In Review > North America

Our Town (7/10/13), Il Barbiere di Siviglia (7/11/13)

CENTRAL CITY, CO
Central City Opera

In Review Our Town hdl 1013
Christy and Ferguson in Central City's Our Town
Mark Kiryluk 2013

Other contemporary works might be more avant-garde or attention-grabbing than Ned Rorem's Our Town, but this first-rate adaptation of Thornton Wilder's classic play has no shortage of charms of its own. Since its world premiere at the Indiana University Opera Theater in 2006, more than a dozen university and pre-professional programs have presented it, as well as several professional companies. The latest venue to take on Our Town was Central City Opera, a summer festival with a long history of promoting American opera.

Our Town was easily the most unusual of this season's three offerings from Central City: 2013 featured one of the company's least-adventuresome lineups in recent memory. Instead of performing the selections in repertory as it typically does, the company alternated performances of Our Town and Il Barbiere di Siviglia at Central City Opera House, its usual 550-seat historic home, in late June and July. Then, in a new venture, Central City Opera presented a seven-performance run of Jerome Kern's Show Boat in early August at the Buell Theatre, a 2,884-seat hall in the Denver Performing Arts Complex (reviewed in this issue at www.operanews.com).  

Our Town falls solidly in the tradition of operas that have a vernacular, Americana feel, such as Douglas Moore's Ballad of Baby Doe (given its world premiere by Central City in 1956) and Carlisle Floyd's Susannah. Rorem's opera, like the play on which it is based, unabashedly wears its sentiment on its sleeve — no doubt a liability in today's irony-suffused world — but it never sinks into the saccharine. Keeping the work emotionally balanced is Rorem's adroitly constructed score, in which wistful, romantic strains are offset with dissonant chords and sometimes unconventional vocal intervals and figuration. Poet and critic J. D. McClatchy provided the eloquent libretto, maintaining the folksy, poignant flavor of Wilder's play while paring back some of the characters and adroitly condensing it to allow room for the music to play its necessary role in the storytelling

Director Ken Cazan, a Central City regular who was back for his twelfth production for the company, delivered some of his best work here by stepping back and letting the story speak on its familiar terms. Anyone who has ever seen a theatrical production of Our Town would have felt right at home, especially in the well-known third act, in which the dead are seated on chairs, indicating their places in the Grover's Corners graveyard, which here featured artfully moody lighting by David Martin Jacques. Alan Muraoka's sets were aptly minimal, with the period settings evoked by rear projections of deliberately grainy photographs and rudimentary furnishings — a soda fountain suggested by two stools and a plank placed between two high chairs.

Working with his technical team, Cazan deployed the visual elements in sometimes magical ways, such as silhouetting the two young lovers on ladders (suggesting their bedroom windows across the street from each other) against a projection of a dreamy Harry Fenn moonscape at the end of Act I. As the section came to a close, the director zoomed in on the painting, creating the optical illusion of moving the audience closer to the two teenagers and suggesting the tightening of their romantic bonds.

The Our Town cast was uniformly strong, with every singer seeming enthusiastically committed to this work and at home in Rorem's vocal writing. William Ferguson's light tenor was ideally suited to the bashful, soft-spoken George Gibbs, and soprano Anna Christy's sparkling, dulcet-toned soprano lit up the role of Emily Webb. The two youthful singers were completely believable as they jumped from carefree teenagers to marriage to dealing with death. Tenor Vale Rideout struck just the right feel as the Stage Manager, who is alternately a narrator, commentator and intercessor in the action. Other standouts included mezzo-soprano Phyllis Pancella, who nailed the sometimes challenging vocalizations written into the role of Mrs. Gibbs. Tying everything together was the sensitive, well-paced conducting of Christopher Zemliauskas.

Offsetting the relatively unknown Our Town was one of the most beloved operas of all time — Rossini's Barbiere di Siviglia. Director Marc Astafan, who has also worked extensively in Central City, did not try to impose some sort of needless interpretive overlay onto this masterpiece, choosing instead to showcase the work's innate comedic interplay. Astafan worked with his obviously willing cast to infuse its famous characters with a real sense of zing. Together with conductor John Baril, they created a production that was zany and fun. 

Reveling in their roles as the opera's two essential comic pillars were baritone Daniel Belcher and bass-baritone Patrick Carfizzi — both wonderful comic actors and fine singers who knew how, when it made sense, to draw on Rossini's vocal ornamentations to considerable comic effect. The agile-voiced Belcher delivered a wonderfully animated, bigger-than-life take on the crafty, clownish Figaro, and Carfizzi could hardly have been more appealingly revolting as the bullying, self-centered Don Bartolo. Making a splash as Count Almaviva right from his opening aria was the fresh-faced tenor David Portillo, who showed a genuine affinity for bel canto. Mezzo-soprano Jennifer Rivera was effective as Rosina. spacer

KYLE MACMILLAN

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