21 February 2023

PERFORMANCE REVIEW: Johannes Brahms — EIN DEUTSCHES REQUIEM (J. Sitkovetsky, A. Garland; Greensboro Symphony Master Chorale and Orchestra, 18 February 2023)

IN REVIEW: (from left to right) soprano JULIA SITKOVETSKY, conductor DMITRY SITKOVETSKY, and baritone ANDREW GARLAND, cornerstones of Greensboro Symphony Master Chorale and Orchestra performance of Johannes Brahms's EIN DEUTSCHES REQUIEM, 18 February 2023 [Graphic © by Greensboro Symphony Orchestra; all rights reserved by original photographers]JOHANNES BRAHMS (1833 – 1897): Ein deutsches Requiem, Opus 45Julia Sitkovetsky (soprano), Andrew Garland (baritone); Greensboro Symphony Master Chorale and Orchestra; Dmitry Sitkovetsky, conductor [Steven Tanger Center for the Performing Arts, Greensboro, North Carolina, USA; Saturday, 18 February 2023]

Had Sigmund Freud sought a candidate for in-depth analysis of the effects on an artistic psyche of close attachments to both a mother and a maternal surrogate, he could have found no more ideal a candidate than Johannes Brahms. Born in Hamburg in 1833, Brahms learned music from his father, a renowned horn virtuoso, but was tutored in other disciplines by his mother, a woman two decades her husband’s senior and long acquainted with hardship. The lore of the young Brahms having demonstrated the fruits of his early piano studies with Otto Friedrich Willibald Cossel and Eduard Marxsen in dens of vice allegedly frequented by his father has limited historical corroboration at best, but all that is known of the composer’s life substantiates that his childhood engendered unconventional relationships with both of his parents, who grew estranged as the effects of their age disparity increased. Profoundly saddened by his mother’s death in February 1865, Brahms began composing what would become his most expansive work, the gestation of which may have extended back almost a decade to the mental deterioration and death of his idol Robert Schumann. Setting not the traditional Latin Missa pro defunctis but his own selection of verses from Martin Luther’s German Bible, Brahms crafted a Requiem in which prayer for comfort for the living supplanted entreaties for the departed soul’s repose.

Brahms’s surviving correspondence provides few indications of the extent to which conceptualization of his Opus 45 Ein deutsches Requiem, nach Worten der heiligen Schrift pre-dated his mother’s passing. Three of the work’s movements, originally planned to number six in total, being completed by the start of May 1865 suggests that the work had been devised in some form prior to 1865, a supposition that gains credence from Brahms’s use of music composed during the time of Schumann’s final decline in the Requiem’s second movement. Valuable as cognizance of a work’s genesis can be, the significance of the catalysts that spurred composition of the Requiem is eclipsed by the magnitude of the work itself. Omitting references to messianic redemption, a core component of Christian liturgy, Brahms accentuated the complexities of grieving and carrying on, utilizing passages from the biblical books of Matthew, Psalms, 1 Peter, James, Isaiah, the Wisdom of Solomon, John, Ecclesiastes, Hebrews, 1 Corinthians, and Revelation to yield a deeply affecting text that largely avoids denominational dogma. As in many of his works, Brahms’s innovations in Ein deutsches Requiem are partnered by near-academic adherence to prescribed musical structures, most notably the precepts of counterpoint inherited from Johann Sebastian Bach.

A vital aspect of Brahms’s genius was his uncanny ability to achieve novelty within the confines of tradition. The writing for both chorus and orchestra in the Requiem demonstrates the encyclopedic acquaintance with the music of Händel, Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, and Schumann that permeates Brahms’s work, here allying expressive devices derived from Bach’s Passions with the intensity of emotion found in Beethoven’s Missa solemnis. These unmistakable influences notwithstanding, the ingenuity of Brahms’s music complements the understated boldness of his textual choices, the voice that emerges most discernibly from the pages of Ein deutsches Requiem coming neither from composers of the past nor from any religious ideology but from Brahms himself—a voice seeking a path from the bleakness of grief to the comfort of hope.

Marking the 154th anniversary of the première of the final, seven-movement version of the work, first performed in Leipzig on 18 February 1869, with this performance of Ein deutsches Requiem in Steven Tanger Center for the Performing Arts, the Greensboro Symphony Master Chorale continued a journey started in December 2021 with the choir’s inaugural presentation, Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9. Under the direction of founding conductors Jonathan Emmons and James Keith, the choristers continue to refine their sound, tailoring the balances that they project to the music at hand and to the efforts of their Greensboro Symphony Orchestra colleagues. In this performance, GSO’s Music Director Dmitry Sitkovetsky led the combined choral and orchestral forces with unwavering concentration on the work’s intricate musical architecture, masterfully building to but avoiding over-accentuating climaxes. Even with pauses of several seconds separating the movements, thematic continuity was maintained throughout the performance. Sitkovetsky’s navigation of the score’s emotional currents often recalled Wolfgang Sawallisch’s conducting of the piece, the Greensboro performance exhibiting the profound but unsentimental breadth of expression heard in Sawallisch’s preserved traversals of the Requiem.

Fastidiously observing the Ziemlich langsam und mit Ausdruck marking of the Requiem’s opening movement, Sitkovetsky and the orchestra established a high standard of musicality from which the musicians’ playing never deviated. The choir’s hushed delivery of ‘Selig sind, die da Leid tragen’ movingly conveyed the meaning of the text and fostered an atmosphere of reverence and contemplation into which the work’s angry, anguished passages burst with tremendous force. Here and in the subsequent movement, (Langsam, marschmüssig), the absence of an organ in Tanger Center was particularly regrettable, as it also was in the Requiem’s two final movements, but Sitkovetsky’s shaping of orchestral textures provided the firm aural foundation needed by the chorus to articulate ‘Denn alles Fleisch ist wie Gras’ so stirringly. The theater’s acoustic, better suited to symphonic repertoire than to opera but ideal for neither, lessened the impact of the words in the choir’s singing of ‘Die Erlöseten des Herrn werden wieder kommen,’ but, owing to Sitkovetsky’s leadership and the choristers’ preparedness, musical potency was unimpeded.

In the third movement (Andante moderato), baritone soloist Andrew Garland intoned ‘Herr, lehre doch mich, daß ein Ende mit mir haben muß’ incisively and with shining vocal luster, his E and F at the top of the stave projected effortlessly but with dramatic purpose. Each of his words was matched with a vocal coloration that limned its meaning, and oft-neglected musical subtleties, one of the most intriguing of which is a brief reminiscence of a phrase in the Lied ‘Gute Nacht’ from Schubert’s Winterreise, were meticulously explored. In response to Garland’s superb diction, the chorus articulated ‘Der Gerechten Seelen sind in Gottes Hand und keine Qual rühret sie an’ with increased verbal clarity. The heightened interpretive acuity of their singing persisted in the fourth movement (Mässig bewegt), their singing of ‘Wie lieblich sind deine Wohnungen, Herr Zebaoth!’ evincing the awe that permeates both music and text. Sitkovetsky’s sagacious adherence to Brahms’s stipulated dynamics provided compelling interplay of gravitas and catharsis, the music paralleling the manner in which grief evolves, relenting at times but returning with renewed severity.

