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Mezzo-soprano Mary Charlotte Elia with Pianist Sharon Foxwell
present a Classical Art Song Recital and More
Hofheimer Theater at VWC, August 22, 2015
Review by John Campbell

The virtual art song society became a reality on Saturday evening when our friend Charlotte Elia returned to the stage in a solo art song recital titled “My Next Mistake.” The title is borrowed from a line in a Taylor Swift song and provoked a smile long before she sang. More about this later.

From sunny, 16th century Florence, Italy came the opening song, Amarilli, mia bella (Amaryllis, My Beautiful One) by Giulio Caccini (c.1546-1618) with an expressive vocal line. Each repetition of the beloved’s name has a different ornamentation. In the 10 years or so since her last recital, Ms. Elia’s voice has become richer and darker and was scintillating in this truly great early art song. Paired in the opening Italian set was Se tu m’ami (If you love me) by Alessandro Parisotti (1853-1913). Here the singer becomes the shepherdess, a charming coquette who will not confine herself to only one lover. But this turns around in Caro mio ben (My Dear Beloved) by Giuseppe Giordani (1751-1798) where the lover bemoans the casualness with which she is treated. The power in the voice becomes visible as the passion builds in the high, penultimate phrases.

Ms. Elia, who is an exceptionally gifted German scholar, devoted one half of the program to a unique set of German songs that delved deeply into expressions of romantic love. Franz Schubert's (1797-1828) Suleika I, D720 and Suleika II, D718 were published as part of the writings of Goethe but were actually written by Marianne von Wellemer and taken from a 14-month correspondence between the two. The music is vibrant with life, desire and passion, with messages carried by the east wind in the first song and the west in the second. The voice caressed the word “caressingly,” expressing serious, adult passion that builds throughout the first Suleika and becomes lighter in mood in the second.

The singer and pianist did not sip water, leave and return to the stage between sets or even pause very long. Displaying amazing vocal stamina with continual support by Ms. Foxwell, five of German Romanticism’s greatest hits came next. Du bist wie eine Blume (You are like a flower) by Robert Schumann (1810-1856) is a lovely tune that engages heart strings and was followed by Die Mainacht by Johannes Brahms (1833-1897). The singer exults in seeing the smiling face of the beloved, only to end with a tear, fearing that there is no such soul on earth. The singer wipes away that tear in Gustav Mahler’s Aus! Aus! (Out! Out!). He is off to war and raring to go. She is concerned with his never returning and delays his going by threatening to go to a convent right away. Singing both parties in this dialogue, Ms. Elia’s ability as a singing actress was fabulous.

The beauty of her sound in Hugo Wolf’s Verborgenheit (Seclusion) was able to fully bloom in the lush Zueignung (Dedication) by Richard Strauss. So full and satisfying!

Now to the notion of a virtual art song society. Back in 2003 when the now long-defunct Virginia Art Song Society had lost its way, Charlotte wrote to us that our e-publication Artsongupdate.org was a virtual art song society because of the online community we were cultivating.

Events came full circle when Ms. Elia solicited aid in producing “My Next Mistake.” Her goal in raising money through online crowdfunding was to offer her audience a free concert. A contribution as low as $10 bought a raffle ticket for a chance to pick a song; a $100 contribution bypassed the raffle to choose the song. She was not, as she said at the recital, surprised given her circle of friends that some unusual selections came up.

For many years I have considered Aretha Franklin’s First Snow in Kokomo as a contemporary art song (you can hear it on Youtube). As Charlotte sang I had an emotional high point with lots of tears. Sharon Foxwell at the piano created the voices of the other instruments—that bass riff came through very clearly. After sharing my enthusiasm for this song with my nephew, he came up with this quote from actor and former record producer David Monk’s website Stargayzing.com, “10 Songs Aretha Franklin Wrote That You’ve (Probably) Never Heard:” “Helping even one person discover First Snow in Kokomo [from Aretha’s album “Young, Gifted and Black”] for the first time-or even re-discover it should be considered an act of public service. Enjoy.” I did and I do. Thanks for the opportunity, Charlotte and Sharon.

