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

Best Bets • 01.29.16

Sunday 01.31

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Opera luminaries Flicka and Jake, together again … in concert

When last we saw Frederica von Stade, she was delighting audiences in the world premiere of composer Jake Heggie’s Great Scott at the Winspear. Well, these opera luminaries (and personal friends) have teamed up again for an afternoon of music, with “Flicka” singing a variety of songs, accompanied by Heggie on piano. It’s a rare chance to see these talents in a more casual and intimate setting.

DEETS:
City Performance Hall
2520 Flora St.
2 p.m.
$20–$40
DallasOpera.org

Tuesday 02.02 — Sunday 02.14

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‘Bridges of Madison County’ swoons into Fair Park Music Hall

The novel The Bridges of Madison County was something of a phenomenon in the early 1990s, but it took more than 20 years for it to be adapted to the Broadway stage, with Jason Robert Brown providing a Tony Award-winning score. The national tour of the show arrives in Dallas for the first time, courtesy of Dallas Summer Musicals. Get out to see this romantic and elegantly composed musical now through — appropriately enough — Valentine’s Day.

DEETS:
Fair Park Music Hall
901 First Ave.
DallasSummerMusicals.org

Friday 02.05

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Taiwan’s Cloud Gate Dance makes long-awaited Dallas debut

TITAS continues its season of almost-exclusively North Texas premiere dance companies with this import from Taiwan. Cloud Gate Dance Theatre has been around for 40 years, but this is the first chance for Dallas audiences to catch this inventive modern dance troupe. Presented in conjunction with the Crow Collection of Asian Art, this innovative company weaves themes of sunlight, soil, wind, water and fire in a visually arresting style that is dramatic and beautiful. It performs a one-night-only show, so don’t miss it.

DEETS:
Winspear Opera House
2403 Flora St.
8 p.m.
ATTPAC.org

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition January 29, 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

BREAKING: TITAS unveils 2015-16 season

Tharp Twyla by Richard Avedon

Nine Dallas debuts, including two world premieres, distinguish the 2015–16 season of TITAS, the gay-run organization that presents innovative and international dance troupes to North Texas.

The 11-show season, including TITAS’ annual Command Performance Gala, includes the very sexy BalletBoyz, the return of Complexions Contemporary Ballet (founded by Alvin Ailey alums Desmond Richardson and Dwight Rhoden) and the world premiere 50th anniversary tour of Twlya Tharp Dance.

Although it has in recent years moved toward an emphasis of dance over music, this is TITAS’ first-ever season without any music acts presented.

Twyla Tharp Dance‘s tour kicks off the season with two shows (Sept. 18–19) at the Winspear Opera House. That will be followed by the world premiere of the avant garde urban funk of Kyle Abraham/Abraham.In.Motion, Oct. 29–30, at the City Performance Hall.

Herve Koubi:Ce-que-le-jour

The next seven shows are all TITAS debuts:

• British-based Akram Khan Dance Company performs two shows at the City Performance Hall, Nov. 6–7.

BodyTraffic, which in three years has risen in international acclaim. Winspear Opera House, Jan. 22, 2016.

Cloud Gate Dance Theatre of Taiwan will be presented in coordination with the Crow Collection of Asian Art. Winspear Opera House, Feb. 5.

BalletBoyz combine an all-male cast with muscularity and grace. Winspear Opera House, Feb. 13, 2016.

Akram Khan

Mr. & Mme. Reve, the France-based performance-art troupe that creates dreamlike imagery through movement. City Performance Hall, March 18–19, 2016.

• La Compagnie Herve Koubi Dance. Reve is immediately followed by another French company for two shows, which TITAS executive director Charles Santos calls “surprising and fiercely masculine.” City Performance Hall, March 25–26.

• Canada’s Kidd Pivot Dance Company continues the French-language triumvirate at CPH for two shows, April 21–22, 2016.

• TITAS’ Command Performance Gala annually revives works from some of TITAS’ favorite companies and artists. Winspear Opera House, May 7, 2016.

• The season concludes with a favorite, Complexions Contemporary Ballet at the Winspear, May 21, 2016.

All performances except the gala begin at 8 p.m. Tickets are available at ATTPAC.org.

—  Arnold Wayne Jones

REVIEW: ‘Once,’ the haunting anti-musical

OnceTour0009In certain ways, Onceat the Winspear throughDec. 28 — is the anti-musical. It’s based on a film, but not a huge hit that demanded a stage adaptation; rather, it’s a downbeat art-house indie flick. From Ireland. About poor people. Poor people? Well, they make musicals about them — Les Miz! But Once is tiny, intimate; it leaves the epic bombast to Webber and Boublil & Schoenberg. It also doesn’t add numbers to stretch out the story (it actually takes away a few from the film), and the characters do something people in musicals never do: They acknowledge that they are singing songs to each other, and talk about how good they are!! Can you imagine Louise telling Mamma Rose that her rendition of “Everything’s Coming Up Roses” really stirred her? It’s really more of a “play with songs.” It affects you more like a play does, in the best possible way.

The plot is simple: A Dublin busker (Stuart Ward) plays on his guitar in a rowdy pub, but just as he’s about to call it quits, an immigrant girl (Dani DeWaal) tells him his music is good. He should keep it up. Oh, and by the way, can he repair her vacuum cleaner? From there a tentative romance burgeons — the girl hemmed in by her family and a husband who lives overseas; the guy by his feelings for a girlfriend who moved to America. Are they destined to be together or torn apart by divided loyalties?