Heard only in the work’s fifth movement (Langsam), completed in May 1868 as a reaction to a performance of the Requiem in which the aria ‘I know that my Redeemer liveth’ from Händel’s Messiah was inserted into the six-movement edition of the score, soprano soloist Julia Sitkovetsky sang ‘Ihr habt nun Traurigkeit’ pensively, her vocalism disclosing little difficulty with the tessitura. When joined by the chorus, she shaded her timbre to shimmer above the cascades of sound. The choir voiced each line with deepening involvement, introducing an account of the Andante beginning of the sixth movement in which their singing of ‘Denn wir haben hie keine bleibende Statt’ surged with earnestness. Garland lent each word of ‘Siehe, ich sage euch ein Geheimnis’ conviction, placing each tone with assurance. Sitkovetsky paced the transitions to Vivace and Allegro intelligently, escalating tension without jeopardizing contrapuntal precision.

The sustained forte F5 with which the sopranos launched the Requiem’s seventh movement (Feierlich) propelled the choir’s affecting singing of ‘Selig sind die Toten,’ and both chorus and orchestra followed Sitkovetsky’s guide in fashioning an exalted realization of Brahms’s concluding sequence of musical and emotional trials. The kinship of this music with Gustav Mahler’s Second and Eighth Symphonies was apparent, Sitkovetsky resolving this performance of the Requiem with disciplined zeal that illuminated in Brahms’s music the tide of hurt and healing that courses through Mahler’s scores. The flaws in this performance of Ein deutsches Requiem were minor and fleeting, never undermining the vision of the piece that Sitkovetsky endeavored to manifest.

Brahms’s faith in salvation was centered not in redemptive theology but in the restorative capacity of music, and that faith inhabits every page of Ein deutsches Requiem. Uplifted by the palpable dedication of chorus, orchestra, soloists, and conductor, faith in the enduring eloquence of Brahms’s music was the defining ethos of Greensboro Symphony’s poignant performance of the Requiem.

12 February 2023

PERFORMANCE REVIEW: Gregory Spears & Greg Pierce — FELLOW TRAVELERS (J. Lattanzi, A. Acosta, K. Pracht, K. Thurman, J. Jeremiah, J. Fulton, K. Riess, K. White, J. Harr; Virginia Opera, 12 February 2023)

IN REVIEW: tenor ANDRES ACOSTA as Timothy Laughlin in Virginia Opera's 2023 production of Gregory Spears's and Greg Pierce's FELLOW TRAVELERS [Photograph by Dave Pearson Photography, © by Virginia Opera]GREGORY SPEARS (born 1977) and GREG PIERCE (born 1978): Fellow TravelersJoseph Lattanzi (Hawkins Fuller), Andres Acosta (Timothy Laughlin), Katherine Pracht (Mary Johnson), Katrina Thurman (Miss Lightfoot), Joshua Jeremiah (Senator Joseph McCarthy, Estonian Frank, Interrogator), John Fulton (Senator Charles Potter, General Arlie, Bartender), Kaileigh Riess (Lucy), Kyle White (Tommy McIntyre), Jeremy Harr (Senator Potter’s Assistant, Bookseller, Technician, French Priest, Party Guest); Virginia Opera Chorus, Virginia Symphony Orchestra; Adam Turner, conductor [Kevin Newbury, Director; Victoria Tzykun, Scenic Designer; Paul Carey, Costume Designer; Thomas C. Hase, Lighting Designer; James P. McGough, Wig and Makeup Designer; Virginia Opera, Carpenter Theatre, Dominion Energy Center for the Arts, Richmond, Virginia, USA; Sunday. 12 February 2023]

When their opera Fellow Travelers premièred at Cincinnati Opera in June 2016, composer Gregory Spears and librettist Greg Pierce likely could not have envisioned that, six decades having passed since the Cold War-era ‘lavender scare’ persecuted gay and lesbian civil servants as alleged risks to national security, federal legislation would be required to safeguard Americans’ rights to wed according to the dictates of their hearts. In the contentious political climate and precarious fiscal battleground of this first quarter of the Twenty-First Century, the art form’s champions are continually challenged to reaffirm opera’s relevance. It can be argued that, from its modern inception in Sixteenth-Century Italy, opera has ever been more of a sublime diversion than a conduit for societal evolution, but is not uplifting souls relevant to the human condition of its own accord? In Fellow Travelers, though, composer and librettist intrepidly bared unhealed wounds through song, bringing to the operatic stage a harrowing parable of a love that in too many sectors of today’s America still dares not speak its name. The lamentable timeliness of the opera’s narrative notwithstanding, the concept of relevance is itself irrelevant in the context of Fellow Travelers. As a means of uniting diverse peoples, even if for no longer than the duration of a performance, and telling stories that might otherwise go unheard, opera is necessary.

Arrayed in sixteen scenes, Spears’s and Pierce’s opera is an adaptation of Thomas Mallon’s 2007 Lambda Literary Award-nominated novel of the same title, an absorbing book that traces the progression of a fictitious queer relationship in McCarthy-era Washington. Pierce’s libretto metamorphoses Mallon’s novel into a powerful text that is both intelligible when sung and faithful to the linguistic style of the 1950s. Eschewing easy integration of period-specific trends in popular and Classical idioms, Spears’s music creates an aural atmosphere that is in turn expansive and claustrophobic, heightening the tension of the drama as the protagonists’ romance progresses towards betrayal and disillusionment. The musical language is abidingly tonal but enriched by contrasting serialist and post-Romantic accents, at times fusing Pierre Boulez-like rhythmic structures with harmonic lushness reminiscent of Gian Carlo Menotti’s Last Savage. Whether intimating the burgeoning passion between the opera’s titular ‘fellow travelers,’ State Department official Hawkins Fuller and idealistic journalist Timothy Laughlin, or intensifying the torture of Hawk’s interrogation, the score viscerally amplifies the drama’s psychological shifts. Fellow Travelers is a daunting work, for orchestra and conductor as much as for singers, but the prevailing ethos of Spears’s music is clarity, his writing enabling words and feelings to engage performers and audiences.

IN REVIEW: tenor ANDRES ACOSTA as Timothy Laughlin (left) and baritone JOSEPH LATTANZI as Hawkins Fuller (right) in Virginia Opera's 2023 production of Gregory Spears's and Greg Pierce's FELLOW TRAVELERS [Photograph by Dave Pearson Photography, © by Virginia Opera]Dangerous passion: tenor Andres Acosta as Timothy Laughlin (left) and baritone Joseph Lattanzi as Hawkins Fuller (right) in Virginia Opera’s 2023 production of Gregory Spears’s and Greg Pierce’s Fellow Travelers
[Photograph by Dave Pearson Photography, © by Virginia Opera]

Recreating his world-première staging for Cincinnati Opera, stage director Kevin Newbury reinvigorated Fellow Travelers for its inaugural production by Virginia Opera, reclaiming the trailblazing spirit of the first performances and emphasizing with increased urgency the parallels between institutional oppression in the 1950s and today’s ongoing struggles against elitist and extremist movements. Framed and in some moments sharpened by Victoria Tzykun’s provocative but never distracting scenic designs and Thomas C. Hase’s lighting, exchanges anong characters were fraught but organic, their actions plausible within both the opera’s specific dramatic situations and its evocation of the Zeitgeist of 1950s Washington. Paul Carey’s costume designs and James P. McGough’s wigs and makeup augmented Newbury’s attention to manifesting the score’s musical transitions in its physical presentation. Accentuating not the aspects of the opera’s story that some observers may find objectionable but the intrinsic universality of the characters and their circumstances, Newbury’s vision yielded a performance of immense emotional impact.

