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Nashville Opera | Wagner: Das Rheingold | 5/6-8/22

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.

Renee Tatum (Fricka) – Corey Bix (Loge). Photo Credit: Anthony Popolo.

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.

Corey Bix (Loge) – Lester Lynch (Wotan) – Allan Glassman (Mime). Photo Credit: Anthony Popolo.

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.

Renee Tatum (Fricka) – Lester Lynch (Wotan). Photo Credit: Anthony Popolo.

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.

Gwendolyn Brown (Erda) – Lester Lynch (Wotan) – Tyler Nelson (Froh) – Joshua Jeremiah (Donner) – Corey Bix (Loge). Photo Credit: Anthony Popolo.

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

-Daniel Vasquez

 
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Posted by on May 11, 2022 in Arts, Opera

 

The Atlanta Opera presents Richard Strauss’ Salome


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. 

“Thy hair is like the cedars of Lebanon, like the great cedars of Lebanon that give their shade to the lions and to the robbers…” Salome (Jennifer Hollowell) and Jochanaan (Nathan Berg). Rafterman Photography.
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Posted by on January 26, 2020 in Arts, Opera

 

The Atlanta Opera presents Rossini’s La Cenerentola

As the warm applause greeted the curtain of the Atlanta Opera’s season opening production of Rossini’s La Cenerentola this Friday, November 8th, glittery confetti showered on Angelina as she unfurled the final phrases of her celebrated aria (and arguably the only number keeping the opera active in the repertoire) “Non piu mesta”. Mixed with the acclaim and the sincere the delight of many was the inescapable memory of my first time attempt at making pasta sauce from scratch. I recall getting the finest ingredients my meager salary could secure, and the great care with which I managed the ratios between homemade tomato paste, garlic and herbs, graced by the required dramatic finger flicker of salt and pepper. Efforts notwithstanding, I recall my palate’s cruel assertion that I thoroughly missed the elusive alchemy that marries worthy elements into the desired result, leaving me to taste the ripe but uninfluenced tomato, the stand alone furry oregano, all made further insipid by the heavy handed interpolation of a very blunt dose of black pepper. The thing tasted like nothing at all, and a similar conclusion sunk in my heart as I tried to sum up the evening while patiently waiting to exit the Cobb Energy Performing Arts Center parking lot. Looking for a culprit in situations like these makes for an uncomfortable task. Opera is a tough gamble, and those involved in it are often drawn to it by significant love. Artists and companies invest extensive amounts of time and effort to tackle often impossible music, be measured up against exhaustive standards and hope to offer their best to the public. Those who witness the effort, even opera critics, would rather describe a party rather than prepare an autopsy report, but alas, here we are.

Santiago Ballerini (Ramiro,) Emily Fons (Angelina,) and Bryn Holdsworth (Clorinda).
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Posted by on November 10, 2019 in Arts, Opera

 

Odyssey Opera presents Pacini’s Maria, Regina d’Inghilterra

Fresh from giving the neighborhood trick or treaters a halloween that will, hopefully, haunt their dreams for the remainder of the year, we ventured to Boston this past weekend for our first visit to Odyssey Opera. The young company, already causing stirs with its bold and daring choice of repertoire, devotes its seventh season to the exploration of the Tudor dynasty in opera, and ushers in November with (of this we are fairly certain) the American premiere of Giovanni Pacini’s Maria, Regina d’Inghilterra.  Like Mercadante, Spontini, and (quite unfairly) Meyerbeer, references to Giovanni Pacini are often a footnote when discussing his more famous contemporaries such as Donizetti, Bellini and Verdi. Kept alive nowadays only by the unusual revival of his opera Saffo, it may come as a surprise to most that Pacini wrote over 80 operas, many of which served as vehicles for the famous opera stars of the era. A complete unknown today, he was once as established as any of the illustrious Italian composers who dominate the standard repertoire offered by opera companies around the world to this day. Odyssey Opera’s presentation of Pacini’s Maria, Regina d’Inghilterra gave its audience the rare opportunity to judge the composer’s merits in the flesh, and despite the opening night’s warm reception, it is clear that Pacini’s musical language falls in an awkward musico dramatico crack of history. His musical language is more phlegmatic than Donizetti’s, certainly less melodic than Bellini’s, and lacks that dramatic swagger that sets Verdi apart from the lot. That said, his orchestral voice is elegant and empowered, pointing north of the Alps, and prepares musical Italy for the later works of Verdi. More importantly, his fellow composers were influenced, even in reactionary fashion, to the work of this seasoned and talented musician, thus even the casual awareness of his musical language becomes a valuable asset in understanding the great masterpieces of his day.  

