and to be back in the hall with musicians who love what they are doing. More, please!
NOTE: Minor typos and editing errors corrected Monday, 10/4.
Fifth symphonies by Philip Sawyers and Gustav Mahler provide fitting climax
By Peter Alexander Aug. 29 at 12:35 a.m.
The Colorado MahlerFest wrapped up its 34th festival season last night at Macky Auditorium (Aug. 28) with a splendid Festival Finale concert under the direction of festival artistic director and conductor Kenneth Woods.
After the planned 2020 festival was cancelled and the 2021 festival postponed from its usual May time slot, this was good news for ardent Mahler fans and other classical music lovers. The program consisted of two fifth symphonies—Mahler’s, and the world premiere of the Fifth by English composer Philip Sawyers.
Sawyers was selected to pair with Mahler’s Fifth in part because of his affinity with Mahler’s works. He writes large, multi-movement symphonies that cover a wide emotional spectrum, and he makes each work a journey that leads to a definite conclusion. The emotional content is perceptible on the surface. There are distinct, recognizable themes and familiar textural gestures, all making his music welcoming to the audience.
Not that Sawyer’s Fifth Symphony sounds like Mahler as such. He has his own contemporary style and harmonic palette. The influence of Mahler is more evident in the wide expressive profile of the symphony as a whole, and in his use of chamber-like moments in the winds. Like Mahler, he makes extensive use of march-like patterns, and the brass plays an important role.
Of the five movements, the Scherzo fourth movement is the most conventional, with scurrying strings and fluttering woodwind flourishes. A central brass chorale interrupts the rushing sense of movement and creates a brief oasis of calm before the rushing music begins anew in a varied form.
The finale is the most Mahler-esque of the five movement. Like many dramatic movements in Mahler’s symphonies, it begins in media res as it were, in the middle of musical and emotional turmoil. It is a complex, wandering movement, working out the issues suggested by the opening outburst and leading to a satisfyingly tonal ending disturbed only by the slightest suggestion of instability.
Parts of the symphony put me more in mind of Sibelius than Mahler, perhaps because of the lack of anguish in the expressive gestures. Among the hallmarks of his style, Sawyers often works in short sections than swerve rapidly from one mood to another. Weighty unison brass proclamations often interrupt other ideas, becoming almost a cliché of the composer’s style.
Not that it is anything less than an attractive, intriguing symphony, well worth hearing again. The performance was delivered with attention and affection for the music. Woods and the orchestra made every expressive gesture clear and impactful, providing the full dynamic range that Sawyers call for.
With Mahler’s sprawling and powerful Symphony No. 5, Woods delivered just about the best performance I have heard at MahlerFest. With the exception of some iffy intonation in the brass—but who can blame them at the end of a very long concert?—and some smudged counterpoint in the finale, the orchestra was in top form from beginning to end.
Mahler famously said that the symphony “must be like the world” and the “embrace everything,” and that is almost true of just the first movement of the Fifth. It covers a dizzying array of musical topics, from ceremonial march to sentimental dance. It is this variety that makes Mahler’s symphonies such a challenge to a conductor, who has to maneuver an orchestra through all of Mahler’s minefields of shifting tempos and surging emotional fluctuations.
Woods handled this like the veteran Mahlerian he is. There was never a sense of tentativeness about tempo, any hesitation around entrances, or anything less than full commitment to the extremes of emotional expression. Especially impressive was the third movement Scherzo, a tour-de-force of high-paced peasant dances interrupted by a moment of pure schmaltz, and then a grotesque moment of pizzicato strings, each effective in its turn.
The consoling, gentle Adagietto movement was if anything less convincing than the more overwrought portions of the symphony. It was nevertheless the welcome calm after the clamor of the earlier movements and the ideal foil for the brash, jubilant finale. This was the Mahler that his most passionate fans expect, delivered with confidence and assurance.
In short, this was a fitting climax to the long delayed festival.
NOTE: Colorado MahlerFest has announced that the 35th festival will return to its usual time slot next year, with performances May 17–22, 2022, featuring Mahler’s Symphony No. 3 in D minor and the opera Bluebeard’s Castleby Béla Bartók.
“Music of our time” makes a rewarding evening, as does SFO’s Eugene Onegin
By Peter Alexander Aug. 10 at 10:45 p.m.
The Santa Fe Opera’s stunning world premiere production of John Corigliano’s Lord of Criesprovided a fascinating and rewarding evening in the theater. The composer has total command of his materials and especially the orchestra, which creates a unique and powerful sound world for this loose adaptation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula.
This is music of our time, but mood and color are so manifest and so managed that the opera is easily appreciated and followed from beginning to end. There are moments of sheer loveliness, especially from the strings. To use a favored cliché of contemporary music criticism, The Lord of Cries is eminently accessible.
True, there are few memorable melodies—a lullaby and the ersatz children’s song “To do right is to be good” are exceptions—but the voice parts are nonetheless lyrical and singable, always complimentary to the voice. The vocal lines follow the words carefully, so that it never sounds tortured. In spite of moments of distress, passion and tumult from the orchestra, the texture is carefully managed to make the words understandable. This is music that communicates.
Conductor Johannes Debus managed the complex score with aplomb. He supported the singers well, keeping the orchestra under careful control when necessary, but he also built momentum in the climactic scenes, particularly the storm and the dramatic act endings. The perfectly natural stage direction by James Darrah worked so effortlessly as to be almost imperceptible.
Adam Riggs’s unit set comprises peach-colored walls and 19th-century lampposts, which projections enhance to suggest specific locations or reflect the drama. The projections by Adam Larsen are mostly abstract patterns or, in one case, a storm at sea that becomes part of the drama.
The walls and lampposts are shifted for the second act. This is minimalist stage design at its best, open enough for anything to happen, only minimally burdened with symbolic weight—carcasses at the end representing the consumption of flesh by the vampire and his victims/accomplices, for example.
The libretto is presented as a mashup of Dracula with Euripides’s Bacchae, with the diabolical protagonist both Dracula and Dionysus (both names are used in the text). This reflects similarities of plot, but Lord of Cries is anything but a straight setting of either story. The characters have the same names as in Stoker’s Victorian-era novel, but they are mixed up and transformed to create a new story with similar characters, standing on its own without dependence on literary sources.
