Santa Fe Opera: Così fan tutte is a mixed bag, Jenůfa a triumph

There’s still time to see the SFO productions

By Peter Alexander Aug. 8 at 9:20 p.m.

The Santa Fe Opera’s current production of Mozart’s Così fan tutte is a very mixed bag.

Musically, the performance I saw was superior. The cast is excellent from top to bottom, and Harry Bicket’s direction captured the Mozartian spirit well. Dramatically, however, the production is relentlessly sententious, sometimes baffling and, for long stretches, visually uninteresting.

First, the musical details: The small orchestra played beautifully, especially the wind solos, of which there are many by clarinets, flutes and horns. One or two tempos I thought were on the slow side, but the sublime beauty of Mozart’s score always shone through.

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The five main principals of Così fan tutte: Fiordiligi (Amanda Majeski), Guglielmo (Jarett Ott), Don Alfonso (Rod Gilfry), Ferrando (Ben Bliss) and Dorabella (Emily D’Angelo). Photo by Ken Howard for the Santa Fe Opera.

The singers playing the four lovers around whom Mozart’s artificial world turns—Ben Bliss as Ferrando, Jarrett Ott as Guglielmo, Amanda Majeski as Fiordiligi and Emily D’Angelo as Dorabella—are appropriately young and attractive and vocally outstanding. Their ensembles were beautifully sung and well balanced. The magical trio “Suoave sia il vento,” with Majeski, D’Angleo and Rod Gilfry as Don Alfonso, was especially memorable.

In Dorabella’s first-act aria “Smanie implacabili,” D’Angelo exploited a big, rich voice, singing with great control in spite of stage directions that had her on her back and rolling across the stage. Majeski sang Fiordiligi’s arias with a bright, strong voice, managing the formidable leaps handily.

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Jarrett Ott and Ben Bliss as the frat-boy lovers Guglielmo and Ferrando, with Ron Gilfry as the cowboy Don Alfonso. Photo by Ken Howard.

Bliss brought a light, flexible tenor to his role as Ferrando. Ott sang Guglielmo with a strong, resonant baritone. Rod Gilfry was occasionally a little rough as Don Alfonso, but his portrayal perfectly matched the production’s concept of Alfonso as a cowboy. Tracy Dahl avoided all the traditional flirty-cutesy clichés for Despina, casting the character as a darker sidekick for Alfonso. As such, she was very effective. Her singing was expressive, if underpowered in the lowest range.

The eternal problem with Così fan tutte is that the story of two men donning disguises to woo each others’ fiancées, if taken literally, is distasteful at best. The betrayal of the women they claim to love is shocking, especially at the moment when the women learn that they have been betrayed and humiliated for the sake of a bet.

Even treated as an allegory, that no one is perfect and we all have to accept the imperfections of our partners, Così can be discomfiting. To avoid that trap, the Santa Fe production jettisoned the period decorations and literal presentation of the plot, paring it down to the barest psychological core. Everything beyond the emotional journey of the six main characters has been eliminated, and that single focus has been insistently pounded home.Some will find that illuminating, but others will be frustrated by the lack of theatrical qualities.

The set by Paul Tate Depoo III places the action inside a stark white box that narrows to the rear and, once all the singers are onstage, closes so that they are trapped inside. Depoo’s blank walls are not enlivened with color, with only the barest of lighting effects to distinguish one area from another. There is no furniture and few props. Only the six principal characters are present. The chorus, singing from offstage, is heard but not seen.

At the two couple’s first entrance into the colorless set, they are dressed in all white—the women in tennis outfits, the men in t-shirts and shorts. In their actions, they are recognizable contemporary types, the women silly sorority girls, the men macho frat boys. Fair enough; they are supposed to be callow and superficial.

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Rod Gilfry portrays Don Alfonso as an iconic Cowboy, Photo by Ken Howard.

Don Alfonso makes the first entrance, ahead of the white-clad lovers, costumed as a rough-hewn cowboy. In director’s R.B. Schlather’s interpretation, he exerts magical control over the other characters, who stagger back from his voice and are unable to resist his machinations. He oversees virtually everything that happens onstage, sometimes crouching against the outside wall and observing.

