H.M.S. Pinafore performed by the Troupers Light Opera

At last, happily, Troupers Light Opera has found a nearly perfect venue, one that enhances rather than detracts from their efforts. The newly renovated Wall Street Theater at 71 Wall Street in Norwalk, CT, is a real gem! If it’s one of the reasons this season’s show has a particular gleam to it, so be it. Good move.

To be fair, Gilbert and Sullivan’s H.M.S. Pinafore also gleams. It’s a brilliant piece, crafted by the dynamic duo at the beginning of their very best stuff. Gilbert’s characters are well defined types, on the surface serious and straight laced, apparently well grounded in the everyday reality of position, order, and responsibility. But not so far below that surface there flows that silly, satiric, topsy turvy current of contradiction teaming with Gilbert’s peevish pets and other easy targets. His lyrics are endlessly witty and clever; Sullivan’s music is simply first rate! Do it well and you bring in the new fans.

The Troupers do it particularly well this year, top to bottom. The stage action is crisp and efficient under the insightful direction of Emily Trudeau. Some new business, even interesting asides, brought laughs: Sir Joseph never gets the Captain’s name right and Ralph Rackstraw (“the smartest lad in all the fleet”) sits apart from the others and reads. The upper deck (actually spotlighted now and then) brought a special focus to those above-the-action timeless reflections and timely revelations.

  Frank Sisson as Captain Corcoran and Brett Kroeger as Josephine

Frank Sisson as Captain Corcoran and Brett Kroeger as Josephine

Brett Kroeger as Josephine sings beautifully throughout. No surprise here, for she conspicuously enjoys each moment and the role indeed fits her voice like a glove. Equally important is that she creates a portrait of such an one who transitions from the uncertain, emotionally conflicted daughter to the sure and certain young woman in love. Throughout she tastefully channels her inner Carol Burnett to great effect and plays the add-on bits well: Trudeau throws in several small travel trunks, luggage no well-to-do Captain’s daughter should even think of eloping without, perhaps to suggest that even if Josephine is really on board with the idea of marrying Ralph, she hasn’t completely thought through the parameters of the hasty exit and ceremony on the fly. Big smiles, brava!

  Alan Briones as Ralph confronted by Bob Scrofani as Dick Deadeye, Brett Kroeger in background

Alan Briones as Ralph confronted by Bob Scrofani as Dick Deadeye, Brett Kroeger in background

Tenor Alan Briones, new to Troupers, takes the role of Lohengrin in the curtain raiser, Victor Herbert’s The Magic Knight, and then that of Ralph Rackstraw, the romantic lead in Pinafore. Briones sings with a sweet, clean voice, bringing reason, sincerity, even ardor to a role that sometimes is played as just a good lookin’ but on the whole empty headed fellow, elevated discourse in Gilbert’s dialogue notwithstanding. Briones is a fit and able seaman all around. Welcome!

Veteran Trouper David Schancupp sings Sir Joseph Porter, a role he has sung several times before. He always brings an enjoyable wry wit and a twinkle to his G & S roles. A pleasure, welcome back, David. And Frank Sisson, as Captain Corcoran, is a steady, positive force in the cast. One can’t help smiling when he is on stage. Porter and Corcoran are the clueless persons in power, an oft used character type in the G & S repertory. It’s fun to watch two successful seasoned lawyers transform themselves into such roles.

The rest of the able seamen include the triangular Dick Deadeye, created by Bob Scrofani, and Bill Bobstay, essayed by newcomer Erik Contzius, these two among the major male voices of the performance. Scrofani’s Deadeye teeters on loathsome, well acted by Scrofani actually, knowing his personality in real life. Contzius also was the King in The Magic Knight to great effect; Neil Flores was Bob Becket.

Surrounding the aforementioned clueless persons in power are the practical and well grounded Little Buttercup, a bumboat woman, sung by Wendy Falconer, and the well heeled and equally well grounded Cousin Hebe, main cousin of Sir Joseph, sung by also newcomer Suzanne Rossini. Gilbert enjoyed the “gypsy” character who reads destinies, who knows the twisted back story behind the affairs to that point in the drama, who then at the end reveals all. Falconer’s Buttercup, on team Corcoran, makes the most of her revelation, which, at least on the Pinafore, just in time for the finale, turns the structure of birth and rank on its head; Rossini’s Hebe, on team Porter, serves as the voice of reason and gives closure to Sir Joseph’s status as a single person. Not all of Gilbert’s trains of admiring women are just there for the ride.

  Finale of  HMS Pinafore : Frank Sisson, Wendy Falconer, Suzanne Rossini, David Schancupp, Brett Kroeger, Alan Briones

Finale of HMS Pinafore: Frank Sisson, Wendy Falconer, Suzanne Rossini, David Schancupp, Brett Kroeger, Alan Briones

The chorus for Pinafore was animated and demonstrative, particularly the Women’s Chorus, but the Men’s Chorus were lively in their own dedicated way.

The novelty of the curtain raiser, Victor Herbert’s The Magic Knight (instead of the usual Trial by Jury) brought broad smiles. It’s a thirty minute spoof of Richard Wagner’s Grand Romantic Opera Lohengrin, complete with medieval costumes, swords and the necessary swan. Miran Robarts’ Elsa von Brabant is the ditzy daughter of the Duke (deceased, therefore not appearing in this production, not even as a ghost). Elsa rather compulsively sings dazzling coloratura cadenzas, at one point alluding directly to Lucia, a similarly compulsed soprano character in Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor. Robarts sparkles entertainingly. Elsa is accused of dispatching her young brother, as in murdering, not as in packing off to prep school. The false charges are brought by Frederick and his consort, the conniving Ortrud, here billed as The comic baritone and The wicked mezzo respectively. Nicole McQuade created a commanding presence, especially as paired with the more diminutive Rob Strom as Frederick. Most of the spoofs on Wagner’s music came with the arrival of Lohengrin (Alan Briones, who sang the line Mein lieber Schwann straight out); other allusions were brief patches of signature themes and dark tones.

  Rob Strom, Nicole McQuade, Miran Robarts, and Erik Contzius in  Magic Knight

Rob Strom, Nicole McQuade, Miran Robarts, and Erik Contzius in Magic Knight

Erik Kramer led the Troupers Light Opera Orchestra to great effect overall. The strings, especially, were in synch and animated, and coordination with the stage was consistent. Welcome to Troupers, Erik!

As for the new Wall Street Theater, please note the following: it is beautifully restored and spanking new inside. The Troupers double bill of The Magic Knight/H.M.S. Pinafore fits perfectly on the stage, given the size of the cast, actually the best fit since the bygone days of St. Luke’s. The sets, still not lavish but attractive, are not dwarfed by it; the colors of the costumes and drops are greatly enhanced by the lighting. Seating is comfortable, it’s a small theater, so almost every seat is the best in the house, and the sight lines are most acceptable. The acousitcs are superb; the voices in the performance were unamplified. Summary: The Wall Street Theater is an excellent venue for Troupers. Check it out.

  The Wall Street Theater

The Wall Street Theater

“Such an one” is from Pirates of Penzance, not a typo.

Review performance: April 2, 2017.

Photos: courtesy of Troupers Light Opera

Troupers Light Opera presents The Magic Knight and H.M.S. Pinafore on Saturday evening at 7:30 p.m. and a Sunday matinee at 2:30 on the weekend of April 8 and 9 at the newly renovated Wall Street Theater at 71 Wall Street in Norwalk, CT.

For tickets, please go to their website: www.trouperslightopera.org 

Parking, it turns out, is no longer a mystery. Just I never looked on the Troupers' website! Recommended is the Yankee Doodle Garage a block and a half from the Theater. Rates are really reasonable. On Sunday I found a spot on Isaac Street, thought myself lucky…but there were a few spots across Wall Street as well.

Enjoy the show, embrace Gilbert and Sullivan! Support local opera! Likely one of your neighbors is in it!

J.

Troupers to perform H.M.S. Pinafore in Norwalk

In this, their 72nd season of performing (mostly) Gilbert and Sullivan’s delightful masterpieces in local venues in Fairfield County, the Troupers Light Opera offers the famous pair’s H.M.S. Pinafore, preceded by Victor Herbert’s one act spoof of Wagner’s Lohengrin entitled The Magic Knight, this being completely new to the company’s repertory. New too is the stage: Troupers will perform in the recently refurbished Wall Street Theater @ 71 Wall Street, Norwalk. Days are in the first two weekends in April; see below for details.

OperaMetro (OM) chatted with four of the Troupers via email or telephone, it being too windy for smoke signals. As customary on these pages, their responses are arranged as a conversation, as if we were sharing observations during a rehearsal break, as we used to do, remember? back in the old cold winter days. Hey wait! Who's the guy with the clipboard?

Jim Cooper (JC) is the more or less the patriarch of the company, filling various roles both onstage and off, however this is said with no slight intended for the several other seasoned veterans of TLO still faithfully and actively involved. Returning Miran Robarts (MR) sings Elsa in Magic Knight; also returning Brett Kroeger (BK) sings Josephine, eligible daughter of Captain Corcoran of the H.M.S. Pinafore; a newcomer, making his Company debut and all that, Alan Briones (AB) sings Lohengrin, the Swan Knight in the first, and Ralph Rackstraw, the smartest lad in all the fleet, in the second. The following is more or less what we said.

  Cast of  H.M.S. PInafore : Neil Flores, Wendy Falconer, Suzanne Rossini, Melissa Anderson, Brett Kroeger, and Guy Stretton

Cast of H.M.S. PInafore: Neil Flores, Wendy Falconer, Suzanne Rossini, Melissa Anderson, Brett Kroeger, and Guy Stretton

OM: Last season, Jim, Troupers performed Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Sorcerer. Next in line in the glorious canon is H.M.S. Pinafore. Conscious decision? So next season Pirates? Or is it only a coincidence we’re getting Pinafore this year?

JC: We on the board just decided it was time for Pinafore, so no, the sequence in the G & S canon was not a guiding factor in our choice. And most probably not Pirates next season, as we’ve recently done that one.

OM: But as long as they’re set back-to-back, season after season, a comparison of Pinafore to the earlier Sorcerer is instructive, si?

JC: Pinafore was their first full length really satiric operetta. It makes fun of rank, class, the Royal Navy. The real life model for Sir Joseph Porter K.C.B, commander of the Royal Navy, was a bookstore magnate W.H. Smith who’d never been to sea. Audiences back then knew the reference certainly.

OM: Sort of like today appointing someone who has no real experience in the position’s purview to a Cabinet post.

JC: Exactly.

OM: Gilbert would have pounced on that like a cat on a mouse.

JC: Plus, the tunes in Pinafore are uniformly energetic. Josephine's arias are really top notch, not just parodies. And Dick Deadeye commenting on social equality as the "common man" (Gilbert in disguise of course) was a really creative touch. The dialog is tighter and more pointed. Trial by Jury was their first successful piece, a lot of fun packed into 30 minutes, but the satire is more diffuse and the music, while very pleasant, is easily topped by Pinafore. And I feel that The Sorcerer was more of a sing-spiel style with, yes, the true-love-clashing-with-rank plot, but it’s sort of muddied by parallel plot with J.W. Wells, the Sorcerer of the title.

OM: For The Sorcerer I think the musical theater community, Richard D’Oyly Carte among them, charged the pair (and others) to establish a national opera tradition in England, home grown compositions to stand up to the imports, specifically Offenbach’s operettas. And Sullivan, at the time England’s most promising young composer, probably took the charge more seriously.

JC: Sorcerer was relatively successful and Sullivan’s music is most respectable, but it never hit that funny bone in audiences like Pinafore did. Gilbert’s satire is far more pointed in Pinafore, and his dialog is spot on, crisp, taut. And, as I said, Sullivan’s music is far more alive. Everything about Pinafore is more entertaining and funny.

OM: The characters have a different pulse too.

JC: Right. Pinafore requires the ingénue soprano, Josephine, for whom Sullivan has written two excellent, lovely arias, arias which are both real showpieces as well as send-ups of operatic tradition. Then there’s a comic contralto Little Buttercup, who ties the plot together, a comic baritone role Sir Joseph Porter, the lyric tenor Ralph Rackstraw, the romantic hero, an upstanding baritone Captain Corcoran, and the bass, the curmudgeon Dick Deadeye.

OM: It’s a beast of a name, Dick Deadeye.

JC: Aye. Some of the role-types were developed from Sorcerer, elaborated in Pinafore and Pirates, then the later plots, throughout the canon, were cobbled to suit the singers. Gilbert and Sullivan were, after all, writing for the D’Oyly Carte Opera Company, an established troupe of singers who performed specifically these operas. Pinafore is where Gilbert and Sullivan first really come together.

OM: You’re not doing Trial by Jury as the curtain raiser.

   The Magic Knight  cast includes Nicole McQuade, Rob Strom, Erik Contzius, and Miran Robarts

The Magic Knight cast includes Nicole McQuade, Rob Strom, Erik Contzius, and Miran Robarts

JC: We first decided that we’d done Trial by Jury, the usual curtain raiser for Pinfore, too many times. We wanted something else. Cox and Box has three male roles, no females, and while Sullivan’s early one act trifle The Zoo is pleasant enough, it didn't provide a real solo opportunity for a leading soprano like The Magic Knight does. This way, we get Miran Robarts' ridiculously charming take on Elsa and then Brett Kroeger's marvellous Jospehine.

OM: I know you’re a real fan of Victor Herbert, Jim.

JC: Yes. We did The Red Mill, as you know.

OM: You’re responsible for the musical coordination and Marian Shulman is doing the stage direction for The Magic Knight, as you two were for Thespis this November past; Eric Kramer conducts and Emily Trudeau directs H.M.S. Pinafore. New to the Troupers?

JC: Right.

  MIran Robarts is Elsa von Brabant in  The Magic Knight

MIran Robarts is Elsa von Brabant in The Magic Knight

OM: Okay, Miran, your turn. Tell me about Herbert’s Elsa von Brabant.

MR: Ah, Elsa! Well for sure she’s not as dreary as Wagner’s Elsa. You could plop her in the middle of any plot and the only thing she’d care about is singing pretty cadenzas. Anything that prevents her from doing so is but a distracting annoyance for her!

OM: I think our readers will be relieved to know it’s not Wagner, wonderful as the real Lohengrin is in its own fach. How do the text and vocal writing in G & S differ from text of The Magic Knight and Herbert’s music, since you've done the former, now doing the latter?

MR: Hmmmm… that’s a tougher question to answer. I would say that with G & S there is always a witty socio-political undercurrent to the text, which gives it an extra zing. This is not necessarily the case with Victor Herbert. However both Sullivan and Herbert write music that is just glorious and, especially for a soprano, a real joy to sing.

OM: Herbert opened the doors to several other great American composers. Any others you particularly like to sing?

MR: I would say that Lerner and Loewe’s works dovetail nicely with Herbert’s style... Camelot comes to mind!

OM: Okay, more knights.

MR: I’ve also enjoyed singing the Sabre Song from Sigmund Romberg’s The Desert Song.

OM: I look forward to The Magic Knight, Miran. Best wishes.

MR: Thank you.

  Alan Briones and Brett Kroeger as Ralph and Josephine

Alan Briones and Brett Kroeger as Ralph and Josephine

OM: Brett Kroeger, you’re up. Tell me about Josephine.

BK: Sure! For starters, it’s set higher vocally than Constance’s range.

OM: From The Sorcerer.

BK: Right, but it fits my voice really well. I’m having no trouble with the vocal line, no strain. Sullivan writes so well for the voice: they are real ‘arias’ in the operatic sense. Fun to sing, too. I had worked on them prior to the Troupers’ decision to do Pinafore.

