18 April 2016

IN MEMORIAM: Internationally-acclaimed countertenor BRIAN ASAWA, 1966 – 2016

IN MEMORIAM: Countertenor BRIAN ASAWA, 1966 – 2016 [Photo by Todd Tyler, © by Brian Asawa]BRIAN ASAWA

1 October 1966 – 18 April 2016

There is no aspect of writing about the Performing Arts that I find more difficult than memorializing artists of importance to me, especially when I am fortunate enough to value them as much for their humanity off the stage as for their musical accomplishments. The news of the passing of renowned countertenor Brian Asawa at the age of forty-nine is therefore as unnerving as it was unexpected. One of the most gifted singers in his Fach whose passion for furthering the art of countertenor singing and nurturing the burgeoning careers of young artists recently led him into the arena of artist management, Asawa’s vocalism was virtually inseparable from his personality. To hear him sing was to know his soul, and to know his soul was to cherish his artistry, whether or not countertenors occupy a place of affection in one’s own heart.

In 1991, Asawa was the first countertenor to garner an Adler Fellowship to San Francisco Opera’s prestigious Merola Opera Program and to win the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions. His fellow Merola participants in 1991 included artists of the calibre of Robert Breault, William Burden, Steven Condy, Earle Patriarco, and Daniel Sumegi, and he shared the laurels in the MET National Council Auditions with such luminaries as Elizabeth Futral, Paul Groves, and Kenneth Tarver. Following triumphant débuts with San Francisco Opera and the Mozart Bicentennial celebration at Lincoln Center, he received a career grant from the Richard Tucker Music Foundation and became the first countertenor to take the top prize in Plácido Domingo’s Operalia competition. Asawa made his formal MET début on 18 February 1994, providing the silvery Voice of Apollo in Benjamin Britten’s Death in Venice. The following year, he recorded a performance of the rôle of Oberon in Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream under Sir Colin Davis’s baton that has never been surpassed. Asawa returned to the MET in 1999 and 2000 for eight performances of Tolomeo in Händel’s Giulio Cesare.

In the course of his career, Asawa appeared in many of the world’s greatest opera houses, carving new paths along the trail blazed by Alfred Deller and Russell Oberlin, but the cavernous spaces of opera houses were too impersonal for the poetic intimacy of his artistry. Espousing repertory spanning almost half a millennium, ranging from the typical countertenor territory of Elizabethan lute songs to Ned Rorem’s Twentieth- and Twenty-First-Century art songs, Asawa’s recordings expanded the horizons of what countertenor voices can do. In addition to his Oberon on the Philips label, his Farnace in the DECCA recording of Mozart’s Mitridate, re di Ponto is a performance of astonishing musical and histrionic power, one in which he sometimes outshone the high-wattage singing of Cecilia Bartoli and Natalie Dessay.

Asawa could be prickly, but the affection that his colleagues have for him is evidence of the inexhaustible commitment that he had for whatever task he undertook. In his funeral oration for Ludwig van Beethoven, Franz Grillparzer wrote that until the moment of his death the great composer ‘preserved a human heart for all men, a father's heart for his own people, the whole world.’ The musical children who treasured his paternal heart and the artistry that it enshrined understood that Asawa’s was a spirit that was easily wounded, not from weakness but from strength of integrity and perceptiveness.

I had the pleasure of making Asawa’s acquaintance during the planning of his most recent recording, Spirits of the Air, a beautiful disc on which he collaborated with mezzo-soprano Diana Tash in performances of music by Marco da Gagliano, Monteverdi, Purcell, Alessandro Scarlatti, and Händel. I found a message still in my inbox in which, in the context of an exchange about the disc’s repertory, he wrote to me, ‘Thank you for loving this music enough to support us coloring outside [of] the lines.’ This is precisely the sentiment that explains why Asawa was an artist of great significance: he loved music enough to follow wherever it led.

PERFORMANCE REVIEW: Richard Wagner — DER FLIEGENDE HOLLÄNDER (W. Tigges, C. Pier, P. Volpe, C. Bix, R. Pike, D. Blalock; Virginia Opera, 17 April 2016)

IN PERFORMANCE: Bass-baritone WAYNE TIGGES as Der Holländer (left) and soprano CHRISTINA PIER as Senta (right) in Virginia Opera's production of Richard Wagner's DER FLIEGENDE HOLLÄNDER, April 2016 [Photo by Lucid Frame Productions, © by Virginia Opera]RICHARD WAGNER (1813 – 1883): Der fliegende Holländer, WWV 63Wayne Tigges (Der Holländer), Christina Pier (Senta), Peter Volpe (Daland), Corey Bix (Erik), Rachelle Pike (Mary), David Blalock (Der Steuermann Dalands); Virginia Opera Chorus; Richmond Symphony Orchestra; Adam Turner, conductor and Chorus Master [Sara Widzer, Director; James Noone, Set Designer; Erik Teague, Costume Designer; Mark McCullough, Lighting Designer; James McGough, Wig and Makeup Designer; Felicity Stiverson, Choreographer; Virginia Opera, Richmond CenterStage, Carpenter Theatre, Dominion Arts Center, Richmond, Virginia; Sunday, 17 April 2016]

When Der fliegende Holländer premièred at Dresden’s Semperoper on 2 January 1843, Richard Wagner’s thirtieth birthday was slightly less than six months in future. Though already long in the musical tooth by the standards of Mozart and Mendelssohn, Wagner was hardly a novice, his career as a composer for the stage already encompassing several aborted operas and the completed scores Die Feen, never performed during the composer’s lifetime; Das Liebesverbot, suppressed after its first performance in 1836; and Rienzi, the sprawling tale of a Fourteenth-Century Roman tribune. Likely the opera composer about whom the most scholarly tomes and less-learned chronicles have been written, Wagner did much to cultivate his own mythology, lore that has expanded exponentially in the 133 years since the composer’s death in 1883. Whether by the composer’s or others’ designs, a tenet of the Wagner Legend is the notion that the composer of Tristan und Isolde, Der Ring des Nibelungen and Parsifal emerged like Athena from the head of Zeus, fully in command of his genre-changing genius. Said by the composer to have been inspired, at least in part, by a tempestuous sea voyage from Latvia to England, the culmination of a perilous flight from creditors during which his first wife Minna suffered a miscarriage, Der fliegende Holländer was adapted primarily from an episode in Heinrich Heine’s satirical novel Aus den Memoiren des Herrn von Schnabelewopski. Sketched by Wagner as early as Spring 1840, the opera was pitched to Léon Pillet, Director of the Opéra de Paris, to whom it is alleged that the nearly-destitute composer sold the scenario for 500 francs in order to raise much-needed funds. Even with nothing so convenient as a bill of sale surviving to substantiate the Opéra’s transaction with Wagner, who hoped that Paris might witness the première of a Fliegende Holländer en français, it can hardly be coincidence that Pierre-Louis Dietsch’s Le vaisseau fantôme, a setting of a libretto by Paul Foucher and Bénédict-Henri Révoil that closely followed Wagner’s proposed drama, was premièred at the Opéra in 1842. What needs no proof beyond what the ears can perceive is that Wagner’s style evolved momentously between the completion of Rienzi in November 1840 and his composition of the bulk of Der fliegende Holländer in Summer 1841. For Wagner and for German opera in general, Der fliegende Holländer was a point of no return. Anchored in Richmond’s historic Carpenter Theatre at Dominion Arts Center, Virginia Opera’s production of Der fliegende Holländer was a point of departure for a spellbinding journey through the score in which, in the sense of his development of the history-altering Gesamtkunstwerk, Wagner became Wagner.

Whether presented using Wagner’s intended through-composed structure or the more familiar three-act form and set in Scotland, Norway, or a real or imagined alternate locale, Der fliegende Holländer poses difficult questions that production teams must endeavor to answer. Offering the company’s second interpretation of the opera, Virginia Opera’s Fliegende Holländer revived a production by acclaimed director and designer Francesca Zambello that was created for The Glimmerglass Festival and later mounted by Hawaii Opera Theatre. Directed for Virginia Opera by Sara Widzer, the insights of Zambello’s concept were sharpened to razor’s-edge intensity, giving the relationships among characters—and the characters themselves—specificity that enhanced their inherent symbolism despite an over-reliance on imagery involving ropes, also a component of Zambello’s Metropolitan Opera production of Berlioz’s Les Troyens, and blocking that often seemed tentative and uncomfortable for the singers. Nevertheless, Senta thus became a determined, even humorous woman experiencing a sexual catharsis, as well as a manifestation of the archetypical ‘Eternal Feminine,’ the literal and spiritual vessel of the Holländer’s redemption. What Senta emphatically is not is a Brünnhilde without battle armor, and Widzer’s direction facilitated the development of a youthful, idealistic Senta with her own unique identities within the contexts of the performance and the Wagner canon. Erik Teague’s costume designs served the drama well but were less kind to the bodies that wore them. Jim McGough’s wigs and makeup were more successful at flattering both composer and cast, and Felicity Stiverson’s choreography infused the production with an organic range of motions to which the dancers—Dominique Buffington, Marcia Burns, Katie Henly, Maurio Hines, Kevin Jones, Nicole Lorah, Elliot Peterson, and Stiverson herself—mostly responded with unaffected movement. Though Richmond is a two-hour drive inland from the Atlantic, the achievements of set designer James Noone and lighting designer and implementer Mark McCullough and Serena Wong convincingly brought the sea to the stage, the relentless churning of the surf that resounds in Wagner’s music depicted in the production with an immediacy that heightened the drama’s emotional impact.

