Happy Thanksgiving!

Eric Owens as Alberich in Das Rheingold

Check out the October 11 post for a little dessert bonbon – if you’re not too full: http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/alexross/?xrail

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Vivaldi’s Montezuma: What a Trill!

Antoine Plante

 For one night only the spirited opera rarity Montezuma was presented in concert version by Mercury Baroque. Antonio Vivaldi composed the piece in 1733, but it was lost until 2002 when it was discovered in Berlin.

 The sound of the opera is unmistakably Vivaldi: lively tempo, lilting melodies, exuberant, virtuosic.  It was a little strange hearing this style of music telling a story about Spanish conquistadors invading the Aztec empire of Mexico. But no one ever said opera isn’t sometimes very odd.


Danial Zuluaga on the theorbo

The Mercury Baroque ensemble is the tightest baroque orchestra you are ever likely to hear.  Their sound is never ponderous, but light, airy, and precise. Quebec native Antoine Plante, Artistic Director, is a masterful programmer, conductor, and schmoozer – all necessary to the success of this blooming organization.  Or should I say blossomed? Mercury Baroque is ten years old this year!

Sumner Thompson and Meg Bragle in rehearsal

 Another outstanding feature of the evening was the superb talent gathered to sing this little gem. They were by far the best group I have ever heard sing with Mercury Baroque.

 During the last aria of Teutile, Montezuma’s daughter (Kiri Deonarine), I felt that I was experiencing a moment of perfect beauty – the stars were aligned between singer, orchestra, composer, and the moment.

Michael Maniaci (photo by Michael Cooper)


Michael Maniaci, male soprano, is someone I could write an entire post about – and may do so. He sang the part of Ramiro, brother of the Spanish conquistador and lover of Teutile (Romeo & Juliet situation). His sound is so unique and meltingly gorgeous – a great talent.

 Sumner Thompson sang Montezuma with outstanding agility in the baroque vocal ornamentations, not so common for a baritone. Even though his character was usually angry, he still sang with beautiful tone and expression.

 Another standout was mezzo-soprano Meg Bragle as Mitrena (Mrs. Montezuma). Her nimble voice knew no bounds; she made the baroque flourishes and trills seem effortless – which they are NOT. All these singers had incredible technique.

 Canadian powerhouse soprano Shannon Mercer played Fernando, the invading Spanish conquistador.  Her voice, technique, acting, and sheer energy drew all eyes and ears to her. She/he was also usually angry which she demonstrated in a forceful way.

 Contrary to historical fact, a happy ending was tacked on to the end of the opera: no one dies and the lovers are united.  In the opera Mexico is invaded by a foreign power, all parties are angry, lives are threatened, suicide is frequently considered, but the musical score to the story is lilting, light, and happy.  An oddity to modern ears, but all in a day’s composing in the Baroque era!

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Seattle Opera Duo Visits Houston to Check out the Opera

Weekend at Houston Grand Opera

Last weekend Sue Elliott, Seattle Opera’s new Education Director, and I (I’m Jonathan Dean, SO’s Director of Public Programs and Media) had a great adventure dashing to Houston for two exciting opera performances. On Friday we heard the final performance of Peter Grimes, fourth in a series of Britten’s great operas (the others being Billy Budd, Turn of the Screw, and A Midsummer Night’s Dream) which Houston Grand Opera has been presenting, over the last several years, in partnership with several Australian opera companies. The cast featured Patrick Carfizzi, who will soon be coming to Seattle to sing Dr. Bartolo in The Barber of Seville, as the lawyer Mr. Swallow, as well as Joseph Evans as the Reverend Horace Adams (Evans sang Captain Vere when Seattle Opera presented Billy Budd, in ’01.) The terrific singers in the lead roles were Christopher Purves, as Balstrode, Katie Van Kooten, as Ellen, and Anthony Dean Griffey as Grimes; Griffey, who sings a great deal of twentieth-century and American music, recorded the title role in Peter Ibbestson with the Seattle Symphony some years ago. Patrick Summers, HGO’s Music Director, conducted a memorable reading of Britten’s harrowing score, performed ably by HGO’s great orchestra and chorus.


