Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Verdi's Falstaff in Ghostly Outing at Forest Lawn Cemetery

Zeffin Quinn Hollis as Falstaff in Pacific Opera Project production

Glendale, California
September 19, 2015

Review by Evan Baker

During the composition of his opera Falstaff in June of 1891, a good humored Giuseppe Verdi wrote to his librettist Arrigo Boito: "Pancione (“Big Belly”) is going crazy. There are days when he doesn’t move, but sleeps and is in a bad humor.  At other times he shouts, runs, jumps, causes a devil of a rumpus. I let him indulge his whims a bit; if he continues I’ll put on a muzzle on him and tie him up in a strait-jacket.”
Boito responded: “Evviva! (“Three cheers!”)  Let him run, he will break all the windows and all the furniture of your room—it doesn’t matter, you will buy some more. He will smash the piano—it doesn’t matter, you will buy another. Let everything be turned upside down, as long as the great scene is finished. Evviva! Give it him! Give it him! What pandemonium! But pandemonium as clear as sunlight!"

That same exuberance and energy -- minus the broken dishes and smashed piano but with a mandolin sacrificed in the ensuing mayhem -- resonated in the Pacific Opera Project's own splendid staging of  Verdi's final operatic masterpiece.

Staging the opera at the famous Forest Lawn Cemetery in Glendale was a clever idea. An open-spaced alcove behind the compound's large theater conveniently houses a thick multi-branched tree with a perch for the tenor to sing his love aria and enough additional space for a small multi-level stage and a hidden chamber orchestra.

An audience of about 250 patrons gathered together around tables strategically laid out and provisioned with Italian salami, cheese, wine, and beer.  Before the performance, the Falstaff and Pistola characters casually ambled through the audience toward the stage, nonchalantly drinking beer from their cans of Pabst Blue Ribbon, the low-brow brew appropriate for their status as low-lifers. With this, the stage, designed by Josh Shaw, was set for the action he also directed. Stephen Karr conducted the orchestra and provided a literary translation for the supertitles.

The production was straightforward, with the temptation for broad slapstick thankfully resisted.  All except Fenton wore red-diamond checkered costumes in Maggie Green’s designs, evoking shades of commedia dell’arte.  Ryan Shull’s lighting, particularly for the final scene in the forest, with its twinkling starlight cast upon the leaves of the tree, added to the evening's ambience.

Falstaff can be a difficult opera in both staging and musical performance. Much depends both on the soloists (who, on this occasion, sang splendidly) and, even more importantly, on its ensembles.  Two examples will suffice: in Act I, scene 2, the “backing and forthing” between the groups of merry wives (Alice, Nanetta, Meg, and Quickly) and the men who enter the stage after them (Ford, Fenton, Dottor Cajus, Pistola and Bardolfo). The famous fugue at the conclusion of the opera is another example of ensemble singing. More of the latter anon. Pages from the first edition libretto of 1893 (seen below) illustrate how the musical execution of the men and the women, each with texts separate from one another, must all interact at the same time:

Falstaff rises or falls on the performance of the title role. It is not enough that he merely sing the part; he must act the role with good comic timing, charm and musicality. Zeffin Quinn Hollis's Falstaff carried it weight well, moved the performance along with energy and without artificial gags. He sang with aplomb, especially his grand monologue, L’Onore! (“Honor!”). In the second act, Daniel Scofield's Ford sang his aria of vengeance (È sogno? O realtà? —“am I dreaming or is it reality?”) with rage and at the end dissected a roasted chicken with a frighteningly large knife.

A sly reference to the performance locale manifested itself when Falstaff, arriving to woo Alice, carried a funerary wreath—presumably “pinched” from a memorial on the grounds—instead of a bouquet of flowers; realizing the error of his ways, he hastily broke the wreath apart in favor of a handful of flowers.
The Merry Wives of Alice (Rebecca Sjöwall), Meg (Jessica Mirshak), and Quickly (Sharmay Musacchio) had a good time stuffing Falstaff into the large laundry basket while Ford huffed and puffed around the stage with outrage at the thought of his Alice committing adultery. Together with his cohorts of Cajus (Clay Hilley), Bardolfo (Kyle Petterson), and Pistola (Phil Meyer) they searched for the fat man, and at the requisite point in time, heard the distinct sounds of two loud kisses (so noted precisely by the composer in the score) emanating from behind the paravent, only to catch the young sweet lovers in the act, Nanetta and Fenton (Annie Sherman and Nadav Hart).  

