artsATL Preview: Kennesaw’s Robert Henry featured in Spivey Hall concert that celebrates Suzuki

January 14, 2016

By STEPHANIE ADRIAN

Internationally-acclaimed pianist Robert Henry performs with Suzuki students on Sunday.

Is musical talent inherent or can it be developed?

Japanese violinist Shinichi Suzuki (1898-1998) believed the latter. Suzuki’s philosophy was rooted in the principle that the development of any child — Japanese, British or aboriginal — depends upon his cultural environment. Using the example of language acquisition, Suzuki pointed out that a child will learn to speak his mother tongue from an early age through listening, repetition and encouragement.

After World War II, Suzuki opened a small music school in Matsumoto in order to provide the Japanese children with something nurturing amidst a nation decimated by nuclear bombs. His aim was to cultivate a nation of noble human beings with sensibility and sensitivity through music education. Suzuki’s work was first introduced to the United States in 1964 when he brought a group of violin students to perform at a meeting of the American String Teachers Association.

Fifty years later, Suzuki’s method of training young musicians has been adopted by music teachers throughout the United States. On January 17, the Atlanta Area Suzuki Piano Association will feature world-renowned pianist Robert Henry alongside 20 young Suzuki pianists at one of Atlanta’s premier concert venues, Spivey Hall, confirming the fact that Suzuki was on to something. The Suzuki Graduation Concert will be held at 3 p.m. on Sunday.

Henry is known locally for his work as artist-in-residence at Kennesaw State University and as assistant director of the Atlanta Boys Choir, but he is recognized internationally as well, having won first prize in several international competitions including the New Orleans International Piano Competition and the Alfredo Barilli International Piano Competition. Henry is an International Steinway Artist, and has performed solo recitals at New York City’s Carnegie Hall, the Kennedy Center in Washington D.C. and at London’s Wigmore Hall.

When asked about his own cultural environment while growing up, Henry says, “I was extremely fortunate to have parents and family who encouraged my music-making every step of the way. Looking back, it was really concert attendance and a few wonderful recordings that kept me inspired. I loved when great artists would come to play with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, and my parents always found a way to get me backstage to speak with them.”

At the concert, Suzuki students aged 7 to 15 will perform repertoire that spans Suzuki’s Allegro to the third movement of Mozart’s Sonata in A Major K. 331 Rondo alla turca. Mozart’s melody may be familiar to popular audiences for its wide use in the Jim Carrey movie, The Truman Show, but to a serious pianist it requires the mastery of refined technical skill. The piece demands that the pianist have the ability to execute octaves and broken octaves, fast scale passages and a variety of ornamental figures such as trills and grace notes.

As the concert evolves, audience members will hear a distinctive progression of technical skill from the students; specific musical and technical goals must be established in order to graduate from each successive level within the Suzuki Piano Basics program.

The concert will culminate with a performance by Henry, who will play Chopin’s Etude, Op. 25, No. 1 and Ballade No. 3i n A-flat major, Op. 47. In addition, Henry will offer Carl Vine’s Sonata No. 1, a two-movement work that was commissioned by the Sydney Dance Company and composed in 1990. “Vine’s rhythmic and improvisatory language never fails to dazzle audiences,” Henry says.

 

In the January Issue of Opera News…

AO Boheme

La Bohème

ATLANTA
Atlanta Opera
10/11/15

LA BOHÈME  is an opera about little things. Neither the subject matter nor the characters have any involvement with kings, queens, or political intrigue. The bohemians—poet, painter, philosopher and musician—are concerned with their artistry and their daily bread.  The leading lady sings about the embroidery of flowers and rose-colored bonnets. Atlanta Opera presented Puccini’s masterpiece at the Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre with just the little things in mind (seen Oct. 11). The attention to visual, aural and dramatic detail in the stage direction of AO general and artistic director Tomer Zvulun brought vitality to what might have been just another sleepy Bohème.

The production, created for Opera Theatre of Saint Louis, boasts sets and projections by Erhard Rom and gorgeous costumes by designer Martin Pakledinaz. The setting was updated from 1830s Paris to that century’s final decade in order to highlight Puccini’s era, a period remarkable for the advent of flash photography. The sets were flanked with panels depicting black and white, turn-of-the-century cityscapes. Zvulun likewise incorporated a photographer within the busy Café Momus scene who photographed the happenings with miniature pyrotechnics.

Conductor Arthur Fagen and the Atlanta Opera Orchestra created a lovely support for the singers. Dynamic contrast and musical gestures went hand-in-hand with Puccini’s verismo soundscapes.

