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 composer 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

BREAKING: Dallas Opera announces 2015-16 season

Jake Heggie

Keith Cerny, general director of the Dallas Opera, announced the upcoming season for the company (its 59th) at Hamon Hall inside the Winspear Opera House this afternoon.

Among the guests present were out composer Jake Heggie, pictured, who wrote the world premiere Moby-Dick for the DO, which closed the company’s inaugural season in the Arts District in 2009-10. As had been previously announced, Heggie has reteamed with librettist Terrence McNally to compose a new opera, Great Scott, which will launch the 2015-16 season on Oct. 30.

For the first time in the DO’s history, a Broadway musical — not an actual “opera” — will be on the slate: Oscar Hammerstein and Jerome Kern’s 1927s hit Show Boat. The show is best remember for the song “Old Man River,” which has often been a signature performance for powerful operatic baritones, including Paul Robeson and William Warfield, who performed it memorably in the MGM film adaptation in 1951. (See a video of Warfield’s rendition after the jump.) It will be performed April 15-May 1. It will close out the season.

Among the other productions slated for the new season: Puccini’s Tosca, Nov. 6-22; a second world premiere, Mark Adamo’s Becoming Santa Claus, Dec. 4-12; Manon by Jules Massenet, March 4-12.

The current season continues later this month with two one-act opera: La Wally and the new creation Everest, both set on mountaintops.

—  Arnold Wayne Jones

The art of accurate emailing

I’ll start by saying The Dallas Opera‘s next production, the premiere of Everest — about the fateful expedition in 1996 — sounds captivating to me. I can’t wait to see. So I was excited last week when I got an email whose subject line sounded prime for a human-interest story:

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“Wow!” I thought. “What are the chances?” I opened the email and this was what the inside said:

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 If you haven’t figured it out, January 14 is this Wednesday. “Wed,” for short, it seems (not, as I might do, “Wed.”). So no nuptials involved. I replied to the mass email thusly:

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 A few hours later, I got the same email, only with the following subject line:

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 They called me Friday to thank me for the correction, and had a good sense of humor about it. Oh, and you should go to the chat if you can. I bet it’s a great discussion … even if not romantic.

And later today, the Dallas Opera will make its season announcement for the 2015-16 season. Look back here to see what’s up this season. Hint: There’s a world premiere from a gay team and a genuine historic first in Dallas Opera’s long history.

—  Arnold Wayne Jones

Opera review: ‘Salome’

Voigt and Grimsley in ‘Salome,’ Photos by Karen Almond, Dallas Opera.

The Dallas Opera’s second title of the season is the outrageous Salome. Perhaps the most depraved plot in all opera — and that’s saying something — this retelling of the Bible story is adapted from a German translation of Oscar Wilde’s play. Richard Strauss’ very challenging music only adds to the electrifying story. This lustful and sordid work, with a macabre conclusion, made it a good pick to open the week of Halloween.

Princess Salome (soprano Deborah Voigt) is a young woman whose powerful stepfather/uncle Herod (tenor Robert Brubaker) can’t keep his eyes and hands off her. She, in turn, is infatuated with prisoner Jokanaan aka John the Baptist (baritone Greer Grimsley) who is locked in an underground cistern. As a holy man, Jokanaan wants nothing to do with the spoiled, grasping Salome.

Voigt’s voice has a clear and pleasant tone, but unfortunately she is not well-suited for the title role. She’s more than a little too old to portray a deranged teenager, and the famous “Dance of the Seven Veils” falls flat. The choreography by Yael Levitin is fine, and the backup dancers (in flowing and beautiful dresses from costume designer Anita Yavich) are wonderful, but Voigt’s dancing is clumsy and labored.

KA2_0553AThe standout among the singers is Grimsley. His baritone powerfully reaches to the top of the Winspear, even though most of his performance comes from the underground prison. Herodias, wife of Herod and mother of Salome (mezzo-soprano Susan Bickley), was able in her limited role, while tenor Joseph Hu delivers a forceful and spirited performance as First Jew. Mezzo-soprano Heather Johnson (in a trousers role) as Herodias’ page blasts a clear and sonorant voice of caution in this dark story (though why she was dressed as a soldier remains a mystery). Tenor Scott Quinn as Narraboth is strong, if not memorable.

Stage director Francesca Zambello manages to punctuate the heaviness of the story with light-hearted moments of humor. Conductor Evan Rogister marks a successful Dallas Opera debut with this musically challenging piece. Strauss wrote for a large orchestra with particularly difficult passages for the woodwinds. The musicians played admirably, especially the oboes and bassoons in their exposed passages. Though just a compact 100 minutes, it is a tough slog in the orchestra pit.

