Sunday, January 29, 2012

Rigoletto is no slouch! A wonderful evening with Florida Grand Opera

Florida Grand Opera raised the curtain last night on Verdi's masterpiece, Rigoletto.  The evening's performance was a highly-anticipated event, and the opera house was packed with people eager to see this wonderful opera.  The air crackled with excitement as they filed in with high hopes, and they waited with bated breath for the lights to go down.  They were hoping for a very special show, and they were not disappointed.
As the music began, a spotlight came on in the center of the darkened stage, revealing a shirtless hunchback crouched over his jester's hat and scepter.  As the light revealed his deformed body, one could easily believe that the singer himself bore a hunch, so flawless were his prosthetics.  The rest of the costumes, as it soon became apparent, were no less well-done.  The scenery, too, was masterfully constructed, and helped to set the mood perfectly in every scene.  And without giving anything away, the audience was presented with a slightly unexpected take on the ending that was hair-raisingly effective. 
Musically speaking, the overall performance was very good.  There were a few opening night kinks that need to be worked out, such as several brief moments when the orchestra slightly overpowered the singers.  These moments, however, were the exceptions in an otherwise brilliantly performed work.  And while, at times, the tempo ran a bit faster than I personally prefer, it was more than made up for by the beauty and power of the singing.
The role of the Duke was sung by tenor Michael Fabiano, who makes his Florida Grand Opera debut with this production.  He fit the character perfectly with his youth and dashing looks, and his portrayal of the callous young nobleman was a perfect blend of seductive charm and heartless indifference.  Vocally, he gave an admirable performance, and while his was not always the largest of instruments, the beauty of his tone and brightness of his delivery made him an absolute pleasure to watch.

Baritone Mark Walters sang the part of the hunchback Rigoletto, a man torn by the double life he must lead in order to protect his daughter from the clutches of his hated employer, the womanizing Duke.  He delivers a poignant, heart-rending performance that grips the viewer from almost the first note.  Never before have I seen a Rigoletto who so effectively demonstrates the depths to which he is forced to stoop in the service of the Duke.  His voice is warm, rich, and powerful, easily filling the farthest corners of the hall with his full, intense tones.  Tender and loving one moment, bursting with rage the next, Mr. Walters created a powerful image of a man who will go to any lengths for his daughter.
And then there was Nadine Sierra, the soprano who sings the role of Rigoletto's innocent daughter Gilda.  The South Florida native was the real star of the show, with a light, beautiful, yet strong voice that soared gracefully above the orchestra.  Her delivery was nearly flawless and seemingly effortless.  Her Caro Nome was charmingly playful and sweetly endearing, and her delicately gorgeous tones were an absolute joy to experience.  Her final moments were filled with such tragic beauty that many in the audience were rendered speechless for quite some time after the final curtain.

Unfortunately, not all of the audience was rendered speechless during the actual performance.  As wonderful as the performance was, I would be remiss in my report of the evening if I failed to mention that last night's audience contained some of the least considerate opera-goers I have ever seen.  Aside from multiple conversations taking place in normal speaking voices during the music, no fewer than three cell phones rang in my general vicinity.  Two of those phones rang during Caro Nome.  One of those calls was actually answered, and the offender proceeded to carry on a phone conversation that lasted a good thirty seconds!  During Caro Nome!!!  I mean, this guy made the Marimba incident at the New York Philharmonic look like child's play!
But even that could not destroy the magic of the evening.  Florida Grand Opera's Rigoletto is at once beautiful, powerful, and heartbreaking.  The spell is cast the moment the music begins, and is not broken until after the final crashing notes.  South Florida opera lovers, do not miss this one!

Sunday, January 22, 2012

The swallow soars! La Rondine at Florida Grand Opera is a delight!

 Last night, Florida Grand Opera debuted La Rondine by Giacomo Puccini.  The evening marked the first time the company has produced Puccini's eighth opera, one of Puccini's least-known works.  La Rondine is performed so infrequently, in fact, that it was absent even from the stage of the Metropolitan Opera for 70 years.  So we have been given a rare treat in the form of this delightful opera!
After composing several tremendously successful operas, Puccini began to search for new source materials.  He was persuaded to write an opera in the style of Viennese operetta, and so La Rondine was born.  While it was originally commissioned for Vienna's Carltheater, the outbreak of World War I  forced the premiere to be moved to Monte Carlo.  It was well-received by audiences and critics alike, but as time passed, its popularity waned.  Today, the average opera-goer is usually only familiar with the famous aria, Ch'il bel sogno di Doretta.

