As the brutal summer of 2023 comes to a close, the Atlanta Opera rolls out the red carpet and welcomes autumn with the first offering of its 2023-2024 season: The southeastern premiere of Paul Moravec’s opera, The Shining, as part of its acclaimed Discoveries Series. Based on Stephen King’s iconic novel of the same name, Moravec’s The Shining, with a libretto by Mark Campbell, premiered in Minnesota back in 2016, and the opening run packed the Orway Center for the Performing Arts and earned the work positive reviews. It has since made the rounds at important American regional companies (Opera Colorado, Opera Parallele, Lyric Opera of Kansas City audiences have already been spooked by it) and was introduced to Atlanta this past Friday in a co-presentation between the Atlanta Opera and the Alliance Theater.
Horror movie enthusiasts beware: The opera is based on the King novel instead of the landmark Kubrick film. This puts the team of Moravec & Campbell, initially, at a narrative advantage. The opening scene of the first act, for instance, depicting the Torrances as a realistic couple with a young child struggling to move past the shadow of past trauma and substance abuse, flourishes dramatically. This allowed the Atlanta Opera audience to easily connect with the leads (the gifted Craig Irvin as Jack and Kelly Kaduce as Wendy) and rally behind their young son Danny, played with earnest conviction by Max Walls. This opener, and the subsequent tour of the hotel’s grounds played to Mr. Moravec’s strengths. His thematic treatment is insistently attractive and consistently incomplete, proving most effective when Mr. Movavec would ping pong between disparate situations: such as Jack’s boiler tour, juxtaposed with the extraordinary encounter between Halloran and Danny. This linear, organized exposition, coupled with the clever and smart filmed media work of Felipe Barral and Amanda Sachtleben, produced a striking opening scene, and gifted Mr. Moravec with the rest of the evening to gradually tear away at Jack Torrance’s mind. This is, unfortunately, where the real challenge comes, and Mr. Moravec’s style was less serviceable in that respect.
Often evocative of Copland, Bernand Hermann, John Adams and late Verdi, Mr. Moravec’s score is rich in flourishes and effects, but fails to strike a memorable note in the mind’s ear. Themes are introduced but never given the space to enjoy a proper life. While this empowers Moravec to create a general sense of unease, it left the audience with little to hang on to. Wendy’s various solos (including a lullaby in act one) as well the finale of the first act and the big band tune which is heavily featured in the second, are left woefully incomplete. More troubling, the orchestral voice does little to convey the inescapable presence of the Colorado winter, which insidiously pins the protagonists further down the psychological and physical isolation that modern audiences are so primed to relate to after the recent worldwide lockdown. Instead, the score accompanies even the most unimportant exchange with flourishes and summersaults: Even musical isolation is out of the question. Mark Campbell’s text was disappointingly banal and rendered awkward when activated by the score.
Filling in the blanks, stage director Brian Staufenbiel, in large part profiting from the natural chemistry between Craig Irvin’s Jack and Kelly Kaduce’s Wendy, brought well rounded performances out of the principal artists. Alongside the work of scenic designer Jacquelyn Scott, and projections by David Murakami, the production promotes the natural development of the action onstage, but while it achieved genuine tension in various scenes, the production team was hard pressed to compensate for the shortcomings of the score in terms of eliciting horror. Similar as in the case of the score, set design does little to feature the primordial threat of the winter siege which trap the occupants of the Overlook, and the set design missed opportunities to emphasize claustrophobia. Bypassing the original direction to have them distort and melt to emulate Jack’s mental state (the Minnesota premiere production notes are floating online for any savvy online detective to obtain) would have contributed (though not solved) the situation. Save the scene where the ghost of Mrs. Massey physically attacks Danny in act two (which produced a genuine reaction in the auditorium,) the apparition scenes are imbued with the sort of cartoonish vibe that made DragonCon 2023 a great success the previous weekend.
Amidst these limited conditions, it was left for conductor Timothy Myers to navigate the odd acoustics of the Alliance Theater and hold the proceedings together. The maestro drew convincing sonority from Moravec’s sanctioned re-orchestration of the score (down two thirds from the premiere) by way of a disciplined baton and brisk tempi. His cast is particularly fine, led by Craig Irvin as Jack Torrance, who delivered a physically compelling and emotionally profound performance aimed at conveying Jack’s descend to madness when the score could not. I almost bought it. His sound is distinctive and, when permitted, exhibited a lush, beautiful baritone – musically miscast for the score restricts his involvement to declamatory fits and starts. He is, essentially, the Method Man to Kelly Kaduce’s Mary J. Blige, or in this case Wendy Torrance. A favorite of Atlanta audiences (I recall Ms. Kaduce memorable Atlanta Opera debut as Pamina in Mozart’s Die Zauberflote back in 2003,) Ms. Kaduce is back in town, this time portraying the part she premiered in Minnesota back in 2016. And she takes the honor to heart, immersing herself into this assignment with brave dramatic conviction. Vocally, the voice has attained full lyric soprano status, and can swell impressively to do right by the hysterical reactions to her husband’s unravelling. Though her tone has predictably lost some of the fresh bloom that graced her debut twenty years ago, her overall vocalism has gained in size and possibilities. I am thrilled for the opportunity to hear her once again.
As in the case of the opera’s premiere, the role of Danny Torrance, entrusted in these performances to the talented Max Walls, is given to a child actor who performs his part through the assistance of amplification. The aural disconnect that invariably results from such practice (quite off putting whenever its spotted in opera performances) solicited some adjustment, and since Danny is only required to sing a couple of bars in the entire evening, one wonders whether an adolescent of short stature could do right by the part without reverting to such tricks. Regardless, young Max Walls delivered a committed and impressive performance and even nailed the lip sync as the Atlanta Opera Ensemble voiced his responses during the trance scene in act two. Shante.
The principals were rounded off with the important contribution of Kevin Deas as Dick Hallorann and his soft-grained, gracious bass baritone navigated the score’s long lines with great success. Hallorann’s acclimation to Danny can be read as quite creepy in 2023’s trigger-happy society, and Mr. Deas delivered a faithful reading of the character’s benevolent mentorship of Danny within the limitations of the source material. His involvement also illustrated how careful adaptation is needed in order to translate the impact of a work of literature into successful theater. Remaining true to the King novel, the team of Moravec and Campbell end the opera not at the moment when Jack Torrance lets the boiler blow up the Overlook, but with the epilogue which depicts the remaining principals recovering from the tragedy at a hotel in Maine eight months later. This yielded one of the better musical offerings of the evening, Hallorann’s “These woeful days will be over,” and an anticlimactic end to a night at the opera.
Being the basic (and very bold) opera person that I am, I dare suggest inserting this scene into the main body of the second act as a premonition by Danny prior to the opera’s final sequences (perhaps after Jack is locked in the pantry, or maybe following Danny’s comatose state after Mrs. Massey’s attack). This would yield a scene depicting Danny’s shining in its full expression, while allowing for a more conventionally curtain with the destruction of the Overlook, a la Le Prophete.
Though not a complete homerun, Moravec’s The Shining provides a bold start to Atlanta’s opera season, which will include performances of Michael Shapiro’s Frankenstein, Verdi’s Rigoletto, Puccini’s La Boheme, Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and the second installment of the Atlanta Opera’s first stab at Wagner’s Ring Cycle: Die Walkure. The Shining runs through October 1st, and rumor has it that the company may be adding new dates as I type. For more information, please visit the company’s website at www.atlantaopera.org
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Frequent readers of this blog may have noted a certain “pandemic induced anxiety,” shall we call it, which more often than not limited this writer from dabbling beyond the local opera company’s offerings. Comfort zone, accessibility and the safety of familiarity has kept me mostly state bound ever since we got sent home back in March of 2020, but vibrant performance art schedules becomes a feature of the post-lockdown world once again, I hearby declare a newfound hunger to venture outside self-inflicted isolation (reassured by official reports of the pandemic’s diminishing threat of course,) and vow to make a concerted effort to once again cover the great regional opera companies that grace our country. And so last week we braved inflated Pioneer Day airfare rates and travelled to Salt Lake City to cover part of Utah Festival’s ambitious 31 st season, which alongside a lighter fare, offers two late romantic masterpieces: Verdi’s Aida and Wagner’s Lohengrin.
Under the artistic leadership of local boy done good Michael Ballam, Utah Festival has provided residents of Logan and surrounding areas with full staged opera performances at the beautifully renovated Ellen Eccles theater. The 1,100 seat neoclassical venue offers fine acoustics for both audiences and performers alike, and has been the main stage for the company’s well curated, talented roster since 1993. It was ground zero for the two performances reviewed below.
Staging back-to-back performances of Verdi’s Aida and Wagner’s Lohengrin is no joke for most opera companies, and as I made the scenic 80-minute trip from Salt Lake City to Logan, I wondered how the Utah Festival would be able to manage it all. My introduction to the company, Verdi’s Aida, was the third performance of the work in the run taking place on Thursday, July 20th. Though well attended and enthusiastically received, the performance cannot truly be ranked as a success, but rather as extraordinarily eventful.
