La Bohème by Giacomo Puccini Opera Western Reserve 11/15/13

The four occupants of a freezing loft in Bohemian Paris of the late 1800s should be young and high-spirited in spite of their lack of amenities, and they really were in Opera Western Reserve’s glowing production of La Bohème last week. It’s too bad there couldn’t be more than one performance, as this one was as near to being sold out as makes no difference. The quartet of male singers were exceedingly well-matched in both vocal quality and physical appearance.

But when push comes to shove, it’s really the pairing of Rodolfo and Mimi about whom we care the most. He is the struggling young writer and she the frail seamstress. Shy, lonely, cold in the unheated garret, the two meet and fall in love. Their soaring voices draw us in, whether we will or not. We have no choice in the matter.  The other couple, Marcello and Musetta are slightly older and more experienced in the arts of love.

Of course, there are other distractions – the landlord wanting his rent, and the occasional foray out into the warmth of Café Momus. As sometimes happens in real life, too many other people can create even more difficulties, and that happens here, as well. Finally, however, Rodolfo and Mimi are reunited, but – sadly, it’s too late.

There wasn’t a weak voice in the bunch. Alex Richardson and Marian Vogel were simply terrific (and terrific together as well) as Rodolfo and Mimi.  As Marcello, the painter, Michael Young was paired with the saucy Musetta of Lauren FryJason Budd was soulful in his brief tribute to his overcoat, while Joel Herold as the joyful musician Schaunard, was everyone’s best friend – bringing food and drink into the cold garret, and livening things up with his horseplay.

The orchestra is amazing, as is the conductor and music director of OWR, Susan Davenny Wyner. Several violin solos were beautifully performed by the concertmaster, Hristo Popov.  David Vosburgh was not only the stage director, but also designed the clever sets and translated the text for the supertitles. The sets were a marvel of economy – the opera’s four acts were here condensed to two, with two different scenes in each, and it all worked wonderfully well.  As stage manager, Matty Sayre kept everything moving smoothly and on time.   

In the second scene of the first act, set in the street outside the Café Momus, as well as inside the Café, the OWR chorus prepared by Hae-Jong Lee and the Girard City Youth Chorus prepared by its director Sue Ellen Harris-Davis were superb as various townsfolk, waiters and street peddlers, all celebrating Christmas Eve.     

Costumes by Barbara Luce of The Costume Kingdom were colorful or tattered as required, while Rising Sun Entertainment & Productions provided both lighting design and stage crew. Salon Stefano was in charge of make-up and hair design.

In a production as well done as this one was, it’s easy to see why Puccini’s La Bohème is arguably the most popular opera ever written. 

Next year’s opera will be Don Giovanni by Mozart, on Friday November 14, 2014 at 7:30 pm. The web-site for more information and eventual reservations is: OperaWesternReserve.org.

 

CIM Opera Scenes April 20, 2013

If you love opera, you’ll be doubly delighted when you attend a production of “Sensational Scenes” as presented by the Cleveland Institute of Music. First, you’ll be astounded by the variety and immense musical talents of the upcoming generation of singers. Then you’ll be equally astounded by the exuberance they exhibit on-stage.

 

I certainly do enjoy a complete opera production, but I find the ‘Scenes’ presentations to be equally enjoyable, if not more so. If variety is truly the spice of life, then the scenes present the spice in opera. You get most of the big hits, and some selections that should and would be – if anyone other than teachers were aware of their enormous charms.

 

This presentation not only included scenes from eight rather well-known operas, but also a complete one-act production of the rarely performed L’enfant et Les Sortilèges or ‘The Child and the Enchantments’ by Maurice Ravel, with libretto by Colette. And even with a 15-minute intermission, the whole was almost exactly two hours. 

 

Briefly, a child throws a tantrum and is sent to his room, where he destroys his favorite books. With nowhere else to live, all the inhabitants therefore come to life to scold him by various means. It was especially fun to see the very physical actions of the characters, while trying to imagine more mature singers in these parts. (Ohhhh, my aching knees!) In addition to Mother, there was furniture: chair, settee and clock; teapot and cup; arithmetic; fire; a shepherd and shepherdess; and a princess.

