Monday, January 30, 2012
Janet Jackson Witman, harpist, was guest artist at Sunday’s Copeland Quartet concert at the Church of the Holy City. Ms. Witman played Aria in classic style by Marcel Grandjany in a version for harp and string quartet. Grandjany, a French harpist who emigrated to North America, wrote this as a concert etude to show the exploits possible with arpeggios on a harp. Ms. Witman executed the arpeggios with clarity, dexterity and a lyrical but gentle sound that resounded in the small church. Since every pew was full, there was little reverberation, yet harp sounded quite clear even in the back pews.
The next piece Ms. Witman chose was a piece that the Pleyel company had commission of Claude Debussy, Danses pour harpe chromatique. As orchestral parts for the harp began to include more and more chromatic passages, Pleyel tried to develop a harp with two sets of strings so the harpist would not need so many pedal changes. Unfortunately, the harpe chromatique did not win over the world of harpists and, like Ms. Witman, they had to learn to make incredibly fast pedal changes rather than deal with so many strings.
The quartet had been more of an accompanying orchestra for the harp in the first two pieces, but the Beethoven ‘harp quartet’, (String quartet No. 10 in E-flat major, opus 74), showed us they were quite capable of taking on more prominent roles. The players gave each voice its own character in Beethoven’s very long coda at the end of the first movement, providing a harmonic balance and shaping each chord with great musical sensitivity. The adagio ma non troppo second movement was a vehicle to show all of the melodic nuances of each of the four instruments – with the presto demanding their precision and alternating and exchanging of melodic phrases with seamless timing and matching lines. For four musicians to trade off a phrase and have it sound as if one person planned the slurs, intonation and dynamics is quite a feat, but nothing compared to their brave finale at the end of the allegretto con variazioni.
They will be at the Church of the Holy Trinity on April 1 or you can hear them by buying one of their two CDs.
So why was Oberto so successful yesterday? Wonderful performers! the cast, conductor, chorus, and orchestra. Credit is also due to the co-producers, OperaDelaware and Philadelphia's renowned opera training school, the Academy of Vocal Arts for conceiving of this unique collaboration, a highly satisfying approach to Verdi's neglected first opera. For this concert version, the cast was in formal attire rather than costumes, the large-by-opera-standards orchestra right behind them on stage, the modern convenience of supertitles added much (English with the singing in Italian), and there was also the minimal though complete staging, i.e. acted-out interactions among the five main characters which made for clear story-telling.
The excellent chorus was a combination of OperaDelaware's own, along side AVA students. They entered and exited as the story required, standing behind the second violins. The four large roles and one smaller one were sung by the greatly talented AVA artists-in-training who already possess big mature voices, with the intensity of fine acting to match. When the curtain calls arrived, it seemed that soprano Michelle Johnson had truly captured the hearts of her listeners, due in part to the conflicted and pathetic vulnerability of her character, Leonora, who, prior to the events depicted, had been seduced and then abandoned by the tenor, Riccardo. The mezzo, Cuniza, is now his fiancee, but becomes Leonora's greatest advocate, via opera's penchant for the absurd yet dramatic. Leonora's father Oberto, the baritone, chooses his passion for revenge rather than entering a briefly open doorway to offering forgiveness, while Cuniza's servant Imelda, played by mezzo Sasha Hashemipour had some beautiful lines to sing, though a bystander to the overblown preoccupations of her employer's circle.
Michelle Johnson possesses a voice of rich timbre which retains its focus and color in the highest register. Verdi's daring two-octave descents revealed an exceptionally strong and expressive low range as well- she has it all. The huge voice of Margaret Mezzacapa who played Cuniza was equally gripping, and her acting matched Johnson's intensity. It was only her character's role as an intermediary among the other principals which limited her effect on the audience. Musa Ngqungwana as Leonora's father Oberto was a strong baritone, whose character starts out wounded, searching for relief. But when his vengeful passion, ultimately leading to his own death, finds its full flower, Ngqungwana gripped the listeners with the force of his character's emotion. Tenor William Davenport, who was having his only shot at performing the role which was rotating through 3 tenors in 4 performances, came off powerfully as Riccardo, a confused young man, first swayed by romance, then by an advantageous betrothal, and tragically by the challenge to duel Oberto, a much older man whom he knew he would in effect murder. Davenport has a Pavaratti-like timbre, as well as many of the affects of an Italian opera tenor. He was a convincing bad-guy, while perhaps not quite convincing us that such a character is as human as the rest of us, not an easy task in many a 19th century opera role.