From this reduction of the opera to essentials, the characters loose obvious differentiation. The men’s “disguise” is identical blue denim and cowboy hats. The careful distinctions that Mozart and librettist Lorenzo Da Ponte made has to be conveyed through singing and acting.

Schlather and Depoo’s distillation of the opera enhances the impact of the emotions, particularly the betrayal and humiliation that is imposed on the women at the end. That was more viscerally felt than in any production I have seen. But the flip side of the psychological purification is that the opera became correspondingly less visually interesting.

Some portions became a concert performance in costume, with the characters standing in symmetrical configurations, singing in place. At such points, interest wanes. And throughout there were touches that were simply baffling. Why does Despina put on multiple aprons, then engage in comic business with them, distracting from the other singers onstage? Why does she as the magnetic “doctor” continuously fire off sparklers when once would make the point?

And why does the opera end with all four lovers seated across the front of the stage, immobile, during the final scenes, with no action whatever—no evidence of a wedding, no entrances and exits that are in the text, no visual discovery of the women’s betrayal—while Alfonso pours water over each of their heads? If your audience has to puzzle about such things, the point may get missed.

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Jenůfa, Leoš Janáček’s breakthrough opera composed in 1903, is one of the great works of the 20th century. It is probably Janáček’s highly individual style, based deeply in Czech language and culture, that has kept it from being performed outside its homeland.

The Santa Fe performances, using a production originally created by the English National Opera, is a welcome opportunity to see this great work, and it is in every way a triumph, something that every Janáček fan and every lover of 20th-century opera should see. Jenůfa has only one more performance, Aug. 15.

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Alexander Lewis as Laca cowers outside the Soviet-era mill of designer Charles Edwards. Photo by Ken Howard.

The scenic design of Charles Edwards, costumes by Jon Morrell and direction by David Alden place Jenůfa firmly in the Soviet era. The mill of the first act has dingy corrugated metal walls, and the room where the rest of the opera takes place is authentically shabby. The clothes mark the class of every character, from the mill workers to the mayor, and just like Soviet times, none are fashionable.

To my eyes and ears, this setting fits the story of rural jealousy and violence as well as the original, and deepens the conflicts of social status inherent in the story. Alden’s direction was well attuned to the emotional drama, especially between Jenůfa andLaca, the suitor whose love turns out to be genuine.

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Patricia Racette as Kostelnička (right) with Laura Wilde as Jenůfa and Alexander Lewis as Laca. Photo by Ken Howard.

The excellent cast was led by the powerful Kostelnička of Patricia Racette, a role debut. Racette, who has appeared at Santa Fe for more than 20 years, has previously sung the title role in the same production in Houston and Washington.

Her performance was thrilling, portraying the crucial character of Kostelnička as a whole person. She sang with fire and dramatic passion, particularly in the first-act narration of her unhappy past. Equally memorable was her transformation from the dominating, self-righteous conscience of the village in the first act to the repentant, suffering figure at the end.

Laura Wilde was a sympathetic Jenůfa, someone who is trying to elevate both herself and her village by marrying up and teaching reading to her neighbors. She is visibly reluctant to enter into the drunken celebrations in Act I, and her distaste for her fiancé’s swaggering arrogance was both visible and audible. She used her warm, vibrant sound well.

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Laura Wilde as Jenůfa and Richard Trey Smagur as Števa. Photo by Ken Howard.

As the fiancé, Števa, Richard Trey Smagur was just the kind of thuggish bully the role requires, but does not always get. His shallow attraction to Jenůfa’s beauty and his smug expectation to be admired—qualities portrayed in action and voice—made him repulsive from his very first entrance. His performance strengthened the psychological sinews of the drama and set up his shameful refusal to marry Jenůfa after she had been disfigured.

Laca, Števa’s half brother who attacks Jenůfa in the first act in spite of his genuine love for her, is a tricky role for any singer. It is an exposed balancing act—he has to be angry enough to do violence, but then believable as a repentant lover.

In this regard, I thought the first act was overplayed. Alexander Lewis’s Laca was beyond anger, essentially nasty and uncontrolled, and later he seemed more cowed than supportive to Jenůfa; perhaps this was Alden’s intent. His voice was thin and brittle, neither forceful enough at the outset nor warm enough at the end.

