Category Archives: Composers

New Violetta Wears the Pants in Philly “Traviata”

Violetta & Alfredo: Traviata
Oropresa & Shrader


La Traviata, by Giuseppe Verdi

Philadelphia Opera at the Academy of Music, Oct. 2-11; Free HD broadcast on the Mall, Oct. 16, Independence Historic National Park

Lisette Oropesa’s first time out as Violetta Valery was triumphal Friday night. To show her glee in a role that clearly suits her, after “Sempre Libera”’s fireworks, the soprano flung the contents of her champagne glass across the boards. And why not? Oropesa has it all. Vocal range and beauty,  nuance and technique. She’s the slimmest singing actress to play the tubercular “fallen woman” (i.e. sex worker) on this stage in awhile: eliminating one of the challenges that suspend operatic belief.

Alek Shraker,  as Alfredo, is also new to the role and this company. The tenor has a slight cover to the voice; opening night, Shraker’s presence was more subtle than heroic but his singing acting developed ardor and projection as the drama  progressed. A powerful match for this Violetta is Stephen Powell’s Germont. Always harder to sing slow sustained lines, traviata-015which Powell well achieved in “Di Provenza”; even finer his impassioned duets  with the woman whose love he has come to defeat. On her own, Violetta’s  lyric whispers, so perfectly tuned, created a marvelous stillness in the house, before igniting second-act applause.

Pitch: there’s a concept we don’t always find ideal opening night:  much as we crave it. Pitch and timbre. What joy to listen to Oropesa through the evening; not only secure of pitch but how beautifully she matched the woodwinds, flutes in particular, how easy it was to admire again Verdi’s knitting of vocal and instrumental lines. How easeful, too, Corrado Rovaris’ shaping of ensembles: onstage and in the pit. Continue reading New Violetta Wears the Pants in Philly “Traviata”

Novelistic Intelligence aka the Telling Detail

If you want to know what novelistic intelligence is you might compare a page or two of Hilary Mantel’s work with worthy historical fiction by Peter Ackyrod or Susan Sontag. They are intelligent but they are not novelistically intelligent. –Andrea Barrett, “Dust,” the Paris Review, 209, Summer, 2014

Why “one perfectly chosen detail works better than an army of dutifully transcribed facts.”  Advice we cannot hear too often as we struggle to write the compelling story, the portrait, the poem. 

Red-Eye to Havre Grace: E.A.Poe at Live Arts Fest

Red-Eye to Havre de Grace, Lucidity Suitcase Intercontinental + The Wilhelm Bros & Co. Direction and Stage Design: Thaddeus Phillips; Original Score: Wilhelm Bros. Live Arts Festival, Philadelphia, Suzanne Roberts Theatre, Sept 7-16, 2012.

He thought he was going home to New York but Edgar Allen Poe was on the wrong train heading south: a conductor put him off in Baltimore where his death there days later still remains a mystery. Rather fitting for our genius of the ghost and detective genres and so much else. Red-Eye to Havre Grace by Lucidity Suitcase Intercontinental with the Wilhelm Bros. & Co. is the delight you hope for at the Philadelphia Live Arts Festival. Hard to categorize this imaginative movement/theater/opera which puts a new spin on Poe’s last lecture tour, his daily obsessions. He was calmer at home than on the road, collaborators Thaddeus Phillips, Geoff Sobel and the Minneapolis- based Wilhelms, Jeremy and David, show in this literally non-stop journey through the writer/poet/critic/genius’s attempt to deal with his last work, “Eureka,” his urgent letters home to his mother- in- law/slash aunt “Muddy,” and the hauntings by his child-bride wife, Virginia whose acrobatic affections are delicious.  Red-Eye is poignant and funny and the music- and- movement theater aspects are thrilling. The cast climbs over- under- and- even through a series of doors that function as train compartments, tables, beds and more. Ranger Steve of Philly’s Spring Garden Poe House narrates this imaginary Poe tale. He’s played by the multi-gifted, Jeremy Wilhelm whose operatic voice bursts into Poe lyrics when he’s not playing a mean clarinet accompaniment  to Ean Sheeny as the human and convincing E. A. Poe. There are several surprise moments none so good as Sophie Bortolussi’s first appearance as the ghost wife, which I dare not spoil. Red-Eye to Havre Grace credits Teller for its illusions, and Poe’s death scene is a triumph. Wilhelms’s original score includes the group playing bowed piano:  so spooky George Crumb would approve. Red-Eye to Havre Grace ended Sunday but it should play again and again.

Tchaikovsky’s Queen of Spades at AVA

Queen of Spades (Pique Dame) Opera by  Peter I. Tchaikovsky) Russian Opera Workshop,  Ghenady Meirson, Music Director & Pianist, Academy of Vocal Arts,  Helen Corning Warden Theater, 1925 Spruce St., Philadelphia, Performed July 24, 25, 26, 2012. Review of 7/25 for WRTI, 90.1 fm

