Central City Opera announces Magic Flute and Il trovatore for 2018

The Face on the Barroom Floor returns for 40th anniversary production

By Peter Alexander

Mozart’s Magic Flute and Verdi’s Il trovatore, two staples of the operatic repertoire, will be the mainstage productions for Central City Opera’s 2018 summer season.

Central City Opera Opening Night 2006- Page 2 of Book

The Historic Central City Opera House

Magic Flute and Il trovatore will be performed in repertory in Central City’s historic 550-seat opera house. Filling out the season are two smaller productions, to be presented in more intimate venues in Central City during the summer: the 40th-anniversary production of The Face on the Ballroom Floor by Henry Mollicone, which was commissioned by CCO; and Handel’s Acis and Galatea, in its Central City debut production.

Face on floor

The Face on the Barroom Floor in the Teller House bar

Mollicone’s Face on the Ballroom Floor was premiered in 1978 in the Teller House Bar in Central City, where the painting that inspired the opera still draws tourists. The painting was made in 1936 under disputed circumstances and was inspired by a poem by Hugh Antoine d’Arcy that was published in 1887—and which was itself derived from an even earlier poem by John Henry Titus.

The one-act opera features two love triangles separated by a century, both revolving around the mysterious face on the barroom floor.

Classical Singer LanganThe season will see the return of number of singers in the two mainstage productions. Bass Kevin Langan, last seen in 2013 as Dr. Gibbs in Our Town, returns in his signature role of Sarastro in The Magic Flute. Langan was recently featured on the cover of Classical Singer magazine in recognition of his longevity over 38 years in opera. Katherine Manley returns as Pamina, and Alessandro Talevi returns to Central City as stage director.

Il trovatore will be practically a reunions party for the 2016 production of Tosca, including Jonathan Burton as Manrico, Alexandra Loutsion as Leonora and Michael Mayes as Count di Luna. John Baril, Central City Opera Music Director, will conduct, and Joachim Schamberger will be stage director.

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Pelham (Pat) Pearce

The pattern of presenting two major works in the Opera House and two smaller productions in other venues in Central City is one the CCO has adopted in the past few years. At one time, the shorter works were taken to other cities and towns in Colorado, but Pelham (Pat) Pearce, CCO’s general/artistic director, says “We decided that part of our identity is the actual experience of being (in Central City).”

According to Pearce, keeping the performances in Central City has not affected the company’s success. “The popularity of these one-acts continues to grow,” he says. “They draw opera goers who are looking for something different as well as those who are new to the art form and curious about experiencing something that’s shorter, less expensive, and feels more accessible.”

In addition to the four staged productions, the CCO summer season includes recitals, opera scenes, pre-performance lectures and post-performance opportunities to meet the artists.

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CCOperaLogoPreferred

Central City Opera 2018 Season

Mozart: The Magic Flute
André de Ridder, conductor
Alessandro Talevi, stage director

Cast includes Kevin Langan as Sarastro, Katherine Manley as Pamina. Debuting with Central City Opera: Joseph Dennis as Tamino, Will Liverman as Papageno, Jeni Houser as The Queen of the Night and Ashraf Sewailam as The Speaker.

Matinees at 2:30 p.m.: July 11, 13, 15, 17, 21, 25, 29; Aug. 2, 5
Evenings at 8 p.m.: July 7, 19, 27, 31
Central City Opera House

Performed in German with English supertitles.

Verdi: Il trovatore
John Baril, conductor
Joachim Schamberger, stage director

Cast includes Jonathan Burton as Manrico, Alexandra Loutsion as Leonora, Michael Mayes as Count di Luna and Maria Zifchak as Azucena.

Matinees at 2:30 p.m.: July 18, 22, 24, 28; Aug. 1, 3
Evenings at 8 p.m.: July 14, 20, 26
Central City Opera House

Performed in Italian with English supertitles.

Handel: Acis and Galatea
Christopher Zemliauskas, conductor
Ken Cazan, director

Cast includes artists of the Bonfils-Stanton Foundation Artists Training Program

July 25, 28 and Aug. 1 at 8 p.m.
July 26 at 5 p.m.
Venue in Central City TBA

Performed in English.

Henry Mollicone: The Face on the Barroom Floor, 40th-Anniversary Production
Michael Ehrman, head of the Bonfils-Stanton Foundation Artists Training Program, director

Cast includes artists of the Bonfils-Stanton Foundation Artists Training Program

July 25, 28 and Aug. 1, 2, 3 at 1:15 p.m.
Venue in Central City TBA

Performed in English.

For tickets and more information about the 2018 summer season, visit the Central City Opera Web page, or call (303) 292-6700.

Lehár’s Merry Widow waltzes into Macky Auditorium (and does other dances, too)

Classic Viennese operetta gives its characters a second chance Oct. 27–29

By Peter Alexander

Franz Lehár’s Merry Widow, the classic Viennese operetta, is a delicious platform for wonderful singing, graceful dancing, colorful costumes, and an inexhaustible supply of humor. But in the hands of stage director Leigh Holman, director of the CU Eklund Opera Program, there is a serious side too.

The Merry Widow-X4The CU production will be presented Friday–Sunday, Oct. 27–29, in Macky Auditorium. Nicholas Carthy will conduct an orchestra and cast of CU students. Other artistic staff of the production are set and lighting designer Peter Dean Beck; costume designer Tom Robbins; choreographer Stephen Bertles; and technical director Ron Mueller.

The major roles are double cast, with different singers on Saturday and Friday/Sunday. The performances will be sung in German with English titles.

“People think of it as light, and it is a funny show,” Holman says. “But I’ve taken a little bit more serious tone with it—not to scare anyone off because it’s still very hilarious and fun, but I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about second chances.”

In fact, it’s a second chance for the two main characters that drives the plot of The Merry Widow.

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Leigh Holman

As the operetta opens, the fictional east-European country of Pontevedro is facing a budget crisis. At their embassy in Paris, the ambassador hopes to arrange the marriage of the wealthy widow Hanna Glawari with Ponetvedro’s most eligible bachelor, Danilo. That would, he believes, save the country by keeping her money in Pontevedro. But Paris is filled with men—bachelors and married alike—who would love to get their hands on her and her money, making the ambassador’s matchmaking all the more urgent.