The lovers at the center of the opera, Rodolfo and Mimì, were sung by Gianluca Terranova and Maria Luigia Borsi. From the moment Borsi entered the crumbling garret on Christmas Eve it was clear that the pair was compatible vocally and dramatically. After the racconto di Rodolfo stopped the show and Mimì had sung her first aria, the ensuing duet, “O soave fanciulla,” sealed our suspension of disbelief. We were reminded of what love at first sight is like.

Italian tenor Terranova’s onstage persona was affable; he moved like a dancer and could pull off subtle moments of comedy unexpectedly. Terranova’s highly placed, ringing voice blossomed on the high B flat at the end of his aria and he was able to impressively taper the high C of the duet with Borsi. Maria Luigia Borsi’s performance was most eloquent from start to finish as well, yet her vocal prowess was best displayed in Act III, when Mimì enters into the square from the Rue d’enfer.

Zvulun reimagined The Café Momus scene as a highly choreographed series of events leading up to Musetta’s waltz. Musetta, played by soprano Leah Partridge, is a grisette or working girl who craves the limelight; Partridge’s great showmanship made her Musetta frenetic and exciting. Zvulun cast promising young singers as Rodolfo’s trio of friends, Marcello (Trevor Scheunemann), Colline (Nicholas Brownlee), and Schaunard (Theo Hoffman). Scheunemann seemed the most seasoned of the three, his lovely timbre and dramatic timing creating the glue for each ensemble scene. —Stephanie Adrian

The Sensibility of Children

 

20140111-122703.jpg FOLLY

When my oldest child was born fifteen years ago I was in the middle of a doctoral program in music.  I spent all of my time practicing opera arias and taking music history classes in which we debated whether the Classical Music Period began in 1723 or 1750, as if man’s existence hinged upon this distinction.

Ben was born and his education began – from that mindset.  As soon as he could speak my husband and I began teaching him “facts.”  Who was the first president of the United States?  How many inches are there in a foot?  How does the sun create energy?

We would drill Ben on this essential knowledge in front of our family and friends and he would obediently recite, “George Washington, twelve, fusion.”

I look back on this time and feel a little bit silly.  My error was not in loving my son so much that I wanted to set about teaching him immediately, but it was how I went about it.  I know now that there is an essential difference between children and adults and it is profound.

Children experience the world through their senses.  They are wired for exploration and do this with the help of their five senses:  seeing, hearing, feeling, smelling, and tasting. (Think of a toddler who puts every toy he sees into his mouth!)

We adults experience the world through our intellect, taking in everything and processing it based on the knowledge that we have already acquired.  As we grow older, we can lose the ability to experience the world through our senses and intuition.  Driven by responsibility, our daily to-do lists, work, family, and financial obligations it’s really no wonder.

A BRIEF HISTORY LESSON

After World War II, violinist Shinichi Suzuki opened a small music school in Matsumoto in order to provide the Japanese children with something nurturing amidst a nation decimated by war.  Suzuki once said, “Teaching music is not my main purpose.  I want to make good citizens, and noble human beings.  If a child hears fine music from the day of his birth, and learns to play it himself, he develops sensitivity, discipline, and endurance.  He gets a beautiful heart.”

The Suzuki Method of music is rooted in the principle that the development of any child – Japanese, British, or Aboriginal – depends on his cultural environment.  Using the example of language acquisition, Suzuki pointed out that a child will learn to speak his mother tongue from an early age through listening, repetition, and encouragement.  In that way, learning how to play the violin or the piano can be done naturally at first, by hearing good music in a child’s daily environment.

CREATING A BEAUTIFUL ENVIRONMENT

I now have three children and I’m certain that there are countless times when I forget what I’ve learned about the nature of children.  However, when I’m most mindful, I try to give the kids experiences that will delight their senses:  taking walks with our dog Sandy on a beautiful day or having fresh-cut tulips on the kitchen table from time to time.  My husband and I like to cook new foods that the kids have never tasted before.  And we like to attend concerts whenever we can so that they are able to hear beautiful music as an aspect of their lives.

On January 17, 2016 at 3 p.m. the Atlanta Area Suzuki Piano Association will present its 38th Annual Graduation Concert at Spivey Hall.  Twenty kids will be performing in their “Sunday best” on a stage where the finest musicians in the world have stood.  (If you take a stroll backstage you can see their photos, autographed headshots of Itzhak Perlman, Bryn Terfel, Murray Perahia and so many more.)

