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 “Euch Lüften, 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