The Atlanta Opera opened its 2016-17 season this past Saturday October 8th with a delightful presentation of Mozart’s singspiel Die Entfuhrung aus dem Serail. Though the opera does not enjoy top tier status in the international repertoire, it has been championed by the Atlanta Opera company twice before, and the opera’s 2006 production even marked the company’s first (and to this day, only) pre-recorded broadcast for local radio. For the present run, the company has assembled a delightful (if uneven) cast and a production that brings the opera to life in a gracious and charming way. The company should also be credited for reaching out to those in need, for as a gesture of solidarity towards our coastal neighbors facing the harrowing threat of Hurricane Matthew, it welcomed refugees seeking shelter in our city to the performance at no charge. We can only hope that those facing hardships were able to find momentary repose in Mozart’s magical score.
In a way, we have reported on this production before. The sets and costumes come to Atlanta via the Des Moines Metro Opera, which featured this opera in its 2015-2016 summer festival and was reviewed by this blog. A production, of course, is not just comprised of sets and costumes, and the Atlanta Opera treatment was markedly different. This was due to the work of director Chris Alexander, who, with the help of projection designer S. Katy Tucker, opted to present the opera as the frothy, light comedy it is often dismissed as, celebrating instead the opera’s frivolous superficiality in an unapologetic manner. The projection element, so prevalent for the Atlanta Opera in recent seasons and often intrusive, served as a clever tool to reveal the opera’s introductory plot during the overture, while the stage business often underlined the piquant and whimsical qualities of the work. The end result was appropriately delicate, and set up the stage for merry music making below.
Leading the forces in the pit, conductor Arthur Fagen gave one of his most inspired performances, supporting his singers with gossamer clarity yet never compromising the concise voice of the orchestra. Throughout the opening night performance, his personal affinity to the work was palpable. These virtues aside, the musical integrity of the opera was seriously compromised by two startling changes to the score. The first took place during the second act, which ended abruptly following the famous “Marten aller Arten,” and continued unflinchingly following the evening’s single intermission break. Whether this was done to avoid the need for two intermissions or perhaps to split the opera right down the middle is not entirely clear, but it reshuffled the structure of the second act to the detriment of its pace by propelling one of the famous Mozart finales to the audience less than ten minutes into the evening’s second half. The second deviation in this production took place by the omission of Belmonte’s opening Act III aria “Ich Baue Ganz auf Deine Starke,” perhaps a side effect of the splitting of Act II and placing two big solos for the tenor so close to one another (nevermind that Konstanze has two back to back arias herself), a cut made the more criminal by the fact that this production boasts one of the most promising Mozart tenors of his generation.
Followers of this blog will remember our reaction to the Belmonte of tenor Ben Bliss, which your friends at newoutpost had the privilege of witnessing in this very same production at Des Moines Metro Opera last season. Our impressions then were more than cemented by his singing heard on the opening night of this production last week. His is an effortlessly produced tenore di grazia endowed with uncommon clarity and fluidity of tone, and capable of filling the spacious auditorium of the Cobb Energy Center. His Act I offering, “Hier sol lich dich den sehen,” proved why the role of Belmonte served to introduce Mr. Bliss to Metropolitan Opera audiences earlier this year. When asked to navigate the cruel challenges of Mozart’s score, the tenor’s patrician instrument conquered them to the manner born. For his second aria, “Konstanze! Dich wiederzusehen!” his exceptional legato somehow attained a more profound tone than heard in Des Moines last season. As reward to his outstanding efforts, the Atlanta Opera featured the often abridged “Wenn der Freude Tranen Fleissen” for Mr. Bliss, a reinsertion which made the deletion of the tenor’s act III opening scena the more puzzling.
The success of soprano Sarah Coburn as Konstanze held some reservations, though we must caveat what follows by underlining the supreme challenge that this part presents to all who dare go near it. At the outset, her striking good looks and distinguished singing made a positive impression, yet as heard of opening night, Ms. Coburn’s soprano is a full lyric instrument showcased a glamorous and creamy tone best heard when allowed to spin out at a moderate pace, where her singing took on the hallmarks of the Viennese style. Her delivery of the opera’s second act aria, “Welcher Wechsel herrscht in meiner Seele”, underlined this proclivity and allowed Ms. Coburn to expertly pace the lachrymose number in a memorable and touching manner. Trouble arose whenever the score demanded flashes of melismatic brilliance or the type of dramatic coloratura which hallmarks the famous “Marten aller Arten”. Here Ms. Coburn’s singing became stressed and muscled, and the cruel passagework that concludes the aria called out deficiencies in her breathing method. Likewise Act One’s “Ach, ich liebte, war so glucklich” revealed a loss of tonal consistency in rapid passages, a pinched quality at the extreme top, and an undistinguished trill. Once the Olympic trials of these disparate arias were past her, Ms. Coburn appeared to relax, and acclimated her resources into the ensembles with remarkable results. These performances mark Atlanta’s first hearing the soprano, and despite the list of demerits your friends at newoutpost did truly enjoy her singing. We hope that the Atlanta Opera company will again employ her services in a less exacting role.
Entrusted with the role of Osmin, Bass Kevin Burdette navigated through the role admirably despite a limited instrument. Aided through a forward production, Mr Burdette managed to negotiate the difficulties of the score in perfunctory fashion (no small feat, mind you), but the full weight of his impersonation was robbed of gravitas by a voice lacking the size and darkness required to successfully pull off this eponymous part. In many instances when the score is designed to showcase the singer’s lower register, Mr. Burdette’s voice disappeared into the orchestral fabric. More troubling, when the voice did thrusted itself forward, the sound leaned towards a brighter sheen more appropriate to the light baritone ilk. As a means of making up for lost ground, Mr. Burdette revealed himself an enthusiastic comedic actor, whipping up the crowd into thunderous applause through his outrageous antics of Osmin’s final aria “O wie will ich triumphieren”. At the end of the night, it was an impersonation that ranked more in line with the secondary characters than alongside the principal parts.
The subject of Osmin’s eternal chagrin, the unwilling gardener Pedrillo, was well realized by Matthew Grills who employed his pleasing, though somewhat generic light tenor voice to surprisingly great effect. Like in the case with Mr. Burdette, Mr. Grills relied heavily on his stage deportment and well timed gags to sell his Pedrillo to the Atlanta Opera audience. The ovations that greeted his curtain call proved once again that charm can go a long way in the American south.
For her part, the feisty Blondchen of the soprano Katrina Galka won well-earned applause through her no nonsense disposition and ear splitting ascends to the stratosphere. Her soubrette resources were perky, and overtly crystalline to a fault, at times straying sharp and shrill at random spots in her scale. She did manage the hair raising ascent to the high Fs in her aria “Durch Zartlichkeit und Schmeicheln” while lying flat on her back, and achieved this feat with such gracious glee as that all previous faults were thoroughly forgiven. Finally, the non-singing part of Pasha Selim was assigned to Atlanta’s veteran actor Tom Key, who combined a brash masculinity to the expected solemn dignity to this frequently ignored role. His handling of the wardrobe alone was a show unto itself.
For information on the two remaining performances of Mozart’s Die Entfuhrung aus dem Serail, as well as details of the Atlanta Opera’s 2016-17 season, be sure to visit the company’s website at www.atlantaopera.org