The HGO Chorus menaces Griffey as Peter Grimes with the song “Old Joe has gone fishing” (Felix Sanchez photo)

 Intense and beautiful as that performance was, the next night was just as wild: the sold-out world premiere of Cruzar la Cara de la Luna/To Cross the Face of the Moon, a brand-new opera with music by José “Pepe” Martínez, Director of Mariachi Vargas de Tecalitlán, the most important and influential Mariachi group in the world. Created under the auspices of Song of Houston, an ongoing series of new works that uses musical storytelling to engage members of the community who may be new to opera, Cruzar la Cara de la Luna tells a story about family, belonging, and a physical and spiritual journey there and back again between Michoacán, Mexico and Texas. The libretto was written (with Martínez) by Leonard Foglia, who also directed the world premiere semi-staged production last weekend. (Foglia made his Seattle Opera debut in 2005 directing The End of the Affair.) They’ll be presenting a staged production in a few weeks at Talento Bilingüe de Houston. It was a privilege to be in attendance at the world’s first-ever Mariachi opera; the story was deeply moving, and Martínez’s music is justly renowned. To learn more about this exciting new opera, or hear some of its music, CLICK HERE.

Mariachi Vargas de Tecalitlán was the orchestra at the world premiere, standing behind the singers in this semi-staged performance

Beyond hearing these memorable performances, Sue and I had all sorts of culinary adventures with Southwestern and Mexican cuisine–Houston is a great city for opera and for food!    (Opera Out Loud agrees with that!)

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Rice’s L’incoronazione di Poppea Admired by Arts Nerd

It just dawned on me recently that I am an arts nerd. I alert my Facebook friends when I have a new blog post, and I can just see them rolling their eyes – there she goes again –waxing on about some odd opera thing or other.

So I am going to put it to you, my tiny audience, shall I continue as I am or switch over to cute dog pictures or a baking diary?

But before we ax this whole thing, I must let you know about the really incredibly professional performance I saw last Tuesday of L’incoronazione di Poppea at Rice University’s Wortham Theatre.

Over all it was so well done – way beyond expectations for a college opera program – that one of my arts nerd sidekicks said it was the best Coronation he had ever seen or ever hoped to see!

The singing was not just adequate, but all in all very beautiful. The acting was accomplished (great direction does not hurt!). The set design and costumes were better than many a professional opera production. 

The small orchestra conducted by Richard Bado was filled out with two harpsichords, organ, archlute, guitar, and baroque cello, plus a regular string section and two onstage trumpeters who added some real pomp to the coronation scene itself. So we got period instruments and the whole shooting match.  Did I mention all the players were excellent and Mo. Bado a winning conductor? Well, they were and he was.

Standout performers were:

  • Carlton Ford as Ottone who demonstrated excellent body expression and acting and who used his lovely baritone voice so expressively.
  • Chelsea Morris as Poppea (five costume changes – wow!!) who connived in such a beautiful way with her crystal clear, lyric soprano voice.
  • Brenton Ryan as Nero whose chiseled blond good looks did not stop him from becoming the lustful, power mad, sleazy emperor. More stage movement excellence here. The tenor’s dramatic singing was above reproach.
  • Carolyn Sproule as Ottavia (three costumes).  OK, she was mad that her husband was having a notorious affair, and she schemed to have the slut woman killed, but her dramatic soprano instrument was so pleasing to the ear, we couldn’t blame her!
  • Amy Owens as Drusilla had a smaller part, but she made a big impact with her crisp, flowing soprano and some excellent acting.
  • Tyson Miller as Arnalta, confidante of Poppea.  Tyson is a young man, but I was unaware of this fact until I got home and studied the program. Sure, I thought ‘she’ looked like a mannish woman, and had an awfully BIG voice, but he convinced me with his female movement and gestures. Aside from the gender issue, this comic role was expertly executed with a singular style.
  • Lauren Iezzi as Ottavia’s confidante possesses a gorgeous dark low mezzo that will take her far; Daniel Sherill and Joseph Mishler, as the two soldiers in Act I, possessors of two very different but pleasing and well-delivered tenor voices.