In the smaller roles, veteran Suzanne Mentzer was pleasing as the Grandmother, successful both vocally and in getting a chuckle with her feistiness in the final act. Will Liverman successfully portrayed the mill foreman as a Soviet-era stereotype—a supervisor who seems not to actually do anything. Alan Higgs and Kathleen Reveille had just the right superciliousness as the floridly dressed mayor and his wife.

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L to R: Susanne Mentzer (Grandmother), Kathleen Reveille (Mayor’s Wife), Laura Wilde (Jenůfa), Gina Perregrino (Herdswoman), Alan Higgs (Mayor) and Patricia Racette (Kostelnička). Photo by Ken Howard.

Janáček’s characteristic small orchestral motifs and expressive accompaniments, created so individually and effectively to underline the emotional shifts of the plot, were well managed by conductor Johannes Debus. The orchestra played well, with nicely blended brass and woodwinds.

Sometimes, nature and good luck conspire to enhance performances in Santa Fe. The night I attended, the beautiful sunset above the distant hills behind the theater helped establish the rural setting, and a brief rainstorm later could be taken as symbolic of the emotional storm onstage. Of course, I cannot promise that you will experience the same enhancements Aug. 15, but for every other virtue of the production it is well worth the trip to Santa Fe.

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Santa Fe Opera house. Photo by Robert Goodwin.

Così fan tutte continues through Aug. 22, Jenůfa through Aug. 15.Tickets for the remaining performances in Santa Fe can be purchased through the calendar on the Santa Fe Opera Web page.

 

 

 

Boulder Opera’s ‘Così fan tutte’ is baptism by fire for director Ron Ben-Joseph

Production set in the 1960s aims to be relevant to the women’s movement

By Peter Alexander March 22 at 9:00 p.m.

Opera is a world of its own. Singers and conductors have their own inside language, they have traditions that seem arcane to outsiders, and they know the works intimately.

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Ron Ben-Joseph, stage director of Così fan tutte. Photo courtesy of Big Fish Talent.

Stepping into that world from outside can be intimidating, but that’s the position stage director Ron Ben-Joseph finds himself in. With a background in theater, but not opera, he was engaged to direct this weekend’s performances of Mozart’s Così fan tutte for Boulder Opera (Friday in Longmont, Sunday in Boulder).

Ben-Joseph did bring some skills to the job: As a singer he can read music and follow the score, and he has worked in musical theater. He has taken voice lessons from Dianela Acosta, the artistic director of Boulder Opera and one of the singers in the cast, and in turn he has helped coach her acting in arias that she has learned. But even with that background, it’s not easy to dive into directing an entire opera.

How is he handling this baptism by fire? “I’m learning, I’m learning,” he says.

“One of the first things I did (was) research where theater directors that jump into opera mess up. I do not want to make those mistakes! So I plunged into music theory and the history of opera, and I tried to watch two or three operas a week. I tried to get the sense, the style, just to be respectful and not come in there and go ‘Oh, I know what to do!’

“I didn’t want to be that guy.”

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Dianela Acosta, Boulder opera artistic director Dorabella) and Josh DeVane (Guglielmo) in Così fan tutte. Photo courtesy of  Boulder Opera.

The task was not made easier by the fact that Così is a difficult opera to get right. The plot is artificial and frankly unbelievable on the surface, but at the same time it deals with very basic and deep human emotions that are powerfully expressed in the music. The cast and director have to reconcile these two elements, relishing the humor and silliness of the onstage action without losing the emotional depth of the music.

If you don’t know the opera, it is about two pairs of lovers, two soldiers and a pair of sisters. The men have been bragging extravagantly about their girlfriends’ faithfulness, but a cynical older bachelor, Don Alfonso, challenges them to prove their claims. At Don Alfonso’s direction, the men pretend to march off to war. After leaving the scene, they don disguises and are introduced to the women as foreigners. Each then tries to woo the other’s girlfriend.

Over the course of the opera, the women resist, come to grips with temptation and their own weakness, and ultimately succumb. At the end the rather cruel ruse is revealed. Both men and women realize they have much to forgive. In the traditional ending, the women return to their original partners, but today other ways of ending the story are common as well.

