Published in October Issue of Opera News Online

Jake-Heggie-2-by-Art--38--ClarityThree Decembers

Atlanta Opera

The Atlanta Opera concluded its 2014-15 season with the inauguration of its Discoveries series and Jake Heggie’s chamber opera Three Decembers at the intimate Alliance Theatre (seen May 29). Next season, in addition to three main stage productions at the Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre, the Atlanta Opera will cater to audiences that are looking for newly-composed works and innovative perspectives on timeless music at satellite venues around the city. In this vein, artistic director Tomer Zvulun will offer a semi-staged performance of Schubert’s Winterreise as well as David T. Little’s Soldier Songs.

Both composer Heggie and his librettist Gene Scheer were in the audience for Atlanta’s Three Decembers opening, in which Theodora Hanslowe sang the role of Madeline Mitchell, a self-involved actress and mother of two resentful adult children, Bea (Jennifer Black) and Charlie (Jesse Blumberg). Although comprised of two acts, the opera was played without a break for a tidy running time of just over an hour and a half.

The initial scene is set during Christmas 1986 as Charlie and Bea discuss their mother’s most recent Christmas letter over the phone, mocking and editorializing as they go. Baritone Jesse Blumberg revealed himself as an expressive and physical singer early on, ideal for lyric musical theater roles. We learn early on that Bea drinks too much and struggles with a rocky marriage while her brother is distraught over his partner’s battle with AIDS and imminent death. The story skips ahead to 1996 when the small family reunites to attend the Tony Awards together and finally comes to a close in 2006 at Madeline’s funeral.

Designer Laura Jellinek’s economical set was comprised of a three-tiered view, one level representing each character’s living room, bedecked with Brady Bunch-era furniture and cleverly framed with orange, psychedelic wallpaper. Later, in the Golden Gate Bridge scene, the eye-popping backdrop raised up to reveal a vast and foggy atmosphere.

Jake Heggie cut his teeth on art song; his fluid text setting for Three Decembers, with a supportive accompaniment by a small chamber orchestra of eleven players aptly serves the spoken word. The tessitura for each of the parts here is primarily middle voice, but even in moments in which the bright, engaging soprano Jennifer Black was called to sing soaring notes, words were easily understood. Steven Osgood conducted from the piano, coaxing a consistently warm timbre from his players. Meter transitions were seamless and utterly gratifying. Heggie saved some of the best writing for Maddy, the part that he created for Frederica von Stade. “The Moon’s Lullaby” to Charlie is one such moment. Maddy’s role is written for a mature voice that still possesses innate beauty. Hanslowe fit the bill; a mezzo-soprano who once sang Rosina and Isabella at the Met, her high notes are still round and resonant.

But Three Decembers lacks momentum. There is a fourth unseen character —“Daddy”—and most of the plot revolves around remembrances of him and the untold secret of his suicide. As a result, the action stalls from time to time and the characters feel two-dimensional. Stage Director Emma Griffin and her cast made the most of these lackluster parts; the Bea-Charlie duet “What do you remember about Dad?” was intimate and reiterated the siblings’ closeness, but the characters don’t have an opportunity to change or grow until the end when they give the sudden impression that they have come to terms with a mother who wasn’t all that maternal.

Maddy, the Tony-winning mother, makes one final appearance as an unseen specter at her own funeral at the end of Act II. She acknowledges her wrongdoing and in the final moments of the opera walks toward a lone ghost light on the stage with the declaration, “Curtain!” It is a fitting ending to a bittersweet chamber opera. spacer


ArtsATL Review: Soprano Christine Brewer and organist Paul Jacobs kick off Spivey Hall’s 25th year

October 12, 2015


Paul Jacobs, the Grammy-winning concert organist, kicked off Spivey's anniversary season.

Anyone who has visited Spivey Hall — Clayton State University’s exquisite concert venue — has undoubtedly noticed the 50-foot-high and 37-foot-wide pipe organ, adorned with gold leaf casework that serves as the focal point of the space. It is the pièce de résistance of the theatre: a 79-rank, 3-manual, 4,413-pipe organ, designed and constructed in Padua, Italy, that emits an awe-inspiring wash of sound.

