17 June 2020

Brighter horizons: a way forward for Voix des Arts

COVID-19 and the global response thereto have given artists in all genres and those who enjoy, support, and celebrate their work countless reasons to despair. Postponements, cancellations, and transitions from in-theater to virtual performances have decimated both the quintessence of the Arts community and individual artists’ abilities to maintain their livelihoods amidst unprecedented financial hardships.

Despite obstacles that sometimes seem insurmountable, Art and artists have devised myriad new, innovative ways of exercising their collective determination and fostering hope for a future that, though vastly different from anyone’s expectations, promises renewal, rejuvenation, and previously-unimagined avenues of collaboration, cooperation, and growth.

In the weeks since publicly announcing that circumstances exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic imperiled the continuation of Voix des Arts, I have been humbled by the messages of encouragement and pledges of support that I have received from readers and fellow Arts enthusiasts. I am overjoyed to now share the news that, owing to your selfless kindness, the short-term survival of Voix des Arts has been secured. Moreover, significant strides have been made towards long-term solutions to problems that are increasingly likely to persist well beyond the eagerly-awaited mitigation of COVID-19. In all senses, the work continues.

The past month in American history has catapulted so many of us who had grown complacent with efforts at diversifying the Arts to a harrowing realization that this is the area in which the work must continue most robustly and differently. The marginalization of minorities in the Performing Arts may seem inconsequential in comparison with the systemic racism and devaluation of life that degrade our society, but failing to address this inequality in a meaningful way restricts the extent to which our culture can be altered.

I have been privileged since my first experience with professional opera, a 1997 Metropolitan Opera performance of Bizet’s Carmen with Denyce Graves in the title rôle, to enjoy superb performances by artists of color in a tremendous variety of parts, some of the most thrilling of which include Lawrence Brownlee as Ilo in Rossini’s Zelmira; Nicole Cabell as Giulietta in Bellini’s I Capuleti ed i Montecchi and Medora in Verdi’s Il corsaro; Steven Cole as Don Buscone in Cavalli’s Veremonda; Lisa Daltirus as Leonora in Il trovatore; Jacqueline Echols as Violetta in Verdi’s La traviata; Nmon Ford as Verdi’s Iago; Othalie Graham as Verdi’s Lady Macbeth and Puccini’s Turandot; Denyce Graves as Carmen and Azucena in Il trovatore; Gordon Hawkins as Verdi’s Nabucco and Amonasro in Aida and Alberich in Wagner’s Götterdämmerung; Musa Ngqungwana as Der Wanderer in Wagner’s Siegfried; Sidney Outlaw as Dandini in Rossini’s La Cenerentola; Mark Rucker as Verdi’s Macbeth; Russell Thomas as Verdi’s Otello and the Prince in Dvořák’s Rusalka; Talise Trevigne as Cio-Cio San in Puccini’s Madama Butterfly and Pip in Jake Heggie’s Moby-Dick; and Mary Elizabeth Williams as Verdi’s Desdemona. These performances were memorable because they featured artists of substance whose unique personal journeys contributed to thoughtful interpretations of composers’ music and librettists’ words. That many of those journeys were often thwarted by stereotypes, ignorance, and hatred is an atrocity that should disgust and dismay every Arts lover.

As I express my heartfelt gratitude for your ongoing and galvanizing support of Voix des Arts, I also beseech you to dedicate yourselves—as I dedicate myself—to fomenting improvement in our Arts community, not only in our interactions with one another but also in the manners in which we examine and share our own perspectives. Let our actions embody the words of Friedrich von Schiller, set by Beethoven in the final movement of his Ninth Symphony: ‘Alle Menschen werden Brüder, wo dein sanfter Flügel weilt.’ May our gentle wings soon hover together again, unencumbered by afflictions of body or mind.

 

Gratefully,
Joseph Newsome
Author of Voix des Arts
Click here to contact me via email.

25 March 2020

Regarding the future of Voix des Arts

At present, we all are conquering extraordinary challenges in our individual lives, our families’ and friends’ lives, our respective municipalities, and our global Arts community.

Freelance artists—and, in my case, freelance writers who write about their work—have been vastly and devastatingly affected by the financial implications of the necessary response to COVID-19.

I regret that the biannual renewal of the Voix des Arts domain registration comes during this season of deprivation. As this is the reality, however, I have reached the very difficult decision to suspend the renewal.

Owing to the unprecedented circumstances, I successfully negotiated with the domain registrar to keep the Voix des Arts site content online for two years. No new content will be permitted unless the domain is renewed within those two years, but all current content, as well as content published before 30 April 2020, will remain online and accessible, both via direct link and by search engine query.

As readers who administer their own or others’ sites know, maintaining a website without advertising, subscriptions, and additional sources of revenue is an expensive undertaking. At this time, the expense of maintaining Voix des Arts is beyond my means.

Please know that I remain committed to supporting, promoting, and tirelessly advocating for art and artists.

Thank you for reading and sharing Voix des Arts during the past twelve years. I hope that this will prove to be ‘À bientôt’ rather than ‘Adieu.’

Above all, keep well.

 

- Joseph Newsome
Author of Voix des Arts
Click here to contact me via email

10 February 2020

PERFORMANCE REVIEW: Giacomo Puccini — LA FANCIULLA DEL WEST (A. Cofield, B. Gulley, D. Scofield, W. Morgan, T. Putnam, G. Palermo; Opera Orlando, 7 February 2020)

IN REVIEW: soprano AMY COFIELD as Minnie (center) and members of PHANTASMAGORIA in Opera Orlando's February 2020 production of Giacomo Puccini's LA FANCIULLA DEL WEST [Photograph by Javier Vladimir, © by Opera Orlando]GIACOMO PUCCINI (1858 – 1924): La fanciulla del West [sung in a new English translation by David Scott Marley] — Amy Cofield (Minnie), Ben Gulley (Dick Johnson), Daniel Scofield (Jack Rance), Wesley Morgan (Nick), Tyler Putnam (Ashby), Gloria Palermo (Wowkle), Torlef Borsting (Sonora), Chevalier Lovett (Bello), Brent Doucette (Trin), E Mani Cadet (Harry), Benjamin Ludwig (Joe), Jacob Pence (Sid), Matthew Fackler (Un postiglione), José-Manuel López (José Castro, Billy Jackrabbit); Ross Monroe Winter (violin), Adam Fimbres (double bass); Robin Jensen, piano and conductor [Grant Preisser, Technical Director; Alison Reid, Costume Designer; Michelle Engleman, Production and Stage Manager; Amber Rae Sandora, Hair and Makeup Designer; Alan Bruun, Stage Director; Opera Orlando, Cheyenne Saloon and Opera House and Ceviche Ballroom, Orlando, Florida, USA; Friday, 7 February 2020]

Few physical settings are as important to an opera’s drama than California’s Sierra Nevada range and the miners’ camp nestled amidst the peaks are to Giacomo Puccini’s La fanciulla del West. It is significant that, when giving the opera its title, Puccini retained the word ‘West’ from the story’s source, David Belasco’s 1905 play The Girl of the Golden West, there being no word in as nuanced a language as Italian that could relay the essence of the American West. Born in San Francisco in 1853, Belasco was a product of the inimitable, untranslatable West, his literary and theatrical careers shaped by formative exposure to the unspoiled landscapes and sometimes turbulent communities of the American frontier. The opera’s three acts respectively set in the Polka Saloon, Minnie’s mountainside abode, and a grove of California’s emblematic redwoods, Fanciulla occupies a realm that is as much a state of mind as it is a geographical location. Though engendering site-specific challenges to counterbalance the advantages of the setting, Opera Orlando’s Opera on the Town production of La fanciulla del West brought Belasco’s and Puccini’s California to downtown Orlando’s Cheyenne Saloon and Opera House and Ceviche Ballroom with the kind of engrossing atmosphere that even the most picturesque traditional stagings can only approximate.

Written for New York City’s Metropolitan Opera, La fanciulla del West received its first performance on 10 December 1910. Conducted by Arturo Toscanini and featuting Emmy Destinn as Minnie, Enrico Caruso as Johnson, and Pasquale Amato as Rance, Fanciulla was both the MET’s first world première and the first opera with an American subject staged by the company. Such was the dedication to scenic and histrionic verisimilitude that the inaugural production was painstakingly overseen by Belasco, who by the time of Fanciulla’s première was established as one of Broadway’s most savvy theatrical writers and directors. The composer spoke virtually no English, but it was Belasco’s adaptation of a short story by John Luther Long that inspired Puccini to transform the tragic liaison between Cio-Cio San and Lieutenant Pinkerton into Madama Butterfly. Puccini recognized in the betrayal felt by Minnie, the pure-hearted but practical proprietress of the Polka Saloon, when she learns that the man she knows as Dick Johnson of Sacramento is the fugitive outlaw Ramerrez the same emotional potency that captivated audiences who heard Madama Butterfly.

Aside from its snigger-inducing Americanisms, which likely seemed markedly less ridiculous 110 years ago, the Italian libretto created by Guelfo Civinini and Carlo Zangarini maintained an unusually high degree of fidelity to its source. Complementing the innovative choice of locations for the production, Opera Orlando’s Fanciulla utilized a new English translation by David Scott Marley, the goal of which was to minimize the divide between the opera’s text and Belasco’s play. Vital to the success of this commendable ambition was the consistent clarity of the singers’ diction, not least in passages of dialect. [In this review, the Italian texts of principal numbers are used for the benefit of readers who do not yet know Marley’s English translation.] Ramerrez’s hacienda-society upbringing was manifested, as it is in Belasco’s work, in a more formal, Romanticized style of utterance. [It was interesting to hear Johnson address Sonora in Act Three as ‘Soñora,’ subtly closing the chasm between Ramerrez’s and the miners’ cultures.] For reasons of time and logistics necessitated by physically relocating the audience during the intervals, the Act One sequence of Jake Wallace’s ballad and the homesick Jim Larkens’s departure from Cloudy Mountain was omitted. His fellow miners’ collection of funds to finance Larkens’s homeward journey is a crucial display of the compassion that facilitates the opera’s non-fatal conclusion, but Opera Orlando’s miners nonetheless palpably conveyed their affection for Minnie, rendering their change of heart towards Johnson in the opera’s final scene wholly convincing.

IN REVIEW: the cast of Opera Orlando's February 2020 Opera on the Town production of Giacomo Puccini's LA FANCIULLA DEL WEST [Photograph by Brion Price Photography, © by Opera Orlando]The West, down South: the cast of Opera Orlando’s February 2020 Opera on the Town production of Giacomo Puccini’s La fanciulla del West
[Photograph by Brion Price Photography, © by Opera Orlando]

Scenically, this production of Fanciulla was as engrossing as any that an aficionado who loves this score could hope to encounter. The grandeur of the stunningly beautiful Cheyenne Saloon and Opera House, in which Acts One and Three were staged, contrasted pointedly with the intimate setting for Act Two in Ceviche Ballroom, the latter evocatively illuminated by oil lamps. The aptness of the location for Act One was undeniable, but the glimmering wood of the saloon’s interior was also appropriate for the sylvan backdrop to Act Three. In Act Two, the seating arrangement situated the audience on all sides of the interior of Minnie’s cabin, begetting an immediacy that productions in opera houses cannot achieve. Feeling rather than merely seeing and hearing the awful thud when Johnson fainted after being shot made the audience participants in the drama. So, too, did the clever, brilliantly-executed theatrics of steampunk performance troupe Phantasmagoria, their eerily seductive motions making them seem like ghosts who benevolently haunted the Polka.