During his tenure with Virginia Opera, the company’s Artistic Director Adam Turner has exhibited noteworthy versatility, conducting acclaimed performances of standard-repertory and lesser-known works ranging from the effervescence of Rossini to the starkness of Kurt Weill. The focus on facilitating character development and comprehensible storytelling apparent in Turner’s conducting of Virginia Opera’s 2016 production of Wagner’s Der fliegende Holländer was heard to even greater advantage in this performance of Fellow Travelers. The sequence of scenes advanced with cinematic efficiency, each thread of the plot carefully spun and woven into the fabric of the story via tempi that suited indivudual scenes and the work’s cumulative flow. The Virginia Symphony Orchestra musicians played wonderfully under Turner’s leadership, realizing the gravity that the conductor sought to achieve in passages like the pulsing ostinato at the opera’s start. Employed much like the continuo in Baroque opera, Spears’s writing for the piano received fleet handling from Associate Conductor Brandon Eldredge. Bringing Fellow Travelers to Virginia Opera was unquestionably an act of advocacy, both for the opera itself and for the LGBTQ+ community that it honors, but the zeal that guided Turner’s conducting was musical, not political. In this performance, the opera was simply the song of Tim and Hawk, two very different people who happen to meet on a park bench and fall in love.

IN REVIEW: (from left to right) tenor ANDRES ACOSTA as Timothy Laughlin, baritone KYLE WHITE as Tommy McIntyre, baritone JOSHUA JEREMIAH as Senator McCarthy, and baritone JOHN FULTON as Senator Porter in Virginia Opera’s 2023 production of Gregory Spears’s and Greg Pierce’s Fellow Travelers[Photograph by Dave Pearson Photography, © by Virginia Opera]Cogs in the bureaucratic wheel: (from left to right) tenor Andres Acosta as Timothy Laughlin, baritone Kyle White as Tommy McIntyre, baritone Joshua Jeremiah as Senator McCarthy, and baritone John Fulton as Senator Porter in Virginia Opera’s 2023 production of Gregory Spears’s and Greg Pierce’s Fellow Travelers
[Photograph by Dave Pearson Photography, © by Virginia Opera]

The caliber of the vocal ensemble engaged by Virginia Opera for Fellow Travelers reflected the meticulous attention to musical and theatrical values with which the production was planned. In the rôles of Senator Potter’s assistant, the bookseller, the technician, and the party guest, bass Jeremy Harr sang lustrously, but it was as the French priest to whom Tim confesses his inability to suppress his love for Hawk that he was most memorable, the cleric’s unyielding disapprobation quaking in Harr’s voice. The reporter Tommy McIntyre, a friend of Senator Potter who schools Tim on the ways of Washington, was portrayed with conspiratorial collegiality and vocal suavity by baritone Kyle White. As Lucy, the flirtatious partygoer who becomes Hawk’s suburban-dwelling wife, soprano Kaileigh Riess sang appealingly, and baritone John Fulton voiced Spears’s and Pierce’s lines for Michigan Senator Charles E. Potter, General Arlie, and the bartender incisively.

Lending gravity to each word of the parts entrusted to him, baritone Joshua Jeremiah keenly differentiated his depictions of Wisconsin Senator Joseph McCarthy, Estonian Frank, and the Interrogator, seeming to bring a unique, apt voice to each of them. The quintessential office gossip who makes all of her colleagues’ affairs her business, the secretary Miss Lightfoot was given unexpected depth by soprano Katrina Thurman, whose singing glistened even when the text that she sang was repulsive.

IN REVIEW: mezzo-soprano KATHERINE PRACHT as Mary Johnson (left) and soprano KATRINA THURMAN as Miss Lightfoot (right) in Virginia Opera's 2023 production of Gregory Spears's and Greg Pierce's FELLOW TRAVELERS [Photograph by Dave Pearson Photography, © by Virginia Opera]Ladies who listen: mezzo-soprano Katherine Pracht as Mary Johnson (left) and soprano Katrina Thurman as Miss Lightfoot (right) in Virginia Opera’s 2023 production of Gregory Spears’s and Greg Pierce’s Fellow Travelers
[Photograph by Dave Pearson Photography, © by Virginia Opera]

Hawkins Fuller’s assistant Mary Johnson is the opera’s steward of decency amidst conniving and opportunism, and in Virginia Opera’s Fellow Travelers mezzo-soprano Katherine Pracht crafted an exquisitely sympathetic portrayal of the pragmatic New Orleansian. From the start, this Mary’s genuine affection for Hawk was perceptible: it was no surprise that she once thought that he could be ‘the one’ for her. Equally unmistakable was the sincerity of Mary’s fondness and concern for Tim, communicated through tender, tenacious singing. The expressivity of Pracht’s account of ‘I worry—that’s all—about you, Timmy’ was wrenching, the glint of her upper register here and in the scene in which Mary reacts with horror to Hawk’s admission of denouncing Tim imparting the profundity of her feelings. The pain of her exit after Tim learned of Hawk’s betrayal was palpable, and the momentousness of Mary being the sole witness to Tim’s humiliation who did not turn away from him was poignantly conveyed. Wholly comfortable with the part’s difficult vocal writing, which sometimes recalls Gluck’s demanding music for heroines like Iphigénie and Alceste, Pracht melded unerring musicality with Classical poise, Mary’s self-reliance and compassion limned with incredible tonal beauty.

IN REVIEW: tenor ANDRES ACOSTA as Timothy Laughlin in Virginia Opera's 2023 production of Gregory Spears's and Greg Pierce's FELLOW TRAVELERS [Photograph by Dave Pearson Photography, © by Virginia Opera]From the heart: tenor Andres Acosta as Timothy Laughlin in Virginia Opera’s 2023 production of Gregory Spears’s and Greg Pierce’s Fellow Travelers
[Photograph by Dave Pearson Photography, © by Virginia Opera]

In every scene in which he appeared, tenor Andres Acosta sang Spears’s music for the endearingly naïve writer Timothy Laughlin with youthful exuberance and technical fluency, his timbre sparkling throughout the rôle’s broad compass. Drinking milk and swinging his feet on the bench on which he first meets Hawk, Acosta’s Tim was sweetly boyish, his shy nervousness trembling in the voice. The contrast with the cascading passion of the Bermuda duet with Hawk and the resolve of his voicing of ‘Forgive me, Holy Father’ in the fifth scene was therefore all the more telling. Tim’s adoration of Hawk having supplanted his faith, his journey from infatuation to disenfranchisement and enlistment in the Army was gutting, Acosta’s unaffected singing of ‘I wasn’t enough’ in the rooftop scene devastating. The crying heard in the auditorium when Tim uttered ‘I feel like I never existed’ in the final scene was earned, the tenor’s voice colored by excruciating uncertainty. In truth, Acosta articulated Tim’s every word with clear emotional intent, though there were instances in which enunciation was sacrificed to emoting. Acosta’s performance was as much felt as it was sung and was felt as mesmerizingly as it was heard by the listener.

IN REVIEW: baritone JOSEPH LATTANZI as Hawkins Fuller (left) and tenor ANDRES ACOSTA as Timothy Laughlin (right) in Virginia Opera's 2023 production of Gregory Spears's and Greg Pierce's FELLOW TRAVELERS [Photograph by Dave Pearson Photography, © by Virginia Opera]Benched desires: baritone Joseph Lattanzi as Hawkins Fuller (left) and tenor Andres Acosta as Timothy Laughlin (right) in Virginia Opera’s 2023 production of Gregory Spears’s and Greg Pierce’s Fellow Travelers
[Photograph by Dave Pearson Photography, © by Virginia Opera]

Reprising the rôle that he created in Cincinnati in 2016, baritone Joseph Lattanzi physically and vocally embodied the unignorable enchantment of Hawkins Fuller. No one-dimensional libertine, Hawk teased Tim with amiable cunning at their first meeting, his furtive glances at the quiet young man on the bench suggesting true interest mingled with carnal desire. His descriptions of the wonders of Bermuda also shimmered with feeling. Lattanzi persuasively depicted Hawk’s skill at playing the requisite part in every situation, whether manipulating his interrogator or courting Lucy. Only in his discourses with Mary were his emotions unguarded, touchingly revealing well-hidden vulnerability.

