30 March 2019

PERFORMANCE REVIEW: A. S. Sullivan & W. S. Gilbert — THE MIKADO (M. Rowe, B. DelVecchio, G. Toft, J. Burnette, S. Albert, F. Hilliard, L. Hussey, M. E. Hirsh, A. Sealey; The Durham Savoyards Ltd., 29 March 2019)

IN REVIEW: The Durham Savoyards' March 2019 production of Gilbert's and Sullivan's THE MIKADO [Graphic © by The Durham Savoyards, Ltd.]SIR ARTHUR SEYMOUR SULLIVAN (1842 – 1900) and SIR WILLIAM SCHWENCK GILBERT (1836 – 1911): The Mikado; or, The Town of Titipu — Michael Rowe (The Mikado), Brady DelVecchio (Nanki-Poo), Greg Toft (Ko-Ko), Jim Burnette (Pooh-Bah), Stuart Albert (Pish-Tush), Farren Hilliard (Yum-Yum), Lauren Hussey (Pitti-Sing), Mary Elisabeth Hirsh (Peep-Bo), Alana Sealy (Katisha); The Durham Savoy Opera Stage and Royal Choruses, The Durham Savoy Opera Orchestra; Jackson Cooper, conductor [Janell Lovelace, Producer; Derrick Ivey, Artistic Director and Choreographer; James Vollers, Set Designer; Matt Artigues, Lighting Designer; Karen Guidry, Costume Designer; Pam Guidry-Vollers, Hair and Makeup Designer; The Durham Savoyards Ltd., Carolina Theatre, Durham, North Carolina, USA; Friday, 29 March 2019]

London in 1885 must have seemed a curious place. Though she had returned to public life, Queen Victoria remained in mourning, for both her newly-dead favorite John Brown and her consort, Prince Albert, then dead for nearly a quarter-century. Irish combatants attacked the Palace of Westminster with dynamite. Two days later, Major-General Gordon was slain in Khartoum. William Gladstone was forced by the hostile defeat of a proposed budget to resign from the Prime Ministership but was reinstalled at 10 Downing Street before the year’s end. Parliamentary action legalized professional-league football. The first sanctioned cremation in the UK was performed. The Nineteenth-Century’s emblematic teeming metropolis, it was a place that often needed laughter to lighten the gloom.

Amidst the incessant turmoil of this collision of history, industry, and everyday existence, the ninth of Sir Arthur Sullivan’s and Sir William Gilbert’s theatrical collaborations was premièred at the Savoy Theatre in the Strand on 14 March 1885. The 672 performances of its inaugural production revealed that The Mikado was precisely the diversion that Londoners needed. The opera’s success was instantaneous, prolonged, and transoceanic: the longest-running of Gilbert’s and Sullivan’s Savoy operas, The Mikado reached stages throughout England and in both America and Australia by the end of 1885.

The Mikado’s path to triumph traversed uncertain terrain. Plagued by health concerns and professional disappointments, Sullivan sought solace in the composition of ‘serious’ music. Keen to recapture the acclaim of H.M.S. Pinafore and The Pirates of Penzance, Gilbert intended to overcome the relative failure of 1884’s Princess Ida with a new opera based upon the premise of amorous intrigue engendered by enchantment. Unconvinced of the viability of the scenario, Sullivan declared that his partnership with Gilbert had reached its end. Gilbert was crestfallen but not defeated and by the end of May 1884 had rekindled the composer’s interest with the first draft of The Mikado.

Freed by the plot’s pseudo-exotic Japanese setting from the bane of accusations of near-defamatory satire, Gilbert sharpened the barbs of his lampooning of British society to an even greater degree in The Mikado than in any of his previous Savoy operas. Oft-repeated stories about Gilbert’s imagination having been stimulated by a Japanese sword falling from a wall and an exhibition in Knightsbridge of tableaux from Japanese culture are now known to be hyperbole, but he was unquestionably fascinated by the fanciful Japan that he conjured in his libretto. His enthusiasm for the subject ultimately seized Sullivan, inspiring the composer to create a score in which the vitality of the words is amplified by music that delights from the first note of the Overture to the final chord of the finale.

Now in their fifty-seventh season of bringing D’Oyly Carte-worthy performances of Gilbert and Sullivan repertoire to North Carolina’s Triangle region, The Durham Savoyards confirmed that observers do not need to be scholars of Victorian politics or Imperial Japan in order to savor The Mikado. Without employing over-extensive rewriting of the text as many companies do, Durham Savoyards neither blunted the cutting wit of Gilbert’s words nor disrespected the audience by ‘dumbing down’ the show’s cosmopolitan comedy.

The Mikado has been unjustly but unsurprisingly condemned for perpetuating unfortunate ethnic stereotypes, and Durham Savoyards’ production ingeniously addressed concerns about the opera’s cultural insensitivity without altering its essence by placing the action in a fashion show teetering on the brink of career-ending catastrophe. Perhaps the denizens of haute couture would not be amused, but, like Londoners in 1885, theirs is a stressful environment that would benefit greatly from an infusion of fun of the kind provided by this Mikado.

The production team assembled for The Durham Savoyards’ staging of The Mikado united an array of talented individuals whose shared vision yielded a show that earned its laughs. Too many productions of the Savoy operas sink under the dead weight of misguided attempts to make them funny. They are funny, no less so now than when they were written, and a listener who fails to react to the humor of Gilbert’s words is unlikely to be significantly more stimulated by bowdlerizations thereof. Approaching the Savoy operas as works to be performed, not rehabilitated, is a hallmark of the Durham Savoyards’ endeavors, and this Mikado’s producer, Janell Lovelace, ensured that this aesthetic permeated the show.

James Vollers’s set designs established the physical parameters of the production’s concept with clever details and clear sight lines. The prevalence of poorly-lit productions divulges that theatrical lighting is an art that is not easily mastered, but Matt Artigues devised lighting designs that artfully illuminated not just the sets and the singers occupying them but also the opera’s narrative. Likewise, Karen Guidry’s costumes and Pam Guidry-Vollers hair and makeup, integral components of any turn on the catwalk, markedly enhanced this Mikado’s visual allure. The choreography developed by Artistic Director Derrick Ivey kept both the story and its participants moving uproariously.

Under the baton of Jackson Cooper, a musical polyglot who speaks the languages of performance, administration, and criticism with equal fluency, the instrumentalists of the Durham Savoy Opera Orchestra strove mightily to fulfill the expectations raised by the ensemble’s reputation for playing Sullivan’s scores with panache more typical of London’s West End than of America’s east coast. It was a rough evening for them, faltering intonation and intermittent imprecision imperiling the performance’s overall musicality, but their dedication outweighed the defects. Cooper’s conducting of the spirited Overture was invigorating, his handling of the Allegro con brio section catapulting the spectators into the opera’s zany hubbub. In both of the opera’s acts, Cooper’s tempi were consistently ideal, allowing singers and audience to fully savor the joys of Gilbert’s words and Sullivan’s melodies. The challenges to conductors posed by the Savoy operas are in no way inferior to those of opere buffe by Rossini and Donizetti, and Cooper’s conducting of this performance of The Mikado was as satisfyingly savvy as Vittorio Gui’s much-loved Rossini interpretations.

The writing for chorus in The Mikado is a comedic nod to Britain’s centuries-long choral tradition, a tradition to which Sullivan contributed with works like The Prodigal Son, The Golden Legend, and the posthumously-premièred Boer War Te Deum. Scrutiny of the score discloses that, though obviously lighter in mood, the choral music in The Mikado lacks none of the sophistication of Sullivan’s liturgical pieces, and the efforts of the Durham Savoyards choristers displayed none of the inadequately-rehearsed, haphazard caterwauling that is sometimes substituted for proper singing.

The gentlemen of the chorus voiced ‘If you want to know who we are, we are gentlemen of Japan’ in Act One with joie de vivre that was complemented by the ladies’ mellifluous delivery of ‘Comes a train of little ladies.’ These Savoyards sang ‘Behold the Lord High Executioner!’ and their lines in the manic Act One finale as though sole responsibility for the destiny of the Land of the Rising Sun rested on their shoulders. The choristers’ every utterance in Act Two was tunefully entertaining, including the occasionally-cringe-inducing ‘Mi-ya sa-ma’ that accompanies the grand entrance of Katisha and the Mikado. The ranks of Durham Savoyards’ chorus being drawn from the community facilitates the choristers’ credible depictions of communities in the company’s productions. They made this production’s incarnation of Gilbert’s town of Titipu a divertingly distinct locale.

There are instances in which the term ‘ensemble cast’ is used with a pejorative connotation, suggesting that the artists involved in a performance exhibited a uniform level of mediocrity above which none of the players managed to rise. The travesties to which many audiences are subjected notwithstanding, there is not a part in The Mikado that can wholly overcome bad singing: in this Mikado, there was case neither for singers to hide within the ensemble nor for any deficiencies to be vanquished.

Among the ladies, Lauren Hussey was a Pitti-Sing who sang as engagingly as she acted, voicing her parts in both the trio with Ko-Ko and Pooh-Bah and the subsequent madrigal with sweet-natured incisiveness. Mary Elisabeth Hirsh’s Peep-Bo was also a vivid presence, her lines in the famous ‘Three little maids from school are we’ sung with firm, focused tone and comedic alertness.