Perhaps to accommodate budgetary constraints, the score has been subjected to several cuts. While reasonable arguments can be made for the omission of the ballet sequences and some reprisals, the seemingly random trimming of connecting material and thematic passages were puzzling and ill conceived. As the evening wore on, the cuts accumulated, dealing a blow to the integrity and musical effect intended by the composer. Perhaps the removal of the ballet sequences and a non-critical scene in full (the consecration scena) would have allowed for the remainder of the score to be performed unaltered and produce an altogether better outcome. Alas, the performance had much working against it even before the curtain’s rise, and it would be left to the leadership of maestro Nicolas Giusti to make sense of this abridged version of the work. Unfortunately, this did not occur.
From his reading of the opera’s brief prelude onwards, signs of concern increased as maestro Giusti proved unable to settle into a consistent tempo. His phrasing was also problematic, often pulling melodic statements apart in unorthodox ways, and throughout the performance he often found himself chasing the orchestra and principals instead of leading them, edging the proceedings towards near disaster in several key moments. An atmosphere of “fend for yourself” became palpable as the orchestra reverted its focus to the accomplishing the score’s the bare bone requirements. As the prelude gave way to the opera’s opening scene, this funk quickly transferred to the principals, who would soon struggle to stay afloat and likely setting aside the finer details of John de los Santos’ stage direction.
First at the plate was the Radames of tenor Victor Starsky, who nearly crashed and burned when confronted with the role’s keynote romanza “Celeste Aida”. The aria makes cruel demands of the tenor right away, requiring an ascend of the scale in an endless series of testing sustained phrases. If the score is to be honored, the aria must be capped by a high B flat marked “morendo” to illustrate Radames’ vision of Aida’s throne by the sun. Even gods like Jean de Reske had his reservations about the number (he reportedly required it omission to avoid dealing with it altogether), and this part of the opera is often referred to as one of those segments where the principal relies on solid support from the conductor. Keeping in mind the circumstances described above, Mr. Starky’s efforts quickly devolved into a case of death by aria. His resetting of such poor initial impression into a triumphant assumption of Verdi’s Egyptian hero, however, ultimately qualified his performance as the standout of the evening.
Quickly dusting himself off, and seemingly ignoring the mixed messages from below, Mr. Starsky began to settle into his own as the leading ladies of the cast joined him onstage. The young tenor brings an impressive pedigree and resources to the part: He is young, more than conventionally attractive, and revealed a big steely tenor that did not match his youthful, trim frame. His sound is virile, impassioned and capable of projecting an electric squillo. By the time he brought the first act to a close, he had become the dominant vocal figure on the stage. Often favoring a heroic profile, the role of Radames is hardly considered a prime vehicle for nuance, but throughout the performance, Mr. Starsky proved himself capable of vividly rendering his singing to match the expression at hand, most notably in the opera’s final scene. The mix of desperation and resignation in his voice as he uttered “Morir, si pura e bella – Morir, per me d’amore” to the dying Aida remained burned in the heart long after the curtain’s fall.
The same could not be said for his leading lady, soprano Carami Hilaire, entrusted here with the eponymous heroine, who appeared most affected by the lapses in leadership and became the evening’s main casualty. With some notable exceptions, great Aidas must possess a dramatic soprano capable of navigating dynamics ranging from the fortissimo to the pianissimo with effortless abandon, yet never experiencing loss of tonal beauty (the velvet glove). Also necessary is a mastery of declamatory singing and of the sustained melody, all the while expressing the gamut of Aida’s emotions through a variety of vocal colors. In Ms. Hilaire’s interpretation, flashes of these building blocks were infrequently on display. Throughout the evening she revealed a full lyric soprano pressed past its comfort zone in the middle voice by way of constriction, coupled with an abrupt attack to the lower tessitura, and trepidatious ascends to an altogether less responsive upper register. As the evening progressed (Aida is one of Verdi’s chattiest heroines), the strategy proved less and less becoming, rendering the notes at the top of the scale hoarse and leaving the artist incapable of achieving a clean transition to soft singing. The Nile Scene was singularly challenging. Facing little assistance from maestro Giusti’s baton, she often focused her attention downwards in an attempt to anchor her efforts, undermining her ability to emote and to connect with the rest of the cast – often appearing bored and uninterested. This was a real shame, and the overall impression was that despite occasional instances that impressed, Ms. Hilaire’s vocalism and temperament are not yet ready (certainly under the current conditions) to do justice to this role.
Determined to avoid the same fate, mezzo-soprano Audrey Babcock was smart to follow the path taken by Mr. Starsky, and managed to assert herself almost immediately upon her entrance. A seasoned performer and frequent principal with the company, Ms. Babcock single-handedly manufactured a musical space for herself and delivered a believable reading of the great role of Amneris. Though the voice itself lacks the sort of tonal glamour that the part ideally calls for, Ms. Babcock more than makes up for this in method and delivery. Her mezzo-soprano is large and can be wielded by the artist to ear splitting dimensions if necessary. She handles the role’s high tessitura with veritable ease, though at the very top of its range the voice acquires a slight edge; and the color thins out. This limitation is cleverly managed by Ms. Babcock to remarkable effect to express the passions of the Egyptian princess, and monopolized the audience’s attention at her every utterance.
In contrast, the Amonasro of baritone Thomas Cannon was founded in more traditional roots – his lyric instrument rendered striking by the singer’s steady and rapid emission of tone. In both his entrance in the opera’s Triumphal and Nile Scenes, his voice made an impression by careful design rather than brute force. He appeared to gradually “fill the space with his personality” with patient insistence. Brandon Coleman distinguished himself as was a remarkably built Ramfis, projecting the part’s stately and solemn authority through a steady and evenly produced bass. Though consistent throughout the run of show, his vocalism was held in check by a fussy diction and a sound that failed to assert itself convincingly past the footlights, at times giving the impression that he was singing to himself. Clarity and projection remain opportunities to be hopefully addressed for future engagements.
The remainder of the cast helped push the performance to the plus column, with soprano Jasmine Ismael as the High Priestess, bass-baritone Christopher Job as the King and tenor John Tibbett’s messenger, providing solid readings of their respective parts. Despite their reduced numbers, the 26 members of the Utah Festival Chorus managed to produce an appropriate wall of sound in their various concerted ensembles.
The following evening, I found myself back at the Ellen Eccles Theater, full of anticipation (and some trepidation) as I waited for the curtain to rise on Wagner’s Lohengrin. Unlike Aida, Lohengrin is rarely performed outside of the world’s major opera companies, and its success heavily relies on a polished and disciplined orchestra. Going by the precedent set the night before, the potential for shenanigans was very real. Ascending the conductor’s podium, maestro Andreas Mitisek quickly set such fears aside by delivering a polished and well-paced reading of the opera’s famous vorspiel.
Just as in the case with Aida, the score of Lohengrin was significantly reduced. The opera’s first act was reduced by approximately 15 minutes of its standard running time, with even the ethereal chorus “Welch holde Wunder muss ich sehen?” getting the ax. Elsa’s procession to the altar was glaringly missing from the second act, and the omission of the “Wie hehr erkenn’ ich unsrer Liebe Wesen!” section in the act three love marked another noticeable loss. In great contrast to what transpired the night before, Lohengrin’s edited score was delivered in such cohesive and artful manner by maestro Mitisek as to deliver a valid and striking reading of the opera. Throughout the show, maestro Mitisek’s functional baton, coupled with Suzan Hanson’s careful direction, provided the necessary support to allow his cast to deliver the ethereal and dramatic elements of the work to great effect.
And what a solid cast it was! With the Elsa of Italo-American soprano Joanna Parisi setting the performance in the right direction as soon as she graced the stage. A frequent artist in European houses, Ms. Parisi’s soprano permeated the hall with the sort of Italianate warmth that is increasingly becoming less available in recent decades. Her voice is of imposing lirico spinto proportions, distinguished by a central quality that stretched horizontally to create a satisfying wall of sound through the auditorium. She brought a wealth of firm tonal beauty as she negotiated her two testing solos (“Einsam in trüben Tagen” and “EuchLüften, die mein Klagen“) and though occasional signs of tonal spread were detected at the top fortissimo, the ear was more than willing to favor the overall consistency of her declamation. Physically and histrionically, she projected an alert and impassioned Elsa, and in collaboration with director Suzan Hanson, Ms. Parisi was responsive to the mystic and seductive charms of her leading man – the chemistry between them during the bridal chamber scene was both believable and palpable.
I cannot mention this scene without acknowledging Patrick Larsen’s effective and elegant set design, which provided both an ideal setting to the proceedings and hinted that the chamber, comprised of candle lit stone slabs with not one cushion in sight, would never be used for its intended purpose. It was simply everything it needed to be.
Portraying the opera’s title character, tenor Edward Brennan revealed an instrument capable of portraying an effective Lohengrin. A lyric tenor in its basic nature, his voice can modulate from a seductive whisper to a convincing threat with equal success. Though the most heavily concerted pages do call for an instrument better aligned to the spinto fach, this shortcoming becomes more readily apparent in larger venues. In terms of looks, stage business, and vocal prowess within the proclivities of the Ellen Eccles Theater and the orchestral forces offered by Utah Festival, he is the right man for the assignment – and how he took advantage of the opportunity. His phrasing of the role’s key numbers, such as “Nun sei bedankt, mein lieber Schwan”, “In fernem Land” and “Mein lieber Schwan!” were elegantly realized through a voice of light silver gossamer. In collaboration with costume designer Mallory Prucha, Mr. Brennan also used his winning stage presence (his jawline is made for the lyric stage) in the service of the role, striking an appealing and enigmatic figure in costumes that would otherwise impress as less becoming in most.
