U of AZ’s Opera Theater Puts Some Magic in Mozart’s ‘Flute’

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The University of Arizona’s Opera Theater took a giant step with its production of Mozart’s The Magic Flute.*  Everything about the production was on a grander scale than in previous years. However, the artistic foundation on which David Ward, the school’s new opera director, was able to mount such a clever and funny rendition of Mozart’s fairy-tale, had been built on the hard work and talent of its longtime director Charles Roe. In this way, Ward and his merry band of players were able to take full advantage of the school’s resources and mount a production that showed off Ward’s own theatrical talent with savvy and panache. And the double cast of singers were just about on an even keel vocally, which demonstrated the university’s ability to attract more students than ever before to its vocal curriculum.

To start with, set designer Sally Day’s floor-to-ceiling gray slabs, jaggedly textured, were easily turned around to show the entrance to Sarastro’s temple, giving the look of a primitive eastern culture. How Ms. Day got those large pieces to move without a sound may be for us to ponder, but the result was an artistic wonder.

Christopher Allen’s costumes were a crazy mixture of styles and colors that added so much to the overall delight of the production. It is worth mentioning the following: Papagano’s feathered headpiece; the long, dark-red dresses for the Three Ladies; and, best of all, the black full-length skirt for Queen of the Night, with her bright red hair topped with an outrageous three-tiered tiara. There were teased blond wigs, all puffy, with twinkling lights on the Ladies trio and the three spirits that made you chuckle. Still, the blond wigs selected for Pamina, the Queen’s daughter, were not visually appealing and, for one Pamina, ill-suited.

Music Director Thomas Cockrell and Ward made the decision that all the musical parts would be sung in German, with the intermittent dialogues in English, making the opera a Singspiel as designated by Mozart and his librettist Emanuel Schikaneder. There were times when the students’ spoken dialogue did not match their vocal abilities, forging an uneven delivery of the English text. But Cockrell and Ward are to be congratulated for not forcing the students to pretend they had acting chops that they did not possess. And there were times when this approach allowed the singers to relax and present themselves in a natural manner.

There were a number of good vocal performances from the two casts as well as those who presented interesting characterizations. Both Paminas were prepared vocally and acting-wise in showing what a trial is was to be Queen of the Night’s daughter. Yunnie Park sang with a smoother lyrical line than Kelsey Rogers, but Rogers’s line delivery was first-rate.  Brian McNiff’s Prince Tamino was more attentive to his fellow performers than James Austin, but Austin’s vocal line was closer to what Mozart wanted from his “hero.” Dori Marie Smith’s Queen had a solid vocal line up-and-down the scale along with a good dramatic feel for the role. Michelle Perrier hit all the notes as well, but her limited stage experience shown through now and then.

Both trios comprising the Ladies who attended to the Queen’s demands sang with vocal security and fulfilled their courtly duties with great humor. And as Monostatos, the nasty, but lame lecher of Pamina, Brandon Dale used his big physique and his strong tenor to show the character’s silly side as well. If Olman Alfaro’s Monostatos was smaller in physical size, he was able to vocally fill the role with humor and show the daffy body movements that Ward had designed for this slightly deranged character.

For the comic sets of lovers, Alejandro Bañuelos and Jonathan Kim brought out the lovable and frivolous side of Papagano and Leah Williams and Mary Keck as Papagana, did as well. If Bañuelos was more outgoing and demonstrative in his frustration with having to go through the trials with Tamino, Kim was a bit more understated, but still projected Papagano’s comical exasperation at Tamino’s royal demands.

The School of Music had to go outside of the student roster of singers to find a bass to sing the mature vocal lines needed for Sarastro, the High Priest of Isis. Arizeder Urreiztieta expressed the regal and pontifical side of the priest’s demeanor, but was short vocally on the full resonance that Mozart’s stately music required.

Instead of using boy sopranos and altos for the Three Spirits who guide Pamina and Tamino through the ordeals Sarastro has set out for them, Ward gave the parts to the school’s sopranos and altos in order to increase student participation in the production. Doubly cast, the women were fitted into one dress, Ward’s takeoff on the silly side of the Disco craze.  A definite plus to the production was Jonathan Kim’s chorus that intoned the beautiful harmonies that run through Mozart’s choral scenes.

