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.