N.C. Opera’s “Trovatore” Raises the Bar

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Roy C. Dicks, What's the Score?

By Roy C. Dicks: What’s the Score?

Raleigh, NC – April 27, 2012:

Raleigh-based North Carolina Opera finished its 2011-2012 season with a semi-staged concert performance of Verdi’s “Il Trovatore” in Meymandi Concert Hall, one of the company’s strongest showings yet in its fledgling two seasons.

Born of two previous Raleigh-based companies, Opera Company of North Carolina and Capital Opera, North Carolina Opera has worked to find its proper balance in offering fully staged grand opera, modern works in smaller venues and semi-staged concert operas. It’s two grand opera stagings, “Tosca” and “Carmen,” were decidedly uneven in presentation and casting, while it’s two modern offerings, Britten’s “Turn of the Screw” and Glass’ “Les Enfants Terribles,” were creatively staged and astutely cast.

Whether the company could successfully mount grand opera in concert came into question with last season’s “Faust,” again with uneven casting and very questionable staging-in-concert. Happily, this “Trovatore” allows hope that the company has figured out how to offer concert opera with appropriate casting and staging. A few quibbles aside, this was a most satisfying evening.

Chief among the pleasures was the orchestra under conductor Timothy Myers. The forty-eight pieces sounded twice that size in the great acoustics of the concert hall. The rousing climaxes, catchy melodies and springy rhythms of Verdi’s glorious score came across with brilliant clarity and richness. Only when Myers was being particularly indulgent of a soloist, especially the evening’s Leonora, did the vigor and tension drop.

Leah Crocetto’s Leonora was certainly one to be indulged, with her confident control of pianissimi, long-breathed lines, hall-filling high notes and warm tone. And she had the goods to insert several interpolated notes and to execute the rarely programmed cabaletta following the “Miserere.” Although her characterization was rather blank, she was thrilling in her assured vocalism. All the more reason to lament her tendency to luxuriate in too many phrases and take too leisurely a tempo at signal moments needing more thrust. Nevertheless, it was evident at evening’s end why she was allowed the final bow, despite the tradition of allowing the title character that honor.

That is not to say that Noah Stewart’s Manrico was anything to be labeled secondary. His firm, open tenor held sway over the orchestra when called for, pumping out clarion notes and fiery declamation. He also demonstrated a pleasing mezza voce, especially in the third act’s “Ah, si, ben mio” and the final scene’s “Ai nostri monti” duet. His characterization was intense and restless, underscored by his youthful demeanor. There often was the sense that he was pushing his voice to sound bigger than its natural disposition and sometimes there were notes not fully on pitch (especially in his two off-stage moments), causing some concern that he might be damaging a beautiful, natural instrument.

Liam Bonner’s Di Luna was youthful and good-looking as well, his booming baritone impressive, especially the higher up the scale he went, although the quieter and more legato passages allowed a woolier, less focused sound to crept in. His “Il balen” was suitable applauded and he gave all his scenes an exciting energy. Robynne Redmon’s Azucena seemed too blandly acted and sung to begin with (although better than the overacting that comes from some in the role), but she grew in intensity and vocal display as the evening progressed, her scene’s with Di Luna and Manrico in the fourth act immensely satisfying. Richard Ollarsaba made a fine, precisely sung Ferrando, Stephanie Foley Davis a sympathetic Ines and John Cashwell a devoted Ruiz.

The staging in front of the onstage orchestra was kept mercifully simple by director David Paul, using a few benches and camp chairs. Although there was a certain amount of repetitive exchanging of places, for the most part the staging was just enough to indicate the action properly.  A few projections (stained glass for the church, flames for Azucena’s memory of the stake) added scenic interest, greatly abetted by Ross Kolman’s dramatic lighting and floor patterns.

The men’s chorus sang generally well but chorus master Nathan Leaf had the women’s chorus in transcendent form for the off-stage nun’s chorus that floats so beautifully at the end of act two. The men’s chorus, in black shirts and trousers, sat on platforms flanking the orchestra. The women’s chorus also wore black when on stage, enhanced with simple nun’s headgear for the convent scene (although having some in pants drew unnecessary attention). The principals were in lovely period costumes that enriched the production, save for Di Luna’s fourth act outer garment that looked too much like a fancy bathrobe.

With the singers out front and out of view of the conductor, there were several false starts and tempo disagreements. That problem, along with the inevitable fish-nor-fowl elements of semi-staging, might argue for future unstaged, true concert performances where singers and conductor could concentrate on making the most of the music without other distractions. Still, this semi-staging was a vast improvement over the company’s concert “Faust” last season, a production that tried too hard to be like a full performance (along with distracting and competing projections). With a few tweaks, staging such as this “Trovatore” should work well for a number of operas that might be too taxing for full production by this company.

