Time and tide

‘Show Boat,’ ‘Big Meal,’ ‘Empress’ movingly portray the full landscape of life

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Lara Tetter, above right, steals scenes in Dallas Opera’s ‘Show Boat. (Photo by Karen Almond)

ARNOLD WAYNE JONES  | Executive Editor
jones@dallasvoice.com

Theater is a matter of life and death in North Texas this month — literally.

Screen shot 2016-04-21 at 3.00.58 PMAt WaterTower Theatre, the entire life-cycle is at issue in The Big Meal, a tender, funny, painfully real portrait of a family from courtship to death. It starts with two 20somethings Nicki and Sam (Kia Boyer and Garret Storms), meeting for an awkward first date or two, usually over dinner and drinks. With the chime of a bell, it’s now at least a decade later, with Nicki and Sam now played by Sherry Hopkins and Jakie Cabe. They reignite their relationship, and to the surprise of both, agree to marry … just so long as they don’t have children. A chime later, and two rug-rats (Kennedy Waterman and Alex Duva) come running in — apparently the call of biology was too much to resist.

The play continues on that way, with abrupt changes of setting and time … as well as cast. At first, John S. Davies and Lois Sonnier Hart play Sam’s parents; by they end, they are portraying Sam and Nicki themselves, now great-grandparents of pairs of kids (Cabe and Hopkins), grandkids (Storms and Boyer), etc.

Sound confusing? It’s really not, though it does demand your attention, something you willing give over as you become inextricably rapt by the authenticity of the lives of this family, which include dating, divorce, infidelity, cancer and of course death — the “big meal” in playwright Dan LeFranc’s construct. Each time the stage manager steps onstage with a full plate of food and a napkin-wrap of silverware, it’s someone’s turn to eat … and walk off-stage forever. Dinner becomes a form of Russian roulette.

Initially, the speed of the transitions, and the unmiked voices, force you to strain a bit to catch everything. And then you realize that director Emily Scott Banks is doing that intentionally, making you lean forward and engage. It’s a crafty way to rope you in, and for 100 uninterrupted minutes, she makes you laugh and breaks your heart. By the end, with Sam quaking from Parkinson’s, his mind fading as Nicki feeds him one last time, you’re wrecked. (Damn her montage of couples — gay and straight — and exquisite use of music to pluck at our emotions!)

The cast ably serves Banks’ vision. Storms is a protean actor who, better than anyone on North Texas stages right now, fluidly transforms from one type to another (a scene where he portrays every boyfriend Boyer’s character ever brought home is a subtle tour-de-force). Waterman — barely a teen — wowed audiences in Harbor and Daffodil Girls, and cements her rep as a “kid” actor with mature talent. Of all local theater companies, WaterTower seems the one most consistently occupied with telling the human experience with kitchen-sink verisimilitude. The Big Meal adds to that catalogue, a kind of modern-day Our Town. Come prepared to cry.

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Kia Boyer and Garret Storms, above, begin a romance that becomes an entire lifetime in WTT’s ‘Big Meal.’ (Photo by Karen Almond)

You might well cry throughout Show Boat, too — the final production of the Dallas Opera’s current season and the first time the company has produced an American-style musical, not a traditional opera (though it’s actually more of an operetta). The songs — “Ol’ Man River,” “Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man,” “Bill” — are firmly ensconced as charter entrants in the Great American Songbook, and as delivered here, wrenching arias as well-honed as Mozart’s “Porgi amor” or Offenbach’s “Barcarolle.” Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II may not have reputations as “opera composers,” but their work stands with some of the greats.

It helps that the Dallas Opera has assembled a cast that not only sings with the strength of opera, but can act up a storm.
The story revolves around Magnolia Hawks (soprano Andriana Chuchman), a young girl touring with her parents about the Cotton Blossom, a moving river boat that wanders the Mississippi at the turn of the last century, performing overwrought melodramas for residents of the port towns. She meets the gambler Gaylord Ravenal (baritone Michael Todd Simpson), a tall and impressive dandy who sweeps her off her feet, giving her and their daughter a good life until his losses pile up, and Magnolia is forced to work for a living, becoming a celebrated singer.

