Monday, May 13, 2024

Seattle Opera Serves Up 60th Anniversary Gala Concert


Greer Grimsley
Sunny Martini

REVIEW: Seattle Opera

McCaw Hall, Seattle


To commemorate both the finish to a highly successful 2023-24 season and the 60th anniversary of the company’s 1963 founding, Seattle Opera held a gala double celebration on May 11 highlighted by a star-studded ensemble of solo singers, the 52-member Seattle Opera Chorus, and members of the Seattle Symphony. It was an exceptional evening, serving up slice after slice of ganache-filled operatic birthday cake to delight a pumped audience ready for anything.

Kazem Abdullah
Philip Newto
The program, if a bit overlong, accomplished its goal of displaying the performers’ strong suits. Helmed by Conductor Kazem Abdullah (X: the Life and Times of Malcolm X), the cast of celebrities, many of them beloved SO favorites, brought a stellar sheen to the festivities, with a combination of solo arias, small ensembles, full opera scenes and choruses, and orchestral numbers. David Gately’s always entertaining direction for the singers provided plenty of visual interest for the audience.

The most prominent luminary of the evening, Greer Grimsley, demonstrated why he remains a living legend as the head god in Wagner’s Ring. After acquitting himself majestically in Wotan’s “Farewell,” Grimsley joined the ranks of lush-voiced bass-baritones able to cross over to another form of elegance, paying homage to the occasion with his impassioned “Some Enchanted Evening” from Rodgers & Hammerstein’s South Pacific.

Greer Grimsley
Philip Newton

“Ô vin, dissipe la tristesse” from the Ambroise Thomas Hamlet is always a favorite for opera galas to show off a gifted baritone. John Moore, who portrayed the lead in SO’s production of The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs, gamely took on the difficult task of being first batter up and delivered strongly.
In her partnering with Moore, soprano Sarah Coburn’s vibrant high notes carried beautifully throughout the hall, in the “Pronta io son” duet from Donizetti’s Don Pasquale, and with SO Resident Artist Michael J. Hawk, in the passionate “Nedda! Silvio!” from Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci. Performing both of these duets may have caused her to flag later on, however, in “Ardon gl’incensi” from Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor, a grueling test for both vocal pyrotechnics and stamina.

Fans of Ginger Costa-Jackson had the opportunity to watch her perform multiple times, delivering winning performances vocally, dramatically and comically. Costa-Jackson and bass Adam Lau provided delightful comic antics in “Oh! Che muso” from Rossini’s The Italian Girl in Algiers, and the mezzo was at her sultry best in the Habanera from Bizet’s Carmen.

Ginger Costa-Jackson
Philip Newton
A radiant Mary Elizabeth Williams, who received major recognition for her SO performance of the fiendish role of Isolde in 2022, brought down the house with an inspiring rendition of “My man’s gone now” from Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess. Williams and Costa-Jackson then performed one of opera’s most iconic and difficult soprano and mezzo duets, “Mira, o Norma” from Bellini’s Norma. The pair performed fearlessly, with bold, dramatic flourishes.

Mary Elizabeth Williams
Philip Newton

Duke Kim, the engaging Almaviva in SO’s current production of The Barber of Seville, rendered the poignant “Ah! Lêve-toi, soleil” from Gounod’s Romeo and Juliet with heartfelt passion and powerful top notes. He and Michael J. Hawk gave a dramatically convincing interpretation of the gorgeous tenor and baritone duet, “Au fond du temple saint” from Bizet’s The Pearl Fishers.

Any bel canto tenor would give his eye teeth to perform “Una furtiva lagrima” from Donizetti’s The Elixir of Love. Amitai Pati sang sweetly and sincerely, appropriate for the naïve irresistible character the aria portrays, producing beautiful tones throughout. One hopes to hear more from him in the future.

Adam Lau’s performance of “Aprite un po’ quegl’occhi” from Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro was vocally strong, and his appealing playfulness brought appreciative guffaws from the audience.

The Seattle Symphony made the most of its virtuosity and lush orchestral sound with an energetic rendering of the Polonaise from Tchaikovsky’s beloved opera, Eugene Onegin.

In a surprise move,  U.S. representative from Washington's 7th congressional district Pramila Jayapal gave a moving address about the astonishing accomplishments of SO General Director Christina Scheppelmann, who took charge of SO in 2019. Jayapal then presented Scheppelmann with a commemorative plaque honoring the general director’s hard work as well as the multifaceted success of her leadership. The audience was delighted to hear that the Seattle City Council had declared May “Opera Month” throughout the city.