Most of the Savoy operas have a pivotal contralto rôle, often a feisty lady of a certain age who does not shrink from telling her comrades what’s what. In The Mikado, the low-voiced lady with first love and then vengeance on her mind is Katisha, brought to life in Durham Savoyards’s Mikado by Alana Sealy. She declaimed Katisha’s futile plea of ‘Your revels cease, assist me, all of you!’ in the Act One finale with exasperation, and her entrance with the Mikado in Act Two lent credence to her being described as ‘something appalling.’ There was nothing appalling about her vocalism in the Andante moderato song ‘Hearts do not break,’ however, and she duetted ebulliently with Ko-Ko in ‘There is beauty in the bellow of the blast.’ Formidable when her maneuvering was thwarted but touchingly vulnerable when lamenting her amorous miadventures, Sealy’s Katisha was a potent feminine force, not a caricatured crone.

Stuart Albert and Jim Burnette matched their colleagues’ work with riotously funny portrayals of Pish-Tush and Pooh-Bah. In the former rôle, Albert phrased his Act One song with chorus, ‘Our great Mikado, virtuous man,’ with apt pomposity, and his singing of ‘I heard one day a gentleman say’ in the trio with Ko-Ko and Pooh-Bah was musically and dramatically pleasing. Burnette’s Pooh-Bah was a rippingly persuasive Lord High Everything Else despite the weakness of the singer’s ascents above the stave. His account of the minuet song ‘Young man, despair’ was appropriately disheartening, and he articulated the line ‘I think you ought to recollect’ with perfect hubris. In the trio with Ko-Ko and Pish-Tush and throughout the performance, Burnette’s strong singing was enjoyably droll.

The title rôle in this Mikado was taken by Michael Rowe, who arrived in Act Two with a majestic traversal of ‘From ev’ry kind of man obedience I expect’ that disclosed at once that his opinion of himself was as exalted as his position. Rowe’s demeanor was delectably imperious but undeniably charismatic: he was the sort of Mikado whose authority was surely a product of seniority rather than superiority. Rowe’s extensive experience as a Savoyard was especially apparent in his performance of the brilliant song with chorus ‘A more humane Mikado never did in Japan exist,’ initially cut by Gilbert and Sullivan during rehearsals for the opera’s first performance but thankfully reinstated at the eleventh hour. Rowe’s robust singing reflected the Mikado’s social stature, completing a peevishly charismatic portrait of the character.

Lyric tenor Brady DelVecchio embodied the youthful verve and idealism that Nanki-Poo should possess. From the start of his recitative ‘Gentlemen, I pray you tell me’ in Act One, DelVecchio sang with dulcet tone and total dramatic involvement. The character’s beguiling song with chorus ‘A wand’ring minstrel I’ received from the tenor a performance of unforced merriment, legitimizing Katisha’s infatuation with him. In the duet with Yum-Yum, he suffused ‘Were you not to Ko-Ko plighted’ with a young lover’s disillusionment. ‘The flowers that bloom in the spring,’ was winsomely sung, DelVecchio’s voice blossoming at the top of the stave. Much of Nanki-Poo’s music inhabits the tenor’s passaggio, increasing the rôle’s difficulties, particularly for young singers. DelVecchio braved the music’s demands with skill and poise to spare, his Nanki-Poo emerging as a bona fide romantic lead.

The Mikado’s heroine Yum-Yum has typically been sung by light-voiced sopranos like Clara Dow and Valerie Masterson. As written, Yum-Yum’s music is not high by conventional operatic standards, but it was a novelty to hear the part sung by a fuller voice. Lyric soprano Farren Hilliard brought a refreshing ‘girl next door’ aura to the part, giving the much-parodied ‘Three little maids from school are we’ a hint of mischief. The soprano’s diction lacked clarity in ensembles, and she sporadically lacked her colleagues’s assurance in dialogue. She was impetuous passion personified in her exchanges with Nanki-Poo, though, and her singing in the Act One finale imparted the same smiling confidence that shone on her face.

Hilliard was most in her element in the lovely Andante commodo song in Act Two, ‘The sun, whose rays are all ablaze,’ and the madrigal, both of which she phrased with consummate grace. As she, DelVecchio, and Toft sang it, the kinship of the trio ‘Here’s a how-de-do!’ with a similar number for Marie, Tonio, and Sulpice in Act Two of Donizetti’s La fille du régiment was evident. The adolescent awkwardness of Hilliard’s portrayal intensified the contrast between Yum-Yum and Katiska, giving them profiles as opposite as Dvořák’s Rusalka and Cizí kněžna. There is little dramatic depth to Yum-Yum, but Hilliard made the character atypically wily and independent.

Greg Toft made Titipu’s Lord High Executioner Ko-Ko a complex, maddening, and curiously magnetic figure whose foibles were all the more amusing for being recognizably universal. The demands of the Act One Allegro marziale song with chorus ‘Taken from the county jail by a set of curious chances’ were exuberantly met, the voice pealing through the difficult writing with exultant ease. Textually, Ko-Ko’s song with chorus ‘As someday it may happen that a victim must be found’ is one of the most problematic pieces in the score, its words troubling to Twenty-First-Century audiences, but Toft and Durham Savoyards cunningly circumnavigated the song’s pitfalls. In the trio with Pish-Tush and Pooh-Bah, Toft voiced his lines with unmistakable ego.

The Act Two trio with Pitti-Sing and Pooh-Bah was one of the performance’s highlights, Toft’s singing of ‘The criminal cried as he dropp’d him down’ galvanizing the ensemble. The Andante espressivo song ‘On a tree by a river a little tom tit sang’ is arguably the best-known number in The Mikado, and the duet with Katisha that follows is perhaps the finest of Sullivan’s music in the score. The jocularity of the scene was not overlooked, but, responding to the quality of the music, Toft rightly concentrated on producing gratifying sounds. He succeeded, and the Lord High Executioner’s impact was all the more cutting for it.

Gilbert’s and Sullivan’s Savoy operas are frequently presented as farces, especially in America, where they fall victim to directors who deem their humor ‘too British’ for Yankee audiences. Letting Gilbert and Sullivan have their say without ‘translation’ (and—praise them!—without feigned British accents), Durham Savoyards’ production of The Mikado affirmed that comedy is most effective when the artists bringing it to life take it seriously. This was a Mikado that was unafraid of frivolity, but its greatest virtue was its exploration of the inherent comedy in extraordinary things happening to thoroughly ordinary people.

23 March 2019

ARTS IN ACTION: Washington Concert Opera and a world-class cast bringing Gioachino Rossini’s Neapolitan swansong, Zelmira, to Lisner Auditorium on Friday, 5 April 2019

ARTS IN ACTION: Italian composer GIOACHINO ROSSINI (1792 - 1868), whose 1822 opera ZELMIRA will be performed in concert by Washington Concert Opera on Friday, 5 April 2019 [Image from a Nineteenth-Centry engraving]

Gioachino Rossini was two weeks from his thirtieth birthday when his opera Zelmira premièred in Naples on 16 February 1822—and, though he would live for another forty-six years, only seven years from retiring from the composition of opera. From the first performance of the one-act farce La cambiale di matrimonio in 1810 until the 1829 première of Guillaume Tell, Rossini’s music dominated opera, not least in Naples. Beginning with Elisabetta, regina d’Inghilterra in 1815, ten of Rossini’s operas débuted in Naples, all of them serious operas rather than the comedies that have sustained Rossini’s popularity unto the Twenty-First Century. Did Neapolitan audiences lack a sense of humor, or did they perceive in Rossini’s music qualities more profound than the affable hilarity that endeared the son of Pesaro to all of Europe?

Rossini’s operas are rarely praised for the literary integrity of their libretti, but the composer often found inspiration in the work of eminent writers: Pierre-Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais in Il barbiere di Siviglia, Jean Racine in Ermione, Sir Walter Scott in La donna del lago, and Friedrich von Schiller in Guillaume Tell, for instance. The texts of Ermione and La donna del lago were written by the appointed poet of the royally-supported Neapolitan opera houses, Andrea Leone Tottola, who turned to a 1762 play by Pierre-Laurent Buirette de Belloy for the source of Zelmira’s plot. [Tottola later adapted de Belloy’s 1777 drama Gabrielle de Vergy for an operatic setting by Gaetano Donizetti. De Belloy’s 1765 patriotic epic Le siège de Calais was also a source for Salvadore Cammarano’s libretto for Donizetti’s L’assedio di Calais.] Though not as familiar to Twenty-First-Century readers as Racine’s Andromaque and Scott’s The Lady of the Lake, de Belloy’s Zelmire provided Rossini with a tale of political intrigue, false accusations, and tested loyalties that he recounted with music that both embodies and in some scenes defies the genial tunefulness for which his operas are renowned.

Two months after its Neapolitan première, Zelmira was staged in Vienna, where the score provoked heated debate about the Teutonic elements perceived by some listeners, likening it to music by Gluck and Mozart. Thereafter, the opera was performed throughout Italy; in London, where Rossini conducted the inaugural British performance; in Paris and Lisbon; and in opera-loving New Orleans. Zelmira’s good fortune waned as the Nineteenth Century drew to its close, joining Rossini’s serious operas in being eclipsed by their comic siblings and the operas of Giuseppe Verdi. Zelmira returned to Naples in 1965 in a production that featured Romanian soprano Virginia Zeani in the title rôle, but reappraisal of the opera’s considerable merits has been slow. A 1988 concert performance in Venice gave rise to a studio recording and a staged production in Rome, all with Cecilia Gasdia as Zelmira. Mariella Devia sang the eponymous heroine in Pesaro, Lyon, and Paris, and the opera was performed at the Edinburgh Festival in 2003 and reprised at Pesaro in 2009. Washington Concert Opera’s performance of Zelmira on 5 April 2019, likely the first performance of the opera in America since its New Orleans début in the 1830s, offers a rare opportunity to hear this music sung by a cast capable of recreating the vocal flair that enchanted Naples 197 years ago.