OM: What’s Josephine like as a person?

BK: She’s a late teen type of romantic. I feel that she’s known no other kind of life apart from having a Captain as a father, with all of its wealth and expectations. But her feelings for Ralph are new, unsettling, even wonderful were it not for her father’s plans to marry her to Sir Joseph.

OM: But once she accepts Ralph’s affections and intentions, she gets crafty.

BK: A little. She seems still to some degree focused on what she’ll lose by going with her heart over her reason. Our Director Emily Trudeau has some fresh ideas. We’re still working out the details.

OM: Thank you, Brett!

BK: Thank you, always a pleasure!

OM: Alan Briones, welcome!

AB: Thank you!

OM: Actually your debut performance with Troupers will be in The Magic Knight! Lohengrin, no less. Not many lyric tenors can say they're making a company debut as Lohengrin. I must say I’m intrigued. But let’s talk about Ralph Rackstraw, a much bigger and I suspect more elegant part. Tell me about yourself.

AB: It’s my first G & S show and I’m very excited to be exploring this repertory at last. I started singing in the children’s chorus at Taconic Opera at about nine years old. Got the opera bug, studied the tenor repertory. In many ways the transition from opera to G & S is not so difficult, meaning it doesn’t feel far from what I’m performing on either side of it this season. I’m singing Nemorino with the Hudson Opera after this: he and Ralph are close cousins musically, maybe Ralph is not exactly from the tradition of an Italian bel canto opera buffa like L’Elisir d’Amore, but overall the singing technique is not greatly different.

OM: Well, Sullivan was steeped in those scores and Gilbert knew the style certainly. L’Elisir ‘s Dr. Dulcamara is even parodied, patter song words and musical style, in The Sorcerer. But Ralph is not Nemorino.

AB: No. He could be played as sort of a stock lover character, but I find him more complex the more I speak his lines and listen to the music Sullivan gives him. There is some interesting stuff here. For instance, I feel he’s somehow, somewhere aware that he is of a class different from the rest, even different from Sir Joseph. Our director Emily Trudeau and I are exploring this. Listen to what he has to say: it seems out of place, elevated, more purposeful, all very intelligently put together.

OM: Gilbert intentionally makes Ralph’s language, especially in his declaration of love to Josephine, far more ‘cultured’ and ‘elevated,’ certainly more than his messmates, but also more than the Captain. Absurd and funny that one as ‘lowly’ as Ralph would speak that way, given his nurture and regardless of his nature.

AB: It’s over the top, of course, but I’m wondering if the words are actually sort of natural, natural in a way that is mysterious even to him. I’ll bet he sometimes has to watch what he says.

OM: He sort of does watch it: after all that long run of over-the-top dialogue is with Josephine, not with the other sailors. Do you think she brings it out of him?

AB: Maybe. He can’t marry the woman he wants, the woman he can relate to, but it feels right to want this relationship, not wrong as he would have been taught as a common lowling. I’ll bet he knows he is better. After all, he can see incompetence all around him. He’s certainly not fooled by Sir Joseph.

OM: So the changing of rank at Buttercup’s last minute revelation confirms what Ralph has been feeling all along.

AB: Something like that.

OM: I’ll be curious to see if this take is evident in the staging. Best wishes to you!

AB: Thank you.

Other seasoned Troupers, some in photos above, some not include Rob Strom, David Schancupp, a returning Trouper from a few seasons past, Frank Sisson, Wendy Falconer, Suzanne Rossini, Bob Scrofani, Nicole McQuade, Rob Strom, Erik Contzius, John Hoover, Bill Abbott, John Matilaine, Guy Stretton, Rosa Parrotta, Jennifer Wallace, and Melissa Anderson.

Troupers Light Opera presents The Magic Knight and H.M.S. Pinafore on Saturday evenings at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday matinees at 2:30 on the weekends of April 1, 2 and 8, 9. The new venue is the Wall Street Theater at 71 Wall Street in Norwalk, CT. Productions are performed with period costumes and full orchestra.

For tickets, please go to their website: www.trouperslightopera.org 

Couldn't say about parking for the Wall Street Theater, as I usually do...find it when I get there, I guess. (I sound like Dorothy...and no, we're not in Kansas.)

Afterthoughts: Here’s the deal, Sparkie: Broadway’s great comedy team Joe Weber and Lou Fields established the Weber and Fields’ Music Hall, mostly for low-brow fare, vaudeville, burlesques, and so on. Herbert was on a roll with The Red Mill; he and Weber had become friends and decided to collaborate on a new show to be mounted in the Music Hall on Christmas, 1906. It was Dream City, listed as a “dramatic pipe with two puffs,” the plot of which involves one Wilhelm Dinglebender, a farmer out in the sticks of Long Island, who is hoodwinked by the fast talking J. Billington Holmes to be a part of a scheme to build a new town, complete with an opera house. Dinglebender (played by Weber speaking in an outrageous Dutch accent) has a dream in which he’s trapped at a performance of an opera in the new house. He’s so completely disillusioned by the performance that he refuses to sign on the dotted line. The second act is The Magic Knight, the short opera of the dream, Herbert’s spoof of Wagner’s Lohengrin.

But figuring that even back then the rest of the everyday world had not seen Lohengrin at the Met or anywhere else on the planet, Weber wanted the opera to be a detached act, probably so as not to distract attention from or interrupt his comic routines. Reviews hailed The Magic Knight as “high art” and “a triumph of musical fooling.” To quote instead of paraphrasing Gerald Bordman: “…the Lohengrin burlesque, in capable hands, could be hilarious. Lohengrin (a “professional rescuer of distressed maidens”) arrives in a cab drawn by a swan. To the hero’s Mein lieber Schwan Frederick (Ortrud’s hen-pecked uncle) can only respond ‘Quack, quack.’ [later, same page] “Time and again Herbert took Wagnerian airs and subtly twisted them into hints of popular tunes.” Quotes are from Gerald Bordman’s American Musical Theatre (Oxford University Press, 1978, p. 224).

Best advice for preparation for The Magic Knight: search the Internet for a synopsis of Wagner’s opera to catch at least some of the jokes in the text. For instance, referring to the cab drawn by a swan (above), in the opera, Lohengrin disembarks on the river bank from a barque drawn by a great swan, and, polite fellow that he is, says ‘thanks’ to ‘my beloved Swan,’ these words being in fact his first utterance. Swans first, and he is, after all, the Swan Knight. The famous Wedding March, frequently heard at the bride’s entrance in weddings of yesteryear, is straight from Act III of Lohengrin. (Bets are solid this tune is quoted somewhere in the Herbert score!)

Certainly listening to the whole opera Lohengrin is an option, but, unless you're the compulsively erudite type, I think it's better to sit back and enjoy Herbert’s music rather than spend hours upon hours trying to get yourself primed to play ‘name that tune’ through a trifle lasting only about 30 minutes plus. 'Subtly twisted airs,' remember? Time is short; Lohengrin is long. And not particularly funny either.

Enjoy Troupers! Support local opera. 

J.

Sir John in Love at Bronx Opera

A jolly afternoon, a ‘happening, as we used to say, took place this past Sunday (1/22/17) at the Kaye Playhouse @ Hunter College in Manhattan where the Bronx Opera played its final performance of Sir John in Love, arguably the finest and grandest opera of English composer Ralph Vaughan Williams. It is fitting that it received such loving treatment here, for the opera itself and the late Vaughan Williams himself are significant parts of the Company’s history: this was the third BxO production of Sir John in Love in their 50 seasons, and indeed it was an honor to witness the Company’s Artistic Director and co-founder Michael Spierman conduct it. ‘Twas he who made it happen then, as it happened today.

Critical to the jollies of the day were a spirited cast and crisp stage direction by Benjamin Spierman, all played out in the intimate Kaye. The singers, all of them, seemed to embrace and enjoy their roles, their music, and their colleagues on stage and off. Small gestures and expressions spoke pages; audience reactions, encouraging them on, were duly registered and reciprocated, creating a real artistic synergy. The magic of live performance lies in extended moments like these.

Sir John is Love is drawn primarily from Shakespeare’s The Merry Wives of Windsor, which, as most opera fans know well, is also the source for Verdi’s Falstaff. But RVW’s Sir John covers a greater range of the source characters than the Verdi: in the RVW we have three rascals attached to Falstaff, not two, and we have two, count ‘em, two unwanted suitors for sweet Anne Page, but only one for Nannetta Ford in the Verdi (though in both the desired young suitor, the love interest for Anne/Nannetta is a tenor named Fenton). And then there are a few other Windsor folks who in the Verdi are more or less silent. Or simply left out.

Central to the plot is Sir John Falstaff, sung vigorously by a grand, larger-than-life Benjamin Bloomfield, who, contrary to his size, moves with remarkable lightness. These touches made the rapturous composition of his love song, his “seduction” of Alice Ford and his ensuing narrow escape in the basket all the more humorous. Bloomfield’s eyes and face reveal a wry, playful soul. The three rascals variously by his side are Bardolph (Albert Neal), Nym (Will Berman), and Pistol (John Cossio), each well taken.

  Barbee Monk sings Anne Page in  Sir John in Love

Barbee Monk sings Anne Page in Sir John in Love

Of the Windsor families, the Pages (not the Fords as in Verdi) are tangled in the young love story running as an undercurrent beneath the titled plot. Anne Page (Barbee Monk) is the daughter of George (Nick Miller) and Meg Page (Mary-Hollis Hundley). Though she feigns good girl compliance, Anne is really in love with young Fenton (Tom Mulder), a gentleman at Court. Monk and Mulder are tender together in their fine duets, contributing a great deal to the surrounding warmth and joy bubbling up frequently from the score.

  Mary-Hollis Hundley is Meg Page

Mary-Hollis Hundley is Meg Page

Hundley is a merry merry wife, ‘merry’ intentionally said here twice, a real pleasure to watch on stage, especially with her co-conspirator Alice Ford (Hannah Spierman). These two play off each other quite well, to wit in their “cuckoo” duet, in their Letter Scene, in the plotting of the trap for Falstaff in Windsor park, and so on. They both contributed lusty singing throughout: a lot of smiles for them all afternoon.

  Hannah Spierman is Alice Ford

Hannah Spierman is Alice Ford

Frank Ford (taken by baritone Jack Anderson White) is a jealous husband as written, but he also adds much to the character in his baiting of Falstaff in the Garter Inn Scene. Mrs. Quickly (Noragh Devlin) is more clearly mercenary as staged here than often portrayed in the Verdi. Yet Devlin was also a sensitive sort to the rightness of the love between Anne and Fenton, regardless of the plans of the elder Pages. Devlin creates a pleasing character altogether, as does Paul Khoury as the Host of the Garter Inn. A good man too, he takes Fenton’s side, at one point encouraging the merry villagers to support the lovers in song. Vaughan Williams writes so well for a chorus, especially here.

Dr. Caius (Ernest Jackson) is the easily enraged French physician who seeks Anne’s hand through Mrs. Page. Jackson was correctly stubborn and mercurial in his temper. His servant Jack Rugby (Nathan Murphy) follows obediently.

Slender (Kim Feltkamp) is the simple lad who seeks Anne’s hand through Mr. Page. Feltkamp fawns at the thought of Anne, surrounded by his stressed out servant Peter Simple (Max Avery Vitagliano), Robert Shallow, a country justice (Christopher Trapani) and Sir Hugh Evans, a Welsh parson (John Callison). Evans cuts a dandy character, compared to Trapani’s rough justice and Feltkamp’s simplicity.

The production was double cast and several of the chorus members served as covers for solo roles. Conspicuous in the small theater was how well the chorus moved together and how much they seemed to enjoy performing with each other.

Costume Designer Maureen Klein created relatively simple but believable wardrobes for the cast, some more special than others. Meganne George’s sets were also simple, yet evocative, particularly the dwelling exteriors and the Windsor Park scene, enhanced by G. Benjamin Swope’s lighting. As I say, it all added to a jolly day.

Finally to see Sir John in Love on stage, an opera I’ve known for decades only through recordings, was an opportunity not be passed up. When I say that I regret not seeing the other cast for the Bronx Opera’s Sir John in Love, I mean I wish I'd seen a second performance, in addition to this one, not instead of the cast I saw. I have to think the other cast was equally wonderful.

It was a pleasure to meet David Morrow, the Falstaff in the other cast, face to face in the lobby. OperaMetro interviewed him earlier this month along with Ben Bloomfield and again Director Ben Spierman: please see the post below this for the complete text...in fact, while you're on the matter, the post below the interview with the singers has an interview with Ben and his father Michael Spierman concerning the BxO’s 50th season…Wow, it’s been a great rush.

Follow the Bronx Opera! Check ‘em out!!

Support your local opera wherever you are. It’s our operatic future.

JRS

Sir John in Love at Bronx Opera

Headlining their 50th anniversary season, the Bronx Opera stages Ralph Vaughan Williams’ Sir John in Love, this for the third time in the company’s history. OperaMetro (OM) chatted with Benjamin Spierman (BS), the Director of this first production of the season, later joined by bass baritones Ben Bloomfield (BB) and David Morrow (DM), who alternate in the run as Sir John Falstaff. The Bronx Opera presents Sir John in Love on the weekends of January 14/15 and 21/22. The following is a reasonably accurate transcript of our conversations, which actually occurred on separate occasions. First, our Director:

OM: Ben Spireman, thank you for talking with me again.

BS: My pleasure.

  Ben Spierman, director of Bronx Opera's  Sir John in Love

Ben Spierman, director of Bronx Opera's Sir John in Love

OM: We’re very much looking forward to Sir John in Love. Hinted at in our first conversation is that the Bronx Opera has almost a family relationship with the operas of Ralph Vaughan Williams. How did this relationship evolve?

BS: One of the first British operas the Company performed was Benjamin Britten’s Albert Herring, which got my father to look into other opera composers from the UK. At the same time we were working with Eugene Green, a bass baritone, wonderful artist, he often sang with the Met on tour, did lots of regional opera, and so on. He became a real fixture around here, part of the family, so to speak. My father knew of Vaughan Williams’ music, the well-known symphonies of course, especially the Sea Symphony, but also the Serenade to Music, the songs and the hymns. He decided to do Sir John in Love in our ’77-’78 season. Eugene was our first Falstaff, and also our second in 1988. In between we staged Hugh the Drover in 1982, again in 1997, and then just recently The Poisoned Kiss.

OM: Your father [Michael Spierman] is conducting Sir John in Love this season, as in the past.

BS: That’s correct. He very much loves this score.

OM: For the Bronx Opera 50th anniversary post here (which resides just below this one!) you provided OperaMetro with a photo of him and Ursula Vaughan Williams, the composer’s widow.

BS: Yes, as the relationship between the Company and the operas of Vaughan Williams deepened, my father sought an interview with her. She was a truly remarkable person, very much alive, loquacious, erudite, insightful, very open. Ursula wrote poetry, added a scene in the revision of Hugh the Drover, contributed several rewrites and edits of The Poisoned Kiss. She talked of Vaughan Williams’ experiences during the Second World War and the end of his life. It was very exciting for my father to make the personal connection.

OM: Now that you mention it, I’ve seen her name as an author of the program notes for several RVW EMI CDs.

BS: She was very much involved with his creative life as well as being his wife.

OM: It sounds like a very special relationship. So tell me, what’s special about Sir John in Love?

BS: Well it’s very ENGLISH. After all, the English are very protective of their Shakespeare…

OM: As are the Germans with their Goethe…

BS: Right. Vaughan Williams took more material, plot, text, etc. straight from the actual play, but also from other sources by Shakespeare and from elsewhere as well, all in English of course.

