Wednesday, May 31, 2023

A Delectable Feast from Long Beach Opera

Carlis Shane Clark as Agamemnon leads the guests in a procession from California Scenario to
 the Samueli Theater.


Long Beach Opera, Segerstrom Center for the Arts, Costa Mesa

Artistic director James Darrah and his merry band at the Long Beach Opera continue to innovate productions that wake up eyes and shake up ears in novel ways. One of its most ambitious efforts just visited Orange County with a light-hearted, multi-dimensional operatic happening that was part spectacle, part cuisine, and part post-dinner opera as entertainment.

Darrah inherited this company not so long ago with its modus operandi to produce clever shows on the cheap. His personal stamp on the virtues and challenges of this approach were on full display in an ambitious al fresco production last June of Handel’s Giustino (reviewed here), where one shivered and squinted a bit to take in a rollicking show on the patio of the city’s Museum of Latin American Art. That was followed in February with less flair in the musty-funky production of  The Romance of the Rose, by Kate Soper, at San Pedro’s decrepit Warner Grand Theatre. (Heads up: renovation is planned from 2024.)

In a surprising and welcome upgrade, the LBO’s latest production, a mash-up of Classical Antiquity called "The Feast," pulled out all the stops in collaboration with Orange County's upscale Segerstrom Center for the Arts in Costa Mesa. Two of its tony venues bookended an indoor-outdoor, three-dimensional, multi-discipline extravaganza that lived up to its promise of “a glorious, decadent, immersive experience.” The show was organized in two parts, the first at an outside space, the second inside a splendid performance hall I had not visited before.

Lloyd Knight as Medea in the California
Scenario Noguchi Garden.
PART I -- At 7 pm, the audience was invited into the pristine Japanese Noguchi Garden, dubbed  “California Scenario,” with its clusters of trees, grass, open spaces, artfully piled boulders, hidden gardens, and stylized river waters in shallow concrete cuts.

Wandering the park at leisure, patrons took in its enchanted nooks and crannies, encountered archaic-costumed characters in stagey poses who would appear again on a more formal interior stage later: Agamemnon (actor Carlis Shane Clark) and four dancers of the Martha Graham Dance Company costumed as Clytemnestra (Xin Ying), Medea (Lloyd Knight), Theseus (Leslie Andrea Williams), and Cassandra of Troy (Anne Souder).

Athletic and contortionist, the light-as-air dancers (choreographed this evening by Janet Eilber) filled the space with kinetic movement, tableaux on mounting protruding rocks, leaping over the riverbeds that crisscross the garden.

PART II -- At 8 pm the five above cast members guided the audience of 180 along a path and across the street to the Samueli Theater, where they would be seated snugly at long tables for what was dubbed a “world premiere reinvention of a baroque banquet inspired by George Frideric Handel’s opera Alessandro.” After an hour consuming a delectable meal of duck, wine, and Läderach chocolate, at 9 pm an hour and a quarter of Handelian entertainment ensued.

Handel in the late 1720s, at the height
of his career as an opera composer.
The evening’s Music Director, Andrew McIntosh of the LA-based band Wild Up, led a seven-member chamber orchestra of five top-notch Baroque string players, an oboe and a harpsichord, sounding fuller than their numbers would imply, commencing the evening’s musical feast with one of Handel's melodious sonatas for oboe and strings.

Where Darrah’s earlier Giustino production had stayed within the confines of that one work, he went for broke on this occasion, cleverly pilfering and stitching together 16 glinting-diamond arias, instrumentals, and duets from other rarely performed Handel operas. Darrah had solid precedent for this. Handel was his own flagrant poacher and re-user whenever he felt the need to borrow from the 42 operas he composed before switching to oratorios late in his career, some purloined numbers even making their way into the latter.

At the first sound of the instrumentalists, an immediate aural impression struck all present: the house acoustics of the Samueli were superb. There was no need for orchestral amplification, nor would there later be any body miking of the singers. All instrumental and vocal sonorities were gloriously acoustic, unadulterated by distorting electronic amplification. This proved an aural revelation.

Xin Ying as Clytemnestra.
An elevated stage at one end of the room, with the orchestra nearby on the lower floor, became the launching pad for the evening’s formal entertainment of Handelian gems, themed on the Classical World's heroes and heroines from differing epochs and locales. It was a delectable concert of practically no discernible plot. Consider it a masque (or in today's lingo, a variety-show) of ancient-world Baroque entertainment and good-natured vocal one-upmanship. 

The four returning dancers, in their guises as Clytemnestra, Medea, Theseus, and Cassandra, would enliven the room with graceful three-dimensional atmospherics for the rest of the evening.