ARTS IN ACTION: the title page of the autograph manuscript of Gioachino Rossini's ZELMIRA, being performed by Washington Concert Opera on 5 April 2019From Naples, with love: the title page of the autograph manuscript of Gioachino Rossini’s Zelmira, being performed by Washington Concert Opera on 5 April 2019

Australian conductor Antony Walker has been a tireless champion of underappreciated repertoire in his capacity as Washington Concert Opera’s Artistic Director, and his trademark enthusiasm pervades his contemplation of resurrecting Zelmira. Above all, Walker is exhilarated by the idiosyncrasies that enliven this score. ‘Zelmira has a few unique touches that really spring out dramatically,’ the Maestro mused. ‘One such surprise is at the very beginning of the opera, where Rossini chooses to dispense with the traditional overture and launch straight into a chorus scene where we discover that Prince Azor has been murdered.’ The convoluted conceits of Tottola’s libretto have received much criticism, but Walker trusts Rossini’s dramatic instincts to make Zelmira viable for today’s listeners. ‘The opera starts with shuddering strings and menacing wind/brass diminished chords that plunge the audience into a world of uncertainty and chaos. Antenore then enters and feigns horror and outrage at this murder—he basically engineered it, with the help of Leucippo. Rossini provides firstly flowery, ironic music, then a mock-heroic cabaletta underscoring the insincerity of the usurper.’

Luring the audience into the opera’s conspiratory atmosphere, Rossini heightens the impact of the characters’ conflicts with chameleonic music, one moment’s delicate tenderness giving way to another’s rousing bravura display. ‘A surprise of a very different quality is the exquisite duettino for Zelmira and Emma, depicting Zelmira’s sorrow in having to hand over her small son to Emma’s protection for the foreseeable future, as she knows that Antenore and Leucippo are closing in on her and will soon probably deprive her of her liberty,’ Walker asserted. ‘This duettino is perfectly and breathtakingly scored for only a quartet: the two singers, English horn, and harp, and [it] is a delicate, poignant, and moving jewel of chamber music, beautifully positioned just before the aggressive and frenetic finale to Act One.’ This musical variety is Zelmira’s foremost strength, Walker feels, but it also begets some of the score’s greatest challenges.

Creating and maintaining dramatic momentum are hallmarks of Walker’s conducting, and he is acutely aware of the conductor’s integral rôle in the success of a performance of Zelmira. His method of pacing Washington Concert Opera’s Zelmira will be guided by five principals. ‘The biggest issues in keeping a work of such length riveting in performance are: (1) to equally take care of the large dramatic arcs in each act, as well as the small details on each page of the score; (2) [to] make sure that individual characters are very specifically drawn and presented; (3) [to] always remember to keep the recitatives dramatically engaging and full of emotional and dramatic contrast; (4) [to] ensure that the orchestra is always adding specifically to the drama, encouraging the players [to] feel like characters and helping them express the underlying emotions of each scene; and (5) [to] make sure [to make the most of] each special and unique moment in the score,’ he explained. These are lofty goals, but Walker has devoted his career to meeting the musical and dramatic needs of pieces that other conductors ignore.

Performing Zelmira in concert allows the artists and the audience to wholly surrender themselves to the music, but Walker realizes that the ultimate impression made by the performance relies upon satisfying musical storytelling. ‘For a work like Zelmira, which is not well known and which most of the principals are singing for the first time, I like [to] at first sit together and discuss the characters; how they feel about their characters and how I see their characters in the whole scheme of the drama,’ he said. ‘It is especially important in concert for singers to understand the characters of their colleagues, as we don’t have staging rehearsals to take us through this important step of understanding, exploration, and discovery.’

ARTS IN ACTION: American tenor LAWRENCE BROWNLEE, who will sing Ilo in Washington Concert Opera's performance of Gioachino Rossini's ZELMIRA on 5 April 2019, as Rinaldo in ARMIDA at The Metropolitan Opera in 2010 [Photograph by Ken Howard, © by The Metropolitan Opera]
Coloratura champion: American tenor Lawrence Brownlee, who will sing Ilo in Washington Concert Opera’s performance of Gioachino Rossini’s Zelmira on 5 April 2019, as Rinaldo in Armida at The Metropolitan Opera in 2010
[Photograph by Ken Howard, © by The Metropolitan Opera]

To date, Ohio-born tenor Lawrence Brownlee’s Rossini portrayals at New York’s Metropolitan Opera include Conte d’Almaviva in Il barbiere di Siviglia, Don Ramiro in La Cenerentola, Rinaldo in Armida, and Giacomo in La donna del lago. One of the most acclaimed modern exponents of music written by Rossini for Giovanni David, who created the rôle of the Trojan prince Ilo in Zelmira, Brownlee returns to Washington Concert Opera for his rôle début as Ilo, bringing to the performance a battle-tested strategy for conquering Rossini’s daunting vocal salvos. ‘Ilo’s entrance aria “Terra amica” calls for a virtuosic voice to sing it in order to be done well,’ the tenor stated. ‘It sits very high and is very demanding, but it's also very gratifying if you can equip yourself to do it well.’ Equipping oneself to sing the aria well is a Herculean task, he admitted. ‘Just getting through it is an accomplishment!’ Brownlee confided with characteristic wit. Though Ilo is new to his repertory, he is well acquainted with ‘Terra amica,’ which was included on his Delos recording of Rossini virtuoso arias. ‘I always aim to not only get through the demanding virtuosity of it, but to focus on the beauty of the writing and sing it musically and with intention,’ Brownlee reflected. ‘That is the thing that sets [the aria] apart and makes it a moment in the opera that’s not to be missed. I hope the Washington audience will enjoy it!’

ARTS IN ACTION: Spanish mezzo-soprano SILVIA TRO SANTAFÉ, who will sing the title rôle in Washington Concert Opera's performance of Gioachino Rossini's ZELMIRA on 5 April 2019, as Rosina in IL BARBIERE DI SIVIGLIA at San Diego Opera in 2012 [Photograph by Ken Howard © by San Diego Opera]Voz de Valencia: Spanish mezzo-soprano Silvia Tro Santafé, who will sing the title rôle in Washington Concert Opera’s performance of Gioachino Rossini’s Zelmira on 5 April 2019, as Rosina in Il barbiere di Siviglia at San Diego Opera in 2012
[Photograph by Ken Howard, © by San Diego Opera]

The title rôle in Washington Concert Opera’s performance of Zelmira will be sung by Spanish mezzo-soprano Silvia Tro Santafé, an uncommonly versatile singer whose American début as Cherubino in a Santa Fe—an apt setting!—production of Mozart’s Le nozze di Figaro has been followed by too few appearances in the USA. Zelmira was originated in 1822 by Isabella Colbran, the singer for whom Rossini wrote some of his most iconic heroines and who became his wife a month after Zelmira’s première. The national origin that she shares with the rôle’s creator is an obvious aspect of Zelmira’s allure for Santafé. ‘Of course, as a Spanish singer I have a special interest in rôles created for Isabel Colbran!’ she declared. Not surprisingly, especially considering her superb bravura technique, Santafé also feels particular affection for Rossini’s music. ‘I have always felt [that] Rossini is the center of my singing. From the serious rôles—Arsace [in Semiramide], for example—and all the comic rôles I sing, which are not actually all that comic if you really think about the characters, I find these roots in all the music I sing.’ These roots, she intimated, provide the technical security that has enabled her to comfortably explore other repertory.

Earlier this year, Santafé sang her first Laura in Amilcare Ponchielli’s La Gioconda at Théâtre Royale de La Monnaie, an achievement that she credits to the technical foundation built upon her experience in Rossini rôles. ‘Laura is my first step into early verismo and has very direct demands from the very beginning of the rôle,’ the mezzo-soprano remarked. ‘La Gioconda is a drama packed with fast-moving dramatic situations, and the rôle reflects that.’ This is a trait that Laura and Zelmira have in common, she suggested. She continued, ‘Zelmira is also a quickly-unfolding drama, and the character of the singing and Rossini’s masterful writing take [Zelmira] through multiple situations. Sometimes, [the drama is] extremely intimate, as in a truly beautiful Duetto in Act One or Zelmira’s prison aria in the second act. Then, [in] the incredibly grand ensembles, the drive of Rossini’s rhythm and tempo creates overwhelming vocal excitement.’

A consummate mistress of opera’s grand passions, Santafé is ever cognizant that vocal control must govern even the most unbridled operatic emotions. ‘The discipline of Rossini’s coloratura helps me prepare for [the performances as] Principessa Eboli that I will sing in Madrid this year,’ she said. It is not merely Rossini’s translation of psychological drama into fiorature requiring specific technical mastery that makes the composer’s music a grounding force for Santafé, however. She summarized her process of learning Zelmira’s music with a statement that reveals much about the importance of Rossini repertory to her artistic identity. ‘Rossini’s beautiful long phrases became amplified later in Bellini, Donizetti, Verdi, and Ponchielli, which means [that] as a singer my approach to the drama and the vocal demands will always be influenced by my Rossini musical roots. No matter how distant [I roam], I always return.’

The company’s Zelmira’s credo might also be cited in an assessment of Washington Concert Opera. Repertory in WCO’s recent seasons has roamed as widely as Richard Strauss’s Guntram, Massenet’s Hérodiade, and Gounod’s Sapho, but performing Zelmira is a return to the bel canto roots that have resiliently anchored Washington Concert Opera in the nation’s notoriously unstable operatic humus for the past three decades.