Stage director Alan Bruun infused this production with a naturalness that pervaded both movement and music. Interruptions of the organic flow of everyday life in Cloudy Mountain—events like Sid’s cheating at cards, the arrivals of Ashby and the post rider, and the capture of Ramerrez’s associate José Castro—were thus all the more jarring. Bruun’s concept emphasized Minnie’s innate goodness without attempting to canonize her. The girl’s manipulation of the outcome of the poker game in Act Two was unmistakably out of character, but this Minnie knew that survival in a mining camp sometimes requires more than perfume and Psalms. Alison Reid’s costumes and Amber Rae Sandora’s hair and makeup were ideal, evoking California during the Gold Rush without inhibiting comfort, range of motion, or the mechanics of singing. In both of this production’s venues, technical director Grant Preisser, lighting designer Jon Whiteley, stage manager Michelle Engleman, and assistant stage manager Emily DeNardo faced unique challenges, particularly those created by the spaces’ sight lines and the proximity of the audience, but every problem was solved with intelligence and imagination.

Presiding from the piano, Opera Orlando’s Music and Education Director Robin Jensen both paced the performance and played marvelously—and, delightfully, she received a hearty ‘Hello, Robin!’ from the miners upon their first entrance  Her expert handling of Puccini’s Italianate but often strikingly Twentieth-Century writing was matched by the impeccable musicianship of violinist Ross Monroe Winter and bassist Adam Fimbres. Fanciulla, Il tabarro, and Turandot are arguably Puccini’s most modern and adventurously-orchestrated scores, and approaching an episode like the poker game that ends Act Two without a full orchestra, Puccini’s writing for which heightens the tension and makes audible the frantic beating of Minnie’s heart, was worrying. Perfectly suited to this Fanciulla’s setting, the playing of the instrumental ensemble alternated robustness with serenity, satisfying all of the score’s musical demands. Like the staging, Jensen’s musical direction exhibited sensitivity and sensibility that reflected total understanding of the story, the score, and the setting.

IN REVIEW: bass TYLER PUTNAM as Ashby (left) and baritone DANIEL SCOFIELD as Jack Rance (right) in Opera Orlando's February 2020 Opera on the Town production of Giacomo Puccini's LA FANCIULLA DEL WEST [Photograph by Brion Price Photography, © by Opera Orlando]Saloon sentinels: bass Tyler Putnam as Ashby (left) and baritone Daniel Scofield as Jack Rance (right) in Opera Orlando’s February 2020 Opera on the Town production of Giacomo Puccini’s La fanciulla del West
[Photograph by Brion Price Photography, © by Opera Orlando]

The cast assembled by Opera Orlando to portray the inhabitants of Cloudy Mountains provided an impressive survey of Florida’s native and adopted talent. Hailing from Winter Park, tenor E Mani Cadet sang strongly and sweetly as Harry, following the dictates of the score, and baritone Benjamin Ludwig represented his hometown of Orlando with an ably-sung, touching portrayal of Joe, whose interactions with Minnie were those of an adoring brother. Baritone and Opera Orlando Board of Directors member-at-large Chevalier Lovett was a Bello whose vocalism warranted the character’s name. Opera Orlando Studio Artists mezzo-soprano Gloria Palermo and tenor Brent Doucette sang splendidly as Wowkle and Trin, the former offering a genuinely pious and beautiful account of her prayer at the start of Act Two, and a pair of Kentucky gentlemen, Jacob Pence as Sid and Happy and baritone Matthew Fackler as the post rider, acted and sang their parts charismatically.

The production’s lone native Californian, baritone José-Manuel López, depicted José Castro and Billy Jackrabbit with none of the silly and potentially offensive mannerisms that were once traditional in these rôles, and his voice is a fine instrument. Maine may never have been visited by the Wells Fargo stagecoaches that traversed the West, but bass Tyler Putnam lacked none of Ashby’s requisite vocal and histrionic swagger. [Another felicitous detail of Marley’s translation was Ashby’s tongue-in-cheek entreaty for Minnie to bank with Wells Fargo more often, sung by Putnam with deadpan seriousness.] The burnished timbre and flinty tones wielded by Hawaii-born baritone Torlef Borsting made Sonora an atypically well-matched foil for Jack Rance. [Unsurprisingly, the brooding Sheriff is also in Borsting’s repertoire.] The high standard of Borsting’s Sonora was perpetuated by Floridian tenor Wesley Morgan, whose handsomely-sung Nick—a rôle that needs but too seldom receives handsome singing—recalled portrayals by Piero de Palma and Paul Franke.

By pinning Jack Rance’s tin star to his waistcoat, baritone Daniel Scofield joined the brigade of memorable Sheriffs including Pasquale Amato, Tito Gobbi, Giangiacomo Guelfi, Anselmo Colzani, and Silvano Carroli. That Scofield is worthy of this illustrious company was evident from his first notes. Proposing a non-violent punishment for Sid’s cheating, conversing with Ashby about the search for the highwayman Ramerrez, or boldly declaring that Minnie would soon be Mrs. Rance, Scofield filled Cheyenne Saloon with rousing, virile tone, the character’s authority in this case not merely derived from his badge. This Rance was a conqueror, not a cajoler, but the baritone voiced ‘Ti voglio bene, Minnie’ with competing passion and refinement. Rance’s awkward wooing of Minnie upended by Johnson’s arrival at the Polka and the posse’s errant pursuit of Ramerrez, Scofield projected the Sheriff’s frustration into every crevice of the saloon.

Minnie’s rejection having wounded his pride, the cruelty with which Scofield’s Rance tracked Ramerrez to Minnie’s cabin and tormented her with proof of Johnson’s deception was terrifying. Though repugnantly chauvinistic, Rance’s articulation of his desire for Minnie was discernibly sincere, and the desperation of his search for a glass with which to give Minnie a steadying drink of water when she feigned distress whilst extracting the winning hand from her bodice divulged that, in this consequential moment, he was concerned for her well-being. Accustomed to getting what he wants as a lawman, a gambler, and a lover, this Rance rushed out of Minnie’s cabin with the pulverizing energy of an avalanche after losing the fateful poker game.

The Rance who demanded Johnson’s immediate hanging in Act Three was a broken man. Scofield’s vocalism resounded with the raw pain of thwarted love. When Minnie appeared, insisting that Johnson’s life be spared, Rance’s scorn of the collective inability to defy a woman was aimed as much at himself as at the miners. In Scofield’s performance, Rance was reminiscent of the Wanderer in Act Three of Wagner’s Siegfried: his power overwhelmed, he sank into the shadows. Scofield’s voice shone brightly throughout the evening, however, and the depth of the baritone’s artistry was apparent in his nuanced, sympathetic portrayal of a character who too frequently becomes a caricature.

IN REVIEW: soprano AMY COFIELD as Minnie (left) and tenor BEN GULLEY as Johnson (right) in Opera Orlando's February 2020 Opera on the Town production of Giacomo Puccini's LA FANCIULLA DEL WEST [Photograph by Brion Price Photography, © by Opera Orlando]A waltz at the Polka: soprano Amy Cofield as Minnie (left) and tenor Ben Gulley as Johnson (right) in Opera Orlando’s February 2020 Opera on the Town production of Giacomo Puccini’s La fanciulla del West
[Photograph by Brion Price Photography, © by Opera Orlando]

Like his soprano and baritone colleagues in a performance of La fanciulla del West, the tenor who sings the rôle of the fugitive bandito Ramerrez, alias Dick Johnson of Sacramento, not only faces the considerable demands of Puccini’s music but also contends with the reputations of acclaimed interpreters of past generations, most prominent amongst whom are Caruso, Giacomo Lauri-Volpi, Mario del Monaco, Franco Corelli, Richard Tucker, and Plácido Domingo. The singing of Opera Orlando’s Johnson, Ben Gulley, occasionally brought to mind the work of another expert Johnson, Gianfranco Cecchele, but Gulley’s portrayal of the reforming bandito relied upon no one’s instincts but his own.

Bounding into the Polka, asking to be introduced to the rascal who promised to ‘curl his hair’ for requesting water with his whiskey, Gulley’s Johnson reacted to seeing Minnie as though he had come face to face with the barrel of a six-shooter. An accomplished actor whose psychological transformations shown on his face, Gulley insightfully limned the evolution of Johnson’s emotions. The tenor ascended to the B5 at the beginning of the duet that ends Act One with freedom that few Johnsons past or present could equal. Gulley’s upper register was reliably exhilarating, having been blessed with much-coveted ping.

Observing Minnie in her lonely cabin instigated a new deluge of feeling in Johnson, depicted by Gulley with vocalism that at once gleamed with romantic ardor and shuddered with shame and doubt, and his correction of Minnie’s mispronunciation of Dante was affectionate rather than condescending. His true identity spitefully revealed by Rance, Johnson’s recounting of the circumstances of his criminal past was sung with anguish that only increased the focus of Gulley’s vocal emission. This Johnson’s flight from Minnie’s cabin was so abrupt that many people in the audience were visibly startled when the shot that felled him rang out.

Nursed back to health by Minnie, Johnson is captured by the Cloudy Mountain posse in Act Three, and his captors’ preparations to hang him give him the opportunity to sing the aria ‘Ch’ella mi creda libero e lontano.’ Jensen set a slow tempo for the number, and Gulley’s broad phrasing and galvanizing top B♭s justified the choice. The tenor’s singing in the opera’s final scene, as Minnie persuaded the miners to show mercy and reunited with Johnson, evinced an aura of wonder, his voicing of the liberated man’s thanks to his ‘brothers’ candidly articulating relief and gratitude. Confidently confronting the rôle’s many difficulties, Gulley was a Johnson who earned his pardon.

IN PERFORMANCE: soprano AMY COFIELD as Minnie in Opera Orlando's February 2020 Opera on the Town production of Giacomo Puccini's LA FANCIULLA DEL WEST [Photograph by Brion Price Photography, © by Opera Orlando]Winchester for the win: soprano Amy Cofield as Minnie in Opera Orlando’s February 2020 Opera on the Town production of Giacomo Puccini’s La fanciulla del West
[Photograph by Brion Price Photography, © by Opera Orlando]

That soprano Amy Cofield was an exceptionally well-qualified Violetta in Opera Roanoke’s 2016 production of Verdi’s La traviata might suggest that Puccini’s strenuous music for Minnie is not ideal for her voice. Significantly, however, Gilda dalla Rizza (Puccini’s favorite Minnie and his first Magda in La rondine), Maria Caniglia, Eleanor Steber, Dorothy Kirsten, Renata Tebaldi, Antonietta Stella, Maralin Niska, and Carol Neblett were all acclaimed as both Violetta and Minnie, and, difficult as it may be for listeners who are acquainted solely with her verismo performances to believe, even the inimitable Magda Olivero, a Minnie of almost frightening intensity, also included Violetta in her repertoire. In Opera Orlando’s Fanciulla, Cofield sang her first Minnie with meticulous adherence to Puccini’s instructions, never overextending her vocal resources. Disrupting a fight in the Polka with a shot from her rifle, this Minnie introduced herself with good-natured sternness that quickly gave way to poignant tenderness in her exchanges with the miners. It is only in their brief moments with Minnie that the miners’ individual personalities emerge, and Cofield differentiated her responses to the miners accordingly.

