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.

08 March 2019

ARTS IN ACTION: from Burlington to bel canto: North Carolina-born tenor DAVID BLALOCK to sing his first Nemorino in Piedmont Opera’s production of Donizetti’s L’elisir d’amore

ARTS IN ACTION: Tenor DAVID BLALOCK, Nemorino in Piedmont Opera's March 2019 production of Gaetano Donizetti's L'ELISIR D'AMORE [Photograph © by Pavel Antonov]Hometown bel canto hero: tenor David Blalock, Nemorino in Piedmont Opera’s March 2019 production of Gaetano Donizetti’s L’elisir d’amore
[Photograph © by Pavel Antonov]

The short-lived novelist Thomas Wolfe, born in Asheville, North Carolina, in 1900, wrote words to which almost any artist can relate, eventually published posthumously in the aptly-titled work You Can’t Go Home Again.

You can’t go back home to your family, back home to your childhood ... back home to a young man’s dreams of glory and of fame.
It must be hoped that Wolfe’s assessment of the viability of returning to the safety and comfort of one’s own family is excessively pessimistic, but it cannot be denied that there is some degree of truth in his appraisal of the perils of returning to the surroundings that fostered youthful ambitions—ambitions that, revisited in hindsight, can incite bitterness, resentment, and cruel disappointment. The ‘young man’s dreams of glory and of fame’ are too often the older man’s reminders of inadequacies, missed opportunities, and failures. Colloquially, it is said that home is where the heart is: Wolfe might have argued that, for the artist, it can also be where the heart most fears to be.

Though his richly-hued voice has been heard in many venues within relative proximity of his hometown, including in acclaimed performances with North Carolina Opera and Virginia Opera, Chapel Hill-born tenor David Blalock’s portrayal of Nemorino in Piedmont Opera’s March 2019 production of Gaetano Donizetti’s L’elisir d’amore is a much-anticipated homecoming for this intelligent, insightful artist. An alumnus of the University of North Carolina at Greensboro and Maryland Opera Studio who resided in his youth in Alamance County, he has emerged as one of America’s most promising lyric tenors, garnering critical praise and audience appreciation for performances of music in a broad array of styles ranging from Georg Friedrich Händel’s Messiah to Stephen Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd. Stylistic versatility is now more than ever before an indispensable component of a successful young singer’s artistry, but few singers of any age rival the consistent imagination and vocal velvet with which this young artist brings music of any era to life.

Despite the vast differences between their musical languages, Blalock’s depictions of Don Ottavio in North Carolina Opera’s 2015 production of Mozart’s Don Giovanni [reviewed here] and the Steuermann in Virginia Opera’s 2016 production of Wagner’s Der fliegende Holländer [reviewed here] shared a common accent, that of the singer’s carefully-honed bel canto technique. Too often misinterpreted as a focus on complex fiorature and high notes, the core of true bel canto technique is emphasis on proper use of the breath to place and project tones, facilitating clarity and evenness throughout the range. As Blalock’s singing reveals, this is especially apparent in a tenor’s passaggio, the bridge between registers to which many singers fail to devote the sturdiness needed to sustain a long career. Blalock is aided by possessing raw materials of exceptional quality, but the technique that he has forged is a model of the sort of bel canto foundation that enabled Carlo Bergonzi and Alfredo Kraus to sing beautifully for decades. In this as meaningfully as in the theater’s nearness to his childhood home, Blalock’s rôle début as Nemorino is a return to his roots.

There is perhaps no bel canto aria for the tenor voice that is more iconic—and more of a measure of a singer’s mastery of bel canto technique—than Nemorino’s ‘Una furtiva lagrima.’ Positioned at a pivotal moment in Act Two of L’elisir d’amore in which, as in many of Händel’s operas, the boisterous action stalls to allow an outpouring raw emotion that alters the course of the drama, the melancholic plangency of the vocal line has endeared the piece to generations of opera lovers. It is a moment that Blalock identifies as a time of special importance in the character’s narrative. ‘“Una furtiva lagrima” stands out because of how big of a contrast it is to the rest of the rôle,’ he recently reflected. ‘It is the first and only moment in the opera [in which] Nemorino is on stage all alone, thus making that moment even more intimate.’

‘Una furtiva lagrima’ constitutes only a few minutes of a rôle in which an extraordinary progression of singers have conveyed virtually every conceivable emotion, however, and Blalock is equally attentive to the cumulative impact of a performance of L’elisir d’amore. ‘Honestly, there is so much beautiful music that I can’t pick a particular passage that stands out above the rest in my mind,’ he confided. ‘There are definitely moments where the action stops and time sort of “stands still” during a few of the big ensembles and finales. The big chorus scenes when everyone is on stage at once tend to be my favorite moments of the opera [because] I enjoy playing and reacting with lots of people on stage. There are so many ups and downs with this character: I just love the whole thing!’ It is the interaction among characters that makes L’elisir d’amore a captivating experience, he suggested. ‘I think, ideally, that if we [singers] are doing our jobs of telling this story well, the audience will be so wrapped up in the drama that they sometimes won’t even notice the music.’

