One McDonalds restaurant in Australia turned to opera in order to ward off teen gangs.
November 20, 2013
The late Charles Ives wrote in a postscript to his collection, 114 Songs, “Every normal man — that is, every uncivilized or civilized human being not of defective mentality, moral sense, etc. — has, in some degree, creative insight (an unpopular statement) and an interest, desire and ability to express it (another unpopular statement).”
For that reason this insurance-salesman-by-day and composer-by-night self-published his songs, all the while believing that many of them were not good enough to be sung in public.
Although the man is now long dead, his songs have endured. In fact, mezzo-soprano Jamie Barton calls Ives her favorite American composer and sang one of his songs, “The Housatonic at Stockbridge,” in the preliminary round of the 2013 BBC Cardiff Singer of the World Competition in Wales.
“He is intriguing, intelligent, and composed every flavor with his use of hymn and popular tunes to stir up recognition of something else,” Barton says.
A native of Rome, Georgia and alumna of Shorter College, Barton won said international competition, becoming the first female recipient of both the Main Prize and the Song Prize. She appeared with pianist Bradley Moore at Spivey Hall Sunday to sing a recital built around the songs that she competed with in Wales last June.
Barton began with Benjamin Britten’s realization of “Music for Awhile,” a well-known Purcell song excerpted from the play “Oedipus,” and proceeded with a balanced set of lieder by Johannes Brahms. The group included another Cardiff centerpiece, “Meine Liebe ist grün.” The simplistic and youthful poem was penned by Felix Schumann, son of Clara and Robert, yet transformed by Brahms into an exuberant declaration of love. Barton also offered “Ständchen,” “Von ewiger Liebe,” and the sensual “Unbewegte laue Luft.”
Barton’s presentation of the German songs seemed spontaneous, rather than overly practiced. And although she possesses a rare and sizeable voice destined for Verdi roles such as Amneris and Azucena, Barton opted for vocal warmth and nuance throughout the group.
Since winning the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions in 2007 — featured in Susan Froemke’s documentary “The Audition” — Barton has taken a conservative path when it comes to the trajectory of her operatic career. She has performed what she considers mid-level roles in order to learn her craft – roles such as Magdalene (“Die Meistersinger von Nürnburg”), Marthe (“Faust”), and Marcellina (“The Marriage of Figaro”) – acknowledging that she is in it for the long haul.
Despite her careful attitude, Jamie Barton has already garnered much attention. Two weeks ago, after debuting the role of Adalgisa in Bellini’s opera, Norma at the Met, New York Times music critic Zachary Woolfe referred to her as a “revelation” with a “big, rich voice from top to bottom.”
The Spivey Hall audience got its first inkling of the size and scope of Barton’s voice in Woolfe’s reference just before intermission when she sang a set of songs by Finnish composer Jean Sibelius. The switch was immediately evident within “Svarta rosor,” yet another piece that earned her the top prize at Cardiff.
Equally riveting was her interpretation of the ballad “Flickan kom ifrån sin älsklings mote.” The first two stanzas of the song tells of a girl who returns from a meeting with her lover with reddened lips and hands, and explains to her mother that her lips are merely stained from eating raspberries. Moore’s rendering of the accompaniment was majestic and then instantly subdued in the third stanza when we learn that the girl’s lover has betrayed her. In the final phrase, “Ty de bleknat genom lskarns otro” (for they had turned pale at her lover’s unfaithfulness), Barton flaunted a stunning chest voice that sounded otherworldly.
Barton and Moore concluded the Spivey Hall recital with “Sea Pictures” by Sir Edward Elgar. Unarguably best known for his “Variations on an Original Theme (“Enigma”) op. 36” (1899), Elgar is also highly regarded for his compelling oratorio “The Dream of Gerontius” (1900). The orchestral version of the five songs within “Sea Pictures,” composed during the same period, exhibits a similar intensity and romanticism characteristic of Elgar’s style.
While the piano version of this work does not hold the same allure, Barton was completely committed to the texts, fully conveying the mysterious exoticism within “Where Corals lie” as well as the angst within “The Swimmer.” (One can hear a live performance of the orchestral version recorded in 2012 with the London Schools Symphony Orchestra on Barton’s website.)