OM: Vaughan Williams includes more of the play’s characters.

BS: Right, there are eighteen roles in Sir John. Only four are female.

OM: Many of these folks are singing together in various combinations for brief scenes, quickly on stage, then off again, sometimes two small groups singing aside one another. From a director’s standpoint, it must be a bear to stage.

BS: It’s very difficult, in fact from the sixty or so operas I’ve tackled, Sir John is not THE most complex, but certainly up there in the top five on a scale of complexity. It easily deceives one: the tonality, the meter, the texture, and the orchestration don’t scream ‘modern music’ at you, not like some other compositions from that era, but the characterizations are subtle. Yes, there are many people popping in and out, most of the scenes are not very long, some only 20 seconds or so and the several plot lines are advanced in bits and pieces. The challenge for a director is to keep all aspects clearly portrayed, certainly highlight the important moments, but at the same time give every character his or her due. Plus the text is mostly from the Shakespeare, i.e., not exactly every day English.

  Benjamin Bloomfield to sing Falstaff on January 14 and 22

Benjamin Bloomfield to sing Falstaff on January 14 and 22

OM: Let’s talk about Sir John Falstaff. Gentlemen, shall we? Is this the first time you’re performing Sir John in the Vaughan Williams on stage, and for this production in which performances are you singing?

BB: Yes, it’s my first time for Sir John, I’m opening on Saturday evening, January 14, then the matinee on Sunday, January 22.

DM: Yes, also my first time for Sir John, I’m singing the Sunday matinee, January 15 and then the evening of Saturday, January 21.

OM: There are a few other prominent Falstaffs in opera, as you know. Have either of you had experience with these and, if so, how do they differ from the John Falstaff we find in Vaughan Williams?

DM: I’ve sung John Falstaff in Antonio Salieri’s Falstaff. It’s a respectable work, actually, not Mozart of course, few things are, but it’s respectable. The production was updated to the 1980s, so it was a lot of fun to do. Falstaff in the Salieri comes more directly from Italian opera buffa, at that time Paisiello or Cimarosa, which in turn came from the Italian Commedia tradition. Falstaff is sort of a braggart, loud and self-centered like Pantalone and Capitano…a mix of these types.

  David Morrow to sing Falstaff on January 15 and 21

David Morrow to sing Falstaff on January 15 and 21

OM: Antonio Salieri’s Falstaff is from 1799. I know of at least one CD recording, but then there’s a respectable staging of the opera at the Schwetzinger Festspiele in 1995, released on an ArtHaus Musik DVD. John Del Carlo is Falstaff. Then there’s Otto Nicolai’s Die lüstigen Weiber von Windsor is from 1849 and, of course, Verdi’s Falstaff from 1893...Ben Bloomfield?

BB: I have only a passing acquaintance with Nicolai’s opera, but I’ve performed Verdi’s Falstaff in concert before and I’ll be doing the role in Pittsburgh this spring in a staged production.

OM: Just quickly to add another reference: Nicolai’s Falstaff in Die lüstigen Weiber von Windsor comes from the tradition of Mozart’s Osmin, Beethoven’s Rocco, Lortzing’s Van Bett, even Wagner’s Daland. It’s a lovely opera, I remember the New York City Opera staged it in 1980. There are a couple of complete recordings on major label CDs, and actually a film in English from, I want to say, the early 1960s.  Norman Foster is the Falstaff, but the film also has Colette Boky, Mildred Miller, and the young and lovely Lucia Popp. Didn’t mean to cut you off Ben. About Verdi’s Falstaff?

BS: Let me say quickly here: Bronx Opera is performing Verdi’s Falstaff in April and May of this season. It’s one of my very favorite operas.

OM: And one of mine. Agreed? (all nod in agreement)

BB: I feel that Verdi’s Falstaff is more focused on his own nobility, whereas Falstaff in Sir John in Love is more unrestrained, and also more of a romantic.

DM: For me Verdi’s Falstaff is the fulfillment of a marvelous creative journey, a life long achievement, but at the same time I think it has the halo of great melancholy. Maybe that all of the bluster Falstaff exhibits comes from compensation for a fear of abandonment, loneliness.

OM: The grand finale of the Verdi, exquisite as it is, can be taken in different ways. Some days it’s not quite existentially satisfying to think that the only criterion for evaluating a good life is whether or not one gets the last laugh.

DM: But Vaughan Williams takes the end of Sir John in a lighter vein: Okay, that’s the way things are today, tomorrow is another day. Maybe Falstaff has learned his lesson, but maybe not. Let’s make up and have a big party. I mean, probably he won’t change: Falstaff, to his credit, wants to experience everything to the Nth degree. He’s the ultimate hedonist, unrestrained in his eating, drinking, his women, he enjoys the pleasures of the flesh. He’s not a stupid man, but he clearly likes to use his intelligence to delve into these pastimes. He likes to be liked, and people like to be around Falstaff because he enjoys plotting ways to have fun and at the same time support himself.

BB: Exactly. No pun intended, he’s larger than life! Certainly noble and romantic, but I feel others seem to regard him as what today we would call a reality show character. Some feed off of him, enjoy his company, but no one really wants to know him. It is interesting, too, that the music for when Falstaff reflects on himself is different from the music for when others are talking about him. He interacts with Ford in a certain way, with the women in another way, and also with his flunkies in different ways. Certainly a lot of it depends on where he places himself in the social hierarchy in relation to the others and also what he wants from each. He is after all SIR John Falstaff, and therefore perceives himself to be a higher rank. No wonder he orders his flunkies around and feels that he may have his way with the woman above the everyday morality.

OM: Is he delusional?

BB: Certainly lives on his own planet! I think he believes that others perceive him as he perceives himself, but he doesn’t really know (or care) what other people think. He communicates with others to the extent that they play into his own delusions.

OM: Can you isolate a special moment in the opera, a moment in which Falstaff sort of steps back and reveals himself to the audience, a moment when you the singer more or less feel the spotlight as opposed to share it?

DM: In the second act, second scene: Bardolph has delivered the bottle of sack to him and Mrs. Quickly has just confirmed the appointment with Mrs. Ford “between ten and eleven.” Falstaff tells us who he is, he writes a love song, he’s on top of the world. As a singer it’s really gratifying to have such wonderful music to sing.

OM: Go thy ways, go thy ways, old Jack!

BB: Definitely that soliloquy! It’s marvelous. But I’d add also the Greensleves duet with Alice Ford and the rest of the final scene of Act IV in Windsor Park. Just magical, the music is simply magical.

OM: Advice for those in the audience who more than likely have never seen Sir John in Love before?

BB: Pretty much sit back and let it wash over you. Read the libretto first, know the characters, find a recording if you can. Read Shakespeare's The Merry Wives of Windsor if you have the time!

OM: Good advice. The Vaughan Williams is closest to the original! There are, to my knowledge, two complete CD recordings of Sir John in Love, one on EMI with Raimund Herincx as Sir John, Wendy Eathome as Anne Page, Felicity Palmer as Mrs. Page, Elizabeth Bainbridge as Mrs. Ford, Robert Tear as Fenton, John Noble as Page and Robert Lloyd as Ford, Helen Watts as Mrs. Quickly, conducted by Meredith Davies (1975); the other is on Chandos with Donald Maxwell as Sir John, Susan Gritton as Anne Page, Laura Claycomb as Mrs. Page, Sarah Connolly as Mrs. Ford, Mark Padmore as Fenton, Roderick Williams as Page and Matthew Best as Ford, Anne-Marie Owens as Mrs. Quickly, conducted by Richard Hickox (2007). Both are excellent recordings.

I’m very much looking forward to this! Thank you, gentlemen, for your comments.

BS: Thank you!

BB: Thank you!

DM: Thank you!

The Bronx Opera performs Sir John in Love by Ralph Vaughan Williams on Saturday, January 14 at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday, January 15 at 2:30 p.m. at the Lovinger Theatre at Lehman College in the Bronx; Sir John in Love is performed again the following weekend at Kaye Playhouse at Hunter College in Manhattan, 7:30 p.m. on January 21 and 2:30 p.m on the 22nd. For tickets, casting, directions, etc. please visit the company’s website at www.bronxopera.org.

In last week in April and first week in May, the Bronx Opera will tackle Verdi’s Falstaff.

Support local opera: it's the future.

JRS.

Bronx Opera celebrates its 50th season of opera

OperaMetro had the opportunity to sit down with Michael Spierman, an original Founder and still Artistic Director of the Bronx Opera, and his son Benjamin. Working as partners, Michael oversees the artistic areas of the company with an emphasis on its musical/vocal and instrumental aspects; Ben, as primary administrator, oversees the company as a whole, including its personnel, funding, outreach and, as stage director, the dramatic aspects. In the company’s off-season, Ben is on the move in various capacities with other opera companies around the USA. Both Michael and Ben work closely with Emanuel Nadelman on financial matters. Nadelman, also a founding member, is the company’s Treasurer.

Keeping with our custom, OM formats the interview as if we were talking together, whereas, truth is, each gentleman was interviewed separately by telephone earlier this month.

OM: It’s a pleasure to talk with you, also a pleasure to honor to the Bronx Opera’s 50th season!

Michael Spierman (MS): You’re welcome.

Ben Spierman (BS): You’re welcome.

OM: Okay, give me, please, three or four reasons for the success and longevity of the Bronx Opera. What comes to mind first?

BS: Well, right off the bat, one reason is fiscal responsibility: we close each season with balanced books; a second reason, related to that, we deliver a highly respectable product within our means, which means we do our homework well and consequently we avoid operas just too expensive to produce. Wagner, the big Richard Strauss operas, for instances, are not only expensive productions, but they won’t fit in the smaller theaters we use for our performances. The orchestra pit isn’t big enough. But we work quite well within our parameters. Each season the Bronx Opera stages the operas people want to experience live in the theater, one from the standard repertory and one not so familiar to many.

  Bronx Opera's  Hansel and Gretel , May 2012

Bronx Opera's Hansel and Gretel, May 2012

MS: Also a reason we’re thriving is that we live in a great city. We sing for a highly intelligent audience eager not only to hear works from the not so familiar category, but also apparently eager to experience operas from the standard repertory in a new light. We perform all of our operas in English.

Tell you a story: I invited a woman, friend of mine, to come to one of our performances. Just so you know, she warned me, I hate opera. But then I saw her at the next production with a few friends, and again at another. I thought you hated opera? This isn’t opera, she said, this is like Broadway and I love Broadway. Point is, she could understand what they were singing, the staging was more intimate, the singers well-rehearsed, and the prices weren’t sky high through the roof. Let’s face it: the thought of sitting for hours in the dark in an expensive seat listening to an opera in a language you don’t understand a word of is a real road block for many people.

OM: True, you have to do your homework and the synopses don’t give you the nuances and intricacies.

MS:  What’s more, even those who are used to opera in the original language find new things: another story, a patron said she’d seen La Traviata maybe a dozen times in the larger houses, but ours was the first time she actually understood a lot of the conflict between Alfredo and his father Germont. Now I truly know what I’ve been crying about all these years! she said.

Look, you know Violetta or Mimi is going to die at the end, everything is leading toward that moment, and even if you’re sitting a block away in the balcony, that moment won’t escape you. But if you have to look away constantly to read a translation, line by line, you’re distracted from the moment.

OM: Certainly the English would enhance one’s experience of the not so well known operas. What are some of your greatest hits in this category?

BS: High on my list is Rossini’s La Gazza Ladra.

OM: I like that one!

BS: It was a lot of fun for all concerned to do. Rossini is one of those composers who is more or less pigeon-holed by maybe one or two popular operas, Barbiere, Cenerentola, and the well-known overtures one hears on QXR. But Gazza Ladra is a wonderful opera, I think actually a combination of the best of Rossini. Vaughan Williams' Sir John in Love will be on the list soon: we’re doing it in January. Actually this is the third time Bronx Opera has performed it over the years.

  Michael Spierman with Ursula Vaughan William, widow of Ralph Vaughan Williams, 1997

Michael Spierman with Ursula Vaughan William, widow of Ralph Vaughan Williams, 1997

OM: Two times previously? Wow, where was I?

BS: As long as we’re on Vaughan Williams, The Poisoned Kiss was another hit. Sort of his foray into light fantasy, intentionally closer to Sullivan, but still recognizably Vaughan Williams. Fun piece, and Verdi’s first comedy Un Giorno di Regno was enlightening. Another fun one was Gustav Mahler’s reconstruction of Carl Maria von Weber’s music sketches for the comedy Die Drei Pintos.

OM: I know all these through recordings. My Pintos is an LP set even.

MS: Delightful, the Pintos. And think of all the stereotypes broken here: a light opera from Gustav Mahler? He’s not known as a very funny guy. And Weber? Neither name comes directly to mind when the words ‘light opera’ are spoken. But Pintos was ear-opening! I’ll add to that list Nielson’s Maskarade, Smetana’s The Two Widows

OM: Dvě vdovy?

MS: Very good!

OM: Had to look at my Czech shelf for that one. Another favorite of mine, though.

MS: Really works in English.

OM: I’ll bet. Delightful score! Moving on, are there any other reasons?

MS: Our great city also has a deep pool of highly talented young artists looking for stage experience from which they get exposure, start to build a career. We provide an opportunity for that experience.

OM: But if many or most in your cast are young singers, then there must be repertory at least inadvisable for a young voice to tackle, if not impossible. Stamina, breathing, pacing. I can’t imagine a young voice singing Elektra or Tristan.

BS: Well, as I said, Wagner and other composers who write for a large orchestra are out anyway because of the size of our orchestra pits. But yes, big voice roles such as Turandot, Gioconda, Tosca or Otello, to name four, would be probably out. We’d love to do Turandot, but it’s too big in lots of ways: expensive: sets, costumes, extras, special rehearsals…  

OM: I worked backstage with a small company for part of one summer years ago and since, through OperaMetro and the newspaper before it, I’ve gotten to know several other companies locally. I’m continually impressed with the dedication of young singers to their art, their careers, their dreams…you folks provide them with a lot of opportunities for growth.

BS: As in other domains in the arts, a career in opera mostly comes through doing it, on stage, rehearsing and performing with the others, plain and simple. Yes, training and coaching at universities and music institutes are important early on to develop the voice…but you just have to do it.

OM: Impressive that they’d learn a role for performance without any guarantee that there’ll ever be a chance to sing it again. Probably not a lot of calls for a soprano who knows the role of Anežka, one of the two widows.

BS: Maybe not, but they’re game to do it, they love the challenge, and they get good experience being part of the creation of a stage production from the ground up, not just slipping into one that’s been running for several seasons. And if the opera’s out of the standard repertory, singers know it’s probably the audience’s first exposure to the piece too, so that he or she will be the first interpreter of a role for them. There’s a real buzz to these, both on stage and off.

But back to young singers, the theaters we perform in show off the voices quite well. The auditoriums, the Lovinger Theatre at Lehman College and the Kaye Playhouse at Hunter College, are small, only 500 to 600 seats. Our singers can actually sing and be heard without screaming. Much lower risk of damaging a young voice. Very important.

OM: I’m told you do outreach to the schools.

MS: Absolutely! It’s about building an audience and assuring a future for opera.

OM: Which is very important for the performing arts outside of the pop culture.