Minnie was indisputably unsettled by Rance’s declaration of love, but Cofield’s performance intimated that the girl's reaction is prompted as much by embarrassment as by annoyance. The soprano’s account of ‘Laggiù nel Soledad’ was beautiful of tone and phrasing, building to a sublime top C. Minnie’s assurance faltered when Johnson strode into the Polka, her memories of their meeting on the road from Monterrey reawakening unfamiliar feelings. Perhaps no other character in opera delineates the distinction between Platonic and romantic loves more meaningfully than Minnie, and the fervor of a sensitive young woman falling in love permeated Cofield’s vocalism in the scene with Johnson that ends Act One.

Anxiously anticipating Johnson’s visit to her humble cabin in Act Two, Cofield’s Minnie embodied the nervous exuberance of new love. The guileless delicacy of her singing in reply to Johnson’s impassioned proclamations yielded to the euphoric top C with which Minnie welcomed her first kiss. Their bliss disturbed by the miners’ pursuit of Ramerrez, the shock of learning that the man hidden in her home is the loathed outlaw exploded in Minnie’s denunciation of her lover, Cofield’s vocalism seething with crestfallen fury. Her guilt at sending Johnson out into the night to face Rance’s wrath was obvious in this Minnie’s despondent refusal to abandon her wounded paramour.

The soprano’s fearless singing during the poker game allied with incisive acting to effect a riveting performance of the scene. Here and in Act Three, Cofield’s portrayal accentuated Minnie’s inner conflict between her devotion to Cloudy Mountain and her duty to herself. She did not harangue when reminding the miners of the lessons of forgiveness and forbearance learned in their Bible studies, but her vocal fortitude avowed that her Minnie would not hesitate to win Johnson’s freedom with her pistol. Her voice utterly secure from the bottom of the stave to her radiant top Bs and Cs, Cofield sang Minnie’s music valiantly and attractively, but the cornerstone of her performance was making Minnie’s soul as beguiling as her song.

Before entrepreneurs arrived with citrus saplings, resort blueprints, and dreams of theme parks, Orlando was a quiet settlement in colonial Florida’s cattle country. Never a rowdy cowtown like Fort Worth and Wichita or a boomtown like Virginia City, Orlando overcame the decline of the cattle industry and fabricated its own gold mines. Orlando’s prosperity in the Twenty-First Century is conspicuous in the vitality of the city’s Arts community, in which Opera Orlando’s rôle continues to grow more preeminent. Staging La fanciulla del West tests any company’s artistic resources, and audiences’ responses to a taxing work like Fanciulla appraise the viability of opera. Both as a worthwhile performance of Puccini’s magnificent score and as a gauge of Orlando’s thriving Arts scene, Opera Orlando’s sensational Fanciulla struck gold.

04 February 2020

PERFORMANCE REVIEW: Giacomo Puccini — LA BOHÈME (S. Kybalova, A. Smith, C. R. Lovelace, G. Guagliardo, P. Morgan, K. Karris, D. Hartmann, D. Gillard; Opera Carolina, 23 January 2020)

IN REVIEW: the case of Opera Carolina's January 2020 production of Giacomo Puccini's LA BOHÈME [Photograph by Mitchell Kearney, © by Opera Carolina]GIACOMO PUCCINI (1858 – 1924): La bohèmeStefanna Kybalova (Mimì), Adam Smith (Rodolfo), Corey Raquel Lovelace (Musetta), Giovanni Guagliardo (Marcello), Peter Morgan (Colline), Keith Harris (Schaunard), Donald Hartmann (Benoît, Alcindoro), Darius Gillard (Parpignol); Opera Carolina Chorus and Orchestra; James Meena, conductor [Aldo Tarabella, director; Peter Dean Beck, scenic designer; Michael Baumgarten, lighting designer; Martha Ruskai, wig and makeup designer; Opera Carolina, Belk Theater, Blumenthal Performing Arts, Charlotte, North Carolina, USA; Thursday, 23 January 2020]

Amidst multitudes of mentions of Il barbiere di Siviglia and Carmen, polling opera aficionados about the works that provided their first experiences of the art form inevitably yields myriads of memories of La bohème. First performed at Teatro Regio di Torino on 1 February 1896, Giacomo Puccini’s adaptation of ideas taken from Henri Murger’s 1851 collection of stories Scènes de la vie de bohème was soon regarded as an embodiment of post-Verdi Italian opera, the score’s melodic abundance and unapologetic sentimentality—the quality for which it is now sometimes derided—appealing to listeners of all levels of musical sophistication, whether or not they admit it. Though its première in Venice, fifteen months after the first staging of Puccini’s La bohème, was warmly received, Ruggero Leoncavallo’s opera on the same subject was largely—and unjustly, as it is a score with many merits—forgotten within a quarter-century. Not even those listeners for whose refined palates the opera is too bittersweet a confection can deny the uninterrupted marketability of Puccini’s Bohème; and that, for those who respond to its emotional stimuli, a good performance of La bohème can be an affecting, memorable experience.

Opera companies that plan to perform La bohème should be required to adhere to an oath similar to Verdi’s mandate when asked to sanction the interpolation of top Cs in Manrico’s ‘Di quella pira’ in Il trovatore that, if ventured, they be good ones: if Bohème is to be staged, let the staging be good. With scenic designs by Peter Dean Beck that were often reminiscent of much-loved Covent Garden and Metropolitan Opera stagings by John Copley and Franco Zeffirelli, Opera Carolina’s Bohème was in some ways, not the least of which was its visual appeal, a tremendous success. Michael Baumgarten’s lighting designs followed the dictates of the score, entrances and exits, characters’ interactions, and dramatic momentum highlighted in accordance with cues in the music. Though a pale-hued suit in Act Four had Schaunard looking as though he wandered in from a cricket match in E. M. Forster’s England, the costumes by A.T. Jones and Sons were attractively appropriate, illustrating the social divisions that shape the opera’s narrative. Martha Ruskai’s wigs and makeup were unmistakably the work of an artist whose well-honed eye for attractive appearances is complemented by respect for the physical act of singing.

His staging avowed that director Aldo Tarabella’s affection for La bohème is genuine and profound. Much of the production heeded the composer’s and librettists’ instructions, engendering a traditional but never tired rendering of the piece, yet Tarabella’s good intentions were sometimes undermined by efforts to enliven the staging with idiosyncratic details. Any claim that Puccini’s bohemians are morally wholesome people is belied by the rapidity with which they fall in and out of love, but having a scantily-clad woman slinking out of Rodolfo’s bed whilst he contrived to hide her from Marcello in Act One damaged the drama’s emotional impact by reducing the plausibility of Rodolfo’s devotion to Mimì. Also problematic was Schaunard’s and Colline’s mockery during Rodolfo’s introduction of Mimì in Act Two: though undeniably amusing, this distorted a moment of tenderness in which the sincerity of Rodolfo’s burgeoning love for Mimì should receive the director’s—and, by extension, the audience’s—full attention. The transformation of the pantomimed swordplay in Act Four into a jousting match was clever, but why would men living in poverty, with no known connections to children, have hobby horses on hand in their sparsely-furnished flat? None of these deviations from the score was ruinous, and they may have brought the opera’s essence nearer to the spirit of Murger’s stories. The effectiveness of an otherwise pleasing production was nonetheless jeopardized.

IN REVIEW: the cast of Opera Carolina's January 2020 production of Giacomo Puccini's LA BOHÈME [Photograph by Mitchell Kearney, © by Opera Carolina]Festaioli in città: the cast of Opera Carolina’s January 2020 production of Giacomo Puccini’s La bohème
[Photograph by Mitchell Kearney, © by Opera Carolina]

Opera Carolina’s Artistic Director and Principal Conductor James Meena solidified his standing as an interpreter of Puccini’s operas with his leadership of the company’s productions of Turandot (2015) and La fanciulla del West (2017). During his time in Charlotte, Meena has conducted music in vastly different styles, reliably identifying and focusing on the unique artistic atmosphere of each piece. There was much to enjoy in his pacing of this performance of La bohème, but there were also atypical lapses in coordination between stage and pit. On the whole, the Opera Carolina Orchestra played accurately and eloquently, their efforts affected by few glaring mistakes, but the orchestral excellence that often distinguishes Opera Carolina productions was missing from this performance. Intonation, rhythmic tautness, and precision of ensemble improved markedly after a conspicuously unsettled first act, but, like the orchestra’s playing, Meena’s conducting lacked its accustomed authority. This was an ingratiating, engaging Bohème, but it only intermittently benefited from Meena’s proven capacity for transcending conventional interpretations of Puccini’s music.

Vocally, this was also a thoroughly professional and emotionally effective but variable Bohème. Especially as the merry-making citizens of Paris in Act Two but also as the street sweepers and milkmaids who arrive at the city gate at the beginning of Act Three, Opera Carolina’s choristers of all ages sang splendidly, their training producing excellent balances among the voices. The gentlemen who portrayed the sentinels at the gate were not identified in the playbill, but they sang well. Tenor Darius Gillard coped courageously with being harangued by over-eager children as the toy vendor Parpignol, but his voice did not project as strongly as his stage presence.

Returning to the stage that has hosted some of his wittiest characterizations, bass-baritone Donald Hartmann again exhibited how meaningfully a performance can be enriched by featuring artists of stature in supporting rôles. There are instances in which singers’ performances of the part compel audiences to regret the bohemians’ decision to reluctantly grant their landlord Benoît an audience, but Hartmann’s vibrant, strongly-sung portrayal delighted despite being subjected to intrusively unnecessary stage business. His still-evolving stagecraft was no less effective in his vivid portrayal of Musetta’s deep-pocketed suitor Alcindoro. Bringing the curtain down on Act Two with a lithely hilarious depiction of Alcindoro’s fainting reaction to being gifted the bill for the bohemians’ feast, Hartmann upstaged even his glamorous Musetta.

