Opera Review Print

Spoleto Festival USA Overview: Operas by Bellini & Strauss

June 11, 2004 - Charleston, SC:

Since I first reviewed the Spoleto Festival USA in 2000, operas have received numerous productions, staffed with a high level of vocal quality in all major roles. That was especially true for this year's Bellini and Strauss operas. I feel that a number of the productions were cursed by directors bent on "making their own statement," too often by jarring updating. We have enough living writers and composers who could wholly refashion any well-worn plot. Both of this year's updated operas worked better than most.

For the first time since its inception, the festival repeated an opera - Richard Strauss's Ariadne auf Naxos . I attended the first Spoleto production, in 1984. It was a traditional staging with a good cast, including Dawn Upshaw, who made her professional debut in the minor role of Echo. I had heard mixed comments about the updating of this new festival production by Stage Director Charles Roubaud, so I was braced for the worst.

I attended the penultimate performance on June 10 in the Dock Street Theatre, the ideal venue for Strauss's opera about high and low Art and its performance. The conceit is that a nouveaux riche patron has arranged to have an opera seria performed, followed by a farce and fireworks. At the last minute, in order to catch the 9 p.m. fireworks, both works are ordered performed at the same time!

I found Roubaud's direction well within the performance tradition described so well in Rudolf Hartmann's Richard Strauss: The Staging of His Operas and Ballets . Set designer Jean-Noël Lavesvre perfectly captured the chaotic and run-down appearance of the backstage of a great house's theatre. This was the ideal setting for the histrionics and clashes between the idealistic Composer and his egotistical opera singers and the staff of the farce, led by the Dancing Master and his star, Zerbinetta. The stylized marble cave, used in the second part, split and moved away most dramatically during the soaring transformation scene at the end of the opera.

The festival's Music Director for Opera and Orchestra, Emmanuel Villaume, directed members of the Spoleto Festival Orchestra seated in the small pit located mostly under the Dock Street Theatre stage. Strauss could have had little complaint about Villaume's flowing and soaring musical lines and tight co-ordination between the stage and pit. This season's orchestra players were the strongest ever was the judgment of most critics and music lovers.

Triad readers may well remember baritone Louis Otey's fine Don Giovanni for the Greensboro Opera Company. His full and evenly produced voice conveyed the concern of the Music Master for his idealistic student, the Composer, a "trouser" role sung by mezzo-soprano Sarah Castle. Combined with her lean figure, she could have passed for a young Lorin Maazel if her eyes had had darker shadowing. Strauss poured some of his most passionate music into this role, and Castle sang her heart out. She had thoroughly mastered male body language to which was added the distracted abstraction of a creative genius as a line of music came to mind.

This Ariadne production made a great deal more use of movement, if not dance, than any other production with which I am familiar. Superb character tenor John Easterlin in the major role of The Dancing Master, was in constant motion - preening and making sweeping gestures or pirouettes. His attitude was very much "get the show on the road at any cost" and "give them what they want."

Physical stretching and graceful movement were major parts of Lyubov Petrova's approach to the role of Zerbinetta, star of the troop performing the farce. Since her brilliant debut as Despina in Mozart's Così fan tutte in the 2002 festival and her even more stellar Lakmé in last year's festival, she has been the darling of opera lovers. She upheld her high standard for extremely precise high-note pyrotechnics in the opera/farce portion of this production. More fascinating was her new take on Zerbinetta's character. All productions with which I am familiar have portrayed her as a cynical and masterful manipulator of men. Roubaud's production had her playing her feelings as tender and vulnerable, not a clever act, as she persuaded the Composer to consent to the simultaneous production. Perhaps she seduced this critic as well!

On recordings and on stage, Bacchus is most often found wanting, with all too many tenors straining just to get through Strauss' demands. Adam Klein was the best God of Wine I have heard in live performance, and he maintained his fairly melodious and even voice to the very end. His role in the backstage portion is brief, largely arguing with the Wigmaker and lobbying for more music in the opera. Heldentenors have become mythical, and Klein made do better than most.

Gwyne Geyer's large and full dramatic soprano was ideal for the role of the Prima Donna/Ariadne. In the prologue, she made a big entrance with her large entourage and aggressively pushed the Music Master to expand her role and cut the Tenor's. In the opera/farce portion, she migrated limpet-like around the stage, bemoaning her abandonment by Theseus and longing for death.

Zerbinetta's companions - Harlekin, sung by baritone Troy Cook, Truffaldin, sung by bass John Marcus Bindel, Scaramuccio, sung by tenor Michael Forest, and Brighella, sung by tenor Charles Reid - were in constant motion, stretching and warming up in the first part and clowning and turning summersaults, etc., in the opera. Forest's warm and well-projected tenor stood out among a vocally strong ensemble.

The opening of the opera/farce has an inside joke for those who are "imperfect Wagnerites." Najade, sung by soprano Sarah Abigail Griffiths, Dryade, sung by soprano Phyllis Francesca Tritto, and Echo, sung by soprano Nora Bebhinn Fleming, were seen knitting, using large colorful balls of yarn. Perhaps this was a veiled allusion to Wagner's Norns weaving Fate?

There was added surprise at the end of this production that I have never heard of being attempted in any other presentation. Chris Kelly, from Disney World in Florida, was brought in to stage the fireworks that caused the joining of farce and opera. This actually worked, and against a very believable starry night sky, the whirling and soaring sparklers looked terrific... and filled the intimate theatre with more than a little smoke.

