Friday, July 31, 2015

Jazz in Irvington: Coal Yard Coffee hosts free jazz once a month

Jazz fans around town are forever grateful for the consistent support for the music provided by the Chatterbox Jazz Club and the Jazz Kitchen, but it's always refreshing to hear good jazz off the beaten track.

That was fun to do Thursday evening when "Sophie Faught & Friends" were the featured band in Coal Yard Coffee's "Sweet Thursdays" showcase. The converted garage is a comfortably crowded place in Irvington on a narrow street of the kind the historic neighborhood specializes in. (A recurring dream of mine is of wandering lost in an Irvington-like milieu, but we won't go there.)

The band's amiable name is part of the publicity for the gig I attended: This is the "Three Muses" band, to borrow the title of its art-inspired current CD: Sophie Faught, tenor sax; Nick Tucker, bass, and Ben Lumsdaine, drums. Tucker, a new resident of Irvington who puts "Sweet Thursdays" together, acted as group spokesman. He schedules bands for the last Thursday of each month at Coal Yard.

The first set consisted mostly of jazz and pop standards. One Faught original was a zestfully inviting selection early on. This pianoless trio is texturally rich, thanks to the reliable inventiveness of all three players. Its sound in the small room, with the band facing out through the open garage door, was clear and well-balanced — no sound system needed. And this was a listening crowd, with only the necessary business at the order counter competing unobtrusively with the music.

The view from my seat: Nick Tucker sets "Caravan" on its journey.
McCoy Tyner's "Passion Dance" was a great piece to walk in on. Its infectious energy was well-sustained in this performance. There was nothing formulaic about even the best-known pieces the trio offered: In "Caravan," the unaccompanied intro laid out by Tucker built anticipation for the intricate pattern he provided when his bandmates joined him, with the saxophone carrying the familiar melody.

"Prelude to a Kiss," another piece from the Duke Ellington book, represented the tender mood the trio is capable of. There was some engaged duo playing between Faught and Tucker in a performance that also included Lumsdaine on brushes.

I'm hearing much expressive variety in Faught's playing these days — assertive, almost abrasive at times, but also occasionally whimsical and deliberately tentative. The latter facet was brought out in the trio's performance of "I Should Care," in which she evoked the quirkiness of Sonny Rollins. There's more than one way to skin a ballad.

Other pieces capably interpreted in the first set were Benny Golson's "Stablemates" and Charles Mingus "Nostalgia in Times Square."

This series is a welcome addition to the scene, and Coal Yard has a range of tasty beverages and treats on sale to supplement the musical enjoyment. Mark Aug. 27 on your calendars. Maybe the next group will play "Let's Get Lost."

Thursday, July 30, 2015

Spectacle almost dominated, but superb singing held its own in Cincinnati Opera's "Turandot"

Years ago at the Indianapolis Star, a colleague of mine wrote about a speech in which the speaker used the completion of Giacomo Puccini's "Turandot" by Franco Albano as an example of how friends can successfully pick up the baton from a fallen comrade and complete an interrupted task.

Not knowing opera, the reporter misheard the title as "Turnabout." And as "Turnabout" the reference to Puccini's opera got past the editors and was published. Amusing as the error was, the work with which Cincinnati Opera is ending its 2015 season is as great an example of turnabout as opera affords.

The splendor of the Chinese imperial court as reflected in Cincinnati Opera's "Turandot."
The hardened Chinese princess Turandot is converted away from cruelty toward unsuccessful suitors as well as her own people and toward love, which she had foresworn.  Turning her about is the unparalleled devotion to his task of Prince Calaf, in exile from his homeland along with his father, the banished ruler Timur, and his faithful slave, Liu. Making the turnabout convincing musically and dramatically worried Puccini, who succumbed to throat cancer before filling out sketches for the final scene.

To be sure, the character of Turandot and her eventual susceptibility to ardent love are not easy to reconcile with normal human behavior — no matter how enlightened or primitive one's view of the battle of the sexes may be. Yet when the staging is as rich in illusion as this production's, you can readily treat the story as a Chinese fairy tale.

