On Friday evening, we went to the Zelazo Center on the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee Campus to their production of “La Perichole,” an opera buffa by Jacques Offenbach. We had enjoyed the University’s production of Offenbach’s “Orpheus in Hell,” and so were interested to see how this one would turn out.

I was rather surprised to see that the very slender plot was adapted from a comic play by Prosper Merimee. Merimee is best known to English speakers as the author of the story that became Bizet’s opera “Carmen,” notorious for being dark, violent, and tragic. “La Perichole,” by contrast is light and funny.

The original play and opera were set in Peru, and the “heavy” was the Spanish Viceroy, supported by his minions, the “First Gentleman of the Bedchamber” and the “Mayor of Lima.” The updated script played by the University is set in 1990’s Hollywood, with “Mr. Viceroy” (Jason Martin) as “CEO of NBC”, and being abetted in his schemes by the “VP of NBC External Affairs” (Austin Jermaine Bare), and the “Mayor of South Hollywood” (Joseph Krohlow). At a birthday party at the “Three Cousins” club, Viceroy encounters the talented but unlucky street singers, the beautiful Perichole (Laura Lemanski) and her swain, Pequillo (Emanuel Camacho). They have been trying to get enough money to get married, with no success. In fact, Pequillo is so bad at “passing the hat,” that they are on the verge of starvation. Pequillo goes off on his own to try his luck further, while Perichole stays behind and tries to sleep to forget her hunger.

She is approached by Viceroy, who offers to “employ” her as an Executive Administrative Assistant at NBC. She has no illusions as to what the deal actually is, but reluctantly agrees, hoping to string Viceroy along at least for a few good meals. She leave a good-by letter for Pequillo at the Three Cousins.

When Viceroy announces his conquest to the VP and the Mayor, they are appalled that he would hire a single woman with no qualifications. The Board of Directors would not stand for it. Relying on an entertainment industry standby, nepotism, they propose that it will work if she were married to an NBC shareholder. Viceroy directs the VP to find a man that they can marry to Perichole and make a director.

Pequillo returns to the Three Cousins, and gets Perichole’s letter. Despondent, he decides to attempt suicide, but is tripped over by the VP, who realizes that he’s found someone poor and desperate enough for anything. He plies Pequillo with liquor, getting him “blind-drunk”. Pequillo goes through with the wedding, having no idea who it is he’s marrying.

In the next scene, Pequillo wakes up in NBC Headquarters with no recollection of how he got there. He is reminded that he got married last night, but not to whom. He is treated with scorn by the NBC staff, of whom the women think of him as pimping his wife to Viceroy, and whom the men perceive as a “kept man.” The VP and the Mayor are more sanguine, advising him that “husband of Viceroy’s mistress” a.k.a. “Assistant to the Assistant Manager for Gender Affairs” is one of the best jobs at NBC, other than their own, having few duties and access to lots of money. Pequillo doesn’t care, he just wants the thousand dollars he was promised and to be allowed to leave. They agree, but insist that first he has to “introduce” his wife to Viceroy at a reception that evening.

When Perichole arrives at the reception and Pequillo realizes that she is the wife he is to turn over to Viceroy, he flies into a rage and denounces her as heartless anand mercenary. At Viceroy’s order, Pequillo is subdued and thrown into a subterranean dungeon.

In the dungeon, Pequillo meets the “Old Prisoner” (Sam Skogstad), who has spent twelve years tunneling out of his cell with a penknife, only to arrive in Pequillo’s cell. Undaunted, the rather mad old man offers to free Pequillo also, assuring him it will only take another twelve years digging through the correct wall this time.

Perichole comes to visit. After considerable recrimination by Pequillo, she lets him know that, not only has she not surrendered her body to Viceroy, she loves Pequillo, and has absconded with the jewelry Viceroy gave her, in order to buy his freedom. She attempt to bribe the guard with a diamond ring, only to find that it is Viceroy in disguise. He locks Perichole in the cell with Pequillo, saying he hopes she will change her mind. After he has left, the Old Prisoner enters and frees them from their chains. Then Perichole calls Viceroy back. The three of them overpower him, lock him up, and flee.

In the final scene, the fugitives are hiding out at the Three Cousins while Viceroy’s minions scour the town for them. While Viceroy is interrogating the cousins, Perichole and Pequillo come out of hiding and beg for their freedom with a song praising the virtue of forgiveness. Moved, Viceroy forgives them, and allows them to keep the jewels (“I am not accustomed to taking back gifts—“). All celebrate the couple’s courage and Mr. Viceroy’s clemency.

We enjoyed this production very much. Between Offenbach’s music, in which the composer employed Spanish-derived themes and dances; the English libretto by Kalmus and Daniel Pippin, Colleen Brooks, and James Zager, much of which was in rhymed couplets; and the ‘topsy-turvy’ plot, the performance had an almost Gilbert and Sullivan feel, which made it quite accessible.

Ms. Lemanski as Perichole, exhibited a lovely, warm, rich, voice which worked very well for the role and the music. Mr. Camacho (Pequillo) has a beautiful but light voice that was hard to pick out of the ensemble pieces, but he has a gift for comic acting that helped get his role across. Jason Martin as Viceroy acted and sang a wonderfully heedless and egotistical “heavy.” They were well supported by the rest of the cast who sang, danced, and acted with what must honestly be reported as varying degrees of skill, but it was all good fun for the audience.

Costumes were pretty obviously scrounged from the actor’s closets, but worked well enough. The modular set by Leroy Stoner looked good and worked cleverly. Jun Kim conducted the orchestra, which handled Offenbach’s score expertly and supported the singers excellently.

We were interested to see that the director was Colleen Brooks, whose performances we had enjoyed in the Skylight Opera Theater’s The Snow Dragon. It was obvious that she has a good grasp of the light opera genre and a clear vision for the production.
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 Saturday evening, March 18th, we went to the Skylight to see their new production of Beauty and the Beast, based upon Zemire et Azor, a 1771 opera by André Ernest Modeste Grétry, with libretto by Jean François Marmontel, after the story La belle et la bête by Jeanne Marie Le Prince de Beaumont and the play Amour pour amour by P.C. Nivelle de La Chaussée.

Largely forgotten nowadays, Grétry was popular in his time, composed more than fifty operas, and was hired by Queen Marie Antoinette as her court music director. The opera was a favorite of Mozart’s, and the music stands the test of time very well.

The story follows the classic version of the tale of Beauty and the Beast, with a few tweaks. The merchant Sander (Eric McKeever) is shipwrecked, along with his servant, Ali (Nicholas Nestorak). They seek shelter in what appears at first to be an abandoned palace, Ali with great reluctance as he fears the place is haunted. The palace’s invisible servants (Alex Campea, Bria Cloyd, Sean Anthony Jackson, and Alex Mace) lay out a feast for them. Ali’s fears are dispelled by the excellent wine, but Sander becomes the fearful one when the playful spirits start levitating the drunken Ali around the room.

Comes the dawn, Sander literally drags the hung-over Ali out the door, but stops to pluck a rose for his daughter, Zemire. which prompts the appearance of the outraged Beast, Azor. In this production, the Beast is represented by an eight-foot tall and equally broad puppet figure manipulated by the spirits, and given voice by tenor Chaz’men Williams Ali. The fearsome Beast walks like a gorilla, has a spiky carapace like a crab, the horns and ears of a water buffalo, fangs, and tusks. Accusing Sander of theft and ingratitude, the Beast eventually agrees to give Sander his life, his freedom, and wealth, if he will send Azor his daughter, Zemire. Azor swears that she will come to no harm, but Sander and Ali aren’t sure when Azor summons up a wind spirit (another puppet, reminiscent of a small version of the “Snow Dragon” seen at the Skylight in 2015) that bears them home.