During the final scene of the opera, at the “apotheosis” of the marriage of Nanetta and Cajus, together with a masked couple, a sly bit of humor appeared in the supertitles: with the removal the masks and veils, the couple reveal themselves as Nanetta and Fenton newly married, with a horrified Cajus “married” to Bardolfo.  The supertitles appeared thusly “I’ve married Bardolfo! / (It’s legal now!)” elicited a good round of laughter from the public. Whereupon followed the magnificent music of the ensemble singing the fugue finale led by Falstaff and his compatriots in a brilliant and rousing conclusion.

In another letter to Boito, Verdi wrote, "The strangest thing of it all is that I am working!  I am amusing myself by writing fugues!  Yes sir, a fugue… and a comic fugue, which would be in place in Falstaff!  You will say: 'But how do you mean, a comic fugue?  Why comic?'  I don’t know how or why, but it’s a comic fugue!"  It seems likely that the fugue at the conclusion of the opera, "Tutto nel mondo è burla" (All of the world is just a jest) was the very first music composed in the opera (and difficult for the entire ensemble to sing), written before Verdi even had the text in hand.  

After Verdi completed Falstaff, he left a note inserted between the pages of the autograph full score, wistfully bidding farewell to one of his greatest creations: “Go, go old John…  Go on down your road as far as you can… Entertaining sort of a rascal, eternally true beneath different masks, in every time, in every place!! Go, walk on, walk on, Addio!” And on this path, old Sir John Falstaff entertained mightily that contributed to a rewarding performance from the Pacific Opera Project. It augurs well for their forthcoming production of Gaetano Donizetti’s backstage farce, Viva la Mamma.


Evan Baker can be reached at [email protected]  and  www.opera-intros.com

Above photo by Martha Benedict, courtesy of Pacific Opera Project


Falstaff: Zeffin Quinn Hollis
Alice Ford: Rebecca Sjöwall
Ford: Daniel Scofield
Mistress Quickly: Sharmay Musacchio
Nanetta: Annie Sherman
Fenton: Nadav Hart
Dr. Caius: Clay Hilley
Meg Page: Jessica Mirshak
Bardolfo: Kyle Patterson
Pistola: Phil Meyer

Friday, November 6, 2015

Lacombe Melds Beethoven and Higdon with NJSO

By Erica Miner

This weekend, the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra and Music Director Jacques Lacombe push the musical envelope by combining perhaps the world’s most iconic work with a piece by one of America’s foremost contemporary composers. 

Having conducted the Beethoven early in his very first season with the orchestra, Lacombe and the NJSO have a mutual history with the piece. Pulitzer prize winning composer Jennifer Higdon sets the tone for the Beethoven in her blue cathedral by creating an atmosphere of contemplation about the kinds of lofty ideals that Beethoven’s Ninth embodies. 

The impressive array of soloists for the Choral Symphony adds to the anticipation over the event. Barbara Shirvis, soprano, and Metropolitan Opera baritone Stephen Powell perform together frequently to rave reviews as a husband and wife team (http://www.laopus.com/2015/08/boston-landmarks-orchestra-serves-up.html). Metropolitan Opera mezzo-soprano Elizabeth Bishop and internationally known tenor Jonathan Boyd complete the solo quartet. The Westminster Symphonic Choir, directed by Joe Miller, adds their incomparable sound to the mix. 

The contrast between Beethoven’s monumental Ninth Symphony and Jennifer Higdon’s meditative blue cathedral will be fascinating to witness. Higdon, whose opera based on Charles Frazier’s bestseller, Cold Mountain, received wide acclaim at its Santa Fe Opera debut last summer, is one of America’s foremost contemporary composers. blue cathedral is one of Higdon’s most widely presented works, having seen 500 over performances since its 2000 premiere. Québecois Lacombe has appeared with celebrated orchestras and operatic soloists worldwide. Both Lacombe and Higdon shared a number of their insights about the upcoming program. 

Jacques Lacombe: 

EM: Programming Beethoven’s 9th and Jennifer Higdon’s blue cathedral together makes for a very unusual evening. What unites these two works in your mind? 

JL: We were looking for something different to open this program. The last time we did Beethoven’s Ninth was my first week with the NJSO in 2010; we performed Copland’s Canticle of Freedom and wove in famous speeches. So we had already done something special with Beethoven’s Ninth. I had known Higdon’s blue cathedral for quite some time and had always wanted to do it. Then, almost like a light bulb going off, I thought, what if we were to do this piece almost like an overture leading right into the symphony without intermission? In our programming meetings, others had never heard the piece before. So I went to play just a little bit of the recording to give them a taste, and people didn’t want me to stop! They immediately loved it. I think because it feels like the music creates this big cathedral space, feels sort of like a meditation. Jennifer plays around a lot with sounds, even with the physicality of sounds coming from different places. Toward the end, there’s a section in which we use Chinese bells, and you don’t know where the sound is coming from. It creates this impression, this mood that you almost lose sense of time. I feel that same way with Beethoven’s Ninth, regardless of how often I do it. It’s this monumental piece, an hour of music, yet when you finish you almost don’t remember where you started - you get wrapped up in it. So this pairing was interesting to me, and I think it will be powerful in concert. 

