The Sorcerer by the Troupers

Troupers Light Opera performs Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Sorcerer in Norwalk

I didn’t need the premiere performance of Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Sorcerer by the Troupers last Saturday afternoon to remind me how very much I enjoy this work, for I’ve loved it since the days of my misspent youth. I still very much do. Rather at every minute I was reminded how much the Troupers Light Opera has been and, with this season, continues to be an essential part of our region’s musical landscape. This is their 71st season.

Time was when Gilbert and Sullivan’s innocent merriment was a household part of our musical culture over here, certainly over there. The D’Oyly Carte Opera Company, the source of it all, toured the USA every once in a while; folks dropped one liners from the operas in conversation, my father sang Ko-Ko in a high school G & S review; Groucho Marx himself sang Ko-Ko on national TV. Today it’s more likely “Groucho who?” Cocoa is a drink; the only sorcerers we know are Harry Potter et al.

But, back to the moment, this Troupers Sorcerer continues the conspicuous rebirth of the Company as witnessed over the past seasons. It’s a happy mix of energetic and talented newcomers, some already seasoned from elsewhere in the G & S style but only recently with the Company, others just fine singers on a steep learning curve with it, each group resting on the bed rock of dedicated regulars of Troupers who, when you read their bios, perform so many roles for the Company both on and off stage, why, it just makes your head spin, and it’s all for the love of performing G & S.

The premise of The Sorcerer is simple enough. It’s the mid-19th century in England: Alexis, son of a well-heeled family, engaged to the equally well-heeled Aline, espouses the at-the-time absurd philosophy that true love should know no restrictions created by distinctions, be they class or beliefs, age, nation, whatever. To aid his cause, he’s hired a local sorcerer to spike the tea so that all in the village will fall in love with the first person he or she sees upon waking the next morning, thus shuffling the matrimonial deck, so to speak. The first act establishes the intended unions, elaborates his philosophy, and introduces, in a spoof of Donizetti’s Dr. Dulcamara, the sorcerer John Wellington Wells, head of firm J. W. Wells & Co., the old established Family Sorcerers at No. 70 St. Mary Axe; the second act has everyone randomly in love with someone else, Alexis by this time really peeved because he hadn’t thought too far ahead, and then in the end they all tell Wells to go to hell. After he rights all the mix-ups that is.

Jefferson Osborn as John Wellington Wells

Jefferson Osborn as John Wellington Wells

A poised and accomplished musical comedienne, Tanya Roberts as Aline made me smile throughout the performance, particularly in the scene in Act II in which she has taken the love potion, only to happen upon Dr. Daly, the local curate, a polite and retiring gentle fellow who is also under the spell. Cling to the columns of the portal though she might, Aline begins to exhibit every symptom of being hopelessly in love with him, literally drawn towards him. Ah, rapture! Roberts is a gifted musician and a pleasure to watch throughout.

Imagine Alexis’s reaction to the mad delight of this coupling: it was his ‘noble’ idea to let love level all ranks (sound familiar?) through the potion’s magic, but now in Act II his aristocratic father Sir Marmaduke is in love with Mrs. Partlet, in this Sorcerer a bit too much taken to the local drink. Equally unfortunate, Lady Sangazure, Aline’s mother, has the hots for John Wellington Wells, but then threatens to join her ancestors in the family vault if he remains obdurate and unavailable. David Richy plays the prig well, his anger ringing out in a rich tenor voice. Not much on self-reflection and stubborn, Alexis seems unwilling to take responsibility for the mess he’s caused, but, as Aline points out, what’s to become of her if he takes the descent instead of Wells?

Brett Kroeger as Constance with Jim Cooper

Brett Kroeger as Constance with Jim Cooper

Brett Kroeger’s Constance spends much of the evening bemoaning the unavailability of Dr. Daly, whom she has been shyly in love with since her very opening number. Through the potion’s power, she is temporarily united with the Notary, one who is particularly hard of hearing, which makes for a humorous duet to a lovely waltz melody with Jim Cooper. Though her role doesn’t permit many opportunities to let it all out, Kroeger’s contributions are conspicuous every moment she is on stage. She sobs well too.

