Viva Verdi!
Lyric Opera Virginia
Virginia Museum of Contemporary Art Theater, Virginia Beach
September 22, 2013
Review by M.D. Ridge

On September 22 at the Virginia Museum of Contemporary Art, Lyric Opera Virginia presented Viva Verdi! to celebrate the composer’s 200th birthday. Arias from six operas outlined Verdi’s dramatic themes of vengeance, love, mischief and death, woven together by stage director Stephanie Vlahos, and sung by a splendid cast, ably accompanied by the indefatigable but sensitive piano of LOV music director Joseph Walsh and clarinetist Lauren Slagle.

After the Prelude from Rigoletto, the idea of vengeance was proclaimed by mezzo Bekah Davis, a Lyric Opera Young Artist, in Azucena’s “Stride la vampa,” from Il Trovatore. “Di quella pira”(See the blazing pyre), from the same opera, was sung by tenor John Pickle, who had a warm attractive voice and good acting chops, but hooty high notes. Singing “Pace, pace,” Leonora’s prayer from La Forza del Destino, tall brunette soprano Mary Ann Stewart made her first departure from singing mezzo roles.

The thematic ecstasy section began with baritone Grant Youngblood singing “Il balen del suo sorriso” (How bright her smile), from Trovatore, with grace and passion and absolutely terrific breath control. In the first of three selections from Un Ballo in Maschera, Stewart entered in a cloak, carrying a lantern, to sing “Ecco l’orrida campo” (Here is the killing field) with power to spare; she and Pickle were dramatic lovers in the duet, and all three—Stewart, Pickle and Youngblood—shone in the trio.

Soprano Sara Kate Walston, another LOV Young Artist, sang Caro Nome, from Rigoletto. Gilda’s aria is such a warhorse—and so often sung so badly—that to hear it done with charm and joyful freshness, not to mention a dazzling smile, was an unexpected treat.

Stewart and Youngblood were excellent in the brooding, portentous murder duet from Macbeth. In a change of pace, a charming quartet sang of identical letters each had received from Falstaff—Stewart, Davis, Walston and the expressive Elizabeth Pogue, the latter singing at the bottom of her range.

Pickle returned to sing with gusto the Duke of Mantua’s famous aria from Rigoletto, “La donna è mobile,” followed by the gorgeous quartet from that opera, sung by Pickle, Youngblood, Walston and Davis.

Youngblood and Stewart were splendid in the prelude to Lady Macbeth’s sleepwalking scene and in the “Out, damned spot” scene itself. After a reprise of the Rigoletto prelude, in the final death scene, Walston was a sweetly thrilling Gilda with Youngblood’s passionate heartbreak as Rigoletto, a role he sang nine years ago with Virginia Opera.

The simple stage setting was more complicated than it seemed—an oversized top hat (like Verdi’s own) was a backdrop that opened up for entrances and exits, with lighting projections on either side that gave a sense of place, and the gist of an aria’s text. Backlit scrims showed dancers Carly Miks and Vincent Morlino outlining each section’s theme. A precipitous stairway behind the scene allowed performers to sing from on high—now there’s a test of breath control! Singers braver than I made it back down the stairs in the dark, too!

To the left of the stage was a small desk, where choreographer Howei Bellido in a frock coat and tights portrayed Verdi in the throes of writing—a little over the top, but it served to stitch the themes together.

Kudos to scenic designer Gary Prianti, and to the Blankenship Company’s construction of a set that could be moved among the three venues, and to Tennessee Dixon for the evocative projections. Jared A. Sayeg’s lighting design worked effectively, although some of the overhead lighting put the singers’ faces in shadow.

Costume coordinator Leslie Winn provided suitable raiment that could be changed at lightning speed backstage.

The auditorium was so cold you could have hung meat, but the warmth and passion onstage were all the audience needed.

This review was originally broadcast on WHRO 90.3 FM’s “From the other side of the Footlights.”

Joe Walsh Hero of the Evening at Lyric Opera Virginia Season Opener
Virginia Museum of Contemporary Art Theater, Virginia Beach
September 22, 2013
Review by John Campbell

To celebrate the 200th anniversary of Giuseppe Verdi’s birth (1813-1901), Lyric Opera Virginia presented Viva Verdi! … Maledizione. The ninety–minute presentation featured scenes from Verdi operas using semi-staged live singing and dancing with projected English translations and visual enhancements typifying each opera represented.