 I am stopping myself now, or I will list the entire cast as standouts, because truly they were.

The opera ends as the newly married couple sings an exquisite duet in counterpoint, beautiful enough to make you forget how bad they are. The characters who were sacrificed – now either dead or banished – to make their union possible appear behind them.  It was an excellent and satisfying touch to end an outstanding performance.

PS I would dearly love to have a nice photo of this production. I can add it in later. Pre-thanks to whoever can send me one. laurienow@comcast.net 

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Rich French Weekend at Round Top

Fountain at Festival Hill

Last weekend I had the best time at the Annual Theatre Forum held at the Round Top Festival Institute in Round Top, Texas.  Each year the weekend’s activities and presentations are built around a theatre-related topic or person.  This year’s topic was Molière (1622-1673) and the theatre of the French Baroque period. 

 Lucky for me I knew very little about any of that, so I was all ears.  I learned quite a lot, for instance, did you know that the name Molière is a one name moniker like Madonna or Cher?   His real name was Jean-Baptiste Poquelin, but he took on this alias to save his family from embarrassment because of his occupation as an actor (in those days, highly disreputable) and over the shame of having had to go to debtor’s prison for a spell.


Molière is considered one of the foremost comedic playwrights in Western literature. He wrote Tartuffe, Le Bourgeois gentilhomme, Le Misanthrope, and Psyché, to list a few.  He lived during the colorful period of King Louis XIV (1638-1715). He and his acting troupe won favor with the king, eventually becoming the “Troupe de Roi” (king’s troupe) with the privilege of performing at the Louvre and the Palais Royale.

The speakers at this forum are the same each year and are a big part of the attraction.  They are a group of very learned, talented, and fun people.  Our first speaker was Felicia Londré, a renowned theater historian, actor, director, author of twelve books, and fluent French-speaker. She is the Curators’ Professor of Theatre at the University of Missouri – Kansas City where she teaches theatre history and dramaturgy. Her talk and power point images introduced us to the historical period of the 17th century, what was going on in the French theatre at that time, and why Louis XIV always had a shapely leg or two poking out from under his exquisite robes in every portrait ever painted (because he was a dancer and proud of them)!

King Louis XIV

Our next speaker/singer was Vern Sutton who spoke about French Baroque opera whose star composer was Jean-Baptiste Lully. Vern opened with an aria from a Lully opera accompanied by Keith Chambers on the piano. He sang two more while delivering his presentation.  Talk about explaining, then demonstrating, all by yourself!  A retired University of Minnesota professor of opera, Vern is also an accomplished actor, opera performer (tenor), and was a regular performer in the early years of Garrison Keillor’s A Prairie Home Companion. 

Ann Thompson, opera maven to all of Houston – and beyond, as well as friend and opera mentor to me, spoke next on the subject of dance.  Ballet was king, and a variety of social dances were also very popular.  The court of Louis XIV spent months at Versailles without much to do except, eat, drink, flirt, and jockey for the king’s favor. One’s expertise at dancing was one important way to gain favor with the opposite sex as well as the dance-obsessed king.

Louis in his costume, "The Sun King"

 Another aspect brought out by Ann was that it was smelly and dirty at the elegant Versailles since bathing was customarily performed only twice a year and there were no facilities for bathroom business.  Perfume was generously splattered on oneself, and there was even a special little tool to scratch one’s head (underneath the voluminous wigs) which was probably crawling with fleas or other critters.     

 Ann lives in Houston where she speaks to a variety of groups about opera:  doing the pre-opera talk at Houston Grand Opera (HGO), describing the opera there for the blind, and hosting a long-standing salon at her home where she speaks in depth about each upcoming HGO production as well as any other related subject that might come up.