After almost two hours of singing, Barton left us with a surprising encore: “Never Neverland.” It was a nod to Mary Martin and a reference to Barton’s very first public solo at the age of six, the song “Tender Shepherd” from the musical “Peter Pan.”
Barton began her musical journey listening to her dad’s record collection — the Beatles, the Grateful Dead and bluegrass — and learning from him what to listen for in music. And when she enrolled at Shorter, her intention was to major in musical theatre. But fate intervened. “I discovered that I couldn’t dance,” says Barton.
While it’s unlikely that Barton will ever sing on Broadway like Mary Martin, her operatic career might take her miles beyond the moon.
November 11, 2013
Lyric tenor Nicholas Phan is no stranger to Atlanta. He has visited several times to sing leading roles in Atlanta Opera productions of “Carmina Burana,” “La Cenerentola” and ”Don Giovanni,” as well as concerts with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra at the Verizon Wireless Amphitheatre at Encore Park.
A passionate devotee of art song and founder of the Collaborative Arts Institute of Chicago, Phan returned to Atlanta on November 9 with his pianist Myra Huang to perform a concentrated recital of Schubert and Britten at Clayton State University’s Spivey Hall.
Phan and Huang have embarked on a multi-year project to explore and record the songs that Benjamin Britten (1913-76) composed for his lifelong partner, tenor Peter Pears. Already Phan has released two full-length recordings dedicated to Britten, Still Fall the Rain and Winter Words on the AVIE label.
The entire second half of the program at Spivey Hall highlighted the mid-century setting of Thomas Hardy’s challenging poetry “Winter Words Op. 52,” as well as some choice folk songs that Britten arranged throughout his lifetime, including the gruesome tale “Little Sir William” and a stunning version of “The Last Rose of Summer.”
Britten’s output for the tenor voice is significant. While his choice of song texts is universal — Pushkin, Rimbaud, and Michelangelo — Britten’s musical language stretches the listener. Amidst the structural clarity of his songs and use of familiar devices such as ostinato figures and sequences, there is a remarkable use of dissonance and independence of the vocal line and piano accompaniment. These songs seemed all the more shocking to the ear after the first half of the recital, which was wholly comprised of a selection of Schubert’s early 19th century masterpieces.
Phan interpreted the sometimes ambiguous melodies of Britten with a voice that is luxurious and achingly beautiful. The fifth song in Winter Words, titled “The Choirmaster’s Burial,” is the centerpiece of the palindrome-like cycle. It’s the story of a choirmaster who asks that a specific hymn be played at his burial, but he is callously denied that request at his funeral by a time-conscious vicar. As Huang’s music proceeded from simple chords to arpeggios and finally incorporates the hymn tune “Mount Ephraim,” Phan elegantly spun out a quasi-recitative vocal line and choice melismas with crystal-clear diction.
Phan justified his recital programming citing likenesses between Schubert and Britten, chiefly mastery in setting their respective native languages and the considerable voice that both composers assigned to the piano within their songs.
The first half of the program opened with Schubert songs about spring — “Frühlingsglaube,” “Im Frühling” and “Der Musensohn” — and the rarely heard and episodic song, “Viola.” This song, which was first published two years after Schubert’s death, consists of no less than 19 verses as Schubert and his poet-muse Franz Adolf Friedrich von Schober conveyed an elaborate metaphor paralleling a violet which blooms prematurely with a bride who has been jilted at the altar.
Phan is a compelling raconteur, completely invested in the telling. His voice is a kaleidoscope of sound, ranging from a riveting forte to voce finta. Schubert’s piano accompaniment in “Viola” is nothing short of virtuosic and Huang was equally responsible for the ultimate effect. The scena ended ever so quietly, so much so that the Spivey Hall audience did not want to spoil the moment by applauding.
Phan and Huang offered two absolute gems during the recital — Schubert’s “Ganymed,” sung seamlessly — and the timeless folk song “Greensleeves.” The latter was an encore and punctuated the evening with simplicity and elegance.
November 1, 2013
Step backstage at Spivey Hall and you’ll see rows and rows of head shots that ornament the walls, likenesses of the incomparable musicians who have performed there over the past 22 years.