Lohengrin’s most public nemesis, Friedrich of Telramund, was entrusted to the talents of American baritone Brian Montgomery, and his every involvement put the audience on notice that before us stood a veritable gentleman of the lyric theater. Despite boasting a veteran career (our research finds him fulfilling comprimario duties in a performance of Puccini’s Il Trittico back in 1979, and things have only gotten more and more interesting between then and now), Mr. Montgomery still maintains complete dominance over his instrument and sounds like an artist well within his prime. His baritone is evenly distributed across his scale, and can called upon to express Telramund’s pride, anguish and frustration at will. Most noteworthy, when things got loud (you know, Wagner-loud) Mr. Montgomery unleashed a torrent of sound with little strain or effort registered.
A natural actor, his collaboration with director Suzan Hanson yielded a performance distinguished by honest and absolute commitment, including the more physical scenes which are often cause for concern to the physical integrity of a seasoned artist. The manner with which he threw himself into the duel in Act One, and his death scene in Act Three was arresting in its delivery and dramatically convincing. It was a pleasure and an honor to witness, consume and appreciate his art.
Throughout this presentation, Mr. Montgomery’s Telramund plotted the demise of Lohengrin and Elsa with his wife Ortrud, played here by Nina Warren. The soprano and I go way back, though I doubt she is aware, when I made my first official operatic pilgrimage in the year 2000 to attend a performance of Elektra staged by Baltimore Opera, where she played Chrysothemis to Marilyn’s Zchau’s Elektra and (wait for it) Renata Scotto’s Klytamnestra. Checking my diary entry from those performances, 2000s me noted: “In your face/booming voice – floods the stage- top notes ring flap a bit when stressed but ring true – moves well onstage.” Encountering her once again here as Ortrud, I was vividly reminded of those impression she made in those performances, and how her art has developed in the ensuing 23 years.
The span of two decades has done little to diminish that big, booming voice, which she used to call attention to herself by dominating the ensemble that closes the opera’s first act. Her sound broke the sonic wave decisively, hinting at surprises to come in the following act. Her extended duet with her husband revealed a dramatic soprano willing to make a case Ortrud’s malevolent agenda – her deafening summoning of the gods of antiquity “Entweihte Götter!” inspired impromptu ovation (rare in Wagner). So enthralled was the audience in her impersonation that her one miscalculation came when she tried to feign benign intention. One almost faulted Elsa for believing her con. Matching my early memories, her stage deportment remains a feature, and director Suzan Hanson did well to tailor the nuances of the character to match the possibilities of her instrument. And thus Ms. Warren’s Ortrud was larger than life at every turn: Her plans are big, her hate is big, her plot is big.
Fresh from a successful interpretation as the King in Verdi’s Aida, busy bass Brandon Coleman swapped crowns and graced the stage again for this performance of Wagner’s Lohengrin, this time assuming the part of King Henry. As was noted before, his vocalism is accomplished but found wanting in clarity of diction and projection. When compared against the Lohengrin principals, the reservations became more apparent than the previous night. For their part, the 22 members of the chorus were once again capable of making up for their reduced numbers, and where costumed by designer Mallory Prucha like the sort of crew I wanted to hang out with after the performance.
If you have yet to catch Verdi’s Aida, Wagner’s Lohengrin, or any of the other productions spicing up Logan this summer, don’t panic: Utah Festival continues through August 5th . For more information, please check out UFO’s website at www.utahfestival.org
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This past Saturday evening, the Atlanta Opera company bid farewell to its 2022-2023 season this past with a performance of historic significance. For the first time in its history, before a sold out audience, the company unveiled Wagner’s Das Rheingold in a production designed to showcase the opera within its context as the first installment of Wagner’s monumental tetralogy. Das Rheingold serves as foundation to the bulk of the Ring Cycle, and if the opening night’s performance set the standard for the remaining three operas that complete the cycle, the Atlanta Opera is bound to set itself ahead of its southeast regional sister companies in a big way.
A collaboration with the Dallas Opera, this production of the Wagner’s Ring Cycle was originally slated to premiere at the Atlanta Opera during the its 2020-21 season. Up until this point, company’s relationship with Wagner in general had been tepid and often frustrating to long time patrons. Its sole Wagnerian offering, Der Fliegende Hollander, debuted on the company’s 23rd season and was reprised sixteen years later. For nearly 40 years, Atlanta would venture no further into the polarizing composer’s repertoire, and local Wagnerians, kept afloat by the occasional all-Wagner program offered by the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra (concert performances of Act III of Die Walkure featuring James Morris, Christine Brewer and Andrea Gruber are fondly remembered,) felt obliged to seek satisfaction in cities such as Seattle, San Francisco, Portland, Chicago, Los Angeles, Washington (#pout) and of course, New York. To those excited beyond measure at the Atlanta Opera’s announcement of its Das Rheingold premiere in January of 2020, the subsequent shelving of the entire season by nationwide lockdown restrictions seemed like a curse. The frenetic social and political rollercoaster bridging the temporary halt and last weekend’s premiere, however, have setup a uniquely relevant atmosphere for the themes explored in Wagner’s opus to resonate to modern audiences. The corruption of innocence and the weaponization of nature by renouncing love – and along the way – decency, reason and fairness – are all immediately relevant to the hashtags (#leitmotifs) that inundate our everyday. Das Rheingold may feature gods and giants, but when considering their present and future actions, it certainly offers no heroes.
Guiding the Atlanta Opera company through its first forays into Valhalla, stage director Tomer Zvulun, alongside a production team familiar with the company and its audience, have thankfully allowed the proceedings to unfold in a straightforward way: The absurdity of modern life is all the updating that is essentially required. The work of scenic and projection designer Erhard Rom served the production admirably when depicting naturalistic elements such as waves of the Rhine River or the rolling clouds that announce the arrival to Valhalla. The synergy between his projections and the work of lighting designer Robert Wierzel occasionally resulted in awe-inspiring imagery, such as the settling of the clouds as Fricka awakens Wotan. The costumes by Mattie Ullrich beautifully contrast the Elysian profile of the gods against the utilitarian garb sported in the Nibelheim and the organic, algae-inspired frocks worn by the Rheinmaidens. Some of Das Rheingold’s prohibitive stage trickery was resolved with varying success through the filmed media innovations of Felipe Barral and Amanda Sachtleben, which proved most impressive when depicting Donner’s hammer strike towards the end of the opera.
Tasked with the tremendous responsibility of bringing to life the nearly three-hour score without a break, maestro Arthur Fagen offered a solid, conservatively paced reading of the Gotthold Ephraim Lessing orchestra reduction of Wagner’s score on opening night. His orchestral phrasing was sumptuous (yet never pompous) and bold, allowing the brass section to assert itself in all its splendor, from the well realized vorspiel, a nerve-wracking fantasy in E-flat major for the horn section that expands 136 bars depicting creation, nature and the waves of the Rhine, to the exuberant sonic statements of the Valhalla and Sword motifs. Other highlights, such as the famous anvil sequence associated with the Nibelheim, proved less pristine. Maestro Fagen’s broad tempi also afforded his leading soloists the musical space to acclimate their resources as the long evening progressed.
For these performances, the Atlanta Opera should be credited with securing the services of Bass-baritone Greer Grimsley, who makes his Atlanta Opera debut with these performances. For over twenty years, he has cemented his reputation as one of the finest exponents of the role Wotan in the world today. The stentorian instrument is distinguished by a gritty timbre which the savvy artist uses to navigate the complexities of his august assignment. In sonic terms, he can unleash a torrent of sound which can both caress and roar past the orchestral wall of sound with little sign of effort. Though his tone has lost some youthful luster since we last heard him in the flesh (that was in 2014, when he unleashed an overwhelming Macbeth in Minnesota,) his declamation is steady and responsive in every register. In both vocal and physical statement, he embodied the god Wotan at the height of his physical powers – yet easily seduced by the restless political currents he himself is willingly aggravating (his hyperfocus on the ring during Alberich’s curse), and extra marital pursuits (his interest in Erda going beyond her mystical wisdom). Emotionally, his Wotan is at once proud, troubled, exuberant and sometimes cruel. We look forward to the development of his interpretation next season when the Atlanta Opera company offers the next installment of the Ring Cycle, Die Walkure. Mr. Grimsley’s participation has already been announced.
In the part of Wotan’s antithesis, the Alberich of baritone Zachary Nelson shared the evening’s superlatives alongside Mr. Grimsley. A young artist celebrating a decade in his professional career, Mr. Nelson, his first forays into the Ring (at Lyric Opera of Chicago, no less) were stalled by the pandemic. Perhaps eager to make up for lost time, he vividly immersed himself into an intense reading of the frustrated and power-hungry Nibelung elf. His baritone has all the hallmark of youthful exuberance: Bronze hued timbre, tremendous sonority and easy access to the upper tessitura. He established a frenetic presence across the footlights with reckless abandon, and one hopes he will husband his resources as the career develops: His is one that holds many promises.