On Saturday afternoon, executive and artistic director Sam Dixon and university president Dr. Thomas Hynes, Jr., commenced Spivey Hall’s 25th anniversary with a brief introduction and then surrendered the stage to organist Paul Jacobs and soprano Christine Brewer. It was an afternoon to highlight the hall’s stunning Fratelli Ruffatti organ and to begin a promising year of concerts.

Paul Jacobs is a Grammy Award-winning concert organist and chairman of the organ department at The Juilliard School in New York City. He opened the concert with J.S. Bach’s Sinfonia from Cantata No. 29, initially the prelude to Bach’s Violin Partita in E major, BWV 29, and subsequently transcribed by Marcel Dupré. The piece is jubilant, and Jacobs impressively articulated its exuberance at breakneck speed. Afterward, while taking his bow, he acknowledged the organ with a smile.

Jacobs’ duo partner, Christine Brewer, joined him for the well-known “Bist du bei mir,” a song that every beginning vocalist encounters during studies. The song is attributed to Bach in countless anthologies, but in recent years musicologists have claimed that it was actually composed by Gottfried Heinrich Stölzel for his opera Diomedes.  

Christine Brewer

Brewer is certainly not a vocal neophyte, however, and to hear her sing “Bist du bei mir” took one’s breath away. The 59-year-old soprano is recognized internationally for both the beauty and power of her voice, ideal for the operas of Wagner and Strauss. Brewer has sung the role of Richard Strauss’ Ariadne around the globe, but occasionally stops in Atlanta to sing at Spivey Hall or perform with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra at Symphony Hall. This day her voice sounded fresh and lustrous.

The Brewer-Jacobs recital wasn’t one that would excite an academic or concertgoer expecting a balanced offering of art song. Rather it was an homage to traditional sacred music that one would hear at church. The duo graced us with Franck’s “Panis Angelicus,” and both Schubert and Gounod’s versions of “Ave Maria.”

Included was Charles Gounod’s “O Divine Redeemer,” the powerful supplication of a sinner asking for God’s clemency. Brewer performed the song in English and unleashed the full range of her dynamic ability. The musical petition was performed not carefully or with any attention to technical precision, but with abandon.

In addition, both Brewer and Jacobs gave a nod to the Boulanger sisters, offering our ears some contrasting sonorities. Jacobs played Nadia’s “Three Pieces for Organ,” an early 20th century gem that incorporates both chromaticism and provocative modulations. Brewer sang Lili’s “Pie Jesu.” The composer originally scored it for voice, string quartet, harp and organ, but also created a version for voice and organ that Lili dictated to her older sister shortly before dying in 1918 at the tragically young age of 24.

Jacobs concluded the afternoon with Charles-Marie Widor’s Toccata from Symphony No. 5, Op. 42, a work often heard during recessionals at weddings or at the conclusion of Christmas Mass. The piece conveys a sense of celebration with a prominent bass line and layer upon layer of voicing. Widor’s consistent rhythmic motive and command of fortspinnung leads to a grand plagal cadence. It was well-played by Jacobs and showcased the beauty of Spivey Hall’s Albert Schweitzer Memorial Organ to great effect.

In the June Issue of Opera News Online: Adrian’s Review of Le Nozze di Figaro at the The Atlanta Opera


Le Nozze di Figaro

Atlanta Opera

On April 4 the Atlanta Opera offered an exceedingly fast-paced rendition of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro at the Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre. Stage director Tara Faircloth made her AO debut this night with distinction, creating an unstoppable momentum of manipulation and misunderstandings.

Buffa characters Susannah and Figaro, played by Lauren Snouffer and Craig Colclough respectively, were delightfully revealed and developed through their interaction with each other and the other players. Snouffer is a pert, pretty soubrette recently graduated from the Houston Grand Opera Studio and adept at the fast-paced antics that DaPonte and Mozart supplied. The first scene revealed a compelling chemistry and well-matched vocalism between Snouffer and Colclough as they flirted on Susan Benson’s set, a simplistic, yet lovely backdrop of blue-green forest and three doors from which the other players entered and exited in a hilarious, Seinfeld-esque fashion.