Cockrell conducted the Arizona Symphony Orchestra with all the care and attention to detail that the composer’s intricate musical charts demand. And the way Cockrell led his forces to come in at the exact moment the English dialogue segued into the sung German text was just one example of how much care he and Ward gave in staging what many critics and fans consider Mozart’s operatic masterpiece.


* See The Magic Flute-Wikipedia





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The Met Telecast of La Boheme Bats a Thousand!

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The Met’s playbook for Puccini’s La Bohème was really thrown out of whack on April 5th when General Manager Peter Gelb woke up that morning and learned he didn’t have a Mimì for the 1:00 p.m. telecast. Anita Hartig, in an early-morning phone call to Mr. Gelb, informed him she had not sufficiently recovered from her bout with the flu and wouldn’t be able to sing. From what we have been told from news sources and during the telecast itself, Gelb then decided to call Kristine Opolais and asked her to fill in for Ms. Hartig. The problem facing Opolais was that the night before she had sung the long and demanding role of Cio-cio-san in Puccini’s Madame Butterfly and when the call came at 7:30 in the morning, the soprano was in a sound sleep. At first, it was reported, she refused, but within a half hour she called back, and luckily for Gelb, agreed to sing. To add to the uncertainty, no one knows for sure whether a cover for Mimi was assigned or not.

But the end result in all this turmoil was a telecast that turned out to be one of the most touching and engaging performances of La Bohème the Met has given us in some time.

The event also marked the much-anticipated telecast debut of the exuberant Italian tenor Vittorio Grigòlo, who has changed the accent in his last name to highlight his climb to stardom. On a serious note, however, what Opolais and Grigòlo presented was an emotional and vocally-intense interpretation of Mimì and Rodolfo that left us with a lingering heartfelt memory of the tragic lovers.

At her first entrance, all eyes were on Opolais, wondering whether she could fit in vocally and dramatically with Grigòlo’s impassioned Rodolfo. But the bigger question was how was she to navigate her way through director Franco Zefferelli’s huge stage setting of 19th-Century Bohemian life in Paris which, since its 1981 premiere, has unashamedly dazzled Met audiences. Over the years, critics have  bashed Zefferelli for what they have considered his over-the-top, action-packed production, dripping in excessive opulence. But they have lost the battle. Audiences have always loved the production and the Met has reaped a gargantuan financial profit with its popular success.

From the beginning, Ms. Opolais expressed Mimi’s penchant for melancholy with a vocal tenderness she sustained right through to her demise in Act Four. And Grigòlo attentively partnered her, never failing to cover his impetuous, romantic outbursts with his own brand of sadness. The singers’ apprehension on just how their performances would unfold only heightened their emotional commitment to each other and, luckily, to their audience, as well.

But La Bohème needs a committed ensemble of singing actors to encompass all of Puccini’s musical narrative, and the afternoon’s cast was just what the composer ordered. Rodolfo, who is a poet, shares a garret in the Parisian Latin Quarter with three struggling artists: the painter Marcello, Colline the philosopher, and the musician Schaunard. Baritone Massimo Cavalletti and basses Oren Gradus and Patrick Carfizzi, respectively, imbued their roles with a warm vocal charm that expressed their characters’ carefree, but, when necessary, levelheaded approach to their rambunctious life style. Also, as performers, their confident, relaxed stage presence gave Ms.Opolais the artistic support she deserved as she journeyed through Mimì ‘s tragically short time on earth.

Puccini, in an overt display of his deft theatrical know-how, gives us a second romance in which to revel. In Act Two, at the outdoor Cafe Momus, we meet Musetta, a fun-loving woman who is still harboring a deep passion for her former lover Marcello. With soprano Susanna Philips, we got the full vocal and dramatic thrust of her Musetta as she seductively worked her way back to her beloved. Phillips, who debuted the role this year at the Met, delighted the audience with her alluring aplomb. In Act Four, when she brings Mimì to the garret where Mimì and Rodolfo first fell in love, Phillips easily handled her theatrical cues giving Opolais full opportunity to share Mimì ‘s intimate last moments, not only with the heartbroken Rodolfo, but also with the audience. Opolais’s last hushed words created a trembling quiet throughout the house.

And the spirited, attentive hand of conductor Stefano Ranzani made sure the pit went along with this unexpected, but no doubt, tender rendering of Puccini’s youthful, stirring masterpiece.