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Here are my reviews of North Carolina Opera’s earlier productions in its 2011-12 season, both of which were previously published in the Raleigh News & Observer:

N.C. Opera’s “Enfants Terribles” Gripping, Creative

Raleigh, NC January 21, 2012:

N. C. Opera’s gripping, imaginative production of “Les Enfants Terribles,” by Philip Glass, again proves that its finest presentations are contemporary works. Like Britten’s “Turn of the Screw” last season, “Enfants” displays the highest levels of creativity and musicality, immensely satisfying in ways the company’s more traditional opera stagings rarely achieve.

It’s the disturbing tale of Paul and his sister Lise, whose close bonds create their own special world. But when Paul suddenly falls for Agathe, Lise pushes her towards Gérard, Lise’s would-be suitor, changing all their lives forever.

Glass is widely known for his driving rhythms and mesmerizing repetitions, often quite challenging in his early, symbolic operas. For this 1996 work, the music is much more melodic and immediate, employing French dialog for the vocal lines directly from the 1950 Jean Cocteau film.

Glass adds some unique elements to “Enfants.” The orchestration is for three pianos, giving the music a lush but crisply percussive sound world. It’s also written for both singers and dancers.

Robert Weiss, artistic director of Carolina Ballet, astutely matches a dancer to each singer, creating doppelgängers that elucidate the characters’ psychological states. Sometimes moving in tandem, sometimes in mirror images, sometimes on their own, the performers are beautifully set off by Jeff A. R. Jones’ ever-changing scenic designs, enhanced by Roz Fulton’s haunting projections and Ross Kolman’s moodily atmospheric lighting. Conductor Wilson Southerland, playing along with Spencer Blank and Tad Hardin, gives the score great energy and lyricism.

Timothy McDevitt uses his well-rounded baritone to give Paul appropriate aloofness and introspection, equaled by Gabor Kapin’s intensely focused dance version. Soprano Jessica Cates finds the right insouciance for Lise, greatly enlarged by Lara O’Brien’s manic spins and joyful leaps. Mezzo Nicole Rodin and dancer Lindsay Purrington each characterize Agathe with warmth and innocence. As Gérard, tenor Philippe Pierce has few singing lines but keeps the piece moving with the character’s poetic English narration, while Yevgeny Shlapko dances him with quiet strength.

“Enfants” is so startlingly fresh and engagingly theatrical that minor staging and musical quibbles are easily swept aside. The production is recommended to first-timers and aficionados alike as something neither will likely have ever experienced.

 

N.C. Opera’s “Carmen” Delights & Disappoints

Raleigh, NC October 16, 2011

N.C. Opera faces a down economy while attempting one of the most expensive art forms. With many regional companies reducing seasons or folding, N.C. Opera deserves credit just for mounting such a huge undertaking as Bizet’s “Carmen.”

There are delights in the production, but also disappointments. Those who have never seen the famous tale of the freedom-loving gypsy and her dangerously jealous lover will find a number of pleasures, whereas those steeped in the opera may wonder at some of the cuts and staging choices.

Within the production’s conventional concept, Leann Sandel-Pantaleo’s Carmen is appropriately independent and defiant, her firm mezzo capable of fiery outbursts and soft insinuations. William Joyner confidently vocalizes Don José, playing up the besotted awkwardness of his obsession. Andrea Edith Moore’s Micaëla, in love with Don José, garners the biggest ovation for her emotional act three aria vowing to confront Carmen. Toreador Escamillo challenges young David Williams, his light baritone often lost in the orchestration and impish characterization contradicting the bullfighter’s swaggering image. As Carmen’s cohorts, Jennifer Seiger’s Mercédès and Rachel Copeland’s Frasquita contribute vocal energy, notably in the act two quintet, humorously abetted by DeMar Neal’s Dancaïro and Wade Henderson’s Remendado. Nathan Leaf’s chorus adds thrilling weight and bite throughout.

N.C. Opera uses the opéra comique version of “Carmen” with spoken dialogue instead of orchestrated recitative. That helps reduce a long evening, but to hold the production to just three hours, cuts have been made. Some are negligible (a prelude; sections of choruses) but others are major, including the joyous act three smugglers’ ensemble and all of the festive opening of act four, diminishing the opera’s scope. Conductor Timothy Myers takes a breezy, light-handed approach appropriate to the comique version, although even then the 43-piece orchestra sometimes sounds underpowered.

The rented sets are drab, Michele Hite’s costuming minimal and Jeff Davis’ lighting uneven. Director Candace Evans’s traditional notions don’t distract except when placing major action too far upstage for maximum vocal impact.

N.C. Opera’s “Carmen” doesn’t show the company at its best but it still proves that live opera trumps experiencing it in any medium.

Date posted: April 28, 2012

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