The sixth annual Gesher Music Festival, "American Dreams," a program of the Jewish Community Center, recently wrapped up 11 days of celebrating Jewish musical artists. A variety of events were held to meet artists, and variety performances were created that included the "Route 66 Playlist" concert, "Welcome to America," and concluded with "The Great (Jewish) American Songbook."

Songbook was created to explore contributions of Jewish composers and lyricists to musical theatre, popular music, and more serious classical compositions.

A portion of the nearly two-hour program was a mélange of very well-known musical theatre and film numbers that included "Get Happy" (by Harold Arlen and Ted Koehler, perhaps most associated with Judy Garland's take in the film Summer Stock), "Whatever Lola Wants" (by Richard Adler and Jerry Ross for Damn Yankees), "Smoke Gets in Your Eyes" (by Jerome Kern and lyricist Otto Harbach for their 1933 musical Roberta), "Somewhere" (Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim for West Side Story), and "Something Wonderful" (Richard Rogers and Oscar Hammerstein for The King and I). Mezzo-soprano Lucy Dhegrae did the honors on all the theatrical songs, ably accompanied by Daniel Pesca on the piano. Her voice, without amplification, easily filled the Wool Studio Theatre.

Other selections in the program highlighted the fact that some Jewish composers may have made their names with musical theatre work, but they were wont also to create less known, more classical compositions. Examples of these works were chosen that included George Gershwin's "Lullaby," and Kurt Weill's "String Quartet No. 1, Op. 8." Doing justice to these selections was a quartet that included J. Freivogel and Karen Kim on violins, Dominic Johnson on the viola, and Sara Sitzer (also founding Artistic Director of the Gesher Festival) on cello. A final classical selection was Leonard Bernstein's 1942 "Sonata for Clarinet and Piano," featuring Dana Hotle on the clarinet and Daniel Pesca on the piano.

Songbook was entertaining and enlightening, highlighting the invaluable contributions of Jewish composers to "The Great (Jewish) American Songbook."

 

 

The decade spanning the turn of the 20th century was a veritable decennium mirabilia, or "decade of wonders," for Puccini. In these years Puccini wrote three of the world's top five all-time favorite operas: La bohème (1896), Tosca (1900), and Madama Butterfly (1904)--all wonderful, but each quite distinct. La bohème was based on a collection of stories some fifty years old; Tosca drew from a play just thirteen years old; Butterfly came from a play only four years old and more representative of the new trend in realism. La bohème is nostalgic and romantic--Mimi and her friends are the original "poor people of Paris." Butterfly is filled with delicate oriental exoticism and gentle pathos. Tosca, on the other hand, is sheer nineteenth-century heroic melodrama. The libretto is based on a play by Vitorien Sardou, one of the most prolific and successful continental playwrights of his era, who (with Eugène Scribe) epitomized what was then called "the well-made play." These plays were heavily plot-driven and showed little interest in subtlety or depth of character. G. B. Shaw, who championed more modern drama, dismissed such "well-made" plays as "sardoodledom."

Well, Tosca is a classic melodrama, by which I mean a play driven by an evil villain. Many melodramas end with justice triumphant, but Tosca is a tragic melodrama, which means that everyone ends up dead--both the virtuous and the vile.

Puccini set his story in (precisely) 1800, when Italy was being tossed between Napoleon and the Austrian empire. It presents the conflicting forces of tyranny and the libertarian, egalitarian rebels who were inspired by the French Revolution. The Union Avenue production, under the skilled direction of John Truitt, transposes the story to sometime in the 1930's. This places the modern audience in a more accessible political framework: Fascism versus free democracy. It works well, though the Fascism is, one must admit, a bit heavy-handed.