The musical challenges of Der fliegende Holländer are at least as terrifying as the opera’s scenic elements, and Virginia Opera’s production scaled the dangerous precipices of Wagner’s score on the sure footing of conductor and chorus master Adam Turner. At the helm of the Richmond Symphony Orchestra for the Richmond performances, Turner paced a traversal of the score in which gravitas occasionally outweighed momentum. Senta’s Ballade was slightly lugubrious, but there were notable benefits to the conductor’s approach. Allowed to expand without rushing, phrases often revealed beauties that remain hidden in speedier performances, and the singers were given the breadth and support that they needed to refine their characterizations. Turner’s conducting of the Ouvertüre ​had a depth that recalled the Wagner performances of Hans Knappertsbusch and Sir Reginald Goodall, the young maestro’s contrasted handling of the Allegro con brio, Andante, and Molto espressivo sections ideally balancing rhythmic tautness with unabashed Romanticism. The indebtedness of Wagner’s ensemble writing to Mozart, Beethoven, and Weber was especially apparent, and it was astonishing to note how closely the marvelous duet for Senta and the Holländer is related to the scene for newly-reunited father and daughter in Act One of Verdi’s Simon Boccanegra. The Richmond Symphony’s playing was little short of spectacular, the horns earning special praise for their near-perfect executions of their parts. Turner’s training of the Virginia Opera Chorus yielded choral singing that set a high standard with the first ‘Hojohe! Hallojo!’​ and maintained it throughout the performance, the quality of both voices and vocalism displayed by the tenors’ unbothered rise to top G in their opening phrase. Though falling victim to more rope-trick business and being asked to pop up and down in their chairs like citizens of a prairie dog town, the ladies were most impressive in ‘Summ’ und brumm’, du gutes Rädchen’ in the scene with Senta and Mary. Gentlemen and ladies sang powerfully in ‘Steuermann, laß die Wacht!’ and ‘Mein! Seht doch an!’ The foremost misjudgment of the afternoon was the garish over-amplification of the offstage singing of the Holländer’s crew. Presumably, the intended effect was an ethereal disembodiment of the voices, but it was overloud, ugly, and detrimental to enjoyment of the choristers’ expert work. This production of Der fliegende Holländer is Turner’s maiden voyage as a conductor of Wagner repertory, and the thoughtfulness and thorough preparation of this freshman outing suggest that he has exceptional promise as a Wagnerian.

It was wonderful to encounter in native New Zealander mezzo-soprano Rachelle Pike a Mary who was a foil for Senta who did not require the assistance of ear trumpets and walking canes. Age is one of opera’s confounding variables, but why so many productions dictate that Mary must sound like a crone is mystifying. Mary is no Ortrud, Venus, Brangäne, or Fricka, but she is a more significant presence in Der fliegende Holländer than many productions permit her to be. With her vibrant voicing of ‘Ei! Fleißig, fleißig! Wie sie spinnen will Jede sich den Schatz gewinnen,’ Pike enriched the scene at the start of Act Two—part of Act One in Virginia Opera’s production, which divided the opera into two acts, with the interval after Senta’s duet with the Holländer—with sounds that could be truly enjoyed, not merely endured. Her reading of ‘Das Schiffsvolk kommt mit leerem Magen’ was a taskmistress’s order that demanded obedience. Pike made Mary’s fear of the consequences of Senta’s obsession with the Holländer’s predicament palpable, her firm, musical singing far more effectively conveying the character’s panic than other singers’ shrewish wailing. Whatever a rôle’s duration, good singing always counts for much, and Virginia Opera had in Pike an uncommonly well-sung Mary. Whether she was intentionally costumed and posed whilst Daland introduced Senta to the Holländer to strongly resemble Whistler’s mother is a secret that this Holländer will take to Davy Jones’s Locker.

North Carolina-born tenor David Blalock was a Steuermann whose secure, sonorous singing reminded the listener that voices as beautiful as those of Ernst Haefliger, Anton Dermota, Fritz Wunderlich, and George Shirley were once heard in the rôle, both in opera houses and on disc. Blalock’s performance was a wonderful return to this tradition, his refined but robust vocalism seeming as capable of meeting the demands of Erik’s music as it was of making easy going of the Steuermann’s lines. In Act One, Blalock sang ‘Ho! Kapitän!’ with good-natured zeal, his G at the top of the stave easy and ringing. He phrased the Steuermann’s Lied, ‘Mit Gewitter und Sturm aus fernem Meer,’ with boyish charm, his golden top B♭ like a lover’s sigh. Later, his voicing of ‘’Sist nichts, ’sist nichts!’ and ‘Fürwahr! Tragst’s hin den armen Knaben!’ was delightfully confident. Like Pike’s Mary, Blalock’s Steuermann was a tremendous boon, a performance of leading-man quality in a rôle that in recent years has rarely received such treatment.

Wagner’s music for Erik, the conformist yokel who earnestly woos Senta and is a symbolic representative of the oppressive society from which she longs to escape, asked nothing of tenor Corey Bix that was not well within the scope of his capabilities. The tessitura that Erik faces is evident immediately upon his entrance, the first note that he sings being a top A, and Bix shrank from none of the rigors of ‘Senta! Willst du mich verderben?’ or the energetic duet with Senta, ‘Bleib’, Senta! Bleib’ nur einen Augenblick.’ In what is generally Act Three, Bix fired ‘Was mußt’ ich hören!’ like a warning shot from his hunting rifle, and the tenor’s performance of Erik’s Kavatine, ‘Willst jenes Tag’s du dich nicht mehr entsinnen,’ was distinguished by nimble negotiations of the turns and top B♭. Still, it was not difficult to discern why Senta so readily abandoned her dalliance with Erik in order to surrender to her fascination with the enigmatic Holländer: would any self-respecting lady with an adventurous imagination ally herself with a man whose every word is shouted at her? This is as much Wagner’s fault as the tenor’s, of course, but other singers—the young Sándor Kónya, for one—have deployed greater finesse in their performances of Erik’s music. Crucially, though, few of today’s Eriks sing the rôle as ably as Bix breathed life into his foursquare lines in Richmond.

Bass Peter Volpe’s sonorous, refreshingly uncomplicated Daland, as much a descendant of Rossini’s money-hungry Don Basilio as of Mozart’s Osmin and Beethoven’s Rocco, proffered in Virginia Opera’s Fliegende Holländer the levity that was surely a vital aspect of Wagner’s vision. The character’s untroubled spirit emanated from Volpe’s singing of ‘Kein Zweifel! Sieben Meilen fort trieb uns der Sturm von sich’ren Port’ and ‘He! Holla! Steuermann!’ His appetite for material gain whetted in the Duett with the Holländer, this Daland declaimed ‘Wie wunderbar! Soll deinem Wort ich glauben?’ with the exuberance of a card shark holding a winning hand. Glimpses of a more serious facet of Daland’s brassy demeanor flickered through Volpe’s singing of the aria ‘Mögst du, mein Kind, den fremden Mann willkommen heißen,’ his voice glowing more brightly than the cask of riches laid before him by the Holländer. His function in the brief Terzett with Senta and Holländer amounted to little more than anchoring a few chords, but Volpe did even that with panache. Ending the opera with Senta asphyxiating herself—a final use of the rope motif and here one with an unsavory hint of autoeroticism—was one of the production’s rare disfiguring misfires, but having Daland gently caress Senta’s lifeless hand as the curtain descended, the first and ultimately sole gesture of genuine affection between father and daughter in the performance, was surprisingly moving. Volpe’s voice was audible throughout the range of the music, and this Daland’s cheery disposition—no careworn old sea dog, this fellow!—shone as luminously when he was silent as when he sang.

American soprano Christina Pier, a winner of the Metropolitan Opera’s prestigious National Council Auditions and a student of the acclaimed Romanian soprano Virginia Zeani, herself an unexpectedly effective heroine in performances of Der fliegende Holländer sung in Italian, proved a Senta with nothing to fear from comparisons with the great Sentas of previous generations. Unlike many of her colleagues who now sing the rôle, Pier possesses a voice of dimensions equal to Senta’s music, her upper register focused and utterly reliable but also skillfully integrated with the bottom octave of the voice. Moreover, Pier is an expressive artist who communicates more than words, pitches, and rhythms. Singing ‘Was hast du Kunde mir gegeben’ inwardly, Pier was from the start a Senta trapped between fantasy and dreary reality. Battling a slow tempo, Pier conjured an atmosphere of near-ecstatic concentration in the Ballade, ‘Jo ho hoe! Traft ihr das Schiff.’ In the piece’s Più lento section, ‘Doch kann dem bleichen Manne Erlösung einstens noch werden,’ her voice radiated girlish purity, the profusion of Gs at the top of the stave mastered unflinchingly. The soprano’s Senta grew ever more agitated and justifiably frustrated in the Duett with Erik, but her singing of the Lento ‘Fühlst du den Schmerz, den tiefen Gram, mit dem herab auf mich er sieht?’ was shaped by a beautifully-extended bel canto line. Her patience finally failed her in the Allegro con fuoco section, ‘Er sucht mich auf,’ and she lashed at the guileless Erik with a mighty top A. The dramatic temperature of Senta’s pivotal Duett with the Holländer was elevated markedly by Pier’s incandescent voicing of ‘Versank ich jetzt in wunderbares Träumen,’ the ecstatic top Bs igniting the dark surroundings like Saint Elmo’s fire. Confronted by conventionality one last time, this Senta was passive, even indifferent in the brief Duett with Erik preceding his Kavatine. Observed with Erik by the Holländer, who mistakes her rejection of the huntsman for tenderness, Pier explained Senta’s actions with a scorching performance of ‘Halt’ ein! Von dannen sollst du nimmer flieh’n!’ Forever joining her fate with that of the Holländer, Senta has her own Liebestod in miniature, and Pier sang ‘Preis’ deinen Engel und sein Gebot!’ with astounding singularity of purpose and phenomenal top As and B. The scarcity of dramatic voices among today’s singers is often—and justifiably—lamented, especially by earnest Wagnerians, but Sentas of the quality that Pier accomplished in Richmond are neither more nor less plentiful now than when Kirsten Flagstad sang Senta in Covent Garden’s 1937 Coronation Season or when Astrid Varnay interpreted her at the MET in 1950 and 1951 and at Bayreuth in 1955, 1956, and 1959. Singing such as Pier’s is always a precious commodity. That she was not as convincing dramatically as she was dominant musically was the result of a staging that needlessly highlighted her minor weaknesses rather than exploiting her considerable strengths, but Virginia Opera can rightly boast of having offered audiences a sensational, once-in-a-generation Senta.