Christina Scheppelmann, Pramila Jayapal, Deborah Horne
Philip Newton

Having provided a buoyant opening to the concert with the Entry of the Guests from Wagner’s Tannhäuser, the Seattle Opera Chorus inspired the audience with “Va Pensiero” from Verdi’s Nabucco. Their Pilgrims’ Chorus from Tannhäuser provided a seemly finish to an enchanted evening that will be remembered for many decades as an occasion that was memorable in every way.

To highlight the importance of the event, Seattle’s well-respected FM classical station,, will broadcast a series of recordings (May 10, May 17, May 24 and May 31) drawn from the company’s history. 

Photo credits: Philip Newton, Sunny Martini


Erica can be reached at: [email protected]

Sunday, May 5, 2024

A Barber for All Seasons


REVIEW: Seattle Opera

McCaw Hall, Seattle


According to Beethoven, Rossini’s “excellent opera buffa,” The Barber of Seville, would be “played so long as Italian opera will exist.” The older master’s assessment was spot on. Over the past two centuries, this youthful, energetic confection remains Rossini’s most beloved work.

On May 4, Seattle Opera chose this gem, a co-production between Opera Queensland, Seattle Opera and New Zealand Opera, to initiate the photo finish to their 2023-24 season. It was clearly the right move. Directed by Lindy Hume (SO’s The Stranger, Rigoletto, Count Ory), with its boldly colored, spectacularly vibrant sets and costumes, gave an overall effect that was captivating: funny, sexy, and alive.

The well-appointed cast included panoplies of familiar performers coupled with an impressive number of fresh new faces, providing an extraordinary assemblage of talent onstage.

Duke Kim,
Sean Michael Plumb

It’s always intriguing to see a Figaro making his debut, and Sean Michael Plumb, who already has made a name for himself at the Met Opera, was shamelessly self-promoting in his characterization. His initial appearance via the hall for his Largo factotum aria, reminiscent of Alice’s White Rabbit being late for a very important date (i.e., showing up for his entrance) set the stage for an appealing portrayal that was comically adept, emphasizing the character’s inherent subtleties more than the slapstick angle. The voice, with its fearless high notes, fully filled the hall with no problem whatsoever.

Megan Moore, also in her company debut, brought a combination of dreaminess and down-to-earth feistiness to her portrayal of the young Rosina. Her voice was remarkably flexible and varied: brighter and more lyrical than usual for this role, with a range that was superbly agile from top to bottom. Her acting was convincing; no one, not even Figaro, was going to mess with this fiery, determined young woman.

As Almaviva Duke Kim delivered a well-rounded performance that was proficient, not only vocally but comically. Both of his Act 1 arias showed that this role lies perfectly within his fach: lyrical, technically skillful with all the fioratura. But he also stood out in the ensembles, contributing greatly to the cohesiveness of the whole, and showed exceptional comic élan in all the physically demanding antics the staging required of him. 

Returning bass Kevin Burdette is an opera singer for all seasons, known for his comic flair, but also for more serious roles. He portrayed Don Bartolo in true Jim Carrey style, emphasizing the wicked, Count Olaf aspects of the crotchety old tormentor, showing his sleazy side to great effect and acquitting himself impressively in the role’s more demanding vocal aspects.

William Guanbo Su,
Kevin Burdette
William Guanbo Su made a huge impression debuting as Don Basilio. The voice is much fuller and lusher than what is accustomed in this role, powerful but not thunderous, and overwhelming the listener with its power and sumptuousness. His acting was appropriately varied: at once comical and serious, mugging when appropriate, grabbing the viewer’s attention whenever he was onstage.

In her SO debut, Deanne Meek’s Berta was more fleshed out (literally; see above: “sexy”) than was usual for this secondary role, with an offbeat, gawking characterization that elicited appreciative laughter throughout the house. Her Act 2 aria, often somewhat an afterthought, came off so beautifully as to compete with any of the other arias in the show, especially its ringing high notes.

Michael J. Hawk, in his SO debut, stood out in the small but pivotal role of Fiorello. Marc Kenison/Waxie Moon as Ambrogio provided the required antics with aplomb.

Another refreshing debut was that of Italian conductor Valentina Peleggi, who displayed Florentine subtlety in her lively tempi, intuitive phrasing, and overall command of the orchestra. Starting with a spirited overture, she maintained an appropriately Italianate character in each aria and ensemble and brought out the absolute best from the orchestra, all the way to the end.

Chorus master Michaella Calzaretta continues to impress with her first-rate coaching of her singers, who were required to execute complicated stage maneuvers in addition to their singing demands.