Angelotti, an escaped political prisoner, seeks sanctuary in a church where his friend Cavaradossi is painting a portrait of Mary Magdalene. The painter offers his friend a hiding place on his villa. Floria Tosca, the painter's mistress, arrives. She's a famous opera singer and she succumbs to pangs of jealousy when she sees that the painting of the Magdalene looks not like her, but like some other woman. The ensuing plot involves the wicked chief of police, Baron Scarpia, and his effort to capture Angelotti. Now Scarpia is a villain as pitch-black as Iago and after various complications Scarpia has both Cavaradossi and Tosca in his hands. Will Tosca yield to Scarpia's lust for her in order to save Cavaradossi's life? Well, you just buy a ticket!

On stage the audience sees the stunningly beautiful interior of a church in Rome. When the orchestra strikes those first ominous bold, brassy modern-sounding chords we know we're in for something special.

Elena O'Connor sings the role of Tosca. She is a strikingly lovely, tall graceful woman, with an astonishingly powerful voice. In the memorable "Vissi d'arte" aria, where Tosca in anguish sings of her piety, she echoes the suffering of Job--and even Christ's words from the cross. Ms. O'Connor delivers this aria with a conquering power and clarity that makes it one of the most memorable moments of the evening.

Matthew Edwardsen sings a superb Cavaradossi, vocally strong and true. One most striking moment is when news comes that Napoleon (the good guy) has won a critical battle; Edwardsen pours out a cry of "VITTORIA! VITTORIA!" with an almost sky-shattering triumph. He is also a handsome, gifted actor and his passion is utterly convincing.

Neil Nelson makes Baron Scarpia the epitome of evil. Over and above his rich full baritone, he gives Scarpia intelligence and supreme confidence. His pledge of evil over the soft strains of the "Te Deum" is chilling in its irony.

Wayne Hu is particularly strong as Angelotti, the fleeing prisoner; Marc Schapman, Kurtis Shoemake and Randall McGee do fine work as police agents and a jailer. Mark Freiman gives a vocally strong Sacristan and fills him with wry comedy.

At the opening of Act 3, we hear a shepherd song that is so lovely I thought it must surely be coming from heaven--beautiful work by Katherine Menke.

Puccini's score for Tosca is more like a film score than are others of his works. It is more "through-written" and more programmatic--with musical phrases supporting very specific stage business. It's like the best film score ever--but for a highly melodramatic B-movie. The music is filled with Puccini's characteristic lyrical beauty and it wondrously supports the joys and fears of the characters, but there are only a few arias with deeply memorable melodies: Tosca's "Vissi d'arte," for example, and Cavaradossi's utterly gorgeous and melancholy "E lucevan le stelle"--so full of tender erotic memories.

Conductor Stephen Hargreaves draws consistently excellent work from his singers and orchestra.

But the story of Tosca is sheer, bald melodrama--a style long out of fashion. Scarpia doesn't actually tie Tosca to a railroad track but the effect is the same when he forces her to weigh her honor against her lover's life as Cavaradossi screams under torture off-stage. It is this melodrama which prevents us from bonding our hearts to these characters as we so readily do with Mimi and Butterfly.

The talented Kyra Bishop designed the remarkably fine set with excellent assistance from charge artist Cameron Tesson. The church has towering pillars and walls full of framed segments of a gorgeous sky-scape. And we find that this large set is wonderfully convertible: it changes into an excellent Palazzo Farnese, and then to a very convincing prison in the Castel Sant'Angelo. Costumes by Teresa Dogget exhibit her usual perfection in design and construction.

My one quarrel with the visuals of this production is with the new painting of Mary Magdalene. It is totally out of harmony with every other aspect of this Baroque church. Its style might be Fauvist or Expressionist, and the lady portrayed would certainly not inspire anyone to exclaim (as Tosca does), "She is too beautiful!"

Lighting designer Jeff Behm does beautiful work underscoring the high melodrama taking place. For example, as our hero is being tortured by the Fascists off-stage we are startled by the sudden dimming of the lights--like in all of those old death-row movies of the forties.

Union Avenue Opera's splendid production of Puccini's Tosca runs through August 6.