La Rondine tells the story of a kept woman who meets and falls in love with a young man who has come to Paris.  After calling on her protector, he is sent to a local cabaret to spend the evening.  She later sneaks out, meets up with him there, and the pair move to the Riviera together.  When he writes home and receives permission to marry her, however, she realizes that her past would prevent such a marriage.  She reveals her true identity to him and returns to her protector in Paris, leaving him brokenhearted.
While La Rondine is rare for a Puccini opera in that nobody dies, Puccini (of course) couldn't leave well enough alone.  An alternate ending has the young man leave her when he discovers her past, and she drowns herself in the sea rather than return to her old life.  However, the first version is the most commonly accepted ending for the opera, and most productions end with every member of the cast still among the living.
Florida Grand Opera presents us with a sparkling, thoroughly charming production set in 1920s Paris, complete with a lively cabaret, vintage bathing costumes, and my personal favorite, lots of shiny stuff.  The scenery was lovely, and very well done.  While the dancing in Act II is integral to telling the story and setting the mood, however, I found it to be a bit too much.  At times it seemed to almost distract me from what I was actually there for: the opera.  At other times, though, I was completely caught up and swept away by the beauty of the music and the power of the principle singers.
The role of the young man, Ruggero, is sung by Portuguese tenor Bruno Ribeiro, who makes his Florida Grand Opera debut with this production.  He has a lovely, lush voice that easily reaches the back of the house.  He beautifully conveys the hopes and dreams of the young Ruggero, and when he is left alone at the end of the opera, the audience feels his heartbreak right along with him.

But the real star of the evening was Elizabeth Caballero, the Cuban soprano who sings the role of Magda, the "swallow" of the title who flies toward the sea to find love.  She was charming, graceful, and full of playful energy.  Her voice is rich and full, at times gentle and tender, and at times raw and torn with conflicting emotions.  Her rendition of Ch'il bel sogno di Doretta is among the most beautiful I have heard, and it earned her much well-deserved, rather enthusiastic applause.  Here she can be heard delivering this famous aria:

La Rondine was a new experience for me.  I was unfamiliar with most of the opera, with the exception of one aria and a couple of duets.  I was therefor not really sure what to expect.  It is, after all, one of Puccini's least-successful operas, and I assumed there must be a good reason for that.  Well, you know what they say about what happens when you assume.  Anyway, I found that my assumptions were incorrect, and while the story didn't grip me in quite the same way that most Puccini operas do, the music was absolutely lovely, and the evening thoroughly enjoyable.  I would strongly urge all lovers of grand opera to seize this rare opportunity and go to see La Rondine while they can.  It may be many years before we are again given the chance to experience this uncommon yet splendidly delightful opera.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Opera-tune-ists: Giacomo Puccini

Hello again, everybody.  First off, apologies for the relative silence on here recently.  Life does sometimes have a tendency to interfere with writing.  But be that as it may, here I am once again, back with a new bit of opera chatter.  And today, in celebration of Florida Grand Opera's opening of La Rondine this weekend, I will be writing about one of my favorite composers: Giacomo Puccini. 

Now, anybody who knows anything about opera will tell you that Puccini was a genius.  His operas are among the most frequently performed today.  In fact, you may be hard-pressed to find a single opera company, anywhere in the world, that does not include at least one Puccini opera every season.  But what is it that makes Puccini so popular?  Is it his beautiful, soaring melodies?  His incredibly romantic libretti?  The intense, often heart-rending drama?  Or is it the immediacy of his style, a style that often leads the viewer to forget that he or she is watching an opera rather than an action movie?  Well, the simple answer is, "yes!"  It is a bit of all of these, and every opera lover is drawn to a different element of his work.  My husband, for example, was particularly impressed with Rodolfo's suave, poetic pickup lines.  My brother blares Liu's delicate arias as he drives down the street with his windows open.  And I hang on the edge of my seat for the entire second act of Tosca, even though I already know exactly what's going to happen.  And when you put all of these elements together, the results are often magical!
When I decided to write about Puccini, I thought about what I might include here.  Do I talk about his personal history?  His influences?  His wonderful music?  After giving it some careful consideration, I decided to just start writing and see where it carries me.  After all, that is precisely what his music does: it carries the listener off into the world of the opera.  So I think that the best place to start, as an introduction to FGO's new production, is with the most well-known aria from La Rondine.

Okay, so here we have a beautiful aria.  It demonstrates Puccini's status as a master of gorgeous melody.  But what about the drama?  What about the gut-wrenching, nail-biting action I spoke of?  Well, here is the very scene I mentioned above, as sung by Bryn Terfel and Angela Gheorghiu.

And what of the poetry?  The romantic lyrics?  The beautiful words, and the music that reflects them?  Puccini's operas are full of these gorgeously amorous moments, and who is better suited to demonstrate them than his very own poet?