The Canadian team of Renaud Doucet (stage director and choreographer) and Andre Barbe (scenic and costume designer) make it all work spectacularly. At the same time, as seen Wednesday night, the fitness of the principals for their roles and the choral singers' protean skills ensure that the psychological dimension of the exotic tale is well served.

Most crucially, the steadfastness of Calaf in wearing down Turandot's resistance — fueled by his correct answers to three risky riddles, the suicide of the lovelorn Liu on his behalf, and his magnanimous offer to free Turandot from her obligation to marry him — win the day. It all adds up to as certain a love-driver as the magic potion in "Tristan und Isolde," on which Puccini modeled his lovers' final duet.

From the outset, the social milieu was so stirringly portrayed that the long-term cost of Turandot's fondness for beheadings and what we would now call state terrorism was unmistakable. With the craven movement of the chorus up, down and across the stage as the latest trial and execution move toward completion, the audience catches the fearful submission of the masses to tyranny. These choristers were as apt for milling about and giving vent to mixed emotions as they were when they were called upon to plant their feet and sing. They did that wonderfully — a feast for eyes and ears —  in praising the aged Emperor in the second act and welcoming the royal marriage in the splendid last measures of the third.

The massive red arch that frames the action in the first act embraces a variegated disc that represents sun or moon (as called for). Together, the forms complement and impose fatefulness upon the set's multiple planes of action. Everyone moved fluently on and among these challenging spatial platforms. In the second act, for contrast,  large decorative screens form an idyllic backdrop to the comical ministers Ping, Pang, and Pong and their overlapping moods of officiousness and nostalgia.

Ramon Tebar, who made a strong impression last year in the company's production of Puccini's other Asian opera, "Madama Butterfly," conducted with a secure feeling for "Turandot"'s larger range of instrumental and vocal expression. The Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra brought out the score's full palette judiciously under his guidance, even if a few big climaxes covered tenor Frank Porretta now and then.

Moving right along to those principals: Poretta commanded both the lyrical and heroic aspects of Calaf's role. His "Nessun dorma" covered all the essentials of the opera's hit aria. The conventional hold on the next-to-last note — the "ce" of "vincero" — was not overextended, happily, but it was gloriously sustained.  His performance throughout was tasteful but never staid. This Calaf was believably obsessed with breaking through Turandot's flinty exterior. Sometimes he seemed to be contending with Tebar on matters of tempo, but not much as to throw off a well-coordinated
working relationship.

Marcy Stonikas was one of three principals making a Cincinnati Opera debut. Her Turandot was imperious, an indispensable quality,  and she made the character as believable as possible. Her soprano had a consistent strength, and, even better, the signs of thaw in the Princess' demeanor were adroitly managed.

The Princess Turandot (Marcy Stonikas) addresses her subjects.
As Liu, Nora Amsellem, also a company debutante, enraptured me. She displayed total vocal control, with finely judged dynamics. The soft radiance of her high B-flat in Liu's recollection of Calaf's smile was a first-act harbinger of extensive piano singing in the demanding third act, just before Liu makes the ultimate sacrifice to affirm her loyalty to the royal father and son she serves.

Also new to Cincinnati Opera, bass Andrea Mastroni as Timur displayed the banished ruler's powerful yet plaintive assessment of what he deserves and what has been denied him. The shocked collective mourning for Liu was made particularly effective by Mastroni's performance.

Finally, the "masks" — comically conceived imperial ministers who function as both outsiders and insiders — were delightfully inhabited by Jonathan Beyer (Ping), Julius Ahn (Pang) and Joseph Hu (Pong). These odd characters, in costumes that had some of the drollery of old-fashioned nursery toys, need to be nimbly sung in voices that comment upon the action and reflect on the misery of China under the sway of Turandot and her ineffectual father, the Emperor (Chris Merritt). And that's how they were done here: The blitheness came through, though there is nothing carefree about how astutely Ping, Pang, and Pong have to blend vocally.

All told, in Cincinnati Opera's "Turandot," turnabout is much more than fair play. It's also excellent work, sumptuously fleshing out the story's legendary aura and fully responsive to the manifold lusters of Puccini's music.