In addition to Silvia Tro Santafé and Lawrence Brownlee, the cast for Washington Concert Opera’s performance of Rossini’s Zelmira includes mezzo-soprano Vivica Genaux as Emma, tenor Julius Ahn as Antenore, bass-baritone Patrick Carfizzi as Polidoro, and bass-baritone Matthew Scollin as Leucippo.

The performance will take place in Lisner Auditorium on the campus of The George Washington University at 7:00 PM (EDT) on Friday, 5 April 2019.

For more information and to purchase tickets for the performance, please visit Washington Concert Opera’s website.

22 March 2019

March 2019 RECORDING OF THE MONTH: C.-B. Balbastre, J. Duphly, J.-B. Forqueray, J.-N. Royer — LE CLAVECIN FRANÇAIS: PIÈCES DE CLAVECIN (Adam Pearl, harpsichord; Plectra Music, PL21803)

March 2019 RECORDING OF THE MONTH: LE CLAVECIN FRANÇAIS - PIÈCES DE CLAVECIN (Adam Pearl, harpsichord; Plectra Music PL21803)CLAUDE-BÉNIGNE BALBASTRE (1724 – 1799), JACQUES DUPHLY (1715 – 1789), JEAN-BAPTISTE FORQUERAY (1699 – 1782), JOSEPH-NICOLAS ROYER (circa 1705 – 1755): Le clavecin français: Pièces de clavecinAdam Pearl, harpsichord [Plectra Music PL21803; 1 CD, 74:22; Available from Plectra Music and major music retailers]

Cultural, political, and societal perceptions of the concepts of nationality and nationalism have undergone countless transformations, humanity having collectively and divisively redefined the essence of the impact of individuals’ tangible origins upon their psychological perspectives and existential identities. What to one person is little more than a geographical distinction is to another person something that can be weaponized in the pursuit of ideological alienation and superiority. As the politics of nationality and nationhood have evolved, the most basic notions of identity have been challenged, requiring individuals and societies to seek answers for difficult questions about the extent to which lives are shaped by the nations in which they are lived.

Whilst several of today’s most powerful nations remained disarticulated assortments of self-governed regions, influential nationalistic trends emerged, often forged by groups of people who shared common origins or languages. Thus, unique German and Italian cultures were identifiable long before Germany and Italy assumed their modern forms. Though no less affected than her neighbors by regionalism and conflicts arising from dynastic ambitions, the dominion of the Franks emerged from Roman Gaul as an entity that closely resembled today’s France. By the time of Hugh Capet’s ascension to the Frankish throne in 987, the boundaries of the eventual French republic were etched upon the Continent. As many Europeans looked to the flags flying above their local fortresses to determine by which factions they were dominated, the French cultivated the still-discernible traits that yielded artists ranging from Molière and Rousseau to Monet and Rodin.

Alongside literature, the visual arts, and cuisine, music became an indelible component of the French national identity. Whether the troubadours’ ballads of the Middle Ages, the operas of Charles Gounod, or the chansons of Édith Piaf, music has for a millennium been an integral part of the French experience, and this was especially true in the Eighteenth Century, when musical forms developed in France were emulated by composers throughout Europe. The French musical diaspora encompassed Bach, Händel, Telemann, and virtually every composer of consequence active in the first half of the Eighteenth Century, but it was in the work of her native musicians that France’s national school flourished most fruitfully.

Playing a bright-timbred instrument by Dutch-born maker Joannes Goermans, dated to 1768 and expertly restored in 2014 by California-based harpsichord builder John Phillips, prize-winning harpsichordist Adam Pearl makes this volume in Plectra Music’s Le clavecin français series an astonishingly vivid portrait of a period in which the French school of composition taught some of its most representative lessons from the keyboard. Working in Paris from the time of his arrival in the city, circa 1730, until his death in 1777, Goermans witnessed the advancement of writing for the harpsichord surveyed on this disc, lending the choice of instrument particular relevance.

Placing the harpsichord in an acoustic space reminiscent of an intimate but vibrant salon, the immediacy of the recording is astounding: there is a compelling sense of experiencing a performance rather than hearing a recording of it. Both a scholar and a practitioner [his doctoral thesis dealt with French Baroque harpsichord music], Pearl plays all of the selections on this disc with the kind of virtuosity that encourages the listener to concentrate on the wonders of the music rather than those of the musician’s technique. These are not performances that conjure ghosts of the past: Pearl reveals that this music lives as viscerally today as it did two-and-a-half centuries ago.

A protégé of Pierre Février and friend of Armand-Louis Couperin who enjoyed the advocacy of Jean-Philippe Rameau, Claude-Bénigne Balbastre was so admired as an organist that civil and clerical authorities sometimes forbade his participation in regular services because the crowds his playing attracted were unmanageable. His compositions for the harpsichord were sufficiently appreciated to have been included in the pieces that Thomas Jefferson brought back to Virginia after a sojourn in Paris. The three works played by Pearl on this disc were published in the first book of Balbastre’s Pièces de Clavecin, issued in 1759, the year in which Georg Friedrich Händel died in London. The difficulties of ‘La de Caze’ are conquered by Pearl with an exhibition of impeccably period-appropriate phrasing. Crisp realization of ornamentation is a consistent trait of the harpsichordist’s playing, but still more impressive is the lyricism that he finds among the formidable challenges of a piece like ‘La d’Héricourt,’ here executed with thrilling theatricality. It is not unreasonable to expect accuracy in a performance recorded in studio, but Pearl’s performance of Balbastre’s ‘La Lugeac’ is accurate but never studio-bound, his playing conveying engaging spontaneity.

There is an element of chronological irony in the fact that Jacques Duphly’s Troisième Livre de Pièces de Clavecin was published in 1756, the year in which Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was born in Salzburg. That the birth of the musical innovator who would play a pivotal rôle in setting the seal on the harpsichord’s obsolescence was figuratively accompanied by the pieces from Duphly’s collection played by Pearl on this disc enhances the contextual provenance of the music. The young Mozart was exposed to the musical life of Parisian society during the Continental tours arranged by his father, and he may well have heard music like Duphly’s whilst in the French capital. As Pearl performs it on this disc, ‘Les Grâces’ is true to its title, imparting a level of sophistication that would surely have piqued Mozart’s interest. The infanticidal mania of the mythological wife of Jason permeates ‘Médée’ and Pearl’s playing of it, the musician’s temperament proving wholly equal to that of the music. ‘La Forqueray’ is Duphly’s homage to the Forquerays, père and fils, and the fiery rondeau is ignited by Pearl’s powerful artistry. His approach to the Chaconne is both gratifyingly cosmopolitan and refreshingly straightforward. No anachronisms are imposed upon the music, but this view of of Duphly’s work offers aural glimpses of the future.

It is indicative of the volatility of the relationship between Jean-Baptiste Forqueray and his father Antoine, a viola da gamba virtuoso attached to La chambre du Roy from an early age, that the younger musician was both imprisoned and exiled at his father’s instigation. History affords the son a sort of poetic justice in the form of the father’s music being wholly lost except for a selection of pieces preserved by Jean-Baptiste. The caliber of the son’s talent is apparent in the 1747 first book of Pièces de Clavecin fron which three pieces were drawn for this recording. Pearl revels in the ambiguity of ‘La Angrave,’ divulging a suggestion of a Jekyll-and-Hyde dichotomy in the transition from minor to major tonalities. The relative simplicity of ‘La du Vaucel’ gives Pearl an opportunity to further display the sensitivity of his musicality. The ingenuity of the composer’s variations in ‘La Morangis ou la Plissay’ is accentuated by the imagination with which Pearl plays them.

Born in Torino but residing in Paris for the final three decades of his life, Joseph-Nicolas-Pancrace Royer enriched French musical life in the first half Eighteenth Century with operas and well-crafted music for the harpsichord, of which instrument he was a widely-renowned master. Welcomed in the most exalted social strata owing to his co-directorship with Jean-Joseph de Mondonville of the elite Concert Spirituel series and service in several capacities to the musical interests of France’s ruling house, Royer exerted a profound influence on his own and future generations of composers. His operas are still being rediscovered, but his music for harpsichord has won the espousal of a number of gifted keyboardists, among whom Pearl is one of the most capable interpreters.

The first book of Royer’s Pièces de Clavecin was published in 1746, during the time in which he was also writing his sole tragédie en musique, Prométhée et Pandore. The rhythmic structure of Royer’s Allemande may owe something to Teutonic models, but, as the elegance of Pearl’s playing affirms, its prevailing spirit is quintessentially French. The pensiveness of ‘La Sensible’ suits Pearl’s tasteful manner, and he emphasizes the feeling of reverie that lurks within the music. ‘La Marche des Scythes’ is the final piece in Royer’s 1746 collection and is rightly regarded as one of the most demanding works in the harpsichord repertoire. Pearl’s galvanizing performance persuasively evokes the bellicosity of the nomadic Scythians, but their warmongering is unfailingly and uncommonly musical.

In bygone days of steadfast financial solvency in the Classical recording industry, artists’ discographies were often mined to produce ‘portrait of the artist’ compendia, offering listeners quick-reference introductions to musicians’ work. A single disc could never provide a comprehensive acquaintance with the vast output of the French school of composition for the harpsichord, but this recording engenders the kind of connection between listener and musician to which all similar endeavors should aspire. The link to this disc could hardly be more tenuous, but there is something strangely apposite in Three Dog Night’s singing of ‘I’ve never been to Spain, but I kinda like the music.’ Adam Pearl was not born in France, but his playing on this disc rouses keen affection for that country’s music for the harpsichord.

