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Fueled by the recent announcement of its 2020-21 season, which is surely to be remembered as a game changer for the company, the Atlanta Opera’s second ever production of Richard Strauss’ Salome opened to thunderous applause this past Saturday. For this second effort, the company took great pains to give the daughter of Herodias and princess of Judea her due importance and created for her an entirely new production from the ground up. As it’s often the case in the creation of a new staging, the production team took a great deal of artistic risks, and though some of these did not fully capitalize on their promise (such as the opera’s deflating resolution,) various elements promoted thoughtful contemplation on the grotesque and disturbing topics which the opera forces the audience to tackle. Through the work of scenic designer Erhard Rom, the sets frame Herod’s palace as the lair of a paranoid nouveau riche which will one day be retrofitted into a fancy library. Mr. Rom also raises the entrance to the cistern above ground, so for once we, the audience, can peer into it and see just how dark and frightening the prophet’s prison really is. Making an inspired debut in this production, costume designer Mattie Ullrich striked the right decadent tone through costumes that emphasize a nervous gaudiness in Herodias and the neurotic swagger of her husband Herod.
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As the warm applause greeted the curtain of the Atlanta Opera’s season opening production of Rossini’s La Cenerentola this Friday, November 8th, glittery confetti showered on Angelina as she unfurled the final phrases of her celebrated aria (and arguably the only number keeping the opera active in the repertoire) “Non piu mesta”. Mixed with the acclaim and the sincere the delight of many was the inescapable memory of my first time attempt at making pasta sauce from scratch. I recall getting the finest ingredients my meager salary could secure, and the great care with which I managed the ratios between homemade tomato paste, garlic and herbs, graced by the required dramatic finger flicker of salt and pepper. Efforts notwithstanding, I recall my palate’s cruel assertion that I thoroughly missed the elusive alchemy that marries worthy elements into the desired result, leaving me to taste the ripe but uninfluenced tomato, the stand alone furry oregano, all made further insipid by the heavy handed interpolation of a very blunt dose of black pepper. The thing tasted like nothing at all, and a similar conclusion sunk in my heart as I tried to sum up the evening while patiently waiting to exit the Cobb Energy Performing Arts Center parking lot. Looking for a culprit in situations like these makes for an uncomfortable task. Opera is a tough gamble, and those involved in it are often drawn to it by significant love. Artists and companies invest extensive amounts of time and effort to tackle often impossible music, be measured up against exhaustive standards and hope to offer their best to the public. Those who witness the effort, even opera critics, would rather describe a party rather than prepare an autopsy report, but alas, here we are.Read the rest of this entry »
Fresh from giving the neighborhood trick or treaters a halloween that will, hopefully, haunt their dreams for the remainder of the year, we ventured to Boston this past weekend for our first visit to Odyssey Opera. The young company, already causing stirs with its bold and daring choice of repertoire, devotes its seventh season to the exploration of the Tudor dynasty in opera, and ushers in November with (of this we are fairly certain) the American premiere of Giovanni Pacini’s Maria, Regina d’Inghilterra. Like Mercadante, Spontini, and (quite unfairly) Meyerbeer, references to Giovanni Pacini are often a footnote when discussing his more famous contemporaries such as Donizetti, Bellini and Verdi. Kept alive nowadays only by the unusual revival of his opera Saffo, it may come as a surprise to most that Pacini wrote over 80 operas, many of which served as vehicles for the famous opera stars of the era. A complete unknown today, he was once as established as any of the illustrious Italian composers who dominate the standard repertoire offered by opera companies around the world to this day. Odyssey Opera’s presentation of Pacini’s Maria, Regina d’Inghilterra gave its audience the rare opportunity to judge the composer’s merits in the flesh, and despite the opening night’s warm reception, it is clear that Pacini’s musical language falls in an awkward musico dramatico crack of history. His musical language is more phlegmatic than Donizetti’s, certainly less melodic than Bellini’s, and lacks that dramatic swagger that sets Verdi apart from the lot. That said, his orchestral voice is elegant and empowered, pointing north of the Alps, and prepares musical Italy for the later works of Verdi. More importantly, his fellow composers were influenced, even in reactionary fashion, to the work of this seasoned and talented musician, thus even the casual awareness of his musical language becomes a valuable asset in understanding the great masterpieces of his day.
The Atlanta opera closes its 39th season, one of its boldest and most far reaching to date, with Verdi’s perennial favorite middle period work, La Traviata. For Tomer Zvulun, it must feel a bit like a victory. Now in his 6th year as Artistic Director for the Atlanta Opera, Mr. Zvulun’s gamble to expand the company’s mainstage core repertoire, as well as the introduction of the Discovery Series, has seemingly reached stable ground. This season offered stagings of Jake Heggie’s Dead Man Walking, Bernstein’s West Side Story, Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin, Parker’s Yardbird and Piezolla’s Maria de Buenos Aires. Wrapping up this maverick season with such a slice of standard repertoire may seem like a compromise, but Mr. Zvulun’s set up is, if anything, compelling. This Traviata unravels in a beautiful belle epoque staging, under the supervision of a world famous director, and features the introduction of three young and well-recommended international artists to the stage of the Cobb Energy Center. In theory, this Traviata should serve as the crowning statement of what has been achieved thus far, and the glorious future that is to come. In practice, the opening night performance of April 27th served a more sobering message.