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Michael Hoffman (Ferrando) and Ekaterina Kotcherguina (Fiordiligi) in Così fan tutte. Photo courtesy of Boulder Opera.

“You have two guys who put their girlfriends through torment emotionally, and I think that comes from a very deep insecurity,” Ben-Joseph says. “That was one of the first things I saw. I could judge these guys for being misogynist, but I had a girlfriend once that I was insecure about, so I could kind of see it. Once I saw that personal hook, I really felt for the women, especially with the #MeToo movement.”

With that insight, Ben-Joseph wanted to find a time period that would make the story more relevant today. “This reads to me as if it were set in the late 1960s,” he says. “We’re about to start the female revolution, empowerment and women’s lib. That’s how it started taking shape, and I couldn’t not tell that story, and set it in that world.”

One part of that world was the Viet Nam War, which adds a darker element to the moment when the soldiers seemingly march off to war. Nevertheless, Ben-Joseph aimed to be sensitive to the artwork. “We always stayed true to the libretto, to the score,” he says. “We don’t impose anything. All we’re doing is using a lens for people to view this in a different way.”

Ben-Joseph is extremely complimentary to the performers. “They’re so talented, and they’re doing such a good job of honoring the score and being truthful to it,” he says. “I don’t know that anyone’s going to walk away from this production saying, ‘Oh my goodness! The direction!’ I think they’re going to walk away saying, ‘Those are phenomenal singers! That is a phenomenal orchestra!’

“These performers are starting to have fun and free themselves from feeling structured. You’re seeing real people, and that’s something I’m very proud of. There are a lot of genuine moments that are beautifully acted. That is what I want people to connect with—people that are alive and communicating real emotions in a deep, organic, authentic way.

“That’s what makes it badass.”

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Sarah Parkinson-2119

Music director Sara Parkinson

Mozart: Così fan tutte
Boulder Opera
Sara Parkinson, music director
Ron Ben-Joseph, stage director

7:30 p.m. Friday, March 23, Stewart Auditorium Longmont
3 p.m. Sunday, March 25, Dairy Center for the Arts, Boulder

Tickets

 

Mozart’s Requiem: “A Musical Miracle and a Mystery Story”

Performances Friday and Saturday by Pro Musica Colorado and St. Martin’s Chamber Choir

By Peter Alexander

It is one of the most famous stories in music history.

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Unfinished portrait of Mozart by Joseph Lange

It was December, 1791. Mozart lay on his deathbed, with his family and friends gathered around. They sang for the dying composer, music from the Requiem that he might as well have been writing for himself and that he was never to complete. After his death, Mozart’s friends and students gathered up all the bits and pieces of music that lay scattered around the room and worked feverishly to finish the manuscript, so that Mozart’s widow could deliver a completed score to the eccentric count who had paid for it.

Out of all of the confusion there emerged a work that has captivated listeners ever since, in spite of the uncertain authorship of its various parts. “It’s a musical miracle and a mystery story wrapped into one,” says Cynthia Katsarelis, who will conduct performances of the Requiem Friday in Denver and Saturday in Boulder (7:30 p.m. April 8 at First Baptist Church in Denver, and April 9 at First United Methodist Church in Boulder).

Photography by Glenn Ross. http://on.fb.me/16KNsgK

Cynthia Katsarelis. Photography by Glenn Ross.

Katsarelis, director of the Pro Musica Colorado Chamber Orchestra, has put together what she considers just about an ideal group of performers for the Requiem. “Pro Musica and (Denver’s) St. Martin’s Chamber Choir are practically a dream team for the Mozart Requiem,” she says. “And our soloists are all people who are just wonderful artists.

“It’s going to be different from a Mozart Requiem with a large orchestra and choir. Our size is more like the size that Mozart would have had, and there’s a kind of immediacy and a visceral quality to doing it with a chamber orchestra and a chamber choir. I think it’s a special team, and there’s incredible potential of being a worthy Requiem.”

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Manuscript page of Mozart’s Requiem

Like all conductors who approach the Requiem, Katsarelis had to decide exactly what to perform. Mozart left different movements in differing degrees of incompletion: some merely had to be filled in according to a partial score, some had to be completed, and some had to be composed more or less from scratch.