IN REVIEW: bass-baritone DONALD HARTMANN as Benoît (far right) and the bohemians in Opera Carolina's January 2020 production of Giacomo Puccini's LA BOHÈME [Photograph by Mitchell Kearney, © by Opera Carolina]Problemi alla porta: bass-baritone Donald Hartmann as Benoît (far right) intrudes upon the Bohemians’ festivities in Opera Carolina’s January 2020 production of Giacomo Puccini’s La bohème
[Photograph by Mitchell Kearney, © by Opera Carolina]

Baritone Keith Harris was an exuberant but serious Schaunard who seemed elated by his own cleverness whilst recounting his successful conspiracy to assassinate a noisy parrot and truly exasperated when he observed that his friends were ignoring his tale. Harris’s firm, even-toned vocalism was always audible in Act Two, but his finest work came in Act Four, when his open-hearted but subtle depiction of Schaunard’s love for Mimì and his friends conveyed absolute sincerity. Bass-baritone Peter Morgan’s Colline was also a man whose affection for his fellow bohemians was apparent, and his good-natured philosophizing was determined but never dull. Morgan’s voice had greater impact at the top of the range than below the stave, but he was a rare Colline who sang his much-maligned ‘farewell to a coat’ in Act Four, ‘Vecchia zimarra,’ handsomely and unaffectedly. Both Harris and Morgan intensified the sadness of the opera’s final moments. From her labored final entrance, Mimì’s impending death looms in the music, yet, returning to the garret after leaving Mimì and Rodolfo alone, Harris’s Schaunard was wrenchingly shocked to find Mimì already dead, and the reaction of Morgan’s Colline to the grim discovery shared this heartbreaking emotional candor.

Previous appearances in the Queen City have garnered particular appreciation amongst Charlotte audiences for soprano Corey Raquel Lovelace, and her sultry but honorable Musetta in Opera Carolina’s Bohème validated that esteem. Musetta makes one of opera’s most high-spirited entrances: Lovelace’s Musetta seized the opportunity to dazzle those around her, not least the humble Mimì. Alongside Mimì’s and Rodolfo’s arias in Act One, Musetta’s ‘Quando m’en vo’ soletta’ is one of the pieces that Bohème audiences anxiously await. Lovelace’s performance justified and fulfilled expectation, but the number was only a small component of her characterization. Musetta’s reconciliation with Marcello at the ensemble’s end was unusually endearing, and the joviality with which the bill for the evening’s celebrating was left for Alcindoro disclosed no hostility.

There was no shortage of vitriol in the exchanges with Marcello in Act Three, but Lovelace evinced that this viper of a Musettta was non-venomous. Leading the dying Mimì back to the scene of her former happiness in Act Four, this Musetta was solely a kind friend. The futile prayer for Mimì’s recovery, ‘Madonna benedetta,’ was urgently and beautifully sung, Lovelace’s timbre shimmering. It is not often that a Musetta piques curiosity about her future, but Lovelace’s Musetta earned hope for her prosperity. She portrayed Musetta as the kind of woman who, whether gracing the arm of a duke or dancing with peasants in a rowdy tavern, might also be found quietly laying flowers in Mimì’s memory.

IN REVIEW: soprano COREY RAQUEL LOVELACE as Musetta (center left) and bass-baritone DONALD HARTMANN as Alcindoro (center right) in Opera Carolina's January 2020 production of Giacomo Puccini's LA BOHÈME [Photograph by Mitchell Kearney, © by Opera Carolina]La donna in rosso: soprano Corey Raquel Lovelace as Musetta (center left) and bass-baritone Donald Hartmann as Alcindoro (center right) in Opera Carolina’s January 2020 production of Giacomo Puccini’s La bohème
[Photograph by Mitchell Kearney, © by Opera Carolina]

The Marcello of baritone Giovanni Guagliardo was a pensive, at times almost avuncular figure whose artistic frustration was a symptom of his restless passion for Musetta. His jocular conversations with his friends in Act One betrayed a persistent distraction, and there was no doubt from the moment of Musetta’s arrival at Café Momus in Act Two that she was the cause of his discontent. The lovers’ reunion was therefore all the more believable. Guagliardo sang elegantly in the scene with Mimì at the beginning of Act Three, the voice growing darker and stronger as the severity of the girl’s illness was disclosed. His compassion for Mimì fueled the empathetic but stern reproaches in the subsequent dialogue with Rodolfo. The baritone rousingly sparred with his Musetta as Mimì and Rodolfo sang of the dissolution of their relationship, and he comforted Musetta tenderly in Act Four. The zenith of Guagliardo’s performance was his depiction of Marcello’s despair in the duet with Rodolfo: attempting to disguise his anguish, he was suddenly overwhelmed, surrendering not to Gigli-esque sobs but to silence. Guagliardo was not on his best form, vocally, but his shortcomings plausibly and often touchingly mirrored those of the character.

The youthfully athletic Rodolfo of British tenor Adam Smith revealed this gifted singer as a well-qualified successor to the legacy of his too-little-remembered countryman Charles Craig. Possessing a rich, masculine timbre and an upper register with exciting, well-managed squillo, Smith promises to join Craig in the sparse ranks of British tenors with special affinity for Italian repertoire. In Act One of Opera Carolina’s La bohème, he was the ebullient, libidinous poet to the life, feeding his manuscript to the flames with sham solemnity. With Mimì came new maturity, and Smith voiced ‘Che gelida manina’ with burgeoning wonder. He valiantly sang the aria in Puccini’s original key: a catch in the voice on the ascent compromised the security of his top C, but this was but a brief blemish in a fine account of the music. The soaring lines of ‘O soave fanciulla’ suited him perfectly, and Smith delivered them with panache.

Smith overcame Schaunard’s and Colline‘s silliness in Act Two to sensitively praise Mimì as the embodiment of poetry, and the tenor’s dusky timbre lent gravity to Rodolfo’s warning about his jealousy. Smith met the fearsome requirements of Act Three with unflappable technical acumen, producing the feared diminuendo on top A♭ on ‘alla stagion dei fior’ superbly and ably partnering first Marcello and then Mimì in their duets. Complementing Guagliardo‘s tasteful singing, Smith exercised vocal and dramatic restraint in the Act Four duet. His portrayal of Rodolfo in the opera’s final scene was not without lacrimose passages, but there was subtlety here, too. It was not a perfect evening for Smith, but his was the sort of performance that reminds the listener of how uninteresting and unsatisfying perfection can be.

IN REVIEW: soprano STEFANNA KYBALOVA as Mimì (left) and tenor ADAM SMITH as Rodolfo (right) in Opera Carolina's January 2020 production of Giacomo Puccini's LA BOHÈME [Photograph by Mitchell Kearney, © by Opera Carolina]Insieme fino alla primavera: soprano Stefanna Kybalova as Mimì (left) and tenor Adam Smith as Rodolfo (right) in Opera Carolina’s January 2020 production of Giacomo Puccini’s La bohème
[Photograph by Mitchell Kearney, © by Opera Carolina]

When the frail, introspective Mimì of Bulgarian soprano Stefanna Kybalova knocked at her neighbors’ door in Act One, the prevailing mood of this Bohème was instantaneously altered, as Puccini’s music indicates that it should be, from one of puerile ribaldry to delicate intimacy. Playful but unmistakably unwell, her Mimì shyly acclimated herself to Rodolfo’s environment, imparting the joy of simply being noticed. Kybalova phrased ‘Sì, mi chiamano Mimì’ with innate comprehension of the conversational flow of the music. Projection of the soprano’s upper register was sometimes effortful, but her intonation remained true. Her smile as she took Rodolfo’s arm in their duet shone more brightly than all the lights of Paris.

The business with the bonnet in Act Two can be cloying, but Kybalova’s acting eschewed artifice. Her Mimì was genuinely awed by Musetta, though she recognized immediately that the frost between Musetta and Marcello was rapidly thawing. Seeking Marcello at the tavern by the city gate in Act Three, Mimì’s infirmity was advancing mercilessly, but, listening as Rodolfo told Marcello of his guilt and angst at his poverty hastening the deterioration of Mimì’s health, the frankness with which Kybalova uttered ‘Ahimè morir!’ was devastating. This Mimì’s voicing of ‘Donde lieta uscì al tuo grido d’amore’ expressed the meaning of the text with astonishing clarity: devoid of bitterness, her singing was suffused with exhausted acceptance of the inevitable. The girlish sweetness of Mimì’s greetings to her friends in Act Four softened the blow of a perceptible finality. Kybalova’s singing throughout the final scene was exquisite, her portrayal of the young woman who was so often alone in life transfigured by Mimì meeting death surrounded by love. Her final act of love for Rodolfo was dying whilst he was turned away, sparing him the trauma of witnessing her last breath. Her characterization always guided by the text, Kybalova’s Mimì recalled portrayals by Raina Kabaivanska, Renata Scotto, and Diana Soviero, but this was, above all, an uncommonly faithful incarnation of Puccini’s Mimì.

Audiences sometimes seem surprised to learn that ticket sales constitute a small fraction of opera companies’ budgets. Nevertheless, as governmental funding for the Performing Arts becomes ever more imperiled, selling tickets is an integral component of opera’s continued survival. Opera’s cognoscenti groan at the prospect of a production of La bohème, lamenting the lack of attention granted to lesser-known, infrequently-performed works and contemporary music. A Twenty-First-Century concertgoer rarely purchases a ticket for a Rolling Stones concert with the hope of hearing overlooked B-sides and new material, however. In opera, adventurous programming deservedly earns plaudits, but performing beloved operas like La bohème enables the exploration of other repertoire. Opera Carolina’s 2016 production of Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Aleko, the opera’s first fully-staged presentation by a professional company in the United States, established Charlotte as a welcoming, supportive home for bold repertory choices. Staging La bohème is almost always a safe choice for opera companies, but Opera Carolina’s production of Puccini’s perennially-popular paean to ill-fated love affirmed that safe choices can be wonderfully rewarding.

28 January 2020

ARTS IN ACTION: There’s a new Minnie in town — soprano Amy Cofield interprets the title rôle in Opera Orlando’s February 2020 production of La fanciulla del West

ARTS IN ACTION: Soprano AMY COFIELD, Minnie in Opera Orlando's February 2020 Opera on the Town production of Giacomo Puccini's LA FANCIULLA DEL WEST [Photograph by Javier Vladimir, © by Opera Orlando]Girl of the golden voice: soprano Amy Cofield, Minnie in Opera Orlando’s February 2020 Opera on the Town production of Giacomo Puccini’s La fanciulla del West
[Photograph by Javier Vladimir, © by Opera Orlando]

By any standard, many significant events are documented in the annals of the first quarter-century of performances at New York City’s Metropolitan Opera. Two years after the opera’s inaugural staging in Vienna, Jean de Reszke and Emma Eames introduced Massenet’s Werther to the United States at the MET. Similarly, Verdi’s Falstaff arrived in the United States in 1895, two years after its world première in Milan, via a Metropolitan Opera production that featured the creator of the title rôle, Victor Maurel. The first American production of Diana von Solange, a score composed by Ernst II, Duke of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha, was presented by the MET in 1891, and the company presented its first piece composed by a woman with the North American première of Dame Ethel Smyth’s Der Wald in 1903.