Our lives are busy.  There’s so much to do and many Suzuki parents like you may have a hard time justifying a trip down Interstate-75 to Spivey Hall on a Sunday afternoon, especially if your own child isn’t performing in this particular concert.  While there are many wonderful reasons to take the time for a family excursion like this, here’s a short list – based on our kids’ five senses – that might put a different spin on AASPA’s upcoming concert.

SEEING

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.   Some refer to Spivey Hall as a jewel of Atlanta, noting the 400-seat hall for its intimacy, elegance, and stellar acoustics.  Seated in those teal, velvet-upholstered seats will be other bright-eyed kids and their parents to meet.

HEARING

This graduation concert features the music of Mozart, Mendelssohn and more.  Your child will hear a collection of pieces within the Suzuki repertoire and be able to envision himself onstage at the Steinway piano.  After intermission world-renowned, professional pianist Robert Henry will play pieces by Chopin and Carl Vine.  Henry has garnered world-wide acclaim, winning several international piano competitions.  He’s performed solo recitals in the most prestigious concert halls including New York’s Carnegie Hall, Washington D.C. Kennedy Center, and London’s Wigmore Hall.

FEELING

Playing the piano is a tactile endeavor and develops fine motor skills.  Your child won’t be seated at the Steinway at Spivey Hall this time, but will feel the excitement and anticipation of each performer as she approaches the piano bench and begins to play.  For just a few hours, you will be able to relax and enjoy the music together with your family.

SMELLING

When you walk into a concert hall, it’s fun to see the rest of the audience all dressed up, the ladies adorned with perfume for a special occasion.  You’ll see families holding bouquets of sweet-smelling flowers, ready to bestow upon their young pianists.

TASTING

Every graduation concert culminates with a lovely reception, prepared by Suzuki mom Layla Vanderslice.  Cookies and punch, fruit and cheese plates will be waiting for you after the last bow is taken.  The reception is a wonderful time to greet others in your piano studio and chat with other families who love music too.

CONCERT DETAILS

Take a moment and consider what a fabulous afternoon you’ll have with your family, listening to piano music at Spivey Hall next weekend.  The concert will be held at 3 p.m. on January 17 at Spivey Hall on the campus at Clayton State University.  Tickets can be purchased online at www.spiveyhall.org or by calling the Spivey Hall box office at 678-466-4200.  (Adults $15/Students $7.50)

 

 

Stephanie Adrian

 

In the December 2015 Issue of Opera News Online

Winterreise

ATLANTA
Atlanta Opera
9/12/15

ON SEPTEMBER 12, Atlanta Opera launched its 2015-16 season with a semi-staged production of Franz Schubert’s song cycle Winterreise, featuring baritone David Adam Moore, at Kennesaw State University’s Bailey Performance Center. It’s the first of several offerings within the opera’s new Discoveries Series, in which AO will present smaller-scale musical works at satellite venues around the Atlanta metro area.

Schubert composed Winterreise in 1827, just a year before his death. It’s a monodrama that consists of twenty-four songs portraying the bleakness of a wanderer’s winter journey through despair after his love affair has ended. Wilhelm Müller’s poetry reveals a nineteenth-century wanderer whose emotions and psyche are reflected in nature. And this production, conceived by Moore in collaboration with a New York City-based collective called GLMMR, incorporated images of nature (snow, crows, and ravens), urban scenes (city blocks, snow-covered cars, and strip clubs), and visions of Moore, as projections on a white multi-level backdrop. The monochromatic set initially has the appearance of an iceberg, but upon closer inspection seemed more like fractured ice shapes pieced back together.

Pianist Earl Buys sat at a Steinway grand on stage right as Moore stepped onto the stage, dressed in white street clothes, blending into the winter landscape. Moore has a voice with a warm, even timbre, pleasant to the ear. His ability to sing Schubert’s lieder with the utmost care and to sustain an attitude of extreme melancholy was commendable. He assumed various poses for each song, quieting his body and executing only a few well-chosen gestures. Unfortunately, lighting designer Maxwell Bowman chose to obscure Moore’s face in partial darkness for much of the evening, and his facial expressions were not visible to the audience.