Of course there are many other comic-opera complications with many other couples, but you want to keep your eye on the ball, which is the Hanna-Danilo relationship. As Holman explains, this is where the second chance comes in, because they have a history.

“They fell in love years ago when she was a farm girl,” Holman says. “He was wealthy and a nobleman, and his uncle did not approve of their relationship.” Because Danilo hesitated to oppose his uncle, Hanna ended the relationship and got revenge by marrying another wealthy suitor.

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Lightening strikes twice for Danilo (Bryce Bartu) and Hanna (Anna Whiteway) in CU’s “Merry Widow.” (Photo by Glenn Asakawa)

“I wanted to deepen the understanding of the audience for what this couple had gone through,” Holman says. “So I decided to do a pantomime during the Overture, with a young Danilo and a young Hanna in front of the curtain. We get to experience their young love, and the situation where the uncle disapproves and Danilo hesitates. He eventually asks her to marry him, but she shows him her ring, that she’s already married. So we get all of that before the curtain opens.”

After the Overture, the curtain opens on the embassy party. Hanna’s much older husband has now died, leaving her a fortune, and Danilo has buried his sorrows by being a feckless man about Paris. ”They see each other again after all these years,” Holman explains. “Now they just love to spar with each other all the time, always testing each other.

“We really wanted to play on the idea, what would happen if we all got a do-over, if we had the chance to go back again? The question is, would we love to [do that]? We don’t know how it would end up, but we all wonder.”

This being operetta, you can count this second chance ending up with a happy outcome for all of the mixed-up couples. And you can also count on a lot of great entertainment along the way: a bit of farce and mistaken identities, gorgeous individual arias, hilarious ensembles, wonderful “Pontevedrian” folk music and costumes, and plenty of dancing.

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Conductor Nicholas Carthy

“We are having a wonderful time,” Holman says of herself and the cast. “It’s just a joy to go to work every day. We walk into the rehearsal hall and they’re all warming up, everybody’s dancing, the Viennese Waltz, the polka, the mazurka, the everything!”

Because Holman is devoted educator as well as opera director, “the everything” has great benefits for the students. “It’s the whole triple threat,” she says. “They’re singing, dancing, and acting with [spoken] dialog, so it’s a great opportunity for them. And comic timing! There really is an art to that and it’s something that has to be learned. They’re really grasping it and that’s exciting to see.

“Our goal is that when they leave CU they’re ready for whatever life brings. With musical theater and opera melding ever closer and closer together, I think this will get them ready for whatever opportunities they have.”

In other words, young opera singers have to be ready when they leave school because—unlike Hanna and Danilo—they won’t always get second chances when opportunities appear. And neither do audiences; The Merry Widow is only in Macky this weekend.

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The Merry Widow by Franz Lehár
CU Eklund Opera Program
Leigh Holman, stage director
Nicholas Carthy, music director and conductor

7:30 p.m. Friday & Saturday, Oct. 27 & 28
2 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 29
Macky Auditorium

Tickets

Magic flutes, golden flutes and flutists of all ages

From Sir James Galway to CU Opera, a week of flutes at CU

By Peter Alexander

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Sir James Galway

There will be many kinds of flutes at the University of Colorado Boulder next week: Magic, golden, and from piccolo to bass.

The central event will be a two-day meeting of flutists at the College of Music, Tuesday and Wednesday, March 21–22. Under the title “Once a Flutist: Rekindling the flutist within,” this free event is open to flutists young and old.

The culminating events will be a masterclass for CU flute students with Sir James Galway —“The Man with the Golden Flute” — at 1:30 p.m. Tuesday in Grusin Music Hall, and a concert by Galway and his wife, Lady Jeanne Galway, Wednesday at 7:30 p.m. in Macky Auditorium.

Sir James Galway, who has recorded just about the entire classical flute repertoire, has performed with Stevie Wonder, Joni Mitchell and Sir Elton John, and recorded film music for The Lord of Rings, is one of the world’s best known musicians of any genre.

But before all of that gets underway, CU’s Eklund Opera Program will set the scene with Mozart’s Magic Flute, Friday, Saturday and Sunday, March 17–19, in Macky Auditorium.

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Christina Jennings organized “Once a Flutist” to celebrate her 10th year teaching flute at CU.

“There are a lot of flute players out there,” she says. “I can’t tell you how many times [I’ve met] people who say, ‘I used to play the flute!’ Or ‘My daughter plays the flute!’

“The idea for this festival came from that.”

Jennings will play a recital March 21 for the College of Music “Faculty Tuesdays” series, at 7:30 p.m. in Grusin Hall. But she will not hog the stage: appearing with her will be a flute orchestra of no fewer than 60 players, all on the Grusin stage.

ISS27_Catherine_Coleman_plays_a_flute

Astronaut-flutist Catherine Coleman, playing on the International Space Station. Photo courtesy of NASA.

Another guest is literally an out-of-this-world flute player: astronaut Cady Coleman, who took her flutes onto the International Space Station. In 2011 she played live from orbit on National Public Radio.

Now well into his eighth decade, Galway shows no sign of slowing down. “That’s what I do,” he says. “That’s why I’m here: to play the flute.”

The Macky concert will feature both Galways with Cathal Breslin, a young Irish pianist who is accompanying the flutists on their current U.S. tour. The program will include a sonata by Philippe Gaubert, who Galway describes as “The Brahms of the flute.”

“And we’re playing a few little pieces which I’m well know for as encore pieces — we’re putting those in the middle of the program,” he says. “And Carnival of Venice, which everybody knows.”

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Buzz-3-16-2-Glenn-AsakawaUniversity-of-Colorado

Michael Hoffman inThe Magic Flute. Photo by Glenn Asakawa.

The CU production of The Magic Flute will be directed by Herschel Garfein, a Grammy Award-winning librettist, a composer and a stage director. And if you know the rather fantastic plot of The Magic Flute, he wants you to know that he does not see the opera as a fairy tale.

“From the beginning, I’ve seen it as sort of a metaphysical comedy of manners,” Garfein says. “I think it can be taken both more seriously, and more comically, than usual. There’s a very compelling love story between Prince Tamino and Pamina, and there’s also a huge strain of philosophical thought that runs through the opera.”

