Opera in Portland
Don Giovanni (2006), Macbeth (2005), Tosca (November 12, 2005), Tosca (November 5, 2005), Turandot (2003), Le nozze di Figaro (2003), L'elisir d'amore (2002), Il trovatore (2002), Les pêcheurs de perles (2001)
During the overture, the producer decided to raise the curtain and we had to witness a Don Giovanni in leather pants, before changing into standard clothing! After that it was pretty normal for the rest of the evening. The costumes were what could be expected, while the sets were moving pieces going up and down all evening long. The singing was mostly quite good. The best performance came from Laquita Mitchell. She had ringing tone and displayed virtuosity. Daniel Mobbs, Leporello, was fine and displayed some fine acting. David Pittsinger, as Don Giovanni, was in command, but his role is not as rewarding vocally as the one of Donna Anna. Brian Jauhiainen, as the Commendatore, was vocally not very imposing in the final. Shawn Matthey, Don Ottavio, delivered his two arias well, while remaining invisible the rest of the time. Masetto and Zerlina (Aaron Theno and Amber Opheim), both from the Portland Opera Studio, were fine. Pamela South, Donna Elvira, is clearly past her best. Daniel Beckwith keeps the evening moving well.
This Macbeth was a family affair. The director is the manager of the Portland Opera, Lady Macbeth is his wife and Macbeth lives locally. While the production was standard without Alden's deep thoughts thank God, and the costumes were medieval (except for the witches which were a multicolored bunch for no reason), the sets, if we can call them sets, were panels that were dropped or pulled up during the whole evening. There was an emphasis on colors and when blood was involved, we were served a lot of projected red. The singing was a mixed bag. The best vocal performance came from Banquo (Peter Volpe). He delivered a strong performance with a good voice of good volume. Lady Macbeth (Pamela South) delivered some strained strange sounds. However after the first intermission it was announced that she was suffering under the weather and asking for indulgence. The best part was her acting, she delivered a strong willed, mean and manipulative performance. Macbeth (Richard Zeller) has a strong, well produced voice, but I do not think he is a real Verdi baritone. Before going to the performance, I listened to a live recording with Gian Giacomo Guelfi, and Zeller's characterization paled when compared to Guelfi's. The program notes told us that Verdi was asking the Pergola's management to be careful in choosing the singer for Macduff. Here Richard Troxell was chosen. He is a small voiced tenor with no squillo. Scott Six was Malcolm. The conductor George Manahan delivered a strong performance.
A second visit for the last performance of the run did not show any major changes. One surprise was when the sacristan left the stage, he was applauded. I've never heard that before. The best performance was again by Greer Grimsley. Yu Qiang Dai started strongly with Recondita armonia. There was a letdown in act 2, while act 3 was good. However it is still difficult to judge his E lucevan le stelle, when I have the Parma Corelli version to listen to. Portland is a city of tree huggers, apparently very sensitive people. But when you bring that sensitive mindset to the opera house, this is really not the place for. Grimsley received boos for his portraying of Scarpia. It was too brutal for sensitive souls. What a bunch of morons! Also this time the surtitles caused laughters, including La povera mia cena. More morons here.