A welcome addition to the company, Jefferson Osborn’s Wells was well sung and articulate, a person clearly in control of things most of the time. Osborn’s composed stage presence is quite evident at every turn. Bravo!

Sir Marmaduke, sung by Frank Sisson, and Lady Sangazure, sung by Wendy Falconer have many humorous touches about them involving stethoscopes, walking sticks, and other accoutrements of the needs of the elderly, all of which dissolve at the potion’s power. Deborah Connelly’s Mrs. Partlet recalls the great Madeline Kahn facially and behaviorally. Not much of a role model for good mothering really, she’s more the saucy minx and giddy, less the clean and tidy widdy, despite her claims to the contrary. John Matilaine’s Dr. Daly, also well sung, is comically energized by the potion too. Rob Strom is the Solicitor.

I’ll bet most of the voices are strong enough so as to render amplification unnecessary at least for the bigger musical numbers in acoustically-alive Norwalk Concert Hall. Tanya Roberts, Brett Kroeger, David Richy, and Jefferson Osborne had no problem sailing over the orchestra when they wanted to. However it helps the others and, overall, makes the sung text more intelligible, though even on this dimension the singers articulated well. But amplification works quite well for the dialogue and it’d be an extra burden on the sound technician to keep adjusting the aural picture throughout the performance. It’s not really broken, so don’t fix it.

Director Dan Montez recreates his signature style, which is funny, busy, if sometimes to excess, and touching when the moment presents itself. I liked the bits with the walking sticks a lot, the potion induced love duets, less the conjured demons running around. He knows how to involve all on stage, often giving brief vignettes for members of the chorus. There is little standing around in a Montez production. It’s all better.

Jun Nakabayashi’s control of the orchestra, his tempi, and his dynamics are admirable throughout, save, in Act II, a little desynchronization of the musical components during this very first performance. But these things get ironed out. Both he and Montez are a large part of the rejuvenation going on here.

Don’t miss the Troupers production of The Sorcerer! You never know when you’ll get a chance to see it again! This is only the fourth season they've performed it since the beginning in 1946.

The Troupers Light Opera production of Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Sorcerer is performed again at the Norwalk Concert Hall, 125 East Avenue, Norwalk, CT, matinee/evening on April 23. Matinee time is 2:30 p.m.; evening is 7:30 p.m. Tickets may be purchased at the company’s website (www.trouperslightopera.org) or by calling 800-838-3006.

Below this review on this page on OperaMetro, please find the interviews with Tanya Roberts, Brett Kroeger, and David Richy.

If you wish to receive email alerts of future postings of Metropolitan Opera reviews, regional opera and recordings on OperaMetro.com, please request so by emailing operametromail@gmail.com. Thank you!

JRS

Troupers to perform The Sorcerer

Troupers Light Opera to perform Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Sorcerer in Norwalk

It must be spring! The Troupers Light Opera present Gilbert & Sullivan’s infrequently performed gem The Sorcerer twice on each of two Saturdays this month: April 16 and April 23. ‘Infrequent’ is numerical, not a statement of quality.

OperaMetro has the privilege of interviewing three of the principals, each an accomplished vocal artist, each sharing a passion for the Gilbert & Sullivan canon, and each willing to share views on art, the roles, The Sorcerer, Troupers, and whatever else comes up.

They are Tanya C. Roberts, who sings Aline, Brett Kroeger, who sings Constance, and David Richy, who sings Alexis.

As in past OM interviews, participants responded to emailed questions, but the assembled presentation here is as if we were all chatting.