Anna Souder as Cassandra.
Initially dominating the stage were spoken declarations by Clark's Agamemnon, suggesting his patrician role for the evening as master of ceremonies. He invited into the mix two new guests—the vocal stars-to-be for the evening's entertainment: Cleopatra (soprano Anna Schubert) and Alexander the Great (Polish countertenor Jakub Józef Orliński) proceeded to trade arias in a friendly war of the singing sexes. In this opera-as-masque, the couple could be seen as high-placed family members within the Agamemnon retinue, the three-century gap of their historic personas irrelevant for dramatic purposes in this costume party. 

Competitive energy between the two singers being the essence of the Handelian atmospherics to follow, Schubert and Orliński delivered a pastiche of Handel’s greatest operatic hits. It would eventually take on the cheeky feel of "Anything you can do I can do better." In the 10 solo arias (five each) and two duets, to follow, the two explored a range of emotional states, including aggression, love, loss, ambition, and indulgence. 

Screen projections of lyric translations were only partially useful, as the texts seemed too generic to illuminate any sort of plot. And when dancers and singers simultaneously moved around on and off the stage, there was scant time to turn one’s head back to a screen to read. It was best to just surrender to the exuberant moments of three-dimensional theater.

Jakub Jozef Orlinski, center, as Alexander the Great.

Superstar Jakub Józef Orliński brought charisma to his half of the vocal program. Eschewing the precious falsetto projections of yesteryear’s English countertenors, Orliński delivered authentic full-voiced heroics to his five arias, one each from Tolomeo, Riccardo, and Amadigi, and two from Agrippina. It was pure pleasure hearing this singer at the peak of his powers, subduing the by-now partially inebriated audience into an awed silence of appreciation for such an exceptional talent.

Partnering Orliński was the LBO’s prominent in-house soprano, the crystalline-voiced Anna Schubert. But would his powerful virtuosity overwhelm her dramatically? I might have been concerned about that had I not seen Schubert’s performance in last July's Giustino. Her role there had been the journey of an initially inexperienced queen who faces down dangerous challenges to her authority by subduing macho males. Schubert's voice was amplified on that occasion (as were all the other singers in the al fresco setting). But how would she compare in tonight's interior acoustic setting pairing with Orliński powerful projection?

Anna Schubert as Cleopatra.

In the event, one needn’t have worried. In her five solo arias (from Giulio Cesare, Teseo, Trionfo del Tempo and two from Alessandro), Schubert had enough high-octane vocal prowess to match Orliński, not so much in raw power as in how the ring of her tonal focus carried across the room into welcoming ears. (Wherever Schubert's vocal coaches are, past and present, blessings be upon you.)

Two duets from Serse and Alessandro confirmed the wisdom of pairing Orliński and Schubert, who have both achieved early peaks in their careers. If the solos and duets had been taken as entries in an antiquarian singing contest between them, the result would have been a draw, a great credit to both singers. It was a match made in Handel Heaven. That said, the single most exciting vocal moment had to be Schubert’s nailing a climactic high D on the last note of “Piangerò la sorte mia” from Giulio Cesare in Egitto. It alighted with the awe-inspiring elegance of a NASA moon landing. And the audience was just as over the moon as she was. 
Later in the banquet’s musical entertainment, as if the evening had not contained enough disparate events and surprises, the theatrical “fourth wall” was broken in the Samueli when singers and cast members suddenly descended and scampered like church mice along the sides of the hall for more ceremonial doings, in some cases involving audience members at the head table in the middle.

Breaking barriers and innovating surprises have long been LBO specialties. This mash-up of Ancient World icons, like those Clash of the Titans movies, may not have been the company's most dramatically focused, but it was certainly one of its most successful experiments. And, by the way, the Samueli Theater at Segerstrom should become a regular venue for future productions of this fine company.


Long Beach Opera at California Scenario and the Samueli Theater, Segerstrom Center for the Arts, Sunday, May 21, 2023, 7:00 p.m. / 8:00 p.m.
Images: The production: Philip Faraone, Getty Images; Handel: Wikimedia Commons.

Thursday, May 18, 2023

Memorable Bruckner from Philippe Jordan and the LAPO

Philippe Jordan and the LA Philharmonic after the conclusion of Bruckner's Seventh Symphony.


Los Angeles Philharmonic, Walt Disney Concert Hall, Los Angeles Music Center

Without the attraction of Dudamel on the podium or a big-name soloist, Disney Hall was less than full on the first Sunday in May, but for those who did make the effort, the rewards were rich indeed, including the Violin Concerto of Antonin Dvořák as a first half item more substantial than usual when the concert’s main work is one of the longer Bruckner symphonies, in this case the Seventh.

Antonin Dvořák in 1882.
Dvořák’s Violin Concerto in A minor, Op. 53 (B. 96 / B. 108) seems still to have the “neglected” tag around its neck compared with the violin concertos by other inarguable greats of the 19th century, but surprisingly, this was already the fourth occasion in the last half-dozen years when it has come up for review on LA Opus, most recently in a magnetically personal interaction between Gil Shaham, the LA Chamber Orchestra, and its Music Director Jaime Martín (reviewed here).

