Last Saturday night, as the audience readied itself for the Atlanta Opera’s opening performance of Donizetti’s Don Pasquale for the first time in the company’s history, the ante was unexpectedly raised. Following his customary salutations and the announcement of next season’s offerings, General Artistic Director Tomer Zvulun reported on the indisposition of the evening’s Ernesto, tenor Ji-Min Park, and confidently predicted an overwhelming success for his cover, Argentinian tenor Santiago Ballerini. A brief investigation of the insert hastily included in the program notes reminded us of Mr. Ballerini’s debut the previous year as a memorable Tybalt in Gounod’s Romeo et Juliette while then a member of the company’s young artist program, in addition to an important debut with the Caramoor Festival as Fernand in Donizetti’s La Favorite. Caramoor’s concert format would essentially make Mr. Ballerini’s substitution as Ernesto as his professional onstage debut in a principal role. Thus, before the maestro had made his way to the podium, an even greater sense of occasion had permeated the evening.
Absent from its stage for 22 years, Verdi’s Macbeth returned to the New Orleans Opera this past weekend for two performances (November 11 and 13 to be exact), and as it came to pass, your friends at newoutpost just happened to be in town on unrelated business. What better way to cap the most outrageous and distasteful election cycle in our lifetime than to simmer in the dark world of Macbeth? In fact, we had to see it twice. This marks newoutpost’s first operatic venture in New Orleans, a city with a celebrated operatic history (Patti, Sontag, they were all here) and hard hit by the aftermath of hurricane Katrina. Eleven years later, we’re happy to report that the company has made significant headways out of the shadows, and its 2016-17 season marks the return of the company’s tradition of offering four operas per season.
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.
Following the tremendous success of their first operatic collaboration Silent Night, the team of Kevin Puts and Mark Campbell are at it again, offering a riveting operatic adaptation of Richard Condon’s The Manchurian Candidate. The opera debuted in Minnesota in 2015 to great enthusiasm, and premiered regionally at the Austin Opera this past Saturday, September 17 to thunderous ovations. Though Condon’s novel has attained a certain renown through the years, The Manchurian Candidate lives in the minds of the common American mostly through two film adaptations, and while not aiming to dismiss the valiant efforts of one Meryl Streep in the 2004 version, we are happy to report that the opera tends to hail the earlier film in tone and structure most.
To close its 2015-16 season, The Atlanta Opera tipped its hat to French Grand opera and unveiled a star-studded production of Gounod’s Romeo et Juliette this past Saturday. While all opera is dependent on singers of not only extraordinary technical pedigree but also of a musical understanding of how language informs declamation, Grand French opera relies on the latter more heavily so, making Romeo et Juliette notoriously difficult to cast. The Atlanta Opera’s first production, which hailed back to 2007, is fondly remembered as an uneven yet valiant effort at revealing the work’s hidden charms. The company’s current effort shares a similar evaluation.
On the evening of March 4th, the Washington Concert Opera closed its 2015-16 season with a wildly applauded performance of Donizetti’s grand opera “La Favorite”. Central to the performance’s success was the work of maestro Antony Walker, who remains a tireless champion of the Bel Canto repertoire represented through this unjustly neglected piece. His love for the works of Donizetti in particular, which are routinely vilified by the cognoscenti as unworthy, is particularly disarming, and from the first note of the overture onwards his faith in the dramatic possibilities of this score was palpable. Indeed, through the combined forces of the Washington Concert Opera Orchestra and Chorus he realized the score with the respect and reverence often reserved for Verdi’s middle and later periods. It was a veritable shame that maestro Walker denied us his take on the opera’s extended ballet sequence. By the by, he smartly opted to forgo the familiar, yet deeply flawed Italian translation of the opera in favor of the French original. In the process, he made a compelling case for the reassessment of the opera’s dramatic appeal, as well as reinstating a decidedly French aesthetic which more closely reflect Donizetti’s original conception of the piece when it debuted in Paris in 1840. Lucky for all, maestro Walker surrounded himself with an inspired cast of young artists capable of achieving his vision.
