Thursday, June 30, 2016

Jazz from a couple of saxophonists: Bob Mintzer and Lou Caputo lead bands on the mid- to full-size spectrum

Bob Mintzer likes his Angeleno pals.
The survival of larger jazz ensembles in the 21st century depends on the imagination and resourcefulness of leaders and arrangers alike.

Two such ensembles are Bob Mintzer's "All L.A. Band" (in a CD of the same title on Fuzzy Music) Lou Caputo's Not So Big Band's "Uh Oh!" (Jazzcat 47).

These well-recorded sets range over the possibilities of big-band jazz today. Mintzer, with credits both mainstream and on the edge of contemporary fusion (Yellowjackets), got a 17-piece group together to play compositions he wrote over a 40-year period.

Peter Erskine, "All L.A. Band" producer, recently played the Jazz Kitchen.
The tenor saxophonist is an educator as well, and the same music is available at the Mintzer Big Band Essentials play-along app. What is at hand here is a full-throated professional ride over the 10 compositions. Longtime colleagues Peter Erskine (with producer credit here) and Russell Ferrante are on hand to anchor the rhythm section on drums and piano.

There's a lot of flexibility in Mintzer's approach to the  large orchestra. In "El Coborojeno," he favors punchy brass writing. Typically, he puts spaces into the lines he assigns the various sections, often to help add rhythmic juice to the funk grooves he gets going.

The Afro-Cuban timbral tapestry of trombone-trumpet-sax in "Ellis Island" is typical. That track also features an unconventional, engaging solo on baritone sax by Aaron Schroeder. I wish there was more information on who is soloing: I assume most of the fine tenor-sax outings are Mintzer's, but I'm curious who's responsible for the sizzling trombone solos on "Runferyerlife" and "Latin Dance."

The Not-So-Big Band plays a gig in Queens, N.Y.
With Erskine on drums, the rhythm section is solid from the ground up; it also includes (when not supplemented by Latin percussion in a few places) bassist Edwin Livingston. The arrangements often feature an inviting ensemble re-entry after the solos. They've got lots of novelty to them, without sounding like musical grab bags: A tongue-in-cheek brass chorale opening to "New Rochelle" gives way to a boogaloo vibe behind the saxes' theme statement, and the harmonically adventurous piece has a great ending in the trombones.

Scaling back a bit, comfortable arrangements by leader Lou Caputo, a sense of humor, and concise soloing make  "Uh-Oh!" an amiable updating of the sort of mid-sized-ensemble charts we used to hear from Marty Paich and Manny Albam.

This is by no means a snoozy set, but if you must have consistent intensity in your jazz, look elsewhere. The Not-So-Big Band's take on "Stolen Moments" (a Ryan Krewer arrangement) is even more laid-back than Oliver Nelson's original, with a sensible yet florid vibraphone solo from Warren Smith to revel in. "News from Blueport," a bluesy mainstream number that NSBB bassist Bill Crow wrote long ago for the Gerry Mulligan Quartet, is fun to hear in the new version.

Caputo picks up the baritone, sounding like a deep-voiced version of Zoot Sims or Al Cohn, for a fine solo contribution to "If You Could See Me Now." He's elsewhere featured on alto and soprano saxophones and flute; he's an old-fashioned reed utility player writ large.

Women horn players tend to  be underrated, so it's a pleasure to hear Virginia Mayhew on this disc. Her tenor solo on Mary Lou Williams' "Busy, Busy, Busy" (which Mayhew arranged), stands out among the six solos in the disc's lively finale. I found one of the longer tracks, "Ape and Essence," somewhat ho-hum. Otherwise, this is a clever, flavorful set by a refreshingly smallish ensemble (viz., the horns are three reeds, two trumpets, trombone, and tuba) with an abundance of joy to deliver.

Monday, June 27, 2016

Early Music Indianapolis: Emma Kirkby, a star of early music who blazed trails with apt vocal style, makes a festival appearance with lutenist Jakob Lindberg

Jakob Lindberg and Emma Kirkby are seasoned collaborators.
Like a later composer more in the mainstream, the solo piano god Frederic Chopin, the Elizabethan John Dowland comes down to us as a giant in composition through his masterly concentration on another specialty: lute music, both solo and partnered with one voice.

A program of music by the English composer and his contemporaries couldn't have been in better hands than it was Sunday afternoon at the Indiana History Center in an Indianapolis Early Music presentation: Emma Kirkby, soprano, and Jakob Lindberg, Renaissance lute.

The  concert, "Like as a Lute," scrupulously curated by the artists and lovingly performed, crowned the second weekend of the festival's 50th-anniversary season.

The program title is drawn from the first line of a sonnet by Samuel Daniel — like Dowland, a contemporary of William Shakespeare's. The polished poem later refers to the lute's "warble," a word associated with bird song, which I don't hear in the instrument's sound. But it must be there to poets who celebrate it, as they frequently do when it comes to bird voices. John Dryden also extolled the warbling lute. (To me, there's often something a little off when poets describe music: one thinks of Coleridge's reference to "the loud bassoon" in "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.")

The warbling comparison is likely by association, especially when the instrument is played by such a master as Lindberg. The lute's floating, ethereal sound connotes the appeal of chirping birds, often unseen in the trees around us. Besides, though there are bird songs taken to express sadness, "avian Andrews sisters" (as Ogden Nash termed them in his verses for Saint-Saens' "Carnival of the Animals") are usually interpreted as expressions of perky cheer and joie de vivre.

Master lute composer Dowland was personally a mixed bag of emotions. Though one of his contemporaries called him "a cheerful person ... passing his days in lawful merriment," the  Grove's Dictionary entry on him notes his gnawing resentment at failure to land a court position, and finds seesawing emotions characteristic of his compositions as well: "Though capable of writing charming trifles, all his greatest works are inspired by a deeply felt tragic concept of life, and a preoccupation with tears, sin, darkness, and death."

For example: From the glum basis for one of the solo lute pieces heard Sunday afternoon — a four-note descending chromatic pattern — "Forlorn Hope Fancy" eventually flowers into an outburst of lute brilliance from which a positive attitude toward life can be felt. In both sunshine and shadow, it was one of the highlights of the recital before intermission.

There were also songs from Dowland's contemporaries John Danyel, Edward Collard, and Robert Jones — the gist of which was melancholic. After intermission, Lindberg and Kirkby turned to the Continent, where Dowland spent much of his career. Following an attractive French set — performed for an audience forced to follow the provided texts in dim light — there were whirlwind tours of Spain and Italy.

Most haunting in this part of the program was the finale, Tarquinio Merula's, "canzonetta spiritual" on "La Nanna," with its narrow two-note range in the lute's low register, above which Kirkby sang expressively a text reflecting both the Virgin Mary's interest in rocking her baby to sleep while displaying foreknowledge about the way his earthly life would turn out.

As she had earlier, Kirkby demonstrated her particular value in this repertoire. A soprano with a clear, almost vibratoless voice and the kind of delivery, especially in her middle to low range, as unpretentious as a good folksinger's, she has done much to uphold the kind of singing suitable to early instruments. There's no forcing; her kind of naturalness also makes her precise command of ornaments seem at one with whatever tune she may be singing. On Sunday afternoon, there were a few phrase ends that sounded wispy or slightly hoarse, but at 67, Kirkby seems still to have the control, direct expressivity and buoyancy that made her famous.

After an entraptured ovation, Kirkby and Lindberg returned to the stage with an encore. It was more dour Dowland: "Can She Excuse My Wrongs," a song set to a galliard that is traditionally linked to another gentleman who failed to find favor at Queen Elizabeth's court. The Earl of Essex paid for his more open opposition to the Queen with his life. Dowland may have been disappointed in his sovereign, but at least he kept his head.

Sunday, June 26, 2016

Pimp and Circumstance: A Post-Brexit March, Shot Through With Misgivings, to Counter the Eurowhores

With dazzle and heart, Bobdirex's 'Billy Eliot' sets a boy's dance dreams in a dying English coal town

You can count on Bob Harbin to come up once a year with a big-hearted production that reaches out to audiences in a big way. This year, an odd timeliness — with Americans more focused on Britain than normal in the wake of the Brexit vote — helps "Billy Elliot" stand out even more.

Seen in the second performance of the run of nine (through July 10) at Marian University Theatre, Bobdirex's "Billy Elliot" succeeds not only because of the usual pizazz he generates from large casts, but also for the captivating portrayal of the title character by Thomas Whitcomb.