The present performance though, in which the LAPO’s Principal Concertmaster Martin Chalifour took the solo role, collaborating with his colleagues under the baton of the Swiss guest conductor Philippe Jordan, brought to mind rather a performance of the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto in E minor in the opening concert of the Long Beach Symphony’s 2022-23 season (review), by that orchestra’s Concertmaster, Roger Wilkie.

Martin Chalifour.
As then, here was the same unshowy but seemingly effortless and chamber music-like exactness of interplay between soloist and orchestra, born of a long familiarity with each other—particularly necessary in the Dvořák concerto’s indelibly memorable rondo finale—and more than making up for the absence of visiting celebrity wattage. Throughout, clarity was aided by the division of 1st and 2nd violins left and right, a layout that also benefited the Bruckner to come. 

M. Jordan was an admirable mediator in the concerto performance, launching Dvořák’s opening orchestral tutti at just the right Allegro ma non troppo middle course between the raised-fist assertiveness of some performances and over-portentous throat-clearing of others, and at the required forte dynamic rather than ff. At the other end of the movement, the sensitivity and unanimity of these performers made it even more difficult than usual to be sure of the precise moment when Dvořák eases pianissimo into the Adagio (and yes, again taken ma non troppo as per the score), after his innovatory curtailing of the recapitulation.

This fine performance, however, was just the starter that preceded the richly nourishing main course of Anton Bruckner’s Symphony No. 7 in E major WAB 107. After Dvořák’s modest orchestral forces' relatively sparse appearance on the big Disney Hall platform, it filled up a good deal, with an extra desk or two of each string section (based around 10 double basses!), and the addition to Bruckner’s usual mid-career brass section of his required pairs of tenor and bass “Wagner tubas” for the Adagio and finale —but with no specious beefing-up of the composer’s still-Classical double woodwinds.

Anton Bruckner in 1885—portrait
by Hermann von Kaulbach.
There’s an extraordinarily wide range of duration in recordings of this symphony, from well under an hour in some from the 1950s to the extraordinary 88 minutes of Sergiu Celibidache (and I recall from around a quarter-century ago in London a marmoreal but convincing-on-the-day 82-minute traversal by the gifted Welsh conductor Wyn Morris with the now-defunct New Queens Hall Orchestra on period instruments). And all this without any optional exposition repeats nor, thank goodness, the complication of different versions of the score, as is the case with some of Bruckner’s other symphonies.

At around 62 minutes, M. Jordan’s performance was toward the lower end of this range, but such was his mastery of tempo relationships that nowhere did it seem unduly rushed. The old canard that Bruckner “wrote the same symphony nine times” (and in any case he penned 11) was never more demonstrably untrue than in the case of the Seventh; the relative proportions and expressive weight of its four movements are unique amongst his symphonies, as is the very opening, which immediately makes for interpretative challenges.

What a temptation it must be—when confronted with arguably the most gloriously expansive and soaring opening melody in the entire symphonic repertoire, initially on massed cellos with a single horn (more prominent than usual in this performance) in its opening measures—to make the absolute most of it? But then if you do, how do you avoid a sense of anti-climax when you descend into the faster second theme, and positive bathos when the jaunty third theme arrives?

Philippe Jordan.
As M. Jordan demonstrated, you trust and observe the score, take that opening at Bruckner’s marked Allegro moderato, and then mold and shape what follows—working with one of the world’s greatest orchestras—into a gloriously inevitable progress. And then at the other end of the movement, when what inevitably feels like a glowing sunrise emerges from the coda’s initial sepulchral gloom, you observe Bruckner’s nach und nach etwas schneller (little by little growing faster) so that it’s the triumphant conclusion to the first stage in a symphonic journey, rather than sounding like a Götterdämerung-ish end to all things.

This command of pace and transition continued into the second movement Adagio, one of Bruckner’s greatest, aided by tight ensemble and immaculately balanced playing from the LAPO; a particular pleasure was the security of pitch by the quartet of Wagner tubas in their passages of very close harmony during the funereal coda. So what about that once-controversial, once-only cymbal crash/triangle/timpani roll climax to the movement? It was there, with M. Jordan discreetly reining in the dynamics through the long climb to the summit so that the fff moment struck with maximum possible force (click here for a hilarious YouTube take on this).

The Adagio’s climax, with percussion, in Bruckner’s manuscript score. Its condition, with additions by other hands, makes it impossible to be certain whether he intended to include cymbals and triangle from the outset.

The other major hurdle for interpreters of this symphony is to avoid the sense of anti-climax that can arise all too easily from Bruckner’s following two very expansive, serious movements (totaling 41 minutes in this performance) with two much shorter, lighter ones. A solution suggested by at least one commentator is to treat the work as notionally in three, not four parts, so that the scherzo and finale, with only a very short pause between them, come to feel more like complementary halves of a single larger entity.

