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Fort Worth Opera Festival

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I recently had the pleasure of attending the 2013 Fort Worth Opera Festival. While the company has been in existence since the late 40’s, their recent history has been marked by a successful decision to move from a traditional season to a concentrated Festival schedule. The Festival calendar is a boon to out-of-towners like me, as it allows a visitor to see all four of the season’s operas over a long weekend.

The Festival was implemented by the Opera’s dynamic Managing Director, Darren K. Woods. He has also been instrumental in programming a number of regional and world premiere works which share Festival time with more standard repertoire. These new productions have resulted in greater national and international visibility. Their new Opera Unbound series will feature chamber works in smaller venues.

The main performance venue is the stunningly beautiful and built for comfort, Bass Hall in Downtown Fort Worth. Designed in the style of classic European opera houses, with numerous box seats, the hall seats a couple thousand, but feels relatively intimate.

GLORY DENIED

This season’s Opera Unbound production was the regional premiere of GLORY DENIED by Tom Cipullo which was performed in the McDavid Studio, across the street from Bass Hall. The opera is based on Tom Philpott’s oral history of Colonel “Jim” Thompson, the longest held POW in American history. A tag line like this would lead one to expect a claustrophobic and introspective piece—perhaps even a monodrama. But the reality is much more comprehensive. This is not only the story of a single man’s heroism in the face of incomprehensible odds, but the collateral damage inflicted on the family of that man. And, by extension, all the families caught up in the turbulent and questioning cultural landscape of America in the 60’s.

The opera’s narrative conceit utilizes a Younger and Older Thompson and a Younger and Older Alyce, the wife who sits not-so-Penelope-like at home. Their intensely personal stories unfold in a riveting and compact 80 minutes in which snapshots of his 9 year imprisonment and his eventual homecoming are dramatized in a non-linear, semi-poetic style.

Cipullo’s score is gritty, vigorous, and as dense as the conflicting emotions it portrays. Still, he finds moments of lyricism and even a few full-scale arias in the second half. Both musically and dramatically it is reminiscent of Bernstein’s TROUBLE IN TAHITI, that other incisive look at the dissolution of a mid-century American marriage.

Director Dean Anthony has wisely opted for a stripped down setting which puts the raw emotions front and center. Anthony trusts the text and his performers, grounding their movement in what is appropriate for the moment and eschewing too many “look at me” directorial touches. However, he does use one visual concept to telling effect. Paper proves crucial in their lives—the letters they share, the days of the month torn off a calendar, the pile of magazines in which Older Thompson discovers how much the world has changed during his incarceration. All of these pages are used and then discarded, leaving the stage littered with a chaos of paper. It is an eloquent metaphor for the detritus of two lives that have drifted irrevocably apart.

The Singers: David Blalock and Sydney Mancasola as the Younger Thompson and Alyce and Michael Mayes and Caroline Worra as their older selves create memorable characters and sing the English text with exemplary diction. Blalock summons an edge to his essentially sweet tenor for the torture and interrogation scenes, but he warms that up for his memories of the wife and the life left behind. Mancasola, playing the idealized wife, has the least complex character, but she brings charm and an appealing, bright soprano to the role. Mayes and Worra are true stage animals who fully inhabit their characters' frustrations and disappointments. Mayes’ forceful baritone bitterly rails against a world he cannot comprehend in a list aria which, interestingly, mirrors a similar list in the then cutting edge musical, HAIR. And to hear Worra’s guilty but determined attempt to explain her actions to her husband on his return is a master class in vocal acting. Their scenes are the heart of the piece and occasionally the emotions seem so raw and the situation so vulnerable that it feels as if the audience is a voyeur. Conductor Tyson Deaton brings precision and sensitivity to his small orchestra.