At home, they are greeted by Sander’s daughters, spoiled materialists Fatme and Lisbe (Erin Sura and Sarah Thompson Johansen), and the good and virtuous Zemire (Gillian Hollis). Fatme and Lisbe are dismayed that their father has lost everything, but Zemire is just glad to have him back. Then, he produces the rose, and tells them of the dreadful bargain he has made. While the others all think about ways to get out of it, Zemire compels Ali to take her to the Beast’s palace, so that the Beast will keep his promise and her family be provided for. She bravely enters the palace, but, on seeing the Beast for the first time, faints dead away.

When she revives, Azor is kind to her, and tells her that she may command him and the spirits for any thing she wishes. She replies that she is not made happy by things. Instead, she sings a song for him, and dances with the spirits.

After a time, she wishes to know how her family is faring. Despite misgivings, Azor brings out a magic mirror, which will not only show her whom she wishes to see, but allow her to hear their thoughts as well. Her now richly adorned sisters are more spoiled than ever, but her father, aged by his ordeal, is deeply sunk in grief over the loss of Zemire. Zemire declares that she must go to him. Azor protests that this is an excuse to leave him. Giving her a magic ring that will allow her instant travel, Azor gets her to promise to return by sunset, because he has realized that he loves her, and it was foretold him by the spirit that enchanted him, that on the day he was able to love, his “cursed life would end.”

Zemire transports herself to the family home, to her father’s joy, but he and her sisters attempt to keep her there. With Ali’s help she escapes back to the Beast’s palace, arriving just as night has fallen. She calls out to Azor, and he is able to answer, because his “cursed life” has ended by his being transformed back into his normal, kingly, form. Sander, Ali, Fatme and Lisbe arrive, intent on rescuing Zemire once and for all, in time to take part in the happy ending.

This production was just charming all the way through: the story, the setting, the costumes, the music, the singing, the dancing were all lovely. The English translation of the libretto, by Colin Graham, further adapted by Director James Ortiz and Shari Rhoads, was witty and enjoyable. Of course, the monster in the room is the huge Azor puppet, which was very effective. The “spirits” manipulating it did a wonderful and graceful job of bringing it to life, and most of the time the “ventriloquism” effect worked well, making it easy to accept that the puppet was singing. It didn’t work when Mr. Williams Ali, who sings the Beast’s role as a hooded figure on stage, gets too far down front and in the action, but this only happened a couple of times. One episode in which the puppet manipulation was distracting came in the first scene, during Sander’s song lamenting his dilemma, during which the Beast kept nervously moving its head, which distracted from Sander’s singing. Even puppets should obey the basic rule of stagecraft to not pull eyes away from the focus of the scene.

This was a really excellent, creative, and entertaining production, and we were very glad to have seen it.
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 Saturday evening, March 18th, we went to the Skylight to see their new production of Beauty and the Beast, based upon Zemire et Azor, a 1771 opera by André Ernest Modeste Grétry, with libretto by
Jean François Marmontel, after the story La belle et la bête by Jeanne Marie Le Prince de Beaumont and the play Amour pour amour by P.C. Nivelle de La Chaussée.

Largely forgotten nowadays, Grétry was popular in his time, composed more than fifty operas, and was hired by Queen Marie Antoinette as her court music director. The opera was a favorite of Mozart’s, and the music stands the test of time very well.

The story follows the classic version of the tale of Beauty and the Beast, with a few tweaks. The merchant Sander (Eric McKeever) is shipwrecked, along with his servant, Ali (Nicholas Nestorak). They seek shelter in what appears at first to be an abandoned palace, Ali with great reluctance as he fears the place is haunted. The palace’s invisible servants (Alex Campea, Bria Cloyd, Sean Anthony Jackson, and Alex Mace) lay out a feast for them. Ali’s fears are dispelled by the excellent wine, but Sander becomes the fearful one when the playful spirits start levitating the drunken Ali around the room.

Comes the dawn, Sander literally drags the hung-over Ali out the door, but stops to pluck a rose for his daughter, Zemire. which prompts the appearance of the outraged Beast, Azor. In this production, the Beast is represented by an eight-foot tall and equally broad puppet figure manipulated by the spirits, and given voice by tenor Chaz’men Williams Ali. The fearsome Beast walks like a gorilla, has a spiky carapace like a crab, the horns and ears of a water buffalo, fangs, and tusks. Accusing Sander of theft and ingratitude, the Beast eventually agrees to give Sander his life, his freedom, and wealth, if he will send Azor his daughter, Zemire. Azor swears that she will come to no harm, but Sander and Ali aren’t sure when Azor summons up a wind spirit (another puppet, reminiscent of a small version of the “Snow Dragon” seen at the Skylight in 2015) that bears them home.

At home, they are greeted by Sander’s daughters, spoiled materialists Fatme and Lisbe (Erin Sura and Sarah Thompson Johansen), and the good and virtuous Zemire (Gillian Hollis). Fatme and Lisbe are dismayed that their father has lost everything, but Zemire is just glad to have him back. Then, he produces the rose, and tells them of the dreadful bargain he has made. While the others all think about ways to get out of it, Zemire compels Ali to take her to the Beast’s palace, so that the Beast will keep his promise and her family be provided for. She bravely enters the palace, but, on seeing the Beast for the first time, faints dead away.

When she revives, Azor is kind to her, and tells her that she may command him and the spirits for any thing she wishes. She replies that she is not made happy by things. Instead, she sings a song for him, and dances with the spirits.

After a time, she wishes to know how her family is faring. Despite misgivings, Azor brings out a magic mirror, which will not only show her whom she wishes to see, but allow her to hear their thoughts as well. Her now richly adorned sisters are more spoiled than ever, but her father, aged by his ordeal, is deeply sunk in grief over the loss of Zemire. Zemire declares that she must go to him. Azor protests that this is an excuse to leave him. Giving her a magic ring that will allow her instant travel, Azor gets her to promise to return by sunset, because he has realized that he loves her, and it was foretold him by the spirit that enchanted him, that on the day he was able to love, his “cursed life would end.”

Zemire transports herself to the family home, to her father’s joy, but he and her sisters attempt to keep her there. With Ali’s help she escapes back to the Beast’s palace, arriving just as night has fallen. She calls out to Azor, and he is able to answer, because his “cursed life” has ended by his being transformed back into his normal, kingly, form. Sander, Ali, Fatme and Lisbe arrive, intent on rescuing Zemire once and for all, in time to take part in the happy ending.

This production was just charming all the way through: the story, the setting, the costumes, the music, the singing, the dancing were all lovely. The English translation of the libretto, by Colin Graham, further adapted by Director James Ortiz and Shari Rhoads, was witty and enjoyable. Of course, the monster in the room is the huge Azor puppet, which was very effective. The “spirits” manipulating it did a wonderful and graceful job of bringing it to life, and most of the time the “ventriloquism” effect worked well, making it easy to accept that the puppet was singing. It didn’t work when Mr. Williams Ali, who sings the Beast’s role as a hooded figure on stage, gets too far down front and in the action, but this only happened a couple of times. One episode in which the puppet manipulation was distracting came in the first scene, during Sander’s song lamenting his dilemma, during which the Beast kept nervously moving its head, which distracted from Sander’s singing. Even puppets should obey the basic rule of stagecraft to not pull eyes away from the focus of the scene.

