From the May Issue of Opera News ONLINE

imagesCADR0KRXIn honor of the Verdi bicentennial, Atlanta Opera presented La Traviata at the Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre on March 2. The Opéra de Montréal production, last seen at the Boisfeuillet Jones Atlanta Civic Center in 2005, was revived and reassembled this season, but much has happened to the company while these handsome Claude Girard–Bernard Uzan sets were hibernating. General director Dennis Hanthorn arrived in Atlanta, implemented strategies that put AO in the black and secured a more glamorous and suitable venue for its productions at the Cobb Centre. Hanthorn resigned abruptly in August 2012, after eight years at the helm. In April, the board announced the appointment of stage director Tomer Zvulun as AO’s new general and artistic director.

Joseph Rescigno, a close colleague of Hanthorn’s, returned to lead the opera orchestra this night. Luckily the disappointing execution of the prelude was no indication of what was to come. Verdi’s gentle and heart-wrenching introduction lacked character, tone and any dynamic contrast whatsoever. It was as if the players had no frame of reference for the significance of the “Amami Alfredo” motive that Violetta would proclaim in Act II.

The casting of soprano Mary Dunleavy as the fallen woman Violetta Valéry was providential and redemptive. Dunleavy’s singing of “Ah fors’è lui” and the following cabaletta was technically and aesthetically captivating. She possesses a voice with squillo, omnipresent in both sustained and agile passages. Violetta is Dunleavy’s signature role — one that she has sung at the Metropolitan Opera and New York City Opera, as well as several other important theaters. She was entirely comfortable inhabiting the role here as well. Dunleavy’s voice and look were entirely transformed in Act III for Violetta’s final act and aria “Addio del passato.” The squillo was gone, but not the lovely core of the sound or the brilliant legato. Happily, Dunleavy is scheduled to return to Atlanta next season in the role of Gounod’s Marguerite.

Young Belarus-born tenor Boris Rudak was an unimpressive Alfredo. His lovely timbre and admirable legato were overshadowed by passages of questionable intonation in Act I. Rudak’s voice might be better appreciated in a smaller venue alongside voices comparable in size. Baritone Weston Hurt, last heard here in Jun Kaneko’s controversial Madama Butterfly in 2008, sang the role of Giorgio Germont with wonderful proficiency and warmth. He negotiated the upper reaches of “Di Provenza” with utter ease, and his singing complemented Dunleavy’s throughout their lengthy duet.

David Gately directed Atlanta’s Traviata. As demonstrated in his clever Atlanta Opera Cenerentola (with Jennifer Larmore) a few seasons ago, Gately’s work shines in scenes that involve comedy and a wealth of stage business. Flora Bervoix’s party — heavily populated by the stellar Atlanta Opera Chorus and set within a monochromatic scarlet-red drawing room — was just such a scene. A single Gypsy girl, dancer Tamara Merritt Irving, entertained the inebriated guests, including Gastone, played by natural comedian Wesley Morgan, and also created both strife and passion between Flora and the Marquis D’Obigny, sung by the talented mezzo-soprano Maria McDaniel and bass-baritone Jason Hardy.

While Atlanta Opera has provided dashes of non-traditional fare to its patrons over the past five years (including Peter Ash’s The Golden Ticket), its board of directors recently announced the 2013–14 season and plans to play it safe with warhorses Tosca, Faust and Il Barbiere di Siviglia. It’s not a daring bill of fare, but as long as we hear singers of Mary Dunleavy’s caliber, it’s a potentially satisfying one.


Atlanta Opera General Director Resigns

ImageDennis Hanthorn, Zurich General Director of the Atlanta Opera since 2004, resigned from his position last week.  From my vantage point the opera has had many successes under his leadership – including a strategic move to the Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre –  and has mounted some very fine productions.  Highlights for me?  Orfeo with David Daniels, La Cenerentola with Jennifer Larmore, and a fabulous production of Cold Sassy Tree with Carlisle Floyd in the audience.

The Golden Ticket Review – Opera News May 2012 Issue


Atlanta Opera

Atlanta Opera courageously took a chance on Peter Ash’s new opera The Golden Ticket this season in an attempt to draw younger audiences to the genre. Based on Roald Dahl’s literary classic Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, with a libretto by Dahl biographer Donald Sturrock, The Golden Ticket is a comic opera that might not have made it to the stage had it not been for the bolstering it received from significant voices like Felicity Dahl, the author’s widow, and James Robinson, artistic director of Opera Theatre of Saint Louis.