Amy Shoremount-Obra (Queen Mary), Kameron Lopreore (Riccardo Fenimoore)
and James Demler (Gualtiero Churchill). Photo: Kathy Wittman

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Posted by on November 3, 2019 in Arts, Opera

 

The Atlanta Opera presents Verdi’s La Traviata

The Atlanta opera closes its 39th season, one of its boldest and most far reaching to date, with Verdi’s perennial favorite middle period work, La Traviata. For Tomer Zvulun, it must feel a bit like a victory. Now in his 6th year as Artistic Director for the Atlanta Opera, Mr. Zvulun’s gamble to expand the company’s mainstage core repertoire, as well as the introduction of the Discovery Series, has seemingly reached stable ground. This season offered stagings of Jake Heggie’s Dead Man Walking, Bernstein’s West Side Story, Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin, Parker’s Yardbird and Piezolla’s Maria de Buenos Aires. Wrapping up this maverick season with such a slice of standard repertoire may seem like a compromise, but Mr. Zvulun’s set up is, if anything, compelling. This Traviata unravels in a beautiful belle epoque staging, under the supervision of a world famous director, and features the introduction of three young and well-recommended international artists to the stage of the Cobb Energy Center. In theory, this Traviata should serve as the crowning statement of what has been achieved thus far, and the glorious future that is to come. In practice, the opening night performance of April 27th served a more sobering message.

Parigi, o cara…. Mario Chang (Alfredo) and Zuzana Marková (Violetta). Photo by Nunnally Rawson.

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Posted by on April 29, 2019 in Arts, Opera

 

The Atlanta Opera presents Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin

Absent in our city since its Atlanta Opera staging at the Civic Center in 2004, Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin returned to Atlanta this past Saturday, this time on the stage of the Cobb Energy Centre, and was enthusiastically received. The new production, a joined effort shared by the Atlanta Opera, Lyric Opera of Kansas City, Hawaii Opera Theatre, Seattle Opera, and Michigan Opera Theatre, is comprised of period appropriate sets and costumes which set the right atmosphere for Tchaikovsky’s masterpiece to properly unfold. Perhaps unsatisfied by this fact, production director Tomer Zvulun adds innovative touches that occasionally rock the proceedings off kilter.

David Adam Moore (Eugene Onegin) and Megan Marino (Olga). Photo credit Jeff Roffman

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Posted by on March 4, 2019 in Opera

 

The Atlanta Opera presents Jake Heggie’s Dead Man Walking

As the small gathering of protesters held their ground outside the theater, an historic tableau greeted the Atlanta premiere of Jake Heggie’s Dead Man Walking this past Saturday. On the stage of the Cobb Energy Performing Arts Center, holding hands with the cast and the production team was the composer himself, as well as the real Sister Helen Prejean. The audience, which not long before had held its breath in stunned silence at the opera’s final scene, showered the creators with unabated and enthusiastic applause. As the crowds prepared to confront the growing pre-Super Bowl traffic, a palpable air of agitation clung throughout the lobby. Random dialogue covering the subject matter, the musical value of the piece, and other aspects of the production could be heard as most patrons made their way out the door. Atlanta is no stranger to Heggie’s music – it has been a mainstay of the song repertoire in our recital venues such as Spivey Hall. That said, this marked the first time the Atlanta Opera audience had the opportunity to grapple directly with the monolithic issues found in his first opera. In the case of your friends at newoutpost, while thoroughly familiar with the score through various broadcasts and the available commercial recordings of the piece, this was also our first opportunity to experience the work in the flesh, and we found the event to be extraordinarily stimulating.

