On Sunday afternoon, March 19th, we went to the Marcus Center for the Florentine Opera’s production of Mozart’s opera “Don Giovanni.”

This was a revival of a 2006 production (reviewed back then in this journal) played mostly on a bare stage set with a few necessary pieces and with light. There seemed to be some tweaks to the new appearance: we believed the lighting was brighter and more colorful than in the past.

This was perhaps musically one of the best casts we have heard in a long time. Alexander Dobson (Don Giovanni), Emily Birsan (Donna Anna), Emily Fons (Donna Elvira), Musa Ngqungwana (Leporello), Brian Stuckey (Don Ottavio), Ariana Douglas (Zerlina), and Leroy V. Davis (Masetto) all sang beautifully and acted very well into the bargain. The brightest jewel of the collection was Ms. Fons, who sang the role of the obsessive Donna Elvira with power and tragic beauty while still managing some genuinely funny interactions with the other characters. David Leigh as the Commendatore gave good support (and got to come down front in the final scene, an improvement in staging from 2006), and shows promise for the future.

We still didn’t care for the purposeless hooded figures stalking across the stage, or the “escape from Hell” joke at the end, but the singing made it not matter.

Maestro Joseph Resigno once again conducted, leading the orchestra flawlessly.
On Sunday afternoon, May 15th, we went to the Marcus Center for a very beautiful and enjoyable production of Johann Strauss’ operetta, “Die Fledermaus.” There was an attractive set, on loan from the Virginia Opera, consisting of enormous paintings of lush nudes at the sides, and a gigantic Bacchanal at the back, indicative of the decadent times. (The originals were painted by Viennese artist Hans Makart, very famous in his day.) No expense seemed to have been spared on the gorgeous costumes, especially those worn by Inna Dukach as Rosalinde.

The various singers seemed to have great fun with the elaborate practical joke/revenge plot initiated against Eisenstein (Corey McKern) by Dr. Falke (Jonathan Beyer), which involves luring Eisenstein to a party under false pretenses while he supposed to be reporting to jail for having kicked a tax collector.

At the party, Eisenstein makes trouble for himself by flirting with his masked wife, who’s there because her would-be lover Alfred (John Pickle), has been arrested and taken to jail in Eisenstein’s place.

The plot all works out with great good humor, and a healthy addition of local references and inside jokes. Alfred is advised by jailer Frosch (William Theisen) to call “Gruber Law Offices” when he asks for a lawyer: Alfred, a singer whose voice Rosalinde finds ravishing, sings snatches of Tosca, Turandot, and, in the jail cell, “Nobody Knows the Troubles I’ve Seen.” Eisenstein gets in on the fun, crooning “I’m Going to Maxime’s” (from The Merry Widow, by Strauss’ competitor Franz Lehar) on the way to the party.

Mezzo-soprano Amanda Crider in the role of “Prince Orlofsky” presented the character as an homage to the late musician Prince, sporting his trademark hairdo, and wispy mustache and facial hair. She also had a good repertoire of rock-star poses and gestures down. Jamie-Rose Guarrine was very funny as the truant chambermaid, Adele.

All the cast and the chorus sang wonderfully well, and were well supported by the orchestra under the direction of Maestro Joseph Rescigno. It was a lovely afternoon at the opera.
On Sunday, May 10th, we enjoyed a charming and beautifully sung production of Gaetano Donizetti’s “The Elixir of Love” (L’elisir d’amore).

The libretto, by Felice Romani, is sweet, funny, and foolish. Poor, honest, and unsophisticated farm boy Nemorino (Rolando Sanz) loves Adina (Diana McVey), who, besides being beautiful, owns her own vineyard, reads a lot of books, and, at the beginning of the opera, is committed to her own freedom and intent on not marrying. Things don’t look good for Nemorino’s suit, so, when patent-medicine dealer Doctor Dulcamera (Musa Ngqungwana) comes to town, Nemorino asks him if he can provide a love potion like the one he has overheard Adina speak of, in the story of Tristan and Isolde.

Dulcamera, following the tried and true rule of never giving sucker an even break, sells Nemorino an unaltered bottle of wine for the lordly sum of one dollar, but cautions it will take overnight to work (by which time Dulcamera figures he will be gone--).

Meanwhile, Adina, having reconsidered her priorities, agrees to marry the hunky Sergeant Belcore (Corey McKern). Initially, Nemorino is not dismayed thinking the potion will change her mind before the wedding, but complications ensue when the date is moved up due to Belcore getting new orders. Nemorino attempts to delay the wedding, as does Adina, who is havingthird thoughts.

Desperate, Nemorino enlists in the army with Belcore in order to get money for a second bottle of “potion” in an attempt to speed results. Dulcamera happily sells him another bottle, and then is astonished to see him swarmed by the local unattached women, who, unbeknownst to the men, have heard a rumor that Nemorino has inherited a fortune.

Witnessing this from a distance, jealousy flares up in Adina, causing her to admit that she loves Nemorino. She buys out Nemorino’s enlistment, and confesses her love to him. Belcore shrugs off being jilted, saying there are thousands of other women he can get. Amid general happiness, Dulcamera takes the opportunity to tout the efficacy of his potions.

The Florentine’s new production was updated to the 1930’sand transplanted to California’s Napa Valley, which is quite believable. The simple setting was done in bright watercolor shades. Costumes were pretty and period-appropriate, including Adina’s fashionable pantsuits. All of the performers sang and acted masterfully, including the members of the Florentine Opera Chorus, who were in excellent voice. We were especially pleased with the handing of the opera’s trademark “A Furtive Tear” aria, (“Una furtiva lagrima”),which Mr. Sanz presented simply, sweetly, and in a contemplative fashion appropriate to the story, instead of making it a tenor showoff piece, which is commonly done.

Maestro Joseph Resigno was at the podium, and evoked Donizetti’s music from the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra flawlessly to our ears. This was a thoroughly lovely afternoon at the opera.
On Sunday, November 10th, we went to the Marcus Center for the Florentine Opera’s production of Giuseppi Verdi’s “La Traviata.”