ARIADNE AUF NAXOS

Richard Strauss’ ARIADNE AUF NAXOS might be the most schizophrenic opera in the standard repertoire-- which is half of its fascination. Using his knowledge of backstage life, librettist Hugo von Hofmannsthal devises a witty satire on the battle between the lofty ideals of pure Art and the pragmatic reality of putting on a show.

In Hofmannstahl’s backstage Prologue, a naively idealistic Composer has been hired to write an opera for a patron’s party. His opus is a possibly pretentious treatment of the myth of Ariadne, deserted by her lover and longing for death on her desert island. The Major Domo informs him that, in order to accommodate a fireworks display the patron has arranged, the opera must be trimmed and performed simultaneously with a troupe of commedia del arte performers who have also been engaged.  Zerbinetta, the troupe’s leader, is philosophical about the adjustment, but the Composer is horrified.  That is, until he weighs the notion of never hearing the work performed and agrees to the compromise. The Second Act reveals the opera in all its incongruity. Balancing these dichotomies and calibrating the proper mix of slapstick to sumptuous music are the decisions that any director of ARIADNE must make.

Director David Gately has chosen an approach which honors both humor and romanticism, though the humorous touches work best. He has encouraged the performers in even the smallest roles to develop idiosyncratic characters which spring vividly to life. Thus William V. Madison’s hilariously supercilious Major Domo and Ian McEuen’s jaded Dance Master are truly memorable performances. Also doing sterling musical and physical work are Anthony Reed, Steven Eddy, Zak Engle and Michael Porter as the male members of the commedia troupe.

Still, as with most Strauss operas, it is all about the ladies, and Fort Worth has chosen them well. Cecelia Hall proves an endearing composer whose graceful mezzo and rapturous tone could truly convince you that music is a holy Art. As with many productions, Audrey Luna’s Zerbinetta is a well-deserved audience favorite. Of course, her second act scena, espousing her generous philosophy of love, is a famously showy display of coloratura fireworks. But Luna pushes beyond the thrill of her sparkling and seamless vocalizing to highlight the thematic core of the piece and contrast it with Ariadne’s glorification of lost love. As the Diva playing the titular Ariadne, Marjorie Owens commands a sizable soprano with surprisingly dark undertones. She easily conqueres Strauss’ vocal challenges and finds no problem cutting through his dense orchestration. The same could not be said for Corey Bix, her Bacchus. Underpowered and adrift in what is admittedly a punishingly high tessitura, Bix signals his discomfort by constantly shifting his weight.

Designed for Utah Opera, Robin Vest’s scenic design economically brings a touch of baroque luxury to this traditional production. Susan Memmott Allred’s costumes and Steven Bryant’s makeup and wig designs are allowed a greater degree of theatrical whimsy. In the pit, Joe Illick marshals his forces for Strauss’ moments of grandeur, without losing a hint of comic élan.

LA BOHEME

Is Puccini’s LA BOHEME the most frequently produced opera in major houses?  I have no hard data beyond my opera-going experience, but only Mozart’s MAGIC FLUTE springs to mind as a possible rival. BOHEME’s popularity is easy to understand. Audiences delight in its gorgeous melodies, its succinct tale of young love and its heartbreaking end.  For opera companies, the appeal is just as obvious—it’s a genuine audience-pleaser, it features a young cast, which allows for the hiring of up-and-coming singers with moderate price tags and, oh yes, it’s a masterpiece.

Director David Lefkowich decided not to tamper with a sure thing and helms a traditional production in which the story of the bohemians could unfold without overt directorial comment. Sean Panikkar’s ardent Rodolfo displays an attractive lyric tenor and an understated way with the histrionics. As his Mimi, Mary Dunleavy sings with a transparent sensitivity which enhances the character’s fragility, while her acting makes the encroaching disease believable. Wes Mason’s virile baritone brings power and sex appeal to his lovable, puppy dog take on Marcello, while Rosa Betancourt’s Musetta avoids the musical pitfall of shrillness in the role and also sidesteps the dramatic trap of overplaying the character’s mercurial nature. John Boehr is an engaging and exuberantly boyish Schaunard whose warm baritone shows promise, but it feels a little small for the house. Derrick Parker's Colline is serviceable, with a dry, constricted sound.