Thomas Whitcomb as Billy Elliot takes flight into a future with the electricity of dancing.
Whitcomb's singing and dancing fit splendidly the demanding role of the younger son in a miner's household who accidentally finds himself smitten with ballet. But what puts the shiny cap on both those skills is Whitcomb's charming onstage persona, the convincing way he blends Billy's naivete and nascent ambition. In Elton John and Lee Hall's inspiring scenario, the talented lad is nurtured by a tough dance teacher, Mrs. Wilkinson, here given gruffness and grit, as well as insight, in Holly Stultz's performance.

Life at home is a school of hard knocks, overshadowed by the premature death of Billy's mother. Now he fights to find himself in a household consisting of an eccentric grandma (Miki Mathioudakis) and a militant older brother (Tyler Ostrander) who has followed the boys' hard-bitten, but deep-down sentimental, widower dad (Bill Book) into the coal mines in northern England. The labor force there is meeting its greatest challenge from the anti-labor government of Margaret Thatcher in the mid-1980s. It will not turn out well.

The tense juxtaposition of Billy's affinity for dance and the union's struggle for victory during a long strike is beautifully captured in an ensemble number, "Solidarity," that interlaces dance instruction with miners taking to the streets to defend their collective bargaining rights. It's just one of Kenny Shepard's well-knit, intricate choreographic designs.

Its closest match is the show's finale, a riveting celebration of community and dance that also functions as an extended curtain call. Based on a reprise of the first act's "Shine," in which Mrs. Wilkinson sets forth a dance credo that Billy will adopt wholeheartedly after much resistance at home, this production's conclusion is in the patented Bobdirex tradition of coordinated exuberance.

Supporting roles were well-filled. If memory serves, I've never seen Bill Book even slightly unsuitable for any role, dating back to his starring role in the musical "Nine" at Theatre on the Square's original home on Fountain Square. He wins again as Mr. Elliot, tending the character's evolution from Billy's opponent to ally, and indicating the effect of his wife's death in a folklike ballad solo, "Deep Into the Ground," introducing a somber note into the miners' Christmas party, keynoted by its sarcastic "Merry Christmas, Maggie Thatcher." Book's tense dialogue with Stults' Mrs. Wilkinson, a turning point in the father's attitude toward Billy's dreams, was one of the show's highlights.

Tyler Ostrander strikes sparks as the feisty Tony, scoffing at his brother's ambitions and slow to accept their dad's conversion to them. Miki Mathioudakis looked lovably disheveled and coarsened by life as Grandma, and her Act 1 vocal solo — complete with a multiple-partner dream dance — was both hilarious and touching.

As Billy's best friend Michael Caffrey,  Jack Ducat adds an ingratiating endorsement of the joy of being different in "Expressing Yourself," a sweetly inspirational song including the boys' cavorting with three dancers dressed as mannequins. Trisha Shepard's brief appearances as the ghost of the boys' mother underlined the story's disarming sentimentality.

The workers' choruses ("The Stars Look Down" and "Once We Were Kings") were stirring under the direction of Trevor Fanning, who coordinated the singing with a mostly spot-on pit band.  Another kind of solidarity was cutely rendered by the troupe of girls portraying Mrs. Wilkinson's other students.

Whitcomb's remarkable charisma flashed forth in the first-act finale, "Angry Dance," featuring Matthew Ford Cunningham's versatile lighting design. Speaking of lights, however, there was some clumsy follow-spot work in the second act, a singular instance of technical trouble Saturday night.

General use of face mics, while a necessity on a large stage that would lose even well-projected voices acoustically, sometimes meant that words were unclear. Some of this may be due to the need for speech authenticity, as the cast had been pretty well coached in northern England accents.

Something crucial was lost, however, when the woman with a clipboard charged with scheduling Billy's Royal Ballet School audition talked to Billy in flat American. Though the part is tiny, this character needs to speak like a hoity-toity Londoner, in something approaching "received pronunciation" in England, to help underline the class distinctions that Billy Elliot faces in the course of realizing his dream.

The show has one impressive indication of the loftiness of Billy's aspirations in a dream ballet, a nicely characterized duo number with Stuart Coleman of Dance Kaleidoscope as the older Billy. Coleman's professional status was acknowledged in Shepard's more demanding requirements of him, which were met handsomely.

But Whitcomb's dancing was accomplished enough in this number, and in "Angry Dance" even more than the idealistic "Electricity," to make Billy Elliot's lofty goals in this heart-warming production look reachable. And that promise is what "Billy Elliot" simply has to deliver. It does so here.

[Photo by Zach Rosing]

Saturday, June 25, 2016

With a focus on 17th-century plucked string instruments, Early Music Festival presents its first solo recital in many years

Xavier Diaz-Latorre played music for baroque guitar (shown) and theorbo.
The focus on instruments not current for centuries has long been a part of the Indianapolis Early Music Festival's appeal.

Patrons over the psst 50 years have become acquainted with citterns and krummhorns, archlutes and rebecs, finding out a little bit about how they're made and how they work. The main payoff, of course, is exposure to the captivating music written for them in various combinations (sometimes the choice of today's players).

The spotlight narrowed Friday as the festival entered its second week at the Indiana History Center. That's where, for the first time since he began programming in 2009, artistic director Mark Cudek scheduled a solo recital. The Basile Theatre, lights dimmed and the stage set to look like an intimate salon, made an attractive setting for "Music for Kings and Commoners," a program of early baroque music for theorbo and baroque guitar played by Xavier Diaz-Latorre of Barcelona, Spain.

Diaz-Latorre emphasized music for the court of Louis XIV in the first half, then after intermission turned to folk-influenced Spanish music from roughly the same era. With its plangent courses of unstopped bass strings complementing the stopped strings, the theorbo encouraged composers to write pieces with a duo texture. In Robert de Visée's A minor suite "La Royalle," Diaz-Latorre displayed the clear-cut vitality given to dance forms when the melody seems to be animated by springing rhythmically and harmonically off the bass pattern.

"La Royalle" was succeeded by a couple of shorter suites by the same composer (c. 1655-1732/33).  "La Plainte," which lived up to its melancholy title through a Prelude followed by an Allemande for a deceased relative, was both soothing and incisive. The recitalist's firm rhythms and variety of tone color put the piece across well. The more upbeat untitled G major suite that followed indicated how those ringing bass notes can both direct and enclose the melody and harmony above them, when managed by an abundantly skilled artist.

Just before intermission, Diaz-Latorre turned to the most influential of the Sun King's musicians and court. He picked up the baroque guitar to play his own arrangment of Jean-Baptiste Lully's orchestral suite of dances from "Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme." There his gift for gradations of tone was even more pronounced than with the theorbo. The majesty he imparted to the suite took on an orchestral breadth.

The rest of the concert emphasized the timbral variety and rhythmic vigor of the guitar, focusing on works by Gaspar Sanz, whose life spanned the mid-17th to early18th centuries (no even approximate dates have been established for the Spanish priest-composer).  The elaborate teaching pieces, from the 1697 "Instruccion de musica para la guitarra espanola," featured techniques Sanz explains in the book, particularly the strummed and plucked styles. Both ways of playing the instrument were vividly displayed in Diaz-Latorre's performance. The recitalist's encore was also drawn from Sanz's charming output.

He influenced several Spanish composers, according to Grove's Dictionary, including Francisco Guerau (1659-1722), whose "Poema harmonico" occupied a middle position in the recital's second half. The 1694 piece provided another exquisite exhibition of Diaz-Latorre's sensitivty to tone color and dynamics. That acumen alone makes such straightforward pieces, despite the facility they sometimes push to the fore, seem larger in scope than they are. And when you're advocating for such music as persuasively as Diaz-Latorre does, that comes close to achieving the ideal in presenting this repertoire in 2016.

Friday, June 24, 2016

Phoenix Theatre's 'Hand to God' puts personal crises through a puppet blender

Jason (Nathan Robbins) argues with Tyrone
Puppet ministry takes remote stories — foundational in the Judeo-Christian tradition — and makes them cozy and relatable. Whatever lessons apply in the tale of Joseph and his brothers, or the return of the Prodigal Son, can perhaps be conveyed more tellingly through cuddly manipulation of handcrafted, hand-worn doll characters.