Having heard bass-baritone Wayne Tigges’s smug, slyly menacing Assur in Waahington Concert Opera’s November 2015 performance of Rossini’s Semiramide [reviewed here], it was difficult to believe that the same artist sang the Holländer in Richmond. It was the same imposing, sinewy voice, of course, but the snarling mettle of the singer’s Assur here metamorphosed into an engrossing vulnerability. From the first hushed notes of his Act One aria ‘Die Frist ist um,’ this Holländer was plainly a broken man but very much a man, not a phantom. The thunderous power of Tigges’ voice was unleashed in the Allegro molto agitato section, ‘Wie oft in Meeres tiefsten Schlund stürtz’ ich voll Sehnsucht mich hinab: doch ach! den Tod, ich fand ihn nicht,’ the bass-baritone weathering the repeated ascents to top E♭ with the dependability of the tide. In the wake of such vocal muscularity, the heartrending sadness of Tigges’ articulation of the Maestoso ‘Dich frage ich, gepries’ner Engel Gottes’ was stunning and all the more profound. The sheer exhaustion of the Holländer’s beleaguered spirit weighted the singer’s heartfelt delivery of ‘Weit komm’ ich her: verwehrt bei Sturm und Wetter ihr mir den Ankerplatz?’ In the Duett with Daland, Tigges voiced ‘Durch Sturm und bösen Wind verschlagen’ with guarded elation, his hope returning with the prospect of winning Senta’s hand. Meeting the cause of his renewed optimism, he sang ‘Wie aus der Ferne längst vergangner Zeiten spricht dieses Mädchens Bild zu mir’ in the Duett with Senta with touching amazement, recognizing in the naïve young woman before him traits unknown even to a soul forced to endlessly wander the earth. In the Duett’s Molto più section, Tigges uttered ‘Du bist ein Engel!’ with grave beauty of tone, giving voice to the Holländer’s anticipation of his long-awaited rebirth. Finding Senta in Erik’s arms in the penultimate scene, the magnitude of Tigges’s singing of ‘Verloren! Ach! verloren!’ was transfixing not because of the character’s capacity for violence but owing to the bitterness of his despair. Revealing the Holländer’s true identity, which only Senta had truly grasped, Tigges flung out the text of ‘Erhahre das Geschick, vor dem ich dich bewahr’!’ breathtakingly. Tigges had at his disposal the full measure of brute force that the scale of the Holländer’s music necessitates, but his performance was most remarkable for the poignantly suffering man that he created beneath the Holländer’s ghastly persona. It is unusual that a Holländer impresses as much with beauty as with brawn, but, like Hans Hotter, Friedrich Schorr, and Josef Metternich before him, Tigges’s portrayal of the Holländer was guided by the humanity with which Wagner imbued this most emotionally ephemeral of his heroes.

Der fliegende Holländer was a milestone in Wagner’s career and in the progress of German opera from the work of Baroque master Reinhard Keiser to the scores of modern composers like Hans Werner Henze and Aribert Reimann. In the pages of Der fliegende Holländer, Wagner not only paved the way for his later masterpieces but also provided a tangible connection between Teutonic styles old and new. As it was when the company first staged the opera in 1996, this production of Der fliegende Holländer is likewise a milestone in Virginia Opera’s continuing dedication to bringing world-class opera to the Old Dominion. Sunday’s performance was a celebration of collaborative music making that reaffirmed that even in the metaphysical realm of Wagner’s operas voices eclipse vanities.

IN PERFORMANCE: Bass-baritone WAYNE TIGGES as Der Holländer in Virginia Opera’s production of Richard Wagner’s DER FLIEGENDE HOLLÄNDER, April 2016 [Photo by Lucid Frame Productions, © by Virginia Opera]Heil, Holländer: Bass-baritone Wayne Tigges as Der Holländer in Virginia Opera’s production of Richard Wagner’s Der fliegende Holländer, April 2016 [Photo by Lucid Frame Productions, © by Virginia Opera]

15 April 2016

PERFORMANCE REVIEW: Ruggero Leoncavallo — PAGLIACCI & Sergei Rachmaninov — ALEKO (J. Gwaltney, E. Caballero, G. Guagliardo, A. Lavrov, J. Karn, I. Mishura, K. Thompson; Opera Carolina, 14 April 2016)

IN PERFORMANCE: a scene from Opera Carolina's production of Sergi Rachmaninoff's ALEKO, part of a double bill with Ruggero Leoncavallo's PAGLIACCI, April 2016 [Photo by jonsilla.com, © by Opera Carolina][1] RUGGERO LEONCAVALLO (1857 – 1919): PagliacciJeff Gwaltney (Canio), Elizabeth Caballero (Nedda), Giovanni Guagliardo (Tonio), Alexey Lavrov (Silvio), Jason Karn (Beppe)

[2] SERGEI RACHMANINOV (1873 – 1943): Aleko (Алеко) [AMERICAN PREMIÈRE PRODUCTION]—Alexey Lavrov (Aleko), Elizabeth Caballero (Zemfira), Kevin Thompson (Zemfira’s Father), Irina Mishura (Old Gypsy), Jason Karn (Young Gypsy); Opera Carolina Chorus; Charlotte Symphony Orchestra; James Meena, conductor [Michael Capasso, Director; Michael Baumgarten, Lighting Design; Martha Ruskai, Wig and Makeup Designs; Kara Wooten, Fight Coordinator; AT Jones and Sons, Inc., Costume Designs; Opera Carolina, Belk Theater, Blumenthal Performing Arts Center, Charlotte, North Carolina; Thursday, 14 April 2016]

Whether among artists, works, performances, or productions, many relationships in the Performing Arts are founded upon far more tenuous connections than those between Ruggero Leoncavallo’s frequently-performed 1892 verismo potboiler Pagliacci and Sergei Rachmaninov’s prize-winning but considerably less-familiar Aleko of the same year. With stories of ill-fated marriages and infidelities in communities with social strata that isolate them from broader humanity, both operas depict environments in which intellectual, spiritual, and sensual oppression explode in life-altering—and life-ending—series of events. Recalling Metropolitan Opera productions in the first half of the Twentieth Century that paired unlikely bedfellows like Puccini’s Gianni Schicchi and Richard Strauss’s Salome, Opera Carolina’s production of Pagliacci and Aleko celebrated the thematic links between the scores without attempting to force the music into manufactured stylistic bonds. Perhaps the boldest innovation of Opera Carolina’s efforts was the astute but unaffected scrutiny of how homologous situations are portrayed by vastly different cultures. Though both scores were first performed in the same year, its setting and, to an extent, Rachmaninov’s music give Aleko the provenance of an earlier work, and performing Aleko as the first half of the evening handily increased appreciation of the competing evolution and devolution of societal attitudes towards morality and violence. As is almost always the case with Opera Carolina performances, however, one could simply bask in the profusion of beautiful sounds that poured from both stage and pit. These are the relationships, those among voices and instruments, that make operatic evenings in Charlotte so memorable.

Thoughtfully directed by Michael Capasso with close attention to both the similarities and the differences between the scores, Opera Carolina’s production—the first fully-staged presentation of Rachmaninov’s opera in the United States—went a step further than most productions of the traditional pairing of Pagliacci and Cavalleria rusticana by essentially uniting Leoncavallo’s and Rachmaninov’s scores as unexpectedly symmetrical halves of a single entity, much in the manner of Leonard Bernstein’s A Quiet Place, originally performed as a double bill with his Trouble in Tahiti, in its final, three-act form absorbing the earlier work. Rather than stand-alone works punctuated by Intermezzi, Pagliacci and Aleko therefore became acts in a continuous drama, separated by an interval but clearly invested with common musical and dramatic impetus. That the concept was successful was confirmed by the cumulative momentum that was generated in the opening bars of Rachmaninov’s music and maintained until the playing of the final chords of Leoncavallo’s score. Enhanced by richly evocative costume designs by Baltimore-based AT Jones and Sons, Inc. and lighting designs of the acumen expected from Michael Baumgarten, the sharply-contrasted but wholly complementary stagings of Aleko and Pagliacci spotlit the potent common ground upon which these gripping operas tread.

It is easy to make too much of the fact that Rachmaninov composed Aleko as an exercise for his matriculation from Moscow’s famed Conservatory and thus to dismiss or misunderstand the opera solely as a student work. That the opera is the work of a student cannot be denied, but Aleko is no product of dry academia. It is interesting to note that Tchaikovsky was in the audience for the première of Aleko at the Moscow Conservatory on 19 May 1892: he is certain to have noticed the prominent influence of his Yevgeny Onegin and Pikovaya dama, both sharing with Aleko roots in the work of Alexander Pushkin, in Rachmaninov’s music. Though not fully bearing the imprint of Rachmaninov’s singular mature style, Aleko makes extraordinary demands on principals, choristers, orchestra, and conductor, and Opera Carolina’s performance met these demands with universal finesse. In the opera’s Introduction, the company’s General Director and Principal Conductor James Meena revealed anew why he is such an integral component of Opera Carolina’s success, bolstering the cast’s work with momentous but always supportive conducting that displayed attention both to details of individual scenes and to the construction of each opera—and the presentation of both operas—as a whole.

From the opening bars of the Gypsies’ chorus, ‘Как вольность весел наш ночлет и мирный сон под небесами, между колесами телег, полузавешанных коврами,’ the Opera Carolina Chorus proved that their singing of Russian text is in no way inferior to their red-blooded declamations of Italian and German in recent productions of Turandot and Fidelio. The narratives of this and all of the choral interjections in Aleko were handled expertly, making the structure of the free-willed society into which Aleko has been adopted apparent to the audience.

Heard at Opera Carolina for the first time in this production, bass Kevin Thompson recounted the Old Gypsy’s Tale, ‘Волшебной силой песнопенья в туманной памяти моей вдруг оживляются виденья то светлых, то печальных дней,’ with gravitas and solid, impactful tone that rushed through the theatre like a bracing wind from the steppes. In the Moderato espressivo section, he braved the repeated Cs at the top of the stave and the galvanizing top E♭ without the slightest hint of stress, and his timbre when singing Russian vowels combined the resonance of George London with the tonal orotundity of Mark Reizen. Mourning the murdered Zemfira in the opera’s final scene, Thompson plunged below the stave to the kind of primal sound that one associates with Russian Orthodox monastic chanting. With recent political developments in North Carolina prominent in nationwide discourse, it was impossible not to attribute to Thompson’s muscular declamation of the line stating that the gypsies make no cruel laws an artistic plea for acceptance and understanding. The only regret inspired by Thompson’s singing was that Leoncavallo did not provide the bass with a suitable rôle in Pagliacci.

