26 September 2020

PERFORMANCE REVIEW: Faculty Recital by Donald Hartmann, bass-baritone (Tew Recital Hall, UNCG; 22 September 2020)

IN REVIEW: bass-baritone DONALD HARTMANN, faculty recitalist at UNCG on 22 September 2020, as Il sagrestano in North Carolina Opera's April 2019 production of Giacomo Puccini's TOSCA [Photo by Eric Waters, © by North Carolina Opera]Bass-baritone Donald Hartmann, faculty recitalist at UNCG on 22 September 2020, as Il sagrestano in North Carolina Opera’s April 2019 production of Giacomo Puccini’s Tosca
[Photograph by Eric Waters, © by North Carolina Opera]

WOLFGANG AMADEUS MOZART (1756 – 1791), HUGO WOLF (1860 – 1903), ANGE FLÉGIER (1846 – 1927), POLDOWSKI (1879 – 1932), CAMILLE SAINT-SAËNS (1835 – 1921), GAETANO DONIZETTI (1797 – 1848), HENRY MANCINI (1924 – 1994), KURT WEILL (1900 – 1950), HAROLD ARLEN (1905 – 1986), and JEROME KERN (1885 – 1945): Faculty RecitalDonald Hartmann, bass-baritone; Robert Wells, baritone; Alexander Ezerman, cello; Nancy Davis, piano [Tew Recital Hall, University of North Carolina at Greensboro College of Visual and Performing Arts, Greensboro, North Carolina, USA; Tuesday, 22 September 2020]

In the course of 2020, few words and conceits have become more loathsome to artists than ‘new normal,’ ‘challenging times,’ and ‘altered realities.’ A year upended by efforts to contain a global pandemic indeed constitutes a challenging time in which realities are altered and semblances of normalcy are attainable only in novel ways. Throughout history, Art and artists have endured calamities both natural and human, changed but undefeated by cataclysms of disaster and disease, but the catastrophic effects of COVID-19 on the Arts community continue to redefine and reshape artists’ rôles in society. More than at any time since the most turbulent days of World War Two, artists’ oft-repeated mantra is now a rallying cry: the show must go on!

With an engagingly eclectic recital by bass-baritone Donald Hartmann, the show went on—or, more accurately, resumed—at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro with tenacity and exuberance that reminded the socially-distanced audience in a week during which the cancellation of the entirety of the Metropolitan Opera’s 2020 – 2021 Season was confirmed that, though muted by the necessity of battling a pernicious virus, Song cannot be silenced. Alongside pianist Nancy Davis, whose performance was at once thrillingly virtuosic and enchantingly intimate, Hartmann reawakened the too-long-dormant performance space with vocalism of extraordinary immediacy. Listeners familiar with Hartmann’s artistry, whether experienced in the opera house or the recital hall, are accustomed to vibrant, impeccably musical characterizations, but his singing in this recital exuded not only thorough preparedness but also an abiding, deeply affecting sense of an artist’s fundamental need to perform. Voices are meant to be heard, and this was a recital in which far more than notes and words were voiced.

Beginning the performance with a selection that honored both his affinity for the stage and his passion for song, Hartmann enlisted cellist Alexander Ezerman for the grueling contest between strings and vocal cords in Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s concert aria ‘Per questa bella mano’ (K. 612). Composed during the final year of Mozart’s life, the unusual scoring of ‘Per questa bella mano,’ originally conceived for bass voice, orchestra, and double bass obbligato, has inspired conjecture that the piece was intended for insertion into performances of a forgotten comic opera, in which it would have been sung by Franz Xaver Gerl, the bass who, four months after Mozart documented his completion of ‘Per questa bella mano’ in May 1791, created the rôle of Sarastro in Die Zauberflöte. Ezerman’s bravura playing matched Hartmann’s flexible vocalism note for note and trill for trill, but the romantic delicacy of the text was never obscured by the vocal and instrumental pyrotechnics. Unperturbed by the fearsome intervals, Hartmann heroically maintained intonational accuracy throughout the compass of the music.