Adding to the confusion, Mozart left behind what his widow called “scraps of paper” that may have held music, or instructions, or both. At least two different pupils undertook a completion. And all of their contributions were mixed together, and it was years before scholars were able to separate, more or less, who did what.

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Franz Xaver Süssmahr

Today there are numerous performing versions to choose from. The score that was turned over to the count three months after Mozart’s death was essentially completed by Mozart’s pupil Franz Xaver Süssmayr. But Süssmayr was not a very good composer: Mozart didn’t think much of him, calling him “a duck in a thunderstorm,” and he made numerous mistakes in the score that he hurriedly finished.

And so there have been many subsequent versions that aim to correct and improve on Süssmayr. Some editors have gone so far as to write whole new movements to stand alongside Mozart. Katsarelis has chosen a version created by Franz Beyer in 1971 that sticks largely to Süssmayr’s version, but polishes some of his work.

There are three movements that Mozart never started, but Katsarelis thinks that Süssmayr had some help with those. “He claimed to have composed the Sanctus, the Benedictus and the Agnus Dei, but I’m not convinced of that, for reasons right out of the music,” she says. “I had my doubts to begin with. Süssmayr never, ever composed anything of the caliber of (those movements).”

She has a “sneaking suspicion,” she says, that the scraps of paper that Mozart left had music on them that Süssmayr was able to use. And, she adds conspiratorially, “I have a theory that I actually don’t have an ounce of historical evidence for, but during the time that Süssmayr was completing the Requiem, he was studying with Salieri.”

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Antonio Salieri

That Salieri? The one who definitely didn’t poison Mozart but was still the villain of the play and movie Amadeus?

Yes, that one. “I just have this sneaking suspicion that Salieri might have helped,” she says. And it’s definitely not the craziest theory about the Requiem, which has attracted conspiracy stories from the date its very first performance.

Regardless of who wrote those movements, and whose help they might have had, “the meat of the Requiem is what Mozart wrote,” Katsarelis affirms. And after the disputed movements, the Requiem ends with two more movements that re-use Mozart’s music from the beginning.

Following the Requiem, the concert will include one more short piece, Mozart’s beautiful and elegiac Ave verum corpus, composed only months before the Requiem. “By doing the Ave verum corpus, we’re absolutely sure that we’ll be ending with Mozart, no question,” Katsarelis explains. “It’s a piece that everybody knows and loves, and it’s a very comforting and beautiful piece.”

In spite of the mystery and confusion, the different hands that touched the Requiem, and all of the controversy that has swirled around the piece over the centuries, “the fact the sublime music comes through is pretty miraculous,” Katsarelis says. “It is deeply moving to do the piece that was the last thing Mozart composed.

“He made it the most beautiful music that he could possibly write. That’s his final gift to us, and it’s one that I receive very gratefully, and that we’ll share on Friday and Saturday.”

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Mozart’s Requiem

Pro Musica Colorado Chamber Orchestra
Cynthia Katsarelis, music director
St. Martin’s Chamber Choir
Timothy J. Krueger, artistic director
Amanda Balestrieri, soprano
Leah Biesterfeld, alto
Joseph Gaines, tenor:
David Farwig, bass

W.A. Mozart: Requiem, K626
W.A. Mozart: Ave Verum Corpus, K618

Friday, April 8, First Baptist Church, 1373 Grant St., Denver
Saturday, April 9, First United Methodist Church, 1421 Spruce St., Boulder
Both concerts at 7:30 p.m.
Pre-concert talk at 6:30 p.m. both evenings

TICKETS

NB: Edited to correct typos 4.7.16.

Opposite poles attract success at Central City Opera

Dead Man Walking and Marriage of Figaro are worth the trip into the mountains.

By Peter Alexander

Central City Opera House. Photo by Mark Kiryluk.

Central City Opera House. Photo by Mark Kiryluk.

The two productions currently running at the Central City Opera (CCO) are not so much contrasting shades of opera as opposite poles.