IN PERFORMANCE: Baritone ALEXEY LAVROV as Aleko (left) and soprano ELIZABETH CABALLERO as Zemfira (right) in Opera Carolina’s production of Sergei Rachmaninov’s ALEKO, April 2016 [Photo by jonsilla.com, © by Opera Carolina]Муж и жена: Baritone Alexey Lavrov as Aleko (left) and soprano Elizabeth Caballero as Zemfira (right) in Opera Carolina’s production of Sergei Rachmaninov’s Aleko, April 2016 [Photo by jonsilla.com, © by Opera Carolina]

In Aleko’s scene with chorus, ‘Да как же ты не поспешил тотчас вослед неблагодарной и хищнику и ей, коварной, кинжала в сердце не вонзил,’ strikingly handsome young baritone Alexey Lavrov scaled the heights of his music’s high tessitura with every appearance of comfort. Singing and acting with conviction throughout the performance, he was an Aleko whose alienation within the gypsy fraternity was palpable and whose musicality throughout the compass of the part was unimpeachable.

Fronting the respective women’s and men’s dances, Marina Shanefelter and Alexandr Buryak offered splendid approximations of authentic folk dances from the Caucasus region, temporarily transporting the Charlotte audience some miles to the northwest to the venues of Folkmoot, North Carolina’s annual international dance festival. Their invigorating dancing was followed by the chorus’s riveting singing of the gypsies’ ‘Огни погашены.’

In the brief but impassioned duettino for the Young Gypsy and Zemfira, tenor Jason Karn and Opera Carolina débutante soprano Elizabeth Caballero sang fantastically, Karn infusing ‘Еще одно, одно лобзанье!’ with ardor and soaring to top C with panache and vocal abandon. In Zemfira’s cradle scene, Caballero voiced ‘Старый муж, грозный муж, режь меня, жги меня: я тверда, не боюсь ни ножа, ни огня’ arrestingly, negotiating the repeated top B♭s with apt freedom. Reflecting on his loss of his wife’s love, Lavrov sang Aleko’s cavatina, ‘Бесь табор спит. Луна над ним полночной красотою блещет,’ with an exemplary adherence to a bel canto line even in the music’s most exacting passages. The young baritone’s vocal security suffused his performance of the cavatina with suavity, lending credibility to his portrayal of Aleko as a virile man still viable as a combatant in the battle for Zemfira’s affection.

Meena lavished near-Wagnerian grandeur on his conducting of the Intermezzo, matched by the orchestra’s sumptuous playing. Then, singing from the wings, Karn intoned the Young Gypsy’s Romance, ‘Взгляни: под отдаленным сводом гуляет вольная луна,’ handsomely, effortlessly projecting the extended top A and and a beautiful B♭. Joined by Zemfira in the frenzied duet ‘Пора, мой милый, пора,’ Karn’s and Caballero’s voices intertwined with blistering amatory tension broken only by the slashing of Aleko’s blade. Defying her husband to the end, Caballero’s Zemfira died hurling bitter reproaches with her final breath. The gypsies’ plaintive ‘О чем шумят?’ and ‘Мы робки и добры душой,’ eloquently sung by the chorus, suggested that Zemfira’s adulterous spirit, an inherited trait, rendered her as much an outcast within her own community as Aleko: her death at her husband’s hand was the fulfillment of the destiny of which her adopted father sang when recounting the dolorous tale of his own jilting by Zemfira’s mother. The care expended on this production of Aleko was confirmed by the casting of an artist of the calibre of Russian mezzo-soprano Irina Mishura in the small but pivotal rôle of the Gypsy Woman, whose lines Mishura sang with resilient authority. Lavrov’s voicing of Aleko’s final lament of again finding himself alone, unloved and unwanted, the character bathed in soft light as he gazed sadly out into the house, surrounded by people but insurmountably separated from them, was heartbreaking. He lived but was in spirit no less dead than the victims of his jealousy at his feet.

IN PERFORMANCE: Baritone GIOVANNI GUAGLIARDO as Tonio (left) and soprano ELIZABETH CABALLERO as Nedda (right) in Opera Carolina’s production of Ruggero Leoncavallo’s PAGLIACCI, April 2016 [Photo by jonsilla.com, © by Opera Carolina]Ecco la commedia: Baritone Giovanni Guagliardo as Tonio (left) and soprano Elizabeth Caballero as Nedda (right) in Opera Carolina’s production of Ruggero Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci, April 2016 [Photo by jonsilla.com, © by Opera Carolina]

In Pagliacci’s celebrated Prologo, the Charlotte audience made the acquaintance of the chameleonic, dangerous Tonio of Italian baritone Giovanni Guagliardo, a singer born into the tradition of Apollo Granforte, Aldo Protti, Tito Gobbi, and Ettore Bastianini. Voicing ‘Si può? Si può? Signore! Signori!’ with mock chivalry, Guagliardo started the performance auspiciously, his singing of ‘Un nido di memorie in fondo a l’anima cantava un giorno’ pulsating with artistic wonder. In the melodically fecund Andante cantabile, ‘E voi, piuttosto che le nostre povere gabbane d’istrioni,’ the baritone’s voice glowed. His rise to the traditional top G was strained, and he wisely omitted the A♭, also an interpolation: Leoncavallo’s wisdom should more often prevail, excluding these notes that bring so many singers to grief unnecessarily. Throughout Pagliacci, though, Guagliardo’s singing was an asset, the character’s jealous viciousness emerging with the power of Verdi’s Iago’s manipulation of Otello as the catalyst for the unstoppable chain reaction that ultimately leads to tragedy.

Welcoming Canio and his Commedia dell’arte troupe to the unspecified provincial town in which the opera’s drama, here transplanted into the 1950s, plays out, the chorus sang ‘Son qua!’ excitingly and received in reply from tenor Jeff Gwaltney’s flinty Canio an equally pulse-quickening statement of ‘Itene al diavolo,’ his top G♯ a thrilling tone. The contrast with fellow tenor Jason Karn’s Beppe facilitated distinguishing the characters’ utterances, but Karn’s voice was more substantial than those of many of his rivals in Beppe’s music. He voiced ‘To! To! birichino’ energetically and with obvious humor. Gwaltney’s account of Canio’s ‘Un grande spettacolo a ventitrè ore’ was a captivating sales pitch for his company’s show, but here and in the duration of the performance the voice was often weak when strength counted most. Guagliardo’s menacing delivery of Tonio’s ‘La pagherai! brigante!’ was wonderful and established a mood of disquiet before Canio’s Adagio molto con grande espressione ‘Un tal gioco, credetemi,’ which Gwaltney phrased with emotion and crowned with a steady top A. Giving telling dramatic significance to Nedda’s ‘Confusa io son,’ Caballero was from the start a figure who was clearly out of place among the rough-hewn Canio and Tonio. Dissolving the atmosphere of Canio’s reverie, Gwaltney fired off the reprise of ‘A ventitrè ore’ with steely resolve. The choristers ended the scene with a grand reading of the Chorus of the Bells, rousingly pealing out the distinctive rhythms of the Andantino grazioso ‘Don Din Don.’

With her electric singing of the Andante con moto ‘Qual fiamma avea nel guardo,’ Caballero announced herself as a Nedda in the now-little-remembered tradition of Clara Petrella and Aureliana Beltrami. The Ballatella, ‘Hui! Hui!...Stridono lassù liberamente lanciati a vol,’ a number that defeats many otherwise well-qualified singers, held no terrors for Caballero, her trills and long-held top A♯ disclosing the benefits of a solid bel canto technique in verismo music. In the chilling duet with Tonio, Caballero’s Nedda attempted to maintain a light touch, her vocalism in ‘Sei là? credea che te ne fossi andato!’ buoyant but infused with expressive depth. Trying to woo Nedda with even less skill for it than Beckmesser in Wagner’s Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg possesses, Guagliardo exhibited admirable restraint in ‘È colpa del tuo canto,’ but there was genuine feeling—and a genuine line—in his delivery of the Cantabile sostenuto ‘So ben che difforme, contorto son io.’ Caballero’s Nedda quashed Tonio’s advances with fury in a voicing of the Sostenuto assai ‘Hai tempo a ridirmelo stassera, se brami!’ that bristled with scorn and horror. This was all the more visceral as the soprano’s beautiful face registered pity for her would-be suitor before his violence hardened her heart. The scene also yielded a bit of practical advice for any Tonio who encounters her Nedda in future: Caballero wields a whip with the unerring aim of Annie Oakley.

In the magnificent duet for Nedda and Silvio, Caballero was reunited with Lavrov, now singing Leoncavallo’s music as opulently as he interpreted Rachmaninov’s difficult music for Aleko. Caballero’s deliberate enunciation of ‘Silvio! a quest’ora che imprudenza!’ quaked with fear, but her trepidation was calmed by the plangent vocalism of her Silvio. Lavrov phrased the Andantino amoroso ‘Decidi il mio destin’ with moving simplicity, his top notes unfailingly on their marks but organically integrated into the vocal line. In Silvio’s arms, Nedda was transformed from a frumpy, barefoot housewife into a vibrantly erotic creature yearning to be an object of desire rather than possession. Caballero and Lavrov combined their voices hypnotically: in this performance, the couple failing to notice Tonio spying on their lovemaking was wholly credible, particularly as Guagliardo was careful to lurk and eventually guide Canio to the scene of the lovers’ rendezvous without creating a commotion. The score leaves no doubt that Leoncavallo sympathized with Nedda’s and Silvio’s illicit love: singing their duet so mesmerizingly, Caballero and Silvio engaged the audience’s hearts, too.

IN PERFORMANCE: Tenor JEFF GWALTNEY as Canio in Opera Carolina's production of Ruggero Leoncavallo's PAGLIACCI, April 2016 [Photo by jonsilla.com, © by Opera Carolina]Ridi, Pagliaccio: Tenor Jeff Gwaltney as Canio in Opera Carolina’s production of Ruggero Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci, April 2016 [Photo by jonsilla.com, © by Opera Carolina]

Beginning with a pained but poetic articulation of the recitative ‘Recitar! Mentre presso dal delirio non so più quel che dico e quel che faccio,’ Gwaltney approached Canio’s oft-abused Adagio arioso ‘Vesti la giubba e la faccia infarina’ with dignity befitting a dedicated thespian. Eschewing the bawling, shouting, and face-pulling that push many tenors’ performances of the scene into the realm of parody, Gwaltney phrased ‘Ridi, Pagliaccio, sul tuo amere infranto!’ with musical and dramatic integrity, preserving the flow of the melodic line even in his ascents to the top As, which were projected with greater ease than his earlier excursions into the upper register. Still, there was a measure of caution apparent in his singing. Perhaps the season’s pernicious allergies were hounding him. Nevertheless, he gave a fine performance of one of opera’s most familiar scenes.

