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S & H International Opera Review

Opera in Philadelphia - a season round-up reviewed by Bernard Jacobson


Even leaving out of account the possibility of taking a short trip up the road to New York to get their fix at the Met, Philadelphians have opera coming at them from a variety of sources. The principal one - aside from recordings - is the Opera Company of Philadelphia, formed in 1975 by way of a merger of the Philadelphia Grand Opera Company and the Philadelphia Lyric Opera, and led since 1991 by general director Robert B. Driver. Then, among organizations that work on a somewhat smaller scale, the two that rank highest are the AVA Opera Theatre and the Curtis Opera Theatre, performing wings respectively of the Academy of Vocal Arts and the Curtis Institute of Music.

All three completed their 2003/04 production schedules in the course of May, and a look back at some of their achievements in recent months reveals a generally encouraging picture. When Robert Driver took over the helm at the Opera Company from his predecessor Margaret Anne Everitt, I was not at first impressed by the results. During Ms. Everitt’s tenure, acknowledged artistic achievements had been undercut by administrative shortcomings in the company; Mr. Driver seemed to present inverse qualities, tightening organization while aiming rather lower than his predecessor in the artistic sphere. Gradually, however, the latter perception has been to a large degree erased. Productions - some of them staged by Driver himself - have improved markedly in the last few years. Musical standards have been maintained, and the April 2004 appointment of Corrado Rovaris as the first music director in the company’s history promises further advances in that sphere too. Meanwhile, assisted in the past two years by the Philadelphia Orchestra’s move to new quarters in the neighboring Kimmel Center, which has left the Opera Company much greater freedom of scheduling in the Academy of Music, attendance has improved and the schedule increased this past season to a roster of five productions, each performed seven times.

The operas we saw in 2003/04 were Verdi’s Il trovatore and Don Carlo, Carlisle Floyd’s Susannah, Bizet’s The Pearl Fishers, and Offenbach’s The Grand Duchess of Gerolstein. The productions for the most part respected the works in hand and brought them cogently and vividly to life. Least satisfactory in dramatic terms was the Trovatore staging, but a strong cast, including Patricia Racette’s Leonora, Viktor Afanasenko’s Manrico, Barbara Dever’s Azucena, and the Count di Luna of Gregg Baker (a perennial company favorite, and one of the finest American baritones now before the public), made this quintessential singers’ opera a success. Though it was given in the truncated four-act form that omits the crucial opening Fontainebleau scene, Don Carlo was magnificently staged, apart from an incomprehensible rush of blood to the head that led director Patrick Mailler to have the monk in the final scene stab Carlo to death instead of rescuing him from the King and the Grand Inquisitor. Here again the leading roles, including Eduardo Villa’s Carlo, Franco Vassallo’s Rodrigo, Angela Brown’s Elisabetta, and Gustav Andreassen’s Inquisitor, were in excellent hands. "Excellent" would be an understatement to describe Vitalij Kowaljow’s King Philip: the Ukrainian bass revealed a voice of outstanding beauty and power. The widely anticipated appearance of Ewa PodleÑ, on the other hand, turned out disappointing, both because she made an uncomfortably stiff stage figure, and because she is evidently ill at ease singing Italian. Altogether, though, this was a Don Carlo worthy to stand alongside the best versions I have seen of what may well be Verdi’s greatest opera.

Of the other three works presented, the impact of Susannah was decidedly mixed. The production, both dramatically under Driver’s own hand and musically under the baton of Stewart Robertson (making his Opera Company debut), with contributions from such fine singers as David Pittsinger and Mary Mills, did everything it could to cast the best light on Carlisle Floyd’s 1955 piece of Americana. But the actual music is fatally flawed: phrase after phrase comes to a complete stop, only for the sequence of banalities to start afresh and then to stop again - and it seems counterproductive to craft a work that obviously aims at vivid, folksong-like communication with a general audience, and then not to offer a single tune that stays in the listener’s mind when he leaves the theater.

The final French twosome in April and May of Bizet’s romantic Pearl Fishers and Offenbach’s delightfully irreverent Grand Duchess were, on the other hand, total triumphs. Jacques Lacombe, one of the best conductors to have worked with the company in recent seasons, drew all the sensuousness and grace from Bizet’s score that it encompasses, and Kay Walker Castaldo made me forget some of her questionable earlier directorial efforts with an admirably straightforward treatment of the story, enhanced by Boyd Ostroff’s effective sets and lighting and Richard St. Clair’s costumes. The latter were, to tell the truth, more striking for their relative exiguity than for any undue sumptuousness, the two male leads both being left bare-chested throughout. Fortunately, both William Burden, as Nadir, and Nathan Gunn, as Zurga, revealed physiques as impressive as their voices; and the handling of Zurga’s relationship with Leïla - the sweet-voiced and dramatically intense Mary Dunleavy - was an unusually assured and convincing stage realization of the painful inner conflict that tears this ambivalent character apart.