MS: The kids love it, we love it. We do a special morning performance of excerpts, piano, the understudies for our performance do the singing, then at a follow up meeting we take questions from the students. I remember we were doing The Marriage of Figaro, the scene where the Count arranges to meet Susanna in the garden that night. English, of course. A student asks in the Q & A, “Hey wait, isn’t that sexual harassment? Like shouldn’t the Count get in trouble for that!? And wasn’t Susanna’s husband upset?” Well, this started the conversation when we asked the students who, back in those days, was going to get the Count in trouble? We talked about the abuse of privilege and power, how Figaro (both the play and the opera) was revolutionary at its time, how the French commoners were so upset with the order of things that they stormed the Bastille and took down the government! The day began talking about Mozart, opera, and music and ended talking about 18th Century political history. And it’s relevant today: that connection didn’t escape them either! The point is: the opera was the experience that caused these kids to think about it. Puts it in a different perspective: once you make it relevant, opera comes alive, not just some relic from the past.

OM: Psychologists are fairly unanimous that memories formed in those teenage years can be special and therefore carefully tendered throughout adulthood. Your outreach is an invitation for them to enter a world that may seem to them intellectually and emotionally reserved for adults. Important experiences, to be sure. Thank you, gentlemen, for your words! Hope to see you at Sir John in Love!

Both: Hope to see you!

The Bronx Opera performs Sir John in Love by Ralph Vaughan Williams on Saturday, January 14 at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday, January 15 at 2:30 p.m. at the Lovinger Theatre at Lehman College in the Bronx; Sir John in Love is performed again the following weekend at Kaye Playhouse at Hunter College in Manhattan, 7:30 p.m. on January 21 and 2:30 p.m on the 22nd. For tickets, casting, directions, etc. please visit the company’s website at www.bronxopera.org.

In last week in April and first week in May, the Bronx Opera will tackle Verdi’s Falstaff.

Hansel and Gretel photo by Victoria DePew; set by Meganne George; on stage Jennifer Garuana and Allison Pohl.

Support local opera! And happy holidays to all!

JRS

Troupers perform Thespis in Norwalk

The Troupers Light Opera Company has resurrected Gilbert and Sullivan’s Thespis, the first collaboration of the immortal team who, in London during the reign of Queen Victoria, created the so-called Savoy operas, each of ’em a masterpiece of English musical theater. Premiered on December 26, 1871, Thespis is rarely performed these days for two major reasons: it lacks Gilbert’s sure fire creative insight into character and efficient plotting, thus making it neither as interesting nor as satisfying as his later works, and, a far bigger blow, Sullivan’s original score is missing, making any reconstruction of the music a matter of educated conjecture. See OperaMetro’s nearby preview of Thespis for more historical stuff.

Though there are actually several reconstructions of the music for Thespis, Jim Cooper and the Troupers chose the version by Anthony Baker and Timothy Henty. It, like other reconstructions, includes two surviving numbers from Sullivan’s original score, but the duo also rely heavily on Sullivan’s music for his other operas with Gilbert, as well as some from Jacque Offenbach’s Orphée aux Enfers, which had played in London a bit before the premiere of Thespis, but which also pokes fun at the gods on Mount Olympus. An obvious choice and a sound one.

Thespis, in a nutshell: the gods have grown old, they’re tired of ruling, they don’t get no respect, the great days of human sacrifices are over, even animal sacrifices have fallen off, now reduced to (gasp!) preserved Australian beef! Why? They have no clue.

Enter a gaggle of actors who just happen to be picnicking on the slopes of Olympus. The gods decide to do a little market research below while taking a much needed holiday, so they conscript the actors to take their places and duties. No problem, says Thespis, the leader of the troupe, but be warned, the price of failure, Jupiter tells Thespis, is that he “will be constituted as ‘Father of the Drama’ and held accountable for everything that every author may write for ages to come.”

Of course, as do those unfit for any office soon learn, the actors find their charges and duties are not as easy as they appear. A lot of unforeseen complications arise and the actors muck everything up, turning the world topsy-turvy, so to speak.

  Greg Suss as Thespis and Brett Kroeger as Mercury

Greg Suss as Thespis and Brett Kroeger as Mercury

Central to the action is the spunky young Mercury, who, as the messenger for the gods, acts as a go-between twixt them and the mortals. It’s a large part, a trouser role originally written for a shapely Ellen Farren, whose tights played much better on stage than her voice apparently. Mercury here is indeed a large part, but happily something of a breakout performance for Brett Kroeger. In past Troupers’ productions, she frequently played just another girl waiting to be wed, like, for instance, Constance in The Sorcerer this past spring. But as Mercury Kroeger has a real chance to shine, especially in the big patter songs and in the prodigious amounts of dialog, which she delivered with cool and panache. Ample in voice, but no tights here: her lithe frame, jeans, sneakers, cap, penciled-in stubble and an overall zip in everything she delivered contributed much to her character’s success. Brava!

The gods were Wendy Falconer as Diana, John Matilaine as Apollo, Rob Strom as Mars, and Bob Scrofani as Jupiter, all interacting as a families often do. They sing mostly in brief duets, trios, or in ensemble; in this production their formal wear while in power is cast off for colorful holiday garb, tie dyes and such, as they relax while the players run the universe. At one point the gods add on an effective disguise.

  Wendy Falconer, Rob Stromm, Bob Scrofani, and John Matilaine are gods  

Wendy Falconer, Rob Stromm, Bob Scrofani, and John Matilaine are gods 

The mortals are more numerous. Thespis, the show’s other centerpiece, is the Manager of a Traveling Theatrical Company, so naturally he will replace Jupiter. Is not all the world but a stage? The part was originally written as a vehicle for the Gaiety Theater’s leading comedian, one Mr. J. G. Toole, who did not sing much, but who often inserted his ad libs at whim. Greg Suss struts his stuff, playing the leader with élan, fussing, praising, posturing, raving, and hand wringing.

David Richy is Sparkeion, the actor who will take the role of Phoebus Apollo, the god of the sun and day. Richy’s elegant rendering of the song Little Maid of Acadee was quite enlightening, in that it is the only solo number remaining from Sullivan’s original Thespis score. Daphne the flirt, sung by an animated Deborah Connelly, becomes Calliope; Nicemis, played by a new Trouper Anne Collin, becomes the goddess of night. As the plot plays out she is accompanied by Apollo (Sparkeion, remember) at night so the sun’s warmth (but not its light) will fight off the chill.

  Anne Collin, David Richy, Greg Suss, and Deb Connelly, actors turned into gods

Anne Collin, David Richy, Greg Suss, and Deb Connelly, actors turned into gods

But here’s one of the rubs in the plot: the reassignment of roles with this transition, actors for gods, causes some interesting problems: you see, Daphne, when a member of the troupe, was engaged to Sparkeion, but he is now Apollo. Daphne, as Calliope, discovers from Lemprière’s Classical Dictionary that Apollo has had relationships, not to say marriages, with at least eight goddesses, including Calliope. So far so good: Thepis (as Jupiter, therefore in charge) concludes that therefore Apollo is her husband. But suddenly Nicemis, now goddess of night, and Sparkeion, as god of day, enter hand in hand, claiming to be married…get the drift? Here is a case unprecedented, for sure!

Pretteia, taken by newcomer Jennifer Wallace, becomes Venus; Wallace also sings the solo Star in the celestial prologue (to Offenbach’s music). Timidon, sung by John Hoover, will be Mars, the god of war; Sillimon, Thespis’s Stage Manager, clipboard in hand, ever on call, is taken by Ty Goff; Tammy Strom is Cymon, the keeper of time; Guy Stretton is Tipseion, the Tipsy One who replaces Bacchus. Bacchus, hey, so he should be a good time, right? But he, alas, has taken the pledge to dry out and only delivers ginger beer to the thirsty on Earth.

Much of the humor of Thespis is broad music hall stuff, to wit, Thespis, in his theater manager mode, waves the gods off with a lower class “Don’t know yah! Don’t know yah!” Though Gilbert wrote pretty some good patter songs and ensembles here, he had yet to perfect the fine art of making his characters inherently funny or absurd and then placing them out of place in the context of time/space, like Joseph Porter, the articled clerk as First Lord of the Admiralty or Ko Ko, the cheap tailor made Lord High Executioner. Such persons are delightfully silly, even without doing blatantly silly things on stage.

Marion Shulman’s direction kept the action moving without pause, but also without any help from the one hundred and thirty, plus or minus seven years, of D’Oyly Carte staging tradition surrounding the characters in the G & S canon. James Cooper conducted and coordinated the singers on stage; Dorothy Kolinsky marvelously played the piano. The sets were minimal, but the costumes were creative.

The Baker/ Henty reconstruction works on two quite reasonable assumptions. First, both Gilbert and Sullivan liked to sneak other people’s music into their shows. Copyright laws being what they were back then, Gilbert got away with setting his full length texts to music stolen from other European composers. And Sullivan often made musical quotes from and allusions to other works for humorous effect. Hence the Offenbach, appropriately Orphée aux Enfers.

And second, that given Gilbert’s subsequent predilection for certain rhyming patterns to his verses, it should not be too difficult to find suitable music from Sullivan’s later scores for the Savoy operas. To B & H’s credit, they borrowed both cleverly and creatively from G & S, such as, for example, the finale of Act I of this Thespis starts with the music from the finale of Act II of Utopia, Limited, then glides briefly into the finale of Act I of The Gondoliers, then concludes, not really paradoxically, with music from The Pirates of Penzance. I also heard snatches or extended patches from Pinafore, Iolanthe, Princess Ida, Ruddigore, The Grand Duke, even Sullivan’s The Rose of Persia and maybe The Zoo.

Gilbert would again use the idea of theatricals replacing monarchy in The Grand Duke, his last collaboration with Sullivan, but at least to me it's interesting that even as early as Thespis, he’d be exploring the broader question of what might the world be like when run by an idiosyncratic, not to say incompetent person in power? Hilarion predicts that Princess Ida and her women will set the Thames on fire very soon…would you want the Learned Judge to try a breach of contract of a daughter’s marriage?

Thespis was fun. Thank you Troupers for the opportunity to experience it! And for the opportunity to write about it too.

Thespis was performed at All Saints School, 139 West Rocks Road in Norwalk.

Review performance date: November 6, 2016.

Photos by Arthur Shulman.

The Troupers will be performing Gilbert and Sullivan’s H.M.S. Pinafore in the spring. Stay tuned.

JRS.

G & S rare Thespis by Troupers

Thespis resurrected by the Troupers Light Opera

The Troupers dig very deeply into their artistic well to give loyal followers a once in a lifetime experience: a resurrection of Gilbert and Sullivan’s Thespis. It’s to be a fully staged and costumed performance with reduced sets, meaning not all of Mount Olympus, I guess, at the All Saints Catholic School in Norwalk, CT, on Saturday, November 5 at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday, the 6th at 2:30 p.m.

The happy and loyal fan family of Gilbert and Sullivan may have heard tell of ‘the lost opera,’ a mystery piece lurking back before G and S were an item, before, that is, Richard D’Oyly Carte got a hold of ‘em. After all, most couples have a past not so well known to their beloved others. Thespis, or The Gods Grown Old, billed as “an entirely Original Grotesque Opera in Two Acts,” premiered as a holiday extravaganza on Boxing Day, December 26, 1871, at the Gaiety Theatre, London, four years before the pair collaborated again with Trial by Jury. It had an overture, 15 or so numbers, and a ballet.

Thespis tells the tale of a group of actors, who happen to be picnicking on the flanks of Mount Olympus. They’re asked by the tired, grumpy old gods to take over for them, give ‘em a break, an idea which, from the get-go, is very silly.

  Thespis, now crowned King of the Gods, makes royal appointments.

Thespis, now crowned King of the Gods, makes royal appointments.

Why did Thespis disappear? It didn’t really flop, as the myth tells it. Rather it ran until February. In fact, at 64 performances, Thespis outlasted a number of other successful shows at the time. But the premiere got off to a rough start due to insufficient rehearsal time/space to give serious notes, and so, untrimmed and inefficient, it ran too long, past the time of the carriages gathering outside the Gaiety to take folks home in the December cold. It probably didn’t help matters that Thespis was actually the second main feature of the evening, the first being a play at 7:00 p.m.

It wasn’t a fault of inexperience on the part of its creators, nor first date jitters: though not as well seasoned as they would soon become, neither Gilbert nor Sullivan were new to this sort of thing. Gilbert had written already Ages Ago with composer Frederick Clay, a friend of Sullivan, the one who first introduced him to Gilbert. Gilbert the grandiose then wrote large scale mockery of Meyerbeer’s Robert le Diable, entitled Robert the Devil, or The Nun, the Dun and the Son of a Gun; Sullivan, in addition to his serious music, composed the little farce Cox and Box, or The Long Lost Brothers (1867) and a more substantial, but less successful The Contrabandista, or The Law of the Ladrones (also 1867).

Thespis has been buried for one very important reason: Sullivan’s score is lost! He apparently shipped it off to someone, probably a friend and it was never returned…still (potentially) out there under someone’s bed or in the basement, in other words. D’Oyly Carte thought about reviving it in 1875 after the success of Trial by Jury, but Gilbert was less than pleased with the financial backing and subsequently laid the matter to rest. Though intending to clean it for posterity, he had not addressed the libretto again by the time of his death in 1911. Turns out even the text needed work for any revival.

  Cast list for the opening of    Thespis    in 1871

Cast list for the opening of Thespis in 1871

But then too the style of humor in Thespis is at odds with the signature characteristics of Gilbert’s later efforts. At 70, Gilbert, looking back at their spectacular run with the Savoy operas, recalled that “Sullivan and I…resolved that our plots, however ridiculous, should be coherent, that our dialogue should be void of offence; that, on artistic principles, no man should play a woman’s part and no woman a man’s. Finally, we agreed that no lady of the company should be required to wear a dress that she could not wear with absolute propriety at a private fancy-dress ball.”

Ah, the tricks one’s memory can play! Thespis is loosely structured burlesque, loaded with shapely females in tights playing young men, a sketchy plot, bad jokes and puns, why, even many of the names are silly: Sillimon, see? Timidon, Preposteros, Stupidas, Sparkeion, Nicemis, and Pretteia, for a few. Tipscion (Tipsy One), of course, is the actor who substitutes for Bacchus. In fact, a few of these are they what sing the chorus “Climbing over rocky mountain,” familiar to G & S fans as the happy entrance of Major General Stanley’s bouncing bevy of beautiful daughters in Act I of The Pirates of Penzance. Though Sullivan’s score for Thespis was lost, his memory for it worked well, and, if you remember the story, Gilbert and he came to New York with full intention to complete Pirates for the US premiere, for copyright protection, but Sullivan forgot to bring his drafts of the score. In a pinch, he had to reconstruct everything. Not surprising Thespis came to mind at times. Another ballad from Thespis, Sparkeion’s Little Maid from Arcadee from Act II, was published separately.

Troupers’ Jim Cooper and Marian Shulman are musical and stage directors; the accomplished Dorothy Kolinsky is the accompanist. Time for a chat.

OperaMetro (OM) asked Jim Cooper (JC) about the revival of Thespis.

OM: Your turn, Jim

JC: While current writings suggest 20, maybe more versions of Thespis in existence, we looked only at the four of these we could obtain in hard copy form. And of these, only the Arthur Baker and Timothy Henty version used mostly Sullivan's music: the scholarship of Tillett and Spencer seem to indicate that a large amount of Thespis can be found in The Pirates of Penzance. The Baker/Henty version also taps Offenbach: We know that the Gaiety Theater had recently done Offenbach's Orpheus in the Underworld, and given that Gilbert and Sullivan had but a few weeks to fulfill their commission, they adopted some Offenbach to their needs. Baker and Henty did too, to very felicitous effect.

OM: Thespis is even more ridiculous than Gilbert’s later Savoy efforts, yes?