Dracula is the reincarnation of Dionysus, come to Victorian London; Dr. Seward, a follower and student of Van Helsing in the original novel, becomes the de-facto regent of London, bending everyone to his commands; Van Helsing, the learned prosecutor of vampires in the original, is largely Seward’s factotum in the opera; and Lucy becomes the wife of a deeply disturbed Jonathan Harker rather than the fiancée of Arthur Holmwood. Other characters from the novel are missing entirely, except for a rare oblique reference. Fans of the novel may find it confusing, but in the context of the opera it is all clear and well laid out.
In fact, one of the strengths of the opera is that Mark Adamo’s excellent libretto is so well laid out that it requires no prior preparation. This is in contrast to Corigliano’s one previous, overstuffed opera, Ghosts of Versailles, premiered 30 years ago at the Metropolitan Opera. The clarity and directness of The Lord of Cries makes one wish that Corigliano had not taken so long to find the right subject for his second opera.
One character has been added to help tell the story: a Correspondent for London’s Westminster Gazette, a speaking part who reads newspaper reports of the frightening events taking place. Kevin Burdette, a bass who sings Peter Quince in Midsummer Night’s Dream, proclaims his part with sometimes overloaded enunciation. It may seem exaggerated, but even with the orchestra at full cry you will not miss a word of his essential narration.
Apprentice Kathryn Henry took the crucial role of Lucy as a late substitute. This is a huge role, and as the only individual female character, she carries a large portion of the opera on her shoulders. Henry triumphed in the part. Her lovely lyric voice met every expressive demand, from her plaintive moments of deep emotion in Act I to the tense, dramatic encounter with Dionysus/Dracula in Act II. “Hush, Darling, hush,” her lullaby to her tortured husband Jonathan in the second act, was especially moving.
Tenor David Portillo sang the part of Jonathan Harker, a man beyond the edge of madness. He negotiated the vocal leaps, near screams and whimpers of the most extreme part in the opera. His strong dramatic voice is ideal for the expression and style Harker requires. With excellent diction and plenty of power he made every word tell.
The part of asylum director and near-dictator of London Jon Seward runs from tenderness to wild outbursts, often in the same number. Baritone Jarrett Ott negotiated all of that and more as Seward descends into his own madness at the end. Both the rigid moralist and the mad convert to Dionysus’s cult were convincingly portrayed.
Matt Boehler brought a deep, resonant voice to Van Helsing. For much of the opera, he has little to do but respond to Seward’s commands, but Boehler also contributed a sepulchral presence and a brief moment of drama. In the other fully human role, the captain of the ship that runs aground with Dracula on board, Robert Stahley was a sturdy and booming presence as he calls out entries from the ship’s log.
But it is the un-dead that create the drama. The “Three weird Sisters,” attendants of Dionysus, were sung by apprentice artists Leah Brzyski, Rachel Blaustein and Megan Moore, who gave a class in ensemble singing such than no one could be judged individually. The trio span the full range of the female voice, with extreme highs and growling lows used strategically by Corigliano and sung with fierce intensity by the young artists.
But it is the role of Dionysus/Dracula by which this opera stands or falls. Santa Fe was lucky to have countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo for this role. His unique voice and widely-seen performance in the title role of Philip Glass’ Akhnaten at the Met have justifiably made him a superstar, and his performance as Dionysus was stunning.
As Dionysus he invests every phrase with meaning through phrasing, diction and movement. His remarkably beautiful voice is well controlled in all registers,. He is equally powerful dramatically, making his showdown with Lucy, where he breaks down her resistance and dooms her to a tragic end, the dramatic highpoint it must be.
Stoker’s Dracula is steeped in the respectable religiosity of Victorian England, but the opera incorporates Dionysus’s reply. From beginning to end, we see that Dr. Seward’s conventional pieties have no effect. The god’s appeals to inner desires overcome restraint again and again. This is the message that The Bacchae and Dracula have in common: you dare not deny “The Lord of Cries.” He will have his place.
Or in the words of the libretto, “You may assuage the priest without, but not the beast within.”
# # # # #
For lovers of Romantic opera, Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Oneginis as rewarding as anything the SFO presented this summer. Completely Romantic in style and deeply Russian in character, it is doubtless one of the great operas of the 19th century.
The production opens on the veranda of the Larin estate in the Russian countryside. Gary McCann’s largely traditional scenic design makes use of the SFO’s location, with rural fields in the set opening to a vista of the northern New Mexico landscape. McCann’s costumes are mostly in period style, 19th-century informal dress for the country, glittery and formal for St. Petersburg.
There are some unexpected twists added to this traditional conception: due to COVID, the chorus is seated just outside the theater facing the stage, and their place onstage is taken by dancers who wear elaborate headdresses and (symbolic?) fencing masks. Some of the headdresses suggest Native American design, others recall Dia de los Muertos imagery. The elaborate ball gowns in Act III are topped by sparkly human and animal skulls.
But the dancers, including members of the Wise Fool New Mexico company, do more than take the place of the traditional chorus onstage. As choreographed by Athol Farmer, they come and go on a logic all their own, sometimes surrounding the singers, at other times leaving them alone on stage.
Confusingly, they were onstage when Onegin met Tatyana for their very private conversation about her letter. But for Lensky’s violent disruption of Tatyana’s name-day celebration and his rash dueling challenge to Onegin—a scene that is all the more shocking because it takes place before the assembled guests—the dancers are absent, leaving only the two disputants on stage. This baffling reversal of settings works against the sense of the story.
Dancers aside, Alessandro Talevi’s stage direction served the Pushkin/Tchaikovsky story well. The characters were well delineated, the blocking was efficient and clear, and the drama moved powerfully to its inevitable conclusion: resolute for Tatyana, crushing for Onegin.
Conductor Nicholas Carter led the orchestra in a performance of heart-on-the-sleeve passion and great flexibility. This was Russian Romanticism at its most evocative, from gentle lyricism to full orchestral climaxes. The production was greatly enhanced by the lighting design of Matt Haskins, particularly the lovely sunrise following Tatyana’s night of letter writing.