 

Once the child moved out to the garden, there was an even wider assortment of creatures: a lady cat and her tom, a tree, a dragonfly, a nightingale, a bat, a butterfly a squirrel, a tree frog, and two owls! Some of these parts required more singing than did others, but everyone on the stage comported themselves appropriately and joyfully.  Nearly all parts were double- or triple-cast, so any not appearing in a solo role on one night would instead be part of the chorus. 

 

Performed on a bare stage with only occasional props, the entire performance stresses the stage-craft as well as the vocal expertise of the singers. It’s terrific to be able to observe the growing maturity of the students, as they move through their years of study.

 

After intermission, there were costumed arias, sung in their original language (with English surtitles): The Laughing Song from Die Fledermaus by Johann Strauss; The Song of Kleinzach from Tales of Hoffman by Jacques Offenbach; The Queen Mab Aria from Roméo et Juliette by Charles Gounod; The Sister’s Duet and The Love Duet from Arabella by Richard Strauss; I Want Magic! from A Streetcar Named Desire by André Previn (barely 16 years old and in the repertoire!); Donde Lieta and Quartet from La Bohème by Giacomo Puccini; Glitter and Be Gay from Candide by Leonard Bernstein and The Drinking Song: Libiamo from La Traviata by Guiseppe Verdi. The entire company was on-stage for the chorus of the last work—a very impressive and hard-working group!

Opera Coach and Chorus Master John Simmons was the amazing accompanist for the program, performing the equivalent of three or four concertos all in one evening. Most impressive! David Bamberger is the Artistic Director of the Opera Theater and was also Stage Director for this production.

 

(Because the performers are still students, I don’t mention names. Suffice it to say, they were all splendid!) If you want to see the next generation of opera before it gets there, you can’t go wrong with one of the presentations of CIM’s Opera Theater. www.cim.edu/opera

Parsifal – opera live in HD from the Met

It was a first-time event for me on Saturday. I went to our local movie complex that features the Metropolitan Opera in HD. The opera was Parsifal by Richard Wagner. I was raised on opera, especially those by Wagner, so I was really predisposed and conditioned to LOVE it! Wrong. I’d heard that this opera is considered ‘unstageable.’ Now I know why.

It was so darkly lit I could barely decipher anything that was happening on stage, except for the middle act, which I really could have done without. More on that later. I was SO bummed. I’d been looking forward to this so much, and the production came over as just blah! The singing was marvelous, I have to say that — the principals were uniformly superb, especially Jonas Kaufmann in the title role! The orchestra was great, as always, but then one hardly ever sees them anyway. And even in the second and third acts when DIE HARD was blowing up the world in the theater to the left and GIANT in 3D!!! was blowing up their part on the right side, you could still slightly make out the music underneath all those thunderous rumblings!!

The first act was two hours long. TWO HOURS!!!!  It went on and on and on, full of mysticism and ritualism, which didn’t make much sense to me, especially as it seemed as though it was taking place at the bottom of a coal mine. With no candles anywhere. There were maybe 60 men in the men’s chorus (the same number of ladies in theirs, but they were not often on the stage at the same time.) I admit to perking up some as the men who were in dark suits with white shirts w/ cufflinks!, and ties, proceeded to do a sort of strip tease right there in front of everybody. They stopped once the jackets and cufflinks were in a neat pile on the floor in front of them, while the ties all went in each guy’s left hand front trouser pocket. Drat! The symbolism of that one escapes me. But I digress.

They moved around slowly in a circle — I kept thinking of kaleidoscopes, for some reason — the constantly changing patterns, I suppose. Then one of the men sang a long solo, followed by another one — who’d been injured by a spear and was dying, but he didn’t want to let go. Then there was a woman wallowing around on the floor, all the time singing very seductively. Then a not-quite-dead swan fell out of the sky (actually it was carried on stage by one of the young women. I neglected to say they were all wearing a sort of ballet dress — minimal top with ribbon straps, and a flowing chiffon skirt in what used to be called waltz length. Everyone – men and women – were barefoot! Shortly after the swan, came the young handsome dude who didn’t know who he was, where he came from, who his father was, or anything else much, either. He was the ‘fool’. Believe it or not, this stretched on for two hours! I was so relieved when the first intermission arrived.