We were very pleased by this production, which was solidly in the classic mold. The party scenes, Act One, and Act Two Scene Two, were attractively set and beautifully costumed. Act Two Scene One and Act Three were more minimalist, but this did not detract from the relative emotional intimacy of those scenes.

As the first act began, I was reminded how wonderfully tuneful this opera is, with the first act being particularly dense with beautiful music: the opening chorus, Alfredo’s drinking song, Libiamo ne' lieti calici, the love duet, Un dì, felice, eterea, and Violetta’s rebuttal, Sempre libera – "Always free".

We had very strong singing in all the principal roles, notably Elizabeth Caballero as Violetta, Rolando Sanz as Alfredo Germont, and Mark Walters as Georgio Germont, Alfredo’s father.

Caballero as the doomed Violetta sang wonderfully, but also acted well and with courage. In the third act, with her hair apparently sweat-bedraggled by fever, she looked and acted as ill as any Violetta I have ever seen. It’s hard to like Alfredo—the character is a self-absorbed fathead—but Sanz comes as close as anyone I recall. The typical curse of any “Traviata” production is to have an Alfredo who is weedy and whiny. Sanz, stocky, vigorous, and bearded, stands apart from the pack, projecting enough personality that it’s possible to accept Violetta falling in love with him.

Mark Walters was solidly good as the old Germont, although not the most impressive I have seen. However, his stage acting was excellent. The new set of supertitles for this production, in the libretto, make it clear that Georgio knows exactly the kind of sacrifice he is asking from Violetta—an ultimate lonely death—and Walters’ voice and action underscore his uncompromising requirement.

The supporting cast, chorus, and dancers all performed flawlessly. The orchestra, under the direction of Maestro Joseph Mechavich, got a bit loud in the first act, but soon settled down and gave an otherwise excellent reading of Verdi’s score.

All up, a very satisfying, beautiful, and enjoyable afternoon at the opera.
On Sunday, May 20th, we went to see the Florentine Opera's production of Mozart's first opera, "Idomeneo".

The story of Idomeneo, King of Crete, is one of the many classical stories spun off from that of the Trojan War. Idomeneo is an ally of the Greeks, and has taken and sent home many captives from the Trojan population, including Ilia (Marie-Eve Munger), one of the daughters of King Priam of Troy. the young prince Idamante (Sandra Piques Eddy), ruling Crete in his stead, sets the dispirited captives free and urges them to become part of the Cretan community, an act that sparks love in the heart of Ilia. This ignites jealousy in the heart of the Grecian princess Electra (Georgia Jarman), who has fled to Crete following the murder of her father, Agamemnon, and has promised herself to Idamante.

Idomeneo (Arturo Chacon-Cruz), still at sea, is overtaken by a great storm (probably one of those raised by Poseidon against Ulysses--)and makes the rash vow to the sea-god that, if he is spared from the shipwreck, he will make a sacrifice of the first person he meets ashore.
When he does make it to land, his first encounter is with Idamante, whom he initially does not recognize since he hasn't been home in ten years, and the boy was a child when he left. When he discovers Idamante's identity, he drives him away in horror and shame, not telling what he has promised to do. Idamante is staggered and hurt by his father's seeming rejection.

Idomeneo schemes with his advisers to try to spare Idamante, and decides to send him to Thebes to restore Electra to her father's throne, much to her joy, since her rival, Ilia, will be left behind. However, the voyage is aborted by the advent of a sea monster sent by Poseidon, which wreaks havoc along the Cretan coast.

While Idomeneo dithers, Idamante, hoping for a heroic death to redeem himself in his father's eyes, goes alone to fight the monster, and succeeds in slaying it. When he returns, wounded and covered in the monster's blood, he asks his father for forgiveness of whatever failings Idomeneo sees in him. Idomeneo confesses that the sin is his own, adn admits his vow, to general horror. The priest of Poseidon declares that the sacrifice must be carried out, and Idamante declares that he is willing to be sacrificed to save his people from Poseidon's further wrath.

Idamante lies down on the altar and Idomeneo is about to strike the fatal blow when Ilia offers herself in Idamante's place. Idamante's willingness to be sacrificed, and Ilia's love for a former enemy, move the gods to pity, and an oracular voice is heard, declaring that Idomeneo is forgiven, but must abdicate and Idamante and Ilia will rule Crete together in his place. Electra, mad with jealousy and disappointment, tries to kill Ilia, but is overcome by the king's guards and taken away. The opera ends with a chorus of thanksgiving.

The singing and music were the high points of the opera. Chacon-Cruz and Piques Eddy, in particular, sang beautifully with full, rich voices that filled the hall. Munger and Jarman were also excellent, and were well supported by the rest of the cast and chorus. The cast were also given a number of interesting and subtle acting bits to do. For example, in the first scene, when Idmante orders the Trojan's chains to be struck off, the Trojans then go and bow to their princess, but none go to Idamante or thank him until he himself comes to them. Only gradually, over the course of the opera, do the Trojans and the Cretans intermingle.

This is fortunate, because there's little else to look at. Costuming is low-keyed, with the islander Cretans in modern dress, in colors of sea-green and blue. The Asiatic Trojans are all in dusty orange and brown garments reminiscent of Afghani hill tribes.

The only set pieces were two movable black walls which served as screens for a number of rear-projections intended to illuminate the interior dialog of the characters. While sometimes interesting, they were not equally viewable from all angles, and sometimes undercut their purpose--as has been noted in other reviews, a supposedly romantic close-up in Electra's dream of life with Idamante made it very hard to ignore the fact that Idamante is played by a woman made up as a man.

At other times, the walls acted as background for a shadow play as low lighting cast silhouettes that shifted place and size as the actors moved around, hinting at underlying dynamics. This, however, was not quite enough to relieve the disappointing and dull barrenness of the otherwise empty black stage.

At the performance we heard, the orchestra, under Maestro Joseph Resigno played Mozart's score with power and passion. This was a very interesting opera to listen to. Besides the classical subject matter, one could note the transition Mozart was making from Baroque style to his own style, right in this opera. The first act begins with a lot of down-front solo singing, recalling older operas, but, as the opera goes on, the music moves into the choruses and ensembles which enliven Mozart's operas.