This was a really excellent, creative, and entertaining production, and we were very glad to have seen it.
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.

Seeing that the Madison Opera was doing “Tales of Hoffman,” one of our favorites, we drove over to Madison for the matinee performance, Sunday, April 17th.

The opera begins with the prolog set in the tavern Hoffman (Harold Meers) frequents. Once Hoffman is prevailed upon to regale the customers with the stories of his lost loves, the set opens up, and the set pieces for the first act story of Olympia move in, as though conjured forth by Hoffman’s story telling, a conceit that we thought worked very well, with the tavern guests becoming the guests at Spalanzani’s party.

The same idea was followed in Act Two, the story of Antonia. No chorus is called for in this scene, so the customers form an on-stage audience. In Act Three, the customers are the carnival revelers.

Act One is the most fantastic of the acts, presented in candy colors, with Spalanzani (Robert A. Goderich), Cochenille (Jared Rogers), and Coppelius (Morgan Smith, who also sings Lindorf, Dr. Miracle, and Dapertutto) portrayed as cartoonish mad scientists. Jeni Houser presents Olympia as much more of a “dancing doll” than a credible automation, but, given this choice of interpretation, did very well with it. Her ability to hold postures and expressions was first rate, and she handled the difficult vocal part flawlessly.

Act Two is a bit less fantastic but more dark. Sian Davies sings the role of Antonia, the ill young woman whose desire to sing exceeds her body’s strength. The scene is lightened somewhat by Mr. Rogers’ comic song as the servant Frantz, but goes dark again at the entrance of the vampiric Dr. Miracle, whose power over Antonia forces her to her death. A particularly effective and creepy effect was the apparition of Antonia’s mother. I had thought the statue on stage was merely a prop and that the mother’s voice would come from offstage as it frequently does when her image is represented by a portrait. Thus I was genuinely surprised when the statue, like a Dr. Who “Weeping Angel” came to life. (Kelsey Park sang and acted the role of the statue.)

Act Three, the carnival of Venice scene, made a linkage back to the 20’s era dress of the chorus, by costuming Giulietta (Ms. Davies, who also sings Stella in the epilogue) as a silent-movie Cleopatra with gestures that might have been borrowed from Theda Bara in that role.

The Epilogue had a very original and redemptive staging. Commonly, the drunken and passed-out Hoffman is left on stage, alone except for Nicklausse/the Muse (Adriana Zabala) possessively watching over him. In this production, the Muse summons back characters from the prior scenes, and Hoffman, reconciling his memories, begins to write furiously in his notebook as the curtain falls.

This was a really fine production in all respects, which we enjoyed greatly. Kudos in particular to the inventiveness of Stage Director Kristine McIntyre and Scenic Designer Erhard Rom. All of the singers were in excellent voice, and the orchestra, conducted John DeMain, and the chorus, lead by Anthony Cao, were the equal of any.

After the opera, we went down State Street to Kabul Restaurant, a favorite stop for us in Madison. This was our second visit to their new location, and we were pleased to see that the operation has tightened up to old standards. And, speaking of old standards, we chose familiar dishes, lamb kabobs and Koftachalow (Afghani meatballs), which were flavorful and did not disappoint.

On Saturday afternoon, April 16th, we went to see the Metropolitan Opera simulcast of Gaetano Donizetti’s bel canto opera, Roberto Devereux. The story, by librettist Salvadore Cammarano, is very loosely based on the final days of Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex, who was convicted of treason and beheaded in the reign of Elizabeth the First of England.

This romantic tragedy assumes that there was a deep passionate relationship between Devereux (sung by Matthew Polanzani) and the Queen (historically, he was a favorite for a time, but doubtful if more than that). Devereaux has been recalled from a military expedition against rebels in Ireland and charged with treason over his mishandling of the job. Parliamentary enemies, lead by Prime Minister Robert Cecil, Lord Burghley, have convicted him, but the Queen’s signature on his warrant of execution is required.

The Queen (Sondra Radanovsky) summons Devereux to a private audience. She guesses, correctly, that his affections have lit on another woman. She offers Devereux a deal, that she will pardon him if he tells her who her rival is.  Devereux, fearing the Queen’s vengeance on the woman he loves, denies that he is in love with anyone. Stung, the Queen bids him leave and to think further.

Devereux goes directly to the house of Sarah, Duchess of Nottingham (Elena Garanca), the wife of his best friend, and the woman he is in love with. Sarah advises him to forget her and flee England. He agrees, and she gives him a token, a blue silk scarf embroidered with gold. In turn, he leaves with her a ring given him by the Queen as a sort of “get out of jail free” card.

Devereux’s loyal friend, Nottingham (Mariuz Kwiecen), argues on Devereux’s behalf to the Queen, but cannot get her to agree to excuse him. Devereux has been taken into custody, and the love token found in his possession. The Queen confronts Devereux with it in the presence of Nottingham, who recognizes it as his wife’s handiwork. Furious, he declares that he will have vengeance. Once again, the Queen demands to know the name of her rival. Devereux refuses, and she signs the death warrant, ordering his execution the following noon.

At home, Nottingham confronts Sarah, and orders his serving men to keep her from leaving so that she can’t take the ring he has found to the Queen.

In the tower, Devereux expects a messenger with his pardon to arrive any time. He hopes to live to prove that his love for Sarah was platonic and restore her reputation. Instead, the guards come to take him to the block.

The Queen has sent for Sarah to attend her which Nottingham has to allow. When Sarah arrives, she presents the ring to the Queen, and confesses that she is the rival for Roberto’s affections. Nottingham gloats that he is responsible for the arrival being to late to save Devereux, who has by then been executed. Raging, the Queen blames both of them for Devereux’s death, and calls down curses and punishments upon them. Declaring James of Scotland to be her heir, in this production, she dies.

The opera is here staged as a play within the opera, a memorial performed before Elizabeth’s tomb. There is an on-stage audience of Elizabethan courtiers, who are the chorus and supernumeraries as required.

The role of Elizabeth is a tour de force for Ms. Radanovsky, who this season has completed the difficult “hat trick” of performing the leading roles in Donizetti’s Anna Bolena and Maria Stuarda; the so-called “three queens.” The role of Elizabeth in Roberto Devereux is a particularly difficult one, requiring great range and rapid fluctuations from high to low and back again. Ms. Radanovsky sang the role beautifully, not only with power and passion, but marvelous skill and control. She also acted exceptionally well. By the time of Roberto Devereux, Elizabeth was sixty-nine years old and suffering with an arthritic hip. Given her looming costumes, vampirically pale makeup, and lurching gait, Ms. Radanovsky makes Elizabeth a sort of Bride of Frankenstein haunting her palaces, monstrous without, as her ego and anger make her monstrous within.

Voicewise, she is well matched by the other principals, who make the most of Donizetti’s beautiful music. The duets between Sarah and Roberto, Roberto and the Queen, and Sarah and Nottingham, are particularly fine, as is Devereux’s aria in the tower, Come uno spirto angelico.

We thoroughly enjoyed this performance, which was excellent in all ways. The staging worked well, the costumes were beautiful, and the orchestra, conducted by Maurizio Benini, flawless to our ears.