ARTS IN ACTION: Tenor DAVID BLALOCK as Der Steuermann in Virginia Opera's 2016 production of Richard Wagner's DER FLIEGENDE HOLLÄNDER [Photograph by Lucid Frame Productions, © by Virginia Opera]Man on course: tenor David Blalock, Nemorino in Piedmont Opera’s March 2019 production of Gaetano Donizetti’s L’elisir d’amore, as Der Steuermann in Virginia Opera’s 2016 production of Richard Wagner’s Der fliegende Holländer
[Photograph by Lucid Frame Productions, © by Virginia Opera]

The naturalness and assuredness of his stage presence notwithstanding, Blalock’s singing of Nemorino’s music is unlikely to go unnoticed, and he concedes that the opera’s popularity affects his approach to it. ‘I think [that] the greatest challenge of singing Nemorino is the fact that many opera lovers have heard this music sung many times by the world’s greatest singers,’ he shared. ‘Even before they hear me sing, many people have an idea of how “Una furtiva lagrima” should sound because of the way Pavarotti or Domingo sang it.’ Still, he is no stranger to the reality of audience preconceptions. ‘As an opera fan myself, I can understand those ideas,’ he continued. ‘I fell in love with this opera partly because of these great singers.’

Blalock has achieved a level of knowledge of performers and performing traditions of the past that is uncommon amongst singers of his generation. This shapes his understanding of operas’ historical contexts, but, for him, imitation emphatically is not the highest form of flattery. ‘I just try to sing like David Blalock, not to imitate anyone else,’ the tenor insisted. Furthermore, he sees a clear parallel between his own artistic individuality and Nemorino’s struggle to attract and retain Adina’s attention and affection. ‘I have definitely been in that situation before,’ he admitted, thinking of Nemorino’s yearning to feel that his love is reciprocated. In this kind of situation, he again cites self-reliance as the surest means of accomplishing one’s goals. ‘Ultimately, the best thing one can do is be oneself,’ Blalock advised.

Whether of the operatic variety or in one’s life beyond the stage, the cultivation and preservation of love depend upon absolute honesty, this sagacious artist asserts. ‘If you end up together [with the object of one’s affection], then you don’t have to keep pretending to be something you are not,’ he mused. ‘If the person continues to be indifferent, then you have still stayed true to yourself and will ultimately be better off with someone else.’ After pausing to contemplate the confounding complexity of affairs of the heart, he added, ‘It is definitely easier said than done, but I truly believe [that] people end up happier if they stay true to themselves and try not to please others.’

Endeavoring to please others is an unavoidable necessity of a singer’s career, and Blalock is preparing to portray Nemorino for the first time by making a comprehensive study of the part. ‘The greatest challenge of playing the rôle in general is how physically demanding it is,’ he said. ‘Nemorino doesn’t leave the stage for one second in Act One, and most of that time is spent singing!’ Moreover, Blalock indicated, his work does not end with the stamina required by the rôle. ‘Not only is it a lot of singing, but the character requires a special kind of energy: he is young, maybe a little antsy, sometimes a little drunk, excited, lovable, earnest, and many other things—all at the same time. It can be exhausting, but when I am living in the story, I don’t feel the exhaustion until the curtain has come down.’

He has already conquered a number of the world’s eminent stages, but the curtain continues to rise on David Blalock’s career. Blessed with an attractive instrument that he tenaciously refines and an aptitude for learning that he feeds through unabating study, this young singer’s artistic trajectory belies the relevance of Thomas Wolfe’s axioms. The prospect of returning home holds no fear for David Blalock. Place a score before him, anywhere in the world, and he is at home.

 

Piedmont Opera’s production of L’elisir d’amore opens at UNCSA’s Stevens Center in Winston-Salem on Friday, 15 March, with additional performances on 17 and 19 March. In addition to David Blalock’s Nemorino, the production’s cast includes Jodi Burns as Adina, Gregory Gerbrandt as Belcore, Brian Banion as Dulcamara, and Eliza Mandzik as Giannetta. For more information and to purchase tickets, please visit Piedmont Opera’s website.

06 March 2019

PERFORMANCE REVIEW: Soprano LEAH CROCETTO in recital with pianist MARK MARKHAM (North Carolina Opera, 3 March 2019)

IN REVIEW: Soprano LEAH CROCETTO, recitalist with pianist Mark Markham for North Carolina Opera, 3 March 2019 [Photograph © by Jiyang Chen]HAROLD ARLEN (1905 – 1986), SAMMY FAIN (1902 – 1989), GEORGE GERSHWIN (1898 – 1937), GREGORY PEEBLES (born 1977), FRANCIS POULENC (1899 – 1963), OTTORINO RESPIGHI (1879 – 1936), and RICHARD RODGERS (1902 – 1979): Soprano Leah Crocetto in recital with pianist Mark Markham [North Carolina Opera, Fletcher Opera Theater, Duke Energy Center for the Performing Arts, Raleigh, North Carolina, USA; Sunday, 3 March 2019]

Discussions of which qualities contribute to the evaluation of a singer’s significance rightly begin and end with the voice, but there is another integral component that answers to many names. Call it charisma, stage presence, or artistic vision: without it, even singing of the most astounding beauty can fail to make a lasting impression on listeners. Casting semantics aside, this thing that can be cultivated, refined, and reinvented but cannot be borrowed, duplicated, or taught is the essence of a singer’s artistry.