The musical diversity of the scores that received their first performances in the United States at the MET is astonishing, especially considering that the company has often faced criticism in recent years for mostly avoiding contemporary and long-neglected music. The USA premières of Ponchielli’s La gioconda (1883, with Christine Nilsson in the title rôle), Wagner’s Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg (1886) and Das Rheingold (1889), Spontini’s Fernand Cortez (1888), Massenet’s La navarraise (1895), Giordano’s Fedora (1906), Richard Strauss’s Salome (1907), D’Albert’s Tiefland (1908), Catalani’s La Wally (1909), and Gluck’s Armide (1910) all occurred at the MET. Further increasing the MET’s prestige, the company later staged the first productions in the United States of Richard Strauss’s Der Rosenkavalier (1913) and Die Ägyptische Helena (1928) and Verdi’s Simon Boccanegra (1932).

It was also the MET that hosted the USA premières of a battery of works that were subsequently forgotten, including Viktor Ernst Nessler’s Der Trompeter von Säkkingen (1887), Alberto Franchetti’s Asrael (1890) and Germania (1910), Antonio Smareglia’s Il vassalo di Szigeth (1890), Herman Bemberg’s Elaine (1894, with a cast that included Dame Nellie Melba, Pol Plançon, and both Jean and Édouard de Reszke!), Luigi Mancinelli’s Ero e Leandro (1899), Isidore de Lara’s Messaline (1902), Ignacy Jan Panderewski’s Manru (1902), and Alfred Bruneau’s L’attaque du moulin (1910).

The rightly revered MET career of the great German soprano Lilli Lehmann, who respectively sang Isolde, Venus, and Brünnhilde in the company’s USA-première traversals of Tristan und Isolde (1886), the Paris edition of Tannhäuser (1889), Siegfried (1887), and Götterdämmerung (1888), encompassed not only these Wagnerian heroines but also the first performances in the USA of the title rôle in Carl Maria von Weber’s Euryanthe (1887) and Sulamith and Viviane in Carl Goldmark’s Die Königin von Saba (1885) and Merlin (1887).

This remarkable legacy notwithstanding, it was not until twenty-seven years after the company’s first performance that the MET staged a world première. On 10 December 1910, Emmy Destinn, Enrico Caruso, Pasquale Amato, and Arturo Toscanini transported the New York audience to the Polka Saloon in a rugged mining camp in California’s Sierra Nevada wilderness with the first performance of Giacomo Puccini’s La fanciulla del West. Based upon the 1905 play The Girl of the Golden West by David Belasco, whose theatrical adaptation of John Luther Long’s short story Madame Butterfly had earlier inspired Puccini’s Madama Butterfly, the Italian composer’s homage to the West was the first opera with an American subject seen at the MET. A native Californian whose life’s journey from San Francisco to Broadway led him throughout the West, including to Piper’s Opera House in Virginia City, Nevada, Belasco supervised Fanciulla’s world-première staging with the goal of ensuring the greatest possible degree of authenticity.

Puccini’s La bohème was first performed by Metropolitan Opera forces in Los Angeles on 9 November 1900, forging a relationship among Puccini, California, and the MET that would ultimately yield La fanciulla del West. [The first performance of La bohème in the MET’s New York City home followed on 26 December 1900.] 1901 saw the United States première of Tosca on the MET stage, the opera’s eponymous prima donna brought to life by Milka Ternina, who was also America’s first Kundry in Wagner’s Parsifal two years later. In 1907, MET stagings of Manon Lescaut and Madama Butterfly with Enrico Caruso’s des Grieux and Pinkerton and Antonio Scotti’s Lescaut and Sharpless partnering Lina Cavalieri’s Manon and Geraldine Farrar’s Cio-Cio San were supervised by the composer. The first performance of Puccini’s Le Villi in the USA followed in 1908. The successes of these productions prompted the MET’s management to commission Puccini to composer a new opera for the company. Globally, acclaim for Fanciulla did not equal appreciation of Puccini’s other operas, but the triumph of Fanciulla’s New York début was sufficient to secure for the company another Puccini world première, that of Il trittico in 1918.

Though the legacies of the rôle’s creator, the Prague-born Emmy Destinn, and notable Italian exponents of the part including Gilda dalla Rizza, Gigliola Frazzoni, Magda Olivero, and Renata Tebaldi continue to exert great influence on assessments and performances of Puccini’s music for Fanciulla’s heroine Minnie, memorable portraits of this most American of operatic leading ladies have also been drawn by American sopranos. Eleanor Steber’s Minnie in the 1954 Maggio Musicale Fiorentino production of Fanciulla established a high standard for American interpreters of the part, a standard that was later upheld by Maralin Niska, Linda Roark-Strummer, Barbara Daniels, and, in performances still extolled by aficionados as peaks in Fanciulla’s performance history, Dorothy Kirsten and Carol Neblett. Joining this illustrious sisterhood with her first portrayal of the captivating woman to whom Puccini affectionately referred as ‘la Girl’ in Opera Orlando’s Opera on the Town production of La fanciulla del West, staged in downtown Orlando’s Cheyenne Saloon and Ceviche Ballroom, soprano Amy Cofield brings to Minnie’s daunting music experience in repertoire ranging from Händel and Mozart to Ravel, Orff, and Deborah Mason.

An imaginative artist whose performances exhibit musical and intellectual curiosity, Cofield is keenly aware of the formidable demands that Minnie makes on singers who portray her, but it is not the music that the soprano cites as the greatest test posed by the part. ‘I think the biggest challenge has been in preparing this rôle with this English translation,’ she recently shared, referring to the new translation by David Scott Marley that will be sung in Opera Orlando’s production of La fanciulla del West. ‘Unlike many opera singers,’ she continued, ‘I actually enjoy singing English translations and have performed several rôles in translations, as well as [rôles] originally composed in English. Since it is my native language, I feel I can communicate best in it.’

ARTS IN ACTION: Soprano AMY COFIELD, Minnie in Opera Orlando's February 2020 Opera on the Town production of Giacomo Puccini's LA FANCIULLA DEL WEST [Photograph © by Amy Cofield]Proprietress of the Polka: soprano Amy Cofield, Minnie in Opera Orlando’s February 2020 Opera on the Town production of Giacomo Puccini’s La fanciulla del West
[Photograph © by Amy Cofield]

Using the text to communicate Minnie’s dramatic development is no less important than singing the music accurately, not least in Opera Orlando’s site-specific staging, Cofield feels. ‘In this production, we are performing in the Saloon, where supertitles would not be practical and where the intimacy of the space enhances the communication, so singing in the language of the audience is ideal,’ she reflected. ‘David Scott Marley’s libretto, which very closely follows Belasco’s story, is wonderful for this setting, and I think it will be very engaging for our audience.’ After a contemplative pause, Cofield added, ‘That said, singing Puccini’s music while portraying Minnie’s less-educated language has been a challenge for me; different than singing [Carlisle] Floyd’s Susannah, for example, which was composed in English with the dialect. As one who strives for my best diction, I find singing Minnie's lines with “ain’t” and “fer,” for example, while still maintaining Puccini’s beautiful legatos, a challenge. I am looking forward to working with Alan Bruun, our stage director, for input and guidance in that regard—and, though challenging, I am excited to put it all together and discover my most authentic portrayal of Minnie.’

For a singer who is often praised by audiences and critics for her dedication to bringing the characters she portrays to life with uncommon sincerity and specificity, meaningfully connecting with a rôle’s psychology is a crucial component of preparing for performances. This is particularly true of Cofield’s approach to portraying ‘la Girl.’ ‘Minnie has many qualities that endear her to me; most of all, her huge heart,’ the soprano confided. ‘She may not have had an education, but she loves fiercely, and she recognizes how important it is to give and receive that love.’ Minnie’s life is shaped by love, Cofield asserts. ‘When she reflects on her parents’ love for each other and tells Jack that she won’t marry a man “without a heap o’ love behind it,” we see her idealistic hopes and dreams. She is strong-willed but also very humble.’

It is this humility that inspires Cofield’s affection for Minnie. ‘My heart actually breaks for her when she says that she hasn’t had more than thirty dollars’ worth of an education and then says “I’ll never come to nothin’.” She is this incredible woman with a heart of gold—which Johnson sees, of course—and more emotional intelligence than most, yet she feels unworthy,’ the singer intimated. ‘I also find it interesting that, though she feels that she is not educated enough for a gentleman, she is the one who is teacher to the miners—perhaps because she has it in her heart to help and guide. She has the heart of a teacher, if not the education.’ Cofield also identifies Minnie’s humility as the catalyst for her transformation into the courageous heroine who risks her life to save the man who deceived her. ‘When she finds out that Johnson is Ramirez, she says, “I should have knowed it! Ain’t no gentleman would have me!” I am struck by that and also recognize how that conflict can exist within her,’ she mused. ‘I think [that] her inner strength, her pure heart, and her will to do right by all those she loves make her most endearing to me, and I hope to portray her many layers. I find that I really love Minnie and can relate to her in many ways, which makes this rôle all the more fulfilling for me to portray.’

As her acquaintance with the score has deepened, Cofield notes that she has grown ever more impressed by the musical and dramatic craftsmanship that produced Fanciulla. ‘From Minnie’s entrance to the final moments, I think Puccini’s music and the storyline fit so beautifully together to show how Minnie is beloved among the men, worthy of the respect and affection they show at her entrance and of the true love of friendship expressed at the end.’ Her admiration for Puccini’s theatrical astuteness heightens her commitment to limning Minnie’s emotional facets. ‘To me, [Minnie] is a maternal figure. She scolds the men and gives them the Bible lesson, and you can see they have a great deal of respect for her. But she is also kind and tender and possesses a rare innocence for one in her rôle as saloon owner. She is their trusted friend, sister, guide, and confidante. I will aim to bring forth each of her qualities that endear her [to them] as the story unfolds.’

Defusing a brawl in the saloon with a gunshot and the force of her presence, Minnie makes one of the most exhilarating entrances in opera. Some singers struggle to sustain the energy of that entrance until the end of the opera. Unsurprisingly, Cofield derives her motivation from the score. ‘I think the music and the libretto maintain the dramatic momentum,’ she professed. ‘As the love story develops between Minnie and Johnson, we see Minnie’s innocence and faith; and her jealousy overcome by that faith and by genuine love.’ The pangs and pleasures of love are not the exclusive property of Minnie and Johnson, however. ‘Of course, I can’t leave out Jack Rance,’ this Minnie conceded. ‘He clearly loves Minnie, and it tortures him, yet even he relents. Does he know she cheated in their poker game? Perhaps.’

The fateful contest between Rance’s passion for Minnie and Minnie’s love for Johnson provides Fanciulla’s thrilling apotheosis, but Cofield proposes another love as the opera’s soul. ‘[Minnie] has won all of their hearts,’ she theorized, ‘but I think the truest love story is that between Minnie and the miners.’ Cognizance of this relationship will pervade Cofield’s portrayal of Minnie. ‘I will do my best to express each of those moments which lead to the heart-wrenching and heart-warming conclusion, as Minnie recalls the earlier times and they are moved to express their love and genuine desire for her happiness, even as they know they will lose her,’ she vowed.