Offenbach’s satirical yet joyful jeu d’esprit offered a winning conclusion to a thoroughly enjoyable season. Emmanuel Joel’s conducting and Dorothy Danner’s inventive staging were just two of many contributing factors. The piece was done in English, and fitted out with some apt contemporary and local references that added to the audience’s mirth. Gordon Gietz’s Fritz and Kevin Glavin’s irrepressibly energetic and humorous General Boum were among the star solo turns. But the last word on this particular production must go to the Duchess of Stephanie Blythe - an assumption of complete theatrical conviction, delicious wit, and unfailing vocal splendor.

So far, so admirable. I wish I could add that everything in the Opera Company’s garden promises to remain lovely. Unfortunately, recent financial reverses have led to a substantial cut-back in the plans previously announced for the 2004/05 season. The projected schedule of five productions played seven times each has been trimmed to four productions, each played six times - and the saddest part of the reductions has been to remove both Mozart’s rarely-seen La clemenza di Tito and Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin from the bill. The surviving roster of Gounod’s Faust, Donizetti’s Don Pasquale, Verdi’s Aida, and Johann Strauss’s Die Fledermaus looks decidedly short of real artistic substance: one serious masterpiece, two charming lightweight comedies, and Gounod’s romantic warhorse hardly constitute what one expects to experience in the season of a major company. We can only hope that the downturn can be reversed before too long.

Running concurrently with the performances outlined above have been the less ambitious but often artistically rewarding programs of the Academy of Vocal Arts and Curtis. These offer what are to some degree student productions, but the student casts in both cases are usually of a high standard, productions are professionally directed and conducted, and the orchestral element, provided in AVA’s case by the Chamber Orchestra of Philadelphia and in Curtis’s by that institution’s unsurpassed instrumental resources, is always impressive. In the season just concluded I saw (with the exception of a musically resplendent Miss Julie, part of the Ned Rorem 80th-birthday celebration, which I reviewed last November in these pages) only one Curtis production: Britten’s The Rape of Lucretia, presented in the city’s Prince Music Theater, and expertly conducted by David Hayes. Vanessa Gilbert’s refreshingly direct and lyrical staging happily expunged memories of the appalling production of the same work that Curtis perpetrated a few years ago, with soldiers in modern uniforms brandishing pistols that often made nonsense of the libretto. The updating, moreover, also made nonsense of the "Christian" framing of the plot, which is supposed to provide justification and expiation for Lucretia’s sufferings in the future, not centuries before the story appears to be happening.

The notion that Christian doctrine can justify the sufferings of the innocent is present both in Lucretia and in Britten’s Billy Budd. As an agnostic, I have always found this notion a deeply repellent one. But there is a further weakness in Ronald Duncan’s Lucretia libretto, and that is its omission of a plot element that explains the heroine’s capitulation to Tarquinius. In Shakespeare’s version of the story, Tarquin tells Lucretia: "Yield to my love; if not, enforced hate,/Instead of love’s coy touch, shall rudely tear thee;/That done, despitefully I mean to bear thee/Unto the base bed of some rascal groom,/To be thy partner in this shameful doom." In other words, "even if you don’t give in, I shall make sure that your husband thinks you did." To leave this out is to undermine our understanding of Lucretia’s fate. In this production, there was a kind of curtain in front of the stage carrying a Latin narration of the story. It was a fine decorative idea. It was also hard to read, because of the folds in the curtain material. But that part of the story was there. So the scenery knew more about the mechanisms of the plot than the libretto did - a curious irony, to be sure.

No such complexities and moral ambiguities are to be sought or found in Donizetti’s L’elisir d’amore, which was the final production of AVA’s season. Directed by Chuck Hudson, and skillfully conducted, like all of AVA’s productions, by Christofer Macatsoris, this was an unmitigated delight from beginning to end. On Peter Harrison’s simple but effective sets, the equally simple but effective story was presented without any attempt to transfer it into a world alien to the one its creators envisaged for it. Music and plot alike, in consequence, came irresistibly into their own. As is usual with AVA (and Curtis) productions, casts changed from one performance to another. The one I saw featured strong performances from Stephen Costello as Nemorino, Eric T. Dubin as Belcore, and Keith Miller as Dulcamara. But the revelation of the evening was the Adina of Ailyn Perez, a second-year student at the Academy of Vocal Arts. This is a young soprano of star potential and already of stunning artistry. She looks good and moves well on stage; she has a voice of rare charm and surprising power; and she sang with a well-founded confidence in her technical resources that had the many taxing high notes and florid passages in her role ringing out with awesome clarity and not the slightness trace of harshness. I doubt that it will be long before she finds herself adorning the fully professional stages of companies around the world - look out for her.

Bernard Jacobson


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