Three other contemporary popular songs let us experience the full range of Ms. Elia’s talent: The first pop song was Chicago's You're the Inspiration. It was chosen by Donna Dillon Stockburger and is special to her and her husband. First Snow in Kokomo came next. The third song was Danger Zone (Kenny Loggins) from the movie Top Gun, chosen by Jonathan Tapscott who won the song raffle from the fundraising campaign. Deborah Carr arranged the saxophone part for it, and Corey Martin, a sophomore at James Madison University, played. The final pop song was Blank Space by Taylor Swift. Yes, she wrote “Look at that face, you look like my next mistake…” “But I got a blank space baby and I'll write your name.”

Returning to her roots, Ms. Elia closed the recital with Schubert’s Du bist die Ruh'.

TNCC’s Third Annual Summer Light Opera:
Gilbert & Sullivan’s Princess Ida or Castle Adamant
Mary T. Christian Theater, Thomas Nelson Community College
July 18, 2015
Review by John Campbell

Set to the finest musical score Sullivan ever wrote, Gilbert’s text on women’s education skewers what to the Victorian Englishman was the absurd notion of intellectual women running their own university to educate women and shutting men out of their lives—a laughable affair in Victorian England. But to our contemporary understanding of gender issues, the story line is provocative rather than absurd .

Their historic, laughable notion of academically gifted women ends with the idea that there would be no posterity to applaud the women’s accomplishments and that leads the protagonists to traditional marriage, but we know better. Diversity of roles for both women and men have come into flower in the 131 years since Princess Ida came to a London stage though Gilbert’s spoken and sung charming verbal nonsense still holds its own magic for many.

Set in Medieval times, the story is of a couple married as toddlers to unite two sparring kingdoms. Now the couple has come of age and Prince Hilarion (Billy Binion) is ready to consummate the union. When the father-in-law arrives at King Hildebrand’s palace without his daughter, the plot begins to unfold. Princess Ida (Catherine Pelletier) heads a university dedicated to women’s education and wants nothing to do with any man. The Prince sets off to try to win her with his charm, taking with him his two best friends, Cyril, played by Tim Ayers-Kerr, and Florian (Colton Mercado). After they dress as female students to get into the university they are interviewed by the university leaders, Lady Psyche (Charity Robinson) and Lady Blanche (Arna Majcher) who schemes with her daughter Melissa (Gabby Montrond) and with the new “girls” to take over Ida’s position as head of university.

Back at King Hildebrand’s kingdom, Hildebrand, played by seasoned actor Ron Milovac, arrests Ida’s father, King Gamma (veteran actor Jeff Joyner) and her warrior brothers Arac (Ryan Young), Guron (Tra’waan “Trey” Coles) and Scythius (Brian Wrestler). They are led off to prison but not before they sing about their lack of intelligence. Obviously Ida got the brains in that family, or did she? Duped and manipulated by all concerned, after much singing and dancing, she agrees to go with her husband to save the life of her brothers. Once again the role a woman is defined as caretaker of the family. Diversity and choosing one’s life role is a more recent innovation.

The cast of 41 was the largest ever in a Mary T. Christian Auditorium performance. They were directed and choreographed by the talented Torrie Sanders. The 23 musicians crowded into the orchestra pit were conducted by the young visionary Michael Sundblad. Lead roles were from the larger community but the diverse talent of Thomas Nelson Community College students made the show possible.

Some highlights were: The babies on stage as a vignette from Ida and Hilarion’s early history, the dance of the three young men in female drag at the university and the superb characterization of Melissa by Gabby Montrond, who has it all—looks, acting, singing and comedic timing.

Gilbert and Sullivan were not interested in social reform as such, but they often poked fun at some cherished notions of Victorian morality. Sullivan’s music owes a debt to Mendelssohn, Schumann and Donizetti but his workmanship was always impeccable. He was a better musical parodist than Offenbach: consider the Handelian sequence sung by the trio of Arac, Guron and Scythius as they remove their hot, heavy armor before going into the final, big battle. They lose and to save their lives Princess Ida decides to give up the university and return to her husband to help create the posterity that “At my exalted name posterity will bow in gratitude.”

The integrated, continuous flow of action with dances interwoven as the chorus sang, thankfully left no one just standing around. In the program the alphabetical list of carpenters, painters, lighting and costumes honored the workers of this excellent production.

Only one quibble: the projected text needs to be protected from being faded out by the brightest stage lighting.