OM: Welcome and thank you for agreeing to participate in this virtual discussion about The Sorcerer! I’ll start by saying that all of the G & S operas are long standing favorites of mine, Mikado being the first I saw on stage, though I knew also Pinafore and Pirates early on through the D’Oyly Carte recordings on London LPs. Sorcerer came just a little later on LP, but only much later did I see it on stage, in fact with the Troupers. What is your relationship with G & S in general and The Sorcerer in specific, apart from the fact that you’re appearing in it less than two weeks from today?

Tanya Roberts and David Richy as Aline and Alexis

Tanya Roberts and David Richy as Aline and Alexis

Tanya Roberts (TR): McGill University had a G&S group, but unfortunately, as a voice major, my opera rehearsals always conflicted with their rehearsals.  But I was certainly intrigued by the repertoire.  I've always been drawn to a repertoire that sits at the cross-section of high and popular culture, and Sullivan's writing bridges high opera tradition and comic theatre so brilliantly. I’ve since performed in several of the more popular G & S operas, but I've seen The Sorcerer only once, performed by The Victoria Gilbert and Sullivan Society on Vancouver Island, a few years ago. That was a big part of what drew me to this production.

Brett Kroeger (BK): Sorcerer is a brand new experience for me: the only other G & S operas I have done are PiratesMikado, and Patience, but my first with the Troupers was Herbert’s The Red Mill.

OM: I remember it well. I first met you at a rehearsal.

BK: Yes we did!

David Richy (DR): Going into Troupers Light Opera’s production of The Sorcerer, I was only familiar with a couple of the songs.  My involvement with Troupers and other organizations over the years has given me the opportunity to sing various selections from the G&S repertory.  As a result, I have sung a song or two from every G&S operetta, but I have only performed in a few thus far: Pirates of PenzanceIolanthePatience, and Trial by Jury.

OM: Gilbert gives us some wonderful characters, kooky or sentimental in their own way, but ‘dated’ by the constraints of the times in which they were created or by the societies in which the story is set. Tell me about the challenges facing a singer in 2016 to create a plausible character who’s been cut from an old mold.

DR: I’m singing the role of Alexis, an upper-class youth who has grand designs of a world where people can love one another regardless of age or class.  He hires a sorcerer to concoct a love potion to affect the entire village.

OM: One doesn’t encounter sorcerers as frequently these days.

DR: Right! Well, Alexis is not a particularly likable character, though his views may seem well intended on the surface.  At best, he’s dim-witted in his quest for true love; at worst, he is selfish in his motives.  His selfishness really comes to the forefront when he disapproves of Aline (who is betrothed to Alexis and loves him very much) for refusing to drink the love potion despite his insistence and then denounces her because, having taken it, she falls in love with someone else! As far as developing a sense of the character, it’s good to have a basic understanding of what he is about, but the stage direction, our movements and our actions may dictate a different approach and interpretation to what may be traditionally expected of my character.

TR: When I first started learning G&S, my opera coaches would tell me that all of the G&S leading ladies are not very bright and therefore I should approach them stylistically like I would a female protagonist in an Oscar Wilde play. True, naiveté and honesty often weigh heavily in many of the principal female characters in G & S, but I think it is a misnomer to interpret this as a lack of intelligence. For me the joy of interpreting these characters is that they meet their assumed duties in a rather patriarchal context as wives and daughters and friends with a great inner strength that propels them to make their own choices through the show. It's about finding their inner feminist! This said, the relationship between Aline and Alexis poses unique challenges for an actor and director alike. Their relationship is very much a product of the time in which it was written, when hitting your wife was common, and it was a given that women were subservient to men. In Sorcerer there are even references to Alexis striking Aline and lines about the necessity of her obeying him. How you present that to a modern audience while maintaining the integrity of the piece (and also to keep your audience from hating your leading man) requires a great director. We're very fortunate to have Dan [Montez], who does an excellent job of navigate those perils.

OM: I’ve always felt that Aline is a strong and sincere character. This, to me, is particularly clear in both the D’Oyly Carte’s abridged Sorcerer from 1933 with Muriel Dickson. Just listen to her expressive interpretation (available on Naxos CDs) and then Nan Christie in the 1982 BBC/PBS Sorcerer (available on an Acorn Media DVD, one of the complete series). Interesting that both Dickson and Christie also essay the title role of Princess Ida, another strong woman.

