In Review > North America

Turn of the Screw (7/14/12), Oklahoma! (7/13/12), La Bohème (7/15/12)

CENTRAL CITY, CO
Central City Opera

In Review Central City Turn HDL 1012
Zifchak and Mulhern in Central City’s Turn of the Screw
© Mark Kiryluk 2012

In the last decade or so of its eighty-year history, Central City Opera has presented four works by Benjamin Britten, including the North American-production premiere of his Gloriana in 2001. This year, the company added a fifth Britten work to its repertoire — the composer’s 1954 adaptation of Henry James’s Turn of the Screw — in a smart, technically sophisticated production (seen July 14).

The ghostly, six-character chamber opera was an ideal fit for Central City’s intimate 1878 opera house, and it stood as the artistic centerpiece of the company’s three-production season. Though not so adventuresome as some of its recent lineups, this summer’s bill largely followed general director Pelham Pearce’s usual formula. A new production of La Bohème served as the box-office anchor, with the classic musical Oklahoma! filling the American slot and The Turn of the Screw providing a touch of the unusual. 

British stage director Alessandro Talevi’s tightly conceived approach to Britten’s haunting masterwork compellingly conveyed its ever-increasing tension without going over the top. Teamed again with set and costume designer Madeleine Boyd — his partner for last summer’s Amadigi di Gaula, his Central City debut — Talevi made skilled use of shadowy projections and stage partitions that divided and shrouded facets of the action. The spectral lighting was designed by David Martin Jacques. Everything was appropriately monochromatic, with the spare set constantly blurring into the dominant blackness. 

Sinéad Mulhern was excellent as the Governess. Possessing a striking, gleaming voice, the Irish soprano was equally effective at handling the role’s sometimes extreme technical demands and conveying the character’s most painful, plaintive moments. Another standout was mezzo-soprano Maria Zifchak, who delivered a powerful, pitch-perfect performance as Mrs. Grose. Tenor Vale Rideout capably performed both the prologue and Peter Quint. Deserving special praise was treble John Healy, a member of the Colorado Children’s Chorale, who delivered a surprisingly self-assured, unsettling performance as Miles. 

Britten specialist Steuart Bedford, who made his 2005 Central City debut leading the composer’s Paul Bunyan, deserved particular kudos for his masterful conducting of the eerie, striking Turn of the Screw score, which is built on a chromatic twelve-note theme. Bedford deftly shaped the onstage drama as well as the sixteen atmospheric orchestral interludes. 

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Star quality: Worth and Castle in Oklahoma!
© Mark Kiryluk 2012

Director Ken Cazan, who has overseen ten previous Central City productions, was back this summer to stage Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma! (seen July 13). Cazan and choreographer Daniel Pelzig put together a fresh production that rousingly succeeded on every level. 

Cazan skillfully balanced the playful fun of this milestone musical with its violent undertones, sculpting an appealing whole that vividly connected the optimism of young love with the promise of a new state. The action took place in scenic designer Alan Muraoka’s flexible, barn-like stage space, with a map of the Oklahoma Territory as the central backdrop. Changing drops and moveable set pieces, such as a working hand pump, aptly set the tone for each scene. Nicely rounding out the production’s visuals were Marcy Froehlich’s handsome period costumes.

Cazan and Pelzig infused every second with energy and movement, giving dance a central role in telling the story, just as choreographer Agnes de Mille and director Rouben Mamoulian did in the 1943 original. Along with four members of Ballet Nouveau Colorado, all the cast members admirably kicked up their heels, with singer Curt Olds proving to be an especially spry dancer. Along the way, Cazan left no detail unattended. To open the show, for example, he had Aunt Eller wrench up the stage curtain — a small but suitably folksy touch that set the tone for all that followed.

The clear star of Oklahoma! — and perhaps of the whole summer in Central City — was baritone Matthew Worth, the strapping embodiment of Curly’s bright-eyed optimism and wholesomeness. Lighting up the stage every time he appeared, Worth really got things rolling when he stepped into the rear of the opera house and serenaded the audience on the way to the stage with a vital, resounding version of “Oh, What a Beautiful Morning.” His plush, honest baritone voice was perfectly suited to this song, and to the entire musical. Worth was aptly paired with Maureen McKay as Laurey. With a buoyant, natural singing style, this fresh-faced soprano looked and sounded the part, capturing both her sassiness and her vulnerability.

Ably backed by conductor Christopher Zemliauskas, Worth and McKay and the rest of the superbly chosen cast set aside opera-house manners and threw themselves into the spirit of Oklahoma! As the wise, ever-present Aunt Eller, veteran mezzo-soprano Joyce Castle — back for her fifth summer in Central City — wore her character like a comfortable old sweater, nailing every laugh line and sounding in fine voice. Olds, a light, mellow-voiced baritone, was a firecracker as the bronco-busting champion Will Parker. Suitably partnered with him was mezzo-soprano Kaitlyn Costello, a promising young singer who brought a girlish, screwball zaniness to Ado Annie. 

Although it conveyed the essential power of Puccini’s work, the weakest of the company’s three offerings was its new La Bohème (seen July 15), which was not so emotionally potent as it could have been. First-time Central City director Kevin Newbury opted to shift the action to 1930s Paris. In his director’s notes, he cited this time between the World Wars as an ideal context to explore what he describes — perhaps hyperbolically — as the opera’s story of “apocalyptic love.” This idea has its merits, but it never really gelled visually in the limited (some might say meager) scenery provided by designer David Korins. 

It was clever, no doubt, that the modular set — which began as little more than a basic platform stuffed underneath with trunks, suitcases and other of the Bohemians’ humble possessions — was seamlessly transformed scene-to-scene without any delay in the action. But the scenic approach in no way evoked Paris — the background for the entire production seemed more fitting for Russia, with a snow bank that reached nearly six feet — and it raised its fair share of perplexing questions. The jump to the 1930s and the accompanying presence of electricity (signaled by a solitary hanging light in the garret scenes) rendered nonsensical one of the opera’s most touching moments, when Mimì comes to Rodolfo’s door seeking to relight her candle.

The cast, led by conductor John Baril, was effective overall, with a winning cohesion among the singers portraying the Bohemians. Baritone Troy Cook offered a strong, well-rounded portrayal of Marcello, and apprentice artist Chris Carr, a forceful, full-throated baritone, turned in a confident, energetic performance as Schaunard. 

One could understand why emerging tenor Eric Margiore was cast as Rodolfo. His handsome, Italianate tenor voice was an ideal fit for this role, and he achieved some stirring moments as he swept upward in Puccini’s soaring passages. But Margiore’s obvious potential has yet to be fully realized: one wished for fewer cliché gestures and a broader dramatic range. Similar things could be said of soprano Elizabeth Caballero, who handled the central vocal demands of Mimì capably, if not always expressively. spacer 

KYLE MACMILLAN

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Current Issue: April 2014 — VOL. 78, NO. 10