In Review > North America

Alice in Wonderland (6/21/12), Carmen (6/23/12), Sweeney Todd (6/20/12), Così Fan Tutte (6/22/12)

SAINT LOUIS
Opera Theatre of Saint Louis

In Review Alice HDL 912
A crowd of Alice denizens, featuring David Williams (The Eaglet), Aubrey Allicock (The Duck), DiBattista (The Dormouse), Jason Eck (The Crab), Jaime Korkos (The Badger), Raehann Bryce-Davis (The Owl), Emerson and the children’s chorus (on shelves)
© Ken Howard 2012
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Chin’s Alice in Saint Louis, with Ashley Logan (The Cook), Bank and Emerson
© Ken Howard 2012
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A “film noir” Carmen in Saint Louis, with Diegel and Gladen
© Ken Howard 2012

Continuing its long tradition of support for contemporary works, Opera Theatre of Saint Louis gave the first U.S. performances of Unsuk Chin and David Henry Hwang’s Alice in Wonderland (seen June 21), with the accomplished conductor Michael Christie and the company’s artistic director, James Robinson, in charge. The two-hour opera, with a newly commissioned reduced orchestration by the composer, consists of scenes drawn from Lewis Carroll’s Victorian classic Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland bookended by dream sequences based on new material conceived by Chin.

Alice, Chin’s first opera, had its world premiere in 2007, at Bayerische Staatsoper. Chin’s fluid sound world captures the essence of each surreal vignette, nodding at recognizable styles such as Baroque oratorio, Stravinskian neoclassicism and hip-hop. Dramatic singing — with a whiff of Turandot — is required of the Queen of Hearts (here, the impressive soprano Julie Makerov), while other characters mix speaking and singing, often at the extremes of their ranges. The Caterpillar is voiced by an onstage bass clarinet (the excellent James Meyer) and danced with slippery wit by Seán Curran, the company’s choreographer. A variety of instrumental textures, using tremolo, tolling ostinatos and pedal points, generates tension, driving each of Alice’s adventures into an absurd, chaotic jam that may evaporate like a dream (the beautiful dissolve of the live-flamingo croquet game) or slam jarringly into silence.

Allen Moyer’s sets featured ingeniously used cabinets, including a drop-leaf desk housing the Cheshire Cat and a cupboard revealing the entire children’s chorus stacked on shelves. Technical feats such as Alice’s tumble down the rabbit hole were realized by Greg Emetaz’s imaginative video design, while James Schuette’s costumes varied in effectiveness. Cute animal ears and whiskers did little to help Tracy Dahl as the Cheshire Cat (and her glissando-heavy aria “My world is a box” is tediously long), but the courtroom scene, dominated by rich red, white and black tones, showed Schuette at his best.

Soprano Ashley Emerson was the perfect Alice, alert, sparkling and thoughtful, and she tackled the difficult vocal writing with musical sureness and consistently clear and attractive tone. Countertenor David Trudgen was an impeccably fussy and pompous White Rabbit, boasting firm tone, ringing high notes and stylish confidence in his faux-oratorio presentation. Matthew DiBattista brought down the house as a rapper Dormouse, working the stage using his tail as a mike, and switched gears for the Invisible Man, his lovely tenor lending atmosphere to the final pages of the score. 

Among the Gerdine Young Artists, mezzo-soprano Jenni Bank was a standout as the Duchess, showing a luscious, dramatic voice and plenty of stage humor. Bass-baritone Brian Mextorf excelled in three smaller roles.

Former Gerdine Young Artist Aubrey Allicock brought stage charisma and a lean, darkly resonant bass-baritone to the role of the Mad Hatter, culminating in an impressive delivery of the oratorio-style aria “O Time!” on top of the tea table.

As an experienced librettist, Hwang has done a fine job of retaining Carroll’s choicest lines and situations while providing moments for several set-pieces, such as “Sleep tight, my ugly baby,” Alice’s lullaby to the pig, and the pretty children’s chorus “Beautiful soup, so rich and green.” Less successful is Chin’s imposed frame, with its opening library scene offering a gratuitous nod to literacy advocacy and its flower-child paean to peace and light an undeveloped and unsatisfying ending.

Director Stephen Barlow’s “film noir” take on Carmen (seen June 23 matinée) was visually stunning, beginning with the overture, as production credits rolled in grainy, period titles. Paul Edwards’s black-and-white sets and costumes, along with Ashley Ryan’s wigs and makeup design, created a perfect 1940s look, while Christopher Akerlind’s lighting paid homage to countless iconic cinema images.

If only the characterizations had gone beyond B-list stereotypes! Although she made use of her imposing height and striking looks, mezzo Kendall Gladen was a cardboard vamp as Carmen. Adam Diegel brought craggy desperation and brutality to the role of Don José, but both seemed to be struggling with vocal issues that didn’t allow them to generate much chemistry. Corinne Winters caught the spirit of the crime drama’s redemptive “good girl” in a spunky Micaela, using her rich middle voice and gleaming top expressively, while Aleksey Bogdanov played Escamillo as a big lug, solid and oblivious, happily working his fan base during a pre-bullfight photo shoot and radio spot. Bradley Smoak, memorable as the King of Hearts in Alice, was in fine voice as a suave and smug, period-perfect Zuniga.