Despite its happy ending, a vein of sadness circulates through Fanciulla. ‘I agree that this is perhaps the saddest of Puccini’s operas—and that is saying something as one who has sung both Mimì and Musetta in La bohème!’ Cofield said. ‘As I have been rehearsing the final act, it has taken me some time to be able to sing through it without getting too choked up to sing.’ This response is stimulated, Cofield suggests, by the cumulative sense of a community on the brink of dissolution. ‘There is the great loss they all experience, but there are also the great beauty and depth of friendship and love,’ she averred. ‘When Minnie reminds each of the men how they have been like brothers to her and recalls their specific acts of kindness, it touches me very deeply. They make the ultimate sacrifice to give her what she wants, to love her, and to let her go. It is both heartbreaking and beautiful—a powerful example of faith and redemption as taught by Minnie in Act One. She certainly shows herself to be deserving of their act of pure love.’ The earnestness of Minnie’s character appeals strongly to Cofield as both an artist and an individual. ‘Her deep faiths in God and in humanity, [her capacities] to love and forgive and strive for greatness, are perhaps what move me most about her. She is so pure and she loves so fiercely,’ the artist divulged.

Like many operas, Fanciulla leaves some questions unanswered. Does Rance return to his wife in New Orleans? Does Nick continue to operate the Polka after Minnie’s departure? Cofield has an optimistic but clear-sighted notion of Minnie’s future after the opera’s curtain falls. ‘I suspect [that] Minnie is one who would bloom where she is planted,’ she postulated. ‘I could imagine her having another saloon. The romantic view would be that she and Johnson are living happily together, maybe running a saloon together, as her parents did. I see Minnie as being very independent and capable, whether or not she and Johnson are together. Without a doubt, I see her as having many friends and admirers.’ There is no doubt that, like all of her operatic depictions, Amy Cofield’s Minnie will also earn many admirers.


____________________________________________________________

For more information about Amy Cofield’s career and future engagements, please visit her website.

Performances of Opera Orlando’s Opera on the Town production of La fanciulla del West, which also features tenor Ben Gulley as Dick Johnson and baritone Daniel Scofield as Jack Rance, are scheduled for Friday, 7 February, and Sunday, 9 February 2020. To learn more and to purchase tickets, please visit Opera Orlando’s website.

Sincerest thanks to Ms. Cofield for her time and the thoughtfulness and frankness with which she responded to questions for this profile.

27 January 2020

PERFORMANCE REVIEW: Ruggero Leoncavallo — PAGLIACCI (C. Tanner, M. Whittington, K. Choi, T. Onishi, J. Karn, A. Dengler, J. Hurley; North Carolina Opera, 24 January 2020)

IN REVIEW: (from left to right) tenor CARL TANNER as Canio, baritone KIDON CHOI as Tonio (hiding under table), and soprano MELINDA WHITTINGTON as Nedda in North Carolina Opera's January 2020 production of Ruggero Leoncavallo's PAGLIACCI [Photograph by Eric Waters, © by North Carolina Opera]RUGGERO LEONCAVALLO (1857 – 1919): PagliacciCarl Tanner (Canio), Melinda Whittington (Nedda), Kidon Choi (Tonio), Takaoki Onishi (Silvio), Jason Karn (Beppe), Adam Dengler (Un contadino), Jerry Hurley (Un contadino); Kidznotes, North Carolina Opera Chorus and Orchestra; Keitaro Harada, conductor [Octavio Cardenas, stage director; Tláloc López-Watermann, lighting designer; Constantine Kritikos, set designer; Glenn Avery Breed, costume designer; Martha Ruskai, makeup and wig designer; North Carolina Opera, Memorial Auditorium, Duke Energy Center for the Performing Arts, Raleigh, North Carolina, USA; Friday, 24 January 2020]

Few people who have spent time in their midst have failed to observe outward manifestations of opera singers’ legendary superstitions. From avoiding certain situations to employing talismans, some singers perpetuate operatic lore, preferring the perceived safety of a curse thwarted to the uncertainty of a curse ignored. In the early years of sound recording, there was a fear among singers that, like withdrawals from a bank account, projecting their voices into gramophone horns irreparably eroded their vocal endowments. It is reported that not even Enrico Caruso, one of the most celebrated pioneers of recording, approached the acoustical preservation of his voice without apprehension, yet he recorded Canio’s familiar aria ‘Vesti la giubba’ from Ruggero Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci no fewer than three times in five years.

Canio was indisputably one of Caruso’s finest rôles, one that he sang 116 times for New York’s Metropolitan Opera, but what, aside from obvious commercial motivations [the 1902, 1904, and 1907 recordings collectively sold more than a million copies, still an impressive tally but a remarkable accomplishment in the first decade of the Twentieth Century], compelled him to record ‘Vesti la giubba’ repeatedly? [Interestingly, the first Canio, Parmesan tenor Fiorello Giraud, recorded excerpts from his Wagnerian repertoire, arias from Verdi’s Luisa Miller and Bizet’s Carmen, the popular Berceuse from Godard’s Jocelyn, and several Italian songs but none of Canio’s music.] A master of the music and an early beneficiary of global celebrity, Caruso clearly recognized aspects of Canio’s musical characterization that appealed to listeners. In the Twenty-First Century, Caruso‘s 1907 recording of ‘Vesti la giubba’ continues to be frequently downloaded and streamed, mirroring Pagliacci‘s indefatigable popularity with audiences. Perhaps Caruso was uncommonly prescient; or perhaps he merely knew good music when he encountered it.

The world première of Pagliacci in Milan’s Teatro Dal Verme on 21 May 1892, solidified Leoncavallo‘s reputation as one of Italy‘s preeminent composers and provided a cornerstone for the repertoire of the fledgling operatic genre of verismo. In its operatic context, the term ‘warhorse’ has developed a pejorative connotation, but, when used to describe Pagliacci, it can be interpreted as an affectionate moniker applied to a work deployed in battles against the disappearance of the passion that engendered Italian opera. Directed with commendable straightforwardness by Octavio Cardenas, North Carolina Opera’s staging of Pagliacci outfitted this warhorse with familiar but fresh vestments. Especially admirable was Cardenas’s blocking: principals and choristers moved convincingly, not in the manner of wooden figures on a carousel, predictably but aimlessly entering and exiting, but as denizens of a functioning community. There was a naturalness of movement that lent the drama a gripping aura of spontaneity. Cardenas’s Pagliacci epitomized the finest qualities of traditional productions. By faithfully but imaginatively observing the dictates of Leoncavallo’s libretto and score, this staging exuded an authenticity that productions that seek inspiration beyond the composer’s work often lack.

Illuminated by Tláloc López-Watermann’s typically effective lighting, Constantine Kritikos’s scenic designs, the appropriately middle-class costumes by Glenn Avery Breed, and Martha Ruskai’s attractive wigs and makeup vividly transformed the Raleigh stage into Leoncavallo’s Calabrian village. Both the grandeur of the public scenes and the intimacy of Nedda’s encounters with Tonio and Silvio were captivatingly realized, the former retaining clarity in moments of greatest tumult and the latter perceptively limning the complex relationships among the characters. Pagliacci can be interpreted as a variation on the oft-explored theme of artists’ isolation from society, but this production embodied the objective announced by Tonio in the Prologo. Their commedia dell’arte theatrics notwithstanding, the principals in this Pagliacci were ordinary people facing extraordinary but recognizably universal troubles, their lives neither glorified nor derided.

IN REVIEW: soprano MELINDA WHITTINGTON as Nedda (center left) and tenor CARL TANNER as Canio (center right) in North Carolina Opera's January 2020 production of Ruggero Leoncavallo's PAGLIACCI [Photograph by Eric Waters, © by North Carolina Opera]Coniugi condannati: soprano Melinda Whittington as Nedda (center left) and tenor Carl Tanner as Canio (center right) in North Carolina Opera’s January 2020 production of Ruggero Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci
[Photograph by Eric Waters, © by North Carolina Opera]

Under the baton of conductor Keitaro Harada, North Carolina Opera’s choral and orchestral forces distinguished themselves with superb performances. Virtually every instrument in the orchestra is subjected to writing that tests its player’s technique and preparedness, and, the instrumentalists skillfully cued by Harada, there were very few moments in which the orchestra’s intonational and rhythmic precision faltered. Scott MacLeod’s work with the North Carolina Opera Chorus, assisted in this production by Nick Malinowski’s training of the Kidznotes children’s chorus, yielded exhilarating but unerringly musical accounts of the difficult Chorus of the Bells and the opera’s final scene. Performances by larger companies with long-established acquaintances with Leoncavallo’s music can rarely boast of choral singing and orchestral playing superior to those heard in North Carolina Opera’s Pagliacci.

Returning to Raleigh, where he conducted North Carolina Opera’s 2019 production of Bizet’s Carmen, Maestro Harada displayed a thorough and uncommonly discerning understanding of the nuances of Leoncavallo’s score. The music‘s corpuscular verismo thundered from stage and pit, but Harada’s handling of lyrical passages revealed the bel canto that blossoms within the score. The Andante cantabile section of Tonio’s Prologo, the opening of Nedda’s Ballatella, Silvio’s outpouring of affection, and Canio’s ‘Sperai, tanto il delirio accecato m’aveva’ were shaped with poetic delicacy, the conductor encouraging the singers to communicate not just the literal meanings but also the emotional subtleties of the words via expansive, unhurried phrasing. These episodes of relative introspection intensified the shock of the opera’s violent climax, Canio’s ultimate acts of vengeance depicted as the primal response of a broken man to circumstances that he cannot alter. Even when haphazardly conducted, Pagliacci is invariably entertaining and often exciting. Harada’s exquisite conducted proved that, when paced with absolute cognizance of its structures, sentiments, and subtexts, Pagliacci can also be genuinely moving.

Heightening the carnival-like atmosphere of the commedia dell’arte players’ fateful visit to the unnamed town in which the drama transpires, acrobats Rachel Webberman and Matthew Berno brought off their gravity-defying feats with feline grace. Baritone Adam Dengler and tenor Jerry Hurley sang impressively as the pair of villagers who extended their community’s hospitality to Canio, evincing the townspeople‘s pride at hosting the venerable thespians. Tenor Jason Karn was a charismatic Beppe in Opera Carolina’s 2016 production of Pagliacci and was no less charming in Raleigh. That he sang the top As in Arlecchino’s serenata so effortlessly whilst perched on a worryingly unsteady utility pole was indicative of the musical and dramatic unflappability with which he portrayed the hardworking, level-headed Beppe.

The scene for Nedda and her paramour Silvio contains some of Leoncavallo’s most impassioned writing, the lovers’ illicit rendezvous inspiring the composer to create several of Italian opera’s most luridly erotic pages. In baritone Takaoki Onishi’s performance in Raleigh, the depth of Silvio’s love for Nedda and the magnetism that drew her to him were palpable. Declaiming ‘Nedda, Nedda, decidi il mio destin’ with ardor and handsomely virile tone, Onishi characterized Silvio as a man whose desire for Nedda was unquestionably carnal but also viscerally spiritual. There was a pervasive sense of yearning in this Silvio’s singing, as though he was as desperate to escape from his own struggles as Nedda was to gain her freedom, but the true hallmarks of Onishi’s vocalism were the evenness of registers, the youthful ease of his ascents above the stave, and the consistent beauty of his timbre. Aided by Harada, he sang ‘E allor perchè, di’, tu m’hai stregato’ arrestingly, caressing the line with ideally-supported mezza voce, and the hushed ending of the duet with Nedda was gorgeous. In Onishi’s performance, Silvio’s lunge at Canio in the opera’s final moments was more anguished than threatening: Nedda having been slain before his eyes, his life was already at its end. Vulnerability was at the core of Onishi’s characterization, and, unusually, Silvio’s death was as wrenching as Nedda’s.