Deliberately or not, this was the effect of M. Jordan’s interpretation, and it worked a treat. The scherzo was appropriately Sehr schnell (very fast), with the trio only a little slower, etwas langsammer, as marked. After the scherzo da capo, he made just a brief pause, and then the finale leapt from the starting-gate and remained airborne to its end, with very little slowing during the concluding thematic pile-up so that the final sforzando chord was delivered with the crispest-possible finality, rather than the “Was that it then?” sense that this admittedly problematic conclusion often engenders.

All-in-all, this account of Bruckner’s Seventh Symphony, if not the last word in epic grandeur, was one of the most cohesive, satisfying, and invigorating performances of the work that I have heard in nearly 60 years of concert-going—indeed a “spiritual experience” as one fellow audience-member remarked. I do hope that the LAPO invites Philippe Jordan back, a Brucknerian born if ever there was one!


Los Angeles Philharmonic, Walt Disney Concert Hall, Los Angeles Music Center, Sunday, May 7 2023, 2:00 p.m.
Images: The performance: author; Martin Chalifour and Phillipe Jordan: LA Philharmonic; Dvořák and Bruckner: Wikimedia Commons; Bruckner score: IMSLP.

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Saturday, May 13, 2023

Chamber Music Arrives in Downtown San Pedro

Duo Syncopa at Collage, San Pedro.

Duo Syncopa, Chamber Music Tuesday, Collage, San Pedro

The venue Collage opened its doors as “A Place For Art and Culture” in the city of San Pedro in May 2020. This, as Executive Director Richard Foss acknowledges, was spectacularly bad timing for that one reason familiar worldwide, but nonetheless the organization managed to keep going through the months and years of the Covid pandemic, and now with that mostly in the rear-view mirror hosts over 100 events annually.

Tomomi Sato.
Behind its unobtrusive former shop-front façade in South Pacific Avenue, Collage mounts art shows, poetry readings, author presentations, and vocal, jazz, folk, blues and band concerts, as well as running cultural outreach activities such as its enterprising program to collect unwanted band instruments, refurbish them when necessary, and then donate them to local young musicians otherwise unable to fulfil their aspirations.

Yue Qian.
But until last Tuesday, Collage’s calendar had not included classical chamber music. This changed when, in the first of what is hoped to be a regular series of recitals on the first Tuesday of each month, Duo Syncopa (Yue Qian, violin; Tomomi Sato, piano) presented a program of 19th and 20th century works as unhackneyed as it was ambitious.

Being used to the sumptuous Steinways deployed at other local South Bay venues used by Classical Crossroads, Inc. and the South Bay Chamber Music Society, I was slightly wary at first sight of Collage’s clearly vintage baby grand, but under Ms. Sato’s energetic steel fingers its light, well-tuned tones rang out cleanly in the small, attractively-lit, timber truss-roofed, and brick-lined performance space.

Toru Takemitsu.
Duo Syncopa opened with Toru Takemitsu (1930-1996), the first Japanese composer to gain international familiarity, and his early Distance de fée (1951) clearly shows what he had already learned from Debussy and Messiaen. Across its seven-minute span, outer sections of tonally unmoored musings enclose a more vigorous but fragmentary center, whose rapid and extreme shifts of violin technique—from high harmonics to double-stopping to rapid tremolando—held no terrors for Ms. Qian.

Leos Janáček.
From here it was a step back a generation or so to Janáček’s single Violin Sonata JW 7/7 of 1914. Its superficially conventional four-movement structure (compressed sonata-design outer movements complete with exposition repeats—both observed by Duo Syncopa—enclosing a Ballada slow movement and Allegretto scherzo-and-trio (not named as such)) fails to conceal the sonata's astonishingly contemporary sensibility, with restlessly changing textures and extremes of dynamic range that push the capabilities of both instruments to the limit.

Fortunately each player was equal to these expressive demands: Ms. Qian eloquent in Janáček’s passionate but fragmentary melodies and hovering on the edge of audibility in the stratospherically high conclusion to the first movement, and Ms. Sato encompassing alike the hammering chords and teemingly arpeggiated piano part.

Eugène Ysaÿe in 1883.
After this, the first half ended with some “light relief,” Eugène Ysaÿe’s Caprice d'après l'étude en forme de Valse de C. Saint-Saëns Op. 52, No. 6 (1877), in which Ms. Sato’s accompaniment gleefully egged Ms. Qian’s violin on to ever more extravagant spins of aural schlagobers, as well eliciting audience laughter with her increasingly teasing returns to Saint-Saëns’ innocent little tune.