 

Saturday afternoon, January 16th, we went to see the Metropolitan Opera simulcast of Georges Bizet’s 1863 opera Les Pecheurs des Perles (The Pearl Fishers). This was the first new production of this opera at the Met in one hundred years, which is surprising, given how lovely the music is.

Originally Set in ancient times on the island of Ceylon, the opera tells the story of how two men's vow of eternal friendship is threatened by their love for the same woman, whose own dilemma is the conflict between secular love and her sacred oath as a priestess.

This production was updated to arguably modern times, with the pearl fisheries piers floating on oild drums, and ball caps and sneakers in the costuming, but it really didn’t affect the plot.

As the opera begins, Zurga (baritone Mariuz Kweicen) is being elected leader of the fisher’s village, a position that carries with it absolute authority. After he is elected, his friend, Nadir (tenor, Matthew Polenzani) enters. Nadir is a hunter, and has been on a lengthy trip. They greet one another joyously, and reminisce about the time that their friendship was almost torn apart due to rivalry for a woman, but they had both forsworn her and pledged eternal friendship.

The pearl fishers’ village then welcomes a new priestess. A virgin priestess is dedicated to the village for a year to pray for the safety of the fishers. By law, she must remain inviolate and veiled to all. If she keeps her vows for the year, she is rewarded with the finest pearl taken that year, a princely dowry. If she breaks her vows, she is put to death. Leila (Diana Damrau) affirms her vows before the villagers.

Nadir is electrified when he hears her voice. He has lied to Zurga about forgetting the woman they both had desired, and has been seeking Leila’s love during his time away. Leila, in turn, recognizes him.

In the second act, Lelia is established in her temple, which overlooks the ocean on one side, and is guarded by the villagers on the other. Nadir scales the crag to visit her, which throws Lelia into confusion. She loves Nadir, but is terrified he will be found there. After a passionate love duet, of course he is caught, and the two are taken into custody. They are brought before Zurga for judgment. The priest demands their deaths, but Zurga is reluctant until Leila is unveiled. When Zurga realizes that Nadir has broken his promise, he angrily pronounces the death sentence. A terrific storm breaks, echoing his anger and that of the villagers.

Act three begins in Zurga’s office, where he is wrestling with remorse at the pending death of his friend. Lelia gains admittance, and begs for Nadir’s life, saying that he is innocent, he got lost and came to the temple by mistake. Unlikely as it is, Zurga is willing to accept this as an excuse to spare Nadir, until Lelia goes on to confess how she and Nadir love one another. Roused to new fury, Zurga declares that both shall die at dawn.

As she I lead away, Lelia give one of her attendants a pearl that was given to her when she was a girl by a grateful man she had sheltered from an angry mob. After she leaves, Zurga snatched the pearl and recognizes it as the one he himself had given her. He had been the hunted fugitive, and she was the girl who had saved his life.

As dawn approaches, Nadir and Lelia are readied for execution. Zurga appears and calls a halt. He tells the people that the bloody glow in the east is not the sunrise, but that fire has broken out in the village, and that if they wish to save their homes and families they must go to fight the fire now!

Left alone with the prisoners, he frees them, telling them he does so because it was his life that Lelia had saved years ago, and bidding them to escape with their lives. Zurga remains behind, saying that he will take whatever comes. The lights go down on him, with his village blazing in the background.

Although the plot (libretto by Eugène Cormon and Michel Carré) is distinctly contrived, the music by Bizet is lush and beautiful. The first act mens’ duet, "Au fond du temple saint", is a favorite concert piece. All the principals sang beautifully, and acted with enough believable passion to carry the story along.

Conductor Gianandrea Noseda lead the orchestra with skill and aplomb, and the production looked very good, with the modern details merging into the milieu very quickly. The overture was accompanied by a spectacular “water ballet” featuring some of the company’s more acrobatic dancers employing a new and upgraded flying harness, which, coupled with computerized projections, gave a remarkable illusion of swimming above the stage.

We were very glad to have had the opportunity to enjoy this uncommonly performed opera.
Saturday evening, October 3rd, we went to the Broadway Theatre Center to see and hear the Skylight's new production of Puccini's "Tosca." It was generally considered to be a challenge to "scale down" this popular opera to fit the Skylight's small hall, but this isn't necessarily the case. Puccini tends to write big music for small casts, and "Tosca" is an example, with three major roles in Tosca, Scarpia, and Cavaradossi, a handful of supporting roles, and only one chorus at the end of the first act.

From a scenic standpoint, almost any stage is big enough to portray Scarpia's office in act Two. The section of battlements in Act Three doesn't have to be huge, which leaves the cathedral in Act One. The Skylight deftly got around that one by keeping the chorus offstage for the processional, leaving the visual focus on Scarpia.

Act One was where I had the biggest disagreement with the set design. The large painting Cavaradossi is working on is traditionally a saint if not the Madonna. The one used here was a dancing figure and looked more like a poster for the Moulin Rouge than anything found in a cathedral. Also, the bottom three feet of the painted canvas trailed on the floor and were casually walked on by both Cavaradossi and the Sacristan! (By the time Scarpia got around to treading on it, it wasn't as shocking.) Some of the best scene effects were done with lighting (designer Jason Fassl) in the same act, as, while Scarpia sings, "Tosca, you make me turn away from God!" a subtle shift alerts us that the panels screening the artist's work space form a cross looming over him.

The principal singers were all excellent, with all reviewers admiring Cassandra Aaron Black, who sang Floria Tosca with great power and passion. Her stage presence reminded me of Joan Sutherland. Reviews were more mixed for Chaz'men Williams-Ali as Cavaradossi and David Kravitz as Scarpia. We did not think that Williams-Ali's voice was too "light"; he sang with fine strength and expression. Kravitz was a lean and hungry, though sometimes genial, Scarpia and sang the role very well.

Kravitz may have been somewhat handicapped by his costume, which was described elsewhere as looking like a "Star Wars" villain (I'd have guessed "Buck Rodgers" myself--.) However, by the time we saw Tosca come on for the third act, it was clear the costume designs by Kristy Leigh Hall were intended to be symbolic, since her "traveling" outfit is an impractical but highly dramatic red evening gown that looks like it had been dipped in blood.

Although this was the largest orchestra that could be crammed into the Skylight's pit, it was still far smaller than the usual full symphony used to support Puccini, and it was occasionally, though seldom, evident that they were working hard to make up weight, notably at the end of the first act, when the brasses got a bit sharp in the very demanding processional.

A controversial decision that we had no problem with was to have most of the opera sung in English, as the Skylight usually does, but leave the best known arias in Italian. I thought this worked well and I got more out of some scenes, such as Tosca's second act dialog with Scarpia, than I usually do with supertitles.

All in all, a fine production of which the Skylight can be justly proud.
On Wednesday evening, September 30th, we went to the Fox Bay Cinema to see the Milwaukee Film Festival's screening of "Magicarena," a new film about the Verona Opera Festival. Staged in the city's ancient Roman amphitheater, this is the world's largest outdoor opera venue.

Specifically, the film covers the staging of Giuseppe Verdi's "Aida" as the opening production of the Festival's Centenary season.

Beginning five weeks from opening night, the film shows us the working up of the production, as mainly seen by the rank and file people that make the big show possible. Choristers, dancers, "mime-artists", supernumeraries, and musicians all talk about what it is like to take part in such a venerable yet vital program. We get to see principals, such as the producer/stage director, orchestra conductor, and lead singers in action, but they do not talk to the camera.