Ash devised his Britten-inspired score for The Golden Ticket for an ensemble of twenty-three soloists. On March 3, the composer conducted his own opera for the first time. Unfortunately, he had to contend with an unruly brass section. From where I was seated, in the mezzanine, intelligibility was a real problem, in particular when singers were accompanied by competing and unrefined musical figures played by trumpet, trombone and horn.

However, the writing for string quartet that is interspersed throughout the opera is quite poignant. Charlie, performed by fourteen-year-old choirboy Ruben Roy, sings a lovely tune over the snoring of his grandparents in Act I and later on a duet with bass-baritone Daniel Okulitch as Mr. Know (Willy Wonka in disguise), the procurer of the confectioner’s shop that lies next door to the mysterious candy factory. At the end of the show, Ash skillfully laces an exquisite violin solo into the score when Charlie and Wonka ascend heavenward in a glass elevator.

A.O. featured noteworthy singers — Abigail Nims as Veruca Salt, Ashley Emerson as Violet Beauregard and Kristin Clayton as Mrs. Gloop. But sadly the vocal writing didn’t allow them the opportunity to shine — with a few exceptions. Countertenor Gerald Thompson, portraying Mike Teavee, made an impression with hilarious melismas. Tenor Andrew Drost stole the show as the chubby Augustus Gloop, singing his “Yummy Mummy” monologue and a few high Cs. Keith Jameson’s Grandpa Joe was beautifully sung and left us wanting more.

Okulitch sang the role of Willy Wonka at the world premiere in Saint Louis and made his Atlanta Opera debut in it on this night. Okulitch danced around the stage and captured Wonka’s aloofness, but the role lacks melody and doesn’t highlight Okulitch’s vocal prowess in any way.

In contrast, the opera’s visual aspects are stunning. Costume designer Martin Pakledinaz offered us voluptuous Turkish squirrels with bushy red tails, Oompa Loompas that were a cross between Star Trek’s Spock and Turandot’s Ping, Pang and Pong, and cartoonish, bratty children. Designers Bruno Schwengl, Greg Emetaz and Christopher Akerlind created a riveting boat scene, a dynamic chocolate river and flashing images of sweets. Choreographer Seán Curran animated the show with stylized movements throughout and a quartet of dancers within Charlie’s dream sequence.

Clearly, Ash and Sturrock are on to something here, yet the opera begs for another revision. Even now, the composer admits that there are places within his first opus where he would still like to ‘tinker.’

With a few amendments, The Golden Ticket could become a fanciful one-act opera. (Roald Dahl himself rewrote Charlie no fewer than six times.) The current version will be preserved for posterity’s sake however, regardless of what develops. Atlanta Opera has partnered with American Lyric Theatre to record this production for release as the opera company’s first ever recording.


Saturday Night at the Opera

Credit: Tim Wilkerson

Peter Ash’s new opera came to town this past weekend.  Here Veruca Salt (mezzo-soprano Abigail Nims) is about to be discarded for being a “bad nut” by a mob of voluptuous Turkish squirrels.

OPERA NEWS – Lucia di Lammermoor

Atlanta Opera Review - February Issue

OPERA NEWS – Lucia di Lammermoor.

My latest review in the February issue of Opera News.

Lucia di Lammermoor

Atlanta Opera

Stage director Tomer Tvulun brought his signature cinematic vision to Atlanta Opera’s 2011–12 season opener, Lucia di Lammermoor (seen Nov. 12), working in a style reminiscent of his 2009 AO production of Der Fliegende Holländer. Lighting designer Robert Wierzel and projection designer Ruppert Bohle gave us spooky, oversized shadows, craggy trees and a foreboding ambiance from the start, abetted by imposing stone walls and tombstones, designed by Erhard Rom and borrowed from Cleveland Opera. However, it was the Act III mad scene that transported opera-loving voyeurs beyond the confines of the theater. Twenty-foot doors swung open to reveal a blindingly luminescent bridal chamber, with white satin curtains, linens spattered with blood, and Arturo’s lifeless body.

Georgia Jarman’s lyric voice is simultaneously burnished and warm. A soprano who seems to be exceedingly comfortable with the demands of Donizetti’s vocal writing, Jarman was a stunning Lucia and was able to turn on a dime. Her demeanor was positively distraught in “Regnava nel silenzio,” yet the ensuing cabaletta, “Quando rapito in estasi,” was jubilantly Norina-esque. Lucia’s fantasma was omnipresent throughout the evening, contributing to the young girl’s instability and even appearing superimposed upon the portrait of Lucia’s mother at Ravenswood, bringing to mind a theme-park haunted mansion. In the climax of the opera, Lucia comes completely undone and it was the juxtaposition of her madness and the sheer beauty of Jarman’s voice that made it so unnerving. Jarman’s fioratura in duet with the glass armonica was exquisite, articulated flawlessly as she slit her wrists before her brother Enrico and all of the wedding guests.

