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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Peter Sellars. Photo by Peter Alexander.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

# # #

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

EDITED 8/8 for clarity and to correct typos

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

Madama Butterfly, Candide and Ariadne auf Naxos 

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

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

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

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

No greater magic could be created.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Megan Marino as Suzuki. Ken Howard for Santa Fe Opera

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

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

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

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

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

# # #

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

# # #

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Photo by Kate Russell for Santa Fe Opera

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

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

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

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

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

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Michelle DeYoung

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

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

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Timothy Collins

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

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

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

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Michelle DeYoung

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

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

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

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Pianist Cody Garrison

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

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

Central City Opera one-acts offer fun, joy

Mollicone’s Face on the Barroom Floor, Handel’s Acis and Galatea

By Peter Alexander July 27 at 12:45 p.m.

Central City Opera is offering two one-act operas this summer, in addition to their two full-scale productions in the main opera house (Verdi’s Il Trovatore and Mozart’s Magic Flute).

Handel’s Acis and Galatea is receiving its first CCO production, while The Face on the Barroom Floor by Henry Mollicone was written for the company 40 years ago and was performed annually until a few years ago. It is being revived this year for its fortieth anniversary. Both shows are cast with members of the Bonfils-Stanton Foundation Artists Training Program.

FaceI may be the last person in Colorado who has not seen Face on the Barroom Floor, but if you find yourself in the same category, it’s too late this year; remaining performances of this modest 25-minute work are all sold out. The opera is presented in the Williams’ Stables, an intimate theater space across the street from the main Central City Opera House. And that is both the joy and the one drawback of the performance.

It is a joy, because everyone in the 90-seat Williams’ Stables performance space is close enough to interact with the singers. In fact, members of the audience are recruited to stand in as the barroom’s patrons for about half of the opera. But the drawback is that it is a small space, with a low ceiling, easily filled by operatic voices. Between pure volume and some imperfect diction, not all of the text can be understood.

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Williams’ Stables in Central City

That aside, the performance is great entertainment. It is a young person’s story, brim full of youthful passions, ideally suited for the young artists of the training program. The cast I saw had Gillian Hollis as Isabelle/Madeline, who becomes the face; Zachary Johnson as the hotheaded barman of past and present (Tom/John), and Martin Luther Clark as his sarcastic, skeptical rival for Isabelle/Madeline’s attentions (Larry/Matt). All were delightful.

Hollis was pert, pretty and bright-voiced in the central role—can we call it the title role? She sang with convincing expression throughout, capturing the audience’s sympathies as she tries to keep the testosterone-fueled macho outbursts of the men under control. Of course, sopranos often have to die in opera, but it must be a record that she, poor thing, is shot dead twice in about 15 minutes.

Johnson was the very image of the bartender, solicitous of the guests from the audience, then on alert both times Larry/John came into his bar. His voice is clear and strong, his acting effective and believable. In spite of his morally ambiguous role in both scenes, he remained a sympathetic character.

Clark has a solid tenor voice, with clear diction throughout; not a word was lost. He put across Larry’s sarcasm in the present-day scenes so well that one understood the bartender’s antagonism but not why Isabelle was with him in the first place. His fights with Tom/John were well done, by both actors and in both eras.

The small accompanying ensemble (piano, flute, cello) played well, the costumes are effective in both delineating character and distinguishing eras, the staging fitting. If you missed it, you may need to lobby CCO to produce it again; it is a Central City tradition well worth enjoying.

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AcisHandel is a world away from the old West and Mollicone’s gritty barroom drama, but Acis and Galatea is another opera well suited to young singers. Populated by shepherds, nymphs and a monstrous cyclops from Greek mythology, it has the same central conflict as Face: two men fighting for a woman’s love. Performed before a house of 120 seats set up in an open rehearsal room of the Martin Foundry in Central City, Acis is as intimate as Face, with members of the audience invited the help during the performance.

In Handel’s “Pastoral Entertainment” (as it was billed in 1718), Acis and Galatea are deeply in love and pine for one another when separated. The cyclops Polyphemus desires Galatea, and in his raging jealousy he kills Acis. But just as the spirit of Madeline haunts the barroom in Face, Acis lives on in a stream so that Galatea can swim in his love forever.

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Acis and Galatea cast, left to right: Chris Mosz (Damon), George Milosh (Acis), Matthew Peterson (Polyphemus), Graycen Gardner (Galatea), Benjamin DaCosta-Kaufman (Corydon). Photo by Amanda Tipton

Director Ken Cazan has cleverly updated the setting to a Woodstock-like ‘60s hippie haven, an effective modern analogue to the pleasure-seeking Arcadian world evoked by the pastoral poetry of Handel’s time. Lines such as “Love on her breast sits panting” and “When he returns, no more she mourns, but loves the live-long day” certainly suggest the era of “make love, not war.” Cazan even takes in the modern sense the words of the opening chorus: “Happy nymphs and happy swains, harmless, merry, free and gay, dance and sport the hours away.”

