Savannah Festival Embraces Opera, And It’s A Stretch

A scene from the Savannah Music Festival production of Puccini's 'Gianni Schicchi.'  (Photo by Elizabeth Leitzell)
A scene from the 2015 Savannah Music Festival’s updated production of Puccini’s ‘Gianni Schicchi.’
(Photo by Elizabeth Leitzell)
By James L. Paulk

SAVANNAH — The big news at the Savannah Music Festival this year is that opera has been added to the mix. The festival, which runs through April 4, already has what is surely the broadest palette of any comparable festival in the world, ranging from country to folk to jazz to chamber, with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra even being bused over for a single concert.

The cast of Puccini's 'Suor Angelica' in Savannah. (Frank Stewart)
The cast of Puccini’s ‘Suor Angelica’ in Savannah. (Frank Stewart)

Still, opera is different. There’s the cost. As George Bernard Shaw said: “Opera is the most expensive invention of man, second only to war.” America’s major opera companies spend in the range of $1 million for every night they open the doors (the Metropolitan Opera spends much more), with ticket sales covering only a fraction of that amount. But opera is also just more complex than other art forms: There’s a full orchestra in the pit; there are the production, staging, and acting demands of theater; and, most important, there’s the singing. It’s the ultimate collaboration.

On the other hand, opera fans tend to be committed, affluent, and willing to travel, often great distances, to attend performances. The Savannah festival’s arch-rival, Charleston’s Spoleto Festival USA, was founded by an opera composer (Gian Carlo Menotti) and has always had opera as its centerpiece, typically staging three operas each season and focusing on new or rare works or edgy productions likely to attract the cognoscenti. On some nights there, it seems half the audience has flown in from New York.

Rob Gibson, who has run the Savannah Music Festival since its creation in 2002, when it took over a much more modest local festival, has taken note. “I had always hoped to produce opera,” he said, “but the expense and my not having produced it before were factors.” And then, along came the Savannah Voice Festival, a training program for young singers started by the legendary baritone Sherrill Milnes and his wife, Maria Zouves, its director. Gibson saw an opportunity and “our conversations led to a collaboration.”

Veronica Villarroel in the title role in 'Suor Angelica.' (Stewart)
Veronica Villarroel in the title role in ‘Suor Angelica.’ (Stewart)

The idea seems to have been to give the voice festival students some exposure while producing professional grade opera. The result was a Puccini double bill which opened March 20. Puccini’s Il trittico consists of three one-act operas designed to be presented in one evening, but occasionally they are given separately or with one opera dropped. Here, Il tabarro, was deleted.

Up first was Suor Angelica. A tragedy set in a convent, it’s often performed by student groups because it offers so many easily managed roles for female voices, which predominate in voice programs. It does have a few meaty roles, however, and here the casting got interesting. Chilean soprano Veronica Villarroel had a significant international career starting around 1990. She seems to have receded from view in the last decade or so, but the reputation lingers. So it appeared to be a bit of a coup to land her for the title role, presumably the result of Milnes’ influence.

Villarroel’s sound is still huge, especially in contrast to that of the students. But the voice now seems beyond her control, intonation is erratic, and the top is brittle. The lovely colors are gone. It’s always painful to hear a great singer trying to recapture lost glories, and it seemed even more poignant in this sad, youthful role.

Of the professional singers, mezzo-soprano Susan Nicely stole the show as the cruel Principessa (Angelica’s aunt). Much of the role is parlando, sung in a way that suggests speech, but she revealed a gleaming top voice when called for, together with a truckload of charisma. Jessica Ann Best, the Abbess, gave a commanding performance despite occasional intonation issues. Soprano Micaëla Oeste, as Sister Genovieffe, revealed a sweet, distinctive sound. The younger singers were all competent. One major asset here was the glorious acoustics of Lucas Theatre, one of the most voice-friendly rooms in Georgia.

Legendary baritone Sherrill Milnes. (
Legendary baritone Sherrill Milnes. (

Conductor Eugene Kohn famously spent his youth accompanying both Renata Tebaldi and Maria Callas (the character Manny in Terrence McNally’s play Master Class was based on him). Here, he seemed to be doing the same thing: coddling the singers with gentle tempi and dynamics rather than giving us the kind of atmospheric reading Suor Angelica demands.

Savannah once had a salaried, professional orchestra, the only one in Georgia besides the Atlanta Symphony, with a budget in excess of $2.5 million in the 1990’s. Sadly, it went broke in 2003, weeks before the Savannah Music Festival’s first season, at which it was to perform. In 2008, the Savannah Philharmonic Orchestra was organized as a “per session” orchestra. Meanwhile, the music festival has gotten by without an orchestra, except for the Atlanta Symphony’s one-night stand (scheduled for March 28). This season, the festival has begun using the Savannah Philharmonic as a sort of house band, and the opera performance was its festival debut.