In "Hand to God," which I visited as the second week of the Phoenix Theatre production opened Thursday, we don't get to see how this aspect of contemporary Christian teaching is supposed to work. Playwright Robert Askins has another end in view: to explore what the distancing effect of expressing moral and spiritual values through puppetry might mean in loss of control, in channeling deeply felt problems through puppetry so thoroughly as to create monsters. There's an aspect of voodoo in this process, like the hysterical focus on pricked rag moppets in "The Crucible."

Cypress, Texas, is a small Texas town where a Protestant church includes a youth workshop for puppet ministry. Margery is a recent widow in charge of the unruly class, fending off an amorous pastor's suave advances while resisting his unsympathetic scheduling demands. The puppet group has to make a presentation at an upcoming service, but the teens are uncooperative: one of them a snide bully, one a hard-to-motivate girl, and the third Margery's son Jason — an adept puppeteer alarmingly off-message and inseparable from Tyrone, his foul-mouthed, increasingly demonic creation.

"Hand to God" is a Southern expression intended to give assurance of the speaker's sincerity. The hand is crucial to Jason's identity, split between his depressed, confused teenage self and his loud, boastful, insulting puppet. Nathan Robbins, in another virtuoso starring performance for Phoenix, manages rapidfire dialogue between the two flawlessly. At the same time, the actor registers Jason's  split personality's defiance of the situation he finds himself in, grieving for his suddenly deceased father and harboring resentment against his mother.

With ulterior motives, Pastor Greg tries to minister to the distraught Margery.
Alienation of who we are from our hands is strikingly supported in the Christian tradition. The hand is oddly detachable in Jesus' preaching. In the Sermon on the Mount, one of his "hard sayings" advises: "If thy right hand offend thee, cut it off, and cast it from thee, for it is profitable for thee that one of thy members should perish, and not that thy whole body should be cast into hell."

Later on, in emphasizing the need to do charity privately, his famous hyperbole runs: "...when thou doest alms, let not thy left hand know what thy right hand doeth." These precepts could well be inscribed on the puppet's demonic DNA.

Jessica's and Jason's puppets get it on.
Directed by Mark Routhier, the Phoenix production drives home Askins' focus on hands as both agents and victims of suffering. There are a couple of realistically staged hand injuries, though they pale in cringe-worthiness to a bitten-off ear. When a character goes off the rails, the plunge is startling and graphic. Angela R. Plank signals Margery's anxiety and desperation in the first scene and anger at her refractory son in the third. The explosion that ensues in her subsequent encounter with the menacing, needy Timothy is as understandable as it is shocking. Adam Tran, whose every gesture conveys cockiness masking insecurity, plays him with a sure grip on our likely hostility and furtive sympathy.

Paul Nicely played Pastor Greg with the bland self-assurance many of us have experienced in men of the cloth. Greg's wooing of Margery has behind it a thinly veiled expectation of being dominant. Yet, later, he is ineffectual when circumstances seem to call for an exorcism of the demon that has taken control of Jason through Tyrone. The resolution that eludes the reverend gentleman comes about through a riotous canoodling of puppets, engineered by Jessica, played with a subtle and partially blocked winsomeness by Jaddy Ciucci.

In F. Scott Fitzgerald's great story "Absolution," a young Catholic boy wrestles with his conscience in a tangle of misdeeds concerning doctrine about confession and communion. The author informs us: "Rudolph reserved a corner of his mind where he was safe from God, where he prepared the subterfuges with which he often tricked God." The irony is that the lad thinks of God as a sort of chief priest, subject to being misled as human priests may be in the confessional or at the altar rail.

In his blocked grieving process, the Protestant Jason, whose tradition prizes direct communication with the Almighty with no intermediary, has a vacuum in that corner of his mind. God's adversary rushes in to fill it. Any subterfuges concocted there are not his, but the devil's. Through his puppet disciple, in a splendid display of diabolical fury at the end of Act 1 (credit Jeffrey Martin's technical direction and Laura Glover's lighting design), all hell breaks loose.

Any mental safe corner Jason might wish to claim has been taken over by the puppet. The effect on him and those around him is chilling, and this production is unsparing in putting that across. Yet in the course of its dark comedy, the play reaffirms the divine comedy: The devil is a powerful adversary, but has to exercise his rage and bluster while knowing he will ultimately suffer defeat. Behind "Hand to God" lies a theology that John Milton would have understood.

[Photos by Zach Rosing]

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

"Happy Talk" is a bouncy, sentimental song from "South Pacific." Repurposed as "Trashy Talk," it's a bit of sung advice to Donald Trump to keep on keeping on -- putting down anyone who opposes him or who may not be in his corner. Why not? Who's really waiting for him to "act presidential"?

Monday, June 20, 2016

Cincinnati Opera's 'Fellow Travelers' gives contemporary musical and dramatic weight to a Washington tale of suppression and ambition

A manipulator in the classic American vein, Roy Cohn is a distant yet relevant presence in a new  operatic adaptation of Thomas Mallon's novel "Fellow Travelers." Cohn, a deeply closeted gay man, was crucial to Sen. Joseph McCarthy's witch hunt for Communists in the federal government more than six decades ago.

The opera, with music by Gregory Spears and a libretto by Greg Pierce, opened over the weekend in a Cincinnati Opera world premiere at the Aronoff Center for the Arts.

Seen Sunday afternoon in its second performance, "Fellow Travelers" is a straightforward narrative of America's complicated relationship with homosexuality. It can be compared with the play "Angels in America," Tony Kushner's elaborate examination of gay life brought forward into the AIDS crisis and rife with fantasy elements foreign to Mallon's focus on the middle 1950s in Washington, D.C. Both works involve Cohn, whose baleful influence extended into the 1980s with a young business tycoon named Donald Trump.

"Hawk" locks eyes with "Skippy" at their initial meeting.
Cohn is a useful figure in comparison of the two works because his demonic presence in American politics, combined with lifelong denial of his sexual orientation, drives the plot of the novel and the opera.

In "Fellow Travelers," Timothy Laughlin is a naive, devoutly Catholic reporter who's come to town intending to get a government position. A park bench in Dupont Circle — the triggering setting for Laughlin's chance meeting with a suave State Department official, Hawkins Fuller — constitutes the first scene.

It sets forth the musical style as well as the dramatic pacing. "Gaydar" is clearly working as the two men become acquainted, and the nervous, perky musical style animates what is happening between them. Charmed and enjoying a chance to exercise his influence, Fuller (nicknamed "Hawk") gets Laughlin, whom he patronizingly calls "Skippy," a speech-writing job with a McCarthy ally, a Michigan senator whose service in World War II cost him his legs and probably his sense of political balance as well. The role was imposingly sung by Vernon Hartman.

Fuller is a switch-hitter, charming to both sexes (as his assistant Mary, portrayed affectingly by Devon Guthrie, warns Laughlin). That opens up both men to betrayal in the repressive atmosphere of the McCarthy era. Prejudice against homosexuality found a convenient outlet in the fear that gay federal workers were especially subject to blackmail and thus had to be rooted out as the war against Communism went domestic and paranoid.

Spears' compositional artistry is influenced by Renaissance and early baroque music, he said in a pre-performance talk moderated by the company's artistic director, Evans Mirageas. He also cited his admiration for Igor Stravinsky's writing for winds. Spears' style comprises the repetitive structures of classic minimalism as well, though the influence is mainly evident in the all-over texture of the music, a feeling that shifts should not be drastically signaled but tucked in.

As it develops, the central relationship's triumphs are highlighted by orchestration and vocal writing that mirror the ornamental practices of early Baroque music. A burst of grandeur a la Gabrieli animates the initial scene. Later, when Laughlin goes to Fuller's office to leave off a political book he has bought for his benefactor, a brief trombone duet signals the bond that is soon to find sexual expression. The ensuing bedroom scenes are ardent, with Hawk the dominant partner.

The rhetoric and lusters of early Baroque were definitely felt. There are decorative wind solos, and some of the string writing, especially in the second act, called for little to no vibrato. There was a stunning scena for Hawkins in the second act, set against a stolid string drone that provided extra tension.