"Aida" is among the grandest of "grand operas" and staging it for a hundredth anniversary might tell you it will be a big production, and it is: REALLY big! Not only is there a cast of literally hundreds, this is to be an "Aida for the New Millennium," so the production design by Spanish group "La Fura dels Baus" is quite eclectic. The costumes of the principal singers allude to Classical Egypt, but with light-up accessories. Egyptian storm troopers wear industrial orange body armor, while their Ethiopian opponents wear ragged camouflage. Along the edges of the Nile, mime-artists pose as both crocodiles and banks of reeds. In the scene of Rhadames' triumph, the procession includes mechanical framework camels and elephants marching as cranes construct a giant solar reflector emblematic of the Temple of the Sun. Priests, ranked around the rim of the arena, bear aloft huge flaming occult symbols.

While we were given a very intimate look at the innards of what well may be the most over-the-top production of its type we've ever seen, I was disappointed that we never got to see one whole scene of the opera for its effect. While we got to see substantial parts of some scenes, we never got an idea what it was really like for the audience. I don't know if this was required by the Festival, or if the filmmakers just got so caught up with the fascinating details, there was no time to give the big picture.

Nevertheless, it was a very rare set of glimpses into the making of a truly spectacular production, and we were very glad to have seen it.

In Italian with occasionally amusing English subtitles. (Example: Massimo, the orchestra member, is described as being principal trombone, while he is shown playing the trumpet. "Tromba" is the Italian for trumpet, where as an Italian trombone is --a trombone.)
On Sunday afternoon, June 7th, we went to see “The Skylight Ring,” billed as “Wagner’s Ring cycle in two hours.

While it’s possible to condense the story of “The Ring of the Nibelung” into as little as forty-five minutes, as done by the late Anna Russell, it’s essentially impossible to do it without humorous effect, and “The Skylight Ring” does definitely go for the laughs.

Wagner’s Ring over all takes up eighteen hours, is most often performed over the course of four separate evenings, and has a cast of thirty characters plus chorus, and a large orchestra. The Skylight Ring was performed by a cast of four playing two dozen characters, with one of the performers, Robert Frankenberry, also providing accompaniment on the piano. A great deal of the condensed action is delivered either as narration, also by Frankenberry, or by modernized dialog. Actually, this was our largest complaint with the performance: too much talking and not enough singing. Even if you accept the old saw that “Wagner has wonderful moments—and bad half hours—“ there’s more than enough great music in the Ring to fill a two hour “greatest hits” session. Excerpting may be a problem, as Wagner doesn’t often break his later operas down into arias, but it can be done.

Anyway, what we did get was entertaining, if pretty far from Wagner in a lot of ways—notably the ways in which The Lord of the Rings influenced this production—a “ring” of influence, if you will, since Tolkien borrowed the idea of the cursed ring that is desired by all who behold it from the Volsungasaga, the literary source of Wagner’s adaptation of the Nibelungenleid. In particular, the ring is referred to several times as having world-shattering power, an idea that comes from Tolkien, not the Icelandic poets. In addition, Alberich (Mr. Frankenberry), the dwarf who forswears love in order to seize the Rhine treasure, becomes a sort of “Gollum” figure, stalking the Ring through the generations of the Volsungs, disguised (in this version) as the villains Hunding, Mime, and Hagen. (Rather like those productions of “Tales of Hoffman” where the same bass-baritone sings all four villain roles--.)

The other singers each also took on a number of roles, with Tim Rebers pivotal part being Wotan, but covering everything from the Rhinemaiden Flosshilde to the raven Memory (Munin). Erin Sura had some of the longest singing bits as Brunnhilda, but also played Freia, Loge, The Norn, The Forest Bird, and Gutrune. Colleen Brooks, recently seen as Dora Marx in “The Snow Dragon,” played among others Fricka, Fasolt, and Erda, but had her largest role (and the most fun) playing the swaggering and shallow Siegfreid.

The simple set consisted of the stage floor done as the section of an enormous tree, referring to Yggdrasil, the world-tree, which was also represented as a kind of cartoon signpost pointing in all directions at one side of the stage. A large chest up center held props. Costumes were partial and representative (crowns, cloaks, eyepatch--), which resulted in some amusing and sometimes clever effects, as when, for Seigfried to disguise himself as Gunther, Ms. Brooks appropriates and dons the “nose glasses” Mr. Rebers had been wearing as the Gibichung.

The performance was not without musical high spots, notably Ms. Sura’s songs as Brunnhilde, and Mr. Rebers’ evocation of the ring of fire as Wotan. The piano score was well played by Mr. Frankenberry, but just does not succeed in doing justice to Wagner’s music. Wagner, of all opera composers, was perhaps the greatest master of the horns, and “The Ride of the Valkuries/Brunnhilda’s Battle Cry” without brass is, frankly, an egg without salt.

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.
We went to see the Metropolitan Opera’s HD reprise of “La Donna del Lago” on Wednesday, March 18th, and enjoyed it very much.

Giacomo Rossini’s bel canto opera “La Donna del Lago” (“The Lady of the Lake”) has nothing to do with Arthurian legend: instead, it is based upon a poem by Sir Walter Scott, set in his beloved Scotland. The “lady” of the title, Elena, is the beautiful daughter of a Highland chieftain, Duglas d’Angus, who has promised her hand in marriage to his ally, Roderigo di Dhu. However, Elena instead loves the young and doughty Malcolm instead. Her life is further complicated when she encounters King James V of Scotland (in disguise as “Uberto”), out hunting, who also falls in love with the maiden at first sight.

(If the character names strike you as a hash, I agree. In Scott’s poem, Elena is “Ellen Douglas,” her father is “James Douglas,” the King’s alias is “James Fitz-James”, and Rodrigo is “Rodrick Dhu” (‘the black’). The only explanation that makes sense to me is that the librettist, Andrea Leone Tottola, chose names that sounded better sung as part of an Italian libretto.)

We came specifically to hear Joyce DiDonato in the role of Elena, and we were not disappointed. Di Donato is unquestionably the reigning Queen of Bel Canto, with a voice that is beautiful, powerful, and flexible enough to make the best of the ornamentations called for by Rossini’s score. We agreed that, in her own way, she is every bit the equal of past greats such as Beverly Sills or Joan Sutherland.

Actually, the whole opera was a feast for the ear, a good thing since the thin plot of the love quadrangle amid a rebellion of the Highlands against the Lowlander King, exists mainly to hang arias on. All of the singers were just splendid: Juan Diego Flores as King James, John Osborne as Roderigo, and Oren Gradus as Duglas. We were particularly pleased with mezzo-soprano Daniela Barcellona in the “breeches” role of Malcolm, who sang a very beautiful aria, Ah! si pera: ormai la morte! fia sollievo a’ mali miei ("Ah! Let me perish”) in the second act. (One may question, as we did, if you can properly call it a ‘breeches’ role if the character is wearing a kilt. This actually came up in the broadcast interview with the singer, in which she said she had had trouble remembering to move like a man, since the longish great kilt felt to her like wearing a skirt--.)

The opera was good to look at as well. Most of the action took place in a simple outdoor set, redressed with foliage or battlefield wrack as needed, backed by a very nice projected sky. This portrayed sunrise, sunset, storm, or a slightly stagey ‘shooting star’, without being either too bright or hyper-real. Costumes for the Highlanders had appropriately ‘ancient’ looking Tartans and what I suppose were period-appropriate baggy socks. The climactic scene in the King’s court was a gorgeous panoply of dress in ivory and gold brocade, which also hinted as to why there might be tensions between the Highlanders and their King--.