Another advantage afforded by the concert format was a clear view of conductor Christofer Macatsoris, who is also the general music director for AVA. Without cover of the usual orchestra pit, we could see the drama in his every gesture, the way his baton goes from hand to hand, his expressive fingers and wrists doing much of the work. His involvement with the singers is constant, also finding occasion to cajole lines ascending from the depths of the 'cello section. Macatsoris tensile strength might seem his most prominent feature, still he delights in the airy gestures of the bel canto style. His orchestra of Philadelphia professionals, some of whom are also OperaDelaware regulars, was highly disciplined, responding securely to their demanding maestro. Veteran clarinetist Joseph Smith was particularly expressive, as was flutist David DiGiacobbe, while all the sections maintained uniformly high standards. An opera in two acts, Oberto's intensity rose as each act drew to its close, and it was then, as emotions reached fever pitch, that all the power and imagination of Verdi's nascent talent showed through.
One performance remains, January 31 at the Haverford School's Centennial Hall.
Friday, January 27, 2012
Thursday, January 26, 2012
"Time Stands Still," in its first regional production since it closed on Broadway in January 2011, turns photojournalism on its head by showing the other side of the camera, it all of its imperfect glory.
|Susan McKey, Kevin Kelly, Bruce Graham, and Megan McDermott. Photo by Matt Urban.
This Delaware Theatre Company production is a partnership with the Act II Playhouse in Ambler, PA, the theatrical home of director Bud Martin. Donald Margulies' vision of an intimate and strikingly realistic slice of one photojournalist's life after an injury overseas works incredibly well on the DTC stage -- it's as if you're a fly on the wall.
The play features four characters: Photojournalist Sarah (Susan McKey), her longtime partner James (Kevin Kelly), her friend and editor Richard (Bruce Graham), and Richard's young, bubbly girlfriend Mandy (Megan McDermott). The acting is spot on. As you get to know these people, you start to relate to them on different levels (which characters you relate to most depends a lot on your own experiences and personality). Despite the fact that the subject matter is war, with Sarah having been injured in Iraq, there is no heavy-handed political message. It's a story about people and relationships, of love and loss and passion.
It all takes place in Sarah and James' Brooklyn loft, beautifully designed by Dirk Durossette. It's not a place you'll soon forget.
"Time Stands Still" runs through February 5. For tickets, visit DelawareTheatre.org.
For more, see my review for STAGE Magazine.
Monday, January 16, 2012
Mėlomanie invited guest composer Kile Smith for the premiere of his work The Nobility of Women for harpsichord, ‘cello, viola da gamba, violin, flute and oboe. The work is a series of dances which have both a baroque inspiration and a modern treatment– especially the fanfare of the Overture. Smith’s mastery of detail (his years as librarian of the Fleischer collection made their mark) was evident in his his careful consideration of each instrument as a soloist.
As is their wont, Mėlomanie mixed it up and presented a more modernist work by Mark Hagerty, Variations on a theme by Steely Dan which came out surprisingly well using harpsichord as the keyboard. Priscilla Smith and Kim Reighley were able to trade styles and melodic lines as they followed Hagerty’s merry romp through the gamut of baroque to bop. Doug McNames was also at ease letting loose with his ‘cello acting the dancing double bass and bringing a surprising twentieth century rock style to the fun grouping of baroque players.
Long-time member Donna Fournier played one of her best concerts with her performance of the Suite in D Minor by Joseph Bodin de Boismortier. She has really become a master of the viola da gamba and it was an exhilarating experience to hear her play.
Priscilla Smith brought a very fresh and unadorned mastery of baroque oboe to the fore as she played the beautiful, quiet and almost vibrato-free melodies of Telemann and Couperin. Her youth and talent promise a great deal for her future. She already has an impressive resume of performances as a baroque player.
Mėlomanie accepted donations of gloves, scarves and hats in lieu of tickets to benefit Friendship House.