Arthur Fagan has assumed the long-vacant position of music director at Atlanta Opera, and he conducted the orchestra with clarity on opening night. The instrumentalists played well but sometimes provided too much heft, in particular, the deafening pizzicato underlying Lucia and Edgardo’s duet, “Veranno a te sull’aure.” The ensemble was particularly fine later on during the famous sextet, when Walter Huff’s chorus — handsomely dressed in mid-nineteenth-century fashion — embarked upon the D-major stretta in the finale of Act II.

Nearly the entire cast of principals made Atlanta Opera debuts on this night. Tenor Jonathon Boyd appeared as Lucia’s winsome lover Edgardo, singing confidently and pleasingly. Baritone Stephen Powell sang the role of Enrico, playing the older brother as self-serving rather than cruel — an impression reinforced by the omission of the tower scene in Act III, in which Enrico gloats over his success and challenges Edgardo to a duel. Surprisingly, Fagan instead retained Raimondo’s Act II aria, “Ah! Cedi, cedi,” which highlighted the legato splendor of Arthur Woodley’s bass voice. spacer


The 24-Hour Opera Project

Can an inspired opera be created in only 24 hours?

This year the Cannes Film Festival Short Film Corner highlighted films from the 48 Hour Film Project, an idea conceived by two D.C. filmmakers, Mark Ruppert and Liz Langston, ten years ago.  The mission was to promote film making and filmmakers, but the ancillary result was to build communities of locally creative people and to foster that spirit of creativity.

The 48 Hour Film Project assigns willing filmmakers the genre, characters, prop, and a line of dialogue and says ‘go!’  The 24-Hour Opera Project, sponsored by the Atlanta Opera, pairs composers and lyricists and gives them 12 hours to create a 7-10 minute opera.  Then the score is handed over to a director, pianist, and four singers.  They, in turn, have 8 hours to produce the opera which culminates in a 7 p.m. performance before an audience and a panel of judges.

This year that little movie project sparked 3,000 films with participants in 100 cities.  True, opera is a different animal altogether.  But the format proved successful last year in Atlanta.  This time the performances will be shown to a live audience and via live webcast with the assistance of Turner Broadcasting Systems and Turner Voices on January 21, 2012.

Top Atlanta Music Picks for the New Year

In January I’ll join ranks with Jimmy Paulk and Mark Gresham, writing classical music news and reviews for the ArtsCriticATL website:   Vocal music offerings for the first quarter of 2012 look promising.  The Atlanta Opera will produce Peter Ash’s new opera The Golden Ticket (March 3-11),  Susan Graham comes to town to sing a recital with Malcolm Martineau at Spivey Hall (February 5),  and the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra will perform Mahler’s Symphony #2 “Resurrection” with soloists Nicole Cabell and Kelley O’Connor (January 26, 28).

Opera Education for Kids

Director of Education at the Atlanta Opera Emmalee Iden has created a study guide for Atlanta music educators to go along with the AO premiere of a new children’s opera called Rabbit Tales.  My 2008 review of AO’s Hansel & Gretel for Opera News is excerpted in association with a number of potential lessons that educators could implement within the classroom.  (link below)  Lessons included in the Opera Guide for Rabbit Tales are designed to correlate with Georgia Standards for elementary grades in English Language Arts & Reading, Mathematics, Science, Social Studies, Fine Arts, and Health.

Those from my generation will remember Br’er Rabbit from the Disney movie Song of the South.  The movie was originally released in 1946 and I remember seeing it during my childhood in the early 1980s, but it hasn’t been re-released since due to controversial claims that the movie is racist and politically incorrect.

“Br’er Rabbit is a central figure in the Uncle Remus stories of the Joel Chandler Harris.  He is a trickster character who succeeds by his wits rather than by brawn, tweaking authority figures and bending social mores as he sees fit. The Br’er Rabbit stories have been linked to both African and Cherokee cultures, however the majority of theBr’er Rabbit stories originated in Africa. The stories were told and retold by enslaved Africans and the tales evolved with the changing times and circumstances.”  (Atlanta Opera Study Guide 2011 p. 11)

Atlanta Opera Opens 2011-12 Season with Lucia

AO opens its 2011-12 season with Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor on November 12.    I’ll be reviewing this production for Opera News.  Georgia Jarman, who starred as the three Heroines in English National Opera’s February production of Tales of Hoffman, will sing the title role.

Rabbit Tales

The premiere of the AO commission Rabbit Tales will kick off National Opera Week at the Wren’s Nest on October 29th.