[Photos by Philip Groshong]

Sunday, July 26, 2015

Great American Songbook contest finishes its sixth year at the Palladium with top prize going to a nearby singer

Lucas DeBard, a 2015 graduate of Lebanon High School, got a slightly delayed graduation present Saturday night when he became this year's Great American Songbook Youth Ambassador — the top prize of the annual Songbook Academy and Competition.

DeBard's self-possessed performance of "I'm Going to Sit Right Down and Write Myself a Letter" tucked in an updating apt for the age of digital social media. In his second appearance of the evening program at the Palladium, he combined two songs about dreams, using "I'll See You in My Dreams" as his main vehicle.
Lucas DeBard, 2015 Youth Ambassador

Basically a tenor, he had an attractive sound in all registers, with no apparent break. His stage presence was as secure as any of his peers — a group of ten finalists selected from among the 40 "all-stars" who swelled the Academy portion of the weeklong vocal seminar. (All 40 were heard to good effect, backed by a little big band, in a couple of choral numbers,  "Bridge Over Troubled Water" and "You're Gonna Hear From Me.")

The field seems to get stronger as the selection process widens. Arrangements and piano accompanists were first-class. This year the selection range included all 48 contiguous states; 16 of them were represented in the "all-stars" group. Each of the finalists had the two required interpretations down pat. A stunning amount of maturity and poise was evident in their performances.

Two other award-winners — their prize titles not especially revealing of their distinctive qualities —
Hannah Vogelsang
also impressed me during the two-hour-forty-five-minute show. Named Celebration winner, Hannah Vogelsang of Haslett, Mich., put a personal stamp on "Miss Otis Regrets," the sly Cole Porter song of retribution for betrayal in love, and "I'm Just a Square in a Social Circle," a dated, hyperactive Betty Hutton number that she amazingly made captivating.

The other prize performances were turned in by Inspiration winner Cate Hayman of Mill Valley, Calif. A self-confident blonde of the sort once described as "statuesque," she sang "I Got It Bad and That's Ain't Good" and "The Man I Love" as though she owned them. Her belting voice in the latter was controlled and authentic, not over-the-top emotive in the "American Idol" manner, fortunately.

Cate Hayman
Other performances among the finalists I found especially appealing: Drew Mabusth's calculating, slow-burning "Fever" (hints of Peggy Lee were kept at a distance, but Etta James uncomfortably haunted her rendition of "At Last") and both of Madelyn Steuer's performances —  personalized and intense versions of two contrasting songs, "Everything I've Got Is Yours" and "P.S. I Love You."

I also need to give a nod to another of the men, Adam Kruschwitz, whose understated account of "When Sunny Gets Blue" reminded me a bit of the pre-self-destructive Chet Baker, but with a more firmly centered tone. This is the kind of song, and the kind of singing, that it's good to hear this competition encouraging; it has a worthy place alongside more demonstrative vocalism.

Here are links to my posts wrapping up the competitions of 2013 and 2014.

Monday, July 13, 2015

Rachel Barton Pine commands virtuosity good for any era; for Early Music Festival, she focuses on 17th and 18th centuries

The Indianapolis Early Music Festival wrapped up its 49th season this weekend with a focus on the solo and chamber-music artistry of Rachel Barton Pine.

Rachel Barton Pine
The violinist capped her engagement Sunday in the second of two weekend concerts at Indiana History Center. She had appeared with her Chicago-based early-Baroque ensemble, Trio Settecento, on Friday. Devoted to English music, that concert culminated in a generous representation of Henry Purcell, England's first great composer.

Late Sunday afternoon was a different story. There the emphasis shifted from the collegiality of songs and dances, artistically developed but settled in an undivided elite culture, to the era when concert life started taking on the trappings of publicity and self-conscious interest in professionalism began to take hold of the musical world.

An Italian long resident in Amsterdam, Pietro Locatelli (1695-1764) showed his superiority as a violinist among his contemporaries with the publication of "L'arte del violino" in 1733. This collection of 24 caprices tucked in among a dozen violin concertos foreshadowed Paganini's famous set — well-known locally from their required inclusion in International Violin Competition of Indianapolis programs.