IN REVIEW: Harpsichordist ADAM PEARL (Photograph © by the artist)Le prince du plectre: harpsichordist Adam Pearl
[Photograph © by the artist]

17 March 2019

PERFORMANCE REVIEW: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart — STRING QUINTETS, K. 406/516b, 516, & 593 (Chauncey Patterson, viola; Amernet String Quartet; Elon University, 14 March 2019)

IN PERFORMANCE: Amernet String Quartet, Mozart interpreters at Elon University on 14 March 2019 [Photograph © by Amernet String Quartet]WOLFGANG AMADEUS MOZART (1756 – 1791): String Quintets in C minor (K. 406/516b), G minor (K. 516), and D major (K. 593)Chauncey Patterson, viola; Amernet String Quartet [Whitley Auditorium, Elon University, Elon, North Carolina, USA; Thursday, 14 March 2019]

Perhaps no other composer of Classical Music has equalled the comprehensive mastery of form achieved by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. In a life that was brief even by the standards of his time, Mozart applied his genius to virtually every musical genre then in existence, drawing inspiration from Baroque masters and contemporaries including the Haydns, Mysliveček, and Salieri and transforming this artistic inheritance via new modes of expression. More than two centuries after his death, Mozart’s music resounds in concert halls, recital rooms, opera houses, cinemas, and private homes throughout the world, not as pedantic homage to a legendary artist but as exploration of still-undiscovered nuances of his artistry.

Composed during a period spanning eighteen years, from the month in which he celebrated his seventeenth birthday to eight months before his death, Mozart’s six quintets for two violins, two violas, and cello occupy seminal positions both in the composer’s output and in the evolution of chamber music from Baroque trio sonatas to modern works for diverse combinations of instruments. Building upon the foundations of Joseph Haydn’s enterprising string quartets, Mozart linked the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries with his quintets. In these works, the contrapuntal intricacy and near-mathematical precision of Johann Sebastian Bach’s part writing intersect with harbingers of Beethoven’s expressive intensity, Schumann’s poignant Romanticism, and Brahms’s ambiguous formality. The best performances of Mozart’s quintets are those in which past and future audibly meet within the confines of Mozart’s singularly sophisticated Classicism.

Joined in this performance by acclaimed violist and Burlington native Chauncey Patterson, a product of the string program instituted in Alamance County schools by Dr. Malvin Artley, the renowned Amernet String Quartet players—violinists Misha Vitenson and Franz Felkl, violist Michael Klotz, and cellist Jason Calloway—brought a programme comprised of three of Mozart’s quintets to Elon University’s intimate Whitley Auditorium. In their playing of these pieces in this space, the musicians explored the subtleties of the quintets with an extraordinary degree of clarity. The resonance of the room occasionally obscured individual pitches in fast-moving, ornamented, and slurred passages, but the accuracy of their playing in other passages confirmed the inviolable certainty of the musicians’ intonation.

The quintet’s ensemble playing was remarkable, but the resonance of each individual’s distinctive timbre was no less impressive. A musical aristocrat among equals, Patterson’s sound was strikingly rich and beautiful. Calloway’s sonorous pizzicati punctuated the phrases in which they were deployed with unmistakable dramatic significance. The aural patinas of both violins and Klotz’s viola combined brightness with darker undertones in a manner that accentuated the interplay of light and shadow in the music. The acoustics of large halls are not necessarily unsuited to chamber music, but this performance demonstrated that hearing music like Mozart’s quintets in a space of relative equivalence to that in which it was originally intended to be heard can be revelatory.

Dating from 1787, the C minor Quintet (K. 406/516b) with which the performance began is Mozart’s own adaptation of his earlier K. 388 Serenade for wind octet. The opening Allegro movement was played with expansive phrasing and a palpable sense of conversation among the parts. The quintet offered a serene account of the deceptively uncomplicated Andante, navigating the music’s modulations like a captain piloting a vessel through canal locks. Arriving in the open waters of the Menuetto, the musicians pursued a course of firm adherence to the dance rhythm that never impeded rhapsodic expressivity. The ‘Trio in canone al rovescio’ is unique in Mozart’s chamber music, in both form and temperament: the emotional ambivalence of the shifting moods of the music was limned by the seamless handling of the intertwining melodic line. The concluding Allegro evokes the grandeur of a symphonic finale, anticipating the symphonies of Schubert and Mahler, and this performance was characterized by an enchanting realization of the music’s contrasting introspection and angst.

The D major Quintet (K. 593) was completed in 1790, the year that also witnessed the composition of Mozart’s exquisite twenty-second and twenty-third String Quartets (K. 589 and 590). This devotion of his creative energy to chamber works yielded some of his most profound, perhaps autobiographical music, epitomized by the discourse among the instruments in K. 593. In their performance, these five musicians lent the first movement’s metamorphosis from Larghetto to Allegro particular gravitas, the lightening hues of the music suggesting a triumph over hardship. Modern listeners are often tempted to attribute psychological meanings far more convoluted than Mozart likely conceived to his slow movements, but the Adagio in K. 593 withstands post-Freudian analysis. Amernet’s playing imposed no extrapolated sentiments upon the music, instead allowing the audience to interpret Mozart’s musical ideas on their own terms. In this Quintet, too, the terpsichorean essence of the Menuetto and Trio was delightfully prominent in the musicians’ performance. Confusion about the emblematic descending chromatic figuration in the final Allegro persisted for many years owing to a corruption of the passage having appeared in an early printing of the Quintet, but Amernet’s playing exuded technical and interpretive assurance.

Like K. 406/516b, the Quintet in G minor (K. 516) was composed in 1787. G minor is a key used sparingly and with emotional specificity by Mozart: of his forty-one symphonies, only the Twenty-Fifth and Fortieth—two of his finest and best-loved symphonies—are in G minor. The brooding passion of the G-minor symphonies also permeates K. 516 and billowed from Amernet’s playing with volcanic force. The turbulent argument of the Allegro drew electrifying playing from the musicians, and the charge was sustained in the allegretto Menuetto. The sunny G major of the trio, blithely played, momentarily dispersed the ominous clouds that oppress the soul of the Quintet. Tchaikovsky, whose adoration of Mozart is apparent in his own music, expressed special admiration for the doleful candor of the G-minor Quintet’s Adagio ma non troppo movement. Amernet’s performance of this elegiac music communicated its tragic subtext without sacrificing momentum to unwarranted heaviness. The enigmatic Adagio introduction of the Quintet’s finale, again prefiguring Mahler’s whimsical manipulation of sonata form, was sensitively played. The impact of the culminating Allegro was therefore markedly heightened. Mozart’s decision to resolve this foreboding Quintet with music of impish jocularity has been criticized, but the dizzying virtuosity of Amernet’s playing validated the sagacity of Mozart’s inventiveness.

Few things imperil the health of art more direly than unquestioning acceptance of an artist’s reputed greatness. That Joseph Haydn declared Mozart to be the finest composer with whose work he was acquainted is indicative of the respect that Mozart garnered, but the accomplishments of many ordinary people have been exaggerated by well-meaning praise. His music affirms that Mozart was no ordinary person, but too many performers seemingly believe that they, rather than the music, bear the responsibility of perpetuating the composer’s genius. The music says all that needs to be said, however, and Amernet String Quartet’s majestic performances of three of Mozart’s string quintets enabled the music to speak with accents as vibrant and relevant now as when Mozart devised them.

IN PERFORMANCE: violist CHAUNCEY PATTERSON, Mozart interpreter with Amernet String Quartet at Elon University on 14 March 2019 [Photograph © by Palm Beach Symphony Orchestra]Hometown Mozartean: violist Chauncey Patterson, Mozart interpreter with Amernet String Quartet at Elon University on 14 March 2019 (shown here as Principal Violist of Florida’s Palm Beach Symphony Orchestra)
[Photograph © by Palm Beach Symphony Orchestra]


On a personal note, I thank Mr. Patterson and his Amernet String Quartet colleagues for dedicating their performance of K. 516 to the memory of Dr. Artley (1921 – 2017), whose vision, dedication, and indefatigable work ethic were devoted to fostering and advocating for the string orchestra program in Alamance County schools. Like Mr. Patterson, I am an alumnus of the Alamance-Burlington School System orchestra program. Without exposure to the work of Dr. and Mrs. Artley and the encouragement and tutelage of my orchestra teacher, Nancy Jones, I may never have experienced Classical Music and enjoyed the friendships that my love for music has engendered.

16 March 2019

PERFORMANCE REVIEW: Gaetano Donizetti — L’ELISIR D’AMORE (J. Burns, D. Blalock, G. Gerbrandt, B. Banion, E. Mandzik; Piedmont Opera, 15 March 2019)

IN REVIEW: Gaetano Donizetti's L'ELISIR D'AMORE, staged by Piedmont Opera in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, March 2019 [Graphic © by Piedmont Opera]GAETANO DONIZETTI (1797 – 1848): L’elisir d’amoreJodi Burns (Adina), David Blalock (Nemorino), Gregory Gerbrandt (Belcore), Brian Banion (Dulcamara), Eliza Mandzik (Giannetta); Piedmont Opera Chorus, Winston-Salem Symphony Orchestra; James Allbritten, conductor [Cara Consilvio, Director; Piedmont Opera, UNCSA Stevens Center, Winston-Salem, North Carolina, USA; Friday, 15 March 2019]

When attempting to analyze the foibles of operatic history, it can be difficult to discern why one work in a composer’s œuvre achieved greater prominence than its brethren. With hindsight influenced by pioneering performances and recordings of forgotten works, it is possible to hear a piece like Gioachino Rossini’s La gazza ladra and wonder why it was for so long eclipsed by Il barbiere di Siviglia. Why has La sonnambula been welcomed into the international repertory whilst La straniera has been heard only a few times since its composer’s death?