Settings of Walter Heinrich Robert-Tornow’s translations of texts by the eponymous Renaissance artist, Hugo Wolf’s Drei Lieder nach Gedichten von Michelangelo were written in March 1897, when, though aged only thirty-seven, the composer was already suffering from the mental and physiological maladies that would end his life in 1903. Grimly fatalistic in their examinations of man’s progressive physical and emotional disintegration, these Lieder are often compared to Schubert’s Winterreise, Brahms’s Vier ernste Gesänge, and Richard Strauss’s Vier letzte Lieder. In Hartmann’s performance, the dark sentiments of the first of the three songs, ‘Wohl denk’ ich oft an mein vergang’nes Leben,’ seemed to emerge from the narrator’s psyche in medias res, like a contentious discourse upon which the listener was intruding. Articulated with a native speaker’s fluency, the German text was inherently melodious, not least in the Lied’s final phrases, interpreted by Hartmann and Davis with cathartic resignation.

Wolf esteemed the second of the Michelangelo-Lieder, ‘Alles endet, was entstehet,’ as the finest of his more than two hundred songs, of which these were the last that he wrote, but this was an assessment that he also applied to a number of its brethren. ‘Alles endet, was entstehet’ is unquestionably a superbly-crafted song in which voice and piano interact in a disquieting dialogue about the transcience of humanity. In this selection and in fleeting moments in the songs that followed, there were occasional lapses in the precision of Davis’s playing in the most animated passages, but the reliable responsiveness of her collaboration expertly supported Hartmann’s phrasing. He voiced the lines ‘und nun sind wir leblos hier, sind nur Erde, wir ihr sehet’ with directness that was almost accusatory: in truth, he seemed to ask, does anyone see?

Reminiscent in spirit of Strauss’s ‘Im Abendrot,’ ‘Fühlt meine Seele das ersehnte Licht’ can be regarded as Wolf’s valedictory explication of what Dylan Thomas termed ‘the dying of the light.’ Articulating the text with special attention to the aural finality of the consonants, Hartmann presented the Lied as the culmination of an unmistakably personal journey, his singing of ‘Ich weiß es nicht’ imparting the frustration of an artist who has found the answers to too many of life’s questions to be elusive. The vocal demands of Wolf’s music were resiliently met, but it was Hartmann’s musical storytelling that was most riveting.

Hartmann demonstrated his mastery of French chansons with accounts of three varied pieces, to each of which he brought clear diction and interpretive nuances inspired by the words. First published in 1881, Ange Flégier’s poème pittoresque pour voix et piano ‘Le cor’ utilizes a text by Alfred de Vigny, to which the composer responded with imagination and wry humor. The vocal assurance of Hartmann’s traversal of ‘Le cor’ was allied with his own humor, accentuating the cleverness with which Flégier employed dramatic changes of tempo and mood to create a compelling dramatic trajectory. Here and in all of the French songs, the bass-baritone’s careful handling of language, epitomized by his confident shaping of nasalized vowels, was complemented by Davis’s sensitive pianism, her playing alternating gossamer lyricism with hall-filling power in accordance with the words.

The prevalence of Paul Verlaine’s ‘L‘heure exquise’ in the French chanson repertoire rivals that of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s work in German Lieder, but the setting of Verlaine’s familiar text by the Belgian composer Poldowski (née Régine Wieniawski) is a pinnacle both amongst her own contributions to the genre and in French Art Song as a whole. Hartmann’s innate theatricality was especially beneficial in this music, not least in the unaffected manner in which he spurred the listener’s anticipation of the final, ecstatic statement of ‘l’heure exquise.’ The rhythmic elasticity of Davis’s playing closely paralleled her colleague’s singing of the vocal line, enhancing the rhapsodic atmosphere conjured by Hartmann’s traversal of the song.

Its popularity with audiences continuing into the Twenty-First Century, Camille Saint-Saëns’s 1874 tone poem Danse macabre overshadows the 1872 chanson with words by Henri Cazalis via which the raucous tune was first heard. Setting a reasonable tempo that avoided the careening disasters into which some performances quickly dissolve, Davis drew the din of rattling bones from the Steinway, providing Hartmann with the musical threads with which to weave a gothic tale worthy of Edgar Allan Poe. The mercurial brilliance and chromatic litheness of its principal and secondary subjects belie the song’s difficulties for both vocalist and pianist, and the performance that it received in this recital gave an impression of authentically French insouciance, exemplified by the near-sadistic glee of Hartmann’s declamation of ‘Et vive la mort et l’égalité!’ in the song’s exultant coda.