The Russian Workshop that summers at Academy of Vocal Arts took on a big challenge this month with Tchaikovsky’s Queen of Spades. Adding to the challenges of the dificult opera, the heat was stifling in AVA’s shoebox theater. Just as well that the 13 emerging artists from all over the map weren’t in costume. So tight were they stuffed on stage for the  concert performance – with music director Ghenady Meirson  at the keyboard.  Meirson needed a better piano for the ravages of this tale. Queen of Spades, based on Pushkin,  is another love story that doesn’t end well.  Herman, who gambles, also not well, has his heart set on Liza, who’s engaged to someone else. If he can win the secrets of the cards from Lisa’s grandmother, the countess, he thinks he’ll win the girl.  Fate of course throws its hand. But not before lots of girl and guy friends put in their money’s worth. The cast of young singers in the Russian Workshop production at AVA   were nicely matched.  At the performance I heard (July 25). Herman was sung by tenor Steven Williamson of Westminster Choir College, who gave the role an increasingly obsessive ardor. Liza was Nathalie Avila, from Miami, whose power and range is immense. Michael J. Davis was an excellent Tomsky. Maude Paradis took the Countess or the Queen of Spades at this one but all the women’s roles were notable especially the governess of mezzo Raehann Bryce Davis of Manhattan, who sang the title other nights. Look for these young artists everywhere.

Xian Zhang’s fresh Beethoven Ninth at Mann

Philadelphia Orchestra, Xian Zhang, conducting, Beethoven: Symphony No. 9 in D Minor, the Choral) Othalie Graham, soprano, Margaret Mezzacappa, mezzo-soprano, Zach Borichevsky, tenor, Luis Ledesma, baritone, The Philadelphia Singers Chorale, David Hayes, music director. J.S. Bach. Concerto for Two Violins & String Orchestra , Juliette Kang, violin, Kimberly Fisher, violin.  Mann Music Center, June 27, 2012, Review for WRTI, 90.1 fm

Beethoven’s Ninth (Symphony No. 9 in D Minor, Op. 125, “Choral)”, is so familiar we almost don’t hear the notes – waiting for the singers!  Chinese-American conductor Xian Zhang used the Choral Symphony as her calling card with the Philadelphia Orchestra Wednesday night.  Her program of Beethoven and J.S. Bach opened the orchestra’s six- concert series at the Mann in Fairmount Park. Her Beethoven was fresh and focused. As focused as the unidentified bird that chirped through a stretch of the Scherzo, like a scat singer doing syncopation. Zhang, born in 1973, is the music director of Milan’s Gisueppe Verdi Symphony.  She led from memory.

Zhang’s leadership was dynamic no push- pull theatrics with the famous score. She’s got discernment. One mentor was Lorin Maazel. The strings that play so large a part had clarity in every register, violin themes and murmurs, the cellos and basses’ dark alacrity. The Scherzo’s stops and starts compelled; assertions not aggressiveness: when the theme returned it was the better for not being simply louder. There was more instrumental delight from horns and winds and Peter Smith’s oboe. The slow movement came like a breeze. By now the soloists had walked on stage.  Now it gets real, someone in the audience said.  Wrong.

Wednesday’s soloists were quality, Tenor Luis Ledesma began with a confidence and tone he didn’t quite sustain; baritone Zach Borischevsky and mezzo-soprano Margaret Mazzecappa were good choices. Othalie Graham’s soprano had pitch problems. All of the quartet sounded under-rehearsed. The  backup was the thriller – Philadelphia Singers Chorale could sing the finale to the Ninth upside down. Wednesday squeezed on stage behind the instrumentalists their joy thrilling. That inspiration was oddly lacking from all concerned when excellent principals Juliette Kang and Kimberly Fisher opened with J.S. Bach’s Concerto For Two Violins and String Orchestra in D Minor.  An auto pilot version of music that could have been so much more. Clearly the maestra’s attention had been on Beethoven.

Dark Sisters: Opera Company of Philadelphia at Perelman

Dark Sisters, Music By Nico Muhly, Libretto by Stephen Karam, The Perelman Theater, Kimmel Center, June 8, 10, 13, 15, 17, Review for WRTI,  90. 1 fm,

Waiting your turn with a commission has its perks. Everyone singing composer Nico Muhly and librettist Stephen Karam’s Dark Sisters at the Perelman Theater sang the premiere for Gotham Chamber Opera in New York. Now for Opera Company of Philadelphia’s turn, they have their roles down pat.  The singing is dynamite.  So are Leo Warner’s projections for this opera about polygamy in the Church of Mormon. The OCP commission with the Gotham (and the Music-Theater Group) has good things.But I don’t think the music or libretto are as compelling as this cast.

If five women with the same man is hard to figure, imagine five gorgeous voices in melodies of faith under duress.  Caitlin Lynch as the defiant Eliza is extraordinary. The singing actress conveys the doubt and anger that leads to action. Margaret Lattimore is jealous Presendia, Jennifer Zetlan: controlling Zina, Jennifer Cheek the loyal Almera. Eve Gigliotti sings Ruth, driven to despair.

Kevin Burdette is the perfect prophet/ringleader. Righteously irksome with a noble bass and stealthy presence.  As King the newscaster, he’s a study in chatty smarm.

Leo Warner’s projected skies reflect women imprisoned by their own obedience.  And better than most operas the projections give a sense of TV news.

Dark Sisters’s plot doesn’t quite work.  Too much time is spent on the back story:  Mormon mothers whose children have been taken because they married a polygamist. The fate of the children and-the fate of Eliza, the central rebellious character, is left unclear. There are red herring issues with Eliza’s daughter, which are confusing.

Gotham’s Neal Goran led Philadelphia’s 13 -piece ensemble through the drones and bells of an accompaniment that is purposefully austere. It sounds passionless, even random for a story that rouses sympathy. Opening night the playing was uneven with some screeching of a clarinet. Dark Sisters through June 17 at the Perelman.