Baritone Colclough sang a confident, clever Figaro from the start, although the nuanced phrasing within his cavatina “Se vuol ballare” was overshadowed by the overly ambitious orchestra, conducted by Arthur Fagen. Arguably, the inconsistent playing of the Atlanta Opera Orchestra from show to show is a significant obstacle to the achievement of the company’s national stature as a stellar regional opera.

With the exception of the ever-refined Countess Almaviva, Faircloth introduced each member of the cast as a caricature of sorts. With her obnoxious red curls and distinctive mole, veteran mezzo Victoria Livengood nearly stole the show as Marcellina. Livengood’s voice is brassy, but the harshness of her sound punctuated each comedic moment. Whether flirting, lounging, or dumping Susannah’s laundry during their duet “Via resti servita,” Livengood did it with panache. Her partner in crime, Dr. Bartolo, was played by a stoic Bruno Praticò and together with Don Basilio the portly couple conspired to undo Figaro’s marriage plans. Jason Ferrante — a skilled character tenor who appeared in the Atlanta Opera’s recent production of Madama Butterfly — here reinvented himself as the greasy-haired Don Basilio.

Some may have had qualms with the manner in which the Count Almaviva was characterized within this production, however. In keeping with the aforementioned zaniness, baritone John Moore’s Count was foolish, sporting exaggerated gestures and facial expressions. As an actor, Moore was fully invested and seemed comfortable inhabiting every aspect of his role. The comic aspect was entertaining while more serious moments, such as the Act II finale when we witness the Count curse his wife’s infidelity, were less convincing.

Irish mezzo-soprano Naomi O’Connell established Cherubino’s character with his breathless aria, “Non so più.” Initially O’Connell’s voice seemed lighter and brighter than Susannah’s, but with her second aria the timbre of her voice warmed and became better suited to that of a love-crazed young man. The object of Cherubino’s affection, the Countess, was sung by the head-turning Katie Van Kooten, who has a sizeable lyric soprano. Van Kooten displayed an exquisite mastery of dynamic contrast and glorious phrasing within her contemplative aria, “Porgi amor.”

In addition to Tomer Zvulun’s spot-on casting and an energetic flow of music and drama, this Atlanta Opera production boasted some updated supertitles that thrilled the audience all the more, bridging the language gap. As Mozart and Beaumarchais intended to make a political statement about social class within Le Nozze di Figaro, likewise this production was so fresh that it had the ability to bridge yet another gap, entertaining the amateur and the opera aficionado alike.


From the May Edition of Opera News ONLINE: Atlanta Opera’s Rigoletto



Atlanta Opera’s new Rigoletto (seen Feb. 28) sadly missed the mark, despite some exquisite singing. This co-production, previously seen at Boston Lyric Opera and Opera Omaha, was conceived by AO general and artistic director Tomer Zvulun, set designer John Conklin and costume designer Vita Tzykun.

Seasoned opera lovers and neophytes alike could easily place this version of Verdi’s opera within Renaissance Italy, thanks to the ornate Elizabethan costumes delineated by Tzykun. The Countess Ceprano modeled a great farthingale underneath her sumptuous-looking gown, gingerly navigating around the stage, while the courtiers wore ebony period breeches and ruffled collars.

Conklin’s set was a mystery, consisting of a divided stage and a larger-than-life Piero della Francesca painting that became more grotesque as the story unfolded. A model of a white marble city loomed above, representing an ideal society, while the action of the opera took place below in front of a black, brick wall. Thanks to the program notes by Dr. Magda Romanska, it became evident that this sparseness was meant to symbolize a dark pit, where the Duke’s corruption seeped into every aspect of life. Yet the attempt at poignancy actually obscured the opera’s setting.  Almost every location, with the exception of the initial scene at the ducal palace, was ambiguous.