Stage presence is not always a guest at Art Song recitals, but soprano Leah Crocetto owned the stage of Fletcher Opera Theater in her North Carolina Opera recital with pianist Mark Markham as though Duke Energy Center for the Performing Arts deeded it to her. Returning to Raleigh, where she has previously sung Leonora in Verdi’s Il trovatore and her rôle début as Bellini’s Norma, with an adventurous programme that provided as complete a survey of her artistic temperament as two hours of music could ever hope to do, this dauntless artist sang with the kind of candor that frightens some singers. Without the orchestra, costumes, and action of staged opera in which to bury insecurities, recitals furnish nowhere for a singer’s vulnerabilities to hide, sometimes prompting singers to choose the safety of music that challenges neither performers nor listeners. Crocetto might have garnered the admiration of her Raleigh audience with songs far less demanding than those by Respighi, Poulenc, Rachmaninoff, and Peebles that she selected as the cornerstones of this recital, but her objective was not to seek applause with vocal display. The voice was spectacularly displayed, but it was Crocetto’s daring, disarmingly intimate baring of her soul that made this recital unforgettable.

Now lauded more for his frequently-played tone poems and orchestral pieces than for his operas and other vocal works, Ottorino Respighi possessed a gift for melody that qualified him as a worthy exponent of the too-little-appreciated Italian song tradition furthered by Verdi, Puccini, and Toscanini. Markham’s passionate realizations of Respighi’s writing for the piano in the songs presented in this recital accentuated the Italianate slancio of the music and divulged that the composer’s vivid orchestral language translated easily into the piano’s dialect. The vocal control that Crocetto exhibited in her singing of ‘Stornellatrice,’ embodied by her perfectly-placed top A♭s, was a testament to her unflappable preparedness.

In ‘Nebbie,’ the singer’s lucid articulation of Ada Negri’s text culminated in a declamation of the lines ‘E mi ripete: Vieni, è buia la vallata’ that echoed the deep feeling exuded by her fortissimo G♯s. Dating from 1896, ‘Notturno’ is one of Respighi’s loveliest inventions in song form, comparable in quality to the finest of Richard Strauss’s Lieder of the same period. Markham’s playing yielded a broodingly dark soundscape in which Crocetto’s voice shimmered, her intonation formidably certain. The emotional intensity of ‘Mattinata’ unleashed subtle reminiscences of the soprano’s Aida. As confident in adversity as in triumph, the poet’s and composer’s voices took flight in Crocetto’s singing.

In reality, this recital introduced the Raleigh audience to several magnificent voices. The imposing but unaffected Tebaldi-esque Italian diva who voiced the Respighi songs was succeeded in the Poulenc selections that followed by a chanteuse after the fashion of Eartha Kitt. A singer of Crocetto’s abilities is expected to excel in performances of music as sumptuously written for the voice as Poulenc’s, but, supported by pianism that resounded with the hypnotic tumult of Paris, she sang these pieces with an ideal combination of sultriness and sophistication. The first three of the Poulenc songs chosen by Crocetto are settings of texts by Louise de Vilmorin, two of which were drawn from the composer’s 1939 work Fiançailles pour rire. Soprano and pianist phrased ‘Violon’ with a nonchalant elegance of which Catherine Deneuve would have been proud. Their performance of ‘Fleurs’ should have been chased with a glass of cognac, so chic was their handling of Poulenc’s sensual melodic writing.

Crocetto brought the communicative immediacy of her singing of Elisabetta’s ‘Tu che la vanità’ in Verdi’s Don Carlo to her account of ‘Aux officiers de la garde blanche,’ finding in the song a close kinship with Poulenc’s and Cocteau’s Voix humaine. The words of ‘Les chemins de l’amour’ were penned by Jean Anouilh, one of France’s greatest Twentieth-Century writers, and if composer and playwright could have heard this performance of the song they would have immediately initiated a collaboration on an operatic adaptation of Anouilh’s Antigone as a vehicle for Crocetto. It is not without justification that Denise Duval’s interpretations remain the benchmarks to which performances of Poulenc’s vocal music are compared, and Crocetto earned a place alongside Catherine Dubosc and Mireille Delunsch as one of the few singers who share Duval’s thorough comprehension of Poulenc’s singular style.

IN REVIEW: Soprano LEAH CROCETTO (left) as the titular heroine in San Francisco Opera's 2015 production of Giuseppe Verdi's LUISA MILLER, with tenor Michael Fabiano as Rodolfo [Photograph by Cory Weaver, © by San Francisco Opera]Resplendent Raleigh recitalist: soprano Leah Crocetto (left) as the titular heroine in San Francisco Opera’s 2015 production of Giuseppe Verdi’s Luisa Miller, with tenor Michael Fabiano as Rodolfo
[Photograph by Cory Weaver, © by San Francisco Opera]

Despite the increased focus on linguistic diversity that has broadened singers’ and opera companies’ repertoires in recent years, it remains unusual for non-Slavic artists to include Russian songs sung in their original language in recital programmes. Still more uncommon are performances by singers whose mother tongue is not Russian who enunciate the language as idiomatically as Crocetto did in her singing of four pieces by Sergei Rachmaninoff. Her singing of this music recalled the sensitivity of Elisabeth Söderström, the sincerity of Galina Vishnevskaya, and the vocal power of Elena Obraztsova.