They had a brief chat with the ‘fool’ – the gorgeous tenor, Jonas Kaufmann – who talked about the production, his new Wagner CD (which I bought tonight, thanks for the alert!) and then chatted in German to the international viewing audience, via camera. Something like ‘hi Mom!’ Or not.  After him they chatted with René Pape, an equally gorgeous bass, and he also chatted in German to the audience.

The second act was only about an hour, maybe a bit more, although it seemed longer than the first act did. Why? It was quite well lit, so we could SEE what was happening on stage. Ugh. The entire stage was made into a blood pool. Really. It was full of liquid something to about ankle depth. Actually, the technical wizard for the Met was also interviewed, and he explained that it was water, food coloring and food-quality glycerin, at a temperature of about 105°F, so no one would get cold feet! Thoughtful of them, I must say, considering that those same white gowns worn by the women in the first act were worn in this one, too, and by the time the act was over, most of the white gowns were red to about the hip level, some even higher, depending on how much they were really wallowing around in that goop. Oh, and I forgot to say, they all had long, straight black hair — when I say long, I mean they could have sat on it with no trouble. In some cases it might even have been knee-length. It was loose, and very likely to become reddish in color from the blood pool. One of the men was bathing in it, and splashing around, then the woman from the first act, who’d been in black then, was now in white, and also red before she left the stage. As was the bed which was lowered from above somewhere, so that she and the fool could ‘fool around’ a bit. He was all red, too, before they finally parted company after only one kiss. End of that act! And not any too soon, either!

During the second intermission they interviewed the producer François Girard, and the conductor, Daniele Gatti, who spoke nicely in English, but with a charming French or Italian touch, respectively. The conductor, by the way, didn’t use a score. Five plus hours by memory! He’s a better man than I am, Gunga Din.

The third act was back in the coal mine again. With the men. Towards the end of the act, the women returned, but this time they were in black. No idea of the style, as black on black is quite hard to decipher. It was post-Apocalypse timing, sort of, which is why everyone was grubby and tattered, and you couldn’t see anything very well. All the movements — and there were a goodly bit of synchronized hand/arm movements — were very well choreographed, and together! (Lotsa practice, there!)  The backdrops which had been most interesting throughout – beautiful multi-color clouds and skyscapes – provided us with a very close-up view of a planet during this last act. Truly interesting and picturesque.

Well, it finally ended. The audience at the Met was ecstatic. On their feet, yelling and carrying on. The audience in the theater, however, being mostly senior citizens, were busily struggling to simply get ON their feet, in order to vacate the place. Who can blame them?

It was my mistake to have chosen Parsifal for my first-ever theater opera. I knew it was long — I’ve heard it on the radio lots of times — and frankly, I think I’d have been able to see just as much if I’d simply stayed home and watched the radio. Honestly, I think a concert version would work a lot better!

The terrific soloists were: Katarina Dalayman (Kundry), Jonas Kaufmann (Parsifal), Peter Mattei (Amfortas), Evgeny Nikitin (Klingsor) and René Pape (Gurnemanz).

And the technical staff were: Michael Levine (Set Designer), Thibault Vancraenenbroeck (Costume Designer –hand’s down, the best theatrical name I’ve ever encountered!),  David Finn (Lighting Designer), Peter Flaherty (Video Designer), Carolyn Choa (Choreographer) and Serge Lamothe (Dramaturg).

The very congenial Live in HD Host bass-baritone Eric Owens.

With apologies (and thanks) to the great Andy Griffith who did this sort of thing first (some 50+ years ago) and MUCH better! (Remember ‘What it was was Football’ and ‘Romeo and Juliet’? I think there was also a ‘Hamlet’, but I don’t remember for sure.) Sadly, Mr. Griffith is no longer with us.

Comments? Questions?  Feel free! I’d love to hear from anyone else who attended this movie event, wherever.