Rarely is a piece’s widespread acceptance by the public solely a product of good fortune. Espousal by a celebrated singer or conductor has often improved an opera’s lot, but there are almost always other elements that contribute to a work’s continuous or rediscovered allure. This is especially true of the operas of Gaetano Donizetti, the least remembered of which wield musical and dramatic felicities that qualify them for renewed interest. Donizetti’s L’elisir d’amore requires no reappraisal, however, never having relinquished its place in the international repertory. Bringing the much-loved tale of the free-spirited Adina’s entanglements with the unpretentious Nemorino, the arrogant Belcore, and the irrepressible Dulcamara to Winston-Salem’s historic Stevens Center, Piedmont Opera’s production of L’elisir d’amore legitimized the opera’s reputation by earning the affection it is still capable of inspiring 187 years after its first performance.

Premièred at Milan’s Teatro della Canobbiana on 12 May 1832, L’elisir d’amore was the third of four operas by Donizetti that were first performed in 1832. Its companions—Fausta, Ugo, conte di Parigi, and Sancia di Castiglia—are now only occasionally performed, but L’elisir, followed in December 1833 by one of Donizetti’s most successful and enduringly popular serious operas, Lucrezia Borgia, was beloved from its start. The composer’s melodic genius was at its freshest during the creation of L’elisir and was unquestionably stimulated by the wit of Felice Romani’s libretto.

Created by Sabine Heinefetter and Gianbattista Genero, the rôles of Adina and Nemorino have captivated generations of artists and audiences, the former having been enthusiastically appropriated by Maria Malibran and innumerable singers of varying degrees of vocal suitability. [Less helpfully, Malibran discarded Donizetti’s cabaletta for Adina in Act Two and inserted in its place ‘Nel dolce incanto,’ a superfluous piece of long-debated provenance that is now thought to be Malibran’s own work and was sung by Dame Joan Sutherland in her studio recording of L’elisir.] Furthermore, L’elisir has in Nemorino’s ‘Una furtiva lagrima’ and Adina’s ‘Prendi per me sei libero’ a sequence of the kind occurring in many of Händel’s operas in which the manic romp abruptly halts when emotions of life-altering importance emerge from the fray. Piedmont Opera’s performance facilitated a genuinely moving depiction of these moments of unaffected feeling, revealing the poignant sincerity at the heart of the opera’s timeless magnetism.

Directed by Cara Consilvio, Piedmont Opera’s production of L’elisir d’amore was visually appealing, genuinely funny, and touching without being cartoonish, foolish, or embarrassingly sentimental. The pacing of the opera’s action exploited the expert comic timing of the production team and the cast, incorporating a whirlwind of physicality that rarely interfered with the science of singing. Malabar Limited’s costumes and Martha Ruskai’s wigs and makeup similarly enhanced the production’s entertainment for the eyes without lessening its beauty for the ears. Eduardo Sicango’s scenic designs, originally devised for Virginia Opera, and Norman Coates’s lighting created a detailed but never distracting setting for the story, following Donizetti’s and Romani’s directions with complementary fidelity and imagination. The effectiveness of a production of L’elisir d’amore relies in large part upon equilibrium: accentuating either slapstick silliness or saccharine melodrama reduces the opera’s power to connect with audiences’ sensibilities. Piedmont Opera’s production attempted to make the piece neither a Molière farce nor a Shakespeare comedy. By allowing Adina and Nemorino to be who Donizetti and Romani intended them to be, this staging confirmed the wisdom of trusting an opera’s creators’ instincts.

IN REVIEW: bass-baritone BRIAN BANION as Dottor Dulcamara in Piedmont Opera's March 2019 production of Gaetano Donizetti's L'ELISIR D'AMORE [Photograph © by Mariedith Appanaitis / Piedmont Opera]The doctor is in: bass-baritone Brian Banion as Dottor Dulcamara in Piedmont Opera’s March 2019 production of Gaetano Donizetti’s L’elisir d’amore
[Photograph © by Mariedith Appanaitis / Piedmont Opera]

Piedmont Opera’s General Director and Principal Conductor James Allbritten conducted the performance with eloquence and panache, avoiding the practice of approaching the score as music that leads into and out of ‘Una furtiva lagrima’ that disfigures some readings of the piece. Rather, Allbritten was attentive to the inherent musical logic of each scene, fostering dramatic continuity by recognizing the momentum with which Donizetti infused the score. The Winston-Salem Symphony Orchestra followed his beat impeccably and played with little of the sloppiness often heard in this music—music that is sometimes erroneously dismissed as mere unchallenging, unimaginative accompaniment. The wind playing was especially commendable, the lively writing for trumpet preceding Dulcamara’s arrival and the gorgeous bassoon obbligato in ‘Una furtiva lagrima’ executed with skill and brio. Throughout the performance, the orchestra’s rhythmic ebullience and intonation garnered admiration. Comic operas can be more difficult to bring off than tragedies, but Allbritten and his colleagues in the pit projected the same sense of enjoyment that emanated from the stage.

Piedmont Opera’s choristers also embodied the good humor that bursts from almost every page of Donizetti’s score. Establishing the mood of the opera’s first scene, they sang ‘Bel conforto al mietitore’ charmingly, and their voicing of ‘Che vuol dire codesta suonata’ conveyed the appropriate excited anticipation. In Act Two, the choristers added to the gaiety of Adina’s banquet with their cheerful singing of ‘Cantiamo, facciam brindisi a sposi così amabili.’ Later, the ladies’ singing of ‘Saria possibile?’ upon hearing the news of Nemorino’s unexpected inheritance was the musical equivalent of raised eyebrows and suspicious shrugs. Choral singing is rarely a factor in a spectator’s decision to purchase a ticket for a performance of L’elisir d’amore, but the spectators for this L’elisir d’amore were treated to choral singing of a standard that reinforced the overall excellence of the production.

The rôle of Adina’s confidante Giannetta was delightfully sung by soprano Eliza Mandzik, an alumna of Providence College and the University of North Carolina School of the Arts. Voicing the part’s music with a bright timbre and easy command of the range, she created a three-dimensional character with her few lines in the opera’s opening scene. Alert to every detail of the action, this Giannetta never disappeared into the crowd. Informing Belcore of the arrival of orders from his superior with a sly voicing of ‘Signor sargente,’ the soprano intoned her lines in the subsequent quartet with the bemusement of a concerned party just distant enough from the emotional collisions to observe and comment on them without fear of becoming collateral damage. Mandzik’s conspiratorial utterance of Giannetta’s ‘Possibilissimo’ in response to the ladies’ expression of doubt of the truth of the rumor of Nemorino’s vast inheritance in Act Two made it clear that she was a savvy gossip who vetted her sources of information. She flirted with the newly-rich but still befuddled Nemorino with the coquetry of an ambitious young lady already picturing herself leaving the altar on the arm of a wealthy husband. A Giannetta should sound like an Adina in training rather than an overactive comprimaria, and Mandzik’s performance was that of a leading lady honing her craft.

Glances at Donizetti’s score and Romani’s libretto can leave the impression that the rôle of the egotistical, chauvinistic, and disarmingly dashing sergeant Belcore is indestructibly straightforward. To the contrary, two centuries of performance history document wrongheaded realizations of the part that have marred many productions of the opera. The foremost dramatic challenge of the rôle is that an effective Belcore should be smug and self-obsessed but also suave and mesmerizing. Vocally and temperamentally, baritone Gregory Gerbrandt was a world-class Belcore, as capable of inducing swoons as of brandishing a sword. The character’s larghetto cavatina in Act One, ‘Come Paride vezzoso,’ received a debonair performance from Gerbrandt, his technique making easy going of the florid writing and demanding tessitura despite marginal unevenness that dissipated as the performance progressed. This electrifying artist lent diverting swagger to Belcore’s lines in the trio with Adina and Nemorino and the quartet in which the sergeant reacts to his marching orders, exhibiting the character’s priggishness without being unpleasant.

This Belcore arrived at his wedding feast in Act Two in high spirits, unmistakably relishing the notion of being an ardent if none-too-faithful spouse. His exchanges with his intended bride and the wedding guests exuded the confidence of a soldier for whom affairs of the heart are won by strategizing akin to that employed on the battlefield, an attitude that was still more apparent in the duet in which he duplicitously—but in this performance not cruelly—goaded Nemorino into enlisting in his regiment with the promise of a signing bonus that will finance the new recruit’s love-elixir therapy. In the opera’s final scene, Gerbrandt was a Belcore who accepted defeat manfully, certain of his undamaged irresistibility to members of the opposite sex. The foremost marvel of Gerbrandt’s performance was the confidence with which he put the bel in Belcore’s canto, but his superlative acting provided a frame that perfectly suited his vocal portrait of the seductive sergeant.