This was a very satisfying and beautiful evening at the Opera.

World premieres of new operas are fairly uncommon, although we’ve seen a few, such as Rio de Sangre at the Florentine Opera in 2010, and The Rivals at the Skylight in 2011, but it must be fairly rare for the average opera fan to be able to attend a premiere of an opera by a composer with which he is acquainted.

That was the singular experience we enjoyed on March 13th, as the Skylight Music Theatre opened The Snow Dragon, with music and libretto by Somtow Sucharitkul. During his career as a science fiction, fantasy, and horror author, Somtow had been author guest of honor at Milwaukee’s X-Con, and was remembered as an excellent guest, erudite, witty, and excellent company. Therefore, we had to attend. We got main floor seats as part of a block with “OperaCon” (of which more later) and had a very good time at this remarkable opera.

The opera is based upon a story by Somtow, called “The Fallen Country.” Inspired by the experiences of a friend, the story deals with violent child abuse and the generational cycle by which it is perpetuated. The story did not find a publisher for some years (It was vehemently, but ultimately fortuitously, rejected for inclusion in The Last Dangerous Visions--) until picked up for an anthology by Terri Windling.  Since then, the story has been recollected, and was also substantially reworked as a Young Adult novel for Bantam. However, the opera libretto is closer to the original story.

The opera opens with a magical overture, during which we see the protagonist, Billy Binder (Luke Brotherhood), a young boy, rescued from a high place by firemen. We learn that it is a church steeple, and a mystery as to how he got up there, as well as how he got frostbitten in the oppressive Florida heat.

Billy is referred to the school counselor, Dora Marx (Collen Brooks), who recognizes the signs of physical abuse in Billy. In order to get him to open up to her, she encourages him to tell her what she thinks is his escapist fantasy, of finding his way into the “Fallen Country,” a cold gray land where there is no pain because there is no feeling. The Fallen Country is home to the marvelous Snow Dragon (Cassandra Black), who befriends the boy, but also to the sinister Ringmaster, who rules the world with “his whip of burning cold.” Billy, who has not yet given up all feeling, finds that there he can channel his anger into power and perform feats like breaking shackles and freeing princesses. He longs to meet the Ringmaster, who is the alter-ego of his mother’s brutal lover, Stark (Dan Kempson) so that he can kill him, but his anger doesn’t sustain him in the Fallen Country long enough to reach the Ringmaster.  Dora thanks Billy for sharing his story, to which he replies, “It isn’t a story.”

In the second act, Billy is hospitalized by Stark’s brutality. Dora confronts Billy’s mother, Joan (Erica Schuller), who at first maintains that Billy had a bicycle accident. Then, she breaks down, saying that Stark isn’t a man, but “a force, a wind.”  Stark, alone with Billy, whispers threats to the boy, which tell us that he, too, is aware of the Fallen Country.

Dora decides she has to call the police to intervene. When she comes with them to Billy’s house, Stark is sleeping, but talks in his sleep, saying, “I never asked to be hated. I never asked for the cold to sink into my heart,” and other things that let Dora know that the Fallen Country is indeed real.  Stark becomes the Ringmaster, and opens the way to the Fallen County, dragging Joan with him, where she becomes the captive Princess. Billy pursues, but calls to Dora, telling her he needs her help and belief to reach and defeat the Ringmaster.

With Dora’s help, Billy gets to the Ringmaster’s tent lair, and the final conflict is initiated, with a twist due to the revelation of the Ringmaster’s dire secret.

Somtow’s libretto brings us the affecting story very effectively, and is totally integrated with the score. The music is both modern, and tuneful and sonorous, with just enough eerie effect for a magical plot without resembling a “Harry Potter” soundtrack in the least.  Somtow achieves that rare thing in modern music, harmony, especially with the second act trio for the three female voices.

Artistic Director Vishwa Subbaraman, who also conducts, assembled an extremely talented and skillful cast and crew. Luke Brotherhood as Billy has a long and challenging role for a child singer, and did superbly well in both vocal and physical acting the part of the abused but defiant boy.  Ms. Brooks was totally believable as the tired social worker who has seen too much, heard too much, and known too little success in her work. Strong and handsome, Mr. Kempson embodied the kind of attractive man that needy women are drawn to, only to discover his core of violence after it is too late.  Ms. Schuller, as Billy’s mother also did an excellent job in the role of the conflicted mother/princess figure.  The role of the Snow Dragon should be considered a plum role, and Cassandra Black inhabited it, sounding and looking magnificent in her glittering costume and spiky headdress. The orchestra presented Somtow’s score without noticeable flaw, and in excellent balance with the singers.

The setting, by William Boles, was largely symbolic, there being a small set of mundane rooms for Dora’s office and Billy’s house. The stark Fallen Country was represented by the bare concrete of the stage back wall, with bits that flew in and out, representing giant ice crystals, stars, and the circus ring emblematic of the entry to the Country. One puzzling bit was a number of pairs of white shoes dangling from ropes. (Even Somtow wasn’t sure what they were supposed to represent--).  However, the best piece was the great Dragon, which, in flight, was represented by a twenty-two foot long puppet, borne aloft by the choristers, fins gently waving as it ‘flew’ about the stage, softly glowing under ultraviolet light.  The elaborate lighting plot by David Gipson added greatly.

Costumes by Jason Orlenko were generally simple but effective.  The “real world” costumes were subtly suggestive: Billy’s torn t-shirt, the color of dried blood.  Stark’s sleeveless shirt, showing off his brawny, tattooed arms, emphasized his power and dangerousness.  Dora’s lightweight and pastel colored ensemble perfectly portrayed an office drudge who hasn’t quite yet given up all hope. She clutches her leather messenger bag—her “baggage”—to her as though it were a teddy bear. Joan’s outfit of tunic top, Capri leggings, and flat Mary Jane shoes made her look like the most childlike of all the cast. The effect in which she changed her bathrobe into the elaborate Princess’ gown was just nifty—there’s no other word for it. The Ringmaster’s uniform was wonderfully elaborate with its own dark beauty—many young boys would have, at least figuratively, killed for it--.

 The Snow Dragon captures and sets to music the problem of domestic violence against children, and plays it out as an Oedipal contest of wills, which, ultimately, can only come to an end when one party finds a strategy other than the obvious. It is quite powerful.

 The Skylight has partnered with local anti-abuse groups and resources, including arranging to have a child psychologist on hand during school showings, and listed contact information in their Audience Guide for the production.

 The Snow Dragon continues through March 29th.

Last night we went to the cinema for the encore showing of the Metropolitan Opera double bill of “Iolanta” by Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky, and “Bluebeard’s Castle,” (“Herzog Blauberd’s Berg”) both of which were beautiful and fascinating in their own ways, and intriguingly linked by some common themes.

Iolanta was a Met Opera premier, although the opera was first performed in 1892 in St. Petersburg. This was Tchaikovsky’s last opera, with a libretto written by Modest Tchaikovsky, and is based on the Danish play Kong Renés Datter (King René's Daughter) by Henrik Hertz. Iolanta (Anna Netrebko), the only daughter of King Rene of Provence, was born blind, however, she does no know this due to the King’s decree. He has had her raised in isolation, in a beautiful home in the mountains, with a loving and caring staff who have been forbidden on pain of death to speak to her of anything pertaining to vision or light. As the opera opens, Iolanta, grown to womanhood, is overcome with sadness, feeling that she is missing something for which she has no name. She asks her servants why they love her, when she can give them nothing in return. Her nurses reply that her love is sufficient, but she is not satisfied by the answer.

