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Lysistrata (5/26/12), Three Decembers (5/13/12), Tosca (5/20/12), Le Nozze di Figaro (5/19/12)
Fort Worth Opera
Family ties: Pulley and Worth in Fort Worth’s Three Decembers
© Ron T. Ennis 2012
Show-stealer: Pine as Lysistrata’s Lysia
© Ron T. Ennis 2012
Scott and Honeywell, Tosca and Cavaradossi in Fort Worth
© Ron T. Ennis 2012
Once again the Fort Worth Opera Festival, held May 12 through June 2, proved a worthy contender in the spring-into-summer schedule. To these eyes and ears, new productions of Mark Adamo’s 2005 Lysistrata and Jake Heggie’s 2008 Three Decembers made considerably stronger cases for the works than did their world premieres at Houston Grand Opera. An impressively staged and sung Tosca and an annoyingly frenetic Nozze di Figaro supplied the standard repertory.
Based on an unpublished Terrence McNally play, Three Decembers (May 13) dramatizes interactions, at ten-year intervals, among an often-absent but manipulative actress mother and her two adult children. In Fort Worth’s compact Scott Theater, stage director Candace Evans made genuinely gripping drama of what previously had seemed a Hallmark spin on Tales of the City. Even Madeline’s mater ex machina reappearance at the end somehow seemed more natural than it had in Houston.
Both Janice Hall, as Madeline, and Emily Pulley, as Bea, had voices that often turned edgy, but they and Matthew Worth, as a clear-toned Charlie, brought their characters vividly to life. Designer Bob Lavallee worked wonders with slide-on tableaux that deftly represented the siblings’ very different lives and vividly evoked a closeup on the Golden Gate Bridge. Apt costumes were by Rondi Hillstrom Davis. In a score whose musical language is often closer to musical theater than to opera, conductor Christopher Larkin securely paced the chamber ensemble, drawn from the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra and freelance musicians, but there was some out-of-tune string playing early on.
The other three operas were performed in Bass Hall downtown. Loosely based on Aristophanes, Adamo’s Lysistrata (May 26) portrays a standoff between the men and women of Athens and Sparta, the women withholding sex until the men give up warfare. Murrell Horton’s Greco-Roman costumes, mainly from the Houston production, included prostheses that made the men’s sexual frustrations quite, uh, prominent. Designer Richard Kagey accessorized towers and platforms from a long-ago New York City Opera Julius Caesar with cartoonish backdrops, clouds and caryatids. David Gately did a fine job of directing.
Ava Pine, as the Athenian women’s organizer Lysia (later renamed Lysistrata), all but stole the show. By turns seductive, determined, wounded and moved, she sailed sweetly through a vast range of pitches. Scott Scully brought ardor and an appealingly tangy tenor to the part of her lover Nico. Michael Mayes supplied a gorgeous, creamy baritone for another Athenian, Kinesias. His beloved, Myrrhine, was sung spunkily by Ashley Kerr. Mezzo Meaghan Deiter portrayed the Athenian women’s resistance leader, Kleonike. Seth Mease Carico sported a brassily virile bass-baritone for the Spartan leader, Leonidas. As his wife, Lampito, mezzo Alissa Anderson savored a great camp role, with an Elmer Fudd-style delivery.
Act I is a lot of rapid-fire storytelling and dialogue, Act II a series of more or less showpiece arias, some with more than a glance at Andrew Lloyd Webber. The orchestral accompaniment is never dull, though it perhaps overdoes all the nervous jerks and surges. Music director Joseph Illick coordinated singers and orchestra, as well as numerous close-harmony ensembles, with impressive security. This is clever stuff, but the Act I chatter could use some pruning, and the opera’s ending goes on well after the curtain should have fallen. The greatest writers have editors; composers could use them, too.