Reconciling with Tim after callously proposing that they supplement their liaison by engaging a third participant and reuniting after Tim’s military service in France, this Hawk was torn between love and fear, cruelly telling Tim of his honeymoon with Lucy in Bermuda. Heartbreakingly voiced by Lattanzi, the essence of Hawk’s emotional constitution was movingly manifested in the two small words with which he replied to Tim’s assertion of all-consuming love—‘same here.’ Truth finally penetrated the carefully-honed façade in Lattanzi’s stunning performance of the monologue ‘Our very own house, Skippy’ and, still more forcefully, when, responding to Tim’s feeling of never having existed, Lattanzi declaimed Hawk’s definitive ‘You did.’ The theater’s troublesome acoustic complicated projection of Hawk’s lowest notes, but the full range of the part was confidently traversed. Diligently following the map of Spears’s music, Lattanzi and his fellow travelers reached a devastating destination at which nothing was relevant except living and loving in the moment.

07 February 2023

PERFORMANCE REVIEW: Franz Joseph Haydn — ORLANDO PALADINO (K. Alston, C. Orr, D. Maize, T. Bradford, G. Meinke, K. Spooner, D. Romano, E. Wood, J. Ray; A.J. Fletcher Opera Institute, 5 February 2023)

IN REVIEW: the ensemble of A.J. Fletcher Opera Institute's February 2023 production of Franz Joseph Haydn's ORLANDO PALADINO [Photograph by Allison Lee Isley, © by A.J. Fletcher Opera Institute/University of North Carolina School of the Arts]FRANZ JOSEPH HAYDN (1732 – 1809): Orlando paladino, Hob. XXVIII:11Kameron Alston (Orlando), Carolyn Orr (Angelica), David Maize (Medoro), Toby Bradford (Pasquale), Gabi Meinke (Eurilla), Kevin Spooner (Rodomonte), Danielle Romano (Alcina) Ethan Wood (Caronte), Jackson Ray (Licone); UNCSA School of Music Orchestra; James Allbritten, conductor [Steven LaCosse, Director; Gisela Estrada, Scenic Designer; Logan Benson, Costume Designer; Petko Novosad, Lighting Designer; Madi Pattillo, Wig and Makeup Designer; A.J. Fletcher Opera Institute, University of North Carolina School of the Arts, Stevens Center of the UNCSA, Winston-Salem, North Carolina, USA; Sunday, 5 February 2023]

Historians now theorize that the famous remark about the superlative quality of opera performances at Eszterháza, the country seat of the princes Esterházy, attributed for generations to Habsburg empress Maria Theresa, is apocryphal, but the long-accepted legitimacy of the sentiment is a testament to the artistic fecundity of Franz Joseph Haydn’s four-decade tenure in the Esterházy musical establishment. The theater built at Eszterháza by Prince Nikolaus Esterházy transformed the rural estate, located in modern Hungary and at a considerable distance from the social and artistic milieux of both Vienna and Schloss Esterházy in the Bergenland, into a center of operatic activity in central Europe. The effects of Eszterháza’s geographical and cultural isolation on the stylistic evolution of Haydn’s music is documented in the composer’s own words and audible in the many pieces that he wrote as the Esterházy Kapellmeister. His operas are among the Haydn works that are least familiar to Twenty-First-Century audiences: aside from Armida and Orfeo ed Euridice, occasionally programmed as curiosities, these innovative pieces dwell in libraries and musicological tomes rather than in opera houses and concert halls. Imperial acclaim for opera at Eszterháza may have been exaggerated or invented, but has hyperbole not proved to be a key that opens doors in this new millennium?

Maria Theresa had been dead for nearly two years when Haydn’s opera Orlando paladino was first performed at Eszterháza on 6 December 1782, six months after the respective Munich and Vienna premières of Salieri’s Semiramide and Mozart’s Die Entführung aus dem Serail, with which works Haydn’s score shares elements of genre hybridization and exoticism. Its libretto adapted by Nunziato Porta, himself a composer, from an earlier operatic text by Carlo Francesco Badini, Orlando paladino brought one of the most widely-traveled sources of operatic inspiration in the Eighteenth Century, Ludovico Ariosto’s Orlando furioso, to Eszterháza in a setting in which Haydn both celebrated and satirized the opera seria conventions of Baroque opera. In Orlando paladino, the lovesick madness of the Frankish knight Roland is depicted with wry humor, parodying the emotional melodrama found in many settings of the tale, yet Haydn’s opera abounds with genuine pathos. This dichotomy seemingly resonated with audiences at and beyond Eszterháza, not least in Prague, where Mozart conducted performances of Orlando paladino whilst supervising the inaugural production of his La clemenza di Tito in 1791. In the years between its 1782 première and the composer’s death in 1809, Orlando paladino became the most performed of Haydn’s operas.

Boldly venturing where professional opera companies fear to tread, A.J. Fletcher Opera Institute of the University of North Carolina School of the Arts furthered a legacy of staging demanding works like Händel’s Rodelinda and Donizetti’s Linda di Chamounix by bringing Haydn’s Orlando paladino to Winston-Salem’s Stevens Center. With brilliantly creative scenic designs by Gisela Estrada, their visual depth enhanced by Petko Novosad’s lighting, Haydn’s captivating musical adventure was launched into the realm of science fiction. The action playing out in settings that might have been borrowed from the imagination of Gene Roddenberry, Fletcher Opera Institute’s Artistic Director Steven LaCosse explored the psychological subtleties of Haydn’s music, Porta’s words, and Ariosto’s story with Twenty-First-Century sensibilities allied with respect for the opera’s historical context.

Like many of his stagings in Winston-Salem, LaCosse’s Orlando paladino was centered upon meaningful interactions among characters, their motivations elucidated by their gestures and postures. Logan Benson’s costume designs and Madi Pattillo’s wigs and makeup heightened the visual appeal of the concept, their whimsy accentuating the vividness of the opera’s dramatic confrontations. In LaCosse’s realization, the comedic episodes were often uproarious, and the silence that enveloped the theater in moments of fear and sorrow affirmed the immediacy with which the opera’s touches of tragedy were presented.

IN REVIEW: tenor TOBY BRADFORD as Pasquale in A.J. Fletcher Opera Institute's February 2023 production of Franz Joseph Haydn's ORLANDO PALADINO [Photograph by Allison Lee Isley, © by A.J. Fletcher Opera Institute/University of North Carolina School of the Arts]Lo scudiero musicale: tenor Toby Bradford as Pasquale in A.J. Fletcher Opera Institute’s February 2023 production of Franz Joseph Haydn’s Orlando paladino
[Photograph by Allison Lee Isley, © by A.J. Fletcher Opera Institute/University of North Carolina School of the Arts]

Encompassing Baroque bravura, the Classicism that was his hallmark, and precursors of bel canto, Haydn’s writing for voices and orchestra in Orlando paladino is remarkably varied. Perhaps accounting for the opera’s wide appeal to Eighteenth-Century audiences, the stylistic heterogeneity of the music makes leading performances of Orlando paladino difficult for modern conductors, no matter how diverse their experience may be. An insightful interpreter of an uncommon breadth of repertoire, Fletcher Opera Institute’s Music Director James Allbritten conducted this performance of Orlando paladino with flair and finesse. The musical structure of each number was emphasized in a manner that at once revealed its originality and occupied a finite place within the opera’s dramatic progression.