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Rare Russian Opera Performed in Barcelona

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April 20, 2014
From Seen and Heard International By: José Mª. Irurzun; (c) A. Bofill


SpainSpain Rimsky-Korsakov: The Legend of the Invisible City of Kitesz:, Liceu’s Orchestra and Chorus, Josep Pons (conductor), Liceu, Barcelona, 16.4.2014 (JMI)

Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov is an important figure in the history of opera, both for his own works and for his orchestration of works by other composers. Rarely performed outside Russia, this opera retells the legend of the medieval city of Kitesz which escaped Tartar attack through the intervention of the Maiden Fevronia. With her prayers she ensured that God would make the city invisible to the invading Tartars. The plot hardly justifies three hours of music, and the few times I’ve seen the opera performed it has always seemed to me too long, especially the last scene in which Fevronia reaches celestial glory.To dedicate no less than twenty minutes of music to this scene is excessive and almost tiring.
Liceu has mounted a new production by Russian director Dmitri Tcherniakov, whose work here I found quite surprising, as if he had been converted to classicism after passing through what has been called the Regiekonzept and its excesses. He brings the action into modern times but narrates the story with huge respect for the libretto. In my opinion it is somewhat surprising that these modern Tartars have to resort to traitors to find the way to Kitesz. It’s not difficult to understand it in the Middle Ages, but today we all use GPS and mapping has advanced dramatically.
Mr. Tcherniakov is also responsible for the sets. The design is quite attractive in the first and final acts: a beautiful forest (greeted with spontaneous applause from the audience) that reflects Fevronia’s love for nature, and is the place where she will die. The sets in the other two acts are less attractive ? a bar in Act II and a kind of hospital in Act III. Mr. Tcherniakov confronts two opposite worlds here, the world of respect for nature, represented by Fevronia; and the world of human selfishness, represented by both Tartars and Russians. Apart from some incidental excess, there were no provocative details, and Mr. Tcherniakov did great work on stage with both chorus and extras.
I had no big expectations of Josep Pons at the podium since he has little experience in Russian opera, but his conducting was adequate and at times quite good, especially in the final act. The orchestra offered a solid performance, while the chorus was at their usual excellent level.
The cast featured a group of singers familiar with the opera. I missed hearing more important singers in the main roles, with the exception of Prince Yuri who was played by the only non-Russian in the main quartet of singers.
The protagonist, Fevronia, was sung by Svetlana Ignatovich, who offered a very convincing interpretation on stage though less so vocally. Her voice has a certain appeal in the center, not too big in volume, but it falls short on lower notes and is rather tight at the top where the timbre is unattractive.
The character of Grishka Kuterma is a real draw for any tenor, offering ample opportunities to act and to sing. Dmitry Golovnin did well on the acting, but vocally he offered a not particularly attractive and somewhat reduced voice.
Maxim Aksenov performed well as Prince Vsevolod. His voice is not very important although his vocal characteristics are well suited to the character. Eric Halfvarson as Prince Yuri offered the best voice in the cast, but he does not appear on stage until the third act of the opera.
The secondary characters were very well cast. One should note the presence of a sound Dimitris Tiliakos as Fiodor; Vladimir Ognovenko as an excellent Burandai; and Alexander Tsymbaliuk as a remarkable Bediai. Maria Gortsevskaya gave a strong performance as Prince Yuri’s page, and veteran Gennadi Bezzubenkov, Prince Yuri in the Mariinsky for many years, was a luxury as the Gusli Player. Of the two birds, the one announcing death (Alkonost), played by Margarita Nekrasova, was better than the bird anouncing eternity (Sirin), played by Larisa Yudina.

New Production:
Liceu with Nederlandse Opera and Teatro alla Scala
Direction and sets: Dmitri Tcherniakov
Costumes: Elena Zaitseva and Dmitri Tcherniakov
Lighting: Gleb Filschtinsky
Fevronia. Svetlana Ignatovich
Grischka: Dmitry Golovnin
Prince Yuri: Eric Halfvarson
Vsevolod: Maxim Aksenov
Fiodor: Dimitris Tiliakos
Burundai: Vladimir Ognovenko
Bedia: Alexander Tsymbaliuk
P.Yuri’s Page: Maria Gortsevskaya
Gusli Player: Gennadi Bezzubenkov
Sirin: Larisa Yudina
Alkonost: Margarita Nekrasova
Nobles: Josep Fadó and Alex Sanmartí

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