Elsewhere, there were signs of Stravinsky, from the World War I scores up through "Pulcinella," which launched the Russian composer's long neoclassical phase. Some of the vocal writing seemed to owe a debt to the late-neoclassical Stravinsky of "The Rake's Progress," especially its first act. An approach to accompaniment that allows it a great deal of independence while being supportive of the singers was also notable. Spears avoids the division into "numbers" that Stravinsky deliberately revived; commendably, his long-breathed phrases generally avoid the tedious seesawing from parlando to arioso and back again found in many modern operas.

A wonderful vocal ensemble for the main characters near the end has the dramatic and emotional heft of Verdi. The opera's conclusion struck a weak note, however, as Laughlin leaves the stage in silence after his love affair with Hawk has collapsed along with his Washington ambitions. The last music we hear has rather more sweetness, even sentimentality, than the dramatic situation warrants. More bite, asperity, a touch of sourness, seemed called for. The set design at that point includes a projected montage of black-and-white head shots, presumably of blacklisted and cashiered victims of McCarthyism.

Without pressing the "Rake's Progress" analogy too hard, the counterpart of the unctuous demon Nick Shadow in that opera here becomes McCarthy himself (the senator makes a thundering appearance in the second act, sung powerfully by Marcus DeLoach) and his grip on Washington in the early 1950s. A scene showing the ridiculous harassment of suspected gay men had DeLoach as the interrogator isolating Hawkins, whose nonchalant promiscuity has aroused suspicion. Hawk eludes detection, typical of the luck his lover will never enjoy.

The moral dimension of the Stravinsky opera, detailed in scenes drawing on William Hogarth caricatures, has its parallel in "Fellow Travelers" in two directions: Homosexuality itself regarded as a challenge to conventional morality, as it is for Laughlin; and political ambition as a temptation to commit sins of pride and greed according to one's reading of which powerful people to commit to.

In "Fellow Travelers," Hawkins — sung with an overarching self-confidence and brio by baritone Joseph Lattanzi — is a kind of villain only because circumstances force him to dodge victimhood by any means necessary. Our sympathies are more consistently engaged  with Laughlin, whose nervousness, romantic notions and eventual disillusionment and despair were etched in poignant detail by tenor Aaron Blake. Mark Gibson conducted the adept orchestra, punctiliously coordinated with the singers.

Stage director Kevin Newbury was unusually sensitive to the breadth of expressive demands suggested by the score and the libretto. The device of having the cast manage scene shifts was less an intrusion than an oblique commentary on the action. It indicated that "within the Beltway" everyone is pressed into humble duties for survival's sake, in addition to whatever moments of self-assertion and angling for advantage they can conjure from the competitive milieu. In that regard, Washington is the consummate operatic place in the American universe, and "Fellow Travelers" captures one of its most intense, toxic eras by focusing on a heart-tugging romance.

Saturday, June 18, 2016

Indianapolis Early Music celebrates its first half-century with a deep bow to music in Shakespeare

Mark Cudek (second from right) and the Baltimore Consort
The music of Shakespeare's time was largely focused on tunes, the musicologist Edward Tatnall Canby remarked usefully in notes to an old  Nonesuch 2-LP anthology called "Music of Shakespeare's Time."

This explains why music is often incidental in Shakespeare's plays, welling up from characters in several of them, usually in comical moments. These tunes, in sung and instrumental versions, were carried around in the heads of the populace, like modern pop songs, as Canby goes on to note. Thus, they typically connected to the public through arrangements and were more identified by their titles than their composers or arrangers.

It's a rich field for the Indianapolis Early Music Festival to harvest in opening its 50th-anniversary season as it did Friday night at the Indiana History Center. "If Music Be the Food of Love" brought together the Baltimore Consort of artistic director Mark Cudek and two actors from Indiana Repertory Theatre, Rob Johansen and Milicent Wright (dramaturg Richard J. Roberts was also on hand to contribute to the preconcert talk).

Danielle Svonavec
The concert covered seven well-known plays' use of or associations with the repertoire the five-person ensemble performed along with Danielle Svonavec, an Indiana soprano with a steady, focused tone capable of an infinite variety of expression, from lovelorn to bawdy. Woven among the music was dialogue delivered by Wright and Johansen, with a few spoken interpolations by Svonavec and her colleagues.

Sad songs lift the heart, as the servant Peter tells the band, singing "When Griping Grief" amid his labored teasing. The minor character is identified in a quarto version of "Romeo and Juliet" as Will Kempe, star clown of the Chamberlain's Men company until 1600, when he joined a rival troupe.

The brief scene shockingly relieves the dolor of Juliet's funeral preparations, another indication that music may come unbidden in unusual circumstances. The song itself is apropos, but the scene is rife with jokes and puns that harass the musicians. The dialogue was well staged Friday, then Svonavec sang the song affectingly. Johansen was particularly suited to the Kempe-ish clowning, but elsewhere managed the serious speeches competently.

He was believable, at least in the short run, as Hamlet, questioning the droll Gravedigger in an excerpt from Act 5, then musing aloud about the court clown Yorick, whose skull the Prince cradles in one hand in the most iconic Shakespearean image. I've never thought of the determined, vengeance-seeking Hamlet as likely to be so close to tears in this solemn reminiscence, but the case Johansen made for a weepy hero was intriguing nonetheless.

The Gravedigger, also a punster like Peter, but more philosophical, reflects a change in clown actors
The Bard knew his notes.
in Shakespeare's company to one with more nuance and range than Kempe, whose audience appeal also included skill in dancing jigs, which he would display after the show. He sounds like one of those showboats who wear out their welcome sooner with their mates than with the public. Friday's program included one zesty ensemble example of the popular dance form, "Tarleton's Jig," right after the soprano illuminated the tender emotions of "In Youth When I Did Love," another gem from that most prolific creative source, Anonymous.

There was of course a wealth of original music, much of it intended for home use, produced in Shakespeare's time. John Dowland was among the handful of distinguished composing contemporaries. As always, it was a treat to hear Ronn McFarlane's pristine lute playing, as in Dowland's "Fancy," a solo, and in the virtuoso elaboration he gave to the ensemble's propulsive performance of the same composer's "King of Denmark's Galliard," a truly "swift and wandering dance," in Sir John Davies' poetic description.

Lute and Cudek's bass viol strumming (which Peter would likely have punned upon as "base, vile strumming") opened the cumulative spiritedness of "Peg a Ramsey," an example of the way popular tunes were gathered in anthologies in an era when no other means of wide distribution were available. Another effective arrangement drawing from a late 16th-century anthology was "Fortune My Foe," its gloom enunciated at the outset by two viols, with flute and lute joining soon after.

Among Wright's features was an uproarious bit as the music teacher in "The Taming of the Shrew,"  smashingly dismissed by the (offstage) title character, returning to the prospective "tamer" Petruchio (Johansen) wearing a caved-in lute on her head. In contrast, she was moving as Desdemona on her  fatal night, requesting "The Willow Song," a lovely showcase for Svonavec. Among the most memorable of Elizabethan songs, its drooping phrases imitate the tree, a longtime symbol of mourning, in a manner that would later be matched ("Salce, salce") in melodic contour and quality by Giuseppe Verdi in "Otello."

When in his cups Sir Toby Belch at Olivia's house in "Twelfth Night" (after enjoying the singing of "O mistress mine," which was also on Friday's program) launches into a couple of songs on his own, he draws the compliment: "Beshrew me, the knight's in admirable fooling." To which his dissipated buddy Sir Andrew Aguecheek replies: "Aye, he does it well enough if he be disposed, and so do I too. He does it with a better grace, but I do it more natural."

In "If Music Be the Food of Love," the Baltimore Consort and their actor collaborators combined the best of both knights. They performed with good grace — and they did it natural as well.

Friday, June 17, 2016

EclecticPond's production of 'A Midsummer Night's Dream' wishes boisterously on the moon

June being the month of marriages (including my own, celebrating its 44th anniversary today), "A Midsummer Night's Dream" is a timely, multi-tiered wedding cake — layered sweetly with four circumscribed worlds in one huge confection. It opens tonight in an EclecticPond production at IndyFringe's Basile Theatre.

Seen at a media preview Thursday evening, the show brims with energy, hardly a line delivered plainly, with enough action and roaring to banish in any audience the drowsiness that periodically overcomes several characters. Zack Neiditch directs what he says in a program note is his favorite Shakespeare play.

His fondness animates the full-throttle cast, who are largely clad according to a beach-party updating that makes the pursuing and cavorting look all the freer. Period recorded music, roughly contemporaneous with pop songs of the Frankie Avalon-Annette Funicello era, is exuberantly danced to at several points. Perhaps the silly complexities of "Beach Blanket Bingo" are a distant inspiration for the director's concept.