R. Keith Brumley’s sets, originally designed for Lyric Opera of Kansas City, are attractive and detailed enough to require a second intermission for the set change before the final act. Conductor Joe Illick elicits a passionate and energetic performance from the orchestra, though the Chorus in the second act had some trouble finding the downbeat.

THE DAUGHTER OF THE REGIMENT

For years Donizetti’s FILLE DU REGIMENT was occasionally trotted out for star coloratura sopranos looking for a change of pace. The story of Marie, the young tomboy raised by the regiment, who falls in love just as she finds she is actually an heiress provides physical comedy, romance, and enough vocal pyrotechnics to satisfy both the Diva and her audience. When Joan Sutherland revived the opera in the late 60’s, a young Luciano Pavarotti astounded the world with his effortless rendition of “A! mes amis” and its 9 high C’s. Suddenly the opera became a much more equal partnership between soprano and tenor.

Fort Worth has produced this Nineteenth Century confection in the Ruth and Thomas Martin English translation. This choice makes the spoken dialog (FILLE is an opera comique) easier for the performers and the comedy more immediate. It also makes the work’s position as a proto-operetta quite clear. Director Dorothy Danner has chosen  to present a traditional production which, thankfully, didn’t burden the piece with topical references. Or, indeed, any semblance to reality. This is the only way a soufflé like this works.

Ava Pine’s Marie displays a brash and vivacious personality, a sparkling vocal sheen with pin-point precision, and a pretty impressive cartwheel. But, while she is absolutely at home in the knockabout comedy and showy passage-work, it is in the quieter moments that she truly impresses with her heartfelt singing. Marie’s lover Tonio is not called on to do much beyond singing with sweet fervor, hitting those C’s and waiting with patient loyalty for the moment when he wins the girl. David Portillo manages all of this with grace and a brightly focused tenor. Rod Nelman is a sturdily sung and sympathetic Suplice, sporting an Inspector Clouseau accent and terrific timing. But the real comic laurels must go to the veteran performers-- Joyce Castle’s dizzily imperious Marquise de Birkenfeld and Darren K. Woods (yes, the Managing Director) as her hapless servant Hortensius. Whether haughtily shouting orders, praying to the Virgin in her own unique fashion, or sharing her inimitable vocal warm-ups, Ms Castle is a constant delight. Knowing that Castle was going for the grand gesture, Woods wisely has chosen to underplay his moments, making them all the funnier. The program doesn’t name the non-speaking performer playing Marie’s erstwhile bridegroom, but his hilarious dumbshow is something I will long remember.

Boyd Ostroff’s sets are functional and attractive while Beni Montresor’s costumes clearly delineate the characters. Conductor, Christopher Larkin finds surprising complexity in the score, and his detailed reading of the overture, in particular, is masterful.

I would urge anyone who loves opera to visit Fort Worth Opera Festival. The artistic decisions are interesting, the talent is strong, the venues are terrific, and the audiences are the friendliest I’ve encountered.

Fort Worth Opera Festival  April 20 – May 15, 2013  www.fwopera.org


 

Spotlight

Laguna Playhouse Announces Ellen Richard as its Interim Executive Director

May 3, 2016…Laguna Beach, Calif…Laguna Playhouse Board of Directors announced today that, later this month, Ellen Richard will be joining Laguna Playhouse as its Interim Executive Director. The Playhouse announced late last year that it was undertaking a national search guided by Arts Consulting Group (ACG) for an Executive Director to succeed Karen Wood who had held this position for the past eight years.