The organic pacing of recitatives, aided by Lucas Wong’s expert playing of the harpsichord continuo, complemented judicious tempi in arias and ensembles. The musicians of the UNCSA School of Music Orchestra demonstrated that any notions of Haydn’s music being easy are ridiculous, their work in this performance occasionally flawed but consistently spirited. Rather than approaching Orlando paladino as a piece that needs conductorial intervention in order to succeed with modern audiences, Allbritten conducted with the same confidence in the quality of the music that guides his performances of Verdi repertoire. It was Haydn’s music, not a conductor’s ego, that made this performance so engrossing.

Haydn did not write an aria for the shepherd Licone, who begins the opera with a frantic scene with his daughter Eurilla and the blustering knight Rodomonte, but baritone Jackson Ray sang each of the character’s lines resiliently. Licone’s alarm trembled in Ray’s vocalism in the terzetto, and the meaning of each word of recitative was apparent, needing no projected translation.

His brief scene at the start of Act Three enacted before an eerily gorgeous backdrop that evoked Utah’s otherworldly Landscape Arch, the mythical ferryman Caronte is a stylistic kinsman of the Commendatore in Mozart’s Don Giovanni, though Haydn’s character is the instrument of deliverance from doom rather than the harbinger of damnation. Lower voices often mature later and more slowly than their higher counterparts, and bass Ethan Wood did not yet possess the sepulchral resonance that Caronte’s music ideally requires. Still, his voicing of the hauntingly lovely aria ‘Ombre insepolte, di qua partite’ was stirring, and he declaimed Caronte’s lines, strangely menacing and benevolent, in the accompagnato ‘L’irremeabil onda’ with gravitas, capitalizing on the ingenuity of Haydn’s writing and the part’s significance in the drama.

A figure familiar from operas by Caccini, Vivaldi, and Händel, the sorceress Alcina is the moral force who safeguards true love in Orlando paladino, protecting the imperiled Angelica and Medoro and ultimately curing Orlando of the madness of his infatuation with Angelica. Only in Act One did Haydn grant his Alcina an aria, the bracing ‘Ad un guardo, ad un ceddo solo,’ but, after singing the aria electrifyingly, mezzo-soprano Danielle Romano lorded over the performance with unforced sovereignty, acting with Sophia Loren-like glamor and declaiming each of the sorceress’s pronouncements with irrefutable authority. Her glowing-amber timbre shone in Haydn’s music, the voice shimmering from guttural low notes to a gleaming top.

Wielding a flinty timbre and a fabulous maniacal laugh, baritone Kevin Spooner enlivened the Barbarian king Rodomonte with forceful singing and stage savvy worthy of a blockbuster action film. Rushing onto the stage in Act One as though he were ejected from a neighboring galaxy, this Rodomonte terrorized Eurilla and Licone amusingly, his words slashing as threateningly as his sword. Spooner sang the aria ‘Temerario! Senti e trema’ commandingly, only the lowest notes lacking impact. ‘Dove si cela mai’ in the Act One finale was delivered with boundless energy, and Rodomonte’s aria in Act Two, ‘Mille lampi d’accese faville,’ was delivered with swaggering bravado. Setting a standard for his colleagues, Spooner enunciated every line in recitatives and ensembles incisively, the vigor of his performance enhancing the comedy of the contrast between Rodomonte’s bombast and the other characters’ plights.

A temperamental ancestress of Richard Strauss’s Zerbinetta in Ariadne auf Naxos, Haydn’s flirtatious shepherdess Eurilla serves as a foil for the regal, melancholy Angelica. Soprano Gabi Meinke limned Eurilla’s capricious playfulness with great charm, evident at her first entrance with Licone in Act One. She sang the aria ‘Ah, se dice io vi potessi’ delightfully and voiced Eurilla’s lines in ensembles brightly and clearly. Meinke’s best singing came in the scenes with Pasquale, particularly the Act Two duetto, in which her account of ‘Quel tuo vinetto amabile’ beguiled. Occasional shrillness in the upper register in the first act was largely absent after the interval, the voice sounding more focused in the opera’s final scenes. Meinke’s theatrical instincts were unerring throughout the afternoon, making each of Eurilla’s appearances in the opera a joy.

A product of the tradition of Sancho Panza-esque servant figures in Baroque opera that also yielded Leporello in Mozart’s Don Giovanni, Orlando’s witty but none-too-valiant squire Pasquale was spectacularly portrayed by tenor Toby Bradford. Haydn wrote music of extraordinary difficulty for Pasquale, subjecting the singer to virtually every virtuosic feat that could have been expected of a tenor in the last quarter of the Eighteenth Century. Bradford not only coped but fully conquered, meeting every challenge of the part with astonishing sangfroid. Introducing the character in Act One with the cavatina ‘La mia bella m’ha detto di nò,’ Bradford sang fetchingly, his crisp phrasing imparting Pasquale’s irrepressible exuberance.

The cracking patter aria ‘Ho viaggiato in Francia, in Spagna’ and Act Two cavatina ‘Vittoria, vittoria’ were jubilantly dispatched, and Bradford voiced ‘Il cavallo ed il padrone’ in the duetto with Eurilla fetchingly. Relocated in this production from Act Two to Act Three, the celebrated aria ‘Ecco spiano, ecco il mio trillo’ was sung with dazzling techical aplomb, the long-sustained tone at the start of the aria, the ornaments, and the ascents into the vocal stratosphere adroitly handled. A depiction of Pasquale as accomplished as Bradford’s would be notable in any of the world’s great opera houses: in this university production, it was nothing short of sensational.

IN REVIEW: soprano CAROLYN ORR as Angelica (left) and tenor DAVID MAIZE as Medoro (right) in A.J. Fletcher Opera Institute's February 2023 production of Franz Joseph Haydn's ORLANDO PALADINO [Photograph by Allison Lee Isley, © by A.J. Fletcher Opera Institute/University of North Carolina School of the Arts]I teneri amanti: soprano Carolyn Orr as Angelica (left) and tenor David Maize as Medoro (right) in A.J. Fletcher Opera Institute’s February 2023 production of Franz Joseph Haydn’s Orlando paladino
[Photograph by Allison Lee Isley, © by A.J. Fletcher Opera Institute/University of North Carolina School of the Arts]

As in many of Händel’s operas, it is not the title character but the secondo uomo who is the romantic lead in Orlando paladino. In tenor David Maize’s performance of the rôle, the conflicted but faithful Medoro merited his Angelica’s devotion, his every doubt and pang of regret expressed with vocalism of incredible beauty. The Act One aria ‘Parto. Ma, oh dio, non posso’ was hauntingly sung, the character’s inner turmoil conveyed through the interplay of anguish and repose in the vocal line. Similar qualities permeated Maize’s traversal of Medoro’s aria in Act Two, ‘Dille che un infelice,’ the vocal shading paralleling the moods of the text. The duetto with Angelica, ‘Qual contento io provo in seno,’ displayed the depth of the tenor’s artistry, his mastery of florid writing equal to the music’s most demanding moments. So endearing was Maize’s portrayal that the barbarians’ unforeseen wounding of Medoro drew agonized gasps from the audience. Alcina’s deus ex machina healing of his injury resuscitated the heart of the performance, which beat most palpably when Maize was singing.

