Falstaff (7/6/17), Zémire et Azor (7/14/17)
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In Review > North America

Falstaff (7/6/17), Zémire et Azor (7/14/17)

Opera Saratoga

In Review Saratoga Opera Falstaff lg 1017
Craig Colclough as Opera Saratoga’s Falstaff
© Gary David Gold

OPERA SARATOGA'S fifty-fifth season was admirably warhorse-free. On July 6, I heard the second of four performances of Falstaff, and on July 14, the third and last show of André Grétry’s Zémire et Azor, a 1771 Beauty and the Beast treatment. (The summer’s third offering, which I did not see, was Blitzstein’s Cradle Will Rock, directed by artistic and general director Lawrence Edelson.)

The Spa Little Theater offers dramatic intimacy but acoustic challenges. For one, there’s no pit, and the orchestra must play backstage. By means of good preparation and monitors, Craig Kier kept all his Falstaff forces together in the good ensemble this work demands to a remarkable degree, even when the string tone occasionally sounded thin. (An announcement came later that a new concertmaster had jumped “cold” into this performance, but the high level of the playing was commendable.) In contrast, the stage’s Broadway-level amplification—very evident during scene changes—removed vocal dynamic nuances and the basic pleasure of hearing unprocessed singing. That’s one problem this festival—greatly improved in the three seasons since Edelson took over—needs to resolve.

Both shows were entertaining and worthwhile. Modifying a production concept seen before at Arizona Opera, Chuck Hudson directed an admirably lively, if occasionally frenetic, Tudor-set show with plenty of comic detail. The strong cast had been encouraged to interlard the musical line with operetta-ish laughter, causing frequent little pauses and thus impeding flow. Most of the tricky staging bits had been worked out save one—the servants dumped the hamper carrying Sir John out the window via which Quickly had entered—but a remarkable number of the jokes landed. Verdi and Boito wrote all the laughs they wanted into the ensembles, which the four women in particular aced. Though beautifully cut, CeCe Sickler’s cartoonishly hued costumes also pushed the envelope beyond subtlety. Brandon Stirling Baker lit Martin T. Lopez’s imaginative set for the final scene evocatively, achieving a sense of magic and then revelry.

Craig Colclough—also Arizona Opera’s Falstaff—repeated his grandly vocalized, specific and convincing portrait. His strong baritone was matched by the idiomatic, incisively sung Ford of Michael Chioldi. Chioldi and the wonderfully enjoyable Caroline Worra made a sexy couple, well matched in refulgent sound and pointed word painting. Worra soared aloft and fielded splendid trills. These three leading performances would have credited any stage. One saluted the confidence and stage savvy of Lindsay Ammann, a youngish, saucy Quickly who sometimes crossed over into self-conscious hamming. With her tangy, impactful mezzo, Vera Savage sang and performed Meg at a high level. As the young lovers, Dominick Corbacio and Apprentice Artist Emily Tweedy both did their best work in their vital Act III arias. The soprano’s tone was too vibrant for her earlier floated high notes; and though delicately attractive, she played a very knowing, almost Norina-ish Nannetta. Corbacio blended registers well and showed good dynamic control. The best of the energetic comic trio was Studio Artist Michael Anderson as a vocally disciplined Bardolfo. The audience rightly cheered the cast and Kier at the end of a very enjoyable evening.

In Review Saratoga Opera Zemire hdl 1017 
Andrew Bidlack (right) as Azor at Opera Saratoga
© Gary David Gold

THE GRÉTRY WORK—given in French with English dialogue—was an early “rescue opera”; its semi-comic, semi-serious nature was an apparent influence on Mozart’s singspiels. The score proved tuneful and delightful. Director James Ortiz directed and designed the clever, partially rotating sets and deployed dancers with puppets. Shima Orans’s costumes and Brandon Stirling Baker’s keen lighting supplied the requisite fairy-tale look. My main complaint about the direction—as with Falstaff—is that it invited huge amounts of extra-musical noise.

The real discovery was the Azor, Andrew Bidlack, an artist I’d previously heard only in contemporary music. His tenor coped easily with the role’s high tessitura, as well as the light ornamentation and dynamic contrast that Grétry requests, and he phrased with distinction and feeling. Bidlack, who seems a natural for the haute-contre roles of Rameau and Gluck, also made a credibly handsome Prince after the transformation wrought by Zémire’s love. With a rich, expressive timbre, Maureen McKay was a charming Zémire; she sang beautifully save for occasional pressure on top. McKay is the rare opera singer who looks graceful dancing onstage next to professionals. (Jill Echo’s troupe of four tireless dancer/puppeteers did outstanding work.) As her father, Sander, Christopher Burchett made an appealing stage figure; his baritone sounded pleasant at low volume, but neither the style nor the tessitura flattered him. Irrepressible character tenor Keith Jameson tackled the servant Ali’s music (and capering) with éclat. Studio Artist Lisa Rogali (Fatmé) and Apprentice Artist Katherine Maysek (Lisbé) acted amusingly and sang healthily as Zémire’s “Material Girl” sisters. Conductor Lidiya Yankovskaya led with due dispatch, but here the string tone was consistently muddy, putting a real damper on the otherwise admirable proceedings.  —David Shengold 

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