 

Verdi's opera is every bit as dark and bloody as Shakespeare's drama on which it was based. It is true to the original play in most details of plot and character, yet it differs in significant ways -- ways that express the different political worlds from which the two works sprang. Verdi first addressed Shakespeare's "Scottish play" with an opera that premiered in 1847. After eighteen years he revised it -- the new version opening in 1865. In that eighteen years Italy had became a nation.

For hundreds of years Italy had been merely an assortment of city-states, duchies, dogeries, Papal States and areas ruled by foreign "great powers" -- from Norman and Spanish kings in the south to, more recently, the Habsburg Austrian Empire and Napoleonic France. There was barely even a common language. The great Austrian diplomat Metternich called Italy "nothing more than a geographic expression." But starting around 1815 (when Verdi was two years old) Italy experienced the Risorgimento -- it's great struggle for independence and unification. This ended in a single independent state under King Victor Emmanuel. Verdi was in the middle of this fight. He was already famous when his first Macbeth appeared (one year before Italy's first war of independence). The revised Macbeth opened one year before the third war of independence. During those eighteen years, Verdi's operas became synonymous with the cause of an Italian nation. His very name became a kind of popular acronymic battle cry: "Viva VERDI" or "Viva Vittorio Emanuele, Re D'Italia!"

So it is not surprising that in Verdi's Macbeth we find much more presence of the Scottish people than in Shakespeare. In Shakespeare Macbeth's usurpation of the crown is an outrage against the nobles; in Verdi it is an outrage against the people. Hence we find that Verdi's opera emphasizes the chorus; yes, there are gorgeous arias, but it is the choral work that most distinguishes this opera.

And in this OTSL production the chorus does glorious work! Now one striking invention of Verdi (and Piave, his librettist) is the efflorescence of the witches from three to eighteen! Thus we get another chorus. Verdi does, at one point, give this female chorus a curiously bright and bouncy number that evokes all of those choruses of maidens in Gilbert and Sullivan -- but I suppose he could stomach only just so much gloom and doom. And there seem to be sixteen or so murderers ready to kill the Macduffs. Be that as it may, chorus master Robert Ainsley draws superb work from his choristers, both witches and Scots: perfect synchrony, wonderfully distinct and controlled dynamics and beautiful diction, and true choral glory at the end.

The principals are all splendid, most especially those playing the colossally cursed couple who crave the crown. The folks at OTSL have planned for forty years to do this opera but as general director Timothy O’Leary put it, Stephen Lord -- music director and the conductor of the production -- had always wanted to wait for "the right baritone" to play Macbeth. Well, in Roland Wood he has most assuredly found him. His voice is powerful and pure -- a very dramatic dramatic baritone indeed. His voice simply commands the hall. He is well matched by Julie Makerov as Lady Macbeth. Such power and drama in her voice! Those stunning high notes soar toward the heavens as if to shake loose the tragedy waiting for her there. In those grand choral numbers we hear Miss Makerov's voice shining like a bright lodestar above the chorus. She tells her troubled lord, "I will provide all the strength you need!" Indeed!

These two are powerfully persuasive actors. They beautifully convey the intense ambition, the fear, the panic in this nightmare world they inhabit. And all the blood and tension trigger an erotic magnetism between the two -- as if on some great cosmic piano they strike a shattering chord of blood, only to evoke the sympathetic reverberation of some dark erotic chord below.

Bass Robert Pomakov does impressive work as Banquo. His aria of dark premonition is most moving, and he makes a fearsome and stony ghost -- his shaved head the perfect canvas for all that blood. Tenor Matthew Plenk sings a very strong Macduff. His anguished grief over the deaths of his family will break your heart. And Evan LeRoy Johnson is bright and heroic as Malcolm, the ultimate and rightful king.

The design team serves this opera exquisitely. Set designer Alex Eales gives us a simple vast rear wall with coffered panels, perhaps reminiscent of the dome of the Pantheon. This wall opens or closes with the smooth ease of a camera iris to enlarge or shrink the acting space. Costumer Mark Bouman clothes his characters properly and beautifully in ancient Scottish attire.