So here we have some of the most essential elements of Puccini's work: beauty, passion, and drama.  I know I really didn't get into those other things I mentioned, such as history and influence.  But for me, Puccini has always been purely about the art.  Any other discussion, to me, would be a distraction.  When I watch Puccini, I want to close my eyes and enjoy every note.  But I don't dare, because I don't want to miss a moment of what is happening on stage.  I don't want to think; I want to be swept away!  I want to be carried to 19th century Rome, or to Nagasaki, or to Peking!  And therein lies the pure genius of Puccini: with a note, he can carry you to any one of those far-off places and times.
And on that note, (no pun intended,) I will leave you with one final aria to sweep you away.


Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Opera birthday parties? Why not?!?

Hello again, everyone!  Welcome back from a rather extended holiday break!  The kids are all back in school now, and life can slowly start to return to normal.  Today, I am going to continue on the subject of passing opera on to the next generation.  I have heard a lot of chatter (or perhaps twitter?) over the last few weeks about ways to attract a younger audience.  Most of the talk seemed to be centered around the idea of so-called Tweet Seats.  While I very happily participated in last month's Tweet Seat session at Palm Beach Opera's Madama Butterfly, (a dress rehearsal, I should add,) I don't believe that simply letting people play on their phones during the performance is going to get them to want to attend.  Rather, honest exposure, ideally at a young age, whether at home or in school, is the surest way to spark interest in opera.
This, of course, is in no way a new idea.  I have said it before in previous posts, and I will doubtlessly say it again.  But today I am going to write about a (brilliant?) idea I had about one way of doing this.  Opera birthday parties!!!  Now, I know some of you may be scratching your heads and thinking that I must be crazy, but just hear me out! 

The idea came to me this morning, as I was trying to plan my son's ninth birthday party.  I was looking online at all the different options available in the area: bowling, arcades, science museums, even the local animal shelter!  There were a lot of venues offering sports parties, cooking parties, arts-and-crafts parties, and dance parties.  And then it occurred to me: Why not do opera birthday parties?  If one enthusiastic child chooses ten or twenty of his closest friends to share opera with, it could trigger a whole chain reaction of spreading an awareness (if not outright love) of opera to a group of children who might otherwise never give it a fair chance.
Now, how to do it?  I had some ideas there, too.  There are a couple of different options to be considered: the do-it-yourself party, which would require a bit of homework and planning on the part of the parents, and the party organized by a local opera company's Young Artists program, or some such organization.  "But wait a minute," you might say.  "There are no opera companies offering children's birthday parties!"  And you would probably be right.  But why shouldn't there be?  After all, almost every other type of theater, museum, and miscellaneous entertainment outlet offers several party packages.  And while I recognize that these other options may be more popular among children, it would be a wonderful experience for them if such a thing were available.

So here is what I propose to any opera company out there that may be reading this: give it a shot!  If no one takes you up on it, what have you lost?  And if they do, think of what you have gained: a doorway into the hearts of the next generation.  So what might an opera company offer as part of a party package?  Well, a package could include one or two young artists who would give a brief background of what opera is, followed by a short performance.  These performances could range from some of the more action-packed scenes for boys' parties to the more romantic ones for the girls' parties, or any combination of the two.  Afterwards, young party goers could be given the opportunity to participate in recreating the drama and singing the music.  Fancy foods and Martinelli's sparkling cider served in plastic champagne flutes could be served to add a celebratory feel to the event.  And at the end of the party, each child could go home with an opera-themed goody bag.
For the parents planning an opera party on their own, it might be a little trickier without the personal interaction with the singers and the hands-on music making.  But again, a brief overview of opera could be given, followed by a showing of an opera on DVD.  One possible opera to show a group of children who are new to it is Il Barbiere di Siviglia.  Most of them will probably have heard at least some of the music, the story is highly entertaining, and there is nothing in it that any parent could possibly consider to be objectionable material.  (Something like Tosca, on the other hand, might not go over so well with all of the parents.)  After the performance, the children could be given an opportunity to talk about their impressions of what they have seen.  Again, fancy foods and opera goody bags could tie the whole experience together.
Now, I'm not naive.  I know something like this might take some time to catch on, or it may never catch on at all.  But if nobody even tries, it certainly never will.  And with opera audiences getting older, opera education in the classroom and at home at a low point, and opera companies around the world struggling to bring in young people, something must be done to ensure the continued survival of opera for the next generation.  And what better way to pass it on than in a fun, exciting, and celebratory atmosphere?  Today's children, who think they have seen everything, can go home from an opera party with memories of a new and thrilling experience, and a thirst to discover more.