Read more at Boulder Weekly.

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The Magic Flute by W.A. Mozart
University of Colorado Eklund Opera Program
Nicholas Carthy, conductor
Herschel Garfein, stage director
Peter Dean Beck, stage and lighting design

7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday, March 17–18
2 p.m. Sunday, March 19
Macky Auditorium

Tickets

Christina Jennings

Christina Jennings

Once a Flutist: Rekindling the flutist within!
Tuesday and Wednesday, March 21–22
CU Imig Music Building

All events free and open to the public, including:

James Galway Master Class
1:30 p.m. Tuesday, March 21, Grusin Hall

Christina Jennings, flute, recital with Eisenhower Elementary School and CU Choirs, CU Family Flute Orchestra
7:30 p.m. Tuesday, March 21, Grusin Hall

Lady Galway Master Class
1 p.m. Wednesday, March 22, Macky Auditorium

Full schedule online at http://www.colorado.edu/music/academics/departments/woodwinds/flute-studio/once-flutist

Sir James and Lady Jeanne Galway and Friends
7:30 p.m. Wednesday, March 22
Macky Auditorium

Tickets

Santa Fe audience cheers Higdon’s ‘Cold Mountain’; additional performance added

Rigoletto and Salome are also part of 2015 summer season

By Peter Alexander

Santa Fe Opera House (c) 2010 Robert Godwin for The Santa Fe Opera

Santa Fe Opera House (c) 2010 Robert Godwin for The Santa Fe Opera

The audience stood and cheered when composer Jennifer Higdon came onstage at the Santa Fe Opera (SFO) Wednesday night (Aug. 5).

The occasion was the second performance of her new opera Cold Mountain, based on the Charles Frazier novel, which had its premiere at the SFO last Saturday (Aug. 1). The opera is playing to sold-out houses, and has in fact been so successful and generated so much demand that the SFO has added a sixth performance Aug. 24 to the original five planned dates. As of this writing, tickets are still available for that performance.

Higdon’s first opera, Cold Mountain is a powerful and assured effort from a very skilled composer. Future performances are planned by the Santa Fe Opera’s co-commissioners Opera Philadelphia and the Minnesota Opera, in collaboration with North Carolina Opera. Based on the reception by the Santa Fe audience, we can expect Cold Mountain to enter the ranks of the most successful American operas.

One of Higdon’s strengths has been the ability to build powerful momentum from rhythmically charged modules and the piling up of brass chords. That skill was particularly evident in the many scenes of threat and violence within the disturbing story of a wounded Confederate deserter’s flight. For the opera, she added to that a remarkable ability to conjure scenes of quiet, comfort and even humor, and to provide gentle, colorful support for the voice in lyrical moments.

The use of orchestral sound, ever varied, to set the mood for the contrasting scenes of the opera is one of the impressive strengths of the score. Treating the instruments as individual voices, Higdon finds a kaleidoscope of different chamber-like combinations to accompany the singers. This points in turn to another virtue: the orchestra almost never overwhelms the voices, and only where the buildup of momentum justifies it. Almost all the vocal solos and small ensembles are accompanied with extreme restraint, making them easily audible and understandable.

Higdon is especially effective in handling the transitions from scene to scene and from one mood to another. Sometimes subtly overlapping the sounds, and even the characters, and sometimes sliding seamlessly into a new musical environment, she keeps the music moving without obvious breaks or pauses.

Ensemble cast in ‘Cold Mountain.’ Photo © Ken Howard for Santa Fe Opera

Ensemble cast in ‘Cold Mountain.’ Photo © Ken Howard for Santa Fe Opera

The same is true when she introduces the individual “numbers”—arias, duets, and larger ensembles—that simply emerge without any obvious signal. Each number follows its own arc, then merges back into the musical flow. Among moments I found particularly moving are Ruby’s aria telling of her childhood; several duets between the leading characters, Inman and Ada, particularly “Four Novembers come and gone” in the second act; and above all Ada’s “I feel sorry for you,” sung to Ruby’s father, which conjures in a single aria the cumulative meaning of much of the book.

Equally memorable is the use of the chorus throughout, and especially the beautiful, consoling chorus “Buried and forgotten,” recalling the numberless dead of the Civil War.

For all the breadth of Higdon’s expressive palette, one thing is missing: melodies that bloom in the voice and linger in the memory. Soaring song is the reason for opera, after all, and without it the music sometimes does not rise to the lyrical level of the text, and does not reach a convincing emotional climax near the end when Ada and Inman are finally together. The music at this point is not ineffective, but it does not transcend what has gone before, as we feel it should.

Those who know the book will notice several changes, including the omission of several of the book’s many scenes and the creation of composite characters. Opera being an art form of its own, this is unavoidable, but two changes should be noted.

Nathan Gunn (Inman) and Isabel Leonard (Ada) in ‘Cold Mountain.’ Photo © Ken Howard for Santa Fe Opera

Nathan Gunn (Inman) and Isabel Leonard (Ada) in ‘Cold Mountain.’ Photo © Ken Howard for Santa Fe Opera

Teague is introduced from the very beginning, changing him from an unseen threat for much of the story into a familiar menace—none the less evil but more human than in the novel. And Inman and Ada’s connection is strengthened. In the novel, Inman embarks on his odyssey not knowing if Ada will even want him when he returns, whereas in the opera they are both longing to reunite throughout. Doubtless this makes for more lyrical moments and better opera.

On the other hand, fans of the book will happily recognize several lines of dialog that survive directly into the libretto, including Ada saying to Ruby of Inman, “I know I don’t need him. But I think I want him,” and Ruby’s laconic reply, “Well, that’s a whole different thing.”

Robert Brill’s set of slanted and moveable planks may unhappily remind some operagoers of the recent awkward Metropolitan Opera Ring cycle, including the use of projections over the entire stage and even outside onto the proscenium. In this case, however, the set was used effectively to represent the many different locales of the story. Dark areas of the set helped create the mood of menace that dominates the story, with danger often emerging from the shadows, while lighting was used well to direct attention to individual characters. Projections were used with restraint but impressively.