Patroness Emilie Spivey didn’t live to witness the groundbreaking for the hall in 1991, but her influence is evident. She and her husband, Walter Boone Spivey, were instrumental in its conception and construction and the creation of an endowment to ensure its longevity.
Today, when Spivey Hall Executive and Artistic Director Sam Dixon picks out the lineup of concert artists each season, Emilie is omnipresent. “I ask myself three things,” he says. “Who is the best? Who will come? What would Emilie do?”
Dixon never had the privilege of meeting the Spivey Hall visionary, but he was in attendance at the venue’s grand opening. It included a trio of concerts featuring violinist Itzhak Perlman, pianist André Watts and operatic bass Sam Ramey. At the time Dixon was working for the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, but he eventually took a job with Spivey Hall in 2004 and was named director in 2006.
While a combination of factors have a bearing on concert programming, Dixon’s personal aesthetic taste weighs heavily on which artists will make music in the European-style concert hall. He seeks out artists who have a keen sense of musical style and a tremendous commitment to the composer. “Brahms should sound like Brahms and Mozart should sound like Mozart,” he declares. And when it comes to singers, he looks for those who possess a voice of exceptional sound and the ability to convey the song text with integrity.
Dixon’s blog about one Spivey Hall artist last season, British baritone Simon Keenlyside, is telling. “His stage presence is strongly palpable, and the listener’s experience is so deeply informed by how his physical presence enhances the meaning of what he sings,” Dixon wrote. “This combination is what makes the experience of hearing great singers live in concert almost addictive, because it is so profoundly personal and therefore so incredibly rewarding.”
Dixon’s life before Spivey Hall prepared him for his artistic role as the arbiter of taste there. As a child, he lived in Milan and attended operas at La Scala with his parents. He honed his musical instincts after completing an MBA at Northwestern University, working with a myriad of arts organizations including the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, the Minnesota Orchestra, the ASO, the St. Louis Symphony and the Music Academy of the West.
With patrons from 50 Georgia counties and seven states, Dixon is mindful of variety and balance. This means new artists, new music and a mixture of styles and genres.
So what’s in store during the 2013-14 season?
Dixon says that pianists are driving the season this year in light of the hall’s recent investment in a Hamburg Steinway piano that is affectionately referred to as “Clara.” Imogen Cooper opened the season October 13 playing Franz Schubert’s final three piano sonatas. Pianists Paul Lewis, Emmanuel Ax, Leif Ove Andsnes and Rafal Blechacz will also take the Spivey stage this season.
Patrons will also have the opportunity to hear chamber music from ensembles such as the Pavel Haas Quartet and captivating opera singers including Christiane Karg and Tara Erraught. In addition, the hall offers a series for classical guitar fans, an organ series and a jazz and swing series, featuring artists such as Regina Carter and the Monty Alexander Trio.
Dixon highlighted several performers, citing Mark O’Connor’s upcoming “Appalachian Christmas” concert as “serious fun.” O’Connor is a violinist, fiddler and composer whose music resonates with a broader public.
On November 17, Spivey Hall will feature mezzo-soprano Jamie Barton, a Georgia native who won the Metropolitan Opera Council Auditions in 2007. This year she took home both the main prize and the world art song prize at the Cardiff Singer of the World Competition in Wales. Barton’s Spivey Hall recital will include works by Purcell, Brahms, Sibelius, Ives and Elgar.
Next at the hall will be organist Paul Jacobs, this Saturday, November 2.
Dixon says that Spivey Hall is engaged in strategic planning to grow audiences and that fostering curiosity about the music is central to its mission as it approaches its 25th anniversary. During Dixon’s tenure, the venue has offered an astonishing selection of repertoire and artists. And he has missed only three concerts over the last 10 seasons.
“Music tells us who we are,” he says. “The music is the reward.”
October 21, 2013
Kelley O’Connor (left) and Jessica Rivera
Self-proclaimed “ladies of new music” Jessica Rivera and Kelley O’Connor performed a song recital with pianist Robert Spano, the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra’s music director, at Kennesaw State University’s Bailey Performance Center on Thursday evening. The trio inaugurated its recital tour in Berkeley, California, last Sunday and is set to perform at several more venues across the country this season.