The opera is as much Tatyana’s as Onegin’s. In this central role, Sara Jakubiak—a returning 2007 apprentice making her SFO debut—was compelling. She projected a lovely sound in her gentle moments but did not always keep her strong voice under control. Her critical letter-writing scene—in which very little writing takes places as she shares her racing thoughts aloud—was performed with deep and true expression. Her transformation to a dignified princess in the final scene was convincingly portrayed in voice and posture.
Lucas Meachem lent a slight edge to his attractive baritone to express Onegin’s coldness and empty heart. His transformation from the superficial society dandy in the first acts to the suffering but still self-absorbed antihero of the final act was total. He and Jakubiak worked ably together to complete the reversal of positions, as she delivers a sermon even more devastating, and more deserved, than his in the first act.
Turkmenistani tenor Dovlet Nurgeldiyev brought a light, lyrical voice to the role of Lensky, ardent as the young poet must be, able to soar smoothly into his top range. His solo scene before his fatal duel with Onegin was a highlight, Lensky’s longing and his ultimate despair evident in his voice.
As Olga, Avery Amereau sang with a rich alto, projecting well into her lowest register. She captured well the flighty manner of Tatyana’s less mature younger sister. Deborah Nansteel sang the role of Filipyevna, Tatyana’s aging nurse, with a well supported voice and sympathetic nature. She paired well with a solid and dignified Katharine Goeldner as Mme. Larina.
Matthew DiBattista sang Triquet’s couplets with elegance. James Creswell’s rich voice and smooth phrasing made Prince Gremin’s third act aria on the gift of love another vocal high point. The full-voiced chorus added punch to both ball scenes.
This beautifully rendered Romantic opera was the perfect conclusion to my week at the Santa Fe Opera. From Mozart’s Figaro to Corigliano’s Lord of Cries, it is a season of dazzling variety and great accomplishment. The season runs to Aug. 27, with performances of all four operas still to come.
NOTE: Corrected Aug. 11 to include recognition of Matt Haskins’s lighting design in Eugene Onegin, inadvertently omitted in the original version of this story.
Reduced festival tours four centuries of opera in four works
By Peter Alexander Aug. 8 at 10:40 p.m.
The Santa Fe Opera offers a slightly reduced festival season this summer—four operas instead of the usual five. They have pulled this off in the face of the worst pandemic of modern times by careful consultation with health authorities and a very well organized response. A few, but only a few, scheduled artists had to cancel due to travel bans, and all were ably replaced. The four nights I attended went off smoothly with hardly any disruption in the audience experience.
The audience is required to wear masks and the entire house staff, from bartenders to ushers, is masked. Thanks to rigid testing and strict rules, the cast performs without masks, but numbers onstage are carefully controlled. In the house, every party is separated from their neighbors by an empty seat, and the “social-distancing” seats are strapped closed—straps that have to be moved for every performance. It is a tribute to the company’s organization that all of this went off without a perceptible hitch.
The four operas this summer came from four different centuries. You could not ask for a more attractive tour of opera history: Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro from the 18th century, Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin an ideal representative of 19th-century Russian Romanticism, Britten’s magical Midsummer Night’s Dream from the 20th century, and the world premiere production of John Corigliano’s Lord of Cries from the current century.
# # # # #
The Marriage of Figarowas largely a success, with a few glitches. The attractive and intriguing set plays on the opera’s unity of time, that the entire plot takes place in a single “crazy day.” The revolving set is surrounded by clockwork gears that turn as the stage turns. They also serve a symbolic purpose, visibly breaking down as the various plots unravel at the end.
The central construction on the turntable is a pop-up book of shifting and folding pieces that create different spaces to represent rooms in the Almaviva castle. So far so good, but in execution, this conceit may be too clever by half.
As Chantal Thomas’s set revolves, the singers distractingly have to move pieces around, sometimes with the help of stage hands. The transition to the final act, set in the garden, was particularly cumbersome, with stage hands placing large Roman numerals and broken gears—standing in for bushes—on stage while Cheyanne Coss as Barbarina found her plaintive aria about the lost pin totally upstaged.
It’s hard to see what purpose the complications serve. The interlocking set pieces move about and shift in interesting ways, but the distractions outweigh the advantages in almost every case. The set worked best when it moved least.
The costumes by Laurent Pelly and Jean-Jacques Delmotte suggest Edwardian England. This transposition, to a period when aristocratic households were full of servants, fits the story well. The opera is fundamentally about class and sex, concerns that famously dominated the leisure class of the time.
Laurie Feldman’s direction served the opera well. Some of the goings and comings in and out of the moving parts of the stage were awkward, but the major action was clear and the characters well delineated. Such subtle touches as leaving the Count onstage for Figaro’s gentle teasing of Cherubino in “Non piu andrai” and showing the Countess handing Susanna the ransom money she delivers to the Count add meaningful details to the action.
Harry Bicket led the excellent Santa Fe Opera orchestra with grace and delicacy. Moments of escalating imbroglio, such as the Act II finale, were less than furiously driven, but I would point to the gentle and lovely accompaniment to the Countess’ melancholy “Dove Sono,” beautifully sung by Vanessa Vasquez, as one of many high points.
Vasquez was part of a generally strong cast. Throughout she was a figure of dignity, her singing matching her graceful movement. Her friendship with Susanna, two women who cross class lines to outwit the Count and confound Figaro, was evident. Her audible, floated pianissimos made “Dove Sono” deeply touching, but Mozart was in good hands whenever she sang. Her meticulous phrasing and deep expressivity were a pleasure.
Her partner in plots, Susanna, was portrayed by Ying Fang, who emerged as one of the stars of the evening. Her bright voice carried well through every ensemble, always audible, always delightful. Her energetic, pert characterization sparkled along with her voice. Her “Deh vienni” in the final act was another absolute highlight. She is a singer I look forward to hearing again.
Nicholas Brownlee was an energetic Figaro, pushing out his emphatic announcements but lacking refinement in his lyrical moments. He bounded confidently around the stage, the very representation of Figaro’s boundless wit and energy. His stentorian delivery suited “Non piu andrai” very well, and he was consistently at his best in Figaro’s emphatic moments. Occasional moments of disunity with the orchestra were quickly overcome.
Samuel Dale Johnson was the very image of the licentious Count Almaviva from his first entry in a bathrobe, evoking Hugh Hefner, whom he slightly resembles. His acting was effective enough that one doubts the sincerity of his theatrical repentance at the end. His singing was in service to the character, as he pivoted from braggadocio to befuddlement to anger.