After a short interval Duo Syncopa moved a couple of generations further back to one of Beethoven’s most trenchant early/middle-period works, the Sonata No. 7 for Piano and Violin in C Minor Op. 30, No. 2 (1801-02). Here they were as sharply-accented and propulsive in the outer movements and the scherzo (no easing of pace for the trio section) as they were tender and full of inner feeling in the Adagio.

Robert and Clara Schumann.
The duo concluded their program, effectively as an encore, with the second of the Three Romances, Op. 94, that Robert Schumann wrote in December 1849 and gave to his wife Clara as a Christmas present. Though originally written for oboe and piano, they work equally well with violin, as Duo Syncopa’s performance demonstrated—simple and heartfelt as its “Einfach, innig” title. It's good to know that these fine performers have already been booked by Classical Crossroads for its next season of First Fridays at First~fff! recitals.

As has been reviewed on LA Opus many times, the South Bay area is spectacularly well served with chamber music recitals of the highest artistic quality by organizations already noted such as Classical Crossroads and the SBCMS, but this was the first for downtown San Pedro, brought about with the help of local chamber music enthusiast and “fixer” Thomas Tileston. Let’s hope it heralds many to come! 


Chamber Music Tuesday, Collage, 731 South Pacific Avenue, San Pedro, 7.30pm, Tuesday, May 9, 2023.
Images: The performance: author; Yue Qian: Colburn School; Tomomi Sato: artist website: Takemitsu: Interlude.hkJanáček: Freedom from Religion FoundationYsaÿe, the Schumanns: Wikimedia Commons.

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Thursday, May 11, 2023

Edith Knox Competition Winner Beguiles on "First Friday"

Cameron Akioka at First Lutheran Church, Torrance.

Cameron Akioka, First Fridays at First!~fff, First Lutheran Church, Torrance

The young Californian pianist Cameron Akioka must surely have been a worthy winner of the Peninsula Symphony Orchestra’s 50th Annual Edith Knox Performance Competition, if her Classical Crossroads, Inc., debut recital given before an invited audience at First Lutheran Church, Torrance, on the first Friday of May was anything to judge by.

Her skillfully chosen program comprised two major keyboard masterpieces from the 18th and 19th centuries—respectively J. S. Bach’s Chromatic Fantasia and Fugue in D minor, BWV 903 and Robert Schumann’s Études symphoniques in C-sharp minor, Op. 13—separated by a 20th century vignette, Debussy’s Poissons d’or (Goldfish), the third and last of his Images, Deuxième Série, L. 111. This, like its companions, she played with impressive aplomb and virtuosity, and entirely from memory.

Monument to J. S. Bach in
Köthen, where he probably
composed the Chromatic
Fantasia and Fugue.
Any listeners accustomed to the severer tones of the harpsichord in Bach might initially have been taken aback by the freedom and spontaneity of Ms. Akioka’s treatment of BWV 903’s initial Fantasia section, which seemed to reach forward out of its Baroque origins towards an overt Romanticism. However, the ensuing, quite “straight” account of the Fugue only confirmed what the Fantasia had already hinted—that as well as her deliquescent fluency in all those 32nd-note scalic runs Ms Akioka also evinced masterly clarity in her articulation of bass lines, aided by finely controlled and focused pedaling.

All her many pianistic skills were comprehensively brought to bear on Schumann’s "Symphonic Studies", which had a compositional and publishing history complex enough to influence unavoidably any performer’s approach to the work. Originally sketched in 1834-35 as a set of more-or-less free variations on a theme supplied by a Baron von Fricken, the work was variously revised and added to, and some elements of it set aside, before Schumann settled upon a final form for publication in 1837.

Schumann's 1834 manuscript sketch of the Fricken theme for his Études symphoniques.

This comprised Fricken’s theme followed by 12 “études”—still essentially free variations on it except for the last, a substantial “rondo finale” based on an entirely different theme that Schumann drew from the opera Der Templer und die Jüdin by Heinrich Marschner (1795-1861). This might account in part for the “symphonic” epithet in the title, though an earlier discarded title that these were “Symphonische Etüden im Orchesterkarakter for Piano…” indicates that the orchestral medium rather than symphonic form per se had primacy in Schumann’s mind.

Lithograph of Schumann in 1839.
It’s also worth noting that the other half of that early putative title read “…von Florestan und Eusebius,” the contrasting sides that Schumann perceived of his own personality: Eusebius introspective and melancholy; Florestan the opposite, extrovert and excitable. The expressive markings for the published étudesI: Un poco più vivo, II: marcate il Canto, III: Vivace, IV: Allegro marcato, V: Scherzando, VI: Agitato, VII: Allegro molto, VIII: Sempre marcatissimo, IX: Presto possibile, X: Con energia sempre, XI: Andante espressivo, XII: Allegro brilliante—clearly indicate which of the Florestand and Eusebius aspects is uppermost in them.