The King (Ilya Bannik) arrives, accompanied by “Moorish” physician, Ibn-Hakia (Elchin Azizov), whom he hopes can cure Iolanta of her blindness before her pending marriage to Robert, Duke of Burgundy. However, he disagrees with the doctor’s proposed course of treatment. Ibn-Hakia believes that the spirit must take part in the healing, and that, if Iolanta does not know she is blind, she cannot aid in her healing, as she must want to be cured for the treatment to be effective. The King refuses. The doctor says he will give the King time to reconsider.

Enter Robert (Aleksei Markov), and his friend, Vaudemont (Piotr Beczala), a wealthy Count, enter. They have become lost while hiking, and, with noblemen’s insouciance, have seen but ignored the “keep out, on pain of death” warnings posted by Rene. Robert confesses that he is not looking forward to his contracted marriage to Iolanta, whom he has never met, because he loves the vivacious and lusty Matilda. Vaudemont allows that he prefers the pure and virginal type. Curious about the lonely house, they peer in, and Vaudemont is instantly smitten by Iolanta’s youthful beauty. Robert thinks his friend has been bewitched, and goes for help.

Vaudemont enters the house, and speaks to Iolanta. She is charmed and pleased to meet a stranger. In the affecting scene that follows, Vaudemont discovers that she cannot see. When she is puzzled by his words, he explains that light is the first of nature’s gifts to Creation, without which its glory cannot be comprehended. Iolanta refutes him, saying that she can hear the glory of Creation in the song of the birds, the sound of the stream—and in his voice.

The King and servants return and are appalled at what has happened. Ibn-Hakia argues that this is a good thing, since now her cure is possible. The King replies that the doctor may attempt the cure, but if Iolanta does not gain her sight, Vaudemont will be put to death. Iolanta vows that she will do everything she can to see.

While the doctor is working, Rene confesses to Vaudemont that he won’t be killed, the King only wanted to give his daughter incentive. Vaudemont announces his rank, and offers for Iolanta’s hand, whether she is cured or not. Rene replies that he is King of Provence, and that his daughter is already promised.

Enter Robert with his rescue party. He recognizes Rene. At Vaudemont’s urging, Robert asks to be released from his betrothal to Iolanta, which Rene grants, awarding her hand instead to Vaudemont.

Iolante’s old servant enters, weeping. The men are alarmed, fearing the experiment has failed, but he answers that he was so moved by Iolanta’s faith and dedication, that he could not remain. Then, Iolanta’s women appear, joyously announcing that she can see!

At first, Iolanta is disoriented and frightened by her new vision, but speedily adjusts upon recognizing her father and Vaudemont by their voices. The opera ends with a joyous chorus.
The music by Tchaikovsky is gorgeous, and all the parts very well sung, under the direction of Maestro Valery Gergiev. Costuming was kind of a vague early Twentieth-Century, but worked well for the mostly timeless libretto. The simple set was augmented by effective projections. Acting was generally good, although I was unsatisfied by Ms. Netrebko’s physical portrayal of a woman blind from birth. I blame this on the stage director, Mariusz Trelinski, though, since everything else in the performance was spot on.

Light is also a vital theme in Bela Bartok’s “Bluebeard’s Castle,” and very much so in this fully staged version. Bluebeard (Mikhail Petrenko) brings home his new bride, Judith (Nadja Michael), and they almost at once fall into a battle of wills as Judith, appalled by the darkness, badgers Bluebeard for the keys to the castle doors, in order to admit light and air. Bluebeard grudgingly complies, hoping to discourage her by first showing her his bloody torture chamber, and equally bloody armory. What is portrayed is the battle of two obsessions: Judith believes that she can banish the darkness that haunts Bluebeard, while Bluebeard hopes that if Judith will only kiss him, ask no questions, and leave the doors closed, everything will be all right.

When Judith is undaunted by the first two rooms, Bluebeard more willingly surrenders the keys to his treasury, garden, and domain, seeming to be pleased by the lightness that has pervaded his castle. But Judith presses on, opening the sixth door, the “sea of tears”, and the seventh. In this version, we see the grounds of Bluebeard’s castle, haunted by the spectres of his prior wives. “They are still alive!” Judith cries, but in denial. The foreground we see an opened, shallow grave. A body, with Judith’s blonde hair, face turned away, and wearing the green dress she arrived in, lies partly in and partly out of the grave. As Judith takes her place among the ghosts, Bluebeard lies down in the grave and tenderly kisses the body, the first kiss we have seen him actually give. As the lights die, he sings that now, it shall always be midnight.

Bartok’s music is powerful, dire, and satisfying. Both Mr. Petrenko and Ms. Michael sang with passion, holding nothing back, as was required in such a deeply psychosexual production. (Given the constant struggle for dominance between Bluebeard and Judith, both Georgie and I came up with the subtitle “Fifty Shades of Blue.” Fitting, since Bluebeard is the creature of which “Christian Gray” is merely a pale shadow--.) Again, projections added to the eerie atmosphere, while paralleling those used in “Iolanta.” Scene shifts that were covered by falling petals in “Iolanta,” were in “Bluebeard” masked by drifting ashes or what might have been scraps of burned paper.

With the journey from darkness into light, In “Iolanta,” and from light back to darkness in “Bluebeard’s Castle,” it was a thrilling, if sometimes harrowing, night at the opera.
We continued our “Handel weekend” by attending the Florentine Opera on Sunday afternoon the 30th for their production of “Julius Caesar” (“Gulio Cesare in Egitto”).

We were a bit leery given the local paper’s unfavorable review of the sets and costumes. (We consider opera to be a combined art form in which the visual is important as well as the music and are disappointed when presented with dull or ugly sets and poorly chosen costumes--). However, we liked the effect much better than the newspaper. The plain, white steps, platforms, and drapes evoked either sun-bleached marble columns, sandstone pillars, or the desert dusk with blue pyramidal shadows, depending on the lighting. Intentionally dim rear-projections evoked visions, particularly those of the spirit of Pompey as visualized by his son, the apparition evoking the ranks of cyclopean statues found in Egyptian temples.
All of the small cast sang very well. Ironically, Deanne Meek, in the title role of Caesar, had the least powerful voice, and was occasionally overwhelmed by the baroque-sized orchestra, especially in early scenes. However, as the opera progressed, a better balance was struck.

In the opera, Caesar and his troops have come to Egypt chasing his rival, Pompey. Pompey’s wife, Cornelia (Eve Gigliotti) and son Sesto (Adriana Zabala), come to Caesar as emissaries, offering that Pompey will surrender to Caesar if his life will be spared. Caesar agrees, but Achilleas (Derrick Ballard), general of the Egyptian forces under Tolomeo (Ptolemy, Ian Howell), enters, bearing Pompey’s severed head as a “gift” to Caesar. Tolomeo has had Pompey, who sought refuge with him, slain in hopes that Caesar will then side with him against his sister, Cleopatra (Ava Pine), and make Tolomeo sole ruler of Egypt. Caesar rejects the gift and upbraids the Egyptians for their treachery. Sesto vows that he will avenge his father’s death.

Hearing of Pompey’s death, Cleopatra plans to curry favor with the Romans in her own way. When Achilleas tells Tolomeo of Caesar’s reaction, Tolomeo agrees to let Achilleas take Cornelia as his wife if Achilleas will kill Caesar for him.