Megan Marino was a boyish Cherubino. Her singing made less impression than her convincing adolescent swagger, but she definitely held her own. Her musical highlight, “Voi che sapete,” was cautious and calculated—perhaps by design?
Patrick Carfizzi was every bit as pompous and self-important as Bartolo needs to be. This was equally evident in tone and posture, and he managed the transformation to the embarrassed, regretful father in the third act with comic precision. As Marcellina, his “housekeeper” who has a contract to marry Figaro, the veteran Susanne Mentzer was thin of voice but perfectly in character as first the harridan and then the doting mother.
Coss was a flirty, perky Barbarina. As her father, the gardener Antonio, James Cresswell downplayed the drunken clichés, creating a more sympathetic character. Brenton Ryan oozed effectively as Don Basilio, serving the Count’s amorous intrigues. Thomas Cilluffo was pleasing as the pettifogging judge, again not overdoing the usual opera buffa clichés.
# # # # #
The libretto of Benjamin Britten’s Midsummer Night’s Dream, almost entirely Shakespeare’s text, condenses and recreates a literary masterpiece of the highest level. That was the first burden the composer faced.
Second would be the intersection of four separate worlds—the fairies who rule the woods by night, the two pair of lovers for whom the course of love does not run smooth, the simple tradesmen who meet to rehearse “obscenely and courageously,” and the court of Duke Theseus of Athens. Their collisions are by turn mysterious, hilariously funny, sweetly moving and deeply expressive of the human condition.
Each of those worlds and moods is brilliantly captured in Britten’s music, which reaches heights of beauty rare in the 20th century. With 19 named parts, the cast is large, including a countertenor, boy sopranos and a speaking part for a male acrobat. All considered, this creates a challenge in turn for any opera company.
Santa Fe’s success with this challenge was spotty. It was musically superb, with conductor Harry Bicket and the players in the pit negotiating Britten’s tricky score with style and great expression. The many individual solos were outstanding.
The production, however, was mixed, both effective and baffling. This opera is so deep in meaning on its own that it resists the kind of symbolic interpretation that it received from designer/director Netia Jones.
The stage was adorned with a single tree, a derelict piano, a padded bench, random astronomical equipment, and a large disc on which were projected black and white images too literally tied to the text (the mention of snakes or flowers, for example, leads to images of snakes and flowers). Other projections were of silhouetted trees, the moon, or Rorschach patterns.
The fairy band overused their trap door entrances. And beyond cheap laughs and an enhancement for Puck’s gymnastics, I cannot see what purpose was served by the trampoline.
First onstage is a staggering drunk and a woman wrapped in a long white winding sheet. These are later revealed to be Duke Theseus and his soon-to-be wife Hippolyta, who do not yet sing. Perhaps they stand in for the play’sopening in Theseus’ court, omitted in the opera. But the audience is left to guess why Theseus was tipsy in both the prologue and the final act—perhaps a comment on the Athenian court?
The costuming was equally baffling, a mix of 1950s student wear for the lovers, small-town Americana for the tradesmen, abstractly decorated black-and-white body suits with exotic headgear (top hats, rabbit ears, etc.) for the fairy band, lime-green suit for Puck, modern dress when the scene shifts to the court at the end. Oberon, wearing a tight-fitting suit, kept putting on and taking off a wolf’s head. In short, the costuming was more mystifying than the forest.
To take the four worlds in turn, Iestyn David sang well and held his own—more easily said than done for a countertenor—as Oberon. His solo moments, particularly the beautifully flowing “I know a bank where the wild thyme blows,” were highlights. Erin Morley’s Tytania was one of the stars of the show, handling the coloratura comfortably and singing with great expression.
The fairies were musically created by women apprentices, singing mostly from offstage, and by dancers onstage. The use of women’s voices has both advantages and drawbacks. Boys do not carry as well, whereas women made every note of the wonderful choral music audible. Women do not however have the delicate sound that Britten was aiming for. Angela Yam, Leah Brzyski, Rachel Blaustein, Taylor-Alexis DuPont sang well, but with adult voices, in their miniature solo roles.
Puck, performed by choreographer Reed Luplau, added another element to the production. A genuine acrobat, he leaped and gamboled through his performance, coming physically close to Britten’s conception of Puck. However, his spoken lines, delivered clearly enough, showed that Shakespearean English is not his native tongue.
The four lovers, apprentices all, brought an appropriate youthfulness to their parts. They were solid and generally well matched. Luke Sutliff, a stand-in as Demetrius, sang strongly with a full, direct sound. Dunn and Teresa Perrotta were vocally strong, well matched as Hermia and Helena. Their jealous battle in the second act was terrific (although why does Hermia, earlier demure, stand around comfortably in undies after her skirt is ripped off?). Duke Kim as Lysander was an ardent lover in voice and action, but occasionally rough in sound.
The translation of Shakespeare’s “rude mechanicals” to small town businessmen was disorienting. The jokes about their crude attempts at higher culture misfire when so framed, unless the aim is to satirize small towns—which is viable but was not Shakespeare’s purpose. (Besides, The Music Man did it better.)
As Peter Quince, Kevin Burdette was a perfect chamber-of-commerce figure, exerting his authority vocally when required. Nicholas Brownlee’s strong, hard-edged voice made Bottom more brusque than buffoonish, but his comic turn with Tytania was delightful. Brenton Ryan had the high tenor voice and the manner of the tender Flute. The tall, deep-voiced William Meinert was in fine form as the dull-witted Snug. Patrick Carfizzi and Matthew Grills filled their less memorable parts as Starveling and Snout well.
The tradesmen—whatever we call them—come into their own in the performance of Pyramus and Thisbe in the final act. It would be hard to go wrong with this perfect parody of 19th-century opera. In Santa Fe it was over the top, with touches from vaudeville to fit the style of the costumes. I have to mention Ryan particularly, as Flute/Thisbe steals the show with his mock-romantic arias and mad scene, hilariously performed in a bright scarlet prom dress.
When he finally sang, Cory McGee was commanding as Duke Theseus, his big voice demanding attention. Lindsay Kate Brown was a solid Hippolyta.