Carlos Izcaray drew energetic playing from the orchestra, and Gerdine Young Artists were nicely showcased (with graduates Gladen, Smoak, Winters and Bogdanov doing the program proud), particularly the bright-voiced Hernan Berisso as Moralès and the energetic Shirin Eskandani and Jennifer Caraluzzi as Mercédès and Frasquita. Thomas Gunther’s Dancaïro and Michael Kuhn’s Remendado added to the ensembles and crowd scenes, which were well handled by Barlow. Less successful were his revisions and dialogue additions to Amanda Holden’s already flawed English translation.

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Macabre energy: OTSL’s Sweeney Todd, with Ziemba and Gilfry
© Ken Howard 2012

I hope Opera Theatre will continue to pair its top-notch resources — members of the Saint Louis Symphony and young operatic voices filling out Robert Ainsley’s chorus, along with the company’s commitment to strong ensemble, textual clarity and dramatic truth — with Stephen Sondheim’s glorious scores. It doesn’t hurt that music director Stephen Lord, a supreme colorist, has a special affection for Sondheim; this year, he brought vibrancy and macabre energy to Sweeney Todd (seen June 20).

Riccardo Hernandez’s gritty sets of corrugated flats, industrial studs and steampunk piping matched Emily Rebholz’s Victorian Gothic costumes and Ashley Ryan’s zombie makeup design. A blood-drenched ugly plastic curtain suggested the slaughterhouse, while a decorative half-proscenium arch situated the sordid story firmly in a theatrical present. Johanna’s second-floor balcony provided vertical contrast, but it was a pity not to have Sweeney’s barberchair-cum-trapdoor. (Throats slit, the barber’s victims were lamely hauled off by choristers.)

Rod Gilfry underplayed the Grand Guignol aspects of the title role, aiming for a more subtle portrayal, but there were plenty of vocal dramatics in a thoroughly commanding performance. Broadway veteran Karen Ziemba was a glamorous and savvy Mrs. Lovett, bringing precision to every word and note and hilariously delivering “By the Sea” to a nearly comatose Gilfry.

Baritone Nathaniel Hackmann was a fine, ardent Anthony, wooing Deanna Breiwick’s lyrical Johanna, but the tenors nearly stole the show. Gerdine Young Artist Kyle Erdos-Knapp was a sensational Toby, moving from speech to song naturally and delivering a beautifully sung “Not while I’m around,” while Anthony Webb showed fine comic flair and a well-schooled voice as the Irish–Italian huckster Pirelli. As the smiling and corrupt Beadle Bamford, Scott Ramsay used his fruity tenor with weird glee, particularly suited to his harmonium parlor songs. Susanne Mentzer’s Beggar Woman was too spry and poorly sung, but Timothy Nolen’s Judge Turpin was a study in corruption and psychosis, and his creepy flagellation scene (“Mea Culpa”), long white hair in disarray, was riveting.

In Review Cosi hdl 3 912
A “powerful and disturbing” Così at OTSL, with Portillo, Willis-Sørensen, Bonner, Maddalena, Leemhuis and Aylmer
© Ken Howard 2012

Jean-Marie Zeitouni’s musically impeccable Così Fan Tutte (seen June 22), with period sets and costumes by James Schuette, proved unexpectedly powerful and disturbing under Michael Shell’s probing direction, which tore open the hearts of four naïve young lovers in an examination of identity and intentions that left a nihilist Don Alfonso (the sly and enigmatic James Maddalena) observing the wreckage.

Soprano Rachel Willis-Sørensen is an arresting singer who understands the power of restraint. With a voice both lean and juicy, quivering with vulnerability and blossoming magnificently, she sustained Fiordiligi’s soul-searching Act II “Per pietà, ben mio” with heartbreaking intensity and wittily used the coloratura of “Come scoglio” as an effective weapon. As Dorabella, mezzo-soprano Kathryn Leemhuis matched Willis-Sørensen in vocal beauty and musical sophistication and showed a wonderful comic side, drowning her grief in macaroons and rendering “Smanie implacabili” as a petulant rant.

Ferrando and Guglielmo revealed more emotional layering than usual, initially proud of their sweethearts’ resolve, then turning vicious when the game backfired. David Portillo sang Ferrando with warm, attractive tones and produced some stunning diminuendos and pianissimos. Liam Bonner brought intense focus and a gleaming, strong baritone to the role of Guglielmo and was touching while ambivalently wooing his friend’s girl, eventually losing his cool and stepping out of frame to rail against women. Jennifer Aylmer’s full lyric voice made for an earthy Despina, and her no-nonsense characterization was refreshing. 

Zeitouni drew exquisite colors from orchestra and cast, especially in delicate moments, and cadenzas and light ornamentation lent flexibility and stylish sophistication to a finely detailed dramatic presentation. Recitatives were delivered naturally, with giggles and hesitations, aided by the continuo team of Damien Francoeur-Krzyzek (fortepiano) and Melissa Brooks (cello). spacer 

JUDITH MALAFRONTE

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