Verdict, lovely to listen to. Not so much to look at.
On Sunday, November 6th, we went to the Marcus Center to enjoy a very fine production of Giacomo Puccini's "Turandot."

This was one of the more gorgeous productions the Florentine has mounted of late, with a lot obviously invested in costumes, particularly for the chorus, who represented citizens, soldiers, priests, and gravediggers at various times, with appropriate costume changes. Said chorus sounded very good, which compensated for their stage direction which had them frequently looking like a rabble getting on and off the rather crowded stage. The crowding was in turn due to the rather handsome multi-level set pieces, which represented a square in Peking and the terraces overlooking it.

Tutandot was sung by Lise Lindstrom, who is currently one of the foremost interpreters of the role. She has a very powerful voice, being able to make herself heard over the full orchestra, chorus, and cast, but also a very pure tone. Her ramrod straight posture and forceful gestures reinforced the character of a spoiled but powerful princess.

She was well matched by Renzo Zulian as the willful Calaf. His rendition of the iconic aria, "Nessun Dorma" won general applause.

The supporting cast members, notably Rena Harms as Liu, Peter Volpe as Timur, and David Karvitz, Frank Kelley, and Mattew Richardson, as ministers Ping, Pang, and Pong.

Maestro Joseph Resigno was at the podium and did his usual fine job conducting a large orchestra.

This is one of those operas where the imagery, the singing, and the music all need to be spectacular, and the Florentine delivered.
No, it wasn’t the Baroque opera version of “Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice.” What it was, was a double bill of two of the English language’s oldest operas, “Venus and Adonis,” by John Blow, and “Dido and Aeneas,” by Blow’s more famous (to us) student, Henry Purcell.

“Venus and Adonis” was first staged as a court masque in 1683, and featured the then King of England’s mistress as Venus, and the role of Cupid was given to their nine-year old illegitimate daughter. The libretto deals with the myth of Venus and her lover, Adonis, the young man of such beauty that his name has become a byword for male attractiveness. The piece opens with Cupid addressing Venus’ courtiers, decrying their general faithlessness, and recommending that they instead enjoy the pastoral pleasures of the shepherds they are dressed as. Venus flirts with the handsome Adonis in her bower. He indicates that he is well disposed to stay with her, but when a group of hunters pass in search of a mighty boar that has been endangering the countryside, Venus essentially tells Adonis to run away and play with the big boys for a while. In the second scene, Venus gives Cupid humorous “lessons” in how lovers should behave, which he passes on to his assistants. Cupid gets a bit of his own back by telling Venus that if she followed her own advice, she would treat Adonis badly in order to assure his fidelity.

Then, Adonis enters, having been mortally wounded by the great boar. He sings a duet with Venus and dies in her arms. Venus and her courtiers sing a lament.

Purcell’s “Dido and Aeneas,” by contrast, was first performed by the students of a girls’ school and seldom performed professionally after that until the 20th century. It deals with a portion of the story of Aeneas, the Trojan refugee, who has been given refuge by Dido, Queen of Carthage. Aeneas has proposed marriage to the Queen, who accepts him. However, forces inimical to the Queen raise a spirit disguised as the god Mercury, who appears to Aeneas and commands him to continue his journey and establish a Trojan colony in Italy. Obedient to the seeming god’s command, Aeneas prepares to leave. The wicked witches are pleased and prepare spells to destroy Aeneas at sea.

Dido is distraught at Aeneas’ preparations, and, even when he declares that he will defy the god and remain with her, Dido rejects him and sends him on his way. She then dies of grief.

Baritone Craig Verm sang both heroes, bringing fair gravitas to the role of Adonis, making him a hunky hero in the Herculean mode rather than the pretty boy one usually thinks of. Given the Jacobean wig of flowing locks, leather kilt, and bare chest, this was no mean feat. The role of Aeneas was a bit more innately dignified, and Verm did well with that part also, singing richly and well. Soprano Greer Davis sang both the roles of Venus and Belinda, Dido’s confidante, and sang with a clear beauty in both parts. Patricia Risley had a deep mellow voice that gave good authority to the part of the Carthaginian queen, but seemed a bit muffled at times. Ian Howell was a pleasing counter-tenor in the parts of Cupid and faux-Mercury, and Dani Kuepper was quite lovely as the principal dancer (and show choreographer) for both operas.

The ensemble members were given handsome Jacobean outfits of white, gold, and shades of ecru, whereas the principals had fantasy-inspired costumes that resembled thefts from the wardrobe department of “Xena, Warrior Princess,” which were nice, but may have had some unintended humorous effects.

Orchestra conductor Christopher Larkin lead a small ensemble of mostly strings which played elegantly and supported the singers to just the right degree.

We were very happy to have seen this production of these comparatively rare pieces and enjoyed them both thoroughly.
Sunday afternoon the 20th, we went to the Marcus Center for the Florentine Opera's production of L'Italiana In Algeri (The Italian Girl In Algiers), by Gioacchino Rossini.

For this presentation, the Florentine hired sets from the University of Indiana, and costumes from Malabar, of Toronto, which worked well together and made the production a candy-colored "Oriental" fantasy that worked well with the light and humorous libretto by Angelo Anelli, and Rossini's infectious music.

The main driver of the comic plot is Mustafa Bey, Turkish Sultan of Algiers (Kevin Glavin), who has grown bored with his loving and loyal wife, Elvira (Erica Schuller), and wants to divorce her in favor of an as yet undetermined "Italian girl." Mustafa is enamored with the idea of the Italians' legendary fire, and thinks he is the man to tame one. He decides that he will instead marry Elvira to his Italian slave, Lindoro (Robert McPherson). His plans go awry when the woman captured by his corsairs turns out to be Isabella, Lindoro's intended (Daniela Mack), who has been searching for him. Isabella is possessed of both fire and guile in ample measures and speedily has Mustafa wondering what hit him as she forbids him to divorce Elvira, has Lindoro appointed her personal servant (the better to plot with him to escape), and has her other erstwhile suitor Taddeo (masquerading as her "uncle") appointed to a high court position, the better to lead Mustafa into her toils.