The director of the Portland Opera Christopher Mattaliano gave the same day a radio program on opera on a local channel. He did not speak of Tosca, but of Monteverdi, Händel and Gluck. It would have been better to talk about the opera of the evening. However, he appeared before the curtain to give a small speech before the start of the opera. He pointed out that over 50 years ago opera was a popular art (very true, it started to go downhill with the picture industry, the microphone and finally the reign of new stars, "the idiotic producers"). Then he continued to say that with the advance of the surtitles, opera was becoming a popular art again. I do not believe that. Most people are glued reading those stupid titles and laugh very inappropriately as it was again the case during the first act of Tosca. We were also warned when entering the theater that there would be gun shots during the third act! Another thing to deplore is that Portland Opera follows the no curtain calls rule after each act except for the last act. The scenery is the property of the opera theater of Saint Louis, and it is in the style required by the work, so were the costumes by Michael Stennett. We had also a production following the wishes of the composer. Here, we do not have a Mussolini Tosca, a priest Scarpia having his office in a library and sets turned upside down to denote the craziness of Tosca. On the singing side, Greer Grimsley was a very dramatic, well acting and powerfully singing Scarpia. He provided the best performance of the evening from the moment he stepped on the stage. The next best performance came form Yu Qiang Dai as Cavaradossi. This role suits his voice better than Calaf. He started strongly in Recondita armonia. He was excellent in the first act duet. During the second act, his Vittoria was powerful without making us forget Corelli's Vittoria. In the last act E lucevan le stelle was sung in a straightforward way without the inflections interpreted by Corelli and Farina (in a more recent time). He was also good in the last act duet and died well. The Tosca, Cynthia Lawrence (cf. her website) has nice voice, not as powerful as the voices of the other two singers, but sufficient. She acted well without the Callas exaggerations and the Vissi d'arte was finely delivered. Sometimes she pushes too hard, and under pressure one can hear a slight start of a wobble. I hope she can correct this fault. Scott Sikon provided a well sung and acted Sacristan, while Scott Six (Spoletta), Jonathan Lasch (Sciarrone), Aaron Theno (Angelotti), Ron Bralier (Jailer) and Kendra Herrington (Shepherd) were all fine. Hal France was the committed and powerful conductor.
From the production side, it was a very uneven event. Before the start of the music, four men stepped in front of the curtain and pulled it down when the music started. The main gag of the producer was to have singers wheeled around the stage, as we can see in the picture above. The three ministers, Altoum, Turandot and the Mandarin were moved around in that way. Only during their trio and during the last act were the ministers allowed to walk, while Turandot was finally free of any hindrance only during the last act. The sets were very minimal. The costumes were a mixed bag of Chinese and non Chinese items. The Prince of Persia looked like Jesus. The whole thing looked like it took place in a small town in China. Finally the perverted invention of surtitles made the local public laugh a lot during the performance.
Apparently the Portland opera world was very excited by this production of Turandot, because the announced tenor Yu Qiang Dai, appearing for the first time outside China on an operatic stage, was endorsed by Luciano Pavarotti. Mr. Dai took also singing lessons from the great man. I am quite dubious of any recommendation made by this gentleman, as I remember a video tape of a master class, given by Pavarotti in London, where he stated that he would never accept a big voice tenor as a student.
Yu Qiang Dai gave an interview before the performance where he stated that he was starting to learn Italian so that he could understand the words he was singing and that he was a lyrical tenor. He was right indeed. At his first utterance, it was clear that he did not have the voice for Calaf. He has a lyrical voice with no squillo. His Non piangere, Liù went fine, but he did not have the guns to deliver the end of the first act. His second act left the same impression. He reserved himself for Nessun dorma, which was delivered nicely. However he was subdued during the death of Liu, while in Principessa di morte he was powerless to deliver the big climax required by Puccini. I hope for him that he is not going to continue singing parts like that for too long.
The Turandot Caroline Whisnant did not the have the voice for Turandot. Her large physical figure was not matched by her voice. She managed to get through the part without accident. The last act duet with her and Yu Qiang Dai was a notable letdown.
I wished for more sonority in a Timur; Chester Patton was only adequate. The best singing by far of the evening was delivered by the Liù sung by Cynthia Haymon. I heard her in the late 80s in the same role at Covent Garden. Her voice may have lost some of her shine, but she knows what she is doing and is a professional. She delivered a moving and well sung portrayal of Liù.
In the minor roles, Ron Brallier was the Mandarin (with a slightly weak low register), Marc Acito was a positive Altoum, while the ministers were sung by Jeff Morrissey (Ping), Jon Kolbet (Pang), and Kevin Skiles (Pong). While Pang and Pong were good, I experienced for the first time an underpowered Ping. The chorus was strong, while the orchestra, under Hal France, was underpowered in the big moments.
In conclusion, it was an underpowered evening.