Like its cousin in Aleko, Pagliacci’s Intermezzo was played superbly by the Charlotte Symphony, and Meena’s mastery of the endangered art of rubato was put to use in his pacing of the restatement in the Intermezzo of the lyrical theme from the opera’s Prologue. In both Aleko and Pagliacci, the Symphony’s playing was exemplary, exceeding even the ensemble’s own high standards in previous Opera Carolina productions. The musicians’ performances of both scores in Thursday evening’s double bill were distinguished by lushly Romantic but controlled string figurations, virtually blemish-free brass playing, and rhythmic vitality that wrung every iota of dramatic sagacity from Meena’s well-considered, propulsive tempi.

In Leoncavallo’s Act Two, the choristers again set the stage for the drama to come, articulating ‘Presto! Presto affrettiamoci’ with unstinting immediacy and anticipation. Launching her troupe’s light-hearted commedia, Caballero’s Nedda purred and posed delightfully in Colombina’s ‘Pagliaccio, mio marito a tarda nottoe sol ritornerà,’ and Karns crooned Arlecchino’s serenata, ‘O Colombina, il tenero fido Arlecchin è a te vicin,’ elastically. In the scena comica between Colombina and Taddeo, Guagliardo bawled ‘Dei, come è bella!’ with the grace of a stampeding herd of oxen. Caballero was the embodiment of overripe feminine charm in the Tempo di Gavotta, ‘Guarda, amor mio, che splendida cenetta preparai,’ sweetly flirting with Arlecchino in her guise as Colombina. Even before he uttered his first words, it was evident that Canio was not in character as Pagliaccio: his anger exacerbated by frequent draughts from his flask, Canio’s rage was in search of an outlet. Gwaltney roared the Andante mosso ‘Vo’ il nome de l’amante tuo,’ but there was intense sadness beneath the damning ire in his well-sung ‘No! Pagliaccio non son,’ his top A♭s firm and on pitch. Gwaltney’s finest singing of the evening was in the Cantabile ‘Sperai, tanto il delirio accecato m’aveva,’ which the tenor negotiated with vigor despite ducking the written top B♭. His burly bullying was answered by Caballero’s fearless top Bs when refusing to reveal Silvio’s identity. Gwaltney pronounced Canio’s ‘La commedia è finita’ not so much to the audience as to himself, succinctly drawing a parallel with Aleko in the sense that even in his murderous savagery he loved his wife. The most profound tragedy of this Pagliacci was that Canio’s brutality was not the product of a moment of demented choler but the sole culmination of a troubled relationship perceptible to a mind bent by jealousy.

Opera Carolina productions often succeed in provoking through without ignoring musical values, and the company’s double bill of Aleko and Pagliacci further expanded the practical efficacy of using opera as a tool to excavate the foundations upon which contemporary artistic and social trends are fabricated. The compelling truth at the heart of this performance of Aleko and Pagliacci was that violence is perpetrated not only by weapons but also, often more destructively, by words and emotions. By casting the production’s foremost vocal powerhouses, Elizabeth Caballero and Alexey Lavrov, as both Rachmaninov’s Zemfira and Aleko and Leoncavallo’s Nedda and Silvio, Opera Carolina accentuated the poignancy with which universal sentiments are refracted through the wondrous prism of music.

IN PERFORMANCE: Tenor JEFF GWALTNEY as Canio (left) and soprano ELIZABETH CABALLERO as Nedda (right) in Opera Carolina's production of Ruggero Leoncavallo's PAGLIACCI, April 2016 [Photo by jonsilla.com, © by Opera Carolina]Finzione non più: Tenor Jeff Gwaltney as Canio (left) and soprano Elizabeth Caballero as Nedda (right) in Opera Carolina’s production of Ruggero Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci, April 2016 [Photo by jonsilla.com, © by Opera Carolina]

11 April 2016

PERFORMANCE REVIEW: Giuseppe Verdi — LA TRAVIATA (A. Cofield Williamson, D. Vania, L. Hernandez, C. Dirlikov Canales, T. MacMartin; Opera Roanoke, 10 April 2016)

IN PERFORMANCE: a scene from Opera Roanoke's production of Giuseppe Verdi's LA TRAVIATA, April 2016 [Photo by Scott Williamson; used with permission]GIUSEPPE VERDI (1813 – 1901): La traviataAmy Cofield Williamson (Violetta Valéry), Dinyar Vania (Alfredo Germont), Levi Hernandez (Giorgio Germont), Carla Dirlikov Canales (Flora Bervoix), Jason Nichols (Gastone), Tatiana MacMartin (Annina), Jack Chandler (Il dottore Grenvil), Tadd Sipes (Il marchese d’Obigny), Robb Zahm (Il barone Douphol), Zach Helms (Giuseppe), Hayden Keefer (Un commissionario); Opera Roanoke Chorus; Roanoke Symphony Orchestra; Scott Williamson, conductor and Stage Director [Aurelien Eulert, Chorus Master; Jimmy Ray Ward, Set Designer; Pedro Szalay, Choreographer; Dante Olivia Smith, Lighting Designer; Audrey Hamilton-Shelton, Costume Director; Beckie Kravetz, Wigs and Makeup; Joey Neighbors, Technical Director; Opera Roanoke, Shaftman Performance Hall, Jefferson Center, Roanoke, Virginia; Sunday, 10 April 2016]

It is said that familiarity breeds contempt, but the fact that an opera’s popularity in many cases equates with critical dismissal and connoisseurs’ disdain defies easy logic. There are of course acknowledged masterpieces with particular requirements that put them beyond the grasps of many opera companies: musicians’ unions’ caps on hours worked make scores of extended durations like Berlioz’s Les Troyens impractical, scoring like Messiaen’s writing for ondes Martenot in Saint François d’Assise precludes performances by virtually all standard-repertory-centric companies, and the necessity of selling tickets relegates some of the Twentieth and Twenty-First Centuries’ finest scores to collecting dust on library shelves. Far removed from these extremes, the frequency with which Giuseppe Verdi’s La traviata is performed in opera houses from Minsk to Montréal leaves no doubt about the place that the score occupies in audiences’ affections, but what can explain the continued critical contempt for an opera described by W. J. Henderson in The New York Times as long ago as 1892, on the occasion of a Metropolitan Opera revival featuring Adelina Patti as the consumptive protagonist, as ‘so hackneyed a work’? When La traviata premièred at Venice’s Teatro La Fenice on 6 March 1853, the opera’s plot could rightfully have been advertised as ‘ripped from the headlines.’ Marie Duplessis, the inspiration for the heroine of Verdi’s and his librettist Francesco Maria Piave’s sources, Alexandre Dumas fils’s novel and play La Dame aux camélias, had been dead for only six years. So fresh was the subject that the Venetian censors objected to the indiscretion of recreating Duplessis’s milieu upon the La Fenice stage, necessitating the relocation of Verdi’s and Piave’s Violetta Valéry to the Eighteenth Century, pre-Revolution courtesans having presumably been more palatable than contemporary ones. Objections of this sort no longer troubling efforts to bring La traviata to the stage and the appeal of Verdi’s music having long been acknowledged, perhaps the disconnect that exists between the opera and scholarly opinion that declares La traviata a work of sentimental excess results from critical ears never having heard the music performed with the dramatic sensitivity with which Verdi treated the opera’s subject. If this seems ridiculous considering the frequency with which La traviata is performed, so does the idea that the opera is anything other than a treasure of the repertory. Captivatingly staged in the Jefferson Center’s Shaftman Performance Hall, Opera Roanoke’s production of La traviata approached the opera not as a well-roasted chestnut sure to reap box office success but as an intimate, often wrenching exploration of the collisions of three lives. The power of Verdi’s music is undeniable, but, whereas audiences often shed tears for the dying Violetta in spite of the quality of what they see and hear, the Roanoke audience enjoyed a Traviata that broke the heart because it first made it swell with the joy of witnessing a performance that made Violetta’s life as engrossing as her death.

Many productions of La traviata seem to forget that it is an opera in which people are required to sing, cluttering the stage with pseudo-cinematic effects that distract both singers and audiences from the development of characters and the relationships among them. With all of its theatricality stripped away, La traviata is a disarmingly simple story: a parent’s good-intentioned but misguided intervention separates earnest lovers who are reunited only after it is too late. With the clean lines of Jimmy Ray Ward’s sets perceptively lit by Dante Olivia Smith’s lighting designs, Opera Roanoke’s production focused not on creating flashy technicolor tableaux but on placing Violetta and Germonts père and fils in settings in which their thoughts and feelings were as obvious to the audience as the words that they sang. Technical Director Joey Neighbors’s efforts ensured that the production sang as effectively as the voices. Costume Director Audrey Hamilton-Shelton put her Shakespearean credentials to good use with designs for La traviata that established finite settings but lent major and minor characters individuality. The betrousered Violetta of the critical exchanges with Giorgio Germont in Act Two was the epitome of fashionable country gentry, and the vibrant, primary-color attire for the opera’s public scenes—Act One and Flora’s ball in the second scene of Act Two—illustrated the social orders with which the protagonists are at odds. The authentically Spanish costumes for the gypsies and matadors ideally complemented the choreography for the dance episodes at Flora’s ball, brilliantly realized by Pedro Szalay, Artistic Director of Southwest Virginia Ballet. He and his troupe of fellow dancers—Sabrina Borneff, Olivia Bowers, Joey D’Alelio, Eric McIntyre, Maria Parnell, and Olivia Scott—moved with mesmerizing fluidity, but their pantomime doubling of Violetta and Alfredo, expressing in dance sentiments that are omnipresent but not enacted, was too much of a good thing: it was clever and often lovely to behold but unnecessarily lured the eyes away from the singers. Hamilton-Shelton’s and Szalay’s endeavors were enhanced by the wigs and makeup of renowned sculptor Beckie Kravetz, whose special understanding of facial contours and the physiological mechanism of singing yielded artful but unobtrusive creations. Placing the action in the entre-deux-guerres years, the production poignantly highlighted the timelessness of the opera’s central themes of love and loss.