Rivera and O’Connor are both in their prime and wildly gifted. Rivera is well known for her portrayal of Kitty Oppenheimer in John Adams’ opera “Doctor Atomic” at the Metropolitan Opera and elsewhere, while just last month O’Connor sang the title role in Adams’ “The Gospel According to the Other Mary” at Ravinia. But despite schedules heavy with contemporary music, neither singer has been limited by them. Rivera will sing Mozart and Mahler this season, and O’Connor will tour with the Cleveland Symphony Orchestra singing Beethoven’s Mass in C.
Both halves of the KSU recital began in duet. The understated elegance of Saint-Saëns’ “El desdichado” and Gounod’s “La Siesta” came first. Rivera’s soprano shimmers above the staff, a perfect complement to the depth and scuro inherent in mezzo-soprano O’Connor’s voice. The two admirably synchronized their dynamics and vibrato, shaping phrases with the utmost care. At the start of the second half, the audience heard two selections from Mendelssohn’s “Six Lieder for voice and piano Op. 63.”
Standard vocal repertoire played a diminutive role in the evening. Nevertheless, it was the high point of the program. O’Connor’s interpretation of the “Chansons de Bilitis” by Debussy left nothing wanting. She delivered every word penned by poet Pierre Louÿs with the utmost care, infusing them with both the sensuality and innocence that one hopes for in these songs. “La Cheveleure,” a poem about erotic love, was especially climactic, as the mezzo recounted her lover’s dream, cushioned by syncopated piano figures from Spano.
Rivera offered a riveting display of vocal beauty in Frederic Mompou’s song cycle about loss, ”Combat del somni.” Chromaticism is laced throughout these songs, leaving the audience unsettled at times, as in “Damunt de tu només les flors,” and legato singing is paramount, as is the role of the piano in creating a gentle, sweeping sense throughout. Spano mastered this, aptly personifying the sea in “Jo et pressentia com la mar.”
Rivera, O’Connor and Spano clearly have a passion for serving as ambassadors of contemporary song. They showcased two song cycles written especially for them.
Rivera sang Jonathan Leshnoff’s “Monica Songs,” which were highly unsatisfying. The text selections are eclectic and include verses from the Book of Ruth, poems by e.e. cummings and the incomparable Emily Dickinson, as well as personal letters between a mother and daughter. Unfortunately, Leshnoff seems unable to allow the natural speech inflection of the poetry to reflect in the text setting. The premise of the cycle is provocative, but Leshnoff composed music that is not idiomatic to the voice and paired it with an unsupportive and minimalistic piano accompaniment. The cycle is nearly devoid of musical-poetic synthesis.
A stark contrast to this was heard in the second half with David Bruce’s four songs from “That Time With You,” settings of poetry by Glyn Maxwell. The standout of this cycle is the final song, “Bring Me Again.” Here O’Connor was supplied with a plaintive, dirge-like ballad, at times Gershwinesque, which allowed her to open up and employ some full-out operatic singing. The entire cycle is exceedingly well suited to her voice, incorporating choice leaps and tasteful melismatic passages here and there. It’s a song cycle that should be heard again and again.
Rivera and O’Connor concluded this comprehensive recital with two of Gabriela Lena Frank’s “Kitchen Songs,” “Honey” and “Sofrito,” and an encore that appealed to everyone, the Evening Prayer from Humperdinck’s fanciful “Hansel and Gretel.”
September 9, 2013
Jinho Park (left) and Brendan Callahan-Fitzgerald in “La Bohème.” (Photo by Nicholas Cole)
The life of an aspiring opera singer is a precarious one. After completing conservatory training, the singer ideally sets out to audition for roles with the intention of setting the world ablaze with his or her artistry. But oftentimes a 22-year-old is too green to land a job with an opera company that spends perhaps $1 million per production and can’t afford to take a chance on untested talent. For that reason, most conservatory graduates initially seek out training programs for emerging professionals, such as Atlanta’s Capitol City Opera Company.
The company was founded 30 years ago and hires Atlanta-based singers for both its main stage and outreach endeavors to schools and elsewhere. It offers lighter repertoire and opera cabaret throughout the season, as well as its signature event, “Dinner and a Diva” at Petite Auberge in Toco Hills. It operates on a shoestring budget in order to fulfill its mission: to nurture young singers and honor them with a paycheck for their work.