But back to the point about presenting Alexis to a modern audience: I don’t know that Gilbert necessarily wants us to like Alexis, that, through the character, he’s expressing his own views about marital relationships any more than he condones marriage irrespective of rank and class. And to the general point: taken far enough, there is probably some segment of today’s diverse population in the US who’d have a problem with practically every character in Gilbert’s plots, not to mention Shakespeare’s, Boccaccio's, the Scriptures, Jane Austen’s novels, in fact, run with the thought, in every other novel, stage play, opera, operetta, Broadway show, sitcom, or film. What is a negative character stereotype for some might be, from a different perspective obviously, a positive characterization for others.

But I digress. Brett?

BK: Constance, my role, is an interesting one. She has a beautiful aria in the beginning of Act I, but then is basically forgotten until Act II, when, now that she has taken the love potion, she sings a very funny aria with the chorus. Through Dan’s direction she is basically a jealous unhappy teen, in contrast to the spritely, obliviously happy Aline.

OM: Apt description! Strong, sincerely sprite and oblivious.

BK: But you’ll admit it’s a little strange that Sullivan would give Constance such a gorgeous aria but then dispense with her story line until the end of the operetta when everyone gets back to their rightful pairs.

OM: Well it’s not as tidy as the later operas, for sure. But she ends up with Dr. Daly. All's well that ends well.

Brett Kroeger as Constance with Deborah Connelly as Mrs. Partlett

Brett Kroeger as Constance with Deborah Connelly as Mrs. Partlett

BK: Right, the one she’s pining for in the Act I aria. But in Act II, through the spell of the potion, he’s now matched with Aline and I, Constance, am matched with the ancient Notary, who’s dreadfully hard of hearing. But, not being a jealous, unhappy teen by nature, I have to figure out my own interpretations and then, depending also on what the director’s vision of the character is, I try to incorporate my own humor and build on that to find my own voice through the eyes of the director. I have been lucky that the two past directors I've worked with at Troupers (Dan and also Marian Shulman) have given me a good idea of what they want and let me explore that and build on it. I find that once given a personality to build on, it is easy to become that character throughout the rehearsal period.

TR: I too. When I'm preparing a G&S role, I always read through the entire score before I do anything else, to get an overview of the work. I do this with my G&S bible at my side, The Complete Annotated Gilbert & Sullivan by Ian Bradley.* Then I will watch a DVD or two of past productions, listen to recordings, and if I get very lucky, see the show live. I like to have a tool box of ideas that I can pull from, because when you begin rehearsals, even though you have the entire piece memorized, you need to be flexible about interpretation, based on what your director and your conductor want. You always want to show up for the gig with ideas and opinions of your own, but be flexible enough to change them on the fly.

DR: Same here: Obviously, watching or listening to a performance I’m about to work on gives me a general foundation I can build on. I sing opera & operetta regularly throughout the year, so from a vocal standpoint I don’t deviate much from my routine. As far as developing a sense of the character, it’s good to have a basic understanding of what your character is about, but the stage direction, our movements and our actions may dictate a different approach and interpretation to what may be traditionally expected of my character.

OM: You all have to know that I sit in awe of your artistry, your commitment to singing and to ‘opera’ at all levels and though not a musician or singer myself, I’ve experienced firsthand the coming together of a regional opera company (in Harford County, Maryland), from set construction through rehearsals to final performances. It really is joy to perform.

BK: Absolutely! For me, every opportunity to perform is a joy, especially with a group of talented performers. To be able to create a spectacle together as a company, even when mid-rehearsal you feel like you aren’t going to get it together, and then something magical happens…every time it seems. I find it especially delightful when something that seems to have lost its punch during the rehearsal period sends the audience into guffaws of laughter. I love getting to work with the orchestra and seeing smiles on the faces of the folks in the audience. It’s all very gratifying. Makes all the effort involved totally worth it.