Duke Kim,
Megan Moore

Tracy Grant Lord’s set designs included an assortment of doors and windows, both interior and exterior, which symbolized the burning desire of a young woman to spring free of her restricted captive world. Figaro, her lifeline to the outside, crisscrosses between outside and inside, while her would-be lover Almaviva, fantasizing about breaking down the doors to liberate her from her prison, serenades her from the outside. The concept works brilliantly, as the minor characters—Berta being a prime example—also dream of being set free.

Matthew Marshall’s eye-catching lighting provided continuous interest with arresting detail, from the lit-up doorways and windowsills during the overture to the jaundiced yellow of Basilio’s supposed illness and beyond.

Hume’s direction provided plentiful opportunity for the characters to ham it up. It's not every day one sees a long-limbed man dangling upside down from a chandelier. But the pièce de resistance was the stunningly presented, authentically choreographed fandango finale. All the characters banded together to dance, slap hands, and in general carry on to the max to Associate Director and Choreographer Daniel Pelzig’s brilliant step routine. A great deal of work went into this buoyant, vigorous ending, and it showed. The audience could barely contain their delight. That is a sure sign of a well thought out, splendidly implemented production. It was without a doubt the highlight of, and a perfect ending to, the company’s season.

The Barber of Seville runs May 4–19, 2024, at Seattle Opera. Tickets and info:

Photo credits: Phillip Newton

 Erica can be reached at: [email protected]

Thursday, May 2, 2024

The Mason House Hosts a Magnificent Seven

l-r: Jonathan Davis, Susan Greenberg, Kevin Fitz-Gerald, Bernadine Blaha, Judith Farmer,
Gernot Wolfgang (composer), Amy Jo Rhine, Sérgio Coelho.


Los Angeles Wind Sextet play Blumer, Ligeti, Poulenc, Schubert, Wolfgang, Schubert, and Falla

With seven performers playing seven works artfully distributed across its two halves, the penultimate recital in the 10th anniversary season of the uniquely convivial Mason House Concert series fielded as much variety in repertoire and instrumental resources as one could wish for in a single evening, and all introduced with her usual wit by Dr. Kristi Brown-Montesano (right).

The seven players comprised the six members of the Los Angeles Wind Sextet—Susan Greenberg, flute; Jonathan Davis, oboe; Sérgio Coelho, clarinet; Amy Jo Rhine, horn; Judith Farmer, bassoon; and Kevin Fitz-Gerald, piano—together with the Canadian pianist Bernadine Blaha, who joined Mr. Fitz-Gerald in the second half in two pieces for piano four-hands.

Todd Mason.
While that second half included no fewer than three “lollipops” (to use the term appropriated by the late great Sir Thomas Beecham) the first half comprised two more substantial works, the first of which in particular I suspect was unfamiliar to most if not all of the capacity audience gathered in composer host Todd Mason’s state-of-the-art living-room-into-concert-room conversion in West LA. And while each was a product of the 20th century, they were as different from each other as could be imagined—the one comfortably Romantic, the other fiercely Modernistic.

First up was the Sextet for Piano and Wind Quintet, Op. 45 written in 1921 by Theodor Blumer (1881-1964), well known in his day as a conductor but now almost entirely forgotten as a composer. Subtitled “Originalthema mit Veranderungen,” Blumer’s Sextet could very well function as an introduction for novice listeners to theme-and-variations as a musical form, being one of those sets where the theme is not only strongly shaped but remains clearly discernible in its variations—unlike some that leave you scratching your head as to where on earth the tune’s gone.

Theodor Blumer.
Blumer’s theme—first heard on Ms. Greenberg’s flute—is amiable, expansive and immediate. After the first half’s marked repeat, the much longer second half comprises a miniature development (with the theme spread around the five winds), and then a recapitulation in which the main melody transfers to the horn.

Listeners are kept comfortably on track in each of the succeeding variations by their sticking to this structure, though Blumer straightaway broadens textural variety and expressive range by allotting Variation 1 to the piano alone, which had been silent during the statement of the theme. Variation 1 is dubbed “Improvisation,” which exactly suited the wayward delicacy of the piano writing and Mr. Fitz-Gerald’s playing.

Indeed, each variation has a subtitle that signals its nature. All six instruments share the carefree dance of Variation 2Capriccio,” while in Variation 3Pastorale” the winds enter sequentially over tranquil, reflective piano chords. In the expert hands of these players Variation 4Slavischer Tanz” was a merry whirl and then, over Debussyan keyboard ripples, Ms. Rhine’s horn intoned Variation 5Romanze,” the sentimental heart of the work. Variation 6Humoreske” was mostly jaunty tiptoeing, before all concerned let rip in the dazzling contrapuntal Finale, marked Lebhaft, sehr locker (Lively, very relaxed).