Similarly, keen focus on all of the character’s psychological facets was the foundation of baritone Kidon Choi’s portrayal of the pernicious but pitiable Tonio. From the first words of the Prologo, it was apparent that Choi is a very gifted singing actor, but he surpassed his own standards with each successive phrase. At once bemused, flippant, scornful, and piercingly sincere, he sang the music with immediacy that recalled Giuseppe Taddei’s saturnine portrayal and soared without strain to the interpolated top A♭ and G. Throughout Canio’s banter with the townsfolk, Choi’s Tonio lurked on the periphery of the action, biding his time. Finally alone with Nedda, he declared his love with an outcast’s awkward earnestness, voicing ‘So ben che lo scemo contorto son io’ with touching tenderness. Wounded by the viciousness of Nedda’s rejection, he flung ‘Per la croce di Dio, bada che puoi pagarla cara!’ at her like lasso with which he intended to ensnare her. Choi played Taddeo’s part in the farsa with the self-congratulatory artifice of a man who feels his grip on revenge tightening. Tonio’s sadistic laughter as the curtain fell on the scene of Canio cradling Nedda’s lifeless body was chilling. Dramatically, Choi was an atypically expressive Tonio who repulsed all the more for having divulged the humanity of which he was capable. Vocally, he sang the rôle with the sort of inherent suitability that has been seldom heard in this music in the past quarter-century.

IN REVIEW: tenor CARL TANNER as Canio in North Carolina Opera's January 2020 production of Ruggero Leoncavallo's PAGLIACCI [Photograph by Eric Waters, © by North Carolina Opera]Pagliaccio non ride: tenor Carl Tanner as Canio in North Carolina Opera’s January 2020 production of Ruggero Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci
[Photograph by Eric Waters, © by North Carolina Opera]

In the course of Pagliacci’s nearly-thirteen-decade performance history, the opera’s leading lady has been sung by an array of voices that parallels the diversity of singers’ interpretations of the rôle. In many ways, soprano Melinda Whittington’s performance with North Carolina Opera was often reminiscent of the free-spirited Nedda of Maralin Niska. Emboldened by her longing for liberation from her failed marriage, this Nedda’s resolve was undermined by her fear for Silvio’s safety. Whittington’s ruminative utterance of ‘Confusa io son’ in the wake of Canio’s ‘Un tal gioco, credetemi’ echoed this ambiguity, the young woman’s trepidation visible beyond the façade of her fortitude. As Nedda sought refuge in memories of her childhood, Whittington sang ‘Qual fiamma avea nel guardo’ with abandon, imparting the wonderment that surges from the music. Leoncavallo sanctioned omission of the trills that launch the Ballatella, but Raleigh’s Nedda resorted to no amendments, valiantly attempting the trills and resolving her rousing ‘Stridono lassù’ with a radiant top A♯.

The contempt with which Whittington declaimed ‘Hai l’animo siccome il corpo tuo difforme, lurido!’ was more crippling than Tonio’s physiological challenges, Nedda’s disgust hurled at him with vehemence. In the subsequent duet with Silvio, however, the soprano’s performance manifested warmth and femininity. Her voicing of ‘Non mi tentar! Vuoi tu perder la mia vita?’ throbbed with anxiety. Whittington metamorphosed her Nedda into a comical Colombina without jeopardizing the caliber of her vocalism. The commedia dell’arte feigning shattered by Canio’s rage, this Nedda was visibly affected by her husband’s despair: she may never have loved him, but she seemed to at least regret hurting him. Crowning Nedda’s final defiance with a brilliant top B, Whittington depicted the character’s death with startling realism. Occasionally, the wide intervals in Leoncavallo’s writing compromised the soprano’s vocal support, focus on projecting the upper register diminishing the solidity of tones in the lower octave of the range, but Whittington both sang and acted intelligently and poignantly.

It was only six months after his professional début that Fiorello Giraud introduced Canio to the world. Though the last years of his career were largely devoted to singing Heldentenor repertoire, it was as Canio that Giraud made his most lasting contribution to operatic history. Continuing Giraud’s legacy, Canio was an iconic rôle for Italian tenors from Caruso, Beniamino Gigli, and Giovanni Martinelli to Mario del Monaco, Franco Corelli, and Carlo Bergonzi. It was not until 4 January 1908, fourteen years after Pagliacci’s company première on 11 December 1893, that an American tenor, the Kentucky-born Riccardo Martin, first donned Canio’s greasepaint at the Metropolitan Opera. Thereafter, American tenors of the caliber of James McCracken, Herman Malamood, and Richard Tucker have portrayed Canio to acclaim throughout the world.

A lauded exponent of parts as demanding but different as Radamès in Verdi’s Aida, Calàf in Puccini’s Turandot, and Saint-Saëns’s Samson, the last of which he sang in North Carolina Opera’s 2018 concert performance of Samson et Dalila, Carl Tanner brought to Raleigh’s production of Pagliacci a refined, powerful portrayal of Canio. Presenting himself to the audiences on stage and in the auditorium, Tanner voiced ‘Un grande spettacolo a ventitré ore’ electrifyingly, the metal in the voice shimmering. The villager’s quip about marital infidelity striking an aggravated nerve, menace blended with pain in his singing of ‘Un tal gioco, credetemi.’ The stunning top B with which Tanner’s Canio reminded the villagers of the hour of the evening’s performance befitted a consummate showman.

Lured by Tonio into interrupting Nedda’s assignation with Silvio, this Canio ruthlessly pursued first his wife’s fleeing lover and then her confession of the affair. Tanner sang ‘E se in questo momento qui scannata non t’ho’ as though Canio was barely able to articulate the words. Canio’s soliloquy is one of opera’s most familiar—and most parodied—scenes, but, prefaced by a forceful but unexaggerated traversal of ‘Recitar! Mentre preso dal delirio,’ Tanner’s performance achieved Shakespearean eloquence. He sang ‘Vesti la giubba e la faccia infarina’ gloriously, exclaiming ‘Ridi, Pagliaccio!’ vigorously but without overwrought histrionics.

Jettisoning pretense in the opera’s final scene, this Canio’s declaration of ‘No, Pagliaccio non son’ was terrifying, but it was with his singing of ‘Sperai, tanto il delirio accecato m’aveva’ that Tanner most tellingly bared Canio’s soul. Deprived of reason by blinding pride and fury, Canio fulfilled the rôle assigned to him by Tonio’s machinations. In Tanner’s portrayal, killing Nedda was both Canio’s crime and his punishment, and the conspicuous remorse in the tenor’s adoring embrace of Nedda’s corpse markedly intensified the opera’s tragic ending. At the center of a cast without weakness, Tanner was the pillar upon which North Carolina Opera built a spectacular Pagliacci.

05 January 2020

PERFORMANCE REVIEW: Gian Carlo Menotti — AMAHL AND THE NIGHT VISITORS (P. Webb, S. Foley Davis, J. R. Wright, R. Wells, D. Hartmann, F. Bunter; Greensboro Opera, 19 December 2019)

IN REVIEW: the cast of Greensboro Opera's December 2019 production of Gian Carlo Menotti's AMAHL AND THE NIGHT VISITORS, with dancers CHELSEA HILDING and D. JEROME WELLS in the foreground [Photograph by VanderVeen Photographers, © by Greensboro Opera]GIAN CARLO MENOTTI (1911 – 2007): Amahl and the Night Visitors — Phillip Webb (Amahl), Stephanie Foley Davis (Mother), Jacob Ryan Wright (Kaspar), Robert Wells (Melchior), Donald Hartmann (Balthazar), Forrest Bunter (Page); Greensboro Opera Amahl Chorus and Orchestra; David Holley, Conductor, Producer, and Stage Director [Jeff Neubauer, Lighting Designer, Technical Director, and Stage Manager; Trent Pcenicni, Wigs and Makeup Designers; Michael Job, Choreographer; Greensboro Opera, Well•Spring, Greensboro, North Carolina, USA; Thursday, 19 December 2019]

It may have been the French who first aphorized that good things can emerge from small packages. Wherever this conceit originated, its validity is apparent in virtually all aspects of life and art. By operatic standards, a title rôle written for a juvenile singer, a score with a running time of less than an hour, and a libretto of conversational concision indisputably qualify Gian Carlo Menotti’s Amahl and the Night Visitors as a small package. Commissioned by America’s National Broadcasting Company, the first performance of Menotti’s small package of an opera inaugurated the long-running Hallmark Hall of Fame television series on 24 December 1951, broadcasting from NBC’s Studio 8H at 30 Rockefeller Plaza, the space from which Arturo Toscanini’s celebrated performances with the NBC Symphony Orchestra were transmitted and where Saturday Night Live continues to be staged.

The first new opera aired by NBC Opera Theatre, Amahl and the Night Visitors remains the most successful of the pieces that were written especially for NBC telecasts. Bringing Menotti’s tale of the intersection of the lives of an impoverished boy and his mother with the narrative of Christ’s nativity to both the lovely theater in Greensboro’s Well•Spring community and Lexington’s Edward C. Smith Civic Center, the revival of Greensboro Opera’s much-admired production of Amahl and the Night Visitors validated that this innovative opera is a small package that yields great things.

When discussing Amahl and the Night Visitors Menotti was candid about his struggle to choose a subject to fulfill NBC’s commission and the sources of inspiration that ultimately produced the piece. Citing a recollection of holiday traditions familiar from his childhood that was spurred by viewing an image of the Adoration of the Magi painted by Hieronymous Bosch in the last quarter of the Fifteenth Century [the long-disputed attribution of the single panel that Menotti saw in New York’s Metropolitan of Art, a work unrelated to the triptych in the collection of Madrid’s Museo del Prado, to Bosch was legitimized by scholars in 2016], the composer intimated that the work was an affectionate homage to the innocent wonderment of his youth.

Writing his own libretto and completing the score mere days before the opera’s première, Menotti enlisted the aid of his partner, Samuel Barber, in orchestrating the music. His previous short operas Amelia Goes to the Ball, The Old Maid and the Thief (commissioned by NBC for radio broadcast), The Medium, and The Telephone identified Menotti as a master of opera in miniature, these pieces limning emotional and dramatic complexities with brevity. Contrasting the desperation and despair of Amahl and his mother with the vivid, sometimes comedic idiosyncrasies of the three kings, Menotti created in an opera that runs for only forty-five minutes a remarkably cogent work of art. Alongside other composers’ hours-long musical orations, Amahl and the Night Visitors is Menotti’s operatic Gettysburg Address.