The tormented Queen of Cathay Angelica, madly in love with Medoro but relentlessly pursued by Orlando, was brought to life with passion and poise by soprano Carolyn Orr. In her entrancing cavatina in Act One, ‘Palpita ad ogni istante,’ Orr’s Angelica created an aura of noble suffering that persisted until the opera’s dénouement, when the queen’s suffering at last ended. The aria ‘Non partir, mia bella face’ disclosed the effort expended in singing Haydn’s music, the fiorature sounding labored but never dodged or simplified. Orr phrased the adagio in the Act One finale, ‘Sento nel seno, oh dio,’ gracefully, communicating the panoply of emotions by which Angelica is plagued. Her account of the aria ‘Aure chete, verdi allori’ throbbed with raw feeling, and yearning simmered in her voicing of the accompagnato ‘Fra queste selve invan.’

Orr sang ‘Non fia mai, che venga meno’ in the duetto with Medoro mesmerizingly, Angelica’s love soaring in the music, and her reading of the accompagnato ‘Implacabili numi!’ in Act Three was the work of a talented singing actress. Some sopranos would justly complain that it was cruel of Haydn to place an aria as difficult as ‘Dell’estreme sue voci dolenti’ so late in the opera, but Orr was inspired by the music’s obstacles, singing with abandon. In all of Angelica’s scenes, Orr sang intrepidly, the flickers of vocal strain integrated into a laudably thoughtful portrait of the beleaguered queen.

Tenor Kameron Alston, who will return to Stevens Center in March 2023 as Ernesto in Piedmont Opera’s production of Donizetti’s Don Pasquale, enriched his portrayal of the unhinged Orlando with vocal sheen and psychological introspection, eschewing excessive caricature. The excellent Carlo in Fletcher Opera Institute’s February 2022 staging of Linda di Chamounix, Alston found nothing in Haydn’s music that overwhelmed his technical resources. As in Händel’s Orlando, much of the eponymous paladin’s madness transpires in mercurial accompagnati rather than in arias. In Act One, Alston articulated the accompagnato ‘Angelica, mio ben’ urgently, the character’s mental instability obvious in his words but never undermining the tenor’s vocal security.

Alston voiced the aria ‘D’Angelica il nome!’ with angst befitting Orlando’s affliction, and the accompagnato ‘Oimè, qual tetro oggetto!’ and aria ‘Cosa vedo! Cosa sento!’ in Act Two were sculpted with the delicacy of a gifted bel canto singer, only a pair of piano notes above the stave that threatened to crack betraying the toil involved in singing this daunting music. In the scene with Caronte at the beginning of Act Three, Alston’s vocalism was shaded with tragic overtones. His singing of the accompagnato ‘Sogno? Veglio? Cos’è?’ was riveting, and the aria ‘Miei pensieri, dove siete?’ was sublime. The preternatural restoration of Orlando’s reason can perhaps never be believable for modern audiences, but Alston’s amusing depiction of the knight’s loss of any memory of his love for Angelica was cunningly credible. Alston was the keystone of a phenomenal ensemble of artists, musical and technical, who rousingly reincarnated Haydn’s score. Maria Theresa may not have actually said that it was to Eszterháza that she went to hear opera of the highest quality, but Fletcher Opera Institute’s performance of Orlando paladino would unquestionably have earned the royal approbation for Winston-Salem.

01 February 2023

PERFORMANCE REVIEW: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart — DON GIOVANNI (T. Murray, Z. Nelson, M. Dunleavy, S. D’Eramo, A. McKissick, H. Huang, C. Blackburn, O. Gradus; North Carolina Opera, 29 January 2023)

IN REVIEW: (from left to right) baritone ZACARY NELSON as Leporello, baritone TIMOTHY MURRAY as Don Giovanni, and soprano SYLVIA D'ERAMO as Donna Elvira in North Carolina Opera's January 2023 production of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozrt's DON GIOVANNI [Photograph by Eric Waters Photography, © by North Carolina Opera]WOLFGANG AMADEUS MOZART (1756 – 1791): Il dissoluto punito, ossia il Don Giovanni, K. 527Timothy Murray (Don Giovanni), Zachary Nelson (Leporello), Mary Dunleavy (Donna Anna), Sylvia D’Eramo (Donna Elvira), Alex McKissick (Don Ottavio), Helen Zhibing Huang (Zerlina), Christian J. Blackburn (Masetto), Oren Gradus (Il Commendatore); North Carolina Opera Chorus and Orchestra; Joseph Mechavich, conductor [Brenna Corner, Director; Erhard Rom, Scenic Designer; Howard Tsvi Kaplan, Costume Designer; Ross Kolman, Lighting Designer; Brittany Rapise and Martha Ruskai, Wig and Makeup Designers; North Carolina Opera, Raleigh Memorial Auditorium, Duke Energy Center for the Performing Arts, Raleigh, North Carolina, USA; Sunday, 29 January 2023]

Politically and artistically, Prague was often overshadowed in the latter half of the Eighteenth Century by the imperial capital, Vienna, but, perhaps unknowingly, the sophisticated seat of Habsburg rule in Bohemia was indisputably the center of the operatic universe on 29 October 1787. On that auspicious day, the city’s Stavovské divadlo resounded with the sounds of the first performance of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s and Lorenzo da Ponte’s Don Giovanni. The success of the Prague première of their previous opera, Le nozze di Figaro, having outshone that of its inaugural Vienna production, an invitation to write a new opera for Prague doubtlessly appealed strongly to composer and librettist, offering a rare opportunity to create a work specifically for a sympathetic audience, without the intrigues and meddling to which producing opera in Vienna was subject. Capitalizing on the popularity with Pražané of artistic incarnations of the libidinous Don Juan, Mozart and da Ponte crafted a work in which the opera seria model refined by Händel and Hasse was ingeniously propelled into the Nineteenth Century, forging a path for the operas of Beethoven, Weber, and Marschner.

When composition of Don Giovanni commenced, Mozart was the father of a young son. The all’s-well-that-ends-well ebullience that permeates Mozart’s early operas remains present, but, as in Le nozze di Figaro, the joviality that sparkles in Don Giovanni is tempered by pervasive senses of personal responsibility and retribution. These qualities were often obscured in director Brenna Corner’s staging for North Carolina Opera, which differed markedly from the company’s April 2015 production of Don Giovanni. Whereas the earlier production was housed in the intimate A.J. Fletcher Opera Theater, Corner’s concept was realized in the grander space of Raleigh Memorial Auditorium. Emphasizing the opera’s giacosa elements at the expense of its life-altering drama, the production’s broad comedy was greatly enjoyed by the audience but marginalized too much of Mozart’s music and too many of da Ponte’s words, crucial exchanges among characters undermined by audience laughter. Donna Elvira and Leporello often seemed foolish rather than reactive to difficult situations, their actions at odds with the music that they were singing. Humor is a vital aspect of Don Giovanni, but, the prevalence of sight gags and exploitation of dated gender stereotypes distorting the balance of mirth and seriousness, this production too often strayed into farce. It was unquestionably an enjoyable show that delighted patrons, but it sometimes felt as though a Rossini opera buffa had been adapted to Mozart’s score.