The Florentine Opera orchestra, under the direction of Maestro Joseph Resigno, gave a very clear and lively reading of the score, commenced with a crisp rendition of the well-known overture. The singers all did very well, in particular Mack and McPherson, both of whom filled Uhlein Hall with rich tones with seemingly little effort. Julia Elise Hardin as Elvira's servant, Zulma, and Scott Johnson as Haly, Mustafa's generally competent lieutenant, were also very good. In fact, Glavin was the weakest voice in the cast, but still not bad, and made up any lacks by his expressive characterization. 

In fact, all of the cast acted well, with stage direction by Skylight Opera Artistic Director William Theisen keeping clowning and stage business at a more or less constant level that was enough to be interesting, but not so much as to be distracting, although the all-out production number that ended the first act was the most shameless fun I have seen on an opera stage in years. Daniel Belcher as Taddeo vied with Glavin for the position of chief clown, getting numerous laughs with his Groucho-like repertoire of poses and gestures. 

Ms. Schuller, Ms. Hardin, and Mr. Johnson are all members of the Florentine Opera Studio program, which speaks very well for that program, and I look forward to seeing more from them in the future.

All in all, an afternoon at the opera that was purely enjoyable. 

On Sunday the 23rd, we went to the Florentine Opera to hear a very well sung presentation of Verdi’s revenge tragedy, “Rigoletto.”  We say "hear", because there wasn’t much to see. The set design,  by Noele Stollmack, who also did last season’s modular “Magic Flute” set was compared by the Journal-Sentinel reviewer to an empty warehouse. To me, with it’s repeating square gray fabric panels and black metal railings, it more suggested a depressing modern office space, sans desks and computers. There were some good lighting effects, such as Sparafucile’s looming shadow, or the lightning in the storm scene, but mostly it just illuminated a big bare space, such that even the Duke and Maddelena’s rather explicit groping seemed diluted and distant.

 The suggestion of modernity was carried through with the costumes, the men largely in Nehru suits, and the women in very simple dresses—but of course with inconsistencies.  The Duke wears a brocade dressing gown when in propria persona, the jester Rigoletto’s duty uniform is a garish multi-colored coat that didn’t really amount to motley, and the assassin Sparafucile looks just as he ought in any classically garbed production: cape, boots, breeches, and tunic with his dagger at his belt. If he were matching the rest, he should have been in a “wise guy” suit, or maybe a black leather jacket and chains. Sigh.

Acting was generally adequate, but Luis Ledesma, who played Rigoletto, was annoyingly inconstant as to his physical acting.  Both his limp and his hunchbacked stance faded in and out.  Early in the show, he tended to exhibit a spastic twitch, which eventually went away entirely and was not missed. There was one bit I did particularly like: as Gilda (Georgia Jarman) relates the story of her seduction by the Duke (Arturo Chacon-Cruz), Rigoletto writhes in discomfort, making it appear that he has heard this story before, but from a co-conspirator’s viewpoint.

The singing was overall very good. Ledesma is not the best Rigoletto we have heard, but did a satisfactory job.  Both Jarman and Chacon-Cruz were very fine, effortlessly filling the hall with their rich and beautiful voices.  They were well supported by Stephen Morscheck as Sparafucile,  Audrey Babcock as Maddalena, the various small parts, and the opera men’s chorus (who, curiously enough, did not get a curtain call).  Maestro Joseph Resigno had the opera orchestra under his usual confident direction and did good justice to Verdi’s gorgeous music. So, it was a good afternoon of listening: however, as our friend said, “I was able to read all the Supertitles, because there was nothing to look at.”

On Sunday, November 23rd, we opened this year’s Florentine Opera season attending a very fine production of Giacomo Puccini’s “Madama Butterfly,” conducted by Maestro Joseph Rescigno. Although it was not without its flaws, we rated the performance much higher than did the Journal/Sentinel critic, who reviewed the Friday night performance with the same cast.

Soprano Robin Follman, in the title role, initially did not seem well suited to the part, since, in the first act, her powerful and mature voice was not what one would expect in the joyous fifteen-year-old Cio-cio San. However, any shortcoming was more than made for in the second and third acts, where the abandoned woman’s sorrow and passion are given full range.

Follman was well supported by mezzo Jennifer Hines, who had genuine warmth in both voice and acting as the loyal serving woman, Suzuki. Guido LeBron was very good as Sharpless, the American Consul who can only helplessly pity Butterfly. Scott Piper as the faithless Pinkerton sang well, although his acting was uninspired. Joel Sorenson provided both comic and dramatic support as Goro the procurer, and Colleen Brooks also very effective as Kate Pinkerton, the “innocent cause” of Butterfly’s sorrow. This was one area where we particularly disagreed with the newspaper critic, who did not “get” that Kate’s apparently aimless rambling on stage was due to the character’s “nerves” at intruding on Butterfly’s life.

The stage direction was, in some ways annoyingly uneven. Some of the characters were wonderfully natural, including Kate Pinkerton and “Sorrow” (Amelia Boerger), Butterfly’s child by Pinkerton, who has no lines, but very affectingly ran to Butterfly to comfort her when she was weeping, and otherwise acted on stage, unlike many children in these productions who are merely told to stand around and might as well be static props. Therefore, intrusions like Butterfly’s five masked servants (who resembled Chinese tomb statues, down to their clay-colored garments and masks) are rather jarring.

There was a nice painting-style backdrop that was occasionally lit in a garish and distracting manner, and, although all the women in the chorus had Japanese wigs, there were several men in the wedding scene with distinctly brown hair and western haircuts. Butterfly committed suicide in the proper fashion, with a stab to the throat, but then was directed to strain upstage towards Pinkerton’s voice, which resulted in her final expiration being a rather ungraceful flop to the stage.