Leonard Foglia’s direction was efficient and clear. In an opera of many scene changes, from place to place and backwards and forwards in time, it is an accomplishment that only once or twice was I briefly wondering where we were.

Ada is the beating heart of the story, and soprano Isabel Leonard was a graceful, poised presence throughout. Her transformation from a sheltered city girl to a competent farm dweller was conveyed by costume and movement, and she sang with conviction and beauty of sound. Her moving performance of “I feel sorry for you” was a highlight.

Emily Fons (Ruby Thewes) and Jay Hunter Morris (Teague) in ‘Cold Mountain.’ Photo © Ken Howard for Santa Fe Oper

Emily Fons (Ruby Thewes) and Jay Hunter Morris (Teague) in ‘Cold Mountain.’ Photo © Ken Howard for Santa Fe Opera

Her foil, Ruby, was brought to life by the excellent Emily Fons. At first, I thought the character verged on stereotype—clumping around the stage, drawing out her vowels like a country bumpkin—but as the Ada-Ruby relationship developed I liked her performance more and more.

As Inman, the man who abhors violence but finds himself good at it, Nathan Gunn gave a solid performance. He sang expressively and blended well in his duets with Ada, and his characterization was effective. Jay Hunter Morris was a strong-voiced and thoroughly despicable Teague who relished the melodramatic boos at his curtain call.

The remainder of the large cast ranged from very good to superb. I particularly enjoyed Kevin Burdette as Ruby’s father Stobrod, Robert Pomakov as the doomed Owens, and Deborah Nansteel as Lucinda. Each embodied a strongly etched personality that left a mark on the story.

I have mixed feelings about the use of an accent—those drawling vowels and dropped Gs runnin’ though the text. On one hand, it comes perilously close to southern redneck parody; on the other, it helps place the opera in a world apart. To the credit of the cast, they used it pretty consistently and made it work.

The SFO orchestra handled Higdon’s musical demands ably. The chamber-like combinations were beautifully played and well balanced, and the climaxes were powerful. The composer has complimented the players for handling her constant changes—including those made after the first performance, making the performance I saw another premiere of sorts. Conductor Miguel Harth-Bedoya kept it all moving marvelously well and provided support for the singers.

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The night before Cold Mountain I saw Santa Fe’s serviceable and moving, if flawed, Rigoletto.

Georgia Jarman (Gilda) in 'Rigoletto.' Photo (c) Ken Howard for The Santa Fe Opera

Georgia Jarman (Gilda) in ‘Rigoletto.’ Photo (c) Ken Howard for The Santa Fe Opera

The star of the evening was Georgia Jarman’s Gilda. She sang with a radiant voice, and placed an expressive weight behind the notes that made her the emotional center of the opera. Her exquisite performance of “Caro nome,” Gilda’s signature aria, earned a well deserved and prolonged ovation (in spite of having to compete with an unfortunately noisy stage turntable).

Beyond her vocal strengths, Jarman personified Rigoletto’s young and innocent daughter as well as anyone I have seen. Her physical movement onstage and her interactions with other singers contributed strongly to her portrayal of a delicate girl who finds the strength to die for love.

In the title role Quinn Kelsey sang with great power throughout. At his best, as in the second act, he became a deeply moving figure, portraying Rigoletto’s bitter torment. I thought he was less effective in other scenes, such as his duet with Gilda in the first act, when his performance seemed slack and unmotivated.

Kelsey is a large man, and he was not helped by the costuming, which made him more of a hulking figure onstage than a downtrodden and powerless jester trapped in a dissolute court. His hatred of the Duke was apparent as the opera moved toward its tragic conclusion, but the power differential between them was not always easy to see.

Quinn Kelsey (Rigoletto) in 'Rigoletto.' Photo (c) Ken Howard for The Santa Fe Opera

Quinn Kelsey (Rigoletto) in ‘Rigoletto.’ Photo (c) Ken Howard for The Santa Fe Opera

The Duke of Mantua is not a role with a wide emotional range. Almost the only thing he sings about is love—by which he means lust—that he is “a slave to love,” and famously, the inconstant character of women. As the Duke, Bruce Sledge sang ardently of love, with ringing tones and a pleasing tenor voice.

Others in the cast were all effective. Anne Marie Stanly raised Giovanna, Gilda’s nurse, from an easily overlooked background figure to an angry woman whose betrayal of Rigoletto was based in overt contempt. Singing another doomed man, Robert Pomakov put great weight into Monterone’s curse. Peixin Chen as Sparafucile and Nicole Piccolomini as his sister Maddalena filled their roles admirably.

The production seemed unsure of itself. At first, I thought it was set in Verdi’s time, effectively the late nineteenth century. Many of the characters had a Dickensian look. But others could be mistaken for wearing modern clothes—at the end, the Duke appeared to be wearing Dockers and a burgundy work shirt—as if they came dressed for rehearsal.

The direction and costuming made the depravity of the Duke’s court more than clear. The mannered writhings and groping in the first scene were almost comical, and the harlots in hot pants looked out of place, whatever the time period of the opera, except as reminders that the court was a really bad place.

The unit set, mounted on that noisy turntable, was mostly effective, with doorways and stairs and lairs that served all the needs to the plot. On the other hand, I was never clear why Rigoletto sometimes carried a crutch that looked like a borrowed prop from Dickens’s Christmas Carol, and sometimes managed without it.

But all reservations aside, the Santa Fe night worked its magic. Where better to watch the final scenes of Rigoletto than under the stars, with a breeze blowing though the theater?

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I also saw the SFO production of Richard Strauss’ Salome, an opera that has now been done 11 times as part of the company’s advocacy of the composer’s works. Filled with symbolism and saturated with depravity, Salome is an opera that directors cannot resist interpreting for us—and that includes the current stage director Daniel Slater and designer Leslie Travers.

The production begins with an effective coup de theater as a stone wall across the back of the stage opens to reveal a banquet table, as well as the real-life sunset beyond the stage. The audience spontaneously applauded the lovely scene, but things soon began to get murky.