In the first of her Rachmaninoff excursions, ‘Не пой, красавица’ (Opus 4, No. 4), Crocetto immersed herself in the recesses of the uniquely Russian mood of the music, its brooding and fiercely Romantic strains climaxing on a fiery fortissimo top A. The yearning, slightly enigmatic atmosphere of ‘Отрывок из А. Мюссе’ (Opus 21, No. 6) was heightened by the almost preternatural tranquility of Markham’s management of the song’s rhythmic figurations. Here and in ‘Здесь хорошо’ (Opus 21, No. 7), in which Crocetto rose fearlessly to the pianissimo top B, voice and piano disclosed an uncommon synchronicity between words and music, the pianist conveying the shifting colors of the text as meaningfully as the singing echoed the cadences of the accompaniment. The virtuosity of Rachmaninoff’s writing for the piano, particularly in ‘Какое счастье’ (Opus 34, No. 2), is predictably demanding, but Markham executed the most ferocious passages with imperturbable assurance. It was in this music that it was most noticeable and bothersome that the piano’s lowest octave sounded marginally out of tune. Crocetto’s top B♭ was on point, however, emerging like a thunderbolt from the surging vocal line.

Gregory Peebles is the rare contemporary composer who has experienced song as both a creator and a performer. His tenure with Chanticleer exposed him to music of virtually all eras, and that experience is audible in every bar of his 2013 song cycle Eternal Recurrence, given its first performance in North Carolina by Crocetto and Markham. More of a stream-of-consciousness meditation in several movements than a song cycle in the tradition of Schubert and Schumann, Eternal Recurrence employs texts from an array of sources including Gaius Petronius’s Satyricon. Beginning and ending with episodes entitled ‘The Void,’ comprised of an isolated note on the piano, Peebles’s music progresses into a contrapuntal labyrinth that briefly pays homage to Johann Sebastian Bach.

With Crocetto’s entrance in the ‘Vivace, Naïve’ section, the music’s psychological potency began to take shape with gripping profundity. The probity with which the soprano sang ‘The curvature of light beckons toward ancient horizon’ prepared the listener for the riveting honesty of her delivery of ‘The one I’m not, I’d rather be doing’ in ‘By Chance.’ Peebles’s penchant for taking the voice to extremes found an expert champion in Crocetto, whose vocal solidity encompassed all of the music’s complexities. The sonorous proclamation of Pyrrhic victory of ‘I reconquered my mattress continent and found its sheet-fields lonely’ in ‘Hollow’ was answered by the wrenching resignation of ‘Call me what you will.’ Singer and pianist made the composer’s instructions in ‘Liquide, molto rubato’ palpable, siphoning the listener into the cascading swell of the music.

Peebles’s directions in ‘Largo, proud’ were also followed with great fidelity, with Crocetto’s statement of ‘If my heart had a flag, its noble crest would be a passport the color of new jeans’ suggesting a Kafka-like juxtaposition of the everyday and the metaphysical. The Latin and Greek words of the text attributed to Petronius lend the ‘Verklärt’ movement an element of archaic authority, inspiring Crocetto to intone them in this performance with the prophetic mystery of an oracle. The ‘Playful, leggiero’ designation of the final vocal sequence is at odds with the sentiment of ‘Every language is the hardest,’ sparking a debate between music and words that was resolved by the unity of purpose that allied Crocetto’s singing with Markham’s playing. The finest music responds to the stimuli of different artists with new dimensions of emotional connectivity, but it is difficult to imagine a more viscerally moving performance of Eternal Recurrence than it received from Crocetto and Markham in Raleigh.

The singer introduced the American standards with which she closed the recital as favorite souvenirs from a time before the ‘Leah Crocetto, soprano’ phase of her career. There was no doubt that these songs were old friends, but these performances were not remembrances of things past: these were spontaneous experiences of genuine, raw feeling that eliminated any spiritual distance between performers and audience. Written for the 1924 revue Lady, Be Good, George and Ira Gershwin’s ‘The Man I Love’ was sung by Crocetto with a directness that metamorphosed the euphoric ache of love into a tangible thing that could be felt with each note that caressed the ear. Harold Arlen’s and Ira Gershwin’s ‘The Man That Got Away’ started its life in the 1954 film A Star Is Born, and this star singer shone in her quietly wrenching performance of it.

The collaboration between Crocetto and Markham achieved its apex in their exquisitely personal account of ‘Falling in Love with Love’ from Richard Rodgers’s and Lorenz Hart’s musical The Boys from Syracuse. The trust between them was manifested in musical expressivity that seemed to stop time, everything else in the world swept aside by these few minutes of bittersweet regret. Crocetto opined that Sammy Fain’s and Irving Kahal’s 1938 song ‘I’ll Be Seeing You’ needed no introduction. This is also true of singing of the quality with which she gifted the piece to the audience. Singing such as this cannot be found in all the old familiar places, but the fortunate listeners in Raleigh will surely always remember this singer that way.