In Das Rheingold, the tenor ilk was principally represented by tenor Richard Cox, who produced a serviceable interpretation of the misfit god Loge. An important player in Wagner’s Ring, Loge’s sole chance at the spotlight takes place in Das Rheingold (Loge makes a brief appearance in Die Walkure, but does not sing). Mr. Cox revealed a well-placed instrument graced by a naturally soft edge, which was rendered poetic when revealing the deeper introspective facets of the character. When negotiating the perky and fast turning phrases that reveal the character’s clever disposition, his instrument lacked the type of exuberant, bombastic quality that commands the attention through its sheer presence alone. That incisive element was more readily found in the singing of tenor Julius Ahn, who stole every scene in the Nibelheim through the short but important (as we will see two years from now) role of Mime.
Rounding off the leading men, baritone Joseph Barron and tenor Adam Diegel brought great swagger to their masculine impersonations of the gods Donner and Froh respectively, and were offset by the juxtaposing sentimental and ruthless disposition of the giants, brought to life in these performances by bass Kristinn Sigmundsson as Fasolt and bass Daniel Sumegi as Fafner. In Das Rheingold, the score favors Fasolt, and Mr. Sigmundsson projected an empathetic character desperate to add some joy and happiness to an otherwise miserable life at every turn. Mr. Sumegi as Fafner was wonderfully selfish and calculating. He will have an opportunity to expand on Fafner’s development in Siegfried, if its in the cards.
Leading the women of Das Rheingold, Elizabeth DeShong offered a well sung performance of the goddess Fricka as her introduction to the Atlanta Opera audience. A frequent artist featured at the great opera companies worldwide, Ms. DeShong offered a stately mezzo-soprano distinguished for its firmness of tone and hall filling dimensions. The middle voice in particular shone beautifully through the auditorium of the Cobb Energy Performing Arts Center. The ascent to the upper notes betrayed a slight hardness, which dissipated into the cacophony of the orchestra. Dramatically, her relationship with husband was understandably tentative, and though at times she put the audience on notice of her powers in reserve, she seldom chose to dominate the proceedings, either vocally or histrionically, delegating those duties to soprano Jessica Faselt, whose Freia was distinguished by clarion delivery, ad a gleaming, brilliant top register. An ideal contrast to Ms. DeShong. A solid trio comprised the aquatic delegation of Rheinmaidens led by the bright voiced Woglinde of soprano Cadie J. Bryan, the firm voiced Woglinde of soprano Alexandra Razskazoff, and that extraordinary member of the Atlanta Opera Glynn Studio Artists, dramatic mezzo-soprano Gretchen Krupp.
As Erda, mezzo-soprano Ronnita Miller uneasy and somewhat strained delivery of the crucial role of Erda raised a few reservations in an otherwise excellent cast. The voice is wonderfully imposing and fills the hall appropriately, but it managed said task through a hooty production which compromised pitch and steady emission. She was aided by maestro Fagen, who expedited her efforts against the grain of his otherwise expansive beat. Erda is a short part yet very exposed, and we hope Ms. Miller rises to the occasion in subsequent performances.
There are three more performances of Wagner’s Das Rheingold, including tonight’s performance at 7:30 pm (yes, I am rushing over there as soon as this post is published). Atlanta audiences are STRONGLY URGED to be a part of history. Rumor has it that single tickets for next year’s Die Walkure are already on sale! THIS-IS-IT, PEOPLE!
For more information on Das Rheingold and the Atlanta Opera, please visit the company’s website by visiting www.atlantaopera.org
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Absent from the stage of the Cobb Energy Performing Arts Center since 2012, Atlanta Opera audiences welcomed back Mozart’s Don Giovanni this past Saturday with open arms, and for good reason. Mozart’s version of Don Juan, a perennial classic in the repertoire, has a guaranteed home in the operatic stages the world over, and Atlanta is no exception. By way of the Metropolitan Opera touring days, Atlanta has familiarized itself with Mozart’s masterwork through a veritable who’s who of 20th century operatic luminaries: Jerome Hines, Eleanor Steber, Leontyne Price, Cesare Siepi, George London, Lisa della Casa, Fernando Corena, Sherill Milnes, Roberta Peters, Cesare Valleti, Nicolai Gedda, Theodor Uppman, Edda Moser, Frederica von Stade, and Teresa Zylis-Gara among the names to be dropped. The Atlanta Opera proper would stage its first production in 1993, an occasion that brought Dean Peterson’s Don Giovanni to the stage of the Alliance Theater and marked the debut of the spectacular Brenda Harris as Donna Anna. The strength of those performances would solidify a lifelong obsession for opera in yours truly, a then high school sophomore experiencing the thrill of live performance for the very first time.
The Atlanta Opera brought Don Giovanni back in 1998, this time at the Fox theater with a controversial production by Ken Cazan (several audience members were seen to walk out during the banquet scene) headlined by Eugene Perry, Pamela Kucenic as Donna Elvira, and the much-admired Martile Rowland as Donna Anna. When scheduling conflicts at The Fox Theater obliged the company to relocate to The Civic Center, Don Giovanni made a comeback in 2004 with a near reunion of the 1993 leads, but this time with Brenda Harris as Donna Elvira. Prior to these performances, the opera’s most recent presentation took place at The Cobb Energy Performing Arts Center in 2012, a run held to standard by the efforts of the Donna Anna of Pamela Armstrong and the Ottavio of Nicholas Phan if memory serves us right.
Since Atlanta Opera patrons can claim a certain familiarity with Don Giovanni, it was no surprise to hear some gasps among the ovations as the curtain fell on the opening night’s presentation immediately following the iconic Commendatore scene. Surely, something foul was afoot, and puzzled mutterings from local Mozartians could be heard as the audience made its slow retreat towards the exits. A quick review of the opera’s performance history, however, provides the Atlanta Opera with the receipts to justify the decision to remove the epilogue.
The performing version of the opera which modern audiences have become familiar with is not entirely the work which triumphantly premiered in Prague in October 29, 1787. For the Vienna premiere the following year, Mozart made significant alterations to accommodate the starry lineup: The role of Donna Anna would be entrusted to Aloysia Lange, a prima donna with exuberant vocal resources who had been the composer’s romantic interest in his early days in Salzburg (keeping it in the family, he eventually married her sister Constanze in 1782). This state of affairs was not lost on the celebrated Caterina Cavalieri, who quickly declared her engagement as Donna Elvira in the Vienna premiere conditional. At her insistence, Mozart composed a new aria, the bravura scena “Mi tradi quell’alma ingrata” to match Lange’s Act I soliloquy. Tweaks to the score did not end here, and as it is often the case the tenor had requests of this own. To spare Vienna’s Don Ottavio the difficulties of the Act II ornate showpiece “Il mio tesoro”, Mozart removed the aria and composed “Dalla sua pace” for insertion in Act I. To patch up the space left bare by the removal of “Il mio tesoro,” Mozart composed a short duet between Zerlina and Leporello which never gained much traction in modern revivals. The Vienna score also does not include the epilogue which follows the climatic Commendatore scene, leading to speculate that the subsequent performances which ended immediately after Don Giovanni is dragged to hell was within the composer’s dramatic designs. The existence of these two versions offers companies an array of choices, and most prefer a composite version which will feature both of Don Ottavio and all three of Donna Elvira’s solos. The duet between Zerlina and Leporello is omitted, and the epilogue from the Prague premiere is left intact. The inclusion of all possible numbers of importance has its obvious musical benefits and some theatrical draw backs. The text of the Ottavio arias are not congruent (Mozart never intended for them to be sung in the same performance), leaving the audience puzzled as the Ottavio of “Il mio tesoro” never really makes good on all his swagger. The epilogue itself, though perfectly fitting the style of the day, serves as an anti-climax to the scene which precedes it. As heard on Saturday evening, the Atlanta Opera arrived at a working version of the score through new compromises. It discarded Don Ottavio’s “Dalla sua pace” in favor of “Il mio tesoro” and removed the epilogue scene thus ending the opera after Don Giovanni’s demise. Perhaps to further distill the action, recitative sections which serve as vital character exposition were also subjected to substantial reduction, and Leporello’s plea following Act II’s sextet that reveals his cat fishing has inexplicably bit the dust.
Tasked with managing this musical gamble as part of his Atlanta Opera debut, conductor Jan Latham-Koenig took some time to settle into his paces. After an incisive and scholarly reading of the famous overture, his interactions with the cast occasionally called out a tense element in the relationship between the principals and his clear, yet unyielding baton. When applied to this cast of young artists, most of them making their Atlanta Opera debuts along with the maestro, the results were musically tidy, but poetically limited.
Already enjoying a considerable amount of success in the first decade of his career, bass-baritone Brandon Cedel’s Don Giovanni cut a striking figure upon his entrance. A tall, good-looking young man, Mr. Cedel is a good actor, and looked dashing in the various formal wear which proved the main benefit of the director’s update. His voice is of important profile and size, but a sameness of method often renders his singing breathy and stiff. Oddly enough, the mechanisms which he employs to make his voice exert itself against the orchestra also contributed to its dissipation. The opera’s title role provided many opportunities for this young artist to give it his best go at it, and among Mr. Cedel’s most successful efforts were his handling of Don Giovanni’s simple serenade, the famous “Deh vieni alla finestra”, and the opera’s final scene.