IN REVIEW: mezzo-soprano STEPHANIE FOLEY DAVIS as Mother in Greensboro Opera's December 2019 production of Gian Carlo Menotti's AMAHL AND THE NIGHT VISITORS [Photograph by VanderVeen Photographers, © by Greensboro Opera]Maternal devotion: mezzo-soprano Stephanie Foley Davis as Mother in Greensboro Opera’s December 2019 production of Gian Carlo Menotti’s Amahl and the Night Visitors
[Photograph by VanderVeen Photographers, © by Greensboro Opera]

Like Engelbert Humperdinck’s Hänsel und Gretel, another work conceived as an entertainment for youngsters that was handsomely staged at Well•Spring by Greensboro Opera [reviewed here], Amahl and the Night Visitors transcends the implicit limitations imposed by its target audience. Too many productions succumb to temptations either to bloat the opera with dogmatic evangelizing or to entomb Menotti’s endearing story behind a façade of family-friendly kitsch, but Amahl and the Night Visitors is neither Wagnerian drama nor childish frivolity. Principal amongst the virtues of Greensboro Opera’s General and Artistic Director David Holley’s production of Amahl was its dedication to presenting the piece on its own terms, avoiding the pitfalls of extrapolated political and religious subtexts. To his credit, Holley retained Amahl’s astonished declaration that one of the kings at the door is Black, which here was precisely what Menotti intended it to be—a child’s guileless observation and nothing more.

The audience’s attention focused by Robert Hansen’s simple but effective scenic design on the relationship between Amahl and his despondent mother, Holley’s direction employed understated motion to advance the plot. Deborah Bell’s costumes and Trent Pcenicni’s wigs and makeup, aptly rustic for the shepherds and magnificently opulent for the three kings, ensured that differentiations between poor and rich were unmistakable, yet there was no impression of condescension or class strife. Rather, Holley’s staging emphasized the common humanity shared by all of the characters. Executed with grace and athleticism by Chelsea Hilding and D. Jerome Wells, Michael Job’s choreography complemented the production’s aesthetic by offering the shepherds’ dance as an earnest entertainment for the weary visitors. Integral to the show’s success were Jeff Neubauer’s lighting designs and technical direction. The use of light is particularly important in an opera in which a star is virtually a member of the cast, and, elucidating the fidelity to Menotti’s vision that was the core of Holley’s direction, Neubauer’s work shone brightly, literally and figuratively.

From the first bar of the opera’s Andante sostenuto opening to the overwhelmed mother’s bittersweet vigil as she watched her son depart with the magi in search of Christ in the final scene, Holley’s conducting combined rhythmic tautness with affectionate lyricism. Having sung Amahl in his youth, Holley brought to this performance career-long acquaintance with the score. In this instance, familiarity engendered not contempt but commitment to continuing to deepen his comprehension of the piece. Not least in the superb quartet for Amahl’s mother and the kings, in which his pacing allowed the singers to fully explore the gravitas of the music, Holley’s tempi gave the performance a firm pulse. Paralleling his direction of the production, Holley’s conducting of the performance yielded engaging clarity, disseminating the score’s poignant messages of tolerance and compassion from page to stage to audience with unfeigned eloquence and unflagging musicality.

Menotti’s and Barber’s orchestrations provide some of Amahl’s greatest delights, but the incisive playing of an imaginative arrangement for an ensemble considerably smaller than the full symphony orchestra at Menotti’s disposal when the opera was written served the composer and his composition splendidly. Oboist Thomas Turanchik, harpist Gerry Porcaro, percussionist Erik Schmidt, and pianist Emily Russ performed their parts as though they, like the portentous star, were joining the cast on stage, their phrasing so synchronized with that of the singers that instruments and voices sometimes seemed to emerge from a single entity. The choristers, many of whose fine voices were familiar from UNCG Opera Theatre’s recent production of Die Fledermaus and Greensboro Opera’s November 2019 staging of Pagliacci, sang Menotti’s music for the shepherds rousingly, the elation of their depiction of the community’s collective awe never impeding the accuracy of their intonation. Though the rôle of the magi’s page offers few opportunities for vocal display, another talented member of UNCG’s operatic family, baritone Forrest Bunter, denounced Amahl’s mother for her attempted theft of Melchior’s gold with rousing immediacy.

IN REVIEW: (from left to right) treble PHILLIP WEBB as Amahl, mezzo-soprano STEPHANIE FOLEY DAVIS as Mother, tenor JACOB RYAN WRIGHT as Kaspar, bass-baritone DONALD HARTMANN as Balthazar, and baritone ROBERT WELLS as Melchior in Greensboro Opera's December 2019 production of Gian Carlo Menotti's AMAHL AND THE NIGHT VISITORS [Photograph by VanderVeen Photographers, © by Greensboro Opera]Strangers at the door: (from left to right) treble Phillip Webb as Amahl, mezzo-soprano Stephanie Foley Davis as Mother, tenor Jacob Ryan Wright as Kaspar, bass-baritone Donald Hartmann as Balthazar, and baritone Robert Wells as Melchior in Greensboro Opera’s December 2019 production of Gian Carlo Menotti’s Amahl and the Night Visitors
[Photograph by VanderVeen Photographers, © by Greensboro Opera]

Entering through the house whilst resonantly intoning ‘From far away we come and farther we must go,’ Greensboro Opera’s Three Kings exhibited regal presence that made their night visit to Amahl and his mother an event that merited summoning the community of shepherds. Bass-baritone Donald Hartmann’s Balthazar was a benevolent presence with a voice that exuded august authority. There was humor in his singing of ‘I live in a black marble palace,’ however, and his utterance of ‘Thank you, good friends’ conveyed genuine gratitude. This Balthazar’s interactions with Amahl increasingly evinced paternal tenderness, the king perceptibly humbled by observing the boy’s hardships. Ever an artist whose characterizations are uncommonly nuanced, Hartmann characterized Balthazar as a man whose majesty transcended thrones and titles.

The quirky, hard-of-hearing Kaspar was endearingly portrayed by tenor Jacob Ryan Wright, whose ebullient singing of ‘This is my box’ imparted gentleness rather than obnoxious possessiveness, this good-hearted king regarding the prized item as an object of comfort and stability. Some singers’ depictions of Kaspar’s auditory challenges are distractingly overwrought, exaggeratedly played for laughs, but Wright avoided this sort of silliness, preferring a playful but dignified reading of the part.

Baritone Robert Wells completed the triumvirate of magi with a poised, prognosticatory performance as Melchior. The query that he posed to Amahl’s mother, ‘Have you seen a child the color of wheat,’ was voiced with pointed anticipation, and the prophetic consequence of the vivid imagery of ‘The child we seek holds the seas’ was heightened by the singer’s burnished vocalism. The sensitivity with which Wells sang ‘Oh woman, you may keep the gold’ lent the king’s magnanimity plausibility. Like his crown-bearing colleagues, Wells ignored stereotypes, devising a notably personal portrait of Melchior.

IN REVIEW: mezzo-soprano STEPHANIE FOLEY DAVIS as Mother (left) and treble PHILLIP WEBB as Amahl (right) in Greensboro Opera's December 2019 production of Gian Carlo Menotti's AMAHL AND THE NIGHT VISITORS [Photograph by VanderVeen Photographers, © by Greensboro Opera]Family affair: mezzo-soprano Stephanie Foley Davis as Mother (left) and treble Phillip Webb as Amahl (right) in Greensboro Opera’s December 2019 production of Gian Carlo Menotti’s Amahl and the Night Visitors
[Photograph by VanderVeen Photographers, © by Greensboro Opera]

Greensboro Opera’s Amahl had in mezzo-soprano Stephanie Foley Davis a mother who sang Menotti’s music with remarkable ease and spontaneity, song seeming more natural for the character than speech. Whether portraying the cunning Rosina in Rossini’s Il barbiere di Siviglia, Humperdinck’s Hänsel, Cio-Cio San’s loyal companion Suzuki in Puccini’s Madama Butterfly, or Amahl’s mother, Foley Davis manifests an exceptionally broad spectrum of emotions via singing of beauty and technical expertise. The exasperation felt by Amahl’s mother coursed through the mezzo-soprano’s voicing of ‘All day long you wander about in a dream,’ but, here and in both ‘Dear God, what is a poor widow to do’ and ‘What shall I do with this boy,’ the musical line was never compromised for sentimental effect.

When Foley Davis sang ‘I am a poor widow,’ it was not as an artist singing about a character: in that moment, she was the poor widow of whom she sang, the mother’s fear for her son’s well-being suffusing the singer’s tone with maternal warmth. The expressivity with which she sang ‘Yes, I know a child the color of earth’ and ‘The child I know on his palm holds my heart’ revealed that, in nobility of spirit, this unfortunate young mother was a worthy peer of her visitors. Foley Davis’s subtle exclamation of ‘All that gold!’ affirmed that the mother’s theft of Melchior’s gold was only a momentary surrender to temptation. She voiced ‘For such a king I’ve waited all my life’ with affecting humility. The image of the mother silently watching the start of her son’s trek with the magi, delicately acted by Foley Davis, was incredibly moving. Enlivening performances with insightful portrayals of dynamic characters is one of the most commendable achievements of Foley Davis’s artistry, but her exquisite depiction of Amahl’s mother in this staging of Amahl and the Night Visitors was in a class of its own.

Menotti was adamant that, whether on television or on stage, Amahl must always be sung by a boy singer, a mandate that continues to give conductors and directors nightmares. Adages concerning the perils of working with children notwithstanding, casting an age-appropriate boy as Amahl is problematic. A high caliber of musical precocity can negatively impact an Amahl’s realization of the innocence and naïveté that pervade the rôle, but Amahl’s music is undeniably difficult. Greensboro Opera’s production effectuated a consistent balance between musicality and dramatic credibility by casting thirteen-year-old Phillip Webb as Amahl. Typical of a young man on the cusp of adolescence, Webb’s pure-toned voice was strongest and surest of intonation in its lower octave, but his highest notes were generally on pitch and unfailingly attractive. Traversing the stage with his crutch, pantomiming fervent bugle playing, nettling his mother, and later defending her from the page’s true but harsh accusation, Webb’s Amahl was charismatic, his performance reflecting the singer’s experience in Greensboro Opera’s Pagliacci. Still, the awkwardness of the character’s disability was not neglected. Webb valiantly held his own in a cast of consummate professionals, proving to be a captivating Amahl who earned his visitors’ esteem.

It has often been asked in the first decades of the Twenty-First Century whether, in a time of eroding cultural awareness and waning attention spans, opera remains relevant. It is far easier merely to state than to persuasively demonstrate that, yes, opera remains viable and valuable, both as a distraction from society’s fears and as a forum in which those fears can be productively analyzed and allayed. Composed in an era during which the world was plagued by the suspicions of the Cold War, Amahl and the Night Visitors embodies the ethos of hope that opera at its best can wield. There is no better answer to questions about the necessity of opera in the Twenty-First Century than this promise of hope, and Greensboro Opera’s production of Amahl and the Night Visitors was unquestionably opera at its best.