As the nation geared its attention towards the Thanksgiving festivities, Washington Concert Opera ushered the season in style by offering Rossini’s epic opera seria, Semiramide as its season opener. By the time the baton led the final chords on the piece, it was clear that the company had scored a huge success. Throughout the evening, the performance had been enthusiastically received, and at its close the enthralled audience was driven to its feet as the soloists took their final bows. It is difficult to disagree with such a display of public approval, and we will do our best in what follows to explain why your friends at newoutpost heard it somewhat differently.
The Atlanta Opera opened its 2015-16 season with warmly received, though uneven, performances of Puccini’s eternal masterpiece La Boheme. The new production, the brainchild of General and Artistic Director Tomer Zvulun, promised to once again (his words) reimagine the work for the benefit of today’s audience, a most suspect practice that tends to elicit a great deal of scrutiny from your friends at newoutpost. In order to achieve this, among other things, we are told that the opera’s time period has been updated to the 1890’s, likely for the dazzling costume and stylistic opportunities afforded by the Belle Epoque (which costumer designer Martin Pakledinaz fully exploited). In truth, we are happy to report this as one of Mr. Zvulun’s better efforts, displaying less of the self-serving, intrusive devices (mostly in the form of projections) that have plagued his prior productions, and relegating them to the natural enhancement of the scenic tableau. The slowly rolling clouds above the garret, or the carefully realized terminus leading to the gates of Paris added to the beauty of the proceedings without ever distracting from Puccini’s musical designs. Recalling the excesses from last season’s Madama Butterfly, this was quite the welcomed change.
“A highway, a Walmart, and one of the most exciting Summer Opera Festivals in United States.” It is the line I often use when questioning friends marvel at my travel plans as we fill our modest backpacks with all essentials and head to Indianola, Iowa, to attend another season at Des Moines Metro Opera. While New York, Chicago, and San Francisco do feature prominently in our yearly operatic calendar, Des Moines is slowly beginning to attain similar importance to your friends at newoutpost, due solely for its fine musical profile and exciting programing. Traveling to Indianola is certainly not an experience one would suffer if not for DMMO. Following this fourth visit, we can honestly state with some authority that there’s truly not a lot going on in Indianola. The lodging options are minimal, and if you cannot withstand the offerings of what must be some of the saltiest Mexican food to be found in the Midwest, gas station pizza may end up being the next best thing. One imagines Indianola as a perfect location for a remake of Stephen King’s classic “Children of the Corn” after a casual morning stroll through the deserted town square, and for the standard city dweller it takes a bit to adjust. While a pilgrimage to DMMO may be low on glamour, it makes a special call to the operatic nomad not afraid to rough the conditions to experience some of the greatest opera one could hope for from a regional company in the United States, and this is exactly what DMMO manages to present. The brain child of Dr. Robert L. Larsen, the company has made a name for itself by featuring some of the most exciting singers in the country, and paired them with the most promising young talent via its excellent apprentice artist program. At a time when regional companies are either folding or compromising their programing, this courageous company is anything but thriving, all the while propelling each festival season through bold and exciting repertoire which more established companies would struggle to present. Now in its 43rd season, the company presented another crackling lineup: Puccini’s rare gem La Fanciulla del West, Mozart’s delightful Die Entfuhrung aus dem Serail, and Janacek’s searing Jenufa. Spoiler alert: This may rank as one of the company’s most solid seasons to date.
Moving past the tragedy of Verdi’s Rigoletto, the Atlanta Opera changed gears and delighted audiences with performances of Mozart’s masterpiece “Le nozze di Figaro”, and the company should pride itself in the big success that it proved to be. The dimensions of the piece, though a mainstay of the standard repertoire, are surely daunting for any company: It is a very long opera with a large cast, filled with sprawling dramatic complications and musical pitfalls. Thus it was to the Atlanta Opera’s credit that so much of this presentation struck the right chord, and between the hours of 8 pm and midnight on the performance of April 10, there were many long stretches of time where Mozart lived. The credit belonged to a rather unlikely cast comprised of both young and veteran singers, who were able to bring forth the score’s vitality through their elegant declamation.