Unfortunately, on this night they didn’t seem quite up to the job. There were problems with intonation all around, brass errors, and general murkiness. Spoleto USA’s Festival Orchestra, which imports players from all over the country, is simply in a different league.

Suor Angelica doesn’t ask for an elaborate production, and director Joachim Schamberger, who also designed the sets, was clearly working within a tight budget.  He limited things to static projections on scrims, mostly stone walls suggesting a convent, with a few simple props in the foreground.

In the libretto, when Angelica hears of the death of her illegitimate son, she commits suicide, which becomes a sort of transfiguration as her prayers are answered by the Virgin Mary. Schamberger decided on a “more hopeful” finale, in which Angelica seems to have a vision, but changes her mind about suicide after her encounter with the dead son, all done with busy projections. No great harm was done, but the reinterpretation might have made more sense elsewhere, for an audience more likely to be familiar with the original ending and ready to take on alternatives.

Mark Delavan, center, as the scheming Schicchi. (Elizabeth Leitzell)
Mark Delavan, center, as the scheming Schicchi. (Elizabeth Leitzell)

The sprightly comedy Gianni Schicchi came off much better. The fine baritone Mark Delavan dominated the stage with his powerful voice and scenery-chewing charisma. In the opera, a greedy family, disinherited by their wealthy cousin, schemes with Schicchi’s help to replace his will. Much of the cast carried over from Suor Angelica. Of these, mezzo-soprano Nicely was especially delightful as Zita, one of the oldest and most colorful of the cousins.

There is a subplot with a pair of young lovers, and a young Argentine tenor, Santiago Ballerini, showed considerable promise here. Good tenor voices are quite rare and seem to take forever to develop, but there was enough classic Italian tenor sound going on here to suggest that something was up. Keep an eye on Ballerini. He was paired with Oeste and she was delightful in “O mio babbino caro,”a declaration of her love sung to her father, Schicchi, and the opera’s big show-stopping aria.

The rest of the large cast came across well, with more vocal heft all around than the Suor Angelica cast could muster. This seemed to free Kohn and his orchestra to give us a bit more sound and atmosphere. The errors and pitch problems persisted, but weren’t nearly as noticeable as before.

For Gianni Schicchi, Schamberger updated things to the present day. When the curtain opened, the dying cousin was in a hospital bed hooked up to machines, and a digital pulse readout moved across a scrim in the foreground. Singers walked through the audience as they came and went. This opera is almost fool-proof and it all worked rather well, though the acting was sometimes awkwardly directed. One fight scene was so ineptly staged as to be amusing.

Still, things ended on a happy note due, largely due to the splendid contributions of Delavan. In the pre-curtain talk, Milnes said this was “the first of many opera performances to come.” So, in essence, this was the birth of a new opera company, something quite rare and exciting these days.

Pianist Sebastian Knauer leading Mozart from the keyboard. (Stewart)
Pianist Sebastian Knauer leading Mozart from the keyboard. (Stewart)

Each day of opening weekend offered a different experience for classical fans. On March 21, for the first performance of the chamber music series, we got the gifted pianist Sebastian Knauer performing Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 9 in E-flat (“Jeunehomme”) and the elegant violinist Daniel Hope performing the adolescent Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto in D minor.

In both cases, they were accompanied by the Savannah Philharmonic, which soon encountered some of the same problems that occurred in the operas. Regrettably, this simply isn’t an orchestra that can play at the international level that the festival seems to aspire to — the level of major classical music festivals around the country and, for that matter, the level this festival has set for itself with its own chamber series in prior years.

On March 22, Russian pianist Nicolai Lugansky performed a series of short selections by Schubert and Tchaikovsky. He is an exciting artist, especially in the Tchaikovsky, where he was able to display the breathtaking range of his interpretive ability and his formidable technique. I left wanting more.

Other classical performers on tap this year include pianists Murray Perahia and Stephen Hough, the Emerson String Quartet and Brooklyn Rider. Cellist Lynn Harrell will perform as part of the Atlanta Symphony concert. This can be a place to immerse yourself for a few days, with breaks to enjoy the glories of Savannah in peak azalea season.

Overall, the festival must be doing something right. As Gibson told me, “During the past 12 years, we’ve grown from an $850,000 annual budget to nearly $4 million, from a 10-day event to a 17-day event with triple the number of performances.” To have done so at a time when arts organizations are contracting all over the country is truly remarkable.

For most events during the festival, it’s possible to simply show up and purchase a ticket. To obtain a complete schedule, or to purchase advance tickets, go here or call 912-525-5050.

James L. Paulk is a freelance critic and writes regularly for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.