Sal.24 Robert Brubaker (Herod) and Michaela Martens (Herodias) in ‘Salome.’ Photo © Ken Howard for Santa Fe Opera

Robert Brubaker (Herod) and Michaela Martens (Herodias) in ‘Salome.’ Photo © Ken Howard for Santa Fe Opera

The costuming placed the story in Belle Époque France, a believable time for depravity among the powerful. But placed in that period much of the story fails to make sense: the Biblical prophecies; Herod’s fear of the denunciations intoned by Jochanaan (John the Baptist); and claims that the Messiah has appeared. None of this fits late 19th-century France.

But the producers have a specific aim in mind: instead of letting the story stand for itself as Oscar Wilde and Strauss wrote it, they want to show us what it is really “about.” And so Salome is presented as a Freudian family drama played out among Herod, his wife and former sister-in-law Herodias, and his stepdaughter Salome.

This is most obvious in Salome’s dance, which was presented not as a dance but an exploration of the deepest levels of Salome’s psyche. After a few desultory dance steps, she stepped to the side while a series of pictures opened behind her. She was shown as a child, with (apparently) her real father strangled before her by Narraboth, who later (but earlier in the opera) kills himself over his infatuation with the now teenaged princess. After seeing her father killed, the child Salome retreated into a cramped space in the back wall.

Alex Penda (Salome) in ‘Salome.’ Photo © Ken Howard for Santa Fe Opera

Alex Penda (Salome) in ‘Salome,’ with child Salome behind. Photo © Ken Howard for Santa Fe Opera

Obviously this shows how Salome is trapped by the damage she endured as a child, which is supposed to explain her hatred for her stepfather and her depraved infatuation with Jochanaan. And sure enough, after her bloody orgy with the severed head, instead of being killed—as Herod commands—she goes back to the cringing child and frees her. In other words, John the Baptist’s death serves to rescue Salome from her past.

The point is not that this interpretation is wrong; the point is that the opera contains more than that. There is the religious theme, which, apart from the text, largely disappears in this interpretation, and there is a great deal of action portrayed in the music that does not occur on stage. Strauss did not portray psychoanalysis, he portrayed a dance; he did not portray Salome freed from her demons, he portrayed her death. Substituting psychological explanation for the action of the drama not only discounts the audience’s ability to interpret the drama on its own, it also drains the music of much of its impact.

The musical performance was another matter, and was generally on a high level. The role of Salome is one of the most difficult in the repertoire: she must appear to be a petulant adolescent while singing music worthy of Isolde. Given that difficulty, Alex Penda was generally effective. She played the bored teenager very well, even though her voice was not always strong enough to carry over Strauss’ orchestra.

Nevertheless, Penda carried off the musical climaxes and reached the high notes well. And it should be noted that she was not helped by the direction, which left her far upstage in an enclosed space—Jochanaan’s cell—or singing toward the wings for several of her critical scenes.

Alex Penda (Salome) and Ryan McKinny (Jochanaan) in ‘Salome.’ Photo © Ken Howard for Santa Fe Opera

Alex Penda (Salome) and Ryan McKinny (Jochanaan) in ‘Salome.’ Photo © Ken Howard for Santa Fe Opera

Her scene with Ryan McKinny as Jochanaan, when he keeps rejecting her demented advances, was played with great intensity by both singers. This is the crux of the whole opera: nothing that comes later will work if this is not brought off. In spite of the jarring anachronisms of the production, this was one of the best parts of the performance.

The production turned Jochanaan into what looked like a 19th-century radical, writing revolutionary manifestos in his crumbling study. It’s hard to see how that fits with the text and music that Strauss gave Jochanaan, but that said McKinny sang with the kind of booming certainty the role requires, and was vocally impressive.

Robert Brubaker’s Herod and Michaela Martens’ Herodias were accurately sung, but only intermittently as expressive as the roles require—which I attribute to the fact that in this production they were not acting much of what they were singing. As Narraboth Brian Jagde was memorable, displaying his fatal obsession with Salome with musical and physical intensity.

The most satisfying aspect of the production was the SFO orchestra, which under conductor David Robertson gave a powerful performance of Strauss’ virtuoso score. The full sound was resonant, and all the solos were immaculate. Slater had the demanding score under control from the beginning.

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For tickets and information on the remaining performances in the Santa Fe Opera’s 2015 season, click here.

Edited for clarity and to correct a minor typo Aug. 8, 2015.

Name of the conductor of Salome was corrected Aug. 10, 2015. David Robertson is the conductor; Daniel Slater is the stage director.

Scenes from Zach Redler’s new opera offer a glimpse into the artistic workshop

CU NOW presents a work in progress with libretto by CU alumnus Mark Campbell

By Peter Alexander

Librettist and CU Alumnus Mark Campbell, who is returning to campus for CU NOW. (Photo by Laura Marie Duncan)

Librettist and CU Alumnus Mark Campbell, who is returning to campus for CU NOW. (Photo by Laura Marie Duncan)

It’s mostly hard work.

It looks like magic from the outside, the process of creating a large-scale, complex work of art like an opera. But the more you are able to see inside the process, the more you see the hard work it takes to get from an idea to a viable piece of art to a fully committed production in front of an audience.

It is part of the wonder of the University of Colorado, Boulder College of Music CU NOW (New Opera Workshop) program that it offers a glimpse into the magic-producing hard work of making a new opera, while advancing students’ careers and the world of opera.

The program, started six years ago by Leigh Holman, director of the CU Eklund Opera Program, and Patrick Mason, a professor of voice, opera and choral studies in the CU College of Music, brings composers to campus to work on developing a new operatic work, working over a couple of weeks with student singers in the CU College of Music. In a win-win-win situation, the students benefit from working closely with a composer on a new work, developing skills useful in the professional world; the composers benefit from hearing their work performed as they write it; and audiences benefit from seeing inside the creative process.

This year’s CU NOW program will come to fruition Friday and Sunday (June 12 and 14) with performances of scenes from an opera in progress by composer Zach Redler and librettist Mark Campbell, a CU alumnus whose other libretti include Kevin Puts’s Silent Night, winner of the 2012 Pulitzer prize in music, and the recently premiered Manchurian Candidate.

Composer Zach Redler

Composer Zach Redler

Scenes from Redler and Campbell’s A Song for Susan Smith will be performed with a cast of CU student singers at 7:30 p.m. Friday and 2 p.m. Sunday in the ATLAS Black Box Theater on the CU campus. The scenes will be stage directed by Holman.