Chuchman and Simpson have real chemistry, which you feel during their duet “Make Believe.” But it’s soprano Alyson Cambridge as the tragic Miss Julie LaVerne, a half-black actress “passing” for white in the segregated south, who delivers the show’s major knockout punch. “Bill” sounds like a novelty song — a sweet, goofy ballad about a woman infatuated by her seemingly average boyfriend — but Cambridge turns it in a breathtaking torch song of an alcoholic has-been, giving her all at the end of her career. And basso-profundo Morris Robinson brings it for his (and the show’s) signature song, “Ol’ Man River.”

As is often the case, the comic role of Cap’n Andy is a scene-stealer, and the limber dancer Lara Teeter commits grand theft. It’s a joyously upbeat performance in a show filled with as many dour moments as colorful bustles — the prototype for the modern musical, conducted with brio by Emmanuel Villaume.

Music is essential to another downbeat story about life and death. It’s Oct. 4, 1970, and Janis Joplin (Marisa Diotalevi) is drowning her sorrows in an L.A. hotel room when her idol — the late blues great Bessie Smith (M. Denise Lee) — seems to step out of the album she’s listening to and enters Janis’ world. Janis has died of a drug overdose and is just beginning to realize it; Bessie apparently is there to ease her transition into the afterlife.

The meeting of these musical greats, both cut down at the peak of their skills (Joplin at age 27, Smith at 43), forms the crux of Dianne Tucker’s reverie on American Music The Empress and the Pearl, now at Theatre 3’s downstairs space. Through songs (mostly Smith’s), conversation and some theatrical exposition, Tucker delineates the similarities between the performers, but also their differences as people and artists.

It’s not a balanced portrait. Joplin comes off as the more ungrateful and self-destructive of the two, a self-indulgent narcissist who ruined her raspy voice by burning out her soulfulness too recklessly, as well as ill-conceived romances with men and women. That’s something she shared with Smith, a sexually voracious singer who truly lived the blues.

Neither Lee nor Diotalevi look or sound much like their avatars, but it hardly matters; Lee in particular has the rich vocal chops to turn the small underground space into a Depression-era speakeasy. You can practically smell the gin in this cabaret.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition April 22, 2016.

—  Arnold Wayne Jones

Review: A bawdy, beautiful ‘Manon’ at the Dallas Opera

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Stephen Costello and Ailyn Perez in ‘Manon.’ (Photo courtesy Karen Almond)

It was a disappointment on opening night of Manon, the Dallas Opera’s penultimate production of the season, to see more-than-expected unused seats in the orchestra — a missed opportunity for opera fans. The story is well known — about a randy 16-year-old acolyte, lured by sweet talk and kisses away from religious service and into progressively less suitable relationships — and the opera Jules Massenet’s most enduring contribution to the art. This is also only the Dallas Opera’s third presentation of Manon, and while I didn’t see the others, surely it must be the best.

Sir David McVicar’s stylized, bawdy production (re-staged here by E. Loren Meeker) maintains the original time setting (early in the court of Louis XV, just before the French aristocracy went to hell), but he gives it an exaggerated, carnival-like tone that seems very modern. He’s presenting the tale not as the corrupting of one girl, but of the inevitable corrupting influence of the whole society. It’s staged like a Restoration sex farce, with half-clothed bodies writhing in a public house, lascivious dandies lusting visibly for buxom lasses (there’s more groping than at a circuit party), exaggerated fops preening around like tweakers on a street corner. The deluge is coming, and they don’t even know it.