JC: There are a huge number of characters in Thespis because Gilbert was obliged to include all of the members of the Gaiety Theater comedy troupe, some of whom were flat out comedians, not singers. So we, of course, do not know exactly what was actually performed, as this company did a lot of ad-libbing, which Gilbert would later forbid, and while you can see the genesis of several G&S shows in the libretto of Thespis, it was written hastily for a company with quite limited singing talent. So yes, it is broader, looser, and much sillier than Gilbert's later works. Just check the cast list!

As to the singing, OperaMetro chatted with soprano Brett Kroeger (BK), who takes on the trouser part of Mercury.

OM: In the original, Mercury, as in Offenbach’s Mercure in Orphée aux Enfers, was played by a young woman, specifically, for Thespis, by a Miss Nelly Farren, cute, ‘cheeky,’ extraverted, a comedienne who had pretty legs and who sang (quoted from a contemporary review of her performances) “with no more voice than a cat when you squeeze her tail” but who contrived “by artful singing to put more expression into the music than could be imagined by less clever persons,” the reviewer concluding “All who would know how to sing without a voice should give heed…” So far, how are you finding the vocal writing? Does it give you a chance to have a lot of fun, in addition to sing?

BK: Mercury is a patter-song role which is obviously very different from my usual full lyric singing. I am still working on making sure the diction is intelligible as the words really are very funny. In fact, all the Mercury songs are taken from men’s roles in other operettas, so none of them is really written for a woman’s range except, of course, Mercury's third song, which is the duet with Buttercup. So yes, this has been a good challenge for me as I have to focus on character and diction over emphasizing a beautiful vocal line.

OM: Mercury is characterized by a lot of energy and wit in Thespis.

BK: True, Mercury is not a grown old god! Perhaps it is because he is the god of speed and speed connotes youth and action, compared to his counterparts who have grown lazy.

OM: In your study of the lines so far, in context of the other gods, do you find the part witty?

BK: Witty? Well, he is definitely sarcastic! I’ve been directed to play him like a disgruntled teenager, which has been fun.

OM: Troupers, all of you, are making company history with this Thespis. Congratulations!

BK: It’s exciting to be putting on a Northeastern premiere of this version, especially with this wonderful group, newcomers, seasoned vets! Hopefully it will bring a good audience! This is going to be a fun show.

Troupers Light Opera will present the Northeastern premiere of Gilbert and Sullivan’s Thespis on Saturday, November 5th at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday, the 6th at 2:30 p.m. in Norwalk, CT at All Saints Catholic School at 139 West Rocks Road.

The cast includes Brett Kroeger as Mercury, Greg Suss as Thespis, Anne Collin as Nicemis, David Richy as Sparkeion, Bob Scrofani as Jupiter, Wendy Falconer as Diana, John Matilaine as Apollo and Rob Strom plays Mars.

Among the mortals, Deborah Connelly plays the flirt Daphne, Jennifer Wallace plays Pretteia, Ty Goff is a Sillimon, John Hoover is Timidon, Guy Stretton is Tipseion, Tammy Strom is Cymon, with a chorus of men and women.

Tickets are available on Troupers’ website, www.trouperslightopera.org.

Gilbert’s quote from Arthur Sullivan by Arthur Jacobs, p. 69, Oxford University Press, paper edition, 1986.

Contemporary review quote about the clever and cat-like Ms. Farren from Thespis, A Gilbert & Sullivan Enigma, by Terence Rees, p. 13, Dillon’s University Bookshop, 1964. In this, Terence Rees published his reconstruction the libretto to Thespis, which was subsequently used in performances to a reconstructed score by conductor/composer Eugene Minor, who recommended that I consult the Rees book. Thank you Gene! I also enjoyed the video of your Thespis!

You never know when Thespis will be done again locally. Seize the day! JRS

Premiere of Berkshire Opera Festival

Berkshire Opera Festival premieres with Puccini’s Madama Butterfly

As part of OperaMetro’s seasonal regional outreach, I talked to Jonathon Loy and Brian Garman, co-founders of the new Berkshire Opera Festival, which resides in Great Barrington, Massachusetts. The Festival opens its doors in late August with a fresh new production of Madama Butterfly and promises of more to come in future summers.

Time scheduling pressures being what they are for us these days, the interview is formatted as an open discussion, even though their responses are to OM’s emailed questions. But imagine that we are sitting together far away from the urban swelter of late July in a cool shaded grove in the Berkshire Mountains. I believe the freshly made lemonade is coming.

  Jonathon Loy, General Director of Berkshire Opera Festival

Jonathon Loy, General Director of Berkshire Opera Festival

Jonathon Loy (JL) is the General Director of the Festival. He starts his eighth season at the Metropolitan Opera as a member of the Staging Staff and Guest Director, but also has worked with such prestigious companies as the Santa Fe Opera, Seattle Opera, Washington National Opera, the Houston Grand Opera, to name very few from a long list.

Brian Garman (BG) is Artistic Director of the Festival. He, too, has worked extensively with a long list of prestigious companies such as the New York City Opera, Pittsburgh Opera, Seattle, Santa Fe, Wolf Trap, as well with several university music and opera programs. The duo met at Pittsburgh Opera at the turn of the century when Loy was working as an intern and Garman was resident conductor. Even back then the idea of a Festival company was formulated. This year it is finally realized.

  Brian Garman, Artistic Director of Berkshire Opera Festival

Brian Garman, Artistic Director of Berkshire Opera Festival

OM: So you guys are establishing a new summer opera company. Adventuresome undertaking this is indeed! Your Mission Statement reads (clearing my throat, reading aloud) “The mission of the Berkshire Opera Festival is to entertain and enrich the lives of people of all ages and backgrounds throughout the Berkshire region by providing accessible and affordable performances of a broad range of operas with the highest artistic standards.” And your Vision Statement, listing six points of fulfillment, looks forward to this. Impressive!

JL: Thanks.

BG: Thanks.

OM: First on your Festival stage is Madama Butterfly, a popular opera certainly, I’ll bet pretty high on everyone’s list of favorites. But what thinking guided the choice? I mean, it’s also just been telecast in HD from the Met nationwide this past spring, which might prompt the local HD set and those who must come from afar to say “Oh we just saw that.” Why not kickoff the Festival with an opera more unusual or fetching, a real attention grabber, one you’ve always wanted to do?

BG:  Regarding Madama Butterfly, several factors influenced the choice.  First and foremost, Butterfly is an absolute masterpiece.  I can think of very, very few pieces that are as musically and dramatically effective in such an immediate and heart-breaking way.  Its popularity endures for a reason, and it's rare that audiences leave a performance of Butterfly with dry eyes. And it's a fairly well-known opera, which seemed like an excellent reason to launch the Festival with it.  We couldn't afford in our very first season to program something that might be a huge box office risk.

  Inna Los is Cio Cio San

Inna Los is Cio Cio San

JL: I certainly have operas that I would love to direct and while we can discuss producing what we love the most, that isn't always what prevails.  Our fiduciary responsibility is always a factor as is box office salability to our audience. As you say, Butterfly is a popular opera, but to that I’ll add that our Butterfly will be different from the Met’s current production. The audience will get a fresh perspective on this timeless story. 

OM: Ah! Okay, how so?

JL: I am interested in seeing these characters in a more present time and how that affects their intentions, so I am updating the production to 1960s Japan. For example, the facts that Pinkerton actively seeks to marry this young girl, who, he learns, is only 15...and yet he still proceeds with it, and that Sharpless, despite all his hand-wringing, attends the wedding make a huge statement about their moral compass. The marriage broker Goro and his team take on a much more sinister and black market feel in this. The geishas, while traditionally dressed, become part of a "traditional performance/experience" for Pinkerton and Sharpless – what, in effect, they are paying to see.
Also Butterfly’s character in this context becomes even more complex. If we examine her through the lens of the 60s, second-wave feminism or women's liberation, we can put a more heroic spin on her than we already do. Yes, we still view her as naïve and in denial, but she tries to use Pinkerton for what she wants, just as much as he uses her as a play thing. Her dream is to go to America, get out of Japan, and never have to be a street performer/geisha ever again. I do believe that she falls in love with the idea of Pinkerton and what he could represent for her - a new life in the great United States...but it most likely could have been any American sailor willing to take her away. To that end, we will see her do everything she thinks is American, including wearing stylish American dress (Chanel inspired) with the little money she has left. Eventually, she sees the reality of the situation, and…I don't want to give away much more.

OM: Then we shall move on. Scanning down your Vision Statement I read the Festival will create “dramatically compelling productions…that engage the audience in meaningful ways.” Sounds like your Butterfly will be true to that goal.

  Jason Slayden is Pinkerton

Jason Slayden is Pinkerton

BG: On the other hand I’ll add that we are consciously trying to avoid a steady diet of the standard repertoire. La Traviata, Carmen, Barber of Seville -- they're all excellent pieces, and some companies do reasonably well by programming them over and over.  But we feel, first of all, that sticking to the "top five" does a disservice to our audience, and second of all, it's also part of our mission to explore the entire range of the operatic repertoire in our programming. This includes, at some point in the near future, commissioning new works as well. 

OM: Certainly important to keep opera as a living art form. As to that, items Four and Five on the Statement talk about outreach to schools and provision of “educational experiences throughout the community to develop future audiences and increase appreciation for opera.” Back to “why Butterfly,” being supportive here, I’m thinking it would be far easier to focus on this opera for any sort of outreach program to new audiences than to focus on something like, say, Dalibor. No point in developing audiences for operas they’re not likely to see ever in their lifetime.

JL: Exactly. The challenge for all arts organizations at all times is, one, to continue to find an interested ticket buying audience, and two, continue to find an interested philanthropic audience. Young audiences in particular need to be educated and cultivated, and since arts education isn't very much a part of the American culture anymore, it is up to the arts community to figure out how to do it.

  Sarah Larsen is Suzuki

Sarah Larsen is Suzuki

OM: Having participated in outreach efforts over the years for local opera companies to groups of all ages, either through the companies themselves or through my own presentations, I can tell you that the magic for opening that hidden passageway from the outside loosely called “Opera? What’s that?” to the inside called “Wow! Opera? I love it!” is varied and unpredictable, often random. You hear a voice or a melody by chance or listen to a friend describe the joy of an evening at the opera…could be a start certainly, but in my mind the key is to follow through, to explore further, sample more, don’t be afraid of the enormity of it all. It is very formidable certainly from the outside looking in, or “listening in” I should say too. So I understand when someone says “I don’t understand opera,” I remember being there. I think one of the big factors is having others with whom to share your love for this music. It’s why I created OperaMetro.

BG: I'm glad you mentioned the Met's HD broadcasts earlier. They provide a great service in bringing opera to many people who might not otherwise be able to attend one. It’s an easy and inexpensive way to “sample.” But that said, we, Jonathon and I, believe that there's no substitute for experiencing the power of the live, unamplified human voice in a theater. This can produce a visceral, overwhelming reaction that can hardly be duplicated by watching a broadcast on a movie screen or listening to a recording. A live performance just offers a different experience, is all, and one that we think can be more rewarding.

  Weston Hurt is Sharpless

Weston Hurt is Sharpless

OM: Agreed. But we three are coming from the perspective of persons who cut their teeth on live performances. Most folks today I’ll bet have no idea what unamplified voices and an orchestra sound like or imagine any perspective apart from that of the camera.

JL: Technology is fancy and flashy today and attention spans are shorter, but I think there is a reason that opera lovers are so die-hard: it is an escape from all of that. It’s the living combination of all the great arts: dance, orchestra, voice, visual, and so on, real artists communicating with a real audience. That’s a big part of the magic.

OM: Again, I agree. Well, tell me about your singers.

BG:  We cast our singers from all over the country, and it's an important part of our mission to present well-known, veteran artists on stage alongside younger, up-and-coming artists.

OM: I know from speaking with the artistic directors of other opera companies over the years that sometimes they want to do a particular opera, then they go out to find the singers, but just as often they have a particular singer or director they wish to work with, then go out to find the opera. 

BG: Ha! Well as for that chicken/egg question, I'd have to say "it depends." That sounds like a cop-out, I know, but it's actually true.  For example, we knew we wanted to open the Festival with Madama Butterfly and we also had this particular cast in mind. On the other hand, the choice of the opera we're producing next summer (which I can't yet announce) was largely dependent upon the availability of one particular singer, who, fortunately, seems to be available...but that’s next summer.

OM: Gentlemen, best wishes for your premiere production of Butterfly! Hope to continue our conversations in the future. Thank you both for your time.

JL & BG: Thank you.

The Berkshire Opera Festival’s premiere production of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly opens on Saturday evening, August 27 at 7:30 p.m., followed performances on the evenings of Tuesday, August 30, and Friday, September 2, each also at 7:30. The production is directed by Jonathon Loy, with Brian Garman leading the orchestra; sets are designed by Stephen Dobey.

Ticket information, directions to the theater, artist biographies, opportunities to support the Berkshire Opera Festival, all may be found at the Festival’s website, directly accessed through the link http://www.berkshireoperafestival.com .

Visit the beautiful Berkshires and take in a fully staged performance of Butterfly while you're at it. Enjoy! JRS

Mascagni's Iris at Bard

Mascagni’s Iris performed at Bard

As is their wont, Leon Botstein and his artists, instrumentalists, and the creative staff for Bard’s SummerScape bring off another intellectually intriguing and emotionally engaging performance of an opera infrequently encountered these days. This year it is Pietro Mascagni’s Iris.

Coming eight years after his still world famous Cavalleria Rusticana, Iris, set in a timeless Japan, was fairly popular at first, even championed by the great Arturo Toscanini. But it was later overtaken and then left way behind by Puccini’s Madama Butterfly, just as Leoncavallo’s La Bohème, also fairly popular in its time, was ultimately left in the dust by another Puccini opera, the title of which I’m pretty sure you can guess.

But Iris has passion, Butterfly has passion, so what happened? For one thing audiences were most likely expecting another Cavalleria from Mascagni. However, a bigger part of the problem lies with the story: Iris is innocent, gentle and pure, caring for her flower gardens, her little home, and her crusty old blind father. Her beauty inflames the desires of the procurer Kyoto and il ricco Osaka, the former for wealth, the latter for the delicious prospects of carnal pleasures with her. They kidnap Iris. In Kyoto’s brothel in the big city (Act II) she is abused, her identity is nearly crushed, and she is even cursed by her father, who swore he’d find her and punish her for ‘deserting’ him. Distraught, she hurls herself into a garbage pit, where, in the Epilogue (Act III as written), she is revived, filled with the warmth of the sun, and dies redeemed, decomposing into high grade fertile potting soil, ideal for your flowers next spring.

This last is just a guess, not actually in the libretto.

 Iris, Act I

Iris, Act I

Iris follows a plot structure found in other operas, six examples of which, more or less contemporaries, include Humperdinck’s Königskinder, Rimsky-Korsakov’s The Legend of the Invisible City of Kitezh and the Maiden Fevronia (the one who takes the hit), Eugene d’Albert’s Tiefland, Frederick Delius’s A Village Romeo and Juliet, arguably even Parsifal and Lohengrin. The structure is as follows: in the beginning the innocents, nature’s children, they who’ve been protectively sheltered or merely adrift from civilization and its discontents, are made to suffer the slings and arrows of the outrageously unfortunate, miserable dirty real world in the middle of the opera, only to be redeemed or at least find peace at the final curtain.

But the characters in these operas are to a certain degree oddly passive and detached. Iris is not passionate in a positive way about other human beings, as is Butterfly toward Pinkerton in her Act I, but rather Iris is all about maintaining the sheltered little life she leads, particularly tending to the flowers in her garden. When this life style is seriously threatened oh sure she gets passionately desperate, as well she should, but, seeing no way out, she just jumps ship. Arguably Butterfly does the same, but her suicide is an active assertion of her code of honor. It reflects the nobility of her character in light of no other reasonable option, given the raw deal Pinkerton has dealt her.