Blithe Spirit at Great Lakes Theater

Ahhh. The eternal triangle. Or possible a haunted/hopeful bigamist? When the spirits set out to play pranks on the unsuspecting, all sorts of mayhem may ensue. Such is the case with this delightful comedy by Noel Coward, which debuted in London in 1941. It’s probably never been off-stage entirely since then, for after all, who doesn’t love a ghost?

When a mystery writer Charles Condomine looks for inspiration for his novel-in-progress and schedules a séance, he has no idea what lies ahead for him. His first wife Elvira died seven years earlier, and Ruth, his second wife of five years, appears to be slightly insecure. The household also has a slightly dithery maid, Edith.

It is Madame Arcati, however, who may, all-too-easily, steal the show. The eccentric medium is a part made for blissful success in the hands and voice  of a particular type of actress: think Margaret Rutherford or Mildred Natwick. Angela Lansbury won a Tony in the most recent Broadway production.

The séance is a tad too successful, bringing Elvira back to her marital home. She is visible only to Charles, which thoroughly unsettles Ruth. When Charles suggests taking Ruth to a nearby movie, Elvira’s temper gets the better of her. He changes his mind, and Ruth takes the car out. It is not Charles who dies, but Ruth.

Now that Charles has both ghostly wives in his house, he pleads with Madame Arcati to help. It takes a while, with a couple of false starts, but the ending is marvelous!

Noel Coward’s masterpiece is well-served by the technical staff of Great Lakes: Russell Metheny’s set design looked entirely livable as well as period-perfect. Likewise the charming costumes by Kim Krumm Sorenson. (The two black mourning ribbons on Condomine’s tuxedo sleeves were a subtly-humorous masterstroke!) Lighting by Rick Martin and Sound by Richard B. Ingraham enhanced throughout – the cuckoo songs were especially winsome. Stage manager Tim Kinzel maintained a steady pace throughout. After aiming his actors toward the desired objective, Director Charles Fee mostly–and wisely–stays out of their way.

But, of course, without actors, there can be no performance, and there could be no quibbles with this ensemble. Laurie Birmingham as Madame Arcati was everything one could wish for in the role. Gallumphing around the stage in her sensible oxfords, with beads swaying here and there, she displays an enchanting sense of surprise and delight at her own accomplishments—and failures.

Shanara Gabrielle is ‘ethereality’ personified as her Elvira glides around the room in a dishy, very clingy satin gown with floating sleeves. It’s a very pale shade of near-nothingness, barely a shade darker than her even paler self with a mop of platinum-blonde curls. She slinks and slithers and laughs while cheerfully creating absolute mayhem. Maggie Kettering as Ruth is a good foil for her, being nearly the opposite in every way: more down to earth (even as a ghost) but insecure as the second wife. (It is to be hoped she slows her fast-paced chatter just a tad so as to be more understandable, especially in the first act.)

Reunited and it feels so…good? Actor Eric Damon Smith (as Charles) is confronted with the ghost of his deceased first wife, Shanara Gabrielle (as Elvira), during a hilarious haunting in Great Lakes Theater’s production of the spook-tacular Noel Coward comedy “Blithe Spirit” at the Hanna Theatre, PlayhouseSquare which runs through March 10. (Photo by Roger Mastroianni)

As Charles Condomine, Eric Damon Smith has the manner of a 1930s British socialite down pat. Further, he so looks the part as to be entirely believable. Veteran GLT actor Aled Davies exhibits the medical manners of a long-time physician needed for the part of Dr. Bradman: mixing a bit of charisma with a dab of compassion and a splash of concern as though he’d been doing it all his life. Local actress and GLT newcomer Molly McGinnis shines as the sympathetic Mrs. Bradman. Jodi Dominick is wonderfully gawky and dim as Edith, the servant with an impeccable sense of timing.

Blithe Spirit has had several record-setting runs on-stage in London and New York since its debut, as well as several revivals here and there. It has been made into a delightful musical called High Spirits; and had several film/TV incarnations. Sheer genius! See the secret to its longevity for yourself. It runs through March 10 at the Hanna Theatre. For ticket info, visit online at GreatLakesTheater.org or call 216.241.6000.