Pine, with a chamber version of the Indianapolis Baroque Orchestra behind her, played the 12th of the set, "The Harmonic Labyrinth." Labyrinthine are the music's ways, indeed. The showcase for the soloist to ascend the heights of virtuosity is the caprice placed in each of the outer movements.

Attentive to the fleeting charm of the caprices' lyrical passages, Pine was clearly suited to the pieces' dazzle as well. She displayed solid control of the rapid figures. The patterns outlined a connect-the-dots kind of melody stitched together by feverish string-crossings. It was the kind of workout that, in baseball terms, brings the trainer with ice and massage to the aid of a hard-throwing relief pitcher in the locker room.

Sunday's audience shared in the astonishment Locatelli's contemporaries must have felt, for the caprices are clearly designed to wow audiences. The structure of the concerto (like its companions in "L'arte del violino") is inviting: As soon as the accompaniment drops out in the first and third movements, you know you're in for a solo spectacle. That's what Pine delivered, shoving to the side my nagging doubts about the musical value of excessive display. The caprices embedded in this concerto, at any rate, indicate that Locatelli's imagination rarely rose in this genre to his successor Paganini's level.

In the program's first half, Pine and the IBO, led by concertmaster Alison Edberg, featured concertos by Antonio Vivaldi for the viola d'amore. The charming instrument, more mellow than the violin, was generously exhibited in this program. Pine has become a devoted specialist on this instrument, using a viola d'amore made by Nicola Gagliano in 1774, four years after he made the violin Pine played in this concert.

The guest soloist worked well with the IBO in music with a variety of texture, sparkle and elan. The layout of mood and texture is structurally satisfying in each. Stateliness, gentle pathos, and buoyancy are exhibited across the three-movement structure. These were glowing performances, marred slightly by tuning difficulties in the opening Allegro of one of them, corrected before the second movement, fortunately.

To give Pine a little time offstage, in the first half the IBO played music by another violin virtuoso composer, Johann Georg Pisendel: a suite of attractive dances, segueing without pause, culminating in a zesty Presto Concertino. After intermission, and before the athletic rigors of the Locatelli, the IBO performed the striking Concerto for Strings in C major, whose sprightliness is moderated by the elegantly drooping line of the concluding Chaconne. On its own, the city's baroque orchestra confirmed how able it is to share the stage with a major early-music star like Pine.


Friday, July 10, 2015

Hooray for Hollywood! Cincinnati Opera stages a spirited update of Donizetti's "Don Pasquale"

In stage director Chuck Hudson's striking concept of "Don Pasquale," the main character is well past believing he's as great as he ever was, that it's the pictures that got small.

That Norma Desmond bitterness is only hinted at in a production that owes something to the bleak atmosphere of "Sunset Boulevard." The nostalgic, gray man-cave "The Sovereign of the Silver Screen" has built for himself is the milieu for pervasive Hollywood spoofery soon after the curtain goes up on Cincinnati Opera's production of the 1843 comic opera by Gaetano Donizetti.

The one bit of vanity clinging to the updated hero is that his confirmed bachelorhood is worth ending as he approaches 70. The way his Tinseltown career soared, then crashed and burned, is sketched in with cleverly designed film clips, made to look ancient and used as interludes.

Pasquale and Malatesta look forward to the star's departure from wedlock.
A star of the silents doomed by a talkie-resistant voice (an imaginative stretch for characterization by an opera singer!), Pasquale became an inept director. He's retired to his mansion by the mid-fifties, when the action takes place. His idea of home decor is shelved stacks of movie reels in their dusty cans. So much satire has been directed at him by the set design and the invented film-clip biography that there doesn't seem to be much left to make fun of.