Hartmann was joined in a diverting jaunt through music from Gaetano Donizetti’s Don Pasquale by baritone and fellow UNCG Voice faculty member Robert Wells, who offered a suave, suggestive account of Dottore Malatesta’s Act One romanza ‘Bella siccome un angelo.’ Hartmann replied with his first public performance of Pasquale’s Act One cavatina ‘Ah! un foco insolito mi sento addosso,’ justifiably cited by the bass-baritone as two of the most demanding minutes in opera buffa and sung with the comedic panache and musical bravado that make his Rossini portrayals so memorable. As they addressed one another in the number’s rollicking stretta, Donaldo and Roberto—e Nancy!—then demonstrated their considerable gifts for musical camaraderie in an electrifying account of Pasquale’s and Malatesta’s Act Three duet ‘Cheti, cheti, immantinente.’ Impressive in their respective navigations of the infamous patter, Hartmann and Wells excelled in unison, celebrating their jovial partnership with an ebullient top F.

For the final segment of the recital, Hartmann traded the opera singer’s tuxedo for the Broadway crooner’s dinner jacket in performances of musical theater and cinema standards. A cornerstone of Audrey Hepburn’s critically-acclaimed performance in Blake Edwards’s 1961 film Breakfast at Tiffany’s was her performance of Henry Mancini’s and Johnny Mercer’s Academy Award-winning song ‘Moon River.’ Further popularized a few months after the film’s release by Andy Williams’s recording, the piece as performed by Hartmann and Davis might have been a forgotten aria by Puccini. Wholly rejecting opera-singer-singing-standards pomposity, the bass-baritone brought to the song his own incarnation of the simplicity that ennobled Hepburn’s performance.

Sung by Charles Coburn in the 1944 cinematic adaptation of Kurt Weill’s and Maxwell Anderson’s musical Knickerbocker Holiday, ‘September Song’ was later recorded by artists as diverse as Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, Burl Ives, Willie Nelson, and Lou Reed. As in his performance of ‘Moon River,’ Hartmann’s concentration on the ways in which the melodic line elucidates the sentiments of the words yielded a touchingly bittersweet reading of the song, the well-rehearsed interplay between voice and piano propelling expressive spontaneity. Guileless earnestness was also the foundation upon which Hartmann’s voicing of Harold Arlen’s ‘Over the Rainbow’ from The Wizard of Oz was constructed. Singing with aptly iridescent tonal beauty, he transformed the familiar melody and words into a unnervingly timely quest for delivery from today’s crushing tribulations.

‘Ol’ Man River’ from Jerome Kern’s Show Boat was the song most associated by listeners throughout the world with bass-baritone Paul Robeson, a principled man of action whose meticulously-honed artistry was deployed in the battle for Civil Rights. Forty-four years after Robeson’s death in 1976, the war against oppression and dehumanization of the underprivileged still rages. Though he is a very different artist, working in a vastly different time, Hartmann’s performance of ‘Ol’ Man River’ lacked none of the visionary force of Robeson’s recordings of the song. In the last minutes of an evening of bold singing, the song’s tessitura, as daunting as that of Mozart’s ‘Per questa bella mano,’ tested Hartmann, but his resources remained equal to the music. The obvious symbolism of his interpretation was haunting: represented by her mighty river, it is America herself who, in a time in which the essence of her democracy is imperiled, must know something but says nothing.

By ending the recital with the stirring spiritual ‘Let Us Break Bread Together,’ Hartmann honored the legacies of Robeson and Marian Anderson, who frequently included the piece in their recitals. The song’s pleas for unity and humility soared in his impassioned singing, and the heartfelt ‘Amen’ with which the audience reacted to the song echoed the overwhelming expressive potency of Hartmann’s performance. Musically stimulating and emotionally uplifting, this recital affirmed that, whether in times of security or strife, voices like Donald Hartmann’s truly must be heard.