Looking back to the era in which Dame Joan Sutherland’s Violetta was frequently guided by the conducting of her husband, Richard Bonynge, this legacy of Traviata ‘spousal privilege’ often engendered performances of well-coordinated musicality. Though the Australian Maestro is a thoughtful musician and a brilliant conductor of ballet, Opera Roanoke’s Artistic Director Scott Williamson is a more natural inhabitant of the opera house podium. Here presiding over his wife’s interpretation of Violetta, Williamson looked deeply into the score and extracted details that are often and easily overlooked. Aided by the generally praiseworthy playing of the Roanoke Symphony Orchestra, Williamson’s pacing of the performance was shaped by commitment to fidelity to Verdi’s score and discernment of how best to support the cast’s collective effort to make this an uncommonly satisfying Traviata. There were moments of unsteadiness from the Symphony’s strings and a few stray pitches from the brasses. Likewise, coordination between stage and pit was occasionally compromised, but the conductor quickly righted wrongs and maintained momentum that gave the drama necessary cumulative sweep. The performance’s strengths consistently outweighed its minor weaknesses, and Williamson’s conducting provided a top-quality canvas upon which the opera’s scenes were painted.

One of the performance’s most reliable strengths was the choral singing. Led by Chorus Master Aurelien Eulert, the Opera Roanoke Chorus made a robust showing in Act One despite the relative sparsity of their numbers, the ladies singing especially strongly and looking stunning as Flappers at Violetta’s party. In Flora’s ball in the second scene of Act Two, the ladies were again on grand form in the gypsies’ chorus, ‘Noi siamo zingarelle venute da lontano.’ The singing of the gentlemen of the chorus was less impressive than that of their female counterparts, but they delivered a rousingly masculine account of the matadors’ number, ‘Di Madride [bizarrely changed to Mexico in the production’s supertitles, though references to Biscay and Andalucía were retained] noi siam mattadori.’ The choristers made ‘Oh, infamia orribile tu commettesti!’ at Flora’s ball an imposing statement of shocked disgust at Alfredo’s treatment of Violetta. As the offstage Carnevale revelers in Act Three, the chorus sang ‘Largo al quadrupede sir della festa’ lustily: unfortunately, hearing their vigorous singing was made difficult by over-emphatic tambourine clanging from the pit. Throughout the performance, the choral singing added an alluring layer of color to Opera Roanoke’s portrait of La traviata.

Also harkening back to earlier times in operatic history typified by the Bing era at the Metropolitan Opera, when a regular company of gifted, prepared singers enriched performances with strong singing of secondary rôles, Opera Roanoke’s Traviata benefited from an ensemble of artists whose capable performances provided engaging vignettes that intelligently supported the principals and lent the drama added depth and nuance. Soprano Tatiana MacMartin was an Annina whose concern for Violetta was palpable and expressed with solid, attractive tone. Baritones Jack Chandler, Tadd Sipes, and Robb Zahm sang and acted well as Dottor Grenvil, Marchese d’Obigny, and Barone Douphol, and tenor Zach Helms and bass Hayden Keefer made much of little in their impersonations of Giuseppe and the Commissionario. Tenor Jason Nichols’s Gastone introduced Alfredo in Act One with a vivid statement of ‘In Alfredo Germont, o signora, ecco un altro che molto v’onora’ and was heard with pleasure in his every line thereafter. As portrayed by mezzo-soprano Carla Dirlikov Canales, Flora was a suitably glamorous hostess, a society maven with a good heart who was a true friend to Violetta even when dutifully playing her part in the social maelstrom that threatened to drown the suffering heroine in its morally ambiguous waters. Moreover, this Flora sang as attractively as she looked, Canales’s voice glistening throughout the range of Flora’s music.

IN PERFORMANCE: Soprano AMY COFIELD WILLIAMSON as Violetta (left) and baritone LEVI HERNANDEZ as Germont (right) in Opera Roanoke's production of Giuseppe Verdi's LA TRAVIATA, April 2016 [Photo by Scott Williamson; used with permission]Padre e figlia adottiva: Soprano Amy Cofield Williamson as Violetta (left) and baritone Levi Hernandez as Germont (right) in Opera Roanoke’s production of Giuseppe Verdi’s La traviata, April 2016 [Photo by Scott Williamson; used with permission]

Returning to Opera Roanoke after stealing the show as Dandini in the company’s production of Rossini’s La Cenerentola [reviewed here], baritone Levi Hernandez beguiled the Roanoke audience with a wholly different array of artistic abilities in La traviata. What his Giorgio Germont had in common with his Dandini was innate musicality that, in the context of Traviata, fed a drive to invite the audience into the most private recesses of the careworn father’s thoughts and motivations. Calling on Violetta in Act Two to entreat her to abandon Alfredo in order to restore respectability to the Germont name, Hernandez’s Giorgio was atypically compassionate, never bullying or browbeating his son’s delicate paramour. Hernandez sang ‘Pura siccome un angelo iddio mi die’ una figlia’ exquisitely, his deeply-felt manner reminiscent of Mario Zanasi’s singing in the well-known 1958 Covent Garden broadcast opposite Maria Callas’s Violetta and his burnished timbre and flickering vibrato recalling the voice of Giuseppe De Luca, the singer who incidentally created another of Hernandez’s best rôles, Sharpless in Puccini’s Madama Butterfly. His account of ‘Piangi, o misera, o piangi!’ was affectionate rather than merely cajoling, and this Giorgio seemed almost embarrassed by his own harshness when the despondent Violetta asked him to embrace her as he would his own daughter. Following the father’s futile attempts at comforting his tempestuous son, the aria ‘Di Provenza il mar, il suol, chi dal cor ti cancellò,’ one of Verdi’s most difficult baritone arias, was resiliently sung but was the least persuasive part of Hernandez’s performance. The aria’s top G♭s taxed the singer, tending to go marginally flat, and his phrasing was idiosyncratic, bringing to mind the unusual verbal cadences of Pavel Lisitsian’s famous recording of the aria in Russian. As is still common practice, Germont’s cabaletta ‘No, non udrai rimproveri’ was cut. Reacting to Alfredo’s denunciation of Violetta at Flora’s ball, Hernandez articulated ‘Di sprezzo degno se stesso rende chi pur nell’ira la donna offende’ with such horror and disappointment that he seemed barely able to get the words out. Arriving at Violetta’s bedside in Act Three, Hernandez sang ‘La promessa adempio; a stringervi qual figlia vengo al seno, o generosa’ touchingly. Intriguingly, his guilt having plagued him, it was the elder Germont who in this performance seemed devastated by Violetta’s death. Hernandez was a Germont whose warm paternal instincts, expressed with singing of tremendous quality, made the character as tender a surrogate father for Violetta as he was a reproachful but ultimately caring progenitor for Alfredo.

In his portrayal of Alfredo, the younger Germont, tenor Dinyar Vania produced a stream of bronzed, hearty tone that destines him for heavier repertory. He cut a dashing figure upon his entrance in Act One and was fully credible as a youth impetuous enough to fall madly in love with a woman whom he has never formally met. His singing of the celebrated Brindisi, ‘Libiamo ne’ lieti calici,’ was exciting, but his stentorian singing became slightly wearying, the voice ultimately impressing more than the interpretation. Vania’s ‘Un dì felice, eterea, mi balenaste innante’ was utterly secure and nobly phrased but earthbound, but generalized ardor materialized in his farewelling with Violetta. At the beginning of Act Two, Vania declaimed the recitative ‘Lunge da lei per me non v’ha diletto!’ with dramatic force, and though there was more brute strength than poetry in his account of the aria ‘De’ miei bollenti spiriti’ his vocalism was undeniably exhilarating. Regrettably, Alfredo’s cabaletta ‘Oh mio rimorso! Oh infamia!’ was omitted: the swagger of the cabaletta would surely have suited Vania better than the suavity of the aria. In the scene at Flora’s ball, this Alfredo responded to Violetta’s warnings with the ill temper of a spoiled child. Not surprisingly, though, Vania was at his best when brashly denouncing Violetta in ‘Ogni suo aver tal femmina per amor mio sperdea,’ his voice ringing like the blows of a blacksmith’s hammer. Shamed by his father’s pained condemnation of his actions, Vania’s Alfredo withdrew into an unexpectedly inward reading of ‘Ah sì! Che feci! Ne sento orrore!’ Reunited with Violetta in Act Three, the tenor softened his approach for an aptly awestruck ‘O mia Violetta, oh gioia!’ and a ‘Parigi, o cara, noi lasceremo’ that radiated optimism. Vania’s was an Alfredo who seemed to anticipate and accept Violetta’s death, his voicing of ‘Oh, mio sospiro e palpito’ blunted by preparation for the inevitable. Vania sang extremely well but with a voice more suited by nature for Alvaro in La forza del destino than for Alfredo.

It has often been observed that, at first glance, it seems that Violetta as she appears in each of the opera’s three acts was composed for a different type of voice: a lyric coloratura in Act One, a more dramatic voice in Act Two, and a straightforward lyric soprano in Act Three. Certainly, the rôle has been memorably sung by a wider array of voices than any of Verdi’s other heroines, ranging from lyrics like Caballé and Freni to larger voices like those of Sutherland and the Falcon-esque Callas. Opera Roanoke’s Violetta, soprano Amy Cofield Williamson, was a crossroads at which lyricism and drama intersected. Enunciating ‘Flora, amici, la notte che resta’ with spirit, Williamson delivered her part in the Brindisi, ‘Tra voi saprò dividere il tempo mio giocondo’ with gusto. In Violetta’s scene with Alfredo, the soprano delivered ‘Ah, se ciò è ver, fuggitemi’ with intensity, and her voicing of ‘È strano! è strano!’ was probing. Williamson made the aria ‘Ah, fors’è lui che l’anima’ a profoundly personal reverie, her calm, confident vocalism driven by the text, facilitated by her expert diction. Her trill in the aria’s cadenza was superb. The contrast of the utterance of ‘Follie! Delirio vano è questo!’ that followed could hardly have been greater, Violetta’s gaiety returning as the vocal line climbed higher. Williamson’s performance of the cabaletta ‘Sempre libera degg’io folleggiare di gioia in gioia’ was all the more enjoyable for being unforced. The scale of her singing matched that of her account of the preceding aria, her top Cs bright and certain of intonation and the long-held interpolated E♭ in alt slightly effortful but decidedly worth the risk. In the magnificent Act Two scene with Germont, the soprano’s interjection of ‘Ah! comprendo’ after learning of Alfredo’s sister was piercing, this Violetta already sensing what would be asked of her. The quiet fortitude of Williamson’s voicing of ‘Non sapete quale affetto’ led to a heartbreaking performance of ‘Ah! Dite alla giovine sì bella e pura,’ the voice reduced to a thread of concentrated, arrestingly beautiful sound. Then, the emotional landslide of ‘Morrò! La mia memoria non fia ch’ei maledica’ swept over Violetta and Germont with unstinting force, propelled by Williamson’s emotive singing. The first of Violetta’s great arching melodies, ‘Amami, Alfredo, amami quant’io t’amo,’ drew from the soprano an outpouring of opulent tone. At Flora’s ball, Williamson’s Violetta intoned ‘Invitato a qui seguirmi’ with disquieting foreboding, and her understated reaction to Alfredo’s cruelty was indicative of the sincerity of her love for him. With her ravishing singing of the second of Violetta’s exalted melodies, ‘Alfredo, Alfredo, di questo core non puoi comprendere tutto l’amore,’ Williamson proved herself to be markedly superior to many sopranos who sing the rôle today. Even in the context of Flora’s ball, this was an unmistakably introverted passage, a statement meant for Alfredo alone, and the hushed tranquility of Williamson’s singing was far more moving than many sopranos’ near-hysterical caterwauling. Act Three of La traviata is a formidable test for any soprano, and Williamson further distinguished herself with singing of prodigious but never exaggerated expressivity. ‘Addio del passato bei sogni ridenti,’ reduced to one verse, was here a gravely private reflection, Williamson’s top A a tone of epic beauty. In the ecstatic duet with Alfredo, ‘Parigi, o caro, noi lasceremo,’ this Violetta seemed to believe for a moment that escape from her tragic circumstances was possible before the reality of her condition asserted itself in an expansively-phrased ‘Ah! Gran Dio! Morir sì giovine, io che penato ho tanto!’ The simplicity with which Williamson sang both ‘Prendi, quest’è l’immagine de’ miei passati giorni’ and ‘Se una pudica vergine, degli anni suoi sul fiore’ was affecting, and the skill of her acting made the moment of Violetta’s death agonizing, her body going limp in Alfredo’s arms just as it seemed that she was poised to soar back to health. As a vocalist and an actress, Williamson provided the Roanoke audience with a warm, womanly Violetta that absorbingly honored Duplessis, Dumas, Piave, and, above all, Verdi.