The richness of nature imagery in the comedy, held aloft minutely in the fairy world, is visually reinforced by Kate Duffy Sim's costume design. The sole set piece is a gauzy full moon, projected on the south wall, which  carries the double reminder that "A Midsummer Night's Dream" is, of course, about night and dreaming. No one ever dreamed on the sun, after all.

"MND"'s other worlds  — besides the fairyland over which Oberon and Titania preside contentiously — are the rulers of a cozily conceived Athens, Duke Theseus and his fiancee, the Amazon Queen Hippolyta; the four young Athenian lovers whose course never does run smooth (until the end); and the simple tradesmen eager to make a good impression with a jerrybuilt theatrical presentation at the Theseus-Hippolyta nuptials.

Conveniently, two actors are sufficient to represent the rulers of both the secular and fairy realms. Jay Hemphill and Carrie Fedor were particularly vivid as Oberon and Titania at the preview. Their spat over who has servant rights to an attractive boy (never seen) had plenty of snarl and disdain from the get-go. Both projected an outsize air of command, until Titania's control is neutralized by a spell that causes her to fall in love with the isolated amateur actor Nick Bottom, the weaver, who has been transformed into a donkey.

Oberon applies some discipline for the sprite Puck's screw-up.
These machinations by Oberon are carried out by the effervescent sprite Robin Goodfellow, or Puck, played winsomely, with lilting mischievousness, by Sarah Hoffman. Puck complicates matters by some misdirected magic that scrambles the night-wandering lovers' affections. If there had been Facebook, the status reports would have been headspinning for Demetrius, Helena, Lysander, and Hermia. "In a relationship," yes   -- but which one, and for how long?

The sexual energy of the show runs rampant, almost clambering roughshod over its lyricism and exquisite verbal music. The confused lovers fairly fly about the stage, with entrances and exits at its four corners (the audience sitting on four sides). Consummations are devoutly wished, but thwarted.

Betsy Norton and Ethan Mathias portrayed the earnest mutual devotion of Hermia and Lysander as they escape the opposition of her father, Egeus (suitably control-freaky in Craig Kemp's performance). Their elopement is magically loaded with vexation, however, that the actors competently adjusted to. The other couple, Demetrius (Thomas Cardwell) and Helena (Andrea
Demetrius sweeps skeptical Helena off her feet

Hermia and Lysander settle on a romantic escape.
Heiden), are mismatched from the start, and their portrayals demand more from the actors. There were especially delicious touches in Heiden's glares, pouts, foot-stomping, recriminations, and over-the-top declarations that will make anyone who sees them feel young again — yet not regret no longer being so.

I have some difficulty with how the fourth level — the "rude mechanicals" and their interrupted preparations to entertain the court — is handled. The director's style is consistent, at least. He's resistant to linear storytelling, I'm guessing; there's an all-at-onceness to how we take in events that Shakespeare's play encourages. So you would not be amiss to view this show as you might a painting — in this case, an action painting, a la Jackson Pollock. The narrative is tucked into the jumble of relationships, with the crucial element of magic generating and justifying the jumble.

In the case of the tradesmen, however, something is lost if the group's internal rapport is buried under the silliness of their pretensions to theatrical competence. Here, they are irreducibly zanies throughout. Their pervasive doltishness, most of it quite loud, blunts the sweetness and sincerity of their desire to honor their rulers at the wedding celebration.

Peter Quince seems to me an imploringly gentle, firm character, nowhere near as manic as Marcy Thornsberry played him. Quince's hardest-to-manage colleague, Bottom, is referred to once as "sweet bully Bottom" when he goes missing. In Tristan Ross's admittedly astonishing portrayal, he is closer to today's meaning of "bully" than the affectionate sense the word once had — and as recently as Theodore Roosevelt's description of the presidency as "a bully pulpit." His aroused egotism should be more charming and irrepressible than stentorian.

EclecticPond's hellzapoppin' troupe of tradesmen.
The foolery is general and well-established in the tradesmen-actor performances I saw, which also include Evan Wallace as Flute, Fiona Dwyer as Snout, Sara Ferriell as Starveling, and Kemp as Snug. It's an excitable crew, all right, whose brawny daftness fits better with their court presentation than in what leads up to it. That command performance features prose commentary from the three couples once they're properly aligned and celebrating their unions.

One of Theseus' remarks there has always struck me as a glimpse of Shakespeare revealing himself. It's always dangerous to venture into such speculation about an author more guarded about his views than any other. I'll go ahead anyway: Theseus says, in mitigation of the six lovers' gentle mockery: "The best in this kind are but shadows; and the worst are no worse, if imagination amend them."

That seems to be the best thing Shakespeare ever wrote about his business, probably even more heartfelt and personal than Hamlet's famous Advice to the Players.

Even the best in this kind need imagination's assistance, the Bard reminds us through Theseus. This production is closer to that end of the spectrum than the other. Provided you employ it actively, I suspect your imagination will be tickled, even if you may not be satisfied on all other points, by EclecticPond's "Midsummer Night's Dream."

Monday, June 13, 2016

Opera Theatre of Saint Louis: A youthful, friendship-intense 'La Boheme' nears the end of its run

Everything you most want from a "La Boheme" (in addition to good singing) has to do with how well the bonds of friendship and love among impecunious young urbanites with artistic inclinations are conveyed. There are probably more people who fit that description now than in 1896, when Puccini's fourth opera first made its glorious way in the world. But that doesn't ensure this heady blend of camaraderie and commitment will come across on the opera stage, despite the music's imperishable assistance.
Rodolfo and Mimi get acquainted in the bohemians' attic apartment.

 Opera Theatre of Saint Louis' fifth "Boheme" production in its 41-year history, with just two more mainstage performances remaining, strikes home. The young Bohemians scrape by with consistent grace and good humor, streaked with romantic melancholy. The production's updating to about 1930 hardly affects the sentimental charm of the setting. (It's not a thoroughgoing updating, in any case: at least for his journalism, Rodolfo would be using a clattery old typewriter, wouldn't he?)

Already by the time Puccini and his librettists spun gold from the material, the popular novel on which they based the opera had become a period piece. The worldly vanities of the 1840s and the 1890s presumably remained roughly the same in this production's era; at least they allow for a chic streamlining of costume design to give new panache to the Latin Quarter scene.

The four Bohemians sharing an attic apartment, struggling to stay warm, decently fed, and inspired, displayed a convincing rapport from the start. Particular credit for that goes to Anthony Clark Evans as Marcello, the painter, who presented a restless vitality that it took Andrew Haji, as Rodolfo, the poet, a few minutes to catch up to.

Musetta (Lauren Michelle) tries to reawaken Marcello's interest in her.
This character is properly presented as less volatile and more reflective than his friends, but Rodolfo also has to seem resourceful and ready for new adventures in order for the first-act climax -- the meeting with Mimi, the seamstress -- to make its full effect. However, the annoying device of having Rodolfo deliberately extinguish his candle instead of a draft blowing it out is a director's favorite at odds with the libretto; it makes this uncertain young man afflicted with writer's block seem too manipulative. "I only assisted fate," he tells Mimi when the two recall his pocketing her lost key at that meet-cute; he hadn't directed fate by also plunging the apartment in darkness.

In any event, there was a buoyancy complementing Evans' in the portrayals of the musician Schaunard by Sean Michael Plum and the philosopher Colline by Bradley Smoak. Young and vigorous of wit and bound by true friendship's sturdy hoops of steel, the foursome really clicks. This production is happy in its "Brohemians."

Haji falls into the tradition of stout Rodolfos (Caruso, Tucker and the potbellied Aureliano Pertile among them) that play with our notions of the "starving artist," but as a lover eventually navigating pangs of ardor, jealousy, and eventual grief, he made a credible impression. He sang the part with steady aplomb and well-focused passion, admirably free of flamboyance. (Having seen Richard Tucker in the touring Met production flip off a heckler in Detroit 50 years ago at the end of "Che gelida manina" made me forever extra-sensitive to egocentric Rodolfos.)