That makes Manon’s transformation from prim noviate to self-important socialite and obnoxious prima donna seem oh-so-familiar — meet The Real Courtesans of Versailles. There’s lots of talk of honor and respectability from a slew of degenerates who hit on their cousins and their son’s mistresses; the irony is not lost on McVicar, who adds broad moments of comedy the undercut the treacle (including an over-the-top kissing scene that could be out of a Judd Apatow movie, and the traditional ballet has all the funny vulgarity of Aristophanes). All of that imbues this production with a realness that can sometime be lost in the costumes and conceits of opera.

But the other secret weapons in this enjoyable production are the performances. Stephen Costello, who has appeared in numerous Dallas Opera productions over the last dozen years or so, has progressed from callow ingénue to expressive lyric tenor, his voice richer than before while he remains a dashing and emotive presence as De Grieux, Manon’s sincere paramour.

But even Costello gets outshone by the maelstrom that is Ailyn Perez as Manon. Her Dallas debut last fall in Great Scott introduced her as a master of comic timing housed inside a fully-realized soprano. But her Manon shows her asset as a performer of uncompromising artistic efficacy. Her rendition of her late-second scene aria (“Adieu, notre petite table”) is so plump with emotion, on opening night the audience held its collective breath, transfixed by the rawness of her singing. Perez conveyed each sigh and gasps as if they were notes meant to be sung. Her Manon gives beauty and relevance to a classic of the repertoire.

There are two more performances: Wednesday and Saturday. For tickets, visit DallasOpera.org.

—  Arnold Wayne Jones

Barihunk … or 1 in tenor?

You have your choice of vocal ranges at Dallas Opera’s ‘Manon,’ with out singers Troy Cook and William Ferguson

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ARIA THERE YET? | Troy Cook, left, and Will Ferguson are old friends reunited as rivals on the Winspear stage for Dallas Opera’s production of ‘Manon.’ (Arnold Wayne Jones/Dallas Voice)

ARNOLD WAYNE JONES  | Executive Editor
jones@dallasvoice.com

In many ways, Will Ferguson and Troy Cook couldn’t be more different. Ferguson is an operatic tenor, with a peripatetic repertoire that has taken him to New York City Opera and The Met (in the city where he lives), in addition to recitals specializing in interpretations of new composers. Cook, a baritone (so typically cast in heavier roles) has been gifted with an international career of mostly classical roles, including recent appearances in Madrid and London’s Covent Garden, but lives in rural Bucks County, Penn.

But they share one commonality: In addition to having featured roles in the Dallas Opera’s latest production, Massenet’s Manon, they are both out gay singers in the rarified world of opera.

There was a time you didn’t see that much — directors, conductors and designers? Yes. But onstage? Not so much. That has been changing, though … for men and women.

Although both have been openly gay in their personal and professional lives for decades, they agree that the practice of greater openness has grown.

Screen shot 2016-03-03 at 12.24.23 PM“I have seen singers who are gay but don’t talk about it much — but they are mostly non-U.S. citizens,” Ferguson observes.
“Their [native countries] are less accepting [of gay people], and they are often huge national celebrities there. In the late 1990s, there were a bunch of people who started to come out — largely women, like Beth [Clayton] and Patricia [Racette]. Then countertenors like David Daniels — I’m not sure why that is. But I also think the audience is changing.”

Cook is quick to agree. “Opera companies have been cultivating that market. It’s a way to create a sense of community around the opera — a ‘rainbow series.’ We have been fighting for full acceptance [in mainstream society] — to be just like everyone else. And now we seem to have it.”

Still, acceptance hasn’t seriously altered how openly either singer  has lived — both enthusiastically talk about their husbands, to whom each have been partnered for 16 years or more and now legally married. Ferguson’s husband, Kim, is also a singer (though of the pop-cabaret variety); Cook’s husband, Rob, is a gardener (who, he says, couldn’t carry a tune with a handle). For Ferguson especially, marriage equality has made a significant difference in his home life: Kim is a native Australian, and federal recognition of their marriage has facilitated his immigration status.