György Ligeti.
Unlike the forgotten Blumer, György Ligeti (1923-2006) is still a relatively familiar composer—an influential avant-gardist whose work, however outré sometimes in inspiration, remains vivid and communicative, often with a mordant sense of humor. This was evident in his Six Bagatelles for Woodwind Quintet, which he extracted in 1953 from his piano cycle Musica ricercata.

Across their overall fast-slow-fast-fast-slow-fast sequence, the Bagatelles deliver a virtuoso work-out for each of the five players, with extremes of dynamic, pace, and pitch constantly deployed. All this was delivered with maximum commitment and intensity by the LA Wind Sextet, with Ms. Greenberg’s flute (switching sometimes to piccolo) or Ms. Rhine’s horn often taking the expressive lead.

After the interval the wind players had a breather while Mr. Fitz-Gerald and Ms. Blaha (above) played the two pieces for piano four-hands. Poulenc’s Sonate pour piano à quatre mains FP 8, written in June 1918 when he was not yet 20, is brief even by the composer’s usual standards of concision, with its three movements all over within six minutes or so.

Francis Poulenc.
Though Dr. Brown-Montesano had noted in her pre-concert talk that in 19th century domestic music-making the four-hands medium was particularly useful for discreet romantic interaction, Poulenc’s Sonate affords precious little opportunity for this, its first and last movements being mostly concerned with jagged, insistent rhythms and quicksilver figuration. Fitz-Gerald and Blaha dispatched all this with vigor and élan, though to me their way with the second movement, entitled Rustique and marked Naif et Lent, seemed a little matter-of-fact.

Their other joint contribution was the first of the evening’s “lollipops.” Schubert’s Marche Militaire No. 1 in D major, Op. 51 (D. 733) No. 1, is definitely one of those “oh, so that’s what that is!” tunes, but on this occasion it came liberally and unexpectedly garnished.

In 1974 the prolific and long-lived English composer John Gardner (left) produced a version of the march that in four minutes or thereabouts cleverly weaves in numerous musical quotes, from Colonel Bogey to Eine Kleine Nachtmusik to Beethoven’s Ninth. If you want to share the fun that set the Mason House audience laughing, go to YouTube here (and to sample Gardner’s own impressive music, try the first movement from his Symphony No. 1).

This cornucopian program of goodies even fielded a living composer in the person of Gernot Wolfgang, who was indeed present for the performance of his Ghost Train for flute, bassoon and piano. This was commissioned in 2013 by the concert series Chamber Music Palisades, and brought CMP’s Artistic Director Susan Greenberg back to the platform, together with Ms. Farmer and Mr. Fitz-Gerald.

Gernot Wolfgang (right) is a prolific composer of both jazz and concert works, and Ghost Train has its feet in both camps; the title references the jazz technique of “ghost notes”—softer and played with less emphasis than others in a phrase. The work’s exploratory propulsiveness across its sectional, 11-minute span made it an intriguing listen that invited re-hearings.

Finally came the other two “lollipops,” bringing back the LA Wind Sextet's full muster. Emmanuel Chabrier’s orchestral rhapsody España exists in numerous transcriptions, but here I did feel that the loss of its kaleidoscopic color, the percussion-tinged rhythms, and warmth of its main theme on horns and cellos, was not altogther compensated by the pungency and clarity of winds plus piano.

Manuel de Falla.
On the other hand, these instruments felt idiomatically appropriate for the Ritual Fire Dance from Manuel de Falla’s 1915 ballet El amor brujo (Bewitched Love), in no way under-serving its tremolando shudders and the brilliant ferocity of its main theme. As in the orchestral original, this was played on the oboe, Mr. Davis (as first amongst six expert equals) giving it all the sinuous charm plus hint of menace that it needs.

Altogether this was another memorable feast at the Mason House, and not only aural but also of comestibles, thanks to Ethel Phipps’ wonderful catering. The last concert in the series, and already sold out, will bring the Zelter String Quartet on Saturday May 11 to play Beethoven’s and Korngold’s Quartets Nos. 6 and 2 respectively, as well as Todd Mason’s own Second String Quartet


Mason House Concert, 3484 Redwood Ave., Mar Vista, CA 90066, 6:00 p.m., Saturday, April 20, 2024.
Images: The performance: Todd Mason; Blumer: Superstock; Ligeti, Poulenc, Falla: Wikimedia Commons; John Gardner: composer website; Gernot Wolfgang: composer website.

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