IN REVIEW: (from left to right) tenor DAVID BLALOCK as Nemorino, soprano JODI BURNS as Adina, and baritone GREGORY GERBRANDT as Belcore in Piedmont Opera's March 2019 production of Gaetano Donizetti's L'ELISIR D'AMORE [Photograph © Mariedith Appanaitis / Piedmont Opera]Three’s a crowd: (from left to right) tenor David Blalock as Nemorino, soprano Jodi Burns as Adina, and baritone Gregory Gerbrandt as Belcore in Piedmont Opera’s March 2019 production of Gaetano Donizetti’s L’elisir d’amore
[Photograph © by Mariedith Appantaitis / Piedmont Opera]

Bass-baritone Brian Banion was the frighteningly menacing Sparafucile in Piedmont Opera’s 2015 production of Verdi’s Rigoletto [reviewed here], a part that shares little more than a vocal range and an Italian text with Donizetti’s Dulcamara. The uninhibited dramatic involvement that served Banion well in Rigoletto was no less valuable L’elisir d’amore. Making his entrance in Act One with a commanding account of the maestoso cavatina ‘Udite, udite, o rustici,’ splendidly conquering its profusion of top Es, Banion enlivened the too-often-clichéd Dulcamara with reminiscences of Jerry Lewis’s comedy and Sesto Bruscantini’s singing. The cunning of his utterance of his lines in the duet with Nemorino was embodied by his mercurial articulation of ‘Ah! sì, sì, capisco, intendo.’ Banion’s caricature of the dilapidated senator in the barcarola with Adina at the start of Act Two, ‘Io son ricco e tu sei bella,’ was riotously funny; more so, in fact, because his vocalism was so good. The hilarity of Dulcamara’s parts in first the madcap quartet and then his duet with Adina was again heightened by the bass-baritone’s fantastic singing. If any doubt remained about Dulcamara’s pivotal rôle in the intoxicating comedic potency of this L’elisir d’amore, it was swept aside by the vigor of Banion’s voicing of ‘Ei corregge ogni difetto’ in the opera’s finale. A few words of the rapid-fire patter challenged him, but Banion’s Dulcamara peddled the eponymous elixir with savvy that Madison Avenue would clamor to bottle.

A resident of Winston-Salem and an alumna of the University of North Carolina School of the Arts, soprano Jodi Burns returned to Piedmont Opera, with which company she shone in Kevin Puts’s Silent Night, to portray the fiercely independent heroine of L’elisir d’amore. It was immediately evident that her Adina was fanciful but honorable, traits that shaped her account of the andantino cavatina ‘Della crudele Isotta il bel Tristano ardea,’ the ascents to the top Bs adroitly managed. Burns delivered the cantabile ‘Chiedi all’aura lusinghiera’ in the duet with Nemorimo with dulcet tones, and her singing in the succession of ensembles that propel Act One to its close was winsome if compromised in a handful of passages by uncertain pitch and fiorature that were not ideally tidy, issues with which she found little assistance from the pit.

Fetchingly impersonating the gondoliera opposite Dulcamara’s dentally-deficient senator in the banquet scene in Act Two, Burns voiced ‘Qual onore! un senatore me d’amore supplicar’ with charisma that recalled Mirella Freni’s singing of this music. The voice soared in the quicksilver exchanges of the quartet. Burns dazzled in the duet with Dulcamara, suffusing ‘Quanto amore! Ed io, spietata! tormentai si nobil cor!’ with a depth of feeling that indicated the profundity of Adina’s affection for Nemorino. Her performance of the aria ‘Prendi per me sei libero,’ crowned with a strong top C, was superb—her finest singing of the evening. Regrettably, Adina’s cabaletta ‘Il mio rigor dimentica’ was not performed, making the transition from Adina’s confession of her true feelings for Nemorino to the final scene seem slightly perfunctory. Burns nonetheless created a fully-rounded character, and her Adina’s inherent integrity made the pure-hearted Nemorino’s love for her more credible that it is in some productions. Inflicting upon the rôle none of the cooing and crooning to which it is often subjected, Burns also sang Adina’s music uncommonly attractively.

IN REVIEW: tenor DAVID BLALOCK as Nemorimo (left) and soprano JODI BURNS as Adina (right) in Piedmont Opera's March 2019 production of Gaetano Donizetti's L'ELISIR D'AMORE [Photograph © by Mariedith Appanaitis / Piedmont Opera]When a man loves a woman: tenor David Blalock as Nemorino (left) and soprano Jodi Burns as Adina (right) in Piedmont Opera’s March 2019 production of Gaetano Donizetti’s L’elisir d’amore
[Photograph © by Mariedith Appantaitis / Piedmont Opera]

Making his rôle début as Nemorino and his Piedmont Opera début in this production, North Carolina-born tenor David Blalock personified the humility and sensitivity that the character should possess. From the first bars of his larghetto cavatina ‘Quanto è bella, quanto è cara,’ Blalock demonstrated a connection with the rôle that intensified with the cavatina’s transition to allegretto. The effects of first-night nerves were discernible in a slight sense of tentativeness in his first scene and a few very brief losses of intonational focus, but the limpidity of Blalock’s plea of ‘Una parola, o Adina’ was ample compensation. Launched with an eager enunciation of ‘Voglio dire...lo stupendo elisir che desta amore,’ pure joy permeated his vocalism in the duet with Dulcamara. Confiding that the sole purpose of his experiment with the elixir was winning one cruel lady’s heart, his statement of ‘Ah! dottor, vi do parola ch’io berrò per una sola’ was unusually affecting, Blalock’s mastery of the passaggio-punishing G4s accentuating the plangency of his timbre. In the duet with Adina and the trio in which Belcore joins them, the tenor’s submissive demeanor evoked sympathy for Nemorino’s plight. Blalock’s singing of ‘Adina, credimi, te ne scongiuro’ in the quartet was a highlight of his performance, the voice beautiful and movingly plaintive.

Nemorino’s duet with Belcore in Act Two is one of the finest pieces in the score, and Blalock’s ecstatic interjection of ‘Venti scudi!’ was followed by a tender account of ‘Ai perigli della guerra.’ In the rollicking quartet, the tenor sang ‘Dell’elisir mirabile bevuto ho in abbondanza’ fervently. The bittersweet romanza ‘Una furtiva lagrima’ is one of opera’s most famous tenor arias and a formidable test of singers’ technical acumen. Nemorino’s music has no applause-inciting top notes like Edgardo’s written—but almost never sung—E♭5 in Lucia di Lammermoor or Tonio’s top Cs in La fille fu régiment, but the vocal line requires imperturbable concentration. The silence that filled the auditorium as Blalock sang the piece was a testament to the nobility of his performance. Phrasing with total comprehension of music and text, he fully realized the aria’s expressive potential. Finally winning Adina’s love, this Nemorino’s bliss was visible in every movement and expression—and in the solid top B♭ with which he ended the opera. In his first interpretation of the rôle, Blalock displayed an understanding of the character that some singers never attain. Nemorino describes himself as ‘un idiota,’ but his ignorance is that of innocence and inexperience. Blalock’s characterization emphasized the young man’s simplicity, which he never confused with stupidity. Singing so sweetly and honestly, it was inevitable that Blalock’s Nemorino would win Adina’s love: the audience’s collective heart was in the palm of his hand from the first sight of his gentle, guileless smile.

Bel canto operas are sometimes described as ridiculous plots set to beautiful tunes with meager musical substance. There is a bit of accuracy in that assessment, especially when bel canto is examined from a post-Wagnerian perspective, but is life always sensible? Does love always advance with linear orderliness? In L’elisir d’amore, Donizetti imitated the absurdities of life and love with graceful, mirthful melodies. Relying upon the fecundity of the composer’s musical ingenuity, Piedmont Opera’s L’elisir d’amore compellingly provided the substance this sparkling score is accused of lacking.

11 March 2019

ARTS IN ACTION: À la carte’s Spring Concert brings music appealing to virtually every taste to the Gate City on 15 March 2019

ARTS IN ACTION: the À la carte concert series presents its Spring 2019 concert in Greensboro's Holy Trinity Episcopal Church on 15 March 2019 [Graphic © by À la carte]Graphic © by À la carte

The visitor to North Carolina whose prior impressions of the state were shaped by industry, college and professional sports, and magnificent natural beauty may be surprised by the abundant and diverse artists and Arts institutions populating the Old North State. From top-caliber opera companies and orchestras in the major cities to Saturday-evening celebrations of roots music in places that leave GPS devices in states of perpetual recalculation, it is possible to find musicians pursuing their passion almost anywhere the curious adventurer in North Carolina chooses to seek them. On Friday, 15 March 2019, the best of the musical variety that immeasurably enriches life in North Carolina can be found in Greensboro’s Holy Trinity Episcopal Church, where the third season of the À la carte concert series culminates in a performance that promises to satisfy virtually any musical appetite.

Founded and guided by a pair of North Carolina’s eminent musicians and educators, mezzo-soprano and Associate Professor of Voice at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro Clara O’Brien and composer and Assistant Professor of Sight Singing and Ear Training, Music Theory, Composition, and Music Industry studies at North Carolina Central University Lance Hulme, À la carte was created as a showcase for the prodigious array of talented artists who reside in or have ties to North Carolina. Building upon the accomplishments of their aptly-named earlier enterprise Ensemble Surprise, O’Brien and Hulme have lovingly cultivated À la carte’s emphasis on musical inclusivity, previous concerts in the series having featured music from an expansive selection of historical eras and genres, performed by some of the Triad’s most engaging established and emerging artists.

Furthering the mission of mirroring North Carolina’s cultural heterogeneity in their programming, O’Brien and Hulme have devised an excitingly flavorful bill of fare for the musical banquet of À la carte’s Spring Concert. Spanning seven centuries, the concert’s repertory includes Fourteenth- and Fifteenth-Century motets, works by Henry Purcell (1659 - 1695), Ernest Chausson (1855 - 1899), George Crumb (born 1929), and Chick Corea (born 1941), and other unexpected treats. In additional to O’Brien and Hulme, artists scheduled to perform include flautist Erika Boysen, clarinetist Kelly Burke, lutenist and banjo virtuoso Samuel Taylor, percussionist Erik Schmidt, pianist James Douglass, violinists Marjorie Bagley and Phoenix Deng, violist Scott Rawls, cellist Alexander Ezerman, and The Brian Horton Ensemble.