01 August 2020

PERFORMANCE REVIEW: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart — LA CLEMENZA DI TITO (L. Webber, V. Sheffield, M. Taylor, M. A. Zentner, B. Martinez, A. D. Peele; Fletcher Opera Institute, 11 February 2020)

IN REVIEW: the cast of UNCSA Fletcher Opera Institute's February 2020 production of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's LA CLEMENZA DI TITO [Photograph © by André Dewan Peele]WOLFGANG AMADEUS MOZART (1756 – 1791): La clemenza di Tito, K. 621Logan Webber (Tito), Virginia Sheffield (Vitellia), Mason Taylor (Sesto), Margaret Ann Zentner (Servillia), Brennan Martinez (Annio), André Dewan Peele (Publio); UNCSA Chorus and Symphony Orchestra; Steven White, conductor [Steven LaCosse, director; Nadir Bey, scenic designer; Bee Gable, costume designer; Jill Sawyer, wig and makeup designer; Ethan Saiewitz, lighting designer; Alex Jarus, properties director; James Scotland, technical director; A.J. Fletcher Opera Institute, University of North Carolina School of the Arts, Stevens Center, Winston-Salem, North Carolina, USA; Tuesday, 11 February 2020]

Few of the pièces d’occasion in opera’s history are of the quality of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s La clemenza di Tito. Commissioned to celebrate Holy Roman Emperor Leopold II’s enthronement as King of Bohemia, neither Mozart nor La clemenza di Tito, a libretto by Pietro Metastasio that by the last decade of the Eighteenth Century had traveled widely throughout Europe in settings by a number of composers, was impresario Domenico Guardasoni’s first choice for the commission. A new text not having been procured, and the Habsburg court’s Kapellmeister Antonio Salieri having already been juggling too many projects, revision of Metastasio’s libretto was assigned to Caterino Mazzolà and composition of the score to Mozart, whose Don Giovanni won immense acclaim in Prague. Aside from a Nineteenth-Century assertion, now widely deemed to be apocryphal, that Leopold II’s Spanish consort dismissed the score as a Teutonic muddle, there is sadly little record of the impression made by La clemenza di Tito’s world première on 6 September 1791. Though Die Zauberflöte, premièred in Vienna twenty-four days after Clemenza’s first performance in Prague, and his settings of libretti by Lorenzo da Ponte continue to enjoy greater prominence in the international repertory, La clemenza di Tito has recently reclaimed at least some measure of the appreciation that the score deserves.

Performances of La clemenza di Tito are thankfully far more plentiful now than in previous generations, but the opera has not wholly expunged the stigma of its origins. It is often noted that Metastasian opera seria was already outdated in 1791, propounding that Clemenza was a step back from the compositional advancement embodied by Mozart’s da Ponte operas. Presented in Winston-Salem’s Stevens Center, University of North Carolina School of the Arts Fletcher Opera Institute’s production of La clemenza di Tito trusted the audience to discern the piece’s musical and theatrical merits. Compared with the domestic dramas and amorous intrigues of Le nozze di Figaro, Don Giovanni, and Così fan tutte, Clemenza’s political wrangling is undeniably stilted, but Mozart’s music gloriously transcends the doldrums of a hastily-completed work designed to panegyrize a monarch’s ego. Fletcher Opera Institute’s production also attained this distinction, accentuating both the timelessness of the opera’s emotional conflicts and the presence of Mozart’s genius on every page of the score.

Roman art provides many glimpses of the daily lives of plebeians, patricians, and imperial courtiers, but it is nonetheless impossible for Twenty-First-Century observers to determine precisely how Romans dressed and moved during Titus Vespasianus’s First-Century reign. In Fletcher Opera Institute’s staging of La clemenza di Tito, acclaimed director (and Fletcher Institute’s recently-appointed Artistic Director) Steven LaCosse and a team of talented, imaginative artists offered the audience an exuberantly cinematic realization of Metastasio’s, Mazzolà’s, and Mozart’s setting for Tito’s trials. Evocative but economical in the sense that they could easily be employed in productions of many operas, Nadir Bey’s scenic designs recreated tableaux of Imperial Rome with clear sight lines and bold colors. Especially engaging was the manner in which architectural elements of the Capitol appeared in Act Two to have been melted by the conflagration that raged in the prior act’s finale. Vivid hues also characterized Bee Gable’s costumes, which complemented Jill Sawyer’s wig and makeup designs and Ethan Saiewitz lighting designs to aid the singers in portraying credibly historical but three-dimensional figures. The production’s effectiveness was further enriched by the efforts of properties director Alex Jarus and technical director James Scotland, whose work ensured that UNCSA’s recreation of Titus Vespasianus’s Rome functioned with precision that provided a stimulating visual setting for the opera’s political and emotional machinations.