Fortunately this Rigoletto boasted an intriguing cast of singers. The incomparable Nadine Sierra was Gilda. Now twenty-six, Sierra is celebrated as one of the youngest-ever winners of the Metropolitan Opera National Council auditions — she had yet to turn twenty-one when she took the prize in 2009 — and has a riveting, slender soprano. Hers is an old-world sound with an astonishing evenness of vibrato, flawless legato, and jaw-dropping dynamic nuance.

American baritone Todd Thomas gave a satisfying performance as the cursed jester; his singing of the three-part “Cortigiani vil razza dannata” was both forceful and physical and he fully conveyed a father overwrought with desperation. Once Monterone, (impressively sung by Nathan Stark), issued his curse and la maledizione took effect, Rigoletto’s deformities — specifically his limp and hunched back — became more pronounced. Bass Morris Robinson was aptly cast as Sparafucile. His voice and stature are intimidating. A linebacker in black leather, the vastness of his instrument would have thrilled even Verdi.

Tenor Scott Quinn sang the Duke of Mantua and was less pleasing vocally and dramatically than the other principals: his voice was unable to fill the 2,750-seat Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre.

Maestro Joseph Rescigno, who led the Atlanta Opera Orchestra, kept tempos brisk throughout the evening. The orchestra played well this night and was sensitive to the smaller voices on stage. As always, Walter Huff’s men’s chorus sounded crisp and expressive as they skulked about the Duke’s realm.


www.artsATL Review: Opera star Dorothea Röschmann makes rare American appearance at Spivey Hall

300x300 German-born opera singer Dorothea Röschmann has been a hot commodity in the world of opera since 1995 when she debuted as Susanna at the Salzburg Festival in its production of Mozart’s “Le Nozze di Figaro.” Her career — singing at her home theater, the Deutsche Staatsoper Berlin, and throughout Europe — has resulted in her distinction as a Mozart specialist. The accolade is well deserved; Röschmann has sung most of Mozart’s heroines at high-stakes venues to great acclaim.

Yet, although Röschmann has sung at the Metropolitan Opera and has appeared in recital at Carnegie Hall, American audiences don’t often have the privilege of hearing her on this side of the pond. That changed on Sunday afternoon at Spivey Hall when Röschmann and her pianist, Mitsuko Uchida, gave a flawless recital of Schumann and Berg lieder. The duo launched their 2015 American recital tour in Chicago earlier this month.

Röschmann’s Pamina is immortalized on DVD in a 2003 BBC production of Die Zauberflöte from the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, in which she sang alongside vocal powerhouses like Diana Damrau and Simon Keenlyside (another recent Spivey Hall recitalist).

roschmann_dorotheaOf her several recordings, I particularly cherish her interpretation of Handel’s “Nine Deutsche Arien with Akademie für Alte Musik” that was released over 15 years ago. It was all the more fascinating then to hear Röschmann perform German art song with her maturity of years and acoustically efficient sound.

The pair opened the recital with twelve songs from Schumann’s “Liederkreis von Josef Freiherr von Eichendorff, Op. 39.” Each song was a vignette, sung operatically by Röschmann as if it was the most dramatic aria. Her diction was scrupulous; she hummed through nasal consonants in “Auf einer Burg,” giving us impossibly sustained phrases.

Afterward, it was a delight to hear her sing Alban Berg’s “7 Early Songs for Voice and Piano.” Here, the composer adopted the 12-tone principles of Arnold Schoenberg, but his tone rows often have tonal references and triadic outlines so in some cases we are still given glorious, memorable melodies. Röschmann highlighted the lyricism within these gems jubilantly onstage.

Röschmann’s open-throated high register is grounded and downright remarkable; the high A in Berg’s third song “Die Nachtigall” was blissfully resonant. Every high note this afternoon would have dazzled the acousticians and architects who designed Spivey Hall 25 years ago. Röschmann elegantly displayed the principle of resonance; fundamental frequencies were abundantly reinforced by their upper partials within the overtone series. Our ears adjusted, but at times I wondered if her voice was almost too big for the hall.

Spivey Hall is an intimate space. Listeners can see and hear each change of countenance and every vocal nuance. While Röschmann is petite — diminutive even — in form, her voice is hearty in its low registers as well. This was aptly showcased in her interpretation of Robert Schumann’s low-lying song cycle “Frauenliebe und Leben.”