Lighting designer Christopher Akerlind creates a dark world for this dark, dark tale. A great troubled gray sky broods over it all and subtle auras of illumination keep the principals visible. The black-robed witches of this coven drift like wraiths through the gloom.

Stage director Lee Blakely does wonderful work -- from the overall visual concept to the very detailed elements of movement and business that carefully support the music, such as the gradual arrival of the witches, their almost magical dispersal, the solitary abandoned figure against a glow. There is much use of long rough branches: When the witches carry them they subtly evoke broom-sticks; when Malcolm's army wields them they become Birnam Wood. And the parade of Banquo's eight descendant kings in Act 3 is strange and disturbing: the witches draw from their caldron, one after another, small gray bundles -- like mummified infants -- and present them for Macbeth. At appropriate moments throughout, there is alarming thunder and lighting. (The world is in turmoil!) It is some of the most beautifully dramatic staging I've seen in a long time.

My congratulations to all involved. Verdi's Macbeth at Opera Theatre of St. Louis is a production not to be missed. It continues through June 26 at the Loretto-Hilton Center on the Webster University campus.

For information on other operas in the season, see the preview article "Tales of love, death, and laughter in Opera Theatre's 2016 season" by Chuck Lavazzi.

 

In 1912 Richard Strauss presented to the world a most curious new opera, Ariadne auf Naxos, in which he combined the staid and grandiose beauty of the classical tragic opera with the comic antics of a commedia troupe. Opera Theatre of St. Louis has opened a simply perfect production of this work. It's entire sensibility -- staging, costumes, sets, lights, and especially the acting style -- expresses a profound empathy with Strauss's subtle blend of classicism and parody. Stage director Sean Curran and his designers -- James Schuette (sets), Amanda Seymour (costumes) and Christopher Akerlind (lighting)--deserve enormous praise for so sensitively capturing the odd heart of this beautiful opera. (Sung in English, OTSL presents it as Ariadne on Naxos.)

So: Classic and commedia? What's that all about? The grand classic style had its heyday in the eighteenth century, and commedia dell'arte flourished even earlier. Now Strauss is most definitely a modern composer -- he died in 1949, and his works caused great controversy in his time. His Salome (1909) was damned by critics as "neurotic," "over-sensual," "decadent." (The Opera Theatre's production of Salome seven years ago deliciously validated all those adjectives!) But Strauss had himself composed around a classic Greek theme before: Elektra (1909) was the first in his long and productive collaboration with librettist Hugo von Hoffmannsthal, a major Austrian poet and playwright. Strauss, like Wagner, sought to make the play and the music one.

Ariadne on Naxos is an opera-within-an-opera. Director Sean Curran has very successfully moved the story from the 18th century to the late 19th. An enormously rich nobleman has hired two companies to provide entertainment at a grand banquet: an opera company will perform Ariadne on Naxos, a new work by a very young composer who is desperate for his first chance at glory, then will come the comedic relief of the second company. But the dinner has been delayed and the fireworks must be set off at the prescribed time. So the performers are given a command: both companies must perform simultaneously. The diva and the composer are outraged but the leader of the comedy troup says, "Hey, improv is our schtick! No problem!"

First we see the preparations. We meet the ego-blown classic Wagnerian soprano and tenor; the merry and irreverent comedy troupe: Zerbinetta, Harlequin, Truffaldino, Brighella, Scaramuccio and their cocky dancing master. We meet the adorable young composer. The composer is a "trousers role" -- a male role sung by a woman. In this role Cecelia Hall just trampled on my heart. She is so young, so earnest, so innocent, so ardent! She is so dedicated to her art. Slender, long-limbed, graceful in a convincingly boyish way -- and with a superb clear sweet voice -- she is perfect!

As the inner opera begins we see Ariadne abandoned by her lover, Theseus, on the isle of Naxos. In glorious (but eventually rather tedious) repetition she bemoans her misery. The comedy troupe arrives and sets out to raise her spirits -- they sing, they plead, they comfort, they dance (in a sort of clownish conga line) -- but to no avail. Eventually the young god Bacchus arrives and he and Ariadne bond romantically.