When the newlyweds go off to bed, the fairies retake the stage. Here the production produced sheer magic, with projections on the stage floor creating a sense of beauty and timelessness. Oberon, Tytania and the fairy chorus sing the gorgeous closing chorus “Now until the break of day” touchingly.
For a moment I was transported. Puck appeared, justifying the repeated pop-up entrances of the fairies earlier in the opera. He asked our indulgence and vanished, the best stage magic of the night. At the end, the opera triumphed.
NOTE: Reviews of Eugene Onegin and Lord of Cries will follow in a subsequent post.
Cellist Alisa Weilerstein gives dedicated performance of A New Day
By Peter Alexander July 25 at 11:25 p.m.
The Colorado Music Festival presented a major new piece at their concert in Chautauqua Auditorium tonight (July 25).
The Festival Orchestra, conductor Peter Oundjian and cellist Alisa Weilerstein collaborated in the world premiere of A New Day, a cello concerto by Joan Tower that was a CMF commission. A strong and exciting piece, A New Day should quickly find its way into the repertoire. I have no hesitation recommending this powerful concerto to every cellist, conductor and orchestra that would consider taking it up.
The all-Tower concert opened with four trumpeters playing her Fanfare for the Uncommon Woman No. 5. It was, as the program characterizes her style, “bold and energetic,” boldly and energetically played. The players nailed the cinematic brilliance of the fanfare, one of several responses by Tower to Copland’s World War II-era Fanfare for the Common Man.
Oundjian and Tower came onstage to introduce the next piece, one of Tower’s best known: the Grammy-winning Made in America. Premiered in 2005 and written for 68 orchestras in 50 states, Made in America reflects Tower’s feelings about her home country after living several years in South America. It uses the song “America the Beautiful” “inside the piece,” as Tower aptly described it: not really a set of variations, it returns to the song throughout.
As she also explained, the score reflects both positive and negative feelings about the country. There are many passages of darkness and anger, over which the central theme sometimes prevails. It is a well calculated score that propels the audience through many moods and transitions to an ending of great forcefulness. People around me were shouting “bravo,” “brava” and “bravi” all at once.
The CMF Orchestra, which gets better each week, managed the tricky transitions and sudden tempo changes of the score seamlessly under Oundjian’s leadership. Contrasts between delicate, gentle passages and violent, louder ones were well marked, and the slower crescendi flowed smoothly. Brass and percussion—favorite sounds in Tower’s arsenal—were especially impressive.
Next was Tower’s rarely heard Duets, a kind of concerto for orchestra that contrasts a series of duets within the orchestra with dramatic full orchestra outbursts. Tower said she was grateful to the CMF players for performing Duets, since they made her “like the piece again.“
I will not describe any part of this piece as “angry.” When Oundjian used that word from the stage, Tower firmly corrected him that she was not angry. But I will say that the dramatic full orchestral passages become musically very powerful at times.
That effect was abetted by nature, as a violent thunderstorm broke over the Chautauqua Auditorium during the performance, sometimes obscuring the players. It is a tribute to the orchestra’s range of dynamics that the most delicate passages could be drowned out by the rain, but elsewhere the storm was decisively covered by the orchestra.
What will be most remembered from the performance will be the orchestral explosions rather than the duets of individual instruments. Once again it was the brass section, deftly handling all of their complex passagework, and above all the athletic work of the timpanist that most impressed. Alas, the weather covered some of the wind and string duets that I would have liked to have heard better.
To avoid that happening during the following world premiere, the intermission was extended until the storm had passed and the music could be well heard. This was a good decision, as A New Day is a piece worth hearing well.
The piece makes great use of the cello and its characteristic gestures—long slides, string crossings, rapid figuration, shifts to thumb position high on the cello’s top string. This will be a challenge to any cellist, all within an accessible frame that audiences will enjoy. Based on the stations of a single day, it has an expressive profile that reaches out to the listeners and invites them in.
There are four movements, titled “Day Break,” “Working Out” (with the many possible meanings implied), “Almost Alone” and “Into the Night.” Dedicated to her husband, the piece is in part a celebration of their years together.
“Day Break” opens gently but has many shifts of mood. Driving fragments in the cello are reinforced by chugging motion in the orchestra. Every mood and musical idea leads to another transition, building in intensity or relaxing back into tranquility. “Working out” might refer as much to the performance of the soloist as any activities in the day of a person or a relationship. It is fast and at time brilliant, never casual.
“Almost alone” is a calm, lyrical cadenza for the cellist, sometimes supported by beautiful chords from the string sections. “Into the Night” provides a strong contrast to the preceding movement, starting almost frantically and maintaining a high pace for most of the movement. The end provides a return to tranquility, with the concerto ending as gently as it began—signifying, Tower says, “hope for another day with my 94-year-old husband.” Her generosity in sharing that hope with the audience was the most touching moment of all.
Weilerstein performed with a focus that was evident in both the intensity of her playing, and visually as she felt the complex passages of her part. This was virtuosity at a high level, a performance totally dedicated to the music at hand. Tower could not have wanted more effective advocates for her new work, either soloist, conductor, or orchestra.
It was good to hear the work of such a remarkable living composer at Chautauqua. Tower’s command of the orchestra is unequalled, her music is both vivid and accessible, and it is performed widely. It should be heard more often.
Indeed, the entire “Music of Today” series at CMF has been a sensational success. Oundjian and the festival are to be commended for their commitment to living musicians.
Music by two living composers and a piece by Beethoven, who “always will be alive”
By Peter Alexander July 23 at 1:10 a.m.
The Colorado Music Festival celebrated the “Music of Today” last night (Jul. 22) with a premiere, a second piece by a living composer, and a new arrangement of music by a composer who, in the words of artistic director Peter Oundjian, “always will be alive”: Beethoven.
The premiere was Forestallings by Hannah Lash, originally planned as part of the 2020 Beethoven 250thanniversary celebration. A CMF co-commission, it was inspired by Beethoven’s Second Symphony.
Lash was introduced by Oundjian to speak about her piece before the performance. This represented a return to the festival, since Lash played the premiere of her Second Harp Concerto, a CMF “Click” Commission, here in 2016. Last night she chose to let her music speak for itself; she said little more than that she has loved the Beethoven Second since childhood.