He was frequently bettered by the efforts of his frumpy servant Leporello, sung here by bass-baritone Giovanni Romeo. A singer who so impressed us last year as Bartolo in the Atlanta Opera’s production of Rossini’s Il barbiere di Siviglia, it was a joy to see Mr. Romeo returned to this stylized variation of Seville via this Mozartian vehicle. A native of Milan, Mr. Romeo brings along with him shades of a now diminished school that once graced the patter song of the great buffo exponents of the past, kept alive in recent decades by the likes of Simone Alaimo and Michele Pertusi, and the omission of Leporello’s “Ah pieta, signori miei” was a real shame. Matching the impression he made in the previous year, Mr. Romeo’s singing remains expressive and responsive throughout his scale. More importantly, he has an artistic compass that guides his performance, projecting genuine intent behind each phrase. Whether this indicates an exclusive proclivity towards the comedic repertoire remains to be seen.
The role of Il Commendatore was curiously undertaken by the same singer handling Masetto at both the Prague and Vienna premieres of Don Giovanni. Whether this was by chance or Mozart’s design, the tradition did not stick, and most modern productions (such as the one being discussed) will employ the service of separate basses to do well by these parts. Atlanta’s Commendatore, George Andguladze, hails from Georgia (the country, not the state) and arrives with an impressive resume under his belt. As heard Saturday evening, his bass may not be dark hued enough to embody creepy, but is plenty steady and ample to be heard unassisted, allowing the company to rectify from previous injury (we remember 2012, we remember). Pertaining to the evening’s Masetto, the announced Edwin Jhamal Davis was inexplicably replaced with bass-baritone Andrew Gilstrap, who’s voice we had sampled briefly when he undertook the part of the registrar in the season’s opener: Puccini’s Madama Butterfly. Though we cannot speak on the talents of Mr. Davis, Mr. Gilstrap’s participation was most appreciated. His is a well-realized bass-baritone of good size, with a natural feel for declamation and devoid of the trappings of over production. With slow development and careful planning, great things await this talented young singer….and us.
Representing the higher voices, Duke Kim lent his breezy tenore di grazia to his impersonation of Don Ottavio to good effect in the opera’s dynamic opening scene and the ensembles that follow. Without the testing aria “Dalla sua pace” to measure his attributes in a sustained melody, the tenor had to patiently await the arrival of “Il mio tesoro” in the second act, only to join the countless artists who have fallen prey to the aria’s extreme difficulties. The aria calls for true mastery of florid passagework, alongside incisive attack, elegant phrasing and extraordinary lung capacity designed to illustrate the young nobleman’s resolve. These are qualities which Mr. Kim possessed to be sure, but in varying degrees of moderate quantities. Histrionically, Mr. Kim broke little new ground in his interpretation of Donna Anna’s fiancée, easily settling into the expected high bred dandy archetype and looking good in the process.
As Ottavio’s beleaguered love interest, Armenian soprano Mane Galoyan brought a youthful splendour to the role of Donna Anna. In her introduction to the Atlanta audience, Ms. Galoyan revealed an instrument of full lyric proportions with spinto possibilities, which distinguished itself through its round, soft brightness and purity of tone. Her vocal toolbelt is endowed with good agility, an impressive range, and a facility in dynamics which allows her instrument to convince in authoritative stance, qualities which empowered her to deliver convincing accounts of the fiery “Or sai chi l’onore” and the plaintive “Non mi dir”. Despite these superlatives, there were signs that she’s still cementing a technique that will allow for greater mastery of the ornate scales that decorate Anna’s devilish outbursts, and while her singing was impressive, it has yet to fully exploit the expressive possibilities in the part. As to her stage business, her small frame and melancholy features were not flattered by the blocking and costume designs. Under the right light, her face evokes the enigmatic quality found in an old Patti or Ponselle portrait.
Folks well-versed with the modern performance history of Don Giovanni have witnessed the casting of the peasant girl Zerlina switch from light soubrette sopranos to lyric mezzos and vice versa throughout the decades. There also exists evidence that contraltos used to have a go at it in the 19th century. Zerlina’s character arch is unusually rich in her frank awareness of the power of her sexuality as it relates to her station in society. In its casting of the part, the Atlanta Opera was fortunate to secure the services of Meigui Zhang, a soprano of unusual ease in the middle and low registers (enhancing the character’s sultry nature) and an easy extension to the upper scale required to fulfill the part’s charming arias. Ms. Zhang’s youth and beauty furthered her cause tremendously.
While many productions of Don Giovanni focus the prima donna spotlight on Donna Anna, the Atlanta Opera’s current production has placed the laurels on the brow of mezzo-soprano Jennifer Johnson Cano who makes her Atlanta Opera debut as Donna Elvira. Hers is an exciting dramatic mezzo-soprano which extends excitedly upwards to do right by Elvira’s dizzying collection of leaps and scales from her very entrance. Mention of her florid singing must also include the weight with which she managed every ornate bar, each note brandished with due focus and care, and tastefully linked within the structure of the phrase. In the second act, maestro Latham-Koenig dusted off a rarely heard D-Major version of Donna Elvira’s “Mi tradi” (as opposed the version in E-Flat that we’re accustomed to hearing) designed to display the richness of her lower register to great effect. Theatrically, she took great advantage of the possibilities afforded by the updating, and looked like a million bucks in the costumes.
We cannot leave this assessment without mentioning the work of the other Atlanta Opera debut which took place last Saturday, that of stage director Kristine McIntyre. In her reimagining of Mozart’s masterpiece, director McIntyre aimed to update the work through 1930’s monochromatic film noire meets Dick Tracy aesthetic. The production is replete with of shadows, trench coats, and art deco accents, but little in the way of resolving some of the question marks that have plagued the opera for centuries (the true nature of Donna Anna’s grief, Zerlina’s true agenda, etc). To your friends at newoutpost, the update provides striking visual elements that will delight some, but fails to achieve its supposed purpose: to bridge the gap between modern audiences and moral and societal sensibilities in Mozart’s time. Today’s audience may be just as removed from 1930’s gender role tropes as we are to those held in 1787. With all things being equal, perhaps a case can be made to let the thing just be what it is.
For more information on the remaining performance of Mozart’s Don Giovanni, please visit the company’s website at www.atlantaopera.org
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There was palpable electricity in the air this past Saturday, as the Atlanta Opera unveiled its 2022-23 mainstage season with the first of four performances of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly. The production was originally intended to open the 2020-2021 season, but fell victim to the many delays associated with the Covid pandemic. The glittery opening night audience, which filled the confines of the Cobb Energy Center for the Performing Arts in pre-pandemic numbers, included amongst them the new Consulate General of Japan Mio Maeda and former Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin. It enthusiastically received the revival of the much-admired Madama Buttefly production first seen in 2014, an occasion which also marked Tomer Zvulun’s innagural season as Artistic Director and cemented his collaboration with the late maestro Lorin Maazel, for whom these performances are dedicated.
In reviving this production eight years after its premiere, Mr. Zvulun and his design team have made subtle revisions to the visual elements. Edhard Rom’s projection and video backdrops, depicting the home’s exquisite garden and other naturalistic settings, have become further integrated with Mr. Rom’s sets and Allen Charles Klein’s costumes to produce one of the finest traditional productions of the opera to be experienced today. For his part, Mr. Zvulun has filled in some of the blanks to aid the audience along. A projected quote by president Roosevelt declaring a nautical manifest destiny in the Pacific helped set the socio-political climate of the era which permeates the narrative. Some gambles, such as the introduction of young Sorrow running across the stage in mid-play had a devastating effect, while Suzuki’s overhearing of Pinkerton’s true intent in Act I and his interactions with his son during the opera’s final trio will alter the audience’s emotional response depending on who you ask, while innovations providing unnecessary aid to straight musical stretches (the fluttering butterflies accompanying the opera’s brief orchestral introduction and the depiction of Pinkerton’s ship projected superimposed against the orchestral intermezzo that links the two big scenes in Act II), remained superfluous – sometimes it is ok for the eye to let the ear take over.
Taking over Music Director Arthur Fagen’s place at the pit, young maestro Timothy Myers negotiated the difficult score admirably. A protege of the late Lorin Maazel, his execution was prim and often distinguished by a brisk tempo which showcased his fresh interpretation of this familiar music. His handling of the Act I concertato in particular (performed in its original form for these performances) was noteworthy for its clarity and congenial phrasing. If a subtle musical tug-of-war between the pit and the evening’s leading tenor called out a need for more amicable flexibility in the maestro’s tempo structure (who incidentally remained steadfast,) it was quickly resolved by the time the leading prima donna settled into her entrance.
Making her debut in these performances of Madama Butterly, Japanese soprano Yasko Sato brings to Atlanta her celebrated assumption of Puccini’s tragic heroine. Her Cio-Cio-San is an important, carefully curated creation, replete with nuances designed to convey the character’s innocent fascination (the insistent way her gaze follows Pinkerton across the stage in Act I, for instance) and contrasted with her willful renunciation of her cultural heritage for the love of a man who truly does not deserve it. The offstage family protests coupled with her anxious retorts of “Butterfly – Rinnegata…e felice” were delivered to their full impact. Coupled with the political climate of 2022, it resonated with greater relevance.