Soprano Talise Trevigne rises to every challenge of the title role. Her quiet gentility, her reverence toward the life giving sun and her childlike amusement with the geisha players (Act I), however serene, are shed to reveal the cornered tigress of Act II when it becomes fairly evident to her that she’s not actually in Paradise. If the music and action of Act I will be to some extent puzzling to Mascagni fans, like “when is this opera going to get moving,” Act II of Iris takes off with a healthy amount of the verismo style of singing. Trevigne uses her expressive voice well throughout the performance, but she is particularly gripping here and to the very end. All in all hers was a stellar vocal and dramatic display. Brava!

Osaka is taken by tenor Gerard Schneider. This, too, is a verismo role, every bit as big as Turiddu or Canio. Schneider’s performance gained fire as this afternoon progressed, especially in Act II. Unlike Butterfly, there is no big lyrical love duet to make us weep, but rather a one-sided interchange of Osaka's lustful thoughts to her innocent replies. He leaves frustrated, yet when he sees Iris decked out on display in her scanty geisha garb, he finds his passion again. Assertive character he, if ultimately in vain.

Douglas Williams is a sleazy Kyoto, tall and muscular as are his ‘vampires,’ the geisha girls decked in black leather. Cecelia Hall gives eerie voice to one of these characters. The Ragpickers in the Epilogue are Samuel Levine, Joseph Chappel, and Mark Donato.

Praise too goes to Leon Botstein’s pacing of Mascagni’s score: he lets it breathe, without rushing. Mascagni's music speaks for itself. I suspect that Botstein opened up traditional cuts, though I’d be loath to tell you if there actually are cuts or exactly where they are. The logic here? My trusty CBS 1989 recording of Iris runs just 4 minutes over two hours, whereas this Iris was three hours end to end with about 30 minutes for the only intermission, maybe 10 for the pause between Act II and the Epilogue (Act III). There seemed to be more of Iris’s role, especially toward the end of in Act II. And the prelude to Act III (here the Epilogue) might have been extended as well to accommodate the scenery change behind the scrim. Trivial this last point: it is what it is.

The production designers creatively and effectively solve the staging demands of the opera. See, Iris is rather static dramatically in the Prologue/Act I and the Epilogue (Act III), most of the real ‘action,’ as you’ve by this point surmised, occurs in Act II. The grand chorus weighs in at the beginning and at the end, mightily extolling the virtues of light, warmth and above all love, the things every flower longs for. But they’re not really a part of the action, as in, say, “chorus of party guests at Violetta’s” or “chorus of courtiers and courtesans in the Duke’s court at Mantua.” Still, in order to maximize the impact of these choral moments, the chorus should, the whole lot of ‘em, be right in your face, front and center, forte…which, thankfully, they are. Believe me: it works! One faces the same problem staging Boito’s Mefistofele, but also you’d encounter it, if you dared, staging Schönberg’s Gurrelieder or the second movement of Mahler’s Symphony Nr. 8, both with named characters and huge choral endings.

  Act II of Mascagni's  Iris

Act II of Mascagni's Iris

Scenic Designers Emily Anne MacDonald and Cameron Jaye Mock solve it like this: in the dawn of the Prologue/Act I, Iris and her father sleep on the floor of the lower level of the stage as the large sunny chorus quietly enters on the upper level. This lower level is her action space (see photo on top) until she is hoisted up and abducted; in the Epilogue, the chorus fills in on stage around the large pile of garbage bags as Iris ascends to the top to meet the sunlight head on (see photo below). The color schemes, enhanced by lighting designer Niel Peter Jampolis, with projections by Adam Larsen, work too: the prologue and Act I are warm pale oranges and blues, with traces of blowing, undulating leaves and branches projected onto this (see again photo on top). But Act II is shades of rich blue and garish red, again with slowly moving images on the rear scrim that are hypnotic, ever drawing one in (see photo directly above). Through the prelude to the Epilogue a large puppet represents Iris falling (floating?) in slow-mo to the as yet unrevealed trash heap. By the fetid mound's color and slimy appearance you imagine you can almost smell it.        

 Iris greets the Sun as the Chorus gives the moment voice at the opera's final curtain

Iris greets the Sun as the Chorus gives the moment voice at the opera's final curtain

Iris is, simply stated, a beautiful, powerfully emotional opera. Not to be missed.

Photos by Cory Weaver.

Review performance: Sunday, July 24, 2016

As stated above, Iris is performed in two blocks: Prologue/Act I, then a relatively long intermission, followed by Act II and the Epilogue with only a pause in between.

Mascagni’s Iris is performed again in the Sosnoff Theater on Wednesday July 27 at 2 p.m., Friday July 29 at 7:30 p.m. and finally on Sunday July 31, also at 2. The roundtrip SummerScape coach from New York City runs on July 31. Remember that Puccini and his World is the surrounding discussion as is the showing of several Italian films inspired by this world (see OperaMetro's preview of the season below). For complete information, dates and times, also ticket sales for all events this summer, please visit Bard’s website or call the Box Office at 845-758-7900.

Unusually hot for a July afternoon at Bard, not the casual refreshing downpour. But it's always wonderful for everyone involved. Make it part of your summer. Enjoy. JRS

Princeton Festival's Peter Grimes reviewed

Benjamin Britten’s Peter Grimes crowns the 2016 Princeton Festival

Peter Grimes is a big opera and a little opera too.

It’s big in the genius underlying its creation, big in its preparation and execution, big in the range of its characters and the social implications hovering above each moment, all in all a big opera to put on stage. But it’s little in the people, rutting about in their little day-to-day routines in a little English east coast fishing village on North Sea.

Conspicuous in this Princeton Grimes is the meticulousness of the overall preparation. Conductor Richard Tang Yuk had all the players in the pit under his strict control, they obviously well-rehearsed with Britten’s wonderful score; director Steven LaCosse put his stamp on every cast member on stage. No small feats these, believe me.

After the argument is posed in conversation that opera staging today is far more sensitive to real-life nuances in interpersonal behavior than it was in the good ole stand-and-deliver days, one can make the case, however, though the point is well taken, that even a ‘grand’ opera like Verdi’s Aïda, with its large cast, big orchestra, chorus and sets, is still far easier to stage than a smaller opera like Britten’s Peter Grimes. In the latter, each character has a fairly detailed personality well drawn by music, text, expression and stage action. And the orchestral writing is in no way as redundant as that in most of the Italian opera repertory of the 19th century. Let’s also not forget the numerous scene changes made in Grimes with curtain up in short musical time spans. In sum, the tremendous information load of an opera like Grimes puts a significant burden on any company.

Add to this the directorial challenge of creating the necessary ambiguity surrounding many of the characters, making this ambiguity purposeful rather than inconsistent, sloppy, or overlooked in rehearsal. Are the townsfolk justified in their persecution of Peter Grimes? Are some simply heartless and mean? Are they all on the same page or are some basically passive or uncaring, "live and let live" about the goings on around them? Do they have different investments, spoken or unspoken, in his demise? But what manner of threat did he pose to them? Oh the workhouse boys? Do they care about the workhouse boys? “I am native, rooted here,” Grimes says to Balstrode, but he is not apparently known to most by anything other than reputation or hearsay. What was Peter’s relationship with Ellen Orford before the opera starts? On what basis is it founded? How did they meet?

Alex Richardson’s Grimes started slowly, but as the Borough’s vice tightens his character's self-control collapses. Brief outbursts signal the formation of the cracks. We watch him crumble. Richardson had heft of voice, technique and good range to handle the vocal demands and the dramatic expression as well to create a complex character. Bravo!

His ‘angel,’ Ellen Orford was taken by Caroline Worra, whose emotional range was somewhat more constricted, but whose clear and silvery voice shined throughout. Particularly lovely was the quartet “In the gutter” in Act II with Worra, Eve Gigliotti (Auntie) and Jessica Beebe and Sharon Harms (the Nieces). The Nieces were always particularly fetching and charming.

Gigliotti’s good natured Auntie firmly maintained her ground against the pounding surf of propriety represented by one Mrs. Sedley, in the program titled ‘widow and busybody,’ omitting ‘opiate addict’ (laudamun), this adjectival phrase left to come to the minds of those who read the synopsis and/or listened carefully to the text on stage. The other is Bob Boles, titled ‘methodist fisherman, belligerent when drunk.’ He also cuts through the crowd like a squall at high tide with religious censures for any deviations from the Word. Kathryn Krasovec’s Sedley was appropriately tight, proper, and corporate, out of sync actually with the rest of the Borough. But then she is a widow of substance, of the merchant rank, and probably as miserable with herself as she is with others. At home (not shown) she downs gin martinis, shaken not stirred. Krasovec was unbending in her pursuit of Grimes. Casey Finnigan as Boles was also monomaniacal as moral reformer, as vigilante, and as an amourous tippler who seeks to sip at the cups of the Nieces. Both were impressive characters.

Balstrode cannot exactly be called a friend of Peter Grimes, but he, also an old salt, is respected and certainly can engage Grimes in an adult conversation. Interesting that he provides the perspective that the first boy’s death while fishing at sea with Grimes might have been accelerated by malnutrition in the workhouse; interesting too that Balstrode was not forward with that observation at the initial hearing. Hmmm. Where was he? Stephen Gaertner was first rate as Balstrode.

His ‘foil,’ if that’s the right word, is Ned Keene, sung by Sean Anderson. Keene is billed as ‘apothecary and quack,’ but as much to the point he’s a dandy, a flirt, an enabler, also charming. Anderson fit the role to perfection. Joseph Barron’s Swallow, the lawyer, was oily and probably corrupt, certainly lacking scruples; Logan Webber, Christopher Job, Harry Fini, William Guhl-Erdie and E. Alexander Hermann round out the cast. All singers were first rate and completely committed to their performances.

Updating the time of the production from the late 1700s (George Crabbe wrote The Village stories, the source of Peter Grimes in 1783) to the 1940s is not in the least jarring in the manner that opera updates often are. Imagine Aïda set in 1945. In fact, it allows more leeway in character differentiation through the costuming. Mrs. Sedley is corporate clad, Ellen Orford is school teacher conservative and Ned Keene looks slick, compared the others in their East Coast fisherperson chic. Costumes were by Marie Miller.

Nor does the update challenge Jonathan Dahm’s set design or Norman Coates’ lighting. A barrel is a barrel, a net is a net, and so on, and they have to change quickly with the music. This they did admirably. Thankfully LaCosse or Dahm didn’t see the need to give Mrs. Sedley a Rolls to cement her status. Driving on laudanum is not a good idea.

Tang Yuk’s tempi were measured, all instruments clearly articulated, and all entrances precise, all together. It was exhilarating to hear Britten’s score in such an acoustically alive theater as the Matthews. I wanted a bigger climax to the end of the Boar scene (Act I, Scene II). It seemed to let up earlier than the weatherman predicted. But Tang Yuk did hold back with the chorus as they form the manhunt to take down Peter Grimes, the volume of this contrasting sharply with the eerie emptiness of Peter's final moments and the closing curtain.

Peter Grimes was performed in the Matthews Theatre, mainstage of the McCarter Theatre Center in Princeton, NJ, on June 26, 2016, the final performance of three.

It was indeed a pleasure to journey south to witness the Festival’s centerpiece. See you next year!  JRS

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Bard's Summer Scape performs Mascagni's Iris

Bard Summer Scape 2016 features Mascagni’s IRIS

The 27th Bard Summer Scape and the Bard Music Festival at Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson, NY, opens on July 1 and closes on August 14.

The theme this year is Puccini and His World, which, one would think, begs for an infrequently performed Puccini work as the Festival’s opera centerpiece, his early Edgar springing immediately I’m sure to those operatically inclined minds with a perverse penchant for the obscure. But though Edgar easily fits the category “infrequently performed,’ all of Puccini’s subsequent operas get more than ample stage time these days, at least at the Met and all over Italy. Puccini is the operatic cash cow of the 20th century.

 Giacomo Puccini...Alinari/Bridgeman Images 

Giacomo Puccini...Alinari/Bridgeman Images 

For Mascagni the case is exactly the opposite: save his early runaway success Cavalleria Rusticana, all of Mascagni’s subsequent operas, some eleven or so ‘major’ ones, if that’s the right word, remain virtually unknown on stage these days. More often than not these are represented by only one, maybe two recordings of live performances taped from the stage or from a broadcast. Bravi to Bard College President and Bard Music Festival Co-Director Leon Botstein and his staff for selecting Iris for the 2016 opera! It is a diamond in the rough, with the emphasis on the word ‘diamond’ for the music, the ‘rough’ reserved for the plot, featuring a gentle Iris trampled by callous men of questionable motives or morals.

Rewind to Europe in the late 19th century: the Orient is one of many new fads, but by the time Mascagni caught the Express, Camille Saint-Saëns (La Princess jaune, 1872), Arthur Sullivan (The Mikado, 1885), André Messager (Madame Chrysanthème, 1893), and Sidney Jones (The Geisha, 1896), to name just a few, were already on board. Iris, set to a libretto by the renowned Luigi Illica, premiered in Rome in November, 1898, which, for temporal context, was less than two years before Tosca. As for the far East, Puccini would be waiting on the platform at the next stop with Madama Butterfly (1904), scenario by the same Illica with verses by Giuseppe Giacosa. Iris arrived at the Met in 1907 with Enrico Caruso and Emma Eames, revived in 1915 for Lucrezia Bori (Toscanini conducting) for a grand total of 13 performances. For the record, the Met also performed Mascagni’s L’amico Fritz (1894 (Emma Calvé) and 1923 (Lucrezia Bori), total of 5 performances) and Lodoletta (1918, total of 8 performances in two seasons) with Enrico Caruso, Geraldine Farrar and Pasquale Amato). And that’s it. This defines ‘infrequent’ in my book, probably also in yours.

Unlike Cio Cio San, Iris is not seduced and abandoned by a cunning Westerner, but rather used and abused by men of her own people, her blind father Il Cieco (the Blind One) included. She is like the beautiful flower innocently waiting to be plucked but then discarded when she has lost her bloom. Flowers, ever a part of Japanese art, form a central theme in the opera, opening themselves in the sunlight and closing at night. Like Wagner’s Das Rheingold, Iris begins with deep sounds, but of the dark night, not the murky depths of a river, ever brightening with the first rays of the sun to a crescendo as the dawn breaks. The Sun is given voice through the agency of an unseen chorus…depending, of course, on how it’s staged here. He, the Sun that is, comes back at the end to warm the last moments of Iris’s sad death in filth. Fans of Boito’s Mefistofele will note the structural similarities of these tonal parentheses in Iris.

Her gentle simplicity, in some respects like Puccini’s Suor Angelica, is established at the very beginning as she tends to her flower garden. She is abducted away from her dependent but grumpy old father by Kyoto and Osaka (no joke, really). Both men are smitten by her beauty. The former, the owner of a house of pleasure in Yoshiwara, a notorious red lantern district, has business in mind; the latter, a lust driven nobleman with a lot of money, is the customer first in line. The two take advantage of a traveling puppet theater, disguising themselves as actors with the cooperation of the players. In fact, the aria Aprite la tua finestra in Act I, most likely the only one you’ll recognize, if at all, is Osaka’s voice-over for the puppet Jor, who is the Son of the Sun. Iris is spell bound by the drama, she, flower-like, having a special relationship with the Sun and now, wow, she's hearing him speak to her! But suddenly the geishas surround the transfixed Iris and, unseen by all the others, Kyoto’s samurai whisk her away to town. The bold themes of the Sun and life, contrasted with the cheap sounds of the small band of the puppet theater, figure prominently in the music of Act I.