In 1852 Schumann brought out a second edition (now titled Etüden in Form von Varitionen) that omitted études III and IX and revised the finale, but then in 1861 a third, posthumous, edition appeared, which reinstated them but retained the finale revisions. To muddy the waters yet further, in 1890 Brahms published the five études that Schumann had cut from his original 1834-35 conception as a supplement in the collected edition of Schumann’s complete works. In their expansive, lyrical nature, these are much more characteristic of “Eusebius.”

So what is a performer to do? While some commentators have rather sternly warned against what they see as compromising Schumann’s definitive vision of the work as published in 1837, it's quite common nowadays to broaden its expressive range by interspersing those 12 mostly energetic “Florestan” études with the five originally discarded “Eusebian” ones, and this was Ms. Akioka’s solution.

Her placing of them within the sequence was as sensitively thought-out as her playing, and both concept and execution can be enjoyed on the recording captured from Classical Crossroads' livestream (click on the image above), where her own comments on each of the 18 movements can also be read. If there’s a criticism to be made, it’s that she cut over a dozen repeats (most of the movements have each half repeated), presumably to curtail the work’s overall length for “First Friday’s” format, and to these ears a few of the études were thus rendered just too brief to be fully effective.

With that small proviso (I wonder whether Ms. Akioka would consider playing as an alternative sometimes only the 1837 set, and with all repeats?), this was an outstandingly enjoyable and rewarding recital, and it’s to be hoped that she will grace many future South Bay program listings. Meanwhile, she will be performing her chosen selection for the Knox Competition—Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 4—with the Peninsula SO on Sunday, June 25.


“First Fridays at First!~fff,” First Lutheran Church, Torrance, 12.15pm, Friday, May 4, 2023.
Images: The performance: Classical Crossroads; Composers: Wikimedia Commons; Schumann manuscript: Yale University Library.

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Saturday, May 6, 2023

At Heart, Michael Chioldi Remains a Verdian Baritone


Courtesy Seattle Opera

INTERVIEW: Michael Chioldi



New York-based baritone Michael Chioldi returns to Seattle Opera in the role of Germont in this month’s Francesca Zambello production of Giuseppe Verdi’s La Traviata. A company and audience favorite, Chioldi made his SO debut as Baron Scarpia in Giacomo Puccini’s Tosca in 2021 and sang Marcello in Puccini’s La bohème that same year. 

Chioldi, “generous, big hearted, and immensely talented…a thoroughly charming, perspicacious and erudite man,” has performed with the Metropolitan Opera, San Francisco Opera, Houston Grand Opera, and Washington National Opera, among others. Here, he shares news about an extraordinary highpoint in his singing career. 

ERICA MINER: Welcome back to Seattle, Michael! How are you enjoying our fair city?

MICHAEL CHIOLDI: Thanks so much. I love it here, especially when the sun is shining. Because of visa issues with our Violetta, I’ve had free time to exploreE

EM: Let’s start off with a major milestone—Germont Number 100! What does it feel like?

MC: I absolutely love the role. I’ve sung 14 Verdi roles. This one always comes back into the queue, because Traviata is in top 5 performed operas, especially in the US. I’ve had the opportunity to do many different productions. I love the character and really enjoy doing the opera. You come back to characters after you’ve lived more of your own life and can draw from life experiences that you can bring to a character like Germont. Father characters like Miller in Luisa Miller, where there’s a strong father-daughter relationship, or Rigoletto, with its strong father-daughter connection. I enjoy coming back to this role, not just for the singing but for the portrayal of the character.

EM: How has your portrayal has progressed over time?

Philip Newton

MC: I never saw Germont as a villain. As I’ve gotten older, I can see the strength of character he has as a father and bring that in the portrayal more. Perhaps when I was younger I sang him a little too “nice.” I didn’t want to be as stern. Now I think he changes in the opera, a big change in the duet where he doesn’t expect this woman, Violetta, to be as formidable as she is. At the end of the opera where he’s asking God for forgiveness for his horrible deed, he feels guilty. I think that flip, if you are a little sterner in the beginning when you meet her, works much better. When I was younger the difference in the arc was not as clear. Now it is. When I do the Q&As after the performances, people ask me what that’s like. I always say, “How would you feel if your son was dating someone who was not the most upstanding citizen, how would you treat that? If your family was reliant on you for financial stability, how would you deal with it?” They never see it that way, they see the sadness, heartbreak, the dying. I understand that, but as you get older you realize you can convey things in a more honest way, not mean but to the point. Papa Germont’s words speak to a lot of fathers. “No way in hell would that happen to my daughter!”

EM: It’s universal in that it appeals to the father in every man.

MC: I think so, too.

Michael Chioldi, Vuvu Mpofu; Philip Newton

EM: I’m sure you’ll have much to say after you redo this role. Then you’re coming back for Rheingold.