IN REVIEW: mezzo-soprano BRENNAN MARTINEZ as Annio (left) and soprano MARGARET ANN ZENTNER as Servillia (right) in UNCSA Fletcher Opera Institute's February 2020 production of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's LA CLEMENZA DI TITO [Photograph © by André Dewan Peele]Teneri amanti: mezzo-soprano Brennan Martinez as Annio (left) and soprano Margaret Ann Zentner as Servillia (right) in UNCSA Fletcher Opera Institute’s February 2020 production of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s La clemenza di Tito
[Photograph © by André Dewan Peele]

Conductor Steven White’s credentials encompass performances of diverse repertoire with an array of musical institutions, including New York’s Metropolitan Opera, with which company his pacing of performances of Verdi’s La traviata with very different interpreters of the iconic principal rôles—Angela Gheorghiu, James Valenti, and Thomas Hampson in 2010; Natalie Dessay, Matthew Polenzani, and Dmitri Hvorostovsky in 2012—demonstrated a notable affinity for extracting purest ores of bel canto from dissimilar vocal terrains. In UNCSA’s Clemenza di Tito, White’s conducting established and maintained musical and dramatic momentum, his tempi uniting passion with Classical poise. This equilibrium illuminated the score’s musical variety, accentuating the fluidity with which passages that recall Händel, Hasse, and Johann Christian Bach are balanced by others that anticipate Beethoven, Weber, and even Verdi, whose Abigaille and Odabella are spiritual descendants of Mozart’s Vitellia.

Under White’s direction, the UNCSA Symphony Orchestra perceptibly exulted in the difficulties of Mozart’s part writing. Of particular note was the superb playing of principal clarinetist Ramiro Soto, not least in Sesto’s ‘Parto, parto, ma tu ben mio,’ but his colleagues routinely equaled his work, enlivening the performance with rich but fleet playing. White’s choices of tempo were guided both by Mozart’s indications and by the unique capabilities of the singers. Musicologists and music lovers alike are tempted to speculate about how Mozart’s career as a composer of opera might have developed beyond La clemenza di Tito and Die Zauberflöte, the latter score often being cited as the more progressive. Without distorting Mozart’s idiom or obscuring the audible stamp of Clemenza’s late-Eighteenth-Century context, White and his colleagues in the pit affirmed that, when Clemenza was first performed, the Roman milieux of Wagner’s Rienzi and Berlioz’s Les Troyens were not so distant on the operatic horizon.

Musicologists continue to devise and debate theories of by whom Clemenza di Tito’s passages of recitativo secco were written, the most prevalent assertions being that, in accordance with common practice in the Eighteenth Century, they were likely produced not by the master composer responsible for the arias and ensembles but by an assistant or a student. The most plausible creator of Clemenza di Tito’s recitatives is Mozart’s pupil Franz Xaver Süssmayr, to whom Mozart’s widow Constanze would later entrust completion of her husband’s Requiem. There are likely far more instances than are known or acknowledged in which recitativi secchi in Seventeenth- and Eighteenth-Century operas were not written by the composers whose names appear on the scores’ covers. More deserving of scrutiny than their origins are performances in which the recitatives in Clemenza di Tito are accompanied in the same jaunty manner in which their counterparts in Cimarosa’s Il matrimonio segreto or Rossini’s Il barbiere di Siviglia might be handled. In UNCSA s Clemenza di Tito, Angela Vanstory Ward proved to be a maestra di cembalo whose continuo playing was informed by awareness of the singers’ enunciations and sensitivity to dramatic situations and textual subtleties. In this performance, passages of recitative led organically from the end of one aria or ensemble to the beginning of the next, and Ward’s realization of the continuo never kindled, as is sometimes the case, an expectation that Mozart’s (or Rossini’s) jovial Figaro would infiltrate the Campidoglio. The stylistic integrity of Ward’s playing was an invaluable boon to the performers and the performance.