IN REVIEW: (from left to right) soprano HELEN ZHIBING HUANG as Zerlina, baritone CHRISTIAN J. BLACKBURN as Masetto, and baritone TIMOTHY MURRAY as Don Giovanni in North Carolina Opera's January 2023 production of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's DON GIOVANNI [Photograph by Eric Waters Photography, © by North Carolina Opera]Gli amanti ingannati: (from left to right) soprano Helen Zhibing Huang as Zerlina, baritone Christian J. Blackburn as Masetto, and baritone Timothy Murray as Don Giovanni in North Carolina Opera’s January 2023 production of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s Don Giovanni
[Photograph by Eric Waters Photography, © by North Carolina Opera]

Visually, the staging was appealing despite lighting designs by Ross Kolman that were unrelentingly dark except in the banquet scene at the end of Act One. So dimly illuminated, Erhard Rom’s scenic designs, originally created for Virginia Opera, were foreboding, further conflicting with the abiding jocundity of the direction. [Memorial statuary etiquette may be unfamiliar to many Twenty-First-Century audiences, but Eighteenth-Century Spaniards would have known that riders depicted on rearing steeds typically died in battle. Why do so many productions of Don Giovanni place the Commendatore’s effigy astride a rearing horse when his vengeful epitaph is specifically referenced in the libretto?] Giovanni’s final descent into hell was unintentionally amusing, his disappearance into the base of the Commendatore’s monument too closely resembling the Knusperhexe’s demise in Humperdinck’s Hänsel und Gretel. The wigs and makeup designs of Brittany Rapise and Martha Ruskai ideally complemented Howard Tsvi Kaplan’s attractive and functional costumes, on loan from Sarasota Opera. A notable success of the production was the ease of identifying each of the principals, even in ensembles and in the scene in which Giovanni and Leporello impersonated one another.

Reprising associations with North Carolina Opera and Mozart repertoire that yielded an exhilarating production of Die Zauberflöte in April 2022, conductor Joseph Mechavich paced this performance of Don Giovanni with eloquence befitting the score’s Classicism and propulsive energy that supplied the dramatic thrust that the physical staging lacked. Under Mechavich’s baton, North Carolina Opera’s orchestra played superbly, their performance disrupted by commendably few mistakes, and the company’s choristers, marvelously trained by Scott MacLeod, sang brilliantly. Unfortunately, the demonic chorus accompanying Giovanni’s infernal journey was spoiled by amplification. The electronic keyboard used for the harpsichord continuo was not consistently audible, but the conductor’s accompaniment of the secco recitatives was imaginative and unfailingly musical. Mechavich guided the performance with gripping momentum whilst also being supportive of the singers, reliably choosing logical tempi that facilitated proper breath control and clear articulation of text. Though the orchestra of course utilized modern instruments, there were numerous passages in the performance in which the conductor’s approach exhibited acquaintance with historically-informed aesthetics, accentuating the inventiveness of Mozart’s music.

In the opera’s opening scene, in which the Commendatore interrupts Giovanni’s assault on Donna Anna, bass Oren Gradus declaimed the indignant father’s lines with paternal ferocity, the voice powerful throughout the range. Regrettably, the dreadful amplification employed to add ethereal resonance to the Commendatore’s utterances in the graveyard scene in Act Two robbed Gradus’s tones of impact. His singing in the fateful final encounter with Giovanni possessed ample aural presence but was occasionally covered by the trombones. His efforts at projecting over the orchestra caused his intonation and steadiness to falter. His Commendatore was nonetheless a chilling messenger of righteous condemnation.

IN REVIEW: baritone CHRISTIAN J. BLACKBURN as Masetto (left) and baritone TIMOTHY MURRAY as Don Giovanni (right) in North Carolina Opera's January 2023 production of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's DON GIOVANNI [Photograph by Eric Waters Photography, © by North Carolina Opera]I fidanzati testati: baritone Christian J. Blackburn as Masetto (left) and baritone Timothy Murray as Don Giovanni (right) in North Carolina Opera’s January 2023 production of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s Don Giovanni
[Photograph by Eric Waters Photography, © by North Carolina Opera]

Baritone Christian J. Blackburn was an exceptionally engaging and sympathetic Masetto, his vocalism burnished and his acting, though faithful to the production’s manic ethos, evincing the character’s innate good nature. His entrance with Zerlina in Act One was delightful, and Blackburn’s account of the aria ‘Ho capito, Signor, sì!’ was particularly distinguished. He launched the Act One finale excitingly, voicing ‘Presto, presto, pria ch’ei venga’ incisively. In the Act Two scene in which Masetto is beaten by the disguised Giovanni, Blackburn achieved the equilibrium between comedy and sobriety that eluded much of the staging. Credible as both a tender lover for Zerlina and a potent threat to Giovanni, Blackburn’s Masetto was a winningly intelligent, well-sung characterization.

The Zerlina of soprano Helen Zhibing Huang was endearingly waifish but wielded inescapable emotional influence on her volatile but doting Masetto. Like Blackburn, Huang exuded charm in her first scene in Act One. Wooed by Giovanni in their beloved duettino, this Zerlina sang ‘Vorrei e non vorrei’ unaffectedly, persuasively imparting the flattered young girl’s conflicting emotions. Overcoming the production’s silliness, she made ‘Batti, batti, o bel Masetto’ genuinely touching by singing without coy artifice. Similarly, Zerlina’s aria in Act Two, ‘Vedrai, carino, se sei buonino,’ sung to comfort Masetto after his altercation with Giovanni, was delivered with beguiling affection. [To the noisy amusement of the audience, the projected translation of the aria exaggerated the text’s innuendo.] Her diminutive physique notwithstanding, Huang shone in ensembles, her vibrant stagecraft equaling the beauty of her singing.

IN REVIEW: soprano MARY DUNLEAVY as Donna Anna (left) and tenor ALEX MCKISSICK as Don Ottavio (right) in North Carolina Opera's January 2023 production of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's DON GIOVANNI [Photograph by Eric Waters Photography, © by North Carolina Opera]Il giuramento: soprano Mary Dunleavy as Donna Anna (left) and tenor Alex McKissick as Don Ottavio (right) in North Carolina Opera’s January 2023 production of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s Don Giovanni
[Photograph by Eric Waters Photography, © by North Carolina Opera]

In some productions of Don Giovanni, Donna Anna’s fiancé Don Ottavio lacks dramatic purpose, a flaw for which da Ponte’s libretto bears some culpability. Mozart allotted fine music to the part, however, and North Carolina Opera engaged a singer for the rôle who proved to be capable of dauntlessly meeting every challenge of Mozart’s writing. Possessing a voice with a more robust timbre than is sometimes heard in Ottavio’s music, tenor Alex McKissick animated each of the part’s lines with appealing tone and unerring theatrical instincts. Comforting Donna Anna after her discovery of her slain father’s corpse, he delivered ‘Senti, cor mio, deh senti’ with a musical caress. The vocal power at his disposal engendered an unusually rousing ‘Che giuramento, o Dei!’ and cogent singing in the quartet.

The company electing to perform Don Giovanni in the form in which it was first heard in Prague, Ottavio’s aria ‘Dalla sua pace la mia dipende,’ composed for the opera’s 1788 Vienna première and often included regardless of the edition being performed, was not sung. A firebrand in the Act One finale, McKissick voiced Ottavio’s words in the sublime masquers’ trio enthrallingly. No less engaging in Act Two, he sang vividly in the sestetto. Shaped by assured handling of the fiorature, his traversal of ‘Il mio tesoro intanto’ recalled the singing of Anton Dermota. Unlike some depictions, McKissick’s Ottavio conveyed not annoyance but loving acceptance of Anna’s postponement of their marriage, ending the opera with handsomely-voiced gentleness and gentility.