The performance will feature six or seven of a projected 15 scenes in a one-act, 90-minute opera. Based on the notorious 1994 case of a woman who was sentenced to life in prison for the deaths of her two sons, A Song for Susan Smith does not dramatize or feature the killings. Instead, it focuses on the period between the killings and Smith’s eventual confession nine days later, and on Smith’s mental state during that time.

Between those two performances, CU NOW will also present the Composer Fellows’ Opera Showcase, scenes by CU student composers who have been working with Redler and other operatic professionals brought to campus for CU NOW, at 7:30 p.m. Saturday, June 13, in the Music Theater inside the CU Imig Music Building. All CU NOW performances are free and open to the public.

A Song for Susan Smith started as a scene that Redler wrote for his wife, soprano Brittney Redler, to sing for a doctoral voice recital. The text came from a completed libretto that Campbell had never used and forms a prologue to the opera, portraying Smith before the killings. That scene has now been performed several times, including as part of the Ft. Worth (Tex.) Opera’s Frontiers program. It will not be included in the CU performances but can be viewed on the composer’s Website (scroll down to the video, featuring the composer at the piano and Brittney Redler singing).

Redler is not unaware that Susan Smith is a difficult subject for an opera, one that might be disturbing to some audience members. “I’m drawn to characters that are hard to comprehend,” he says. “Susan Smith has been through a lot, but because [infanticide] is a too common thing—500 cases a year!—I don’t think it’s exploitive. I think it’s using a very specific instance to tell a very general story.

“It’s a horrible problem, because it’s not that these people are necessarily inherently evil. Susan came from an extremely dysfunctional childhood and household. So it’s about mental health and about mob mentality (when the town turns from supporting Susan to shunning her). A lot of the music is kind of trying to show Susan’s perspective.”

Leigh Holman, director of the CU's Eklund Opera Program and CU NOW (Photo by Glenn Asakawa/University of Colorado)

Leigh Holman, director of the CU’s Eklund Opera Program and CU NOW (Photo by Glenn Asakawa/University of Colorado)

Holman and Mason started CU NOW to give students experience tackling completely new music and new roles. At the time, there were few programs devoted to new opera, but that has changed in the past six years.

“When we started this six years ago, there weren’t many people doing what we’re doing,” Holman says. “Now, people are doing it everywhere.

“The most important thing that was happening at the Opera America Conference two weeks ago was new works—composers there, librettists there, all these big companies looking for new works to do. That’s what audiences want. That’s where the market is now. Six years ago it wasn’t.”

CU’s unique niche in this world is taking works in progress that have not been completed or received a commission, works where the composers are just getting started, and giving them the chance to mold it to living, breathing singers. “We like to do brand new things,” Holman says. “We want our students to have the opportunity to work with a brand new piece.

“The composers are hearing their piece for the first time with our students. And our students get the opportunity to work with the composers. Our students can’t listen to a recording and learn it. There’s no other singer that has already said, ‘This is how it’s supposed to sound.’ It’s really their own interpretation.”

Redler seconds Holman’s comments. “It’s really great for (the students),” he says. “In professional opera companies, it’s the young artists who are doing the workshops and the readings of new works. It’s just such an important skill for them to have, to be able to pick up a new piece of sheet music that no one has ever recorded and learn it.”

He is equally enthusiastic about what the program means for him as a composer. “Hearing scenes that I’ve only heard in my head is just so important,” he says. “The piece changes in front of an audience as well, so to get to see that is fantastic.”

And the value for the audience? You can tell the rest of us: Go to the performances, and post your reaction here afterwards! You too might help open doors for new creations.

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CU NOW web ad 1349 x 905CU NOW

Scenes from A Song for Susan Smith
An opera in progress by Zach Redler and Mark Campbell
7:30 p.m. Friday, June 12
2 p.m. Sunday, June 14
ATLAS Black Box Theater on the CU campus

Composer Fellows’ Opera Showcase
Operatic scenes by CU student composers
7:30 p.m. Saturday, June 13
Music Theater, CU Imig Music Building

All performances free and open to the public

News on the boil in the World of Classical Music

Controversy and a milestone at the MET; Trouble in Atlanta

By Peter Alexander

It’s the unwatched pot that boils, and if you haven’t been watching, there’s been lots of boiling going on in the classical music world this fall.

Lincoln Center Plaza and the Metropolitan Opera House

Lincoln Center Plaza and the Metropolitan Opera House

This summer I reported several times on the labor dispute that threatened to cause a lockout and the cancellation of the season for the Metropolitan Opera. Happily, the lockout was averted, but that has not kept the Met from being a center of controversy.

As part of their season, the Met had announced performances of The Death of Klinghoffer by John Adams. This opera was composed in 1991 on the subject of the 1985 hijacking of the cruise ship the Achille Lauro by members of the Palestinian Liberation Front and the subsequent murder of Leon Klinghoffer, a wheelchair-bound 69-year old Jewish American tourist whose body was dumped into the Mediterranean.

Klinghoffer protesters

Protesters outside the Metropolitan Opera House in Lincoln Center

The opera was originally created with the cooperation of Klinghoffer’s family, who later objected that it glorified the hijackers. Nevertheless, the opera has been performed uneventfully in several locations—but the Metropolitan is not just any opera company, and New York is always in the spotlight. And it is an especially important location for American Jews. So when Met General Manager Peter Gelb announced that The Death of Klinghoffer would be featured on the Met’s Live in HD series broadcast live to movie theaters around the world, there were protests and loud criticism of the Met. The claim was repeatedly made that the opera, by humanizing, or glorifying (depending on your point of view) the killers, was anti-semitic.

Scene from 'The Death of Klinghoffer.' Photo by Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera

Scene from ‘The Death of Klinghoffer.’ Photo by Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera

Eventually, The Death of Klinghoffer was dropped from the Live in HD broadcast series, but it remained on the Met season. It opened last Monday (Oct. 20), with a phalanx of protesters filling the Lincoln Center plaza, some minor disturbances inside the house, and generally glowing reviews for the work and the performance.