The plot continues with Cleopatra’s seduction of Caesar, Achilleas’ attempted assassination, civil war between Tolomeo and Cleopatra, in which she is taken prisoner, and Caesar’s return. Achilleas is stabbed at Tolomeo’s order when Tolomeo decides he would rather have Cornelia for himself. The dying Achilleas turns over control of his troops to Sesto, who in turn renders them to Caesar. Caesar stages a rescue of Cleopatra, and, during the assault on the palace, Sesto interrupts Tolomeo’s attempt to ravish his mother, and takes revenge for his father.
With Tolomeo dead and Caesar in control, Cleopatra is triumphantly crowned sole Queen of Egypt.

Again, all the singing was very good, and the parts well acted. Ms. Meek as Caesar was appropriately active and manly, and Ms. Pine’s Cleopatra was interestingly more of a hoyden than a femme fatale. Countertenor Howell was nicely slimy as Tolomeo, he being one of the few cast members whose character was aided by his costume and hairstyle, which reminded me of Aubrey Beardsley’s illustrations of King Herod.

Costuming was distinctly a mixed bag. The setting was “updated” to refer to Italy’s 1930’s invasion of Ethiopia, so Caesar and his aide, Curio (Pablo Siqueiros) wore period-appropriate Italian army officer uniforms. Cornelia’s long skirts were more Edwardian. Achilleas wore Bedouin-style desert robes, while the supernumeraries who pose as his men wore Ptolomaic-era kilts. Cleopatra’s bizarre wardrobe came from no known fashion plate, while her maid, Nirena’s (Erin Gonzales) outfit said “generic peasant girl.”

I must note that the “supers” Shawn Holmes and Nigel Wade, although they have no lines, really did an excellent job as the “Nubian” soldiers, who have quite a lot to do. I think someone had studied 1930’s “B-movies” as they were quite evocative of that period, stalking around the stage, clutching their curved daggers.

The orchestra, conducted by William Boggs, played Handel’s score without detectable flaw, and in general supported the singers appropriately.
Taken all together, we had a enjoyed our afternoon at the opera very much, and were very pleased with this production.
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, September 21st, we went to the Skylight to see the season-opening production of “Fidelio” the sole opera of Ludwig van Beethoven.

The protagonist of the opera is Leonore (Cassandra Black), who is searching for her husband, Florestan (Chase Taylor), who has been “disappeared” after criticizing the local governor. Disguised as a youth, “Fidelio”, she has been searching the prisons for her husband. Her energy and competence have won her the confidence of the prison warden, Rocco (Chris Besch), as well as the interest of his daughter, Marzelline (Erica Schuller), and she is about to be permitted to work in the “secret cells,” where the political prisoners are held.

Rocco is in the process of arranging a marriage between his daughter and “Fidelio” when word comes that the prison will be inspected by the Justice Minister, Don Fernando (Dustin Hertzog), an honest man and friend of Florestan. This galvanizes the governor, Don Pizarro (Eric McKeever) who fears that his illegal imprisonment of Florestan will be discovered. He attempts to order Rocco to kill Florestan, but Rocco refuses. Don Pizarro then declares that he himself will do the murder, and directs Rocco to open an ancient cistern below the prison which will conceal Florestan's body.

Rocco takes Fidelio with him to open the cistern. Fidelio recognizes the wretched prisoner as her husband, and, when Don Pizarro comes to murder him, she comes between them and threatens Don Pizarro with the pickaxe she has been working with. She reveals herself as Leonore to everyone's amazement. Don Pizarro is thunderstruck long enough for the trumpets to announce Don Fernando's arrival, when he realizes all is lost.

Besides liking the music, we were attracted to this production by the promised "Bollywood" treatment to be given by the Skylight's new Artistic Director Viswa Subbaraman, who is of Indian extraction. In part, this refers to the practice, common in India's movie industry, of including musical numbers with song and dance, in almost any motion picture. In this case, the cast was costumed in a pre-British Raj fashion, and set against a background of painted plants and animals by artist Raghava KK that is reminiscent of illustrations from books of Hindu myth. Hair and beards were culturally appropriate. No attempt was made to imitate South Asian skin tones, the actors wearing their own complexions, which worked well. Dancers, choreographed by Deepa Devasena, a scholar and teacher of Indian dance, accompanied many of the musical numbers, which added nice vigor to arias such as Marzelline's aria in the first act, "If only I were already united with thee" ("O wär ich schon mit dir vereint), which otherwise is a lengthy stretch of the singer alone on stage. We didn't get the scene we had visualized, which was grateful prisoners gently dancing in the sun and air when allowed out for exercise, but dances added to other scenes, such as the triumphal chorus at the climax, without being distracting.

All of the singing was good and quite beautiful, with the regrettable exception of Florestan's second-act solos such as "God! What darkness here!" Mr. Taylor's singing sounded harsh, and with an excessively wide vibrato. I conjecture that he may have been trying a bit too hard to portray vocally Florestan's weakness and misery in those parts, since he blended well with the rest of the cast on the later ensemble pieces. The orchestra, directed by Mr. Subbaraman, did good justice to Beethoven's music. We thoroughly enjoyed this performance.

Although set in a past time even relative to Beethoven's day, this production reminded us that the story is timeless, and that, unfortunately, the the evils of secret prisons, political corruptions, and abuse of power are with us now as much as they ever were.
On Sunday, May 12th, we saw and heard a very fine production of Mozart’s “The Marriage of Figaro” (“Le Nozze di Figaro”. Of course, we’ve seen numerous “Figaro’s,” but this was one of the best. The acting was excellent, the singing overall excellent, costumes attractive, and there was an interesting and beautiful set. The period-sized orchestra, directed by Maestro Joseph Rescigno, delivered Mozart’s music flawlessly, at least to my ear.

The one thing that was less than excellent was the singing of Daniel Belcher, in the role of Figaro. His voice seemed harsh and lacking both flexibility and luster in his upper registers. Mr. Belcher has performed at the Florentine before, as Figaro in “The Barber of Seville” in 2007, and Taddeo in “L’italiana in Algeri” in 2011, and we didn’t notice this, so perhaps he was just not in good voice on Sunday.

Perhaps this was a factor, and perhaps also the clever and busy stage direction by Candace Evans was a factor, but we found many new things in this “Marriage,” among them the extent to which Suzanna (Jamie-Rose Guarrine) and Count Amalvia (Craig Verm) are the real protagonist and antagonist in this show. Both of them have a lot more music, action and stage time than Figaro does, and it is ultimately Suzanna, with the help of the Countess (Diana Mc Vey), who engineers Amalvia’s comeuppance while Figaro misunderstands what’s going on.

All the other actors sang well, and there was excellent comic acting by all, including Adriana Zabala as an appropriately boyish Cherubino, Matthew Lau as Dr. Bartolo, Jenni Bank as Marcellina, and Frank Kelley, who, as the supposed music master Don Basilo, accomplished the difficult feat of “conducting” in four beats while the orchestra and on-stage chorus were performing in three.

The supertitles, while generally spare, did an adequate job of getting across the gist of the libretto, while adding some clever bits during the scene changes, such as “Now we go to the chamber of Rosina, Countess Amalvia . . .remember her from ‘Barber of Seville’?”

We enjoyed this production very much, and it currently holds the top place in memory of “Marriages” we have seen.

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