At the dark end of spectrum is Jake Heggie’s Dead Man Walking, a setting of playwright Terence McNally’s powerful libretto, based on the book by Sister Helen Prejean. The true story of a nun’s efforts to reach out to a brutal death row convict, the book also inspired the 1995 film starring Susan Sarandon and Sean Penn. This seems unlikely material for operatic treatment—the drama is largely psychological and very little happens in the conventional sense—but Heggie and McNally have created a gripping work of musical theater that keeps the audience riveted, even as they know the inevitable outcome.

The opposite pole is represented by Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro, one of the greatest and most luminescent operatic explorations of human emotions ever created. A politically and socially dangerous work written on the eve of the French Revolution, it cloaks its subversive message with the light of compassion and humor in Mozart’s transcendent setting of a masterful libretto by Lorenzo da Ponte.

As different as they are, these works are given wholly satisfying and powerfully moving productions by the Central City Opera company. With strong casts, well conceived productions and thoughtful direction, both operas are well worth the drive into the mountains—even if you don’t need an excuse to drive into the mountains.

In his notes for Dead Man Walking, director Ken Cazan observes that the opera “doesn’t tell the viewer what to think and feel. . . . [It] poses questions, not answers.” Indeed, one of the most remarkable things about the work is how well it conveys understanding and sympathy for all of the characters, even the murderer Joseph De Rocher.

Dead Man Walking execution scene. Photo by Mark Kiryluk.

Dead Man Walking execution scene. Photo by Mark Kiryluk.

If the work has a flaw, it is the sustained intensity of its emotional expression. Though unavoidable considering the subject matter, the unrelenting high tension of the music leaves no scope for the shattering musical climax we might expect. As a result, the ending, when De Rocher finally faces his execution, provides a dramatic resolution but not a musical one. The final scene, where Sister Helen returns to the tender hymn that opened the opera, “He Will Gather Us Around,” rounds out the opera on a quiet note that feels inconclusive.

But perhaps that reflects the reality that the questions faced by the opera’s characters—questions of guilt, of punishment, of retribution and redemption—remain unanswered for the characters and for us, as they must always be.

As the murderer De Rocher, Michael Mayes gave a committed and muscular performance—even singing while doing pushups in one scene. His voice conveyed menace and danger from his very first entrance, only softening in the second act when he sang of being “Down by the river with your woman.” The transformation from the threatening figure of Act I to someone who could admit his fear and his guilt and tell Sister Helen “I love you” at the end is an accomplishment of both vocal and dramatic artistry.

Jennifer Rivera ably filled the role of Sister Helen, who is onstage for most of the opera. The throbbing orchestral accompaniment, the range and contours of her part push her into an intensity of expression that make vocal control difficult. Fortunately, she was able to convey small contrasting moments of humor and tenderness as well as the overarching spiritual struggle that defines her role.

Of the many supporting roles, several stand out: Maria Zifchak as De Rocher’s mother was especially moving in the final scenes when she has to face her son’s death; and Robert Orth as Owen Hart commanded attention as an angry father whose daughter died at De Rocher’s hands, but who manages to move toward acceptance by the end.

Other, more one-dimensional supporting roles are well handled: Thomas Hammons as the warden; Jason Baldwin as the unsympathetic Father Grenville; Karina Brazas, Claire Shackleton and Joseph Gaines as mourning parents. Jeanine De Bique was on target but vocally strained as Sister Rose. John David Nevergall added a light touch as the Motorcycle Cop.

Dead Man Walking: Michael Mayes as Joseph De Rocher and Jennifer Rivera as Sister Helen Prejean. Photo by Mark Kiryluk.

Dead Man Walking: Michael Mayes as Joseph De Rocher and Jennifer Rivera as Sister Helen Prejean. Photo by Mark Kiryluk.

The coloring of vowels by the singers to suggest the Louisiana locale of the story was only intermittently successful, and considering the universality of the questions we are asked to ponder, I am not sure that it is necessary.

One of the pleasures of opera at Central City is seeing the creative ways the company makes use of its limited stage and wing space. Alan E. Muraoka’s minimalist stage designs were highly effective, using angled fences to convey the enclosed space of the prison as well as the emotionally closed world of the convicts. In other scenes, pieces of furniture—two chairs, a table and a chair—or the execution gurney that De Rocher is strapped to, Christ-like, at the end, were sufficient to set the changing scenes and illuminate the changing relationships.