Ferguson and Cook both extol their fondness for Dallas — from its cosmopolitan qualities to its architecture and people. This is Ferguson’s fourth production with the DO in three years, and Cook’s first … though he performed years ago with the Fort Worth Opera. And they can’t say enough about the Winspear.

“I have to say, this opera house is one of my favorites in this country,” Ferguson says. “Aesthetically, it’s gorgeous but just to sing in there is great — the sound in there is amazing.”

“It’s a more intimate experience, more purpose-built,” Cook adds. “It’s the right shape, the right style for our art form.”

Audiences will get a chance to see how good they can sound in it for four performances of Manon, in a production originally conceived by out opera director Sir David McVicar. The two share a lot of stage time together, though they are something of romantic rivals for the attentions of Manon (played by the breakout star of last year’s world premiere of Great Scott, Ailyn Perez).

“I’ve done Manon at The Met before, but in a different role,” Ferguson says. “I guess that’s the kind of singer I am — different companies hire me for different kinds of ways. It’s great.” For Manon, he’s playing a much older character than he is. “The character is so different from what I look like or who I am —  I get to play dress up and be the villain!”

Cook, by contrast, “plays the savior of Manon who truly falls for her, all the while knowing she admires him and all he’s done for her but doesn’t really love him.”

Yeah, we’ve all been there.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition March 4, 2016.

—  Arnold Wayne Jones

OPERA REVIEW: ‘Tosca’

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Raymond Aceto and Emily Magee in ‘Tosca.’ (Photo by Karen Almond for the Dallas Opera)

Although Tosca premiered in 1900, the plot elements would not be out of place in a show on HBO. It has it all: lust, jealousy, murder, torture, betrayal, suicide. Paired with Giacomo Puccini’s gorgeous music, it is no surprise that Tosca has remained one of the most popular operas.

The action starts when Angelotti, a former consul turned political prisoner (strongly sung by bass-baritone Ryan Kuster), escapes with the help of his sister and hides in a church. There he encounters an ally, painter Mario Cavaradossi (Chilean tenor Giancarlo Monsalve). Cavaradossi is painting a portrait of Mary Magdalene, and admits modeling his work on the features of a beautiful blonde stranger who prays at the church. Nevertheless, he thinks only of his true love, the temperamental diva Floria Tosca (soprano Emily Magee).

Tosca, however, notices the resemblance in the portrait and grows jealous. Initially, Cavaradossi placates her, but then the sinister chief of the secret police, Baron Scarpia (impressive bass Raymond Aceto), arrives to hunt down Angelotti. Scarpia burns to seduce Tosca, so he purposefully incites her jealousy, and she falls for the ploy; Cavaradossi is implicated in a scheme and arrested and tortured.

Tosca is tricked into visiting Scarpia’s apartment and is manipulated as she hears her lover’s screams. Scarpia wants her, and she wants Cavaradossi’s life to be spared. She is visibly repulsed and filled with hatred for him, but Tosca’s discomfort fuels Scarpia’s attraction. She finally relents, and then sings a beautiful “Vissi d’arte, vissi d’amore,” before seeking her own revenge. Scarpia is one of the most odious characters in all of opera, so his undoing has emotional satisfaction. Still, Act 2 sees its share of overacting from Magee and Aceto in their lead roles, and the set looks tired and overused. Marie Barrett’s lighting design does nothing to improve the situation.) Nevertheless, the strong female chorus (off scene, and led by chorus master Alexander Rom) shines.

In other places, the singing is a mixed bag. Monsalve’s delivery of the famed aria “Recondita armonia” sounded weak at moments, but he may have been overpowered by the loud orchestra. He is excellent, however, on “E lucevan le stele.” Campbell S. Collins III is clear-voiced but tentative on the shepherd boy’s song.

By Act 3, the pacing feels languorous, even as the brass section excels, but the strings solos were marred by intonation problems. Even skilled conductor Emmanuel Villaume seemed incapable of preventing them.