IN REVIEW: tenor LOGAN WEBBER in the title rôle of UNCSA Fletcher Opera Institute's February 2020 production of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's LA CLEMENZA DI TITO [Photograph © by André Dewan Peele]Ecco l’imperatore: tenor Logan Webber in the title rôle of UNCSA Fletcher Opera Institute's February 2020 production of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's La clemenza di Tito
[Photograph © by André Dewan Peele]

Mozart’s writing for the chorus in La clemenza di Tito often exemplifies the Salzburger’s perpetuation of Gluck’s and Salieri’s initiatives to recreate in opera the rôle of choruses in Ancient Greek drama. UNCSA’s choristers convincingly portrayed the denizens of Tito’s Rome, singing ‘Serbate, o Dei custodi’ in Act One with suitably imperial majesty and exhilaratingly imparting the confusion and terror of the populace as flames consumed the Campidoglio. In Act Two, the young voices blended beautifully in an affecting account of ‘Ah, grazie si rendano al sommo fattor,’ and the grandeur with which ‘Che del ciel, che degli Dei’ was sung lent both the opera’s drama and the performance a palpable immediacy. In the tradition of the opera’s first performance, this Clemenza exuded a sense of occasion, intensified by the strength of the choral singing.

With a conductor of White’s caliber on the podium, sagaciously supporting the singers, it was easy to forget that this Clemenza di Tito featured UNCSA students just beginning their careers rather than long-established artists with considerable experience in Mozart repertoire. As Publio, the dutiful captain of Tito’s Prætorian Guard, baritone André Dewan Peele sang and acted energetically, his vocalism and motions exuding martial bravado in the mercurial Act One trio with Vitellia and Annio. Peele voiced Publio’s aria in Act Two, ‘Tardi s’avvede d’un tradimento,’ appealingly, and the dramatic involvement of his delivery of his lines in the trio with Sesto and Tito disclosed impressive theatricality. Peele found greater depth in Publio’s character than some interpreters of the rôle have done and explored them with inviolable musicality.

Soprano Margaret Ann Zentner’s portrayal of Servilia was similarly characterized by dramatic sensitivity allied with musical prowess. Distinguished by consistent tonal beauty, her vibrant singing in the Act One duet with Annio, ‘Ah, perdona al primo affetto,’ compellingly embodied the character’s anguish at learning from the man she loves that Tito has chosen her to be his empress. Zentner sang Servilia’s Act Two aria ‘S’altro che lagrime per lui non tenti’ with judicious vehemence, communicating the meaning of the text with unmistakable cognizance of its importance to the opera’s dénouement. Also to the young soprano’s credit was her unfailing fluency in Mozart’s musical language. The quality of Zentner’s performance reminded listeners accustomed to hearing lesser voices in the rôle that Servilia was sung in years past by artists of the ilk of Giulietta Simionato, Lucia Popp, Catherine Malfitano, Edith Mathis, Helen Donath, and Barbara Bonney.

Convincingly, even impishly masculine, the Annio of mezzo-soprano Brennan Martinez ignited UNCSA’s Clemenza di Tito with febrile stage presence and incendiary singing. In both the duettino with Sesto and the duet with Servilia in Act One, Martinez immersed herself in the drama without neglecting musical values, and she joined her colleagues in a pulse-quickening performance of the electrifying trio with Vitellia and Publio. The respective tessiture of Annio’s arias in Act Two, ‘Torna di Tito al lato’ and ‘Tu fosti tradito,’ occasionally seemed uncomfortable for Martinez, particularly at the upper end of her range, but her top notes were assured and certain of intonation. She overcame the obstacle of an unbecoming wig more suggestive of the Duchessa di Mantova’s page than of a Roman patrician with imperturbable savvy, and her singing exhibited admirably mature artistry.