Except for the dramatic opening gesture, Forestallings does not quote Beethoven directly. Instead, Lash says, the score has “moments of opening a window between me and Beethoven,” after which she very much goes her own way. That way is likely shaped by Beethoven, however; the music makes use of the classical sound world, and offers a relaxed clarity that is not often heard in more intense new pieces.
This makes the development of ideas easy to follow. Lash briefly returns to the opening Beethovenian gesture, after which the first movement doesn’t so much end as just cease. The second movement begins in a Romantic, almost Mahlerian mood. In spite of lush harmonies, the texture remains open and clear, so that you can hear through the entire orchestra from top to bottom. Here Lash’s lyrical writing is particularly ingratiating.
Oundjian and the CMF players revealed the clarity of the music and brought out the strong profile of the score with a careful, attentive performance. In all, Forestallings proved an enjoyable piece that may well go on to further performances.
The second work on the program, the Marimba Concerto of Kevin Puts, was no less enjoyable. Puts may be known to some in the audience who remember that former CMF music director Michael Christie conducted and recorded Puts’s Pulitzer Prize-wining opera Silent Night at the Minnesota Opera in 2011.
Like Forestallings, Puts’s concerto draws on classical models, in this case the piano concertos of Mozart. According to the composer, that influence is found in the near-equal relationship between soloist and orchestra, but attentive listeners will hear a suggestion of Mozartian lyricism. The very opening could almost be the beginning of a Mozart concerto before Puts, like Lash, goes his own way, into a pastoral world with twittering winds and murmuring strings.
There are moments of great loveliness and gentle beauty through the concerto, qualities that were emphasized by the strong string sound of the CMF players. The final movement becomes more virtuosic, opening with a brilliant, almost epic gesture and driving on to the very fast finish.
The performance featured soloist Ji Su Jung, who is one of those true virtuosos who has the ability to make her performance look simple. (It’s not!) She flew through all the fireworks that Puts asks for, and maintained the greatest delicacy in the exquisitely controlled ending of the second movement. After the accelerating finale the audience, duly impressed, provided a standing ovation—which of course is routine at concerts today.
At Oundjian’s urging, Jung played an encore that turned out to be “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.” This sudden change of direction showed Jung’s comfort with varied styles, playing an arrangement that has just enough of the lounge-pianist vibe to entertain. She handled the style with polish, and ended with a deft musical wink to the audience.
The second half of the concert was given over to Oundjian’s arrangement for string orchestra of Beethoven’s String Quartet in C-sharp minor, op. 131. This is undoubtedly one of the great works for string quartet or any medium. Oundjian’s spoken introduction reflected insights gained from more than 150 performances of the quartet as a violinist, and showed the distance between program note analysis and the deep understanding gained inside a piece of music.
The piece, and the opportunity to conduct music he can no longer play, are clearly precious to Oundjian, but I have to admit mixed feelings about arrangements of this, or any string quartet for full string orchestra. In this case, there are definite gains, but also losses. Sometimes the extra heft of the full sections yields expressive rewards, but elsewhere the intimacy of the chamber ensemble captures things that the full orchestra cannot.
The very opening of Op. 131, a chromatic line permeated with despair, is more personal played by a quartet; by full sections, the despair becomes less intimate, a larger landscape of desolation. Is one better, or the other? Is it just different? Each listener must decide.
On the negative side of the ledger are details that get muddied in a full section sound, the rapid gestures than six players cannot play as cleanly as one. The transparency that a good quartet projects, particularly in contrapuntal passages, may get lost.
On the other hand, Beethoven’s stomping fury in the final movement definitely gains from the full section sound. That passage always sounds like it needs more in a quartet performance—although the straining of just four instruments has an expressive quality, too. Full section pianissimo has its own beauty and sense of suspense. The sections where Oundjian’s arrangement alternates solo passages with full section punctuation are very effective.
I have no doubt that every member of the CMF string sections has played this work—possibly excepting the basses—and it is rewarding to see and hear them joining together for something that they all revere. It would be harsh to deny Oundjian, the players and the audience the opportunity to share this performance.
And yet, I cannot escape the thought that the piece is even better played by a great quartet.
Program of Purcell, Walker, Shostakovich and Beethoven, plus Dvořák
By Peter Alexander July 14 at 12:50 a.m.
Last night (July 13) the Colorado Music Festival (CMF) hosted one of the most distinguished string quartets as part of the new Robert Mann Chamber Music series.
It was not, however, the quartet that had been announced. The originally listed Juilliard Quartet was unable to make the trip, and the nine-time Grammy-winning Emerson Quartet came to the rescue, making their CMF debut appearance. That was a happy turn of events, as the Emerson gave a terrific program of their own, entirely worthy of a series named for the legendary violinist.
The Emerson Quartet opened their program with Henry Purcell’s 17th-centruy Chacony, as edited by Benjamin Britten. This is a curious hybrid piece, one that is neither Baroque nor modern—more of a Baroco-Romantic blend. The performance was lovely, transparent enough to clarify the polyphonic texture but also warm enough to evoke a more Romantic sense of style.
After that brief opener, violinist Eugene Drucker came onstage to talk about the program, providing just enough analysis to give insight into the coming pieces. As he pointed out, the Purcell/Britten established a theme that was carried on by other pieces: music that looks both forward and backward. This applied particularly to the Shostakovich Quartet No. 14, in which the composer pulled serial elements into his personal style, and Beethoven’s String Quartet No. 15, op. 132, which uses an old church mode to express the composer’s thanks to the Deity.
But first the Emerson played the string quartet version of George Walker’s Lyric for Strings. Best known as a piece for string orchestra, it was originally written as part of Walker’s String Quartet No. 1. If you are accustomed to the string orchestra version, it sounds more fragile, and also more intimate when played by a quartet. In the Emerson’s performance, you could hear the players’ affection for this gentle piece, as they caressed the chords and carefully shaped the dynamic contours.
As Drucker explained, Shostakovich’s Fourteenth Quartet is permeated with highly chromatic lines that come out of 12-tone compositional styles. And yet, it is unmistakably Shostakovich’s music in its texture, in its rhythmic shape, and equally in its expressive profile.