Peter J. Davison’s modernist scene design is odd-looking, though ultimately effective. The set is divided by what appears to be a giant clear shower curtain, but it was enhanced by the excellent lighting by Mark McCullough. The costumes are colorful and detailed, except for Salome’s primary costume; her dress lacks the splendor of the others at the palace. The soldiers’ costumers are strangely reminiscent of uniforms in sci-fi films. Wig and make-up design by David Zimmerman appeared to be flawless, particularly in the gory final scene.

Check out Salome if you can. The standout performances make it a far more engaging option than other ways you could spend two hours.

— Alicia Chang

—  admin

Pell stepping down as artistic director of Dallas Opera

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Jonathan Pell in the Winspear just before it opened in 2009.

Jonathan Pell, who has spent nearly 30 years with the Dallas Opera, currently as its artistic director, and who marshaled its move from Fair Park to the Winspear Opera House, is stepping down from his full-time role with the company, the DO has announced.

Pell started with the DO in 1985 as its artistic administrator and will walk away on Dec. 31 from his day-to-day role. He will stay on as “artistic advisor.”

Pell brought such luminaries to the DO for their debuts as Cecilia Bartoli, Renee Fleming, Patricia Racette, Susan Graham, Denyce Graves and Ruth Ann Swenson. He also spearheaded several world premieres, including The Aspern Papers (which was revived last season), Therese Raquin and Moby-Dick (which will return next year).

The DO will continue its operation under general director Keith Cerny and new music director Emmauel Villaume. The DO wrapped up its 54th season earlier this month.

—  Arnold Wayne Jones

OPERA REVIEW: ‘Die Tote Stadt’

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Act 2 of ‘Die Tote Stadt’ by Karen Almond

Paul, a man long depressed over the death of his wife Marie, spots a woman on the streets of Bruges. Could it be…? She’s a dead-ringer for his beloved! Surely this is a sign! He invites her to his lonely mansion, hoping to woo her and relive his happiness through her. But can that ever happen? Doesn’t he see that this coarse woman lacks Marie’s refinement? How healthy can an obsession be?

That’s the plot for Erich Wolfgang’s opera Die Tote Stadt (The Dead City), one of the huge operatic hits of the 1920s but rarely performed today. Indeed, Korngold’s own reputation rests more on his Oscar-winning film scores than his operas.

It’s a shame, because Stadt prefigures the psychological complexity of much of 20th century art, from Hitchcock films (especially Vertigo) to the surrealist movement and beyond. Composed when Korngold was just 23, it has a jaunty, driving through-line — much more in the nature of a dramatic underscore for a motion picture than as the basis for a traditional opera. (Despite its German title, the music is almost wholly without a ponderous tone, instead creating a late Romantic feel.)

And therein lies the conundrum. This production from the Dallas Opera, dazzlingly staged with multimedia components by director Mikael Melbye, is a feast for the eyes and ears despite the singing. While the cast is good, it’s the pulsating, lively and modern style of the music that keeps our interest. Mardi Byers, as Marie, seems occasionally overwhelmed by the score, and Jay Hunter Morris as Paul sounds frequently strained and unsure. (It is set is Bruges — maybe be was a little phlegmish. Ahem.) As much of Acts 1 and 3 are two-handers, relying on the leads to carry the narrative, this presents problems.

Those problems fade, however, when baritone Weston Hurt lumbers onstage as Paul’s friend, his rich, resonant voice undergirding the mystery of the piece, and Morgan Smith all but steals Act 2 as an actor-friend of Marie. (It also doesn’t hurt to see Tony Trahan, in a nonsinging role, providing more than a little eye candy.)

Melbye’s use of video projection and scrims is inventive, and conductor Sebastian Lang-Lessing pushes the orchestra along (though he loses a bit of unity near the end of Act 3 — maybe that is just meant to reflect the swirling energy of Paul’s mind, but I doubt it). The city may be dead, but this production is very much alive.

Die Tote Stadt will be performed March 26, 29 and April 6 at the Winspear Opera House; The Barber of Seville opens there Friday.

—  Arnold Wayne Jones

Dallas Opera announces 6-show season

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Kevin Moriarty, DTC’s artistic director, will cross Flora Street to direct the season opener for the Dallas Opera, ‘The Marriage of Figaro.’