In many productions, La traviata seems like a puzzle with pieces that do not fit. One is either asked to accept stagings that conform with directors’ concepts of the opera rather than Verdi’s or compelled to endure singing that falls short of the preeminence that the score merits. Opera Roanoke’s production of La traviata assembled the puzzle with both elegance and eloquence, letting the opera speak—no, sing—for itself. What La traviata needs are not multi-million-dollar productions and casts of singers with names more illustrious than their talents that transform the opera into a circus act with vocal obbligato. La traviata needs a Violetta whose heart, soul, and throat embrace Verdi’s music, an Alfredo who loves her, and a Germont whose moral foundation is shaken by his encounter with a ‘fallen woman’ with a spirit purer than those of the most lauded paragons of virtue. With these crucial characterizations at its core, Opera Roanoke’s Traviata was an invigorating glimpse of the sterling emotional potential of opera, now so badly tarnished.

09 April 2016

PERFORMANCE REVIEW: Gaetano Donizetti — DON PASQUALE (S. Condy, G. Gerbrandt, A. Wyatt, D. Curran, A. Carter; Opera on the James, 8 April 2016)

IN PERFORMANCE: Soprano ARIANA WYATT as Norina (left) and baritone STEVEN CONDY in the title rôle (right) in the Opera on the James production of Gaetano Donizetti's DON PASQUALE, April 2016 [Photo © by KG Thienemann/ImageArtWork.com]GAETANO DONIZETTI (1797 – 1848): Don PasqualeSteven Condy (Don Pasquale), Gregory Gerbrandt (Dottor Malatesta), Ariana Wyatt (Norina), Daniel Curran (Ernesto), Albert Carter (Un notaro), Anthony Quaranta (Un maggiordomo), Cheryl Carter (Una domestica di Norina); Opera on the James Chorus and Orchestra; Douglas Kinney Frost, conductor [Patricia-Maria Weinmann, Stage Director; David Latham, Light Design; Maggie Caudhill, Wig/Makeup Artist; Teddy Moore, Set Designer; Aaron Chvatal, Costume Design; Rachel Zapata, Assistant Conductor; Kaley Smith, Stage Manager; Opera on the James, Joy and Lynch Christian Warehouse Theatre, Academy Center of the Arts, Lynchburg, Virginia; Friday, 8 April 2016]

Generations of artists active in all genres of the Performing Arts have been trained with one precept at the core of the cultivation of dedication to their respective crafts: come what may, at whatever cost, the show must go on. Whether or not the familiar verbal expression of this mantra truly originated, as some academics surmise, with Nineteenth-Century circus managers, as cutthroat a lot as any operatic impresarios, the spirit of the sentiment is memorably exemplified in the work of the final decade of Gaetano Donizetti’s life. Born in 1797 and a pupil in his native Bergamo of the Bavarian master Johann Simon Mayr, Donizetti was one of the defining geniuses of Italian bel canto despite a life that was not all beautiful singing. Having suffered the losses of his wife and children, the composer was ravaged by disease, perhaps syphilis contracted in his youth, the last three years of his life stolen by worsening illness. Like his contemporary Rossini, whose withdrawal from the musical world was voluntary, Donizetti was awesomely industrious, not least when mere survival can only have left him with minimal energy for creation. Create he managed to do, however: some of his most accomplished scores came after the deaths of his wife, children, and parents. It was a man bent but not broken by hardship who in 1842 accepted a commission from Paris’s Théâtre-Italien for a new work that would evolve into Don Pasquale, an opera universally acclaimed as one of its creator’s finest achievements and widely regarded as the tuneful terminus of the beloved Italian opera buffa tradition. Superlatives are easily hurled at scores but are often far more difficult to employ in describing performances of them, but the greatest experiences in opera are those rare evenings when music and musicians achieve an exalted state of communion. Staged in Lynchburg’s intimate, 250-seat Joy and Lynch Christian Warehouse Theatre, the Opera on the James production of Don Pasquale bewitchingly realized the full comic potential of this gem of an opera, filling every cubic millimeter of available space with laughter and that rarest commodity in opera, genuine bel canto.

As difficult as filling a large space can be, designing and executing an operatic production in a small space can be even more daunting. Without the benefit of forgiving distance, details of staging and characterization that are effective in mammoth theatres can seem ridiculous (or worse) when observed in closer proximity. Accustomed to making maximum use of the space at the company’s disposal, Opera on the James provided with this Don Pasquale a model to similar enterprises of how fascinating opera can be when a production engages rather than merely occupying its surroundings. Teddy Moore’s simple but eye-pleasing set designs and David Latham’s evocative lighting dressed the stage in fine style, and Aaron Chvatal’s Roaring Twenties costume designs and Maggie Caudhill’s artistry with wigs and makeup dressed the characters with witty outward manifestations of their personalities. Stage Director Patricia-Maria Weinmann handled the opera’s zany plot with sure timing and a splendid avoidance of mindless and unmusical tomfoolery. Singing ignoramuses can be interesting but are rarely truly funny: the most amusing people in opera are those whose sensibilities attract the listener sufficiently so that he cares enough to laugh. Updated to 1927, this production allowed Don Pasquale and his band of players to be individuals, not idiots, and the audience therefore could laugh unforcedly at Donizetti’s comedic genius rather than at a feeble attempt at faking it. Laugh they did, often and raucously, making this kind of evening at the opera that leaves one smiling and humming for days on end.

Conductor Douglas Kinney Frost maintained commendable control of the performance from first note to last, keeping balances clear and insightfully integrated and lavishing great care on preserving rhythmic tautness even when granting singers latitude in virtuosic passages. Following his lead, the well-trained musicians of the Opera on the James Orchestra jaunted with brio through the reduction of Donizetti’s scintillating score used for the production, the string playing occasionally slightly frantic but providing a solid, suitably propulsive foundation for the pit’s [here cleverly placed behind the scenery, conjuring the atmosphere of Roman cafés] contribution to the performance. For this production, space necessitated elimination of the chorus, thereby excising ‘I diamanti, presto, presto’ and ‘Che interminabile andirivieni!’ (they were not missed), and Donizetti’s three acts were refitted into two, the interval coming between the composer’s second and third acts. [For this review, texts are referenced by their positions in Donizetti’s original three-act arrangement in an effort to avoid confusion for readers not fortunate enough to attend the Lynchburg performances.] Exemplified by Brian Roberts’s dulcetly-phrased account of the trumpet obbligato in Ernesto’s scene at the beginning of Act Two, the wind playing was laudably confident. The orchestra’s performance of the opera’s Sinfonia, as rollicking an introduction as any composer ever provided for an opera, set the frenetic mood of the performance after a shaky start, and Frost’s organic pacing sustained that momentum until the drama was resolved with hearty laughs and high notes. The conductor’s tempo for the Preludio at the start of Act Two ideally suited the music. Frost’s conducting and the orchestra’s playing dressed Donizetti’s music as dapperly as their colleagues’ endeavors attired the stage and its denizens.

As Carlino, Malatesta’s kinsman and notary of convenience, Albert Carter whined and wheezed his repetitions of ‘Et cetera’ to bumbling perfection. Cheryl Carter as Norina’s housemaid may not have sung a single note, but there was an aria’s worth of emoting in her facial expressions as she perused a page in Norina’s fanciful novel. Tony Quaranta as Don Pasquale’s seemingly much-abused and grotesquely underpaid maggiordomo was a show unto himself, not only chewing the scenery but helping to move it during scene transitions, too!