Last weekend the Capitol City Opera staged Giacomo Puccini’s “La Bohème” at Oglethorpe University’s Conant Performing Arts Center. With “Bohème,” his fourth opera, first performed in 1896, Puccini mastered something that had eluded him 10 years earlier with his “Le Villi.” He depicted a troupe of young, struggling artists in Paris who exhibited a sentimentality with which the audience could identify. He dispensed with supernatural subject matter and overblown displays of emotion.
Accordingly, Capitol City Artistic Director Michael Nutter double-cast the show and matched Puccini’s economy with simplicity of stage direction, scenery and instrumentation. The well-rounded cast of singers was accompanied by string quartet and piano, conducted by Michael Giel. Rather than sounding sparse, the small ensemble was aesthetically satisfying and well suited to the young singers.
Amanda Smolek was smartly cast; she conveyed a sympathetic Mimí and displayed both the stamina and vocal warmth to pull off such a challenging lyric role. Her Rodolfo, Brendan Callahan-Fitzgerald, possesses a tenor voice with metallic overtones, but the duo sang pleasantly together throughout. Elisabeth Slaten, a recent graduate of the Peabody Conservatory, is a fine singing actress and performed Musetta with aplomb. Special mention must be made of Jinho Park, who expertly sang the role of the painter Marcello. Park is a graduate of the Manhattan School of Music and makes his living as a choral conductor here in Atlanta; he was clearly the most seasoned artist in the cast.
The ensemble hit its stride in the final act, when the contrast between comedy and tragedy is most starkly juxtaposed. Colline (the melodramatic Iván Segovia) and Schaunard (baritone Jonathan L.B. Spuhler) jousted with mops and brooms while Rodolfo snatched away from Marcello his prized keepsake, a red lace scarf previously worn by his former lover, Musetta. The choreography couldn’t have been more precisely executed, leaving the audience in stitches, and wholly unprepared for Mimí’s final entrance and subsequent quiet death.
August 26, 2013
Jennifer Humphreys is one of the youngest players in the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra. At 29, she has achieved the status of cellist in a major symphony orchestra, an uncommon feat for one so young.
Raised in Owensboro, Kentucky, Humphreys is the oldest of three children, and both her parents are classically trained musicians. She begin to play the violin at the age of six, then quickly switched to cello and began to focus on music as a career.
She graduated from Interlochen Arts Academy in Michigan, then earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Rice University in Houston. It was at Rice where she discovered her love for playing in an orchestra. She doesn’t like to play solo because it means being the center of attention, she says, while she also revels in the musical interactions with those she’s performing with.
Humphreys arrived in Atlanta in 2011, having already held jobs with several symphony and festival orchestras across the United States, including two years as assistant principal cellist with the Charlotte Symphony Orchestra. She auditioned 13 times for the ASO, she says, before she was hired.
ArtsATL recently met up with Humphreys at the West Paces Ferry Road Starbucks and interviewed her for our “30 Under 30″ series.
ArtsATL: How did you come to play the cello?
Jennifer Humphreys: My parents are both musicians. They teach band in the public schools, and they play in the local symphony and the local groups. I was always taken to concerts or singing or listening to music.
They realized that I had a good ear and I started on violin at six. I switched instruments pretty soon after that. My mother said that I started playing the violin between my knees because I didn’t like it screeching in my ear. She suggested that I switch to cello, and I began studying with the local Suzuki cello teacher. I switched cello teachers around seventh grade and would drive to Evansville, Indiana, for lessons.
ArtsATL: How much do you practice?
Humphreys: It depends on how many hours of rehearsal we have at the symphony or whether I’m teaching. I play all day long. A good day would include four or five hours all by myself. But you can’t play nonstop, so you have to pace yourself. My friend says it’s kind of like a language. You have to constantly be immersing yourself in it. I try to practice as much as I can. It doesn’t feel like a sacrifice, because it’s what I love to do.
ArtsATL: At what point did you decide you wanted to be a professional musician?