To welcome spring, newoutpost ventured west for the opening night performance of Nashville Opera’s production of Jacques Offenbach’s Les Contes d’Hoffmann on Thursday, April 4th. Despite being one of the biggest musical capitals in the United States, opera lags behind the more obvious musical genres in Nashville, and part of the company’s donation drive outlines becoming a medium tier regional outfit by 2020 as a prime goal in its printed literature. Though small, the company can most certainly surprise us from time to time, and recently staged a production of Puccini’s Tosca for rising star soprano Jennifer Rowley. Your friends at newoutpost attended a more than valid performance of Verdi’s Otello (not an easy piece to pull off by any standard) which featured Mary Dunleavy as Desdemona and Clifton Forbis in the title role. Thus, Nashville Opera is always in our radar when planning our traveling schedule, and when it ambitiously announced a staging of Offenbach’s Les Contes d’Hoffmann, we could not help ourselves and embarked in a short pilgrimage. In the process, we failed to prepare ourselves for the possibility that the company may have bitten off more than it could chew.Read the rest of this entry »
Absent in our city since its Atlanta Opera staging at the Civic Center in 2004, Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin returned to Atlanta this past Saturday, this time on the stage of the Cobb Energy Centre, and was enthusiastically received. The new production, a joined effort shared by the Atlanta Opera, Lyric Opera of Kansas City, Hawaii Opera Theatre, Seattle Opera, and Michigan Opera Theatre, is comprised of period appropriate sets and costumes which set the right atmosphere for Tchaikovsky’s masterpiece to properly unfold. Perhaps unsatisfied by this fact, production director Tomer Zvulun adds innovative touches that occasionally rock the proceedings off kilter.
As the small gathering of protesters held their ground outside the theater, an historic tableau greeted the Atlanta premiere of Jake Heggie’s Dead Man Walking this past Saturday. On the stage of the Cobb Energy Performing Arts Center, holding hands with the cast and the production team was the composer himself, as well as the real Sister Helen Prejean. The audience, which not long before had held its breath in stunned silence at the opera’s final scene, showered the creators with unabated and enthusiastic applause. As the crowds prepared to confront the growing pre-Super Bowl traffic, a palpable air of agitation clung throughout the lobby. Random dialogue covering the subject matter, the musical value of the piece, and other aspects of the production could be heard as most patrons made their way out the door. Atlanta is no stranger to Heggie’s music – it has been a mainstay of the song repertoire in our recital venues such as Spivey Hall. That said, this marked the first time the Atlanta Opera audience had the opportunity to grapple directly with the monolithic issues found in his first opera. In the case of your friends at newoutpost, while thoroughly familiar with the score through various broadcasts and the available commercial recordings of the piece, this was also our first opportunity to experience the work in the flesh, and we found the event to be extraordinarily stimulating.
There’s a moment in Bellini’s Norma that never fails to punch me in the gut. As the opera reaches its final ensemble, the Druid High Priestess Norma, who by now has confessed her crimes to her people and has accepted her fate, turns to her father and tells him that she has borne children with the enemy and begs for their lives. After some vacillation, her father agrees, and Norma says “Ah, tu perdoni, quel pianto il dice! Io piu non chiedo, io son felice!” (You forgive me, your tears have told me. I want nothing more, I am happy). From the pit, Bellini’s orchestra provides a steady pulse that delicately sweeps at the structure, like the tide slowly washing away the majestic sand castle he has spent over two hours building, and over this a melancholy figure rises in the woodwind section as the father forgives his child and acquiesces: It doubles as a gesture of forgiveness and redemption while also signaling the tragic denouement of this extraordinary woman. In the rare instances that I have had the pleasure of experiencing Norma live, this scene has invariably inspired the tears to stream clear past the cheek, and it was no exception last Sunday October 21 when North Carolina Opera mounted a concert performance of the Bellini masterpiece. During the curtain calls, the lady sitting next to me, who had been rather talkative and kept zippering and un-zippering her purse during the entire affair, turned to me and said:
“I saw you crying…it really hit you, didn’t it?”
“You must have liked it a lot”
With an awkward grimace I replied: “You can hum this music and it will make me happy.”
And this is true. Yet further scrutiny reveals complications.
Last weekend, the Minnesota Opera closed its 55th season with its first production of Massenet’s unjustly underperformed opera, Thais. Newoutpost’s ties with the mid-western company are strong (this blog, in fact, debuted with their production of Donizetti’s Maria Stuarda back in the winter of 2011), and coupled with our desire to take part in this significant musical event, we embarked in yet another brief musical pilgrimage to beautiful St. Paul. We attended the penultimate performance given on Saturday May 19th, and taking into account the audience’s reaction as well as the artistic values on display that evening, we can happily declare the presentation a complete success.
To close the month of April and welcome May, the Atlanta Opera presented one of its most compelling casts and offered a memorable reading of Bizet’s immortal masterpiece, Carmen.
In a bold decision, the company handed the direction of this revival (the production premiered in our city in 2012,) to director Brenna Corner, a member of the Atlanta Opera Studio. Ms. Corner was thus pitted against director Jeffrey Marc Buchman, who’s work at the time of the production’s premiere, we recall, left the door open for corrections. While some details in the direction of the current revival, such as the over-sexualization of the heroine during the first act, as well as introducing a mentally deranged Don Jose in the opera’s final scene can be classified as a misfire, the comparisons to the premiere generally favor Ms. Corner, who focused a great deal of attention to the development of her principals clashing personalities, and thus underlined the dangerous consequences of their pairing. From the pit, Carl & Sally Gable music director Arthur Fagen led the performance at a careful pace, adjusting his tempi to the needs of his singers (specially Ms. Abrahamyan) and making due with some uncharacteristic mishaps from the Atlanta Opera Orchestra (the french horn solo during Micaela’s aria being particularly cringe worthy). We credit him for keeping the totality of the performance intact.