Like many of his other quartet movements, the opening Allegretto starts as if striking out on a brisk excursion. But soon the chromatic elements take the music down some strange and unexpected byways. Happily, the Emerson Quartet seemed completely plugged into the composer’s itinerary and never seemed the least bit lost.
The second movement is an Adagio of brooding intensity. Last night the suppressed turmoil of the music seemed to summon the winds outside the Chautauqua Auditorium. This mini mistral rattled the building and seemed to express what Shostakovich had hidden behind the notes, but it did not rattle the players of the Emerson Quartet who carried on with total aplomb.
The final movement is variegated in texture, mood and affect, contrasts that the Emerson Quartet brought out forcibly. Undisturbed by the continuing tempest without, they maintained their focus and intensity.
I have little to say about the Beethoven, which received a consistent, polished and utterly coherent performance. This is music that the Emerson, like all first-rank quartets, has played many times. They are performers who know the music intimately and know exactly what they want to do. This performance did not confront the audience with the rude and boisterous Beethoven we sometimes hear. Rather, it had the rough edges polished, and however deeply expressive, it was never uncomfortable.
Hearing this quartet is almost an otherworldly experience, especially the central movement titled “Heiliger Dankgesang eines Genesenen an die Gottheit” (Holy song of thanks of a convalescent to the Deity). Here Beethoven uses the Lydian mode, a kind of scale used in Medieval Gregorian chant but rarely since, to evoke the sacred realms. The Emerson Quartet played those portions of the score with quiet reverence, and contrasted them well with the surrounding material representing his recovery.
These essential contrasts were brought out in a polished way without resorting to crude exaggeration. Was it too polished? Some may like Beethoven in a more aggressive mood, but you could not say this performance was not convincing.
For an encore, the quartet played one of Dvořák’s Cypresses, quartet arrangements of a set of love songs, a lovely and gentle way to follow up a widely varied program.
Fine cast is led by Alisa Jordheim’s radiant Gilda
By Peter Alexander July 12 at 10:45 p.m.
Central City Opera’s second production of the 2021 festival season, Verdi’s Rigoletto, opened Saturday night (July 10) on a beautiful summer evening at Littleton’s Hudson Gardens.
The season had opened the previous Saturday (July 3) with Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Carousel. The locale, chosen when CCO had to move from the close quarters of their opera house in Central City, proved idyllic for the Rigoletto opening. The opera—condensed to a single 100-minute span with no intermission—successfully used the outdoor location in the conception of the production, and mostly successfully moved the time to a near-present that featured a golf-playing Duke, a curse- and bible-brandishing preacher, and news passed by cell phone.
In updated productions, the Duke of Mantua has been transformed into a Mafia boss in New York’s Little Italy, a Sinatra-like singer in Vegas, and a skirt-chasing politico modeled on Italy’s Silvio Berlusconi. This is a tempting way to convey the dissolution of the Duke’s court to modern audiences, but it offers a problem, too: Rigoletto himself.
In the original setting, Rigoletto’s status as court jester—forced to amuse the Duke and hated by everyone for his cutting tongue—is visibly apparent from his first entrance. There are no modern equivalents that quite capture that level of degradation and humiliation. In the case of the CCO production, effectively stage directed by Jose Maria Condemi, the other updatings worked well, but Rigoletto’s status remained problematic.
One example: In the second act, Rigoletto’s daughter Gilda flees from the Duke’s bedroom following her ravishment, to find her father among the courtiers. The impact of this scene lies partly in her immediate recognition of the depravity of his status in the court. But here, there is no dress or other sign of his debased status, which diminishes the impact of their reunion.
In just about every other way I found the updating effective. The Duke as a callow and callous ex-frat-boy surrounded by a posse, Monterone as a Bible-thumping televangelist, the tart Maddalena dressed in a scarlet (get it?) corset—these all worked. The informal dress, adapted for outdoor performances on warm summer nights, was effective. Gilda’s swing was a nice touch, suiting the outdoor venue well. This Rigoletto definitely packs a punch.
Sound was the greatest sacrifice to the outdoor venue. A reduced orchestra—eight strings, 22 players in all—is seated beneath a tent behind the stage. Each of the players and singers is individually mic’d, making the sound technician—seated in a stage-side tent of his own—the most important person you don’t see. Conductor John Baril communicates with the singers via video monitors.
But eight strings is not enough to create the weight you want in Verdi’s score, and the amplification only makes the orchestra sound tinny, not hefty. The woodwinds were often under-powered. The singers came across better, always present and easily understood.
One way the opera was condensed was by reducing the cast. The bevy of courtiers around the Duke was reduced to three named roles and some of the larger scenes and choral numbers were cut. The drama does not suffer from such reductions, but the musical breadth of the score does.
Of the cast members, Alisa Jordheim as Gilda was the star of the night. Her glittering, burnished soprano and splendid vocal technique made her every scene a delight. The tender wonder and brilliant coloratura of “Caro nome,” her anguished cries in the great Act III quartet, and above all her powerful resolve before sacrificing herself for the Duke—all were both musically and dramatically compelling.
Galeano Salas brought a lovely lyric tenor sound to the role of the Duke of Mantua and was at his best on the solo arias. His phrasing became more fluid as the evening wore on, but occasionally his phrasing was more pedestrian, lacking depth of expression.
In the title role, Aleksey Bogdanov sang with a resonant baritone. He was never less than effective, although his portrayal sometimes seemed directed rather than spontaneous. His best moments were his powerful rage in Act II and his final scene as Gilda dies in his arms, prompting his fierce cry of “Ah! La maledizione!” (Ah! The curse!).
John Paul Huckle was a menacing and deep-voiced Sparafucile who brought his small but essential role convincingly to life. Michelle Monroe was exactly as coarse and suggestive as she needed to be as Maddalena without losing vocal effectiveness. Together they made the final act a potent highlight.
As Monterone, Phillip Lopez gave a hard edge to his voice that matched his character’s harsh pronouncements. All the other roles were filled by a small but resilient cast of capable performers who sang well and made even their entrances across the visible spaces around and behind the stage part of the drama.
Sound issues with the amplified orchestra aside, John Baril conducted with style. He knit the through-composed score together with great effectiveness, building powerful momentum where necessary. The final act storm was driven but underpowered. Condemi’s clear direction of the smallish cast helped propel the story ahead.