Director Ellen Douglas Schlaefer was likely challenged with an aging set of old production, which no doubt suffered from all the attention being given to Great Scott, but she did well with what she had. If you love classic Italian opera, Tosca is worthwhile, despite its shortcomings.

— Alicia Chang

Winspear Opera House, 2403 Flora St. Through Nov. 22. DallasOpera.org.

 

 

—  Arnold Wayne Jones

Opera review: ‘Great Scott’ is an adrenaline shot to opera

Joyce DiDonato and Anthony Roth Costanzo are the stand-out cast members in 'Great Scott.' (Photos by Karen Almond for the Dallas Opera)

Joyce DiDonato and Anthony Roth Costanzo are the stand-out cast members in ‘Great Scott.’ (Photos by Karen Almond for the Dallas Opera)

Does anybody really care about opera anymore? That’s the existential conundrum posed by several characters in the meta-opera Great Scott, a world premiere — based on an original idea — by composer Jake Heggie and librettist Terrence McNally.  When the Super Bowl is watched by millions, what difference does a never-before-seen 18th century Italian bel canto opera mean to the American culture at large really? Why bother?

The brilliant irony, of course, is that the existence of Great Scott answers its own question. A magnificent and glorious creation from the overture until the sweetly understated ending, this is a modern opera that defies expectations. It’s truly a game-changer: An adrenaline injection of life-force into a classic form.

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The opera-within-an-opera about the fall of Pompeii.

First in the plus column is its creativity: Even in the heyday from Wagner to Verdi to Puccini, operas were based on preexisting sources — plays, legends, classics. But with its cellphones and contemporary dress and easy vernacular, Great Scott is wholly relatable and repeatedly unexpected. Like an MGM musical from the Golden Age, we meet the main characters backstage before the debut of a long-lost opera about Pompeii from the 1830s. The acclaimed soprano Arden Scott (Joyce DiDonato, who despite a small handful of shaky notes was in fine form and acted brilliantly) has returned to her hometown to present this piece at the struggling American Opera, run by the optimistic impresario Winnie Flato (mezzo Frederica von Stade). Like The Producers, everything seems to go wrong — from the vain Eve-Harrington-ish newcomer (Ailyn Perez, powerful and hilarious) to the tentative romance between the conductor (Kevin Burdette, in a far cry from his work as Beck Weathers in Everest earlier this year) and the fesity stage manager (countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo) to the bickering tenor and hunky baritone (Rodell Rosel, Michael Mayes) to the bare-assed deux ex machina entrance — until it all goes wonderfully right. Arden finds her purpose, not unlike Princeton in Avenue Q, but with more recitatives.

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Ailyn Perez gets laughs and gasps in her comic performance as a vain opera singer.(Photo by Karen Almond)

Great Scott is a solidly-structured comedy, the kind McNally has been crafting for 40 years. There are well-timed jokes (“This shit is hard!” Arden exclaims after performing an especially impressive aria) and finely-drawn personalities (there’s an embarrassingly deep list of interesting supporting characters) and even insights into the artistic temperament that never devolve into navel-gazing. Truly, this is a libretto to be admired for its nimbleness.

At three-and-a-half hours, though, and only one intermish, there must be room to parse and tuck; the fictional opera-within-the-opera Arden performs feels as if it is staged almost in full, and while Heggie’s music astonishingly mirrors true bel canto style, and the staging by Jack O’Brien is amazing, it drags out the metaphors too much. The same is true of Arden’s mystical conversation with the ghost of the composer Bazzetti (Guido Contini’s confrontation with his younger self in Nine accomplishes much the same in one-third the time). But as much as these scene seem to stretch out, it’s almost impossible to imagine where, exactly, to cut any notes from Heggie’s endlessly ravishing score.