 The next event was another highlight. Stage movement and director Michael Harvey spoke to us briefly about the clothes, manners, and personal style of the people in the court of Louis XIV.  Soon, we were invited to learn how to stand, walk, bow, and flirt in the 17th century way!  Important accessories were fans and handkerchiefs (lacy ones meant wealth). The erogenous zones of the period were the hands, neck and the area just below the neck (nicknamed the “brisket”). Movement and posture were modified to attract attention to these “sexy” parts. Needless to say, we had a lot of fun with this. At the end we learned a few steps of the minuet, one of many popular court dances. 

Felicia Londre

We heard from Tom Foral, veteran Broadway and regional theatre actor and painter of portraits and other things, about the new developments in stagecraft and set design led by the Italian Giacomo Torelli.  He introduced machinery to change sets quickly and allow actors to fly through the air or descend onto the stage from above. His innovations were all the rage and changed theatre stagecraft forever. Tom’s expressive and sonorous voice would be heard later in a staged reading on Sunday morning.

Concurrently with all this stimulating stuff, three movie adaptations of Molière’s plays  

Vern Sutton

were shown: The Misanthrope, The Miser, and Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme.  Tours of the beautiful grounds were also offered as well as rousing walks through the woods each morning led by Ann Thompson. I would be remiss if I did not mention the outstanding meals we were served, including the traditional Saturday lunch served al fresco, along with wines with the evening meal.  The menu items are planned with the weekend’s theme in mind, so we enjoyed French dishes: Beef Bourguignon, Chicken Cordon Bleu, éclair, etc.

Ann Thompson

 Saturday night’s after-dinner entertainment included a trio singing a Lully number from a 1668 comedie-ballet, and the showstopper: Felicia Londré delivering a dramatic soliloquy from Racine’s Phèdre. As she spoke in French, I was mesmerized by her embodiment of the broken-hearted lover, and did not need the translation to know what it was all about.  Felicia’s talents seem to have no limit.

Our final entertainment on Sunday was a performance of the Molière comic bonbon called Scapin’s Schemings.  Scapin is the quintessential wily servant

Tom Foral, as he sees himself

who easily manipulates his  employers.  It was performed as a staged reading, had 10 characters, and was directed by Chesley Krohn.  The cast was filled out by actors from the Unity Theatre in Brenham,  professionals all.  Expertly done and very funny, it was a perfect way to end a fun and enriching weekend.

 I cannot close without crediting the wonderful Kate Pogue who has produced the Theatre Forum weekend since its beginning in 1998.  She says it’s a labor of love, but I imagine there are times when she could pull her

Kate Pogue

hair out. Kate is another brainy talent: a playwright, librettist, theatre director, and author of at least two books on Shakespeare.  And on top of all that, she is the most charming and welcoming person you would ever want to know.  Thank you, Kate, for another completely unique and entertaining weekend!

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Boris Godunov: Uneasy Lies the Head That Wears a Crown

Sad Tsar

Rene Pape as Boris Godunov, photo by Nick Heavican courtesy of the Metropolitan Opera

MetOpera live in HD transmitted the opera Boris Godunov live from the Metropolitan Opera stage in New York to movie theaters around the world on Saturday, October 23.  The audience was anticipating something great after all the positive press this production has garnered, especially on the subject of the German basso René Pape who played Boris. We were not to be disappointed.

 Boris Godunov opens with a Prologue: a great crowd has gathered in Moscow and the people are gossiping, worrying, and being ordered around by officials. The music from their voices and the pit is by turns majestic, sorrowful, moody, and bold.  A Holy Fool roams in the crowd. People go out of their way not to hurt him or deprive him of his voice. Boris looks into his eyes for a spiritual secret he might have. Is he the tortured soul of Russia? 

 The opera tells the story of Tsar Boris Godunov who is wracked with guilt about his part in the murder of the Tsarevich Dimitry (the rightful successor to Ivan the Terrible). In the absence of a living heir, Boris is persuaded to be the new tsar, but is filled with trepidation. The coronation takes place.