For anyone who cares about opera, or gives much thought to contemporary art forms, The Death of Klinghoffer has been a remarkable case study. Regardless of your personal opinion, the decision to write an opera on such a volatile contemporary subject, and the decision to produce it at the Met, are worthy of serious consideration and discussion. Rather than reconstruct what people who have seen the production have said, here are links to more about this remarkable opera and production.

Just about the best review and report of opening night was that written by Alex Ross for The New Yorker.  Anthony Tommasini wrote an even longer report in the New York Times.  And David Patrick Stearns had a slightly different take on the events for the Philadelphia Inquirer.

There are many more reviews. The Chicago Tribune complied a handy list of reviews and articles. Almost all are worth reading.

James Levine leading the Met Orchestra in 2013. (AP Photo/Metropolitan Opera, Marty Sohl)

James Levine leading the Met Orchestra in 2013. (AP Photo/Metropolitan Opera, Marty Sohl)

But not all the news from the Metropolitan Opera has been disturbing, or even controversial. This past weekend, James Levine conducted his 2,500th performance at the Met—a staggering number that is just about beyond comprehension. It is more than twice as many as the next most prolific conductor in the Met’s history, the long-forgotten Arthur Bodanzky. The milestone performance was Mozart’s Nozze di Figaro (Marriage of Figaro) Saturday night—only the 77th time he has conducted that particular work. (Those and other numbers from Levin’s remarkable Met career were reported by the New York Times.)

This would be a remarkable milestone for any conductor, but in Levine’s case, it is especially noteworthy since it was only two years ago that it appeared his conducting career might be over. But he has come back from serious injuries, and is back at work in the opera house—to the relief of his fans and fans of the Met who have a hard time imagining how anyone can follow him and maintain the reputation Levine has created for the Met and its orchestra.

Daniel Laufer was among the supporters of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra musicians who was picketing outside the Woodruff Arts Center in Atlanta. (Michael A. Schwarz/For the Washington Post)

Daniel Laufer was among the supporters of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra musicians who was picketing outside the Woodruff Arts Center in Atlanta. (Michael A. Schwarz/For the Washington Post)

While the Met was resolving a labor dispute and averting a lockout this summer, the Atlanta Symphony has been dealing with a lockout and at least a partial cancellation of their season.

The sticking point in Atlanta is the proposal by management to further cut the size of the orchestra, which had previously been reduced to 88 musicians from an original compliment of 95 players. As a means of fighting deficits, the management wanted full control of the orchestra’s size and proposed cutting the orchestra—largely by leaving positions unfilled—to 76 players. Both the players and the orchestra’s conductors said that the Atlanta Symphony, an honored ensemble that has counted Robert Shaw and Yoel Levi among its music directors, could not maintain it’s standing with only 76 players.

After a bitter battle that eventually led to mediation, this one issue seems to have brought all negotiations to a halt. After the 15-month lockout nearly closed the Minnesota Orchestra permanently, this is very disheartening news. The most recent news about the ASO comes from the Atlanta Arts and Culture Blog, here and here. Earlier articles from NPR and the Washington Post provide more of the background.

A second major orchestra lockout in only a few years is bad news for America’s musicians, and those who support them and their work. The only silver lining from here is that we are not facing a similar crisis in Boulder, and we still have great riches of orchestral music to chose from. But it is interesting background for the still unfolding issue in Denver, concerning the Colorado Symphony’s future in Boettcher Concert Hall—where the pot, watched or not, boils on.

Barking pirates, Barbies and a parasol

Gilbert and Sullivan’s Pirates of Penzance opens at CU

By Peter Alexander

Paul Kroeger as Frederic and Frank Fainer as the Pirate King in the CU production of 'Pirates of Penzance' (Photo by Glenn Asakawa/University of Colorado)

Paul Kroeger as Frederic and Frank Fainer as the Pirate King in the CU production of ‘Pirates of Penzance’
(Photo by Glenn Asakawa/University of Colorado)

Watch for the Barbie dolls.

They will be part of the fun when the University of Colorado Opera Theater, with two full casts of students and the CU orchestra in the pit, presents Gilbert and Sullivan’s Pirates of Penzance.

Not that the production will be a post-modern reinterpretation of the classic British musical comedy.

“The pirates will be pirates,” stage director and CU director of opera Leigh Holman says. “No Martians. Nothing on the moon. It’s straightforward and very colorful.”

General Stanley, one of the central comic characters, will definitely be a general, although British humor being what it is, he will be, Holman says, “a general with a parasol.”

The pirates will even have a ship. “Pirates of Penzance is not usually done on a ship,” she explains. “But I told the [set] designer [Peter Dean Beck] I want those guys to be on a ship, so we’ve got ropes hanging and they can swing from the ropes.”

Read more in Boulder Weekly—including Malibu Barbie!

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Rex Smith as Frederic, Linda Ronstadt as Mabel, and Kevin Kline as the Pirate King in a famous 1980 production of 'Pirates of Penzance' that was a favorite of CU Opera director Leigh Holman.

Rex Smith as Frederic, Linda Ronstadt as Mabel, and Kevin Kline as the Pirate King in a famous 1980 production of ‘Pirates of Penzance’ that was a favorite of CU Opera director Leigh Holman.

Pirates of Penzance
CU Opera Theater
Leigh Holman, stage director
Nicholas Carthy, music director
Peter Dean Beck, deisgner

7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday, Oct. 24 and 25
2 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 26
CU Macky Auditorium

Get tickets to the CU Opera production of Pirates of Penzance here.

Winners and Losers

One last assessment of the Metropolitan Opera’s labor agreements

By Peter Alexander

Who won and who lost at the Met? It depends.

THe Metropolitan Opera House (interior)

The Metropolitan Opera House (interior)

On Wednesday (Aug. 20), the New York Times reported on the agreement that was reached with the third of the Metropolitan Opera’s three major unions, Local 1 of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees, representing stagehands, carpenters and electricians.

The other two major unions, representing the orchestra and the chorus members, had reached agreement with the Met early on Monday. (See my post on that agreement here.) And an agreement with the remaining unions at the Met was reached on Thursday night, as reported again by the New York Times. These include unions representing scenic artists and designers, the costume department, and others.