That being said, I nevertheless think that if there was a dry eye in the house at the end, it can only have belonged to hardened opera fans.
OK, got some serious art catching up to do:

On Sunday, April 29th, Milwaukee's Florentine Opera Company presented a very fine production of "The Barber of Seville," by Gaiocchino Rossini. "Barber"is one of those shows that the experienced opera goer may wince when we see it on the season program, since it is one of the most performed operas in the world, along with "La Boheme," "Marriage of Figaro," "Tosca," "La Traviata," and "Madama Butterfly." Enjoyable as all these are, one mostly goes hpoing to see something a bit new and different. Fortunatly, this "Barber" did not disappoint. What particularly enlivened this show was some exceptional casting. Brian Downen, as Count Amalviva, is a lighter tenor, which requires him to actually act to get his part across, which is a welcome departure from many Amalvivas who are content to let Figaro do the clowning while they concentrate on singing and looking gorgeous. Not so say that Downen was not a fine singer--he was. The typical Rosina, in my experience, tends to be small, blond, china-doll pretty, and a pure soprano. Jennifer Rivera is taller, red-haired, striking, and a mezzo-soprano. Her darker tone added a very interesting maturity to the role which is often played as though fifteen and girlish. Rivera's Rosina was much more forceful and mature woman, which adds a lot of "bite" to her "I'll be a viper" aria, in which she describes her temper if her desires are thwarted. Having a more subtle Amalviva and a more powerful Rosina put their courtship on a much more equal level. Rosina was a woman chafing under her guardian's rule who knows her own mind, as opposed to the green girl dazzled by the worldly Amalviva.

The plot was driven by Daniel Belcher as Figaro, and played him finely as the dandy barbers were often supposed to be. Kevin Glavin filled out the major roles as the suspicious Doctor Bartolo excellently well. Critics accused Kurt Link, who played Doctor Basilio, of chewing the scenery overly much, but it is a clown role, and we thought the scenes were chewed just enough.

Fine voices all around, good costumes, a very cleverly designed set, and mostly clever staging all contributed to an excellent performance. Quibbles: I have seen the "like a statue" scene done better: I didn't find this version very clever. The orchestra, conducted by Christopher Larkin, was note-perfect, but was a bit loud in the first act, and somewhat drowned out Belcher in the famous "Figaro" song.

All in all , we must say that the Florentine continues to put on really fine opera, and I think them to be the equal of any major regional company in what they do. Next season is actually comparatively free of grand opera warhorses, being made up of "The Merry Widow," "Salome," and "Romeo and Juliet" by Bellini. Looks like fun.
On Sunday, February 25, we braved the foul weather to take in the new production of Giuseppe Verdi’s “Macbeth” at the Florentine. It was just a short skate downtown for us, but the real adventure was experienced by Georgie’s friend Kate, who was coming from Madison, and called us about 10AM to tell us that the first two Badger buses (her usual means of intercity transportation) had been canceled due to the weather, which left her with an option of a noon bus expected to get into Milwaukee at 2PM, which was going to make catching a 2:30 curtain rather dodgy. Then, she called back to say that there was an 11:00AM Greyhound and she would be taking that. The “Dog” got in at 1:15 (25 minutes later than scheduled) which left us plenty of time to get to Uhline Hall on time.

The performance was well worth the effort. Baritone Frederick Burchinal is a veteran of the title role and has sung it at the Metropolitan Opera in New York. He showed a comprehensive mastery of the role in all respects. He was ably supported by soprano Cynthia Lawrence as Lady Macbeth, Stefan Szkafarowsky as a bearish and likeable Banquo, the Florentine Opera Chorus as the Witches, and the Milwaukee Symphony, ably lead by Maestro Joseph Rescigno, celebrating his 25th year with the Florentine. Jorge Lopez-Yanez sang well in the tenor role of Macduff, but acted rather woodenly. Admittedly, his music, especially in the key scene where he learns of the massacre of his family, does not give great scope for emoting.

“Macbeth” is one of Verdi’s earlier operas, his first big hit (“Nabucco” was a success in Italy but not so much outside it) and the first of his three Shakespeare adaptations. It is therefore not surprising that there are some false notes. Some of the transition music, such as after Banquo’s murder, seems unwontedly cheerful, and, as noted, Macduff’s big scene lacks vocal highlights that the Verdi of ‘Rigoletto’ or ‘Otello’ would not have omitted. On the other hand, there are some interesting inclusions: Verdi makes Lady Macbeth an enthusiastic co-conspirator in the planned murder of Banquo and his son, instead of taking direction from Macbeth as in Shakespeare. This makes her villainy more all of a piece, but then her decline into madness (in the very well-done and dramatic sleepwalking scene) seems rather abrupt. However, Verdi’s expansion on Macbeth’s soliloquy after the death of his wife, works very well and adds depth—Macbeth, now alone and surrounded by enemies, realizes that he will be remembered as a tyrant with “no friendly epitaph.”

The staging was very spare, with a canted turntable taking up half the stage, sliding panels defining the rear, and a copse of bare sticks representing various woods. I disagreed with the local paper critic on the costuming: the rented set was rather generically medieval (more Sir Walter Scott than “Braveheart,”) but I did not think it clashed badly with the sets.

All in all, a very fine, powerful production with very little to quibble at. We enjoyed it all the way through.
Sunday the 11th was the opening performance of the Florentine Opera's production of Mozart's "Don Giovanni." We definitely enjoyed this lively rendition which deftly combined DaPonti's black humor plot with Mozart's ravishing music. Maestro Joseph Rescigno conducted the Milwaukee Symphony musicians with his customary skill, and we were very pleased with acting and singing by all the principals. Peter Volpe in the title role, with long hair, broad chest, and taller by a head than anyone else in the cast, was a figure right off a romance novel cover. Eduardo Chama as Leporello, had a beautiful bass voice and enhanced the comedy of his role by acting it very straight, with minimal physical clowning. Laquita Mitchell played the recently ravished Donna Anna as edgy and disturbed, while the obsessive Donna Elvira, sung by Elizabeth Caballero, was clearly still in love with the Don, though outraged by his abandonment of her. Johnathan Boyd was far and away the finest Don Ottavio we've ever seen. Ottavio usually frequently comes across as Donna Anna's adjunct, a wimpy "sensitive man." Boyd succeeded in making Don Ottavio a man of resolution and strength who is nevertheless disturbed because Donna Anna cannot put her trauma behind her and come to him. Anne Jennifer Nash sang beautifully in the often disregarded role of Zerlina, and David Cushing also very fine as the jealous peasant Masetto. The only disappointment in the vocals was Ethan Herschenfeld as the Commendatore. This role defines "basso profundo," and Herschenfeld's voice seemed comparatively hollow and weak not only for the role but in relation to his fellow singers. In fairness, it must be said that the staging left him stuck far up right for the entirety of his appearance in the crucial final act.