The season (of four operas!) opened with a nicely sung production of Le nozze di Figaro. The sets were overlarge but in style with the work, so were the costumes; and the stage direction was not offending (a rarity nowadays). There was no letdown in the singing, while the orchestra was lively conducted by Paul Mann. The Susanna (Joanna Mongiardo) was lively and delivered a nicely phrased Deh, vieni non tardar, while Figaro (Kristopher Irmiter) delivered firm tones and good acting. The count (Gary Lehman) made the best of an unthankful role, while the countess (Kelly Nassief) delivered the most difficult aria of the opera with great brilliance. The Cherubino (Jennifer Rivera) brilliantly portrayed a teenager, while delivering smooth singing. The rest of the cast was made of Christina Kowalski (Barbarina), Josepha Gayer (Marcellina), Steven T. Smith (Bartolo), Jon Kolbet (Basilio), Ron Brallier (Antonio) and Kevin Skiles (Don Curzio). They were all excellent.
The sets (by Constantinos Kritikos) were attractive. The stage director was Robert Bailey. The staging was pretty straightforward. The local critic complained that there were too many gags, but I did not find those offensive in any way. Nemorino was sung by Charles Castronovo. He has a strong voice and delivered a vocally strong performance. Mary Dunleavy as Adina was a good actor and a fine singer, matching Castronovo well, and delivering a strong vocal performance. The third excellent performance of the evening was by Steven T. Smith as Dulcamara. He was dominating during his scenes. The only drawback was Jeff Morrissey as Belcore. He sounded undernourished and not very interested in the proceedings. As for David Giménez' conducting, it was moving things along quite nicely.
I can remember, when I was studying in Zürich, I could regularly attend performances of Il trovatore, with Manrico sung by the tenors of the troupe. Today, I still remember those performances fondly. Now the work is not given very often, and I can always count on the tenor not being very good. This was again the case. Manrico was one Frank Porretta, who has already sung Otello, according to the program notes. His best was when he sang off stage Deserto sulla terra. From then on, it went downhill. He is a lyric tenor who strains his resources singing such a role. He did not have a high C either, so he pushed his voice in the stretta unmercifully. Did he want to sing a B or B flat? I was not sure of his intentions since the sound was more a groan than a note.
The best of the performance were the women. Victoria Livengood (Azucena) has a great voice. She showed great intensity and gave a very strong vocal performance. Anda-Louise Bogza was a beautiful sounding Leonora. She was at her best during the act 4 aria, the ensuing cabaletta, the Miserere (where was the tenor?), and the duet with Luna. As Luna, Louis Otey was competent. I would have preferred a bass singing Ferrando than a bass-baritone (Mark McCrory). Richard Buckley conducted satisfactorily.
The sets were by Allen Moyer and the production by Christopher Mattaliano. They did not distract in any way, an unusual fact nowadays.
For my first visit to the Keller Auditorium, I saw a performance of this interesting work that was somewhat satisfying. Like Houston, Portland seems to rely on directors who want to reinvent the work. Today's director Michael Hunt stated in the program that "The Pearl Fishers is one of the most important and interesting challenges for re-interpretation today.". To make things short, Hunt decided to set the action in the 19th century. Apparently now Nadir seems to be, at the beginning of the work, a British colonialist walking around with a camera; later he turns into what seems to be a Ceylonese. Some female choristers wear eye masks, for no apparent reason. During the prelude, the curtain opens, and we see Nadir taking pictures of Leila! At the end, Zurga is not killed by the mob as he should be. However besides that, Hunt did not do much damage. The conductor, Lionel Friend, made his debut in Portland and I remembered him from the ENO. He kept things moving well. Like almost every US opera house, the auditorium is too big for such a work that is after all an opéra-comique. The best overall voice among the three principals was the Zurga, Richard Zeller. He has a good voice with a strong top. Unfortunately, sometimes he falls back, as it is usual today, to too much unwarranted piano sound for long stretches of singing. He was a positive figure, vocally at ease and sang reliably. The second best voice was Cynthia Haymon as Leïla. She sang nicely, musically, and touchingly. Since I last heard her 14 years ago, she seems to have lost some punch. Before coming to the last principal, let me mention the positive Nourabad of Mathew Lau. The last principal, the Nadir of Tracey Welborn, was a major letdown. He has a very small tenorino voice, with a squeezed top sung in falsetto. He does not have the voice for the role at all. There are more vocal requirements than singing falsetto. His whining voice let the duo Au fond tu temple saint go for nothing, it made no impression. Some of the top notes in Je crois entendre encore had unpleasant head sounds. He was at his best singing off stage De mon amie fleur. Not a bad evening, but the tenor left a lot to be desired.