This is where Donizetti's buoyant music comes in. And, thanks to Burak Bilgili's lively portrayal, Pasquale remains mockable, subject to just punishment for his insistence on controlling his lovesick nephew, Ernesto. Here's the biggest obstacle to this updating's credibility: Every generation has its control-freak powerful people, but the drama of "Don Pasquale" depends on the social convention of arranged marriage being thwarted by true love. This opera doesn't demand realism, of course, but it's hard to place arranged marriage credibly in the Hollywood of just six decades past. I suppose it works to see it as a metaphor for the tyranny the old studio system exercised over underlings' lives.

Ernesto, beautifully sung and acted by Ji-Min Park in a company debut, pursues the starlet Norina with a doggedness always threatened by despair. His acting in the second-act recitative and aria Cerchero lontana terra was as solid as his singing. The singing had to contend with Hudson's  comical suicide scenarios, but Park executed them well. Similarly, the tenor was challenged to make a strong vocal impression with the third-act serenade, Com' รจ gentil, singing offstage while Pasquale is being teased by family friend Dr. Malatesta with some Marcel Marceau tricks too hard to describe here. Park came through just fine, despite the incessant funny business.

Alexey Lavrov, also making a Cincinnati Opera debut in this production, was a hearty, conspiratorial Malatesta — the kind of bluff double-dealer who always succeeds in high-pressure environments like Hollywood. Even when he was required to do a lot of Count Dracula-like cape-flapping as the plot thickens (most of it to hide Ernesto from Pasquale's view), he had star-quality flair.  The great comic duet in the third act, with Malatesta simulating a firm alliance with Pasquale, was brought off with immense buffo vigor — with a built-in encore of its finale drawing a huge ovation.
Norina and Ernesto finally celebrate the overcoming of obstacles.

As Norina, Eglise Gutierrez displayed an adroit if somewhat "covered" soprano; I missed hearing a "bloom" comparable to Park's. She made for a wily co-conspirator of Malatesta's, pretending to be his ex-nun sister Sofronia, and transformed herself believably into an extravagant, scolding bride. She didn't quite fit the mold of a nubile starlet, despite her well-staged first appearance, reading romantic fiction in her bubble bath.  A slighter, more vulnerable-looking figure who becomes a shrewish wife in order to escape an unwanted marriage would have made the silly plot really pop.

Paul Scholten sputtered and whined appropriately in the small but crucial role of the Notary. The chorus, outfitted with Hollywood extravagance as partying celebrities, sang with gusto. Three nonspeaking servant roles were well-filled (by Buz Davis, Brad Duban, and Betsi Brockmeier) to carry out much of the director's devotion to the classic pantomime of Marcel Marceau.

What a swell party this is: Hollywood guests enjoy themselves at Pasquale's.
Richard Buckley managed things well from the pit, where the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra played with character and spirit. Fast tempos sometimes made things a little blurry between voices and accompaniment, however. Lyrical passages, and such effective structures as the second-act quartet, with its Pasquale outburst interrupting, were gratifying.

The moralizing finale was well put-together on all fronts, as Pasquale accepts from Norina the return of his cherished silent-star trophy, giving up his trophy wife to the ever-eager Ernesto.

Thus Hollywood, a distant if loyal inheritor of the resolved vicissitudes of the comic-opera genre, is assured of one more happy ending.

[Photos by Philip Groshong]

Thursday, July 9, 2015

Some flugelhorn magic from Marlin McKay: 'The Look' is worth a listen

Marlin McKay has been notably prominent on the Indianapolis jazz scene in recent years, so it's good to have CD representation from him that includes some star power throughout the band.

Marlin McKay (photo by Mark  Sheldon)
He is heard on flugelhorn only here ("The Look," Nostalgic Records), and his melodically focused playing, capable of assertiveness but always in the service of high spirits, recalls the flugelhorn mastery of Art Farmer.

His writing is also good, from the clever fast blues "3 Peas in a Pod" to the rhapsodic but incisive "Rhyne for Lemon Vine." On the latter, Bobby Floyd's organ-playing nails down the Melvin Rhyne tribute, with some nifty reinforcement on the tune from Stefon Harris' vibraphone.

The standard "Easy to Love" lives up to its title. McKay's fluency never seems glib, and his arrangement is notable for a cunning instrumental blend, especially in the coda. National star Harris gets a vibes solo showcase, and that's a definite plus for this easy-to-love scenario.