  Talise Trevigne sings Iris at Bard's Summer Scape

Talise Trevigne sings Iris at Bard's Summer Scape

In Act II the naïve Iris has no idea what’s in store for her in the Yoshiwara geisha house. A gentle theme in the strings, as easily from Wolf-Ferrari’s pen as from Mascagni’s, becomes her music as Kyoto and Osaka contemplate her beauty sleep. Iris recognizes Osaka’s voice as that of Jor, Son of the Sun, but, getting at last to the point, Osaka renames himself Il Piacere (Pleasure), though in fact Iris hasn’t a clue about just what sort of pleasure Osaka keeps returning the conversation to. You can bet it's not flower arranging. Their one sided love duet never comes together in unison as does that between Pinkerton and Butterfly in their Act I. 

  Gerald Schneider sings Osaka in Bard's Iris

Gerald Schneider sings Osaka in Bard's Iris

Osaka leaves, frustrated. Her long solo Ognora sogni reflects how much her mind and fantasies wander around on the outskirts of reality. Wanting his money’s worth, Kyoto threatens to throw Iris down a garbage chute into the fetid sewers below if she doesn’t cooperate, which, because it stinks to high heaven down there, she does, consenting to pose face painted and colorfully robed on the balcony for all the gents in the streets to see. Pays to advertise, I guess. Seeing her again, this time decked out, Osaka’s lust is rekindled and he sings appropriately so. But just then her father, who at the close of Act I vowed to find Iris and punish her for leaving him, finds her, not, as one would hope, to rescue her but rather to throw mud at her. Distraught, Iris throws herself down the hole into the waste products. There in Act III she dies as the early rays of the sun embrace her; Iris is transformed in death. Meanwhile the self-centered men Kyoto, Osaka, and Il Cieco commiserate about how rough life will be without her, though each is remorseless about the fact that she is dead. Apart from the aforementioned sonic bookends at the beginning and end of Iris, the music is recognizably in Mascagni’s fach, for better or worse, though it’s not a blatant rehash of Cavalleria, again for better or worse. The score is far more organic, less one set piece after another set piece; its musical themes interweave throughout, yet without conspicuous sacrifice of the big moments so vivid in his first big hit. 

  Douglas Williams sings Kyoto

Douglas Williams sings Kyoto

A respectable complete studio recording of Iris, starring Placido Domingo, Ilona Tokody, Juan Pons, and Bonaldo Giaiotti, conducted by Giuseppe Patane (1989, then on CBS Records) is still available. The aria Aprite la tua finestra can be found on Jonas Kaufmann’s new album of arias on Decca entitled The Age of Puccini (released in 2015). Other available complete live performances of Iris include those of sopranos Daniela Dessai, Magda Olivero, and Clara Petrella.

Puccini and His World is indeed about his world, which, musically at least, includes some sixteen other contemporary and admirable Italian opera composers, some relatively progressive, swayed by contemporary ‘advances’ in music and literature, with a tendency to look down at the others who remained more conventional or even regressive. My partial list, with names, dates in chronological birth order, signature works, and dates of their premieres, includes Arrigo Boito (1842-1918), Mefistofele (1868, 1881 with revisions); Alfredo Catalani (1854-1893), La Wally (1892); Ruggero Leoncavallo (1857-1919), I Pagliacci (1892); Giacomo Puccini (1858-1924) (I had to include him, it is after all ‘his world’ here. Do I need to list them?); Alberto Franchetti (1860-1942), Cristoforo Colombo (1892 of course); Pietro Mascagni (1863-1945), Cavalleria Rusticana (1890); Ferruccio Busoni (1866-1924), Doktor Faust (1925); Francesco Cilea (1866-1950), Adrianna Lecouvreur (1902); Umberto Giordano (1867-1948), Andrea Chenier (1896); Franco Alfano (1875-1954), La leggenda di Sakuntala (1921); Italo Montemezzi (1875-1952), L’amor di tre re (1913); Ermanno Wolf-Ferrari (1876-1948), Il campiello (1936) out of many; Ottorino Respighi (1879-1936), La compana sommerso (1927); Ildebrando Pizzetti (1880-1968), Fedra (1915); Gian Francisco Malipiero (1882-1973), a lot you’ll probably never see; Riccardo Zandonai (1883-1945), Francesca da Rimini (1914); and Alfredo Casella (1883-1947), La donna serpente (1932). A veritable flurry of names, dates, and operas, it’s true. With a little digging these are all relatively easy to find on CD today, though most not on DVD or even on stage somewhere within range of your pocket book. Which is why Iris is very welcome this season.

Three broad factors stand out here: first, four composers on the list (and also Puccini) had the good grace to pass into the next world where the angels sing before Mussolini’s fascist regime took a firm grip on Italy, which, when you think about it, saved them from the dilemma of having to decide about their allegiance to his government: do you stay and salute? Or drop out of sight, stay low, but remain in Italy? Or do you embrace neither option and make a fast exit abroad where who ever heard of a living Italian opera composer? The last two options spell the end of a musical career. Second, the survivors faced the same dilemma of years ago when Verdi retired (and passed): who will assume the title and spotlight as Italy’s king of opera with Puccini now deceased? Who will live to see their art realized in performance? But third, with Mussolini in power, from whom do they get financial backing? Fascists were hostile to Malipiero’s La favola del figlio combiato, to a libretto by Pirandello, in 1934, but his Giulio Cesare in 1936, with its obvious themes of Italian power and greatness, was better received; Mascagni’s Nerone (Nero) in 1935 was intended as a tribute to Mussolini.

The relationship between the powerful and the rich, pardon the redundancy here, and the arts is well exemplified and documented in the history of the world of opera. Just ask Lully, Handel, Rameau, Haydn, Gluck, and Mozart, to name six, to tell you how their works got realized. Ask Verdi or Donizetti or Prokofiev or Shostakovich how he felt about government or church censorship. As much as this relationship is largely responsible for the operas we know and love today, it’s also responsible for the operas we either almost didn’t know until recently or will never know. Their creators weren’t permitted to nurture their craft through practical performance experience, weren’t given any exposure, publicity, or promotion...basically not given much of a chance, be it because their political views, their beliefs, or their culture differed from that favored by the powerful and the rich. It’s no different today.

Those wishing to hear Leon Botstein and others discuss aspects of this season's Summer Scape please click on the link below:

Watch this video interview with Bard College President and Bard Music Festival Artistic Codirector Leon Botstein to learn about Giacomo Puccini’s world.

In the cast Talise Trevigne sings the lovely Iris, Gerald Schneider takes the role Osaka, and Douglas Williams sings Kyoto. Mascagni’s Iris is performed in the Sosnoff Theater on the Fridays July 22 and 29 at 7:30 p.m., Sundays July 24 and 31 and Wednesday July 27 at 2 p.m. The pre-opera talk is July 24 at noon; the roundtrip Summerscape coach from New York City runs on July 22, 24, and 31. By my calculations Acts I & II are each about 50 minutes, Act III is about 25.

Photos of artists are by Gideon Lester.

Puccini’s ghost haunts the discourse of the Festival, with extended commentary on the rapidly changing world from the late 19th century to the middle of the century, probably the relationship between power and art, and the strong personalities of the era. Non-operatic works from that period, notably the Respighi/Rossini ballet Fantasque, and other works inspired by that period are also performed.

  Marcella Mariani in Luciano Visconti's  Senso , 1954

Marcella Mariani in Luciano Visconti's Senso, 1954

Oh, and don't miss the film series entitled Puccini and the Operatic Impulse in Cinema. Films by Bertolucci, Visconti, Leone, Scorsese, and Ivory, among others, are featured.

For complete information, dates and times, also ticket sales, please visit Bard’s website (fishercenter.bard.edu) or call the Box Office at 845-758-7900.

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Bel Canto at Caramoor 2016

Rare early Rossini and heroic Beethoven at Caramoor’s 2016 Bel Canto season

 

Opera is alive and well at the Caramoor Center for Music and the Arts again this summer. This season we have Rossini’s unfamiliar, but in some respects very familiar Aureliano in Palmira and Beethoven’s mighty good over evil opera Fidelio.

OperaMetro caught up with Will Crutchfield, Director of Opera, whose Bel Canto at Caramoor program has brought us countless operatic wonders, most decidedly rare, but then some reasonably familiar, each with a newfound elegance and a plethora of insights. The back and forth of this interview was conducted via email but formatted as if we were doing the Q & A overlooking the lush gardens of Caramoor, mists ascending from the fields before the heat of the afternoon sun.

OperaMetro (OM): Top of the morning to you Will.

Will Crutchfield (WC): Cheers.

  Will Crutchfield conducts opera for Bel Canto at Caramoor in the Venetian Theatre

Will Crutchfield conducts opera for Bel Canto at Caramoor in the Venetian Theatre

OM: Rossini’s Aureliano in Palmira is one of his early operas which, I confess, sadly, I’ve never heard before. It’s not one of Rossini’s Neapolitan opera serie, a style we’ve grown to know better over the decades, but rather written for Milan. But Herbert Weinstock, in his biography Rossini (1968), gives it about a half a page and reports it was poorly received, perhaps due to the singers. Bad initial press notwithstanding, what is special about this one?

WC: The main thing to realize about Aureliano in Palmira is that all that lukewarm press was based on a very simplified version of the opera that went into circulation after the premiere. There's no question that Aureliano got off to a bad start - they went through three different tenors and the rehearsals were obviously in a state of emergency. And Rossini made the judgment call to re-use some of the music in other operas and move on.  However, this has absolutely nothing to do with the quality of the opera he had actually written.

OM: But re-using music was not unheard of in those days, especially in Rossini’s case. I’m told that he subsequently borrowed parts of the overture to Aureliano in Palmira, which opened the La Scala season on December 26, 1813, for his Elisabetta Regina d’Ingleterra, which premiered in Naples in October, 1815, and then, less than six months later, he again used the overture and even bits and pieces for Il Barbiere di Siviglia, which premiered in Rome the following February. How much of Aureliano’s overture will we recognize knowing Barbiere?

WC: You'll recognize all of it! It is exactly the same overture, unchanged for Barbiere. The difference is that both parts of the overture actually return in the course of Aureliano - the allegro as part of the first-act finale, and the slow introduction as a prelude to Arsace's magnificent scene in the countryside after he escapes from prison. So the piece is truly an integral-and-integrated part of Aureliano, not of Barbiere. There are a few other tunes in that got re-used, or paraphrased, in other operas, but not whole pieces.  

OM: Guess I have heard some of it before! But Rossini’s Aureliano has recently had a rebirth of sorts.

WC: At the Rossini Opera Festival in Pesaro in 2014, we put on the real score of the opera for the first time since La Scala two hundred years earlier. Nobody realized that it existed until we compared all surviving manuscripts of Aureliano to make the new critical edition for Ricordi. And even that first sketchy Scala production had to leave out one of the most exciting duets, probably because of the tenor problems. When our Pesaro DVD* came out, Aureliano won first place for "Best Rediscovered Work" at the International Opera Awards for 2015.  

What you realize when you hear the whole thing is that this is the bridge between the inspired purity of early operas like Tancredi and the rich complexity of those Neapolitan operas, and the Parisian ones that followed. There is fantastically rich, extensive, gorgeous writing for chorus and orchestra. I'd say it's the opera in which Rossini first discovered the power of the chorus, which becomes something decisive for Romantic Italian opera. And it has all the variety and intricacy of vocal writing that we know from scores like La donna del lago and Semiramide. So I would call it a masterpiece, period.

It's also just a bit subversive. The outward plot has a very 18th-century feel: a Roman conqueror who is tempted to deal harshly with his opponents, but decides on noble clemency.

OM: Like Mozart’s La Clemenza di Tito.

WC: Right. Within that, though, Rossini and his young librettist (Felice Romani, who went on to write Norma, La sonnambula, Anna Bolena, L'elisir d'amore and so many others) pull a shift of interest. They create a romantic love story. The emotional center of the opera is two people who start out thinking "victory, victory, victory," and end up not achieving victory, but finding true love. That becomes the central theme for a century's worth of operas: the need to love and be loved surpasses all others.

  Georgia Jarman is Zenobia in  Aureliano in Palmira ; Marzelline in  Fidelio

Georgia Jarman is Zenobia in Aureliano in Palmira; Marzelline in Fidelio

OM: What roles pose the greatest challenges, and whom, among your singers, should we listen for?

WC: Two of the principal singers are known to Caramoor's public. One is Georgia Jarman, who got her start here and is now heard all over the world, from Covent Garden to Santa Fe, and who is a truly great Bel Canto singer. The other is Tamara Mumford, who is a rising star at the Met and who did a spectacular Orsini in Lucrezia Borgia for us two years ago. The third is an extremely exciting tenor, Andrew Owens. He combines all the coloratura virtuosity needed for Rossini with the beautiful, ringing sound and expansive top notes of a tenor you would like to hear in La bohème or Rigoletto. That is something rare and much-needed, so we are really looking forward to his Aureliano.

  Tamara Mumford is Arsace in  Aureliano in Palmira

Tamara Mumford is Arsace in Aureliano in Palmira

  Andrew Owens is Aureliano in  Aureliano in Palmira

Andrew Owens is Aureliano in Aureliano in Palmira

OM: We look forward to this. And I’m on that Pesaro DVD, trust me!

Shifting gears here, since Fidelio is to some extent a departure from what one would call ‘bel canto,’ so why Fidelio here, apart from the fact that it is a great opera and you want to do it?

WC: Actually not so much of a departure, I'd say. Dialogues of the Carmelites last year was a real departure.  But in 1804, when Beethoven wrote the first version, and 1814, when the final version came out, everybody was experimenting with a mixture of 18th-century ingredients, most of them Italian, to figure out what 19th-century opera was going to be like. Rossini would become the defining model for Italy, but that had not happened yet. And Beethoven and Rossini in 1814 have a lot more in common than either one has with, say, Richard Strauss or Puccini.

OM: Fidelio is known as a Rescue-Opera, its most famous predecessor being Cherubini’s Les deux journées to a Bouilly libretto. But for that matter Mozart’s Entführung aus dem Serail (1782) is a rescue opera, albeit well mannered; certainly Grétry’s Richard, Coeur-de-lion from 1784 is about a noble rescue, he’s the King of England for goodness sake! And the operas even earlier based on Ariosto or Tasso are chock full of rescues…not to mention the Orfeo operas, unsuccessful as that rescue was. So why does Fidelio get the big R in Rescue as opposed to a small r? Don’t people do their homework anymore? Is it just because it comes after the French Revolution, the others earlier forgotten due to some collective short-term memory deficit? Or are there musico-dramatic aspects of Fidelio to elevate it above these others?

WC: I think what elevates Fidelio is the inspired content of Beethoven's music, plain and simple. As a libretto it is not even particularly good, at least not by the standards we would later apply. Why is Florestan in prison? What had he tried to do? What were his ideals? We have no idea, and that keeps him somewhat one-dimensional compared to the Marquis of Posa in Don Carlos, for instance.  But it doesn't matter - the dimension Beethoven can add is the depth of his conviction, the depth of his suffering, the depth of his love for the wife who is searching for him. By that I mean: Beethoven gives Florestan music that leads us into receptivity, surprises us enough to make it a bit of a struggle, and ultimately satisfies us - and when we hear music that affects us to that degree, we give our belief to the dramatic character. 