Commenting on the appointment Joe Hanauer and Paul Singarella, Co-Chairmens of the Board of Directors, said “In the midst of our search we encountered this wonderful opportunity to engage Ellen while we continue to seek appropriate long-term leadership. To have found someone with the extraordinary qualifications that Ellen has is thrilling. She is the recipient of six Tony Awards as producer at New York’s Roundabout Theatre Company where she was Managing Director. Ellen also has strong successes in supervising the construction of theatres in New York and also in San Francisco at the American Conservatory Theater, a rare and valuable skill set considering the contemplated major remodel and expansion of the Laguna Playhouse.” Laguna Playhouse Artistic Director Ann E. Wareham adds, “We are pleased and proud to have Ellen Richard, truly a rock-star in our field, join us as our interim Executive Director who will help guide the Playhouse during this transition.” Comments Ellen Richard, “I have quickly grown fond of Laguna Beach and the Playhouse. I embrace this extraordinary opportunity to join one of the country’s top regional theatres at this time in its remarkable 95-year history. I look forward to helping the Playhouse and working with their incredible Board of Trustees and Ann E. Wareham.”

ABOUT ELLEN RICHARD

Ellen Richard served as Executive Director of the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco from 2010 through 2015.  During her tenure, Ms. Richard negotiated a deal to buy the Strand Theater in tech corridor of Mid-Market San Francisco, helped raise the $34,000 million to renovate and operate it and steered the design and construction for the project which opened in May of 2015. The complex featured two performance spaces and has won multiple awards.  She opened the 50 seat Costume Shop Theater, a 49-seat “black box” venue used for the company’s Master of Fine Arts students and for shows by other local companies.  Ms. Richard was also credited with expanding the company’s educational efforts, coming up with programs like the San Francisco Semester, which brings undergraduate acting students to ACT from around the world, and Stage Coach, a community theater mobile unit that reaches into diverse neighborhoods

She was also Executive Director of The Second Stage Theatre in New York City. During her tenure at Second Stage, which began in 2006 (through 2009), she was responsible for the purchase contract of the Helen Hayes Theatre, growth in subscription income of 48 percent, and growth in individual giving of 75 percent, as well as conceptualization of a highly successful gala format and “Second Generation,” a giving program through which donors enable deserving New York City youth to experience live theater. Under Ms. Richard’s leadership, Second Stage provided the initial home for the Broadway productions Everyday Rapture, Next to Normal, and The Little Dog Laughed.

From 1983 to 2005, Ms. Richard enjoyed a rich and varied career with Roundabout Theatre Company. The Roundabout that Ms. Richard joined was a small nonprofit theater company in bankruptcy. By the time she departed as Managing Director, Roundabout had become one of the country’s largest and most successful theater companies of its kind, with net assets in excess of $67 million dollars. Ms. Richard is the recipient of six Tony Awards as producer, for Roundabout productions of Cabaret (1998), A View from the Bridge (1998), Side Man (1999), Nine (2003), Assassins (2004), and Glengarry Glen Ross (2005). As producer of more than 125 shows at Roundabout, she had direct supervision of all management and marketing functions. She created Roundabout’s “Theatre-PLUS” programs, which include singles, teachers, family, gay and lesbian, wine tasting, and the 7 p.m. “Early Curtain” series, all of which grew to represent more than 10 percent of Roundabout’s 40,000 subscribers.

As director of design and construction at Roundabout, Ms. Richard was responsible for more than $50 million of theater construction for 11 projects. She conceptualized the three permanent Roundabout stages — The Broadway venues of Studio 54 and the American Airlines Theatre, and the Off-Broadway venue The Harold and Miriam Steinberg Center for Theatre She directed the location search for Cabaret and oversaw the creation of the production’s environmental Kit Kat Klub. Prior to her tenure at Roundabout, Ms. Richard served as business manager of Westport Country Playhouse, theater manager for Stamford Center for the Arts, and business manager for Atlas Scenic Studio. She began her career working as a stagehand, sound designer, and scenic artist assistant.