Marjorie Owens, as Ariadne, is beautiful in her classic Greek gown. Her glorious voice is a marvel of power and control. Tenor A.J. Glueckert does masterly work in the role of Bacchus. Matthew DiBatista sings a delightfully self-confident Dancing Master. John Brancy is a wonderfully athletic Harlequin -- with a glorious voice and a gifted dancer's physicality. Elizabeth Sutphen, Stephanie Sanchez and Liv Redpath do beautiful work as three nymphs who attend Ariadne. Erik von Heyningen, Benjamin Lee, and Miles Mikkanen play comedians who can sing and dance and clown delightfully Levi Hernandez is an excellent Music Master. Our own Ken Page makes a most imposing Major Domo. This is a non-singing role, but Page's remarkable diction and sheer presence make it a memorable role.

But the queen of this production -- the singer who will make you swallow your gum -- is So Young Park as Zerbinetta, the flirtatious dancer/singer with whom all the comedians are in love. Miss Park sings a simply astonishing coloratura aria about her romantic history. Such vocally gymnastic wonders! She sings one high note that I think she must have invented, for surely nothing so high has ever been sung before.

The entire comedy troupe are quite gifted dancers, tumblers and clowns -- as well as first rate operatic singers! And, as if to show that the genius which abounds in this production can happily expend itself on even the smallest details, there is among the comedians a man who strides across the stage vigorously (and only a little mechanically) on THREE LEGS!

The design of this production serves it so well! James Schuette's sets are spacious and lovely; Act I presents an elegant marble-walled hall in the nobleman's palace against a vast damask background. Act II is a bleak island with grand marble doorways against a vast dramatic sky. There are nostalgic theatrical touches that place it in the 19th century: old-fashioned scallop-shell footlights and a low black ground-row along the base of the sky.

Amanda Seymour's gorgeous costumes include Victorian dress for the gentlefolk; grand livery for the household staff; classic "Opera" Greek gowns, robes and armor on Naxos; and, for the comedy troupe, a marvelous blend of commedia, antique circus, and old music-hall. And everything is so perfectly fitted!

Christopher Akerlind's lighting gives wonderful support. There is complex and impeccable use of follow-spots, and at the final moment of the opera-within-an-opera the sky opens into a melodramatically colored glory of apotheosis.

It is in the scene on Naxos especially that Strauss gives us his strange and delicious blend of sincerity and parody. The music is gorgeous, the tale a classic one -- and yet things are just a little bit overdone. At times the music is a bit overblown. The very lyrics are often almost parodic; ordinary phrases are repeated and repeated just a little too often. The very stylized gestures and movements of the nymphs have hints of Isadora Duncan and Francois Del Sarte (whose method, you will recall, was the inspiration for Eulalie Mackechnie Shinn's Ladies Auxiliary Society for the Classic Dance).

Director Sean Curran and his entire team perfectly match and support this delicately balanced sensibility.

My grand congratulations to OTSL and the entire gifted company. It's a superb production: Ariadne on Naxos, at Opera Theatre of St. Louis through June 24.

 

By the time Puccini and his librettists got around to translating Henri Murger’s episodic 1849 novel Scènes De La Vie Bohème into the 1896 opera La Bohème, it had already enjoyed a considerable European vogue, so it’s not surprising that La Bohème has gone on to become a favorite of opera companies around the world. That includes Opera Theatre of St. Louis, which has presented it five times since 1978.

For its sixth run at this classic tearjerker, OTSL has assembled a fine cast, with particularly strong performers in the supporting roles. Combine that with generally very smart direction and superb orchestral playing and the result is a very gratifying production which, despite a few missteps, serves both Puccini and his librettists very well.