The slenderness and expressive radiance of Hae Ji Chang as Mimi were perfect for the role. There were flashes of real modesty in her vocal timbre, yet she put polish on her high notes and matched Haji in those soaring duet passages that melt everyone's heart. Her performance properly cast doubt on Rodolfo's fits of accusation as the story proceeds, and it helped ensure that Mimi's returning to the attic apartment to die would feel like the fitting end to the love affair that Puccini's music ennobles.

The English translation by Richard Pearlman and Francis Rizzo bounced, sat comfortably within the musical phrases, rhymed well and made sense of pathos and humor alike. It was fully up to the lively and imaginative staging by Ron Daniels, who linked the scene-change pauses between the conjoined acts in each half with amusing business involving Chaplinesque busker-beggars on roller skates. Especially well-managed was the Bohemians' teasing and dismissal of the landlord Benoit. They are eager to hoard their cash in order to enjoy Schaunard's proposed night on the town; the rent money must be retained for Yuletide pleasure. This scene is easy to overact, but here the humor was pointed, slyly graceful, unexaggerated.

The 'Brohemians" give landlord Benoit the runaround.
The Latin Quarter scene flowered attractively, given the limitations of mounting on a thrust stage the sort of elaborate stage picture whose ultimate version astonished many in 1976 at the Kennedy Center. That was the urban plenty of the Franco Zeffirelli spectacle that La Scala brought to the nation's capital in observance of the American bicentennial. You can't get that sort of thing out of your head, but this was a zestful, picturesque version on its own terms.

The vendors and the children, the strollers, people-watchers, and partiers were portrayed beyond sketchiness. The scene included a brass band parading along an aisle across the theater just before the Café Momus ruckus reaches a climax and Musetta's superannuated lover Alcindoro is stuck with everybody's bill. (I would have liked to see Thomas Hammons in the curtain call to receive plaudits for his excellent work as both Benoit and Alcindoro.)

Lauren Michelle's Musetta is the cynosure of all eyes from the moment of her entrance in that act. The character's control of men's affections, comically elaborated, got a little extra flair in Michelle's performance. Her peals of laughter complemented the flutelike gleam of her singing. Flirtatiousness of gesture, carriage, and voice together made Musetta's winning over of her resentful lover Marcello thoroughly convincing. That Musetta ever thinks of anyone besides herself is hard to square with her sympathy for the dying Mimi in the last act. But Michelle went far in making the subdued, compassionate Musetta as credible as the outrageous flirt of the Cafe Momus.

Emanuele Andrizzi conducted with particular attention to the score's more delicate moments -- its pauses, changes of expressive direction, and the multiple nuances the orchestra supplies to underline or paraphrase the emotional ups and downs of these perennially engaging characters. Once again, they seem to represent both real life and young love's castles in the air, without evident contradiction.

[Photos by Ken Howard]

Opera Theatre of Saint Louis: 'Macbeth,' the young Verdi's fond tribute to Shakespeare, illuminates the story's fundamental savagery

Giuseppe Verdi's predilection for the witches as the third main character in his setting of Shakespeare's "Macbeth" gives the pagan heritage of 11th-century Scotland greater weight than it normally has in the play. Opera Theatre of Saint Louis has taken full advantage of this focus in a production in which naked ambition, joined to supernatural prophecy, overwhelms the forces of  burgeoning civic order and Christian conscience.

The composer was conspicuously defensive of his knowledge of and respect for the playwright. In this first of his three completed treatments of Shakespeare, he moved toward a Shakespearean  understanding of character through motivation and action, which helped him surmount an operatic heritage that often allowed singers' vanity to rule the stage. OTSL's production retains an emphasis on the malevolent naturalness of the power couple at the center of the action through the performances of Roland Wood and Julie Makerov.

As seen June 10, the production also finds a way to confirm Verdi's belief that a whole coven of witches, instead of the conventional three, is not in the least redundant. In making the opera's opening scene a witch convention, with elaborate spells casting doom upon a poor sailor, Verdi and his librettists brought to the fore a community with power over everything that happens in the larger environment.

A battle-weary Macbeth encounters the witches, and sets his course.
Stage director Lee Blakeley has the 18 women moving in flowing, intimately linked groups. The costuming and the props, with nothing so literally a product of civilization as a cauldron to be seen, underline the primitive level of the accessed magic: As they sing lustily in the wake of the spectacularly realized thunder and lightning that have summoned them, they gather sticks and bring them into a magic circle.

Into this circle come the self-confident warriors Banquo and Macbeth, fresh from battle victory. They disdainfully scatter the sticks with their feet, but the witches will reassemble the circle, sealing their decisive authority and their control over fates the two soldiers imagine to be theirs.

Jeremy Sams' English translation captures the essential imagery of the play in this opening dialogue, including the prophecies that will be tragically fulfilled by the end. Wood's performance as Macbeth takes in the weightiness of decisions that follow upon the witches' predictions of his accession to the Scottish throne. In their first scene together, the Macbeths forge an intimacy that allows them to flesh out the implications of prophecy.

Macbeth cowers on his throne before the apparition.
Before that, Verdi's Lady Macbeth is even more ferocious and commanding than in Shakespeare, thanks to her introductory aria and cabaletta, paralleling the vision of greatness that opens to her after she reads her husband's letter and her resolve to realize it. Makerov made the most of the role's vocal demands, strong in all registers. Similarly, Wood sailed smoothly on the high tide of what became a hallmark of the "Verdi baritone": the ability to sound both lyrical and forceful in the upper range. In "Macbeth," this range is as capable of conveying the hero's realization of the dangerous path he is embarking upon ("What is this terror that burns within me?") as it is an expression of self-confidence and determination.

Verdi's four acts are here divided in two, with the feast at which Banquo's ghost appears, unsettling Macbeth decisively, occurring shortly before intermission. The staging makes of this disturbance a stark interruption of royal celebration by the moral barrenness of the Macbeths' claim on the throne. Banquo, displaying his mortal wounds, strides forward on the banquet table to fill his former companion's goblet. Silent in this scene, Robert Pomakov had displayed both vocal and dramatic valor from the first scene on.

Lady Macbeth contemplates  the king's corpse with satisfaction.
The staging of his murder was impressive: The cutthroats line up in rows on either side of the murdered King Duncan, lying in state. To conceive Macbeth's hired thugs as both mourners at a royal funeral and two groups of assassins sizing each other up establishes the uncertainty of order in the semi-wild Scottish kingdom. As the funeral Mass is celebrated, no sooner has Banquo risen from kneeling at the altar than he's attacked.

Costuming of the silent representatives of the church is brilliant; everyone else is in subdued tones. The overall lighting scheme is as consistently dark as the music,  conducted by Stephen Lord with just enough restraint to keep the aggressiveness of the orchestral writing from dominating. When the combined vocal and orchestral forces are overwhelming, he let it rip: The chorus responding to the discovery of King Duncan's body made a huge impact. The singers were effectively supported; the Macbeths' duets conveyed tension and subtlety — a sense that this dangerous couple is negotiating its feelings as well as its course toward a victory it will never find.

This is the first "Macbeth" production in OTSL history, a fact that can in part be explained by the 
difficulty of casting the two leading roles, according to repetiteur Lachlan Glen's preconcert lecture. The roles are well-filled by Wood and Makerov, although the soprano lacked a certain buoyancy in the drinking song, Lady Macbeth's uncharacteristic display of lightheartedness at the banquet until her husband sees Banquo's ghost. But the sleep-walking scene, with delicate accompaniment from the pit, was a triumph of characterization as Lady Macbeth finally registers the emotional and mental toll of her death-dealing schemes.
Literary critics have often pointed out the extensive clothing imagery in the play. Though that is less evident in this translation of the opera libretto, the look of the show is highly reliant on the characters' dress. Macbeth is girded for battle once again in the final struggle to retain his ill-gotten hold on power; the military trappings have a subdued glitter and hardness. He has earlier shed them after returning from battle and settling upon his murderous plan.

As presented in this production, the transition is powerfully symbolic. A loyal warrior, just rewarded by the king he is about to slaughter, strips for action. He is then clad plainly as he turns his gift for sanctioned violence toward private, illegitimate ends. Incapable any longer of sympathy or human connections beyond those with his collaborating wife, he is at the opposite pole from his nemesis, Macduff, for whom Verdi provides a beautiful lamentation for his slaughtered family, stirringly sung by tenor Matthew Plenk, just before the climactic battle.