After several seasons of belt-tightening that reduced the number of fully staged operas from the usual five or six to three and then four, the 2014–15 season roars back with six productions — five classics of the canon and a world premiere for its 58th year.

The season, labeled Heights of Passion, launches (as usual) in October with Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro — conducted by the DO’s new music director, Emmauel Villaume and directed by Dallas Theater Center artistic director Kevin Moriarty — followed by Richard Strauss’ Salome. The season continues the following spring in rapid succession with the remaining four productions:  Catalani’s La Wally (Act IV) on a double bill with the world premiere one-act opera Everest by composer Joby Talbot and librettist Gene Scheer, then the ever-popular La Boheme by Puccini and concluding with Tchaikovsky’s Iolanta.

Moriarty returns to opera with Figaro, having helmed the one-act The Lighthouse in a limited run in March 2012. Salome will be directed by lesbian stage director Francesca Zambello, whom we profiled here in 2010. Villaume will team with gay German stage director Christian Rath for the final production of the season, the rarely-seen Tchaikovsky piece Iolanta.

Here’s the full lineup:

The Marriage of Figaro, Oct. 24, 26 (matinee), 29, Nov. 1, 7 and 9 (matinee).

Salome, Oct. 30, Nov. 2 (matinee), 5, 8 and 16.

La Wally (Act IV) and Everest, Jan. 30, Feb. 1 (matinee), 4, and 7, 2015.

La Boheme, March 13, 15 (matinee), 18, 21, 27 and 29 (matinee).

Iolanta, April 10, 12 (matinee), 15 and 18.

New company subscribers can purchase subscriptions starting June 1; packages for all six productions start at $76. Single tickets will go on sale around July, and will start at $19. All performances will be at the Winspear Opera House. Learn more at DallasOpera.org.

—  Arnold Wayne Jones

Dallas Opera selects new music director

DO general director Keith Czerny, left, present the opera's new music director, Emmanuel Villaume, right

DO general director Keith Czerny, left, and the opera’s new music director, Emmanuel Villaume, right.

Just as their 2012-13 season comes to an end, this morning Dallas Opera general director Keith Czerny announced that a new music director has been selected — only the third in the company’s 56-year history.

Emmanuel Villaume, a French-born conductor, will assume the post later this summer. Villaume Graeme Jenkins, who stepped down following his final turn at the baton with The Aspern Papers last week after serving as music director since 1994.

The Dallas Opera had announced its 2013-14 season lineup already, as well as the conductors for each show, and Villaume was already set to lead the baton for the season kick-off, Carmen. But that will not be his first time before Dallas audiences — he has conducted here in the past.

Subscriptions for season tickets are available starting at $76 for all four productions, and include benefits such as priority seating and exclusive cabaret recitals.

—  Arnold Wayne Jones

REVIEWS: Operatic ‘Turandot’ vs. balletic ‘To the Wonder’

The beautiful production at Dallas Opera. Photo by Karen Almond

How unfair the opera world is: Turandot gets her name in the title, Calaf gets the big, famous aria, but Liu? She gets the tragic love story, the brutal ending and, at least in the Dallas Opera’s current production of Puccini’s last opera, the pipes. She’s the emotional focus, the true tragic hero, of this Turandot. Hei-Kyung Hong transforms the opera, wonderfully achieving emotional beauty in a powerful interpretation; she rips the rug right from under the others. That’s an accomplishment, since all the principals do excellent work.

Antonello Palombi as Calaf does well in Acts 1 and 2, but the disappointment is his “Nessun Dorma,” which for unfathomable reasons he sings mostly while sitting down, robbing his diaphragm of is strength. Aside from a technical glitch (a big one) in Act 1 of opening night, the production is a marvel of beauty and moody lighting, under Garnett Bruce’s direction an expert management of the chorus by Alexander Rom. This is your last weekend to see it, so get moving.

IMG_0631.CR2From the operatic stage to the balletic medium of film is quite a leap, but balletic is the only term to apply to Terrence Malick’s To the Wonder. By my count, only four filmmakers of the past 40 years — the late Stanley Kubrick, Jean-Jacques Annaud, David Lynch and Malick — truly qualify as cinematic artists: Directors more concerned with making visionary works that serving a commercial or even accessible audience. (A fifth, Ang Lee, is well on his way to that status as well.) These are men who make movies on their terms, inventing their own idioms and grammar. They refer almost to nothing and no one. That’s what artists get to do.

—  Arnold Wayne Jones