The staging used minimal sets and relied on lighting and a few set pieces, some of which were rather enigmatic. For example, the standard of the wedding maypole become a lamppost, and then acquired a pointed crossbar which might have suggested a cross, or might have suggested a cartoon guide sign. Periodically, black robed figures stalked across the stage rear, suggesting Don Giovanni's accumulating crimes, and, when they begin to gather on stage in the last act we said to ourselves, oh, these will be the things that will drag Giovanni down to Hell. Instead, when the Hellmouth opened, the Don was seized and borne away by a group of faceless female figures he had symbolically drained of life in a scene mimed during the overture, and the black robes merely served as "stage ninjas" to carry off the tables and chairs from the dinner. Whatever was intended, it didn't work, but was only a minor distraction from the excellent singing, lively acting, and attractive period costumes.

Some productions choose to end with Giovanni's sinking into the pit, and omit the final "happy ending" quintet. This production left the quintet in, but undercut it's message with a piece of stage business that was wonderfully funny, but rather artistically questionable. I still feel ambivalent about this bit, but again, it really did not detract from the performance as a whole.

"Don Giovanni" continues at the Marcus Center for the Performing Arts November 17, 18, and 19.
Last Sunday, we we took in the second production in this season of the Florentine Opera of Milwaukee, "The Daughter of the Regiment," (La Fille du Regiment) by Gaetano Donizetti. This comic opera is one of Donizetti's extensive repetoire that is still regularly performed. (At one time, Donizetti had operas running at all the major Paris Opera houses simultaneously, much to the disgust of some French composers and critics--).

The very light plot of this charming story is set in the period of the Napoleonic Wars. Years ago, the members of the heroic and undefeated 21st Regiment of Grenadiers rescued an orphaned infant girl from a battlefield. They raised little Marie as their own child, such that she literally has hundreds of agressive, protective, and heavily armed adoptive fathers. As the opera opens, Marie has grown to young womanhood and serves as one of the Regiments victuallers, which means she runs their mobile canteen. The Regiment is engaged in a campaign against the Austrians, and she and a Tyrolean lad, Tonio, have fallen in love. Tonio's encroachment is an outrage to the soldiers, who consider that no one but a Grenadier is good enough for their Marie.

They are near to executing him as a "spy" when he saves his life and prospects of romance by enlisting in the regiment. However, fate intervenes when Marie, identifed by some documents she had with her when found, is claimed by her only living blood relation, the Marquise of Birkenfeld, and taken away to be "finished" as a noblewoman and have a proper marriage found for her. Tonio would follow her, but is marched off by the unhappy Grenadiers to serve out the terms of his enlistment. The second act opens two years later, with Marie still uncomfortable as a noble scion, longing for the free and merry life with the regiment, and engaged to be married into an old and inbred German ducal family. This, of course, is when the Regiment passes through, Tonio having risen to officer's rank though courage in battle--.

The singing in this production was very fine, with soprano Georgia Jarman and tenor Gran Wilson as Marie and Tonio well supported by the rest of the cast, chorus, and orchestra. The stage direction was rather uninspired in the first act, with most of the action being of the "come down front and center, stand there, and sing" type. This was almost overcompensated for in the second act, as the Marquise, her manservant, and the Duke and his family get quite a bit more frenetic. It had been a long time since we had seen this opera, and I had forgotten how demanding the part of Marie can be, since, in the first half of the second act, the singer has to shift gears from genuine sentimental singing, to a parody of "art song" to regimental ditties and back again. Jarman did it all, and very well indeed.
On Sunday, November 13, we opened our season of the Florentine Opera with its production of "Fidelio" by Ludwig Van Beethoven. "Fidelio" is Beethoven's only opera, a fact that keeps in the public eye even among the many operas that are more spectacular. Indeed, as operas go, "Fidelio" is almost minimalist, with a verhy spare plot and stage directions so sparse that it can be, and often is, staged as a concert performace without losing much. That said, it is still BEETHOVEN, still gorgeous music, and what plot there is keeps coming back into timeliness and relevance. Originally set in contemporary times in Beethoven's day, this production was updated to be set in Communist East Germany. The set consisted of a mostly bare stage backed by a grim Wall, on which, from time to time images were projected. The scene was set during the overture, with pedestrians wlking across stage, heads bowed, not looking at the wall. Finally, we pick Florestan (Anthony Dean Griffley) out of the flow. He is a photo journalist, and, as he amims and fires his camera, the projected images show us he is photographing a protest demonstration. The other pedestrians shun him as he is surrounded by men in black coats who seize him, expose his film, and drag him off, leaving the empty camera on stage to be found by his wife.

As the first act opens, Florestan's wife, Leonore (Erika Sunnegardh), has established a false identity as the young man, Fidelio, and obtained a job as a guard at the prison where she believes Florestan to be held. He has been "disappeared" for two years. "Fidelio" is rather chagrined that the head guard's daughter, Marzellina (Valerie MacCarthy) has fallen in love with "him" to the extent of throwing over her fiance, the guard Jacquino, but uses the good grace this has put him in with her father, Rocco (Stephen Morschek), to work further into Rocco's confidence. This allows her access to the more secure areas of the prison in search of Florestan. Fidelio manages to talk Rocco into allowing the "underground" prisoners an airing in the prison courtyard, which brings on one of the opera's most beautiful moments, the "prisoners' chorus." However, Florestan is not among them, which leaves only the nameless prisoner incarcerated in the lowest dungeon unseen.

The prison's governor, Don Pizarro (Kristopher Irmiter) lambasts Rocco for allowing the prisoners some freedom, no matter how minimal, and then goes on to plot the death of the unknown prisoner. Rocco will not do it, despite Don Pizarro's offer of money. Pizarro then agrees that he will perform the act himself, but directs Rocco to prepare a hidden grave in the bowels of the prison where the body will never be found.