These agreements end the conflict between management that has raged for several months and resulted in Peter Gelb, the Met’s general manager, withdrawing the threat of a lockout. He has confirmed that the Met will open its fall season as scheduled on Sept. 22, with a performance of The Marriage of Figaro conducted by James Levine.

Lincoln Center Plaza and the Metropolitan Opera House

Lincoln Center Plaza and the Metropolitan Opera House

The deal with the musicians’ unions called for an immediate 3.5 percent pay cut, followed by another 3.5 percent six months later, and no raise until the fourth year of the contract. The agreement with the stagehands has been reported to provide comparable cuts in labor costs, although the deal had to be written differently because of the different work rules and benefits packages in the contract with that union’s workers, and because their agreement is for six years instead of four.

But if it sounds like the concessions from the unions—the first pay cut accepted by the Met’s union workers in many years—represent a win by the management, that would be a hasty conclusion, for three reasons. In the first place, Peter Gelb had demanded a 17 percent pay cut from labor, and said that the Metropolitan would have to close otherwise. So the much smaller size of the pay cut than what Gelb was demanding makes his “win” look much less significant.

In the second place, the unions won some battles as well, in that the settlement calls for management to make its own, comparable cuts in the budget. The unions had argued that extravagant production expenses were part of the problem, and while there simply were not enough savings to be made in production costs to solve the Met’s budget woes, the fact that the final agreement took the form it did implies that the federal mediator for the negotiations with the musicians found merit in the union’s complaints. (The stagehands had separate negotiations that did not involve a mediator.)

Finally—and this speaks directly to the union’s complaints about Gelb’s leadership—the deal calls for an independent

Peter Gelb, general manager of the Met

Peter Gelb, general manager of the Met

monitor to keep an eye on the Met’s budget and expenses. This must be a particularly galling concession for Gelb, whose rather freewheeling, pop culture approach to opera was supposed to bring in larger, younger audiences and save the Met.

Apparently he has not accomplished either of those goals.

The question remains what effect this will have on regional opera throughout the country and here in Colorado. Will this settlement make it possible for other companies to ask for pay cuts from their employees, and to reign in costs in other ways? Will it put pressure on other companies to trim their production costs, or to make their finances more transparent, as the Met was forced to do in the course of negotiations?

For now, leaders of opera companies in this area have declined to comment on the Met’s settlement, although they do say they are keeping an eye on the situation.

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For other perspectives of the Metropolitan Opera and it’s labor settlement, read these articles:

Jennifer Maloney’s highly complementary evaluation of Peter Gelb’s leadership of the Met can be read here.

Her previous, more balanced, assessment of the deal is here.

Blogger Greg Sandow’s more critical take on Gelb can be found in three installments linked from here.

The cheeky opera-fanatic blog “Parterre Box” has posted a copy of the agreement between the Met and the American Guild of Musical Artists, representing the Met Chorus, here.

The gossipy blogger Norman Lebrecht’s take on the settlement, which he sees as a “surrender” and a “humiliation for Peter Gelb,” can be found here

It’s about to get even nastier at the Metropolitan Opera

General Manager Peter Gelb threatens a lockout

By Peter Alexander

Metropolitan Opera House, Lincoln Center, New York

Metropolitan Opera House, Lincoln Center, New York

The New York Times reports today that Metropolitan Opera General Manager Peter Gelb is threatening to lock out workers from the Met within a week:

The labor strife at the Metropolitan Opera took on a new urgency Wednesday when its general manager, Peter Gelb, sent the company’s orchestra, chorus, stagehands and other workers letters warning them to prepare for a lockout if no contract deal is reached by next week.

This is a continuation of the struggles at the Met that I reported earlier. This is in part a New York labor dispute, in which every side will act tough up to the last minute. But in the case of the Met, it is more than that.

In fact, a lot of the fight is about Gelb himself. There has been criticism of his leadership almost from the day he took over as the Met’s general manager in August 2006, particularly over the lavish productions he has mounted. These have included Robert Lepage’s mechanically lavish but visually dull staging of Wagner’s Ring Cycle—a production so immense that the Met had to spend something between $1.5 and $5 million just to reinforce the floor. The production as a whole cost something around $16–20 million.

A scene from Wagner's "Das Rheingold" in Robert Lepage's production. Photo: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera

Criticism of the production has been harsh, with the New York Times critic Anthony Tommasini calling it “the most frustrating opera production I have ever had to grapple with” and The New Yorker’s Alex Ross declaring that “Pound for pound, ton for ton, it is the most witless and wasteful production in modern operatic history.” And those were among the kinder assessments.

As a result, many critics and others have called for a return to the Met’s more traditional Ring staging by Otto Schenk—a move that would concede that the Lepage staging was a a $16-million gamble that failed.

Rigoletto, production by Michael Mayer at the Metropolitan Opera. Piotr Beczala at the Duke of Mantua. Photo: Sara Krulwich, New York Times.

Rigoletto, production by Michael Mayer at the Metropolitan Opera. Piotr Beczala as the Duke of Mantua. Photo: Sara Krulwich, New York Times.

Another controversial production was of Verdi’s Rigoletto, placed in Las Vegas. Featuring a Sinatra-like lounge singer for the Duke, a Don Rickles-like insult comic for Rigoletto, and even a gratuitous pole dancer in the final scene, it became known as the “Rat-Pack Rigoletto.” 

Gelb justified his approach as a way of attracting new, younger, affluent and more hip audiences to the Met. But the history seems to be that these splashy productions attracted a lot of attention when they opened, but audiences fell off significantly when they were revived a year or more later. And that represents a situation that a major opera house like the Met cannot sustain. Productions of the standard operas have to remain profitable, year in and year out.

So there are legitimate questions about the direction of the Met under Gelb’s direction. And all of that controversy is coming to a head as the union contract deadline approaches. Gelb is not one to back down, especially with his own reputation part of the battle, and New York unions are not known for their compliance.

It’s hard to foresee an easy settlement. But it would be a great shame if Gelb’s tenure as director, which was supposed to “save” the Met as it faced changing demographics and an uncertain future, were to end up damaging one of the country’s most esteemed cultural and musical institutions. And while none of this has direct impact on Colorado’s musical culture, any longterm troubles at the Met will assuredly affect the entire operatic world, both nationally and internationally.

Stay tuned.

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