IN PERFORMANCE: Tenor DANIEL CURRAN as Ernesto (left) and soprano ARIANA WYATT as Norina (right) in the Opera on the James production of Gaetano Donizetti’s DON PASQUALE, April 2016 [Photo © by KG Thienemann/ImageArtWork.com]Veri amanti: Tenor Daniel Curran as Ernesto (left) and soprano Ariana Wyatt as Norina (right) in the Opera on the James production of Gaetano Donizetti’s Don Pasquale, April 2016 [Photo © by KG Thienemann/ImageArtWork.com]

To his inaugural performance as Ernesto, one of Donizetti’s most beautifully-written tenor rôles and a brother to Nemorino in L’elisir d’amore, tenor Daniel Curran brought a refined, capably-projected voice and technique that qualified him equally for the part’s bel canto intricacies and lovesick ecstasies. At his entrance in Act One, it was apparent that Curran was an Ernesto to the Schipa, Valletti, and Kraus manner born, his excellent breath control permitting him to execute marvels of phrasing impossible for less-prepared singers. In the duet with Don Pasquale, his incredulous ‘Prender moglie!’ was spirited, and his singing of the cantabile ‘Sogno soave e casto de’ miei prim’anni, addio’ was masterful, the repeated top A♭s costing him minimal effort. His traversals of the allegro ‘Due parole ancor di volo’ and moderato ‘Mi fa il destin mendico, perdo colei che adoro’ were intelligently contrasted, and his top B♭s crowned his lines resplendently. In Ernesto’s plaintive scene at the start of Act Two, Curran delivered the recitative ‘Povero Ernesto! Dalla zio cacciato, da tutti abbandonato’ with plangency that never crossed the boundary into outright caricature. His voicing of the lovely larghetto aria ‘Cercherò lontana terra dove gemer sconosciuto’ was the epitome of poise, the top A♭s and B♭s again troubling him admirably little and serving as a warmup for a spot-on interpolated top D♭. Act Two’s quartetto finale drew from him fleet, animated singing typified by his unperturbed voicing of ‘Pria di partir, signore, vengo per dirvi addio.’ The Act Three serenata ‘Com’è gentil la notte a mezzo april!’ is perhaps Ernesto’s best-known music, and Curran sang it with an enviable effusion of lyricism and honeyed tone that retained its sweet viscosity to the top A♯s. United with his beloved Norina at last, albeit as a ruse to deceive his absurd, proud uncle, this Ernesto poured out a stream of golden melody in the sublime notturno ‘Tornami a dir che m’ami.’ With both his paramour and his inheritance restored, Ernesto soared in the opera’s final scene on Curran’s airy vocalism. Ernesto is the kind of rôle that can seem deceptively easy, and Curran’s was the kind of performance that can further this misconception. Just try to mimic his singing, however: many are the numbers of renowned tenors who have failed to sing Ernesto so well.

IN PERFORMANCE: Baritones STEVEN CONDY in the title rôle (left) and GREGORY GERBRANDT as Dottor Malatesta (right) in the Opera on the James production of Gaetano Donizetti’s DON PASQUALE, April 2016 [Photo © by KG Thienemann/ImageArtWork.com]Don e Dottore: Baritones Steven Condy in the title rôle (left) and Gregory Gerbrandt as Dottor Malatesta (right) in the Opera on the James production of Gaetano Donizetti’s Don Pasquale, April 2016 [Photo © by KG Thienemann/ImageArtWork.com]

A descendant of Figaro and Dandini in Rossini’s Il barbiere di Siviglia and La Cenerentola, Donizetti’s Dottor Malatesta is a fantastic gift to lyric baritones with the technical wherewithal to sing the character’s music with the sparkle and machismo that the composer surely expected—baritones, that is, like Gregory Gerbrandt, whose Malatesta for Opera on the James would have been more rightly called Buonatesta. Making his entrance in Act One with an ‘È permesso?’ that dripped with exaggerated politeness, Gerbrandt’s Malatesta calmly seized command of his scene with Don Pasquale, culminating in an unhurried, persuasive performance of the larghetto cantabile aria ‘Bella siccome un angelo in terra pellegrino,’ another of Donizetti’s finest inspirations. Braving the high tessitura without strain, Gerbrandt gave every ornament and elegant turn of phrase dramatic purpose. Ending Act One with Malatesta’s duet with Norina was an innovative choice by Donizetti, but Gerbrandt’s piquant singing of ‘Voi sapete se d’Ernesto sono amico, e ben gli voglio’ revealed the dramatic flair that prompted the composer’s decision. In the Act Two terzetto with Norina and Don Pasquale, Gerbrandt approached the larghetto ‘Via, da brava’ with glinting comic attack, and his bravura technique easily passed the insanely demanding test of Malatesta’s lines in the bustling quartetto finale. Like the Duca di Mantova’s ‘La donna è mobile’ in Verdi’s Rigoletto and Calàf’s ‘Nessun dorma’ in Puccini’s Turandot, it is Malatesta’s duet with Don Pasquale in Act Three that audiences anxiously await, and Gerbrandt’s vigorous articulation of ‘Io direi...sentite un poco’ did not disappoint the Lynchburg listeners. His jubilant patter in the stretta’s laughing figurations and sonorous top F justified the duet’s popularity—and its encore—and made it the musical and comedic pinnacle of the performance. Complementing Curran’s Ernesto, Gerbrandt’s Malatesta was worthy of any of the world’s greatest stages—more than that, in fact, as he accompanied Ernesto’s serenata on the guitar with the finesse of Andrés Segovia!

IN PERFORMANCE: Soprano ARIANA WYATT as Norina in the Opera on the James production of Gaetano Donizetti’s DON PASQUALE, April 2016 [Photo © by KG Thienemann/ImageArtWork.com]Dal convento alla casa di riposo: Soprano Ariana Wyatt as Norina in the Opera on the James production of Gaetano Donizetti’s Don Pasquale, April 2016 [Photo © by KG Thienemann/ImageArtWork.com]

It is encouraging to note that soprano Ariana Wyatt is a member of the Virginia Tech voice faculty because her portrayal of Norina—remarkably, her rôle début—was a lesson in the art of successfully mastering comic bel canto. In Norina’s Act One cavatina ‘Quel guardo il cavaliere in mezzo al cor trafisse,’ the pert, pretty singer cavorted through the coloratura flourishes to top C and D♭, and she exhibited her technical merit with winsome fulfillment of Donizetti’s request for an extended trill on F at the top of the stave. In the duet with Malatesa, this vixen preened and posed hilariously, sculpting ‘Pronta io son; purch’io non manchi all’amore del caro bene’ with a bonafide prima donna’s command of the repeated ascents to top B♭. In the manic terzetto with Don Pasquale and Malatesta, Wyatt tossed off the crazy fiorature, cresting on top B, as though she were merrily sowing seeds in a flower garden. The soprano’s lusty singing in the quartetto finale brought down the curtain on Act Two—here Act One—with a scurry of smirks and scowls and a fabulous interpolated top D. The emotional heart of Don Pasquale beats in the Act Three duet for Norina and her put-upon consort, in the course of which the feisty young lady takes the charade too far and slaps Don Pasquale, an action that, as Donizetti’s music unmistakably reveals, she immediately regrets: despite the audience’s roars of laughter, Wyatt played the moment appreciably ‘straight,’ her face still with the realization of her fun having descended into cruelty. Nevertheless, she sprinted through the vivace ‘Via, caro sposino, non farmi il tiranno’ as though Norina had not a care in the world except to show off her ripping top C. The sheer beauty of tone that Wyatt lavished on her singing of the notturno with Ernesto, ‘Tornami a dir che m’ami,’ was breathtaking, and she and Curran intertwined their voices with gorgeous results. The rondo finale, ‘La morale in tutto questo è assai facil di trovarsi,’ was dispatched with a fetching lightness, the roulades rolled out with blazing virtuosity. Wyatt was anything but a standard-issue soubrette Norina: reminding the listener of how the music ought to be sung, her portrayal suggested that virtually every other Norina since Beverly Sills’s last performance of the rôle has been a pretender.

IN PERFORMANCE: Baritone STEVEN CONDY in the title rôle in the Opera on the James production of Gaetano Donizetti’s DON PASQUALE, April 2016 [Photo © by KG Thienemann/ImageArtWork.com]Una preghiera per la libertà: Baritone Steven Condy in the title rôle in the Opera on the James production of Gaetano Donizetti’s Don Pasquale, April 2016 [Photo © by KG Thienemann/ImageArtWork.com]

Assuming the larger-than-life persona of the gentleman of a certain age at the center of the opera’s hilarity, baritone Steven Condy depicted a Don Pasquale old enough to know better, so to speak, but still virile enough to charge ahead at full steam, amorous torpedoes be damned. From his near-breathless ‘Son nov’ore’ in the Act One Introduzione, Condy was the Don Pasquale for which one dares not hope: every note of the part was in the voice, and there was tonal beauty to balance the bluster. Condy proceeded through the thrilling vivace in Pasquale’s scene with Malatesta with the unstoppable charisma of a bravura bulldozer. His account of the cavatina ‘Ah! un foco insolito mi sento addosso’ radiated the boisterous elation of a not-quite-young man in love—or in love with the notion of being in love, at any rate. Informing his unfortunate nephew of his impending marriage in the duet with Ernesto, this Pasquale was not wholly heartless in evicting the younger man. After all, which newly-minted marriage needs a third wheel? In Donizetti’s Act Two terzetto with Norina and Malatesta, Condy’s voice boomed like thunder, and in ‘S’era infaccende: giunto però voi siete in punto’ and the pulse-quickening vivace ‘Son tradito, son tradito, son tradiro, beffeggiato, beffeggiato’ in the quartetto finale Condy unleashed a fury all the more imposing for being wholly ineffective. In the great duet with Norina, Condy hurled ‘Signorina, in tanta fretta, dove va vorrebbe dirmi?’ like a poorly-aimed javelin, and he shaped his reading of the recitative ‘Qualche nota di cuffie e di merletto che la signora qui lasciò per caso’ with deepening feeling. As with Norina’s reaction to the fateful slap, Condy opened Pasquale’s heart when singing of his despair and contemplation of finding solace in a watery death, offering emotions more profound than the laughter suggested that the audience grasped. Joining Gerbrandt as a grinning, most willing partner in misguided revenge in the duet with Malatesta, Condy launched ‘Cheti cheti immantinente’ into the theatre like a Roman candle, divertingly matching his partner’s bravura nimbleness and resonant top F. In the opera’s final scene, Condy’s rapid-fire transitions from prideful anger to relieved euphoria were hysterical. Rarely has a husband been so happily deprived of his wife! With every weapon necessary for a convincing Don Pasquale, including an excellent trill, in his arsenal, Condy laid siege to the part with a vengeance, and his triumph was absolute.

Don Pasquale has been in the repertories of a number of the world’s most prestigious opera houses in recent seasons, but not one of them could possibly have offered a performance of what can be argued to be Donizetti’s most perfect score that surpassed the beauty, ingenuity, and merrymaking of this Opera on the James production. It was along the banks of the James River that the first permanent English settlement in the eventual United States of America was established in 1607, and the river’s waters have been of unparalleled importance to the sustenance of the people and culture of the Commonwealth of Virginia since the first Native Americans called the region home. This performance of Don Pasquale proved that now along the verdant slopes of the mighty James has emerged one of America’s most adventurous and most winningly musical opera companies.