The opera’s marathon second act became an emotionally excruciating experience for the audience as Ms. Sato’s Cio-Cio-San’s hope, faithful devotion and unwavering love (the very factors driving her forward,) became corrupted by a harsh world to instigate her undoing. And yet, so much life was lived as the character willfully strategizes to deceive herself. These culminated with Ms. Sato’s tense and tentative exchanges with Suzuki following Pinkerton’s return, and the careful inspection of her crucifix as the weight of the truth and her sacrifice loomed over her prompted profound silence in the audience. The final reclamation of her heritage served as silver lining to her tragic demise.
It is noteworthy to point out that, as heard on Saturday, Ms. Sato’s heartfelt stage portrayal was not equally supported through vocal means. Her soprano at times qualified as that of the lirico spinto designation, though it was wielded through a disparate method consistently at odds with the demands of the score. The voice is of significant size, best heard in the warm and amber tones of her middle register when exposed to low pressure situations. Perhaps an issue of stamina, the sustained melodies which crown Cio-Cio-San’s famous entrance were solidly delivered up through the confession to Pinkerton of her secret conversion to Christianity (“Ieri son salita”). From then on, a constricted production in the upper passagio marred subsequent stabs at the higher tessitura, which became harsh and strident, threatening veritable grief in the important climatic moments that followed. The lack of technical support rendered her phrasing perfunctory and limited her freedom to express herself musically to her fullest potential, a real shame as she is a pupil of the great Raina Kabaivanska, one of the last great exponents of the role in the 20th century.
Returning to the Atlanta Opera stage as Pinkerton, Italian tenor Gianlucca Terranova delivered another winning portrayal to accompany his previous triumphs as Bizet’s Don Jose and Puccini’s Rodolfo and Calaf. He imbued Pinkerton’s music with that welcomed idiomatic Italianita that has qualified him as a favorite with Atlanta audiences in previous seasons. In the past seven years, the voice has retained its bronze hue and tight knit even through the most climatic passages, though the ascent to the high fortissimo is now aided through a distinct focus which contrasts the rest of his technique. Voices change and methods change with them. In the interim, he fully milked all three solos and his participation in the opera’s extraordinary love duet all the while delivering the stereotypical Pinkerton needed to inspire the disdain of the audience. The playful jeers mixed with the ovation that greeted his curtain gave sufficient notice of his success.
Returning to Atlanta in the role that marked her debut back in 2014, Nina Yoshida Nelsen’s interpretation of Suzuki has further developed into the protective and caring maid turned extended family to Cio-Cio-San. Vocally, her mezzo-soprano has retained its sympathetic mellow tone while her declamation has gained a welcomed newfound authority. She shared supporting credits with the fine Sharpless of bass-baritone Craig Colclough, who’s smashing debut in the title role of Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro remains vivid in our recollection seven years after the fact. Like in the case of Ms. Nelsen’s, though the core qualities of Mr. Colclough’s instrument and stylistic approach are not ideally suited for Italian verismo, he nonetheless succeeded in delivering a diplomatic and sensible reading of the American consul Sharpless. These fine singers, together with Mr. Terranova, joined their substantial talents to deliver a beautiful rendition of the opera’s final ensemble, “Io so che alle sue pene”.
The comprimario assignments were exceptionally cast, with Saturday night’s performance providing us with an update on the vocal condition of baritone Leroy Davis, whom we last heard as Ernesto in Odyssey Opera’s presentation of Pacini’s rare work “Maria, Regina d’Inghilterra back in 2019 (before everything went to hell). Back then we wondered if the young artist’s developing talent would catch up with his technique. Heard here as Prince Yamadori, we are happy to report tremendous progress in projection and core development. In the key role of Goro, tenor Julius Ahn enthusiastically graced his involvement with inexhaustible verve and the role of Kate Pinkerton, so often delegated to a deserving chorus member, allowed the full and vibrant mezzo-soprano Gretchen Krupp, a Glynn Studio Artist, to enter our radar.
There are three remaining performances of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly. For more information on these, and the rest of the company’s 2022-2023 season, visit www.atlantaopera.org
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Under the banner of its acclaimed Discovery Series, the Atlanta Opera welcomed its 2022-2023 season last weekend with an acclaimed staging of Bartok’s Bluebeard’s Castle. The production, the brainchild of stage director Daisy Evans and conductor Stephen Higgins, premiered last November at London’s Theatre of Sound to glowing reviews, and makes its American premiere with these performances at Kennesaw State University’s Bailey Performance Center. It made for an emotional evening at the theater which likely resonated with many.
Allegories, ambiguous symbolism and gothic fairy tales are often easy bait for the enterprising modern opera director. Director Daisy Evans is no exception, but where some favor a more gratuitous vein, Ms. Evans has chosen a more courageous path. Admitting a failure to reconcile Bluebeard’s music and text with that of a murderous psychopath, she has sought to reimagine the work in a way that resolves the character’s ambiguities. Her vision of the action turns the libretto on its head: Bluebeard’s brutal gothic castle, with its minimal hallway flanked by seven doors, becomes the interior of a simple house filled with the trappings that make it an ordinary home. Judith is no longer Bluebeard’s latest bride, but his lifelong partner who is grappling with the onset of dementia. Instead of doors revealing the fate of Bluebeard’s previous wives, an old trunk serves to unlock the various memories that fade in and out of Judith’s consciousness: Her splendor as a youthful bride, the joys of motherhood and the painful tragedy that triggered her illness. We are faced with the different stages of the life of this woman, juxtaposed with Bluebeard’s tragic plight. For as he unveils her memories, they both relive their painful past as she continues to inevitably fade away.
The intimate setting established by Ms. Evans is further promoted by maestro Stephen Higgins’ carefully crafted orchestral reduction. A labor of love embarked during the pandemic lock-down, maestro Higgins distilled what is considered to be a large orchestral showpiece down to nine instruments. While those familiar with the work will surely crave the diversity of color which only a full orchestra can provide, maestro Higgins’ reduction achieves much through economical means. His efforts are brought to life by nine talented musicians, with David Odom, John Warren, and David Bradley standing out for their meticulous work in the clarinet and horn sections respectively.
While Bluebeard’s Castle demands the attention of the audience for a run time of just over one hour, it challenges the endurance of the two protagonists who must essentially maintain an extended duet for the duration of the show. The company offers baritone Michael Mayes, a favorite with Atlanta Opera audiences, in the opera’s title role. In our previous encounters with his work, we’ve found his portrayals physically energetic yet lacking degrees of vocal finesse. Though his physical acting took center stage again in these performances, Bartok’s musical language proved a good vehicle for his expressive vocal possibilities. His Bluebeard is wonderfully understated and tenderly responsive to his Judith, the renown dramatic soprano Susan Bullock, who we are convinced made her Atlanta Opera debut in these performances though the playbill made no mention of the fact. Ms. Bullock’s repertoire is a veritable survey of the heavy dramatic soprano roles most voice teachers will caution about, and recalling our last hearing her as Strauss’ Elektra thirteen years ago at some big opera company up north, her vocal powers have diminished somewhat. But that’s to be expected. As heard last weekend, the voice’s gleamy focus gets clouded by an occasional weakness in the middle passagio, which creeps up with little warning, at times affecting the top of the voice and other times the middle (a factor that surely affected Judith’s iconic reaction as the fifth door is opened). She cleverly used her vocal patina and hypnotic stage presence to weave a devastating portrayal of Judith.
The success of this reimagining of Bartok’s only opera was made possible by the intimate setting provided by Kennesaw State University’s Morgan Concert Hall at the Bailey Performance Center, a one level concert venue that seats just over six-hundred patrons. It allowed the orchestral reduction to fill the space to its fullest possibilities while providing an immersive experience to both patrons and musicians, encouraging a more naturalistic acting style from the cast while providing the audience with the opportunity to experience director Evan’s English translation without the aid of supertitles. And that, like performances of Bluebeard’s Castle, is a rare treat indeed.
The Atlanta Opera will return to the Cobb Energy Performing Arts Center in November for the opening of its mainstage season with performances of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly. The 2022-2023 season promises to be one for the books, and will also include Mozart’s Don Giovanni, Bernstein’s Candide and Wagner’s Das Rheingold. For more information, please visit the company’s website at www.atlantaopera.org
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It may come as no surprise to visitors to this site when we say that the pandemic has been rough on your friends Newoutpost. Short of become carefully reacquainted with the offerings of our local company (The Atlanta Opera), our return to polite society has been slow. For this reason, a self-imposed moratorium on pilgrimages, a frequent feature of our pre-pandemic content, hampered our output over the past two years. We are happy to report that newoutpost is officially back on the road, and this past weekend when we headed to Valhalla by way of Nashville Opera’s production of Wagner’s Das Rheingold.
While the decision to attend a regional company’s historic premiere of the first installment of Wagner’s landmark tetralogy may seems like a no brainer, there were valid reservations to consider prior to packing our suitcases. Our previous experiences with the company has been spotty: A blazing introduction in 2014 through Verdi’s Otello being sharply juxtaposed with a well-meaning yet ultimately disappointing presentation of Offenbach’s Les Contes d’Hoffmann in 2019. Was the company ready to take this quantum leap? Equally valid was the realization that Nashville’s Airbnb rates rival those found in NYC. You also have to get there, and though the distance between Nashville and Atlanta is moderate, the billboards and bumper stickers to be encountered during the drive can proof triggering depending on how your 2022 is going. The company’s assertion that programing the rest of the Ring cycle is not officially off the table helped tip the scales towards our visit, a decision further cemented with the realization that these performances of Wagner’s Das Rheingold would take place at Belmont’s University new Fischer Center for the Performing Arts.