Bocharov's design for the coronation scene (1874)

 The action moves to a monastery where the old monk Pimen is recording the important events that have occurred in his lifetime to a history of Russia. He writes in a huge oversize book that lies on the floor (this symbol of Russia’s history turns up in Boris’s chamber later). The novice Grigory asks to be told the story of Dimitry’s murder. Pimen observes that, had he lived, the tsarevich (prince) would have been Grigory’s age. This gives Grigory an idea.

 We next see the widower Boris at home with his two children. He is close and easy-going with them and they adore him. His son studies the oversize history book and huge maps that are strewn across the floor. Then, he gets the news that someone pretending to be Dimitry is planning to expose his crime and try to overthrow him. Boris is shaken and imagines he sees a ghost of Dimitry.

 Act III is the frequently cut Polish Act.  For this production it was included. We find Grigory in Poland hoping to gather allies for his cause (claiming to be Dimitry and wresting the crown of Russia away from Boris) as well as win the hand of the Polish Princess Marina. They scheme and the ambitious Marina is persuaded. Rangoni, a corrupt Jesuit priest, helps Marina see what can be gained by throwing in with Grigory.

Coronation of Tsar Boris Godunov, photo by Nick Heavican courtesy of the Metropolitan Opera

Back in Moscow in Act IV, we have another crowd scene where the peasants discuss the rumors and wonder whether the Tsarevich Dimitry is really still alive, and what the impact of a political upset with have on them. The boyars (a combination thug and senator) meet and agree to a death sentence for the false Dimitry.  Boris then enters appearing to be mad and speaking aloud to the ghost of Dimitry, “Begone, child!” He is told an old man has come and wants an audience with Boris who agrees to see him. It is Pimen who tells Boris of a blind man visiting the grave of Dimitry and regaining his sight. This is the last straw for the haunted patriarch: he calls for his son, gives some final advice and dies.

Dimitry, Marina and an army are joined by some Russian peasants on a march to Moscow. Only the Holy Fool remains, lamenting the fate of Russia.

From the first scene of this epic opera, you know you are in foreign, exotic territory from the sounds coming from the orchestra and chorus. The minor pentatonic musical scale signals that you that you are in the East, and that the people are tinged with melancholy. The huge (120 singers) chorus delivers a wave of undulating sound, imparting a mood of restlessness as the people wait to see what will happen.

 The chorus represents the Russian people who are many but powerless. They produce a massive sound, but they are poor, helpless, and hungry and look to a cruel leadership for guidance and approval. They are in turn complaining, begging, laughing, or arguing. They are truly a character in the opera.

 René Pape embodies the role of Boris with his imperial demeanor and powerful sound. His strong, sure, and beautifully toned voice reassures the people. He communicates his benevolence with strength, but is gentle with his children and terrified when he sees ghosts. Each of these different moods is enacted with assurance, and we believe him. Pape is a true singing actor, a great Boris.

Marina, the Polish princess with a thirst for power and the only woman in the opera, is sung by Ekaterina Semenchuk. Her rock solid mezzo-soprano voice was smoky-grey in color and not to be toyed with. All three characters are in the Polish Act are schemers: Marina, the false Dimitry, and the power-hungry and profane priest. The tenor Aleksandrs Antonenko sang Dimitry with great expression and a dramatic and nimble sound. The priest was Evgeny Nikitin and was superbly slimy in his black cassock and red gloves.

Valery Gergiev, conductor

There was even a Russian in the pit. Valery Gergiev led the large orchestra with all the passion, polish, and power at his talented command. He is known as a charismatic and hardworking conductor, always ready to put Russian music and operas in the best light possible.

 Boris Godunov was composed by Modest Mussorgsky in 1869, and then extensively revised in 1872 (adding the Polish scene – thus a woman’s role to the opera – among other changes). After his death in 1881 his friend Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov and later Dmitri Shostakovich also added revisions. There are any number of variations of the opera because of all the revisions, but today some combination of the original Mussorgsky creation is favored. The story was taken from a play by the same name written by Alexander Pushkin.