IN REVIEW: soprano VIRGINIA SHEFFIELD as Vitellia in UNCSA Fletcher Opera Institute's February 2020 production of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's LA CLEMENZA DI TITO [Photograph © by André Dewan Peele]La signora vuole vendetta: soprano Virginia Sheffield as Vitellia in UNCSA Fletcher Opera Institute’s February 2020 production of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s La clemenza di Tito
[Photograph © by André Dewan Peele]

Owing in no small part to a single high note that often proves to be troublesome for larger voices, the rôle of the vengeful Vitellia is now often entrusted to singers with relatively modest vocal means. Epitomized by the fearsomely demanding arias sung by the titular heroine of Luigi Cherubini’s Ifigenia in Aulide, premièred in Torino in 1788, music composed for the first Vitellia, Maria Marchetti Fantozzi, suggests that her vocal capabilities were anything but modest. UNCSA honored Fantozzi’s legacy with a Vitellia with formidable vocal resources and the technical wherewithal to deploy them effectively. Soprano Virginia Sheffield brought visual and vocal glamor to her depiction of Vitellia, declaiming every word of the character’s recitatives with Shakespearean immediacy.

The historical Vitellia was both the daughter of an emperor, the short-reigned Aulus Vitellius Germanicus, and the wife of a Senator, and the fusion of emotion and aristocratic pride evident in Sheffield’s singing in the Act One duet with Sesto, ‘Come ti piace, imponi,’ revealed the singer’s intuitive identification with the proud woman she portrayed. She voiced the aria ‘Deh, se piacer mi vuoi’ with grace that belied her youth, her mastery of Mozart’s vocal writing surpassing that heard from singers with far more experience. Sheffield‘s valiant attempt at the harrowing top D in the trio with Annio and Publio, ‘Vengo, aspettate,’ missed the mark, but the dramatic potency of her singing propelled the ensemble excitingly. This was also true of her performance in the Act Two trio with Sesto and Publio, ‘Se al volto mai ti senti,’ in which she conveyed the full panoply of Vitellia’s complex feelings. The pinnacle of Sheffield’s characterization was the rondo ‘Non più di fiori.’ The soprano conquered the music’s challenges with apparent ease, freeing her to focus on expressing the sentiments of the text. Rather than the whining shrew sketched by some singers, the Vitellia who sprang to life in Sheffield’s portrait was a sympathetic figure, a wronged woman whose quests for retribution and romantic fulfillment were born of deep wounds.

IN REVIEW: countertenor MASON TAYLOR (left) as Sesto in UNCSA Fletcher Opera Institute's February 2020 production of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's LA CLEMENZA DI TITO [Photograph © by André Dewan Peele]Amico leale: countertenor Mason Taylor as Sesto (left) in UNSCA Fletcher Opera Institute’s February 2020 production of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s La clemenza di Tito
[Photograph © by André Dewan Peele]

Even in this age of celebrity countertenors with extensive operatic repertoires, it remains unusual to hear a countertenor sing Mozart’s music for Sesto, who finds himself in the unenviable straits of loving a woman who detests the emperor to whom he is loyal. The rôle was originated by soprano castrato Domenico Bedini, about whose career beyond his participation in Clemenza’s première and subsequent retirement from performing staged opera a year later virtually no credible information survives. Domenico Guardasoni’s correspondence leaves no uncertainty about the engagement of a very accomplished castrato being integral to the coronation opera’s success, and Mozart’s music for Sesto suggests that Bedini indeed possessed a superb bravura technique, an extensive range, and well-honed dramatic instincts. His performance in this Clemenza di Tito affirmed that these qualities are also crucial components of countertenor Mason Taylor’s artistry.

Like Sheffield’s Vitellia, Taylor’s Sesto communicated profound inner turmoil in their duet in Act One, ‘Come ti piace, imponi,’ and the intelligence and attractiveness of his singing were no less conspicuous in the subsequent duettino with Annio, ‘Deh, prendi un dolce amplesso.’ Beloved by singers capable of negotiating its changes of tempo and temperament and the rightly-feared salvos of triplets, the aria ‘Parto, parto, ma tu ben mio’ is the most familiar vocal piece in Clemenza di Tito, and its renown has fortunately proved to be immune to countless poor performances. Taylor’s singing not only justified the aria’s continuing popularity but, more critically, affirmed Mozart’s genius for astute character development through music. Taylor met this music’s bravura demands with equanimous aplomb and unflinchingly traversed the broad range, extending to secure top B♭s.