For those of you who have somehow missed being exposed to this tale of starving artists in the Latin Quarter of Paris, here's a quick summary. On Christmas Eve, the poet Rodolfo, the painter Marcello, the philosopher Colline, and the musician Schaunard are young, creative, broke, and preparing to burn some of their work to heat their squalid Parisian apartment when the equally poverty-stricken seamstress Mimi comes knocking. Before the first act is over, she and Rodolfo are smitten. The opera chronicles the highs and tragic lows of both their relationship and that of Marcello and the singer Musetta. Mimi dies, Musetta doesn't, and nobody lives happily ever after.

Bass-baritone Bradley Smoak and baritone Sean Michael Plumb turn in two of the strongest performances as Colline and Schaunard, respectively. A regular on the OTSL stage, Mr. Smoak once again displays the ideal combination of vocal power and theatrical prowess that made him a welcome addition to (among others) the company's Pirates of Penzance in 2013 and Don Giovanni in 2011. Mr. Plumb, in his OTSL debut, proves to be a skilled actor with a fine sense of comedy and an accurate, robust voice.

Also making his company debut is baritone Anthony Clark Evans as Marcello, who can't decide whether he's less happy with Musetta or without her. His battle and reconciliation with her in the big Café Momus scene of Act II was a highlight of the evening.

Speaking of Our Lady of the Relaxed Virtue, soprano Lauren Michelle (yet another newcomer to the OTSL stage) gives Musetta a bit more of a comic edge than I have seen in other productions. It makes her great fun to watch, even if it makes Marcello's obsession with her a bit less credible, but she sings up a storm in the famed "Musetta's Waltz" sequence and makes the character's compassion for Mimi in the last act very moving.

As Rodolfo, Andrew Haji (a late replacement for the originally scheduled Anthony Kalil), displays a smooth and appealing tenor voice which is not, unfortunately, quite as powerful as that of his fellow cast members, so he tends to get a bit swamped in ensemble numbers. He also is a bit overpowered by his Mimi, Hae Ji Chang, who has the kind of big, rich soprano required for this "full lyric" role. They're fine singers, but neither seemed to be fully invested in their characters, resulting in performances that felt a bit one-dimensional to me.

Even so, Mimi's death scene, which OTSL General Director Tim O'Leary calls "one of the most heartbreaking scenes in all of opera," manages to generate the right amount of pathos, so on the whole I can't really complain.

Bass-baritone Thomas Hammons, whose cameo in Tabarro was so moving back in 2013, shows solid comic chops as the befuddled landlord Benoit and Musetta's equally confused sugar daddy Alcindoro.

Director Ron Daniels, Set Designer Riccardo Hernandez, and Costume Designer Emily Rebholz have moved the action from the mid-nineteenth century to the early twentieth, using silent film clips and non-singing actors (including a pair of Charlie Chaplin imitators on roller skates and stage veteran Joneal Joplin as Santa Claus) to set the tone between acts. This makes a certain dramatic sense, in that Paris in the 1920s probably has the same kind of nostalgic feel for the modern audience that the mid-1900s Paris would have had for Puccini's audience at the end of that century.

Mr. Daniels's direction is, in any case, fluid and creates interesting visuals, even if he does have the crowd at the beginning of Act II mill around the stage in circles for a bit too long. He has also found more humor in the opera than I have sometimes seen in the past, especially in the opening scene with Rodolfo and his flat mates.

Conductor Emanuele Andrizzi is making his OTSL debut, and it's an auspicious one. His tempi are well chosen, his vocal/orchestral balances are good, and he keeps everything running smoothly. That includes the complex Café Momus scene, with both adult and children's choruses and even an offstage marching band parading through the house. The orchestra plays beautifully, with a big, rich sound that does Puccini proud.

Finally, I'd like to offer praise for the excellent rhyming English libretto by Richard Pearlman and Francis Rizzo. Too often, translators make little or no attempt to duplicate the scansion and rhyme schemes of the original material. It's nice to see it done so well here.

Opera Theatre of St. Louis's La Bohème may not be perfect, but it's awfully good and gets the company's fourty-first season off to a gratifying start. It runs through June 25 at the Loretto-Hilton Center on the Webster University campus. Tickets available online or by phone at 314-961-0644.

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