—  Kelly Ferjutz

Seeing Music: Cinematic Visions for the Concert Stage

I could hardly believe my eyes when I walked into Reinberger Chamber Music Hall at Severance Hall on Saturday evening, February 9, 2013 for the pre-concert lecture. It was the first time I’d been to a Cleveland Orchestra Concert for nearly a year. And the first I would review for this, my new review site: A Musical Eye. It seemed almost too coincidental to be believed. However, that title proved to be entirely accurate.

The program was a Russian-Italian Sandwich, sort of . . .

I’d been eagerly anticipated the Cleveland conducting debut of the Italian maestro, Gianandrea Noseda, since October 2005, when he’d conducted a concert by the NY Philharmonic, when I was privileged to be in the audience. On this night in Cleveland, his soloist was the principal trombonist Massimo La Rosa, who came here from Sicily some 6 or so years ago to join the orchestra. They would collaborate on the Trombone Concerto by Italian film composer Nino Rota.

The two Russian works that flanked the concerto were by 20th century masters: Isle of the Dead by Sergei Rachmaninoff and Sergei Prokofiev’s Sixth Symphony.

The musical version of Isle of the Dead was inspired by the painting of the same name by the Swiss painter Arnold Böcklin. The composer’s intention was for it to be a frightening experience. This performance was more plaintive than scary, although there was definitely an eerie feel to the piece. For the most part, the rhythm is 5/8, to imitate the uneasy feeling of the water rocking the boat. The conductor, who did not use a baton for this performance, did produce vivid dynamics from the orchestra, however. The Dies Irae from the horns was very notable.

The Symphony No. 6 in E-flat major, Op. 111 of Prokofief was composed in 1945-47, and was to be his last major work. Shortly after the triumphal premiere of his noted Fifth Symphony, the composer had a heart attack, from which he never completely recovered. He struggled to finish the Sixth, and perhaps this is why it has only three movements. But in truth, it is not incomplete in any way.

That Prokofief was a first-class melodist is readily apparent, especially in the Largo middle movement. Not to say that he copied from himself, but there were reminders of his two major ballets: Cinderella (clocks striking the hour, via woodblocks) and Romeo and Juliet, with the gorgeous and lush tension of longing and opulent love music. There were beautiful soloes from the violas and horns, as well as a unison and very eerie oboes in octaves. The final movement bordered at times on frantic. However, the musicians all ended at the same time, so all was great!

For many in the audience, however, the highlight of the evening was the marvelous performance of Mr. La Rosa in the concerto. Obviously he is very engaged with this work, and who could blame him? It shows off both the player’s skill and the instrument’s burnished and sumptuous glory. The composer, who is perhaps better known for his film music (think ‘The Godfather’ films, plus many film scores for the noted director Federico Fellini) was certainly no slouch when it came to concert music, having composed operas and concertos in addition to more than 150 films.

Mr. La Rosa was placed on stage to the conductor’s right hand, rather than the more usual left side. It made no difference at all in the  projection of the sound in the concert hall. The first movement was really frisky and might have left a less-adroit soloist struggling to catch up! The second movement, Lento, was as close to an operatic aria as could be imagined, allowing for Mr. La Rosa’s lavish sound to envelope the listener with warmth and beauty. The final movement provided an assortment of musical fireworks, displaying a musical agility not often thought of when imagining a trombone solo. Mr. La Rosa is a remarkable talent, and it is to be hoped that we’ll hear more from him, and his previously somewhat neglected instrument.

Mr. Noseda, who conducts regularly at the Metropolitan Opera, is a very athletic conductor, at times almost balletic in his movements and gestures. He seemed to have a terrific rapport with the Orchestra. The audience certainly thought so, responding throughout with terrific accolades for all concerned.

