Virginia Opera: Romeo and Juliet
Harrison Opera House, Norfolk, February 5, 2016
Review by M.D. Ridge

The February 5th opening night of Virginia Opera’s production of Gounod’s Romeo and Juliet was marked with passionate singing, gorgeous melodies, sumptuous costumes and peculiar directorial choices.

Conductor James Meena launched Virginia Symphony players into the portentous overture, with its declarative bass and percussion, while the spoiler-alert Prologue showed the star-crossed lovers on their joint catafalque, and the Duke of Verona silently orders Count Capulet to make peace with his Montague counterpart.

At the Capulets’ masked ball, the count’s daughter Juliet is led blindfolded down the stairs to be introduced. Soprano Marie-Eve Munger gives her an initial shyness that blossoms into delight; truly she’s the belle of the ball, in a lovely, sparkly dress to match her voice. (It had been announced that she was recovering from bronchitis, but she sang like an angel.) She sings “Je veux vivre” with youthful high spirits, enchanting the party-crasher Romeo—tenor Jonathan Boyd—who’s dumbstruck by her beauty. Tenor Kyle Tomlin gives macho life to the hotheaded Tybalt, Juliet’s cousin, who recognizes Romeo as one of the hated Montagues and chases after him.

There’s a long, deadly wait for Act II, while the impressive but cumbersome set is changed, with many squeaks, rumbles and bumps. This happens before every act, with every set change. Apparently production designers Michael Baumgarten and Bernard Uzan, who’s also the director, couldn’t think of anything to move things along more smoothly. The music between acts is lovely but nothing happens. This is an opera, not an audio broadcast. There’s dance music—and no dancing. In a French opera? The effect is incredibly clunky.

The balcony scene is enchanting, of course. Moonlight, love duets beautifully sung—what’s not to love?

In Act III, after another long, clunky set change, Juliet’s nurse Gertrude, cheerfully sung by mezzo Susan Nicely, brings the young lovers to Frère Laurent, well played and sung by bass Kevin Langan. There’s humor here—Romeo and Juliet hold hands, Frère Laurent smacks their hands, while Gertrude looks on with warm approval. Their final quartet, “O pur bonheur,” is excellent.

Outside, Romeo’s page Stephano (soprano Kim Sogioka) distracts Tybalt and his Capulet cohort with a mocking little song about a dove that may fly the coop. But Tybalt fights Romeo’s friend Mercutio (Efrain Solis) and kills him; Tybalt in turn is killed by Romeo, who is then banished from Verona and from his beloved Juliet—a fate worse than death.

The curtain comes down, and comes up again on the chorus and some of the singers—and comes down again. What just happened? I’ve never seen such a curtain call, in the middle on an ongoing opera. Perhaps the director figured since the chorus were not to sing any more, they might as well take their curtain call and go home. Weird.

The married lovers have one blissful night together, putting off their coming separation until the last possible minute. As Gustave Kobbé wrote, “ . . . Gounod, austere in life and hedonist as composer, has written no more hauntingly passionate love music than this.”

Just after Romeo departs, Count Capulet arrives to inform Juliet that she must marry Count Paris immediately. No one dares tell him she’s already married. But Frère Laurent gives Juliet a potion which will make her appear dead.

In the final act, Romeo has heard that his beloved has died; he comes to the Capulet tomb to take poison; she revives, sees him dying, and stabs herself with his dagger—all with spectacular music.

The principals—Boyd, Munger, Langlan, Sogioka, Nicely and Tomlin—acquit themselves very well indeed.

Would that the production values had the same coherence. Harsh overhead lighting in one scene produced grotesque shadows on Juliet’s face. The stars in the balcony scene were breathtaking, but in the bedroom scene, the pretty moon is hauled haltingly up into place, as if someone offstage is wrestling with a cranky window shade. Romeo and Juliet sing of the approach of dawn, but the lighting goes dark. The impressive stone walls of the sets drew applause at first sight—but the scene shifts were annoyingly laborious and unnecessarily long.

Gounod’s opera, sung in French with English subtitles, sticks closely to Shakespeare’s text, but this production would have benefited from more imaginative direction.

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

Virginia Opera, The Seven Deadly Sins/Pagliacci

Harrison Opera House, September 30, 2016
Review by M.D. Ridge

Virginia Opera opened its new season September 30 with a pair of short operas— one new to the local audience and one familiar. Both were excellent, but the new one— Kurt Weill’s The Seven Deadly Sins— was simply stunning, catching all of Weill’s sardonic music and Bertold Brecht’s cynical text in a feast for eye and ear.