Moore didn’t just sing the song cycle: he also directed and filmed the footage that accompanied his live performance. The film, which was projected onto and behind Moore, was sometimes literal. “Frühlingstraum” and “Der Leiermann” were perhaps the best examples of this. In the latter Moore himself was disguised in a cap and oversized coat as the hurdy-gurdy man (or death), cranking his instrument with frozen fingers. There’s also a stunning rustic image on film of a frozen river as the live singer lied down on top of it for the song “Auf dem Flusse.” At other times the film was abstract and perplexing. Müller’s text for “Die Post” laments the fact that the postman brings no letter from the wanderer’s former sweetheart. Moore’s film portrayed the decimation of an iPhone as it was shot, crushed with a hammer, and at last set on fire. Obviously, this was an attempt to update the connotation of the poem, but the result was intermittent giggles from the audience.

Winterreise conveys a despair and bleakness that can seem oppressive until Schubert gives some reprieve in the antepenultimate song “Mut,” with its livelier tempo and temporary bravado. But it was the ensuing song, “Die Nebensonnen” that provided resolution and much-needed relief from the melancholy of the wanderer’s mind and heart. In the exposed vocal writing Moore gave us lovely, surging sound, preparing us for the hero’s final song and surrender to death. —Stephanie Adrian

artsATL Review: The Force is with them as the ASO treats a packed house to the music of John Williams

November 30, 2015

By STEPHANIE ADRIAN

It was a playful night for the ASO, complete with characters from Star Wars.

Movie music — the scoring or background music within a cinematic presentation — affects how the viewer feels about what’s happening onscreen. The music can be literal, synchronized with and reinforcing what is already happening in the scene. It can direct our emotions if the visual portrayal isn’t providing us with enough information (think of Miklós Rózsa’s scoring in Alfred Hitchcock’s classic Spellbound).

The cinematic music can even serve as a subconscious reminder of a character or previous occurrence within the film, a technique borrowed from opera composers like Giacomo Puccini and Richard Wagner.

American film composer John Williams requires no introduction and is perhaps the most prolific and skilled at accomplishing these functions within his film scores for action-adventure movies, beginning in 1975 with the classic man versus nature thriller Jaws.

Williams’ music is symphonic, carrying on the tradition of Hollywood’s Golden Era of high-caliber film music that commenced in the 1930s and spanned for approximately 30 years. He’s also the beneficiary of a generation of talented musician immigrants who fled Hitler’s horrifying ascendancy and made a new life in California, teaching and composing.

One such immigrant, the composer Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco, instructed a cohort of promising film composers that included John Williams, André Previn and Henry Mancini.

Guest conductor Michael Krajewski led the ASO with verve and humor.

Led by guest conductor Michael Krajewski, the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra played to a sold-out house on Friday evening for the opening night run of its Pops! Series offering “Star Wars & More: The Best of John Williams.”

Krajewski has had a long career, first honing his skills as a conductor with Pierre Monteux, and later serving as conductor of the Florida Symphony Orchestra in addition to an impressive career conducting internationally in both classical and popular music arenas. Krajewski’s choreography on the podium is understated and his beat pattern discreet; he let Williams’ music speak for itself resisting any sort of flamboyant over-the-top antics.

However, if Krajewski had not chosen to conduct for a living, stand-up comedy could have been a viable career option. His well-timed, droll narration between selections was the glue that tied the evening together. He drew the audience in by sharing his personal remembrances of black-and-white Superman episodes and John Williams trivia.

The first half of the concert included a variety of selections from Williams’ musical career while the second half was dedicated to the music of Star Wars. The Atlanta Symphony began the evening with the whimsical “Flight to Neverland” from Hook and then launched into the low rumbling of the cello and double basses that introduces the famed two-note theme from Jaws.

The clarity of individual voices within the orchestra was stunning. Pianist Sharon Berenson took center stage on the celesta, a distinctive-sounding five-octave keyboard instrument, to play “Hedwig’s Theme,” excerpted from the blockbuster Harry Potter films. And later, principal flutist Christina Smith opened Williams’ lesser-known theme from Warhorse, aptly evoking the bucolic imagery of an English countryside.

But John Williams’ talent lies not only in bringing out these individual voices within the orchestra, but in his gift of melody — its symmetry and memorability. The Atlanta Symphony Orchestra spun out these melodies with energy and beauty as layer upon layer of instrumentation was added.

The outcome was a beautifully executed musical product with popular appeal, and an observably appreciative audience.

 

Published in October Issue of Opera News Online

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

ATLANTA
Atlanta Opera
5/29/15

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

STEPHANIE ADRIAN

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

October 12, 2015

By STEPHANIE ADRIAN

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

IMG_4106

Le Nozze di Figaro

ATLANTA
Atlanta Opera
4/4/15

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.

STEPHANIE ADRIAN

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

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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.

STEPHANIE ADRIAN

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.

STEPHANIE ADRIAN