Humphreys: It was a process. I went to a music camp one summer, then to an arts school called Interlochen for my last two years of high school. It’s a boarding school. I had been a big fish in a small pond back home, and this was the first time I had been with kids who played better than me. It ignited a competitive streak in me. It was a challenge.
Then I went to Rice University for college, which has a stellar orchestral program. Before that, I knew that I loved playing cello and that it seemed to come naturally to me. A string player can go several different routes. You can be a soloist, go the chamber music route, join a contemporary music ensemble, free-lance, or be in an orchestra. Going to Rice made me realize how much I enjoyed playing in an orchestra. It refined my focus.
ArtsATL: You do not think of yourself as a soloist?
Humphreys: No. I don’t like being the center of attention. When you play in an orchestra, you’re part of a team. I also play in the Peachtree String Quartet. In a chamber music setting you are exposed, but you’re still part of a team and can feed off of the other players’ energy. I like collaborating with different people, responding and reacting.
ArtsATL: Young aspiring cellists reading this interview might be curious about what repertoire you’re studying now.
Humphreys: I’m playing the Elgar Concerto right now and will perform that with an orchestra in Tennessee next season. I think that every cellist continually works on Bach, because it’s good for you musically and technically. I’m always working on orchestra and quartet repertoire. And, of course, scales every day.
ArtsATL: I’ve heard it said that for every 50 auditions a musician does, he’ll land one job. How many auditions did you have to take before you won your first full-time orchestral gig?
Humphreys: It took nine auditions before my first full-time job with the Charlotte Symphony. Atlanta was lucky number 13.
ArtsATL: What does an audition entail?
Humphreys: Auditions are screened and either two or three rounds. You play an exposition of a concerto and orchestral excerpts, sometimes a movement of Bach. Each audition is a little bit different. You learn to audition by failing and falling on your face. Part of the process is learning how to trust yourself. It’s cool. I really get a thrill out of auditioning.
ArtsATL: What do you do when you’re not playing the cello?
Humphreys: I like to bicycle. I have a decent road bike that I like to get out on. I play pickup Frisbee games at Piedmont. I volunteer for hospice. I’ve done that since I was in school, because Rice is right next to the medical center in Houston. We had a group that would play in the hospitals. Here it has morphed. I go and just sit and talk with the patients. It’s an easy, easy thing for me to do. I don’t have to prepare anything. I just go and listen.
ArtsATL: You don’t bring your cello along?
Humphreys: It depends. I just help out. Sometimes people don’t want music, but I always offer. If they would like it, then I bring it. But some people would rather not. These people have accepted that they are dying soon and their perspective on everything is different from most of us.
ArtsATL: How do you like Atlanta?
Humphreys: I love it. I do the bike trails: Stone Mountain, Silver Comet. The BeltLine is really cool. Piedmont. I live in Midtown. There’s so much on the Westside.
ArtsATL: In light of the fact that the ASO has just become a 42-week orchestra, how do you see the future of classical music and professional orchestras?
Humphreys: I’m optimistic. In general, negative press gets more attention than positive news.
ArtsATL: One can definitely see an aging audience.
Humphreys: You can, but it’s been like that for a long time. I have a newspaper article from the 1950s that talks about aging audiences and declining support. People have been saying this forever. The fact is that classical music appeals to a more mature audience. The majority of our audience members who attend concerts most frequently are those who have the disposable income and the time to attend.
At the end of the season, we offered an hour-long concert at 6 [in Piedmont Park] to try to be more attractive and convenient to those who work Downtown or in Midtown. They don’t have to sit in traffic. They can come after work, get a drink, and we do an abbreviated concert for them without an intermission.
We played [Gustav Holst's] ”The Planets.” It was great, almost full, and a totally different demographic. We’ll do this next season on the first Friday of every month.
ArtsATL: What did you do this summer?
Humphreys: We all scattered. People found other work for the summer. I did a festival out in Santa Cruz, California, called the Cabrillo Music Festival. It’s two weeks of all-new music, world premieres or American premieres.
ArtsATL: What was on the program?
Humphreys: One thing I was looking forward to is an electric cello concerto by Enrico Chapela played by German cellist Johannes Moser. It’s music that probably no one has heard before.
ArtsATL: That’s really important. Not just the premiere of new works, but second performances of new works.
