There are No Tragic Endings on Central City Opera MainStage this year

Rollicking comedy and light-hearted drama lead the summer schedule

By Peter Alexander July 8 at 5:30 p.m.

There will be no babies thrown into the fire (Il Trovatore, 2018), or innocent girls murdered in place of a dissolute count (Rigoletto, 2021) at Central City Opera this summer.

CCO has not been able to perform in their exquisite opera house in Central City since 2019, and between returning to their home and this year’s 90th anniversary, the company wanted a cheerful summer. In the words of Central City Opera chief executive officer Pamela Pantos, the aim was that “after what we’ve all been thorough, people will come and smile, be back in the opera house and enjoy themselves.”

Opening Night at Central City Opera. Featured in Central City Opera’s 75th anniversary book, “Theatre of Dreams, The Glorious Central City Opera—Celebrating 75 Years.”

Both mainstage productions in the Central City Opera House will be light-hearted works: the frothy Viennese confection of Johann Strauss, Jr., Die Fledermaus; and The Light in the Piazza, a Tony-winning Broadway musical by Adam Guettel, which has moments of melancholy but ends happily with boy-marries-girl.

The only darker tones come later in the summer, with a production of Two Remain, a chamber opera by Jake Heggie based on the stories of two Auschwitz survivors. That will be performed at the Martin Foundry in Central City (see dates and time below).

Broadway musicals have often been performed by Central City Opera: Carousel (2021), Man of La Mancha (2015), The Sound of Music (Denver, 2014), Show Boat (Denver, 2013), Oklahoma! (2012) among others. Pantos hopes that there will be ongoing support for musical comedies, for the breadth they bring to the repertoire.

Central City Opera’s production of ‘The Light in the Piazza.’ Photo by Amanda Tipton Photography

A Light in the Piazza tells the story of 1950s American housewife Margaret Johnson and her daughter Clara—who seems to be developmentally disabled from a childhood accident. This being a musical, Clara falls in love with a handsome young Italian man, and Margaret has to decide if the young couple will be allowed to see each other, and ultimately, to marry.

The conflict revolves around Margaret’s desire to protect her daughter, and to let her live her own life. There are also cultural differences between the Americans and the Italians, which create another level of dilemma for everyone. With her husband busy in the United States, Margaret has to find her own path, just as Clara does.

Rebecca Caine (Margaret Johnson) and Diana Newman (Clara Johnson) in the CCO production of ‘The Light in the Piazza.’ Photo by Amanda Tipton Photography.

“While there are moments of seriousness to the piece, it is quite lighthearted,” Pantos says. “It had a long run on the stage in New York, (and) Tony-winning is always Tony winning! There’s a little bit of melancholy, but beautiful music—it is a romance!”

Composed by the grandson of Broadway legend Richard Rodgers, A Light in the Piazza reflects the style and traditions of 20th-century American Music Theater. Die Fledermaus, however, reflects just as deeply the style and manner of a very different world: that of 19th-century Vienna. There are swirling waltzes (of course), a grand party thrown by a bored Russian count, mistaken identities and masks, and hilarious comedy from beginning to end, all capturing the splendor and decadence of Imperial Vienna.

The plot is almost too complicated to explain, except that it is a tale of foolishness, and of revenge between friends, that starts in an elegant home and ends in a dreary prison, with a glamorous dinner party in between. But even in the prison, everyone comes away happy. The musical numbers will be performed in German but the dialog in English so everyone should be able to follow the story.

Conductor John Baril.

The Viennese musical style, combining elegance and sentimentality, is not always easy for non-native performers. There are unwritten rules for modifying rhythms and tempos that are known to the Viennese, but not necessarily outsiders—kind of like the unwritten rules in American jazz.

“The trick in getting Fledermaus right is all of the little things that aren’t on the page,” conductor John Baril says. “There’s a lot of little Viennese things that are done, especially in waltz tempi. You rush the second beat—it’s not written down that way so you have to explain it to an orchestra.