DR: Agreed! I will always remember Pirates of Penzance with Troupers in 2014: It was my first experience singing a lead role in a G&S production (I was Frederic), and the cast and crew were so engaging and fun to work with.  My ventures into musical theatre have been wonderfully fun as well, but, generally speaking, for me it’s the people I get to meet, the bonds we form and the effort that we all put in during rehearsals to make the show the best it can be are where I get the most enjoyment from.

TR: We thrive on it. This summer I'm returning to The Ohio Light Opera for my 3rd festival season. I ADORE working for that company too. The festival runs for 3 months every summer in Wooster, Ohio, and attracts theater lovers from all over the world.  They specialize in operetta and classic musical theatre that is rarely performed elsewhere in the world.

OM: Yes, indeed: I used their recording of Red Mill to prep for the Troupers production.

TR: This summer I’m doing Lilli in Kiss Me, Kate and Gabrielle in La vie parisienne among others. The company basically stages each show in three days, has one day of tech rehearsals, one day of dress rehearsals, and then dovetails rehearsals with the subsequent show, until seven shows are running in repertory. It's the most exhausting but also the most artistically satisfying work I've ever done. Ultimately it's the people that make the experience so special, both the fellow cast mates, who truly give blood, sweat and tears for these shows, and the audience, who is supremely devout, sells out the theater year after year, and showers the company with love and appreciation.  It's magic!

OM: I thank you all for your comments! I look forward to meeting you again at The Sorcerer!

The Troupers Light Opera production of Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Sorcerer is performed at the Norwalk Concert Hall, 125 East Avenue, Norwalk, CT, matinee/evening on April 16 and the same on April 23. Matinee time is 2:30 p.m.; evening is 7:30 p.m. Tickets may be purchased at the company’s website (www.trouperslightopera.org) or by calling 800-838-3006.

* Interested readers: please check out OperaMetro’s page Further Reading for a list of recommended sources about Gilbert, Sullivan, their operas, and their time, of which The Complete Annotated Gilbert & Sullivan by Ian Bradley should be very high on anyone’s list. For the record, Mr. Bradley tells me that he is preparing a revised edition of his magnum opus in celebration of its 20th anniversary. I’ll be curious to see if he adds the two new notes I sent him.

I did not mention, but certainly have not forgotten Brett Kroeger's delightful song revue Over There from December, 2014, but interested readers can read comments and an interview with her from back then below on the page Regional Fourteen Fifteen..  

Also, I didn't have time to write a full discography for The Sorcerer, but, truth is, the two complete D'Oyly Carte recordings (available on CD, two older ones on a Naxos release and the stereo version on Decca) are all fine. I very much like the BBC made for TV production of The Sorcerer too. In spite of their flaws, the BBC series is better than my imagination. 

Support the Troupers! Enjoy!

JRS

Bard performs The Wreckers

Ethel Smyth’s The Wreckers at BardSummerScape 2015

Leon Botstein and his American Symphony Orchestra bring to life a second time Ethel Smyth’s dark English opera The Wreckers, the first in a concert at Avery Fisher Hall back in September, 2007, and now in a run of fully staged performances as part of BardSummerScape 2015 in the 800 seat Sosnoff Theater, a component of the Richard B. Fisher Center for the Performing Arts at Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson, NY. These mark the American Stage Premiere of an opera performed literally only a handful of times since its first night in Leipzig in 1906. Mr. Botstein’s intelligent program notes discuss the factors underlying the opera’s unjust neglect; his strong efforts in the pit underline the word ‘unjust.’

The Wreckers tells the tale of a closed religious sect on the cliffs of Cornwall overlooking the sea. They live on the plunder from cargo ships wrecked on the rocks below. The community believes that God is fully okay with this mode of existence, even to extent that He, in divine revelation one supposes, has granted them permission to douse the lighthouse beacons which would under normal circumstances warn the approaching ships of danger. After a ship is dashed to the rocks, the faithful kill all survivors and harvest the swag.