For their encore, Crocetto and Markham gave a performance of ‘Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man’ from Jerome Kern’s and Oscar Hammerstein II’s Showboat in which every smile and sigh in Edna Ferber’s novel suffused the song. As in all of the music included in this recital, they forged their own path to the heart of the piece, finding sass, humor, refreshingly original wit, and incredible insight in its refrain.

There is no instrument that is more versatile than the human voice. With a finite range of tones, it can rage, revel, comfort, and cajole. With the simplest of tunes, it can change minds and win hearts. The best vocal recitals are those in which the listener feels that music was not merely performed but lived. Leah Crocetto’s and Mark Markham’s North Carolina Opera recital was an event in which music was a medium, not an outcome. It was The Judds who sang that ‘love can build a bridge,’ but Leah Crocetto and Mark Markham encircled Fletcher Opera Theater with musical orange barrels and launched a construction project of their own.

IN REVIEW: pianist MARK MARKHAM, fellow traveler in soprano LEAH CROCETTO's recital journey with North Carolina Opera [Photograph by Jean-Luc Fievet, © by Mark Markham]Poet of the piano: pianist Mark Markham, fellow traveler in soprano Leah Crocetto’s recital journey with North Carolina Opera, 3 March 2019
[Photograph by Jean-Luc Fievet, © by Mark Markham]

05 March 2019

PERFORMANCE REVIEW: Engelbert Humperdinck — HÄNSEL UND GRETEL (S. Foley Davis, J. Martinson Davis, S. MacLeod, L. Swann, G. Krupp, J. Winslow, A. R. Romero; Greensboro Opera, 2 March 2019)

IN REVIEW: Mezzo-soprano STEPHANIE FOLEY DAVIS (center right) and soprano JOANN MARTINSON DAVIS (center left) in the title rôles during the Traumpantomime in Greensboro Opera's March 2019 production of Engelbert Humperdinck's HÄNSEL UND GRETEL [Photograph © by VanderVeen Photographers]ENGELBERT HUMPERDINCK (1854 – 1921): Hänsel und Gretel (sung in an English translation by Carol Palca Kelly) — Stephanie Foley Davis (Hänsel), Joann Martinson Davis (Gretel), Scott MacLeod (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, Pauline Theater, Hayworth Fine Arts Center, High Point University, High Point, North Carolina, USA; Saturday, 2 March 2019]

Would any true operaphile question the judgement of Richard Strauss, Gustav Mahler, Johannes Brahms, and Hugo Wolf? In the 126 years since its world première in 1893, Engelbert Humperdinck’s Hänsel und Gretel has often been dismissed as a confection best suited to the tastes of children and unsophisticated audiences. A setting of the composer’s sister Adelheid Wette’s adaptation of one of the Brüder Grimm’s most popular tales, Hänsel und Gretel aspired to a première in Munich but was ultimately first staged in Weimar’s Hoftheater, where it was conducted with admiration by Richard Strauss. When the opera reached Hamburg a year later, Gustav Mahler wielded the baton with similar approbation. The opera’s first performance at the Wiener Hofoper—today’s Wiener Staatsoper—in 1894 was attended by Johannes Brahms and Hugo Wolf, both of whom reportedly expressed appreciation for the music. Not one of these illustrious artists who experienced Hänsel und Gretel in its first decade of life was a child, and few observers would belittle their musical sophistication. What did Strauss, Mahler, Brahms, and Wolf hear in Hänsel und Gretel that has eluded subsequent listeners’ ears?

As is true of virtually all operatic queries, the best answers to questions about the evolution of perceptions of Hänsel und Gretel’s musical merits are found in the music. That Humperdinck was an ardent disciple of Richard Wagner is widely known, his work with the older composer including painstakingly copying the autograph score of Parsifal in preparation for that opera’s 1882 première. A dozen years after seeing Hänsel and Gretel come to life in Weimar, Humperdinck visited New York in order to attend the Metropolitan Opera première of the opera on 25 November 1905. That performance was conducted by Alfred Hertz, whose expansive command of Wagner repertory at the MET encompassed the American première of Parsifal. The influence of Wagner on Humperdinck’s musical constitution is abundantly apparent in Hänsel und Gretel, in which there are moments that vividly recall Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg and Der Ring des Nibelungen. Many are the pages in Humperdinck’s score that look to the future, however. Strauss’s Salome and Die Frau ohne Schatten, Mahler’s symphonies, and Arnold Schönberg’s Gurre-Lieder are all indebted to Hänsel und Gretel, engendering a legacy that is at odds with modern trends of regarding the opera as a treacly trifle served as holiday fare and otherwise ignored.