The set—a long, narrow platform that runs the full diagonal length of the hall—, the costumes by Stacie Logue, and the hippy-dippy manner of the five-member cast all support the transformation to the sixties. The music, however, is pure Handel, and some of his most gorgeous music at that—stylishly played and sung by the cast and a small orchestra under the able direction of Christopher Zemliauskas. It was a joy to hear.

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Graycen Gardner (Galatea) and George Milosh (Acis). Photo by Amanda Tipton.

The 18th-century English of the libretto does not lend itself to easy understanding by a modern audience. Texts such as “Ye verdant plains and woody mountains, purling streams and bubbling fountains,” and “Where shall I seek the charming fair?” are not easily grasped, especially when diction is compromised by elaborate twists and turns of the vocal lines, but the simple plot is easily conveyed through action.

The cast were all strong and well rehearsed, keeping ensembles together even when wide apart on the runway set and facing different directions. (A mirror at one of the room allowed them to see Zemliauskas even with their back to him.) Phrasing and sound were all fit well to Handel’s style.

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Matthew Peterson (Polyphemus). Photo by Amanda Tipton.

As Galatea, Graycen Gardner sang with a flexible soprano, handling leaps and flourishes with apparent ease. Her musicality and exquisite phrasing were a source of pleasure. George Milosh brought a light, lyrical tenor voice to the role of Acis. His command of the text was evident, as almost every word came through. Baritone Matthew Peterson coped well with the rapid coloratura lines of “the monster Polypheme,’ keeping his musical focus even while being wheeled up and down the set, standing on a chair. Chris Mosz and Benjamin DaCosta-Kaufman, the designated “free and gay” members of the hippy band, were effective in their smaller parts as Damon and Corydon.

The orchestra provided more than support for the singers. From a stylishly played overture to the closing chorus (“Galatea, dry thy tears, Acis now a god appears!”) they performed the Baroque score on the highest level—the more credit to conductor Zemliauskas, whose barefoot entrance, flashing peace signs to the audience set the scene as well as his leadership set the musical level.

Acis and Galateais a great opportunity to hear some little known, enchanting music by Handel. Tickets are still available for the performance at 8 p.m. Aug. 1.

CMF concert has four highlights, each presented with great polish

Augustin Hadelich a soloist to remember in the Barber Violin Concerto.

By Peter Alexander July 27 at 1:15 a.m.

The Colorado Music Festival presented a remarkable orchestra concert last night (July 26), even by their high standards, featuring four works composed in America, all of them worth hearing and all of them presented with great polish.

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CMF artist advisor Peter Oundjian (photo by Jaime Hogge)

The CMF orchestra was conducted by the festival’s artistic advisor, Peter Oundjian, who has devoted his programs this summer to music with American connections. Appearing with Oundjian was violinist Augustin Hadelich, whose performance of the Barber Violin Concerto would be a highlight on any program. But so were, each in their own way, the other three works on the concert.

Barber’s Concerto is unquestionably one of the greatest works by an American composer. No piece starts more enticingly, with music of seductive beauty. Hadelich was in command from the first note, playing with an incomparably sweet tone that easily carried to the back of the hall without a hint of harshness, then turning on a dime to skip through the concerto’s playful moments.

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Violinist Augustin Hadelich

The expressive beauty of his playing served him well in the second movement, a distillation of the late Romantic love of pure sound, with only occasional glimpses of the darker side of the 20th century. The finale, a famously virtuosic display of perpetual motion, went in a blaze of fireworks, zipping past without a single slip. In every facet of the concerto, Hadelich was a soloist to remember.

As if that were not enough, he came back for an encore, playing a Paganini Caprice just to show that no, his fingers are not tired. After the concerto, it was striking to hear the violin alone, every sound exposed. And it sounded just the way it looks on the page, every note right where it should be. The violinist who accompanied me to the concert whispered, “Perfect. That’s all you have to say.”

The concert opened with Hindemith’s Symphonic Metamorphosis on Themes by Carl Maria von Weber, a boisterous and entertaining work that showcases just about every section of the orchestra, including percussion. Weber’s charming early-Romantic ideas are run through Hindemith’s late Romantic filter, adding a lot of instrumental color, a lot of variation, and an occasional harmonic twist to make an attractive, audience-friendly concert piece. Oundjian’s performance loved the orchestral colors of the score and let them shine. It was all great fun, as it is meant to be.

After intermission, the orchestra’s string section returned for George Walker’s Lyric for Strings. Like Barber’s Adagio for Strings, which it resembles, this is a movement from a string quartet arranged for string orchestra. Walker uses the string instruments’ ability to sustain long musical lines, expand into a rich, deep texture, and play ethereal chords that drift into silence. The CMF players filled the hall with luxurious sounds.

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Gerald Finley as Oppenheimer in Doctor Atomic at the Metropolitan Opera

The final member of the quartet of fascinating pieces was the Doctor Atomic Symphony by John Adams, comprising music from Adams’ 2005 opera about Robert Oppenheimer and the first test of an atomic bomb in 1945. The opera compellingly captures the pressures and conflicts experienced by Oppenheimer and the other scientists of the Manhattan Project as the date of the first test approached, as well as the pressure felt and exerted by Gen. Leslie Groves, the Army’s commander for the project. (Doctor Atomic is currently being produced by the Santa Fe Opera. Learn more here.)