The longest track, "Mikael," mostly justifies its stretched-out status, though it seems to me that drummer Clif Wallace is too prominent, with a cymbal-heavy sound that just doesn't suit this piece.

Speaking of percussion, the light touch on "Lawns," like a pattering rain that somehow swings, is tailor-made for the appealing melody. Anthony Wonsey keeps things relaxed in his best piano solo of the disc.

Occasional local bandmate Rob Dixon is on hand briefly, dependably always finding something fresh to say as he solos in the hard-charging "If We Must Die." On this track, by the way, the busy variety coming from the drums seems perfect.

"Far and Away" deserves a mention for its deceptively nonchalant Dixon solo as well as the mood-setting opening statement by bassist Dezron Douglas. That introduces the unison theme, which is just eccentric enough to evoke early Wayne Shorter.

The title piece is a fine, though not spectacular, closer. It typifies the expertness of this band and its leader, as well as his way of engaging the attention while staying unruffled and congenial.

Thursday, July 2, 2015

Anticipating HART's annual Shakespeare production: The humanity of Twelfth Night's least likable character should not be hard to find

The first thing I did when the Heartland Actors Repertory Theatre's  cast list e-mail for "Twelfth Night" hit my inbox was plunge into it. Diving into the cast announcement of a major production can feel as risky and subject to second thoughts as immersion in the sea that the self-involved Duke Orsino imagines as he opens the comedy with "If music be the food of love, play on."

It was already exciting to learn that Courtney Sale would be directing the show. Her focus on a show's visual significance and her willingness to break through the net of words chime thoroughly with the spirit of Shakespeare's last pure comedy. "Twelfth Night" is dependent on appearances and the friction of behavioral contrasts, jumbled together as identities diverge and converge. Sale's strengths are a perfect match for this play.
Ryan Artzberger: An  actor who brings breakthrough concepts to the stage.

The show opens at White River State Park with a preview performance four weeks from today. The cast includes actors familiar and unfamiliar to me. (In the latter category is Keith Potts; rarely have I seen an actor's publicity photo so perfectly match a character! He's a dead ringer for Feste, the wise and witty clown.)

My big "Why, of course!" moment came when I learned that Ryan Artzberger will be playing Malvolio, the strict steward for the countess Olivia. He startled me in 2012 with his madcap Iago in HART's "Othello," and here he'll be doing the control freak and delusional romantic Malvolio in the topsy-turvy world of "Twelfth Night," whose very title alludes to the revelry that was characteristic of Epiphany observance in Shakespeare's time.

So why does Artzberger as Malvolio seem like the right choice?  Because he is gifted at investing outsider roles with an energy that borders on caricature, while usually finding the core humanity in them. And there's no more embattled an outsider in a Shakespeare comedy than Malvolio.

Typically, Artzberger suggests a character's internal divisions from his first appearance; it makes him compulsively watchable. What may not seem entirely right at first usually turns out to have grown from wholesale commitment to an unwavering, almost extravagant concept. Artzberger invests his roles with centrifugal force; Malvolio, though not the main character, is in an odd sense the center of "Twelfth Night."
As Scrooge, a revelation in IRT's famous snow.
But only to the degree that it has one, I must add. The critic Harold Bloom truly writes: "The play is decentered; there is almost no significant action, perhaps because nearly everyone behaves involuntarily." It's the perfect arena for an Artzberger demonstration of how to hold an isolated but vital character together.

The Artzberger brand was first impressed upon me in 2010, when  he first played Ebenezer Scrooge in "A Christmas Carol," the hit annual production at Indiana Repertory Theatre, where Artzberger does the bulk of his local work. The ferocity of his skinflint, so firmly established before Scrooge's "Bah, humbug!" persona gradually peels away, was all anybody could ask for.

What was surprising was the conversion scene, when Scrooge discovers that his frightening ghost-guided visions have deposited him on the Christmas Day he had roundly scorned just hours before. Artzberger's Scrooge bubbled over at the discovery, giddy about the opportunity to do some good in the world and redeem his unsavory reputation.

