Tuesday, February 19, 2013

West Bay Opera: Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor

February 15, 2013

One of the more indelible opera experiences I’ve ever had was watching soprano Rochelle Bard perform the title role of Lucia di Lammermoor with Opera San Jose. Her Sybil-like portrayal of the mad scene – changing expressions and moods every few seconds to reflect the character’s inner chaos – was so powerful that I used it later for the diva-protagonist of my opera novel.

Thanks to West Bay’s fondness for using Opera San Jose alumni (and why not?), I had a chance this Friday to watch Bard reprise the role, and it’s fascinating to see how she’s changed her approach. Her present Lucia evokes those creepy children who are always popping up in horror movies, singing some sort of nursery rhyme. Bard wanders blood-stained through the shocked wedding guests, reminiscing about her sweet romance with Edgardo, and even giggles when she discovers the flute-bird who agrees to sing along with her.

The approach shed some new angles on the scene, whose playful, decorative music is eerily out of place, given the homicidal context. Another mesmerizing element is the use of so much stark silence, which offers a sonic playground to the right soprano. And certainly, Bard is that soprano, equipped with every gem in the coloratura jewel-box: staccato leaps, diamond-like trills, sculpted dynamic lines, and a buoyant, silvery tone with a perfect vibrato. Combine this with the insane-child persona and you have an entire audience holding its breath.

The OSJ pipeline also supplied baritone Krassen Karagiozov as brother Enrico, exhibiting an added heft to his voice and blending beautifully in his duets; and bass-baritone Isaiah Musik-Ayala, who employed a velvet timbre as the chaplain Raimondo, particularly effective in his announcement of the wedding night murder.

Playing Lucia’s lover, Edgardo, tenor Vincent Chambers delivered a powerful spinto, adding a layer of machismo to an already-passionate character. He showed a bit of strain in the final scene, which served as a reminder of how taxing that scene can be. Another of the opera’s particular challenges is the need for a tenor with bona fide top notes for the brief role of Arturo; Delmar McComb filled the part nicely.

Together, the principals delivered a robust rendition of the ever-intriguing Sextet, led off by Karagiozov and Chambers. The chorus generally sang well, but occasionally raced ahead of Michael Singher’s baton. Jean-Francois Revon’s sets were not as impressive as usual, but he did a good job of covering some of the flaws with fabrics (the gold draperies of Enrico’s apartment). The follow-spots were distractingly erratic, especially during the mad scene.

Through Feb 24, Lucie Stern Theatre, 1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto. $40-$75. 650/424-9999, wbopera.org

Image: Soprano Rochelle Bard as Lucia. Photo by Otak Jump.

Michael J. Vaughn is the author of the novel Operaville, available at amazon.com.

Monday, February 11, 2013

Opera San Jose: Verdi’s Il Trovatore

February 9, 2013

On very rare evenings, an opera aficionado will run across a performer who is not so much a singer as an alchemist of song. Such a one is soprano Cecilia Violetta López.

López’s performance in OSJ’s season-opening Pearl Fishers was so good I almost wrote it off as hallucination. But faced with Trovatore’s Leonora, one of the richest roles in all of opera, she gave early indications that she knew exactly what she was doing. López handled the long lines of the first-act Andante, “Tacea la notte placida” with ease, producing a divine sense of legato.

In the final act, as Leonora stood vigil outside the prison where her lover Manrico awaited execution, López performed the Adagio “D’amor sull´ali roseé,” in a fashion that almost defied description. She began with a deliciously quiet high tone that swelled to forte, and proceeded to manipulate the lines of the aria like a magician wafting smoke around the stage, weaving a web of emotion and song that spurred a usually staid San Jose audience to an extended ovation. It was a stunning moment.

Under the limitations of words on a page, this almost sounds like showing off, but it’s not. López moves about the stage with a calm grace, and her singing, for being so brilliantly nuanced, is much the same way. Later, smaller touches demonstrated her ability to stay rooted to the emotions of her character. Swearing a hateful vow to her nemesis, the Count, she drove the line slightly sharp, in the manner of a dramatic soprano, to invest it with an angry edge. Dying in the arms of Manrico, she sang her farewells with a faraway piano that almost seemed like a ventriloquist’s trick, as if her lines were coming from the hereafter.

López had a fine match with Alexander Boyer’s Manrico. Boyer’s tenor seemed slightly over-covered in the first half, but he warmed nicely to the lovely Adagio “Ah si, ben mio, coll´essere.” For someone with such great power, Boyer can also be very effective in quiet moments, as in the final scene, when Manrico asks Leonora, “What price did you pay for my life?”

Bass Silas Elash does a fine job with the prologue, scaring the wits out of Ferrando’s soldiers with the story of the burned gypsy. Mezzo Nicole Birkland performed a sincerely deranged Azucena (which is exactly the way to do it), drawing full intensity from the famed “Condotta ell´era in ceppi,” her vibrato widening in alarm at the memory of her slain mother.

Baritone Zachary Altman presented a striking figure with Count di Luna, but he spent the first half pushing too hard, especially in the Largo “Il balen del suo sorriso,” in which the Count voices his desire for Leonora. Considering the arc of a (very twisted) plot that eventually reveals the Count to be not as much of a villain as he appears, Altman misses the chance this aria offers to show a softer side. Fortunately, Altman eased off in the second half and sang much better.

Mezzo Tori Grayum shines as Leonora’s lady-in-waiting Ines. It’s Ines’ weeping that causes Leonora to look back from her entrance into the convent, creating a profoundly poignant moment. Playing Ruiz, the guard who leads Leonora to the prison walls, tenor Michael Jankosky sings much more expressively than one might expect from such a brief role. (Keep an eye on that kid.)

Andrew Whitfield’s chorus gave a boisterous performance. Kudos to the anvil-pounders (always a fun novelty) and to the men, who handled the rapid soldiers’ choruses with manly force.  At times, conductor David Rohrbaugh seemed to be driving them into untenable tempos, but then, it’s not wise for an outsider to get into the middle of domestic disputes. I appreciated stage director Brad Dalton’s approach, which gave full expression to the brutality that reigned over the opera’s medieval world – including a rather gory moment of prisoner-torture.

I enjoyed the black-and-brown uniforms that Elizabeth Poindexter gave to the Count’s soldiers, as well as Leonora’s gorgeous maroon gown in the final act. Steven C. Kemp’s set design took a minimalist approach, featuring rough columns and a highly versatile set of stone steps. Rohrbaugh’s orchestra played smoothly throughout, achieving a perfect dynamic give-and-take with the singers.

Through February 24, California Theatre, 345 S. First St., San Jose. $51-$111. 408/437-4450, www.operasj.org

The company announced its 2013-14 season, which will include Verdi’s Falstaff (Sept. 7-22), Humperdinck’s Hansel und Gretel (Nov. 16-Dec. 1), Puccini’s Madama Butterfly (Feb. 15-March 2) and Mozart’s Don Giovanni

Images: Alexander Boyer as Manrico, Cecilia Violetta López as Leonora; Nicole Birkland as Azucena. Photos by Pat Kirk.

Michael J. Vaughn is a 25-year opera critic and the author of the novel Operaville, available at amazon.com.

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Now through Feb. 9, Michael J. Vaughn's cross-country love story, "Rhyming Pittsburgh," is FREE on Amazon Kindle!