After the applause for the cast came the biggest applause of all and shouts of approval for Joe Walsh who is listed in the program as music director. You only find that he is general and artistic director of the company on the final page of biographies. Mr. Walsh played the score on piano for every one of the ninety minutes of the performance, assisted at times by clarinetist Lauren Slagle. Not only were we responding to his performance but also for his consistent hard work that has kept the organization together on a day-to-day basis from its beginning. Only after Peter Mark’s retirement this summer has Mr. Walsh come into the limelight. His titles have changed but his work load remains about the same.

Joe Walsh began with Virginia Opera in 1995, later becoming resident chorus master and sometimes conductor of the opera. I especially recall his excellent conducting of the 2006 Susannah by Carlisle Floyd. That is the year he became VOA’s Associate Conductor. Many other performances at Virginia Opera under Joe Walsh’s baton followed: Pirates of Penzance (2007), The Elixir of Love (2008), The Daughter of the Regiment (2009), Don Giovanni (2010), Madama Butterfly (2011).

His loyalty to Peter Mark saw him moving to Lyric Opera Virginia in 2012 where once again he did most of the work and conducted the sold-out King and I. Joe’s main focus is to serve music and that will not change but we in the audience are happy to see him finally get the recognition he deserves.

Unlike last year’s Romeo and Juliet at MOCA, this time the sound was tailored to fit the space. Soft passages were distinctly clear and grand climaxes had power but there was never an overload or breakup of sound in the small theater.

With Joe Walsh at the helm the organization is on firmer ground. Some 80% of LOV’s debt has been paid and a continuing successful season will help retire it. From our perspective the next step for LOV is to build audience.

Curious about the demographics of the LOV audience, I sat outside the art center on a bench and did a head count of who was coming to see Viva Verdi. I counted some 40 seniors, 20 middle-aged adults and 4 late-20-somethings. I saw no teens, no children and almost no young adults, though my 15 minute survey was informal since I estimated ages. Only at the patrons’ champagne reception afterward did I see younger people. They were the dancers, singers and others who came together to create the show.

For ongoing success, LOV will need to find a way to bring students and young adults into its audience. To strengthen my point about bringing in a broader audience, we are also publishing notes I requested from our opera novice friend Scott Strickland, an experienced choral singer and a pianist who often accompanies singers and who currently studies solo voice with Sondra Gelb. He ventured into the opera house for the first time only last year. Mr. Strickland writes:

I thought the staging was a creative and effective use of a small space. It reminded me of a well-designed webpage where no space is wasted and the eye is naturally drawn to what's important. The English text projected on the scrim was a much appreciated lifeline to opera neophytes like me. I loved the use of Verdi's top hat as a unifying and whimsical theme, from the opening of the production with a photograph of Verdi in top hat to the monumental top hat structure which served to frame scenes within the larger stage to the dancer who portrayed Verdi wearing a top hat.

We learned from Joe Walsh that Los Angeles-based Stage Director Stephanie Vlahos came up with the production concept of using Verdi's Top hat—since he is so often pictured with one—emphasizing his creative genius flowing out of his head. Likewise it was her idea to use dancers and order the selections to secure a through-line in the selections.

I like the idea of grouping Verdi's most popular pieces by theme to give the program structure. However, since I have little familiarity with Verdi's work I wasn't always sure where one vignette ended and another began. It wasn't clear to me whether one scene was related to the one that followed. A familiarity with Verdi's work might have helped to eliminate the confusion.

I felt all the singers delivered strong performances. Their singing was smooth and seamless. I particularly enjoyed John Pickle's La Donna è Mobile not only because of his deft execution and connection with the audience but probably also because it was one of the few pieces I was familiar with. I also enjoyed Sarah Walston's Caro Nome because she seemed to take such delight in singing it. I felt her light, lyrical voice was well-suited to the piece. Grant Youngblood's performances were rock solid. His seasoned professionalism shone throughout. Mary Ann Stewart was also rock solid. I was surprised to learn she had just transitioned from mezzo to soprano since she seemed so at home in the higher range.

I thought the dancers were a nice ornament to the larger musical production. They were used with such versatility as segues between vignettes, to complement the singing with visual drama and even to serve as a clever artistic alternative to stagehands in the absence of a stage curtain.

Joe Walsh's piano accompaniment was sensitive and technically proficient. His energetic non-stop playing during the 90-minute performance was impressive. I felt the piano/clarinet combo worked well as an orchestral substitute.

This review was originally broadcast on WHRO 90.3 FM’s “From the other side of the Footlights.”

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