EM: I absolutely agree. You seem equally at home in symphonic and in operatic repertoire. Do you feel a leaning toward one more than the other? 

JL: No, I always try to find a balance because I find that both activities feed each other. It’s healthy for musicians to work with singers because you are constantly reminded of how natural music should sound - in my opinion, the best instrument is still the human voice. When I conduct orchestral works, I am inspired by [imagining] the way singers would approach any specific melody. Then, I like to think that because of all my work as an orchestra conductor, when I am in the pit conducing an opera or ballet, I see my role as not only accompanying the singers but also of making the orchestra almost another character in the opera. I bring my experiences to the symphonic stage and into the pit. 

EM: That is a wonderful perspective. What motivated you to launch the NJSO Edward T. Cone Composition Institute program to work with young composers? 

JL: It’s always very stimulating for the musicians and me to do new works. When you premiere a new piece, you feel this sort of ownership and a responsibility to the composer - even more so with young composers. I’m not a contemporary music specialist, but I’ve done quite a lot, and I’ve always approached those works with special care and preparation. So when I worked with the composers at the first Cone Institute, I tried to share with the four participants my experience and perspective from my job. Young composers always have a lot of ideas, and it’s important to learn the practical parts of composing for orchestra. We talked a lot about really taking the time to think about how you write and score certain passages, how to make sure all the notations are there, so you can save a lot of time in rehearsal. In professional life, you need to be extremely efficient. I hope they learned from our insights. It was fascinating to see the different personalities and wonderful composers. Chris Rogerson’s Night in the City really felt like a finished project, a huge accomplishment. So I wanted to give him his place in the NJSO’s regular classical season. I’m proud to have his work on the program for my final week with the NJSO, to show the attention we give to new music and young artists and composers. 

EM: Rogerson is indeed a promising young talent. You will soon assume leadership of the Bonn Opera. Which are your preferred operatic works? 

JL: I have a lot of different tastes. I love French operas, and I grew up listening to Puccini and have always loved Italian opera. I eventually got into German repertoire, works by Wagner and Strauss; I’ve done Russian and Czech repertoire - I love to perform Janáček and would like to do Dvořák’s Rusalka. Classical operas, by Mozart for instance, are such strong ensemble pieces that having a strong team lets you present those works in the best way. I’ve had great pleasure working with the bel canto repertoire recently. With the right cast - I recently did La Favorite by Donizetti with Juan Diego Flórez in Monaco and Paris - it can be just incredible. I also like to explore less-performed works, so I’m quite flexible. 

Jennifer Higdon: 

EM: Since its premiere in 2000, over 400 orchestras have performed blue cathedral. To what would you attribute its remarkably universal appeal? 

JH: I’ve had the privilege of attending many performances of blue cathedral, and I’m touched by the number of audience members who thank me for writing the work and describe a personal experience they can relate to what they’ve heard. Others have talked about how exciting it is to hear a contemporary work that touches listeners on a purely emotional level. I’ve heard similar comments from musicians and conductors, and I hope that the work continues to touch listeners at a very basic human level in dealing with death and life. 

EM: I have no doubt whatsoever that its positive effect will continue. Santa Fe Opera is renowned for its premieres of contemporary works. What was it like to have your first opera premiered there? 

JH: It was an incredible experience to see my first opera go to the stage. Nothing can prepare you for all of that’s involved in producing an opera, and I have an even deeper respect for singers who can traverse giant pieces of scenery while acting and singing! 

EM: Do you plan on writing more operas? 

JH: Since I’ve just finished revisions for the East Coast premiere of Cold Mountain, I’m a bit exhausted and can’t imagine doing anything else at the moment! However, yes, I do see more opera projects in the future. 

Concert tickets are available online at www.njsymphony.org or by phone at 1.800.ALLEGRO (255.3476). 