Kudos to Central City Opera for finding a venue and a way to produce the season. Opera at Hudson Gardens is a unique experience for Colorado audiences, and one well worth taking in. It was a daunting challenge to move the production to a space that was new to the CCO, even as opera was new for the people at Hudson Gardens. If you don’t believe that it was a challenge for all, go to a performance and look at all the lights hung over the stage, then realize that the space is alternating two different shows.
Rigoletto continues in repertory at Hudson Gardens through July 30. Tickets are available here.
# # # # #
Rigoletto Music by Giuseppe Verdi, libretto by Francesco Maria Piave
7 p.m. Friday, July 16; Tuesday, July 20; Thursday, July 22; Saturday, July 24; Wednesday, July 28; Friday, July 30 3 p.m. Wednesday, July 14; Sunday, July 18; Tuesday, July 27
Production faces dark themes of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s hit show
By Izzy Fincher July 11 at 12:45 p.m.
The smell of love—and fresh cut grass—is in the air. Two young lovers gaze into the settling dusk, framed by glowing carousel banners and scintillating plastic stars, cottonwood fluff falling like blossoms.
Yet despite this idyllic opening scene from Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Carousel, the show is filled with dark themes of toxic relationships, domestic abuse, crime and suicide, ending with the bittersweet promise of “You’ll Never Walk Alone.”
Central City Opera’s production, which opened on July 3 at Hudson Gardens in Littleton, Colo., under director Ken Cazan, does not shy away from the darker themes, and it also doesn’t attempt to reframe the outdated storyline for a modern audience. With a minimalistic approach to staging and costumes, the focus is on the abusive relationship between Billy Bigelow (Steven LaBrie) and Julie Jordan (Anna Christy), which unfolds with heartbreaking realism.
Carousel, written in 1945, was Rodgers and Hammerstein’s second collaboration after their Broadway hit Oklahoma!. Based on Ferenc Molnár’s 1909 play Liliom, the musicaltakes place in a small town in Maine in the early 1900s. It depicts the troubled relationship between charming carousel barker Billy and naive millworker Julie, contrasted by the light-hearted love story of Julie’s best friend Carrie Pepperidge (Jennifer DeDominici) and the pious, ambitious fisherman Enoch Snow (Will Ferguson).
From the beginning, the whirlwind romance between Billy and Julie is clearly ill-fated. Billy is lazy, quick-tempered and emotionally stunted, while Julie is a hopeless romantic, too forgiving for her own good. A few months into their marriage, Billy physically abuses Julie, an upsetting yet hardly surprising development. (He later denies it, saying, “I wouldn’t beat a little thing like that—I hit her.”) Later when he learns Julie is pregnant, he decides to commit a robbery to provide for his future family and kills himself when it fails.
Although domestic abuse was largely ignored (and sometimes encouraged) at the time, Rodgers and Hammerstein initially had misgivings about turning Liliom into a musical. After all, a “wife-beater” who abandons his pregnant wife is hardly a sympathetic protagonist.
So the duo crafted a more optimistic, though morally problematic, ending: while his counterpart Liliom is banished to purgatory, Billy is redeemed and goes to heaven (after abusing his daughter on his second chance and offering a few words of encouragement and an “I love you” on his third). By reframing the dark tale as an uplifting story of redemption, they managed to appeal to mainstream audiences, and the show became an instant hit on Broadway.
However, since the #MeToo movement Carousel revivals have faced intense criticism. The musical has been accused of romanticizing an abusive relationship and having a sympathetic portrayal of Billy as a flawed man worthy of redemption.
In response, several recent productions have cut a few of Julie’s controversial lines, but these small deletions are a superficial fix at best and to an extent deny the realities of how victims may perceive their abusers. The main issue that productions, including this one, haven’t yet dared to address lies in Billy’s final redemption, even though his abusive nature has not fundamentally changed.
In Central City Opera’s production, Cazan has taken a more hands-off approach to the issue. Julie’s controversial lines remain intact, and the production leaves the moral dilemma of Billy’s redemption unanswered.
In her role as Julie, Christy skillfully portrays a nuanced character, a compassionate girl who loves a cruel man deeply and unconditionally, even when she shouldn’t. In “If I Loved You,” Christy’s sparkling soprano soared across the garden, filled with love and hope. Then as the play progresses, her bright, spirited disposition fades, and she sinks into herself, hiding in an oversized olive sweater draped over her elegant dress. When she is with Billy, she flinches away from him, defiant but afraid.
LaBrie, in his portrayal of Billy, leans into the despicableness of his character. Cutting an imposing figure onstage, LaBrie towers over Christy as Julie, his booming voice and menacing movements evoking a sense of dread. Though he never hits Julie onstage, he seems poised to do so at any moment, like a coiled spring ready to snap.
Yet, there are also sweet, charming moments early on in “If I Loved You,” the closest Billy ever comes in life to admitting his feelings. In “Soliloquy,” a tender song about his future child (whom he hopes will be a boy, of course), LaBrie captures the essence of Billy, a man riddled with toxic masculinity and prone to self-destructive behavior, unable to express his love for his wife and unborn child in a healthy way.
Despite the difficult material, the show is sprinkled with several funny and heartwarming moments, mostly from Carrie and Enoch. Their relationship is imperfect and at times sexist—Enoch imposes his dream of a big family onto Carrie and blames her for being sexually assaulted by Billy’s crony Jigger Craig. Yet, overall Ferguson portrays Enoch as a good-hearted man, who tries his best to love Carrie, while also providing much-needed comic relief with his infectious guffaw and social awkwardness.
The ending, however, remains a twisted tale of redemption. With closed eyes, the final sweeping chorus of “You’ll Never Walk Alone” is deeply moving. The uplifting music is almost enough to convince us that Billy deserves to be redeemed.
Almost. But unless we are as forgiving as Julie, after the music fades, it’s hard to believe that a single moment of kindness could make up for Billy’s sins.
# # # # #
Carousel Music by Richard Rogers, book by Oscar Hammerstein
Remaining Performances: 7 p.m. Tuesday, July 13; Thursday, July 15; Saturday, July 17; Friday, July 23; Tuesday, July 27; Thursday, July 29\ 3 p.m. Wednesday July 7; Sunday, July 11; Sunday, July 25; Thursday, July 29; Sunday, August 1