Set Designer Erhard Rom’s unit set at once suggests the piles of cargo crates culled from the wreckage but also serves as the cliffs and rocks. The agility of the singers on this is frequently tested during the performance. Projections, designed by Hannah Wasileski, add to the atmosphere as well as allow for scenic variation. Particularly effective was the large bonfire in Act II.

Two elements disrupt the harmony in the community. For one thing, there seems to be a dearth of wreckage lately, explained perhaps by God’s displeasure, always a possibility here, or, more likely, by the fact that someone in the community is lighting beacon fires at night to warn the ships about the rocks. For this group it’s a crime punishable by a nasty death.

Then also Thirza, wife of the pastor Pascoe, is having serious second thoughts about the clan’s sanctified mission. She is joined in her dissent by Mark, a young fisherman who has heretofore loved her more or less from afar but now, in Act I, chooses to close the distance by giving her a flower.

Mark and Thirza profess their love in The Wreckers

Mark and Thirza profess their love in The Wreckers

Here’s the problem, apart from the obvious fact that Thirza is the pastor’s wife. Avis, the foxy daughter of the lighthouse keeper Lawrence, thinks Mark still loves her, though he, in a one-liner, claims to forget this. Perhaps he behaved in a way that Avis misinterpreted as love? Who knows. We never see or hear them in love. And then Pascoe, the pastor, commands Avis to return to the collection plate a necklace from the wreckage so it can be sold to feed the faithful.

By the end of Act I, Avis bears ill will to, let’s see, Mark for ditching her, Thirza for receiving his affections in the aforementioned flower, and now Pascoe for wanting the bling back. So, totally without any evidence or corroboration from other wreckers, the little minx denounces Pascoe to all assembled as the beacon lighting traitor, also citing his wife’s revolutionary views about wrecking as tantamount to witchcraft. That’ll learn ‘em!

The first act, replete with large choral numbers and ballads, takes its time laying out all of these threads. In the small Sosnoff Theater the English is fairly easy to understand, but supertitles clarify any misinterpretations. Act II has a lovely prelude evoking the misty cliffs of Cornwall, soon to be followed by an ecstatic love duet between Mark and Thirza a la Tristan und Isolde. Yes there is Wagner in Smyth’s score, and yes she studied music in Leipzig, but she also draws a lot of musical inspiration from her contemporaries, especially Delius and Debussy, as well as Arnold Bax, Frank Bridge, and Granville Bantock. Best advice: savor it as Ethel Smyth’s art alone. Let her speak to you. Playing name-that-tune is a distraction from the present moment.

Louis Otey as Pascoe

Louis Otey as Pascoe

Baritone Louis Otey, who sang Pascoe with the ASO and Botstein in 2007, repeats this central role of the leader nearly betrayed. Otey’s considerable on-stage presence dominates his scenes. Katharine Goeldner is a well-grounded, sincere, passionate Thirza, a solid partner for Neal Cooper’s manly Mark. Make no mistake: the role of Mark requires a heldentenor effort. To Cooper’s credit he rises to the challenge admirably.

Sky Ingram’s Avis stands out from the other community members by her flaunted beauty and vanity. Her silvery voice rises above the fray. The trouser role of Jack is taken by Kendra Broom.

Of the other members of the faith, Lawrence, the lighthouse keeper, is formidably sung by Michael Mayes. Tallan and Harvey, who open the opera with their various comments about drink and the ‘drought’ of new ships, are taken by Dennis Petersen and Peter Van Derick respectively.

The large chorus is under the direction of Chorus Master James Bagwell.

Director Thaddeus Strassberger creates a tense emotional landscape, taking advantage of his players strengths. Thus Thirza and Mark are strong, centered characters, Pascoe is driven, but Lawrence is even more of a zealot, and Avis is a borderline tart. Strassberger also give the chorus behavioral muscle.