Rocco brings Fidelio to help him excavate a tomb in an unused cistern, and then finally shows him the wretched prisoner, who is indeed Florestan. Don Pizarro arrives and gloats over Florestan, whom Pizarro hates because Florestan exposed past wrongdoings of his. He is about to cut Florestan's throat when Fidelio draws a hidden pistol and holds him at bay. Time runs out for Pizarro with the arrival of his new superior, Don Fernando (Ethan Herschenfeld), who is also an old friend of Florestan's. When the tale is unfolded to Don Fernando, Don Pizarro becomes a prisoner, and the other prisoners are set free to sing the praises of Leonore's courage and steadfastness.

The orchestra, under the baton of Milwaukee Symphony conductor Andreas Delfs, delivered Beethoven's score flawlessly, and the singing was up to that level as well. Ericka Sunnegardh as Leonora/Fidelio was especially good, and her first solo filled the hall beautifully. The opera chorus is a genuine character as well, and sang the moving first and second scene climaxes with appropriate joy.

The stark setting and drab uniforms worked well to bring the story into near-present-day without being too trendily topical. I can imagine that there might have been temptation to set the production in, oh, Iraq, but that might have been too cutting. Also, production design is a lengthy process, stretching back before some scandals were fully developed--. Interestingly, the program notes indicate that the story is based on a true incident from the French Revolution. The performance was thouroughly enjoyable and uplifting.
For this season’s opener with Milwaukee’s Florentine Opera, we heard a really excellent rendition of Verdi’s “Il Trovatore,” (“The Troubadour.). I say “heard” rather than “saw” since the production wasn’t really much to look at: the stage direction was very static, sets grim vertical planes augmented with grotesque oversized symbolic pieces (massive chains in the dungeon scene, for example) and the costumes rather drab, although at least tasteful and all in the same period. But in opera, it’s all about the voices, and there, we had nothing whatever to complain of. The opera has a marginal plot: its four acts, eight scenes read like the “good parts version” of a Gothic novel, with revenge and hidden identities being the motivators. The Opera brought together a formidable cast, only one of whom, Donnie Ray Albert, as the Count de Luna, has sung there before. Albert has a big rich baritone voice that held up well in relation to the spectacular newcomers. Lori Phillips was the first to really treat the audience with her soprano aria in the second scene. Her voice filled the hall easily and made the welkins ring. Venetian Renzo Zulian, in the title role of Manrico, had a marvelous heroic tenor voice and sang with remarkable power: his held high note a the end of Act Three set us back in our seats, and was an accomplishment we had not even heard on Metropolitan Opera broadcasts. Fine as these were, the real standout was Ewa Podles, who was performing Azucena, the obsessive gypsy, for the first time. Especially in her low register, her voice was so deep, dark, and round that it seemed more like some horn or woodwind than from a human throat, which made her spooky arias very haunting indeed.
Sunday the 2nd was a busy day for us. Besides going to the Museum in the morning, we finished this season of the Florentine Opera with a very pleasant production of Donizetti's "Don Pasquale". This comic opera has a very slight plot: Pasquale, an elederly batchelor has decided to take a wife in order to spite his nephew, Ernesto, who has spurned the rich widow Pasquale wants him to marry, in favor of the poor but beautiful and spirited Rosina. Pasquale has trusted the family friend Dr. Malatesta to find him a suitable spouse. However, Malatesta is not only sympathetic to Norina and Ernesto, but thinks Don Pasquale is being foolish, so offers Pasquale his supposedly convent-educated sister "Sophronia." In reality, the marriage is a fake, and Norina plays the part of Sophronia to make Pasquale's life a hell so that he regrets the very idea of marriage. The comedy plays out in Norina's Jekyll-Hyde transition from the modest convent girl into a worldly termagant, and Pasquale's astonishment and dismay. Eventually, he is brought to wish that he had consented to Ernesto's marriage, and his problems are solved when his wish is granted by the conspirators. We had a very excellent cast, with Pasquale very ably acted and sung, and Norina with a very powerful and beautiful voice. The opera was presented in an elegant and attractive setting and was suitably costumed. We enjoyed the performance thouroughly.
Catching up: On Sunday, February 22, we went to the Florentine Opera for the opening performance of Richard Wagner's "Tristan und Isolde," a formidable piece of music both for the demands it puts on the singers and for the demands on the audience in its four-hour length. Isolde is on stage for the entirety of the first and second acts, and much of the third. Tristan has lesser parts in the first two acts, but sings for what seems like forty-five minutes straight in the third. When you further consider that this is an opera with a total cast of eight, no relieving choruses, and much of it is sung at a passionate level accompanied by an orchestra of classically "Wagnerian" proportion, it becomes clear that this is no opera for wimpy singers.

Fortunately, the Florentine did not provide any wimpy singers. Gary Bachlund as Tristan and Frances Ginzer as Isolde were well up to the tasks laid on them, and the supporting cast, including John Cheek as King Marke, Gigi Mitchell-Velasco as Brangane, and Kristopher Irmiter as Kurwenal also sang ably and well.

The production was very spare; the only set piece was a raked white platform, which served to designate Isolde's cabin in the first act, her boudoir in the second, and a rampart of Tristan's castle in the third. It was augmented with furniture or pieces of drapery on occasion. All entrances were made from a trap at the back center, and the orchestra was on stage behind a scrim that some times hid them and sometimes partly revealed them.

The opera begins aboard ship bound for Cornwall. We learn that Tristan had been sent to Ireland to collect tribute for King Marke of Cornwall. He had met and killed the knight Morold, Isolde's betrothed. Isolde nursed the wounded Tristan back to health, not knowing he had been the death of Morold. Nor has Tristan know that his nurse, with whom he fell in love, had been the intended of the man he killed. When the truth comes out, relations between them are bitterly sundered. Tristan is given Isolde to carry back to Cornwall to be Marke's wife as the tribute. On shipboard, Isolde rages at her treatment, and determines to commit suicide, enticing the despondent Tristan to join her in a cup of poison. However, her dedicated servant, Brangane, substitutes the love potion sent by Isolde's mother.