Vital to Richard Wagner’s artistic ideals (Gesamtkunstwerk,) the orchestra and vocal balance of his scores is directly related to the size and design of the venue, and while the Fischer Center for the Performing Arts is not identical in design or scale to Bayreuth’s Richard-Wagner Festspielhaus, its Beaux Arts Revival style and seating capacity (approximately 1,600 seats spread over four horseshoe-shaped tiers) allow for a more intimate and friendlier acoustic than most American venues can offer. Though Nashville Opera framed the proceedings with rare advantage, the presentation replete with inevitable compromises: The production values contrasted the classic appeal of the venue and score by following some of the trends that have distinguished modern Wagner productions in the past decade. Under the direction of Nashville Opera CEO & Artistic Director John Hoomes and his design team, the stage divided into two levels by scaffolding which also serves to support massive HD screens, which bear the brunt of resolving the opera’s tricky stage challenges through clever imagery designed by lighting designer Barry Steele. The results are two-fold, occassionally enhancing the proceedings with the right poetic verve (the sequence accompanying the opera’s iconic prelude and the entrance of the gods into Valhalla were particularly effective), though often leaving the production vulnerable to the trappings of glitchy execution. The depiction of Alberich’s transformations in particularly were missed opportunities. The work of costume designer Matt Logan and wig and makeup designer Sondra Nottingham further promoted an atmosphere of ostentatious decadence without adhering to a cohesive aesthetic. Their work, to be certain, is visually striking and kept the eye entertained.
As heard on Sunday May 8th, the musical values made a stronger case for the piece. Though the score was reduced for a 64-member orchestra through an arrangement by Eberhard Kloke, it was ably managed by the orderly baton of maestro Dean Williamson, who’s musical direction was singer conscious, functional, and managed to deliver a well performed (if not terribly poetic) reading without major mishaps. The testing assignment was further complicated by various covid mitigation best practices which found the conductor and several members of the orchestra fully masked through the run of the afternoon. Maestro Williamson was fortunate to have at his disposal an exciting group of American talent that was able to bring the performance to life.
The introductory scene depicting the Nibelung’s theft of the Rhein’s magical gold guarded by the Rheinmaidens got the evening off to a promising start through the singing of three big-voiced sirens portrayed by soprano Jessie Neilson as Woglinde, mezzo-soprano Danielle MacMillan as Wellgunde and contralto Valerie Nelson as Flosshilde. Though the stage direction broke little ground in depicting these water-bound mythical creatures (swimming was implied through traditionally simple arm gestures) the trio managed to distinguish their personalities vividly through vocal means. The scene was further graced by the Alberich of baritone Samuel Weiser. An artist previously unknown to us, he revealed a fully formed portrayal of the opera’s complex antagonist. The instrument is ample and produced without apparent effort, and he had a comfortable grasp on the technical trickery to wield it from growl to whisper. This rendered it serviceable to Mr. Weiser’s artistic compass, which was acutely sensitive to the disparate motivations driving our villain. Judging by the ovation which greeted his curtain calls, Mr. Weiser managed to inspire sympathy for miserable old Alberich and provided the standout performance of the afternoon.
The realm of the gods brought further luminaries with the introduction of mezzo-soprano Renee Tatum’s deliciously sung Fricka. Having put us on notice last November through her starry portrayal of Cornelia in The Atlanta Opera’s production of Handel’s Giulio Cesare, Ms. Tatum distinguished her reading of Valhalla’s desperate housewife through large scale singing. What was heard in Atlanta was no accident, and here once again was a firm, healthy mezzo-soprano distinguished by an even scale and firmness tone. She was faithful to Wagner’s musical demands, and her instrument will frown, flinch, beseech and demand at will. She was well matched by the opera’s central figure, the god Wotan, played here for the first time by baritone Lester Lynch. The profile of this instrument has a Verdian, late bel canto edge, and it qualifies Mr. Lynch for the assignment: It was certainly an admirable first reading. The voice is large, warm and responsive to the demands on the score, though in mild contrast to Ms. Tatum, it can become unsteady under pressure. Mr. Lynch’s portrayal is that of a younger, more absent-minded husband who makes the crucial decisions that keep the pages turning yet seems apprehensive to lead. It made Wotan’s dependence on Loge in Das Rheingold the more believable.
That assignment was entrusted to tenor Corey Bix, who, like Mr. Lynch, essays the part for the first time with these performances. We have witnessed Mr. Bix’s development through the years, first as a young Florestan in Utah Opera’s production of Beethoven’s Fidelio, Aegisthus in Des Moines Metro Opera’s production of Strauss’ Elektra and a last-minute replacement for Brian Hymel as Aeneas in Berlioz’s Les Troyens at San Francisco Opera, all in the early 2010s. Though a Loge of promise, Mr. Bix’s dramatic portrayal could benefit from greater development. A tenor of uncommonly tall stature, he easily maintains the audience’s attention which can be a double edge sword: Once you’re noticed, you must convince. A certain guarded quality rendered his stage actions an air of interpolation, and while the cunning side of Loge was heavily feature by the direction, the parallels with Alberich (a reject who acts out versus a reject who wishes he could) were mostly underplayed. This is a significant caveat when taking into consideration that Das Rheingold provides the only opportunity to flesh out Loge’s character in Wagner’s Ring Cycle. Mr. Bix overcame these shortcomings through vocal means, and despite some unsteadiness of pitch heard on Sunday afternoon’s performance, he possesses the vocal pedigree to develop into a promising Loge. His tenor is large, appealing in tone, and capable of negotiating the rhythmic and tempo changes admirably, all the while remaining responsive to the text.
The casting of popular soprano Othalie Graham as the goddess Freia added great interest to the proceedings. The artist’s reputation has kept her in our radar, though we have been unable to cross paths due to various circumstances until now. This first hearing of Ms. Graham’s art confirms the rumors: this is no vocal wallflower. Whenever her participation was required, she took full advantage of the character’s position to vocally embody the Freia’s distress, appropriately threatening to break through the acoustic sleeve at her every outburst. The voice itself is a large, bright soprano which travels both wide and forward, and can get a little wild if not carefully checked. A quick glance at her repertoire list reveals her tackling some of the big ladies in the standard rep, raising our urgency to sample her art in more extensive roles. Ms. Graham’s Freia was bravely defended by the noble tones of tenor Tyler Nelson’s Froh and the physically striking Donner of baritone Joshua Jeremiah.
The giant delegation was well served through the Fasolt of bass Ricardo Lugo and the Fafner of bass Matthew Burns. Unlike his grumpier sibling, Fasolt only appears in Das Rheingold, but limitations are opportunities to Mr. Lugo, who rose to the occasion and revealed a fully fleshed out character through his alert and sympathetic bass. The other sibling featured in Das Rheingold, Alberich’s brother Mime, was luxuriously realized through the work of veteran artist Allan Glassman. As his clarion tenor skated through the fits and starts of Mime’s zany phrases, we recalled our own memories of his Faust back in 1995. Incredibly, the span of nearly 30 years has done little to diminish the size and steady delivery of his instrument, which remains within his complete control. No discussion of a Das Rheingold performance can be complete without mention of the afternoon’s Erda. Gwendolyn Brown, a member of the nowadays rare contralto family, answered the call admirably. Though Erda’s endless legato phrases proved a source of discomfort at times, it is indeed a rare treat to feel the foundation of the auditorium rattle as a contralto descends into the lower reaches of her tessitura. Hers is a voice that begs a second hearing, if perhaps in different repertoire.
For those who balance pandemic concerns when considering attending these types of events (hands raised), mitigation practices at Fischer Center for the Performing Arts welcome the use of masks, though there is no requirement to do so. Throughout the auditorium, some masks were spotted though the majority did without. From our vantage point, several members of the orchestra as well as maestro Williamson sported masks throughout the performance. Audiences remain mostly quiet through Das Rheingold, and that helped when addressing instances of anxiety. During the ovations that greeted the curtain calls, we stepped to the exit in order to avoid direct exposure to the rowdier air currents. If pandemic concerns are keeping you out of the theater, consider choosing an area of the auditorium that has not sold well and is sparsely populated. Everyone is in different mental and emotional planes when dealing with this topic, and we recommend that you be patient with yourself. Plan ahead of time and take whatever strategic measures you deem necessary to have a safe and gratifying evening at the theater. You can make it work for you.
Sunday afternoon’s presentation of Wagner’s Das Rheingold closed the Nashville Opera 2021-22 season. Though company has made no official statement whether it will follow up with subsequent productions of the remaining operas in Wagner’s Ring Cycle, we choose to keep the hope alive. To obsessively keep track of this situation, or to stay up to date on all things Nashville Opera, please visit the company’s website at www.nashvilleopera.org
Comments Off on Nashville Opera | Wagner: Das Rheingold | 5/6-8/22
Last Saturday night, the Atlanta Opera unveiled the third stage production of its 2021-22 season, the company’s comeback season following the prolonged pandemic-related hiatus, with a performance of Rossini’s comic masterpiece, Il barbiere di Siviglia. Though pandemic statistics in our city and state continue to trend favorably, safety for staff and patrons remains a prime focus with the Atlanta Opera, and as it was at the time of the season’s opener last November (Handel’s Giulio Cesare,) proof of vaccination or a negative antigen test are still required to enter the Cobb Energy Center. Inside the hall mask mandates have been lifted, though their use is still highly encouraged. In practice, the majority of the opening night audience sported them inside the auditorium and during intermission. An update of the company’s policy is broadcast prior to the curtain by a public health official, and a curious sense of community is impressed upon many by the reminder that it is not only the audience that risks much in attending these performances, but also the musicians and artists who have made them possible. After the tremendous stress of the past two years, complying for the general safety of all in order to bask in the glory of a treasured comedy and have a much-needed laugh seemed like an easy ask.