The Seven Deadly Sins is not just an opera, it’s a sung ballet that might be called a reverse morality tale—the story of a young woman, Anna, played by two women simultaneously. Austrian soprano Ute Gfreher is Anna I, the level-headed singer who comments on her alter ego’s failings. Gfreher has achieved renown as an interpreter of Weill’s dark, extraordinary music; her glittery vibrato is perfect for this opera.

Anna II is danced by Gabrielle Zucker, who is smooth, wanton, timid, yearning— in short, everything that’s needed for the role. Anna II tries to behave morally, but Anna I and her family scold her for one deadly sin after another—the catch is that anything that does not bring them money is a deadly sin. The two Annas, who are one, set out from their shabby home in Louisiana for the big city— — seven of them— to make enough money as a dancer to buy a little house. They leave behind their family, who could work back down to dysfunctional: baritone Lee Gregory and tenor Stefan Barner are the brothers, tenor Bille Bruce is the father, and bass Christopher Morales— in a housedress and paper curlers— is the mother. (Edna Turnblad, where are you now?) They’re a mocking Greek chorus, who, in the Gluttony scene, sing a challenging quartet almost entirely a cappella.

In an unnamed city, the first sin is Sloth, and Anna’s family preaches at her not to be lazy. In Memphis, Anna II becomes a topless dancer, and is warned that she’s not rich enough to be proud. Angry at injustice in Los Angeles, she almost gets fired; in Philadelphia, she’s warned against gluttony, because there’s a weight gain clause in her contract. (The line, “There’s no market for hippos in Philadelphia,” reminds one of a certain presidential candidate!) In Boston, she’s a kept woman, in love with a poor man— but the girls need money, and Anna I won’t share with anyone. In the next city, the family cautions that she’s getting known for leaving men in financial ruin. In San Francisco, Anna II is warned not to be envious of people who live as she would like to, and is made to realize she’ll never be happy until she learns to turn her back on the joys of the world. When the Annas return to Louisiana to build their little house, nothing has changed.

Lighting designer Jeff Bruckerhoff and Projections designer Peter Torpey bring the 30s to dystopian life over a fairly bare but very effective set that allows for riveting movement; the tumbledown Tobacco-Road-ish family home at right provides great atmosphere. Director Keturah Stickann links the two operas in the same time frame, updating Pagliacci and putting its characters to good use in Sins. It is sung in English, but the Supertitles are a big help in higher passages.

Pagliacci is a play within a play— the light-hearted antics of the travelling commedia dell’arte troupe darkly mirror the real-life tensions among its members— the head of the troupe, Canio, is wildly jealous of his lovely young wife Nedda, who is adored by the hunchbacked clown Tonio but rejects him, laughing; she’s in love with Silvio, a villager. Tonio plots revenge, telling Canio that his wife is in love with someone else. Broken-hearted Canio gets ready for the night’s performance, putting on his clown suit and makeup so that people will laugh. He tries to force Nedda, as Columbine, to name her lover, but Nedda refuses. He stabs her, and when Silvio rushes to her side, Canio stabs him too. Canio has the last line: “La commedia è finita! The comedy is finished!”

In its day this was called verismo; now we call it melodrama. (Interestingly, when sued for plagiarism, Leoncavallo testified that when he was a child in Montalto, his father was the judge when a jealous actor was tried for killing his wife after a performance.)

The single set is serviceable, but watching Nedda and Silvio getting it on in the middle of the town square is simply ridiculous. Soprano Kelly Kaduce is a fiery Nedda and a sly, coquettish Columbine, perfect for both roles. Baritone Michael Chioldi is a menacing Tonio, suggesting both mental as well as physical deformity. Baritone Lee Gregory— in real life, Kaduce’s husband— is ardent and romantically convincing as Silvio. The audience gasped as Stefan Barner climbed a very unsteady telephone pole to sing— beautifully— Arlecchino’s song. But the opera rises and falls on the huge voice of tenor Clay Hilley as the overbearing Canio, quick to take offense and murderously vengeful.

Adam Turner, named last year as the first recipient of the Julius Rudell/Kurt Weill Conducting Fellowship, conducted a masterful performance of both operas with the orchestra of Virginia Symphony players. The chorus members sounded wonderful and moved believably.

But when the curtain was drawn, what I wanted to see again— and right away— was The Seven Deadly Sins. Bravo!

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

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