An evening of music as thought-provoking and pulse-quickening as that planned for this concert is priceless, but admission to the performance is free. No tickets are required. Simply turn up, find a seat, make yourself comfortable, and prepare your palate to experience a banquet of delicacies from the world of music.


Please visit À la carte’s website to learn more about the organization and the 2019 Spring Concert. Please consider lending your generous support to bringing plans for À la carte’s ambitious 2019 - 2020 Season to fruition.
À la carte is a 501(c)(3) charitable organization.

ARTS IN ACTION: the À la carte concert series presents its Spring 2019 concert in Greensboro's Holy Trinity Episcopal Church on 15 March 2019 [Graphic © by À la carte]Graphic © by À la carte

10 March 2019

PERFORMANCE REVIEW: back to the woods with Greensboro Opera’s production of Engelbert Humperdinck’s HÄNSEL UND GRETEL (E. Wolber, L. Keith, J. Kato, L. Swann, G. Krupp, J. Winslow, A. R. Romero; 10 March 2019)

IN REVIEW: Composer Engelbert Humperdinck (1854 - 1921) [Photograph from the collection of Stadtarchiv Siegburg]ENGELBERT HUMPERDINCK (1854 – 1921): Hänsel und Gretel (sung in an English translation by Carol Palca Kelly) — Emily Wolber (Hänsel), Lilla Keith (Gretel), Jacob Kato (Peter), Lyndsey Swann (Gertrud), Gretchen Krupp (Die Knusperhexe), Jordan Winslow (Sandmännchen), Amber Rose Romero (Taumännchen); Members of Greensboro Youth Chorus; Greensboro Opera Orchestra; Garrett Saake, conductor [David Holley, Producer and Stage Director; Jeff Neubauer, Technical Director and Lighting Designer; Brad Lambert, Scenic Projections Designer; Greensboro Opera, Theater at Well•Spring, Greensboro, North Carolina, USA; Sunday, 10 March 2019]

It is said that anything worth doing is worth doing well. In the case of Greensboro Opera’s production of Engelbert Humperdinck’s Hänsel und Gretel, first seen in the Pauline Theater in High Point University’s Hayworth Fine Arts Center [reviewed here], something done so well was worth doing again. Transferred to the recently-built theater in Greensboro’s Well•Spring community, not by a witch’s sorcery but by the hard work of a team dedicated to increasing the vitality of opera in the Triad, the production exerted its magic in the new space with the warmth and piquancy of fresh-from-the-oven gingerbread.

Produced and directed by the company’s General and Artistic Director David Holley, Greensboro Opera’s Hänsel und Gretel successfully allied the coruscating music of Humperdinck’s setting of his sister’s adaptation of the familiar Brüder Grimm tale with modern technological innovation in the form of Brad Lambert’s picturesque scenic projections. Owing to the theater’s open design, Jeff Neubauer’s lighting designs found a more congenial space in which to shine, illuminating the production’s participants and their actions with intelligibility. Only someone with no experience in performing opera could think that ensuring that singers are were they are supposed to be, both on stage and in the progression of the drama, is a simple task, but Holley’s direction and Christian Blackburn’s stage management created that illusion, recounting the opera’s story with fast-moving continuity.

Garrett Saake, Well•Spring’s Director of Resident Relations and Programs, brought a scholar’s concentration and a consummate entertainer’s flair to his conducting of the performance. [Anyone who values American vocal music should read Saake’s insightful dissertation on the too-little-remembered Irving Fine’s choral music for female voices.] As in High Point, he was notably successful in overcoming the challenges of minor lapses in ensemble and the small instrumental ensemble, retaining a firm grasp on the score’s innate momentum and achieving emotional catharsis without the benefit of the late-Romantic orchestra for which Humperdinck wrote. Now more comfortable with their parts, the musicians played confidently, individually and collectively. Particularly in the Hexenritt and the Traumpantomime, the orchestra should be an eighth character in the opera and, comprised of only seven players, could not quite manage that in this performance, but Saake paced the performance with such ardor that moments that perceptibly lacked orchestral power were surprisingly few and fleeting.

The children who preceded Hänsel and Gretel into the Knusperhexe’s clutches were endearingly portrayed by High Point University students and Greensboro Youth Chorus members, singing sweetly even when freed from their sugary captivity, and the dancers who represented the angels dispatched from heaven to watch over the stranded youths were figuratively and literally en pointe. Sopranos Jordan Winslow and Amber Rose Romero again donned the Sandmännchen’s and Taumännchen’s imaginative costumes and voiced their music with appealing tones and bountiful charm. Winslow dispensed reassurance as handily as sand, her serene demeanor and vocal fluidity enveloping Hänsel, Gretel, and the audience with a sense that, the predicament in which the adventurous siblings found themselves notwithstanding, all would be well. Romero sang with increased ease at the bottom of the range, projecting the sort of untroubled management of the tessitura that the bringer of dew might be expected to wield.

IN REVIEW: a page from Engelbert Humperdinck's autograph score of HÄNSEL UND GRETEL [Image from the Sotheby's collection]Humperdinck by hand: a page from the autograph score of Engelbert Humperdinck’s Hänsel und Gretel, showing the alternate ending composed for an 1894 production in Dessau
[Image from the Sotheby’s collection]

Also reprising the rôles that they sang in the High Point performances were soprano Lyndsey Swann and mezzo-soprano Gretchen Krupp. Experience in the part deepened Swann’s depiction of Gertrud, Hänsel’s and Gretel’s mother, heightening her response to the feelings of guilt and inadequacy that push her to the brink of contemplating suicide. Adept in the High Point performance at imparting the put-upon mother’s exasperation, she enriched her characterization in Greensboro by also revealing the profound sadness and fear with which Gertrud contends, not least by sharpening her focus on the text. Her top B was splendid in the opening-night performance: in this final show, it was genuinely seismic. There was greater malevolent elation in Krupp’s Knusperhexe in Greensboro than in High Point: in the intervening week, she clearly cultivated an appetite for gingerbread children. As before, the voice was a marvel, a veritable avalanche of centered, accurately-pitched tones.

In this Well•Spring performance, the rôle of the family patriarch Peter was sung by baritone Jacob Kato, who during and since his time at UNCG has been a frequent and welcome presence in opera in central North Carolina (he will also be North Carolina Opera’s Spoletta in that company’s April 2019 production of Puccini’s Tosca). As Humperdinck’s Peter, he was nimble of voice and body, creating a character who was both noble and a bit naughty. There was little doubt that this amiable fellow had seen the interiors of most of the nearby taverns, but there was also no doubting the vastness of his love for his family. Not even the most fervid admirer of Humperdinck’s art could honestly deny that Peter’s music is awkwardly written, requiring attention above and below the stave that can rob the voice’s central core of focus. Kato was happier at the top of the compass than at the bottom, but he eschewed the shouting often heard in the part. There are few opportunities for lyricism in Peter’s music, but this singer’s declamation exuded paternal tenderness. Kato was a Vater of whom his Kinder and the composer could be proud.

Like Swann, mezzo-soprano Emily Wolber participated in UNCG Opera Theatre’s 2016 production of Francis Poulenc’s Dialogues des Carmélites, in which her harrowing performance as the Carmelite community’s old prioress, Madame de Croissy, disclosed a noteworthy talent for conveying tragedy without artifice. Hänsel could hardly be more different, musically and dramatically, but Wolber’s portrayal of the lad unveiled another valuable facet of her artistry. Convincingly boyish without overdoing the puerile shenanigans, her Hänsel was a disobedient but loyal son and a teasing but devoted brother. Vocally, the rôle was an excellent fit for Wolber. Her vocalism was reliably audible and dexterous. There were a few passages in which the mezzo-soprano’s intonation was slightly compromised, her pitch veering flat, but she recovered rapidly and capably. She seemed to be exercising caution in the upper register, suggesting that she was not feeling at her absolute best. Still, this expressive singer was a wholly enjoyable, unfailingly musical Hänsel.

Wolber’s ebullient Hänsel had a perfect foil in the frolicsome Gretel of soprano Lilla Keith. A willing partner in her brother’s escapades, this Gretel visibly relished her mischief, crisscrossing the stage with a gymnast’s agility. The voice was scarcely less pliable, mostly executing intricate writing with precision. Keith’s timbre was lovely throughout the range of the music, especially in the Abendsegen, which she and Wolber sang with an earnestness that eludes many exponents of these rôles. The soprano’s upper register had a polished-silver gleam but occasionally sounded forced: her top D in Act Three was solid but faintly tense. Keith gave Gretel her own unique identity, limning the girl’s distinct personality rather than portraying her as merely one half of a pair. Most importantly, Keith and Wolber joined their colleagues in the production’s previous performances in making Gretel and her brother absorbing figures whose fate mattered to the audience who spent two hours with them.

Owing to its fairy-tale subject and origins as a holiday diversion for young people, Hänsel und Gretel will likely always be regarded by most opera lovers as a children’s piece. The abiding joy of Greensboro Opera’s production of Humperdinck’s opera was that, though it unmistakably appealed to young eyes and ears, it avoided the stigma of opera for children. Things that were youthful delights may become guilty pleasures when experienced via bifocals and hearing aids, but laughter and tears are ageless. Opera should remind audiences of this, and that is precisely what Greensboro Opera’s Hänsel und Gretel did so well.