IN REVIEW: soprano SYLVIA D'ERAMO as Donna Elvira in North Carolina Opera's January 2023 production of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's DON GIOVANNI [Photograph by Eric Waters Photography, © by North Carolina Opera]La signora tradita: soprano Sylvia D’Eramo as Donna Elvira in North Carolina Opera’s January 2023 production of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s Don Giovanni
[Photograph by Eric Waters Photography, © by North Carolina Opera]

Recently acclaimed as Kitty in the Metropolitan Opera’s triumphant world-première production of Kevin Puts’s The Hours, soprano Sylvia D’Eramo transitioned from Puts’s modern musical language to Mozart’s writing for Donna Elvira, which often harkens back to Baroque heroines. Though subjected to distracting stage business with Elvira’s maid at her entrance in Act One, D’Eramo sang ‘Ah, chi mi dice mai’ captivatingly, intimating the lady’s erratic but profound feelings. The aria ‘Ah! fuggi il traditor!’ would not sound out of place in Händel’s Rodelinda or Tamerlano, and this Elvira articulated it with bracing intensity, the divisions imparting the direness of her warning to the hapless Zerlina. In both the quartet and the masquers’ trio in the Act One finale, D’Eramo sang forcefully, projecting Elvira’s frustration and despair into the auditorium.

Elvira’s emotions surging in Act Two, D’Eramo voiced ‘Ah taci, ingiusto core!’ in the terzetto fervently and began the sestetto with a febrile ‘Sola, sola in buio loco.’ Added to the score for the 1788 Vienna production, ‘Mi tradì quell’alma ingrata’ was not performed in this staging, but the aria’s ardent spirit permeated the soprano’s enunciation of ‘L’ultima prova dell’amor mio’ in the opera’s finale. Intermittent shrillness at the top of the range heightened the dramatic impetus of this Elvira’s singing, which efficaciously communicated the desperation of a woman in love with a man unworthy of her devotion.

IN REVIEW: soprano MARY DUNLEAVY as Donna Anna in North Carolina Opera's January 2023 production of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's DON GIOVANNI [Photograph by Eric Waters Photography, © by North Carolina Opera]La voce della giustizia: soprano Mary Dunleavy as Donna Anna in North Carolina Opera’s January 2023 production of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s Don Giovanni
[Photograph by Eric Waters Photography, © by North Carolina Opera]

Casting the rôle of the proud but vulnerable Donna Anna is one of the foremost challenges of producing Don Giovanni. Aside from her uncommon longevity and participation in the first performances of an array of operas by lesser-known composers, history documents little of the life and career of the first Donna Anna, Teresa Saporiti. It is conjectured that, nearly a half-century after the première of Don Giovanni, Verdi solicited her opinion of his writing for Abigaille in Nabucco, suggesting that she remained a respected authority on bravura singing. Bringing to North Carolina Opera’s Don Giovanni extensive experience in Mozart repertoire that encompasses lauded portrayals of both Mutter and Tochter, Die Königin der Nacht and Pamina, in Die Zauberflöte at the Metropolitan Opera, soprano Mary Dunleavy honored Saporiti’s legacy with a performance that fused technical prowess with theatrical savvy. In the opera’s opening scene, Dunleavy’s Anna was distraught but no passive victim, exclaiming ‘Fuggi, crudel, fuggi!’ with vehemence. Her confidence shattered by the discovery of her father’s murder, she pledged to avenge him in a galvanizing ‘Che giuramento, o Dei!’ that rang with sincerity, a trait that also resounded in the quartet.

The accompagnato ‘Don Ottavio, son morta!’ was delivered with tragic grandeur, leading to a momentous performance of ‘Or sai chi l’onore’ in which the voice pulsed with anger and determination. Dunleavy matched her colleagues’ poised singing in the masquers’ trio, and she excelled in the complex ensembles of Act Two. Her statement of ‘Crudele? Ah no, mio bene!’ expressed the sting of Ottavio’s bitter recrimination. Dunleavy’s formidable technique allowed her to concentrate on the psychological nuances of ‘Non mi dir, bell’idol mio,’ begetting a ruminative atmosphere. The foreshortened version of the final ensemble was preferred, eliminating the extended duet for Anna and Ottavio, but this Anna manifested an aura of resolution, bolstered by the confidence of Dunleavy’s vocalism.

IN REVIEW: baritones ZACHARY NELSON as Leporello (left) and TIMOTHY MURRAY as Don Giovcanni (right) in North Carolina Opera's January 2023 production of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's DON GIOVANNI [Photograph by Eric Waters Photography, © by North Carolina Opera]Il servo ed il padrone: baritones Zachary Nelson as Leporello (left) and Timothy Murray as Don Giovanni (right) in North Carolina Opera’s January 2023 production of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s Don Giovanni
[Photograph by Eric Waters Photography, © by North Carolina Opera]

Giovanni’s cunning servant Leporello was perhaps most adversely affected by the production’s focus on jocundity, what dignity Mozart and da Ponte gave the character sacrificed to slapstick, but baritone Zachary Nelson placed his trust in the music and fashioned an insightful characterization rather than a caricature. Beginning Act One with an effervescent voicing of ‘Notte e giorno faticar,’ Nelson exercised vocal restraint even in the production’s most madcap moments. The frenetic stage action sometimes reduced the clarity of his diction, yet he sang the celebrated ‘Madamina, il catalogo è questo’ and Leporello’s quips and asides in the act’s final scenes with commendable textual precision.

There were passages in both acts in which Nelson’s lowest notes did not have ideal amplitude and the staging instigated over-emphatic singing. His intonation was reliably sure, however, and his timbre lent requisite gravitas to the character’s flashes of panic and remorse. This clever Leporello joined his master in a rollicking performance of their duetto at the start of Act Two, intoning ‘No, no, padrone, non vo’ restar!’ engrossingly. His singing in the terzetto and sestetto was fantastic, but there was no portion of his performance that was more successful than his ‘Ah, pietà, signori miei,’ in which legitimate contrition was discernible. Both the duetto ‘O statua gentilissima’ and the final scenes inspired Nelson’s finest singing of the afternoon, Leporello’s terror and eventual relief upon being spared palpable. Throughout the performance, Nelson’s singing heightened the charisma that the production’s portrait of Leporello muted.

Making his rôle début as the eponymous cad in this production, baritone Timothy Murray reinvigorated the part with vocal allure and youthful élan. Portrayals of complex characters like Don Giovanni typically deepen with repetition, but Murray’s mastery of the rôle’s demands was already comprehensive. In the opening scene of Act One, he revealed Giovanni’s insouciance, and the unexpected encounter with Donna Elvira prompted him to regret the effectiveness of his own wiles. Murray depicted the sly duplicity of the nobleman’s perilous charm as he simultaneously seduced Zerlina and scorned Masetto. Zerlina’s surrender was understandable, the baritone’s singing of ‘Là ci darem la mano’ having bewitched the audience. The quartet found Giovanni hectoring in defense of his schemes, the voice glinting with arrogance. ‘Fin ch’han dal vino calda la testa’ has rarely been sung so marvelously in recent years, every note in place and the trill dutifully executed on par with a singer like Sir Thomas Allen, and each of Giovanni’s words in the Act One finale was emitted with bravado.

Murray’s fleet singing of ‘Eh via, buffone, non mi seccar!’ in the duetto with Leporello catapulted Act Two onto its inexorable course towards punishment for Giovanni’s misdeeds. Each phrase in the terzetto was pronounced with unmistakable cognizance of its significance. Tossing a purse to the mandolinist in the orchestra pit was a wise investment, Murray’s honeyed voicing of the canzonetta ‘Deh vieni alla finestra, o mio tesoro’ benefiting from the lovely accompaniment, and Murray voiced ‘Metà di voi qua vadano’ compellingly. Both the duetto ‘O statua gentilissima’ and ‘Già la mensa è preparata’ in his final scene were sung intrepidly, this Giovanni as defiant and unrepentant in the clutches of hell as on the streets of Spain. North Carolina Opera’s casting for this Don Giovanni assembled an ensemble that few of the world’s most renowned opera houses could rival and hosted a first interpretation of the title rôle that would surely have awed as unforgettably in Prague in 1787 as in Raleigh in 2023.