Photos used by permission of: Fred Stucker, J. Henry Fair 

Erica Miner can be reached at: [email protected]

Sunday, November 1, 2015

Patricia Racette is a Diva for All Opera Houses

By Erica Miner

Patricia Racette has established a unique and familiar presence in opera houses and on concert stages worldwide. The award-winning soprano is not only known for her portrayals of Puccini and Verdi heroines, but also is admired for her ability to perform more than one role in those operas. For example, she has sung both Mimi and Musetta in Puccini’s La bohème as well as both Blanche and Madame Lidoine in Poulenc’s Dialogues of the Carmelites. Racette has also famously created roles in a number of world premieres of American operas. 

On Nov. 14, Racette will diverge from her usual operatic diva-dom to perform a program of cabaret and jazz favorites for San Diego Opera (http://www.sdopera.com/Operas/Racette?portal=true), accompanied by Craig Terry, who performed in recital with Stephanie Blythe last season (http://www.laopus.com/2014/12/stephanie-blythe-channels-kate-smith.html). 

EM: Patricia, I’m quite sure I played your 1995 debut at the Metropolitan Opera when I was a violinist there. Very few degrees of separation! Welcome back to SDO. We’re thrilled to have you here. 

PR: I can't wait!!! 

EM: Tell us about your background. What was your journey from your native New Hampshire to the world’s greatest opera houses? 

PR: I have always said that I “happened into opera.” My intention was to pursue a jazz/cabaret career. I attended the University of North Texas in Denton (via bus from New Hampshire), where they have always had and continue to have a wonderful jazz program. Long story short, they did not offer a “vocal jazz” degree at the time, so I was obligated to take “classical” voice lessons. My voice teacher nabbed me and convinced me via Suor Angelica and Renata Scotto that my path to opera was born! 

EM: You’ve become known for portraying tragic opera roles such as Janáček’s Kátya Kabanová and Puccini’s Madama Butterfly. Are these among your favorites, or are there others you love even more?  

PR: I am currently in London performing Katerina in Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk - now added to my favorite role list! Tosca, Lady M, and Salome now vie for top billing on my “favorite” list - such wonderful and complex women are always an allure to my dramatic AND musical sensibility. 

EM: As a “singing actress” do you feel one is more important than the other? Which roles do you find most challenging from an acting perspective? 

PR: No, I feel that my affinity for the operatic art form insists on the duality - LIVE performance is my passion, and both aspects deserve equal measure in my book. Honestly, from an acting perspective, I used to find portraying weak, oppressed women to be a unique challenge for a contemporary woman, and yet I soon realized that there is human experience in all of it - my human experience included! And the gorgeous Puccini and Verdi and Janáček that those roles brought to my life are irreplaceable. That may sound lofty, but what I really mean to say is that with my new repertory that “weakness of character” is sinking by the wayside as Salome, Tosca, Lady M and now Minnie (La Fanciulla del West) take hold! 

EM: Now for SDO you will diverge from the above to perform jazz and cabaret standards. What motivated you to create this very different “Diva on Detour” program? 

PR: It has to be restated that my very first love of singing was cabaret and jazz - not opera. Opera came into my life many years later (and I am of course thankful for it) but truly, singing cabaret is like returning home. I say it on the recording of the album, but it IS the truth! And the whole premise of the recording is that is WAS live, in person… as I really don't love the aspect of distance from my audience that studio recording entails. 

EM: What details might you reveal about the songs you will perform? 

PR: I believe our program is a wonderful combination of eclectic and interesting “story telling” pieces. There are well-known gems and a few darker secrets as well. I hope that's both cryptic and enticing! 
EM: It is indeed. You’ve performed many new operas, including several by Tobias Picker. What attracts you to these new works? 

PR: First and foremost, the opportunity to have a say in how music is written, how drama is realized - that's an overwhelming gift of immediacy. Certainly I like to put an “original stamp” on whatever role I sing, but when I am the one who gets to create the aural and dramatic experience of a character from literal beginnings - fabulous. 

EM: Beautifully put. Do you plan on creating any new roles in the future? 

PR: I am always open to new compositions - honestly, and humbly, I do receive a number of scores to peruse. I take the responsibility of these projects - past and potentially future - very seriously. There are YEARS of work that go into the “gestation and birth” on the parts of so many participants - certainly the composer and librettist, but also the companies and patrons that put their love of the art form and their MONEY behind making new works a reality. 

EM: Is there anything you’d like to add? 

PR: I smile to think that you were in the pit in 1995, as my Met debut - and subsequent 20 years there! - are among the most prized experiences of my life! 

EM: Thank you so much for that - and for your fabulous responses. See you at the Balboa Theatre next month! 

Premiere tickets to Patricia Racette’s “Diva on Detour” can be purchased at http://www.sdopera.com.

Photos used by permission of: Devon Cass, Lisa Cuscuna

Erica can be reached at: [email protected]