Humphreys: Absolutely. I love the fact that the symphony here in Atlanta recognizes that. We have the “Atlanta School” of composers. It’s a crucial thing that we do. In order to receive a second performance, the work has to be performed well the first time. Well-established groups that sound good promoting new works are crucial.
ArtsATL: What’s next for you? What are your aspirations?
Humphreys: Atlanta is, and I hope continues to be, a destination orchestra. We sound just as good as Boston, Chicago or New York on a regular basis. I am confident and will work very hard to ensure that the ASO continues to be a destination orchestra. Atlanta needs that and deserves that. Can you imagine if the Braves or Falcons went somewhere else, for example? What does that do to the status of a city? Every major city has a really good symphony orchestra. It’s part of the cultural fabric of a city.
I’m still taking auditions and I will continue to, because it’s good for me and for my playing. If the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra continues to be a thriving, stable orchestra, then I would be thrilled to stay here. I love Atlanta.
Atlanta Opera synchronized the conclusion of its search for a new general director — a position that Tomer Zvulun will take on as of June 1 — with the presentation of its final production for the season, Rossini’s Italiana in Algeri (seen Apr. 27). The opera, which tells of a clever Italian girl who is shipwrecked on the African coast while searching for her disappeared lover, Lindoro, offered a fitting parallel to the choppy waters navigated this season by Atlanta’s opera company.
The production of Italiana by the late Ed Hastings, first seen at Santa Fe Opera in 2002 and subsequently presented at several other theaters, was directed in Atlanta by Helena Binder. The production updates Angelo Anelli’s story by a century, presenting the heroine, Isabella, as an aviatrix reminiscent of Amelia Earhart, the pilot who disappeared over the Pacific Ocean in 1937. Isabella arrives in Algeria in a multi-colored prop plane, rather than by ship. The updating worked and was great fun. Costume designer Joanna Schmink cleverly dressed the cast in 1930s garb. For example, Isabella initially seduced the Bey Mustafà (Burak Bilgili) in a baby-blue Jean Harlow-esque Hollywood glam gown while Lindoro looked smart in a blue sports jacket and hat that seemed to have come straight out of TheMusic Man. These costumes stood alongside traditional Algerian clothing fashioned in vibrant jewel tones.
As music conductor Arthur Fagen brought Rossini’s famous overture to a close, a giant, popup storybook opened to page fourteen, revealing Mustafà’s underappreciated wife, Elvira (Ashley Emerson). Emerson is a pint-sized soprano with a plethora of charisma and a sizeable voice. She and her confidante Zulma (Maria McDaniel) were exceedingly funny, sunbathing in stylish shades at the start of Act II while singing about Isabella’s smarts.
Two singers emerged this evening as Rossini pros, in terms of precision and familiarity with the score. Bruno Praticò, an accomplished bass-baritone, performed the buffo style brilliantly, particularly in the “Pappatacci” trio. He bellowed and crooned, incorporating the slightest nasality. Turkish bass Burak Bilgili stole the show as a robust Mustafà. He possesses a hearty voice but can also summon fioratura or patter when necessary. Bilgili influenced the rest of the cast with his vocal and comedic proficiency.
AO cast several rising stars in L’Italiana as well, and they excelled under Binder’s dynamic stage direction. Sandra Piques Eddy sang Isabella with impressive agility, tossing off runs and arpeggios with ease. Her characterization of a confident Isabella was extremely satisfying, most notably during her aria “Per lui, che adoro” which she sang while lounging in a clawfoot tub. Michele Angelini sang Lindoro with less assurance. A light-lyric tenor with a nimble voice, Angelini was visibly pre-occupied with the vocal demands of his role. Frederick Jackson as Haly and Maria McDaniel as Zulma sang beautifully in their supporting roles, as did the jubilant Atlanta Opera men’s chorus.
So much could be said about the June 7 performance of Spoleto’s double bill Mese Mariano/Le Villi. I usually focus on the singing aspect of things, but here I’ll simply say that Neil Patel’s innovative set design was breathtaking in Le Villi. Jilted maidens were presented as disturbed asylum inmates in Act II and peeled off a periwinkle floral backdrop to reveal padded walls. It was both brilliant and eerie!