Detail from Ilya Repin's celebrated portrait of Modest Mussorgsky, painted March 2-5, 1881, only a few days before the composer's death

Mussorgsky and Pushkin were two short-lived Russian artists who never knew each other because they lived in different times. Mussorgsky died from alcoholism at age 42 in 1881 and Pushkin died in 1837 from the wounds he received in a duel. He was 38.

I found Boris Godunov very moving and I would urge anyone to go and see the encore screening which will be on November 10. Check this website for movie times and places:  http://www.fathomevents.com/opera/series/themetropolitanopera.aspx

The title quotation is from Shakespeare:   Henry IV, Part 2, Act III, Scene 1


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Fresh Take, Perfect Cast, Make Madame Butterfly a Huge Hit

From my first glance at the stage I knew we were in for a different kind of Madama Butterfly today. The stage set was unique: designed with a painterly eye, delicate, refined, and simple in its beauty.  We attended the Sunday, October 24 performance of the Houston Grand Opera production.

mme Butterfly

Trevor Casey (Sorrow), Lucy Schaufer (Suzuki), & Ana Maria Martinez (Butterfly). Courtesy of Houston Grand Opera.

 Then the incredible Maltese tenor, Joseph Calleja, took the stage and gave us the best Pinkerton I have ever heard.  His voice was strong, yet nuanced: he was in total control of it.  It’s hard not to hate Pinkerton when you have seen this opera so many times, but his voice and portrayal was so good, it made me suspend my disbelief, for an hour anyway.

 The entrance of the wedding party, culminating in Cio-Cio-San’s arrival, was a thing of beauty, slowly unfolding.  She did an enchanting business with a couple of fans, and her lady friends echoed it in a simpler version.  All the women’s faces were devoid of the garish makeup you frequently see in this opera. We begin to see that body language – and not exaggerated costumes and kitsch – is going to be a more important characterization tool in this production.

 Ana María Martinez, in her first outing in the role of Butterfly, had us at hello.  Her crystal clear and sweet soprano was fashioned and honed to sound like the voice of a young girl. She walked, stood, and gestured with childlike innocence. I have seen her sing many roles, but I instantly forgot them when she became Butterfly, a complete persona down to her posture and a small tilt of the head. Her “Un bel di” was sung with such ardent faith and strength while still looking like a woman from a Japanese painting.

 I could go on, but you get the idea: she was superlative in the role.

Woman and child

Madama Butterfly (Ana Maria Martinez) and Sorrow (Trevor Casey)

 The baritone Levi Hernandez was an excellent Sharpless, doing his part to make this performance near perfect.

 The creative team we have been hearing about really did deliver.  Director Michael Grandage, Set and Costume Designer Christopher Oram, and Lighting Designer Neil Austin gave us a “fresh” Madama Butterfly – like seeing an old familiar friend from someone else’s point of view.  They swept the Tony Awards in June for their creative work on the stage play, Red

 Their elegant and artful stage design conveyed the mood of quiet beauty that is valued in Japanese culture and art. In Act II the scene changes before our eyes: small adjustments are made that alter the mood from warm to cold. The golden-hued proscenium frame was pulled up out of view to reveal a colder silver-tone frame.  The flowering tree departed and left us with some bare branches. Even the scenery is telling the story: love has departed.

Joseph Calleja (Pinkerton) and Ana Maria Martinez (Butterfly)

 Even the child could act! Little Sorrow, Madama Butterfly’s son, was played by Trevor Casey who was the right age (about 3 years old) and seemed very comfortable onstage with his “stage mother,” Ana María Martinez.  Because he was so agreeable, he had a lot more stage time than most children who play this role do.

 The heartbreaking Act III was superbly acted and sung, and was particularly hard to take, because this Butterfly seemed so real.

 Thank you to all involved in this peerless production for a very moving experience.

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