Ken Cazan’s direction was efficient and effective, especially in making use of the limited space to convey relationships among the principal characters. John Baril lead Central City’s fine orchestra with a firm hand.

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CCO’s production of The Marriage of Figaro has been updated from the 18th century to Spain in the 1920s. Director Alessandro Talevi justifies this through the political situation of the time. “Spain . . . .was deeply conservative and religious in conflict with dynamic progressive movement of secularism,” he writes, establishing a parallel with the pre-revolutionary Europe of Mozart’s time.

Act II Finale, Marriage of Figaro. Photo by Mark Kiryluk

Act II Finale, Marriage of Figaro. Photo by Mark Kiryluk

I am not sure the intellectual justification is necessary, or even helps for that matter.

For the most part the setting and costumes were successful, the 1920s being long enough ago that audiences readily accept the social hierarchies and conflicts of the plot. That said, I do have one reservation, in that British costume dramas are now so familiar to American audiences that many must have thought of Downton Abbey, and the Count reminded me inescapably of John Cleese in Fawlty Towers. These resonances do not enhance Mozart’s masterpiece.

The one essential of any production of the opera is a Figaro who can command the stage. CCO is fortunate to have a vocally secure Figaro in Michael Sumuel, whose genial presence was always welcome onstage. He sang expressively, handling Figaro’s wide range of emotions with aplomb.

Michael Sumuel as Figaro and Anna Christy as Susanna. Photo by Mark Kiryluk.

Michael Sumuel as Figaro and Anna Christy as Susanna. Photo by Mark Kiryluk.

As Figaro’s intended bride Susanna, Anna Christy was a secure vocal partner in her many duets and ensembles with the other cast members. It is her relationship to each of the other principal characters that drives the plot, and Christy was a solid anchor for the drama. In spite of an occasionally nasal sound, her expressive phrasing brought her character warmly to life.

Another critical role is Cherubino, a “pants” role taken by a female mezzo as an adolescent boy who is in love with every woman he sees, from the young Barbarina and Susanna to his godmother the Countess. Tamara Gura was excellent from her first entrance, moving with all the awkwardness of a teenager. I found her unusually convincing throughout, and her aria “Voi che sapete” was especially charming.

As the Count, Edward Parks was perhaps too measured at the outset, neither commanding enough nor bombastic enough in the first two acts. He grew into the role, however, and by the end his confession and plea for forgiveness brought the opera to an effective end.

Anna Christy as Susanna and Sinéad Mulhern as the Countess. Photo by Mark Kiryluk.

Anna Christy as Susanna and Sinéad Mulhern as the Countess. Photo by Mark Kiryluk.

Sinéad Mulhern played the countess with grace and delicacy. Her lovely voice lost quality when pushed, but otherwise her portrayal was pleasing.

Madeleine Boyd’s flexible sets made effective use of the limited stage, even if they recalled an English country house. Talevi’s direction captured the comic qualities of the libretto perfectly, with one exception: the unnecessary comic business during the Count’s Act III aria badly upstaged the singer and undermined the emotion of the scene.

Conductor Adrian Kelly led the performance ably, setting solid tempos and supporting the singers well for most of the opera. The opening overture was full of energy but occasionally smudged, a minor flaw that recurred during the opera as well.

Unfortunately, Central City does not have a genuine harpsichord at its disposal—perhaps due to limited space in the pit or the difficult of caring for a natural instrument at 8,500 ft.—and has to resort to a Kawai electronic keyboard. This is unfortunate whatever the reason. The sound may be adequate for amateur keyboard players who fancy 18th-century music, but it is not suitable for a truly professional performance.

But make no mistake: All reservations aside, this is a sparkling production, full of comic energy and good spirits. The stark contrast between this Figaro and the darkly impressing Dead Man Walking only enhances them both.


Central City Opera

The Marriage of Figaro by Mozart
2:30 pm July 15, 16, 20, 22, 26
8:00 pm July 10, 12, 18
Central City Opera House
For tickets, click here

Dead Man Walking by Jake Heggie
2:30 pm July 13, 19, 23, 25
8:00 pm July 11, 17
Central City Opera House
For tickets, click here