This, my sixth opera in as many seasons at BardSummerScape, follows the same path as all of the others. Leon Botstein proves himself to be the master of musical preparation and execution: the cast, chorus and orchestra perform The Wreckers to the highest standards, as if it were one of the more frequently staged operas in the familiar repertory. Conspicuous is the quality, energy and commitment of all concerned.

Performance date: July 26, 2015; photographs by Cory Weaver.

The Wreckers is performed again on the evening of Friday, July 31 @ 7:30 p.m. and on the afternoons of Wednesday, July 29 and Sunday, August 2 @ 2:00 p.m.

Don’t miss it. Bard College is closer to the city you than you think and well worth the trip! And it only rains when you’re indoors.

Well, I exaggerate a little on this last point perhaps...

If you’re one to prepare for the unusual by listening, know that a 1994 commercial recording of a concert performance of The Wreckers can be found on Conifer Classics (2 CDs).

Enjoy the rest of your summer!

JRS

Bel Canto at Caramoor 2015

Bel Canto at Caramoor opens the 2015 opera season with Donizetti’s La favorite.

Saturday night, July 11 marks the opening of Bel Canto at Caramoor with Donizetti’s grand opera, La favorite. Conceived by conductor, scholar and vocal connoisseur Will Crutchfield, Bel Canto at Caramoor has been a regular feature of the Caramoor Center for Music and Arts since 1997. Many stars of today’s opera firmament were first introduced to area audiences under Crutchfield’s baton.

OperaMetro (OM) caught up with Mr. Crutchfield who, as this is written, is literally on the podium in rehearsal. His words were sent via email to my questions, edited and posted here as an ongoing conversation..

Will Crutchfield conducts Bel Canto at Caramoor

Will Crutchfield conducts Bel Canto at Caramoor

OM: Thank you, as always, for talking to me, Will.

WC: You’re welcome of course.

OM: What, in your experience of the work, makes Donizetti’s La favorite a great grand opera?

WC: First, La favorite is actually more compact than what we think of as the full-scale French grand opera.  It's in four acts not five, and even without cuts it is less than three hours of music (I'm not counting intermissions, just playing time).  We are making very minimal cuts so as to hit three hours with a single intermission between the second and third acts.  You would have to butcher Verdi’s Les vêpres siciliennes or Meyerbeer’s Les Huguenots to get them down to that running time, but it's easy with La favorite.  So I think I'd say that Favorite is better described as a progressive 1840-style Italian opera with a ballet stuck in, and a French libretto.

What makes it a great opera is another matter, and the answer is the virtues we’re familiar with from Donizetti's Italian masterpieces:  Great melodies in abundance, spot-on sense of character and conflict.

OM: How does it contrast with his later Dom Sébastien?

WCDom Sébastien is longer and more "French" in its construction.

OM: The tale of Favorite’s patchwork libretto and composition is complex and Donizetti was a busy boy at the time, under pressure from deadlines. Stylistically speaking, do seams show anywhere? 

WC: Seams, no.  Haste, yes occasionally.  Much of the music was composed for the abortive project of L'ange de Nisidabut the switch to La favorite started with a great advantage, which is that Donizetti and Scribe were working in close collaboration on both projects.  So Scribe knew exactly how to construct Favorite to take advantage of the scenes already written.  You never have a sense of being jolted from one thing to the next. 

Where haste shows, I would say, is in some of the transitional passages and recitatives that advance the action to the next big musico-dramatic moment.  It's possible to find these more carefully handled in other Donizetti operas, and here and there I feel the need to adjust the placement of chords or the rhythm of the vocal parts to clean them up.  It's also possible that Donizetti was still getting used to the French language.  One day I want to page through all his French operas in order to see if my hunch about his French is correct.  Favorite (especially the parts written for L'ange de Nisida) was one of the first.

OM: Composers wrote for specific artists in those days: Rosina Stolz and Gilbert Duprez, to name two. The tenor role of Fernand lies quite high. Is his role the reason the opera is infrequently performed?

