Can’t Help Singin’…

Juilliard: Time Travel

Caught the end-of-season production of Dialogue of the Carmelites, and have to admit that the costumes, lighting, and spare sets expressed the austere libretto perfectly. There were some strong voices to express Poulenc’s score, and remind me that the school’s Opera Center is a great source of excellent production, musical, and dramatic values. Be sure to bookmark Juilliard’s Web site for next season’s operas, plays, and dance recitals, to say nothing of outstanding symphonic, chamber music, and jazz ensembles, coming in September. And remember most of them are actually free, or at very low cost for very high standards.

The big news this year is the resurgence of early music – a joyful former staple of most campuses in the 1960s and 70s, accompanied (then) by long hair and longer skirts. Currently, Juilliard is cresting the wave with serious creds: Monica Huggett has been appointed Artistic Director of the school’s Historical Performance Program, which has been scheduling week-long residencies with early-music icons like Emma Kirkby, William Christie, and Jordi Savall. The graduate students (mostly tall, thin women, now in chic pants) are so accomplished that the sharp-tongued Christie (who had worked with them for a week before the master class) refrained from a single correction, simply urging the audience to listen to the music. You’ll be able to enjoy the fruits of their labors with the Juilliard 415 Ensemble, devoted to the masterpieces of earlier centuries, when orchestras were smaller, and pitch was lower (A=415).

P.S. Christie is scheduled to make his conducting debut at the Met next season with Così fan tutte. Not-so-early, but long-overdue.

Manhattan School of Music: Dinner and a Show

Opted for the full press this season – Baroque opera (Il Pastor Fido), Classic opera (The Marriage of Figaro), and modern music theater (Stephen SchwartzGodspell). Each was a production of a different division of MSM. Pastor Fido suffered a little from an awkward performance space (multiple stairways are not conducive to fluid staging), but Godspell was a joy, with the cast leaping up and down the aisles, surging in and out of the theater, and generally egging the audience on to whistle, stomp,clap, and yell its approval. Everyone gets an E for energy (especially the saucy and delicious LR Davidson). 

But it’s the Figaro that I want to concentrate on. Coming in at about four hours (the result of an intimate auditorium and stage, close in size to the houses that Mozart and Da Ponte created for), it simply would not quit! As editing, in film, is the all-important condiment that separates the good from the great, on stage it’s direction; there are no second takes allowed, and the wrangling of the many forces in constant motion requires finesse, musicality, and vision. Dona D. Vaughn  has them all, in spades. (And, of course, the inestimable benefit of conservatory time – lots of rehearsal, until the work is seamless.) In the case of Figaro, it was both seamless and over-the-top. What a cast! Usually, there are two, alternating the major roles. But the Figaro – Robert E. Mellon – was shot out of a cannon for all three performances. During the bows, he smiled broadly and mimed wiping sweat from his brow (it was his second evening, and there was still one more to go). The Cherubino we saw (Samantha Korbey) was not only sensational, but sported what has to be a unique program bio: a former Ph.D. Candidate in neuroscience, she left it at the Master’s level to “devote herself fully to the pursuit of an operatic career.” Believe me, it’s neuroscience’s loss! To be fair, every role was fully alive and in double time. But Raed Saade should be decorated for his Bartolo. Anna Viemeister for her Countess, and Lindsay Russell for her Susanna. In all, this was what Figaro should be, but often isn’t: Every joke, big and small (and the sorrow, too), was right where it belonged, and always derived directly from Da Ponte’s libretto, Beaumarchais’ play, and a whole semester’s worth of early Greek and Roman theatre.  And the sheer youth and vigor of the cast (most are graduate students, ca. 25-30) simply echoed what Mozart and Da Ponte had in mind. A tour of the Web site at summer’s end will alert you to what lies ahead (including the streaming of master classes). And for a pre-theater repast to get you in the mood, try dinner at Pisticci’s (125 LaSalle Street), where the walls are lined with all nine muses, the diners are drawn from the neighborhood’s many universities and graduate schools, and the staff is young, smart, enthusiastic and talented. Our waiter, pre-Figaro, turned up a month later as Jesus in Godspell. He was terrific!

NYCO Revisited 

Flying high last fall, the New York City Opera took off in a residue of heavy weather. But the spring season proved a happy landing. Three, in fact; with a triple bill that mirrored the company’s resilience, range and its potential for the future, NYCO came through with panache. The stylistic requirements of Chabrier’s l’Etoile (done in French, with witty supertitles) were fulfilled by singers eager to break ground, led by the delightful Jean-Paul Fouchécourt as King Ouf. It was all fresh, fresh, fresh, with its delicious 19th-century shtick played under bright lights on sets with pillars and wavy mylar that reflected the cast like fun-house mirrors, candy-colored costumes, and stars that – yes! – twinkled everywhere right up to a very happy ending.

Madame Butterfly was a particularly strong production, originally by Mark Lamos, rehearsed to perfection by David Grabarkevitz; subtle details of movement and character raised, and maintained, a level of fluid realism that framed the clash of cultures at the center of Butterfly’s tragedy, yet gave exceptional dimension to all its protagonists. Michael Yeargan’s sets and Constance Hoffman’s costumes were bathed in gorgeous light. Baritone Quinn Kelsey was outstanding as Sharpless and (a real find!), the non-singing, non-speaking role of Sorrow was brilliantly filled by a lithe, skinny gap-toothed kid from New Jersey: Eddie Schweighardt. Something tells me we will be seeing (perhaps one day even hearing) him again. 



With Partenope, NYCO unveiled its Baroque chops through the splendors of a young, energetic and fearless – nay, heroic –cast who knocked off its fiendish roulades and physical demands without flagging. With a roster including not one, but two, countertenors, Francisco Negrin’s deft production fields a modern take on the 18th century that makes this tale work wonders for today. Partenope’s Prince Armindo was countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo, making his NYCO debut. We will definitely be seeing, and hearing, him again.

What NYCO has figured out is how to shine with its resources – on stage and in the pit. The productions are generally lean (but beautiful), and strong theatrical and musical talents have mounted creations that are meticulous and audience-friendly. Like all performing arts institutions, NYCO also knows that outreach is essential and has figured that out, too: Opera Matters explores opera’s connections to the visual arts, film, literature, mass media, and pop culture. Its collaboration with the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture mounted a vibrant concert version of Malcolm X (premiered at NYCO in 1986). And its VOX workshop series (this year at NYU’s Skirball Center), has grown into a dynamic incubator for tomorrow’s operas unafraid to experiment with every conceivable story, musical style, and media.  

The expanded 2010-11 season will bring us operas by Bernstein, Strauss, Donizetti, and an evening of Monodramas by Zorn, Schoenberg, and Feldman, plus the premiere of Stephen Schwartz’ Séance on a Wet Afternoon. And there’s more: five concerts that extend the work of the season’s composers. Bonus: the newly-renovated David H. Koch Theater is a pleasure to navigate and sit in. At seasontickets, everything will be revealed. Read all about it, make your moves, and don’t even try to resist!


One Response to “Can’t Help Singin’…”

  1. John Branch Says:

    I worked on a college production of Figaro way back in the 70s, with Donnie Ray Albert in the title role (among his later successes was Porgy and Bess at Houston Grand Opera and I think elsewhere). The cast had the kind of youthful vitality you saw at Juilliard, which means the opera itself did too. I must see more of Juilliard’s productions. I keep forgetting to check that calendar you referred to.


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