Röschmann and Uchida proved to be ideal collaborators. Uchida, a stellar musician, is an active soloist with obvious flare. After her tour with Röschmann, she travels to Berlin to perform the Piano Concerto No. 24 K491 in C minor with Ivan Fischer and the Konzerthausorchester. She also serves as director of the prestigious Marlboro Festival. Uchida’s role within Schumann’s song cycle about a woman’s life and love is not virtuosic, but the atmospheric demands placed upon the pianist are paramount to the cycle’s success in performance.

The eight songs with texts by 18th-century poet Adelbert von Chamisso begin with a woman’s initial infatuation with her future husband. As the cycle unfolds, she progresses through disbelief that he has asked for her hand in marriage, the wedding day, the birth of her child, and eventually her husband’s death in the final song.

In the sixth song, “Süsser Freund, du blickest,” the pianist is called to respond to word painting within the vocal line, to offset chromatic writing, and prepare the listener for text repetition. Uchida was sensitive and invested in every word. Often she could be seen lip-syncing the poetry as Röschmann gave it voice.

One couldn’t help but to compare and contrast Röschmann’s afternoon offering of German lieder with Stephanie Blythe’s recital of Poulenc and cabaret songs at Spivey Hall just a few weeks ago. Both women boast exceptional vocal prowess but applied it differently and allowed us access to their artistry in unique ways, through demeanor and repertoire choice.

It reminds me that whether it is my first time or my 50th hearing of a work or song, every performance is something new, a musical gift waiting to be revealed.


From Mezzo-soprano Stephanie Blythe sings sweet cabaret songs in Spivey Hall recital

March 24, 2015


Stephanie Blythe

Utter the word cabaret and chances are it will evoke a stream of associations such as Liza Minelli in Bob Fosse’s 1972 film classic by the same name or Edith Piaf and her tragic life as a World War II–era chanteuse and operative within the French resistance.

My thoughts immediately fly to America’s derivative of that torch song tradition — the speakeasies, “Joe sent me” and Helen Morgan, the iconic singer whom my own grandmother toured with as a dancer during Morgan’s post-Showboat days before grandma retired from the stage to marry a jazz clarinetist from Cincinnati.

But one doesn’t tend to associate the critically acclaimed mezzo-soprano and vocal powerhouse Stephanie Blythe with the musical descendants of Paris’ Chat Noir.

Yet Blythe and her expressive pianist Warren Jones performed a recital of both art song and cabaret hits on Saturday evening at Clayton State University’s Spivey Hall.

Blythe is known for her ability to execute meaty operatic roles such as Azucena in Il Trovatore and Ulrica in Un Ballo in Maschera. She can pull off Wagner’s most formidable Fricka, goddess of marriage, in Das Rheingold and Die Walküre. It was thus all the more thrilling to hear her close the evening at Spivey with Noël Coward ballads like “Mad About The Boy” and “Nina,” songs that she comically described as “thirsty work,” taking sips from her glass of water intermittently.

It was a paradigm shift worth experiencing. Blythe sang the songs of five composers, spanning Francis Poulenc to Coward with Léo Ferré, Jacques Brel and Benjamin Britten peppered in between.

Composed in 1925, the Poèmes du Ronsard is one of Poulenc’s earliest attempts at song. A year earlier the magazine La Révue musicale had commissioned a number of important French composers — Ravel, Dukas, Honegger, etc. — to write songs to texts by sixteenth-century poet Pierre de Ronsard; it was a faction that did not include Poulenc.

He rebelled by composing five songs of his own and selected several Ronsard poems including “Je n’ai plus que les os” that linger on the theme of old age and death, something that Poulenc had no experience with at the tender age of 26. Blythe’s interpretation at Spivey was larger than life — a wash of resonant sound that was neither feminine nor masculine in nature — and simply stunning. Her voice filled every crevice and corner of the hall, shocking our senses.