Here was a crabbed man gloriously undone by sudden access to virtue. It was as if he had entered the kingdom of heaven as a little child, the way the Birthday Boy long ago deemed necessary. At once, before our eyes, "A Christmas Carol" moved from didactic entertainment to religious parable.

"Misprision in the highest degree!" Feste the clown exclaims in the first act of "Twelfth Night" during a battle of wits with the countess Olivia. He's countering her latest witticism, but he could just as well be describing the whole play.

People in "Twelfth Night" are dependably taken for someone else. Sometimes they don a disguise willingly; sometimes they are forced into it. Most characteristically, as Bloom reminds us, they are without conscious choice in the matter. Shakespeare's subtitle, "What You Will," invites the audience's tolerance for mistaken identities and misread situations.

Malvolio falls victim to the gentlewoman Maria's vicious trick largely because his self-control and disdain for unruliness hide a susceptibility to passion. The wily servant is ready to take advantage of that.  He's declared mad and forced into a small, dark room. At the end, when all the loose ends are tied together, and happiness prevails for just about everyone, Malvolio stalks off, swearing revenge.

Should we sympathize with him? the play's critics have long debated. I predict that Artzberger's portrayal will make sympathy for the severe, officious servant feel natural.

In support, I turn to an odd place, perhaps: T.S. Eliot's commentary on "Othello," the play in which my memory of Artzberger's Iago remains vivid and disturbing. Eliot is focusing on Othello's final speech, before he kills the wife he believes to have been unfaithful. The influential poet-critic, as he often does, here presents a generalization putting Othello's self-absorption in context: "Humility is the most difficult of all virtues to achieve; nothing dies harder than the desire to think well of oneself."

I think most of us recognize that desire in ourselves, and that's the key to seeing that Malvolio is entitled to it as well.  By the end of "Twelfth Night," Malvolio has been shoved beyond the chance to know humility; he has been humiliated. What will resonate with us as we watch Artzberger will be the character's core need for self-esteem. He may have been mistaken and narrow in how he chose to express that need earlier, but Malvolio still deserves to think well of himself.

I have no doubt we will see his claim to that right confirmed by this actor. Along the way, of course, Artzberger's talent for outsized foolery will have us laughing long before sympathy occurs to us.

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Assimilation through suffering: Work and love in early 20th-century urban America are lifted toward grandeur in Cincinnati Opera's world premiere

The title song of "Morning Star" encapsulates much of the new opera's charm. Tune and text firmly evoke the bright view of romance characteristic of Tin Pan Alley, as well as the back story of so many new Americans bringing ambition and idealism to their adoptive homeland.

The Cincinnati Opera production, on the opening night of the world premiere Tuesday, followed through on the song's optimism — a sturdy attitude, challenged by the dangers of hardscrabble immigrant life, which winds through the collaboration of composer Ricky Ian Gordon and librettist William M. Hoffman.

"No one can keep you from me," the couples declare in Act 1 of "Morning Star."
Sung by aspiring songwriter Irving Tashman (Andrew Bidlack) to the youngest daughter of the Latvian widow Becky Felderman, "Morning Star" draws on a genre that mixed gentility and populism in an assimilable manner. Applied to everyday life, this precarious cultural balance was maintained with difficulty by East European Jews living and working on the Lower East Side. Its representative crucible was the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire of March 1911, the shaping historical event of the new opera.

A morning star is  the same thing astronomically as an evening star — a bright planet (like Venus) appearing near the horizon just before daybreak or twilight, respectively.

Metaphorically, however, the morning star in Irving's song represents idealization of the beloved and the hope of a stable future together. The evening star focuses on its opposite, the loss of both love and the diminution of hope, as in one of the era's hit songs, "Come Down, My Evening Star." Though not derivative of it, "Morning Star" tugs at the heartstrings just the same, because we are quickly made aware that too much is changing in the lives of the opera's characters for the threat of loss to recede.