World premieres of theater works always have a bit of a “work in progress” feel to them, but despite some quibbles, there’s little to be said badly of Great Scott. It is, simply, one of the most engaging modern operas produced this century. See it, and you’ll talk about it for years.

Great Scott next performs tonight at 7:30 p.m., and again at 7:30 p.m. on Saturday and 2 p.m. on Nov. 15. DallasOpera.org.

—  Arnold Wayne Jones

PHOTOS: Dallas Opera ‘first look’ fashion show, opening night gala

The Dallas Opera launched its 2015–16 season this weekend with the world premiere of the Jake Heggie-Terrence McNally opera Great Scott to widespread acclaim. But the parties were a draw as well. On Thursday, the First Look luncheon in the lobby of the Winspear Opera House previewed the upcoming season of five opera with a fashion show featuring original pieces from designers like Michael Faircloth and Edo Popken, as well as accessories from Mulberry. Then on Friday night, despite torrential rains, the movers and shakers of Dallas and celebs including Tyne Daly and Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg showed up for the late-night after-party with DJ Lucy Wrubel. Here are shots from both events. (Look for a review of Great Scott here later this week.)

—  Arnold Wayne Jones

Dallas Opera seeks athletic dancers for world premiere of ‘Great Scott’

ThinkstockPhotos-485293865In October, the Dallas Opera will unveil its latest world premiere, Great Scott, from out composer Jake Heggie and librettist Terrence McNally. The opera, set in Texas, revolved around a football team, and the creatives at the DO are in need of some men who can dance and look athletic at the same time. “For the four male dancers, The Dallas Opera is seeking candidates with strength, athleticism and the ability to convey a well-defined stage character.” Performers selected will be compensated for rehearsal time, and receive a performance fee. And they even get to appear onstage along with acclaimed mezzo Joyce DiDonato.

To schedule an audition (which will take place at the opera’s facility at Fair Park on Sunday, Sept. 27, from 2–5:30 p.m.), email your resume to Ahne.Schield@dallasopera.org.

—  Arnold Wayne Jones

OPERA REVIEW: ‘Iolanta’

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Projections work best to evoke setting more than they do to create mood in ‘Iolanta.’ (Photo by Marty Sohl/Dallas Opera)

Iolanta, Tchaikovsky’s one-act lyric fairy tale, has long been popular in its native Russia, though not often performed elsewhere. The Dallas Opera, therefore, made an unusual choice in introducing this work as the concluding entry in its current season, but the risk paid off with this inventive and satisfying production.

Princess Iolanta (wonderful soprano Ekaterina Scherbachenko) lives a contented but sheltered life in the mountains of southern France, hidden away from her subjects. She is blind, and her father, King Rene (portrayed with pathos as well as strength by bass Mikhail Kolelishvili), has forbidden her caretakers — Bertrand (powerful bass Jordan Bisch) and Marta (standout mezzo-soprano Tamara Mumford) — from mentioning anything in her presence about vision or light. As a result, poor Iolanta has no idea that anyone in the world has sight, believing that eyes are only for crying.

King Rene desperately wants to find a cure for his beloved daughter’s blindness, so he brings renowned Moorish doctor Ibn- Hakia (excellent baritone Vladislav Sulimsky) to their mountain home. The doctor delivers his hopeful prognosis (via the mystical aria “Two worlds”), explaining that Iolanta may be cured of her blindness, but only if she has the desire to see, which necessitates informing her of the gift of sight. The ever-protective King, however, refuses to let her know about her blindness, ordering anyone executed who violates his decree.

Robert, Duke of Burgundy (fine baritone Andrei Bondarenko) and his friend Count Vaudemont (fantastic tenor Sergey Skorokhodov) accidentally stumble upon the beautiful gardens that hide the princess. Robert has been betrothed to Iolanta since a young age, but admits that he has fallen with another in the lovely Matilde instead (“Who can compare to my Matilde?”). Vaudemont sees the princess sleeping and is immediately enthralled by her, but Robert runs for help, fearing that they are in danger. Vaudemont and Iolanta fall in love, during which time he accidentally reveals the secret of Iolanta’s condition to her.