It has been remarked that it is easier to make an audience cry than to make them laugh, and though the musical virtues of the operas of the buffa genre virtually guarantee their position in the standard repertoire, they often land short of achieving their intended effect. Italian comedy of this period can strike modern audiences as slap stick, campy and grotesquely overstated. To ensure success, director Michael Shell has cleverly refashioned Rossini’s masterpiece through a definite mid-20th century Spanish sensibility evocative of the work of Pedro Almodovar. Taking as evidence the quotes presented in the production playbill and the director’s notes from the production’s 2014 unveiling at Opera Philadelphia, the production team’s intention to emulate the aesthetic of the famed Spanish film director is transparent. Shoko Kambara’s set design is dominated by aggressive pop art elements realized through an Iberian color palette and are often juxtaposed by anachronistic costumes by Amanda Seymour. The resulting atmosphere is cohesively Spanish and primed for the ridiculous. All that’s needed is a cast on the verge of a nervous breakdown and stir.
Called upon to do just that, Carl & Sally Gable Music Director Arthur Fagen managed the principals and the forces of the Atlanta Opera Orchestra and Chorus with a tidy baton: and this was no simple task. Bel Canto opera has a bad reputation for featuring basic orchestrations, but Rossini infamously tagged “il Tedeschino” early in his career, and Il barbiere diSiviglia’s orchestration is among his most descriptive, instigating the stage proceedings in very palpable ways: It gesticulates, comments and reacts. Once he had shaken off the opening night jitters (the reading of the famous overture was initially tentative,) Maestro Fagen managed to synergize the forces in the pit and stage without reducing his contribution to that of a traffic control cop: much of what was heard on opening night was realized with verve and glittery brilliance. A favorite with Atlanta audiences for over 15 years, his leadership was supportive and considerate, keeping the performance on its rails whenever the ride got shaky and creating musical space for those in need.
This was a position that the evening’s Figaro, the opera’s title character played by baritone Joseph Lattanzi, unfortunately found himself in. A rewarding assignment for those who fit the bill, Rossini’s Figaro will mercilessly call out those who don’t, and the ultimate litmus test is administered at the character’s very entrance: the iconic Largo al factotum. The showpiece permits the baritone to showcase the character’s personality through exuberant vocal means. As heard on opening night, Mr. Lattanzi possesses an attractive baritone of respectable dimension, but it does not roar with Spanish bravado or thrive in the flurry of patter singing sequences to qualify his efforts a success. The testing leaps to the high G called out a certain disconnect between the middle and upper tessitura. The scene was rendered passable through Mr. Lattanzi’s winning stage presence and stage business, and to his credit, the rest of the evening found him settling more comfortably into his paces. While the qualities that make a Figaro vocally memorable were simply not within his grasp last Saturday, his is certainly not a “bad voice”, and many of his long-held utterances towards the end of the evening provided evidence of an instrument which could graciously serve many of the famous Mozart baritone parts and someday graduate to more serious bel canto assignments. He remains an artist within our radar.
To the surprise of many, Figaro’s patron and partner in crime, the Count Almaviva, was not portrayed in these performances by Atlanta Opera discovery Santiago Ballerini, but by Taylor Stayton making his Atlanta Opera debut with these performances. A veteran of the role, Mr. Stayton provided evidence of his worth through the impressive fluidity in his scale up to the upper middle during the first act’s serenade scena. The inescapable comparisons to Mr. Ballerini ultimately qualified Mr. Stayton worthy of the assignment: His is a gallant, soft grained lyric tenor graced by a pale timbre which can fill the house with ease until challenged by either orchestra or colleague. A certain tightness in the ascension to the upper extension of his scale was also a deterrent, and his vocalism lacks an incisive edge, making the exclusion of the extracurricular “Cessa piu non resistere” bravura showpiece (which recent performance tend to reinsert into the opera) a wise choice. As a physical actor, he commanded the stage, demanding the attention of the audience at his every involvement, particularly in his portrayal of Don Alonso, realized in this production as a peace-loving, yoga practicing hippie by Mr. Shell.
The role of Rosina has run the gamut of casting practices through the history of the part, and though premiered by a contralto, the alternate tradition of the soprano Rosina was started by the composer himself. The 19th century Italian opera scene was a wild place, and it was not uncommon for composers to churn out transposed versions of their own work for famous artists of the day. For these performances of Il barbiere di Siviglia, the Atlanta opera celebrates Rossini’s original conception by entrusting the part to a lower voice. Making her Atlanta Opera debut as the feisty Spaniard, mezzo soprano Stephanie Lauricella, fulfills the vocal demands of the role with flying colors. Her instrument is of lyric weight and exceptionally limber, allowing its mistress to accomplish the score’s florid complications with apparent ease. Though the lower register is not dominant, it is certainly securely placed and within the singer’s control: if allowed to develop, it promises to bring added excitement to her future portrayals. Her success, however, was not complete. Though the voice satisfies the athletic demands, her declamation and timbre were ill-matched to the character’s piquant personality, and theatrically she tended to yield the spotlight to her zany colleagues. While these held back her transformation into the endearing feisty queen of hearts we expect to greet us by the final curtain, we hope to continue to witness her development in future Atlanta Opera seasons.
Saturday night’s opening night performance will be referenced to future opera goers as the United States and Atlanta Opera debut of bass-baritone Giovanni Romeo, entrusted here with the role of Doctor Bartolo. For all intents and purposes, the night belonged to him. Vocally, his instrument is malleable and responsive in loud, soft and ornate passages. Wielded by Mr. Romeo, this voice can both bloom beautifully and distort itself to express the passions of the ridiculous assignment. His aria “A un dottor de la mia sorte” does not enjoying the same fame as other numbers in the opera, but can prove particularly testing in its mix of sustained singing, legato, and patter outbursts, which Mr. Romeo executed with expert measure and comedic verve. Dramatically, he is a scene stealer like Mr. Stayton, though he achieved this through subtler means: A slight change in position, or a well-time silence allowed him to redirected the spotlight to himself at every turn. This is not to say that he was above the more overt antics, for he was able to successfully land the interpolated side business of doctor Bartolo’s split persona as a rooster for the entirety of the show. There was even a rooster ballet which accompanied the tempest interlude in act two and it was entirely hilarious! In the hands of Mr. Romeo, his Bartolo was ultimately realized pedantic and pathetic through a Falstaffian reading. It elevated the character well beyond the stock figure treatment we are often accustomed to and inspired disappointment in many when Doctor Bartolo doesn’t end up with the girl at the end.
Going past this benchmark, bass-baritone David Crawford’s portrayal of Don Basilio was vigorously overstated. Think The Joker played by John Travolta, add excess. The voice itself remains his best calling card, and though not the most idiomatic for this sort of music, his instrument projected firmly though the paces of the famous “La calumnia”. In a refreshing bit of casting, the role of Berta was reimagined as a young sexy maid, allowing soprano Cadie J. Bryan to steal a bit of the scene in her various comings and goings. She also surprised the ear by offering her fresh, pleasing soprano to Berta’s often ignored aria di sorbetto (literally, the song you want to leave the auditorium during to use the facilities or get some ice cream). Baritone Sankara Harouna started the night on a positive tone as Fiorello, and company favorite Mitch Gindlesperger offered his seasoned bass-baritone through a sturdy take of the police officer during the finale of the first act. The hilarious David Silverstein as Ambrogio rounded out the cast by shuffling his way through a night of great music making and so many giggles.
Two more performances remain in the Atlanta Opera’s run of Rossini’s Il barbiere di Siviglia. For ticket information, details of the company’s exciting 2022-23 season, or to learn more about the company, please visit its website at www.atlantaopera.org
Comments Off on The Atlanta Opera | Rossini: Il barbiere di Siviglia | 3/5-13/22
Last weekend, the Atlanta Opera made its much-anticipated return to mainstage productions at the Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre and opened its 2021-22 season with a first for the city: Handel’s Giulio Cesare. Aside from a selection of Handel and Hasse arias featured at a Spring Gala Concert back in 2007, and a full staging of Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice in 2009, the Atlanta Opera has rarely been known to champion early music, thus the prospect of such premiere proved enticing enough to force many (including myself) out of their pandemic accommodations of choice. What follows is an assessment of the performance which took place on Tuesday, November 9th.
But before we go there, I have an announcement!
As all of you know, the world has changed drastically since my last post, thus going forward (note the optimistic yet tentative tone) in addition to providing musical and production value assessments, these reviews will also contain relevant information pertaining to the topic of “going to the opera in the middle of a pandemic”. Now, I realize that this information will attract some and perhaps repel many, and since we try not to play politics on this page, both sections will be kept separate to allow the reader the ability to pick and choose what best serves them. We believe in choice.
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.