Hänsel und Gretel was indeed conceived primarily as a Christmastide entertainment for children, but are its family-friendly narrative and relative brevity the sole motivations for both London’s Royal Opera House and the MET selecting the opera for their inaugural radio broadcasts of full-length performances in 1923 and 1931? The fusion of ambitious Wagnerian aesthetics with more accessible Germanic folklore and simple tunes that captivated audiences in the final two decades of the Nineteenth Century enabled listeners in the war-ravaged Twentieth Century to figuratively revisit a time before foxholes and takes, a time when predictable dangers lurked in finite settings in which they could be confronted and conquered. Sensitive to the interplay of innocence and menace that permeates Humperdinck’s score, perhaps what Strauss, Mahler, Brahms, and Wolf recognized in the context of Hänsel und Gretel was that being intended to be performed for children does not inevitably beget childishness.

IN PERFORMANCE: (left to right) soprano JOANN MARTINSON DAVIS as Gretel, mezzo-soprano STEPHANIE FOLEY DAVIS as Hänsel, and soprano JORDAN WINSLOW as Der Sandmännchen in Greensboro Opera's March 2019 production of Engelbert Humperdinck's HÄNSEL UND GRETEL [Photograph © by VanderVeen Photographers]Into the woods: (from left to right) soprano Joann Martinson Davis as Gretel, mezzo-soprano Stephanie Foley Davis as Hänsel, and soprano Jordan Winslow as Der Sandmännchen in Greensboro Opera’s March 2019 production of Engelbert Humperdinck’s Hänsel und Gretel
[Photograph © by VanderVeen Photographers]

Staged in the elegant Pauline Theater in High Point University’s Hayworth Fine Arts Center, Greensboro Opera’s production of Hänsel und Gretel is a celebration of cooperation amongst Arts institutions in and beyond the Triad. Sung in an English translation by Carol Palca Kelly that was first employed by Minnesota Opera, the performance was the culmination of an initiative to not only expand the reach of Greensboro Opera’s endeavors but also to foster broader community involvement. High Point University faculty member Brad Lambert designed projections that playfully but credibly—credible except when Mutter despaired of shattering the family’s only jug whilst a lovely, seemingly intact pitcher was clearly visible on the mantle behind her—conjured the atmosphere of each scene. His image of dawn breaking in the forest with a burst of pastel colors was particularly striking. Technical director Jeff Neubauer’s lighting designs occasionally muddled the production’s focus, compromising the virtues of its simplicity by complicating the audience’s task of following the opera’s action.

Originally devised for Utah Opera and Symphony, Susan Memmott Allred’s costume designs were both whimsical and practical, emphasizing that Hänsel, Gretel, and their parents are troubled but not defeated by privation. Christian Blackburn’s stage management and Greensboro Opera General and Artistic Director David Holley’s direction were unmistakably influenced by their own work as singers: when the production’s antics were at their busiest, the principals’ vocalism was never impeded. There is more darkness in Hänsel und Gretel than Holley’s staging explored, but the delighted reactions by the many youngsters in the near-capacity audience confirmed the production’s effectiveness.

IN PERFORMANCE: soprano LYNDSEY SWANN as Gertrud (left) and baritone SCOTT MACLEOD as Peter (right) in Greensboro Opera's March 2019 production of Engelbert Humperdinck's HÄNSEL UND GRETEL [Photograph © by VanderVeen Photographers]In loco parentis: soprano Lyndsey Swann as Gertrud (left) and baritone Scott MacLeod as Peter (right) in Greensboro Opera’s March 2019 production of Engelbert Humperdinck’s Hänsel und Gretel
[Photograph © by VanderVeen Photographers]

The theater’s orchestra pit could not accommodate the number of musicians that Humperdinck’s orchestrations require, necessitating a reduction in musical forces. The ensemble assembled for this production—pianist Emily Russ, flautist Janet Phillips, oboist Thomas Turanchik, clarinetist Darkson Magrinelli, trumpeter Johammee Romero, and percussionist Erik Schmidt—approached the difficult score with commendable concentration. Their playing of the opera’s Vorspiel was enjoyable despite fleeting problems with intonation and ensemble, and the Hexenritt, enjoyment of which was marred by the audience taking advantage of the scene change to catch up on their conversations, was aptly exhilarating. The cuckoo in the wood sang out beguilingly.

The climactic statement of the Abendsegen theme in the Traumpantomime should rattle the rafters in the manner of Wagner’s orchestral showpieces in Siegfried and Götterdämmerung and ‘Walk to the Paradise Garden’ in Frederick Delius’s A Village Romeo and Juliet and of course could not do that in this performance, but the music’s impact was enhanced by Michael Job’s choreography of the balletic representation of the fourteen angels’ vigil, which was gracefully performed. The quality of the dancers’ work was complemented by the fine singing of the High Point University students and members of Greensboro Youth Chorus who touchingly and euphoniously portrayed the Kuchenkinder.

Conductor Garrett Saake’s pacing of the performance was characterized by an impressive amalgamation of respect for the score and complete cognizance of the abilities and needs of the personnel at hand. Some conductors either rush through Humperdinck’s score, reducing the piece to a pretentious operetta, or over-accentuate the opera’s Wagnerian passages. Saake avoided both extremes, maintaining dramatic momentum but also allowing the music and the singers to exert their magic without battling illogical tempi. The performance was acculturated to the dimensions of the orchestra and venue but, owing to the conductor’s intelligent leadership, never seemed ‘small.’ It was not as powerful or vibrant as in larger-scaled performances, but Humperdinck’s voice sang uninhibitedly via Saake’s clear-sighted guidance of this Hänsel und Gretel.