It was then that the homage to cabaret began with the songs of the mid-century chansonnier Léo Ferré (1916–93). While Ferré was a poet in his own right, he also set the texts of Baudelaire, Verlaine and Apollinaire. Blythe and Jones gave us two songs of Baudelaire, “La Vie Antérieure” and “L’invitation au voyage.”

Many classical music fans will be familiar with the Duparc settings of these poems, and while the Ferré interpretations could be characterized as neo-Romantic popular music, they were equally moving. His “L’invitation au voyage” is set in 6/8 as the Duparc version, but is not as dark. Blythe aptly portrayed the song with a frivolous, lighthearted nature.

Just before intermission, Blythe earned a standing ovation with her rendition of Brel’s “Amsterdam.” Brel (1929–79) and Piaf are often mentioned in the same breath and credited with launching the French cabaret style to international recognition. The third in a song group that included “Le pieds dans le ruisseau” and the unmistakable “Ne me quitte pas,” “Amsterdam” was a tour de force. Here Blythe gave us a different and riveting vocalism, belting sans vibrato as she described the lusty sailors who sing, sleep and die at the port of Amsterdam.

But which song was the real pièce de résistance of the evening aside from “Amsterdam”? Arguably, it was the alarmingly funny “Singing in the Bathtub” from the Warner Brothers’ film Show of Shows. At the conclusion of the evening, it was clear that Blythe had proven that she doesn’t just play a goddess on the operatic stage. She really is one. Preview: The Atlanta Opera’s ambition shown in updated version of Verdi’s classic “Rigoletto”

February 26, 2015

(Photo by Marina Levitskaya)

Although considered an operatic warhorse, Giuseppe Verdi’s Rigoletto hasn’t been seen in Atlanta since 2000. It’s an opera that became an instant hit in 1851 after its initial performance at Teatro La Fenice, and one that Atlanta Opera artistic director Tomer Zvulun believed it was time to reexamine. The production boasts an impressive team that includes set designer John Conklin, costume designer Vita Tzykun and conductor Joseph Rescigno.

The coproduction with Opera Omaha and Boston Lyric Opera will open at the Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre on February 28, and opening night promises to be exceptionally special. In addition to featuring rising stars Todd Thomas (as Rigoletto) and Nadine Sierra (as Gilda) on stage, revered baritone Sherrill Milnes, who helped launch the opera in Atlanta in 1979, will be in attendance.

It’s not uncommon to see operas within the standard repertoire updated these days. Opera audiences have witnessed Gounod’s Faust through the lens of 1930s Nazi Germany, and the now extinct New York City Opera represented the title character in its 2006 production of Handel’s Semele as Marilyn Monroe, paralleling events in the opera with the affair between JFK and the famous blonde bombshell.

Some may be familiar with Jonathan Miller’s 1950s Mafioso rendition of Rigoletto at English National Opera, or the more recent version of Verdi’s midcentury melodrama set in 1960s Las Vegas, which premiered last season at the Metropolitan Opera. In the latter production, the Duke of Mantua became a Sinatra-esque nightclub singer, crooning “La donna è mobile” in a casino surrounded by leggy showgirls.

Yet Zvulun admonishes that updating a production can become a cliché if the director loses sight of the relationships between the characters. Perhaps the most compelling relationship in the Atlanta Opera’s upcoming show is that of Rigoletto and his lovely daughter Gilda. To Rigoletto, Gilda is everything, but to the Duke of Mantua she is an irresistible bird of prey.

The upcoming AO production will be set in Renaissance Italy as Verdi had intended. Zvulun focuses not only on the Duke’s appetite for women, but also on la maledizione, the curse that is bestowed upon Rigoletto, a hunchbacked court jester who serves at the duke’s pleasure.

When Rigoletto pokes fun at Monterone — a father who is outraged after his daughter has been seduced and dishonored  by the duke — Monterone curses the jester, simultaneously foreshadowing Gilda’s fate.

In Tvulun’s mind’s eye, Rigoletto’s deformity becomes more pronounced as the story progresses. Atlanta opera goers will see both his physical body and the setting on stage reflect his undoing and inevitable mental collapse.