“And then you also have to get them to not play it when you don’t want it. There’s a lot of little things that are traditions, little slow-downs here and little commas there. None of that is written, it all has to be explained. And getting singers to do that and not just do what’s written on the page can be hard.”

One traditional showstopper is a very flashy Hungarian Czardas, sung by one of the characters in the second act. “It’s one of the most difficult things I’ve ever conducted,” Baril says. “It’s super hard to conduct because again everything that the singer needs to do with that piece, to make it interesting, is not on the page.“

In addition to singing one of the lead characters himself, Baril says he has studied recordings and performances by native Austrian and Viennese conductors. “I’m going to do it the way I want to do it,” he says. “And the way I want to do it is all the Viennese things that I’ve heard done.”

Baril mentions one other challenge to any performances at Central City Opera. “We’re at 8500 ft., and some of the phrasings that you could do at sea level you simply cannot do,” he says. “We never know—there’s no way TO know—when a new artist is coming up here, whether they can adapt.”

The production is one that CCO bought from Virginia Opera and modified to fit their small stage. “I saw the set at Northwestern and it’s beautiful,” Baril says. “It is a set that takes place in Vienna, so it will be as Viennese as we can make it. 

“I love Fledermaus. I think it’s a masterpiece of the order of anything else.”

Pantos wants people to make the trip up the mountain to Central City to see the shows, but also just to experience the intimate 550-seat opera house, built in 1878. “Being in such a jewel of a theater and being so close to the stage, you have the unique opportunity of experiencing theater in a way that you’ll never experience it anywhere else,” she says.

The interior of the Central City Opera House

“Because it is such an intimate theater, there is not a bad seat in the entire house. You’re so close to the performers, that it’s exhilarating and the energy literally emanates from the stage and you feel it because its is such a beautiful small theater.”

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Central City Opera
Summer 2022 season

The Light in the Piazza
By Adam Guettel and Craig Lucas
Performed in English

Adam Turner, conductor
Ken Cazan, stage director

2:30 p.m. Sunday, July 10; Tuesday, July 12; Sat. July 16; Wednesday, July 20; Friday, July 22; Sunday, July 24; Thursday, July 28
8 p.m. Friday, July 8; Thursday, July 14; Tuesday, July 26

Central City Opera House

Die Fledermaus (The bat)
By Johann Strauss, Jrs., Karl Haffner and Richard Genée
Performed in German with dialog and titles in English

John Baril, conductor
Joachim Schamberger, stage director

8:00 p.m. Saturday, July 9; Friday July 15; Thursday, July 21; 
2:30 p.m. Wednesday, July 13; Sunday, July 17; Tuesday, July 19; Saturday, July 23; Wednesday, July 27; Friday, July 29; Sunday, July 31

Central City Opera House

Two Remain: Memories of Auschwitz
By Jake Heggie and Gene Scheer

Performed in English
John Baril and Brandon Eldridge, co-conductors
Dan Wallace Miller, stage director

7:30 p.m. Saturday, July 16 (sold out); Wednesday, July 20
2:30 p.m. Thursday, July 21 (sold out)
11 a.m. Thursday, July 28

Martin Foundry, 212 Eureka St., Central City

Tickets available through the Central City Opera Web page.

Central City Opera’s Rigoletto at Hudson Gardens packs a punch

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.

Galeano Salas as the callow, golf-playing Duke of Mantua. All photos by Amanda Tipton.

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.

Alissa Jordheim as Gilda.

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.

Alissa Jordheim as Gilda and Aleksey Bogdanov as Rigoletto

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 as Sparafucile and Michelle Monroe as Maddalena.

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.

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Rigoletto
Music by Giuseppe Verdi, libretto by Francesco Maria Piave

REMAINING PERFORMANCES:

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

Hudson Gardens, Littleton, Colo.

Tickets