WC: My guess is that Favorite is performed infrequently today because of the prima donna role, not the tenor role.  Alfredo Kraus and Luciano Pavarotti both loved the part of Fernand and Kraus in particular performed it a quite a lot. It works well for any tenor who is good in, let's say, Faust and Roméo on the French side and Rodolfo and Duke of Mantua on the Italian side. 

But it has been a while since the world has had a full-voiced mezzosoprano who commands attention the way Giulietta Simionato, Fiorenza Cossotto, and Fedora Barbieri did in their heydays.  All three of them sang La favorite repeatedly (in Italian translation, of course).  In Italy, it was absolutely a repertory piece up until their retirements - not a rarity like Anna Bolena or Roberto Devereux.  And in France it survived much better than any of Verdi's French operas up until around the time of World War One, after which I suppose it began to seem old-fashioned.

OMAnge si pur, Fernand’s aria, is justly well known, but my experience of the opera is that there are many other fine numbers. What other vocal numbers should members of the audience perk up their ears for?

WC: This opera is chock full of "hits."  Both of the main baritone solos have been recorded by practically all the major baritone stars of the early 20th century, both French and Italian.  The mezzo aria is still a concert staple today.  The tenor has another aria, in Act I, which has also been done often and impressively as a separate excerpt.

OM: Oh yes, I love that tenor aria in Act I. I feel like it gets lost as does Tonio’s soulful aria in the final act of La Fille du régiment in comparison to the more familiar showpiece in Act I.

WC: The bass doesn't have a formal aria, but has two very impressive solos that form a part of larger numbers - especially a choral prayer in the last act that is one of the simplest and most beautiful things Donizetti ever wrote. The great Ezio Pinza recorded it in his very first sessions.

In a way, I guess I'm saying that the opera itself is not really so much a rarity as others we have done - but what is a rarity, and an important one, is the chance to hear it in its original French form.  It's a long story, but - amongst the various transformations of French operas for the Italian stage, the Italian text of La Favorita is one of the worst.  Maybe the very worst if we're limiting the discussion to masterpieces.

OM: Tell me about your singers for this Bel Canto performance.

Clementine Margaine is Leonore in La favorite

Clementine Margaine is Leonore in La favorite

WC: There are some important Caramoor debuts:  Clémentine Margaine is a wonderfully rich-voiced exciting French mezzosoprano. She sings Carmen everywhere; she’s already booked to sing it at the Met in the near-ish future. But there is much more to her than Carmen, believe me!

Santiago Ballerini sings Fernand

Santiago Ballerini sings Fernand

Santiago Ballerini, an Argentinian tenor very much in the Alfredo Kraus mold with an effortless top range and a great feeling for traditional operatic melody and expression.  Isabel Gaudì is a charming Spanish coloratura as Inès. I first heard her when I was conducting at the Pesaro Rossini Festival last year.  The lower male voices are already Caramoor favorites:  Stephen Powell as Alfonso IX of Castile and Daniel Mobbs as the Father Superior, Balthazar.

OM: Thank you Will as always for your insightful commentary. And best wishes to you and your daughter Victoria for the upcoming Dialogues!

WC: Thank you. Again, a pleasure.

Photos: Nicolas Savine, Gabe Palacio, and others.

Bel Canto at Caramoor presents Donizetti’s La favorite on Saturday evening July 11 in the Venetian Theatre; the performance starts at 8 p.m. There will be one intermission.

On Saturday July 25 Bel Canto at Caramoor presents Poulenc’s Les Dialogues des Carmélites in concert, semi-staged under the direction of Victoria Crutchfield. The program begins at 8 p.m.

The Caramoor Center for Music and Arts is located in Katonah, NY. To order tickets, call the Box Office at 914.232.1252 or visit www.caramoor.org.

Note: some historical Addenda for Donizetti’s La favorite are posted on the top of the page Addenda.

Summer is here, no complaints!

JRS