MC: I’m so thrilled for that. I just started dabbling in the Wagner world, doing The Flying Dutchman with Utah Opera. I sort of made a name for myself as a Verdi dramatic baritone. I still am. But I really enjoyed doing the Dutchman. Coming back for Rheingold is dipping a toe into what is understood as the bel canto of Wagner operas. It’s a very good first Wagner role. I’m really excited to be paired with some real Wagnerian voices like Greer Grimsley, whom I’ve watched and admired my whole career. We’re also singing together in Florencia en los Amazones at the Met.

EM: Greer is not only a great artist but a wonderful person. What role are you singing in Rheingold?

MC: Donner. It’s a smallish role, but he has a great aria. I get to swing my hammer and sing one of the more melodic parts of the opera. You have to wait till the end of the opera to hear it [Laughs].

EM: Compared to other Wagner operas Rheingold is not very long, so the end comes sooner.

MC: [Laughs] That’s true!

EM: Getting back to Traviata, in a recent interview, Francesca Zambello said that La Traviata is “just about perfect, musically and dramatically.” Would you agree?

MC: I would. There’s not one extra note. It’s concise, succinct, the story is told well, musically beautiful and to the point. We’re cutting the cabaletta of my aria, which is oftentimes done. Stylistically as a formulaic musicality practice it works better with one verse of the cabaletta, but I agree with Alfredo doing his cabaletta in this production. The great thing about Verdi is that he musically represents the drama so perfectly, it works so well, there’s a reason it’s a top 5 opera. I remember when I was very young, about 25, I heard Traviata for the first time when I was at the Met for the Met winners concert. When the orchestra started with those very soft strings in the beginning, I was utterly transported from that first moment. I had goose bumps. Then it just swings into this huge Flora’s party and “Libiamo.” It has such a great arc. The wonderful thing about Germont is his duet in the middle of the opera, what I call the “meat” of the opera, where the piece grounds itself, and changes from there. Dramaturgically it’s a fantastic story. Verdi’s interpretation enhances it. All great opera, great drama, is when you have a really good story enhanced by the music. Verdi knocks it out of the part with this one.

EM: Someone once said the only thing better than a great story is a great story with music.

MC: That’s very true.

EM: How does Ms. Zambello’s interpretation differ from the many others you’ve performed?

Dominick Chenes, Michael Chioldi; Sunny Martini

MC: I’ve done this production before, as Germont, at the inception, a co-production with Seattle Opera, with Washington National Opera in 2018. It’s gone to quite a few places. Seattle is just now performing it. The interpretation is interesting, set in the early 1900s. The clothing is a little different, the costumes for the women especially are quite striking, which adds to the beauty of the overall look of the story. There’s a stark difference between the beautiful colors of the costumes and her being sick. They start in overture where Violetta is already sick. The curtain comes up and you see her in a hospital bed, with other sick people near her Then [Sings] the opera takes off for Flora’s party. It transforms into this great ballroom. The difference between those two things is quite nice. Then coming full circle to the end where she ends up in that same bed. It’s very clever, it works very well. There are these 3-sided huge set pieces that turn, which helps keep the drama moving. There’s only one intermission, which can make it difficult for the Violetta, as she’s onstage a lot. That’s become a trend. When I do Rigoletto in theatres now they ask if I mind taking just a small pause between acts 2 and 3, which is what they do now at the Met. Last year was such a huge year for me, and getting to do Rigoletto at the Met was amazing. Really transformed my career.

EM: Before we get to that, tell us about your experience with the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions, now known as the Metropolitan Opera Eric and Dominique Laffont Competition.

MC: I sang for them the first time in 1991 when I was 21 in my hometown of Pittsburgh, won the district, then went to the regionals in Buffalo and placed 3rd. They only took 1st and 2nd to the winners, so I didn’t make it that year. In 1995 I repeated the audition and went on to win. The first time I thought that was my shot, didn’t think I would do it again. Then when I participated in the Houston Grand Opera Young Artists Program they encouraged me to do it. I won the regionals in Houston and went to the districts in Dallas, won and went to New York. I remember being there, if you were invited then, you were all winners and sang in a winners’ concert and got a big check, which was nice. Now they do places. Being amongst all those amazing singers in that one week was wonderful. The two arias I was going to sing were Largo al factotum and Avant de quitter, the baritone calling cards. I knew if I wanted to win I had to sing something showy and flashy. I was in a coaching with Joan Dornemann, working through the Largo, and she said, “Hold on a second, come with me.” She dragged me down the hallway to a studio where Sherill Milnes was coaching some young artists, interrupted the class, sat down at the piano and had me sing in front of all the current artists in the program and work through this aria with Sherill. It was one of those life affirming, beautiful moments. I came out of it thinking, “This is what I’m meant to do, I love this art form, I can do this.”

EM: So many of us have these life-changing moments that point us in the direction where we’re meant to go.