As for the genre of the rescue-opera - it does have a certain built-in quality that's exciting in the theater: we know the desired outcome, we see it striven for but we see its attainment threatened, we are in suspense as to how the situation will be saved, and we feel a burst of happy energy when that happens. The stronger the composer's musical ability to portray the tension and danger, the bigger the burst. That scheme is also really useful to a project that Beethoven, among others, was undertaking:  how to make a large-scale musical work feel like an organic whole, not a collection of individual pieces. Beethoven was re-balancing interest towards the ending. That's what he does in symphonies, where the finale feels like a culmination. There are great symphonies of Haydn that could conceivably trade minuets with each other, but you could never do that in Beethoven because he's finding the way to make each movement belong to something bigger than any of them.

  Elza van der Heever is Leonore in Beethoven's  Fidelio

Elza van der Heever is Leonore in Beethoven's Fidelio

OM: The role of Leonore was a career making role for many mezzos/sopranos in the 19th century, even today I suppose. Are there specific vocal challenges that make the role an Everest to ascent or are there more dramatic challenges, or both?

WC: Both. Leonore needs a dramatic through-line of unusual clarity and force. It's very easy to understand it, but harder to project it with the radiant moment-to-moment strength that makes an audience believe. You have to love Leonore, the way Beethoven clearly loved this make-believe ideal of perfect self-sacrifice and courage.  On the practical side, she has to have a voice of genuine power and beauty to match her spiritual qualities, yet also the finesse and agility to surmount a good deal of frankly awkward vocal writing, and never let the audience become distracted by that. If you feel the awkwardness is winning, you lose the dramatic focus.

OM: Special singers here?

WC: Our Leonore, Elza van den Heever, has a real chance of living up to the description just given.

OM: On another note, back to your point that “everybody was experimenting with a mixture of 18th-century ingredients” at the time of Beethoven’s Fidelio, what with the revival these days of operas, orchestras, and singers in the here loosely defined pre-1800 style, are there any adjustments you’ll be making to have your Fidelio sound more like it might have sounded originally in 1814? In what ways would this be informative to modern ears?

WC: First of all I should clarify that this isn't going to be my Fidelio - we've invited Pablo Heras-Casado, the new principal conductor of St. Luke's, to make his Caramoor opera debut (and, I believe, to conduct his first Fidelio ever).  But your question still applies, because Pablo has experience in the early-music movement, and experience with Bel Canto as well. He's part of the generation that is assimilating what the late-20th-century "Early Music" people taught us, and breaking down the barriers between that and what we called "mainstream" classical music.  Exactly how he'll apply this to Fidelio, though, we have to wait and see. One thing is that he did ask us to cast it more in relation to the heroic Mozart operas and less in relation to Wagner.  That's not a hard-and-fast division, of course, but it does say something about fleetness and transparency, and I expect we'll hear those qualities as we've already heard them in his Beethoven symphonies with St. Luke's.

OM: My first encounter with Elza van den Heever was in the Met’s new production of Maria Stuarda. She’s at home in Donizetti certainly and was quite arresting on stage.

Thank you, my friend, for talking with me.

WC: My pleasure.

* The Rossini Opera Festival’s production of Aureliano in Palmira is available on ArtHaus DVDs under the direction of Will Crutchfield. Michael Spyres and Jessica Pratt star.

** Georgia Jarman stars as Roxana in the Opus Arte Blu ray of the Covent Garden production of Szymanowski’s Król Roger (King Roger), featuring also Marius Kwiecien and Saimir Pirgu, conducted by Antonio Pappano.

Photos, in order, are by Gabe Palacio, Kelly Moore, Dario Acosta, and Roberto Giostra.

Rossini’s Aureliano in Palmira is performed at the Caramoor Center for Music and the Arts in the Venetian Theater on the evening of Saturday, July 16. The title role is sung by tenor Andrew Owens; Zenobia is taken by soprano Georgia Jarman; Arsace is essayed by Tamara Mumford, mezzo soprano. Will Crutchfield conducts the Orchestra of St. Lukes.

Beethoven’s Fidelio is performed on the evening of Saturday, July 30. Elza van den Heever sings the noble Leonore, Paul Groves will sing the role of Florestan, Marzelline is Georgia Jarman, Rocco, her father, is taken by Kristinn Sigmundsson, the evil Don Pizarro is taken by Alfred Walker, and Jacquino is sung by Andrew Owens. The Orchestra of St. Luke's is under the baton of Pablo Heras-Casado, who makes his conducting debut for Bel Canto at Caramoor.

On the evening of July 7 the Bel Canto Young Artists perform arias and duets under the cover of The Intimate Rossini; on July 21 they perform Beethoven in Song.

The Caramoor Center for Music and the Arts is located outside Katonah, NY. In addition to the music the lovely grounds afford ample space for pre-performance picnicing; parking is free.

For tickets and further information, please visit the Caramoor website: www.caramoor.org.

Peace be with you all. Enjoy! JRS

Peter Grimes at Princeton Festival 2016

Peter Grimes! Peter Grimes! Peter Grimes!

Benjamin Britten’s Peter Grimes, arguably one of the masterpieces of 20th century opera, is a prominent feature of this year’s Princeton Festival in Princeton, New Jersey.

It’s not by any means what one would call a ‘festive’ piece, neither in book nor in score. No, Peter Grimes is a work that lingers, at least with me, music that seeps from the murk below into one’s consciousness when one least expects it. Especially when you’re near the ocean. In March, yes, like this past March, when the weather was particularly beastly. Blowing mist…cold.

OperaMetro spoke with Richard Tang Yuk, who conducts the Princeton Festival Orchestra for Peter Grimes, Steven LaCosse, who directs the production, and tenor Alex Richardson, who sings the title role. Perhaps they can shed some light on Mr. Grimes and his so called exercise.

For this, OperaMetro formats their responses to my email questions as if we four were actively discussing Peter Grimes over a pint or two at The Boar with the damp salt air blowing in from the North Sea. Quite a bit of a draft!

Ned Keene (NK): Mind that door!

OperaMetro (OM): What? Well, cheers, gentlemen! A toast to Peter Grimes and to the Princeton Festival 2016 for block and tackling this masterpiece and bringing it to the stage! Impetus?

 Richard Tang Yuk conductor

Richard Tang Yuk conductor

Richard Tang Yuk (RTY): Well, from the standpoint of the performers the opera is immensely rewarding, artistically and emotionally. I suppose it's like discovering a good novel and being totally consumed in it. Artistically it’s important as well: Britten's operas forged new paths in the realm of English opera with his very distinctive and original style. I very much admire Britten’s music.

OM: I, too. You’ve conducted other scores by Britten?

RTY: Yes. I’ve performed many of Britten’s choral works and conducted A Midsummer Night's Dream, also The Rape of Lucretia. But this is my first production of Peter Grimes. I’ve been quite eager to do this one for the Festival.

OM: It’s not at all very happy opera, is it.

Steven LaCosse (SLC): No, not at all! Peter Grimes is an ‘every man’ who has had a very hard life. He wants to earn an honest living and provide for the future home and family he envisions with the schoolmistress, the widow Ellen Orford. But Grimes is a loner, and therefore not one of the ‘acceptable’ folks of the Borough. For some reason they’ve collectively shifted their focus from each other to him, to his shortcomings and eccentricities.

OM: These are the negative aspects of communal solidarity. Their ‘ways’ are deemed the only ‘way,’ and managed, however informally, by threats of varying degrees of exclusion, everything from teasing, bullying, mocking, public shaming, slandering, shunning, excommunicating, incarcerating, exiling, even executing. It’s ugly.

SLC: Yet not a one of them is without fault. The Borough people around Grimes are very hypocritical.

OM: Absolutely: the Methodist Bob Boles condemns them all for enjoying a spot of rum as they shelter themselves at The Boar during the height of the storm, but he manages to get himself blithering drunk and begins talking love around the young Nieces. Ned Keene is pretty relaxed, easy going, open minded, he even helps Peter haul his boat ashore when the town turns its back. But he also is an enabler for Mrs. Sedley’s addiction to laudanum. And let’s not forget Auntie, who is running essentially the village whorehouse at The Boar. No sign yet of Auntie’s Nieces today, however.

SLC: The Borough folk use Peter as both the source and the target of their fear and hatred, which allows them to carry around their own dirty secrets close to them, find excuses, and go on with their lives. Even at the opera’s beginning Peter is at a low point, hyper sensitive and vulnerable to their influence.

OM: And when you think about it, Peter and Ellen or, for that matter, even Balstrode don’t really know what his ‘crime’ is, what his ‘exercise’ is. He knows they gossip about him, but he doesn’t really know why. Why Peter? You’re singing Grimes, Alex. Your thoughts? 

 Alex Richardson stars as Peter Grimes at Princeton Festival

Alex Richardson stars as Peter Grimes at Princeton Festival

Alex Richardson (AR): From my perspective Peter’s two most prominent traits are his over sensitivity to the town’s gossip, which goes on sometimes right to his face, but also behind his back. And then there is his obsession to raise his standing in the town by fishing the big catch to eventually become a wealthy and respectable merchant. He wants this more than anything. But he is proud too: he is not willing to marry Ellen until he feels he has earned the regard of the townspeople. And he wants her respect to come with her hand in marriage, “Not for pity,” he says to Balstrode in the storm scene. He doesn’t want to tarnish her reputation.

OM: There’s no chance the town folks will ever hold him in high regard.

AR: Certainly not in the opera.

OM: I remember reading that George Crabbe’s The Borough, which is the source of the opera, depicts a much more reprehensible Peter Grimes, certainly more so than in Montagu Slater’s libretto or in Britten and Peter Pears’ ultimate conception of the role. According to Pears, I’m paraphrasing here, Grimes is neither a psychopath nor a criminal, but rather more or less a misfit, one whose behavior is to some extent understandable and excusable.

AR: As to that, I think it will be important for us to portray Grimes’ softer moments where he is calm, thinking clearly, and behaving appropriately, so as to highlight the reasons behind his outbursts. The main side that most people tend to remember about Peter Grimes is his unstable side. Though Grimes becomes more and more mentally unstable as the opera progresses, I believe that he isn’t violent by nature. And I believe his isolation is painful to a degree. He longs for peace, warmth, and kindness. But his obsession for wealth and his insecurity lead him to make irrational decisions. These completely cloud his judgment when dealing with others in the Borough. The main trigger for his switch from stable to unstable is the gossip of the townspeople. The opera is very well-written in this regard.

OM: Their ‘chatter’ is clearly orchestrated in the score. In the lower woodwinds mainly, I believe.

AR: The Prologue, curtain up, sets the scene perfectly and immediately informs the audience of what the relationships in the opera are. Most of the townsfolk are there. Peter Grimes is being publicly questioned about the death of his young apprentice while they were fishing at sea, and we see that Grimes at first is calm, answering the questions clearly. But responses from the townspeople, increasingly noisy, agitate Grimes into making his own outburst to the judge and at the them, demanding that he receive an actual trial so as to stop the town's gossip and “thrust into their mouths the simple truth.”

SLC: Exactly: Peter does not deny the case against him. The boy died out there three days at sea without water on a boatload of fish. They have all the facts. But it is when the townspeople begin to chatter and gossip that he starts to break down.

AR: Right, and the room erupts in chaos and is finally cleared of the people, leaving Grimes alone with Ellen, who comes to comfort him. They have a poignant, unaccompanied duet in which the two characters are singing in two different and conflicting keys, until Ellen calms him down enough that they sing the last few phrases in unison as she leads him out of the room assuring him that she is a friend to him.

OM: For me, Ellen is his elusive future, which is ideally calming and protecting. He says to her in that Prologue that her voice out of pain is like a hand that you can feel and know: here is a friend. There are repeated references to the ‘hand’ throughout the opera, and when later he brusquely takes away her hand, one senses his gate to that sought after future is now nearly closed. Yet more than once he asks himself where is home? What harbor shelters peace? These are textual themes as well as musical themes. And then there are those marvelous orchestral interludes, transitioning the moods and interweaving the themes.

RTY: Yes, interludes…it takes time to fully appreciate the layered complexity and nuances of the score and libretto. One can only glean so much on the first hearing, but the investment of time with this opera reaps tremendous rewards. It’s like the enjoyment of a fine wine. I greatly admire the craftsmanship in the writing: his extensive use of counterpoint, the innovative rhythmic vitality, his harmonic language, penchant for haunting melodies, and the clarity of his orchestration. Britten’s score evokes the psychological state of the dramatic elements, with no distractions or superfluous material, but rather it enhances what is happening in the story, almost like a movie soundtrack, producing a unified artistic entity.

OM: I find the opera very affecting, very sad, empty. Particularly the end. Like Berg’s Wozzeck. A human life is allowed to go under, lost, practically unnoticed, and the lives of those left in the Borough simply go on. Who will be next?

(pause)

AR: I hope the audience leaves our production thinking that under different circumstances, Peter Grimes might have been able to live a decent life in his society.

OM: Thank you, gentlemen, for your insights and wisdom. On to Grimes! Ned! Another round!

Afterthoughts: Benjamin Britten (1913-1976) composed the role of Peter Grimes explicitly for his long time companion, tenor Peter Pears (1910-1986). The world premiere took place on June 7, 1945, at Sadler’s Wells, with Joan Cross as Ellen and Owen Brannigan as Swallow. Reginald Goodall conducted. Excerpts of Grimes were recorded at this time with Pears, Cross, and Goodall, available on CD through the EMI/HMV British Composers series. The US premiere of Peter Grimes was at Tanglewood under Leonard Bernstein in 1946; the Metropolitan Opera followed suit in February of 1948.

Ever Britten’s muse, Pears also created the roles of Albert Herring, Captain Vere in Billy Budd, Peter Quint in The Turn of the Screw, Flute in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Sir Philip Wingrave in Owen Wingrave, and Gustav von Aschenbach in Death in Venice. He recorded Peter Grimes with Britten on the podium both on Decca audio in 1958 (with Claire Watson and Owen Brannigan) and on a BBC studio video in color in 1969 (with Heather Harper). The late great Jon Vickers also recorded Peter Grimes on Philips audio in 1978 and on video from Covent Garden in 1981, both with Heather Harper, both under the baton of Sir Colin Davis. Another highly recommended recording is with Anthony Rolfe Johnson and Felicity Lott on EMI (1992), conducted by Bernard Haitink. All of the above are available from retailers.

The Princeton Festival cast of Peter Grimes includes Alex Richardson as Grimes, Caroline Worra as Ellen Orford, Stephen Gaertner as Captain Balstrode, Eve Gigliotti as Auntie, Jessica Beebe as the First Niece, Sharon Harms as the Second Niece, Joseph Barron as the lawyer Swallow, Kathryn Krasovec as Mrs. Sedley, Sean Anderson as Ned Keene, Casey Finnigan as Bob Boles, Christopher Job as Hobson, and Logan Webber as Reverend Horace Adams.

Jonathan Dahm Robertson is Set Designer, Norman Coates is Lighting Designer, Marie Miller is Costume Designer, and Gregory Geehern is Chorus Master.

Benjamin Britten’s Peter Grimes is performed on the evenings of Saturday, June 18, at 8 p.m. and Thursday, June 23, at 7:30 p.m. A matinee performance is on Sunday, June 26, at 3 p.m. Reserved seating for all performances, at prices of $140, $110, $90, $70, $50, and $30. Tickets may be purchased online @ www.princetonfestival.org, click “buy tickets;” by telephone: 609-258-2787, or purchase them in person at the Ticket Office in the front foyer of the McCarter Theatre, which is located at 91 University Place, Princeton, NJ. The box office is open 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. on weekdays; call for weekend hours which are variable.

Princeton is a lovely town in the spring. Actually all year round. Enjoy!

J.