With the coming of spring, the Atlanta Opera will round out the 2014–15 season with Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro and American composer Jake Heggie’s Three Decembers at the Alliance Theatre. Plans for the 2015–16 season were announced in early February.

Zvulun will expand AO’s offerings to five productions, three on the main stage — La Bohème, Romeo and Juliet, and Pirates of Penzance — as well as two nonoperatic presentations under the umbrella of a new series called Atlanta Opera Discoveries.

In the February Issue of Opera News Online: Review of AO’s Madama Butterfly

111314-madama-butterfly_1Atlanta Opera opened its 2014-15 season with Madama Butterfly (seen Nov. 8), a co-production with the Castleton Festival.  The new Butterfly marks the initial show of AO artistic and general director Tomer Zvulun’s first planned season at the company.  Zvulun assumed responsibility for staging Madama Butterfly as well — and there is no doubt that Zvulun is an apt stage director.

This Castleton-AO production was a far cry from the Jun Kaneko version seen in Atlanta six years ago, which featured abstract computer graphics and a quartet of mysterious Kurogo characters that came and went throughout the opera. This season’s production, designed by set and projection designer Erhard Rom, utilized fluid projections throughout. Whether it was a muted view of the Nagasaki Harbor or cherry blossoms, Butterfly became a multimedia event with exciting operatic singing.  The symphonic interlude between Acts II and III felt retro, as if we were staring at the entr’acte screen from Dr. Zhivago and listening to a heart-wrenching film score. While it may be sacrilege to compare the music of Puccini to a soundtrack by Maurice Jarre, the psychological effect of an ever-changing landscape provided a restless twenty-first-century audience constant visual and aural stimulation.

Maestro Arthur Fagan led the Atlanta Opera orchestra and chorus with aplomb. Both performed well under his leadership, providing the solo singers with generous phrasing and harmonies upon which they could rely. It was especially lovely to hear them in light of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra’s ongoing contract disputes.  Atlanta’s Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre was almost filled to its 2750-seat capacity on opening night — perhaps in response to the city’s current artistic crisis. (Atlanta Symphony Orchestra was still embroiled in contract disputes when Butterfly opened; a new labor contract was announced on November 9.)

Dina Kuznetsova made her Atlanta Opera debut as Cio-Cio San. She embodied Butterfly’s humility and devotion, infusing each phrase with a roundness of tone and commanding a grand dynamic range. Her “Un bel dì” was exceedingly and convincingly intimate.  Adam Diegel, her Pinkerton, deployed a penetrating, highly-placed tenor voice that was riveting to hear.

Nina Yoshida Nelson was Suzuki, underscoring Cio-Cio San’s pathos in Act III with her luxurious voice and incredibly expressive face. Corey McKern was a debonair Sharpless, the conscience that Pinkerton chose to routinely ignore. Jason Ferrante was well-suited for the character role Goro. Merola graduate Joseph Lattanzi sang Prince Yamadori majestically while Kyle Albertson played Bonze and delivered his lines with a menacing baritone. Neophyte Alan Higgs made a promising operatic debut in the brief role of Imperial Commissioner and Ashley Curling’s lovely Mozartean voice fulfilled the role of Kate Pinkerton.


Emory Chamber Music Society of Atlanta: “The Creation of the World”

In Atlanta this Saturday? Come hear “The Creation of the World”! Music by Haydn, Milhaud and the world premiere of a new Quartet by Paul Salerni. The Vega Quartet, Elena Cholakova, and Stephanie McClure Adrian perform. 8 PM- FREE!

In Atlanta this Saturday? Come hear "The Creation of the World"! Music by Haydn, Milhaud and the world premiere of a new Quartet by Paul Salerni. The Vega Quartet, Elena Cholakova, and Stephanie McClure Adrian perform. 8 PM- FREE!

Review: The Atlanta Opera joyously celebrates 25 years of vocal guidance from Walter Huff

Review: The Atlanta Opera joyously celebrates 25 years of vocal guidance from Walter Huff

September 18, 2014

By Stephanie Adrian

Huff also teaches at Indiana University.