In the second act, Isolde, now Marke's wife, arranges secret trysts with Tristan, but they are betrayed by the jealous knight Melot. Marke rages at Tristan, both for Tristan's deception of him, and for making him a party to Melot's treachery. Melot and Tristan fight and Tristan is gravely wounded.

In the third act, the loyal Kurwenal has carried Tristan to his family castle in Brittany. Delirious, Tristan imagines Isolde coming to heal his wounds. She does, but comes too late, and he dies in his arms. King Marke's ship arrives as well, and Kurwenal, enraged, fights and kills Melot, then is killed himself by Marke's men. Marke tells Isolde that Brangane has told him the secret of the love potion, and that he had followed her in order to release her so that she could have Tristan. Isolde has a vision of Tristan beckoning to her from the other world and falls dead across his body.
For all its length, there is very little waste in the first two acts. The third act, however is another matter, as Wagner indulgently gives Tristan not one, but two lengthy dream-visions, plus a needless paean to Kurwenal's loyalty. The deaths of Melot and Kurwenal are senseless in the context of the story as well as outside it, and do nothing to enhance the tragedy. So, in sum, the third act would have been twice as good if half as long, especially important at the end of an already long opera.

This implies no criticism of the singers, who gave it their all, musically and dramatically, and the orchestra, under the direction of Maestro Joseph Rescigno, who played with marvelous control, never overpowering the out numbered singers. The music was good enough that one did not get bored with the spare setting, and indeed found some of the lighting effects, such as the rushing water effect at the beginning, more distracting than otherwise.

The only glaring flaw with the production was an outbreak of the same sort of rummage-in-the-closet for-any-old-costume disease that affected the Skylight's recent production of "Romeo and Juliet" (previously reviewed herein). Brangane and Isolde wore modern dress, Isolde being afflicted in the first act with a suit of particularly unflattering cut and color. Tristan wears a high-collared long black coat stolen from "The Matrix". Kurwenal and other knights look like North Sea fishermen in boots, peacoats, and roll-neck sweaters, except for Melot, whose long coat and sash made him look like the doorman for a Turkish restaurant. And then there was King Marke, given a long red cape and flowing hair that seemed to be taken from "Bram Stoker's Dracula." None of it fit together in the least. But this was a comparatively minor irritation given the other strong points of the production.
La Traviata, Nov. 16th, 2003

As opera fans, it's easy to forget how many productions of Verdi's La Traviata one has seen in a lifetime. (Like Puccini's La Boheme, Mozart's Marriage of Figaro, or Rossini's Barber of Seville, it is one of the most performed operas--). However, we had the pleasure of taking in a really remarkable production by Milwaukee's Florentine Opera last Sunday. The part of Violetta was sung with marvelous power and skill by Jan Grissom, who easily filled the house with her notes, yet did not ever seem to be straining. She was ably supported by Raul Hernandez as one of the best Alfredos I've seen. (Alfredo seems to attract either wimpy tenors or wimpy performances. We usually wind up rooting for Violetta to dump 'Fredo and either stay with the Baron or run off with his father, Old Germont, instead.) Not in this case. We had a strong passionate Alfredo, of whom it could be believed both that Violetta might love him, and that he might best the Baron in a duel. Hernandez also sung with strength and confidence, including such feats as holding his note while running upstairs to make an exit. Guido Le Bron, as Alfredo's father, Georgio Germont, did not deliver the most heart-wrenching rendition of "Di Provencale," I've ever heard (that honor belongs to the redoubtable Sherrill Milnes), but I was very impressed with his ensemble in the songs with Violetta in Scene Two, which became true balanced duets, instead of call-and-response dominated by the soprano, which is the more usual case. We were glad to see local favorite Kitt Reuter-Foss, who gave tipsy animation to the role of Flora.

Maestro Joseph Resigno led the orchestra in a reading that complemented the singers perfectly and did not intrude. The real star of this production was the stage director, Bernard Uzan, who gave a very daring interpretation. The party scenes were very naturalistic and active. It was well done to have the normal women of the chorus fill the gypsy costumes at Flora's party instead of the usual corps de ballet, which made the Spanish dance performed by Milwaukee prima ballerina Yumelia Garcia all the more beautiful and striking. There were other wonderful touches also. It is usual to stage the end of Act 2 with women fussing over the fainting Violetta while Alfredo either slinks out or stands aside shunned. In this production, a spotlit Violetta exits, proudly, and alone, last glimpse of her fixed visage afforded by the strategically placed mirror up center. The Third and final act begins with Violetta sitting up in a chair because she is unable to sleep and coughing is easier in that position-instead of in the bed as she frequently is. Instead of trailing away pathetically a her death, the final note was hit solidly and then cut as she fell to the stage, which was quite daring. Standing ovations are quite common from the Milwaukee audience, which tends to be a bit "easy", but this one was well deserved, and we joined in wholeheartedly.
On Sunday afternoon the 18th, we closed out this year's Florentine Opera season with a performance of Giuseppi Verdi's drama, "Rigoletto." (The Duke of Mantua is a libertine and predator on women. His jester, the hunchbacked Rigoletto, is his aider and abettor in his misbehavior. The jester's world turns upside down, however, when his own daughter becomes the target of the Count's lust.)We have seen a number of productions of this opera, including a prior one at the Florentine, and this was not the best of the lot, although it was very well sung. Adequate costumes and very nice sets were undercut by the very static stage direction, which left the chorus very lifeless for long stretches, and permitted the singers playing the Duke of Mantua (tenor Bonaventura Bottone) and the jester Rigoletto (baritone Mark Delavan) to revert to the old style of "stand down-center and sing" style of opera performance. Soprano Ying Huang sang beatifully as Gilda, the jester's daughter, and managed to bring the other performers more to life when she was interacting with them. Chester Patton, as the assassin Sparfucile, and Alina Gurina, and his sister Maddalena, were some of the better players I have seen in these roles. Patton's solemn and deliberate movements gave the character an oft-lacking aura of menace, and Gurina was a more animated and alive Maddelena than I am accustomed to seeing.

We already have our season's tickets for the coming year, which will consist of "La Traviata," again by Verdi, "Tristan and Isolde," by Richard Wagner, and "Don Pasquale," by Gaetano Donizetti. Http://www.florentineopera.org/



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