That is crowned by a victory chorus that, while it may not be top-drawer Verdi, warms the heart as a welcome relief from a bloody tale that stirs our sympathy for the tragic hero only fitfully. At least that sympathy is nurtured and kept alive by the production's dark ambiance and so many musical rewards, the bulk of which this OTSL show delivers unerringly.

[Photos by Ken Howard]

Opera Theatre of Saint Louis: 'Ariadne on Naxos' deftly manages to toy with caprice and the high glamour of tragedy

The Major-Domo delivers his master's orders to the astonished entertainers.
The zanies attempt to lift the abandoned Ariadne's dolor.

The  tug-of-war between high and low art has to suffer the biased officiating of commercialism today. In the perpetual ebb and flow of mass taste, however, the enduring struggle concerns not only how serious we choose to get about art, but about romantic love as well. Few people avoid some shifting between lofty and vulgar planes in either area. How consistently high-minded can anyone stand to be, after all?

In "Ariadne on Naxos," which the Opera Theatre of Saint Louis is presenting through June 24, the contrasting perspectives are shoved cheek-by-jowl into the same performance time and space. In the same way, the odd couple of high and low contends within us all. The history of this "prologue and opera in one act" is too complex to recount here, but in its final form the brilliant collaboration between Richard Strauss and his librettist, Hugo von Hofmannsthal, works as a unified whole.

Across the spectrum of the arts, of course, money talks. Here's this opera's generator: The odd conceit of the unseen Viennese aristocrat to have two opposing forms of entertainment offered simultaneously so a fireworks display can begin on time has the force of law to the hired help. Perfectionism and high-mindedness rub up against spontaneity and lightly cynical nonchalance.

This is the material of the Prologue, as a commedia dell'arte troupe jostles for attention against the majesty of an opera seria based on the hoary classical myth of the princess Ariadne's abandonment by her heroic kingly lover on a remote Mediterranean island. In the static world of Greek myth, love is eternal, fixed on one object, with any likely disappointment set as a prelude solely to death.
The troupe pays the requisite attention to its star, Zerbinetta.

In the promiscuous affections of the comedians' world, on the other hand, no love affair can be stable (as one of them finds out to his sorrow in "Pagliacci," which OTSL presented in 2013).

The Major-Domo delivers news of the forced artistic marriage in the comically imperious manner of OTSL's Ken Page, in a speaking role. But the lavishly liveried servant is stonily oblivious to the nonsense that he has been sent to demand.

Stage director Sean Curran immediately signals his knack for controlled peppiness in the confused action of the Prologue. The clash of energy and egos is unrelenting, musically knitted together from the podium with Rory Macdonald, who is making his OTSL debut. The earnestness of high art gets  traction in the fussy intensity of the Music-Master (Levi Hernandez), who is rightly anxious that his student, the Composer, will not suffer his achievement to be diminished by lowly mime, hijinks, puppetry, and flamboyant bad taste.

Bacchus and Ariadne find common ground on Naxos.
And Cecelia Hall's performance waved the banner of high art staunchly; her gleaming mezzo and rapt facial expressions were all of a piece in this characterization. That made all the more impressive the Composer's momentary succumbing to the serious flirtations of Zerbinetta, played by So Young Park in the Prologue with plentiful hints of the mastery she was to show in the opera proper.

The Prima Donna and the Tenor offer glimpses of the self-regard they will get to sublimate in  "Ariadne on Naxos" as the forsaken princess and the traveling god Bacchus. Marjorie Owens and AJ Glueckert gave fine accounts of their roles. Owens displayed the sustained phrasing and studied melancholy required of the heroine, keeping her focus on what she assumes will be her deliverance to longed-for death.

She captured the type of operatic heroine stylistically and temperamentally at the opposite pole from Zerbinetta. In a cleverly choreographed scene featuring some of the most demanding coloratura in the repertoire, Park was transcendent as the philosophical coquette. In their attentions to her and to their unsought opportunity to tweak dead-serious music, Zerbinetta's colleagues were agile in their Renaissance-derived, pop-culture personas, moving acrobatically while tending well to their vocal tasks.

Bacchus' music has a consistent radiance and long-breathed eloquence. It shows up at first when he reaches Naxos' shores marveling at his escape from the sorceress Circe. His freedom from her spell is at first more physical than mental. Glueckert displayed a lover's devotion close to madness, thus mirroring the paralyzed mental state of Ariadne. Through music alone the two characters overcome the situations that brought them to this chance meeting, and the opera ends in fervent declarations of love.

In this production, that realization is accompanied by the placement of a host of candelabras all around the stage. The background widens to suggest a maritime sky as the two lovers confirm their new relationship. It's a luminous contrast visually to the manner in which the Prologue ends. There the naïve, stubborn Composer is revolted by the situation he faces -- against a tableau of the cast brightly three-dimensional in the glare of footlights. Low art is long, life is short.

The reduced orchestra of about three dozen works quite well in this theater. When grandeur is finally called for in the climactic scene of the opera seria, it has an ensemble backdrop of delicate piquancy to emerge from. Macdonald conducted with keen attention to the limitless Straussian virtuosity of style and suggestion — reflecting the theatrical breadth Strauss and his librettist embraced for the sake of depicting the eternal strife between esthetics and entertainment.

[Photos by Ken Howard]

Opera Theatre of Saint Louis: 'Shalimar the Clown' gives musical wings to a story of conflict rooted in disputed ground

Shalimar (Sean Panikkar) contemplates how to avenge his betrayal.
The congested car culture of Los Angeles sprawls across land once thought of as paradise, just as Kashmir still has some claim to that designation. In "Shalimar the Clown," an opera based on Salman Rushdie's novel given its world premiere Saturday by Opera Theatre of Saint Louis, both milieus are irreversibly tainted -- one by overdevelopment, the other by endless religious and political strife stemming from the 1947 partition of colonial India.

In the prologue and epilogue, black-and-white videotape loops present the LA clutter of freeway, palm trees, and miles of lights as backdrop overhead while a chorus sings loudly of the urban environment thousands of miles distant from the disputed Himalayan territory of Kashmir. That's where the story of the title character and his beloved, a Hindu dancer named Boonyi, develops. Los Angeles is an essential frame for a revenge tragedy that sprouts and develops on the Indian subcontinent.

Jack Perla, composer, and Rajiv Joseph, librettist, have fashioned a theater piece that heightens the novel's essential conflicts, an achievement confirmed by Rushdie's public statements about the opera. Historically, opera enhances stories loaded with characters' drives to fulfill their deepest wishes. "Shalimar the Clown" advances from the promise of fulfillment to a landscape of dashed hopes and the protagonist's mission to avenge Boonyi's desertion of him by killing the rakish U.S. ambassador who vowed to help her career advance and polluted the mixed marriage.

Perla's music has a lavish variety of sound, with three keyboard instruments in the pit, plus sitar and tabla, in addition to the usual orchestra. His vocal writing, usually heightened to underline the intensity of the title character, favors lengthy phrasing for which orchestral support is often oblique. Tonality shifts but is never seriously undercut; it is fluid and responsive to the dramatic situation throughout.

Melodic lines have a seductive way of making ornamental features also serve as essential to melody. This blend of straightforwardness and sinuous indirectness suits the mismatch between the characters' reality and what they wish for. Conductor Jayce Ogren held masterly sway over the elaborately layered instrumental and vocal textures; the rhythmic impetus, particularly in the choruses and the dance sequences, was always strongly profiled.

Sean Panikkar, a tenor with a sturdy command of lyrical and heroic qualities, gave menacing, wounded stature to the role of Shalimar. His description as "the clown" turns out to be massively ironic, stemming from his origin as a performer in a Kashmiri folk-theater troupe. His aspirations toward mastery of the tightrope specialty have comic overtones in the resistance of his Muslim family, but his father, played by Thomas Hammons, supports him.

Shalimar's impetuous attraction to Boonyi, a Hindu, turns out not to have any Romeo-and-Juliet difficulty attached to it, as the idyllic village rejects a lovelorn schoolteacher's attempt to blackmail the couple filmed in flagrante delicto. The community exiles the plotter by endorsing the mixed marriage in the name of the Kashmiriat -- the symbolic assertion that regional identity surmounts religious division. Geoffrey Agpalo portrayed Boonyi's defeated suitor with a kind of soaring pathos that almost aroused one's sympathy for his hapless quest. Dismissing him, vociferous declarations of  Kashmiriat were among the choral splendors at the premiere.