The songs in Once — both the stage show and the film — are among the most impassioned and haunting acoustic ballads ever composed (one, “Falling Slowly,” won the best song Oscar), and they chill me each time I hear them. The setting is as simple as the story, and likewise as deceptive: The entire cast remains onstage almost all the time, each playing instruments and serving as the orchestra, with lighting cues and projected dialogue providing the context (and before the show, serves as an actual working bar for the theater patrons). Once is a chamber musical that feels a bit dwarfed by the Winspear, but while it might fit better in a more intimate venue, there’s no denying its poignancy.

—  Arnold Wayne Jones

CD review: Jason Mraz, ‘Yes!’

Editor’s note: We’ll have an interview with Jason Mraz in the paper next week, but before then we thought we’d share this review of his latest album, which he’ll be in Dallas in support of Sept. 2 and 3. 

MRAZHere to make you feel better about your life: Jason Mraz, the Oprah of white-boy balladry. He’s got your “remedy,” and it’s called Yes!, an album of life-affirming mantras expressed simply by song name: “Rise, “You Can Rely On Me,” “Shine,” and so on. It’s true, Mraz is Mraz-ing us with his lovey-dovies, which is just what he’s been doing since he dropped the reggae and wordplay.

When “Lucky” and “I’m Yours” sent him and his fedora into superstardom, he wasn’t about to go back to his scrappy hipster ways (though didn’t you just love him then?). Because if anyone can sell you the warm and fuzzies, it’s the “geek in pink” — the same hopeless romantic who gives them to you when you’re slow dancing at a wedding. “Love Someone” fits that sensitive-guy-with-a-guitar role, but so does most of the album: “Best Friend” is another ode to a confidante, “3 Things” is self-help in list form and “Out of My Hands” imparts a let-it-go moral.

What’s most telling about his career at this juncture is that he’s covering a Boyz II Men song (his a cappella take on “It’s Hard to Say Goodbye to Yesterday” is actually quite lovely). For maximum swoon effect, the adult-contemporary fluff of Yes! — recorded with girl group Raining Jane, who will be Mraz’s special guests at his Dallas concerts Sept. 2 and 3 — is full of honeyed acoustics and sentiments as subtle as one of those inspirational chain emails you get from your grandma.  Yeah, that. (2.5 stars)

— Chris Azzopardi

 

—  Arnold Wayne Jones

DMA begins sale of David Sedaris tickets

SedarisYou know how arts organizations are always encouraging you to become a season subscriber for all the great benefits? Well, here’s a prime example of why it really does pay to do that.

Starting right now, the Dallas Museum of Art has on sale tickets to hear David Sedaris talk pretty via its Arts & Letters Live series at the Winspear Opera House on Nov. 11. Tickets don’t go on sale to the general public until Aug. 12. Now, you may think, “That’s only two weeks; the Winspear holds 2,300 people. I can wait.” But you’d probably be wrong. Or at least disadvantaged.

I know from experience how quickly Sedaris’ readings sell, and how hard tickets can be to come by. You really will benefit getting them early, and you can join for as little as $100 (which comes with free parking at the museum and is 80 percent tax deductible). Click the link or call 214-922-1247 to join and get the code. Tickets start at $25.

—  Arnold Wayne Jones

Tori Amos: The gay interview

Tori1“Lighting, sweetie, lighting!” is Tori Amos’ theatrical retort to my compliment about how she’s still looking as radiant as she did at the launch of her career more than three decades ago. Now 50, and with her acclaimed 14th album, Unrepentant Geraldines, she’s facing age head-on. Candor isn’t unusual for the composer; from rape to religion and even her MILF status, she’s approached a bevy of topics too controversial for most artists.

That same directness extended to our recent conversation, prior to her appearance in Dallas on July 29 at the Winspear Opera House in support of the album, during which Amos chatted with our Chris Azzopardi about the LGBT influence on “Promise,” a duet with her daughter; being the muse for the big Frozen ballad; and the gay fans who share their “traumatic experiences” with her.

Dallas Voice:  How did your last several projects — Midwinter Graces, Night of Hunters and Gold Dust — reenergize the contemporary songwriting heard on Unrepentant GeraldinesAmos: All of them fit into giving me fresh perspective. Starting with Midwinter Graces, I was thrown into the deep end, studying carols from the last few hundred years and just immersing myself in a different genre. It’s almost as if it became a baton hand-off, from Midwinter Graces to Night of Hunters and Gold Dust, back and forth with The Light Princess [a musical written by Amos], which was floating between all these projects, because she’s been in development for five years. All of them were giving inspiration to the other. Each one was giving some kind of spark.

The spark linking all of those works is very evident.  They’re very interconnected, and The Light Princess cast recording — I’m producing that for Mercury Universal — will be out globally in early 2015, and we’re making the record on the tour, so [Unrepentant Geraldines] will be affecting that. They all gift each other something. I don’t always know what it is when it’s happening; you just get energy from one that propels another.

There is a freshness, a new perspective [on the new CD] that I was able to bring to contemporary writing because of all these other projects that had shown me different possibilities in structure and different possibilities in line. In that way, I feel like I’ve been rejuvenated by these other projects. When these songs were coming, they were coming not for me to make a record; they were just coming so that I could process what I was going through. And I didn’t share them with anybody. They were for my own private notebook.

—  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