IN PERFORMANCE: (from left to right) soprano JOANN MARTINSON DAVIS as Gretel, mezzo-soprano GRETCHEN KRUPP as Die Knusperhexe, and mezzo-soprano STEPHANIE FOLEY DAVIS as Hänsel in Greensboro Opera's March 2019 production of Engelbert Humperdinck's HÄNSEL UND GRETEL [Photograph © by VanderVeen Photographers]At the end of his tether: (from left to right) soprano Joann Martinson Davis as Gretel, mezzo-soprano Gretchen Krupp as Die Knusperhexe, and mezzo-soprano Stephanie Foley Davis as Hänsel in Greensboro Opera’s March 2019 production of Engelbert Humperdinck’s Hänsel und Gretel
[Photograph © by VanderVeen Photographers]

The courage of this production’s Hänsel and Gretel was tested by a Sandmännchen whose appearance was strangely nightmarish. Her visage disguised by a ghoulish mask, soprano Jordan Winslow’s voice emerged with serene security, floating the music on a stream of silvery tones. Dressed to the nines in a glistening gown and sparkling diadem, the Taumännchen resembled a glamorous storybook princess more than an industrious sprite, but this suited the effervescent singing of soprano Amber Rose Romero. Dispersing her dew in the form of bubbles, a clever device that enchanted the youngest members of the audience, Romero projected her voice with similar iridescence except at the lower end of the compass, where the music moved out of her vocal comfort zone.

It was evident from her introductory utterance that the titular tykes’ mother Gertrud was a woman to be obeyed. Too frequently portrayed as a raving shrew, an interpretation with no real basis in the score or the libretto, this conflicted woman faces the crippling guilt of feeling that she has failed her children. The performance of the rôle by soprano Lyndsey Swann, a heart-wrenching Madame Lidoine in UNCG Opera Theatre’s bold 2016 production of Francis Poulenc’s Dialogues des Carmélites, was a reminder of why mammoth-voiced singers like Rita Hunter and Dame Gwyneth Jones were attracted to the part. Gertrud is the opera’s most overtly Wagnerian character, and Swann supplied the evening’s most heroic singing. Her interactions with Hänsel and Gretel limned the overwhelmed but loving mother’s frustration, expressed in music spanning wide intervals that the soprano navigated intrepidly. Her diction was a casualty of the effort, particularly in the aftermath of breaking the pitcher, but a few obscured words were a small price to pay for the gleaming top B with which Swann heightened her realization of the mother’s desperation and despair. There are echoes of Brünnhilde’s defiance and maturity through suffering in Gertrud’s music, and Swann sang the rôle with sincerity rather than hysterics.

IN PERFORMANCE: baritone SCOTT MACLEOD as Peter (left) and soprano LYNDSEY SWANN as Gertrud (right) in Greensboro Opera's March 2019 production of Engelbert Humperdinck's HÄNSEL UND GRETEL [Photograph © by VanderVeen Photographers]Honey, I’m home: baritone Scott MacLeod as Peter (left) and soprano Lyndsey Swann as Gertrud (right) in Greensboro Opera’s March 2019 production of Engelbert Humperdinck’s Hänsel und Gretel
[Photograph © by VanderVeen Photographers]

His first offstage ‘Tra la la la’ established that the defining trait of baritone Scott MacLeod’s Peter was irrepressible optimism. His carefree, confident demeanor notwithstanding, the rôle’s frequent ascents to top E♭s, Es, Fs, and F♯s challenged the singer. The necessity of repeatedly placing notes above the stave undermined his support of the voice’s lower octave. Many productions of Hänsel und Gretel compound the problem of adult singers’ depictions of children by casting singers too old to be believable as the parents of pre-adolescent children, but MacLeod was an appropriately youthful, virile father; perhaps too virile in his description of the potential horrors to which his wife subjected their children by ordering them into the haunted wood in search of strawberries. Peter’s paean to providential retribution for evildoers and the sustaining capacity of faith in the opera’s final scene can be uncomfortably didactic, but this Peter imparted relief rather than evangelism, a wise course for a man more likely to be found in a Biergarten than at Mass. MacLeod’s Peter was heartier of spirit than of voice, but his animated stage presence lent the performance a wonderful propulsive energy.