All of this is transferred into the Symphony, which contains music of ominous intensity. To my ears, this is one of the most dramatic, most powerful, and most effective new orchestral works I have heard in recent years, and it was played with great force and sheer virtuosity by the CMF orchestra. Individual solos—especially the trumpet’s eloquent interpretation of Oppenheimer’s aria from John Donne’s sonnet “Batter my heart, three person’d God”—were all played very well.

One of the central issues and greatest sources of conflict in the opera is weather, with thunderstorms threatening to cancel the long-awaited test. Perhaps it was coincidence, but the CMF performance was powerful enough that it seemed to stir up its own sudden thunderstorm that lasted beyond a long ovation.

Just like the actual test in 1945, the audience departure from the auditorium had to be delayed. But just as in 1945, the storm passed, and to all appearances the audience went home more than satisfied with what they heard.

CMF Orch.by Eric Berlin

Zeitouni returns, bringing Romantic music, verve and excitement

Michelle DeYoung combines mezzo heft with soaring soprano

By Peter Alexander July 20 at 1 a.m.

Last night (July 19) Jean-Marie Zeitouni returned to the Colorado Music Festival, conducting a concert that had the same verve and excitement that marked so many of his performances when he was the music director.

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Michelle DeYoung

Joining Zeitouni and the Festival Orchestra on the first half of the concert was mezzo-soprano Michelle DeYoung, this year’s SeiSolo artist-in-residence at CMF, who contributed a powerful soprano—going well above the usual mezzo range—to a performance of the Prelude and Liebestod from Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde.

Noted for a wide vocal range that opens the door to dramatic soprano roles as well as the deeper mezzo roles, DeYoung has earned a reputation as an outstanding Wagnerian singer. Onstage she has sung roles including Venus in Tannhäuser, Kundry in Parsifal and Brangäne in Tristan, among many others, and she often sings the heroic soprano excerpts including the Liebestod and Brunnhilde’s Immolation Scene from Gotterdämmerung in concert.

Her performance of the Liebestod had a Wagnerian heft as well as shimmering high notes—in effect, a mezzo sound in the lower range and a bright soprano sound up high. She could always be heard, even the middle of a massive orchestral texture. It was a performance few could match.

Zeitouni drew carefully controlled phrases and carefully shaped surges from the orchestra in the Prelude. Apart from imperfectly blended wind sounds once or twice, this was a consistently first-rate performance.

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Jean-Marie Zeitouni

After Wagner, Zeitouni turned and addressed “my beloved CMF audience,” adding a touching personal note to the evening. He introduced composer Timothy Collins, whose song cycle Buch des Sängers (The singer’s book), written for DeYoung, received its world premiere next on the concert.

The vocal lines of Buch des Sängers fall squarely in DeYoung’s mezzo range, with only a few excursions into a higher, brighter range. The first song, “Loveliness,” is indeed as lovely as anything you will hear, with beautiful vocal lines cushioned in a warm blanket of orchestral sound.

That description could apply to most of the rest of the cycle, however. The orchestral sounds are consistently warm and flowing, almost always at a moderate tempo, with added sparkle from percussion and harp to provide highlights. It is all very pleasant, very welcoming to the audience, but greater variety of sound and tempo would command closer attention.

Nevertheless, there is much to enjoy in Buch des Sängers, and DeYoung sang with a radiant conviction. This is music that audiences can embrace without difficulty. It is not hard to predict that other singers will want to take up this cycle, and that it will have many future performances.

The second half of the concert was devoted to an explosive and spectacular performance of Rimsky-Korsakov’s most brilliant orchestral showpiece, Scheherazade. This is a piece that can display the best of any orchestra, and the CMF orchestra did not disappoint.

Never afraid of dramatic gestures, Zeitouni started the performance with a powerful call to attention, reminding us that the story the music is going to tell comes from the Arabian Nights. “Now we begin!” the lower voices declaim. This was immediately followed by one of many violin solos representing Scheherazade herself, played with a beautifully sweet sound and expressive rhythmic freedom by concertmaster Calin Lupanu.

In fact, the score is filled with individual instrumental solos, and one of the pleasures of the performance was hearing so many individual members of the orchestra have the opportunity to shine. In addition to Lupanu, there were solos for cello, flute, clarinet, oboe, bassoon, horn, trumpet, trombone, harp—did I miss anyone?—all played with relish and artistry. Every one was a joy to hear.

The final movement was taken at a breakneck pace, about as fast as some parts can be played. It was almost all clean and clear, in spite of the speed, bringing the concert to a rousing close. Played with gusto, such Romantic warhorses can be great fun, and this one certainly was.

Scheherazade will be repeated tonight (July 20) at 6:30 as part of a “Fresh Fridays’ program. Zeitouni will also conduct the CMF Chamber Orchestra on Saturday in a program of Ravel and Beethoven. Purchase tickets here.

 

 

Dramatic Trovatore, strikingly original Magic Flute in Central City

Both operas run in repertory to the first week of August

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Central City Opera House interior