Fort Worth was lucky to buy Andrew Horn’s dramatic Tosca sets at the sad demise of Baltimore Opera; there were audible gasps as the curtain rose on the Church of Sant’Andrea della Valle.
As staged by Daniel Pelzig, in handsome Napoleonic-era costumes by Ray Diffen, the Act II confrontation between Tosca and Scarpia was exquisitely terrifying. The one glaring misjudgment was having Michael Chioldi’s otherwise splendid Scarpia all but humping Carter Scott’s Tosca during “Vissi d’arte.” That said, Scott was blessedly far from the self-absorbed shrew of too many Toscas. She was far more nuanced and believable, alternately imperious and vulnerable, flirtatious and genuinely tender. She could fill the hall with enormous, creamy tone or shade down to a delicate pianissimo or snarl menacingly. But she needs to watch what could become a wobble and smooth out some ungainly bulges where subtler crescendos were wanted. Roger Honeywell’s Cavaradossi matched Scott in vocal power, if not always in subtlety. At least on opening night, he overacted a bit in Act III and spoiled “E lucevan le stelle” by oversinging, but his ringing high notes were amazing. Chioldi’s Scarpia was especially sinister in his quicksilver switches from aristocratic manners to leering to cool calculation to sheer sadism, his meaty baritone turning to a snarl just when needed.
Even lesser roles were well filled. Rod Nelman was a delightfully scruffy Sacristan who could really sing. Thomas Forde’s sinewy bass-baritone was perfect for Angelotti. Corey Trahan was a wiry, intensely sinister Spoletta, John Cabrali a sneering, sonorous Sciarrone. But surely no Shepherd Boy would sing with Katharine Steffens’s fluttery vibrato.
Illick showed a natural feeling for the music’s surge and ebb, and he got major-league playing from the FWSO; horns and strings sounded amazing in Act III. But over-loud fortissimos obliterated even big-voiced singers on opening night, and coordination could have been tauter here and there. The chorus, prepared by Stephen Dubberly, sang heartily and well — even the children’s chorus — but a much smaller ensemble should have been used for the Act II “cantata.”
Whipped-up hyperactivity: Fort Worth’s Nozze, with Cornelius, Beyer, Carroll and Singletary
© Ron T. Ennis 2012
Le Nozze di Figaro (May 19) featured some capable singers. Jan Cornelius brought to life the Countess’s wounded dignity and decency, her warm-centered soprano releasing a bit of blaze on the surface. Wallis Giunta was a convincingly boyish Cherubino, with a bright, soprano-ish mezzo. Andrea Carroll’s Susanna had a potent young soprano, although it could get a bit brassy for Mozart. Jonathan Beyer had a pleasant baritone for the Count, but it was somewhat underpowered for a full-sized hall.
What spoiled the experience was director Eric Einhorn’s whipped-up hyperactivity. Things eventually settled down, but in Act I not a single character stood still for a second. There was way too much running around, crawling, flailing and mugging — an aristocratic household subjected to the Three Stooges school of comedy. The interior scenes, designed by Michael Wingfield for Sarasota Opera, were shopping-center Spanish, incongruously accessorized with Queen Anne chairs and a rugged Pier 1 dining table. Costumes, credited to Allen Charles Klein, looked like a Victorian imagining of eighteenth-century duds.
Somewhere in there, Donovan Singletary has an appealing, rich baritone, but he barked more than he sang, and his frenetic goofball took the prize as the most annoying Figaro in memory. Beyer, by contrast, was a characterless Count, convincing neither in fury nor in frustration. Rod Nelman was a plausible and sonorous Bartolo, Kathryn Cowdrick a shrill Marcellina, Jamin Flabiano a character-tenor Basilio, Corrie Donovan a perky Barbarina, Joel Herold an often inaudible Antonio, Logan Rucker a nasal Don Curzio. Aside from an overture rushing to every downbeat, conductor Stewart Robertson kept things together, but he did nothing to shape the music or characterize its very different moods.
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