Will Vaudemont be beheaded? Will Iolanta ever see his face? Will the King’s heart soften? In opera, you can never tell, but hey: It’s a fair tale. Still, it’s sentimental even for Russian opera, and more than a touch sanctimonious.

This modern production, directed by Christian Räth, relies heavily on light projections to convey not only the setting but also the mood. The projections (designed by Elaine J. McCarthy) effectively set the various scenes, but are distracting when used decoratively. The costumes, recreating early 20th century fashions via designer Susan Cox, demonstrate a great attention to detail. Though conducted energetically by Emmanuel Villaume, the orchestra, particularly winds, sounded muddled during several technical passages. Despite being in the back of the orchestra pit, the chorus projected powerfully. And at compact 90 minutes, Iolanta is worthwhile.

Performs tonight and Saturday at 7:30 p.m.

— Alicia Chang

—  Arnold Wayne Jones

REVIEW: Dallas Opera’s ‘La Boheme’

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‘La Boheme’ survived, and even thrived, with a last-second replacement. (Photo by Karen Almond for Dallas Opera)

The fourth opera in Dallas Opera’s season, Puccini’s timeless tale of tragic love La Boheme, is one of the most popular in the standard repertoire: There’s nary a singer out there who doesn’t know the score from heart. That’s a good thing, since before Wednesday night’s performance, lead tenor Bryan Hymel (who plays Rodolfo) had fallen ill and was replaced by Dimitri Pittas, who apparently arrived in Dallas from New York just hours before curtain.

If there was panic backstage, it wasn’t apparent from the seats of the Winspear, which presented an engaging performance overall.

The four-act opera revolves around four artists in Paris. Rodolfo, a poet, and painter Marcello (portrayed with passion and sensitivity by baritone Jonathan Beyer) struggle to stay warm in their freezing Paris apartment on Christmas Eve. They are joined by their friends, philosopher Colline (fine bass Alexander Vinogradov) and Schaunard (charmingly portrayed by baritone Steven LaBrie). Schaunard the musician has just returned from an odd but well-paying gig and has the cash to treat them to a night of fun.

Most leave for a festive dinner at Café Momus, but Rodolfo stays behind to finish his writing when he meets Mimi (soprano Ana Maria Martinez), a fragile neighbor whose candle has blown out. In classic operatic fashion, they fall instantly in love, yielding three of the most beautiful arias in Italian opera. But as we all know, the course of true love does not run smoothly.

Puccini’s music is iconic, but the weaker singer in the duo is Martinez. Her warbling voice distracted from the gorgeous “ Si. Mi chiamano Mimi,”  whereas Pittas’ “Che gelida manina” and “O soave fanciulla” are first-rate.

After Rodolfo and Mimi join the others at Café Momus, the group enjoys a fine meal until Marcello’s former love, the flamboyant Musetta (in a fine dress from the late costume designer Peter J. Hall), arrives on the scene with her rich older lover. Musetta (very strong DO debut from soprano Davinia Rodriguez) notices Marcello ignoring her, so she decides to serenade strangers about her beauty “Quando me’n vo” to get his attention. She succeeds, and they reunite.

In the beginning of the final act, the dark looming threat of Mimi’s demise is lifted up by a lively duel with breadsticks among the four friends.  Musetta then brings a very ill Mimi to the flat, and everyone scrambles to sell what they can to help pay for Mimi’s medical care. Colline shines in his farewell to his old coat “Vecchia zimarra, senti.” But this story does not end happily, and the slow final curtain adds to the drama.

Conductor Riccardo Frizza and director Peter Kazaras make competent, if not memorable, DO debuts (the stage work especially was listless). The lighting design by Thomas C. Hase was effective, particularly in the final act. It’s not their best work, but this revival of a Dallas Opera production still has the chops as a quintessential night at the opera.