I saw the last of four performances of Vincenzo Bellini's opera I Capuleti e i Montecchi in the Sottile Theatre on June 11. The libretto owes much more to the older sources that Shakespeare drew upon for his play; the Festival press release describes the opera as "a moving retelling of the famous love story in which the intrigues and violent retributions between the feuding families take center stage." There are only five major characters, with significant departures from the well-known story line. Tybalt (Tebaldo in the opera) is Juliet's fiancé, and Romeo is the head of the opposing Montague family, not merely a prized son.

Given the libretto's warring-families emphasis, Stage Director Paul Curran's update to a contemporary mafia-like environment was plausible - but only, at best, a mixed success. Designed by Kevin Knight, the stage set made much use of multiple levels with an upper gallery surrounding the center stage area that was by turns a Capulet family dining hall, Giulietta's huge bedroom, other family rooms, and, finally, the family tomb. Lighting Designer Rick Fisher's brilliant back and side lighting used unusual angles and combinations. Fisher's lighting was some of the most impressive I have seen in any opera in the three-state area I cover.

Conductor Silvio Barbato led a stylish and vital performance that gave full value to Bellini's glorious melodies. The members of the Spoleto Festival USA Orchestra played with extraordinary virtuosity and gave many subtle solos. (One, by a young African-American clarinetist, was particularly memorable.) The Sottile Theatre orchestra pit is in front of the stage, not under it.

There were fleeting times when the orchestra was too loud, causing lead soprano Hoo-Ryoung Hwang some mid-range problems. Her precise and stunning upper range never failed to cut through clearly and without audible stress. In her tight jeans with stylish cutouts, she portrayed Giulietta as a pouting teenager. In Bellini's opera, she is more drawn to "family honor and duty" than inflamed her passion for Romeo, her fiancé's killer. Pinehurst friends thought this predilection did not mesh well with the contemporary body language and attitudes. With the support of Bellini's heart-breaking melodies, the tomb scene made its full impact.

I do not know whether to blame the old libretto's text or Curran's direction for the lack of impact of the Romeo. Maybe audiences have been too heavily imprinted with Franco Zeffirelli's movie image of Romeo as young and passionate. In the opera, Romeo is a "trouser" role; mezzo-soprano Theodora Hanslowe was a brilliant vocalist with a wonderfully even voice, so she earned unlimited kudos, musically. That said, her Romeo was anything but a passionate lover - he seemed old beyond his years, resembling a pessimist on downers with a toothache.

All the fire and passion we expect of a Romeo was instead barely contained in the hotheaded Tebaldo, searingly embodied by tenor Jesùs Garcia. This guy is a born Romantic lead. The festival ought to bring him back for Gounod's Roméo et Juliet .

A friend said that bass Philip Cokorinos, as Capellio, the revenge-driven head of the Capulet family, looked like Richard Nixon on the warpath. His vocally solid voice was a major asset of the production, and he was a very convincing mob boss.

Although listed as Lorenzo, Doctor to the Capulet family, long-time veteran Metropolitan Opera bass Julien Robbins was clearly costumed with the distinctive collar of Verona's "troublesome priest."* His vocal performance was superb, but he seemed to have been given a limited range of gestures. When his plans fell through and became known to the family, he escaped being "rubbed out" but got a thorough kicking.

Sottile Theatre is by far the most physically hospitable venue in Charleston. The seats are comfortable, and there are wide spaces between rows allowing easy access.

Some performers from the NC School of the Arts participated in the main Spoleto USA Festival and in the City of Charleston's concurrent Piccolo Spoleto Festival. At a press brunch, I mentioned to General Director Nigel Redden that two of the NCSA's Fletcher Scholars I had recently reviewed in Britten's Rape of Lucretia were covering roles in the Bellini and Strauss operas. He arranged for me to attend the June 6 NCSA Kenan Fellows' Recital featuring baritone Krassen Karagiozov and soprano Emily Amber Newton, given in the intimate gallery of 14 George Street, the festival's headquarters. Another NCSA-related concert (I Solisti Vivaldi, on the Piccolo series) ran long, so I caught only the last vocal selections of the two singers, both of whom are prize-winning students of Marilyn Taylor.

Karagiozov's warm and even baritone was perfect for the Count's "Hai gia vinta la causa... Vedro mentr'io Sospiro," from Act II of Mozart's Le nozze di Figaro . In addition to his role as Tarquinius, CVNC praised his fine Don Giovanni earlier in the spring season. Karagiozov covered the role of Harlekin in Strauss's Ariadne auf Naxos.

I have lost count of all the CVNC reviews of Newton's performances at the NCSA and in Piedmont Opera productions. Her recent roles included the Female Chorus in the Britten opera, Donna Anna in Mozart's Don Giovanni, and Rosina in Mozart's rarely performed La Finta Semplice. Her portion of the Charleston recital ended with Ginastera's Cinco Canciones Populares Argentinas , Op. 10. These gave her a broad palette to render her wide-range mood and characterization and to display her firm, glowing high notes and clear diction. "Triste" captured the pain of a broken heart, "Arrorró" was a spicy lullaby, and modernistic tonal clashes and Bartókian cross-rhythms enlivened "Chacarera" and the final "Gato." The latter allowed Newton to portray a sultry seductress. Newton covered the role of Giulietta in Bellini's I Capuleti e i Montecchi. The accompanist for both was pianist Michael Baitzer.

For the encore, Newton brought out Karagiozov, who has a MA in piano from the State Academy of Music in Sofia, Bulgaria. He sang and accompanied their duet, "I Love a Piano," by Irving Berlin, but she got the last "word" by playing the final chord on the piano.