Kennesaw State University hosted the Atlanta Opera’s first-ever Choral Celebration at the Bailey Center on Tuesday evening. It was a concert that honored Walter Huff’s 25-year tenure as chorus master of the Atlanta Opera. While Huff and the Atlanta Opera Chorus, accompanied by pianist Brian Eads, played the starring role this night, there was a cast of characters — both singers and local celebrities — who made appearances too, adding to the evening’s excitement.

Previous to his work with the Atlanta Opera, Huff’s extensive life in music included posts as a vocal coach at the Washington National Opera, Peabody Opera Theatre, and Tanglewood Music Center, as well as a term as chorus master with the San Diego Opera. He served as a faculty member at Georgia State University for several years, and recently accepted a position as associate professor of choral conducting at Indiana University’s prestigious Jacob School of Music. But Huff’s role as chorus master at the Atlanta Opera has been one in which he has both mentored and collaborated with Atlanta singers for over 100 main stage opera productions, impacting the city’s cultural landscape.

After a crisp rendition of “Fuoco di gioia” from Giuseppe Verdi’s Otello, Atlanta Opera general and artistic director Tomer Zvulun kicked off the evening with a recollection of his own 10-year history with the company as a stage director and his interactions with Huff, calling him “one of the most important chorus masters in the country.” It was an endorsement that was reinforced with each operatic selection performed by the stellar chorus and by each ensuing testimonial.

Jay Hunter Morris — the Heldentenor who stepped into the hefty role of Siegfried at the last minute in the Metropolitan Opera’s recent Robert LaPage Ring Cycle (and to great acclaim) — spoke after a lovely rendition of “Placido è il mar” from Mozart’s Idomeneo. Morris revealed that it was Huff who had prepared him for conservatory auditions in the late 1980s and again years later, collaborated with Morris during a pivotal moment within his singing career. 

Lois Reitzes, host of the WABE-FM program Second Cup Concert, and William Fred Scott, former artistic director of the Atlanta Opera, were in attendance, and each stepped forward to sing Huff’s praises. Scott spoke of Huff’s limitless repertoire and their shared vision for an opera chorus that was “precise, yet suave — perfect, but not pedantic.”

The program was somewhat autobiographical, showcasing a bit of the music that Atlanta audiences have heard during Huff’s stint in Atlanta. The brindisi summoned our memory of Mary Dunleavy singing the role of Violetta only a year ago; Huff programmed Psalm 104 from Philip Glass’ minimalistic opera Akhnaten, harking back to the AO’s semistaged production at the Schwartz Center in 2008 (with the composer sitting in the audience); Giacomo Puccini’s Moon Chorus from Turandot brought to mind the 2007–08 season, when Dennis Hanthorn was at the helm and the Atlanta Opera found a permanent home at the Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre.

But above all, Huff could not overlook the incredibly ebullient productions of George Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess that took place in Atlanta in both 2005 and 2011, which led to an invitation by the Opéra-Comique in Paris for an eight-week tour throughout Europe. Accordingly, the Bailey Center audience reveled in “Oh Lord, I’m On My Way” from Act III of Porgy.

Yet Huff’s programming was intended to highlight not his own career but rather the variety of vocal shades that one encounters throughout operatic repertoire and, moreover, to showcase what the Atlanta Opera chorus is capable of achieving. Huff reminded us of the vast range of characters that his working opera chorus has embodied over the last 25 years. 

The Atlanta Opera Chorus accomplished this and was even able to show off a little, aptly boasting two selections from the verismo repertoire: a light and airy “Bell Chorus” from Leoncavallo’s I Pagliacci early on and finally closing with the “Easter Hymn” from Mascagni’s Cavalleria Rusticana. The latter selection featured glamorous soprano Indra Thomas as Santuzza.

Huff’s “Silver Celebration” was merely the first offering of the Atlanta Opera’s 2014–15 season. Atlanta audiences will also hear Puccini’s Madama Butterfly, Verdi’s Rigoletto and Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro at the Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre as well as the Atlanta premiere of Jake Heggie’s Three Decembers at the Alliance Theatre this season.

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