Andriana Chuchman exceeded reasonable expectations of sensuous allure, steely resilience, and vulnerability in the role of Boonyi. Her dancing didn't require virtuosity to be effective, especially given the canny lack of cliché or excessive artifice in Sean Curran's choreography. Her singing combined dramatic heft with melting lyricism in a manner that approached Panikkar's, but with the difference that her character's victimization has fewer avenues for redress than the tenor's.

Newlywed touring dancer Boonyi captivates the U.S. ambassador.
"The Iron Mullar" regards Shalimar doubfully.
Shalimar's bloody-minded transformation to a knife-wielding terrorist, who is cashiered by his leader, the "Iron Mullah" Bulbul Fakh (Aubrey Allcock) for insufficient religious motivation, was fully credible. His long-delayed revenge, whose outcome is efficiently covered in both prologue and epilogue, never seems dawdled over for the sake of dramatic tension. It is fully engaging at all points, and remains justifiable, given the destruction of his home village (stunningly choreographed) and the ambassador's seduction of Boonyi in a smolderingly staged New Delhi tryst.

Baritone Gregory Dahl was smooth and commanding as the philandering envoy, Max Ophuls. Used to charming everyone he meets, Ophuls seduces the ambitious Boonyi with methodical ease, given her desperation to widen her artistic and personal horizons. The opera is full of soliloquies that seem meant to be overheard: Ophuls' unapologetic self-description contrasts movingly with the weary defensive maneuvering of Peggy, his wife, who in Katharine Goeldner's performance made clear the lengths she is willing to go to exact her own payback for Max's indiscretions. Another such duet of parallel monologues puts extra pathos behind the young couple's emotional and physical separation, and it provided the premiere's most stunning example of the rapport between Chuchman and Panikkar.

All the characters who add weight to the story are well-established musically. Perla and Joseph have structured the work so that choruses fill in the social backdrop in the two main settings. The Los Angeles Ophuls has retired to and the only home familiar to his self-centered daughter by Boonyi (also played by Chuchman) appears as crucial to Shalimar's belief in his destiny as the Kashmiri village where everything began for the young lovers. Through costuming and lighting, the village has a richness that feels close to a good dream, with just a few hints of the bad dreams that eventually overwhelm everything.

Secondary characters in the village are well defined, so that the nurturing yet limited environment helps explain both Shalimar's initial satisfaction with his lot and Boonyi's certainty that her approved marriage to a Muslim in her home village has closed all other doors to her. In a Shangri-La threatened since partition by Hindu-Muslim conflict, however, she is strongly convinced that the wider world is more attractive and will surely compensate for the attendant dangers of going there.

Through music, spectacle, and the keen interplay of domestic and international strife, "Shalimar the Clown" allows the audience to feel the grip of those dangers.  Characters with incompatible wish-fulfillment fantasies attempt to realize them under tragically unfavorable circumstances. As so often in successful opera, coherent musical and dramatic design makes every jarring contrast contribute to a satisfying whole. "Shalimar the Clown" deserves a long life.

[Photos by Ken Howard]

Saturday, June 4, 2016

ISO's Classical Season concludes with a Slavic emphasis, buoyed by an American Chopin specialist

Right on the heels of the announcement that the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra will be one of four American orchestras on the 2018 schedule of a new festival in Washington, D.C., come this weekend's final subscription series concerts here.

In both cases, there is a prominent focus on music from music director Krzysztof Urbanski's Polish homeland. Today and Sunday, the ISO will repeat the program I heard Friday night at Hilbert Circle Theatre, with works by Frederic Chopin and Karol Szymanowski occupying the first half. (Tomorrow's concert will be at the Palladium in Carmel's Center for the Performing Arts.)

The Polish  theme will be reinforced on the national stage two years from now, when Urbanski will conduct the ISO, vocal soloists and two Indianapolis choirs in a Kennedy Center concert as part of SHIFT: A Festival of American Orchestras. That program will consist of music by Witold Lutoslawski  and Krzysztof Penderecki.

Urbanski thus continues his long-stated mission of acquainting ISO audiences with music by his fellow Poles. Chopin, of course, always honored his homeland in trailblazing works for piano during his short life, most of which was spent in Paris. His "Andante spianato and Grande Polonaise Brillante," op. 22, leads off this weekend's concerts.

Garrick Ohlsson soloed in works by Chopin and Szymanowski.
An affinity for Chopin, a core part of many pianists' repertoires, has been particularly strong in the career of Garrick Ohlsson, who is making his third appearance here this season. Ohlsson's international career was launched in 1970 with his first-place finish in the Chopin International Piano Competition in Warsaw.

Further indication that he is not resting on those laurels came Friday with his playing of this two-part piece. Its flowing prelude for unaccompanied piano is followed by one of many Chopin-penned examples of the majestic national dance form, the polonaise, the orchestra filling a subordinate role. Ohlsson's mastery was further confirmed in his encore, Nocturne in F-sharp major, op. 15, no. 2. The guest artist's control of tone, with a wonderful sense of color joined to rhythmic subtlety, amounted to a peek inside a jewel box of enchantment.

The coordination of piano and orchestra, which is so much a matter in Chopin's op. 22 of the orchestra's playing valet to the piano, becomes a much more balanced partnership in Szymanowski's Symphony No. 4 for Piano and Orchestra (Symphonie Concertante). Straddling the boundary between romanticism and modernism with an idiosyncratic fervor informed by Polish nationalism, the composer achieves a bristling unity of forces here.

There is a startling boldness to the massing of forces, a density in the writing that forces the busy piano soloist often to accept a role as not-quite-first-among-equals. Ohlsson was up to the challenge, clearly relishing that intensity of the partnership. He frequently looked straight ahead to pick up visual cues from the violas. He was all about the glory of collaboration.

Urbanski was just as conscientious making sure tricky points of coordination were well synchronized.  There were some brief, flavorful solos in the course of the three movements; it was particularly gratifying to hear Rebecca Price Arrensen, longtime assistant principal, impart warmth and expressive weight to the flute solos at the beginning and end of the second movement.

After intermission came a much more familiar Fourth Symphony: Tchaikovsky's in F minor. Its wealth of melody and often splashy sonorities — especially the cymbal-accented whirlwind of the finale — can sometimes hide what a formally satisfying work this is. Its glowering "fate" motive is distributed across the symphony's breadth in a startling, yet judicious, way. Friday's performance threw the resumption of the first movement's main material into appropriately abrupt contrast.

The slow sections of the first movement were effectively dialed back. Dynamics, as in opening string figures, were refined downward to a stage whisper. In the second movement, it became clear to me why Urbanski had made the choice to switch the normal violin seating: The seconds were to his immediate left, the firsts behind them. In one episode, this gave a slightly veiled quality to the first-violin melody against the pizzicato backdrop of the other strings and tendrils of rising woodwinds. Very effective, as it demonstrated that Tchaikovsky not only knew how to create fine melodies, but also how to set them to advantage.

The Scherzo was taken a slightly slower tempo than usual, which seemed quite sensible. It's important to remember that Tchaikovsky didn't want to invariably project his febrile temperament. As he wrote in notes to the finale, it's important to try to find happiness. So the Scherzo, when not rushed, is actually a plateau of happiness that it's worth an orchestra's effort to settle upon. So it was here. And you knew the excitement was soon going to raise the hairs on the back of your neck when you saw the string players pick up their bows after all that third-movement plucking before their last pizzicato turn: The finale was launched attacca, and its momentum — while checked briefly as necessary from time to time — never faltered. There turned out to be energy reserves to be tapped in the final measures, and Urbanski opened the spigots.

An old documentary film about rock 'n' roll (available on YouTube) opens with a clip from "Ozzie and Harriet," the 1950s sitcom of sainted memory. Ricky Nelson, the younger "rocking" son, has "You Ain't Nothin' But a Hound Dog" cranked up on his record player; downstairs, older brother David is annoyed that his record of choice on the family console is being drowned out. A volume-knob skirmish ensues.

And what work represents "classical" resistance to the upstart sound?  Nothing other than the "Allegro con fuoco" finale of Tchaikovsky's Fourth Symphony.

Long ago, some TV person made an impressive choice of a piece for a classically minded big brother to do fraternal battle with. It is likewise an unanswerable splash of a season-closer for the ISO this weekend.

Roll over, Elvis, tell Big Mama Thornton the news!