MC: It was such a positive experience for me the whole week. I saw every opera I could—we had free tickets, sometimes in the company box. I embraced as much as I could and soaked in all the information I could. I remember standing through Parsifal, with Dame Gwyneth Jones and Plácido Domingo on a Good Friday. Not long after, the next year, I was singing Barber, with Julius Rudel conducting, at Washington National Opera. The Met heard me and offered me my first contract.

Sunny Martini

EM: How exciting! Tell us about your Rigoletto at the Met.

MC: Oh my gosh, Erica, it was so amazing, a life-changing moment for me. I was covering Quinn Kelsey—we were friends. After opening night, he got sick and after the 2nd performance he texted me in the morning and said, “I have a little bit of nasal drip, I haven’t told the Met yet, it’s probably nothing but just wanted to give you a heads up.” I didn’t think anything of it. Around 1-2 pm I got the call from the Met saying I was on. It was just thrilling. My voice teacher came to warm me up. I got to the stage door early, my phone rang, they said the New York Times wanted to interview me. I said, “Of course, when?” They said, “Right now.” [Laughs] I’m sitting in my dressing room doing an interview with the New York Times, a whirlwind activity, they put me in makeup, I walked the stage for the first time. I’d not been on the set. I was secure with staging. I went on for Act 1, it was an online streaming telecast. My husband says I was uniquely calm [Laughs], I had laser focus and was ready for this moment in my life. I’d sung Rigoletto quite a few times. I was either going to be a huge success or absolute disaster! [Laughs] I sang a very good Act 1. That duet in the beginning is quite difficult, the staging challenging. I was feeling my way around the set, it’s a rotating turntable and a little confusing. By the time my Act 2 aria came around—the Duke sings his aria and I come on for “Cortigiani.” My friends in the hall said from the first [Sings] “La la, la la” that I was doing my show now. My manager, Caroline Woodfield, was in the hall and said the applause was huge, she hadn’t heard applause like that in that house since the 1980s. It was so moving to me that I broke character and smiled back at audience. Latonia Moore, good friend of mine, was in the hall, said she was thinking to herself, “Don’t cry, Michael, you still have the half show to sing!” It was my big role house debut, hugely successful. I loved that the Met photographer got a photo of me breaking character, which ended up in the New York Times article.

EM: It must have meant a lot to you.

MC: It had been almost 20 years since I’d sung on that stage. But I was ready for the moment. You never wish anyone ill, but I was happy it happened in a role like that, the tour de force for baritone. It’s long, challenging, the tessitura is high, difficult in every possible way to sing, to act. To knock that out of the park, to get love back from audience, was everything. Everyone at the Met was incredibly supportive. The orchestra applauded for me after the aria, the conductor Daniel Rustioni was with me the whole show. 

EM: Sounds like a dream come true.

MC: Then they gave me 2 of my own performances the next season, which was thrilling. People who couldn’t come at short notice the first time could come then. That was exciting.

EM: Tell us about your recent debut and upcoming appearances at Gran Teatro Liceu in Barcelona. What was it like singing with Radvanovsky, Kaufmann, Beczala and co?

MC: Christina Schepelmann, Seattle Opera’s general director, who was running the Barcelona company, hired me to sing Gerard there. It was an amazing second cast, it was my hall and role debut. In another situation I was covering fabulous baritone Carlos Álvarez. He got sick, I ended up doing 10 of 15 performances. I got to sing with Sondra and Jonas, which was amazing. Sondra and I won the Met competition together in 1995. We’ve been friends this whole time and finally got to sing together, which was incredible. Working with Jonas really special, an incredible artist, so supportive onstage. He gives a lot as an artist. The following season I was asked back to do the first cast of Luisa Miller, with Piotr and Sondra. That was incredibly successful for me. In my heart I’m still a Verdian. The tessitura was a bit higher than Nemico della patria, but I really thrived in Miller.

EM: I’m so excited about everything you’ve accomplished. What’s coming up soon?

MC: I’m singing Iago with the Met Orchestra tour. Paris, London, Baden-Baden, with Yannick conducting. I’m thrilled for that and to be back at Met for Florencia, in the fall, to have my own run of a show, the thing dreams are made of. So many singers at the Met are so talented don’t get their opportunity. I feel I’m representing all of them in a way. Just do the work, be prepared, and it can happen. I’m thrilled that Peter Gelb entrusted me with this role, that I can be back in that wonderful opera house, which feels like a home to me. I feel lucky to be singing there, where my friends and so many people can come and support me.

Sunny Martini

EM: It was my second home for 21 years, so I know the feeling. Thank you so much, Michael. Always a pleasure talking to you. Toi, toi, toi for Saturday!

MC: Thanks so much, Erica. 

Photo credits: Seattle Opera, Sunny Martini, Philip Newton 


 Erica can be reached at: [email protected]