The rôle of the Knusperhexe, née Rosina Ledkermaul, was created in the opera’s Weimar première by mezzo-soprano Hermine Finck, the third of composer Eugen d’Albert’s six wives, and was sung in the 1894 Vienna production by Marie Lehmann, sister of the famed soprano Lili Lehmann and herself a noted Wagnerian who sang Wellgunde and Waltraute in the first complete Bayreuther Festspiele Ring in 1876. The part was taken in Greensboro Opera’s production by mezzo-soprano Gretchen Krupp, an alumna of UNCG who was a Grand Finalist in the 2018 Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions and seems destined to follow the Lehmann sisters into Wagner repertory. Like Hänsel’s and Gretel’s parents, the sorceress who antagonizes them has often been sung by singers more likely to be seen riding motorized scooters than broomsticks. Fair Rosina’s hearing and vision are impaired, intensifying her crone tendencies, but Humperdinck’s music for her calls for anything but a lady with failing faculties. It is fortunate, then, that Krupp’s faculties were on blazing form. This witch needed no spells in order to dominate Hänsel and Gretel: the raw might of her voice exploded like grenades fired into the auditorium. The trills with which Humperdinck seasoned the music are not in a voice as substantial as Krupp’s, but she made laudable efforts at them and gleefully took every high option suggested by the composer. Her top B♭ was literally—and legitimately—show-stopping. It is not easy to evoke sympathy for a woman who converts unsuspecting children into snacks, but Krupp brought a hint of vulnerability to her performance. There was no corresponding weakness in her singing.

IN PERFORMANCE: (from left to right) mezzo-soprano GRETCHEN KRUPP as Die Knusperhexe, soprano JOANN MARTINSON DAVIS as Gretel, and mezzo-soprano STEPHANIE FOLEY DAVIS as Hänsel in Greensboro Opera's March 2019 production of Engelbert Humperdinck's HÄNSEL UND GRETEL [Photograph © by VanderVeen Photographers]Ready, aim, fire: (from left to right) mezzo-soprano Gretchen Krupp as Die Knusperhexe, soprano Joann Martinson Davis as Gretel, and mezzo-soprano Stephanie Foley Davis as Hänsel in Greensboro Opera’s March 2019 production of Engelbert Humperdinck’s Hänsel und Gretel
[Photograph © by VanderVeen Photographers]

Many operas are like automobiles. They can be very pretty, valuable, and comfortable, but, without engines, they go nowhere. Not surprisingly, much of the responsibility for the efficacy of a performance of Hänsel und Gretel rests upon the shoulders of its dual engines, the singers who portray the title siblings. Greensboro Opera’s performance had in mezzo-soprano Stephanie Foley Davis and soprano Joann Martinson Davis a pair of artists who jump-started the performance with their exuberant singing in the opera’s opening scene and sustained that ebullience to the final bar of their music. Unlike productions that are undermined by the lugubrious work of singers who struggle vocally and dramatically to plausibly portray children, this Hänsel und Gretel was enlivened by depictions of the title characters that exuded unaffected jocularity. Not the sort of chirping soubrette often heard in the rôle, Martinson Davis was a gratifyingly full-voiced Gretel who encountered no problems with the girl’s top notes and trills.

Foley Davis was equally successful as Hänsel. Male singers have depicted boys and young men less persuasively than Foley Davis embodied Hänsel's pluckiness and impetuosity. Her diction was superb throughout the range, and the freedom with which she traversed the part’s two octaves was extraordinary. In the first two acts, she and Martinson Davis charmingly illustrated the siblings’ coltish relationship, and the mezzo-soprano made Hänsel’s sheltering of his sister in the wood unusually moving. Their account of the beloved Abendsegen was sublime. Martinson Davis’s Gretel joyously greeted the morning after a harrowing night in the forest with a sensational top D. The youths’ vigorous gorging on morsels of the Knusperhäuschen contrasted tellingly with their confrontation with the witch. Their cunning prevailing, they rejoiced with stunning unison top B♭s. Many of the world’s opera companies regularly stage Hänsel und Gretel, but few of them offer their audiences Hänsels and Gretels as captivating as Greensboro’s.

It is oversimplification to state that opera is cinema with singing, but, like films, opera productions rely upon savvy direction and dedicated performances by their casts to compellingly tell their stories. The tale of Hänsel and Gretel is too familiar to need complex directorial explication, but it is as true in opera as in any other field that familiarity breeds contempt. Greensboro Opera’s production of Engelbert Humperdinck’s Hänsel und Gretel satisfied because it invited the audience to forget the world’s worries for two hours and surrender to the pleasures of fairy-tale spectacle. Calamities persisted beyond the theater’s walls, but, within those walls, beautiful singing transported listeners to a realm in which love overcomes wickedness.

 

Additional performances of Hänsel und Gretel are scheduled for 8, 9, and 10 March at the Theatre at Well•Spring. Hänsel, Gretel, and Peter will be sung in the 10 March performance by Emily Wolber, Lilla Keith, and Jacob Kato. Please visit Greensboro Opera’s website for more information or click here to purchase tickets.

IN PERFORMANCE: (from left to right) mezzo-soprano GRETCHEN KRUPP as Die Knusperhexe, soprano JOANN MARTINSON DAVIS as Gretel, and mezzo-soprano STEPHANIE FOLEY DAVIS as Hänsel in Greensboro Opera's March 2019 of Engelbert Humperdinck's HÄNSEL UND GRETEL [Photograph © by VanderVeen Photographers]Brother behind bars: (from left to right) mezzo-soprano Gretchen Krupp as Die Knusperhexe, soprano Joann Martinson Davis, and mezzo-soprano Stephanie Foley Davis as Hänsel in Greensboro Opera’s March 2019 production of Engelbert Humperdinck’s Hänsel und Gretel
[Photograph © by VanderVeen Photographers]