For more information about upcoming concerts by the Cleveland Orchestra, visit the web-site: http://www.clevelandorchestra.com

Mozart in Hawaii? No, not quite —

Did you ever read a book that made you feel it had been written just for you? Of course, with any luck (and great publicity) it would also be read by millions of other people, but still, it had such resonance for you on so many levels – it was YOUR book! Except you didn’t write it.          Waimea resized

Aloha, Mozart by Waimea Williams has been that book for me! There are so many similarities between the author and myself – and I knew most of them before I ever had the pleasure of speaking with her.

Although Ms. Williams is from Hawaii and I’m a native of Detroit, we share a lot of memories and history. We both knew at a young age that classical music—especially opera—would loom large in our lives. Then we digress a bit, for she went on to be a professional soprano on the international stage, while I eventually ended up as audience member and music reviewer. I dreamed – she did. And did she ever!

Waimea grew up in isolated rural Hawaii in the 50s with no TV and few movies, so everyone made music. “We all learned touristy Waikiki hula,” she says with a laugh.  At 13 her family moved to the big city of Honolulu. “It was so different, with limits on what you could do.”  Yet as a teenager she got her first singing jobs, then came to a turning point while attending a school production of Mozart’s Magic Flute. “ I came to see there was a whole other world out there.” Years later she appeared in various productions of that opera –preferring Pamina to the infamous Queen of the Night with that treacherous high F.

In college on the mainland  Waimea’s voice developed toward opera. In the late 60s she boldly moved to New York, but found the city expensive and plagued by riots.  Naively she had dreamed of getting a Met contract.   Music study abroad was safer and cheaper, so with her savings she boarded a rusted freighter bound for Europe.  In Salzburg, Austria, she faced immediate culture clash:  Old World formality and dress codes were the norm for studying at the Mozarteum.

The dominant Catholic Church still followed the medieval Saint’s Day calendar, but hired orchestras and singers throughout the year. Waimea sang at weekly masses, and after the undecorated, stark Protestant churches of Hawaii, this kind of performing—as she says in her book— “Here she was in a lavish European court of the Lord.”

During winter months in the unheated cathedral, she stood in the balcony wearing a heavy coat, hat and gloves as the string players constantly retuned because of the cold.  Soloists clustered together, stepped forward to sing, then quickly retreated to the warmth  of the choristers behind them.

Salzburg also supported a provincial theater devoted to operetta, and countless Lieder and chamber music concerts.  In the summer, the standard rose to the internationally-renowned Salzburg Festival.  World-famous musicians and discriminating audiences flocked to hear  Herbert von Karajan, a conductor with the status of a rock-star. He also controlled classical music in Berlin and Vienna, was a master of publicity, drove race cars, and flew his own jet.  Waimea found chances to sing at the edge of all this, and was a soloist under Karl Böhm, the other leading conductor of that era.

For ten years Waimea sang in opera houses in Vienna, Salzburg, and Dűsseldorf before returning to New York. The Met still favored hiring only non-American singers.  Without regrets, she performed a final recital. She never looked back, conceding it to be a ‘bittersweet memory’. Perhaps her favorite role was that of Gilda in Verdi’s Rigoletto.

For several years in Manhattan and then San Francisco, she used an ability for “spatial logic” to diagnose computer problems.  She headed teams of tech writers, but craved an artistic outlet, and quit the business world to take creative writing classes at UC/Berkeley.  After receiving scholarships to writers’ conferences, she began to seek publication. It would be similar to auditioning for opera roles, she figured.  What followed was a four-year correspondence with a New Yorker editor, who read 25 of her short stories, yet didn’t accept a single one. “It was a great learning experience,” she notes now. Then, she began a novel.

During the next twenty years (and four major revisions) she worked on Aloha, Mozart. In between, there were more short stories, and other novels, but always she came back to this one. She developed great affection for San Francisco, then as always planned, moved back to Hawaii.

Waimea Williams remains true to its heritage by working as a cultural practitioner, after long study performing Hawaiian chant in traditional settings .  “It’s like a dramatic style of ancient rhetoric” she says, “often strange and fascinating to modern ears.”

Aloha, Mozart

To read my review of this book, which I unhesitatingly labeled my favorite book of the year, you can find it here:  http://citybookreview.com/aloha-mozart/