TOI: The Marriage of Figaro
GSA Black Box Theater, August 15, 2015
Review by John Campbell

In this, its third season, Tidewater Opera Initiative offered a fully staged, delightful production of W.A. Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro (1786), sung in English. At the piano was the musical director, the phenomenal Aurelien Eulert who played throughout. The stage director, the multi-talented Scott Williamson of Opera Roanoke, designed a production that fully explored the lust, sensuality and sexiness found in this play by Pierre Augustin Beaumarchais (1784) adapted for the opera by Lorenzo Da Ponte (1786). The comedy exploits the historic time of revolution in France and the United States when servants were beginning to stand-up to the exploitation by the nobility. The Governor’s School for the Arts furnished the performing space, and more impressively, the 18 year-old Bradley Fielding who stepped in for the ailing Simon Charette the first weekend.

The scenes were danced with stylized movements, making visual all that sexual energy and intrigue. With minimal set changes from scene-to-scene there were no slow spots in the pacing. The costumes were from the 1920s. To add a dimension of visual richness, paintings by Antoine Watteau (1684-1721) from his Fêtes galantes, a quasi-pastoral idyll in court dress, were projected at the back of the set, giving the flavor of the pre-revolutionary era in France. After all, the play is about life in the household of a count and his countess. Hair and makeup design by the fine soprano Erin Hannon was excellent and the chorus of fourteen—all TOI Apprentice Artist Program members—were well prepared by Chorus Master Elise Krepcho. The effective lighting was designed by Edna Guill. The stage manager Hanna Dewing was assisted by Abigail Acheson and Frances Staples. All members of the team worked in the small space of the Black Box stage to bring us a charming evening of opera.

Six performances with rotating casts over two weekends in August (14-16 and 21-23) fulfilled TOI’s mission of giving young, local singers a stage on which to hone their craft, proving once again that there is a large and rich pool of opera talent in Hampton Roads. We saw cast two on the first weekend.

The opera’s opening scene was in the bedroom that Count Almaviva (Adam Piper) has offered the soon-to-be-wed couple, Susanna (Shelly Milam-Ratliff) and Figaro (Bradley Fielding, weekend one and Simon Charette, weekend two). They face their first crisis when Figaro says that the Count has given them the room because it’s near his bedroom, and she retorts that it’s because he wants her nearby, not Figaro. With his eyes now opened, after she leaves he declares that if the Count wants to dance, he, Figaro, will call the tune. I suspect that the French nobility whose heads would soon roll failed to see the humor.

Figaro leaves and Bartolo (Rollin Reeder) and Marcelina (Kristian Bucy-Mesecher-2, Adriane Kerr-1) plot to sue Figaro for a loan she gave him or otherwise force him to marry her. Susanna and Marcellina trade sweetly-delivered insults until Marcellina storms off. Cherubino, the randy teenage boy (Sara Crigger-2, Suzanne Oberdorfer-1), who can be found in most of the bedroom scenes, comes to tell Susanna that the Count caught him with Barbarina and is dispatching him to the army. Cherubino hides when the Count comes and overhears him making advances to Susanna. Basilio (Christopher Burnett) comes in and the Count hides as Basilio promotes the Count’s cause with Susanna and gossips about Cherubino being in love with the Countess. As all these strands of plot play out in vocal duets, trios and even sextets we are greatly entertained by the wit and sparkle of the singers who lie, cross-dress and switch clothes to promote mistaken identities.

Stephanie Marx was stunningly effective as the Countess with her characterization and full, rich sound. Adam Piper, with graying temples and masterful demeanor was convincing as the Count. The youthful energy of the soon-to-be-wed couple, Ms. Milam-Ratliff and Mr. Fielding, was winning. Ms. Bucy-Mesecher discovered a whole new dimension of Marcellina as a sensual, slutty woman of a certain age who turns out to be Figaro’s mother with Bartolo as father. As things are sorted out they also wed.

Joey Haney, as the judge Con Curzio (Christopher Burnett-1), a June graduate of GSA as is Bradley Fielding, is now attending the Mannes School of Music. Chonise Thomas (Corbin Thomas-Shoup-1) was Barbarina, another of the Count’s playmates who asks to collect her reward by marrying Cherubino. The Count, in his chastened state as a caught philanderer agrees as he returns to his loving wife. Rollin Reeder took a second role, Antonio, when just-graduated GSA Senior Bradley Fielding stepped into the role of Figaro with 48 hours notice.

This lithe, young company promises to continue their upward growth, offering a January performance of an opera written just for them. Details to be announced here as things firm-up.

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