In Act Two, the countertenor voiced Sesto’s lines in first the trio with Vitellia and Publio, ‘Se al volto mai ti senti,’ and later the trio with Tito and Publio, ‘Quello di Tito è il volto,’ with unaffected theatrical shrewdness. Sesto is an exhausting sing, and the aria ‘Deh, per questo istante solo’ falls just beyond the boundaries of some singers’ stamina: though understandably tiring, Taylor sang ‘Deh, per questo istante solo’ energetically and expressively, immersing himself in the psychological upheaval of Sesto’s predicament. The torment of this Sesto’s disquiet and remorse was palpable, bared to the audience by Taylor’s sensitive but incisive singing of some of Mozart’s most daunting music.

IN REVIEW: tenor LOGAN WEBBER as Tito Vespasiano in UNCSA Fletcher Opera Institute's February 2020 production of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's LA CLEMENZA DI TITO [Photograph © by André Dewan Peele]Ecco l’imperatore: tenor Logan Webber as the titular Emperor, Tito Vespasiano, in UNCSA Fletcher Opera Institute’s February 2020 production of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s La clemenza di Tito
[Photograph © by André Dewan Peele]

If the writings of historian Gaius Suetonius Tranquillus can be believed, the two-year imperial reign of Titus Flavius Cæsar Vespasianus Augustus was a time of peace, prosperity, and level-headed administration, sharply contrasted with the tumultuous tenures of Caligula, Nero, and the four emperors who ruled during the year following Nero’s suicide, the fourth of whom was Titus’s father. Notable amongst Titus’s magnanimous acts were his tireless efforts to provide tangible, lasting aid to victims of the cataclysmic eruption of Vesuvius in 79 AD. Created by Italian tenor Antonio Baglioni, who was the first Don Ottavio in Don Giovanni four years before the première of La clemenza di Tito, Mozart’s Tito is a figure whose magnanimity, whilst unmistakably intended to flatter the noble personage whose coronation the opera celebrated, has broader, humanistic implications. This universality was the core of UNCSA’s production, in which Logan Webber touchingly explored the vulnerabilities of a man whose throne exacerbated his struggles to balance matters of state and affairs of the heart.

Though he is the opera’s title character, Tito did not receive from Metastasio and Mazzolà the acuity of characterization that was lavished upon Vitellia and Sesto, but, from his first entrance in this performance, Webber found in Mozart’s music opportunities to vitalize Tito as both man and emperor. The vastly different moods of the pair of arias in Act One, ‘Del più sublime soglio’ and ‘Ah, se fosse intorno al trono,’ were adroitly contrasted, the tenor’s attention to text revealing often-ignored facets of the emperor’s constitution. Whether intoning conversational recitative or careening fiorature, Webber allied handsome tones with unflagging commitment to animating Tito’s tribulations. The dramatic thrust of the Act Two trio with Sesto and Publio, ‘Quello di Tito è il volto,’ drew from him vocal acting of tremendous impact. The intimidating bravura passages in Tito’s ‘Se all’impero, amici Dei’ tested as accomplished an exponent of Mozart’s tenor rôles as Nicolai Gedda, but Webber’s confident voicing of the aria divulged the care with which the young singer prepared the part. Remembered as one of the Habsburg line’s most enlightened scions, Leopold II would surely have been pleased by Webber’s thoughtful but commanding portrayal of the figure intended to gratify the royal vanity.

Long disparaged as an inconsequential work unworthy of comparison with Le nozze di Figaro, Don Giovanni, Così fan tutte, and Die Zauberflöte, La clemenza di Tito was confirmed by Fletcher Opera Institute’s production to be a score pervaded by the brilliance of Mozart’s artistic maturity. That a piece regarded as archaic at the time of its première in 1791 can seem grippingly modern in 2020 is an irrefutable testament to its creators’ ingenuity. That a performance of that piece wholly capitalizes on its potential is a testament to the artists involved with its staging. Mozart’s Clemenza di Tito is a significant work: Fletcher Opera Institute’s Clemenza di Tito was a significant achievement.

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.