Michael Mayes as Joseph De Rocher and Jamie Barton as Sister Helen Prejean. Photo Credit by Jeff Roffman
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Posted by on February 3, 2019 in Arts, Opera

 

North Carolina Opera presents Bellini’s Norma

 

There’s a moment in Bellini’s Norma that never fails to punch me in the gut. As the opera reaches its final ensemble, the Druid High Priestess Norma, who by now has confessed her crimes to her people and has accepted her fate, turns to her father and tells him that she has borne children with the enemy and begs for their lives. After some vacillation, her father agrees, and Norma says “Ah, tu perdoni, quel pianto il dice! Io piu non chiedo, io son felice!” (You forgive me, your tears have told me. I want nothing more, I am happy). From the pit, Bellini’s orchestra provides a steady pulse that delicately sweeps at the structure, like the tide slowly washing away the majestic sand castle he has spent over two hours building, and over this a melancholy figure rises in the woodwind section as the father forgives his child and acquiesces: It doubles as a gesture of forgiveness and redemption while also signaling the tragic denouement of this extraordinary woman. In the rare instances that I have had the pleasure of experiencing Norma live, this scene has invariably inspired the tears to stream clear past the cheek, and it was no exception last Sunday October 21 when North Carolina Opera mounted a concert performance of the Bellini masterpiece. During the curtain calls, the lady sitting next to me, who had been rather talkative and kept zippering and un-zippering her purse during the entire affair, turned to me and said:

“I saw you crying…it really hit you, didn’t it?”

I agreed.

“You must have liked it a lot”

With an awkward grimace I replied: “You can hum this music and it will make me happy.”

And this is true. Yet further scrutiny reveals complications.

Awaiting the arrival of the Druids!

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Posted by on October 26, 2018 in Arts, Opera

 

The Minnesota Opera presents Massenet’s Thais

Last weekend, the Minnesota Opera closed its 55th season with its first production of Massenet’s unjustly underperformed opera, Thais. Newoutpost’s ties with the mid-western company are strong (this blog, in fact, debuted with their production of Donizetti’s Maria Stuarda back in the winter of 2011), and coupled with our desire to take part in this significant musical event, we embarked in yet another brief musical pilgrimage to beautiful St. Paul. We attended the penultimate performance given on Saturday May 19th, and taking into account the audience’s reaction as well as the artistic values on display that evening, we can happily declare the presentation a complete success.

 

Gerard Schneider as Nicias, Kelly Kaduce as Thaïs, and Lucas Meachem as Athanaël in Minnesota Opera’s new production of Thaïs. Photos by Cory Weaver

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Posted by on May 23, 2018 in Arts, Opera

 

The Atlanta Opera presents Bizet’s Carmen

To close the month of April and welcome May, the Atlanta Opera presented one of its most compelling casts and offered a memorable reading of Bizet’s immortal masterpiece, Carmen.

In a bold decision, the company handed the direction of this revival (the production premiered in our city in 2012,) to director Brenna Corner, a member of the Atlanta Opera Studio. Ms. Corner was thus pitted against director Jeffrey Marc Buchman, who’s work at the time of the production’s premiere, we recall, left the door open for corrections. While some details in the direction of the current revival, such as the over-sexualization of the heroine during the first act, as well as introducing a mentally deranged Don Jose in the opera’s final scene can be classified as a misfire, the comparisons to the premiere generally favor Ms. Corner, who focused a great deal of attention to the development of her principals clashing personalities, and thus underlined the dangerous consequences of their pairing. From the pit, Carl & Sally Gable music director Arthur Fagen led the performance at a careful pace, adjusting his tempi to the needs of his singers (specially Ms. Abrahamyan) and making due with some uncharacteristic mishaps from the Atlanta Opera Orchestra (the french horn solo during Micaela’s aria being particularly cringe worthy). We credit him for keeping the totality of the performance intact.

Gianluca Terranova as Don Jose and Varduhi Abrahamyan as Carmen. (Photo by Jeff Roffman).

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Posted by on May 8, 2018 in Arts, Opera

 
 

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