Runs through March 29 at the Winspear Opera House with a simulcast at AT&T Stadium March 21.

— Alicia Chang

—  Arnold Wayne Jones

REVIEW: Dallas Opera’s stunning world premiere of ‘Everest’

The stunning set of 'Everest' (Photo: Karen Almond/Dallas OperaI’ll just say it: I don’t know what modern opera composers have against a melody. Perhaps it’s the anxiety of influence that no one can write an aria as beautiful as “Nessun Dorma” or as catchy as “La donna e mobile” or harmonies as tight as Lakme‘s “Flower Duet.” I don’t care. I like a good song. (I think opera composers are afraid of sounding too much like Broadway.)

There are no hummable arias in Everest, composer Joby Talbot and librettist Gene Scheer’s one-act opera that received its world premiere from the Dallas Opera this weekend. That is practically the only criticism I have of this piece, a breathtakingly powerful and phenomenally well-staged achievement that lingers in your mind and your heart.

Based on the events of the ill-fated 1996 expedition to summit Everest (recounted by John Krakauer is his compulsively thrilling first-hand account Into Thin Air) it focuses on three climbers — Rob Hall (tenor Andrew Bidlack), the expedition leader, and two clients, Doug Hansen (baritone Craig Verm) and Dallasite Beck Weathers (bass Kevin Burdette) — who become trapped while descending from the Hillary Step during a massive blizzard and suffer exposure, eventually leading to the deaths of two of them (in reality, a total of eight people lost their lives during the climb).

Unlike a play like K2, however, Scheer doesn’t confine the action to the South Face of the mountain; through a series of flashbacks and phone calls, we interact with Hall, Hansen and Weathers’ families, discovering insights into what motivated them to pursue this costly, time-consuming and dangerous activity. None of this would be possible without Rob Brill’s awe-striking set design (a series of about 70 white cubes that fill the Winspear stage), Elaine J. McCarthy’s evocative projections and director Leonard Foglia’s inventive staging, which creates a dreamy but visceral landscape. (The listing of the names of all those who have perished on the mountain, and Weathers’ crawl to safety having been left for dead, will send chilblains through you.)

Despite the absence of vocal melodies, Talbot’s score is a driving force, which starts out as a collection of stabs of white noise and transitions into a pulsing underscore, reminiscent of an action film, deftly modulated by conductor Nicole Paiement. The use of the opera chorus to portray a kind of ghostly voices of the dead doesn’t quite register at first, and the tune and lyrics are too strident and disconcerting, but their haunting presence throughout adds a paradoxical mood of dread and comfort to the proceedings.

Bidlack’s performance as Rob Hall is achingly adept, and his duets with mezzo Sasha Cooke as his wife Jan are tender and and heartfelt. They are the standouts, though both Verm and Burdette provide evidence that great opera is as much about fine acting as it is singing.

WilliamsThere are only two more performances of Everest — tonight and Saturday — so you should see it if you can. But I wouldn’t worry too much; this is destined to become a part of the modern canon, one of the most compelling and relevant operas in a generation.

The presentation by the Dallas Opera opens with Act 4 of the clunky Catalani opera La Wally, also set on a mountaintop. It’s not a major work by any standard, despite the fairly memorable aria “Ebben? Ne andro lontana” (which, incidentally, is a fine melody for singing!). But this piece is an excellent showcase for Mary Elizabeth Williams (a replacement for Latonia Moore), whose stunning rendition of the piece — and her impressive domination of the entire 30-minute performance (she gets limited assistance from the bland Rodrigo Gariciarroyo) — shows that there’s still some hunt in this dog. Also credit director Candace Evens for a creative staging of the famed avalanche and maximum use of a minimal set. It really does a fine job of whetting your appetite for the main course that follows.

Get tickets here; check out a slideshow of Karen Almond’s photos from Everest below.

—  Arnold Wayne Jones