The opera is opulent in its vocalism, with a wealth of sopranos that should delight fans of Richard Strauss. Gordon's procedures are much different, however, as he presents a well-connected series of stylistically diverse numbers set against accompaniment textures that are thinner and more contrapuntal than Strauss's, while still being full of color. On Tuesday, all that was richly displayed by the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra and insightfully guided by conductor Christopher Allen.

Tenement dwellers in "Morning Star" sing of drudgery and dreams.
Intermittent spoken dialogue never rises to such prominence as to interfere with the grand-opera aura of the work, although more music, of at least a recitative sort, would have been welcome in the dialogue between Becky and her former tenant Aaron in the second act.

The scene nonetheless has plenty of singing, and is among the production's best staged, as family ghosts reappear and make their presence part of the living characters' reality — which happens in unmusical terms often in real life, doesn't it? There are other clever gatherings of characters to swell the solo voices into brief choral splendor. These are entrances not always dependent on realism. I found this device a refreshing reminder that, especially in times of stress and at close quarters, we live much of our lives among others in a personal phantasmagoria of encounters and departures. The structure of the work, with a Prologue and Epilogue providing narrative frames — the rainy funeral procession and the fire itself, in reverse chronological order — is also quite enthralling.

Projections on a large triangular backdrop, whose shape is a constant reminder of the fatal building, carry contemporary images and help anchor the different time plateaus in place. Fittingly, one of the show's stirring ensembles is a well-placed meditation on time in the second act, leading up to the conflagration of the Epilogue.

A few vocal numbers are particularly effective telling the story, and the singing never stinted on vigor and emotional heft. The long duet between Becky (Twyla Robinson) and resentful daughter Sadie was about the best of them. It was both tense and tender, given the background of the mother's enduring love for all three daughters and her distress at the hard-bitten businesswoman Sadie (Elizabeth Pojanowski) has become. The Verdian curse Sadie had long ago put upon the doomed Esther  looms large.

There were hints of excess in the composition's generous layout. A lengthy paean to the colors of her native South sung by the black peddler Pearl (Jeanine De Bique) seems the sort of set-piece that could well be trimmed out, if it were not for the wider perspective it offers on the disorientation of the immigrant experience.

Gordon's protean writing comprises jazzy numbers with a sardonic edge, reminiscent of Kurt Weill, and perky nods to the bounce of vaudeville and the Yiddish theater. Some pieces seemed to beg for Broadway treatment, but clearly neither the show's creators nor stage director Ron Daniels wanted to go in that direction.

The main exhibit in this category is a first-act song about all things kosher that musical comedy would probably adapt as a big production number with lots of choreography. Staged as it was, however, it got a little ponderous. The song yearned to give its regards to Broadway, but that would have taken the opera too far from its proper realm.

The libretto teetered on that boundary now and then, too. Hoffman's slangy wit salutes the sass and snappy rhymes of the great Jewish lyricists. Sometimes the close-order drill of his rhyming was obtrusive: A complaining husband compares his wife's chatter to the "cluck, cluck" of a duck, but every toddler knows that hens cluck, ducks quack.

Hoffman's muse soars as well, often successfully. Yet one ostensibly wise utterance of the long-suffering Becky seems questionable on both philosophical and dramatic grounds. I'll paraphrase it as her pronouncement that all God commands is that we don't hurt one another. I doubt that any strong-minded mother of that era, whether Jewish or Christian, would be likely to subscribe to such a reductive theology.

A longer list of requirements from the Lord was embedded in the culture that held families together as much as possible in this opera's turbulent milieu. Simply not hurting people entails no obligation to forge and sustain bonds we all need, leaving us with little more than the lonely fantasy that Lillian Russell addressed to the celestial light in 1902:

My evening star I wonder who you are,
Set up so high like a diamond in the sky.
No matter what I do
I can't go up to you,
So come down from there, my evening star.

But the authentic uplift behind the searing family fragmentation in "Morning Star" suggests that the enduring promise of the morning star can prevail. That hope feels all the more solid when embodied in the generally well-integrated and artfully demonstrative manner this production will present through July 19 at the SCPA's Corbett Theater.

[Photos by Philip Groshong]